Hunter knows that he and Ardul are being hunted. What he hasn’t been able to figure out yet, aside from why, is how they keep getting found. It’s not as though they’re particularly well known and he hasn’t gone stomping around in his bot in some time so they should be a bit like a needle in a haystack. He’d already checked himself and Ardul for tracking devices and he’s fairly sure the Iyesgarthian general won’t use magic.
Then he remembered the way that the nanite converted drudges in Dinosaur swamp seemed to recieve remote commands from their masters. That had requried some fairly obvious hardware, but what if it had been improved on. Could Ardul be tracked purely by her nanites?
To find out he’s currently got the woman standing with her arms held out from her side while he goes over her very carefully with some kind of wand like wolfen device he salvaged from a wreck.
Ardul had checked her armour, several times, when Hunter raised the question of being tracked. It’s possible they were using that to track them but much like Hunter and his bot, Ardul didn’t always wear her armour and they’d been jumped at least once when she wasn’t.
Her arms are held akimbo as Hunter scans her, her wings moving slightly – in agitation, Hunter knows that. “It’s possible they put tracking tech into the nanites. I know it was something our science division had been speaking on before the project was shut down …”
Add to that the tech they’d been able to salvage was a mishmash between Iyesgarthian and Wolfen tech. Who knows what the Iyesgarthians had come up with with that and whilst Hunter had managed to have the nanites deactivated – what could be running around her blood?
She frowns as the wand makes a different sound, grey eyes rising to look to Wolfen “What … does that mean?”
“It means I might have found something. Or it means I might be miscalibrated.” Hunter turns the device to look at it and motions for Ardul to drop her arms. He’s been doing this for an hour, running checks on various communications bands, looking for something that might explain the serrendipitous arrivals of so many assassins and assailants.
“No… no that’s nothing either. Okay. One more time.”
Hunter starts to scan again, moving the wand over Ardul. “Any word on Nina? Any idea if they actually have her? I know you were going to… question our guests.”
Ardul has been still for all that time, except for the slight movement of her wings. When the wolfen gestures for her to drop her arms, she does – rolling her shoulders and stretching. She’s in a light tunic top that bares her shoulders, revealing the ropey scares of her time when she was held prisoner and light cotton-like pants.
“Are you sure it’s working? Because if you are, maybe there’s nothing in me … ” she murmurs, holding her arms out again as he starts over. “… my Lord…” It’s hard to tell lately whether she’s teasing him by calling him that or if it’s her reverting to the programming the nanites had done.
“I questioned them…” if she was joking, her tone is flat now and her eyes slide over Hunters shoulder to stare into the distance. “They all believe that Hyfil is holding her and that it won’t be long before she is turned to support her uncle.” ‘Turned’ like the others had been, like they were trying to do to Ardul.
There’s a pause though as she lets out a sigh. “I believe they believe it, Lord… ” that one she meant “… but none them can say they’ve laid eyes on her.”
“So it could be a deception. Not only to us but to them as well.” Hunter muses. “If that’s true it might mean they have some legitimacy problems back home, and possibly even in the ranks of their own army. It might mean we have a chance to chip away at them if we can find her. Or rescue her.”
Or kill her if it comes to that.
“Hmmmmm. I have something. Quantum entanglement. Very clever. No offence but not something I would expect your people to have come up with on their own. They are most definitely tracking you though.”
“It might be on Hyfils part, yes.” Ardul agrees quietly, standing still as the Wolfen scans some more. “They might have legitimacy problems. They //should// have, her uncle was never quite that popular but that broadcast we saw, of the house guard being subverted. If they’ve done that to all the troops, there //shouldn’t// be a problem.”
That’s the conundrum the stern blonde has been turning over in her head “But having Nina show him her wings would mean the general populace will accept him more readily.” There’s that and the fact that ‘chipping’ everyone is almost a ridiculous prospect.
“But we have a location where Hyfil told our Guests to take me.” Those grey eyes look at Hunter carefully “What if they were to do so. Bring me in that is?” There’s a lot of problems with that but it’s a more direct way of acting. Something the blonde prefers to most things.
“Quantum entanglement? I haven’t heard that term before but I’m a soldier, not a scientist.” She huffs a little in mock indigation “We are technologically advanced, you know. But I think you’re right, they aren’t doing this alone.” beat “Can we disable it? Or did you want to use it to our advantage?”
