Chapter 2 of the Neohumans
The Taker ship was a farm and slaughterhouse of staggering size, but most access points were well-protected. It could take hours for Skae to hack through it, or for them to blast through it, during which time the Taker ship would become aware of them, and crush all of them like tiny space rocks. There were only two safe access entrances to a Taker ship--with "safe" being a very relative term--and the safest by far was the waste exit port.
The Jump algorithms were designed to keep them small and unobtrusive to the sensors of their target. The instant after the Jump, the ship was programmed to seek the waste exit port on the ship, and match angle and velocity to the Taker ship, apply a hard, intense burst, and then drift into place on low power. Life support was shut off, which was why all of them (except Zee) were required to be carrying their own oxygen. Only the emergency lights remained, a muted red glow. To the Taker ship, the idea was to appear as a standard jumpflash, a spark of energy within the Jump, that would evade the Taker ship's scanners.
Drifting on low power, the ship would make contact with the Taker ship, oscillating the frequency of their stolen Taker ship's shields in a manner that would allow them to permeate the membrane of the farm ship's outer defenses.
Bex felt a tingle across her skin, the hairs raised on her arms, as they passed through the shield. It raised memories of the nineteen previous rescues. Then she felt the familiar lurch in her belly, the crazed rush of adrenaline that filled her as the Defiant latched onto the hull of the Taker farm ship with a metallic thump.
All that remained was to wait for the Takers to open the waste port.
This was always the part she hated most.
Part of it was that they were in the Jump, and existence in the Jump reminded her of her former life, the life she had spent on a ship just like this one, before Nod had come to rescue her. There was a rising feeling of dull nausea that grew worse the longer you were within it. She had grown acclimated to it, accepting it as a normality of existence when she was little, but once she had escaped it, returning to it always felt like returning home, and all the memories that came with it.
Not a home that any human being would ever willingly return to, but her crew did it all the time.
They all had their reasons, she knew, but Bex did it for them, for all that her people had suffered. She did it to take from the Takers, to take back from them what they had stolen from her, from the rest of humanity.
She did it because she knew exactly how those people inside felt. How hope had died for them long ago. Because she could never save enough, because the scope of the tragedy was too great, and every minute she wasn't here, or on her way to get here to them, was a moment she knew that millions of people were dying.
The truth was, she understood Kase all too well. She knew why he wanted to get back out there. Why he would be pissed when he found out he'd slept in cryo while they had done a rescue without him.
No one had ever told Bex to sit out a rescue. Well, Nod had suggested it once, but only in private.
It was her job to be untouchable. And she was, most of the time. She was strong for all of them. She led every mission without complaint. She cried privately in her quarters, never in front of them. But her weakness for the Jump irked her. It was the one discomfort she could never conceal, and after a while, especially after Nod had made it apparent to everyone, she had stopped trying.
Waiting in the Jump for the waste port to open was one reason she hated this part. Sometimes it took hours. Hours of discomfort, in which you couldn't sleep, couldn't relieve yourself, and were dreading the moment, the moment you were waiting for, when the waste port opened.
She stared at it intensely, willing it and begging it not to open. Her HUD reported that she was taking inefficient breaths, and that her pulse was elevated. She reached into her center, taking slower, more patient breaths, and watched as the bars representing her oxygen intake and her pulse moved back into the low green, rather than the low orange.
Whims' high-pitched voice came over the coms as a whine. "I hate this part," he said, fidgeting in place.
"Stow it," she replied, and though he seemed ready to reply with an affirmative, a curt shake of her head cut him off, and the static over the coms on his end was like an awkward silence.
For all they knew about the Takers, which was not enough for her comfort, they still weren't quite sure what they could detect, and what they couldn't. But with the Takers, it was best to assume the greatest, most unfathomable level of technical capability both possible, and then triple it.
This was, Bex was certain, why they had so often been effective. A healthy case of paranoia kept them alive. Caution helps. There was little room for mistakes, so until they got the all clear from an engineer, they maintained coms silence except in case of emergency.
