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a story of Homo sapiens technicii
The strange corpse revolved slowly in zero gravity, cast adrift in the faintest of air currents. Snakes of pink-grey intestine coiled from the eviscerated torso; droplets of blood and globules of bile orbited the oddly angular body. Maintaining their perimeter, four suited figures hung in place about the creature.
‘Looks almost human’ said Spider, reaching out to snare the body with one hindhand, arresting its random movement. ‘Def’nitely not Hyss’Oa.’ The body was over twice their size; its bald domed head in proportion. Placing of the eyes gave it binocular-vision and bulbous nostrils jutted out above a slack, toothless mouth. From the odd, disproportionate size and shape of the genitals, the creature was also male.
Vision refocused her eyes, trying to magnify any impressions left by the killer's weapon, but the slashed chest and abdomen displayed no obvious pattern of attack. She wasn't sure what had caused the wounds, but that didn't stop her feeling scared. ‘Resource rights ain't worth this grief!’
Hammer floated slowly past the intense group clustered around the body. ‘No sweat. I got my Gun loaded and locked. Nuthin's gonna happen.’
Vision looked scornfully at Hammer. ‘You ain't never fired that toy, 'cept at statics. Whatif some booger jumps out a hatch at us? Y'gonna wet your pants!’
Hammer waved the Gun before Vision's button nose. ‘Want me to demo on your scrawny arse?’
Vision stuck out her tongue. ‘Shove it up yours!’
Spider shushed them. ‘If the booger’s still around you jawing fit to bust ain't helping.’ He unfolded the two cybernetic manipulators grafted to his back, using all four upper arms he dexterously turned the creature to allow for a full inspection.
Particle, who'd kept his own counsel thus far, touched the corpse's cold face. ‘Bloated like a fluid-sack. And check those legs; stick-thin an' twisty like a bad wire. This dude don't walk; he floats. But he ain't built for zeegee.’ Particle caught one of the near skeletal legs and compared its foot with his own hindhand. The body's toes were long, joints prominent, but they weren't dexterous.
Vision hiccupped in fright. ‘ I say we exodus right now.’
‘Me and my Gun say we check it out!’ Hammer sighted the weapon down the axial corridor, triggering the rangefinder for a distance reading: 3.558 klicks.
Spider agreed, he wanted to head a little deeper inside the strange craft; not to explore would be a mistake – resource rights or not.
The craft's external structure comprised a sculpted, ovoid asteroid, 8.338 klicks through the beam, with what appeared to be propulsion outlets situated in recessed bays at the narrower end. Several airlocks, each of similar design but differing capacity lay spaced unequally around its surface. Projecting from engineered outcroppings lay a number of structures, resembling some form of elementary detector grid. None of the team recognised the designs; humanity no longer used such obviously mechanical forms and the Hyss’Oa never had.
Their own detectors had registered the asteroid-ship, on its elliptical orbit around the gas-giant G2-Va/18 Scorpii V, as a metal concentration worth exploiting. Amid a cluster of smaller 'roids it was destined to fall prey to the massive planet's gravity within thirty-two years.
As Prospector Prime, Spider had called for the intercept. Mother, the ships’ all-embracing AI, had maneuvered the Rover toward the drifting hulk. Closer inspection revealed the asteroid's true nature. Clad in worksuits the team had investigated one of the smaller 'locks.
It had taken Particle almost one decimal hour to crack the mechanism on the chosen 'lock; none of his beltpack power plugs matched and the sockets didn't correspond to Hyss’Oa's base-eight structures. He jury-rigged a connector by cannabilising two twenty-line male heads.
In agonising slow-motion the lock had cycled, the interior illumination faint and flickering. According to Vision's sensor suite the air was breathable, even if loaded with volatile hydrocarbon compounds and an excess of organic pollutants. Humidity ran at 87%.
They found the body almost immediately.
Manipulators folded about his torso, Spider launched himself down the corridor; lights mounted either side of his bubble helmet adding to the prevailing twilight. Ordering Gun to holster, Hammer set off in Spider's wake. After a moment of hesitation and furtive glances, communal bravery drew the other two along the corridor.
