The stereopsis module clicked open in Wren’s fingers. “For the next five minutes,” she said, “try not to play any ping-pong.”
She sliced deftly into my abdomen, and though my somatic subsystem signaled pain, I didn’t wince – wouldn’t want her to think I was nervous.
Usually Wren’s workbench loops were stuffed with starship components for customers brave enough to scavenge the Drift or rich enough to pay someone else to. Today, though, she was down to a disassembled Kviksølv cyborg body. Well, a knockoff Kviksølv. Wren unclipped a cable and my view of the bench sank to 2D as my eyes automatically switched to my backup visual processor.
“Okay, Buffalo, here goes.” She waved theatrically. Her fingers were grubby, but her burgundy nail polish was unscratched.
With a flare, the new Kviksølv stereopsis module brought the third dimension surging back. The workshop had developed a red tint, though, like a bootleg romcom dribbling over the ansible from seventy light-years away. I tried to recalibrate off my memories of Wren’s dark skin, but it didn’t help.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “The camera’s adding ten pounds.”
“Depth’s good,” I said. “Color’s off. Might need a software patch.”
She drummed her fingernails on the bench. “I’ll see what I can do, but I doubt anyone’s ported the drivers. Your operating system is …” Obsolete, I thought. “Legacy,” she finished. “Now, if you wanted me to upgrade you into the Kviksølv –”
The comms rack hooted. Wren squinted past me at the screen. I have the parts to connect to the repair base computers directly, but I never enable them. I’m too much of a machine as it is.
“Someone called the Plasma Push wants clearance to land.” Wren’s gaze flicked back and forth across the display. “Ever hear of these guys?”
“Nope.” I leaned back and scanned the screen anyway. Had Ypsilanti Rowe ever heard of them, that’s what she meant.
“Base broadcast,” said Wren. “‘Plasma Push, you here to buy something? Otherwise you can dock at the Flotsam.’“
The Plasma Push replied with a flash of torpedo tubes.
“Guess he doesn’t like their two-drink minimum,” said Wren. “I hope you can still shoot with that Kviksølv, Buffalo, ’cause there’s no time to pull it out.” Worry creased her face. Base defense had been hard enough back when there were three of us.
I held my guts shut with one hand and vaulted easily into the gunners’ chair –Wren had set up her repair shop on an asteroid where gravity was less of a law and more of a gentle suggestion. The incoming torpedo was still half a klick out, so I spared a precious half-second to fire off an automated alert to the sheriff. I didn’t expect any help from that quarter, but the record would show that we’d asked.
“I’ll handle the Push,” said Wren. “You keep those torps from flattening my mechanics.”
The combat display limned Wren’s magnetic bursters streaking towards the red ellipse of the Plasma Push. She was hoping to knock out its computer systems and salvage it. How much would we get for a high-end armed cruiser like that? I wondered. There might be flashier tech in the Drift, but the Push would bring in good cash, even after the sheriff took his cut. Maybe enough to hire a professional programmer from out in the Intersolar to code up some custom optical drivers for me.
But right now I had other worries. I latched my targeting ring onto the torpedo and squeezed the bars, blasting out high-impact rounds. I didn’t want the chair’s control ports – or need them. I have Ypsilanti’s memories, fresh as the day he stuck his head in the braincaster: Orbital Patrol flight school and freelance piloting through the roughest parts of the galactic arm. Plus my own fifteen years scavenging the Drift.
I stole a glance at Wren’s sly smile. My drives had plenty of room for one memory more.
I hated to turn back to the screen. The Push‘s torpedo pulsed closer, an inflamed red teardrop, and my shots’ gentle green trajectories curved to intercept it. Closer, closer – and then the attacking teardrop split in three.
My false-green bullets obediently wiped away the center target, the chunk of the torpedo that had stayed on the original course. That one would be a dummy – the warheads were on the daughter torps. I snapped my guns to spray.
The Kviksølv components rattled against the bench padding. Wren’s mechanics had loosed an artillery barrage from the gun battery in the spinward bay. With luck, even civilians like them could keep our airspace too hot for the Plasma Push to land. The Push could still bombard us from above, though, until and unless Wren and I brought it down.
Wren’s own burster shots were still only halfway to the Push. She fired off a second wave. “Buffalo, you got those baby torps under control? I want this jackass’s hide. Ammo costs money.”
“Don’t you worry,” I said, but I was worrying a little myself. The torpedoes were closing in on the base, and our domes wouldn’t hold up to a direct hit. I didn’t care about air, but I did care about Wren.
My autonomic modules wouldn’t switch on my synthetic sweat glands in the cool workroom air, but my hands were tight on the firing bars. I raked my shots across the torpedoes’ course.
The combat display chittered. A new dot was streaking into range – a second warship. Some bizarre model I’d never seen, a mass of chrome bubbles never meant to taste atmosphere. It didn’t even have viewports. The sheer strangeness of it confirmed what the combat screen’s plot of its course was telling me: it was straight out of the Drift.
“Wren, I guess even jackasses have friends. And this guy’s from the wrong side of the tracks.” The Drift was a Darwinian stew of wild AIs, endlessly devising new tech and building new ships to battle each other. Fortunately for everyone, they stayed there. Or they had, until, apparently, now. Too bad there wasn’t time to blast out another message to Sheriff Thibodeaux. “Drift ship attacking” would certainly grab his attention.
Wren rattled off some high-octane profanity. “That’s not a salvager, that’s salvage. The hell with capturing the Push. Let’s just stay alive.”
My bullet spray wiped one warhead off the display, and I turned my guns on the second. This close, the torpedo’s jammers were fuzzing the base sensors. The target jittered on my screen.
I instinctively switched to cameras and zoomed in. The display couldn’t keep the tactical overlay synched, and the torpedo was barely a gray smudge against the starfield. In a few seconds, it would smash into the base. I had one shot.
I dialed up the precision fire controls. The smaller caliber wouldn’t have the punch to knock the warhead out altogether, but if I could lead it just right …
My vision flickered.
I held my breath. My atmospheric sensor bleeped a warning.
The world reappeared, and I fired.
My bullets trimmed away the torpedo’s fins and sent it spinning into the dead rock beyond the base walls. I felt the slam of impact.
“You got it!” Wren whooped. “I’m not even going to complain about re-forceforming that landing field.” Wren was still alive, and I was still – well – me.
I swung my targeting ring toward the Plasma Push, but the rotten little bastard was racing away, out of our orbit and out of range. Had that Drift ship scared it off? If so, they weren’t working together. I wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad.
The Drift ship hadn’t fired. My screen showed a data squirt, but it wasn’t a standard ship hail, just a series of plaintext words: clip clock block solder light to tendon guard cover cushion keep keep safe.
“Should we be writing this down?” I said.
Not having received whatever mad answer it hoped for, the ship fired its torch and turned back Driftwards.
“Well,” said Wren, “that’s interesting. I’ll have some mechanics come up and warm our gun chairs for a few hours. I think it’s time for a visit to the sheriff’s office.”
Everyone told Iron Jill she should’ve named the Flotsam the Corkscrew. “We can’t serve wine until Tramptown starts growing grapes,” she’d say in her gritty monotone. Same delivery every time. I never knew whether she was joking – I think her emotion chips were burned out.
The Flotsam was a vast spiral of metal and forceformed concrete, cruising among the miscellaneous scavenging ships that comprised Tramptown. It was too big and balky to be called a ship; the Flotsam’s engines were barely big enough to spin up a gentle half-Earth gravity that comforted visitors from the Intersolar and discouraged the locals from brawling.
The Flotsam’s bulky backbone was probably built to house starships while they were under construction, but long before my time, Jill towed it out of the Drift and set up shop. The only habitable section was the domed bar inside one end of the vast tube. But the Flotsam was more than a watering hole; salvagers came here when they didn’t feel like attending the Tramptown Baptist Church but still needed to see someone besides their own shipmates. Automated trade shuttles brought in what we couldn’t rig up for ourselves – like snacks from the middle of the food chain instead of the sludgy bottom, or Kviksølv cyborg bodies – and left with whatever technology we’d scavenged from the Drift. Iron Jill could even afford decent ansible bandwidth to the Intersolar. Someday the Flotsam would be the nucleus of a real town.
It was purely logical that Sheriff Thibodeaux would set himself up in the back room. Nothing to do with the Flotsam having the best stills in Tramptown. Of course not.
Thibodeaux’s office reeked of fried seaweed and mustard; he obviously didn’t take his meals with the common salvagers. He clinked his shot glass onto the magnetic coaster installed in his desktop.
“Nothing comes out of the Drift except salvagers,” he grunted, “so what makes you think that’s suddenly changed?” The counter app I’d coded on the fly popped a 3 into my visual display.
