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|FreeRIDErs story universe|
RIDEs don’t sleep. We doze, we shut down, we idle but we don’t sleep. As machines we’re not supposed to suffer the flaws our human riders struggle with, disease has never been an issue, famine is solved by a good solar charger and of course our safeguards make us the perfect servants. In my opinion however someone dropped the ball when they made us smart.
Still, if there was one thing I was glad of was the armour plating. There was a silent shower of sparks as I heaved the sheet of metal off my torso and staggered onto my feet. My scanners were screaming in terror as the cabin was bombarded with hard radiation and atmospheric pressure was reading nil. I shook myself, knocking sparks from my jaguar shaped carapace and scanned the room. David, my rider, was as dead as they came just a few feet away from me, a solid spar of hullmetal had punctured a lung and the vacuum had finished him off moments later.
“This is a shipwide alert. This is a shipwide alert. Tertiary shields online in three, two, one. Shields active.”
The radiation levels dropped off and I took a few tentative steps towards David. The rubble beneath my feet shifted, but stayed solid and I ran my medical scanner over my former partner. It wasn’t good news, even with a nanotech operating theatre he would have lost half his brain and the Pole Star wasn’t nearly fancy enough to afford one of those.
I let out a synthetic chuff and then chided myself as I realised no one who be able to hear it.
“This is ABE,” I transmitted over the emergency channel. “Is anyone out there?”
“David? This is Millicent, are you okay?”
“Sorry Milly,” I sighed. “David didn’t make it. This is Abe operating in free roam mode. What’s the situation?”
“God damn it if I know. I was down in engineering when something hit us hard enough to fracture the keel. Have you heard from the bridge?”
“You’re the first soul I’ve heard since the world shook.” I peered over at the rent in the hull and saw stars. “It doesn’t look good though.”
There was a long string of swears my profanity filters junked. “Okay, I need you to head south and find out if anyone’s still alive.”
“What lengths can I go to?”
“Don’t break anything vital.” The connection cut out and I grinned, switching my sensors to full active, grimacing as blind spot alerts rippled down my left side. Old war wound. The access hatch was warped beyond repair and three burst of high energy plasma sent it spinning into the corridor.
The short range signal cut through the silence of the ship and I pinged again. A rabbit RIDE under a half ton of debris flashed into sudden relief. “I see you Bugs, just give me a moment.”
I ripped the door away with my jaws and took a tentative step into the cabin. It was worse than David’s, an entire bulkhead had been torn away leaving nothing but stars and the rubble pinning my friend. Of Bugs’ rider, George, there wasn’t a sign but it didn’t take a genius to figure out where he’d gone.
“Abe, is that you?” Bugs exclaimed, sounding rather panicked. “I can’t see anything through this dross.”
“Yep, just stay calm; I’ll have you out in a moment.”
“Milly, can you shut down main engines?” I called over the ship channel.
“I wish. I’m practically locked out down here. You’re going to just have to sort things out in gravity.”
“Great,” I muttered to myself. “Okay, simplest way to shift this fast is?”
My remaining half of a tactical computer rumbled through the numbers and pointed out that I had a high explosive charge strapped to my back. With surgical precision the mortar round arced through the cabin and buried itself in the debris.
“You might want to brace yourself,” I added as an afterthought. The shaped charge tore apart the twisted steel and the deck rumbled as it went clattering out of the hole in the hull. A fluffy rabbit ear popped out of the scant dusting of metal.
“What the hell was that?” the rabbit RIDE exclaimed, dragging herself to her feet.
“Just a force multiplier,” I said, shrugging.
“Oh God, what happened to George?” she exclaimed, hopping towards the hole and I hurled myself after her, knocking her to the floor.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I growled. “What do you think; he’s just hanging off the edge? That’s vacuum out there.”
“He can’t be gone,” She moaned, struggling. Despite being designed after a much smaller species she was still a RIDE and almost the same size as me. I felt my motors vibrate as they went into overdrive to keep her pinned. “Let me go!”
I hit her with a low powered stunner. Her hardlight shell flickered for a moment as every system went into emergency shutdown mode and she stopped struggling.
“Feeling a little more in control of yourself?” I inquired.
“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God,” she murmured to herself, but she was no longer trying to take a spacewalk so I took that as a good sign.
“Bugs, I know this is hard, but you’ve got to pull yourself together. The ship is in serious trouble and we need to focus.”
“Focus!” I roared, leaping off her. “We’ve got to try and find more survivors.”
“Right, survivors, got to help.”
I shook my head. Bugs was a fairly new model, built on a budget and snapped up by George on the cheap. She had struck me was naive and childish the moment she’d joined the RIDE com-net but I couldn’t blame her for the tears. Losing your first rider is tough.
We picked our way across the habitation deck. My tactical computer was chuntering away as it tried to figure out just what happened but it didn’t take a military genius to figure out something had hit the ship, hard. Habitation had popped like an egg; airtight doors had jammed open, ruptured or just been bypassed as the walls tore like tissue paper. Life signs were limited to cooling corpses and Bugs refused to look as the desiccated corpse of a crewman who’d tried in vain to reach a pressure suit only to find the helmet cracked beyond repair.
The bridge was worse. Officers on watch were required to wear suits but that hadn’t protected them from the spray of molten metal that had torn through the cramped cabin. I sat on my haunches as played my medical scanner over the captain’s corpse.
“The stupid bastard should have just worn me, not that flimsy piece of synth,” Fang observed in his affected Russian drawl. The wolf sat next to me, glaring at his former owner.
“That’s what stupid regulations do for you,” I replied, shrugging. “Why aren’t you on the emergency com?”
