Chapter 1: Purpose
1191 years ago, Tau Ceti-7, near Core Replicator RV/9217
The ship was waiting for her in the auxiliary hangar. Commander Hopps hurried between the lines of empty clamps, heart beating in her throat. There had been a last-minute vacancy on the roster, the hare who was supposed to fly the ship was in the med bay for the rest of the week and now she suddenly found herself on rotation, helping to cover the retreat this morning shift.
Like most combat vessels of the Sol Defense Force, this one had no cockpit. A pilot strapped themself into the exoskeleton, clamps snapped around their wrists and ankles, establishing an interface between the ship and the pilot. She moved her arm carefully, saw the ship react around her; but she also felt it, as the sensors were now linked directly into her own nervous system. It took new pilots a few weeks to get used to this aspect, but it took a lot out of them as well. Hopps had enough training to qualify for combat, but she was far from specialized on it. She was here only because someone else tripped and broke a leg this morning.
They never had enough mammals. The only reason why you put a mammal not augmented for fighter combat on a mission like this was desperation. Hopps’ didn’t question the orders, she was thankful that she was able to do something to help. Even if the orders were to distract and disengage.
Her ship was good for that job. It was small (barely seven times her size) and lean, without any space beyond the essentials: power, twenty-four thrusters, and weaponry. She could only pilot it because she had at least similar enhancements to the fighter pilots, namely those that allowed a mammal to survive hard vacuum. If you could get over the fact that reaction time and a tiny shield were the only things between you and enemy fire, these scout craft were a solid choice. The weak armaments, however, made it clear that they weren’t exactly meant for front-line combat; which was exactly what she was about to join.
She started the engines and let the carrier take her outside. Her skin prickled as the warm air of the hangar was replaced with vacuum. The heads-up-display displayed a vector to the rendezvous with the rest of her squad.
An hour later the retreat they were to cover was hanging by a mere thread. Hopps mind felt frayed despite her being awake for only four hours.
Fleet command in this sector was as good as doomed, they all knew it – even those who boasted otherwise. But they still had to draw the enemy away from here as well and that was more important than even their own survival. Hopps didn’t know the larger picture beyond that fact, nor did she care. She had known this from the get-go this might be her last mission. Nonetheless was she glad she might at least help, one last time, not await the end in one of the carriers, relegated to support duties because they never had enough ships. This must have been her lucky day, if you could call it that, that they had one rabbit sized ship more than they had combat-ready pilots. Her own enhancements were for strength and resilience, and while she had the training, she had no disillusions that she could hold her own against her trained colleagues.
It might not make a difference either way as these combat encounters were highly asymmetric in nature. Their enemy was relying on swarm tactics and formation, guided by a single mind, while they had slightly superior technology, but oh so few mammals. Chaos and unpredictability were often their best advantage against this foe.
Chaos, however, was said to be a fickle mistress.
Warning sirens blared in her head the instant something hit her left stabilizer. She didn’t even have the shooter on her screen, it must have been a shot aimed at someone else; a one-in-billion chance but it might just have sealed her fate. When you lost control of your ship, it was impossible to steer with purpose, you were reduced to random-walk. Hopps worked the thrusters individually trying to be as unpredictable a target as possible. Terrified she was, but if in her last moments she could cause a bit more distraction for the enemy then she’d be damned if she did anything less! It took all her training to stop the ship from going into too fast of a spin. The hologram in front of her was already rotating too fast to make out where the enemy drones were in relation to her, but it flashed with every close call she somehow managed to evade.
Until suddenly, a green light came up again, indicating that re-calibration was complete and she ship had balanced out the steering over the other thrusters. She switched back to normal steering mode, stopped the spin, and accelerated. A full wing of drones was on her tail and she did what was hammered into her in briefing. Disengage.
With a bit of distance and a breather gained she glanced at the larger situation map and found herself in a peculiar position. She decided to radio it in. “Hopps to fire control.”
“Listening,” an operator responded.
“I have a regained control, but am stranded behind their net. I’m moving to draw off a wing at least.”
“Roger that, try heading towards ten-seventy, presence appears to be weakest there. You might just link up with us again if you can get back to cruising speed.”
Before she could acknowledge, something else in the three-dimensional radar image in front of her caught her attention and she said: “Negative, fire control. There’s a gap in the enemy’s net between me and the factory. I’m going to try and board it.”
“Hopps, your orders are to disengage!” the operator insisted.
“…and distract. This is a chance for one big distraction and I’m taking it.”
“Hopps,” came another voice. It was the general’s, he must have been within earshot.
Hopps cringed slightly, knowing she was in for a chewing out by the old tiger. “Sir?”
“I’m ordering you back. We can’t afford to lose more ships today or we’ll have trouble making it out of the sector, maybe even out of this system.”
“Sorry, sir, now I know I have to try this.” She had found a purpose again. One that wasn’t just filling in for someone else, but something she was made for. She wasn’t going to let this chance slip by, no matter how slim it was. “You said it yourself, we might not live to see another cycle in any case.”