“Even if they have managed to subvert your entire army, they wouldn’t be able to rule if the people didn’t accept them.” Hunter points out putting the wand down. “And I suspect that chipping the whole army isn’t worth it. There have to be those in high positions who support your uncle but I’m willing to bet it’s not everyone.
And if they don’t have or can’t find Nina then that doubt will fuel trouble. Perhaps that’s why Ardul is so sought. The Queen’s personal captain of the guard would make a good prize in that regard.
“Anyway the short version is that quantum entanglement is an advanced form of communication effective at extreme ranges without risk of being intercepted. It’s tricky, though. My people mastered it long after we took to the stars. Mostly, here, we’ve lost it but your people might have reverse engineered it if they have some kind of trove of wolfen technology.” As seems likely.
“It does work both ways though. We should be able to track whomever is tracking us, but it does mean I’ll need more direct access to whatever nanites are still in you and that has… risks.”
Hunter confirms pretty much what Ardul was already thinking about the problem and the blonde nods slowly. Securing Ardul, if they don’t have Nina, would mean they could spin it that the Princep-elect had fallen. If they do have her, they could use the blonde as leverage – something the fierce warrior simply can’t allow.
“Reverse engineering would work but I suspect they’re working with another player, one we’re yet to see.” Or maybe they have and just haven’t put the puzzle together. “We’re not a race that explores like that, my Lord… uh, Hunter. So if we found a trove, it would have been for … reasons.”
With his scanning now down, the blonde relaxes again looking at the wolfen she now calls Lord. “How … will get access to them? Blood samples that you distill or … something more direct?” There are always risks, Ardul knows that but she trusts Hunter and this is a good chance to break their stalemate.
“I’ll have to figure out the frequency that they used to… instruct them.” Hunter makes a face. He doesn’t like it because it puts Ardul at risk for being even more programmed than she already is. But in order to access this function he’s going to need administrator access. The nanites already see him as Ardul’s handler so that part should be easy. But he will need to directly access their functions and he suspects they will interact with him through the blonde.
“Unless you have reservations…”
Ardul watches Hunter as he gives her the information, nodding slowly. “Why would I have reservations, my Lord?” The programming is already there, he could have just told her that’s what he was going to do. She wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, objected.
“If it’s painful, I will bear it. If it’s anything else …” those grey eyes rise to meet his and she smirks, just a little “… we might enjoy it.” But she is his, programmed to be so.
“Are you worried that I will lose myself further? Do not be, Lo— Hunter. You can tell them to let me be … myself.”
Or as much of herself as is left.
“Shall we begin?”
Hunter takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Yes. Let me get my things. Have a seat and get comfortable.”
Hunter disappears for a few moments and when he returns he has some short range transmission equipment. It takes him a moment to tune in on the right frequency to access the nanites, it’s guesswork on his part and somewhat imprecise but Ardul can definitely feel it when he does.
What will be left of her? Hopefully everything they started the day with but Hunter can’t know. What he does know is that this is very dangerous, but doing nothing even more so.
Ardul cants her head as Hunter blows out that breath “It will be alright, my Lo— Hunter.” she murmurs.
When he returns, just before she sits she kisses him on the cheek. “I trust you …” is all she says as she settles. The guesswork causes the blonde to flinch a couple of times, grimacing once and letting out a hissing breath as the nanites react to the tampering. Then … she sits straighter and she looks Wolfen.
“What is your wish, Lord?” her voice sounds a little … flat. A bit like an automaton. That’s not her that’s addressing him. “We are ready to serve.”
How much will be left after this? They’ve taken over all her functions.
Hunter sighs, looking at Ardul. He can only imagine this is what she’d be like most of the time if she had fallen into Iyesgarthian hands. “I need to locate the device communicating with you. And I need to shut down or refuse any further communications if that’s possible.”
It might not be. Quantum entanglement functions at a subatomic level using basic properties of physics. It’s hard to ‘turn off’.
“Also… how often are you being contacted for location?”
Ardul, or rather the woman who was Ardul, just sits there, rather dispassionately looking the Wolfen. “We are contacted for our location once every forty three thousand, two hundred seconds.” Hunter might need to do the math on that one – every twelve hours.
