Dissension (Part 3 of 4)
Trash felt a surge of anger from his personality mask and launched himself full tilt at the mercenary. The merc swung his gun on Trash and let loose. The metal pellets slashed into his frontal sensor array. Pressure, thermal and damage sensors calmly reported the extent of damage, which once filtered through the personality mask, registered more contempt than anger. Humanoid bionts always stupidly assumed that central processors always reside behind sensor arrays.

Unslowed, the vec stabbed his torches through the merc’s helm like blazing daggers. A quick scream and he dropped dead. Classic humanoid design fail.

Grip threw down the pod hatch and waved at Trash. He stalked over and picked up his severed tentacle. Murmuring a bubbling, gagging octo curse, he fished in his field repair kit and pulled out a spray canister and shook it.

He quickly sprayed the stump, then the end of the severed tentacle with a blue liquid that turned clear in a couple of seconds. Giving the arm a pragmatic appraisal, he stowed the spray back in his kit and pulled out a roll of thick, black tape. Grip carefully put the tentacle to the stump, using his intricate bioluminescent arm tattoos as a reference and proceeded to seal the ends together with the tape.

“And here I thought those fancy tattoos were just for looking tough and spooky,” Trash said.

Grip laughed, “Well, that too, but every merc with half a brain has guide marks of one kind or another. Lining them up makes the healing go quicker.”

“Excuse me boys, I know you are sharing a moment right now, but I’ve just confirmed the ship intends to self-destruct if it does not receive a security confirmation code from the cockpit in 120 seconds.” Onyx said dryly.

Trash left Grip and raced to the cockpit and jacked into the system. The ship immediately demanded ID, authorization codes. When they were not instantly given, defensive programs leapt up to try and fry his system.

“A little help, ladies,” Trash said.

He felt Onyx and Karen lend their not-inconsiderable processing might to his. With their help he quickly neutralized the defensive programs and detected the self-destruct protocol Onyx had reported. He could see that it was still operational, very encrypted and set on a hair trigger. One error and the ship would destroy itself. He decided to leave it to the expert.

“Onyx, think you can handle it?” Trash asked.

“We will find out. I will need you and Karen to lend me as much processing as you can spare for the next few seconds. I hope you have backed yourself up fairly recently, Trash.”

“Yeah, transmitted my last back up to my private node right before we hooked up with the single. That reminds me. Grip, get your slimy ass back on Karen, unless you have another sloppy meat clone holed up in a creepy lab somewhere.”

“Fuck you, metal ass.” Grip said. Karen reported that he was on board and the bay closed a few seconds later.”

“Ok Feathers, go for it.”

The next few moments stretched on into eternity. The ship began vibrating and Trash braced himself for annihilation.

The ship went still.

“It has settled down. I am going to investigate the system thoroughly for any more surprises.” Onyx said.

Trash joined Grip back in the crew quarters while Onyx worked through the ship’s system.

He looked over the cyborg splices lying dead on the floor. He felt a twinge of guilt. It was times like this that the mask was an annoyance. They had shot half his primary sensor array off and he calculated the odds that they were on an innocent humanitarian mission to be astronomically small, but the truth was he had attacked them and their ship illegally. He was officially a pirate again, according to the laws of the Confederation. Only this time, he was acting completely on his own volition.

He looked at Grip, who was examining the mercs’ cybernetics up close. The battle hardened merc did not seem the least bit concerned. Not that it was easy to interpret emotion from an octo provolve cyborg, even when he was an old friend.

“Hell, Trash. These fellas couldn’t fight worth a damn, but they got some good gear. Some of it’s good as mine. Wonder who paid for it, can’t see these shit bricks earning the cred for it.”

“Good question. Maybe Onyx can give us some answers after she’s done snooping.”

“What do you want me to do with them now?” Grip asked.

“Eat them? Why let the meat go to waste?” Trash said.

“Ugh, you serious? I ain’t no cannibal!”

“They aren’t octos, it can’t be cannibalism. Then you can part out and sell their gear. It’s the most logical course of action. Have at them.” Trash said phlegmatically with a wave of a manipulator.

“You’re a cold sonofabitch, Trash.”

“I’m also joking, numb-nuts. Just put them into the escape pods and send them off into the K-belt. They won’t be the only corpses floating around in that jungle.” Trash said.

While Grip was taking care of the bodies, Trash went back outside to check on the tow connection one more time. Grip was already back on board Karen by the time he came back.

