At 03.45, the Morgut ship docked with the freighter Good Hope and began their feast. Amid screams of horror and anguish, Dr. Navarro laid an irresistible lure. Using spare transfusion packs, she put down a blood trail and led the Morgut to the jettison chamber. This quick thinking saved the rest of her crew.
She had no time to get into a suit, so when she hit that button, she chose her death knowing it meant survival for everyone else. A few monsters evaded her trap, but the crew, thus bolstered by her sacrifice, managed to slay them. The cost was high, and Dr. Navarro paid the ultimate price, but the end result is this:
I have the first survivors of a Morgut attack with me on the program today. You can look on their faces and know they are here because of Tamika Navarro. [Lili glances off vid, beckoning, and a group files into view, nearly twenty men and women in all.]
Captain Chegal, would you like to say a few words?
Captain Chegal: I would, Ms. Lightman. Thank you. [He is a man of middle years, silver-haired and weathered.] We have no words for how grateful we are, but we’ve petitioned Phas Shipping to rechristen our ship. [He pauses, obviously overcome by emotion.] From this day forward, she’ll be known as the Tamika Navarro. If she ever becomes less than starworthy, she’ll be retired and find a good home in the interstellar history museum on New Terra.
Lili: Thank you, Captain. That’s a fitting tribute. [She faces the vid once more.] This is the way we win over our enemies, not with bigger weapons, or faster ships, but with human courage, ingenuity, and sacrifice. Don’t lose hope. We’ve faced the darkness before—it has nothing new to teach us. As we go about our lives, let us remember the example Dr. Navarro set for us. At the right time, anyone can be a hero. Thanks for watching, and keep reaching for the stars.
Vel tinkers with his tech for a good hour. When he fires it back up, the signals don’t change. If time weren’t ticking away, I would be amused by his frustration. He’s not used to failure or incompetence.
I suspect it’s been a long time since he didn’t simply do whatever he set out to. When you’re alone like he is, you can’t rely on other people. Maybe that’s starting to change a little, though. I seem to spend more time with Vel than with anyone else.
That means I know better than to interrupt him, but it’s hard for me to sit still when I need to be doing something. I’d love to go see March, but they probably wouldn’t let me in. And it will be impossible to leave him there, so when I go to him, I need to be able to take him with me when I go.
“I just do not know what is wrong.” He sits forward, laying down his gadgets with what seems like a weary, hopeless air.
Hesitantly, I slip from my seat and kneel beside him. I think this is the first time I’ve tried to reciprocate the quiet support he’s given me. A quick mental run-through of Ithtorian customs gives me precious little to work with; they’re not big on reassuring gestures, but I can think of four ways to let him know he’s an incompetent buffoon.
So I go the human route and cover his claw with my hand. “I don’t think it’s your fault. There has to be something else going on, some factor we can’t plan for because we don’t know about it.”
Vel tilts his head, gazing down at the contrast between his green scale and my tan skin. I’m surprised when he curls our hands together briefly before letting go. Such gestures don’t come easy for him, so my heart gives a little tug.
“You can be very kind, Sirantha.”
I smile, straightening away from him. “Don’t tell anyone. Maybe we should check out the other sites, just in case?”
He agrees, so we go looking.
We find five more cleaning droids, though none so carefully concealed as the first. No sign of Constance, however. So now we’re sitting in my quarters with all six of them, and I’m overwhelmed with a what-the-hell feeling. I’ve never known Vel to go wrong with technology.
He keeps poking at his handheld, checking and rechecking the device he built, based on Constance’s schematics, but it keeps telling us the same thing. According to it, she’s here in the room with us in the form of six agitated san-bots. Well, they were agitated when we first found them, but right now they’re deactivated.
A ridiculous idea occurs to me, but that’s sort of my specialty at this point. “Let’s say you’re right. So maybe they weren’t disturbed because we were in no-access areas. Maybe they were trying to tell us we were on the right track?”
Vel puts down the gadgets to regard me, canting his head in puzzlement. “What are you suggesting, Sirantha?”
“Well . . . have you ever known a san-bot to care who came and went in its assigned sector? They’re generally not that sophisticated. But their behavior was atypical, so we took them with us because we were worried they might report us. That’s not normal for a cleaning droid. Well . . . in most places, it’s not. What about here?”
He considers. “No. Unless things have changed since I left, these units do not function according to the usual parameters.”
I continue, “And Sharis said things don’t change here, right? No new tech. If that’s the case, nobody would be thinking about making san-bots more autonomous.”
At last he gets what I’m driving at. “Shall we power them up simultaneously, since we have gone to the trouble of collecting them?”