“We only have a ‘frequency’ that we communicate with. It is possible to trace that to the end point, Lord.” the Valkyrs grey eyes hold Hunters, flat and dull – he might wonder if there’s anyone home
“Shutting down communication requires the override code. If you recite it, we will deactivate that function.”
An override code, that might be anything.
Hunter blows out a sigh. Override code. He doesn’t know and he doesn’t want to guess. It could be anyhting and guessing wrong might ‘lock him out’ of Ardul. Which would be very, very bad.
“I want you to record and inform me when you are contacted and from where.” The hope is that they wont notice it happens at the same time that they are tracking Ardul. Any movement will let him know where they might be going. And if they don’t move, well, that tells him a lot too. Of course the nanites probably don’t have a map. They’ll just have a bearing and distance. Which… will work. Hunter can do the rest of the legwork from there.”
“What is your… present status? Of your… physical unit?” He wants to know what they’ve done to Ardul. And what they’re still doing.
Hunter might be able to find the override code but he’ll probably need access to whoever created these nanites or controls them now.
“Acknowledged, Lord. Last contact was nineteen thousand eight hundred seconds ago.” So five and a half hours “Coordinates One Hundred Miles to North and West. We will advise on subsequent contact.”
That might get interesting, for sure.
“Present status is status quo. We are to follow your commands, Lord and ensure total compliance of our unit.”
Well that’s helpful at least. A hundred miles isn’t very far really. Outside the borders of Vesper but not far. Possibly back in Clearwater or one of the other outlier settlements. Possibly hidden away somewhere. There’s a lot of wilderness out there. He’ll have to make sure to move Ardul around and try to triangulate in on their position.
Now for the tricky question…
“And what updates or modifcations are planned for your… unit?” Put another way, what are the nanites doing to her? Or what will they be doing?
Is Ardul actually there as the nanites speak with Hunter? Or have they completely supressed her consciousness? She’d snort a little if he told her that plan, make some dry comment about being a piece of a feija board – which is something like Chess, or so she’s told him before.
Clearwater, Lynchburg, other locations are all centers out in the wilderness. Or as much of centers as they can be. But there’s a lot of area to cover and they’ll have to try and work out where.
There’s no pause as the nanites answer the next question “Modification to the unit includes physiological modifications to make it a more suitable candidate.”
“Wait. You’re capable of modifying her physically?” That’s a bit worrying. The fact that they are means that this is a very mature technology. It’s starting to sound less and less like the experiment that Nina’s father shut down. It’s possible that they were working off a template and have just accessed more of it. Or maybe they had help. Either way, someone needs to cut off the source of their tech. It’s not being used for anything good.
“Uh… Candidate for what?” He knows he’s not going to like this answer but Hunter has to ask.
“Physiological adjustment is possible. We will integrate ourselves with the unit….” It certainly sounds like advanced tech and nothing like the project that Nina’s father shut down. But the basis of it was certainly the same. This … is bad.
“To become the perfect soldier and companion. A symbiosis of technological and organic material. Our unit will adapt to the conditions it finds itself in.” Has that already started? Or did their interference stop that process?
“Errrrr…” Hunter is sort of struck dumb. His mouth hangs open for a moment and he shakes his head. Perfect has a variable definition. He can imagine this has uses among the Usurper’s inner circle. How many others have been subjected to it?
“How far along is that process? And when will integration be complete?” He’s hoping to be told that the nanites needs something to finish it. Something he can then make sure to never give them.
Hunter is going to have to break this news to Ardul when he lets her return, for it seems there’s nothing there of the blonde at the moment. How she’ll respond to that, well … he might have an idea.
How many others have been subjected to this? That’s a very good question. Perhaps they should investigate their ‘guests’ a little more.
“The process began but has paused. Insufficient data on when integration will be completed, the command node has been damaged and requires Thokcha to repair itself.” Thokcha could mean meteoric iron, which … might not be so common around here.
Meteoric Iron. Well he’s never feeding Ardul that. Or whatever Thokcha is. He’ll have to ask her but the word sounds too gutteral to be Iyesgarthian. Unless it’s a dialect he hasn’t heard Ardul use.
“Well this has all been fun. End the interface mode for now and return Ardul to me.”
He really, really hopes she hasn’t been compromised by that experiment.
