Who landed a freighter on top of me? were the words that slowly coalesced in his mind as consciousness stole up on him and robbed him of peace and blackness. What came out of his mouth sounded a lot more like “Graahhbhrugh” to his ears, though whether it was his mouth or his ears that were malfunctioning, he couldn’t say.
He blinked a few times, but either his eyes were also misbehaving or it was very dark. He struggled to remember how he’d gotten here, wherever here was. Remembering stuff seemed safer and less painful than trying to move around blindly.
He’d been out drinking; that much at least he didn’t have to remember. The taste of his mouth was quite enough to tell him that. A fuzzy image came to mind of sitting alone in a space port bar until he’d been approached by …
He wasn’t sure who they were, but they’d been rough characters. That’d account for at least some of the hurting going on. There’d been a lot of fists flying, a few of them his, the rest of them flying his way. After that there’d been some bumpiness and movement, and then he’d been flying. No, falling. Yeah, falling. Everything after that was a just a dizzy blur of sound and color and motion.
He tried blinking again a few times and it helped, or at least it seemed to. Everything looked dark gray now instead of black. The nearby sound of crunching gravel confirmed his ears still worked.
He wondered for a moment if he should be worried by that sound; he hadn’t noticed it before. But it didn’t sound like anything big, so he gave it a pass.
“No’ goin’ ge’ anywhe layi’ ‘ere,” he mumbled. Okay, his mouth sort of worked. And his jaw hurt, a lot. He shifted an arm, and found it in one piece. Encouraged, he moved the other, and his legs. So far so good.
The crunching gravel sound had paused, and a curious series of beeps and electronic squeals took its place. He couldn’t see the source; everything was still grey. He tried turning his head.
He’d been staring at a great gray pile of … he had no idea of what. It was definitely big and pile-like. Metal scrap, mostly, he thought. Turning his head revealed more piles, and more, and more after that. But the change in perspective gave him enough contrast to recognize what he was seeing, and there was more there than scrap, and more colors than gray. He shuddered a bit and focused on finding the source of the sound.
He pushed himself up with his hands and got to his feet; to his relief, he wasn’t feeling that bad. Definitely sore from head to toe, and he definitely had a wicked headache, but nothing he couldn’t handle.
He looked around properly, seeing nothing but more and more piles of discarded crap. “They dumped me in a dump.” It wasn’t till he’d turned around to check behind him that he found what must’ve been the source of the odd sounds.
It was a robot; a tiny one, as such things went, no bigger than a breadbox, and it bore a striking resemblance to one. He knew that, he suddenly remembered, because he’d always loved museums and ancient history.
It was flatish and broad, with belts of treads to either side that let it navigate the junk piles. It had no other appendages that he could see. It was rusty in spots, and had a couple of dark swiveling camera ports that served as eyes. It backed up almost apprehensively when he fixed his eyes upon it.
He paused, unsure what exactly to say to this little … creature. He’d dealt with plenty of robots before, but this one looked antiquated. It also looked very patchwork, as though it had been through a great many upgrades and overhauls without much consideration for preserving its outer appearance.
“You’re an old one, aren’t you,” he said, though speaking was still painful. The robot let loose a series of questioning beeps in reply.
He blinked and frowned. “No vocalization module?” He crouched down; it backed off, and he eased up. “Hey, hang on, I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Do you have some sort of readout?”
It trilled a brief affirmative—it sounded affirmative anyway—and rolled forward on its treads. There was a display on top of the unit, though it was so dirty and scratched it was hard to distinguish from the rest of it without looking closely.
“Ugh, that’s going to be tough to read. Let me clean that off for you.” He reached into a pocket of his jacket, bringing out a handkerchief. The little bot backed off a few inches, paused, and slowly crept forward again.
“If I wanted to hurt you, I could have by now. Relax,” he smirked, wiping away the worst of the dirt and dust. It helped a lot. The display read, “My vocalization module was removed 76 years, 7 months, 23 days ago.”
His eyebrows rose. “76 years? It’s a wonder you’re functional at all. Why was it removed?”
