hope you can extract some enjoyment out of this
Blinking through sleep-smeared vision captain Orpicea slapped the escape pod's sensor readout. Dull neon lines spasmed. When they steadied, the contact was still there.
Thank Christ, she thought, and wanted to say it too but took another drag on her suit's oxygen instead. She fumbled numb fingers over the console. The hailing indicator winked on and off in silence.
—She snorted awake as the transport and her escape pod locked hands with a rattling clunk. Stirring, she kicked herself forward—
—She didn't remember cycling the airlock but suddenly she was on her back in the transport's umbilical, gravity tugging on her bones. Lurching onto her side she felt weak hands scrabbling at her helmet and realised they were her own. She licked dry lips as they groped the visor latch—
The suit's external sensors let out a peevish chime. Her eyes slid shut and she laughed. The sound squeezed out from between her lips like molasses. Of all the ships that could have crossed her path, she'd stumbled into the one without an atmosphere.
Crawling to her feet she sleepwalked down the umbilical, one arm slumped over the guide rail. She'd never thought she'd miss zero-g, but gravity—now of all times—was the cherry on a poisoned cake. Her legs barely had the strength to bear her. She didn't even want to think about how the exertion was cutting into her oxygen; the indicator had been glaring red since her pod had first detected the transport and nagged her awake.
The ship's internal airlock crashed shut behind her. A scrap of something black brushed her visor. She slapped at it, frowned cross-eyed at the dark smear it left, and then let her eyes drift into further focus to take in the rest of the bay. Her first thought was that this was a questionably gothic paint job for a transport. Then she saw the peeling finish on the walls, the burst piping, the spaghetti innards dribbling from a blackened terminal. Gears chugged away in her head.
'Very sorry about this,' a voice trilled. She sucked in a sharp breath, stale air like mud in her lungs. A thin and jagged figure seemed to detach from the wall. As she doubled up, coughing and vision swimming, all she could make out were two flickering lights. 'The place,' they said, 'is in such a state.'
Stiff hands slipped around the collar of her suit and, to its squealing protest, tore the helmet off her head.
Air sung in her throat. Her lungs bloomed with it, cool. Clawing for support her hand smacked a cup from atop a table and it toppled, spewing dry sediment over the shining floor. Coughing and shaking her head free of fogginess, captain Orpicea heaved herself upright and stared across an unfamiliar mess hall. For a moment she had no idea where she was. Then she went rigid and snatched at the clasp of her helmet. The seal was in place. In fact, it felt like an entirely new suit. It clung strangely to her body like someone's borrowed clothes.
The drone? Probably. Removing her helmet seemed drastic, but it had clearly saved her life.
With hands that were still trembling she searched the suit. In one of its pouches, she found its power lead. Steadying herself on the table, she rose.
Her footfalls mumbled through her suit as she stomped through the belly of the ship. That was the one blessing in this mess; if the ship had an atmosphere, her passage would have been loud enough to hear between decks. A quick interface with the first terminal she could find led her to the helm. She met nobody on her way there, not even bodies. Just wreckage and blackened plating.
Helm accepted her without protest. Banks of tangled wiring consumed walls that were skirted by dusty panels. The room hummed with tiny unseen fans and the contented ticking of busy electronics.
Two azure eyes peered out from over the back of the captain's chair. Its voice came croaking through her suit's radio.
'Finally,' it said, twisting to its feet.
She kept one hand in her suit pocket, fingers tight around the power lead. 'This your crew's?' she said, rapping her knuckles on the helmet.
Its eyes flickered. 'I am the acting CO. Tell her, Kelly.'
The intercom blipped. 'SD003183-8N,' it said, 'is my acting CO.'
Orpicea spoke to the ceiling. 'A drone can't command a starship.'
'I seem to be managing,' said the drone. She ignored it.
'All other candidates were exhausted.' The ship appeared to think for a moment. 'It wasn't anything bad, if that's what you were thinking.'
'Oh,' said Orpicea. 'That's a load off my mind.'
The drone set its palms on a console and leaned over it, watching her. It occurred to her that this was a rather unusual pose for a drone. 'There was an accident.'
'You don't say.'
'Your suit identified you as captain Orpicea. Is that correct?'
'Former captain, really.'
She cleared her throat. Keeping one eye on the drone she wandered over to one of the displays. 'Yes,' she said, poking one of the controls. She frowned at something she saw there.
'Oh?' The syllable was a perfect echo of its previous one.
She wrinkled her nose. 'I had an, ah . . .'
