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The Guardians

"God in His wisdom made the fly;
And then forgot to tell us why."
—Ogden Nash

"It's been declared an emergency, official from Earth," Nordsen said over the desktop in the cubbyhole that served as his office in the Lab Section of the Eurussian compound. "Which means that under the rules that everyone out here has contracted to abide by, the Chinese are empowered to take charge. They're the biggest contingent, and they've got the most at stake in the operation. If they say they need a metallurgical physicist at Tremil, we're obligated to comply." He paused, eyeing Kerry dubiously. "If it's any consolation, they will recompense us for your time. So look on the plus side. You can think of it as a spell of paid leave. Being paid to get away from this place for a while . . ."

Yeah, right, Kerry thought to himself. To get sent to a place where everyone just got wiped out and nobody knows why. One of the reasons why he'd signed up to come out to this god-awful swamp of a world that some administrator with either a terminally warped sense of humor or none at all had christened Priscilla had been to get away from home-style bureaucracy's strangulation of rules and procedures.

That Kerry's enthusiasm lay distinctly to the nether side of total must have showed. Nordsen located a pink memorandum denoting Directorate business beneath the litter of paperwork and equipment parts and pushed it across to change the subject. "They want you over there right away to fill you in. The person you need to ask for is a Xiang-Chu Juanita, Office of Security."


Nordsen shrugged. "That's what it says."

Kerry picked up the slip and read it. A small detail that Nordsen had omitted to mention was that the only military presence on Priscilla—reinforced several times now with the general heightening of preparedness as relationships with the Eks deteriorated—was also predominantly Asian and under Chinese command. So not only was their word law for all under an officially declared emergency, they had the means to back it up.

It seemed that Kerry was going to Tremil.

* * *

Okay, so their culture went back thousands of years to when Europe was home to barbarian tribes, and they had emerged as a superpower after America balkanized into self-run racial and ethnic enclaves. That made it all the more amusing that, out of the assortment of state, corporate, private, and other interests whose conglomeration of structures made up Langtry "city," the Chinese should be the ones whose internal environmental management had goofed. Everyone else had set up strict controls at the locks in the communications tunnels connecting to the Chinese compound, and so Kerry went across via the surface route, taking one of the GP robobuggies that provided the main means of getting around outside Langtry and in its immediate vicinity.

It was still called a compound, although the original dome put up after the Eurussian founding of the base had by now grown to a complex of towers and launch facilities, with enclosed plazas and residential zones standing above more than a dozen subterranean levels. Somehow, a consignment of insect samples en route to an experiment being conducted at some distant research station had gotten loose and found the surroundings conducive to multiplying their various kinds, with the result that the entire Chinese sector was overrun and under effective quarantine to prevent the invasion spreading to the rest of Langtry. Not that there was anything hazardous to be concerned over. But conditions on Priscilla were oppressive enough as things were, without having to deal with other people's bugs on top of all else. And besides, there was that feeling of satisfaction that comes with being in a position to dictate to the high and haughty that the administrative chiefs in the other sectors weren't going to miss the opportunity of relishing.

Enclosed working and living spaces were not essential for survival on Priscilla. The atmosphere was breathable but drippingly humid, and it stank just about everywhere with fetid emanations from the swamps and mudlands that were the closest the planet came to mustering an ocean. The location had been deemed suitable for a long-range logistics consolidation and forwarding base to support the string of farther-flung outposts proliferating into the nearby regions of the Galaxy since macro-coherent entanglement toppled and superseded Relativity. Soon, ships from every outreaching organization with a cause or a product or a creed to promote were bringing down pilot groups to begin a new construction on the periphery of what the Earth media had dubbed a "spacerush" town, and stake out their claim in the operation.

Kerry had a good view of the area as the buggy came over the hump of bulldozed excavation debris between the south side of the Eurussian sector and the twin domes housing the shared power-generation and materials-extraction plant. In a way that said a lot even if it hadn't been by design, the layout and groupings on the ground reflected pretty closely the pattern of ideological affinities and aversions back on Earth. The Eurussian sector was connected to the New American. (On Earth this referred to the white Caucasian remnant, comprising the bulk of the Midwest and much of Canada, with coastal feet in Texas and New England straddling Ebonia, which ran from Louisiana to the Carolinas above the Cuban south of what had been Florida.) Zion—its namesake had been rebuilt in southern Argentina in the aftermath of the last global conflict—sat as a smaller appendage also connected to the New American complex but on the opposite side from the Eurussian. Yenan, which was the Chinese sector's proper name, dominated the central part of Langtry, having absorbed the original landing area for its military facility as impudently as its empire was expanding across Siberia. And equispaced from both, but the only other structure to rival them in size, the Muslim sector stood apart in a symbolic balancing role, incongruously complete with minarets and finials. Among these major edifices, the outposts of lesser representations had sprung up nearer or far according to their allegiances, like Gothic hamlets huddled under the walls of their lords' castles.

After three serious attempts at destroying what progress they had made in the direction of being able to live together in a civilized way, Kerry had thought people would have had enough. And, for a while, it had seemed that they might indeed have learned something of value finally. The tribal divisions that found expression in places like Langtry city reflected tradition more than effective reality, and by and large the assortments of humanity that found themselves clustered together on strange worlds orbiting alien suns light-years from home got along remarkably well.

