Fractal Ambush

by James Leth

Captain Havis leaned back into the pressureless embrace of the water chair, the socket on the back of his helmet seating itself firmly around the bubble’s neural interface. Finally released from Aegis Center control, the bubble  reintegrated itself into his awareness, and they became one being again. For the first time in a week, Havis felt whole and unmutilated. Without the bubble, he was just another animated piece of meat. Here, he was alive, master of his own private universe — the alpha predator, rising from the depths of the earth to soar above the ground as easily as an ordinary man might stretch his legs and walk.

Havis thought about the equipment stats, and they appeared in front of him, everything highlighted in green. The bubble had power and life support for a standard deployment of eighteen days, with weapons and ammunition for a hundred missions. Navigation and portal controls were functioning perfectly, his body armor and health metrics were near optimal, and the neural interface to the bubble was five-by-five.

They were now flying rapidly over enemy territory, although in truth, the bubble could not be said to be anywhere in real space. The bounded dimension of the bubble was wholly separate from reality, but with enormous expenditure of energy, a portal from the bubble could be opened into three-dimensional space. The complex mathematics embodied by the dimensional engines defined the spherical surface in our space on which the portal could be generated, giving the bubble an effective size and location. Dimensional engineering was the one practical result of what used to be called string theory.

The portal was now open for minimum passive information feed, and while the bubble recorded the data, Havis experienced it through the neural interface. The ground flew past a hundred feet below, the bubble maintaining constant altitude as the terrain fluctuated. It flew through buildings and other solid structures without any effect, the portal open less than the width of a hair. Remaining perpendicular to the direction of the bubble’s travel, it sliced through reality with zero width.

Captain Havis reviewed the mission parameters, again finding nothing unusual. Only one point was repeated: this had to be a direct kill. The man needed to die in front of him, and Havis had to personally confirm his death. Havis would only be exposed for the few seconds it would take to pop out of the portal, make the kill, and collect the event data. He had time for adequate reconnaissance, so he could wait to take the target under ideal conditions. Nothing could go wrong, and that’s what worried him. It meant he hadn’t thought of everything. Something can always go wrong.

As he closed in on the primary search area, Havis studied the visual stream, augmented with annotations noting local landmarks, cover and concealment options, escape routes, and suspected enemy encampments. He reconfigured the bubble for street-level travel, descending until his own face was at walking height, with the bottom of the bubble just slicing through a foot of the ground. Now in spherical sampling mode, the minimally-sized portal opened repeatedly for nanoseconds at a time, randomly covering the entire surface of the bubble. From these individual samples, the bubble integrated a continuous view in all directions.

They moved through the desert village at a leisurely pace, through stone and brick buildings, along the few paved streets and endless ancient cobbled alleyways. They drifted through houses, basements, shelters, and shops. Vehicles and pedestrians went past, oblivious, some moving right through the surface of the bubble and immediately exiting the other side. Havis remembered how disoriented he’d felt on his first mission. Sitting in the middle of an active combat field, he watched missiles, flaming debris, and body parts fly right through him while he recorded every strategic plan, every battlefield decision, and the kill statistics of every weapon. He was never the same after that first mission. It was a hell of a thing to sit like a god on a throne, watching the mortals kill each other for sport.

He was forbidden to speak to anyone about the bubble or the missions. They thought he’d forget the missions if he could never talk about them, but he remembered every one. He kept quiet. Eventually, he stopped speaking at all. He could watch anyone he wanted to, listen to any conversation, kill anyone assigned to him. His orders came to him like a muse at his ear, encrypted, their origins masked. He remembered Colonel Ashford’s words, the day they asked him to volunteer for the Aegis program: “You will meet with no one, talk to no one, until you’re recalled to Aegis Center. You will not be told who your orders come from. It is essential that we maintain complete deniability.” Havis had been selected from the most elite soldiers in the history of warfare, and he was privileged to participate.

That was at the start, when he understood how his missions helped secure the nation. Now it was less clear who was the enemy and who might be giving him his orders. Now he felt nothing but contempt for the insignificant peasants going about their pointless lives out there, unaware of his presence. Someday, perhaps, he’d be ordered to immolate them all.