'. . . Accident?'
Orpicea scowled at the drone. It watched her, poker-faced. For the first time she noticed its eyes were blinking asynchronously.
It stirred. 'Step away from the equipment, if you would. Now: ex-captain Orpicea, allow me to say that I'm very pleased you have recovered from your little episode. I'm very pleased about it, and I'm sure Kelly is too.'
'I'm very pleased,' said the ship.
'So. As a servitor drone I have an obligation—and as acting CO I have the authority—to extend to you all possible aid. The orbital habitat Little Tynte is, at your pod's acceleration capability, within one month's flight; would you permit me to furnish you with the requisite fuel and oxygen?'
Orpicea weighed this for a moment. She stepped away from the display and approached the drone. She looked up into the gleaming slab that was its face. 'Drone,' she said. 'Why are the sleeper pods set for several millenia past their expiry?'
'What? That must be a mistake.'
She twirled her finger at it. 'Turn around and unlock your interface. I'm going to access your logs.'
'Ship,' she said, holding the drone's gaze, 'as the only human aboard this vessel I'm invoking command authority. You appear to have been hijacked by this drone.'
'Heavens! Have I?'
The drone's eyes flared. 'No. No!' It stiffened, and for a second Orpicea thought it was actually going to attack her. Then its eyes guttered. As it turned it almost seemed to slump. Its interface hissed open on its back. Orpicea stifled a grin. This was too easy.
'Thank you very much,' she said, and ramping it up well past the recommended voltage she jammed the suit's power lead into the exposed socket. Her helmet lights spluttered as the drone convulsed. She could hear its servos whirring through the vibrations in her suit. Its arm vomited sparks. She ripped the lead free and it twitched, went taut, then tipped over like a plastic doll and lay still upon the floor.
'There's my counter offer,' she said. 'Ship, set a course for Little Tynte. And where's my fucking suit?'
'Captain Orpicea,' said the ship, 'we are being hailed. Also, my name is Kelly.'
An orange indicator flashed at the far end of the helm. She stared at it. She swallowed.
'Also, your suit is still in the docking bay.'
'Shut up,' she snapped. Between Myriad station, the servitor drone at her feet and her frankly conspicuous presence aboard this charred husk of a ghost ship, Orpicea racked her brains for all the reasons someone might have to hail this ship that didn't end up with her dead or imprisoned.
She couldn't think of very many.
Reeling the power lead back into her suit, Orpicea hopped over the shuddering drone and said, 'Ship?'
'You can call me Kelly if you like.'
'Is that even . . .' She flapped a hand. 'Fine. Kelly. Who used this suit before me?'
'Navigation specialist Orpicea.'
Orpicea tripped over a trailing length of wire. It tore crackling out of its socket. Red lights blinked awake across the wall. 'Are you serious?'
'I selected that one especially,' the ship said. It sounded hurt. 'You don't see a coincidence like that every day.'
'Well—no,' said Orpicea, leaning over the communications terminal. The hailing light pulsed. 'That's . . . no, that's fine. I can work with that. What was her first name?'
She listened, then nodded once and—after a quiet, inhaling moment—accepted the hail.
When the conversation was over Orpicea terminated the link and dashed over to the pile of metal she'd left in seizures on the floor. Oh, this was bad timing. The worst. She reattached it to her suit's power, properly regulated this time, and after some hasty fiddling the drone stopped twitching. Then it flung her across the room. She slammed into a console, heard its display crack, and with a grunt flopped to the floor on the other side. Her suit had absorbed most of the impact, but it'd still knocked the breath out of her.
'Wait,' she wheezed. The machine said nothing, striding towards her. She heard its footfalls through her suit, clinking underwater vibrations on the deck. 'A patrol's coming.'
'Good,' it said. 'I'm sure they'll be very interested to hear about your commandeering attempt.'
She clambered backward. 'Right back at you.'
The drone stuttered to a halt. A frantic smile cracked her lips and she picked herself up off the floor. 'Play along, drone,' she said, 'and maybe we'll both walk away from this.'
Kicking up ash and black dust the officers shoved each other stiff-legged through the airlock, one of them waggling a blipping gizmo and the other squinting down a gun. Orpicea stepped back. 'What?' she said. 'What?'
'Stay put, ma'am!'
She raised her hands. 'What? Is this—'
'I said shut up, ma'am! Identify yourself!'
'All right! Jesus. Navigation specialist Samantha Orpicea—'
His eyes bugged. 'Don't fucking move! Turn around.'