For Kerry, "Priscilla" had never fitted the image of easygoing acceptance and everyone getting along. The name had too much of a prim and proper ring about it. There was nothing prim and proper about the bars and clubs that did a round-the-clock trade in Langtry's "downtown" strip that everybody went to but nobody owned. But they made a better mixing ground and forum for the conduct of social affairs than any parliament or congress back on Earth had ever done. The people you ran into there could be rough and blunt at times, but they were not judgmental, accepted others as they were, and if you stayed out of their business they stayed out of yours. Some wondered if it could be a preview of how the new worlds that were coming into being in the Outzones might be run. Hadn't it been the meddling moralizers who always caused all the problems? Live and let live would be the new guiding philosophy. The reason people don't trust each other and end up fighting is that they think others are different. But out here, everyone is so small compared to the vastness around them that they realize they're really the same now. So the old way of handling life is over, right? We've changed. Inside, where it matters, we know that everyone is just like us, moved by the same feelings, harboring the same fears. So when I take a deep, honest look inside myself, I see you. Isn't that right? Right!

And then the Eks showed up.

As missions from Earth probed farther into the surrounding reaches of interstellar space, they encountered various other forms of life—some looking surprisingly familiar; others, completely alien. Biologists of opposed persuasions all claimed support for theories that contradicted each other, and Kerry had never really followed the arguments why. Most of the life was primitive, and for a long time the rare instances of what could rightfully be classed as "intelligent" were rudimentary. However, as was probably inevitable, the collision with another advanced, technological culture happened eventually.

The "Eks," as far as could be ascertained, appeared to be at a comparable stage of development, pushing out their own horizon of expansion and discovery, but coming the other way. So, they should have been just like us: motivated by the same reverence for knowledge, awed by the same wonder at the mysteries of the universe, and kindred spirits in all the ways that the new philosophy of enlightenment said mattered. And maybe they were. But they were also built to a body plan of arthropods, with exterior plates of black armor; double-jointed, sticklike limbs covered in bristles and hair; and snoutish heads sporting mandibles and large, multifaceted eyes suggestive of giant, mutant insects or riot police in full gas-masked battle garb. The name was a derivation from "Exoskeleton," but alternatives that quickly caught on included "Roachies," "Stickleheads," "Beetle-Peeple," and "Mantis-Men." Predictably, things had gone downhill from there. The taunts, boasts, and thinly disguised threats that seemed to the nearest approach to diplomacy that the Ek mind could manage didn't help matters much either.

Kerry hadn't followed the details of who had allegedly said or done what as relationships deteriorated, despite the media's hysterical blow-by-blow coverage. That it followed the usual pattern of screwups by the best and the brightest that everyone else trusted to run the ship, he had no doubt. He had long ago grown too cynical to have much faith or interest in politics. He'd had enough dealing with his own domestic politics back home. That had been another reason why he signed up to come out for a tour at Langtry.

* * *

Tremil was a peculiar body on the fringe of the Xerxes system, of which Priscilla was an inner planet. It was peculiar in possessing a habitable surface with life-bearing oceans, despite being too small, as planetary standards normally went, to retain any atmosphere at all, and at a distance from its parent star where whatever did exist should have been frozen solid. Analysis of data from probes sent out to check the neighborhood following the first human arrivals at Xerxes suggested that Tremil contained a hot, superdense core, which at once sent imaginations racing. Theories spanned the gamut of exotic objects from miniature black holes and coherent neutronium plasmas to artificial bioforming devices constructed by aliens, and proposals for further research programs had poured in from all quarters.

While the scientists and funding authorities were still arguing, a rogue prospecting consortium called Midas Holdings had sent in a private expedition to assess the territory and take first dabs on any pickings. The laws as to who owned what or had the right to authorize such actions were still vague, and with a sharp legal department it was generally possible to get away with things like that. On this occasion, however, the move to get in ahead of the game had backfired tragically. A garbled distress call had come in from the Midas base camp on Tremil, indicating that they were in some kind of trouble, and then cut out. Almost at the same time, signals from the navigation beacons and communications relays placed in orbit as a matter of routine had ceased. Finally, the Midas expedition ship had come through briefly again, sounding as if it was attempting a hasty departure. Since then, there had been nothing. Fifty-three individuals had been involved in the expedition. It could only be feared that the worst had befallen all of them.

That much was common knowledge from the news coverage. Juanita Xiang-Chu—if they wanted to write their names backward that was their prerogative, but Kerry thought of them the way he was used to—filled in the few remaining details as they waited in an outer office of the Chinese Security Section for Kerry to be called in to a selection panel headed by a Colonel Hinjao, who would be commanding the mission being sent to Tremil to investigate. A bank of screens along one wall showed images of Tremil from orbit, along with the view of the Midas base camp that had been filed with its certificate in the Titles Registry before the disaster overtook it. The visible background was sandy and rocky, with a stretch of water opening out on one side and yellow cliffs beyond—about as different from Priscilla as it was possible to get.

"You'll be able to see the actual message transcripts later, when your temporary transfer is confirmed. . . ." Juanita began.

Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "Why the secrecy? Is there something more about this business that's security-sensitive?"

