Sparks flew as Quig’s plasma cutter burned through the robot’s cranial plating. On the makeshift workbench, the bot twitched and shook, servos seizing as batteries failed and crucial fluids leaked from the wreckage of the robot’s lower body. The cranial plate popped open, revealing crystalline arrays and circuit boards blackened by discharge from misfiring neural processes.
“Ah, scrap!” He dropped the cutter and stretched a hand out toward the drone hovering just over his shoulder. “Scout—soldering iron! Now!”
The robot on the slab jerked again, and Quig leaned forward, pressing it down with his body so it couldn’t damage itself further. “Come on, buddy,” he whispered. “Stay with me...”
Obozaya glanced over, scaled snout wrinkling in confusion over the barrel of her rifle. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a robot.”
Iseph’s head whipped around from where they crouched next to an engineering screen in the station wall. “Excuse me?” The android’s words were dangerously flat. “Did you just—”
Navasi stepped smoothly between them. “I’m sure Obozaya didn’t mean it like that, Iseph. Obo, the authorization codes in this robot are the only way to access the station’s data core and locate the black ops facility. Without those coordinates, this mission is dead. Along with about a million Akitonians.” She turned toward the operating table. “How we doing, Quig?”
“I’m trying!” Quig drew a line of solder, crudely rerouting power around a glitching processor. The robot’s left eye telescoped outward with a whir, thrashing wildly.
“Try harder. Obo, what’s on the scopes? How far out is our pursuit?”
Obozaya consulted her datapad, scanning quickly. “Two ships, running dark—no transponders, but they’re probably Norikama dropships. One minute from rendezvous. Looks like they’re planning to skip the airlocks and come straight through the hull.”
“And after we rigged up those mines, too! Damn. That’s a waste of good ordnance.” Navasi looked out the viewport, toward the twin shadows of the approaching ships. “Two of those assault teams is two too many. We’ve got to pull back to the ship and cast off before—”
The robot on the packing crate jerked upright, glowing eyes staring blankly.
“Security codes verified.” Its voice fuzzed and crackled. “Facility access approved. Location 28.735, 98.302.” Then it slumped back onto the operating table, sparks and twitches ceasing.
“No!” Quig grabbed the robot’s head, jerking it up to stare into its dull, extinguished eyes. “No, no, no!” He poked frantically at the exposed circuitry of the robot’s metal skull.
“That was it! The coordinates!” Navasi’s face broke into a victorious grin—then fell just as quickly. She glanced around the room. “Uh... did anyone get that?”
“Um.” Obozaya looked back and forth between Navasi and the robot. “It started with a 2...?”
Navasi put her head in her hands. “Oh for the love of—”
“28.735, 98.302.” Iseph didn’t even look up from their wall panel as they flicked away warnings and error codes.
Obozaya gaped at the android. “You memorized it? Just like that?”
“My brain is one of the most advanced neural networks in the Pact Worlds.” Now Iseph turned to meet her gaze. “While yours is a glob of pudding evolved to run from predators that went extinct millennia ago.” The android returned their attention to the screen. “Not to mention currently fifty percent drugs by volume.”
“Hey!” Obozaya’s hand went instinctively to the armor pouch where she carried her nose-hookah. “Dragon’s breath is an honored Veskarium tradition. I only—”
“Save it!” Navasi drew her pistols. “You can light up once we’re safely in the Drift. We need to get back to the ship before—”
A hollow boom echoed through the station, shaking the decking beneath their feet. Navasi winced.
“That’s it, then. Iseph, you got the reactor overrides rigged?”
“Aye, Captain.” Iseph straightened, swiping a hand over the panel and turning the screen dark. “Failsafes are linked to my coms. One touch, containment goes down and this station becomes a short-lived star.”
“Perfect. Let’s move.” Navasi started toward the door, then stopped short. “Quig?”
The ysoki scrambled to strap the limp robot to the back of his pack, stuffing severed metal appendages into pockets. “Help me get Buddy!”
“The robot doesn’t matter anymore, Quig! We already got the coordinates.”
Quig looked at her like she’d just suggested he light his tail on fire, eyes wide behind his mask. “We can't just leave him here!” He looked down at the ruined robot. “Not after he helped us!”
Navasi rolled her eyes. Behind her, Iseph gazed at Quig with a thoughtful expression.
“Fine,” Navasi snapped. “But you’re carrying it. Obo, cover the rat. Iseph, you take point. Let’s go, people!”
They ran back through the derelict station’s halls. Emergency lighting flickering, illuminating walls scarred and streaked with the remnants of their battles. Quig huffed under the new weight of his pack, looking up enviously as Scout buzzed through the air in front of him, wondering if maybe he should have designed a drone capable of hauling more gear.
They rounded a corner, the docking bay coming into view. Quig had just a moment to register the swarm of red dots dancing across the wall ahead of them, and then all hell broke loose.
“Contact!” Iseph dove forward as a hail of bullets and the bright lines of energy weapons sliced through the air between them and Navasi. Quig turned and found an assault team in matte black body armor leapfrogging forward down a side corridor, their advance smooth and practiced, helmets a faceless, insectile cluster of lenses.
Obozaya swung around the edge of the hallway, autotarget rifle barking, forcing the intruders to take cover.
“Run!” Navasi sprinted toward the ship, Quig and Iseph hot on her heels. Behind them, Obozaya’s rifle went silent, spent magazine clinking against the decking. Then she was bringing up the rear, booted feet pounding.
Something roared. An unseen wave slammed Quig forward, sending him tumbling tail over whiskers. He scrambled out from beneath the crushing weight of a mountain of fallen metal, only to realize it was Obozaya, her heavy armor having protected them both from the grenade blast. They lurched to their feet, Quig snatching up his fallen pack.
It was too light. He looked back toward the blast’s point of origin.
The robot lay in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by steam from burst pipes and the sinister hiss of venting atmosphere.
“Buddy!” Quig started toward the fallen bot, but Obozaya grabbed the top of his pack and lifted him off his feet, carrying him backward toward the ship.
Behind them, red targeting lasers sliced through the steam.
They slid through the airlock, barely missing Iseph where the android knelt in the entrance, calmly laying down covering fire with their sniper rifle. The second they were aboard, the door whirred closed, and Quig was almost knocked off his feet a second time as Navasi goosed the thrusters.
Then they were free, ship gliding silently away. Quig staggered to the nearest viewport, looking out at the abandoned station as it shrank rapidly with distance.
“Iseph,” Navasi said. “Light ’em up.”
Iseph nodded and tapped their datapad.
The station erupted. The silent fireball expanded too quickly for Quig’s eyes to follow, engulfing the station and the enemy ships. The viewport dimmed automatically, shields maximizing to block the blaze of radiation. Yet almost as quickly, the glow faded, ionized gasses dispersing into vacuum.
It was like Iseph had said: A temporary sun, shining bright for one brief moment. And then darkness.
Quig put a hand to the viewport.
“Goodbye, Buddy,” he whispered. “And thanks.”
Iconic Encounter: Goodnight, Sweet Bot
Friday, September 13, 2019