Three days later Trash rode a submersible through a beautiful shallow sea blooming with coral. Around him swam colorful fish and other creatures recreated from the zoological records of the Old Earth tropical seas. It was the first time he had felt the tug of 9.81 meters per second in decades. Like most non-bionts, he did not understand the attraction of gravity, nor the pointless re-creation of archaic biota.
Cresting a ridge, the sea floor dropped down a hundred meters, opening up onto a wide plain where, interspersed within the coral, were opaque interconnected domes. Trash followed Grip's directions and found himself at the entrance of a moderate sized residential dome. He docked the submersible with the entrance and opened the vessel's hatch.
Standing in front of the door, Trash spoke to the sentry system.
"It's Trash, let me in."
"Refuse belongs in the recycling facility. Please deliver yourself to the nearest waste receptacle, thank you," the sentry intoned.
"Trash is my ID, you mindless drone! I'm a friend of Grip's. He's expecting me. Now let me in before I dismantle you," Trash said, raising an arm and igniting a plasma torch threateningly.
The sentry's red indicator blinked and a few seconds later the door transmitted a familiar voice to his sensors.
"Hey you, metal-ass, the sentry reported a hostile presence and wants me to call the security vecs." Grip said.
"I am a hostile presence to stupid security programs. Let the sec vecs come, if this is the level of quality to be found on Tethys," Trash said.
Grip let out a sloppy gurgling sound, his non-synthed natural 'voice'. "No, I suppose you should just come in."
The door slid open and Trash stepped in. He had never been to Grip's physidorm and his impression of the octo cyborg's grim merc personality did not prepare him for the decor. Everywhere was artwork, sculptures in coral and stone, surprisingly hand-carved. Trash's personality mask told him they were beautiful and he did not argue with it.
All through the main living quarters was playing the ancient entertainments from Old Earth that he had discovered were called spaghetti westerns. Grip was addicted to them, as well as similar story texts, and had picked up the annoying habit of shaping his speech patterns after that of the characters.
The octo provolve was reclining in a large basin of warm salt water, one tentacle popping what looked like pieces of crab meat into his beaked mouth from an ornate coral bowl on the table next to him. Trash cringed a productive cringe, at the potential for corrosion on his friend's bodyware, the enormous cost to waterproof it all, and the pure nastiness of inserting sloppy bits of flesh into one's body.
"You must have spent a small fortune on all this stuff," Trash remarked casually.
"I would have, if I hadn't done it myself with these here four tentacles," Grip said. The cybernetically enhanced cephalopod held up his four arm-tentacles, wiggling the eight provolved fingers at the end of each arm.
He looked just like Trash remembered him, except for a few new enhancements. His large head was sheathed in a black-visored helmet impregnated with sensors more sophisticated than Trash's own. His personality mask tweaked him with a jolt of jealousy.
His friends arms were all mounted with auto-turrets connected directly into each arm's sub-brain neural cluster. All of the rubbery, brown and yellow striped flesh not sheathed in memory nano-composite armor sported tell-tale bioborg sub-dermal plating in addition to the trademark electric blue bio-luminescent tattoos of the Gurita provolve clan.
"Admiring the new helm?" Grip teased. "It cost a shit-tonne of cred, but it's already saved my ass plenty of times fighting those separatist nuts out in the Oort cloud, I tell you what."
"Look's like you're doing well for yourself." Trash said, wondering if he had gone into the wrong line of work.
"Yeah, alright I suppose. Firmament and Phobos are in some fierce competition over territory in the outer volumes and when you sprinkle in the squatter rebs, you got yourself a recipe for merc heaven," Grip said.
"What about the Confederacy forces?" Trash asked.
"What about them?" Grip responded derisively. "They're out there, supposedly to protect registered settlements from the squatters, but they have to get the go-ahead from three different commanders before they can fire a shot, not that that collection of shit birds could hit anything they shot at anyway."
"Nah, it's us mercs doing all the heavy lifting out there, especially Clan Gurita. The corps pay us, the registered settlements pay us, the Confederacy pays us. It's a gravy train, Trash. You need to upgrade your and Karen's armament and get out there with me, next time I cycle in," Grip said earnestly. "The other Gurita wouldn't mind it. Hell, with your four arms and four legs, you look kinda like a vec version of us anyway," Grip said jokingly.
"Tempting, but me and Karen have survived this long by avoiding being shot at." Trash responded dryly.