"No. It's just that the extra time would be better justified when we know for sure that you'll be coming. It will be decided later today."

"Coming?" Kerry repeated. "Does that mean you're on this too?"

"Yes, Dr. Kaplinsky. I shall be going with the mission also."

"Okay." Something buzzed past Kerry's ear on the edge of his field of vision, causing him to swat at it reflexively. He had noticed the flies on the walls; another walked across the screen showing Tremil as they watched.

"I must apologize for this inconvenience," Juanita said awkwardly. She was clearly embarrassed. "We are doing what we can until things arrive from Earth to deal with the situation. It wasn't an eventuality that Langtry was equipped for."

"Oh, I'm sure we'll all pull through," Kerry said with a grin that he tried to make look sympathetic. Truth was, he was enjoying it.

He had to admit to being guilty of carrying something of a stereotype of Chinese women around in his head—particularly intellectual, academic, or otherwise officious ones—as being genderlessly baggy and toothy, with ring-rimmed glasses and their hair tied up like schoolmarms. "Priscilla" would have fitted it well. But Juanita shattered the caricature totally. She was perhaps in her early thirties, he judged—for what that was worth; he had a habit of being hopelessly wrong with Orientals—with a slim figure that managed to look shapely even in the high-necked, trousered suit that was standard casual working dress for the Chinese uniformed services. In the case of the Security Branch the colors were off-rust with black tabs and trim, which seemed tailored for her skin, more umber than yellow, and the hair sweeping to her shoulders with just enough bend not to look lank. Her eyes were the ever-alert, watchful kind, set in pert, finely formed features, which just at this moment were held in cool, unyielding lines that gave away nothing. Kerry had the feeling that was due more to a sense of professional correctness than to anything innate within. Off-duty, she could have turned a few heads in the bars downtown, if she ever had a mind for it.

Juanita continued, "From what we were able to make out before communications ceased, they seemed to be having equipment failures."

"What kind of equipment?" Kerry asked.

"All of it. Multiple failures, as if everything was going down at once. We had messages that would start coming through on one band stop suddenly, and resume on a different kind of channel. One talked about surface vehicles being immobilized, and another cut off in mid-sentence after saying that the power was going out." Juanita gestured in Kerry's direction, as if signaling something of particular relevance. "The crew of a reconnaissance platform left in orbit reported that they had structural failure in the hull. They said it was disintegrating before their eyes as they watched. Did you ever hear of anything like that in orbit before, Dr. Kaplinsky?"

"This is flattering, I'm sure," Kerry interjected. "But it's just mister. I'm called other things too."

"I apologize. My assumption. I should have read the records more closely."

Kerry frowned as he went back to her question. "In free fall, outside the atmosphere? . . . Meteorite stream, maybe?"

"No, it was nothing like that."

"How many people were up there?"


"What happened to them?"

"The platform was equipped with an escape capsule. But whether they ever got down, we don't know." Not that it would have made a lot of difference by all accounts.

"I see," Kerry said. Although at that stage there really wasn't much yet to be seen. It was just something to say.

However, one thing he could see now was why they had wanted a metallurgical physicist included in whatever kind of team was being organized to go there. Although, it seemed strange that he should have been singled out. There were numerous others of the same kind of specialty around Langtry, including more than a few who could boast a more exalted handle to their name than just "mister."

He ran his eye over the orbital shots of Tremil again. It looked like a tropical panorama of desert coasts and islands set amid cobalt oceans. Yet by rights it should have been solid ice and frozen methane. An interesting place under any other circumstances.

And then the obvious finally hit him. They didn't want to risk the Prof's and the Dr's, and the others with expensive, fancy titles. Nobody knew what to expect out there. They wanted someone more expendable!

The interview with the panel went smoothly, and Kerry's selection was confirmed early that same afternoon. The mission to Tremil departed from the Chinese launch area less than forty-eight hours later.

* * *

Kerry was prepared to swear that they could walk through metal walls. They had gotten into here too. Less than a day out from Priscilla, and the ship was turning into an insectarium.

"I hate them!" Juanita slapped at her arm as she sat behind Kerry on a folding seat in a recess at the side of the instrumentation fitting bay, where scientists were working to get their equipment ready. Kerry was running a calibration test on the grating assembly of an X-ray spectrometer lying partly dismantled on a bench. "My skin feels as if its crawling, even when there's nothing there," she said. "What use are they to anybody?"

"Over three quarters of all known Terran species are supposed to be insects," Kerry murmured without looking up. "Maybe they could ask the same question about us, but with a better reason." He read off some numbers to a red-bearded optronics engineer called Elliott, who repeated them while adjusting the shape of a curve being displayed on a screen. Juanita sniffed behind Kerry's shoulder. There was a pause.

"Okay, we're done on this," Elliott said. "Time for coffee, guys. I'll get 'em." He cocked an inquiring eye at Juanita. She shook her head.

"They don't seem to trouble you," she commented to Kerry as Elliott rose and moved away. "These bugs everywhere."

Kerry sat back on the lab stool. "Well, they're just being what they are, same as the rest of us. . . ." He tried biting his lip but couldn't resist adding, "Anyhow, I'm not the one who thinks his country's image is disgraced. You do it to yourselves, Juanita. Nobody else thinks so. It could have happened to anyone."

