If there were any crucial lessons the instructors managed to drill into my head when I was a wee private, it’d be these three evergreens:
One. Never lose your weapon. Duh, obviously. Forming a finger-gun and screaming pew-pew at the enemy was a lot less fun than one might imagine.
Two. There were no glory-holes worth the hustle! Trust me on this one. I won’t disclose what -uh- embarrassing mistake I made and why all rookies needed a medical check-up afterward. I planned to take that to my grave.
Three. Never take off the fucking helmet of your spacesuit if the atmosphere wasn’t safe. And when did you know that the atmosphere was safe? When the Sergeant told you so.
Of course, there were emergencies and sheer catastrophic luck if the helmet malfunctioned, cracked, or you just got vented out of an airlock without one. You had your last thirty to ninety seconds to fumble out the duct tape and do something about it, or have a retrospective of your decisions and weep if you liked.
My chances of survival weren’t abysmal. The space we were stuck in, once a mess, had a thin atmosphere, a lot of dust, maybe spores, and nanobots swirling around. Holding my breath like a diver had to suffice. Still, I would sacrifice precious oxygen. Before I pulled the stunt, I let Mother prepare. He put together the blaster parts we had planted on him. I made some adjustments to the frequencies of the two tasers we had and tried to reach Pomona on Bayard. It’d be neat if we would be picked up. Nothing. Were our signals jammed? Mother shrugged. Cricket didn’t fear the reactor inside Shepherd to blow up, and she didn’t tell me why. Before we blew the lights out, Shepherd gave her consent to our plan to piss on Tampo’s parade.
All light needed to vanish. Mother would destroy the monitor wall that still displayed a thousand variations on the word NO. Cricket had me doing breathing exercises. Right as I was to go lightheaded, Mother handed me his earplugs. A short burst of blaster fire sufficed to plunge the mess into darkness.
“Here goes nothing.” I took in a deep breath and pressed it down towards my stomach. Tingling went through my arms and ribcage. Cricket did something to my muscles. I opened the security Barker-lever to open the second pneumatic relay system. Alarms went off inside my helmet. “Critical condition. Do not open the relay. Do not open the relay.” The artificial voice commanded. It’ll be alright. I’ll protect you. Cricket’s thoughts felt like warm hands on my back as if she hugged me tightly. The calm she prepared for me was intoxicating. “Do not open the relay” meant a lot less now. My heart stopped racing, and my neck felt hot. The controls on my arms flashed red. Shit! That meant residual light. Mother was on it and tied fabric over the controls. “Do not open the relay.” I took another breath.
“DO NOT OPEN THE RELAY!”
I opened the relay.
Escaping air hissed away at my collar. The alarm was panicking. “Critical failure. Danger. Danger. Seek shelter.” The cold was pins and needles on my face and throat. I closed both eyes. “Danger. Danger.” Mother lifted the helmet far enough, so I reached in, pulled down the eyepatch, and popped in the earplugs. I could still hear and feel the alarm. It switched to motion alarm, transmitting its message through my sensors behind my ears and the base of my head. “Danger. Danger.” Ugh, this was getting annoying fast. The controls on my lower arms vibrated. Beeping, commanding, and announcing my imminent death, including an obnoxious count down. I wouldn’t need those three minutes.
The noise from the blaring oxygen alarm muffled. “Danger. Oxygen depleted in approximately hundred-eighty seconds.” Everything slowed as I opened both eyes. I felt like falling asleep on the outside but waking up inside. It wasn’t dark at all, but it took a bit to make sense of what I saw.
The darkness was speckled with white, blue, and darker areas that moved like waves. Cricket’s voice guided me towards a song. She sang to me. The smoking wall of e-waste was lined with bright stripes of cable tunnels, like an inverted zebra. Light reached deep into an area where the core must be. It was white and fuzzy, gave me goosebumps like scared rice. I checked the mess’s nooks and corners and saw tiny dots of sorta-red growing into bigger concentric rings. Huh, that was what infrasound looked like? Neat! So I was right. There was no visual on us!
Tampo was not only batshit-crazy but a literal bat! HA! He was batman! Maybe he had been blind before he became a swarm of hungry microscopic robots set on killing his girlfriend to make her immortal. Ugh, creep! Wouldn’t that make him Daredevil? Huh.
“Danger. Seek shelter. Hundred-fifty seconds.”