At first, the world’s powers had aligned so thoughtlessly along the archaic dimensions of regional culture, religion, and the arbitrary and now obsolete tessellation of the globe into nation-states. West against East, Judeo-Christian against the re-emergent Islamic Caliphate, with the Chinese patiently waiting to inherit it all once the other powers destroyed themselves. But it had all changed in the last few decades. All over the world, borders moved so rapidly that they became largely irrelevant, and the great powers of the world weren’t all nations anymore. Most of the armed forces that Havis attacked had no national identity. They operated without regard to borders, but so did the forces supposedly under the control of the remaining nations. The US fielded so many secret agencies that half of them worked against the other, and the major international corporations controlled soldiers of their own. From his Olympian view of the world, Havis was aware how volatile the political alliances were, as he found himself assassinating men and women who worked for the forces that he thought were on his own side. As his mission assignments became more obscure, he gave up trying to discern whose interests he served. He was the wolf, and his targets were the sheep. It didn’t matter whose sheep they were.

Havis was surprised how quickly the facial recognizers found a probable match in the small, bearded man keeping to the shadows across the street to the left. He hurried obliquely past the bubble’s current position, and Havis studied him while he configured the bubble for forward-following. The man walked quickly, despite a slight limp in the left leg. The bubble stayed four feet in front of him, orbiting around him when he turned to look to his side or over his shoulder. He had the furtive, paranoid look of any man who knew that he was targeted. With the bubble locked in front of this man, the facial recognizers confirmed the match with 100% certainty, and the relevant personal data appeared next to his face.

Abd al-Qazani de La Rosa — must be an interesting story behind that name, Havis thought — had been a surgeon with special training in nano-robotics when he fell off the grid and began his secret work in the poorest slums of the sprawling Caliphate. Someone, or some drone, had found him in this village and decided to put an end to his current activities. “Trust your chain of command,” Colonel Ashford had told him, but Havis had no idea how the chain of command threaded its way down to him. His orders had the correct digital signatures, so he obeyed them.

De La Rosa unlocked the door of a nondescript building, locked it behind him, and continued briskly down the cellar stairs, where he unlocked another door and entered a large, cluttered room. The bubble surveyed every detail of the room, displaying its ongoing analysis. Havis glanced at the schematic layout that it generated and noted that there were no other exits.

The workbench where the man now stood contained a remote-view nanomicroscope attached to a suitcase-sized rack of processor arrays. Farther down the workbench were a variety of nanoengineering tools — programmers, injectors, extractors, sorters, and taggers. Havis glanced at the inventory of impressive equipment throughout the rest of the room, but directed his focus at the nanomicroscope. Opening the portal directly over the microscope’s viewer, Havis watched the image composited by the remote nanosensors. A swarm of nanobots raced around in a fluid that Havis recognized as a blood sample. He’d looked at nanomicroscope images before, and they never showed the nanobots themselves. The device was only supposed to generate an image of what the nanobots sensed. Havis checked the control settings on the device, then realized that he was seeing a different swarm of nanobots than those injected by the microscope. The swarm moved rapidly, especially at the edges of the confined lab sample, aggressively seeking a way to spread farther. The nanomicroscope wasn’t capable of analyzing the foreign nanobots, but its estimate of their complexity was startling. No wonder they want this man dead, Havis thought. These could spread worldwide before doing whatever they’re designed for. This is a global weapon.

Without stopping to wonder why his superiors hadn’t anticipated such a valuable information cache, Havis changed his mission plan. It was no longer just a kill. He needed to return with every bit of information in the room. With no reason to wait any longer, Havis snapped his helmet visor down, initiated a rapid perimeter check, and selected his primary weapon for the assault: .40 caliber subsonic short carbine with electronic noise cancellation. With the weapon in his mind, he had only to reach out, and the automated armory dropped it into his hand. He flipped the switch from full-auto to single-shot and verified the weapon’s readiness. His usual assortment of handguns, grenades, and other backup weapons were already affixed to his body armor.

The instant that Abd al-Qazani de La Rosa walked away from the workbench, Havis swung the portal so that he’d have a clear line of sight to the target, with nothing of potential value in his firing line. The portal popped wide open, and Havis leapt out. The man had not even turned his head all the way toward Havis when the shot caught him diagonally through the chest. It was a mortal wound, but not an immediate kill. Havis wanted to observe him as he died.

His enemy collapsed immediately, but Havis was already there to slow his fall and lay him gently onto his back. The man’s eyes darted rapidly around his killer’s face, as if the sudden appearance of this stranger were more surprising than his own imminent death. His lips parted, and a trickle of blood ran out as he whispered, “Now they’re your problem.”

Havis pressed his fingertips to the man’s temple, and his visor displayed the life signs detected by his gloves. The man’s pulse quickly went to zero, along with brain activity a few seconds later. Rechecking the perimeter as he darted back into the bubble, Havis expanded the dimensional field to encompass the entire room and opened the portal completely. When he sealed it again, the portion of the building enclosed by the bubble remained inside with him, and together they moved out of the kill zone, straight down into the earth.