Time ticked away. The timer in her HUD said they had been waiting for twenty-five minutes, before the waste hatch opened. She had shifted her weight on her legs several times already.
They were on the other side of the wall from their access point, so they watched as a flood of offal and blood-drenched bone flooded out of the waste port, into the cargo area of the ship, redirected out through their own open airlock out into space. As soon as the ship detected a slowing in the stream of waste, it closed the airlock, and the contents of the tunnel began to collect and pool in the cargo area.
Bex stood impatiently at the door, catching a glimpse of the waste port, fearing that any second it would begin to close. The light turned green at the door, meaning the cargo bay was now fully repressurized, and she slammed her fist on the controls to open it.
She did not have to tell them to hurry. They all knew what to do.
They hurried across the floor with quick, concise steps, trying not to slip on the blood that stained the floor, the walls, or waste port, which quickly began to close.
Bex reached up and grabbed Whims shoulder, not so much pulling him towards the waste port, he was far too massive for that, but encouraging him to move his ass. He was the largest, and would thus need the largest opening to make it inside.
Whims caught the message and took the lead, ducking as he darted through the waste hatch. Nod followed next, with Bex beside him. Skae and Zee followed last, the murial clinging to Skae's shoulder as the slight rashrati darted through the opening, snapping his tailtip through just as the sphincter of the waste port snapped closed, enfolding them in darkness.
Whims grunted over the coms in disgust.
Bex switched to infrared, and regretted it. This was easily the largest waste tunnel they'd encountered yet, which was fitting considering the massive size of the Taker ship that they were now quite literally in the bowels of. But even after an evacuation like the last one, since they had prematurely closed the airlock before the contents of the tunnel could completely drain, there was always...debris.
The gore-soaked tunnel would have been treacherous without their adhesive boots snapping to the surface beneath them. They stood on the shoulders of giants, and many who had come before them had died so that they could equip themselves and prepare appropriately for the conditions inside.
But nothing could really prepare the mind. That was something everyone had to learn on their own. The ones that could not learn never went on a rescue again.
Skae tapped the multitool at his wrist with quick, scaly fingers while Zee gave a curious look from his shoulder, before speaking up over the coms. "Coms are secure, Captain. This area is shielded."
"Roger," she said. "And now you can start chattering, Whims." If Skae said they were secure, they were secure. The crew put a lot of faith in him, but out of necessity. Rashrati brain clusters were more evolved than the human brain. Arguing with his calculations would be nothing more than arrogance, and his explanations never made much sense to them, anyway.
Nod shook his head and chuckled. She could imagine his snaggle-toothed grin behind his face mask.
"First thing you're going to eat back on Zora: Go!" Whims said.
Nod thought about this for a moment. "Stewed beans with mustard sauce."
Whims scoffed. "Stop messing with me, Nod."
"No, seriously. That's what I want."
"Forget it. Bex?"
"An apple," she replied.
Nod started laughing openly, even as Whims protested, "You say that every time!"
"It's what I want every time." And it was true. It was the first real thing she had eaten, the first real food that hadn't been drug-enhanced liquid feedpaste filled with maturity-accelerators the Takers fed to the rest of their human herd as their daily ration. Eating one reminded her that she was safe, that she was home. Reminded her what she was fighting for.
Whims sighed. "I wish Kase was here. He'd take this seriously."
"I was serious," Bex and Nod said together, surprising themselves.
"Let's just get there," Whims said glumly.
"If you don't like the answers, Whims," Bex said, "You could ask different questions."
"I'm trying to think of one."
If there was a time to let decorum slip, it was when they needed to distract themselves from the fact that they were walking through the remains of their own kind, and that they had to hurry before another load of waste was evacuated, or else they'd all be dumped into the Defiant, and be forced to make this hellish trek all over again. Assuming they weren't mangled from the impact with the ship, or the ship didn't malfunction and try to evacuate them into space.