The deep voice huffed. He could either disable her ship, leaving her at the mercy of the enemy, or allow her to see this through. It was but a flicker of hope, but at least it was that. “Try to find us afterwards.”
She didn’t give herself any illusions that it’d come to that. Still, it felt good not to plan for failure. “Affirmative.” The comms clicked off and she couldn’t help but reminisce a few moments about her friends and family. Ben, the cheerful cheetah from the 37th, Jimmy, her on-and-off dalliance, though they were both married to the job, and her family, who’d shared the fate of the Gaia-One. Maybe she’d see them again soon.
The maw of the Factory loomed in front of her, a circular hangar with a diameter of eight kilometers. Several wings had noticed her now and were rushing to intercept. They knew as well as her that they wouldn’t be fast enough. Not before she’d make it inside.
She hoped that maybe the machines knew fear after all.
Year 243 After Arrival, Habitat 87
Mag-rail transport – the free, quick and easy way to get anywhere you want. Loud, is what they forgot to mention. Wilde would have put in ear plugs if not for the fact that it made conversation impossible. When would they finally invent ear plugs that allowed for conversation? ‘I’m a rocket scientist, not an ergonomics engineer.’ The habitat’s scientists were much too busy studying the stars around them and how to reach them, than concern themselves with such simple problems. It was a running gag among foxes, the station’s inhabitants with the most sensitive ears.
At least the commute didn’t take more than a few minutes each day. And his buddy who sometimes deigned to get up and take the same train was usually a good distraction. Well, some days more so than others.
“You heard that c.a.r.n.e. organizes a picnic on Friday?” Finnick asked.
“Out on the forth belt? Sure. You going?” The cooking enthusiast club wasn’t really Wilde’s scene, though he did like what they produced. It just spoke a lot of mammal’s need to kill time to put so much effort into doing something yourself that the food processor could whip up in seconds. And Wilde had never been able to tell the difference, no matter what he sometimes told others.
A slow grin spreading on his face. “Oh, I see what’s happening there. Well, if you need a wing man, I’m always there for you, buddy.”
The fennec, who wasn’t the best at asking for, or accepting help, just shrugged. “They got good booze.” A master of deflection at work.
Wilde nodded sagely. He wouldn’t go otherwise, he’d left his days of wild(e) partying behind by now, (and so had Finnick for that matter if it weren’t for some cute vixen apparently). And he kinda felt for the ‘park rangers’ who had to make sure everyone cleaned up after themselves. Some mammals just wouldn’t learn that they lived in a small and fragile ecosystem where they couldn’t leave trash behind. Wilde was really glad he had dodged getting into that particular branch of the security team. Hadn’t been easy either, since they were by far the largest branch.
But he might as well go. What else was there to do? An ad for the new block buster scrolled by in the overhead display of the rail car. Yet another first contact story where aliens came to destroy them all. Pass. Mammal cinema was somehow even less diverse than back on Earth, if the history wikis were to be believed. He understood that living among the stars made people wonder – more than ever – what might be out there. But sadly it hadn’t done much for their imagination.
The rail car lurched to a halt and Finnick got up. “See ya later, Nick,” he growled with that mix of determination and resignation that was unique to him and only came out in the morning when he steeled himself for his job. As one of the smallest engineers on the fifth belt, they had him crawling into all sorts of places no other mammal could reach. Talk about having your work set out for you from the start.
Wilde looked around and saw he had nobody to talk to anymore. The remaining few passengers were engaged with each other. With a small measure of his own resignation he turned to his news feed. The chief had chewed him out a few tunes for not reading it before coming in, ignoring the fact that Wilde liked to get his news from other people, not a stupid machine aggregator. It was a large station after all, and all the programmers in the habitat couldn’t come up with a way to filter out all the irrelevant bits.
His heads-up-display started the feed and with a few lazy finger gestures he started scrolling through them. Another one of the planetborn had died, only six were left. Who cares? The distinction of planetborn and voidborn had been a heated debate when there were still a lot of original settlers from Earth around. Now it was but a crumbling safety blanket for those hoping they might one day return. He kept scrolling, only to read that the microfabber plant across the ring was looking for new bot programmers. To the void with all robots, and the people who programmed them. And the authorities from his district were hosting an open discussion this evening: on the proposed rule changes for personal drone usage. He could actually see himself going there – if he didn’t know they never dared let it come to an open vote. It would again just be a lot of talk, with no consensus to show for it at the end. He closed the app with a disgruntled sigh and looked out the window instead.
The forest to his right curved up until it vanished into one of the three large window panels that separated the biomes. He had to look further up to see the beginning of the plains. The window shutters had begun to slowly open some time ago to simulate the day-night rhythm they were all living on. The biome directly above that window got the reflected sun, while Wilde could look out through them into the vastness of space. He’s only had to venture out there maybe half a dozen times in his life and he was glad it wasn’t more often. Still, the ever present reminder was always there, for there was never more than twenty meters of floor beneath him and hard vacuum.