“Look at my logs if you don’t believe me.” Wren leaned her elbows on Thibodeaux’s smart desk. “And I’m a lot more interested in this Plasma Push newcomer, seeing as that’s who actually shot at me.”
“Which I understand to be illegal,” I said. Thibodeaux snorted at Wren, like her communicator had warbled some embarrassing cyborg boy-band ringtone, and poured himself another shot.
Thibodeaux had turned up in the Drift last year with an armed ship and an intriguing proposal. He’d heard Tramptown was getting big enough for a sheriff, and he wanted the job. He ran unopposed – truthfully, most of us had been thankful for the chance to give that authority to someone without a stake in any of Tramptown’s long-running feuds.
Wren tapped her wristpad against Thibodeaux’s desk. Logfiles and photos scrolled by under the grease stains.
“That’s a Silverback-model cruiser,” said Thibodeaux. “Like the Intersolar cops have. Wouldn’t mind flying one myself, if people would get better about paying their ten percent into the law enforcement budget.”
He sipped his whiskey. “When the Plasma Push‘s crew gets to the Flotsam, I’ll talk with them about the local customs. Now, about this ship you say came out of the Drift …” I bumped the counter to 4, set my ears to record the conversation, and started replaying my favorite memory. My first.
Wren tightened the pads around my head. I closed my eyes as Ypsilanti, and opened them as me. Silver threads had appeared in her black braids, and her smile was tight. I noticed the roundness of her face before her pregnant belly.
“You hear me okay?” she said. “Because I won’t fit into my v-suit much longer, and I could use some help around here.”
That bulge was her son Prentiss. Another, less welcome memory bubbled up – Prentiss ambushed by the Drift ship Absolute Magnitude, gasping, metal tendrils wrapping his throat.
My recording program blinked: Wren and Thibodeaux’s conversation had shifted to a new subject. I replayed the last few seconds.
“You still keeping Ypsilanti’s cyborg around?” said Thibodeaux’s recorded voice. I switched my attention to the here-and-now.
“Buffalo works for me,” said Wren, matter-of-fact. “Gets a paycheck and everything.”
Thibodeaux uncoupled the shot glass and swished whiskey in his mouth. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Ypsilanti lately.”
“Can’t say I have.” Wren’s voice had cooled. I didn’t think Thibodeaux picked up on it.
Thibodeaux looked me over appraisingly. I’d liked it better when he ignored me.
“So Ypsilanti abandoned this cyborg. That means that if you plan to hang onto it, you’re salvaging it, and you owe me ten percent of the value.”
“God damn it,” said Wren. “What is it with you? Every couple of weeks you come nosing around my base, checking whether I’ve picked up anything I owe you on, even though you and I both know it’s been years since I went into the Drift – and even though Buffalo’s lived, uh, been in Tramptown since before you got here. My mechanic business is a full-time job and then some, but there you are, clomping around with your scanner and your spreadsheet. I might as well outsource my inventory management to the sheriff’s office. To think I voted for you.”
“Never let it be said I showed my supporters any favoritism,” said Thibodeaux. He stood up – the meeting was over. “I’m off to tell the Pechins to keep their hands off other people’s nori webs. We’ll talk later about what this cyborg’s worth.”
“You might never have been to the Drift,” I said, “but you oughta know that around here, some salvage shoots back.”
“I’ll keep it mind,” said Thibodeaux, and held out his hand. I spent way too many computational cycles deciding whether shaking it was manly or cowardly.
Iron Jill was spraying down the bar with a jet of carbonated water from her finger. I bellied up and ordered moonshine, coconut extract, extra grenadine – real liquid, not the algae gel you settle for out in micrograv. “For Wren?” Jill creaked.
She was a cyborg too, an older model, all metal and plastic. My silicone skin made me look human, but she’d never fool anyone.
“For Wren.” Neither Jill nor I ran on calories. “Throw in some of those chili strips. Hey, you seen any new ships around – maybe someone called the Plasma Push?” I thought about mentioning that strange ship from the Drift, but didn’t know how to answer the questions Jill was sure to ask.
“No new ships.” Jill counted my credit chips with her left hand, a surgical prosthetic designed for finer work. After she’d lost her factory-install in a docking accident on an Intersolar world years ago, she’d flown a cheap freighter to Tramptown, scavenged a dumb chunk of concrete from the Drift, and fused the two into the Flotsam. My color vision flickered, tinting her green.
Iron Jill was my future. I could replace my failing parts, for a while. But eventually there’d be nothing on the market I was compatible with, and Wren and I would jury-rig until our skill ran out. You can’t patch old jeans with new denim.
Wren waved me over – she’d snagged a table with a privacy hood. The Flotsam’s floor was transparent, and when the local gas giant Kameekoru slid past in the viewpane, she bounced her lucky ping-pong ball off it.
“Chili strips? Don’t mind if I do!” She broke one under her nose. Kelp flakes fluttered past her smile. “Gets the smell of Thibodeaux’s lunch out of my sinuses.”
I snagged the ping-pong ball on the rebound and snapped it at a distant, familiar flicker. Even through a viewpane, the Drift always gives me the shivers; I feel like I’m being watched. “Sounds to me like we’re on our own,” I said, “unless the Push parks in Thibodeaux’s docking space. We were better off without a sheriff.”
“Don’t say that,” said Wren, suddenly fierce. The ping-pong ball rattled under the table. “How many repairs did I barely break even on because some tough guy decided he deserved a discount, and I didn’t have the firepower to say no? Now at least we have a sheriff, and a two-cell jail, and a random lottery for jury slots. The old Tramptown was no place to raise a kid–” She stopped, hearing her own words.
I wanted to reach for her hand. That’s what Ypsilanti would’ve done, though he would’ve been more interested in looking like a compassionate guy – and maybe getting somewhere with Wren – than in how she actually felt. Instead I changed the subject. Fifteen years as friends had taught me she’d welcome the distraction.
“Maybe someday we’ll have an actual lawbook,” I said, “not just what Thibodeaux picks up from the Intersolar cop shows.” The seam where Wren had glued my abdomen back together tickled. Too bad there wasn’t a ping-pong match to distract us even more. The Flotsam was the only place in Tramptown that pulled enough g for a proper game, but all the customers were buzzing around the bar instead. “Shit, Wren, you’re right; life’s better. But we both know that if some scavenger broke me down for scrap, Thibodeaux might maybe warn them for littering.”
“Is it really two years to the next election? Christ.” She ran her burgundy fingernail around the lip of her glass.
Kameekoru slipped past the edge of the transparent floor panel. We scavengers didn’t bother orbiting it. There’s nothing there, unless you like hydrogen and gravelly little moons.
But we wouldn’t be here without it. Any object in its orbital zone was nudged by Kameekoru’s vast gravitational dominance, herded into the Lagrange points in its orbit. One cluster of asteroids at the L4 point was forever running away from the gas giant– that’s where we’d built Tramptown. And there was stranger cluster anti-spinward at L5 – the Drift. Once it had been a military shipyard, back in our granddads’ wars; now it was a bubbling Petri dish of combat AIs evolving new ways to kill each other.
Wren toyed with her swizzle stick, staring into the swirling liquids like a kid – it wasn’t something you got to do every day in the microgravity back on base. She looked more sad than dreamy.
“I wonder if Thibodeaux hates Jill the way he hates me?” I said, to lighten things up. “He doesn’t act as hostile towards her. Maybe he doesn’t want to piss off the gal who could put silicone lube in his whiskey.”
“Watch out for Thibodeaux,” said Wren. “He might take it into his head to collect his ten percent by weight.”
“If he hasn’t done it yet, he’s not going to.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.” She sipped the red-swirled booze. “I don’t know why you stick around here. Some worlds in the Intersolar give cyborgs citizenship. The traders who pass through here can always use pilots, and gunners, and mechanics; I’d vouch for you.”
I thought of Prentiss’s body, the wet hole through his head.
“I like it here,” I said.
“Bull and also shit. I’ve known you longer than you’ve known yourself.”
The body language around the bar was looking rowdy. “Whatever’s so exciting over there, we don’t want to get left out of it,” I said. I snapped the privacy hood off, thankful for any excuse to change the subject.
Spacers were slapping money down on the bar for Iron Jill to sort into surgically precise piles. Natsuki Tedjo tossed in a chit. “Nobody’s ever flown through the Flotsam’s spiral at full speed,” the stocky red-booted scavenger was saying, “and I’ve got a pair of lifters says this new guy can’t do it either.”
Actually Ypsilanti Rowe had done it – raced his souped-up freighter down the Flotsam’s massive forceformed coil and mooned the bargoers on the way past. I remember every white-knuckled second. But he’s gone, and I have too much sense to try it myself. I quit pulling stunts like that when Prentiss was born.
