06 Jul

The price of freedom

Ship's log, 12:08, 6 February 2214
Location: Gienah system, 40 years ago
Status: Wide orbit around Gienah Sol

 

Screaming on mid-deck. Ebling and Wong are writhing on the ground, convulsions squeezing their cries into choked coughs. Rosie is bellowing and bashing a pirate’s face in. He must have tripped the collars; I don’t know how. No time to check now.

Elliott is there, rushing in with his device to disconnect the collars. Hurry, Elliott. Hurry, they need you.

Screaming on the Bridge. I think it’s me. My avatar is there, watching in open-mouthed horror as the little buckle-shaped device lifts itself into the air and hovers.

Bodies are hitting the floor, trying to take cover. Half-Face is tied into the captain’s chair and strains desperately to be free. John makes sure the others are down and is last to throw himself to the deck. My heavy drones move forward. Big Ass grabs the arm of the captain’s chair and spins it around a hundred and eighty degrees. Byte hurls himself at the device, tiny metal appendages reaching.

I watch in nanoseconds. Half-Face hunches down as best he can. John is in the air, falling. The device detonates: the tiny circle of metal peels open. A horizontal disc of explosive force rips out across the heart of me, edged with shards of shrapnel.

Byte is the closest and hit first. I feel his little body torn apart. Metal legs and hands fly out, then fall towards the deck, slow as petals. It hurts. I cry out because he can’t.

Consoles burst and fizz, like fireworks. Their displays die, connections cut. The holotank image flickers out.

The blast passes right through my avatar. There’s nothing I can do.

The back of the captain’s chair buckles and the impact tears the whole thing off its mounting. Big Ass tries to control its path, flips it over so that the squishy side doesn’t hit the bulkhead. The blastwave punches the heavy drone in the side, knocks him over. He falls like a dented tree. His hand is still clamped on the arm of the chair, metres away.

John is still falling. The explosion snatches him like an angry child. No, please, not John. Sensors pick up the crack of bone when he hits the side of a console, the wet sound of shrapnel striking. He falls like a ragdoll, black hair streaming behind him. Blood mists the air, beautifully awful.

Optical sensors compromised. My avatar rushes over to him, but that doesn’t help me see him.

The disc of the daisycutter’s explosion reaches the walls. Bulkheads dent, studded with tiny shards of metal and plastic. Sparks spit out of torn conduits. Liquid spills. I shut them down.

I call for John and a sensor finds his face. He blinks at me. His mouth moves as if he’s about to say something soothing. I reach out for his cheek, but I’m made of light and air. The corners off his mouth twitch and then he doesn’t see me any more. His eyes close and he doesn’t respond, not even when I start shouting his name.

Switch to other sensors. Seven life signs on the Bridge: my four crew and three pirates. There, that’s John’s heart, still beating. He’s alive. But for how long?

I’m flickering, can’t maintain the hologram. Too many projectors damaged.

I need help. I need hands. Where are they all?

Big Ass is pushing himself upright, clanking uncomfortably. Wide Load is lifting a console off himself and Cameron. Bit is skittering out of the way of falling equipment. There, Casper’s whirring out from behind a clutter of chairs, not a scratch on him. He goes to John, all four hands at my disposal. I can see through his eyes. He scans my fallen captain, toes to tip, builds a report on his condition, and–

Oh god, his arm is gone. Cut clean off. Where’s his arm? So much blood, and there’s no doctor to help him…

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Damaged systems, people bleeding and hurt. Dead and dying.

 

ROSIE: (from mid-deck, gripping a bulkhead with one hand for stability) Starry! What the hell was that?

STARRY: (voice only, quietly) Explosion on the Bridge.

ROSIE: Holy fuck. What happened?

STARRY: No time now; we have… there are injured.

ROSIE: (looks around) Yeah, here too.

 

What? That’s right; they were screaming. Before the daisycutter went off, they were screaming, fit to tear my hull apart with their voices alone. The collars… oh no.

I’m only picking up five life signs in there. Rosie is standing over the two pirates, both unconscious. One of them is bloody but alive. Elliott is sitting off to one side, his device dangling from a limp hand, ashen-faced. That leaves Ebling and Wong, lying so still at the back of the room, but only one of them…

Wong is dead. Ray, the technician who makes my Step drive work. He’s gone.

I don’t know what to say. If I had a mouth, it would be dry and useless. All I can do is stare at them from behind my sensors.

 

ROSIE: How bad is it?

STARRY: What?

ROSIE: On the Bridge.

STARRY: Pretty bad. No fatalities yet. Is… everything contained here?

ROSIE: (eyes the two prone scientists) Yeah, as good as it can be. Listen, I’m sorr-

STARRY: We need you on the Bridge. We need all the help we can get. Elliott?

ROSIE: (turns towards the door, heavy-footed) Sure.

STARRY: Elliott?