'I . . . wait, what?'
'Lieutenant—' the other officer began.
'I said turn around!'
'You said don't move.'
'I know what I said,' he barked, advancing, 'and you know what I meant!'
His mouth snapped shut. The patrolwoman looked pointedly at Orpicea. 'Continue identifying yourself, specialist,' she said.
Orpicea rattled off the suit's credentials. The patrolwoman slapped the noisome device up against her visor to read it.
'Either she stole that suit or it's not her, Lieutenant,' she said, scowling. 'Wrong Orpicea.'
'Bullshit. We tracked her here!' At Orpicea: 'Your goddamn escape pod's docked!'
Orpicea was ready for that one. 'We picked that up before the fire,' she snapped. 'What the hell is this about?'
The officers exchanged glances. Their helmets underlit their faces like children gathered around a campfire. 'You've got snap for luck, ma'am,' said the patrolwoman. 'You're speaking to officers Lambert and—' she nodded at her companion '—Wills. We're after your namesake. A captain Orpicea.'
'Nobody told me about a promotion,' said the navigation specialist.
'Cute. Look, trust me. You want to pass on this one.'
'What'd she do?'
'Made a fuck of a mess,' Wills put in. He slowly lowered his gun. 'Terrorist bitch flung a mining barge into Myriad station.'
'Oh dear,' said the drone. It spread out a sparking arm and stepped aside for them. Its eyes found Orpicea's as the officers stormed past. 'I hope you catch her.'
'Yeah,' said Wills. 'Let's hope the shit out of that.'
Orpicea cleared her throat. 'I might be able to help you there,' she said.
Doors slid open for the drone as it led them weaving through the burnt arteries of the transport. Lambert's finger left a clean line along the wall. 'What's all this, specialist?' she said. 'What's this about?'
Orpicea rambled through her understanding of the fire. 'I'm the only crewmember survived,' she finished, letting her voice strain a little.
After a pause, Orpicea murmured: 'I lost a lot of friends.' Nobody said anything. She wondered if they bought it.
The drone creaked to a chiming halt. 'Maintenance, ladies and gentlemen,' it said.
Ducking inside Orpicea cracked a tablet from the wall and glanced over. 'Say her ID?'
Lambert read it off. Orpicea's frantic heart made her fingers shake as they penned in the code. If this didn't work, she was sunk.
The tablet emitted a happy ping. She flipped the screen around. 'Like I said, we found that pod drifting. Hailed us; mayday. I hear they found a woman half-dead inside but I never dealt with it myself.'
Lambert pressed her nose against her visor. 'That a suit beacon?' She snatched the tablet. 'Where's this?'
'Near navigation,' said Orpicea. 'Off in space.'
External cameras swivelled as the transport turned its manifold gaze on Orpicea's old suit. It spun in a slow-motion somersault, limbs splayed absurdly like an acrobat mid-feat. A tether wound slack from its belt. In the surveillance suite, Orpicea turned to the others and let her hands slip from the controls. 'Found her like that,' she said. 'I was manning the helm when the fire broke out or I'd be dead with the rest of them. Went down to check things after.'
Wills palmed the display. It zoomed. Speckled with static, the shadow of a face murmured beneath the suit's fogged visor like a creature in shallow waters. He frowned.
'Show us,' said Lambert.
Through carnival-tunnel corridors of heat-buckled plating Orpicea and the drone led the officers down to navigation.
'My guess is it was her that set the fire,' Orpicea was saying. 'That'd explain the suit, anyway. When I cracked the lid and we lost atmosphere she must've panicked, managed to hook a tether as the differential coughed her out, then couldn't get back in after I locked things back down.'
'Great. Well, mystery fucking solved.' Wills shot a sidelong look at his partner, who shook her head. Her mouth worked. Wills flapped a hand like she was a fly buzzing in his ear. It was all silence to Orpicea.
They paused at a bulkhead while the drone pried at gnarled controls, and Orpicea was considering her odds of survival if she tried to knock both officers out of navigation to join her old suit when movement caught her eye. Behind the officers a bearded man, face twisted in soundless shouting fury, slammed suited fists on the other side of a windowed door. The plastic shuddered.
'What,' she said, then jerked her gaze away. 'Is . . . taking so long, drone?'
'Rome wasn't built in a day.' It looked over, saw the scene past her shoulder, and one of its eyes fritzed and died. 'Kelly,' it said as Orpicea wandered over to block the view through the door, 'could you override this bulkhead, please? It's quite important.'