Spider marveled at the craft's internal architecture, at sharp-edged, angular, hard projections. In contrast the Rover was a womb, a comforting space of gentle curves and soft materials; gas and fluid transport, heat and light, all constantly monitored and adjusted by Mother. Spider let his eyes roam over the bulkheads, taking in the obvious rivets and screws holding the internal structure together; felt the cold drafts within the unbalanced internal atmosphere.
Ramping up the magnification in one eye, Vision checked tolerances in the workmanship that enclosed them. A brief mental exercise sequestered a portion of her right lobe to compile and store the data.
With the Hyss’Oa the only xenos humankind had so far encountered, Spider began to wonder if this craft represented a third species. That might push up the resource value... Or maybe trigger another conflict…
The predatory, reptilian Hyssassom and the omnivorous, amphibian Ossa had evolved within different ecological niches on the same world. At a point in their distant past the two species had altered to form a single obligate, ectosymbiotic organism. Though the Hyss’Oa had never revealed any evidence, humans believed this outcome was engineered, though why and how still eluded the best minds on the world ship’s Council. What was beyond doubt was the Hyss’Oa’s biomechanical prowess; in their starships and weaponry. It had been an almost bloodless conflict – mankind found itself dispossessed of the few planets it had thus-far colonized, relegated to living in orbital colonies or under strict control within planetary enclaves the Hyss’Oa deemed allowable. The xenos had granted permission for the Harvester fleets, directing mankind’s search for resources, and perhaps a new homeworld, in a direction away from the Hyss’Oa-controlled regions of space.
Harvester Gamma-Four-Delta was the Rover’s home vessel; an agglomeration of storage pods, maintenance workshops, cramped living quarters and drive system. Little more than a space-going factory, the crew of the Rover had been born within its crawlways and would return when their productive lives were over. The Harvester wasted nothing, everything was recycled; fresh resources were provided by a small fleet of hard-working prospector craft.
With a drone in train Viridian answered Spider's request for a study of the corpse. She negotiated the vacuum between her home vessel and the asteroid-ship with some trepidation; unlike her kin she was never comfortable without walls to define her horizons. Neither was she happy with their new role; they were resource collectors, not explorers! Their remit was deploying scoops into the gaseous fringes of jovians or cracking asteroids. Whatever else their task might involve it didn’t include hunting monsters…
Wasting no time on sightseeing, the concept of the alien craft held far greater appeal than its reality, Viridian directed the drone to collect the body, stowing it within the cargo pod forming the drones' insect-like abdomen. Even as the machines’ multiple, segmented legs arranged the corpse neatly within its interior space, Viridian’s portable sensor-cluster threw geometric shapes around further wounds visible on the body. The overall pattern indicated that something or someone had removed several pieces of flesh since Spider’s group had left the vicinity. Perturbed by the idea that she could be under scrutiny from something unseen, Viridian made haste. Less than ten decaminutes after Spiders' initial call, Viridian had the body strapped to a medical-table in the Rover, powering the cutters to perform a swift post-mortem, slaving machines to Mother’s biological testing equipment – one of a suite of sensory machines that assisted the group in their endeavours.
It didn't take Mother long to provide an answer. So swift was the response that Viridian ran diagnostics on all the apparatus before requesting the tests be run again.
In an area overwhelmed by broad soft foliage, the team encountered more life. Spider and Vision were efficiently collecting samples of different leaf and stem specimens from a veritable wall of greenery, when sounds issued from deep within the foliage.
A red dot on an eye-lens, Gun signaled to Hammer – [movement 45ºtrue/elevation -21º absolute]. At Hammer’s alert everyone halted. Something had appeared on the scan .254 klicks away, remaining stationary for only a few seconds, before disappearing back into the mass of plants from where it had briefly emerged.
A reluctant nod from Spider and Hammer continued along the riot of leaves that almost choked the corridor, Gun humming in Defence mode.
Branching and re-branching, an almost fractal pattern, the numerous plants that had spread into the axial corridor hid a side room of unknown dimensions. With Gun leading, Hammer pushed through leaves of varying shape and size. The space into which the group arrived proved to be a nest of sorts, inhabited by four of the creatures.
