Dubious Honour - Part 1

Hello. Tonight I'm posting a short story set in my Legacy universe. The second half is coming next week. Enjoy!

Read Part 2 Here

Dubious Honour

Lachlan Marnoch, 2016

The dead ship hung in space, spinning slowly. With active surfaces disabled, its hull mirrored the distant stars perfectly. Even without stealth measures it was visible only by the constellations it altered as it passed before them, blotting stars out and replacing them with new ones. As it turned, however, the craft’s interior became visible, exposed by jagged sections of missing hull.  There were no sparking cables, no vapours leaking from smashed pipes. Just a broken eggshell.
       From the launch bay of the SDU Dubious Honour, Delton watched the incongruous opening draw closer as the Semartus ship matched the Supernought’s velocity. She floated in the airlock with a dozen other crewmembers, both Darax and Semartus, vacuum suits ready and sealed. They held themselves in place with handlebars on the ceiling, still and silent as their ship made its final approach. The craft drew up to a distorted doppelganger, the hard lines of the Dubious warped by the flowing shape of the broken ship. The airlock’s transparent doors slid aside. The indicator light in Delton’s heads-up display blinked yellow. She aimed her chest, from which sprouted the trunk of her arms, at the Nullartus ship.
       The crew waited, quiet, for the crack in the Supernought to complete its rotation and face them again. It appeared from the top, emerging from the patch of warped space like a sunrise in reverse.
         “On purple.”
        A heartbeat.
      The indicator light turned violet.Delton released her handlebars, fired a burst from her vacuum suit’s jets, and flew out of the launch bay. For a moment she was soaring through open space, bounded on every side by hard vacuum.
      Then she was inside the broken ship. She slowed herself with a burst from her retro jets, but misjudged and hit the deck a little too fast and at entirely the wrong angle. She bounced with a clatter that only she could hear, and swore violently, magnetising her feet before she could sail back into space. She fell back to the deck with a clunk.
      “Careful, Darax,” came the lieutenant’s voice through her helmet, as she landed gracefully beside her. “These suits aren’t cheap.”
     “Your mum is,” Delton grumbled. Then she opened a transmission channel. “Now what?”
      Lieutenant Norlyss transmitted to the captain, still aboard the Honour. "I noticed we're moving towards a large asteroid. Is that going to be a problem?"
      "Supernought should pass right by. I'll let you know if anything changes."
      The lieutenant addressed the whole crew as they landed around them. “Six through Thirteen, spread out and look for anything salvageable, just in case we can’t get this thing moving again. The rest, with me to the bridge. Let’s see if we can.”
     Four pairs of astronauts separated from the prime group to map the ship. Delton picked an apparently random direction, gestured to Neidia, her Semartus partner, and kicked off, floating parallel to the ship’s deck with help from her jets. First Nullartus ships, like this one, were designed with a much better-defined sense of up and down than Semartus or Darax craft. This ship had luxuries like floors and ceilings, rather than rooms that were all wall. This was a result of being designed around artificial gravity, the technology for which the Semartus-Darax Union still lacked (officially). However, once the ship’s Core had disconnected, its false mass had decayed swiftly, leaving only a hint of artificial gravity. And design that made sense when you could walk everywhere was less helpful when you had to rely on your skill as an astronaut. Delton proved this point when she entirely missed the doorway she intended to enter, having reached for handlebars that weren’t there. She magnetised again and clunked to the floor, jarring her three knees as she jerked to a halt. Nedia snickered. "All those extra arms and legs don't make you any more graceful, do they?" he said as he sailed smoothly through the same door.
     "Ask your sister," Delton retorted. "She liked them just fine."
     Neidia smiled behind his faceplate.
     It was a surprisingly neat derelict. For all its technological marvels it bore surprisingly little to stimulate the eyes. Mostly the interior remained the uniform pale grey that characterised First Nullartus architecture. Even in the shattered hull, there were no exposed power conduits, no shattered pipes, nothing to indicate that the ship’s functions did not run on magic. All such services were embedded microscopically in the ship’s surfaces, webs of metamaterial woven into every wall, floor and ceiling.
     "This ship is layered with technological wonders, things our ancestors never dreamed off,” said Neidia unprompted, the awe in his voice apparent. Delton grunted, considerably less impressed.