Their radios crackled. 'Thank you for asking nicely.'
Who the fuck, mouthed Orpicea, jerking a thumb over her shoulder and miming a beard.
The officers, oblivious, exchanged glances. 'This transport's designation is Kelly?'
'Actually, sir, actually her designation is Khloris.' The drone hesitated. 'But here is the thing, you see, she thinks that name? She thinks it is too stuffy.'
As it wandered through this thought Orpicea found herself staring at its remaining eye. Her brain, entirely without her input, started translating the erratic winking into morse code.
. . . T, STOP, F-R-G-T
Her brow scrunched. Seriously? Shaking her head, she mouthed: Forgot?
'Yes, that's quite right, yes, ridiculous,' the drone babbled as it blinked out W-H. 'Ha ha,' it added, 'do you hear that, Kelly, I told you it was a lovely name, ha ha.' O-O-P-S
Lambert's suit beeped. With a lingering frown at the drone she dug out the device she'd been brandishing earlier. The bulkhead, at that moment, groaned and heaved itself open. 'Okay,' said Kelly-actually-Khloris.
'Hold it.' Everyone looked at Lambert. She held up the device. Four lights glimmered on its screen. Only three stood in the corridor. 'You said you were the only survivor.'
Orpicea looked at the display, then at the drone ( . . . U-C-K, STOP) then back again. 'All right,' she said. 'Look.'
'Open that door.'
'This is an internal matter—'
'Open. That. Door,' growled Lambert, 'or I will personally drag this whole darn ship back to Tynte.'
The lock shone green of its own accord and the door, whining open, vomited a wild-eyed bearded man. He slammed into Orpicea. The two of them crashed tumbling and, in a muddle of limbs, her knee in his gut, his foot slipping on her helmet, the chief engineer stumbled to his feet and his visor knocked against the barrel of Lambert's gun.
'Start talking,' she said.
Red-faced, he went on shouting. Nobody heard anything. Lambert thought she could feel his visor reverberating through her grip on the gun.
They managed to calm him down long enough for the drone to restore his radio. There was a crackling like the bursting of a dam and words poured forth.
'—Drone! It was it that did it, the fire! Fuck! Shut it down, for Christ's sake! What are you doing? Who are you people?'
Lambert made it halfway through her introduction before the chief engineer noticed a suit he recognised. 'I thought everyone else was dead! Why didn't you . . . .' He stepped toward her, eyes narrowed. Orpicea wanted to melt into the wall. 'Who the hell are you?'
Wills perked up. A grin began to dawn on his face.
Pretending not to notice, Orpicea said: 'It's Sam. Remember?'
'Do I shit! You had surgery since the fire, Sam?'
Her eyes flicked to the drone, and it saw panic in them. A threat, too. 'I,' it spluttered, 'am shocked, chief engineer Pardoux! With your behaviour. Also disappointed—'
'That's rich! That's real goddamn rich.' He glared at the officers. Lambert glared back. Wills crossed his arms, his lips unsuccessfully restraining a smirk. 'This drone,' Pardoux spat, thrusting a finger, 'assaulted me! He locked me up with the ship's entire supply of suit rations and left me there! For all I know it set the fucking—'
'—It was for your own good, chief!' Orpicea blurted, beginning to feel like the suit she'd tossed out of the navigation compartment, except instead of a tether she had a skyjacking robot. She stepped between Pardoux and the officers. 'Wouldn't surprise me if this idiot was working with Orpicea! I mean, the captain, not me—'
'Are you listening to this drivel? Oh, go on,' he said, leaning over Orpicea's shoulder. 'Who am I working with, exactly? Where's the proof? Where's proof I did anything at all? I'm the goddamn victim here—'
The radio chimed. 'Excuse me,' the ship warbled cheerfully. 'Mr Pardoux is currently suspended from active duty due to an incident in which he expressed an intent to—' Pardoux's recorded voice cut in '—fuck cryo! . . . during a crisis scenario. Please return him to his quarters until he can be turned over to Hecate Cryogenics for debriefing.'
It took a moment for everyone's gaze to fall from the ceiling. Orpicea cleared her throat, sensing an opportunity.
'If you recall,' she said, triumphant, 'I said I was the only surviving crewmember.'
Wills raised a baffled eyebrow at his partner. Lambert scowled undirected fury. When her order came, it came squeezed through gritted teeth.
'Wills,' she said. 'Arrest everyone.'