Wren tossed back her drink. “With luck, flyboy’ll oversteer and come to us with repairs. With real luck, he’ll clip someone else’s ship, and we’ll get two paychecks.”
“With the luck we’ve been having, he’ll take out this dome and land square on our heads. Let me see what I can do.”
I got up to look for whoever was fool enough to try this stunt, but a heavy hand on my shoulder stopped me.
“Buffalo,” creaked Iron Jill. “I have a message for you.”
“Not now,” I said. “For the love of Euler, you and I’ll survive if this guy crashes into the glass, but won’t you mind losing all your customers?”
Her artificial grip didn’t loosen. “A message,” she said. She opened her mouth and the synthesizer where her tongue should have been spooled out the recording. “Watch watch over sentinel … all flesh will see buffalo … conserve preserve defend.”
It had to be from the same ship that had scared off the Plasma Push. Weird enough for some Drift ship to turn up at the Flotsam. It couldn’t be following me…could it? All flesh will see buffalo.
“Awaiting your response,” said Iron Jill. The crowd jostled around the bar viewscreens, peered up at the transparent ceiling, searching for the glint of the daredevil’s ship.
Shit, shit, I needed to do something before this dumbass stunt killed us all. “Tell it to hang on,” I said.
“Contact broken,” said Jill. “The source ship has left comms range.”
I dodged around her. There was no sign of the Drift ship’s chrome spheres on the bar screens, which were already tracking the incoming daredevil, extrapolating his course down the Flotsam’s throat. Only a couple of meters’ margin on either side. I didn’t like it.
The screens cut from camera to camera, algorithmically seeking the optimal shot. On the spiral’s exterior, customer ships bobbed at the ends of their tethers. One of the Flotsam’s engines, cannibalized long ago from Iron Jill’s freighter, glowed a lazy nuclear blue.
A blaze leapt among the stars – the daredevil ship had fired its torch. It raced towards the cameras, towards us. The plotter spun out one delicate extrapolation after another; the pilot had a light touch on the stick, adjusting again and again every second, feeling out the course that wouldn’t splatter him flat across the Flotsam‘s ribs.
“He’s cutting it too damn close,” I murmured. I looked up at the ceiling viewframe, but braced myself for impact.
The ship whipped into sight, and as it did, it flipped its atmospheric wings open, waggling them while it blew past. It missed the dome by centimeters, but it did miss. I replayed the split second. The wings were painted with naked mermaids. I simulated an internal groan.
The bar screens flicked up the ship’s request for a video feed, and Iron Jill obliged, though no one could hear over the shouting.
Grinning from the cockpit, slouching back in his pilot’s chair and running a hand through his tousled hair, was none other than Ypsilanti Rowe.
Ypsilanti strutted across the bar, ankle-deep in Tramptown scrip and Intersolar credit chits, shaking hands and tossing down vacuum-sealed duck eggs to the cheering spacers. He had money to blow through, and it hadn’t all gone for party favors – the palms of his hands flashed a fishy white, the telltale sign of pricy rejuv. He was king of the mountain, and we weren’t.
“Hear about that civil war on Perun?” he said. “C’mon, Jill, you can’t show Intersolar sports all the time; you need to broaden folks’ minds. I met this very interesting – algae rum? don’t mind if I do – this very interesting Perunite, smart guy, university professor, who wanted to make sure Perun’s heritage wasn’t wiped out in the bombing.”
“And you helped him relocate it,” said Natsuki. Ypsilanti threw her a baggie of paprika, and she tucked it into her boot. “What a humanitarian.”
“Well, I did receive a modest payment from the collector who found the artifacts a happy new home.” Ypsilanti hooked a thumb through a belt loop, casual, like he’d never considered the monetary aspect until now.
But his practiced cool faltered when he saw me. He scratched his chin, to cover his facial expression, and I was annoyed to notice I was doing the same thing.
“It’s like looking into a mirror,” he said. Was he vain enough to think so? His rejuv was good, but he didn’t look fifteen years younger. “Hey, Wren.” He reached for her hand. “Guess you just couldn’t stand to give me up.”
The spacers guffawed. What did they really think of Wren keeping me around? What would they say if we’d been a couple?
“How’s the Bellerophon?” said Wren, the way she’d ask another guy about his wife and kids.
“Better than ever, and ever was pretty damn hot,” said Ypsilanti, scooping up his winnings. “New sensor rig. Orbital Patrol itself doesn’t have this stuff yet.”
If I’m vain enough to think I look better than him, I mused, he’s vain enough to think I don’t.
“Sorry, folks, got a date with the lady.” Ypsilanti flipped a credit chip to Jill, but the cyborg missed the catch, and the chit clinked into a jar of pickled kelp.
“Usually dates get arranged ahead of time,” said Wren. “Guess you wanted to see if there were any girls who were younger, prettier, and buying your brand of bullshit.”
Ypsilanti slipped his arm around her waist. Wren never had rejuv – the fifteen years that had passed had left crinkles around her eyes, a more generous curve at her hips. But she was still beautiful and she knew it. A perfboard barrette snapped back her crinkly curls, and her flight suit was tailored to flatter. Ypsilanti’s showing her off, making sure everybody knows he has money in his pockets, mermaids on his wings, and a woman in every port.
He gave her a roguish squeeze. “Let’s talk somewhere private.”
Wren jerked her thumb towards a booth with a hood.
“More private than that. I think Jill can read lips. Your place?”
Wren smiled indulgently. “We don’t need that much privacy.”
“Maybe we do.”
They faced each other, irresistible charm versus immovable grit. I could guess what thoughts were turning behind Wren’s narrowed eyes. Last time around, Ypsilanti’s deeds hadn’t lived up to his promises, and now here he stood, just as he had so long ago, hinting at bigger and better promises. At last she nodded and started for the airlock.
“How could she resist?” said Ypsilanti. “This way she gets two of me.” I snorted, which was kind of for the crowd too.
I had Ypsilanti’s memories of making love to Wren; I replayed them often, savoring her purring little laugh, her half-lidded eyes, the delectable nape of her neck. But right at that moment, I was so jealous I could have erased them all.
In the airlock I felt intensely self-conscious. Wren and Ypsilanti were still safety-checking their v-suits long after I’d pulled my hood on. All I need is the heater in my clothes and enough air pressure to talk.
“Planet-raised food for Natsuki Tedjo,” said Wren. “Who you hate. So you’re finally rich?”
“Not as rich as I’m about to be,” said Ypsilanti. “And you are going to be part of it. And so are you.” He turned his roguish smile on me. I had to fight to keep my facial tensors from mimicking the expression. It was uncanny, like looking into a mirror with a mind of its own. “I guess you would be Ypsilanti?” he said. “Maybe Little Ypsi?”
“They call me Buffalo,” I said.
“Let’s set up a secure channel,” said Wren. She bumped Ypsilanti’s helmet, then mine. My transrec light clicked to blue.
The lock seals drained air back into the Flotsam. Beyond the hatch, the stars glittered like a fistful of diamond dust: ten thousand worlds I could wander if I hadn’t planted myself in Tramptown.
The three of us clumped down the magnetic path that led between the starship tethers. Iron Jill didn’t see any profit in maintaining that much enclosed tunneling.
“So, Ypsilanti, now that we have all this privacy, tell me something.” said Wren over the transrec. “You show up at the exact same time as a cruiser called the Plasma Push. And you’re both interested in me. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence.”
“The Plasma Push?” said Ypsilanti innocently. He might really not have known about the ship; he and I are pretty good liars.
“Someone looking for you? Did you run out of places you’re welcome?”
“I piss off a lot of people, Wren. You know that. But I wasn’t followed – I set course for Tramptown in a stretch of vacuum light-hours from any scanners.”
We padded past Iron Jill’s old ship, the nameless freighter that brought her to Tramptown. The life support and toilets had been stripped out – Jill didn’t need them – and incorporated into the bar. It was little more than a shell, more decrepit than the cyborg herself.
“If you know how to get so rich in the Drift, why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?” said Wren.
Ypsilanti’s rangy strut was unmistakable, even in his v-suit. “That professor I was telling you about, the one from Perun? He taught robotic archaeology. He’d studied a dozen AI nations – spent years out there, back when he was young enough to shuttle in and out of gravity wells.” Listening to Ypsilanti was like listening to a recording of myself. The timing, the phrasing, the wording was right, but it sounded so strange in my ears. “Well, this professor taught me some interesting things. And that is where you come in, Buffalo.” He waved a glove at me. “You can be my sidekick. How’s that?”
We were approaching the familiar form of the Bellerophon, battered but solid, its hull plates scarred by torpedo charges. It occurred to me that this was the first time I’d actually seen it. I had plenty of memories, but the Bellerophon, and Ypsilanti, had been light years away by the time Wren initialized me.
“I’m not a machine psychologist,” I said. “I’m just a pilot.”