He sighed with relief when the rail car lurched to a halt for him, bringing him both to his place of work and back to reality.
Time for another day at sec-station five-two. The repurposed building, which was made of the same steel as the whole belt, was located just across the exit of the Mag-Rail station. The insides were only slightly more inviting. Plastic mats and wall paneling couldn’t really hide the building’s industrial flair.
He moved towards the reception desk, intending to have a chat with the black wolf sitting there, ready to nod off at the end of her night shift. But once she spotted him, she pointed a stretched out arm to the side, straight at the Chief’s office.
That was irregular to say the least, as the Chief rarely got in before him. Wilde still hoped that was the case since the alternative – the Chief being here all night – signaled an even bigger mess on the table. His table, apparently.
It couldn’t be worse than having a skulk smuggle toxic waste across biomes again, right?
He hit the buzzer – the large door to the Chief’s office slid aside before he could drop his arm again. The Chief didn’t look up when Wilde came in and then took an unprompted seat. Only then did the bull’s eyes fixate him over his horned reading glasses. Wilde tried to get a red on him, but at times like this, where the Chief seemed to hold back exhaustion with nothing but sheer force of will, it was hard to look beyond the stony exterior. It wasn’t a good morning to chip away at his armor either, so he leaned back and waited for his boss to speak.
“Fancy a vacation, Wilde?” the Chief finally rumbled.
“I think the Greys would be a little miffed if I dropped their case now.” What was this about? He’d been on a vacation just a month ago and they both knew it.
“I’ll assign Ironpaw on that case. You, however, I need for another assignment.” He slid a tablet across the desk.
“Need my unique skill set in other areas? What’s it this-” the rest of the words stuck in his throat when he looked down and actually looked at the info sheet, saw the vessel and the map.
“It’s more your stature than your training that we need for this. You leave in three hours. Any questions?”
Wilde wanted to argue, desperately, but he just sighed in resignation. He was the smallest member of the precinct with at least a little piloting experience. “You really need those parts, do you?”
“If your toaster blew a fuse this morning, like so many others on the fifth belt, then you know why,” Bogo said.
Wilde had no idea, opting to skip a full breakfast most days. “Twenty day vacation,” he murmured and left without another look back. A twenty day isolation confinement was more like it. But there was no point in arguing. Him and the Chief did get along well (even if Bogo would heartily deny any such allegations) and he wouldn’t send him out on this trip if there was an equally qualified candidate in the roster.
When was the last time he’d been given a special assignment? Most of his work consisted of talking to mammals all across the belt to trail smugglers and small-time thieves who have crossed biome borders and tried to hide somewhere else. It was simply what he was good at, and although the Chief would (again) never admit it, Wilde knew they were on the same page there. The rarest jobs took him to the other end of the station to be able to talk to someone in person.
Not the other end of the rutting solar system to collect scrap.
Ten days later and Wilde had reached his target. All that time he’d been bored out of his skull in the tiny spacecraft. The reason he fit in it being the main reason why he’d been assigned this mission. All spacecraft were tiny and had life support for one or two small mammals at most. This science vessel was good enough to ferry him across the system to a derelict station and back, but the scientists couldn’t be authorized (bothered) with this important salvage mission.
Wilde hoped he’d never get to lay eyes on the drunk idiot who’d managed to damage the central transformer station of belt five.
As the craft set down with only a little bounce, he was quick to strap himself out and finally stretch his legs again. All that time in space without gravity took a toll on a mammal and once back he’d have a lot of exercise to look forward to. After just half the journey he was nearly looking forward to it, the way his muscles were cramped.
As they had warned him, this derelict habitat was powered down and spinning slower, so he’d experience only about point-three Gs. Exercising his limbs after being cooped up in the cockpit for so long would not be easy in this gravity.
The ramp went down and revealed nothing but darkness. He’d seen from the outside that the large window shutters which made up half the surface of the tube-shaped stations, were all closed. Except for some damaged bits, likely due to asteroid impacts. Since the station was fully powered down, the asteroid defense systems couldn’t do their job anymore, and over the millennia or however long these things existed, the occasional hit added up.
Wilde shivered at the thought. Nobody even knew how long these things had been floating around. They’d just found them and colonized them, lacking any better alternatives (i.e. habitable planets). But who made them and why was still a mystery.
This wasn’t the time for old horror stories though, he had a job to fulfill and then he could return home. The sooner that happened the better.
He switched on the floodlights on his suit’s shoulders – and quickly dialed them back when the light burned his retinas. Whoever had last worn this thing was not nocturnal, that much was sure. At the lowest possible setting, the light revealed a chaotic tangle of steel blocking his path inward. Earlier salvage expeditions clearly had not bothered to clean up after themselves. Now it was hard to distinguish what this mess had once been. Ships? Some of the shapes looked like space craft, but curiously slim. Where would a pilot fit into those? He walked along the edge of the iron graveyard in search of a better path.