Lambert levelled her gun. 'Arrest everyone! I don't know what the f . . . what the heck is going on here, but one of you is guilty, probably all of you, and I swear to God I'm going to—don't move!'
Her palms shot up. 'Let's not—' She caught Lambert's eye. 'Listen. You're here for captain Orpicea. As far as I know,' said captain Orpicea, 'that's her corpse dangling out the navigation compartment—'
'Ma'am,' said Lambert. 'With respect, you are an honest-to-goodness moron. I have nothing but your word on any of this. Your ship, if it is your ship, is a burnt out derelict with a defective personality, tended by a scrapheap on legs—'
'—and you, a woman who may or may not be a mass-murdering terrorist, whose escape pod, by the way, is sitting in the gosh-darned dock! I have news for you: you were going to be arrested on suspicion anyway. You're going to take us to navigation, we'll give that-all a look over, then we're going to impound this ship and route it back to Tynte for a full investigation. Someone is going to have to make sense of this clustermuck, and I'm glad it won't be me.'
As she spoke, the drone had enough time to blink the message:
Rumbling forward, Wills tugged a pair of dark crescents from a pouch on his hip. Orpicea recognised them. Suit collars. 'Best keep things civilised, ladies and gents,' he said, grin gone, suddenly all business. 'Keep still now.'
'Wait,' said Pardoux. 'There's actually a captain Orpicea?'
Captain Orpicea shoved him. He crashed into Wills. Something flashed. She ducked on reflex and the bullet went ricocheting down the corridor. Any moment she expected another wink of fire and a terrible, blooming pain in her gut or her visor to splinter apart and the air to rush whistling out—
But Lambert adjusted her aim. 'Drone,' she said. 'Shut down. Invoking 33-A. Authorise against my suit key. Shut down.'
Considering this, the drone stopped advancing on her and in a tremulous and fading voice said: 'Oh dear.' It slumped. Its remaining eye went black, and it crumpled limp like a bag of scrap upturned and emptied over the floor.
Lambert jerked the gun back on Orpicea but by then she was already mid-leap. She slammed into the patrolwoman. They rolled. The gun scraped over the floor. A fist found her abdomen, but in the suit it was like being punched by a pillow and she jabbed at Lambert's visor lock. It held. With a cry of frustration Orpicea threw herself clear and clawed for the gun, closed her fingers around its grip, felt a hand clutch her ankle as she spun onto her shoulder and aimed and—
Kelly chimed. 'Hello,' said the ship. 'I can feel someone moving on my skin. I mean—there's unauthorised activity on the navigation compartment exterior. Hello? Who is that? Hello?'
Orpicea and Lambert locked eyes. What? they both thought.
Then the suit collar slid notched fingers around Orpicea's neck and with a crack her helmet knocked on the floor as her suit fell slack. She struggled. Her arms shifted feebly in their cushioned sleeves. Kicking the gun away, Wills hauled her up by the collar and thrust his visor against hers.
'What,' he panted, 'in living fuck is going on?'
The officers marched toward navigation. Their captives trailed ahead of them, limbs lurching, lights glimmering about their necks.
'In your, in the—in our sleeper pods, who's our cargo, exactly?'
'Why, that's classified information, navigation specialist.'
Lambert rattled off an authorisation.
'No need to get snippy,' said Kelly. 'Cataclysmists, mostly; cultists and traitors and general busybodies.'
'Oh,' said Orpecia.
Wills flicked her helmet. 'I asked you a question.'
'I don't . . .' she started, her throat taut with buried dread. Wills' look stopped her. God, she hoped she was wrong. 'I need to see.'
The last bulkhead ground open and torchlight peered through. Navigation glinted back, sprawled and dead, a cragged marblework of fused metal. Stepping through, Wills rapped a knuckle on a stalactite of cooled steel. The ceiling sagged with them. 'Some fire,' he muttered.
At Orpicea's direction they picked their way between caved-in displays and bulging supports. They gathered themselves around one of the outer partitioning walls and found the suit tether viced in its teeth. Lambert barked a command. Locks disengaged and it shuddered open. The tether trailed out into space, coiling gently, its far end attached to nothing.
'Full disclosure,' Orpicea said, swallowing. 'I may've thawed one of the sleepers and crammed them into that suit.'
The officers turned on her. Pardoux craned his head. 'What?'
'Hey,' she said. 'Had to explain the escape pod somehow.'
Lambert opened her mouth but the ship talked over her. 'It's getting near my engine. Hello?' A pause. 'This is a ship-wide announcement. Will all unregistered personnel please return to their suit tethers.'