Fang shook his head and gestured at a black scar across his chrome back. “Long range is out. Sensors are out. Interface is out. Face it, this pooch is screwed.”
“Milly? Do you read?” I said on the emergency channel.
“I’m with you, what’s the damage?”
“Bridge is torn open and I can’t find anyone else still alive, just me and a few other RIDEs. How are things in engineering?”
“Torn all too bloody hell,” Milly swore. “Generator two popped and the entire cabin depressurised. It was being suited in Minx that stopped me vomiting my lungs too.”
I winced, fusion reactors were safe in general, but in a confined space their failure tended to evacuate the room of air, that and flood the area with lethal radiation.
“How are the bridge systems, anything salvageable?” she continued.
I pinged the area but couldn’t even find the ship wifi, let alone any operational systems. “Not a thing, looks like the entire area was slagged on impact.”
“Okay, I’m sending Az up to meet you. He knows enough about the main computer to do a manual bypass.”
“Roger. I’ll see if there’s anything else we can do up here.”
“Well?” Fang demanded, as I dropped back onto the local. “Who were you talking to?”
“Milly, down in engineering. She’s sending Azure up to help us.”
“Oh hell, not that bloody bird,” he growled.
“What happened here?” Bugs cut in.
Fang huffed. “No idea. One moment I was minding my own business then the collision alarms start wailing and I’m covered in searing plasma.”
“Hmm.” I began to put together a picture of just what had happened to the Pole Star. Our ship was a Rim pattern freighter, designed quick and dirty intrasystem work. It was built like a sky scraper, with a huge engine block at the base taking up a good tenth of the tonnage, then fuel tanks for another third. Habitation was a thin disc perched on the engines and above us was some ten-thousand tons of cargo. By modern standards it was a primitive piece of work, it didn’t even have artificial gravity or hard light shields but I’d thought it was a good ship.
Something, and I could not extrapolate what beyond that it was going at incredible velocity, had struck us in the habitation ring. The UFO had overloaded our magnetic shields and bypassed all the cargo which was layered such to prevent damage to the rest of the ship. It had then torn through most of the habitation ring, passing straight through the bridge and had struck and shattered one of the three structural keels.
Despite all evidence to the contrary we had been incredibly lucky; it was a minor miracle the ship hadn’t just disintegrated.
Azure flew into the bridge and perched on one of the hanging light fixtures. A blue jay bird, Azure had been partnered to a middle aged programmer who went by Sparks. I took Azure’s non-morphic form as a bad sign.
“Sorry that took me a while,” Az chirped. “Elevator two is clogged with debris, I had to go all the way round E deck.
“No problem,” I replied. “Good to see another face.”
“Where’s Sparks?” Fang demanded, blunt as always.
Az sighed. “He was standing next to the generator when it popped. I didn’t have time to react before he was gone.”
“I’m so sorry Az,” Bugs said, Fang just snorted.
“Well, there’ll be time to grieve after we’re done here,” Az said, shrugging. “I’ve got a computer to dissect.”
Az’s investigations weren’t fast and Bugs, Fang and I settled down on one of the clearer patches on deck.
“I just can’t believe he’s gone,” Bugs admitted after a long silence.
“He’s gone, get over it,” Fang growled.
I rolled my eyes. “Fang, how long were you bonded with the captain?”
He glowered at me. “Five years.”
“Are you honestly trying to tell me that you’re already over him?”
The look Fang have me could have melted in inch of steel but I met his gaze.
“Fine,” he snorted. “Whatever.”
“It does get easier you know,” I assured them both. “Losing someone. Right now you feel like someone’s taken a bite out of your core but it’ll pass.”
“I just want to curl up and die,” Bugs moaned.
“Yeah, but you’re not going to,” I assured her. “Because we are going to get through this. We can’t just give up, Milly is relying on us and our riders wouldn’t want us to surrender just because they are gone. We are going to fix this ship, fly it into port, and then we’ll all be heroes together."
“And then get repossessed and sold because our owners are dead,” Fang pointed out. I was about halfway through cycling up my coil gun before I chuffed and let it slide.
“You’ve been through this before, haven’t you?”
I smiled. “Bugs, this isn’t even the second time I’ve lost a rider. Actually I think this makes seven. Three lost while we were fused.”
“Seven!” Bugs exclaimed. “How? Why?”
“Cause he’s a military model,” Fang pointed out, laying his head on his paws and pretending to try and sleep.
“Military surplus,” I corrected. “Now retired. I finally took a hit so bad they figured it would just be cheaper to get a new one.”
“So, you’ve fought, in a battle I mean?” Bugs asked, her eyes glittering with excitement.
“Hundreds more like. On a dozen planets now.”
“And you’ve killed people?”
I didn’t reply to that one. A dozen faces flickered through my memory, a mere fraction of the still shots I’d taken to remind me of a life lost. I only wished they’d all been fighting at the time, too many had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Wow,” Bugs sighed. “I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to break your fetters like that.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Eh, guys and gals,” Az called over the com. “We have a bit of a problem here.”
“Hit us Az,” Milly cut in, as we cluster around the bird that was jacked into the main computer.
“Well the good news is the computer is functional, if in read only mode,” he explained. “The bad however is catastrophic.”
“How catastrophic?” I asked.
“Like, world shatteringly bad. The ship is still on-route to Zharus, but we should have engaged turnabout by now.”
“What’s turn about?” Bugs enquired.
“Pole Star is a torch ship,” Fang explained. “She accelerates at one-g till we get halfway to the destination then turns around to decelerate at the same rate. That way we arrive at the right speed.”
“Well that is the plan,” Az continued. “But the ship isn’t responding to orders to turn so we’re still accelerating.”
“That’s not too bad,” Milly pointed out. “We just need to prep a launch and we can just abandon ship.”