     Every here and there you could see the damage done by the Exodus attack, but there was surprisingly little of it. Shockingly little, actually. The ship shouldn’t have been disabled by the damage Delton could see. For a wrecked craft which had recently had a crew of hundreds, there were also very few bodies. None, in fact. The gash in the hull, through which the salvage crew had entered, might explain that, as the rapid decompression could have dragged the bodies into space. But the emergency reactive fields should have kicked in to contain the air; bulkheads should have closed to isolate the breach. None of this appeared to have happened; and the only explanation was that the Core had been disabled in the attack.
     Delton shot along the pristine corridors, Neidia close behind. Drawn to her field of expertise and the object of her hunch, she was searching for the Core chamber, where power was drawn from the Fratian field for the ship’s use. They had no knowledge of the ship’s layout, but she had a feeling that it would be somewhere toward the ship’s centre. She was proven correct when they stumbled upon a pentagonal chamber deep in the ship’s heart. She could see through the transparent door that it was occupied by a large, many-pronged apparatus that resembled Core-induction machinery. It was clearly broken, the Core socket empty and the clamps and delicate armatures torn from their hinges. Neidia knocked on the window. "How do we get in?" The chamber was sealed shut.
     Delton transmitted to the captain: “Twelve to Dubious Honour. I’ve got the Core room here, but I’m gonna need something heavier to get in there.” Her deep, almost infrasonic language was translated, by her suit's software, to something more audible to the Honour's Semartus captain.
     “Acknowledged, Delton. Don’t worry about the Core room. We’re already studying Core facilities from Defenders. Other tech is the priority.”
     Delton flinched in surprise. “But we've got nothing with this power. It can’t hurt to study a range of them.”
     “Leave it,” the captain commanded sharply. Delton opened her mouth to continue arguing. "Drop it, Delton," Neidia transmitted privately. She begrudgingly shut her mouth, then peered through the door. The grey was scarred black by an explosion, which was no mean feat given that FN materials had been known to survive stellar collisions. How in Attractor-damned space did that happen?
     “How precisely do you plan on booting this hunk with no power? Without a Core it can’t fly any better than a legless tree weasel.”
     “We certainly wouldn’t expect that of it,” replied the captain cryptically.
     A blackened hand landed on Neidia’s knee. He jerked it off with a shudder. Nullartus body parts, clad in armour, were floating freely in the nearby chambers.  Near the centre of the ship, some of the dead crew had apparently escaped being sucked out into space.
     “Twelve to Dubious Honour," Delton transmitted again.
     "What is it this time, Delton?"
     "I don't rightly like your tone, captain." Neidia groaned, and Delton got back to the point. "We've got plenty of FN armour floating around here, unless you’d rather not pick up any technological marvels.”
     “Acknowledged. See if you can gather a full suit for us. That alone would make this op worth it. Then you should get to the bridge. The action’s soon to start.”
     Neidia made an impressive sound that perfectly straddled the line between disgust and exasperation. "Never know when to keep quiet, do you?"
     "You can sure talk, Sergeant Hit-On-the-Captain's-Girlfriend."
     However Delton, too, instantly repented her words. Now it was their job to collect the once-living pieces of a Nullartus body. She launched herself after the gauntlet Neidia had brushed away.
     When a Nullartus died, the unseen forces holding its body together disappeared and, in zero gravity, its hands, feet, torso and would go about their own merry way. The imposing warriors in life fell apart comically in death. This had very obviously happened here. The two of them had to find all of the pieces, a grisly, mismatched jigsaw. Nullartus armour locked up harder than the quarks in a baryon, and wouldn’t unlock without the correct sequence of gravitational waves. So, to bring the armour back to the Honour, they would also have to bring back the body parts encased within, parts which may or may not have belonged to the same Nullartus. She wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse.
     "I think I'm starting to bud," she said conversationally as they chased around the disparate parts. Neidia grunted with disinterest. Delton continued anyway.
     "One of my sub-arms is really getting an itch. The Honour's esteren have been real busy late."
     Esteren, the bee-like creatures which were given a free run over every Darax ship, were crucial to the species' life cycle.
     "Can we talk about something else?"
     "Why? Does Darax reproduction bother you?" she challenged mockingly. "Specist."
     "No! It's the same with Semartus birth. It's all gross," he said, as he chased after a dismembered torso.
     "Yeah, well, by the time I've got a big fat Darax fruit hanging from my arm, you're gonna have to put up with it."
     "Stop it! Focus on the mission."
     "And you know once it's planted I expect you to help feed it."
     "Even I know the incubation chamber takes care of that," he said, a tad uncertainly. Then he paused thoughtfully. "Wonder who the father would be..."