One creature, physically much larger than the others flailed its limbs to move and interpose itself between the resource team and the other three. Spider made a rapid assessment that the larger one was a male protecting three females, one of which looked to be gravid, its belly and breasts appearing more distended than those of the other two. The larger creature also held a length of metal in one bony hand; its threat gestures sending it into a slow tumble it corrected by a rhythmic movement of its limbs. In all, it looked comedic rather than threatening.
The male that attacked darted suddenly from among a dense area of foliage, directly at Vision, a small, crude blade gripped in one near-skeletal hand. Gun, internally switched to Active due to the confusion of sensor returns indicating potential hostiles in close proximity, reacted immediately – considered its options, and fired one MISH round at the approaching un-armoured target. Multiple, soft-headed ballistic sub-munitions struck the creature in the neck and chest; a roil of wet slapping sounds and the figure came apart, blood and flesh fragments erupting in a ragged, expanding sphere.
Immobilised by the suddenness of the attack Spider, Hammer and Vision could only observe as the floating creatures launched themselves into the mess, toothless mouths sucking greedily at fluids, fingers snatching for larger chunks of their compatriot, which were then unceremoniously stuffed into gaping jaws.
Comprehension eluded Spider for some moments, his focus returning at the sound of Particle vomiting and choking in his bubble-helm while back-peddling away from the chaos. The only other sounds were of Gun, selecting and de-selecting targets as the creatures lunged and maneuvered within the confines of the nest.
Realising Particle had made a smart decision, Spider ordered everyone out into the axial corridor. As they gathered their thoughts (and watched Particle’s helmet suck away the colourful shambles to reveal a diffident expression), Spider sent a call through to Viridian.
‘Is all goin’ loud an’ technicolour. I need an okey-dokey as whether this is worth the grief. What’s Mother say about the boogers?’
There was a pause before Viridian’s voice crackled over their headsets. ‘They’re human. They’re us, but they ain’t modified. Example I got shows skeletal degeneration an’ internal organ problems. But definitely Homo sapiens.’
Spider remained silent long enough for the team to start growing tense. Hammer switched Gun to Defence mode 3; disturbing sounds continued to emanate from behind the wall of leaves, though nothing appeared to menace them. Particle cast worried glances at the nest, wondering just how many of the things might live inside the asteroid-ship.
Eyes unfocussed, Spider finally spoke. ‘Vir’, have Mother beam a ‘howdy’ to the Harvester; tell ‘em what we found. We’ll head back for the ‘lock, but’ll wait on a reply.’
With Hammer and Gun covering their retreat, the team returned to the airlock they’d breached.
The reply took seven deciminutes to arrive. Spider curled into a ball and considered the response; various compartments of his enhanced mind added their voices to an internal monologue, gradually paring-down either acceptance or rejection of the argument.
Particle, Vision, and even Hammer were starting to become concerned when, after way too long a pause, Spider unrolled and looked at each of them in turn.
‘Harvester says majority decision is ‘strip’. But they want two live specimens, male an’ female to ‘looksee’ before we anchor guide-lights for the tear-down.’
Fidgeting and glancing at each other the three finally settled long enough for Vision to pose the obvious question. ‘But if they’re older us, what’s going to happen to them?’
Shrugging in zeegee was a no-no, but Spider was perturbed enough by developments that proper movement protocols were forgotten. He raised all four upper hands simultaneously, the motion starting a slow spiral. Particle grabbed his ankle with a hindhand.
‘Harvester Council says we don’t have spare resources to care for them. They already beamed the nearest other ships and none wants responsibility.’ Teeth worrying at his lower lip, Spider looked down at his own hindhands. ‘Like Particle said, they ain’t built for this. Council says they just be a drain and won’t be able to contribute. Just need looking after.’ He glanced at his compatriots. ‘Guess that’s why they want two, a male an’ that pregnant female. Give ‘em something to study.’