"Then what can I do for you? Your ping was cryptic. Some kinda job?"
"That's right. I need some muscle," Trash said, and explained the job in detail.
"So what's the share?" Grip said at last.
"Twenty million after delivery," Trash said right away. He knew better than to insult the old mercenary with a lowball offer.
Grip, slouched in his tub and drummed his fingers on a table.
"Twenty million," Grip mused out loud. "If I donated that kind of cred to the clan, maybe I could muscle out all the old ink-heads dragging their feet on Exodus."
"Exodus?" Trash asked, curious.
"Exodus, I told you about that a long time ago. We're working towards building an ark-ship to get back to the Mother-Ocean, back to Gaia," Grip said in a faraway voice.
"Gaia? You mean Ancient Earth?" Trash said, surprised.
"That's right. We're going back."Grip said fervently.
"Yeah OK, but I thought you just meant going back in some sort of metaphysical way, or maybe by upload into a cybercosm at some point."
Grip shook his head, "Naw, we ain't no passle of priests mumbling into thin air. We're just traditionalists looking for a way back home. The hu changed us long ago, without asking, thinking they knew better what was best for us. We just want to get back to where we belong, if Gaia will have us. 'Course it's a gamble. She might not let us back after accumulating so much unnaturalness," he said, holding his arms out to exhibit all his own accumulated unnaturalness.
Trash put up a manipulator in a sign of surrender. "Hey, whatever charges your batteries. It's none of my business. So does that mean you're in?" Trash asked.
Grip did not answer at first, but sat staring at the hologram mural. He stood up on four thick walking tentacles. "Alright, metal-ass, I'm in."
Soon they had broken free of Tethys gravity well on Trash's little atmospheric shuttle.
Once they were free of the gravity well, Trash prepared to send an encoded message to one of Onyx Flight's 'safe-houses', one of many nodes registered in various identities scattered across the system. Trash knew she wouldn't trust any communication of this type to her corporate ID, Kwekwaxa'we Security.
"No need, friend. I am with you," a ghostly transmission spoke in his mind.
If this had been the first time Onyx had been a step ahead of him, he would have been caught off guard, instead of simply pleased.
"Hi Onyx. Where are you?" He asked.
"Not far, friend. Some of my watcher clones reported unusual patterns in your travels. I have been observing you for three days. You were right about Grip's security system, it is very poor. He thinks too highly of his personal armament. You must also upgrade Karen's protections as well, though I thank you for the kind things you have said." Trash felt a warm wash of code interact with his personality mask, Onyx's virtual embrace. It nearly erased his annoyance at being blatantly spied on.
"Then I guess I'll cut to the chase. Do you want to come along? Same deal as Grip."
"Yes. This will be a profitable experience," Onyx responded calmly.
After stopping at an amat refueling depot, Trash set coordinates based on calculations from the trajectory data provided by Erin's industrial spies. He was confident they would be accurate within an AU or two, close enough for Karen's long distance sensors.
The trajectory set, Karen fired her A-C fusion engines and quickly built up speed towards Enki's inner Kuiper belt.
Once there was nothing more to do than wait, Grip and Trash joined Onyx in Karen's crew quarters. She was projected into the room by Karen's holo system. She looked exactly like Trash had remembered her from the old days. She was covered in small, glossy black feathers. She stared at him with her fierce golden avian eyes. Her small, sharp beak was inscribed with tribal glyphs. Around her neck she wore the raven totem of her people.
She put her taloned hands over her heart and bowed to him and Grip.
Trash felt pleased to see Onyx. Despite her decision to destructively upload herself, she was still a traditionalist, choosing to appear in the form of a Raven clan rianth instead of some of the more exotic visual representations chosen by most virtuals unbound by the laws of real-space physics.
He admired her. She appeared as a paragon of her clan's physical characteristics, just as she was in Trash's mind, a paragon of the Raven clan qualities of cunning, subtlety and wisdom.
Onyx was the first to speak, "We must plan this carefully, my friends. I have had only sporadic interactions with Hazzor technology and programming. It is not very dissimilar, but will require careful consideration.
Grip gestured with two tentacles and briefly flashed red-orange, getting their attention. "I think Trash and I both trust you to handle your business, hon. What can either of you tell me about their defenses, their active defenses?"
