A brief summary of events so far: Besh found himself unexpectedly alone. The consciousness named Water that sometimes inhabited the physical world through Besh had vanished, leaving Besh and his starship on a collision course with Earth. Fife and Beryl woke up from suspension tanks plugged into a multitude of virtual reality worlds to find that civilization had collapsed while they played and dreamed. Fife is a bold, athletic specimen ripped straight from the hero page of any number of virtual reality games. Beryl is quite the opposite. On their way to the nearest starport, Fife and Beryl see Besh’s ship crashing and alter course to investigate. Ohnsy, warden of the starship Silver Pod, views all this from a distance and wishes only to be left alone to safeguard her ship. Having joined up with Besh and scavenged Besh’s ship, Fife and Beryl head for the starport. Beryl leaves a box at the Silver Pod’s doorstep and asks for admittance, warning of the impending explosion of the crashed ship’s reactor. Ohnsy ignores him and prepares to launch safely to orbit alone.
Ohnsy reached out to the panel of toggles above the pilot’s chair. Her finger tips touched three cool, stainless steel switches. They clicked satisfyingly into the on position. Deep in the guts of Silver Pod, heat diverted from the reactor to warm the ship’s engines. Amber lights winked to life across the dash board. Data spooled across holographic displays like ghostly scrolls unfurling. Ohnsy smiled. How she loved this ship.
It occurred to Ohnsy that there must be other maintenance workers like her, born and bred to care for other ships, because there were other ships and they needed maintenance and their wardens must grow to love them. But they were like imaginary numbers, composed of logical parts, a square root, a negative number, but hard to get a firm grasp on when the parts were composed.
Ohnsy levered down power to non-essential systems. The lights dimmed and then vanished, leaving only the displays and a dimmed view of the external world through the smartglass windows. She eased forward the lever that opened the throttle to feed the reactor. She started a countdown to take off and reviewed her check list.
An irritating doubt itched in her mind. She swiped aside the check list to survey the data more broadly. A gentle cross wind blew from the sea. Radiation levels coming off the sun checked out normal, not that a solar storm would have been a problem. Radar reflections from the other ships in the shipyard speckled a threat indicator with yellow dots. Visual data showed the sturdy gantry with the fat man’s box of unneeded tools abandoned like the last item on a shelf.
The man himself and his two compatriots were headed her way, but she would be lifting off before they reached Silver Pod. They must certainly be headed for the starport to steal a different ship, though she respected their taste for attempting the best ship first.
Ohnsy shrugged. She returned to her checklist, humming a tune she must have heard the master playing at some point. Servants, crew, and maintenance personnel were not permitted to hum, but there was little harm in doing so when the ship was empty. She supposed she ought to avoid developing the habit.
She tried to stop herself and met resistance. Something was wrong. She recognized that her subconscious was trying to bring it to her attention, but what was it? She was diligently discharging her duties. The crashed ship wasn’t going to explode for another two hours at least. That wasn’t it.
Then it struck her. The threat indicator showed a blip right outside the hull. The fat man’s box contained something sufficient to worry the threat AI. She had meant to focus the ship’s sensors on it earlier, but she’d become distracted. She focused the sensors now with a subvocal command, twisting in the pilot’s chair to stare at the box through the smartglass of the hull. Information splashed across the viewing surface.
The box contained a host of unstable isotopes ready to fall like dominoes and release their pent up energy.
Her eyes opened wide. Her mouth clamped shut. Adrenaline flooded her veins.
Ohnsy leaped out of the pilot’s chair. She re-powered the gravity lift at the rear of the bridge with a command. The lift hummed to life just as her feet stepped out onto open air. The lift accelerated her down through the circular opening at three times the force of gravity. Decks flashed past her eyes. The lift decelerated her just as fast. A perpendicular force pushed her off the lift onto the highest engineering level, at the same height as the box on the gantry. She hit the deck running.
The hatch opened before her, a neat rectangular mouth opening in the outer hull, a ramp extending to the gantry like a tongue.
She wasn’t worried about her own physical safety. She existed only to serve and protect Silver Pod. The ship sustaining damage was a fate worse than death, an irredeemable mark on her honor that would taint all the hard work of her past and mar the record of her good deeds forever into the future.
She envisioned what she had to do as she reached the top of the ramp. She would grab the box and carry it from Silver Pod until the ship’s threat AI told her it was safe. She would avoid using its anti-gravity hover in case the bomb was set to trigger upon its reactivation.
She never got the chance. The box exploded with a blinding flash of light. The blast flung Ohnsy back into the ship. She lay paralyzed on the deck, trying to understand why she wasn’t dead. Her ears rang. Cloying ozone clogged her lungs.
She blinked past the dazzling after-images and saw darkness. The bomb had not been meant to destroy. It was a magnetic pulse, meant to disable. The three vagabonds would be on their way and she had stupidly opened the door for them. Ohnsy rolled over painfully. She had to get to a weapons locker. She was Silver Pod’s last hope.
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