     She snorted. "Maybe it's you!"
     "Is that... Possible?"
     "No, dumbass, of course it isn't. Esteren don't go near Semartus. You don't smell nice enough. Then there's the tiny matter of us not only being from separate species, not just being different in every conceivable way, including reproductive organs, but also having descended from separate origins of life! Did you pay zero attention in genetics?"
     "I liked the pictures."
     "As to the biological father, you know it matters none to us. Hell, I've probably fathered a dozen Darax myself without once knowin’. The esteren don't tell us much about who they pollinate."
     After chasing the limbless components around with a characteristic lack of finesse, she and Neidia finally ended up with a head, a torso, two hands and two feet between them. Delton looked at the head uneasily before she attached it to her belt; although the visor was reflective, the shape of the helmet gave the uncanny appearance of watching her.
     Delton could see the bridge from the purple lights in their HUD, concentrated a little forward of the exact centre, each one representing a crewmate. As the salvage crew had spread out, their map of the ship had filled in automatically, giving them a partial path to the bridge.
     "This way," Delton gestured.
     "What? No, back the way we came. We'll get lost that way, it's not mapped."
     "Pfft. Someone's gotta map it. If the ship's design is even a little consistent, this'll get us straight there,"
     Before Neidia had time to protest, she kicked off down the corridor.
     As she moved, trailing a grumbling Neidia along behind, she was deep in thought.
     "I haven't got a liking for this," she sent privately to her partner. "We're taking advantage of an attack on our best ally, just to harvest the debris,"
     "Not this again," Neidia moaned. "We knew what we were signing up for was a little shady."
     "A little shady? I feel like I'm rooting around in my best friend's grave to pawn his jewelry," she replied, pulling herself up a ladder.
     "Come on, it's not like that." He pushed himself from the floor and sailed past the ladder, twisted to catch himself on the ceiling, then kicked off the wall, pulling ahead. "They're centuries ahead of us technologically, and no matter how politely we asked, they never shared any of it voluntarily. With us, their best allies, in a massive interstellar war against an implacable enemy."
     "Didn't take us long to stop asking and start taking."
     "What they don't know won't hurt them. Right or left?"
     "Left. Sure, maybe. But there's somethin' else going on here. That Core was sabotaged, I'll bet my third leg on it. But Exodus can't do that,"
     He shrugged in midair. "Not as far as we know. Maybe it learnt. It was bound to get there eventually."
     "Maybe."
     She paused as she pushed herself off a wall and down a long corridor.
     "I'm not sayin' what we're doing here is wrong. That ain't my call. But I am saying that we should damn well know what's going on!"
     Nedia, too, was silent for a while.
     "This is an amazing opportunity. We've never captured a Supernought even close to intact before."
     "Opportunity? I dunno. We got here a little too quickly for my flavours. How did we know about it before they did?"
     "We got lucky."
     "Don't tell me you buy that."
     "Look, Delton, I don't get paid to ask questions. We just have to do as we're told and we'll be home before we know it."
     Neidia's words didn't do much to calm her. The more she thought about it, the less she liked what was happening here. She had made uneasy peace with the idea of taking advantage of Nullartus misfortune, for the greater good. But there was more to this. And she had every intention of finding out what.
     "Told you," she said, when they emerged from the corridor in sight of the bridge.
     "Yes, right as always," Neidia replied. But she wasn't paying much attention to his begrudging admiration. She shot ahead, through the open doors.
     The bridge was occupied by three of her Darax brethren and two of the more humanoid Semartus. Even here, there were no apparent controls or even screens, just blank walls and panels. As soon as she glided into the bridge, she opened a channel to the commanding officer.
     “Lieutenant, what in the black depths of a Tersec latrine is going on here?"
     Norlyss looked at her sharply. "Mind your tongue, engineer. This is a military operation and I expect nothing short of military discipline."
     Delton told her where to put her discipline in a creative invective that doesn't quite translate properly to English. "We saw the Core chamber," she said, thundering straight through her objections. "It’s still sealed faster than a sky clam's buttocks."
     "Don't bring me into this," said Neidia as he entered behind her. She ignored him.
     "It looks like the Core burst from the inside. We don't even know how to do that. As far as I know it could only have been the Limbless themselves, or..."
     She opened her hands, letting them go limp. "Or one of the Coordinators."
     The Semartus' eyes widened behind her faceplate. "That's enough, Darax!" The others in the bridge were turning towards them; although they couldn't hear the exchange, it was clear from their body language that it was heated. Maybe they should hear this, Delton thought, and surreptitiously opened a public channel.