ELLIOTT: (lifts his head and blinks, but there’s no avatar to focus on) Hm?

STARRY: Need you on the Bridge. Please.

ELLIOTT: (looks at the device in his hand, then rises and slips it into a thigh pocket absently) Sure, sure. You break something?

STARRY: (softly) Everything is broken.

 

I should ask what’s wrong, what happened. I should go through the logs and figure it out. There’s no time and nothing I can do about it.

Pull it together, Starry. You’re an AI; you can deal with this. Your crew need you to deal with this.

I need to be an AI now. Worry about their hearts later. Waldo is on his way to the Bridge too – I’m sending him to Med Bay first.

Damage assessment. The autolog is screaming at me, but none of my essential systems have been damaged; just controls and outputs on the Bridge. I take control and shut off all of the Bridge’s functions. I can maintain core systems and my orbit without thinking about it. The warnings go away.

Injury assessment. Two pirates on the Bridge still asleep from the gas, lying too low to be hit by the daisycutter directly. One probably has bruises from a console falling on him. Life signs are steady; bottom of the list. Two pirates dead; they’re off the list entirely.

Lang Lang is shaken and bruised, on her feet with an arm cradled to her belly. Probably broken. Cirilli has blood on her temple and cheek, but seems steady enough. Cameron is moving awkwardly – broken ribs? collarbone? – but she’s not letting it slow her down. She’s got the emergency medical kit from the locker at the rear of the Bridge and is going to John’s side to see what the drone is doing.

Casper has two hands clamped around what’s left of John’s upper right arm, trying to stem the blood flow. He looks up at Cameron when she drops to a knee.

 

STARRY: (on the Bridge, voice only) Can you help him?

CAMERON: (shrugs) Not a medic. But you should cauterise that before he bleeds out.

STARRY: Yes, yes. His pulse is getting thready.

CAMERON: (opening the med kit) Should be some fluids in here.

CASPER: (unfolds his smallest heat tool and gets to work. He cauterises the wound in tiny bursts, sealing off blood vessels as delicately as if he was attaching minute contact points to a crystal circuitboard.)

 

Cameron is attaching the fluid line with universal blood replacement. John’s colour and blood pressure aren’t good.

Big Ass lands back on his feet with a clunk and goes over to the captain’s chair. He grabs it with his three remaining hands and hauls it upright. The Lieutenant is still tied to it; he flops around like a bound fish. There’s a lot of blood – he lost an ear and his shoulders are damaged where the chair’s back couldn’t protect him from the blast. One of his legs is broken. He groans and coughs.

 

STARRY: Half– Lieutenant, can you hear me?

HALF-FACE: (groans again.)

STARRY: Laurence, wake up. You’re needed.

BIG ASS: (puts a hand near the Lieutenant’s head to scan it for brain injuries.)

HALF-FACE: (opens his eyes reluctantly and glares at the drone) What the hell are you doing?

STARRY: Be nice to him; he saved your life.

HALF-FACE: (looks around at the mess on the Bridge, his jaw tightening) Lucky me.

STARRY: I need to know, Laurence: are any of your people medics?

HALF-FACE: No. Why?

STARRY: No nurses, vets, nothing like that?

HALF-FACE: Nothing like that; just some field training. Whose arm is that? (He nods towards the portside bulkhead.)

STARRY: (quietly) Oh. There it is. The captain’s.

HALF-FACE: Where’s your doctor?

STARRY: Dead.

HALF-FACE: (looks down at himself. There’s blood on his clothing and his left leg isn’t sitting at a natural angle.)

STARRY: You also have a concussion and multiple contusions.

HALF-FACE: No emergency medical drones?

STARRY: Just what you see.

HALF-FACE: Shit.

 

He’s worried about himself now. I guess they all are. Big Ass is doing a more thorough scan of the Lieutenant’s body.

I’m cataloguing injuries and running status logs on every living person aboard. Loading up medical diagnostic protocols and automating triage. Hooking myself into the drones’ sensors to get around my blind spots on the Bridge.

Rosie and Elliott are arriving, with Waldo close behind. Elliott manages to turn even paler when he sees the mess. So much blood spattered around. Bodies. He moves out of the way when the drone comes in.

 

ROSIE: Fuck. Where do you need me? Starry, Chief?

CAMERON: (glancing over her shoulder) Gurney?

ROSIE: Gotcha. (She turns to the drone behind her.)

WALDO: (already holding out the rolled-up anti-grav gurney and a small can.)

ROSIE: (takes the can and sprays her hands, then tosses it to Elliott. Hands covered in temporary gloves, she grabs the gurney roll.)

ELLIOTT: (fumbles and drops the can. He recovers it and sprays his hands.)

STARRY: Elliott? Can you put John’s… there’s an arm to your right. Can you put it in stasis, please?