Wilde could have tried to fly his own vessel to land further in, but the sensors had shown him a cloud of debris in the space above him and he didn’t want to find out what kind of collisions the flimsy science vessel could not withstand. So he had to walk the kilometer from the edge of the station to the first belt and back. In this gravity, the round-trip would probably take him half a day if he was quick about it.
The debris field on the ground thankfully didn’t extend forever. He found an empty stretch of floor and made his way inward. Here, there was just plain, slightly curved, metallic floor. This must have been what their own habitat looked like, before they colonized it, brought soil and water and rebuilt an ecosystem. You wouldn’t think it possible when seeing this wasteland of metal but thanks to the still running generators the other habitats possessed, it had been possible in less than a eighty years, or so the history wikis claimed.
When Wilde examined the damaged hunks of metal closer, he saw welding patterns where mammals had come to melt out chunks of the machinery, but also bending and breaking that looked like something big crashed into it. Had a large asteroid hit the station, knocking them into each other? When he began this excursion he’d asked the scientists why the station wasn’t operating anymore but they couldn’t tell him. What made the large generators run and stop was still beyond them, even after depending on them for two-hundred-forty years. As such, they only had vague theories what made the lights go out on this station.
After hours of trudging through the twilight and his mind playing tricks on him with the shadows that seemed to move and change in front of his eyes, a new shape appeared at the edge of the light’s radius. The three-story-tall belt that ran around the tube’s diameter, connecting the three floors and three windows together. Here he was told to find the parts they needed.
The first door he reached, gave him pause. The steel door was kicked off its hinges and embedded into the opposite wall. And stranger still, it was bent inwards at the center around what looked like a paw-print. But not large like a bear’s, though Wilde had trouble imagining even a large apex predator denting the door like this. It was a print smaller than his own paw.
It must have been a trick. Some freak accident that left the steel like this.
He shook his head and refocused, recalling the floor plans which he had amply time to study on the trip. He made his way deeper into the building.
Finding the transformer was easy, extracting the parts with tools he’d never used before took a little while longer, but finally he had everything stowed in his utility bag and turned to leave. Only to find the exit blocked by another mammal, standing without suit or any protective gear in hard vacuum.
In case I didn't explain it well enough and you've never heard of it: the station he lives in is basically an O'Neill cylinder (wiki)
Chapter 3: Meet upon a Star
Derelict Station, Tau Ceti-7
Two eyes glowed in an unnatural, purple light as the creature turned its head towards Wilde. That finally broke the shock over him and he backpedaled into the hallway, screaming at the top of his lungs.
Racing three flights of stairs to the roof, he bumped into every wall on the way, unable to compensate for the low gravity in his frenzy. At one point he stopped shouting into his helmet if only because he was too out of breath – and at least one part of his brain registered the fact that nobody could hear him through the vacuum. Even if his suit microphone had been enabled, time delay to send anything to the other end of the system was about half an hour. He was truly cut off here.
Which made it all the weirder when his suit comm beeped on by itself. An unknown female voice started talking; the language was unrecognizable to him, though. Oh no, was it that thing outside? He reached the roof, opened the access hatch and slammed it shut behind him. Naturally it only could be sealed from the inside. He looked around frantically for some place to hide.
Another mammal here, that was impossible. The habitat wouldn’t send two salvage teams over, and there was no other habitat which might have done the same in this solar system, nor was there any such thing as space pirates or people living outside the habitat. No, it must be some robot, only that could survive here for any length of time, and even then he hadn’t heard of any batteries that could keep a full robot powered for months. If this was a prank by the last salvage team, it had to be a really elaborate one.
The voice continued to garble into his ear, though the language seemed to shift now and then. What the fuck was happening here? First contact with an alien race of robots? He didn’t sign up for this. Especially not with a stupid piece of machinery. “Leave me alone,” he whispered to himself.
“Protocol established,” came an immediate answer.
“Greetings. I need you to take me to your home base, fox.”
“Can you understand me?”
“Please leave me alone.”
“I will not. I have been stuck here for an unknown amount of time at least greater than ten-e-three solar cycles. You will take me with you. I cannot remain stranded here.”
“S-stranded?” This thing had to be insane. At least a thousand years! That was beyond improbable. Somebody should have found it before.
“Yes, stranded. Does this word no longer exist in your language?”
“How do you even know my language?” Wilde got up from sitting on top of the access hatch and started pacing. He felt like he was in a bad first contact movie now, where the alien was inexplicably speaking English from the start. And no hypothetical translator could decipher a language in five words or so.
“I don’t know. How do you know mine?” it asked.
He didn’t have an answer. The outline against the door, it was feint, but there was something recognizable in it, something he’d seen, but never in person, only in pictures. The hatch creaked and Wilde made a large jump back from it, almost fell from the edge before catching himself as the robot climbed out with smooth movements. Too smooth to be any robot he’d ever seen. And now that he could take a good look at it in the light of his flood lights, he recognized the shape as a rabbit. A species not seen since the Arrival in Tau Ceti. Presumably their sleeper ship had not made it on the long journey.