“I think we better. If something goes wrong . . .” I shrug. “We can make a colossal mess, then when security arrives, we’ll claim we needed all these bots to mop up after our orgy. That’ll be in keeping with what they think of us.”
Vel makes a sound I’ve come to recognize as signifying amusement. “Fair enough. These three are mine.”
I cross the room to activate the others. They come online at more or less the same time, but it’s only when the last one powers up that things get interesting. A thin beam of blue light bounces from each to each, then sparks the console. For a moment, nothing else happens, and then an image of Constance projects outward from our terminal.
“Can you hear me?”
“We can,” I say in delight. “What happened? Where are you?”
“It was Jael,” she answers at once. “He tampered with one of your walls, and when I questioned his actions, he tried to disable me permanently.”
Gotcha, you bastard.
I wish I didn’t feel so sick and betrayed, but there it is, a huge lump in my stomach. I suspected earlier after talking to Hit, but I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted there to be some other explanation, but he’s the one who told me Constance was on the ship the night she disappeared. He lied to me, every step of the way.
That bastard. He was so kind when we left March on Lachion. For Mary’s sake, I let him hold me while I cried. And now I want to kill him slowly. His ability will certainly make that easier.
But I have the advantage. I know he can’t be taken in a straight fight, so I’ll come at him sideways. A drug slipped into his food seems like fair recompense for what he’s done. I imagine his shock and horror when he wakes to find himself bound. I’ll need to ask Doc for an extrapotent narcotic. There’s no telling how fast his body may burn through the substance. It’s a serious break for us that Doc will have Jael’s records on file because he treated him right here in this room.
“How did you wind up in this . . . state?” Vel gestures at the six san-bots.
They’ve returned to their standard protocols as they whir around the living area, looking for something to clean. I have no doubt we could turn them loose in the hallway without any untoward consequences. It occurs to me that we don’t want callers while Constance is talking to us. For the time being, it’s better if nobody realizes she’s back . . . and telling us everything she knows. So I secure the door.
“To avoid permanent decommission, I bounced my consciousness and all relevant data to the nearest unit.”
I nod. “Which happened to be a san-bot.”
“But this unit did not have the processing capacity to host me, and I would have burned it out in a relatively short time.”
“So you spread yourself out among six units,” Vel guesses. “Remarkably clever.”
“I am pleased you found me.”
Me, too. I’d hug her if she wasn’t an ethereal stream of data at the moment. “So what happened to your casing?” I can’t bring myself to say “body.” That sounds like she’s dead, and we’re talking to her ghost.
“He has hidden it. I will beam the location to your handheld,” she tells Vel, “but I am unsure whether it can be salvaged. Jael seemed intent on damaging it beyond repair.”
“How do you know where he went with it?” That seems remarkable.
“Simple,” the Constance holo answers. “I followed him in my new casing. Nobody pays any attention to san-bots. I tried on more than one occasion to attract your attention, Sirantha Jax, but you ignored me as well.”
I wince. “Sorry about that. Look, we need to go find your old casing and see if it can be fixed.” I glance at the bounty hunter. “Will you be able to run a diagnostic to see if the Lila unit is totaled?”
“That much I can do. Dina will need to handle any actual repairs.”
“At any rate, it’s proof, so we need to retrieve it. There should be traces of Jael’s genetic material left, proving he was the one who dumped the casing.”
“It offers corroboration,” Vel says. “We should go without delay.”
I nod. “Constance, can you stay out of sight for a little while? Don’t show yourself to anyone but us, not even if you think you can trust them.”
“Acknowledged.” Her image flickers and disappears.
“Don’t shut yourself off. I want you logging everything that happens within sight and hearing of this console.”
She gives the response that never fails to make me smile. “I am here to help.”
In parting, I ask, “Are you comfortable there in the terminal?”
Not that there’s anything I can do about it right this minute. We need to move. Still, it seems polite to ask.
Constance considers for a moment. “It is better than being split in six fragments.”
“Glad to hear it. Can you conceal yourself from anybody who might be snooping around?” That’s probably a dumb question, but I’ll err on the side of caution for once in my life. I know; it’s one for the record books.
“I can,” Constance replies.
“We’re out then. Be careful.” I pause at the door, uncertain if this is appropriate. Ah, to hell with it. “I’m really glad you’re back.”
After he verifies the location, Vel and I head for the spot where Jael dumped her casing. As we walk, a thought strikes me. “Shit. Last night, when we were talking about looking for Constance, he left. You think he went to do something with the evidence? Maybe he was worried the unit would still broadcast somehow.”
“That is a legitimate concern, but there is no way to alter events that have already occurred. All we can do is move faster, Sirantha.”