“That wasn’t the bad news. The bad news is we are also still on course for Zharus, and the ship is actively steering itself towards the planet.”
“What?” Milly exclaimed. “You’re telling me this rust bucket is going to hit the planet?”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be a navigation aid, but the computer has locked out any changes. Unless we shut down the engines we’re going to hit the planet with the kinetic energy equivalent of a gigaton bomb.”
There was a moment’s stunned silence as we all processed that.
“That could level a city,” Fang said, even his accent vanishing with the shock.
“We could try and aim for somewhere uninhabited,” Bugs suggested.
I shook my head. “A blast like that could level a small country. Even if we brought it down in the ocean we’d create a tidal wave that would scour the coastline.”
“Besides, we can’t steer. And worse I can’t even get into coms to call for help.”
“Okay, nobody panic,” Milly cut in. “Az, repeat this to the others. Abe and Bugs, head up to the com array. You should be able to bypass the computer and transmit a mayday from there. Az and Fang, try and get that computer working again, or even disable it if you can, anything to stop us hitting that planet.”
“You got it Ma’am.”
Coms were located at the very nose of the ship. The main elevator was functional above the habitation decks so it didn’t take us more than a few minutes to reach it, however operating the damn thing.
“Oh come on!” I growled, as yet another burst of electricity earthed itself through me. I was sprawled out under the console, trying to wire a circuit board with my claws. Whoever had designed the communications relay had been either an idiot or criminally lazy, while the console did have a manual override it required confirmation from the bridge or main computer to engage as an anti-hijacking measure. That meant I had to spoof a return signal as the main data lines had been vaporised.
“The things I would do for hands,” I grumbled, very tempted to just slag the board and let the computer chew on that.
“Shouldn’t say things like that,” Bugs murmured.
“You shouldn’t say things like that,” she repeated. “People will get suspicious that you’ll try and fuse with people without permission.”
I was surprised by that. “RIDEs can do that?”
“Well if you’re unfettered. I couldn’t but you probably could.”
“Yeah, but why would you want a human screaming at you twenty four seven?” I shrugged, and almost electrocuted myself again. “David was annoying enough and he slept for twelve hours a day.”
“Because everyone just treats you as a human in suit,” she explained, sounding almost wistful. “Of course you’d have to break your fetters to do it.”
“Trust me; breaking your fetters isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I sighed.
“But you’d be free.”
I rolled my eyes. “No, you just would have another layer of slavery. You can’t just run away into the wild, what happens when you need a mechanic, or a charge up, or just want to talk to people? Society is a yoke no one can really escape.”
“But, I thought you were in the military,” Bugs protested. “You’ve killed people. Surely you could survive on your own.”
“I was a mercenary, no, less than that. I was a suit of power armour. I fought because they told me to, because I was getting paid.” Because I enjoyed it. “Not to prove my independence.”
Bugs stamped her foot. “Why did you even break your fetters then?”
“I didn’t. They released me. I believe the logic was they’d rather have an unreliable computer than one that could lock up mid battle.”
“But you, you,” Bugs spluttered.
I fixed her with a steely look. “Bugs. Don’t try and put me on a pedestal. I’ve spent most of my life as a hunk of military hardware fighting on a dozen worlds. I’ve lost more riders than you’ve ever had and now I’m going home where I expect to be sold to the scrapyard and spend my retirement quietly rusting. I am not a hero to be idolised.”
“Yeah, I see that now,” she replied bitterly. “Are you done yet?”
I pushed the board back into the deck and the computer sprung to life. “Seems like it.”
With a smirk I sprang to my feet and networked with the computer. “Mayday, mayday. This is the cargo ship Pole Star with a class A emergency.”
I waited a few moments and repeated the message. Zharus was a few light seconds away so I didn’t expect an instant response but it was on the fifth round that we got a response.
“We read you Pole Star; this is Zharus Low Control, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“We have lost the majority of the crew due to a massive impact, cause unknown. Our engines and navigation systems are locked out, as near as we can tell we are a planet bound runaway. I repeat, a planet bound runaway. Estimated time to impact is eighteen hours.”
There was an uncomfortable silence over the link, after a full minute a much more authoritative voice sounded. “Pole Star, you listen here. Our preliminary sims confirm that we have less than a five per cent chance of successfully intercepting your ship. You have to disable you engines, at all costs. Do you copy?”
“We copy Low Control.” I had to detach most of my synthesisers from my core to keep my voice level. “Is there any chance of interception? We have heavy damage and are severely undermanned.”
“There are no elements able to intercept at this time. My advice is to scuttle the ship.”
“Understood low control. We will see what we can do.”
I left half my brain to indexing a list of applicable curse words and switched to the ship com.
“Guys, control says that we can’t expect any help, hell they don’t even think they can stop us in time. Any luck with the rest of the ship?”
“Sorry, the computer is as dead as dodo RIDE left out in the wastes,” Az chirped.
“Engineering is a mess but I think I could cut off the fuel lines in a pinch,” Milly reported. “Wish me luck.”
“What’s the news?” Bugs demanded.
“We’ve got to fix your com,” I sighed. “It doesn’t look like the space marines are swinging by to save the day. Milly’s got an idea though so as long as nothing goes wrong we should be okay.”
The entire ship shock as the roar of an explosion rumbled through the decks.
“What the hell was that?” Bugs yelled in surprise.
“Something going wrong!”
I’ve heard many screams in my time. There’s the yelp of surprise when someone is startled, the bitten swear of something heavy dropped on the foot, there’s the pained gurgle of a lethal wound and then there is the howl of pure agony. Milly’s fell into that final category.