They stared at each other. Wilde knew then without a doubt it had to be a robot. There was no protective gear on it or any kind of clothing. It had a normal low cut, gray fur coat you’d expect from rabbits, a bit clumped together in places and rather dirty, but still: a naked rabbit in hard vacuum.
“The answer should be obvious,” it stated. “You are a fox. I am a rabbit. Therefore we are both from Earth, where the language originated.”
Its mouth moved when it spoke, but the voice came out of his suit. An alien advanced robot with characteristics of an old Earth mammal. It was several kinds of surreal. “D-do you even realize how preposterous this is? You can’t be a rabbit. We’ve left that planet behind several millennia ago and nobody has seen one since!”
It gave a tiny shrug. “I do not have answers for you.”
“How did you even get here?”
“I… don’t remember.” Its shoulders sagged by a tiny amount.
Almost enough for a twinge of empathy to spark in Wilde, but he extinguished it. “Why not? Robots don’t have amnesia.”
The eerily purple eyes narrowed at him. “I am not a robot, fox. Watch your mouth!”
“No?” he gestured around them. “You only appear to survive in hard vacuum without a problem, telling me you’ve been living here for millennia. How can you be anything but! Geez, this is too much.” He had to be dreaming. Maybe the suit’s oxygen supply was faulty and he was hallucinating this whole exchange, while his brain was slowly dying. “I have to get back to my ship,” he decided. Maybe it wasn’t too late before his brain gave out.
“Good. I will accompany you.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say.” Just a hallucination.
He still watched not to brush against it, as he walked to the hatch and made his way down. On the ground floor he avoided looking at the destroyed door and sped up the pace. It was taxing in a low gravity environment but he had to get back to his ship. If he suffocated here, the salvage and his vessel would be lost to the station. And if he ever got back, he’d take a proper long vacation. Maybe go to the prairie biome, it was said they had nice river beaches there.
He glanced back and yes, the thing was still following him. Effortlessly, despite his large strides. It moved different, like it was gliding over the ground, the long rabbit legs only correcting its course now and then. Nope, he was definitely imagining all this. The doctors would have a field day with him.
It seemed contend to follow him without making conversation, but Wilde broke first. He could feel the eyes on his back. “Do you remember anything? Your name? Where you’re from?”
“I am Commander Judith Hopps. Beyond that it is hazy. I’ve had to reset my memory several times. Maybe too often. It is not a recommended course of action unless as a last resort. It must have had a detrimental effect on long-term memory indices.”
Yeah, definitely a robot. But one so advanced he’s never even heard of anything like this. But how? Was there a chance there was another habitat from Earth, one they had never been able to contact and which had inexplicable thrived in technology much more than they had? No way, this thing was hundreds of years more advanced than what they could do. “And you’re sure you’re not a robot,” he asked.
“I may have more anorganic parts in me than you do, fox, but if you managed to cut through this skin, I would still bleed.”
He wondered if that ‘blood’ would be red or some machine oil. He didn’t pose that question though, as he didn’t want to agitate it further. “The name is Wilde,” he murmured. Why did he treat this thing like a person? There was no way it was even real. But talking felt safer so that’s what he went with.
It/she nodded and positioned herself to walk/glide beside him.
Wilde had a history with robots, though, and the distrust went both ways, at least in the habitat. This one seemed nearly too trusting. The simple farm worker bots and flying drones they had at the habitat were overly cautious towards him and you just couldn’t talk to them. They understood simple commands, but it was easier to reason with your toaster. And now this thing appeared out of nowhere and made demands before introductions. He really shouldn’t take her on his ship. A being motivated by cold logic alone, without any compassion for mammal life, she might just steal the ship and leave him here to rot!
And if she really had been here for millennia, then another month wouldn’t hurt. While he informed someone who was qualified for this. Probably a bot programmer or someone with a big welder. Either way, this really shouldn’t be his problem!
“Er, Hopps, was it? Listen, I’d love to take you with me, but my vessel is for one mammal only. It doesn’t have the life support needed to bring us both back to my home station.”
“I require no external life support, as you can see. If the vessel is too small, I can hold on to the outside hull.”
They were making their way through the ship graveyard now and all the damage he spotted took on a different meaning now. Could a robot so small be so strong to do that? He really didn’t want to find out. “Your mass might throw us off, though. I didn’t plan for another passenger.”
“You can leave this salvage behind then,” she said, pointing towards his backpack.
“I really can’t, we need this stuff at our station. But I’ll be sure to send someone over right away. There’ll be a ton of mammals wanting to meet you, now that we know your here.” He could tell the pitch fell flat before it was out. Maybe he was just too terrified underneath to lie properly.
“I cannot accept this. You will take me with you, and in exchange I will help you repair whatever you need this salvage for.”
Wilde knew he was running out of excuses and sighed. “You’re not gonna take no for an answer, will you?”
“I will not. I have been stranded here for too long. My body will not decay, but my mind is another matter.”
