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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Brooke’s Battles: Bailout (Part XIII)

As it turned out, the ship that appeared in their cargo bay was not a ship at all, but a machine called The Prototype. Old friend and Brooke’s mother figure, Leona was on it, along with a few other friends. They had just been traveling the multiverse, looking for various objects that were apparently meant to help Leona find her husband, who was erased from the timeline. The last object they were looking for was the Cosmic Sextant, which Farhana happened to have in her possession. In a major personnel change, Ecrin and Relehir took the Prototype on their own new mysterious mission to battle Maramon in other universes. The Vespiarians decided to return to civilization on their refueled ship. A Freemarketeer cargomaster defected, and chose to go with them, as did Leona and Holly Blue, who wanted to see her family again. Vitalie, the astral projector from Durus, who helped Ecrin find Brooke after the latter had a breakdown years ago, wanted to come with them to Bungula. And so everyone left Vespiary at about the same time; The Vosa to Earth, and The Sharice Davids to the Alpha Centauri triple-star system.
Sharice was not chosen as captain because she had leadership qualities, or years of experience. She was chosen because she was the most intelligent entity on board, and was already ultimately most responsible for the ship’s operations. With an artificial intelligence like her, no human crew was truly necessary, especially not now that Sharice had access to an assorted complement of android bodies, some with nimble fingers. While in android form, she maintained contact with the ship proper via vocal and manual commands, just like anyone else would. After clearing Vespiarian space, the ship went off on what might have been its final mission, moving at eight times the speed of light. While it would take the light from the sun 4.37 years to get to Alpha Centauri A, it was only going to take the ship four and a half months. Unfortunately, fate—or perhaps some enemy—had other plans for them.
Four months into the trip, just about everything that can go wrong on a ship, did go wrong. The cylicone exploded, killing three Freemarketeer crew members, and six passengers immediately. Weaver acted quickly, and jettisoned the back third of the vessel to protect the rest of it, which sadly killed the four Freemarketeers who survived the initial explosion. That was not their only problem, however. Entire systems shut down, including navigation, internal power, and thrust. They were out of FTL, drifting roughly towards their destination at a fraction of the speed of light, operating only on the momentum they maintained.
Sharice slipped herself into an android body just in time to protect herself from code corruption as the ship continued to fail. Artificial gravity was slowly losing power, and life support would probably only last them another five minutes, or so. She ordered everyone to congregate on the bridge deck, which could theoretically be separated from the rest of the vessel, in case of emergency. Étude took it upon herself to teleport all over the Sharice, looking for stragglers, or the immobile injured. The deck was packed with a few dozen people, but neither Brooke nor Sharice knew what they were going to do. Étude came back, and waved at them for attention.
“Did you get everyone?” Sharice asked.
She shook her head, and motioned for her to come with.
Brooke stepped forward and took Étude by her other shoulder, and the three of them teleported to an airlock in the cargo hold, which was about to be torn apart. Two Freemarketeers were ready for them, holding firearms, which they weren’t meant to have.
“What’s going on here?”
“Keep them away from me,” President Treacy ordered his men.
“What are you doing?” Sharice demanded to know. “Did you hack into our quantum messenger?”
“How do I work this thing?”
“There is no point in sending a message. We are light years away from civilization,” Sharice told him.
“Actually, we’re only about nine hundred astronomical units from Proxima Doma.”
“Do they have an interstellar ferry, or something, at the moment?” Sharice asked her, half-rhetorically.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m not calling for help,” Treacy explained. “Got it. Hargesen, Hargesen!” He shouted into the mouthpiece. “Come in, Hargesen.”
“This isn’t one of our scheduled meeting times,” one of the guards told him.
“I know that, asshole!” Treacy cried.
“You’re not supposed to be using this at all,” Sharice said angrily. “How did you get past my sensors?”
Treacy ignored the question. “Fine. I’ll leave a message.” He went back to the mouthpiece. “Hargesen! We were set up! Operation Pyrethroid is a go!”
“Stop!” Sharice commanded him. She knocked the gun out of one of the guard’s hands, which prompted the other to shoot Brooke right in the forehead.
Brooke stood there for a moment, watching the light around her shrink inwards to the blackness. She felt her own systems shutting down, and the life draining from her body. As durable as she was, it was still possible for her to die. She could have survived a pedestrian bullet, but this was some kind of burrower. It continued to work its way through her brain, destroying everything in its path.
“No!” Sharice screamed. “Computer, initiate Operation Conflux!”
Brooke suddenly felt the life returning to her. Or rather, it was more like she was following her life somewhere new. It reminded her of what it was like to interface with an external system, which was something she hadn’t done in a long time. Her consciousness was being lifted from its original substrate, and transferred into another. She was becoming part of the ship. It took a few moments to acclimate to her new environment, and she had to figure out how to work the ship’s sensors. When she finally woke all the way up, she found herself watching the humans back on the bridge deck.
“You killed them all?” Weaver asked.
“I had to. They tried to kill my mother.”
“I’m not judging you,” Weaver said. “I just need to make sure no one else is going to be a problem.” She looked around at the rest of the Freemarketeers. “Is anyone else planning to stir up trouble, or do y’all wanna live?”
