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System Collapse: Chapter 11

I DIDN’T FEEL GREAT but just sitting down helped me recover some power reserve. I couldn’t do a full recharge until we were clear. Not that I could do much to protect the humans now because the primary danger at the moment was one of them slamming the pseudohopper into a wall.

We were moving a lot faster than we had in the tunnel vehicle. (Yeah, I had thought the open compartment was unsafe but compared to this, not so much.) The pseudohopper didn’t have a bot pilot or anything like what we were used to with a modern aircraft, just a rudimentary self-navigator that helped keep it on course in the middle of the tunnel. Tarik and Leonide kept their hands on the controls, gazes locked on the interface.

In the team feed, I put up the map we had made on the way in and did a calculation of our current speed and projected time of arrival. Any navigation aids or warning systems this tunnel might have had were long offline. We were lucky to have the emergency lighting.

If we were right and Barish-Estranza didn’t know about the construction access, they would have no idea where we were going. They would have to follow us in the tunnel vehicle, if they could find where the two hostile SecUnits had moved it. Up top, their shuttle would be searching for our shuttle or looking for where the pseudohopper would come up to the surface. Or both. Probably both.

Iris rustled around in her bag and pulled out a medical kit. She said, “I know you don’t like physical contact, but that much bleeding can’t be good.”

“It’ll stop in a minute,” I told her. The reserve energy drain was worse, and moving around trying to get my suit off so she could patch leaks would use up more energy and be stressful, and I wasn’t up for stressful. What I wanted to do was sit here and watch Sanctuary Moon with ART-drone. Or, actually, ART-drone was in worse shape than I was. In our shared processing space, I started up its favorite episode of World Hoppers. I couldn’t tell if that helped, but I could tell it was watching.

“One question,” Leonide said, keeping her attention on the control interface. “Is that actually a SecUnit?”

“You know,” Iris said conversationally, taking a pad out of the medical kit and wiping bloodstains off ART-drone’s carapace. “You can mind your own damn business.”

“Oversensitive,” Leonide said, but she must have been too tired to hide the frustration in her voice. She was quiet for 5.3 seconds, then burst out, “Is someone actually watching entertainment in the feed right now?”

Oops, I guess there was a little bleedover, probably from ART-drone’s end. Deadpan, Tarik said, “I always watch entertainment when I fly.”

Leonide let out her breath in an exasperated hiss. “Fuck you all.”

“Right back at you,” I said.

We didn’t crash, but as Tarik and Leonide slowed for the end of the tunnel, they saw we couldn’t land in the bay. There was some kind of large obstruction in it.

It was an “oh shit” moment for all of us. Then as we got closer, we saw it was our shuttle. We just hadn’t recognized it because of the bad light and because it looked like it was wearing a hat.

Sounding amused and also exhausted, Iris said, “Ratthi, what did you do?”

“It’s the survival tent.” His voice came over the comm, normal and reassuring and wow, that’s a little spike in my performance reliability, I must have been more worried than I thought. “I was looking for something to help hide us. I didn’t want to close the big construction hatch and then not be able to get it open again. Dust collects fast here and from the pathfinders’ view it looks like the bay is a sand drift.”

“That’s just a little brilliant,” Tarik admitted, setting us down in the mouth of the tunnel. The pseudohopper thumped when it landed and some interfaces flashed red, but that seemed to be part of its normal operation. “I guess that’s why you’re a scientist.”

The shuttle’s hatch opened and Ratthi jumped out, waving at us. “We need to hurry. One of the pathfinders got an image of a B-E shuttle a little to the west about twenty minutes ago.”

Ratthi used the tent’s feed interface to collapse it down and he and Tarik shoved it back into the cargo hatch. Iris and I loaded ART-drone into the shuttle. Leonide climbed in first and moved the seat for us and pulled down the safety restraints so Iris could get them on its carapace. (Yeah, she went into the shuttle first. She didn’t make any attempt to leave without us. Which was good for her, since ART–bot pilot, while not vocal, is still an ART iteration and I could feel it watching her in the feed like a thoughtful predator.) (I think she was just impatient to get the show on the road and knew the only way to speed us up was to help.)

Ratthi and Tarik piled in and bot pilot shut the hatch and lifted off while they were still strapping down in the cockpit. In the team feed, Iris pulled up a navigation screen that showed what should be ART-prime’s current position, based on where it was when we entered the blackout zone. She said, “There’s no point in being stealthy. Let’s go straight home.”

She was right. We had come here from the other end of the inhabited continent, across the planet. Now the faster we could get out of the blackout zone, the better.

The bot pilot engaged thrusters and we lifted straight up out of the bay. The pathfinders pinged in, pulling back into a scouting formation around us. But I could tell ART-drone was losing function; it was taking in their data from the bot pilot but not sending back instructions. I took over, gently slipping the connections away from it across our shared processing space and sorting them into the same inputs I used for drones. It changed the positioning a little, but bot pilot thought it would work.

Even with the bot pilot assisting, I couldn’t fly the pathfinders all simultaneously like they were little miniature shuttles like ART-drone or ART-prime could. They were too different from intel drones and also, I didn’t know shit about flying into space.

The shuttle’s scan was still limited, but the dust was providing some visual cover. The navigation interface showed where the projected edge of the blackout zone was and our time to exit. It was somewhere in the upper atmosphere, that part where it stops being atmosphere and starts being space, I don’t know what it’s called and ART-drone was drifting, watching World Hoppers, and I didn’t want to disturb it by asking.