Relaxing in the safety of his private dimension, Captain Havis committed the single biggest blunder of his life: he opened his helmet visor. Immediately, the bubble displayed his medical stats, several of the green highlights changing to yellow and then red. Terrified, he slammed the visor shut, but it made no difference. The enemy nanobots had been loose in the laboratory that he’d captured. His body was invaded, and the swarm was multiplying rapidly.

The Captain’s enhanced biodefenses seized control of his body, placing him into a low-energy hibernation state, while his internal medbots launched a counterattack. At the same time, the bubble’s information analysis networks assaulted the processor arrays in the captured lab, easily breaking through de La Rosa’s amateurish encryption attempts. What it found there convinced the bubble to revive its pilot and show him the analysis. Abd al-Qazani de La Rosa had been experimenting on the nanobots for months, but there was nothing in his files about how to create or enhance them. All of his efforts had been attempts to stop them. The blood sample was one of hundreds he had taken from the local population, all of them infected.

Havis was in no immediate peril. Whatever these devices were programmed to do, they had lain dormant in other hosts for a long time. But Havis arrived at an arresting conclusion. It was highly likely that his superiors wanted de La Rosa killed because he was trying to stop the nanobots. Which meant that it was probably the Captain’s own side who had released them.

Havis was lucky. There were probably no more than a dozen people in the world with such sophisticated internal biodefense systems. Almost everyone else on the planet would carry the nanobots without ever knowing they were there, but inside his body, his own medbots were winning the war. The foreign nanobots weren’t being destroyed, but they were being encapsulated and rendered inert. With far better tools available to him than de La Rosa, Havis directed the bubble to compile a set of deconstructor nanobots and inject them into his neck. They attacked a sample of the neutralized enemy and began to disassemble them, decompiling their molecular coding. The bubble displayed a rapidly growing inventory of the functional capabilities discovered by the disassemblers. These invaders were far more complex than any nanotech on record. Along with a full array of sensors and actuators, the nanobots were equipped with a fast and efficient swarm-wide communication system. Havis realized the implications quickly. Carried around the world inside human hosts, when these are activated, their creators will be able to watch and record everything that happens, everywhere. The nanobots could be programmed to seek out any person, watch for any activity, play back a detailed record of any incident. Through his bubble, Havis held the power of the gods, to use on their behalf. Now his masters would have the vision of the gods, as well. Once granted, such powers could never be revoked.

Captain Havis had been trained to regard every mission’s objectives as his sole purpose in life. Doubt and moral scruples were never factors to consider. Now, for the first time, Havis considered them.

With the portal closed, Havis remained out of communication with Aegis Center. He had not transmitted his mission report. The delay was not yet suspicious, but he didn’t have long to decide what to do. As the swarm’s messaging interface revealed itself, the bubble acquired enough information to reactivate the neutralized nanobots under his own control, putting all of their capabilities under the direction of the bubble’s neural interface. The repurposed nanobots became an extension of his awareness, like the bubble itself. It felt like opening a million new eyes he never knew he had.

He diverted a few thousand of the captured nanobots to augment his computation power and edit the mission record. He removed  all information about his capture of the laboratory, leaving only the kill and confirmation of death. Opening the portal just wide enough to transmit the mission report, he offered no explanation for the delay in sending it.

If they recalled him, he would have to return to Aegis Center, fifty miles inside the mantle of the earth. Constructed by the first-generation manually-operated bubbles, Aegis Center was entirely self-sufficient, and the only way in or out was by bubble. But once a bubble was inside the center, it would no longer respond to the neural interface. It would be locked to a refueling station, portal open, until Aegis Center deployed it again. If his masters had any reason to doubt his loyalties, Havis would never leave the center. If they didn’t recall him, he’d still need to return within the next eighteen days to refuel. Only the massive fusion reactor inside Aegis Center could produce the quantity of antiparticles needed to power the dimensional engines.

After several minutes, he got his response in the form of a new assignment. There was no comment about his mission report. Confirming the assignment, he closed the portal and activated all of his strategic analyzers. As he studied the new mission parameters, he developed a plan of his own. The people he served were too dangerous. It was time for Havis to make the choices about who lived and who died.

The new mission was a clean-and-sweep that was probably significant enough to warrant a backup. Someone else would complete it if he failed. Havis had previously acted as a backup a couple of times. He had only to watch, because no one ever failed. He smiled now, imagining how the backup would feel when he realized that this time, the designated assassin was not going to appear.