“Trash, do you still have any salvaged coolie vecs on board?” Onyx asked.

“Yeah. What do you want with them?”

“If you would not mind, I’d like to borrow one to do some scouting of my own on board. I want to make a clean sweep and ensure there are no tracking devices or booby traps that I did not pick up through the ship’s system data and sensors.”

“Sure, just be quick. We’re out in the middle of nowhere, but this biz is making me nervous.”

Trash had Karen open up one of her storage panels in her cargo hold. Trash reached in and pulled out a cube half a meter on its side. It looked like a vec that had been caught in a compactor. He activated it with a wireless signal.

The cube came to life, quickly unpacking itself and forming into small, light weight coolie vec standing only a meter tall with two spindly arms ending in simple gripper claws and bipedal legs with large, stable feet. It stared at him stupidly with its simple optical sensor array.

It was not the top of the line model, and he rarely had any use for them, but they had their purpose and the model had the benefit of being easily modified, both in hardware and software.

A second later, he saw a gleam of intelligence come over the vec as it began examining its grippers and flexing its various joints.

“This will do nicely. Thank you.” Onyx’s voice said through the vec’s low quality voice synthesizer.

“No problem, just hurry it up.” Trash said.

The vec nodded and jumped off out of Karen’s open bay, thrusters propelling it towards the single.

After an hour had passed, Trash began to get impatient.

“You done yet, Onyx?” Trash asked. He was eager to get this ship back to Hunter, get his cred and get the hell out of this system. He could feel in his photonic circuits that he had overstayed his welcome in Enki-AB.

“I am finished.” Onyx said.

A minute later, she landed her vec body back on board. The vec walked back to the cargo hold and folded itself back into a cube. Trash put it away. Onyx’s holo was already back in the crew quarters.

“Did you figure out what it was this hunk of junk is carrying that Firmament wants so bad?” Trash asked offhandedly. He was only a little curious, but he did think it was a little strange that the single’s holds had been empty of anything aside from the mercenary’s meager belongings, spare ship parts and tools.

“No, but I would not refer to it as a hunk of junk, it has an impressive architecture. Hazzor technology seems to be slightly more advanced than Enki’s,” she said.

“Very interesting. Now let’s get the hell out of here.” Trash said abruptly. “Fire it up Karen.”

In less than a day they approached Enki A’s outermost gas giant, Tian Lan marking their exit from the kuiper belt. Trash saw the giant blue orb grow larger by the hour and thought about how in a couple of weeks, they would be back in Hunter’s gravity well. It was slow going. The singleship weighed more than Karen. They had examined the ship since they were sol-bound.

Trash stood in front in front of a mirrored panel, methodically repairing his damaged sensor array with an extensive collection of spare parts sitting on a tray.

“I still don’t see what’s so special about this single,” he said. “It’s not carrying any cargo I can detect. The ship itself is nothing really special. Did you find anything Onyx?”

“There are sectors of the ship’s memory that are heavily encrypted. I could crack them by the time we reached Hunter, but I do not think Firmament would like us accessing these areas, since they have nothing to do with navigation or security,” she said.

“You’re probably right,” Trash said grudgingly.

He finished the delicate work and carefully affixed the new panels, replacing those damaged by the mercenaries’ muskets. In a way, it was almost worth getting shot in the face, since it gave him an opportunity to use the skills for which he had been originally designed, he thought, feeling a surge of nostalgia from his mask.

Grip watched him from a comfortable chair in the corner of the crew quarters, exercising his newly re-attached limb. He wiggled all eight fingers with dexterity. He tapped his newly repaired cyber armor.

“Thanks again for fixing me up, Hoss! What do I owe you for parts and labor?” he said.

“Don’t sweat it, Grip.” Trash said, settling down in another corner of the room.

“I’m telling you man, with your skills and big metal balls, the clan would pay you serious cred to patch us up on combat missions. It’s hard to find good techs who are willing to go out on the front lines with us.”

Trash waived off the suggestion, “Thanks for the offer, but me and Karen are out of here as soon as we get paid.”

“I’m glad you’ve finally seen reason, Trash.” Karen chimed in.

“Yeah, well, before I didn’t have a few million cred to pay to get out-system. They charge by weight, and you aren’t exactly small, Karen,” Trash said.

Karen responded with silence.

“Why do you not simply transfer to a vec shell for transit? It would be simple enough to find an appropriate vec shell.” Onyx suggested.

