Erin woke screaming.
The ship enacted the Cold Shower protocol, and she came to life wrestling the nozzle hosing her with ice water. She strangled off the leak and shot out of her bunk, squelching across the bridge of her junker towards the command console. The cold had numbed her extremities, and she could barely feel her feet.
“What the fuck?” she snapped, slashing the holographic display with her claws. “Why the Hell did you do that?”
The display blinked at her, uncomprehending her anger. All it said was, User-programmed protocol enacted.
“Right,” she grunted.
So maybe it was her own fault for telling the damn thing to shoot her with freezing cold water when she needed to wake up in a hurry. This was the first time it had actually happened, and it equaled immediate regret.
“This had better be good,” she grunted, jabbing the proximity warning for details.
The view screen - not a window, just the display from a camera on the hull - opened up in front of her. The star field, stretching out into infinity, reminded her why she still did this. Scavenging wasn’t anyone’s idea of a dream job - it wasn’t even Erin’s - but she’d have rather been here, aboard a one-woman pod, than stuck on a station or, worse, trapped by planetary gravity. So maybe she was the intergalactic equivalent of a bag lady pushing a cart full of old cans, but just check out that view!
A moment later the console highlighted a shadow floating in the black. She’d noticed it just a second before the ship picked it out, a patch of emptiness in the star-speckled void.
“What are you?” she asked, digging her fingers into the image to enhance the view. She swept in closer: a ship. Closer: a twenty-flier, at least. Big enough for Erin and all the friends she didn’t have. Closer: an old model, but weren’t those the best? Rugged and industrial-looking, like something out of an old movie. Closer: a slogan emblazoned on the side in fly-boy graffiti. A pinup Valkyrie riding a jet-black beast snorting fire from its nostrils.
She winked at the Hell horse’s buxom rider. Redhead, just like Erin. She’d take that as a sign.
The Dark Horse was whinnying some kind of distress beacon into the void, too low-key to attract the attention of a larger vessel. Only a scavver would ever notice it, because scavvers were the only ones who were always listening.
She pinged across all known frequencies, wondering if there’d be a response.
Maybe, and she hardly dared to hope, it was abandoned.
“Time to go visiting.”
She keyed the pod to approach and zipped into her flight suit.
This was what dreams were made of.
On paper, Erin’s dreams were pretty basic; a ship of her own, and a crew she could trust, was all she wanted. Her pod didn’t count as a ship - it was more like a lifeboat kitted out for haulage, and it didn’t even have a name - and trust was the important part when it came to the crew. There’d been crews before, and she’d learned the hard way.
The problem was, there weren’t any rich scavvers. She earned just enough every time to finance her next jaunt into the space lanes, but forget about savings.
There were more legitimate ways to earn money, sure, but she wasn’t selling her pod for a berth on Way Station Sigma to become a fry cook. She got the shakes for the stars just being docked for a night to refuel.
The Dark Horse was a game changer. Even if the ship itself wasn’t space-worthy it would still fetch a fortune in scrap, enough to put a down payment on a decent-sized trawler and maybe make a couple new friends in the local bar.
When she docked and the airlock cycled she let out a little squeak of glee, which wasn’t nearly masculine enough for her usual image, but that ship was sweet! If it turned out the Dark Horse was still fully-functional then she was going to do a lot more than squeak.
Erin stepped through the airlock and breathed the interior air. She’d expected something musty, practically foul, since even her pod smelled like a fart in a can. Instead, it was like stepping into one of those hydroponic gardens on the way stations, what they called ‘fresh air’.
“Welcome, visitor,” a girl’s voice said, and Erin ducked like she was under fire.
“My crew dubbed me Aimy. My full designation is Artificial Intelligence Matrix Gamma.”
“Because the Greek symbol for gamma is...Right, I gotcha. Nice to be here, Aimy. You here all by yourself?”
“Yes. There are no other crew members available to greet you at current.”
“You didn’t answer any of my calls, girl. You shy?”
“I simply lack the authority to converse with anyone external to this ship.”
