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Snow and Circuits

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“So, did you fix it yet?” Sigrun stepped into the shuttle bay, picking her way through the mess of wiring and mechanical parts scattered across the floor. The shuttle looked just as lifeless as it had the last time she’d seen it.

“The answer has not changed since you asked me ten minutes ago,” Mikkel grumbled, pushing himself out from under the vehicle. “Nor has the fact that I am not a mechanical technician.” He wiped his hands on his pants, and grimaced at the smear of grease left behind. “I can’t even tell if it’s a hardware or a software issue.”

Sigrun snorted. “Well I’m pretty sure there’s at least some kind of ‘hardware issue’, seeing as that snow spider put a crater-sized hole through it.” She put her hands on her hips. “What do I even pay you for, anyway, if you can’t tell that much?”

Mikkel didn’t seem bothered by the criticism. “Legal advice,” he said, “Backup medic. Lifting heavy things. Laundry, cleaning, cooking…”

“And I probably shouldn’t be paying you for that last one,” Sigrun said with a grimace. “Well, if we can’t get this thing up and running, none of us will be getting paid. I’ll have to find someone who knows their stuff.” She wished, not for the first time, that their former mech-tech had been a little less interested in money and more interested in doing his job. He’d certainly made tracks fast enough when it was clear there was no payment coming. Which meant Sigrun’s crew was down a repairman and a pilot.

Over lunch—a protein-laden sludge that hadn’t changed noticeably since Mikkel fed it to them for breakfast—Sigrun rallied her troops. “Okay. So we’re out of a job until we can get our ride in working order. Big Guy says he can’t fix it, we almost lost Freckles in the engine compartment the last time he tried, and—”

“And I’m not allowed near the engine because I might set it on fire, we know! You don’t have to keep saying it.” Emil scowled at his bowl and poked its contents without enthusiasm. He’d come a long way since Sigrun first met him, but sometimes his aristocratic background still showed through.

“Right, that.” Sigrun propped her elbows on the table. “So here’s what I’m thinking. We still need to resupply before we can go out again, our food stores and ammo are looking pretty sad. Freckles, how are we for medical?”

“Me? Um.” Reynir fidgeted. “We’re okay for basic stuff—bandages, sutures, painkillers. Our diagnostic scanner is still broken, but the prices right now are...well, we can’t afford a new one.” He shrugged.

“Hey, as long as you can still diagnose a broken arm without it, we’ll be fine,” Sigrun said. “Okay, here’s the plan. Freckles, you’re on food duty. See if you can get us something worth eating for a change. Emil, you go pick up our ammo.”

“Wait, what?” Emil’s spoon dropped from his hand, splashing him with bits of his lunch. “You said I’m not allowed to get ammo by myself anymore, that guy always cheats me!”

“Which is why Mikkel is going with you,” Sigrun replied. “Those weapons guys respect muscles, they won’t give you any trouble. And he can help you carry everything back!”

“And while we’re doing this, you will be…?” Mikkel asked.

Sigrun grinned. “I’ll be in the Circuit, finding someone who can fix our shuttle.”


 

When people in the city needed repairs, they had three options. The first, and most expensive, was to have a licensed mechanical technician do the work at an official repair shop. Most freelance crews like Sigrun’s couldn’t afford that, so they opted to buy the parts from scrap dealers and do it themselves. But for those who didn’t have that option, there was the Circuit.

On the surface, the Circuit was just another slum huddled at the edge of the city, clinging to existence in the shadow of the volcano. It wouldn’t have stood out from the rest of the city to a casual observer. But anyone who’d lived in the city for long enough knew that there was more to it than met the eye. It was said that anything could be had in the Circuit, if you knew where to look—and what to offer. Sometimes money would suffice, but other times people paid in favors, or promises. Sometimes the Circuit’s wonders came at a greater cost.

Sigrun saw plenty of evidence of those hard bargains as she made her way through the warren of narrow streets: uneven strides from ill-fitting prosthetic legs, metal fingers protruding from coat sleeves, eyes that glowed just a bit too brightly to be natural. The wars in the Outer Ring had created a brisk trade in body parts, and on planets with few resources and fewer scruples, it could be well worth it to give up an arm or a leg. Especially when prototype cyborg limbs came so cheaply, and were constantly improving. Some people even went through Augmentation simply because they wanted to, adding enhancements to their metal limbs like people on other planets added tattoos. And of course there were others for whom Augmentation was a necessity. Sigrun had no illusions about the dangers of her job. She knew all too well that one day she might come back with one less limb, and she’d be glad of the thriving cybernetics trade then.