“You’re not just a pilot,” he said. “Not with what you got from me.”
Even wearing magnetic boots, I’d say Ypsilanti swaggered into Bellerophon‘s airlock.
“Easy money,” said Wren. “Same old song.”
I had memories of Ypsilanti’s pillow talk with Wren, reassuring her that this plan or that was bound to succeed. I had older memories, from before he met her, of failed get-rich schemes on worlds throughout the Intersolar. I didn’t, of course, have memories of him telling her how those schemes had worked out.
I bumped my hood to Wren’s helmet for a new secure channel.
“Tell me I don’t talk that much,” I said.
She giggled. “Not anymore.”
“And, Wren … don’t trust him. I know him better than you do.”
“I know exactly how much I can trust him,” she said. “I trust you, don’t I?”
“I’m surprised this thing worked at all,” said Wren from her perch on the Bellerophon‘s disconnected sensor rig. “I’ll need an angular refractor just to calibrate it.” I unclipped one from her workbench and tossed it over.
Ypsilanti stretched out in the gunnery chair. “How long will it take you?” he yawned.
Wren didn’t bother to look at him, but she didn’t frown, either. “Remember, you’re not my only customer.”
“Then let me speed things along.” He strolled over and unsnarled the dish’s web of cabling, as easily as if the fifteen years since they’d worked together had been fifteen minutes.
Wren wove the refractor in among the lines. “I saw something about your little artifact smuggling ring on the ansible at the Flotsam,” she said. “Apparently, when the dust settled, the artifacts were in the hands of the very people who should have been the first up against the wall when the shooting started. I knew you were in on it. You might as well have signed your work.”
Ypsilanti leaned in closer. “You know me too well.”
“You haven’t explained,” said Wren softly, “what makes this latest scheme of yours so brilliant.”
I double-checked that my voice would come out calm. “Don’t mind me,” I said.
Ypsilanti shot me a sidelong smile. “That robot archaeology professor, from the smuggling ring,” he said. “When he was younger, he’d spent months in micrograv, studying different machine societies – never the Drift, though, it’s too rough for an academic. And he said they all have similarities. For one thing, there’ll be some kind of monetary system – even if they don’t trade with the rest of the galaxy.”
“And where there’s money,” said Wren, “there’s Ypsilanti Rowe.”
He pouted. “I’m hurt. No, see, even in a ship-eat-ship wasteland like the Drift, some of the AIs will team up – maybe for microseconds, maybe for centuries. And they need some way of tracking who owes who what. Points. Credits. Tally marks on an asteroid. Probably, though, it’s cryptographically-signed certificates, with one long-lived ship acting as the server.”
“That money, if you want to call it that, is no good to anyone but a Drift AI,” I said. “You can’t spend it back in the Intersolar.”
“For my plan,” said Ypsilanti, “that’s not a problem. Remember that huge Drift ship, size of an orbital, always had smaller ships swarming in and out of it like a screenful of static?”
“The one we called the Absolute Magnitude,” I said.
I’d seen the Magnitude hundreds of times. Prentiss and I used to hunt the smaller ships that would cluster nearby. I scanned my memories, painful as they were – the mechanical tendrils reaching for Prentiss, Prentiss pointing his gun the wrong direction… “You’re right – other ships came and went, when the newer ones took them apart, but the Magnitude just got tougher.”
“Why would those other ships trust it enough to go inside?” said Ypsilanti. “And why would it trust them? I think it’s because they had an arrangement. The Absolute Magnitude is the cash server, and the other ships are all clients. They damage the Magnitude, they lose all their money – and so do all the other AIs in the Drift. Making the Magnitude untouchable. Every single customer doubles as a security guard.”
“And there was always a lot of comms chatter between the Magnitude and the rest of the Drift, even if we never decrypted any of it. This is just fascinating,” I said. “Maybe your professor friend can get tenure out of it. But the Magnitude is pretty hostile to Tramptown scavengers.”
“You gotta be smart,” said Ypsilanti.
“That’s not always enough,” said Wren. She lay back on a creeper and scooted under the sensor rig.
“Here’s where my plan comes in. If we had a Drift cash account on Magnitude‘s server, it’d trust us. We could fly in, just like all the Drift ships do, find the best tech on the Magnitude, and then run like hell with it. A ship that big and mean has to have cooked up some interesting innovations of its own over the years. And the Intersolar will pay and pay and pay to get them.”
“It’s a top shelf plan,” said Wren from beneath the rig. “The one little niggle I have is that we don’t have a Drift cash account. Or any way of getting one. And since your professor friend never went to the Drift, I don’t suppose he has one he’d let us use.”
“Ah, but I do,” said Ypsilanti. “Or at least I can get one. I’d scavenged one of those little ships just before I – went back to the Intersolar. I know I saw something in its files that said cash passphrase, even tried it out while I was decrypting its data, but it didn’t unlock anything.”
“But if you’d transmitted the passphrase to the Absolute Magnitude,” I said, “you would have accessed a bank account.”
“And you think that account’s still there fifteen years later?” called Wren.
“Deleting data – does that sound like any AI you’ve ever heard of?” said Ypsilanti.
“You’ve got the passphrase. You’ve got the Bellerophon. You’ll have this military-grade sensor rig by the time we’re done,” I said. “What do you need us for?”
“I don’t have the passphrase,” said Ypsilanti. “You do, Buffalo.”
Wren’s wrench rang against metal. “How’s that even possible? Buffalo’s memories from back then are copied from yours. If you don’t know it, he can’t, either. Right, Buffalo?”
“Usually,” I said, “unless …”
I skimmed the memories of that salvage run, how Ypsilanti had puzzled over the chaotic mix of English, assembly language, and AI cant in the data; how he’d tried 0940 sauce anapest throe MOV charioteer noggin as a decryption key while hissing a series of imaginative spacer oaths.
“By the time you gave up, you felt like the passphrase was worthless,” I said. “You never thought about it again. And at some point, you just forgot it.
“But you forgot after the braincast. When that memory was recorded, it was still fresh. And my memories never fade.”
Ypsilanti studied my face. “You remember it,” he said. “Yeah, you remember. What was it?”
“Why should I tell you?” I said.
He looked disconcerted. Then he chuckled. It was patronizing; I didn’t know I had it in me.
“Yeah, you’re me, all right,” he said. “You’ll get a cut, don’t worry.”
“How much of a cut?” I said.
“I’ll think it over.” Ypsilanti sauntered over to the workbench and inspected a side screen with Prentiss’s picture. “Hey, Wren,” he said, “who’s this?”
“My son,” she said.
“He around here somewhere?”
Wren slid the creeper out and sat up. “He’s dead,” she said, letting her wrench dangle. “Died in an accident, out scavenging the Drift. He was nearly fifteen.”
Ypsilanti reached down to touch her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The Drift is no place for a kid.”
Wren flinched away. “Now you take an interest.”
Ypsilanti stood open-mouthed. “I didn’t know, Wren,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
“Prentiss was a great kid,” I said into the painful silence. “Smart, handy, natural pilot. And he had a good eye for salvage. We’d go out together.”
“I need to check on that pack venter at Bay Three,” said Wren. “Be right back. This is how I make my living.” She pondered something. “Buffalo, you were working that one, right? Can you spare a moment?”
There was no such repair. We walked casually out of Ypsilanti’s earshot.
“You thinking about helping him?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Honestly, I am.”
“I – look, I’m not giving you an order. No matter what Thibodeaux thinks, you’re my employee, not my possession.” She tucked a stray corkscrew of hair behind her ear. “But you don’t have to do what Ypsilanti wants.”
“Wren, what Ypsilanti wants is – pretty much by definition – what I want.”
“Is it?” She looked at me from beneath long lashes. “You don’t have to justify wanting the money.”
“But I’m not settling for a cut,” I said. “We’re going in as partners.”
Back in the workshop, the comms honked. Wren brought up the details on the wall monitor and laughed. “Ships coming out of the Drift, Ypsilanti showing up after fifteen years – and now Iron Jill has left the Flotsam. She’s got that old hulk of hers in orbit, wants clearance to land.”
“I’m astounded that thing can fly,” I said. “I thought she’d stripped it to the bones.”
“I’d be surprised if she can take off again,” said Wren. “And that is no insult to our mechanics. That thing’s a hazard to navigation.” I pictured the aging cyborg, taking her ship out for one last run. I didn’t like the places that thought led me.
Wren tapped the screen. “The message is encrypted with Jill’s private key, but she says even that’s not secure enough for what she wants to talk about. Gotta be face to face. I’m clearing her for Bay One.”
“Have you started believing in coincidence?” I said.
“Nope,” said Wren. “Let’s invite Ypsilanti along. I want to see the look on his face when he realizes he’s activated Jill’s interest modules. Might be informative.”