It’s not likely a dialect that Ardul hasn’t used. Which might give credence to the fact there’s been interference with the technology.
The blonde blinks, grey eyes turning up to Hunter as her wings flex. That’s something he might not have noticed – she hadn’t moved, at all, during that discussion. She might have well been a speaking statue. “My Lord? What is your command?” she blinks again and shakes her head, trying to clear it. “… I … is … did you get the information you needed?” Compromised? Maybe not, but certainly he’s going to have to remind her that she’s autonomous.
“I did. How are you feeling?” Hunter wants to see if she can pull out of it or if he’s going to have to… reset her parameters. He definitely doesn’t want to issue any statements or blanket commands if he can get away with it. It’s not a good idea, and it’s partly how they got into this mess to begin with.
“Do you remember any of our conversation at all?”
The blonde is quiet for a bit as she sits there, looking up at Hunter and thinking. Eventually, she reaches out to take his hand and nods slowly … “Parts of it, not all. Maybe … more impressions that anything, Lord. You have a location, I believe?” He won’t need to reset her, or so it seems, but she’s still programmed to call him Lord. Maybe it’s because it’s familiar to her, to do so. Or maybe the nanites effects are still upon her.
She looks concerned though and he might guess at what some of those impressions have told her … “I’m … changing, aren’t I?” she finally says quietly.
“I have at least part of a location. They, uh, nanites are going to let me know when you’re tracked again and back-track them. Hopefully we’ll home in on them without them realizing it.” It’s not a great plan since they’re still being tracked but it’s the best that he can do.
Hunter sighs at the question. “You… are, yes. The nanites are capable of physical changes. They can’t complete any of them though because they need something called Thokcha.” He’s hoping she’ll recognize the word. If she doesn’t he’ll just have to be careful if she reacts strongly to anything they don’t recognize.
“I see … They didn’t … say how?” Ardul asks, wings moving in agitation again “I … don’t feel any different…” She’s not likely to though, not until it’s too late and by then, she’ll just accept the changes are what they are. It’s insidious the way this has been done her.
“Thokcha? I’ve heard our older scientists speaking on that and saw references in the documents on my Uncles project. It’s a compound that’s extremely hard to find but they were starting to experiment with it just prior to … it all closing down.” Those grey eyes look up Hunter, troubled. “It wasn’t clear where they got the compound but I believe it was mineral. Some say they found high in our farthest mountains but no one said much about it.”
“Something about you becoming the perfect soldier and companion.” Hunter’s eyes are troubled and not just for Ardul. “If they’ve applied a similar treatment to their captive royal guard… or to Nina if they have her…”
There may be no recovering them. And even if there is, there will be effects and scars from what they have experienced. These kinds of changes are… drastic, and inflicting them on someone unwilling is traumatic in the extreme.
Ardul closes her eyes and stands, moving close to the Wolfen as they talk. “If they have … then we have to kill all of them. I know them, Lord, they’ll not want to live that. If living is what you call it.” Her hand touches his cybernetic one and she looks at it. If that type of thing was the extent of it, it would be alright.
But these nanites were rewriting their core beings. Or so it seems.
“Promise me… ” Ardul swallows “… that if I change so drastically you’ll show me mercy, Lo— Hunter.” beat “We have to find them though and put a stop to this. If you have a location to start with, we should be able to use that to pinpoint. Is your bot up for an extended excursion?”
“Possibly but I want a few more hits on the location to triangulate before we take it anywhere. It won’t take long. A day or so. Then we can take the bot out and see what’s around.” The mission might not be extended. He might stomp into town, waste whatever dispelases him and stomp out. Outside of places like Vesper and Dogwood, which are rare, not many people can stand up to that kind of thing.
Hunter likes it that way sometimes.
“If… it comes to that I will…” Will he? Will he be able to? Hopefully they never have to find out.
“Alright then …” the blondes wings move again and she turns away from looking like she’s going to move off into their apartment and … do something. “Is there anything more you require of me, Lord or may I go?”
It’s only a couple of days and then … well maybe they’ll know more. And maybe Hunter will be able to just stomp in, blast things and stomp out.
“No Ardul.” Hunter says quietly. “You can go.”
It bothers him that she’s in such a state but making herstay owuld likely only make this worse. It’d highlight how helpless she’s really become. So he lets her go.
He’ll come and find her later, and check.