The text updated quickly. “I was assigned to waste handling duties. Vocalization was an unnecessary power drain. Thanks for the aesthetic enhancement.”
He chuckled. “No problem, little guy. Why’d they assign a bot as small as you to waste handling?”
The display updated again. “I’m one component in a greater modular design. I autonomously interface with the necessary apparatus, either physically or by remote interface.”
“Handy,” he said, and meant it. Such technology was hardly anything new, it’d been around since the dawn of time as far as anyone knew, but it was rare that bots were given the freedom to make use of it autonomously. “Oh. I guess we haven’t been introduced. I’m Corwin.” Instinctively he wanted to put his hand out for a shake, but he had to content himself with waiting for a reply.
The update was swift; “A.R.U.W.D. Autonomous Remote Unit Waste Disposal.”
“THAT’S your designation? I guess I can call you Aru.” He took a longer look around at the environment he found himself in. It was a dump alright, large enough that he could see no end to it in any direction. The gigantic piles of refuse made it difficult to judge any more than that.
“So tell me Aru, you’ve been around for at least 76 years. Have you been here all of that time? Where exactly are we? And how long have I been here?” As he spoke, he stretched arms and legs, gritting his teeth against the mild pain he felt.
He knelt down to inspect Aru’s display. It read, “We’re located in sector 351/165 of Waste Disposal Colony Haruna. I have been here for 77 years, 2 months, 23 days. I learned of your presence here 18 standard hours ago.”
Corwin’s mouth dropped open. “Haruna!? 18 hours!?” He suddenly found himself sitting, holding his head in his hands. After a few moments an inquisitive beeping began, but he was in shock. They hadn’t just driven him off and dumped him in a junkyard. They’d shipped him to a thrice-damned junkyard planet.
He sat like that so long, head in hands, brain spinning at a thousand clicks a second that Aru finally nudged his leg after some minutes had passed. Corwin looked up with a classic thousand-yard stare.
“I really wish I could remember what I did to get this kind of treatment,” he said finally. He couldn’t come up with a single thing he could’ve said or done that warranted what amounted to a death sentence. Death sentences can be repealed, he told himself firmly.
The text on Aru’s display had updated. “I can’t help with that.”
“No, I guess you can’t. But maybe there’s something you can help with.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “How many people are stationed on-world?”
He sighed. “That’s about what I figured. Not many people would want to work somewhere like this.” He’d been lucky to end up in a scrap region. In areas designated for bio-waste, he’d have been far less comfortable. Maybe he’d even have been dead already. “You organize the scrap as it comes in?”
The haphazard piles around them didn’t look terribly organized, so he took a guess. “And this is the receiving area?”
He was starving, he realized. “Okay then. Two things. First, is there anything around that I can eat safely? And second, where do you keep the wrecked ships?”
There was a long pause before the display updated this time. “Food you can eat safely: Maybe. Ship wrecks are located several hundred kilometers away to the south.”
Corwin frowned. Several hundred kilometers was a long trip for just a maybe. But on the other hand, a maybe was better than he’d expected, given that the world was uninhabited except by bots. “What do you mean by ‘maybe’ there’s food?”
The response was much quicker this time. “Wrecked star ships often have many things left aboard after transport to Haruna. Most food is likely to be inedible, but there may exist some emergency ration packs that could have survived.”
“Sounds better than eating this,” he said, grabbing a handful of reddish dirt or rust or some combination of the two and letting it run through his fingers. “How can I get there?”
“I’ll have to take you.”
Corwin nodded. “Guess you have to have some sort of vehicle that can move stuff around to do a job like this.”
Aru tweeted the affirmative. “Transport chassis is en route. ETA: 2 minutes.”
He sat back to wait and reviewed his plan, such as it was; it was really more of a distant hope, he thought. Corwin was only a novice pilot, not a professional star ship mechanic, but nobody flew the stars without learning enough about ships to perform emergency repairs. If he could find a ship that wasn’t too badly damaged, he might just get off this rock. Problem is, ships don’t usually end up in places like this if they aren’t that bad. He tried not to think about that any more.