Trash spoke up. "No exterior weapons. It's apparently relying on stealth. It would be nearly invisible to our long range scanners if it hadn't been bugged by Firmament spooks. We just need to be within a couple AU, which should be no problem for Karen and me. As for internal weaponry, we know that the security system controls infrared laser turrets. The crew probably has gear like to yours, Grip."
"Ain't the crew in stasis?" Grip asked.
"Yeah, and we anticipate keeping them that way by disabling the ship's security. Lucky for us, the Hazzor system distrusts vecs as much as the bionts here in Enki, otherwise we'd have hard-ass, unsleeping battle-vecs to contend with. Anyways, this crew is made up of three mil-spec cyborg mercs. Tough, but nothing our boneless buddy here can't handle." Trash said, bowing elaborately to Grip.
"I suppose it is all up to me then," Onyx sighed dramatically. "We cannot have Grip put in the position of actually earning his cut," she teased. Grip's skin rippled red and white in mock annoyance.
"ETA, Karen?" Trash asked.
"12.4587324 days," Karen said.
"Thank you for allowing me to reside in your system once more Karen," Onyx said. "It possesses such exquisite structure."
"You are welcome, Onyx Flight."
"May I ask, would it be agreeable for me to strengthen your system's security during our transit?" Onyx asked.
"That will not be necessary. I have upgraded myself with the most advanced protections available," Karen replied stiffly.
Onyx paused, "The most advanced on the open market, I am sure. However, I possess cutting edge protections I have recently developed that have only been released to a select few. I have detected you many times studying the open net knowledge databases. Smart viruses and even virtuals that have been modified into savirs lurk in that database and are becoming more prevalent these days. I do not want anything to interrupt your important studies," Onyx said.
"Allow me to study your upgrade, and I will consider it," Karen said after a pause.
Trash felt relief. That could have ended badly and he did not want any lack of cohesion among his crew. He was thankful that Onyx was thoughtful enough to mention Karen's studies. Karen would do anything to protect her knowledge. She was as obsessed with it as he was with upgrades, having already accumulated 104 advanced degrees, many esoteric, in the guise of a deceased identity Trash had bought on the black network some years ago.
After their meeting, all three slowed down their subjective time. In what seemed like moments, Karen's signal took them back into real time.
"Have you detected the singleship, Karen?" Trash asked.
"Yes. It is traveling sol-ward, on a Korva vector. Its mag-sails are still deployed, but I calculate that it will reach its inter-planetary cruising speed within hours," Karen reported.
"Good, keep just within range."
A few hours later, Karen reported that the singleship had deactivated its mag-sails. They began to make their approach.
"I have locked in on their comm signal, Trash." Onyx said.
"Good. Are you ready for transmission?"
"As ready as I will ever be," she answered.
Trash initiated a coded pulse camouflaged as background noise towards the singleship's receiver. Wrapped within the pulse was a semi-sentient virus Onyx had constructed to infiltrate its system.
"It will take the virus a few minutes to worm its way in." Onyx said.
Grip hoisted his trusty HE-M Quad Musket. The cyborg was virtually invisible in his chameleon suit and Trash had to rely on his sonar to detect him. Trash knew the suit would be little protection from the ship security AI, but if Onyx was successful, he would only have to worry about a crew of moderately enhanced hu. If they were somehow alerted, Grip would earn his cut.
Trash ran a quick self-diagnostic. Everything was operational. It was up to him to hitch the ship to Karen's tow line. His mask registered excitement and eagerness, which Trash's core programming kept in check as he carefully ran thousands of contingencies in his modeler.
"I am in." Onyx said.
He gave the signal.
Karen opened a side hatch. Grip shot out into space, making a bee line for a side hatch opening on the singleship. Trash headed out after him, heading for Karen's aft where she was already deploying her tow rig.
Once he reached the tow rig, Karen maneuvered in front of the vessel. Trash fired his thrusters and coasted to the front of the singleship. A second later his foot grippers latched onto the vessel. He worked quickly to attach the rig.
"How's it going?" he pinged.
Grip was first to answer. "Pretty well, nobody's woke up yet. I'm making my way to the crew cabin. Looks like Feathers' doing her job."
"For now." Onyx said cautiously. "This AI is good. I am just barely keep ahead of it. It still believes I am a stray stream of navigation comm traffic from the inner system, but it persists in its scrutiny."
"Good," Trash said. "I'll have this rig attached in 128 secs. Get the mercs in those escape pods as quick as you can, Grip."
