I wasn’t sure Pritchard Ajax would even be capable of squeezing out a spaceflight, but it’s not like I was gambling with my own life in the process. I mean, Forcelight might be able to survive a shuttle explosion.
Well, spaceplane. They were very insistent on the terminology. It’s basically where a a big plane carries a 1950s sci fi-looking rocket-plane hybrid real high, at which point the rocket plane rockets into space. It looked much older than it was, though it surprised me to find out it wasn’t the most recent of the company’s planes. “We had another one, a newer one,” the pilot told me. It was just he and me, so I was filling in some gaps in my knowledge about private spaceflight after he announced our altitude. I’d loosely heard things, but filed it away under “North Korea” for some reason.
“Yeah? What happened to that one?” I asked. It wasn’t exactly a roomy plane, even with just the two of us. The thing was designed to only seat three.
More quietly, the pilot answered, “It suffered a failure.”
“It blew up, didn’t it?”
He didn’t say anything. Yep, that’s why I had put it in that particular mental filing space.
“But this one’s sound, right? It’s in good shape?” I asked. It better be. We were attached to the bigger plane, just waiting to be hurled into space like Gaia had decided to binge drink the night before.
“Yes, she is. We kept her in a museum after her big flight.” The pilot gave a more enthusiastic nod at that.
“So, this is the first time this thing has been flown in awhile. There a reason for that?” I doublechecked the spacesuit I had on.
“After the flight where she actually made it to space, the company retired her to keep her from getting damaged.”
Ah, yes, of course. They got to space, but decided to keep the ship from flying any more in case it couldn’t do that again. I began to realize I’d gotten ripped off in my deal with Ajax. “The flight where she actually made it to space?”
“She won a prize for getting past a hundred kilometers twice in a week.”
“Any further? Like orbit?”
“Well, the prize was about getting to space, and that’s the boundary. But don’t worry, she had the equivalent of three people in her at the time.”
“…but not actually three people.”
“The equivalent of three people is good enough!”
“Except for the part about not even risking three people when you could sacrifice some crash test dummies. Or are we boldly going where only Vesta Aerospace’s trained astro-chimps have gone before?”
“You wish. We took a dog up. More more docile.”
Quite the mess I got in. I told Ajax I needed orbit, not the bare edge of space. Anyone could go to the edge of space. Just being that far doesn’t exactly exempt you from immediately plummeting back like a stone. “Congratulations,” I told the pilot. “You chased a prize that was already won back in the 1960s.”
The pilot scoffed. “Yeah, right. Those were government planes. They didn’t own those.”
“Who owns this one?”
“Vesta Aerospace, in conjunction with both Death Valley Ventures and Solar. I guess no one person owns it.”
I laughed at that. He didn’t get the joke. I just hoped that Forcelight at least got up there before becoming the punchline.
That doesn’t mean the action was entirely up in the air. I sat with Max in the middle of a campsite about thirty minutes from Empyreal City, whittling away at wood and tosing the scraps into a fire in front of us.
“It’s good you focus on a creative hobby,” Max said, chewing into a round, purple thing.
“Thanks. Figured, after putting together all the rockets and all the discs, I deserved a break that involved using a knife. And the secret, or so I’ve read somewhere, is to imagine what you want the wood to be, and then remove all the parts that aren’t it.” I turned my head to acknowledge him in a friendly enough way, though I kept my view focused on the carving itself thanks to my helmet’s display. Yep, still spending most of my time in my armor. The smell could be better. Probably why Max’s assistant, Holly, insisted on tossing a pack of incense into the fire in front of me.Then again, she had been eating smores, so she could just be baked.
Max nodded toward the piece of wood in my left hand as I scraped the knife along it, smoothing an edge. “What did you imagine that to be?”