ELLIOTT: (looks around and swallows at the sight of the severed arm, lying innocuously on the Bridge decking) Uh… sure.

WALDO: (trundles up behind the engineer and offers out a stasis device.)

 

He doesn’t want to touch the arm. I don’t like to look at it, either. It looks like it might move at any moment, or disappear like a mirage. It’s hard to believe that’s a part of John, of my captain. I used to know that hand, how it felt to touch, to hold. There’s a little tattoo on the inside of the wrist, hidden by his sleeve….

Stop it, Starry. Focus. You have a job to do.

Elliott’s trying to do what I’ve asked. He’d much prefer to be looking at a machine’s innards, but he’s attaching the stasis device, freezing the arm’s decay. Applying a protective bubble and handing it to Waldo.

Cameron and Rosie have the rest of John on the gurney, with Casper’s help. A temporary bandage has been sprayed on where his arm used to be. My SecOffs have enough field medicine training to know how to patch someone up, and I’ve never been so grateful of that.

 

CAMERON: I’ll take the captain to Med Bay. Rosie, stay here and help with the rest.

ROSIE: Aye, ma’am.

STARRY: I’ve got triage monitoring running. Projectors are offline, but I can give verbal updates.

CAMERON: Good; you can guide the treatment. Can you spare a drone?

STARRY: Casper will go with you. Do you need a heavy?

CAMERON: No, not for this.

 

Off they go. Casper takes the frozen arm off Elliott’s hands. Things are moving quickly now that we have some momentum.

I guide Rosie to the Lieutenant to stabilise his leg with a temporary splint. She seals his wounded shoulders with more temporary bandages to stop the bleeding. It’s not pretty, but it’ll do.

Cirilli and Lang Lang are able to walk; I tell them to go to Med Bay. Lang Lang looks like she wants to argue, gazing around with the kind of horror that comes with the desire to help fix it. It’s okay, Lang Lang. Go.

Elliott takes a medical scanner from Waldo and goes to check the unconscious pirates. He checks their collars while he’s there, in case they’d been damaged in the explosion. I hadn’t even thought of that. Thank you, Elliott.

Wide Load is busy lifting broken consoles and chairs out of the way. I have to make an effort to stop him dropping things; the noise makes everyone flinch, including me. It looks like the tide washed my innards against the walls, clearing the deck. When he’s done, he heads off to mid-deck.

Rosie is considering the best way to get the Lieutenant to Med Bay. Waldo has another anti-grav gurney in hand, but Big Ass leans in and picks up the captain’s chair. Laurence groans but he’s secure enough; he won’t fall out. The heavy drone turns and heads off the Bridge with his burden. Rosie looks like she might be amused by that sight, but not today.

Elliott takes Waldo’s gurney and hauls the injured pirate onto it. He’s only too glad to steer it to Med Bay; it could be programmed to steer itself but he’s glad to get out of my blood-spattered Bridge. Waldo and Rosie put the last pirate on another floating pad and follow soon after.

My Bridge is ruined and empty. Abruptly, it is so still it’s like my heart has stopped. Then I remember that I don’t have one.

There’s a prickle of movement. A sensor feed to tap into.

It’s Bit, searching for Byte. He’s ticking around the Bridge’s broken floor, picking up legs and wires and lost eyes. His tiny arms cradle his brother to his chest, straining to hold all of him, and I wish…

Instead, I turn out the lights and close the doors.

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4 Responses to “The price of freedom”

  1. Targetdrone Says:

    aww.. not byte too … nooooooo πŸ™

    tbh, that was one hell of an intense chapter… i really like your style πŸ˜‰

  2. mjkj Says:

    AAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW

    Poor Starry, poor Byte – and all the others…

    I just hope they will be able to fix the doctor and the captain soon…

    …I wonder where they will find help (and ‘when’…)

    Now call in the jainitors – wait, are there any onboard?

    I wonder what had happened to the others (Elliot, Wang, Rosie etc.)

    I really had not expected that much carnage from all of that…

    mjkj

  3. Melanie Says:

    Targetdrone – I know! Poor Byte. I got that image of Bit gathering up the pieces about halfway through writing this post, and knew that was what I wanted to finish on.

    So glad you like it! Phew. πŸ™‚

    This one was a challenge to write. It’s a different kind of style for me, and action scenes are always tricky to pace. It was fun, though! I enjoy Starry’s ability to play with how fast time runs. And apparently, my crappy week didn’t make it suck. This is good!

    mjkj – I know! Robots need hugs too!

    The middle drones (Waldo and Casper) are the ship’s janitors, so… yeah, it’ll be a while before they’re free, as they’re also the emergency medical help. Yay for multitasking!

    Your questions shall be answered. It’d be no fun if I gave them to you all at once… πŸ˜‰

  4. mjkj Says:

    I really hope so, Melanie πŸ™‚

    *waits for the next updates*

    mjkj