“Ypsilanti!” I called. “Come say hello to our visitors.” Minutes later, the three of us were unsealing the Bay One hatch.
On the other side stood a big man holding a big gun. Behind him, crudely welded inside the empty hulk of Iron Jill’s ship, squatted the Plasma Push. The stranger dumped Jill’s head at our feet.
“Good to see you again, Kochevar,” said Ypsilanti.
Shooting Jill, Kochevar said, had been the easy part.
“Told her I had some tanks of Viognier I could ship in. Gave her a sample; she stuck her finger in, said she’d take it if the price was right. Got her onto those magnetized walkways outside the dome, out of sight of the customers, and blasted her. Already had a program for rifling cyborg minds to pull out her private key.”
I took the hint. “I’ve set an auto-erase to run if I don’t have an orderly shutdown,” I said, “and I’ve never been backed up.” It was true – I’d enabled the erase procedure while he was marching us into Wren’s workshop.
“You’re not a perfect copy. You’re a little too smart,” said Kochevar. If we called the mechanics, he’d explained, he’d shoot; if we made a funny move, he’d shoot. He wasn’t yet ready to shoot us for talking out of turn. “After I sawed off the cyborg’s head, I quick-welded the Push inside the hull of its ship. That was a little harder.”
He grinned sardonically, baring gold canines. “Has Ypsilanti told you about the little smuggling ring we ran on Perun during the civil war? We’d milked all we could out of it, and then he bragged about this plan he had to make a killing in the Drift. He just needed a new sensor rig for the Bellerophon, which I could invest in, and then we’d come back and pick up some equipment he’d left here – something that would give us the edge we needed. But then we got busted for the artifacts. Oh, did he leave that part out? Ypsilanti was looking out for his own skin –”
“Which you would never do,” said Ypsilanti.
Kochevar leveled his gun and blasted Prentiss’s picture off the wall. Ypsilanti didn’t flinch. Wren and I did. “Ypsilanti turned informer. Set me and my partner up. My partner escapes; I get twenty years; Ypsilanti gets six months’ work release shoveling frozen methane on Epona. I hear he served two and got out with good behavior.”
“What a rebel,” said Wren.
“And then,” Kochevar went on, “I guess he figured he’d just mosey back here and get all the loot to himself.”
He was a massive man, with the kind of muscles you don’t normally see on a spacer. Drugs, probably, and monotonous hours spent pushing cargo crates back and forth in the Plasma Push‘s holds. Even in micrograv they have mass.
The pistol in his scarred hands had been police issue, once, before it was beefed up with a speed-load magazine. If we rushed him, there might be as many as one survivor.
“Turns out I didn’t even serve a year of my sentence,” Kochevar said. “A guard got sloppy on a transfer shuttle. First I had his gun, then I had his cruiser, then I was plotting a course to Tramptown.”
He centered the gunsights on my power supply. “This piece of equipment Ypsilanti wanted – that would be the cyborg?”
I looked him square in his massive face. This was a guy who took what he wanted and didn’t think it over afterwards. There was no guarantee he’d honor his deal. For a moment, I wished I’d let Wren copy me into the Kviksølv; I might die, but at least I’d leave a descendant.
“The way I see it,” I said, “you and Ypsilanti had a deal. Which means you and I have a deal.”
“Three-way split,” said Ypsilanti.
“Not happening,” said Kochevar. “If you want to pay your cyborg out of your share, be my guest. But I’m not getting dealt short so that you can get a double payday.”
The comms rack squawked. Kochevar leveled the gun at Wren.
“Who’s that? Who did you call?”
“I didn’t call anyone,” she said, exasperated. “I’m a mechanic. People come here. It’s kind of how my business works.”
“Tell them to come back later.”
She walked gingerly to the rack. “It’s that crazy ship again.”
“What?” said Kochevar.
“The one that showed up right after you did. It’s from the Drift.” She reached for the send button and Kochevar’s gun hand twitched. “We thought it was following you.”
“Think we can salvage it?” said Ypsilanti. “Since it’s here.”
“It’ll be gone before we can lift off,” I said. “It sends its little messages about couch cushions, then hightails. Let’s get going.” The sooner I got Kochevar away from Wren, the happier I’d be.
“I’d forgotten what it’s like,” breathed Ypsilanti.
On the Plasma Push‘s huge viewscreens, meant for spotting smugglers and gunrunners, swarmed ten thousand identical Drift ships the size of my pinky. The Push‘s screens busily tagged them with individual IDs.
I hadn’t been back to the Drift since Prentiss died, but I felt the old excitement rise. Little ships like the swarmers weren’t good hunting. They weren’t a hive mind, didn’t have any new technology you could sell; they’d found a simple program that gave them strength in numbers. Still, wherever you saw them, you saw bigger game – like what was cruising towards them. At a glance it was nothing more than a pitted gray asteroid, brainlessly orbiting the L5 point, but then you noticed the hatches and gun barrels in its craters.
The stealth ship drifted, unnoticed, within a few meters of the swarm, and unfurled a charged net twice its own length. Immediately the smaller ships reacted, darting up into a glittering torus formation.
The stealth ship scooped at a straggler, and the swarm jinked – but not to attack. A sturdy warship with a maw full of spinning rippers had lined itself up behind the swarm, using it as cover. It charged the stealth ship, rippers whirling, grinding swarmers to shavings as it came. The swarm scattered. The stealth ship retracted its nets and fizzed its torch, seeking an escape route, but the warship fired grapplers and reeled the smaller stealth ship in. Titanium claws snapped, and data cables swayed like anemones, ready to eat the stealth ship’s secrets.
Ypsilanti and I were locked in one of the Plasma Push‘s cabins. There wasn’t much to occupy us besides dumb screens displaying the Drift’s familiar unfamiliarity. There were no controls, of course, nothing to sabotage; I suppose we could have plugged the toilet and made a puddle on the floor. And here we sat, disarmed, waiting for Kochevar to summon us, so I could introduce the Plasma Push to the Absolute Magnitude and Ypsilanti could point out the best tech to salvage. I was by far the more experienced salvager, of course, but Ypsilanti was human, and that shipped more weight with Kochevar.
On the viewscreen, the warship drew the stealth ship’s stony prow closer to the grinders, centimeter by centimeter. I winced.
But then the stealth ship thrust out a synthetic-ruby drill and whirred it into its enemy’s guts. The warship released its grasp too late – the gunship had drilled out its brains. The swarm darted around the carnage, snatching up shrapnel, the raw materials it needed to copy itself once more.
“Go get ’em, little drillslinger.” Ypsilanti looked at me obliquely. “How’s Wren been?”
I watched the screen tag more bogeys and sketch the cones of where they might be in one, two, thirty seconds. “When Prentiss died,” I said, “I told her the news, and she went right back into the freighter torch she’d been working on with the mechanics, got it done ahead of schedule. But she didn’t say a word the whole time, and then she just went back to her quarters and sobbed.”
“Prentiss,” said Ypsilanti. “I still can’t imagine I had a kid, and he’s gone before I ever met him. Tell me about him.”
“He was born behind the bar at the Flotsam,” I said. “Wren figured she’d let gravity do some of the work. Iron Jill rolled seaweed cigars.” Everyone agreed they were awful – I couldn’t smoke them, of course, and neither could Jill. Maybe she’d had a sense of humor all along, along with the driest deadpan in the galaxy. May her electronic brain patterns rest in peace.
“Wren made Prentiss’s toys in the machine shop,” I said. “He’d bounce around the base with these little ships. He could identify more than a hundred makes and models when he was five.”
His first word was Mama. His second was Baba, and that meant me. But I didn’t care to share those memories with Ypsilanti.
A tiny Drift ship, no bigger than a basketball, pulled in alongside the Plasma Push. I used to turn the spotlight on those to scare them off before they started munching on my hull. Which is free, but Kochevar’s solution cost a few cents’ worth of ammo. A shot whizzed through the Drift ship and sent it spinning, trailing shrapnel.
“I can’t believe Wren let her kid come out here,” said Ypsilanti.
“We – Wren didn’t want to,” I said. “But that’s what Tramptown kids grow up and do. We knew Prentiss would head in anyway when he was old enough, whether or not he had any experience. In the long run, it was safer to apprentice him with me.”
Numbers whirled in my peripheral vision. The Kviksølv vision module was performing a self-check.
“Prentiss started salvaging when he was ten, hauling things into my loading bay, but pretty soon I let him man the cockpit while I boarded Drift ships that were too big to drag back. Prentiss learned fast what was worth salvaging. We gave him a cut of the profits, and when he turned thirteen, Wren built him a little scout ship so he could go in on his own. He was mad as a badger in freefall when Sheriff Thibodeaux started taxing us ten percent.”
“I knew a Thibodeaux once,” said Ypsilanti. “They’re assholes.”