I gave it a couple practice swings. “Well, it started out meaning to be an elephant, but then I took too much of the nose off, so then it was going to be a horse. Then I accidentally cut too much of the dick off, and figured we’d go with a goat. Then this leg went and I figured, hell, why not go for a starfish? Naturally, that led to throwing stars and next thing you know, I’m holding a shiv. You ever go to prison, this sumbitch will make sure the vampire gang doesn’t pick on you. Isn’t that right Ethan?!”
I called out to another fire over where Ethan Basford grumbled and held onto some small metal chest while the Claw minions chatted around him. He didn’t join in when they started tossing popcorn into each others’ mouths. Just kept muttering to himself and his precious little treasure.
It was then I noticed the Claw super with the metal tail, metal teeth, and scythe hand approaching with a bottle of whiskey. She stopped at the edge of the fire and grinned at me, teeth gleaming. “Hey, Psycho Gecko. Hello Mr. Max. May I speak with Psycho alone?”
Max shot me a look like “Hey, now I’m Mister Max. What are you getting in to?” then closed his eyes to nod toward her. He stood up and dusted off his pants. “You two have a nice talk. Don’t let it hold you up from moving on.”
I waved at him as he left, “Yeah, lots of ground to cover. Make sure the new arrivals are there.”
She sat down across from me with her, wrapping her modified arm around her legs. She unscrewed the top of the whiskey with her natural hand and held it out. “You want?”
I shook my head. “Nah, not my preferred taste.” I tossed my shiv into the fire to burn with the rest. “You wanted to talk?”
Gotta give the boobs some credit, I get a lot more attention with these things around, not that this person had much opportunity to see them. Before she could say anything else, I asked her, “You came with the Claw’s people, but I don’t recognize you from anywhere.”
“I am Girl Robot,” she said, though I got the “Girl Robot” part from my translator. The name in Vietnamese involved a weird U and O, so I’ll gladly stick with the English version, no matter how generic it is.
“A lot of cyborgs where you come from?” I asked. I crawled around the fire to get a better look at her parts. The metal ones, pervs.
She looked right at me as I moved her hair aside to look at where the metal arm integrated with the shoulder. “No,” she answered quietly. “I am a prototype. I was lucky. I like metal and robots.”
It looked like good work. Incredibly good work. It wasn’t as natural as me, but it was still something. “This is very good work. Do you have any trouble with your parts?”
She reached out and ran the edge of her scythe over one of the lines between my armor’s chest plating. “You could make them better. Your parts are like your real body. It is lucky I get to meet you, because I want to change myself as naturally as you do.” She brought the tip of her tail up. It went from a thick stump, the thickness of another leg, that worked its way gradually thinner until it ended in a trio of blades.
I ran a hand over her tail. “Well, you’ll never be quite the same with your human physiology, but you should congratulate your maker on a job well done when you meet him.”
She gave me a puzzled little smile. “Can you show me how your parts fit?”
Now, I could have been misinterpeting that, but I think she was into me. Just a bit. So, purely for scientific purposes, I removed a glove and ran my hand up the tail, resting it on the base of her tail.
There’s a special spark that passes between two of my species who are both connecting to the same thing, since it’s the nerovus system that’s involved. And this Robot Girl could actually feel it a little bit. Not the same way, but closer than any others so far.
But let’s not dwell on that too much either. I had lots to do in space, too. Lots to do. Lots.
Like detaching! Which prompted me to ask the pilot a question. “What are the odds we’ll survive your trip into hyperspeed?”
“Never ask me the odds,” he responded before the force of the rocket doing its thing forced me back into the seat and pleasantly vibrated Forcelight’s body, making me quite glad she didn’t have balls for fear of reverberation.
When things finally eased up, the pilot turned to laugh at me and announce, “Congratulations, lady. You made it to space.”
I reached over to pat him on the shoulder. “Yep, now to set a new record with this baby. Keep us over here and keep an eye out. We need to stay near Empyreal City for just a little longer…”
“Is something going to happen?” the pilot asked.