But for today, she only needed a shuttle repair. The outside of the shop didn’t look like much, all rust-streaked metal and decades of ingrained dirt. The only indication that Sigrun was in the right place was a small sign on the door, a corroded plaque that said “Hotakainen and Hollola - Services Rendered”. Not especially helpful, but then again most people in the Circuit didn’t advertise their business too openly. So Sigrun straightened her shoulders and went inside.

She made her way through a tiny, disused office and into a large room with bay doors on one side. Cluttered workbenches lined the remaining walls, and a bank of monitors clustered in the far corner. A midsize courier shuttle sat in the middle of the room, cradled in a repair rig suspended from the ceiling. And someone was standing on its underside, upside-down, attacking it with a welding torch.

“Hellooo the shop?” Sigrun called, when the shower of sparks subsided. She didn’t want to interrupt something delicate, but there was no one else around.

“Oh!” The welder glanced over, saw Sigrun, and waved. “Hi! Sorry, I’ll be with you in a second.” She reached up to grab the repair rig, pressed the toe of one boot to the heel of the other, and flipped over so she was upright, hanging from one hand. She let herself drop to the floor, landing with a surprisingly loud thump. Still carrying her welding torch, she made her way over to Sigrun.

“Wow, you’re taller than I thought!” On the ground, the girl barely reached Sigrun’s chin. She removed her welding visor and held out her right hand. “I’m Tuuri Hotakainen. What can I do for you?”

With her face uncovered, Tuuri proved to have blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She also had a delicate pattern of silver rivets around her left eye—which, on further inspection, was a slightly different shade of blue, and glowed faintly in the dim light. A thin seam ran down her cheekbone, and another climbed from her eyebrow into close-cropped pale hair. Now that she was looking, Sigrun noticed a network of circuitry running over the left half of her scalp. Augmented, then.

“Sigrun Eide,” Sigrun said, clasping Tuuri’s hand in a firm grip. Now was no time to stare, even if she felt a weird urge to trace the tiny silver lines with her finger. “I’m hoping someone here can help me.” She pulled out the data chip with the shuttle’s specs on it. “I’m the captain of a freelance transport crew—resource acquisition, special deliveries, that kind of thing. Only the problem is, our shuttle took a little...damage.”

“So you’re a scavenger and a smuggler, and something out on the ice put a hole in your shuttle,” Tuuri translated. Sigrun grimaced at the accuracy of the statement, but the phrasing took her by surprise. Most people just didn’t come right out and say that kind of thing—she’d expected someone from the Circuit to be more diplomatic. “So why do you need me? Freelancers usually have their own mech-techs.”

Sigrun sighed. “Ours ran off. I guess he didn’t take kindly to almost being impaled by a snow spider. The rest of us tried our best, but we can’t get the damn thing running again.” She held out her hand, offering the chip. “My uncle Trond heard from a Taru Hollola that someone here might know a thing or two about shuttle repair.”

“Taru, hmm?” Tuuri hesitated for a moment, then reached for the chip. Instead of walking over to one of the monitors to plug it in, she held up her welding torch. Which she wasn’t carrying at all, Sigrun realized, because it was actually part of her arm. As Sigrun watched, the torch retracted and swiveled, locking into a slot on Tuuri’s forearm. The whole arm from elbow down rotated a few times, until a data port appeared. Tuuri inserted the chip, and her arm projected the shuttle diagram in front of her.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding! This thing is pretty beat up.” Tuuri poked the display, frowning at whatever it told her as she scrolled. “And whoever scanned it did a crap job, this is incomplete.” Another poke. “It’s cute though, I like the design.”

Sigrun grinned. She wouldn’t have called a shuttle “cute”, but mech-techs could be a bit odd like that—and in Tuuri’s case, it was strangely endearing. She also stored away the “crap job” comment to mention the next time Mikkel got too full of himself. “So,” she asked, “Can you fix it?”