So advanced she even has mental health issues like a person, Wilde mused. It didn’t make this any better in his eyes. So she could also be a mad robot, one more way on how she might endanger him, and the whole Habitat. At least he could send word ahead of them. He wasn’t sure if they’d believe him, but he had tried everything else. And going up against her in combat seemed inadvisable to say the least – if the door was any indicator. She moved like she was at home in the low gravity whereas he was bouncing around like an amateur.
A part of him still hoped this was all just a hallucination.
Sadly, the ship’s sensors did register the extra mass. Slightly more than his own, too. The fuel was still sufficient to get back though. This was actually happening. He tried to breath deeply and push back the nervous breakdown.
Wilde glanced back to the door separating the cockpit from the cargo hold where he’d left her and his salvaged machine parts. It wasn’t any kind of security door so he had no illusions that it would stop her if she really wanted in. However, she seemed to be content enough to sit back in the hold. The small science vessel only had the two rooms. The cockpit with its two chairs and maybe two square meters of maneuvering room, and the four square meters of cargo hold. This was the space he’d have to share with her for the next ten days, flying back across the system.
He pushed back that thought too and went through the sequence of pressurizing the cabin and getting the ship into open space. From there he could start warning the Habitat of his extra cargo. Having them believe it, however, would be another matter entirely.
Chapter 4: Leviathan’s Fist
»An object’s primary, obvious purpose and its secondary, hidden purpose may switch. Even without anyone noticing.« – Prof. Margaret Stripe, during her last lecture on Applied Theology, Habitat 52
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
10 days later, in approach to Habitat 87, Tau Ceti-7
“Hopps, we’re here.”
The rabbit looked up from the wall in the cargo hold where she’d been strapped in. In the last ten days, Wilde had maybe addressed her six times. She could tell by now he was for some reason terrified of her. It made her wonder what action she had taken to cause this reaction, though maybe it was more what she was than what she did.
She’d spent the time acclimating herself again. Adjusting. It’d been a long time since she’d breathed air – or slept. The second one she wasn’t sure so about. The time she spent on the derelict factory was a haze to her and it irked her greatly that she had forgotten such important details like how she had gotten there in the first place. For that reason, most of the last ten days were spent trying to puzzle out how to get her memories back. And since the fox couldn’t help with that, she had left him alone, not being keen on his company either. He still thought of her as a damned robot and she saw no reason why it should fall to her to prove otherwise.
The rest of the journey she looked through the hypernet to learn more about the civilization she was about to join. It had been easy to access, the ship’s wireless signals hadn’t been secured very well. Hopps took it as an invitation to look around. The delay was horrible, though, telling her they had not invented intra-system FTL-comms yet, though communication between solar systems had to be faster than light at least, according to the post dates she’d seen.
There wasn’t much to their history. About two-hundred forty years ago, they had arrived here in the Sleeper Ships, concluding their one-thousand eight-hundred year journey from Terra. Her theory about why they shared a language had been correct.
Hopps wondered if she’d ever been to the planet herself. Probably not. After all it had been abandoned over two thousand years ago after becoming uninhabitable to mammals. The vague memories she had of it were lush and green. Probably a visual reconstruction from a hologram she’d seen, nothing more.
Now it was time to land on Habitat 87. She unstrapped herself from the wall and pushed herself off to join Wilde in the cockpit. They were still a few clicks out, a few minuted of approach at this primitive vessel’s speed – or Wilde’s overly careful flying, same difference.
“Kelp-One to Station,” Wilde hailed them.
“Oh, hey, welcome back, Wilde. Right on time!” the headphones chirped. Hopps could hear it clear enough, standing an arm’s length away.
“It was an uneventful trip, Karstein. Except for what I described earlier.”
“Sure, sure, we got it, Nick.”
Wilde sighed with resignation.
Hopps knew from the vessel’s computer that he’d tried to warn the station about the “robot” that had insisted to accompany him. Apparently they still didn’t believe him. It didn’t matter to her one way or another. She wasn’t here to cause the station harm, no matter what he believed. All she wanted was a place to live. And then maybe find out how to regain her memories, though with the current level of technology of this civilization that might be a bigger problem than anticipated.
Hopps felt it, a moment before it started. A low-energy pulse went through the ship, making her fur stand on end. She didn’t know what it meant and then Wilde spoke again, his terse words redirected her attention. “Uhh, Emma, can you stop painting me, please?”
“Very funny, Wilde. You know I’m not the kind to risk losing my job over a prank like that.”
Wilde checked the display again, his voice terse. “Please check again for me. The ship says we’re getting targeted by the meteorite defense.”
“That can’t – hold on. – “ Another voice spoke in the background, barely audible. “Shut it – No, I can’t! – What? – It’s-
“Wilde! Get out of there!”
When the conversation started, Judy had looked into the sensors herself and confirmed what the fox said. Now she’d heard enough. She took control by hacking into the ship’s steering system. That was faster than asking Wilde. If her gut feeling was correct, he’d thank her later. “Hold on!” she instructed the moment she flared the engines and took them into a dive.