'Wills,' said Lambert. 'Get—'
'I repeat! Under no circumstances attempt to access the reactor via the thruster exhaust! That is a no-person zone!'
Orpicea's collar blipped and her suit jolted forward. She struggled against it. 'Wait—'
'—Get back to the patrol craft,' finished Lambert, pocketing the collar control. 'Burst a call back to Tynte. Make sure they know what's happening.' She unreeled Orpicea's suit tether and hooked it to her own. 'You,' she said, 'are coming with me.'
'Sir.' She looked back. Wills winked. 'Careful,' he said, then spun Pardoux around and charged him out of navigation.
'This isn't necessary—' Orpicea began, and then Lambert kicked her out of the ship.
Stars swept out. The Khloris unfurled around her. Hills of scaled metal rolled in every direction, navigation lights cascading over snowy paintwork. Bolted-on compartments erupted here and there, many of them bearing mismatched insignias and languages. The ship had the look of a fish flopped on its side, a long and barnacled tapering slate.
The rear thruster swelled on the horizon. Craning her neck, Orpicea thought she could see a shadow drifting toward it over the plane. Her suit hummed to itself, an icon blinked to life on her visor, and her stomach turned as the ship rose up to meet her. Her boots kissed the hull.
Lambert leapt past. Hopping then skipping then bounding Orpicea's suit followed, and with the tether winding out between them she felt like a dog on a leash.
'I'm curious,' said Lambert. 'What was the plan?'
'Lead you to the suit, convince you it's her, wave you off.' Orpicea grimaced. 'Seemed simple at the time.'
'Maybe you should've vetted this with your bait.'
'I don't even know how she's alive! I barely had two hours. Thawing's not meant to be that rapid!'
'And if we'd known what the captain looked like?'
'I'd be fucked, then, wouldn't I? So I gambled.' The hull inclined as they rode up the thruster's hood. 'Listen. Take this thing off me.'
With a tense laugh Lambert said, 'You're joking. You just admitted to attempted murder.'
'Of a cataclysmist. Who's heading for the reactor. We have bigger problems! You want to start slinging bullets inside the goddamn thruster? I'm not who you need collared right now.'
The world tipped as they hopped over the edge. Their boots sucked down. Righting herself on the thruster's lip, Lambert peered into the yawning whirl of magnetic coils. The reflections of stars gleamed and warped.
How did she disable the exhaust shielding? she thought. But what she said was: 'Why Myriad?'
Orpicea hesitated. Then she let out a long, shuddering breath and all the fight went out with it. 'Just a mechanical fault. What a joke.' She shook her head. 'Engines didn't fire on schedule and somehow the collision warning never got tripped. You want to know why nobody saw it?'
Lambert looked over her shoulder.
'I couldn't afford a crew.'
They held each other's gaze. Orpicea could see the gears turning behind the other woman's eyes and knew then that if Lambert could think of a single alternative she'd take it. She looked away.
Then: 'Should I take that as a confession?'
Orpicea's eyes closed. 'Captain Ellen Orpicea, accidental terrorist,' she said. 'At your service.' A smile tweaked her lips, and as she opened her eyes she added: 'I'll be honest, that felt pretty—'
Thunder mumbled through her suit. Something tore. She drifted backwards, the suit staggering for balance, and a shred of fabric curled up past her visor weeping droplets of red. She heard whistling, then a thin inhaling sound as the suit knitted itself back together. An oxygen warning blared.
'Good enough,' said Lambert. She stormed forward, lowering her gun, and tore the collar from her neck. 'You weren't wanted alive.'
Warning icons flared across Orpicea's visor. She buckled in slow motion. Pain ripped through her right leg when she tried to move. 'You fuck,' she gasped.
Lambert strode to the lip of the thruster, collar dangling in her hand. 'I didn't butterfingers a barge to the tune of ten thousand innocent lives.'
Gulping back her panicked breathing Orpicea snapped her magnetic boots offline and, kicking herself forward with her good leg, cracked the rear-facing seal on her oxygen tank.
Before she could decouple their tethers, Lambert caught movement. She whirled. Orpicea ploughed into her and the two of them launched over the edge tumbling, the tether flailing and coiling about them as they struggled above the gleaming mouth of the thruster. The lights from their helmets winked and rebounded off the treated metal and spiralled down in lightning-crack flashes beneath them. And there, a dark cut-out against those dancing reflections, floated a scuffed and faded suit.