"Perhaps not everyone feels the same obligation to maintain exemplary standards, Mr. Kaplinsky."

"You know, to us that has a kind of stiff and formal sound about it. 'Kerry' would really do just fine—especially out here in a situation like this."

"Kerry." She repeated the word distantly, then fell silent again—as if she were thinking about it.

The first, most obvious suspicion was that whatever had happened at Tremil had something to do with its strange internal composition, possibly involving a hitherto unknown type of radiation associated with a matter-annihilation process. But nobody had any ideas of trying to learn more by landing on the surface and seeing what happened. Walking into a den is not the smart way of finding out if the bear is at home. The first step would be to put robot instrument packages in close orbit and down on the surface, while the ship stayed well back and its complement of chemists, physicists, electronics, communications, structures, materials, and other specialists monitored developments remotely. And that was about as far as anyone had been able to plan ahead in the time available. Where they went after that would depend on what transpired.

"Kerry's an Irish name, isn't it?" Juanita said at last. "But it doesn't seem to fit with the other part."

Kerry got asked this all the time. "I'm from the part of Eurussia called Poland," he replied. "My parents bought a lucky ticket in the Irish state lottery shortly before I was born, and that was how they celebrated." He wrinkled his nose and rubbed it with a knuckle. "Anyway, who are you to ask? How does 'Juanita' come to be connected with Xiang-Chu?"

Juanita's face softened into the concession of a smile. It was the first time Kerry had felt a moment of real person-to-person contact. He wasn't sure what she and the several others from her department were doing here at all. It wasn't as if there was likely to be much call for security precautions on Tremil. The Chinese just seemed incapable of doing anything without its having to have a political dimension.

"Oh, my mother had a Mexican grandfather that she was very fond of," she replied. "You know how it is with us and our illustrious ancestors. I'm pretty sure that had something to do with it."

"Do you miss it much?"

"Earth, you mean?"


Juanita sighed. "I suppose there are always some things. I try not to think about it much. This is where I am. This is where the things are that it is my duty to do. . . ." She inclined her head. "How about you?"

Kerry shook his head. "It's a madhouse back there. Everyone has some reason for getting militant about why everyone else shouldn't be allowed to do what they want to do. Getting through to most of them is like trying to talk to a fire siren. I prefer life in the Outzones, even if the attractions might not make for the best tour brochures. People value each other for the things that matter, because they depend on them. Phonies don't get very far. You learn to be honest with yourself."

"I saw in your records that you are divorced," Juanita said.

"Hey, that's not fair. I didn't get to see your records."

"I was never married. I got involved in politics when I was at university, and decided on a career in that direction."

"Hm. So weren't there any like-minded politically attractive males there too?"

"If there were, I never met one." Juanita paused for a moment, acknowledging the need to be delicate. It struck Kerry as very gracious. "What happened with you? Things just didn't work out?"

"Oh . . . her only measure of a meaningful life was impressing worthless friends. She'd never have lasted a week out here. You see, we weren't meant for the same world. Literally."

Elliott returned with two plastic mugs and passed one across to Kerry. Before Kerry had taken a sip, Colonel Hinjao came in from the corridor, wearing ship fatigues and accompanied by an adjutant. He looked around, raising a hand to indicate that he had an announcement. A hush fell over the scientists.

"We have more news from Langtry, just in from Earth," Hinjao informed them. "It appears that our task is more complicated. Two more occurrences have been reported, each in a different star system. So we can forget any idea that this is something peculiar to Tremil. I will, of course, keep you updated as soon as we learn anything further. Thank you."

* * *

Earth had been strengthening the deep-space defenses protecting the outposts around the periphery of its domain in response to the perceived threat from the Eks. One of the new incidents was at a gamma-laser battle station in orbit over a gas giant in the Cyrus-2 system. The platform also housed an advanced military research and testing laboratory that possessed all the right equipment and expertise to investigate the phenomenon from its earliest beginning. It was from here, therefore, that the first insights came back as to what was going on.

The station was being "digested"—which was the best word that the scientists there could come up with. Its outside was corroding under the combined assault of countless microscopic objects that attacked metals, utilizing oxidation energy and incorporating the products. Nobody knew where they had come from. They seemed to have drifted in from space, and found the artifacts of advanced technical civilization to be just what they needed to thrive on. Built in the way and to the scale generally thought of in connection with nano devices, yet exhibiting more of the function of a bizarre form of digestion enzyme, they had been dubbed "nanozymes." Arguments broke out immediately over whether they were of natural or artificial origin but the issue was soon settled. Before the scientists in the ship were even through studying the preliminary data, reports of new attacks were already coming in. As the locations were plotted on charts of the surrounding regions, an ominous pattern became discernible. The nanozymes were appearing roughly in a hemisphere centered upon Sol. And the latest ones were getting closer.

Things didn't move that quickly between star systems. Not naturally, anyway. It was being orchestrated deliberately, for a reason, by something with the means to exert an influence across light-years. And at a time like this, that could only mean the Eks.