Karen signaled a note of apology, “No Onyx, I will never permanently abandon this form. I have considered it, but I believe my unique structure and continuity to be intrinsic to my existence and identity. I doubt there will ever be a model with high enough resolution to satisfy me that I would remain who I am. Please don’t take offense.”

“I take no offense. I understand. It was no easy decision for me to choose destructive upload. In the end, I decided that the freedom in afforded me was worth the inevitable data loss,” Onyx said quietly.

“Well, anyway, we’ll soon be rich enough to haul ten Karen’s across the void.” Trash said, trying to break the somber mood.

“Damn straight,” Grip agreed. “I can’t wait to flash that cred at the Gurita council and watch the elders find excuses not to make the Exodus.”

“Don’t get cocky, Grip. They didn’t get to where they are by being slow,” Trash warned.

“It’s hard to tell sometimes, “Grip said, his skin turning the pale blue-white that Trash associated with anger and frustration.

“Like contracting almost exclusively with Firmament. We might as well be their Gaia damned private security force! The elders snatch up kick-backs with all eight arms and beak while we grunts are out there getting blown to shit by the damned rebs. I mean, yeah all those belt squatters are breaking the law. Firmament bought up those sectors from the Confederacy, but hell, they’re just trying to live free! I get that.”

He took a long pull from the flask and drew in his legs like a dying spider.

No one knows how to brood like an octo, Trash thought.

He tried the shake the mood that seemed to grip the group by tuning in to Karen’s visual sensors and looking out onto space. It always calmed his mask and helped him process data and model unemotionally. He noticed Tian Lan growing ever larger. He admired the big blue gas giant’s beauty.

Hanging around the planet were white sparkles of light winking off the light of Enki-B. One of the lights suddenly broke away from the rest. Trash watched it for a few seconds and noticed its apparent magnitude was increasing at a steady rate. He realized it was getting closer and calculated its speed as that of a vessel.

“Karen, what is that?” he said, sensors trained on the light.

Karen zoomed in on the point of light. As she zoomed in, the lights broke into three arranged in a V-formation, the largest in front. He could just make out their features.

“Damn, Confederacy patrol. Rebs probably just did a raid on one of the extraction bases.” Trash said to Karen in their private code.

“They are coming in fast.” Karen responded.

“Why haven’t they hailed us yet,” Trash wondered out loud.

“I suspect they are trying to close as much distance as possible before making their intentions known. It has been a common tactic of law enforcement since before the ancients left Gaia.” Karen said.

“Can you out run them?”

“Certainly, if I were not hauling a vessel two times my own weight,” she said testily.

“I suppose we shouldn’t run in any case. I’m sure it’s just a routine search. Good thing we picked up that salvage license a few year ago. That’ll help explain the single if they aren’t too nosy. Go ahead and make contact and give them our ID, Karen.”

Karen hailed the patrol. Trash noticed that the lead vessel was frigate-class, fast with decent weaponry. It was flanked by four sleek interceptor drones, sub-sapient AI, but damn good at their job.

Trash felt Karen link him to the comm channel to receive the patrol’s response.

“Shut down your engines, Freighter Y7-239011. Prepare for inspection,” came the succinct command.

Trash decided not to just roll over to the patrol, “What are you and who’s your CO?” Trash said, hoping that on the off chance, the commanding officer was one of the vec or cyborg captains he had become familiar with during his shipping runs.

“Confederate Frigate UB34-870442 commanded by Aegis System version 3.194X, sixty-fifth clone.”

Trash felt his imaginary stomach drop.

“What the hell is an Aegis Battlemind doing in charge of a little planetary patrol? They’re built to manage large-scale conflicts, not sec checks.” Trash wondered.

“I do not know, but it does not look promising. What do you want me to do?”

“Begin powering your engines down, but don’t shut down completely. Be ready to cut the tow on my word.” Trash said.

Karen began to slow. Trash gripped a rung of the companion ladder to keep steady. He heard a thump from the cabin.

Grip came in, looking unhappy. “What’s going on Hoss? We making a pit stop?”

“Confederate patrol.” Trash said tersely.

“What a pain in the ass.” Grip said. “What’s the plan?”

“Try to bullshit them into thinking we’re just on a salvage run from the belt.”

Grip made a gurgling chuckle, “Yeah, because there’s all sorts of interstellar vessels floating around the cloud waiting to be scooped up.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Squishy. Don’t get too worked up just yet.” Trash said calmly.