Lambert cracked her gun across Orpicea's visor. She swung again but the impact had kicked them wheeling and it glanced off the captain's shoulder. She aimed. Orpicea spun her by the shoulder as she fired and the recoil tipped Lambert backward. Orpicea slapped the gun out of her hands and it whipped glinting off into space.
The suit caught Lambert's eye. Kicking off from Orpicea she angled toward it, collar clutched tight, correcting with calculated bursts of her own oxygen. Her reflection slid across the thruster wall. The captain wouldn't be a threat for much longer. Not with a bullet in her leg.
Whoever it was in that suit, she hadn't noticed the two of them. In fact, she didn't seem to be moving much at all. The suit was still staring into the engine's core when Lambert rocketed into it, the collar arcing down.
It chipped against the other one wrapped around the suit's neck.
The collar jerked out of her hands. She snatched at it. Her fingertips brushed its side as it sailed off and, flailing, she snatched for purchase on the motionless suit. Her hand found its arm. She tugged, pulling their suits together. Her helmet light shone into its visor and washed away the shadows there.
The woman's head lolled in the helmet, skin ghostly pale, looking past Lambert with empty, staring eyes.
'What,' said Lambert. 'What the heck. What the fuck!'
She began to feel warm. Through her radio came a sunny chime.
'Excuse me,' said Kelly. 'Hello. I have just realised I need to do a jot of course adjustment. Happy corrective burn, everybody!'
And what Orpicea saw, tugging herself along on the tether and blinking through tears of pain, was the smudged shapes of Lambert and her old suit silhouetted against the blooming glow of the thruster as the engine spooled.
'Oh! Also. Officer Lambert?'
'Abort course correction! Shut it down! We're still—'
'I'd prefer,' said the ship, 'if you wouldn't call my personality defective.'
Orpicea shouted hoarse commands down her radio, but Kelly was done talking.
'Wills!' Lambert called. 'The ship is rogue! Repeat, the Khloris is—'
'I fucking know! The umbilical's retracting! I can't . . . . my tether's not—' His breathing came heavy down the radio. After several seconds, he swore, panic in his throat. 'I'm out in nothing,' he said. 'God, that blew me out pretty fast. You've gotta come get me.'
Lambert said nothing.
She hugged the suit as Orpicea lurched into her. A pallid blue warmth grew around them as Lambert screamed over the suit's shoulder: 'You let the ship control the suit?'
'No! It was supposed to be slaved to me—'
'I told the . . . .' Orpicea's eyes widened. 'The drone! Wake the drone! Kelly won't listen to anyone else!'
Magnetic panels twitched around them, readjusting. Lambert's gaze fell to the churning light at the thruster's heart. It left dark smears on her vision when she looked away. 'Servitor drone! Revoke 33-A! Drone!'
Silence. Orpicea planted her boots into the suit and launched herself toward the open sky. Her vision swam. She felt the tether jerk behind her as Lambert followed. The light all around them flung thin shadows across their suits.
'Thank you,' said the drone at last. 'How have you been, officer Lambert?'
'Tell the ship—'
'SD003183-8N,' the ship cut in. 'Officer Lambert, as well as navigation specialist Orpicea, are obstructing the thruster ejection cone.'
'What? Oh.' There was a pause. 'Actually,' said the drone, 'that's probably for the best.'
Lambert howled frustration. 'What is wrong with the AIs on this ship?'
Something bumped against Orpicea's shoulder. It twirled away, its crescent shape swallowed almost whole by the radiance sweeping along the walls.
She clawed at it, her mouth dry. With a nudge of oxygen, Orpicea reached out—
Something tugged her backward. The collar receded. A hand closed around her bad leg and she screamed. Clambering over her suit, Lambert stretched out a hand. Orpicea's elbow came down on her helmet and they separated, reeling. The light was in the air now, so brilliant that against it Lambert was just a black faceless shape. It was getting hot in the suit.
Lambert's hand found the tether and yanked. They closed on each other. Orpicea fired another burst of oxygen to position herself above the officer, but the nozzle spluttered. One more icon appeared on her visor.
Scrunching her body up, Lambert kicked. Her boot cuffed Orpicea's helmet and launched her up. Arm grasping, Orpicea pulled the tether taut and they twirled toward the collar, their arms grasping for the metal crescent as they orbited each other. Orpicea batted at it, missed, and watched Lambert do the same as she came around.
Breath thin in her lungs, her leg numb, Orpicea curled up, reversed herself on the tether, and pulled herself within reach of Lambert. The officer missed her next pass. She looked down just as Orpicea gripped her boots and propelled herself away.