I doublechecked the seals on Forcelight’s suit, then smiled.
I know I’m skipping around a little in time here, not much, but I sat around the fire on my own back on the ground at this point. Armor firmly secured. I poked at my dying fire with a stick, looking around at all the others our whole group put together, with all the various faceless pieces of meat to throw into this grinder. Looking around at them, I put out a call. Not some grand horn signalling an attack. Just a phone call. To Venus.
Her voice sounded utterly emotionaless. “Who is this?” If not for the context, I’d have had trouble telling she even asked a question, her voice was that even. I responded with a bit of song.
“Hoofbeats go a-trotting, trotting, up to Heaven, bold. At the gates a-knocking, knocking, sheep in wolfish clothes. Holy jaws are dropping up in Heaven’s hold. Plant my hooves, my hooks, my books!…I’m here, Venus dear.”
Up in space, Forcelight looked out over the atmosphere through a porthole. “There! Fly us at that thing!”
“That? You were looking for that?” The pilot looked incredulous.
“It just released from higher up. Nevermind, forget that thing, pop the door.” I stepped over to the exit which was meant for more terrestrial usage. Under my breath, I gave the scared woman I dragged along into this some motivation of her own. “Get this done and you’re free, Forcelight.”
“You can’t!” The pilot called out. I looked over, more curious if he had left something open and would die. Hey, they didn’t give me all the details, I don’t have to give them all the details either. Instead of suiting up, he had reached for a bright red switch.
“That better be the manual unlock, because you don’t want me to tear this door off.” I told him. Forcelight rose, hovering a little.
“We just needed to know your plan. You will not win,” he told me, then forced a smile onto his face. I almost thought I saw it break into the beginnings of horror as he flipped the switch and the cockpit exploded. The pressure threw Forcelight out into the thermosphere. Gonna be honest, was really confusing for a second. Things exploded, things got really cold and sucky, there was some pressure stuff. Yeah, this wasn’t going like I meant it to.
But Forcelight could fly. And she could reorient herself. I just had to get her pointed in the right direction, take into account the velocity of the falling object, and try to track appropriately. And then just keep firing a whole bunch of blasts from Forcelight’s hands that tore through the night sky at the speed of light, causing distant explosions and breakings, or so I hoped. Kinda hard to keep track of things, so I was reduced to yelling, “Dakka dakka, suck it Kessler!” as I put her hands together and formed one giant beam that I tracked across a swath of space. Satellites possibly blew up or were allegedly knocked into pieces. TV shows were potentially missed. And, as soon as I finish dealing with the aliens, I’ll have to find out just how much of a wreck this may have caused for Earth’s ability to use satellites.
But I had a way to hopefully make sure.
With Forcelight falling, I spared a moment to turn her around and pick off the falling object, which almost looked like a seed to me. It was significantly easier to see with the heat building up around it, and a long blast from Forcelight sent it wildly offcourse and accellerated it. No way would it land anywhere near me, their target.
I tried my best to calm Forcelight’s body and take in the view, both because it’s space and because I needed to check, but I had trouble keeping everything together. The suit was fucked up, and being up that far was starting to do things to her. “I didn’t necessarily plan for things to go so far South for you, Forcelight. But I did what needed to be done, and I did it the best I could under the circumstances. If it helps, I’ll tell the nanites to do their best to keep you alive.”
I let her go, stood up, dusted off my armor, and walked away from the bright collection of fires, allowing the holodiscs to flicker out behind me and reveal that the Fluidics’ chance to rain on my parade was wasted anyway.
But I had one last message. One last announcement broadcast through what signal interceptors remained online after my initial warning that I was coming for Empyreal City. It interrupted regularly scheduled programming across the nation to show my perspective as I put out a fire, then walked to the edge of these woods where Empyreal City stood in the distance, lit up a bit less than before the barrier went up.
“We’re here.” I told the audience, before cutting the feed.