Trash watched the big frigate and its retinue approach. The Aegis sent another query.

“”What is your purpose in this sector?” the Aegis said.

“We’re returning from a salvage run in the belt. Has there been any trouble?” Trash asked.

“Salvage license please,” the Aegis replied, ignoring Trash’s query.

Trash transferred a copy of his license. Seconds crawled by.

“This appears to be in order.”

Trash felt a flood of relief wash over his mask.

“Now if you will please open your ship’s main bay and that of your salvaged vessel, I will dispatch inspectors to perform a routine contraband check.” The Aegis said.

Trash knew there was nothing routine about that. Contraband checks are performed at ports, not in the middle of nowhere by random patrols. They were looking for something, he knew it. Grip looked at him. Trash knew he was thinking the same thing.

“This is smelling like a set-up, Trash,” the provolve said grimly.

Trash knew he was right. But he also knew there was no way Karen could outrun the patrol even if she broke the tow and shot away instantly. Those interceptors would be on her before she could get more than a few hundred kilometers.

“Sorry Grip, Onyx for getting you involved,” Trash said.

“Do not apologize, Trash. We knew what we signed up for. Great reward entails great risk.

“That’s the truth,” Grip said, patting Trash’s hull.

“Alright, let them on Karen,” Trash said at last. “We just have to hope we aren’t the ones they’re obviously looking for.”

Karen opened up her hatch and the main hatch of the single through a remote hack Onyx had set up. Trash watched the frigate release thirty small orb-shaped probes the smugglers nick named snitches after some inane Old Earth meme. Though only a few centimeters in diameter, Trash knew they had the most advanced sensing and identification technology available in Enki. A single snitch was good at its job. In large numbers, there was virtually no datum that could escape their notice. They would surmise the single’s origin within seconds, based on clues Trash could only guess at. He resigned himself to the inevitable.

He would probably have his entire memory downloaded into a Confederate Intelligence database, along with Karen’s. Luckily, they were wise enough to have their backups sent to a randomized server node unknown to them. He guessed Onyx could probably flit away as easily as she had arrived. Trash began to question just what Onyx had become after all the years since going virch.

Grip had the least to worry about, he thought. He was the only one of them that had full sentient rights, not to mention connections. He’d be interrogated, his clan would make a carefully placed bribe or three and he’d be back on Tethys in a few days.

“I suggest, for our safety, that you disengage the tow and engage your engines,” Onyx told Karen abruptly.

“What?” Trash said, truly puzzled.

“Disengaging, engaging.” Karen replied flatly.

“What the hell! Have you gone buggy? Disengage!” Trash attempted to enter Karen’s system control and perform an override only to run into a thick wall of encryption. A second later he felt the powerful humming of her engines and a shudder as the tow was disengaged.

He quickly looked out with Karen’s passive sensors and saw the interceptors already closing in around them like dogs let off their leash and told “sic ‘em!”.

Luckily, thanks to millions of creds spent over nearly a hundred years, Karen was very fast, fast and nimble. Before the sleek hunters could move a couple of kilometers, Karen powerful engine had shot them a hundred kilometers away.

He felt her hull shake and his mask winced. They could outrun the patrol, but they could not outrun their tracking system and might as well have been stock still as far as their ion cannons were concerned. Trash had strengthened her exterior considerably more than any small freighter in the system, but he knew she could still only withstand a few direct hits before they would breach her hull.

He prepared himself for oblivion, as short lived as it would be. His mask prodded him to ponder the meaning of existence in these brief few moments he had left, but he told it to screw off.

The next thing he knew, he was turning somersaults through the air and crashing into the wall of the cockpit. He looked back at the patrol and saw nothing but a rapidly dissipating white glow and pieces of interceptor and command frigate flying away from the spot he remembered the singleship being.

He looked for Grip and saw him standing unperturbed in the middle of the crew cabin. Trash envied his friends reflexes as he ran a quick diagnostic on himself, discovering no damage aside from his pride.

“Damned if they didn’t blow that single to hell.” Grip said, rubbing his head.

“Who did?” Trash said.

“Don’t know.” Grip answered. “Ask the ladies, they seem to be in cahoots.”

“Well ladies, what gives?”

“I asked Karen to remove us from the vicinity of the single, as it only had six seconds left before self-destruct.” Onyx said calmly.

“You rigged it? Why didn’t you tell me!” Trash demanded.

by David William Wood

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