Even teenagers without Ypsilanti’s genes usually decide to piss off the world at some point. Prentiss came to consider himself a salvager no different from the grown men and women at the Flotsam. As far as he was concerned, Wren and I couldn’t tell him anything.
The Plasma Push‘s screen assigned one distant speck a number, then added a name: Absolute Magnitude. Ypsilanti gazed at it, rubbing his chin. Once again I spotted his white palm. In this part of the galaxy, his carefully-cultivated image wouldn’t do him any good.
I wondered if Ypsilanti would be happier not knowing about Prentiss’s final flight.
The kid’s invitation to come scavenging as his co-pilot had been laden with teenage contempt, but I still accepted. At the time, I thought that if I blew off his needling, he’d outgrow it faster.
Prentiss’d planted a tracer on a mid-sized Drift sloop during his previous trip, and the signal led us to the surging cloud of Drift ships that surrounded the Absolute Magnitude.
The Magnitude might have begun its life as a shipyard during the war, or as an orbital intended to house a billion people – after a century of self-modifications, we would never be sure. It was a three-dimensional lace of forceform and steel five thousand kilometers long, without a single straight line. Photovoltaic patches the size of planetary cities dotted its sunward side. Other Drift ships teemed in and out of the arching gaps in the Magnitude‘s skeleton.
Prentiss approached the tumult of smaller ships a little closer than I liked, and he was stuck on a topic I didn’t like either.
“I woulda shot her,” he said. “Bam. Not like there was a sheriff back then.”
“I didn’t care what Elspeth said about me,” I replied. “Still don’t. All kinds of damn fool stuff comes out of her mouth.”
“There’s my ship.” Prentiss zoomed the screen in on a boxy sloop with his red R sprayed across its back. It was pulling away from the Magnitude and we slid in alongside.
Prentiss plotted an intercept and fired a non-explosive torpedo smack in front of the sloop. When the torp reached a preset distance, it opened a hatch and scattered scrap from our base.
The sloop took the bait, nosing at the chunks of dumb metal. Prentiss and I took advantage of the distraction to eject and EVA over to its ventral surface.
I ran my hand scanner over the hull, but Prentiss waved stop. “This is how I got in before,” he said over the transrec. He pointed out a crude hatch cut into a hull plate and started rerouting the new circuitry that had grown up around it.
“Be careful,” I said.
“I am being careful, Buffalo,” he groused. Nowadays I was Buffalo, not Baba.
And he was careful. But careful enough? You can’t assume a Drift ship will be the same from one contact to the next. Biological organisms evolve from generation to generation. When machines adapt to their environment, though, they re-engineer themselves.
We slid into the chamber beyond the hatch, where wall-mounted waldos were fiddling with the scrap we’d jettisoned. I spotted a hydraulic landing strut I’d discarded last week, destined for who knew what mad recycling.
“I’ve figured out a way to get my next delivery out to the Intersolar without paying the sheriff his cut,” said Prentiss.
I smiled. I – well, Ypsilanti – would’ve felt the same way in his place. The kid came by it naturally. But Ypsilanti could only get away with it because he never stuck around.
“How much would you pay to stay out of jail?” I said. “Never mind, I have a better question. When do I get to find out why you’re coming back to a ship you already salvaged? The Intersolar won’t buy the same tech twice.”
Prentiss reached into the mesh-lined wall. A spark fired and an internal door split open, and the nausea the sight aroused was so intimate that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t equipped to throw up.
The sun-bright compartment lights glared down on a web of flesh. Fused heads, sheared at the jaw and capped with steel, wriggled on plastic hooks. Thrusting pistons pumped oxygen into blushing meat. Human tissue, cloned and cultured from spacers who’d never returned to Tramptown – maybe even from the crews who’d manned the shipyard generations ago, when the AIs still worked for humans. Mismatched eyes turned to look at us.
“Everyone talks about selling tech,” said Prentiss smugly. “But art collectors have plenty of money too, and my contact tells me AI outsider art is going to be the next big thing.”
“Prentiss, no,” I said. “This is wrong.”
“You’re not my dad, you know.” He snapped a wristpad photo of a fountain of branching bones. “You’re only three months older than me.”
He had my nose, my eyes; he had my laugh, though I hadn’t heard it much lately. I hoped like hell he had Wren’s conscience, since he wasn’t going to inherit one from Ypsilanti Rowe. “Let’s take the incendiary and burn this thing,” I said. “Put it out of its misery.”
“It’s mine,” Prentiss snapped. “You’re my co-pilot, you’ll take my orders. Get that big one over there.” He nodded at a fluted tower of flesh wrapped around a plastic cloche where plump lips pursed and whispered. It’s just a reflex, I thought. Has to be.
“They have laws against this, in the Intersolar,” I said. “That’s why I never used to carry human-fusion –”
“You’ve never been to the Intersolar! That wasn’t you!”
I tuned down my anger response. I’d been a hothead at his age. “Prentiss,” I said, “let’s talk this over.”
“Don’t tell me what to do!” He snatched out his gun. I don’t think he was planning to shoot me – I don’t think he knew why he drew. I think he just figured guns solve problems.
Behind him, an inquisitive silver tendril snaked out of the wall, bobbing back and forth, delicately balanced.
“You belong to my mom and me,” he said. “If you don’t do like I say, I’ll shoot you and leave you out here for the AIs to eat.”
“Watch out,” I said.
“Oh, now you’re going to threaten me? When I tell Mom –”
“No, behind you –”
The tendril slammed itself into Prentiss’s helmet. I heard the crack over the transrec. The kid’s eyes widened as his air hissed out. He looked desperate, desperate, and he looked so young. Then the tendril punched into his skull.
The Absolute Magnitude had spotted us boarding the sloop, and spun a single deadly filament, stretched it out across the kilometers, hoping to find humans to eat.
I couldn’t save Prentiss. But I could toss that vacuum-rated incendiary grenade so there’d be no body left for an AI’s art gallery.
Ypsilanti’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “Does Wren talk about me much?” he said.
“Maybe when I’m not around,” I said.
Light from the Plasma Push‘s cabin viewscreens played across his carefully-chosen expression.”I’m not the kind of guy who could settle down with Wren,” he said.
No, I thought, that’s not quite it. You don’t want people to think of you as the kind of guy who’d end up a woman who looks the age he is. He was playing the part of Ypsilanti Rowe as much as I was.
The cabin door chunked open to reveal Kochevar and his gun. “Let’s get rich,” he said.
Up on the bridge, the Absolute Magnitude loomed on the viewscreen, which had identified a receptor bank on the Magnitude‘s undulating surface and obligingly circled it in white. “As soon as we get a laser link, the cyborg will send the passphrase,” said Kochevar.
While the screen cycled through old comms protocols and newer ones we’d learned from Drift AIs, I ran a quick set of diagnostics on my mismatched internal components. I’d be in enough danger on the Magnitude without my body unexpectedly giving out on me.
The screen chirped. “Good morning, Mr. Magnitude,” I said. “I’d like to make a transaction.” I transmitted the passcode and caught myself trying to hold my breath.
The circle on the viewscreen changed to a white lock. We were in.
Kochevar flicked the Push‘s torch, and we coasted into the throng of Drift ships. A thousand wildly different designs, AI imagination run riot, churned around us. Any one of them could have earned a spacer a year’s living in Tramptown. Gunports tracked us warily as they gauged whether they could take us.
“I just want to gather these up and buy myself my own planet,” said Ypsilanti.
Kochevar tapped the pitch thrusters and nudged us inside the Magnitude. The vast labyrinth was woven from struts the size of skyscrapers, formed without a thought for human perspectives. Immense nodules, as richly folded as cerebella, nestled at the interstices.
“Spotted something promising?” said Kochevar. He didn’t bother to turn his gun on us. He could tell that once we got this close, we’d want the big score as badly as he did.
“Go deeper in,” I said. Kochevar probably would have argued if he hadn’t thought Ypsilanti was talking.
Metallic boluses shuttled along the translucent plastic tubes that flickered in the Magnitude’s frame. A shimmering fall of blue spread over a strut, then ebbed away, sucked into unseen ports.
“There,” said Ypsilanti. “That one right there.”
The nodule before us was richly connected to the others around it, and its coils swelled and receded in syncopation, as if it were constantly being rebuilt from within.
Kochevar maneuvered the Push onto a swaying strut many times its size, and we suited up.
“No one’s ever scavenged the Absolute Magnitude,” said Ypsilanti over the transrec.
“Maybe they just never came back,” I said.
“Aren’t you two cheerful?” said Kochevar. “Take your guns if they make you feel safer. Let’s fly.”