"You got it, Hoss. I'm in the crew cabin. Whew! These are three of the ugliest sons of bitches I've ever seen in those stasis pods. They look kinda like splicer brutes that were made in a biohacker's clone lab. They're more chromed up then me, but not as fancy, 'course."
"I don't want to find out who's the best 'borg in the sector Grip, just get them on the shuttle." Trash said dryly. "Ok Karen, I'm done. Run a diagnostic on the tow system."
"It is operational." Karen said. "I am now powering up my drives."
"I'm getting the first pod loose now. I'll have'em loaded up in a minute." Grip said.
"Grip! Watch out!" Onyx alerted.
Too late, Grip heard an infinitesimal snap. His head snapped up and he saw a hair-thin metal wire hanging from the wall of the recess holding the stasis pod. Then he noticed through the pod's window the other end leading into a small socket in the big splicer's neck.
The pod hatch burst open with vicious strength, slamming into Grip and knocking him across the small cabin into the opposite wall. He heard the familiar whine of a cyborg's armament coming online and quickly picked up the hatch. Two pulses slammed into the hatch at that moment.
Grip fired his musket directly into the splice's chest, propelling him back into his stasis pod. The provolve backed away, firing rounds from his shoulder turrets at the Hazzor merc. The tiny turret rounds ripped into the unarmored parts of the splice and kicked up a cloud of blood. The splice grunted with pain and pressed a small button on his neck. In an instant, the other two mercs burst out of their pods and focused on him.
"The bastard rigged a primitive trip line to his brain!" Grip cried out.
"Get out of there, Grip!" Trash said.
"I can't. He's set off some kind of team alert. The others have me pinned down. I can't get to the door."
"I'm on my way."
Trash sprang away from the front of the craft. He opened a side panel in his torso and took out a small black sphere a few centimeters across. It was his secret weapon. He had hoped he would never be put into a situation where he had to use it.
It was a virus bomb specifically designed to attack the small servos in limbs of cyborgs and vecs at the machine language level. He had designed it with help from Onyx, who designed the hack allowing it to infiltrate the processors. There were similar weapons around, but they went after more central processors and most were well protected against attack. He had realized that was not the case with limbs. There was usually a general system-wide protection, but it did not penetrate down to the machine level.
It was his last ditch insurance against pirate attack. He had had run-ins with pirates before, but Karen was always faster and he was always a better pilot, so he never had to use it. He had sent virus protection code to a few trusted associates, including Grip.
Because the virus worked its damage on such a basic level, he was reasonably sure it would affect the Hazzor mercs, despite the difference in software architecture.
Trash reached the open bay door and hurtled inside. He could hear the blasts coming from aft.
"If this does the trick, Onyx, I'm giving you a bonus." Trash said as he made his way to the crew cabin door.
"One of my clones will have to collect if you do not hurry. I estimate this ships security AI is going to take over and do something drastic in approximately five minutes."
"Right." Trash said. He commanded the door to open. It did not budge.
The vec flicked two arms up. Instantly, the manipulators disappeared, replaced by white hot cutting torches. He pointed one arm above the other, one above his height, the other near the floor and moved his arms counter-clockwise, creating a perfect circle in the metal. He gave the circle a vicious two-legged kick. The metal disk flew into the cabin as Trash stepped through behind it.
His processors' clock speeds immediately ramped up to just below critical shutdown levels. Relative time slowed as Trash took in the situation.
He saw that the metal disk had knocked one of the mercs sprawling. The other two mercs did not turn to look at him, but their shoulder mounted gauss gun auto-turrets did. His hull armor was good but it could only stand so much before the hail of tiny metal death hooking into it at hypersonic speed turned him to scrap.
He immediately activated the V-bomb with a command. Relief washed over his personality mask when he saw the turrets and their owners begin to jerk like marionettes controlled by a hyperactive three year old. One fell down in spasms, the other merc already on the floor was also jerking uncontrollably.
Then he noticed that the other merc was still managing to keep his quadrail musket trained on Grip.
Grip was standing, braced against the opposite wall, holding what was left of the pod hatch like an ancient shield with two tentacles. His chameleon suit was ripped to shreds. Another tentacle held his own quadrail musket. The fourth arm-tentacle lay on the floor, oozing thick cyan blood.
by David William Wood (2013) Next Chapter Previous Chapter Dissension Index Page Voices Future Tense 22 Table of Contents
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