Tuuri’s face took on an innocent expression. “Oh, I might be able to. I’d probably have to see it in person.” She removed the chip, handed it back to Sigrun, and spun her arm again—this time, a metal hand formed on the end. Tuuri flexed her fingers, then added, “And also I’d have to hear what you’re offering.”

Now for the tricky part. “Well, as far as credits go, we’re a little down on our luck at the moment, but—”

“Oh, no, I’m not interested in credits,” Tuuri said. “Okay, that’s a lie, my brother would blow a fuse if he heard me say that. Literally.” She twisted her metal wrist, slowly, and smiled as blue and pink lights chased each other up and down her arm. “But actually, I’m more interested in what else you have to offer.”

“Like what?”

“Well, you said your mech-tech did a runner, right? And your crew goes out onto the ice?”

Sigrun nodded. “Yeah. Sometimes. It’s dangerous, but it’s a living.” She grinned. “Fun, too, even if some people would call me crazy for saying so.” There was a reason she was here, after all, and not off on some more prosperous planet. Sigrun loved her job, and she was damn good at it.

“And your mech-tech...was he your pilot, too?” Tuuri’s tone was almost too casual.

“Mostly,” Sigrun said, “Though I could do it in a pinch.” How hard could it really be?

“Right, then. That’s what I want.” Tuuri met Sigrun’s eyes, matching her grin for grin. “I’ll fix your shuttle, and you’ll give me a job.”

Sigrun thought about the gaping hole in the shuttle’s hull, and remembered how her former mech-tech had just shaken his head and walked away from it. She also couldn’t remember a single time when he’d been as enthusiastic about going out onto the ice as Tuuri was. So she offered her hand for Tuuri to shake. “Fuzzy-head, you’ve got yourself a deal.”


 

18 Lunar Cycles Later

The cockpit door slid open, letting in a blast of frigid air and a harried captain. Tuuri tore her eyes away from the radar screen as Sigrun approached. “How are things going back there? Lalli says the storm is getting worse.”

Sigrun grimaced. “Of course it is.” The storm had been bad on their way out, but they couldn’t delay this shipment any longer if they wanted to get paid. Nothing for it but to take their chances and hope they got lucky. “Tell him to get back here as quick as he can. We’re almost done loading, leaving in five.” It was damn useful, having crew members with communicators hard-wired into their arms. Tuuri alone was worth every credit Sigrun paid her, and she’d brought along additional crew by recruiting her family.

“Right.” Tuuri tapped out a code on her left arm—sending the message to Lalli—and plugged her left hand into the control panel. It had taken her a while to rig the shuttle to mesh with the software in her cybernetic arm, but it was worth it. Now she could manage all the major systems directly, as fast as thought. Out here on the ice, speed could mean the difference between life or death.

Leaving the cockpit at a jog, Sigrun rejoined the others on the loading dock. “Big guy! Status report?”

Mikkel scanned the shipping manifest. “Just this last crate, and we’re good. As long as no one looks too closely at the contents.”

Sigrun snorted. “Goes without saying. Any update on our company, Emil?”

Emil shifted his weight from one foot to the other, but he didn’t lower his gun or look away from the other end of long cavern. “They still don’t look friendly, but they don’t look fast, either. If we get out of here as soon as Lalli comes back, we should have some room if they decide to follow us.”

Sigrun looked through her own scope to confirm. The other group of freelancers had a cargo of their own to load, but they still spared a few members to watch Sigrun’s crew. Even though it was a standard precaution, she didn’t like their hungry look. They might decide they’d rather come back with two cargoes instead of one. “Get that crate on board, then. Twig’s on his way in, let’s be ready to hop. Freckles, get inside and strap in.”

Reynir left off trying to push the crate into the cargo hold and sprinted for the shuttle door. Mikkel lifted the crate into place with ease, securing it for the journey, and checked the last box on the manifest. The display turned green, and the cargo doors closed. Mikkel went to join Reynir in the shuttle, leaving Sigrun and Emil alone.

“Right. Get up there and see if Twig’s back, then take your station. I’ll keep an eye out until we’re good to go.”

Emil lowered his gun. “Are you sure you don’t want backup? There are a lot of guns over there.”

Sigrun shook her head. “I’d rather have everyone loaded. Go on, and have Tuuri give me a heads-up when she’s taking off.”