The Magnitude‘s surface didn’t contain enough ferrous metal for our boots to get a purchase. We pushed off from the strut, puffing air from our suits to nudge us towards the enormous AI brain. The smaller Drift ships that flocked here were ignoring us, for now. I marked some snapshots for long-term storage, in case I survived to scavenge here again.
The transrec light fluttered, and a message played across the HUD. imposter roster foster sentinel of the joined small, said the scrolling letters.
“It’s that ship that was following me,” said Kochevar. He raised his gun and took aim on the mass of chrome spheres that peeked out around the Magnitude‘s strut.
“Go away,” I said over the transrec. “Go! Leave us alone!”
The insistent little Drift ship reversed direction and drew away, losing itself in the crowd.
“I don’t like it,” said Kochevar. “Feel like I’m being watched. Let’s not waste time.”
I teased apart the fibers of the Magnitude‘s hull, re-routing connections, meticulously replacing the AI’s hardware hackery with stable wiring. If I did this right, the Magnitude would never realize it had been touched. Ypsilanti assisted me – our last fifteen years had been spent in different kinds of ship repair, but we worked together more smoothly than Wren and I ever had. It was like having a second pair of hands. Or being one, I suppose.
“Here we go,” I said. I lifted the section I’d cut away.
My vision flared and failed.
I queried the Kviksølv – but it was responding correctly to the glaring searchlight painting our space-black shadows across the Magnitude‘s hull.
“Don’t make any sudden moves,” said Sheriff Thibodeaux’s voice over the comms. I adjusted for the light levels and looked up at his ship, the sheriff’s star emblazoned on its belly. For the first time as Ypsilanti or myself, I was grateful to see him.
“Wren sent me a data squirt,” Thibodeaux continued. “Said someone by the name of Kochevar had kidnapped Ypsilanti Rowe and stolen that cyborg of his.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your ten percent of the haul,” I said. Thibodeaux laughed.
“Kochevar!” he shouted. “Heard you were in jail. Nice to be wrong.”
“Thibodeaux!” Kochevar answered. “How’d you end up scavenging here?”
“What a lovely little reunion,” said Ypsilanti warily. “Hello, partner.”
Thibodeaux chuckled. “I’m not scavenging here – law enforcement seemed like a safer way to pass the time. When I got away from the cops after our little artifacts deal in the Intersolar, I thought about Ypsilanti’s plan to salvage something big from the Drift. I knew he’d left something behind, something that would help, and thought I’d find it for myself. Figured it was some kind of astrogation equipment – maybe a tracer. Probably left it with the woman he’d dumped. You wouldn’t believe how many times I searched her place.”
“And it took you a year to realize that equipment might be me,” I said.
“Shit, I thought of that right off the bat, but I ruled you out. I already knew Ypsilanti didn’t have anything worth shit in that head of his. Stay where you are, I’m suiting up.”
“Watch out,” said Kochevar. “The cyborg’s smarter than he looks.”
“If he was that smart,” said Thibodeaux, “he would’ve noticed the tracer I planted on him when we shook hands on board the Flotsam. We’ll see what this cyborg’s worth soon enough.”
The entrance we’d carved led into a perplexity of rippling corridors, a soft blue glow like a planetary sea. Strange components bubbled across rounded walls. I inspected my hand in the cool light and spotted the speck of the tracer, planted in the decorative layer of silicone that served me as skin and encased my functional parts. I felt like a damn fool.
A hose snaked towards us, slick with gel. Ypsilanti and I reached as one for our guns. I was a little faster on the draw – after all, I hadn’t aged.
“It’s like a playground,” said Ypsilanti. “There should be kids eating chocolate cake, and slides through the gel.”
“This thing killed your son,” I snapped. Ypsilanti turned aside, refusing me a view of his face. Thibodeaux drifted up next to us, and I led the way into the Absolute Magnitude‘s brain.
The memory banks and data stores around us would have been worth trillions in the Intersolar. But we four were in silent agreement – now that we’d come this far, we were after the biggest prize of all.
The walls yielded at our touch, curving inwards towards the core – a quivering globe of microscopic circuits suspended in gel, the Absolute Magnitude‘s mind. You could cut it open and drown yourself in its thoughts.
“That’s it,” said Kochevar. “That’s what we’re taking.”
Ypsilanti and I fastened flash-plane explosive charges around the core, setting the timers to cut it out as simultaneously as technology allowed. Kochevar, less experienced with salvaging, took the cruder task of setting up the explosives that would open our route to the surface. Thibodeaux helped by staying out of our way.
“You sure that’s right?” said the sheriff as we placed the last charge. “Because you’re a screw-up, and that cyborg is a copy of a screw-up.”
“Yep, I’m sure,” I said.
“You have no doubts whatsoever that our one and only shot at robbing a vicious century-old AI can’t go wrong?” he said.
“I could not be more certain of it,” said Ypsilanti.
“Good.” Thibodeaux shot him.
Or he would have, but I knocked Ypsilanti aside and took the blast across my face. One of my eyes cracked, and ERROR 41313 flashed in my reduced field of vision. Ypsilanti spun into the soft blue wall. I drew my pistol, superimposed a crosshairs over Thibodeaux’s chest, and shot him through the heart.
“I warned you,” I said, unheard – the shot had mangled my hood along with my face. “Around here, salvage shoots back.”
“Don’t know who shot who in there, but that’s a bigger share for whoever’s left,” said Kochevar over the transrec. “On the count of three.”
“Hang on there,” said Ypsilanti.
I pulled off Thibodeaux’s helmet for myself, and wired an incendiary grenade to his head. “If a Drift ship incorporated him it’d probably just get dumber,” I said, “but let’s not take a chance.” Inside the helmet my olfacs registered fried seaweed and mustard. I shut them off.
We stood back from the core and Kochevar hit the trigger.
The Absolute Magnitude convulsed. Ypsilanti and I braced ourselves against the blown-out wall and shoved the core outwards – I could hear him over the transrec, gasping with strain. The core sailed serenely in the microgravity, and Ypsilanti and I kicked off to follow it.
Kochevar was waiting above the brain chamber’s surface, which rippled and rolled as the autorepair struggled to rebuild everything at once. The Plasma Push, cargo bay doors open, hovered above us the best it could. In the distance, the Magnitude‘s immense struts buckled. Dumb processors, robbed of the core’s guidance, had begun to miscalculate the millions of tiny adjustments that kept the great ship running. The elegant web of struts tangled, crushing nodules and Drift ships alike.
You killed my son, you AI bastard, I thought. I’m glad I’m here to watch you die.
From what I could see, we had a few seconds before the breakdown reached this part of the ship. The Magnitude‘s core was still skimming obliviously along its path.
“It’s the galaxy’s biggest game of ping-pong,” said Ypsilanti. He laid a hand on the core, sighted along it, and puffed out a precious burst of air to aim it into the Push‘s hold.
I held back. A pack of four small Drift ships approached and circled at about fifty meters, feeling us out. It’d take more than a searchlight to scare these off. I kept the leader in my gunsights. Damn, I hoped that little pistol would have enough kick to pierce the ship’s hide.
The Magnitude‘s core bounced off the padded walls of the cargo bay and came to rest. The Push‘s thrusters spat to compensate for the core’s momentum. Over the comms, Ypsilanti exhaled heavily. I knew how he felt.
The bay door swung closed, and the Push lit its thrusters again. It cruised out into the Drift, leaving us behind.
Ypsilanti and I shouted. I don’t know which of us said what. Kochevar waved frantically – no, he just pointed at the Push, and a glittering line shot from his glove to the hull. The Push accelerated away, reeling him in as it went. Ypsilanti and I were on our own, three hundred million kilometers from home.
“Ypsilanti, can you fly the sheriff’s ship?” I said, just in time to see the Push fire its missiles and blow Thibodeaux’s old cruiser to scrap, stranding Ypsilanti and me on a dying ship.
The Absolute Magnitude thrashed in slow motion, like a wounded animal as big as a moon. Was it trying to switch over to a backup brain? I doubted any wild AI had ever run a practice disaster recovery exercise.
A kilometer away, a strut broke open, spilling smaller parts into space. The smaller Drift ships broke into frenzied maneuvers. I guess they figured that if their cash server was in its death throes, they might as well get a chunk of it while there were chunks to be gotten.
But the pack of predator ships stalking us had other prey in mind. My suit’s HUD fluttered as they bombarded it with queries, seeking a vulnerability that would let them take control. Ypsilanti took aim at one of them, but held his fire.
Then the four predators wheeled as one and backed away.
“Behind you,” said Ypsilanti. I glanced at my rear cameras.
The bubbly chrome Drift ship had returned. Guns extending from among its bulges tracked the predator pack. A tube unfurled towards us.
Ypsilanti clambered in. I hesitated.
“Beats the alternative,” said Ypsilanti. “Come on.”
