Esme ducked; a metal rope whipped by over her head with a hiss of air and sickeningly liquid sound of metal flexing. She crouched behind a greenhouse bench.
The rope retracted into the impossibly round ball hovering over the central bench in the greenhouse module Multiple benches had been torn out of the deck plating, their water systems spilling onto the grating, bare roots systems drooping in the half-gravity out of their frames.
Another metal rope (smooth to mathematically precise flatness, more nimble than a neo-octopus’s arm) punched out of the ball hovering over the central bench and slammed Burn onto the grating, punching through their exosuit and out the back to disappear between the grating. Esme was the last one still mobile. Burn’s life-signs on the tactical network flickered; the metal had torn through them just below the sternum and their suit was frantically trying to patch the hole.
Esme fired her rail-pistol at the rope, hands trembling as she leaned across the bench. What didn't hit the arm slammed into the ball behind it. Esme heard Burn grunt over their tactical network as he hauled his plasma rifle up off the deck and blasted the arm near where her bullets were slamming into the metal. On the second burst of scorching liquid fire, the arm was cut through and dropped onto the deck plating. Esme followed Burn into switching targets to the hovering ball. Another arm was forming, pushing out of the ball, stretching against the metal surface like it would split open shortly. Esme’s pistol clicked on empty as Burn forcibly dropped off the network.
Plasma burst the ball open, the interior dripping onto the deck in pools.
Esme’s hand were shaking badly; she almost dropped her last clip as she reloaded her pistol. Burn motioned weakly for Esme to come over to where he was still pinned by the metal arm. Esme kneeled behind his head, as far from the twitching metal as she could, and touched her suit faceplate to his.
“You ever collected stacks, Specs?”
“Five hours in simulspace, twice in meatspace.”
Burn took a deep breath and nodded. “You've got three minutes to grab as many as you can.” His pupils blew open as the adrenaline and second dose of combat drugs flooded his system. “Grab Digits, they're least likely to be compromised. Then five minutes to get the hell back to Wings.”
“What are you doing Burn?”
“The nice thing–” Burn gulped. “The nice thing about using a plasma rifle, kid, is you always have a nuclear bomb if you need it.”
“Fucking hell–” Esme bit off. She made an abortive motion towards Digits’ corpse, then touched her faceplate to Burn’s again. “Burn, my name's Esme.”
Burn gave her a pained, lopsided grin. “Nice to meet you, Esme. Now move it kid.”
Esme launched herself towards Digits as fast as she could in .5g, pulling the melon baller out of her suit belt pockets.
Digits’ corpse was leaning back against the bulkhead where they'd been thrown; Esme yanked it forward to expose the back of the neck, pressed the baller against the suit where spine turned into skull, and pressed the button. Fabric, plastic, and polymers went flying as the baller burrowed through the suit. Esme swallowed and turned slightly towards Burn when it started kicking out blood and bone.
The metal arm was slowly slumping, spreading out into Burn’s suit. Esme caught a glimpse of silver streaking through Burn’s body where the arm had originally punched through them.
The melon baller jerked back in her hand, diamond-coated grape-sized cortical stack firmly caught in its clutches.
Esme surged to her feet and bolted for the greenhouse doorway as fast as she could in half gravity, tucking the baller back in a pocket. Microgravity and the increase in speed she’d get in her native gravity was two modules and a couple hundred meters away.
Bester, her muse, laid the most efficient route from here to the airlock Wings was last at over the map in Esme’s visuals. Esme turned on her T-Ray emitter and pulled the map into the center of her vision as she ran, tweaking a few spots to take advantage of handholds and furniture not noted on the map. The emitter would paint her as a target to anything looking the same way, but it was worth it for the heads up on any real-time deviations from the map.
She banished the map to her peripheral vision at the transition point to microgravity and launched herself forward.
Halfway point to the next spot she could kick off, Esme tucked, flipped over, and turned her magnetic boots on. Bester updated his estimate of how fast Esme could make this run. Now she’d have a full fifteen seconds to get in the airlock. Right before before hitting the wall, Esme cut the boots, touched down, and then kicked off hard. She wished she’d taken Mav up on his offer of a combat drug, any combat drug.
Bester had kept his estimates worst case conservative again. Wings was 50 meters straight through the bulkheads, 78 meters of freefall to get to them. Thank Hawkins, they had their T-Ray up as well. Esme blinked her emitter on and off. ‘open airlock. detach. open airlock. detach.’ She couldn’t remember if Wings or their muse knew Morse Code. Bester sent a coded burst to the station to open its airlock.
Careening into the airlock, Esme grabbed a hold bar just inside the lock. Breath rasping in the back of her throat, she paused as the interior hatch closed to line up with the airlock in Wings’ ship, slowly drifting away from the station. Lined up, Bester sent an emergency override to the station — the exterior hatch opened as Esme pushed off the interior, following the escaping air. She careened across the gap between space station and ship. An inelegant tumble into the ship’s airlock included clipping the hatch into the ship.
‘go. go. go.’
Esme braced herself in a corner of the airlock, as far from the opening as she could, back against one wall, boots locked against the other. The airlock slowly closed as the ship turned from the station and began acceleration.
Wings came on over the speaker, sound strangely attenuated in the partial vacuum of a refilling airlock. “What am I running from?”
Esme stuck with Morse code; there was no way she was getting on anyone’s network before the Firewall specialists cleared her.
‘overloaded plasma gun.’
“Specs, blink twice if that’s fucking Morse code.”
She blinked the T-Ray twice.
Swearing in a mix of Cantonese, Russian, and Cherokee came over the speaker; Wings must have loaded up the translator for Morse. The ship acceleration increased, hard; Esme gritted her teeth and pushed harder against the walls.
Esme let out a slow breath and started deep breathing, trying to counteract the acceleration squashing her rib cage.
Thuds and reverberations pinged against the metal hull. It sounded like recordings of rain she’d listened to last week. Except, deeper. And hurled by exploding plasma bombs, not gravity.
The sounds against the hull let up and died away.
“Well alright then, we’re not dead.” Esme would have felt better if Wings hadn’t sounded so surprised. “Let’s get you into the—”
“It’s three days to the rendezvous point.”
Wings chuckled ruefully. “Alright, it’s your suit. Congratulations on saving the solar system and killing the monster.”
‘another day. another monster.’