Minutes passed and the humans were starting to relax, folding down environmental suit helmets and hoods. Tarik and Ratthi were monitoring controls but had started a conversation in their private feed. Iris was still watching the navigation interface but absently patting ART-drone. Leonide sank back in her seat and let out a long breath of relief. I was almost relaxed, too; ART has nice shuttles and I liked this one. The upholstery was in good shape and it didn’t smell like human feet. We were minutes from ART-prime and safety.

We came out of the dust cloud and the pathfinder in the lead pinged me a warning right before its input went dead. I sat up and said, “Incoming.”

Leonide threw a startled look at me. Tarik flicked through interfaces, pulling up the exterior cameras. His voice tense and controlled, he said, “There it is.”

“Oh no,” Ratthi whispered.

I already knew from the pathfinders’ visual data. Yeah, there it was. The armed Barish-Estranza shuttle, coming up at us from below at an angle, closing in.

Her face grim, Iris said, “SecUnit, if you need me to authorize deadly force—”

I didn’t, but it’s always nice when they do.

I’d put the pathfinders in a variation of drone formation that can be used for both scouting and defense. Anticipating the pulse attack and trajectory, bot pilot did something that made the shuttle jerk and dip. With bot pilot assisting with the navigation, I sent one pathfinder into the path of the estimated trajectory and the B-E shuttle’s pulse struck it instead. The pathfinder exploded.

The B-E shuttle prepared to fire again, but its blackout-limited scan would be full of noise from that explosion. It didn’t see the second pathfinder I’d already put into motion. It finished its dive with an impact directly on the B-E shuttle’s nose.

The shuttle fell away, still intact but probably dealing with damage, a disoriented bot pilot, and a terrified human crew.

Our shuttle powered upward, back on course and widening the distance between us.

The humans were tense and quiet, waiting as the wind dropped away and it started to get dark. We were up there now in space or still in some sort of transition zone, but there was no sign of the B-E shuttle following us.

I picked up whispers in the feed and comm, and it freaked me out until I realized I was stupid. “We’re coming out of the blackout zone,” I said. Bot pilot was reaching for ART-prime, sorting all the communication signals for us.

Tarik studied the interface. “Iris, there’s another ship. It’s a big—” He let out his breath and made a hooting noise of relief. “We’re picking up a University ID beacon. It’s one of ours.”

Ratthi slumped in his seat. “Oh, finally. What a ride.”

Iris got on the comm and called Seth to tell him we were alive. I backburnered her conversation and found ART-prime’s comm signal. I sent, We’re coming in with possible pursuit and sent it a vid of the B-E shuttle getting booped by the pathfinder.

Acknowledge, it said.

Bot pilot picked up a B-E comm signal. I notified Iris (we’d broken their comm codes two days after they arrived) and told bot pilot to decode. Iris added Seth to our team feed so he could hear and said, “Can you play it, please?”

I put it on the feed and we listened to several Barish-Estranza employees having a collective fight/panic attack:

“There’s another ship, it must have arrived via wormhole but we didn’t pick it up on approach—”

“You lame-skulled pieces of excrement—”

“Stand down! You heard me! What do you think is going to happen—”

“It’s armed and powering weapons, oh high one, oh deity—”

“You stupid—”

“Stand down—”

Leonide said, “Please, give me access to comm.” She was urgent, as agitated as someone like her could be. “That’s my command staff, talking to the mutineers.”

Tarik turned to look at Iris and she nodded. He gave Leonide access to the comm channel.

Leonide took a breath, her expression hardening back into a cool sardonic mask, and said, “You heard her. Stand down. That’s an order from your supervisor.”

The channel got so quiet, Tarik tapped it to make sure it hadn’t gone dead.

We were close enough now that I felt ART-prime—ART—in my feed again. It took over the pathfinders I’d clumped around us, and they split away and turned back toward the planet. It was going to redeploy them now that they weren’t needed to protect us.

ART slid into the shared processing space with ART-drone. For a brief moment, there was two of it.

ART-drone: Which baseship?

ART: Guess.

ART-drone: It’s Holism, isn’t it? Oh, joy.

I was monitoring ART-drone’s systems and it was dropping toward catastrophic failure. I said, You need to hurry.

ART: handoff initiated.

ART-drone: handoff.

And ART-drone shut down. Suddenly, it was just a chunk of metal. Iris made a half-sob noise that startled me so badly I flinched. She threw a wary look at Leonide and said on our private channel, Did they have time for the upload?

Yes, I said.

She nodded and wiped her eyes. I know they’re the same, it’s all just Peri. That the drone will be repaired and the next time we need it, it’ll be the same. But still, when something happens like this, it scares me. I just don’t want to lose any piece of Peri, you know?

I know, I said. And I did know, and now I was having an emotion. Like a big overwhelming emotion. It felt bad but good, a weird combination of happy and sad and relieved, like something had been stuck and it wasn’t stuck anymore. Cathartic, okay. This fits the definition of cathartic. It was like the way I’d felt when I killed the Target who threatened Amena and laughed at me because I was upset when I thought ART was dead. Except without the violence, and that only lasted a minute or so, and this seemed like it would go on a while. Nobody was dead and I hadn’t had a relapse of my stupid memory thing. And if I did have a relapse, at least I knew what it was now.

Don’t just sit there, ART said to me and Iris as it brought the shuttle into its docking module. Console each other.

I said, You fuck off at the same time as Iris said, Oh, shut it, Peri, and that felt even better.


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