My vision went black. Clunky white error listings rolled by. I wasn’t sure where the problem lay, but my brain and the Kviksølv vision module were no longer on speaking term.
Something gripped my wrist. “Get on in here,” said Ypsilanti. “Damn, your face is a mess. Gives me the creeps.”
“I can’t see,” I said. “Vision gave out.”
“Well, there’s a … I think there’s just one chamber. Switch on your headlamp so we can get another –”
Impact rocked the ship. We were under attack.
“At least we got inside before those little ships charged,” said Ypsilanti. “There’s cables and parts wiggling around all over the walls. No controls I can see. Not even any viewscreens.”
Something brushed against my hand. “Hang on,” said Ypsilanti, “you’ve got something crawling on you.”
I ran my fingertips along a twining cable. It split absurdly into a dozen types of standard connectors, like a data bouquet.
“I think I just found the controls,” I said, and plugged a compatable connector into my data port.
A desperate electronic thirst infiltrated every crevice of my mind – of my self. My brain frantically mapped the ship’s incoming data onto things I might understand, awakening long-unused sensations: eggnog prickles that stabbed at my fingers, leaving streaks of electric sweat; multicolored mud that smothered nonexistent lungs. I clenched my thoughts together, trying to withhold some granule of myself from the Drift ship’s probes.
The other mind relaxed without withdrawing. It wasn’t trying to read me, I realized – it was spreading itself out, showing me what it wanted me to know.
The ship riffled through its hacked-up subroutines, some optimized to black hole density, some mere globs of alien hackery, and brought up a recorded video feed. I watched the ship watch two tiny humans approaching a Drift sloop with a red P sprayed across its hull. I was watching a recording. A recording from a long time ago.
The camera drone putted closer to the sloop’s access hole and poked in a mechanical eyestalk, watching Prentiss, watching me.
Our captured transrec conversation had been overlaid with annotations.
help i you help i you lift guide assist, said my image.
no help different help, said Prentiss, threat bluff bluff.
benefit help help, I replied.
And then the Magnitude struck. I squeezed myself shut, but I couldn’t keep the images out – the broken corpse, the burning. The Drift ship was trying to tell me something.
“Cover,” I mouthed. “Cushion. Sentinel. Preserve. All the ways to protect.”
And I understood. Prentiss and I weren’t like the swarmers or the pack of Drift predators. We hadn’t been built for each other. But I’d protected him, even when he didn’t know he needed it. And this little AI ship wanted a friend like that. It wanted to be a friend like that. The teeming Drift was the loneliest place in the galaxy.
The ship tumbled – I felt a double dose of spin, once from the ship’s sensors, once from my own vestibular module.
“If you’re planning to fight back, now would be a good time to start,” said Ypsilanti.
I looked through the data streams for the four attacking ships – only to find the Plasma Push on our tail.
The Push dodged among the Drift ships that were taking the Absolute Magnitude, and each other, to pieces. Colossal struts jolted together – vast collisions in slow motion. The Push loosed a torpedo, and the Drift ship and I took the engines in hand, merging my skills and its talents to spin safely away. I felt out the weapons systems, but they were too slight to crack the Push‘s hull.
To starboard, two tremendous struts twined together. If we could lose ourselves behind them, the Push‘s sensors might not pick us out from the crowd before we’d put some distance between us.
The Drift ship was my body now. I leaned in towards the groove between the struts and felt a pulse of worry – not mine, but the ship’s. trust trust hope, it sent.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You should’ve been there when I flew the Bellerophon through the middle of the Tramptown bar. This is nothing.”
The mighty pillars, the mindless mass that had been the Absolute Magnitude, clasped together in a frenzied attempt to fuse into something greater.
I shot between the pillars. The ship flattened itself in fear. Behind me, Ypsilanti yelped. The two of us were sealed in like duck eggs in plastic.
Kochevar fired through after us, riding a column of nuclear fire. He was coming through – and then the struts fell together on the Push‘s tail. The Push spun apart, a pinwheel of buckled metal and molten plastic.
Drift ships darted into the wreckage. When I saw their probes coming out red, I turned away and set course for Wren’s base.
“So much for the Magnitude‘s core,” I said. There was no one around to witness my fancy flying. Ah well.
Ypsilanti must have picked up the profanity he let loose during the last fifteen years. It was new to me.
“Kochevar’s down,” I said over the transrec. “I wonder what the Drift will make of him.”
“I wonder what your kids will be paying ten percent on,” said Ypsilanti.
I stretched out. The Drift ship eased its compression. “I wonder what you mean by kids.”
“Between you and Wren,” he said, “you’ll jury-rig something.”
Beyond the Bay Two viewport, a mechanic gave us the thumbs up. The sensor rig had been re-installed, and the Bellerophon was ready to slingshot off Kameekoru and head back to the Intersolar. Even with my new eye, the view was flat – Wren had put my old vision module back, and I’d returned the Kviksølv module to the workbench where it belonged.
Ypsilanti peered out at his ship. “Okay, we didn’t get the payout,” he said. “But the way I see it, I got rid of my two worst enemies without so much as a scratch on the Bellerophon, and that’s something.”
“That’s the way I see it, too,” I said. I knew him too well to worry that he’d pick up on the lie.
Ypsilanti’s cocky smirk looked great, but it couldn’t fool someone who’d seen his memories. He couldn’t wait to jet off to some other world where no one knew he’d been taken down a peg.
“You want to see the galaxy?” said Ypsilanti. “Come with me. I’ve always wanted a co-pilot I could trust. I know a guy who can fix your face –”
“No thanks,” I said. “There’s something here I want more.”
Wren and I watched the Bellerophon‘s departure from the breakroom screens. She clinked a squeeze tube of algae vodka against my hand.
“To absent friends,” she said. “May they remain so. Imagine what kind of trouble Ypsilanti’ll be in when he shows up in another fifteen years.”
“We better start writing the lawbooks now,” I said.
“I’ve got some ideas about that myself.” Her burgundy lipstick did nice things for her smile. “Now that there’s a vacancy, I’m running for sheriff.”
“You’ve got my vote,” I said. “Want to go to the Flotsam on Thursday?” The Flotsam didn’t have a new owner yet; a few low-ranking spacers from various ships were running it as a socialist collective. Wren said some of the food was way better and some was way worse, but it averaged out the same as Jill’s cooking.
“I’m in the mood for a drink I don’t have to chew.” Wren straightened her flight jacket. “We can go to the Flotsam right now.”
“We can,” I said, “but we have to set it up ahead of time for it to be a date.” She laughed and snuggled up against me. I liked it. Maybe I could upgrade my tactile modules and like it even more.
“There’s something I never said about Prentiss,” I said. “Wren, I wanted so bad to save him.”
She was quiet for a long time. “I doubted you’d stick around to be a father,” she said. “I’m glad you did.”
I was so impatient for Thursday to come that I thought about shutting myself down for the intervening hours. But I had too much work to do.
I was just finishing up when Wren showed up in front of Bay Five, looking great from head to toe. “Take your hood off and change,” she said. “We have a date.”
“I’m not about to forget it,” I said. “I have one last thing to take care of, and then I’m one hundred percent a free man.”
The bubbly Drift ship was nestled in Bay Five. It might have been nervous. Certainly, when I came out, it perked to life, blinking its lights up and down the spectrum.
It extended a cable. I’d been planning to chat over the transrec, but what the hell. I plugged in.
“I don’t know how much time I have left,” I thought at it. “Maybe years, maybe not.”
repair you I please you I
I laughed. “It’s be interesting to see what you’d come up with, but I had something else in mind.” I opened the bay hatch and the Kviksølv body came loping out.
“Ship, meet the new copy of me,” I said over the transrec. “Copy, meet ship.”
“How do you do?” said the Kviksølv. “I’d introduce myself, but I don’t have a name yet.”
“I have dibs on that one,” I said. “Like I said, I don’t know how much time I have left. I guess none of us do. What I do know is that I’m going to spend that time with Wren.”
The Kviksølv laughed. “Yeah, I kinda figured I didn’t have a shot with her.”
“You don’t,” I said sternly. “But I know you’ll get the itch to wander. I got it from Ypsilanti, and you got it from me. So head out of Tramptown, out to the Intersolar, on past it if you have a mind to. See the stars. Or pick a world you like. Find a girl. If the knockoff Kviksølv parts are as good as the name-brand, you have fifty years ahead of you.”
The Kviksølv put a hand on the ship’s hull. “How’s that sound to you?”
“Be happy,” I said. “Be wild. But you don’t have to be Ypsilanti, or me, unless you want to.”
Copyright 2017 Tracy Canfield
About the Author
Tracy Canfield is a computational linguist who CNN once called a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines and anthologies, and her game set in the same universe as “Salvage” is scheduled for release in Fall of 2017. Find her on Twitter at @TracyCanfield.