During her leaders’ short, if hesitant speech, Vision crossed her hands upon her own belly trying, and failing, to imagine one of her compatriots growing inside. Truth-be-told it made her feel a little sick. Unlike the Unmods safely housed on the three world-ships, all the Harvester fleet’s modified humans were decanted from artificial wombs, their bodies restructured to deal with their environment and role. Only on a world-ship did Unmods breed the old way, but even for them gestation was mediated by the needs of the ship. The remnants of human society could ill-afford unproductive members; though most genetic diseases had been eliminated, there was always a possibility for a debilitating condition to strike down a fetus. Humanity had to be tempered by practicality.
Sending Particle back to the Rover, this wasn’t a job for the squeamish, Spider requested an Sentry-gun and a drone large enough to transport both captives, while Hammer reloaded Gun with low-velocity stun rounds and tangle-nets. When both arrived, Spider left Vision and the Sentry to guard the ‘lock, while he and Hammer set out to pay a return visit to the nest.
Fragments of torn leaf and the rotted sole of a shoe had joined the other detritus caught in the slow air currents in the axial corridor. As Spider had anticipated, the unmods had taken shelter deeper in the nest. Given that they only posed a threat as a group, splitting them up seemed the logical option.
At a spoken command, Gun selected anti-personnel screamers, a round which Hammer never had cause to fire previously, except in drills. Leaving Gun to determine trajectories that wouldn’t impact any of the few sensor returns, Hammer had the weapon unleash three screamers into the plant-choked area.
As the noisemakers reached their designated activation point and triggered, the disorientating shrieking and wailing panicked several of the unmods into bursting from cover, including the gravid female.
As she swam away in her ungainly, off-centre manner, she was caught easily in the gossamer filaments of a tangle-net.
No sooner was she entangled than one of the males launched himself toward Spider and Hammer clutching a length of crudely sharpened ceramic. A section of Spider’s compartmentalized mind, the area that stored potentially-useful trivia, noted the likelihood that the ceramic came from a panel support strut, similar to those they’d observed near the airlock.
Before the creature could close to a threatening distance Hammer hit him with a tangle-net. Gurgling noises of distress issued from both the male and female, as they struggled to free themselves from the nets. Whether or not in answer to the calls of distress, two more males appeared from amongst the greenery, both armed with different lengths of ragged-edge ceramic pipe.
As they required no further specimens, but quickly realizing just how much effort would be wasted in cleaning-up a mess, Spider ordered Hammer to target their assailants with low-velocity stun rounds.
Not looking back, Spider, Hammer and the drone hurried back to the Rover, natural and artificial senses searching for other potential attacks, leaving the two male unmods floating senseless in the corridor.
After a few moments a smaller male appeared, head pushing between two broad leaves. Reassured by the lack of sound and intentional movement, he propelled himself toward the nearer of the larger males, deftly intercepting the ceramic blade as it preformed a slow tumble. Venturing closer he brought around the makeshift weapon and slit the larger male’s throat. As the strong, coppery smell pervaded the moist air, several more of the smaller unmods, both male and female, scrambled from cover to join in the unexpected feast.
Once the processing tugs and attendant drones started the tear-down, it took a decayear to strip the asteroid ship of its many resources, including nearly 10,000x3 kils of usable metals, 1000x4 lets of water and 100x2 kils of various proteins from the plants and recycled bodies.
Several months after capture, the gravid female birthed three offspring, one stillborn, one so badly deformed it survived only seven decahours in an incubator. The third mewling bundle of soft pink flesh gave the genetics engineers some additional material to manipulate, none of which would ultimately be used. Then, along with its mother and two siblings, it was recycled. Unable to cope with the stress of incarceration, the male became catatonic and, after limited dissection, was also conveyed to the recycling processors.
Long before the scavenging began, Spider had tasked Mother with selecting a new destination for the Rover. In the circumstellar fringes of G2-Va/18 Scorpii’s planetary system, long-range sensors had received a return from a free-floating planetesimal with an attendant cluster of smaller satellites. Spectral data suggested the presence of hexavalent chromium, ferberite and hübnerite.
The Rover briefly burned reaction mass, calculating an energy-efficient slingshot away from the gas giant and out to the next target. Curled within the open-sided sphere of his command chair, Spider fervently hoped the place was uninhabited, while behind his closed eyelids, spheres of blood collided and coalesced; toothless mouths gibbered; twisted fingers reached toward him from a deeper dark.
© John Henson Webb
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