* * *

"A nano-scale weapons system," Katsumi Yoshida, the head of the scientific group, summarized. He had called the others together on the ship's mess deck for a review session. "And frankly, I think we may have a major problem on our hands. How do you defend against something like this? You can't even see it. Our latest orbital bombardment systems and interplanetary beam defenses are just sitting out there, literally being eaten, with nothing to target. They're effectively junk." He looked around as if seeking suggestions. A heavy silence hung in the air.

"Are we making any overtures to the Eks diplomatically?" somebody asked finally. The tone sounded as if it already presumed capitulation.

Hinjao answered from where he was standing by the wall to one side, carrying a fly swatter wedged under his arm like an officer's baton. "As far as I am aware, the Eks are being derisive and admitting nothing. If I had to bet, I'd say that they are letting us sweat for a while and enjoying it." Angry and frustrated murmurs came from around the room.

Dominic Behas, an organic chemist from Pasadena, in northern New Aztlan, raised his head. "I can't help wondering . . ." He hesitated, rubbing his chin, as if checking for something he might have missed. "What I'm trying to say is, don't you think we might be overreacting? I mean, sure, it's a crazy, different kind of weapon and all that. But I've been going through the numbers. Nothing's really happening that fast. It's more like a corrosion of the outer skin. Those new places that it's affected are all still functioning."

"Huh! Try telling that to the guys who were in the Midas place on Tremil that got hit," Elliott challenged, turning from a seat at the front. "And all their sats. Everything came apart like igloos in Hades. You saw the clips."

"But we don't know how long it had been going on there," Behas persisted. "From what's being measured, the erosion rates right now are not that high."

"So what are you suggesting, Dominic?" Yoshida asked.

"I'm not really sure. . . . But we might have more time to work on this than some people are assuming. There could be a simple chemical answer—maybe something you can spray on the outside that neutralizes them. Something like that."

"I believe that experiments of that kind are already being tried," Colonel Hinjao put in.

Kerry nodded in silent agreement where he was sitting near the back. He had nothing to add at that point, but the same thought had occurred to him too. It was true, as Behas said, that nobody knew how long the nanozymes had been active before the structures on Tremil finally disintegrated. But Midas had only been there for so long, which put an upper limit on it. And from the estimates Kerry had made using the same data that Behas was referring to, the numbers still didn't add up. Even if the erosion had been going on from the first day that the Midas expedition arrived, there still hadn't been enough time for the damage to become catastrophic. Kerry had the uneasy feeling that what they were seeing in these new attacks was just the first phase of something that was going to get worse. Perhaps the Eks were holding back because they knew the biggest laugh was still to come.

* * *

The ship arrived at Tremil thirty hours later. Although the planet itself no longer seemed implicated, it was decided to keep to the original plan of conducting a preliminary reconnaissance using robots remote-directed from orbit. Kerry was on duty, manning one of the monitoring consoles in the Control section when the main pod landed a thousand feet from what was left of the Midas base camp. The pod's outer doors opened its to disgorge an assortment of drones, minirovers, and camera mobiles, which dispersed to assess the surroundings and obtain some general views of the area before moving in closer to the site itself.

The structures that had been the camp's main quarters and attendant installations were not even shells or stripped-down remains, just a few frayed slivers of metal left standing, and a scattering of debris in the sand. Of the Midas ship itself, last heard from making a getaway attempt, there was no sign. The most likely conclusion seemed to be that it had been overwhelmed in the same manner as the base installation and the orbiting satellites, in which case anything left of it would by now be a mass coffin far from Tremil, receding on a trajectory that was anyone's guess.

Juanita had joined Kerry to follow the event. Despite—or perhaps because of the mutual challenges stimulated by—their different backgrounds they were getting to like each other's company, and spent most of their off-duty time bantering about the relative merits of politics and science. For Kerry, simply listening to someone whose priorities in life were ideals and principles instead of material preoccupations made a refreshing change. What his attraction to her might be, he wasn't sure. Maybe as a different kind of subject for honing her not inconsiderable dialectic skill, he sometimes suspected. The cynic in him said it couldn't be anything else.

Displays alongside the main screens showed readings being taken from orbit. In addition to breaking down metals, the nanozymes also emitted "quanco" radiation collectively—a macro-coherent quantum wave function of the kind that provided the basis of interstellar communications and travel. This had been one of the first clear pointers to their being of artificial as opposed to natural origin. They seemed to be broadcasting, though to what purpose nobody had even a guess.

An alert indicator began flashing on one of the spectrum analyzers. Kerry killed it, studied the data, and then voiced a command to connect an auxiliary screen through to Yoshida, who was looking over the shoulder of the operator at another console across the room. "Quanco emission being detected from Lander One," Kerry reported. "C and H modes."

"Yes, we've got it," Yoshida responded. "It seems to be building. There's a reading from Orbiter Three as well."

"What does it mean?" Juanita muttered in Kerry's ear.

"The lander down there has started q-radiating. It's got nanozymes aboard. It sounds as if one of the orbiting pods that we put out does too."

"So they know we're here? They've found us already?"

"Looks like it."

Juanita took in the scenes as the rovers moved to new angles, and Kerry switched between different zoom magnifications. Some patches of debris to one side of the site turned out to be the remnants of general-terrain survey vehicles. Even the heavy-duty balloon tires had been reduced to a few hanging tatters of rubberized threads. "Those tiny things that you can't even see did this?" She shook her head. "I thought you said soap and water would wash them off."