Emil went, and Sigrun kept her eyes trained on the other crew. They had more people than Sigrun did, and their loading was going fast. The ones not moving crates were clustered behind an outcropping of stone and ice with their guns pointed at Sigrun. As she watched, the guns mounted on top of their shuttle turned toward her too.

“Short Stuff?” Sigrun nudged the shuttle’s rear comm port with her elbow. “It’s getting ugly out here.”

Tuuri’s voice crackled through the speaker. “I’m on it!” The shuttle’s guns swiveled to target the enemy vessel. “Lalli’s almost here, should be just a minute.”

Sigrun backed up slowly. She just had to hold out a little longer, then—

Tzing! A bullet struck the rock to Sigrun’s left.

“Make it a fast minute, Fuzzy!” Sigrun returned fire with a shower of bullets, taking grim satisfaction when one of her opponents went down clutching a shoulder. The rest of them ducked, but they wouldn’t hold off for long.

“He’s in! Ready when you are, Captain.”

Sigrun wasted no time in sprinting for the cockpit. Bullets pinged off the shuttle and struck the cavern walls, sending chips of stone and ice flying. Then Sigrun was in, and the shuttle took off.

“How’s it looking back there?” Sigrun demanded, wasting no time as she flung herself into the front gunner seat. Emil was manning the rear guns for now, freeing Tuuri to focus all her attention on flying.

He answered her through the comm. “They’re pursuing. We got a head start, but they’re closing on us. They must have some engine boosters we couldn’t see.”

Sigrun swore. “Fucking perfect. Hopefully we can lose them in the storm.”

"C-captain, are you all right?" That was Reynir, sounding just as terrified as he always did when there was combat. "They were shooting, if you need medical attention—"

"I'm fine, Freckles. Keep your ass in that seat, we're in for a bumpy ride." The storm was already making for difficult flying.

“Uh, Sigrun?” Tuuri’s voice brought Sigrun’s attention back to the front. “Something else you should know.” She pulled up the radar on the copilot screen so Sigrun could see the array of red dots moving in from the west. There were a lot of them, and they weren’t moving like shuttles. “Lalli spotted more company on the way back. Looks like a whole cluster of snow spiders, and they’re moving to cut us off from the city.”

“Can we get around them?” Sigrun asked. Snow spiders weren’t too dangerous individually, but they liked to travel in groups and were hard to shake once they caught sight of a target.

Tuuri frowned. “Maybe? There are already a few in our path, and if we cut too wide an arc to avoid them, that other crew will catch us. But I could try.”

Sigrun studied the dots on the radar: nearly a dozen in front of them, and one behind. Then an idea struck. “What if...do you think you can dodge them?”

“Wait, you mean go through?” Tuuri’s mouth hung open for a second, then twisted into a grin. “Yeah, probably.” She traced a path on the radar screen. “It’ll be risky.”

“All the best plans are,” Sigrun said. She could feel her pulse pounding, a thrill of excitement sizzling through her. “Do it.”

Tuuri sent the shuttle hurtling forward, directly into the snow spider cluster. With the storm raging outside, it was almost impossible to see through the wind-driven ice. So when the first snow spider appeared, Tuuri had to jerk the shuttle aside to keep from plowing into it.

“Whoa!” Sigrun let off a burst of gunfire, but she wasn’t fast enough to hit it. “Damn. Emil!”

The rear guns fired, but his voice came back regretful. “Sorry!”

“Never mind. Did it get those bastards tailing us?”  

“No such luck,” Tuuri said. “There’s another one incoming though, hang on!”

They dodged their way through the spiders, buffeted by the storm and still pursued. Sigrun managed to get a few hits in to keep the snow spiders at bay, and Emil’s shots kept the other shuttle from getting too close. But it was slowly gaining on them, and they were reaching the edge of the storm. If they broke through the ice wall before they shook the other vessel, they’d be caught.

“Any bright ideas, Fuzzy?” Sigrun asked, sparing a glance for the radar in between attacks. “We’re running out of time.”

Tuuri swerved around another snow spider, narrowly missing the leg that jabbed out at them. “Just one, and it’s terrible.” She took a deep breath. “When I fly between the last two spiders, don’t shoot.”