Warning sirens blared, as a giga-watt laser grazed them on port instead of vaporizing them.
“Hopps, stop it!” Wilde shouted. He had no clue yet and she couldn’t spare the concentration to bring him up to speed now. Familiarizing herself with the controls took all her attention.
She had been flung through the cabin by the maneuver and now pushed herself off the ceiling and into the second seat. While she didn’t need her hands to control anything, having the displays in front of her helped a lot. “I’m keeping us alive. You talk to the station about what is going on.” Was someone trying to kill them or was this an equipment malfunction? They had to land either way, their fuel was critically low. But if she knew the answer she could decide where and how to land.
There was also this static noise in her own comms, like something was flooding them. It gave her a sense of déjà vu she couldn’t explain. As if she had time for more mysteries now! Staying alive was as far as she could think. She vented the primitive engines, changed direction and flared them again, the small ship reacting sluggishly. The one reason they weren’t obliterated yet was that a meteorite defense wasn’t built for speed either.
“Emma, please stop shooting at us,” Wilde whined into the comms.
“The system has shut us out, Wilde. We’re trying to get back in.”
“Just shut it down!” Hopps shouted.
“Who was that?” the comms asked.
Wilde just growled in frustration.
The next shot was another near miss, but close enough that her topside engine glowed red, having absorbed enough scatter heat to shut down. Hopps looked at the front cameras for a vector of safe approach, but wasn’t sure if she could spot all the meteorite defense lasers from here. It wasn’t a safe bet. She’d just have to beeline it to the hangar and hope for the best. Hopefully there wouldn’t be a welcoming committee waiting for them, ready to gun them down on sight. Still, on the ground she estimated her odds a lot higher than in this flimsy piece of junk.
She eye-lined the hanger that was slowly rotating with the station towards her and set the course. The approach was probably thrice as fast as was safe. Wilde whimpered as he saw what she was doing and gripped the disabled flight control handles. They missed the hangar doors by maybe two meters and made it inside before the next laser could charge.
“Get your suit on,” she snapped. She wanted to be out of this vessel and on the ground, not to wait for Wilde’s whimpering ass fumbling with his equipment before she depressurized the ship.
The ship flipped at her command and the large rear thrusters flared up to slow them down, scorching the hangar’s ceiling and walls in the process. Matching the rotational vector was even more tricky and they bounced a few before coming to a relative stop. Flawless landing, all things considered.
“Ready?” she shouted as she made her way to the back. Wilde was still putting his helmet on. She waited with the finger on the release lever for the tell-tale sound of suit pressurization before tearing the cargo door open and charging out into the hangar.
The static in her comm was becoming harder to ignore. It was starting to heat up her implant to the point where she had to switch it off. What was going on here? The station felt familiar. It was a copy of the one she’d been stranded on, only still functional. The other one was dead and inert, because-
Because she had shut it down!
She’d reached the nearest air lock and pulled the override lever to open it. She had an idea now, a bare notion of who was attacking her. It would explain the station guard getting locked out of their systems. She enabled her comms again for a moment, just long enough to probe around and confirm it. And there it was, that familiar chatter that had caused her sense of déjà vu. A cold certainty settled over her. The mammals on this station really had no idea what was going on. It was the station itself that still had a mind of its own. Dormant until now. Until she came within range.
There was only one way forward now: she had to shut it down. If she didn’t they were all dead anyway. Hopps didn’t care how she knew this, she was just glad she remembered enough.
The airlock opened on the other side and spit her out into an open savanna, with no other mammals in sight. Only a lonely magnetic rail station was around – and two robotic workers. When they saw her, they turned and fell over, only to start crawling towards her with their arms, legs flailing uselessly. Good, the station had only just awoken and didn’t know how to control everything. That could change soon.
Looking around she saw she had at least a bit of luck on her side. While she hadn’t paid attention to it when she was landing, she’d come to a hangar near one end of the tube habitat. To the left, a kilometer-sized sphere of beige metal towered over her. Nearly as large as the station in diameter, it occupied a a good part of her view. Perfectly smooth except for a belt of dim lights around each axis. The anti-matter reactor that powered the station – her target.
It was about five kilometers away still, a good distance on foot. Hopps couldn’t risk using the transportation system, it was too easy to manipulate. She switched off all comms and wireless systems and started running.
More farm bots littered the wayside, falling over the moment the station took them over to try and slow her down. Things only got interesting when the reached the next ring that went around the inside of the tube. It wasn’t easily climbable and high enough that even she couldn’t just jump over it. The doors were electronic and when she passed the first one, it slammed shut behind her with force, glancing painfully off her side. That could have taken a finger off if she’d been too slow.
She rushed through some offices where mammals worked. They stopped and stared with open mouths, never having seen a rabbit before. Hopps ignored them. They couldn’t help her and she could only do one thing for them. No time to fill anyone in. They were safest if they just stayed put for now.