"If you got there early enough, maybe." It puzzled Kerry that everything could have the appearance of being picked so clean. Even if the structures had been eaten away, the materials from them should still be lying around. For the most part, they seemed to have evaporated. It seemed odd.

He ran a routine check from the camera covering inside the equipment bay of the lander pod. The access doors were open, and just a couple of specialized instrument carriers were left, awaiting calls to the outside. . . . And then something black and leggy settled on the camera lens, took several quick steps across in blurred silhouette, and was gone. "I don't believe it!" Kerry breathed.


"I just saw a bug. Surely they can't have gotten down there as well!"

Then Elliott's voice called out to the room in general. "Hey, people, what do you make of this? Rover Two, visual."

Kerry brought the channel up on another of his screens. The view was from an open area on the far side of the site from the lander. It showed what appeared to be the beginnings of a shining structure, sprouting from the ground. But what kind of structure was a good question. It was metallic, yes, and looked like a skeleton of struts and peculiar geometric shapes that more was to be built around, but beyond that there was no clue as to its likely function. The only two things that could be said for certain were that it was unlike anything that any human designer would have conceived, and that it hadn't been there when the last shots from the ill-fated Midas venture were sent.

"Man, if that isn't a piece of Ek inspiration, then my name isn't Elliott Sweeney."

Every console in the room switched to the view. Somebody brought one of the drones over to get a shot from above. No comment was really needed. It was evidently an early stage in the construction of something. The materials must have come from the disassembled Midas base structures, which at least answered the question of where they had gone. "Guesses?" Yoshida invited. Nobody had any.

The other obvious question was, what was doing the constructing? Surely it was beyond the capabilities of nanozymes. They seemed to be specialized for breaking materials down; in any case, without a liquid or other apparent substrate to operate in, where would they get the mobility?

The answer came with a series of zoom shots showing details from around the surfaces of the strange alien construction. It was alive with tiny mobile creatures—not nanozymes, for they were orders of magnitude above a molecular scale in size, but still small enough to have been missed at first sight. Then, as the astounded scientists continued watching and following them, doubts began growing as to whether "alive" was the right term at all. They seemed to be more of the nature of weird, elaborate micro-machines. There seemed to be a number of different kinds cooperating to transport grains of materials that were being carried in from somewhere—the direction indicated the Midas site—and attach them into the growing structure. Some had jointed grabs and rotating manipulator appendages, which had been the first things about them to suggest machines rather than living objects; others seemed specialized for joining and fixing, while yet more took care of cutting, trimming, and cleaning up. What had given the first impression of their being alive was their odd method of locomotion, which involved a deformable, moving underpart that flowed to lay down a tread for the body to move over, and then picked itself up again behind, somewhat like a plastic form of caterpillar tread but able to realign in any direction. Their speed and efficiency and the precision they were able to achieve were amazing. The scientists sat, fascinated, watching as they contrived integrated channels and ducts, chambers and connecting holes, all with a finesse comparable to the finest etching. Elliott Sweeney came up with "microbot" as a generic to describe them.

Closer examination of the Midas camp remains confirmed yet more kinds busily engaged in dismantling what was left there. But more significantly, it finally provided a credible answer of the kind Kerry had been looking for as to what could have provoked the Midas people into a panic evacuation and caused the crew of their orbiting platform to describe the hull as disintegrating before their eyes. He outlined his theory of what he thought it meant to Yoshida and Colonel Hinjao in the ship's officers' dayroom. Juanita, who had gone to fetch them, was sitting in.

"It's a two-stage process. The nanozymes are the scouts. They're transferred to a target star system and dispersed to search for signs of an advanced culture." He made a gesture to excuse stating the obvious. "Refined metals and alloys are a good indicator. When they find a concentration that's too extended and consistent to be natural, they call in the backup wave—the microbots. That's what the broadcasting is all about. How the microbots navigate and steer, I'm not sure. Maybe they use some kind of radiation absorption and re-emission with a reaction. The kinds we've observed so far are not necessarily the space-mobile forms. They could be transported by other types, or conceivably transmogrify on arrival."

"Intriguing," Yoshida pronounced, steepling his fingers under his chin. "Do go on, Kerry."

Hinjao put in, "But the initial ones, the nanozymes. They do more than just find suitable structures and send signals. They are destructive in their own right too. They're described as corrosive."

Kerry nodded. "Yes. But I think that's just incidental to their main function."

"Which is . . . ?"

"Setting up advance supply dumps. They create stocks of fuel molecules for the microbots, and produce a reserve of startup materials. But the action doesn't really start until the microbots arrive. They're the heavy-duty demolition and construction crew."

"Do you have any idea what this construction might be that they have commenced down there on Tremil?" Yoshida asked.

Kerry could only spread his hands. "Who can say? Ek minds work in a different conceptual realm from ours. This is apparently their way of making war. Microbot spearheads move in and take out bases, weapons, vehicles, machines—anything that could form part of an infrastructure capable of organizing a resistance. At the same time, they transform it into different structures that serve their purpose instead." He shrugged. "It could be some kind of forward installation or base. We'll no doubt find out when the Eks decide to move in."