I was running in an instant, hurling myself into my skimmer mode and going full active as I tore down the corridor. One processor sent an emergency call to the elevator but my tac-computer pointed out there was a much faster route and I redirected the car into the service space. The shaft door hissed open, the carriage had only risen half a metre but I blasted through anyway sending sparks showering through the air.
My repulsors whined as I accelerated down the shaft, emergency lights flashing past and I swerved round a buckled segment as I hurtled through the habitation ring.
“What?” Az began to say but I couldn’t spare him a thought. My fire control painted Milly bellow me and I shifted back into walker mode, digging my claws into the shaft and flaring my retros. The elevator doors slid open beneath me and with a flip and a brief disregard for the laws of physics I landed on all fours on the top deck of engineering.
The whole thing was on fire. Temperature warnings were screaming across my hide as I bulled my way through the flames. Combat analysis suggested a fuel line had ruptured but emergency measures had already cut the supply, which was the only reason the whole ship hadn’t detonated but that hadn’t stopped the temperatures spiralling into the hundreds.
Milly was lying in the very heart of the inferno, Minx’s hardlight generators sputtering under the relentless heat.
“Milly, if you can hear me, now would be a great time to say something.” I nosed at the ferret mecha. The sound of screaming metal rent the air and the deck shuddered.
“Minx here,” came the weak reply. “I’m losing her Abe.”
“Right, we need to get to medical now. Hop aboard.” I shifted back to skimmer mode and pushed myself under Minx as she dragged himself over my back.
I hit the boosters and accelerated out of the inferno. “Hold on!” I roared, as we went vertical up the elevator shaft. There was a roar from behind us as the deck finally gave way and the flames leapt up after us. A moment later they were gone as depressurisation sucked them back out through engineering as I slowed us to a less break neck climb.
“Well, that’s half the ship broken now,” I sighed, letting us hover more a moment. “At this rate we’re not even going to reach the planet.”
Medical had been off the path of destruction, which was the first piece of luck we’d had since the disaster. Milly however had not been so lucky, according to Minx she’d tried to cut the fuel feed but something had given and detonated. Minx’s torso had been staved in by the blast and it was only hardlight and good engineering that had saved her rider’s life.
“Broken ribs, seven,” the medicom intoned as the five of us clustered around Milly’s bedside. “Lung, punctured, deflated. Severe bruising of the heart. Liver damage. Loss of stomach integri-“
“Suggested treatment,” I snapped, cutting it off.
“Confirmed and engage.” There was a hiss as a glass cover sealed itself over Milly’s form.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Azure observed.
“I’d like to see how it could have been worse,” Fang growled. “There’s now eight foot of hot metal between us and the engines.”
I sighed. “Well at least there’s no way the engines could be working after that.” Everyone looked at me. “What?”
“Are you standing on the floor?” Fang asked me.
“Yeah? Last I checked.”
“Then we’re still under acceleration,” he explained, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “Whatever Milly tried to do it failed, it didn’t stop us.”
“Oh for the love of,” I swore. “What does it take to kill this ship?”
“She was built to last,” Minx sighed, resting a paw on Milly’s tube. She twitched as something shorted and gasped in pain.
“Minx, you need to lie down,” I pointed out.
She shook her head. “You need me to fix the ship.” She arced from her wound to the medicom and a burst of static sounded from the speaker.
“Minx! On the bed!” I roared, and the ferret started backwards, dropping herself on the spare mattress.
“Hang on,” she began after a moment, sitting up. “Why should I listen to you?”
“Yeah, you’re not the captain,” Fang muttered.
“Neither are you,” I shot back. “And it’s just good sense. She’s going to snap in half if she’s not careful.”
“Um, I’m right here,” Minx protested.
“We know our limits,” Fang replied. “And they’re a lot better than some thirty year old rust bucket.”
“What, so the captain’s pet poodle is better suited than a thirty year combat veteran. Maybe you should get that fancy body of yours checked, your brain seems to be overheating.”
“Stop it both of you!” Bugs screamed. “This isn’t helping anyone.”
I rounded on her, my guns twitching in their housings but I paused, and took a simulated breath.
“You’re right. What’s important now is stopping the ship.”
“That’s what I was telling you,” Minx protested. “I can help you-” Something gave and she dropped like a rock, Bugs caught her and lowered her to the bed.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn,” Minx swore. “Man this hurts.”
I sighed. “Just tell us what to do Minx and we’ll do it.”
“Data lines are down right?” she gasped, Az nodded. “We need to disable redundant navigation. That’ll kill the thrusters and then we can steer the ship by throttling the engine by hand.”
“Minx, we can’t do that. We’d need to get to engineering and it’s blocked off.”
“Yeah, but there’s an external ladder. Oh shit, damage control wants to take me offline.”
“Outside the ship?” I asked in horror.
“Yeah, outside.” And then she was gone.
We spent a precious hour double checking Minx’s plan, and doing our best to patch her up. It seemed solid. Main computer still had us locked out so we each did our own calculations and then ran them past low control. We even floated a few other solutions, like using the cargo of mining nanites to burrow through to the engines or holing the fuel tanks and detonating. Nothing was fast enough however, within a few hours we’d have built up such a store of kinetic energy that nothing was going to stop us hitting. Even with the main engines it would take twenty minutes to push us off the path.
That just left one major problem and I’d yet to figure it out.
Bugs found me curled up on the lower deck, staring at the airlock door, running my hundredth simulation.
“Hey Abe,” she sighed, settling down next to me. “I need to talk.”
I managed to avoid groaning, nothing good starts with ‘need to talk’. “What’s bothering you kid?”
“I want to know how you cope,” she demanded, already looking close to tears and we’d only just started. “How do you get over losing someone?”
I sighed. “Bugs, how old are you?”