Havis moved the bubble directly to the kill area and soon found the target, an enemy training camp. He kept the portal in sampling mode and waited. The assignment would expire in twelve hours. While he waited, Havis analyzed the best plan of attack to sweep the target area, and the best vantage point for a backup observer. Then he determined the best point from which to watch the watcher, and moved there. He directed the bubble to compile new programs into the nanobots, and they waited with him.

A full ten seconds after the expiration of his assignment, a new dimensional portal opened in front of him, and Havis watched the backup assassin sprint out, directing fire at everyone before him. The other man’s bubble followed exactly a step behind the rushing onslaught. Shrinking his own bubble’s real-space size, Havis flew it through the other bubble’s open portal to hide within.

The instant his bubble disappeared off its map of reality, he was bombarded with navigation alerts, but his newly enhanced processors immediately began to build a new map incorporating the closed dimension of the other man’s bubble. Havis launched a swarm of reconfigured nanobots through his portal, and they began to infiltrate the other bubble, especially its neural interface. Seconds later, the slaughter now complete, the assassin stepped back into his bubble and reconnected himself. The nanobots watched the signals crossing the neural interface and correlated them with the actions of the bubble and the input of its sensors. In minutes, they built a translation matrix, so that Havis could control the other bubble through his own neural interface. For now, he just watched, examining the other bubble’s database and noting how the other pilot maneuvered it.

The bubble’s manifest revealed its pilot’s name as Lung Feng, and Havis could see that he was ethnic Chinese. That said nothing about whose interests the man served. Before joining Aegis, Havis had noticed how those of Chinese descent were being recruited into the Seals and Special Forces, where the Aegis volunteers were later drawn from. Clearly, military command was preparing for action in Chinese-held territory. The bubble had been in the field for sixteen days, so it would be recalled for refueling sometime within the next two days. As Lung Feng filed his mission report, Havis read it, noting the alert flags about his own failure to appear. Captain Havis was now on the run from Aegis Center.

Thirty hours later, Havis was well prepared when Lung Feng was recalled to Aegis Center, with Havis in his own bubble, hitching a ride. With his bubble inside the private dimension of the other bubble, he was not actually within Aegis Center’s space. He remained undetectable, with full control of his bubble. When the other bubble docked, its portal opened enough for the pilot to stand and walk out, but the bubble did not power down. Once again, Havis was lucky. If it happened to be a long stay, the other bubble would have shut off, leaving his own bubble exposed inside Aegis Center, under their control.

Havis released the nanobots that he’d programmed for reconnaissance. They shot out of his bubble’s tiny portal and straight through the open portal of Lung Feng’s bubble. Penetrating the entire volume of Aegis Center, the swarm sent him a complete schematic of the complex, along with audio of every conversation and video of every display in Aegis Center. With his augmented processing power, he monitored all the inbound data feeds, finding no evidence of an authority directing the Aegis program from outside. His former masters were all here, inside the center.

There were three other bubbles docked beside Lung Feng’s. Havis sent out another swarm of nanobots to begin the process of hijacking control. While those bubbles were locked by Aegis Center, he could do nothing with them, but neither could anyone else now.

With his own bubble’s portal aligned with the open portal of Lung Feng’s bubble, Havis could use the new reality map that the nanobots had built. Still inside the other bubble, his own bubble had access to real space again. As he’d done with de La Rosa’s laboratory, Havis expanded his bubble and captured the entire Aegis Center, ripping it out of reality into his private dimension. Immediately, alarms went off all over the center, as data feeds from around the globe went dark. The Chinese pilot’s bubble was inside his now, so it was no longer under Aegis Center control. He used it to repeat the capture, so that once again his own bubble was inside the other. He kept the outer bubble’s portal closed, but he briefly opened his own portal all the way, dropping Aegis Center into the outer bubble’s private dimension. Cut off from real space, none of the bubbles were under the center’s control any longer. Aegis Center was his, and his bubbles would never be without fuel.

Forty-seven people remained trapped with him. The other bubble pilots were the first priority, for they were all trained killers with enhanced defenses. All four of them had been inside the canteen, but now they were scrambling toward their bubbles in response to the alarms. He opened his portal above them just long enough to drop a neutron grenade, then moved on. Inside the control center, he had to be more careful, to avoid damaging anything he might need. Emerging behind a group of three command officers, he broke the necks of the first two before the third turned to see where they’d gone. It took three and a half minutes for Havis to hunt down the rest and kill them all.

Now Havis was free to release his hijacked nanobots into the world, to capture and reconfigure the swarm that had first attacked him. Somewhere out there were seven other bubbles, but they would soon run out of fuel. Captain Havis would be the only one with the power and vision of the gods. For he was a jealous god who would suffer no other gods before him.

© James Leth, 2014