Juanita was looking strained as the enormity of the situation they were facing unfolded fully. "Is there any way we can defend ourselves against something like this?" Yoshida asked.

Again, Kerry could only shake his head. "I can't think of any. You put it perfectly yourself on the way out here. None of our weapons have anything to target. They're effectively junk."

* * *

Two further developments followed in rapid succession that were even more alarming. The Orbiter Three package that the ship had deployed, from which nanozyme quanco emissions had already been detected, ceased functioning completely. Telescopic inspection from the ship showed that it was visibly changing shape, shrinking at one end while growing at the other. Hinjao ordered a reconnaissance drone launched to investigate from closer quarters. It revealed Orbiter Three to be already swarming with microbots. Even given that they hadn't needed to be summoned from afar but were already at Tremil, the rapidity with which they had concerted their attack was stupefying. And so was the form that the attack was taking. Without space available to transport their materials to a new location as was being done down on the surface, the microbots were managing the two operations simultaneously, digesting the orbiter down into its constituent substances in one part, while rebuilding them into something completely different at another.

And then the same thing was reported from the gamma-laser battle station at Cyrus-2. Systems there were failing one after the other, just as Juanita had described in the garbled messages from the Midas base. Structure were already compromised in several places and deteriorating rapidly everywhere. When the latest findings from Tremil were relayed via Priscilla, Command HQ on Earth ordered immediate evacuation at Cyrus-2. The first battle had been lost in a rout with the enemy not even sighted.

The Eks opened a channel to Earth less than an hour later. Although their ultimatum was not put out on the public grid, a recording was forwarded to Tremil, which Colonel Hinjao replayed for the benefit of the scientists and the mission's officers. It showed three of the beetlelike heads tilting from side to side and making curious circular motions in what could only have been the alien equivalent of chortling. The nearest rendition the translator computers were able to make from their halting, clickety-clack speech came through as:

"So, ho-ho, human jelly-worm people see now Ek superweapon is invincible. Eks rule Sol worlds now. One Earth-day to agree surrender. Then we come to Earth and accept. Otherwise we send in transmute-everything plague. You have no answers. Much jolly fun then to see, ho-ho, hee-hee. One day is all. Good morning."

* * *

Kerry sat, staring despondently at the screens. The others in the Control section were equally subdued. All of the low-level orbiters were dead. Orbiter Three was almost completely consumed and turning into something resembling a Ferris wheel mounted on an eggbeater. Orbiter Seven, the farthest out from Tremil, had commenced quanco emissions. The ship was at readiness to pull out at an instant's notice. Nobody had come up with any suggestions, let alone answers.

"What do they want?" Juanita asked beside him. "I mean, what can we have that they possibly need? Everything about them is so different. It can't be technology or resources. They've already got the technology to create any kind of resource."

"Who knows? Maybe a green, warm world to retire to. Or to get us working plantations for them. For all we know, silicates and carbonates might taste nice. Somehow I doubt if it's our women, Juanita, so don't lose sleep worrying about that."

"Then why can't they just say whatever it is? There might be some way of coming to an accommodation without any of all this."

"They seem to like it this way. It must be how they do things. Maybe they find power trips addictive."

Juanita sighed and fell silent for a while. Then she looked up. "Did we just collide with them by accident, do you think, the way we assumed?" she asked. "Or did they have a surveillance net set up that detected our technology and steered them to us?"

Kerry had been wondering the same thing. If they looked for advanced technologies, that could maybe provide a clue as to what they wanted. "That's a good question. But since nobody's going to be able to answer it in the time we've . . ." His voice trailed away as he realized that Juanita wasn't listening. She was staring past his shoulder, her eyes wide.

"Kerry," she whispered.

He turned back to face the console. Framed in the screen showing the video channel from one of the minirovers down on Tremil was a bedraggled human figure, a man. He approached warily, looking down at the rover, at the same time swatting at something near his head. Then he said, "Can anybody hear me?"

* * *

His name was Arvasse. There were two of them, from the Midas orbiting platform. The third hadn't made it into the escape capsule when the structure started to break up. The capsule had long disappeared, along with everything else that had been at the base. Arvasse couldn't add anything further regarding what had happened to the rest of the expedition. By the time they got back down, the ship had gone, and that was all he knew. They had watched the base and its equipment decomposing and kept their distance, living on survival rations from the capsule, eked out by fungi and cactilike offerings from the surroundings that tested okay.

"So these micromachines don't attack people?" Yoshida said. He had been called in and was standing beside Kerry. Hinjao was on Yoshida's other side. Everyone who could get away was cramming into the Control section to see this.

"What micromachines?" Arvasse asked. He looked weary, haggard, and not all that interested.

"They're what have been eating your base away."

"I don't know anything about that. Like I already told you, we weren't about to come anywhere close to whatever was going on here."

The other survivor had joined Arvasse by this time. She was dark-skinned, equally ragged and exhausted, and her name was Vonne. "Look," she said, clearly at the end of her patience. "Can we forget all these questions for now? I'm not sure who you people are, but you're somewhere up there, right? Will you just come down and get us out of here? Do you know how many days we've been sitting around in these rocks, sleeping in hot sand?" She brushed irritably at her arms and face. "And now we're being eaten alive by goddam bugs."