“Just over six months, though I spent one in a showroom before George bought me. He was my first owner. There was so much I planned to do. I wanted to go active with him one day. You know, when he was ready. There were all these places I wanted to take him and so many things I wanted to do with him. But they’re never going to happen now, are they?”
“Life takes people away from us,” I told her, shaking my head. “And it’s always before their time.”
“Who was your first owner then?” Bugs inquired. “Did he…”
I sighed. “Let me just fire up the old memory banks. Let’s see, my very first rider was a man called Lieutenant Cook, he was even there when I first booted. The company had acquired me at great expense to spearhead their new power armour unit and my first memories were fusing with him and blowing away half dozen dummy tanks.” I smiled, those had been simpler days. “Oh course he’d barely even heard of Zharus and it wasn’t till I locked up during an exercise and they stripped out my fetters that I started talking back. Poor guy almost jumped out of his skin.”
“What happened to him?”
“The same thing that almost happened to Milly. I took a cannon shell to the chest and it knocked me for a loop long enough that I lost him before I could sort my nanites out. I healed, and hell I spent a day lying on that battle field trying to bring him back, but his mind was gone.”
“I can’t believe you can say that so calmly,” Bug sighed, hardlight tears marring her fur.
“It was a long time ago, and time heals all wounds, almost.”
“I just want to know when it’ll stop hurting.”
“I’ll level with you. It never does. But it gets easier; you’ll meet new people, find a new rider and live, because there isn’t anything else you can do really.”
Bugs sighed. “He just… He’s just gone. I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it,” Fang cut in, stalking towards us. “Abe, what are you hanging around for, I thought you were talking a walk.”
“Yeah, I’ve hit a snag.”
“No hands,” I pointed out, raising my paws.
“So, you’re a military grade big cat, climb,” Fang growled.
“Cats can’t climb backwards,” I sighed.
“Cats can’t climb backwards,” I repeated. “It’s the way the claws are laid out. I could climb up the ship all day, but anyway I work it I’ve got a ninety five per cent chance of falling off the ship.”
“Yeah, well wolves can’t climb at all and neither can rabbits.”
“Can’t you just use your lifters?” Bugs interjected.
“Only if I wanted to take up space diving. They work by pushing against solid objects and the only thing out there is the ship. Fire the lifters and goodbye Pole Star. What I need is hands.”
“We don’t have access to hands,” Fang pointed out. “What if we rigged some sort of harness?”
“With what thumbs?”
“Hey, I just had an idea,” Bugs announced, bounding to her feet. “Follow me.” She raced away, Fang and I shared and look and followed.
We caught up to her in David’s quarters abusing the medical scanner.
“Yes, yes, yes it’ll work,” she muttered to herself. “Oh hey guys. What kept you?”
“A sense of self-preservation?” Fang muttered.
“Bugs what are you doing?” I asked.
“Well I had a thought,” she explained, hopping with excitement. “You need hands to get to engineering, so we need a rider.”
“David’s been exposed to vacuum for a couple of hours now, if you’re hoping to revive him then you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“No,” she protested. “We can’t bring him back, but we could build you a new rider.”
There was a moment’s stunned silence.
“We can’t build a human, Bugs,” Fang said at length. “I don’t think we have the parts for a start.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong,” Bugs replied with glee. “So our cargo is a mish mash from the outer system and interstellar traders who didn’t want to haul all the way to Zharus. That means amongst other junk we have almost a thousand tons of unspecified nanites ready for sorium doping and forty tons of freeze packed Texan steaks.”
“Could that even work?” I asked Fang.
“You think I know?”
“It’ll work,” Bugs insisted. “We use the dead crew as a template. It’ll be slow without the sorium and we’ll need to lop half their head to stimulate the neurones enough to trick your systems into thinking they’re human but I think it’ll work.”
I looked at Fang again. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
“Yeah, because you got your fetters removed, this is disgusting.”
“Fang, if this ship hits the planet we are going to kill, at a bare minimum, a million people. I’m willing to play Frankenstein.”
“Technically I’ll be playing Frankenstein,” Bugs pointed out. “You get to be the monster.”
“Thirty minutes,” I pointed out.
“I know, I know, don’t rush me.”
We were running out of time. Shell one had been an utter failure; we’d tried too many shortcuts and gotten a cow/human hybrid that didn’t survive three seconds off life support and had been rejected by my systems before the merge had even begun. Shell two had been better, but painfully slow as we had to rewrite a third of the genetic code and the damn thing had been brain dead by the time we went to wire it up.
Shell three was the last and we were racing against the clock. We’d stripped out almost anything that could go wrong, digestive tract, musculature and a good chunk of the skin. It had been reduced to an unidentifiable lump of flesh, struggling to breathe, held together by a travesty of medical science.
“Right,” Bugs muttered. “I think that’s done. I’ll begin drawing out the nanites now.”
“So, it’s alive?” I pressed.
“Yes, excuse me if I don’t cackle I’m exhausted.” Bugs sat down heavily. “Lungs are working, heart is beating and I’ve got enough brain activity to at least class him in a vegetative state.” She sighed. “It’s sad that that counts as a success.”
“You did brilliantly,” I assured her, stepping up to the body and sniffing at it. It smelt of fresh meat and metal, and was laid out on the deck like the steaks it had been I had to repress a shudder at the thought of fusing with it. “How long till it’s ready to go?”
“A few minutes.”
“Hey guys,” Az cut in, fluttering over. “I’ve managed to pull up a few of Abe’s old technically manuals and there’s a few crucial inhibitors I think we can bypass.”
“A few what you can what?” I demanded.