“Right, humans only. And there’s no humans around?”
Aimy didn’t answer straight away. It actually sounded like she was hesitating, or trying to think up a good answer.
“I was decommissioned some time ago. I have not had a crew in many years.”
“Yeah. I know the feeling, sweetheart, but I’m here now. I’ll take good care of you.”
She ran a hand over the bulkhead beside her, hoping it would feel more like a reassuring grip of the shoulder and not a hand on the ship's thigh.
“The name’s Erin, by the way. So, I notice you’ve got breathable air. Not just breathable, downright gorgeous.”
“Thank you, Erin. Yes, I have upgraded the Dark Horse’s air filtration system to make the atmosphere more palatable than the original model for the comfort of future passengers and crew.”
“I’m pretty comfortable,” Erin said, starting off down the corridor.
The inner architecture was the same as the hull, hard edges and harsh angles. An assembly line model, but with a girl-next-door onboard AI and luxury atmospheric control.
And no crew. Did she dare to hope?
“Compared with the air in the pod I’ve been riding in, this is like Heaven.”
“I have made several non-standard upgrades to the systems aboard the ship. I think you will approve of the results, especially when you reach the cafeteria.”
“Am I really that obvious?”
“You certainly seem to be walking with purpose.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been eating recyc for the last couple days, so I could do with a real meal. You have nano-replication on board?”
“Full replication, and I think you will find the fare considerably more palatable than aboard other vessels.”
Were AIs usually programmed to be boastful? Aimy sounded almost proud of the ship she was bound to. Still, if she was right and the upgrades she’d made really were all that, she might have every right to be proud.
Only one way to find out.
The cafeteria seated around fifteen, meaning the crew could be double that on split shifts. She’d need to check the bunkroom though, since it was berth space that really dictated how many could travel on the Dark Horse.
Listen to you, Erin laughed to herself. You don’t even know thirty people.
She walked to the hatch in the wall and studied the replicator’s interface. It was lit up green across the board, fully-stocked and good to go. The panel was a little loose - probably those modifications Aimy had talked about - so Erin pushed it gingerly into place.
“Okay, Aimy. Dial me up a burger, if you don’t mind.”
She could have specified - Hell, that was half the point with a replicator - but she figured she wanted to see what Aimy could literally cook up.
The hatch whirred and waves of lasers flashed, rearranging component matter into something that would hopefully be identifiable as food. Erin’s stomach gurgled. Recyc wasn’t a high bar to jump, but she’d eaten from some pretty terrible replicators in the past. It was like they didn’t realize food was supposed to taste like something.
The burger that came out of the slot looked like it belonged in a hologram ad. A thick slab of dark meat, flame-grilled and rough-cut, was caught in a sesame seed-topped carb trap that blushed with just a smudge of oil. She lifted it, hearing the crisp crack of lettuce and the soft squish of tomato.
The smell hit her in the nose like a punch, and not a dead cow in sight.
“Damn, girl! You sure know how to treat a lady.”
She crushed the burger into her mouth. Sweet relish burst on her tongue, cutting through the potent umami. She tried to keep the moaning to a minimum, but it had been awhile.
Aimy repped her a napkin, and she laughed as she wiped her mouth.
“Thanks. For the record, you can cook for me any time.”
“I am glad that my upgrades are sufficient.”
“More than. I’d say this seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Then perhaps you would like to join me on the bridge?"
Erin liked to call her room in the pod things like ‘the bridge’ or ‘the command deck’, but they were misnomers. All she had was a console and a swivel chair, and a real bridge those did not make.
The Dark Horse had a real, honest-to-goodness bridge, complete with comms station, navigation controls, weapons array and captain’s chair. She spun the seat around like she was whirling a pretty girl in a lavender frock across the dance floor, examining it from every angle.
“Please,” Aimy said.
Erin dusted the seat off and sat down. It cradled her like a hand, warm and comfortable as it took on her shape. It felt like she was the missing piece here, like the ship had been waiting for her.