At that moment, the operator at the panel showing the ship's condition called out, "Alert condition registering! Q-mode emissions from the outside hull. They're here!" It meant that nanozymes had found the ship. The microbots wouldn't be far behind. This was the point where it had been decided the ship would pull out. But all of a sudden the decision was fraught with an unexpected complication. Kerry looked at Hinjao's face as the colonel agonized over giving the order.

"We have to, Colonel," Yoshida muttered in a low, somber voice. "I know it will be slow for those two people. But you have no choice. We'd lose the whole ship down there."

And then Kerry became conscious of a very strange fact: The lander pod, its rovers, and the other devices down on the surface were all still functioning. Unlike the satellites dying on orbit, nothing was interfering with them!

He brought up the image from the inside of the lander's equipment bay, still open to the outside, and magnified it. Sure enough, there were microbots there. But they were lying still and inactive. They seemed mangled and dismembered. He noticed then on the other screens that the agitation and bustle that had been going on all over the strange Ek construction and the ruin of the Midas base had ceased. Pieces of microbots lay littered in piles everywhere. Even as he watched one of the views, something crawled in from the side, seized a microbot that was still moving, practically bit it in half, and disappeared again. And then it came to him what it meant.

"No!" he said, jerking his head around at Hinjao. Hinjao blinked at the sharpness of Kerry's voice. "Trying to get away won't do any good. We'll be a quanco beacon everywhere we go. If you want to save the ship, get us inside the atmosphere. Put down on Tremil as fast as you can, and open all the hatches!"

* * *

Earth agreed to the Eks' demands and prepared a site to receive the Ek delegation with their surrender terms. The site they chose was carefully selected amid swamplands of the lower Amazon. The Ek ships landed and disgorged a great showing of representatives and entourage, which proceeded in a swaggering parade toward where the Terran deputation was assembled. At which point the Terrans uncovered hidden weapons emplacements to the accompaniment of flyovers of warplanes—almost as if they didn't know that their machines were already marked by nanozymes. The Eks responded by unleashing their plague of microdisassemblers, as they had said they would.

The result was a massacre. Hornets, flies, mosquitoes, and bugs came out of the swamps in clouds. Nanozymes triggered the same responses as sexual pheromones, but with the difference of priming the recipients to seek out microbots. When the arousal-crazed insects failed to elicit the requisite responses from the objects of their passions, they tore them to pieces. Upon which, being of a disposition to iterate the same loops of program over and over rather than reflect on the meaning of it all, they would then go on to find another. Repeatedly. Such were the frenzies instilled, that they could tear through a population of microbots like foxes set loose in a chicken farm. As a bonus that the Terrans hadn't expected, several varieties turned out be quite partial to whatever the outsides of Eks were made of too, and the whole debacle ended with the Eks fleeing in panic and disarray back to their ships to beat a hasty and decidedly inglorious departure.

They were deferential and mannerly after that, agreeing to mind their own affairs and keep to their designated part of the Galaxy until Earth saw fit to concede otherwise. In the course of the negotiations that followed, they also revealed that Tremil was a construction of theirs, which answered that mystery. It was the transfer port through which the initial scouting screen of nanozymes, and then, subsequently, the follow-up waves of microbots, were injected into the Xerxes system. The Eks staked out many star system with such devices to monitor for signs of advanced technologies. Making the outside look like a planet was the "bait" to lure any civilization sufficiently advanced to realize that something was wrong into coming to investigate.

It also appeared that there were no insects on the Eks' world. They assumed them to be products of a fiendishly advanced Terran technology, and interpreted the event at the Amazon as a masterful ploy to demonstrate its potency, devised by minds they couldn't hope to equal. Nobody on the Earth side, naturally, chose to dispel their illusions.

* * *

The tunnel locks were open again, and Kerry rode a car through to the Chinese sector. Emergency pest-control supplies had arrived from Earth as ordered, but nobody was using them. People kind of liked having the little guys around. After all, it was as much their home too, right? Right. And simply opening the doors to the outside more often kept it from becoming too much of a home. They just seemed to love those swamps and marshes out there, all over the surface of Priscilla.

Juanita was waiting outside the Security offices, looking trim and fresh out of uniform in a lilac blouse with a design of flowers and dragons, and a calf-length skirt slit tantalizingly to four inches above the knee. "Wow!" Kerry greeted. "Politics just took on a new dimension. They should use you for a recruiting ad."

"I thought you'd want an acceptable partner. You are still going to show me how to dance?"

"You bet. We'll knock 'em dead—the whole downtown."

"Which place did you decide on?"

"I couldn't make my mind up. So I figured, what the heck? We'll take in all of them. It's not exactly as if it's the Boulevard Saint Michel down there."

"Oh, who needs Paris?"

"But we'll start at one that I think you'd like. It's got a quiet bar and an early-evening seafood snack bar. We can always eat properly later."

"Sounds great. What's it called?"

"They just changed the name. It used to be the Cuddly Kitty. But since they did it up and reopened, it's the Friendly Firefly."

"I love it!"

"Everybody does. Come on, let's go have some fun."

Juanita slipped her arm through Kerry's. They began walking toward the access elevator that would take them to the tunnel connecting to downtown.


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