AN IMPROBABLE JOURNEY
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. The air tasted funny on his tongue, 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.
Scattered here and there throughout the visible heaps were items that in other circumstances he’d have spent time looking over; they seemed old, arousing his curiosity. He had more pressing concerns, though. 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 flattish 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. He’d dealt with a few robots before when he had to, 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.
He wasn’t overly fond of bots. He couldn’t relate to the way they thought, if they even thought at all, really, and he’d had more than a few occasions where bots had screwed up relatively simple tasks. Still, it was the only sign of “life” he’d seen so far.
“You’re a bit worse for wear, 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?” Wonderful. Not just a bot, but a bot that’s difficult to use. 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, a display?”
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 make it out without looking closely.
“Ugh, geeze. That’s going to be tough to read.” 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.
“Skittish, aren’t you,” 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? Huh. I’m not too fond of robots, but I am fascinated by relics. If you were running 76 years ago, you almost qualify. 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 snorted. “Don’t mention it. Aren’t you a little small for waste management?”
The display updated again. “I’m just 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 he well knew, but it was rare that bots were given the freedom to make use of it autonomously. “What’re you called?”
The update was swift; “A.R.U.W.D. Autonomous Remote Unit Waste Disposal.”
“Well that’s a mouthful. 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 you’ve been around for at least 76 years. Have you been here all of that time? Where exactly are we? How big is this junkyard we’re in? And how long have I been here?” As he spoke, he stretched arms and legs, gritting his teeth against the mild pain he felt. The air was thick, the consistency vaguely wrong. “For that matter,” he continued, a bad feeling forming in his gut, “where exactly are we?”
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. Well, this certainly explains why the air feels bad, he thought.
“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, marooned on a world with no population to speak of, no food, maybe even o medical facilities. Death sentences can be repealed, he told himself firmly.
The text on Aru’s display had updated. “I can’t help with that.”
“Of course you can’t. But maybe there’s something you can help with.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “How many human workers are stationed on-world?”
He sighed. “That’s about what I figured. Not many people would want to work somewhere like this.” Ending up in a scrap zone was a mixed blessing; in areas designated for bio-waste, he’d have been far less comfortable. Maybe far less alive. On the other hand, if he made the wrong move and injured himself, it’d still be pretty easy to die from infection before he could get any sort of help.
“You organize the scrap as it comes in?”
The haphazard piles around them didn’t look terribly organized. “Is your work unsupervised?” he frowned.
“This is the designated receiving zone. I perform a rough sort at this location prior to hauling scrap to the appropriate storage zones.”
He grunted acknowledgment. It made sense, he supposed. And 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 shook his head. “Thanks little guy, but I think I’d prefer to do this myself. You just tell me where I have to go, and I’ll get out of your way. Looks like you’ve still got plenty to do around here anyway.”
Aru tweeted an alarmed negative. “It’s too dangerous. Bad weather is frequent, the terrain is unsuited to unhardened human bodies, and the distance is too great without food and water.”
“Too great? How far are we talking?”
He sank down onto his heels and groaned. That would take a couple of days to walk under ideal conditions, and could take as much as a week in a place like this. With no supplies, especially no water, he’d be dead before he got there, and had no guarantee of finding a salvageable ship even if he did make it.
He looked at the little robot and sighed. “Okay. I can’t do that I guess. What do you suggest?”
Aru repositioned himself to make his display more easily readable. “Transport chassis is en route. ETA: 2 minutes.”
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.”
En route, he 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.
Aru got him to the star ship disposal sector safely, but “comfortably” was not an option. The 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 the promised 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’d found out the hard way that the rain being largely water didn’t make it good to drink; he’d tried, and hadn’t even been able to swallow the stuff. There was something rank and toxic mixed in with the water.
He crawled off the transport’s rear deck, feeling like a drowned rat. He paced up and down the truck’s 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 same set of treads it’d been using to get around earlier. 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.
“Maybe I’m just missing it, Aru, but I don’t see any ships here.” He craned his neck looking around; they were on a rough road pounded directly into the junk of ages past. He wondered how many ages it represented; how much junk you’d have to dig through to find the natural surface of this world.
His feet dug small craters into the surface as soon as he stepped on the road. At first he wondered if gravity was different as well, but realized that was silly; he’d have known long ago if that were the case. The road itself was worn flat by the wheels of the heavy vehicles, and probably maintained by some sort of roadworks chassis that Aru or others like him controlled, but there was no artificial surfacing of any kind. No plascrete, no duratop, hell, not even any ancient-style asphalt. He dug around a bit with the toe of his boot; it was dust, he guessed. Reddish dust blown in by the winds from who knew where, deposited everywhere, and pressed into a deceptively flat surface that looked hard enough, but wouldn’t support any weight itself. It just filled in indentations in whatever lay below.