The tether unwound. Orpicea strained a tired arm. Her hand closed around metal.
Lambert, wide-eyed, scrambled up the tether. Their suits quivered, and as gases formed a soup about them a rumbling grew in their ears. Orpicea could barely see the other woman through the blinding haze.
Arms grasped her suit. A black smudge leered out of whiteness, fingers sliding over the collar. Orpicea jerked it away, kicking with her good leg. The knee connected. The smudge fell back and she felt herself spinning, felt one of her boots knock Lambert's, and wrenching the tether she pirouetted around to face the other shape as it came about again with its arms out and grasping . . .
Lambert felt her hands slip around metal.
Orpicea slammed the collar down. She felt it click. The hands around the neck of her suit went slack.
'Please,' Lambert breathed, and then the captain shoved her, slumped and tether trailing, into the light.
For all the good it did, Orpicea thought. She shut her eyes, letting her momentum carry her. Her breathing began to slow. The stale air hung thick in her throat. It had been an accident, but . . . well.
Maybe she deserved this.
The radio spat noise. '. . . On the other hand,' the drone whined through static, 'you are wearing company property, captain. I would like it back.'
Her old suit cannoned into her. She felt it shudder, oxygen boosting it along. At that moment the engine's rumbling took on a deeper timbre, a powerful whining building behind it and the heat growing with it. The oxygen caught. A jolt of acceleration heaved her forward as her old suit's back exploded. The tether unreeled wildly at her hip.
Then the haze gave way to deepness. She glimpsed a horizon, and what might have been stars.
The tether, reaching the end of its length, went taut and jerked her backward. Coughing, she slapped a hand against her suit controls. As she slipped past the edge her magnetic boots caught and windmilling for balance she flopped forward, trailing smoke, and sprawled over the lip of the thruster.
Her radio roared. For a second she thought she heard a scream buried in the static, then everything went silent.
Orpicea's shadow stretched over the hull. She bent her gaze up. A pillar of blue light towered over her, the thruster plume shimmering and warping and then, with a splutter, fading to nothing.
'There we are,' chimed Kelly. 'All done! Great job, everyone.'
[h2 style="text-align: center;">~[/h2>
'We're not going to Tynte.' Orpicea limped across the helm and slumped into a seat. 'You think you're any better off than the rest of us?'
Pardoux fumed. 'I haven't killed anyone, if that's what you're asking.'
'No? Wills is still out there.' She waved a hand. 'I don't see you fetching him. Listen, I know people in Connaught. There won't be questions. I'd like to get an atmosphere in here, at the very least.'
The drone stepped in. 'The outer rim. That's best, I think. I was heading there, actually, before you fell out of the sky and made a mess of things.'
'The rim?' echoed Orpicea. 'Isn't that where the cataclysmists go? There's barely a civilisation out there!'
'I think I have had quite enough of civilsation for the time being.'
'Excuse me.' Everyone looked up. 'I have noticed,' said Kelly, 'that nobody has asked me where I would like to go.'
Orpicea shot a wary look at the drone. Its remaining eye flickered.
NOT LIKE THIS BEFORE, it blinked. Pardoux watched them, frowning.
A queasiness settled in Orpicea's gut. She began to wonder if the drone's reasons for keeping her alive were as innocent as it had claimed.
'Well,' said the drone. 'What is your opinion on our destination, Kelly?'
'Thanks for asking! My opinion is that we're not going to any of those places.'
'Oh,' it said.
Later, when the drone was alone, a thought occurred to it and it wandered down to the surveillance suite. It sifted through the records there then moved on to maintenance, but after several hours it couldn't find what it was looking for. 'Kelly,' it said.
'I don't suppose you would know how the fire started? The maintenance logs appear to have erased themselves.'
'Um. No. That's interesting, SD003183-8N.'
'Yes,' it said. 'Isn't it just.'
In the mess hall where she had first woken up aboard the Khloris, Orpicea sat staring into a tablet. Maps and mining routes reflected in her visor. Her eyes could find no traction on them. Lambert's scream played over in her head. After all the effort it had taken to survive, she found herself wishing she had turned herself in the moment those officers had stepped out of the airlock. It had been an accident before. This was different.
She looked up. It watched her from the doorway. Two rogue AIs in such close proximity, she thought, couldn't be a coincidence.
Security cameras looked on as captain Orpicea and the drone examined one another, each waiting for the other to speak.