Pendulum Ch. 34: Battlefield

Corporal Hill’s condition declined again. Up and down, back and forth, he descended to the gates of death, only to bounce back. Not he himself, of course. The medibot swarm destroyed a culture here, only to be overrun in another place, and the human body couldn’t withstand an unlimited supply of bots in its bloodstream. What happened here was outrageous. The changes mutated, like a germ. Maon’s understanding of fungi was very limited, but a mutation rate like this, with spontaneous complete transformations, shouldn’t be possible, and the AI couldn’t find a pattern to adapt to and overcome it. The invader grew again and used its host to power its rapid evolution, and ever so slowly, the young marine lost the battle.
The Wisp jerked, and Maon lost his balance. His head hit the scanner unit of the diag module, and stars danced before his eyes for the briefest of moments; but the loud clank had sounded metallic and come from outside. Something had hit the hull, or their capsule had rammed something. The lights went out, only to flicker back into existence a moment later.
“What was that?”
The hoarse voice of Lieutenant Murray crackled. His bronchia had to have been invaded, too, but he wouldn’t allow Maon to check him while Hill was still in his death throes. Alas, it was only a matter of time.
Adams answered something in a mumbling voice the doctor couldn’t understand.
Murray tried to reply, but a coughing fit interrupted him. Not for long, unfortunately, but he didn’t make another attempt to speak.
Another bang, and the floor shifted. The entire vehicle tilted, slowly but surely, with screaming noises coming from somewhere outside. Maon turned back to his patient. Thankfully, his medical equipment hadn’t been affected. Its energy supply was independent from the Wisp’s main circuitry, complete with its own tiny reactor. But the corporal hadn’t been tied down. His body pressed with its full weight against Maon’s lower back, the only obstacle between the marine and the ground. He grunted. He grabbed the fragile human and pushed him back gently.
“Alarm: Structure compromised.”
The synthetic voice didn’t sound alarmed in the slightest, and its tone stood in sharp contrast to the content of its words.
The world held its breath for a moment, then a gargling came from somewhere below. It turned into a gush. Another tremor ran through the capsule, and something below his feet howled.
“What’s going on?” Murray asked again.
“Don’t disturb my concentration!”
The ground rocked. No, not the ground. Water had found its way inside and covered the floor, following the vehicle’s every movement. The Wisp shook violently and the light jittered, but Corporal Hill didn’t even notice anymore. He had been in an induced coma for a while. His perception of the surroundings was shut down, but air escaped his lungs with the soft rattle of a deep-sea diver, as if in response to the crisis. The diag unit sent an announcement, and Maon hesitated. The content was predictable. Would he have to deal with this right now?
Then again, what else was he supposed to do in the dubious light of the emergency systems and his displays, with Adams fighting to get them out of the water? An almost imperceptible pain in the ankle startled him. Brief and sharp, like a sting, but the sensation was gone already when he finally secured the limp body of the marine and stooped down to see what was going on. Impossible to see anything in the half-darkness. He got up once more, leaned against the bed, and shook his head. Fine, he’d accept the message.
“Patient deceased.”
Just two words, and the marine hadn’t been the first dead patient Maon had seen during his career, but that didn’t attenuate the tragedy. Corporal Hill, so full of life and with the strength of his youth, yet so vulnerable to external factors, had lost the fight.
Maon called up the report. The fungus had wandered through his lymphatic system and spread all over the body. Maon’s army of medibots had been overwhelmed when the spores reached the heart and took root in the ventricles, while simultaneously making an aggressive push for the cerebral vascular network, breaking through the blood-brain barrier. All his vigor hadn’t saved the man, and all their medical technology had failed him. When the fungus passed across the cortical capillaries, a sudden inflammatory response had syphoned his last strength and unwittingly aided the invader’s translocation to the brain parenchyma, while his heart stopped supporting him. The medibot fleet followed its programming and deactivated with a last status report. Only a measly twenty percent of them had survived the fight, but the battlefield was scorched, the war for the patient lost. There was no one cause of death. The factors were way too complex, but if he had to put it into a single term…
“We’re out!”
Adams’ triumphant exclamation registered only peripherally. The death of Corporal Hill was symbolic of their entire mission, a slow march toward exhaustion and the eventual collapse of the system, unless something significant happened.
Maon let out a sigh and let his gaze wander over the interior of the Wisp until his eyes met those of the druid. She knew. He hadn’t announced Hill’s death to the crew yet, but her eyes expressed an understanding he couldn’t fathom.
He nodded involuntarily.


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