Then I turned my gaze towards Shepherd. She just looked new and shiny, despite her rusting. The traces of corrosion looked like termites tunneling into her internal wiring. I mouthed “play possum” at her and exaggeratedly mimed a “sorry.” It occurred to me, she might not see me. She’d be so pissed at me for trying to short her out. Mother put a hand on my shoulder and wanted to push the helmet back down onto my collar. His face was pale and sweaty. I was almost sure, he was pouting, and not okay with me walking around like this. Worry was written all over his face. He had a grey vibrating collar around his throat. His heartbeat? I stopped him. I didn’t know why, but I just did. I hoped Cricket would enlighten me, but she was busy staring intently at Shepherd. Who stared back at her as if she could see her. But that was impossible, was it?
“Hundred-twenty seconds remaining.”
I took Mother’s arm and led him to Shep’s head, where he was to taser her. I went back to my place at her feet and thought about humans’ insides and those of cyborgs and robots. I almost hoped she’d be wet and pink inside, not like a radio, or clockwork, or any other soulless engine. Her blood should be red, not white. I really liked her and hoped she’d accept that from a guy like me. Why such dark thoughts? Cricket looked at me with her intent stare. After all, I was an experiment, and I became aware of it in such an irksome way that it made me nauseous. I lit my taser up and waved it, so Mother got his signal. I crouched at her feet and pulled her left boot off to put the taser at her big toe. The current whooshed through Shepherd and made her rattle like a possessed doll. Hopefully, she’d forget about the pain I was causing.
I expected a polar light type effect with the nanobots lining up like iron flakes in a magnetic field, while Shepherd was the magnet. Which meant that they weren’t making Emmentaler cheese out of her.
That didn’t happen.
The nanobots slowed down, yes, but were unimpressed altogether. I saw the new magnetic field lines, but it was not as beautiful as the real aurora. Cricket walked into Shepherd’s body and bent down. I stopped with the procedure and watched what she was surprised about. She pointed to something green, then at the sorta-red rings ricocheting off of her cyborg skin. Ah, ha! The nanobots were guided by contrasting frequencies coming from the corners of the mess. The contrast had to change.
“Ninety seconds. Seek shelter.”
“You’re not gonna like this.” Cricket made a weird face at me. Oh-uh. “First, you need more molecules. Release more air and fire up your positioning jets.” Uh, wasn’t that dangerous? She nodded. O-kay. Mother sensed some change and chucked a plastic chair leg at me in his distress. Right. He didn’t see a thing, and I didn’t pay attention to the alarms or the comms. I wanted to tell him it was alright and that there was a plan. A good one, probably. Hopefully. One in which each of us survived, except Tampo. That creep could dissolve into the Taurus Dark Cloud, for all I cared. “You’re gonna make some rogue frequencies.” I could manage that! Making noise, banging pots and pans together were in my range of normal and usual behavior. I meant my normal, Me-before-Cricket-Normal, not the other-people-normal. I walked over to Mother, who slapped me across the face. That wasn’t helpful. “If you die, I will kill you!” He screamed and gesticulated like a madman. He threw in some colorful swearwords too. Heartwarming.
On a whim, I planted my forehead on his visor and thought hard. I imagined broadcasting that messing up frequencies was the key to stop the nanobots. I imagined making noise and a lot of tiny question marks swarming on Shepherd. When I pulled away, Mother’s eyes were wide as saucers, but he nodded slowly.
“Sixty seconds. Seek shelter.”
He proved he understood by firing up his jets. He floated over to the remains of the kitchen and thrashed whatever he could. Huh. I was a telepath now! Sweet! The reddish rings were excited and came faster. We had Tampo’s attention, or indignation, or curiosity. I went over to Shepherd’s green glow, and my throat spasmed. Cricket took over what I’d call serenading- a fancy word for screaming. My neck heated up and cramped, just like in a stranglehold. The inside of my mouth went dry and cold. I could taste the stale air in the mess, the ugly death stench. What a vile smell that was. Cricket smoothed it out.
I let out the mother of screams, a scream no human should be able to do. It was a long, ear-stabbing banshee screech. It sounded like metal bending around a growling hellhound with a woman screaming for her life while a nade detonated in her hands. How was that even possible? My forehead, my nose, and my ears prickled with the sounds. I felt it in my stomach, the tip of my lungs and in my soles.
A sharp pain ripped into me, and a spray of blood shot out of my mouth. I almost closed my mouth and clamped my hands over my lips, but Cricket wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t stop the noises, the prickling, the blood. The sound waves kept shredding and bending the air in front of me, with reds and yellows and bright blues. The coppery warm scent was the only thing to hold on to. It eased the pain somehow.
Shepherd’s green light intensified, and behold; the nanobots stopped with their progress.
Part 11/ Part 12 / Part 13