After two minutes, as promised, Aru’s transport chassis arrived. It was a powerful, bulky repulsor-truck with a flat bed. Corwin looked to the cabin by habit, only to find there wasn’t one. “Um, I hate to ask the obvious question, but … am I going to have to ride on the back?”
The answer was disappointingly quick. “Yes.”
Aru got him to the star ship disposal sector safely, but “comfortably” was not an available upgrade to the ride. His transport chassis had been designed for hauling waste, not people, so not only did it not have a cabin, it was also incredibly slow. And they’d run into bad weather. When he arrived, he was soaked to the skin, had only light clothing on, and thanks to Haruna having slightly cooler temperatures than he was used to, he was frigid. I suppose I should just be thankful that Haruna’s rains are largely water, he thought. There were plenty of worlds where the air was breathable but rain would burn or kill you.
He crawled off the transport’s rear deck, feeling like a drowned rat. He paced up and down the Aru’s new length, stamping off the chill that had seeped into him.
“Is this it?” he asked, and then waited. The transport had no visual display.
A whirring rumble answered him and a panel opened up on the chassis near the ground, forming a small ramp. The original unit Corwin had met slid down from a recess within the chassis, snapping into what looked like the set of treads it’d been using to get around earlier. The now much smaller Aru rolled down the ramp, which closed back up again, leaving the transport chassis inert and lifeless.
He bent down to examine the display. “Yes. We have arrived,” it read.
“What kind of ships are there around here?” He craned his neck looking around; they were on a rise of some sort, but if he’d expected a hangar of mothballed vessels, or a vast graveyard of broken hulks, it appeared that he should be disappointed. What he saw instead didn’t look all that much different than what they’d left behind, except that the mounds were less broken-looking. There was an order to the chaos.
“I selected a section that best fit two overlapping criteria. 1) Least likely to be badly damaged, and 2) most likely to contain viable food. Results: Luxury non-military craft.”
Corwin nodded slowly. It made sense to him; the military would strip down any decommissioned ship thoroughly and destroy any sensitive equipment or technology they couldn’t easily remove. Wealthy private citizens, on the other hand, were likely to care for their vessels very carefully, upgrade to newer models regularly, and care far less about what happened to them or their more mundane contents after the ship changed owners.
That still left one small problem. “That sounds great, Aru, but … where are they?”
“This way.” The little bot started off at a quick but easy pace, to Corwin’s relief. He was forced to jog to keep up, which immediately started warming him up. They were moving around the nearest of the junk piles, which on closer inspection Corwin realized was made up of bundled hull plating scavenged from downed vessels. Other heaps nearby were similarly gathered bits and pieces pulled off ships that weren’t so fortunate as those Aru was taking him to see.
They wound their way between several more junk piles when finally Corwin laid eyes on the scene he’d been looking for. A vast field of small- to mid-sized star ships of all designs, descriptions, and state of repair greeted him. Several of the nearest looked as though they’d just come out of the assembly docks.
He felt a giant knot of tension he hadn’t been aware of ease up between his shoulders; he just might get out of this after all.
“That’s them? So where do we start?” he asked the bot. He paused to read Aru’s display.
“We’re approaching the most recently delivered vessels. Odds of finding viable food are highest with those closest to our present location.” Corwin’s response to that was a rumbling of his stomach; food did sound really good.
“Lead on, my little friend.”
They approached a rough circle composed of eight of the most recently acquired mid-sized ships. “I assume these bigger ones will be more likely to carry food?”
“Anything else I should know about?” he asked as he stepped up close to the boarding ramp of a small but bulky cargo-hauler vessel, relieved excitement in his step.
“All vessels stored here implement strict security protocols. Opening one will trigger an alert and prompting action by system security.” Of course. Naturally, he read this last part after he’d already hit the ship’s controls to lower the boarding ramp.