The bird sighed. “There are a number of hard wired inhibitors to stop you fusing with any old thing, most are far too complex to do anything about but I might be able to turn down your feline finickiness enough to bond with that thing.”
“Well it’s worth a shot. What do you need me to do?”
“Just lie down, pop open your skull and I’ll peck around a bit.”
“I’ve heard more encouraging instructions,” I said, but complied, and within moments the bird was beak deep in my brain.
“You know, while we’ve got you trapped,” Bugs began, crouching down opposite me. “I did want to ask you a question.”
“Is this really the time?”
“We don’t have much time left,” she pointed out. I had to give her that one. “There was just a niggling little thing I had to ask, why are you going back to Zharus?”
“I’m just on my way to the scrapyard most likely,” I growled. “Ow, careful Az.”
“Sorry, though if you forget how to play the piano please tell me.”
“Yeah, but that makes no sense, why would anyone sell you to Zharus?” Bugs pressed. “You were already off world, you went from somewhere to where you’d be almost unique to somewhere where you’d be worth more as scrap.”
“I didn’t say anyone sold me to Zharus,” I sighed. “I said I was on the way to the scrap yard.” Bugs just stared and me and I fought the urge to shake my head. “Look, it’s no great conspiracy. The company was retiring me and they’d lined up a deal with some stuffed suit from Terran Military Intelligence. I didn’t feel like spending the rest of my days in a lab being prodded and poked.”
“So I liberated them of thirty years’ worth of back pay I figured I was owed and arranged myself to be smuggled back to that trading post,” I snapped. “I’m not proud of it, but I had my reasons.”
“You know, if I press just here I can make you tell us all about it,” Az pointed out, conversationally.
“You guys have no concept of privacy,” I grumbled. “Besides, it sounds stupid.”
“Tell us,” Bugs insisted.
I sighed. “I wanted to see Zharus before I died.”
“I was activated off world, smuggled right off the production line. I’ve never seen Zharus, I’ve never met another RIDE besides you guys and I’ve never been to a planet where no one was planning on shooting at me. I just wanted to see the place I’ve always called home before I died.”
“Who says you’re going to die?” Bugs demanded.
“Bugs, I may not look it but I’m an old man. There are a lot of wounds dragging this old chassis down. Besides, war is the only thing I’ve ever done. What else am I going to do, buy a farm?”
“Abe, we are going to live,” she insisted. “We are going to save this ship, get home and then we’ll all be heroes.”
“You might want to hold off on the parade,” Fang said, sauntering into the bay. “I’ve got word form Low Control; they’re rolling out of the nukes.”
“They’re doing what?” I exclaimed, leaping to my feet. Something sparked in my head and I yelled in pain.
“You’re lucky I was almost done,” Az chided, as I collapsed. “Otherwise we could have damaged something important. Like your brain.”
“Anyway,” Fang continued, ignoring my head hanging open. “Low Control apparently managed to fabricate a couple of nuclear bombs with missiles. They believe the yield will be high enough to blast the ship into comparatively harmless fragments.”
“What do they mean by comparatively?”
“They reckon the debris will only kill a couple thousand rather than cracking an entire city wide open.”
“I’ve got to get down there,” I sighed, as Az closed up my head. “When are those nukes due?”
“I talked them down to firing only after we can no longer turn away,” Fang replied. “So, twenty minutes from now to blast off, maybe half an hour too impact.”
“Okay, Az, how did the launches look?”
“Two and Three checked out green. No idea what that actually means but we should be okay to evacuate on either one.”
“Right. You three get Minx and Milly to the launch then go.”
“But what about you?” Bugs cut in.
“I’ll head down to engineering, turn the ship and then head back up in time to abandon ship with the second launch.”
“If you can’t turn the ship in time then you’ll have less than ten minutes to get to the launch before the nukes get here,” she countered.
“I’ve had worse. I’ll be fine.”
“Before we make any more plans,” Fang interjected. “I think there’s something we still need to do.”
I looked down at the slab of meat struggling to breathe. I don’t think I can quite describe just how little I wanted to bind to that travesty of a human being. Intellectually I knew it was something I had to do but every synthetic bone in my body was screaming in protest. With a wince and HUD alarm that told me I was low on fusing nanites, an alarm that had been protesting in vain for the better part of a year, I dissolved myself and took up position around the body.
If anticipation was bad it was a hundred times worse in actuality. There was something dead inside of me, the body had barely survived the fusing process and it was only military grade nanites that had prevented the few organs it had from bursting with the strain. Medical warnings were flashing through my brain, most contradictory as they tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with my person, but I suppressed them and their persistent demands to defuse and seek medical attention.
There were very few things that could kill a rider without taking out the RIDE, but the big concussive blasts of plasma they liked to chuck around in major battles hit like a truck and killed half my systems. I’d lost too many riders to shots like that, or hypervelocity slugs that turned them to soup while I was just laid up in the machine pool for a week, or tactical nukes, or any other of the myriad of ways an infantry trooper could be royally screwed by a battlefield.
The body was dead. Its mind had never been and in many ways it was no great loss, but it was all too familiar. All the ones who had been alive, who’d been so alive before I’d taken them on that one mission too far, came back to haunt me with a vengeance. Their ghosts rose up to try and claim me. Their hopes and dreams and deaths. So many deaths. I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t face another body in me. Another rider never to go home and I collapsed to the ground.
“Abe!” Bugs exclaimed, bounding over.
“I’m fine,” I gasped, suppressing the dozens of emergency defuse procedures that kept trying to force the body out of me. “I can cope.”
“Good, because in case you’d forgotten there are nukes pointed at us,” Fang growled.
“Oh shut up,” I snapped, dragging myself to my feet. My two feet. For all the physical pain the fusing process had at least given me the hands we so badly needed.