Next she had to cross the mag-rail again. Two cabins were hurtling towards each other on the same rail to cut her off. She had to pull back behind a wall, just in time before the cabins collided in a crash that could be heard at the far end of the tube. Bits of metal rained down around her and without the sheltering wall, she would have taken some of that shrapnel. Before the station could muster up more rail cars she hopped over to the other side and started running again.
But once she was on open ground again, the first flying drone came after her. Hopps was immediately reminded that her enemy was a lot better with flying robots than walking them. The real problem, however, was that the drone was equipped with a variety of construction tools – including a welding torch.
She looked around frantically but saw nothing that could give her a better reach; something to fight this thing without the risk of getting an arm cut off. The drone cleverly circled around her, darting in and out, trying to find a time when she was distracted for just a moment. She tried to keep running but it swooped in behind her, vastly quicker than even she was on foot. She dodged the blowtorch by an arm’s length, and felt the fur on her left getting singed.
She rolled to her feet again, instantly going on the attack, kicking off and catapulting herself at the drone while it was recovering from its dive. Got in a solid hit. One of the rotors broke sending the drone into an erratic dive. She was on it in a heartbeat, smashing it for good. But when she looked up, several more of them were already on the horizon.
Hopps took a moment to look around. The direction she was going in was open grassland without much cover beyond single trees. Much too sparse to protect against even a single agile drone. But to her right lay something like a small village.
No. It wouldn’t cover her for long and every second she wasted, the AI would find more things to throw at her. She took off at a sprint again, headed straight for the generator.
Two minutes later she’d crossed another belt but could now hear the tell-tale humming of the drones behind her. She had put everything she had into running on all fours – but still they gained on her.
Hopps was now deep under the sphere of the generator. The landscape was no longer grass and earth, but bare metal. Nobody lived here. Only a single belt separated her from the last wall.
And yet she knew she wouldn’t make it. Not in this open field, without any protective clothing or weaponry. They would be upon her before she cleared the belt.
The first two reached her ahead of the swarm, their indifferent buzzing haunting her with every step. When the first swooped in from behind, easy enough to dodge but the second one was just waiting for that. She rolled off on the ground, and its iron saw cut into the floor where she’d been a but a moment earlier. There was no reason to try and take advantage of the momentarily immobile drone. More were coming. Too many.
Hopps scrabbled to her feet and kept running.
Over the last half kilometer she acquired more cuts and singed fur than she could count. There was no way to progress past that belt looming in the twilight in front of her. The best she could probably do was to hide inside for now. There wasn’t really any hope in confusing the AI or shaking off the drones, since it surely could see through the walls. It would only delay the inevitable. Buy her time for a miracle. Maybe one of the station’s inhabitants would gain back enough control for… something. Maybe the AI would go dormant again once she was dead, though that was only the slimmest of hopes.
No, she couldn’t fail now. There had to be a better way. And as she looked up above the belt, she got the craziest of ideas.
Instead of barreling through the closest door, she vaulted off a low roof to the top of the belt, numerous drones in close pursuit. If she got this wrong, they’d have her dead and dismembered before she even hit the ground.
The belt’s roof was uneven, some parts having a level more than the surrounding. A gap that wasn’t a problem for her, and maybe just enough for this insane plan. Most parts of her were already hurting, but she pushed that aside, concentrated on her feet and ran straight at the next ledge. A drone saw the opening instantly and moved to cut her off. Hopps couldn’t evade if she wanted this to have a chance at working. She committed, swatted the hacksaw with her arm and got a nasty cut that almost made her tumble and fall. The pain itself nearly broke her concentration but somehow she pushed through it, hurled herself at the upper ledge, and used all four paws and carried momentum to catapult herself straight up into the air.
The hull of the generator sphere was nearly twenty meters above her, a distance that would be seen preposterous to vault, even to a heavily augmented rabbit like her. Sailing through the air gave her enough time for all doubts to flicker through her mind again. She didn’t know how this would even help but somehow, buried deep within her training, she had this knowledge. In burned in her mind with the same certainty that had led her to this place.
She reached the sphere and slammed her palm into the smooth metal surface with all her remaining strength. A reverberating tone echoed through the station. All lights along the generator went dark.
Hopps was flung back to the ground, rolled over five times and finally came to a stop. Bruised, but alive.
The drones had halted in mid-air, inert.
Dim emergency lighting flickered to life a few moments later.
Her right paw was a mess of pain, radiating with palpable heat. She cradled it in her lap and slumped back on the ground, allowing exhaustion to claim her. She had survived.
Now she had to deal with the consequences.
Welcome to Ion Pulse! As you may have noticed, we're just getting started.
If you want to read more, sub to the series, not to this fic. That's where the next part "Polarization" will be published. Sometime. I'm working on it!
Apart from the main plot, there will also be some unrelated one-shots, since I have a lot of stories to tell in this universe. And maybe, that way you won't have to wait quiet so long for the WildeHopps. ;)
Big thanks to everyone who commented so far. Hearing your thoughts is always a big motivator for me.