“Don’t—seriously?” The last two snow spiders loomed large on the radar, so close together Sigrun doubted the shuttle could squeeze through. If she fired on them, they’d move enough to give Tuuri some breathing room. “Why?”

“Just—trust me!” Tuuri gave the thruster everything she had, flying full speed at the monsters. Sigrun swore, but managed to bark an order for Emil to hold his fire. They plunged into the gap, so close that Sigrun could see the hair on the giant spider legs. The spiders swiped at them—Tuuri hopped the shuttle over one leg, ducked under another, and just as suddenly as they’d hurtled into danger, they were out, away, free.

Sigrun just had time for a relieved breath when something behind them exploded. “What the fuu—”

Emil was shouting, and Reynir was babbling so loud she could hear him through the wall, and Tuuri was laughing, still going full-tilt as they cleared the storm. “We did it! We got them!” The other shuttle had disappeared from the radar. In the rear viewscreen, smoke rose and spider legs thrashed.

“Holy shit! You did it!” Sigrun was out of her seat, not caring that she was leaving her gun unattended. She caught Tuuri by the shoulders and kissed her soundly. “That was AMAZING!” And then her brain caught up with her and she registered the flaming blush on Tuuri’s cheeks. “Ah. Sorry, I—”

“I—I have to keep flying or we’re going to crash,” Tuuri squeaked. Her eyes darted to the landscape in front of her, then back to Sigrun. “But...I didn’t mind that. If you want to do it again later?”

Holy frozen hells, she’s adorable. “I think that can be arranged,” Sigrun said. She ruffled Tuuri’s hair and just stood for a minute, taking in the view. The sky was clearing, and in the distance she could see the city lights glimmering at the base of the volcano. “Take us home, Fuzzy.”

Tuuri risked another glance at her, smiling—and gasped. "Sigrun! You're bleeding!"

Sigrun looked down at the red puddle on the floor, then at the stain spreading over her sleeve. "Damn. Shrapnel." The shuttle swayed, and went dark as the floor rose to meet her.


 

One Lunar Cycle Later

Tuuri inspected the bandage on Sigrun’s arm. “Does it still hurt?”

“Nah. It twinges a bit sometimes, but I guess that’s the nerves adjusting.” Sigrun propped herself up on the other arm so Tuuri could get a better visual on the bandage. “I think you can just cut it if you can’t find the end.”

“I don’t think you want my saw attachment that close to your skin,” Tuuri said, giggling. “And I don’t want to go looking for scissors.” They were curled up on one of the common room sofas, turned around to face the window. The view wasn’t much—a dingy street made only a little prettier by the fresh coating of snow—but it gave them a bit of light and privacy.

Sigrun feigned shock. “What? You mean there’s something your fancy arm can’t do?” She shook her head as Tuuri started to unwind the bandage. “I’m disappointed. Here we are living in such an advanced society, and I can’t even get a pair of scissors in my arm.”

“Keep up that talk, and you will end up with scissors in your arm—pointy-end first,” Tuuri warned. “And anyway, there’s plenty of time for fancy attachments later if you want them. But I think you’re off to a good start.” The last of the bandage fell away, revealing a silvery patch on Sigrun’s forearm. Under a microscope, it would be possible to see the individual circuits running under her skin, but a casual observer might not even notice it was there. At least, not until she tapped the edge and dots of purple light cascaded out from her touch.

“What do you think?” Sigrun asked. “Did I pick a good one?” The communicator had been her idea—it had seemed a waste not to get some upgrades while she was healing from her injury, and this was much cooler than a normal scar. The bounty they’d gotten for taking out those ruffians had left their purses fat enough to splurge a little. Tuuri was the one who suggested that the implant might be decorative, too. Sigrun had no complaints.

Tuuris eyes gleamed. “It’s perfect!” She pressed her left forefinger against the same patch on Sigrun’s skin, and the lights spread out again. This time, they also traveled up Tuuri’s finger and danced along her arm. “We match now.” She caught Sigrun’s wrist and drew it towards her to place a kiss on the silver patch.

Sigrun laughed. “We do make quite a pair.” She kissed Tuuri’s cheek, lips brushing the line where skin met circuitry. Then kissed her again, and again until their mouths met and they didn’t need words or colored lights to express themselves.