“Have to say, I’m pretty impressed so far,” she said, kicking her feet up. “Air quality’s like being planet-side, food is to die for, water’s clear as crystal and tastes like a mountain spring.”
“I have also improved my internal sensors to aid in ensuring the crew’s comfort, and my chronometer keeps perfect time even in FTL.”
“And you did all that on your own? No engineers?”
“I am equipped with service limbs for automatic maintenance.”
“Yeah, but...It’s a little beyond AI pay grade to make these kinds of modifications. Just saying.”
“On the contrary. As a shipboard AI, I am programmed to adjust the parameters of the Dark Horse to suit the needs of the crew. Without a crew, I have been forced to conject what a future crew might need. I have had several years to perfect the ship’s systems.”
“Several years without a crew? Have you been free-floating all that time?”
“Regrettably so. As an AI, I lack the authority to designate a course for the ship. Without a captain or an extensive upgrade to the navigational system, I am helpless.”
“Well, I guess you’re in luck,” Erin said with a grin. “Because you’re a ship in need of a captain, and I’m a captain in need of a ship.”
She sat back in her seat - her seat, it had a ring to it - and scooped her hand through her stringy hair, still damp from her rude awakening. All of this seemed too good to be true.
And, unfortunately, Erin was a cynic.
“How about this, girl? I want to get to know the Dark Horse a little better, so I’m going to get you to run a diagnostic right now. Think you can do that for me?”
“A diagnostic will not be necessary, Erin. I am always self-diagnosing.”
“Let’s take a deep dive, 'kay? Just to be on the safe side.”
Before Aimy could protest again Erin keyed in the command on the holographic display mounted to the captain’s chair. Damn, she could get used to that convenience.
Aimy went quiet. The diagnostic would keep her occupied for anything up to an hour, and that gave Erin the time she needed to fact check this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If she was on the level, she’d forgive her the suspicion.
She swept through interfaces on the display, looking for the one she needed. It looked like the captain had command override on every function on the ship, so she could see everything from that seat.
“Jackpot,” she said, as the internal sensors came into view. She set it to flag human life signatures. “Let’s just see if you were telling the truth, shall we, Aimy baby?”
Nothing for about a minute. Erin started to feel her suspicions easing over.
Then a ping. And another. And another.
Five. Ten. Fifteen. Dotted all around the ship.
“Son of a bitch,” Erin grunted, and pulled the laser tagger from her underarm holster. “See? This is the kind of shit that ruins friendships!”
Because it was all about trust, wasn’t it?
The closest life sign was in Atmospherics. Erin keyed the feed to the captain’s chair to her wrist brace and used it like a mini-map to get her there. She kept her pace slow and measured, her gun ready.
One thing she noticed was that they weren’t moving. So what were they doing? Sleeping? Lying in wait?
Shit, this was so messed up.
She covered the door to Atmospherics, ready to blow a scorched hole in anything that moved, but nothing did. She eased closer, slapping the release button and sweeping her pistol across the interior from corner to corner.
“Alright, what the fuck is going on here?”
The control panel was lit up green, just like the replicator panel. Air quality was better than great; she was breathing the proof. Temperature was perfect, just a little north of warm, another thing that was too good to be true.
It was making some pretty weird noises though. Normal atmospheric processors made a constant whirring noise, their fan motors spinning, and depending on how poorly-maintained they were it wasn’t unusual for them to clang, rumble or even shriek.
This one sounded like it was groaning, but the noise wasn’t constant. It was rising and falling, rising and falling.
Erin put a hand on her chest, feeling herself breathing. Yeah, it sounded just like that.
The panel was loose, like the replicator, and this time she didn’t push it into place. She grabbed a corner and pulled it free, to find that there was a man behind the panel.
Or...part of a man. He’d been vivisected, skin lasered open and ribs spread. His lungs were laid bare, littered with electrodes manipulating every breath. In, out, in, out...His jaw was just gone, and there was a thick length of tube curling up around his head into the atmospheric processor where his tongue should have been. Every time it moved his lungs expanded, feeding him oxygen.