“System security! I thought this planet was uninhabit—” He was cut off by, not the lowering of the ramp, but by the abrupt appearance of a security officer. Corwin could’ve taken the man for a living presence if it hadn’t show the tell-tale bright white glow of a projection.
“Halt! Intruder, you have one minute to identify yourself and explain your presence on this world and why you’re attempting to steal this ship.”
Corwin’s mind raced. That didn’t sound like a standard security greeting. “Wait, I can explain! I thought this planet was uninhabited, I’m just looking for food and a way off!”
“50 seconds, intruder. Identify yourself or face the consequences.” The man’s tone was decidedly unfriendly, even hostile. Just then a disembodied hand appeared on the projected man’s shoulder and a female voice spoke.
“Now now. This poor man’s trapped and hungry. Let’s not be too hasty. I would like hear his story before we do anything … drastic.” The security man stepped aside, replaced by the image of a handsome woman perhaps in her mid-thirties, sharply dressed in a suit more like a company executive’s than like a security lead. “There, I’ve cancelled the alert.” The “for now” was unstated but clearly implied. “I’m Madeline Sobol. Please, tell me what’s happened here.”
Corwin let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. “Thank you, Ms. Sobol. I woke up a few hours ago on this rock. I have no idea how I got here. Someone must’ve dumped me on a transport or something. My name is Corwin Koell, I’m a dealer in antiquities at the Tau Ceti Institute of Galactic His—”
“Are you now,” the woman broke in, somehow giving the impression of leaning forward with interest without actually moving. “Now that is interesting.” She paused to look him over, and Corwin found himself holding his breath again.
Her image in the holo took a few steps and suddenly she was sitting in a chair, exquisitely manicured nails tapping a staccato rhythm on the arm. She stared at them as they drummed, then her eyes met his with a laser-like focus. “Mr. Koell, I believe we can help each other out. I would like to make you an offer.”
Corwin felt relief starting to seep through him again. “What kind of offer would that be?”
“I represent the owners of all the ships on Haruna. I carry the full authority to allow you the use of the ship you need to get yourself off-world. And, as it happens, if you are the dealer in antiquities that you claim you are, your services could be of great assistance to those I represent. If I were to authorize your use of a vessel, how would you feel about making a small cargo run on our behalf? Your inspection and sign-off on the cargo would be most appreciated.”
He paused a moment, considering. “That doesn’t sound so bad,” he said. “Just what exactly is this cargo?”
She smiled. “Nothing dangerous, I assure you. Some statuary and other assorted relics of the Dolish Dynasty.”
He tried not to gape; if genuine, such relics could be incredibly valuable. “Forgive me for prying, but who exactly is it that you represent? I’ve never heard of any government or military agency operating like this.”
Her smile stayed just as pleasant, but suddenly it felt just the tiniest bit brittle. “Mr. Koell. Corwin. There’s no need to worry yourself about that for now. We’ll get to those details at a later date. Let’s concentrate on getting you off of that horrid, and utterly inhospitable, planet.”
She instantly resumed her pleasant countenance. “Now I see you have one of our autonomous bot controllers with you; that’s good. You’ll need it to effect repairs to the vessel and get it space worthy again, and likely to help fly it as well. I’m relaying the cargo pickup and delivery coordinates to the unit. You’ll be making the pickup from me directly. It’s a short trip; you don’t even have to leave the star system. Our manned station is on the next closest planet to the local star.
“Once you’ve made the pickup, I’d appreciate it if you’d limit your inspection to verifying the authenticity of the items in question. I want this treated with the utmost discretion. I trust you have no objections?”
He carefully kept a frown from his face; he didn’t really have a choice. It was his only way off-world, even if he was pretty sure that there was something more than a bit sketchy about the deal. “No. No, ma’am. No objections at all.”
Her smile was all warmth. “Well then, we have a deal. I’m so glad we could work this out to our mutual advantage. I’ll be seeing you again soon.”
Her image faded, and with a hollow pop, the boarding hatch of the ship unsealed and lowered itself to the ground. Corwin followed Aru into the unknown within, wondering just what exactly he’d gotten himself into now.