“I … thanks, Aru,” he said, grudgingly. “If this road’s any indication, that would not have been a fun walk.”
The road looked as though it was supposed to top a gentle rise. He walked toward it. It seemed to have washed out, but that didn’t—
There was no warning. One moment he was approaching the top of the rise, the next he was falling, and there was pain all up the length of his right leg.
He was too shocked to move, to say anything, even to scream. He was dangling by the belt at his waist; the “road” under his feet had collapsed into some sort of sinkhole. It looked like the same one that had wrecked the route forward and stopped Aru’s progress. Sensation began to flood back into him; his leg was torn, scraped and cut on something heavy and sharp. Probably the same projection that had caught on his belt and was keeping him from falling to the broken debris a good five meters below. He did yell then, a wordless cry that he couldn’t hold back. His leg was on fire, and it was wet; he didn’t know how bad he was bleeding, and couldn’t reach to check for fear of knocking himself loose. All he could think of was infection, and the total lack of medical care he faced.
He didn’t know how long he hung there before the cable arrived, but it felt like an hour. When he did finally see it hanging beside him, lowering slowly, he grabbed it and hung on for dear life. “Slowly, Aru! Slow! I’m hurt!”
He had to contort himself to try to avoid further damage as the cable was slowly pulled back, taking him with it. He did his best to keep himself clear of the projection, which looked to be a broken section of a ship’s hull; he still ended up cut in several more places, but finally he was able to let go of the cable with one hand and cling to the edge of the roadway with it. “Stop!” he panted. “I have to climb up, this road will tear me up.” The edge, he saw, was almost as bad as the projecting bit of hull. Jagged, rusty metal poked out everywhere.
It took him every bit of strength he could muster, but after ten minutes he managed to pull himself off the edge and to safety. He rolled slowly down to where he’d gotten off the truck, unwilling to trust the surface again. He wasn’t sure he could walk, anyway.
He painfully got himself to his feet—or foot, anyway—and leaned against the transport’s bulk. None of the cuts were terribly deep, but his pants were torn to shreds, and the wounds were caked in dirt and dust and crap.
His voice was hollow. “Thanks for pulling me up.” He just hoped it wasn’t for nothing. “I guess that’s two I owe you.” He guessed that was okay. If he didn’t get medical attention really fast, he was a dead man.
He looked around the area, 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.
“You don’t expect me to dig a ship out of the ground, do you?” he said, once he’d caught his breath.
“No. 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. A side note; there is a possibility you might find some basic medical supplies, as well.”
He nodded. If he could find it fast enough, that might possibly help. He could clean the wounds, at least. Maybe even find some antibiotics, if he was really lucky, and if they were still viable.
Aru’s criteria were good ones, he mused. 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.
“It will take time to summon the appropriate road maintenance chassis. The remainder of the trip is safe enough on foot.”
“Uh … are you kidding me?” he asked incredulously. “On foot? After that?”
“It’s not far. It will take hours to summon the appropriate road maintenance chassis and to repair the road if you want to continue to ride.”
Despite the chill, broke into a cold sweat at the thought of the ground giving out under him again. “It’s not far, you said?” He didn’t have much choice, did he?
“This way.” The little bot started off at a slow and easy pace, to Corwin’s relief. He was forced to limp heavily, but the walking started warming him up.
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. Those farther back were older. Some old enough to look somewhat familiar to him, and he felt his pulse quicken. Hope stirred faintly in his breast.
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.
Aru beeped for his attention. He thought briefly about ignoring the interruption to get to the ships and the hope of food and medicine faster, but glanced down after a moment’s hesitation.
“We’re approaching the most recently delivered vessels. Odds of finding viable food, water and medicine are highest with those closest to our present location.”
“I hope you’re right.” His leg was throbbing; moving was agony.
They approached a rough circle composed of eight of the most recently acquired mid-sized ships. “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. He started to silently curse the little bot for not warning him, but of course he hadn’t asked. He silently cursed himself, instead.
“System security! I thought this planet was uninhabit—” He was cut off by not the lowering of the ramp, but the abrupt appearance of a security officer. Corwin could’ve taken the man for a living presence if he hadn’t shown 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. “Wait, I can explain! I was marooned here. I’m injured! I thought this planet was uninhabited, I’m just looking for food, medicine, and a way off-world.”
“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 hurt 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 that of a security head. “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 History, and—”
“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 ancient relics could be incredibly valuable. “Sorry to pry, but who exactly is it that you represent?”
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. And,” she added, looking him over carefully, “you will find medical care waiting for you.
“Once you’ve repaired a ship and made the pickup, I’d appreciate it if you’d limit your inspection of the cargo 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; once again, 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.” His skin crawled just a little bit more than the foreign air could account for.
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 limped after Aru—apparently the property of these people—into the unknown within, wondering just what exactly he’d gotten himself into.
To Be Continued!