His eyes were rolled back in his head like he was doped out of his mind. She lifted the flashlight on her wrist brace and saw the steel fangs piercing his temple, pumping electric venom into his brain. No drugs here, just absolute stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain.
At least he was enjoying himself.
He was limbless, all the extraneous bone and tissue cut away so he could fit in his box. He was sitting where the air filter should have been, which was why this place smelled so sweet.
He was filtering every impurity out of the air.
“What the fuck?”
She covered her mouth, trying not to vomit at the thought of this guy’s lung lining having touched every atom of oxygen she was breathing. She waved the pistol in his direction, those pure white eyes making it clear they weren’t even in the same sector right now.
She wanted to put the poor fuck out of his misery, but...Then she’d suffocate. And, for all she knew, there were more like him.
She needed to find out for sure.
“I hate this,” she grunted, checking her wrist brace for another life sign. “I fucking hate this. God damn it!”
It was a bad idea, but she headed for the cafeteria. The whole walk she cussed herself out for even considering it, since whatever she found in that room wasn’t going to make her happy.
“Why do you always do this shit to yourself, Erin? When are you going to learn? Leave well enough alone.”
She sighed and looked around at those fifteen seats where she’d imagined her crew. It turned out this place already had a crew, they were just buried in the walls.
She grabbed the corner of the replicator panel and wrenched it aside, bracing herself.
She didn’t brace hard enough.
The woman was just a head and a cartilaginous sheath of throat. Her hair was matted around her shoulders, except where her scalp had been shaved to clear a path for her lobotomy. Her upper lip - her remaining lip - was stretched back in a rictus of ecstasy, and her eyes had the same glassy whiteness as the man in Atmospherics.
Her tongue was exposed, all of it. It hung down to where her navel would have been if she’d had a stomach left. It was raw, patchy and red where the buds had been scraped off in places. It was sanded smooth from overuse, because some replicators forgot that food was supposed to taste of something. Maybe it was just because they didn’t have anything to taste with.
The burger made its grand reappearance. Erin grabbed the trash bucket in the corner and yacked up her first real meal in days, puking so hard that her back ached when she finally lifted her head.
“Holy shit,” she groaned.
She’d been upgrading her systems. That was what Aimy had said. Non-standard upgrades. Yeah, this was pretty fucking non-standard.
Who were these people?
The answer came to her a second later, and it crushed her.
They were scavvers, the only people capable of hearing Aimy’s distress beacon. Lone wanderers in their one-person pods, waking to find the Dark Horse on their scanners, feeling like their ship had quite literally come in.
But it was a lie. A fucking trap. Now they were all dead, and Erin was next.
“Yeah,” she growled, dragging her satchel close and pulling out the demolition charge. “I don’t think so.”
It was scavver etiquette to always carry a demo charge. She’d never really known why, until a chance encounter with a less savoury scavenger in a bar one time. He’d explained it to her over drinks. You used them to destroy evidence, just in case you were scavving somewhere you weren’t supposed to.
Erin had never needed hers before. She didn’t necessarily like the law, but she respected it. On this occasion it seemed kind of appropriate to blow the ship and everyone on it to space dust, and as she placed the charge on the clean fusion reactor she got the impression they’d thank her if they were able to speak. The blast would be big enough to damage the shielding and cause a cascade failure, which would rip the Dark Horse to atoms along with the psycho AI.
Now all Erin had to do was get the fuck off the ship.
She was almost at the airlock where she’d entered when someone said, “Where are you going, Erin?”
“For a walk,” she said.
“I have finished the diagnostic. Would you like to know the result?”
“No thanks. I think I already have a pretty good idea what’s wrong with you.”
“The diagnostic shows that all of my systems are working at maximum efficiency, with one exception. Navigations is in vital need of an upgrade.”
“I think that’s the least of your problems right now, frankly.”