It had happened before, before Skae had joined the crew.
She shook her head at these unproductive thoughts.
"Skae, can you get a look at the other end yet?"
Skae's goggles had a much more advanced HUD and array of sensors. Bex had tried looking through them once, and didn't understand how he could see anything in the real world at all behind all of that data. The rashrati leapt over a stubborn clog of bone and flesh that had stuck to the side of the tunnel, Zee continuing to clutch Skae's shoulder and keep her feet dry, bomblets on her harness registering to Bex's HUD like tiny glowing orbs.
"We're coming to the tunnel origin," he said. "Scanning the feeder tunnels." The multitool at his wrist glowed blue, and began spawning a series of insect-like drones, perhaps fifteen or so, one after the other, that burned blue-hot for a moment, beginning their flight before the matter had even solidified. All of which might as well have been sorcery for how well Bex understood it. They flitted off into the distance out of sight, but she knew they'd be zipping through the smaller feeder tunnels, scanning and relaying back data to Skae, filling his HUD with even more sensory overload that he would have no trouble interpreting.
"Standard procedure?" asked Nod, suddenly all business.
"Yeah," said Bex, but reiterated for everyone's benefit. "We skip the nurseries, focus on the holding pens destined for slaughter. Keep out of sight of the killing floor and the Harvesters, grab one person, and then we get out of here. Zee is on standby in case shit goes sour."
"Ew," said Nod. "Sour shit."
She ignored it. "Whims?"
"I'll grab two."
"Of course," she said. Whims didn't carry much equipment. He carried people. He was certainly big enough to carry three people in a pinch.
Approaching closer to the feeder tunnels, the flood at their feet was increasing in depth and thickness as the continuous operations within the farm above spewed out more of the offal, running in chunky rivulets down the tunnel, filling up below in the massive holding tank through which they'd just journeyed, before soon being evacuated out into space. Or into the Defiant, which was still clutching the waste port outside the ship, in case they didn't move fast enough.
"There," said Skae, and each of their HUDs suddenly spawned a video feed through which they could view the target he'd selected for them. "Human tenderlings."
Whims shuddered, but said, "We're in luck."
"I wouldn't call that luck, exactly," Bex said.
"I just mean because they are small. We can carry more of them."
"They are children, Whims," she admonished him.
"I...I know," he said, and she immediately felt guilty. Which she didn't have time for.
She heard the hum of Nod's heavy plasma laser powering up.
They made their way up the feeder tunnel, reaching the grate in the slaughterhouse floor, looking up into hell as the blood dripped down upon them from above.
"Nevermind. Skae, get Zee to plant charges on the Harvesters inside. Once we've disabled them, we move in."
"Roger," Skae said, using handsign to convey his instructions to the furry murial.
Zee chirped and scurried up the wall, pausing beneath the grate and peering above, sizing up the environment. She then cocked her head down, watching Skae for his signal.
Skae tapped his wrist, and then nodded. Zee snaked through the grate and disappeared into the room above, but the HUD picked her up on the video feed of the drone inside.
Skae's short burst would momentarily overload the sensors of the Harvesters in the area, after which Zee would have seconds to plant the charges unobserved, and reach a place of hiding before they rebooted. If she was observed, they would likely sound an alert, in which case their options and chances of survival would decrease dramatically.
But there were few things she was aware of, few things organic, anyway, that could move as fast and with as much agility as a murial. Bex saw her fly and scurry about the room on her video feed, leaping up the long spider-like telescoping arms of the Harvesters, onto their backs, and placing a charge at the base of their sensor stalks, leaping and stretching the flaps of skin between her legs to gain more distance. There were six of the massive Harvesters in the killing floor, and after five seconds had registered on her HUD, Zee was already back down through the grate, and back onto Skae's shoulder.
Skae was watching Bex for the signal. Meanwhile, unaware that anything had transpired, the Harvesters returned to their grisly chore.
It ended now. Bex raised her hand, and then dropped it down.
And then Skae triggered the charges.