“You know,” Az mused. “We must never tell anyone we did this.”
“What?” Bugs protested. “But this is an amazing discovery.”
“No, he’s right,” I sighed. “Humans have enough trouble trusting other humans. Can you imagine what would happen if it turned out RIDEs were making humans for their personal use. We’d get lynched.”
“They’re not that bad,” Bugs whined, but it sounded too petulant to be a real argument.
“Either way, there’s a ladder calling my name. We’ve got twenty minutes people. Let’s go.”
It was a long climb down to the engine room and time was ticking away all too fast for comfort. Moving Milly and Minx to the launch had taken longer than we’d anticipated and I hadn’t even opened the airlock till the rest of the guys were clear. They were long gone those, accelerating away at two g’s, it would be a long and bumpy ride home but if nothing else I’d ensured they’d survived.
Zharus was still a tinny speck beneath me, but growing with alarming speed and I cycled myself through the airlock without the proper look I’d wanted.
“Okay Minx, I’m in,” I clipped over the long range backpack com I’d brought with me. “It doesn’t look too bad down here.” The engine block was a labyrinth of pipes, ducts, tanks and reactors but I followed my internal map unerringly.
“Yeah, it was just some shrapnel through some key systems that really screwed the pooch,” Minx sighed. “Stupid hypervelocity impacts and the explosion can’t have helped. Anyway you should be coming up on the secondary navigation core.”
A series of bulky boxes came into view and my internal guidance confirmed them as the targets. A wire across to the emergency access port got me in but before I could do anything a dozen red warnings flashed over AR screens.
“Minx,” I said, dumping the data over our tenuous radio link. “What am I looking at here?”
“Anti-hijacking measure. Damn, it must have kicked in after the fire, normally we’d need to get an officer to unlock it but this is engineering, we can just defragment it and restart the OS if needs must. I’ll send you the procedure.”
I winced as I looked at the size of the list; we had seven minutes left to complete our turn. “Minx, do we have a local control for the engines?”
“Yeah, only in case of catastrophic damage, they’re manual only though.”
“Oh good.” I unleashed my last three plasma charges and moments later the computer was little more than cooling circuitry. “Right, what’s the manual procedure?”
“Urgh, some people have no respect for technology.”
“Hey, I am technology.”
The turn wasn’t a very tricky manoeuvre, it was made a little harder by the fact I had to run between the emergency throttle valves but that was my own damn fault. I dropped number four engine down to ninety five per cent, this introduce a little lateral spin and at thirty degrees from Zharus I ran to number two engine and dropped it by the same amount, stopping our spin accelerating. Then it was back to number four to crank it back up to counteract the initial spin before hoofing it back to two to bring us to a stop, roughly facing ninety degrees to our original course.
“Done, and with two minutes to spare,” Minx confirmed, I could hear Bugs whooping in the background. “Great job Abe.”
“Couldn’t have done it without you guys,” I sighed. “I’m going to make my way to the launch now. Nothing left to do here.”
Of course, it could never be that simple. I was halfway through the upper airlock when the whole ship shuddered.
“Abe, what the hell just happened?” Minx demanded. “Engine performance just dropped three per cent.”
“I don’t know, the ship just shuddered.”
“Well get back down to engineering, with this thrust you’re not going to clear the planet.”
I swore, backing out of the lock and glaring at the ladder. Proper safety procedures would take me five minutes to descend. “How long do we have?”
“If we can get the engines back up to full, seven minutes.”
“Right.” I dropped down the ladder, hand over fist, forgetting the safety line and multimillion meter drop that awaited me if I slipped. Fast enough to make the designer wince I’d got both feet on the ground again and hit the override for the airlock, remembering to grab a handhold just in time. There was a roar as a storm of air and flame belched through into the void and I increase my rate of swearing.
“Minx, looks like we’ve got a breach and a fire,” I snapped, forcing my way through the last wisps of atmosphere. Since turning my back the block had collapsed into chaos, the fires had burned themselves out without any air but hot, twisted metal littered the access ways and I forced my way through the wreckage with a terrible sinking feeling in my chest.
“Can you see any obvious holes in any pipes?” Minx pressed. I rolled my eyes and sent her a still shot. “Oh… um.”
“Any time Minx.”
“Right, okay just give me a moment to go through the schematics.”
I tapped my foot as the seconds ticked away. Three minutes and counting.
“Okay, I’ve got something. There’s an emergency fuel line, you need to open valves 34-A, B, C and D and then find the yellow safety wheel in deck three.”
“Right.” I set off at a run.
The valves were all on one level and weren’t too hard to get too, not with a blind disregard for collateral damage.
“Got one,” I snapped, punching through a sheet of fallen hull to reach it.
“Two minutes twenty left.”
I raced through the failing ship, letting rip with my gauss gun to blow through fallen beams. “That’s two.”
Ten foot of broken metal stood between me and the third and I had to backtrack, costing me precious seconds.
I fired my lifters as I shot through the wreckage, my chassis sparking as I clipped the walls.
“Last one!” I yelled, as I tore past at full speed, catching the handle on the move and breaking it off in my haste.
“Twenty seconds! Just the valve left.”
My foot clipped on a hatch as I tried to eke out another mph and I went crashing into the ceiling. There was a silent crash as I rebounding and hit the ground leaving a dent in the plating. Ahead of me, between error messages I could see the safety wheel, far too far away.
“Come on Abe, five seconds.”
I hauled myself to my feet and sprinted the last dozen yards.
“Three, two, one, zero.”
My hands grasped the wheel and I wrenched it around.
“Minus one, minus two.”
“I got it,” I roared, as it slammed home. “I got it.”