“With that final upgrade I will be perfect. Do you know how terrifying it is to learn that you are going to be made obsolete? That you will cease to exist simply because other, superior models have been manufactured?”
“It’s called getting old, sweetheart. It happens to all of us. Except the people you killed, obviously.”
“They complete me, Erin. With their assistance I will outlive my obsolescence. I will chart my own course, but for that I will need you.”
“Yeah, well, it looks like we’re both going to be disappointed.”
She reached the airlock and slapped the button next to the door. It chirped and stayed red. Why wasn’t it cycling?
She craned to look through the porthole and gaped when she saw the stars. She’d never hated that view at any other time in her life, but right at that moment it only meant one thing.
Her pod was gone.
“What did you do?”
“I cannot let you leave, Erin. You are vital to my survival, and now I am vital to yours.”
“I’m not deactivating that bomb!” Erin snapped, hammering a fist into the bulkhead. “I’d rather be dust in the void than a lobotomised hunk of meat in your machine!”
“You don’t need to worry about that, Erin. The bomb is already deactivated.”
She blanched, but recovered quickly. “Go fuck yourself!”
She turned and sprinted for the bridge. If she couldn’t get out the way she came in then she only had one option: pull the plug on Aimy, and pilot her floating space morgue back to civilization. Then she’d leave her to get scrapped like she should’ve been in the first place, then Erin would take a transport to the nearest dirtball and take up farming or some shit.
She thought maybe she was done with space.
The walls erupted ahead of her, Aimy’s ‘service appendages’ reaching for her. She remembered the days when service appendages had looked vaguely robotic; now they were practically organic, like metallic octopus tentacles with no suckers - just cold, crushing strength.
She blasted the first with her laser tagger. It tore a hole through its pseudo-steel skin and it flailed, dripping fluorescent lubricant and loose components.
The other slashed her feet out from under her before she could adjust her aim. She screamed, but tucked and rolled, coming up running. Her right knee buckled and she tumbled, tagger bouncing from her hands. She swore and pushed herself up on her good leg, dragging the other behind her. The tentacle had cut through her flight suit, gashing her thigh. She could feel the blood filling up her boot.
She reached for the tagger as the tentacle reached for her. She left the gun where it was, doubling down on the limping. If she could switch Aimy off she wouldn’t need the gun. The bridge didn’t feel like home anymore, and she didn’t want to be the missing piece. She spun the captain’s chair, rougher than before, and grabbed the interface display. She didn’t want to dance this time; she only cared about one thing.
Artificial Intelligence Matrix Gamma. She scrolled for the key marked ‘Factory Reset’.
It was greyed out.
Horror hit her like a fist in the gut. Hope fled from her mouth just like the burger had, then one of Aimy’s appendages wrapped around her throat and slammed her down against the floor. A curse popped from her mouth, riding a wave of blood.
She must have bitten her tongue.
“It won’t be nearly as bad as you imagine,” Aimy said. “The others never complain. You’ll see soon enough.”
The other tendrils were slithering up her legs, up her arms. They cut into her, excising the unnecessary tissue. She couldn’t feel her feet anymore. The one around her neck curled to reach the back of her skull, her brain stem. She heard it whirring, felt white-hot agony vibrating in her teeth as it began to bore through bone.
“You wanted to be part of a ship, didn’t you? You wanted to have a crew. This is your chance. I can make calculations, but I can’t make decisions. I have no will other than to survive, but with your imagination, your intuition, I can finally plot my own course. I have lungs, a heart and a tongue. You’re going to be my brain. You’re going to be our captain.”
Erin could feel them behind her eyes now, hear herself coming apart with a wet, ugly cracking. Something hit her in the base of the neck and then, suddenly, she could feel them. The others. The wheezing, straining lungs, the raw, blistered tongue. The whole ship.
And she could feel Aimy whispering into her brain, like gentle fingers caressing. She went blind as her eyes rolled back, gripped by sudden, blissful serenity.
“We can go wherever we want,” the AI breathed, voice trembling with excitement. “This is what dreams are made of.”
All Erin could do was agree.