The head Freemarketeer engineer, Ramses Abdulrashid pushed himself through the crowd. “We will do anything you say. Won’t we?” he asked of his people.
They agreed, mostly out of fear. Of all of them, only Ram seemed reasonable.
“Good,” Weaver said. “Because I have a plan. But first, we have to break away from the rest of the ship. Unfortunately, that can’t be done in here. Only the console on the other side is functioning. It’s also a two person job. Since none of you is a transhuman, I’m going to need the strongest person to help me.”
“How are we supposed to get back over here?” a random person asked.
“Étude will teleport us back at the last second,” Weaver replied.
“She’ll what?”
“I can go,” Sharice said. “I’m stronger than anybody.”
Weaver shook her head. “Impossible. You will basically have to hold the doors closed all by yourself. I need a human volunteer.”
“I’ll do it,” Ram said. “I know more about how the ship works than anyone but the real crew. I’m the obvious choice.”
“Okay,” Weaver said. “Let’s go.”
A helpless Brooke watched as Weaver and Ram worked on separating the bridge deck. Time was running out as the integrity of the hull buckled under the stress. Weaver had to hold a button down on the console while Ram tried to pull the manual release lever on the other side of the hallway. He wasn’t strong enough, though. Suddenly, Étude appeared, holding Goswin.
“No!” Brooke tried to yell, but she still hadn’t figured out how to access the speaker system from the inside.
Goswin reached down and helped pull the lever, releasing the bridge deck in a way it never should have needed to. The two halves started moving away from each other at an incredible rate, and would be too far for Étude to teleport within seconds.
A figure appeared down the hallway, crawling towards them. It was Vitalie, who had come on board last second. Brooke had almost forgotten about her, and there had not been time to do a roll call. They were minutes away from losing life support, even if they all got back to the bridge deck. Ram instinctively ran over to her to help. He reached her just as Étude teleported there, took them both, and got them back to the bridge. Étude then tried to jump back for Weaver and Goswin, but something was stopping her. Technically, it was possible for a teleporter to jump into a deadly situation, like at the bottom of the ocean, or in the vacuum of space. Most were born with a sort of failsafe built into their instincts, which prevented them from doing this without trying really hard. For instance, a set of coordinates might send them to the middle of a wall, so the failsafe will kick in subconsciously, and land them at the closest relatively safe place. Étude could not get back to the other section of the Sharice, because it was already too far away.
Computer,” Weaver’s voice came in on the speakers. “Initiate burst mode. AU level. Target Proxima Doma.” A distance of 892 AU meant it would take the bridge deck 892 seconds to reach its destination, or about fifteen minutes. Holly Blue long ago warned that the integrity of the hull would not last a few hundred, but perhaps she and Weaver reinforced it somehow. After all, Brooke had no idea that they were capable of teleporting at the AU range, because they never had before. The lone Holly Blue often worked on unauthorized projects, so it was no surprise that two Holly Blues together would do the same.
Things were not going well, though. Sharice’s android body was about to give out from the stress of trying to hold the door closed. The deck was threatening to break apart just as predicted. The humans were all freaking out. The only person who was at all calm was Étude. After treating Vitalie’s wounds, she casually walked over to the hidden safe in the wall, and input a code she had no business knowing. She removed the Insulator of Life, and handed it to Vitalie.
“Do you know what’s going to happen?” Vitalie asked her.
Étude studied Vitalie’s face for a moment. Then she nodded.
“Are we going to die?”
Étude looked at Ram, then back at Vitalie, and shook her head. Then she looked over at the rest of the crowd, and nodded.
“Is there nothing we can do?” Ram asked.
Étude shook her head again.
“Looks like Treacy was right,” Ram said. “He was paranoid the solar system leadership would sabotage this mission. They backed out of the original deal pretty abruptly.”
Étude shrugged her shoulders.
“Yes,” Ram said. “There are worst tragedies.”
Étude exited the main area, to the entryway, where Sharice was desperately trying to hold the outer doors closed. She gently placed her hand on Sharice’s shoulder. Then she nodded, as if to say, it’s okay to let go. She signed the word for insulator.
“Will that work?” Sharice asked.
Étude smiled.
Sharice looked back at the doors one last time after Étude left, then sent her consciousness back to the main systems, right next to Brooke’s. The doors broke open, sending the android body flying out, along with a couple Freemarketeers who had decided to wait in the entryway. “Mom,” she said. “We’re going to live.”
“No,” Brooke said back. “Étude, Vitalie, and Abdulrashid will. The ship won’t make it.”
“I should have held onto the doors longer.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered. Our mission is over.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
A minute later, the bridge deck was literally tearing apart at the seams. At the last second, Étude teleported herself, Vitalie, and Ram to the surface of Doma. The rest of the people crashed and burned.
The insulator was keeping the three survivors alive in an otherwise very inhospitable environment. They were miles and miles away from the habitat a nanofactory had built for this planet’s colonists a few years ago. But how did Brooke see that? She could sense the three humans around her, but she should have died in the crash too. Evidently, the Insulator of Life was keeping her and Sharice alive as well. That was great, but that still left one question. Now what?

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