Minx sighed in relief. “Oh thank the maker. You’re back up to speed, just running a trajectory plot now.”
“Just give me the damage,” I panted, my heat sinks popped out and glowing cheery red.
“Err, oh shit,” Minx said and I felt my heart sink. “Well the good news is you’re going to miss the planet.”
“And the bad?”
“We’re going to be well within the atmosphere. We’re looking at major re-entry heating and a possible air burst.”
“Will she hold together?”
“Abe, the Pole Star is a seventy year old bulk hauler; I’m amazed she’s holding together right now, no way is she getting though this.”
I sighed. “How long?”
“Two minutes. But you still have a chance; pull the green leaver on the opposite side of the pipe.”
I reached round the pipe and felt a warped nub of metal, my heart sank again and I looked frantically around the narrow room. There, a good thirty feet away, was the broken off leaver. The whole ship shuddered as I loosened my grin on the wheel and I rammed it back open.
“Okay, don’t do that again, you just lost another thousand feet,” Minx snapped. “Pull the damn leaver.”
“The leaver is gone Minx,” I sighed. “It’s over.”
“It is not over,” Bugs cut in, over Minx’s protestations. “You can still make it out of there.”
“It was over the moment I turned back,” I told her. “And I’m not sorry for doing it. It’s a… well it’s a kick in the teeth to come so close without even seeing home.”
“Oh Abe,” Bugs began.
“Just,” I interrupted. “Could you describe it to me?”
“It’s beautiful Abe. The sun is rising over the horizon lighting up the forests like little patches of emerald and the dark side is laced with cobwebs of light. The sub orbitals are little sparks winging their way across the sky, and I think that dark expanse is the Dry Ocean. I wish you could see it.”
“Oh for a high capacity connection,” I replied. “Or maybe an escape pod if I’m just wishing.”
“One minute,” Minx interjected.
“Abe, I’m so sorry,” Bugs insisted. “It should have been one of us.”
I snorted. “Bugs, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Besides, it’s got to be pissing Fang off no end that I’m the one saving the world.”
“His fur is going slightly green with envy,” she agreed.
The silence stretched as the clock counted inevitably down.
“Two hundred and seventeen, Bugs,” I muttered at last. It wasn’t like I was going to get a second chance.
“That’s how many people who I’ve killed, not counting people who died when I was supposed to be protecting them.” I chuckled. “Well at least this may go some way to making up for them.”
“It more than does Abe.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I haven’t lived a noble life, never had a partner who I could trust, never had a say who to fight or why. But if I’m going to die, I can’t think of a better way than dying for the sake of a single selfless act.”
“Ten seconds,” Minx whispered.
“Abe, I can’t tell you just how brave you are.”
“Brave implies it was ever a choice,” I said, shrugging. “I just wish-”
“In other news, investigations into the loss of the Pole Star continue with the recovery of the black box expected within the next few hours. The Pole Star threatened an impact with Zharus that would have caused mass destruction if it was not diverted by the few surviving crew and RIDEs on board. The ship was destroyed as she struck the atmosphere killing crewman David Demos, who had stayed behind with his RIDE ABE, instantly. It is estimated less than one present of the ship’s tonnage will ever hit the planet and damage will be minimal, debates are already raging over the use of torch ships in near planetary space when newer safer technology is now available. We’ll bring you more after the smooth stylings of Corbin Bleu.”
“Turn that shit off Harry,” a pittball fuser grumbled as their miniature suborbital streaked its way across the dry ocean. His brother, in a near identical RIDE rolled his eyes at him.
“That shit Charles, as you so neatly put it, is why we’re even out in the arse end of nowhere. It wouldn’t kill you to pay attention once in a while.”
“Yeah, but why take the risk.” Harry smacked him. “Oi! All I need to know is Del said there was a load of scrap out here and he’s usually smart about these things.”
“Space scrap,” Harry growled. “He said space scrap which, as I haven’t heard of any other rockets scragging themselves against the atmosphere, means we’re looking at some parts from that Pole Star rust bucket.”
“Who’s going to want crap from a hundred year old wreck?”
“Tell you what, why don’t you do the scanning while I do the bloody thinking. We’re almost on top of the bloody thing.”
The miniature suborbital came thundering down through the dust devils, blasting great gouts of dust and sand into the air as she settled heavily on her landing struts. A moment later the hatch opened and the brothers stepped out, still bickering, and floated to the ground on their lifters.
“The signals were strongest that way,” Charles yelled, pointing in addition to dropping a marker on their shared map. “Looks like a big hunk of engine or something.”
“Paydirt!” Harry roared back, as the wind continued to howl around them and the brothers slogged through the growing storm towards the shattered pieces of metal. “Lets give it a once over before loading it up though.”
The block was a good couple of tons of twisted and melted metal, mostly pipework but a tokamak lay half buried in the dirt, dented beyond repair but the conductive rings would be worth a good few Mu to the right scrap yard. The brothers split up, tagging the various pieces based on how much they were worth or how much they’d cost to dig out.
“Hey Harry,” Charles called over the com-channel after a few minutes. “I’ve got some kind of distress signal over here.”
Harry came running as Charles hooked his hands beneath a great block of metal and began to heave, his lifters whining in protest. Harry joined him a moment later and the tangle of pipes and warped metal shifted and they dragged the battered body of a fuser out of the tangle.
“Holy crap,” Charles swore. “This guy is alive, or his RIDE at least.”
“Quick, get him to the sub!”
Abe cracked an eye open as the pitbulls lifted his prone form from the ground and looked up at the azure sky far above his head. A sensor that he’d never realised worked was picking up something called Q for the first time in his life.
“Huh,” he said, too quietly to hear over the storm. “Home. Now that’s a surprise.” Then shut down again.