     “And where is Exodus? If the Core was destroyed in the attack, the Nullartus would’ve all died instantly. That’s sure what looks like happened. But then Exodus shoulda occupied the ship.”
     "I said, THAT'S ENOUGH."
     There was something in her tone, and the way her hand was resting on her sidearm, that made Delton pay attention. The lieutenant lowered her voice again.
     “We’re not here to ask questions. We’re here to do our job.”
     "If I had a dollar," Delton's muttered, turning away.
     Two more Darax entered the bridge, pulling a large cubic case between them, at least two metres to a side. Behind them came another Semartus, who was fidgeting nervously with the fingers of his suit.
     "Alright, Delton, you're up."
     The Darax unfolded the case to reveal a shining, light-bending Core, complete with inducer. Delton just stared, astonished. "Where in all the galaxy's green assholes did you pull that from?"
     "It doesn't matter. I need you to plug it in."
     "Plug it in?" Delton was beginning to feel that this mission's briefing had been woefully inadequate. "To what?"
     "You tell me. You're the expert. We just need to get this thing up and running."
     Delton grumbled. "Plug it in, she says. It's not that simple. The Core chamber is busted, and that's the best connection to the power grid. There are probably secondary sockets, but damn me if I know where. And we sure as a headless spider is dull aren't getting full power that way."
     "Alright, alright. Captain?"
     "You can tell Delton that there is probably a secondary socket to the bridge's port. That is, if she can tell her right from her left,"
     Delton bristled. "Now you can tell the cap, I might have more arms than brains, but at least I never tried taking off with the hand-brake on."
     "That was one time!"
     "Alright, shut up, both of you! Delton, we do not have infinite time here. Get this thing going, now."
     Delton felt along the floor at the bridge's rear, using the pan-spectrum scanner in her visor to look for the socket. It didn't penetrate far in the dense material, but it was enough to find the socket's hollow lurking beneath the deck. How can they have possibly known that?
     "Right then, bring that here."
     The two other Darax pushed the Core towards her, and she guided it into place above the invisible hollow. As though by magic, the floor slid aside in a pentagonal iris, revealing the waiting socket.
     "Alright, now listen here," Delton transmitted privately to Neidia as she worked to connect the inducer to the socket. "There's a couple'a things that don't properly add up. They knew the ship's Core was going to be disabled. Otherwise they wouldn't o' known to bring this one along. They planned this whole shebang around it. But how could they possibly know? Exodus has never done it before."
     Neidia's exasperated sigh had a slightly more thoughtful tone this time. Delton plowed on.
     "Now, the only thing that makes sense in this contraption," she continued, tapping her helmet, "is that whoever's callin' the shots is in contact with a Coordinator,"
     "A Coordinator? You're crazy."
     The Coordinators were ancient artificial intelligences, each of whom commanded one of the seven mysterious Seedworlds - along with the fleet of automated Defenders that protected it. They had failed in their task centuries ago when Exodus first conquered them, and once liberated they had been chomping at the bit to help destroy the intelligence that had so humiliated them. The Coordinators had an unpredictable mix of sympathies, and didn't always get along with each other. But they did show a certain affinity for vulnerable, intelligent life, and, aside from the Omega Coordinator, a wariness of their overbearing Nullartus allies.
     "Who else would have the know-how and the propensity to pull this off?"
     "So you're saying... We did this?"
     Delton manipulated the Core's controls and snapped it into place.
     "I didn't do a thing. But yes, Command and a Coordinator have to have planned this together."
     Delton's switched the Core inducer on, allowing it to feed a little power to the socket. When nothing exploded, she stepped back and switched to a public channel. "Good to go."
     Lieutenant Norlyss turned to the other engineers. "Power it up."
     Two Darax and one Semartus busied themselves at the controls, stimulating the featureless panels with various instruments. Suddenly, the entire bridge lit up, aglow with displays and dials. Delton checked the inducer. "The socket's got capacity for 20% of the ship's optimum."
     Norlyss nodded. "We can do without life support and weapons, and we don't need artificial gravity. Is 20% enough for us to move without those systems?"
     Speak for yourself. Delton nodded. "We won't be breakin' any records, but it should be OK to limp home."
     Without a word of thanks, Norlyss turned to the fidgety Semartus.
"Your turn, Elya." Elya started, then nodded.
     First Nullartus craft were piloted via neural link, with the pilots experiencing their ships as an extension of their own bodies. Elya had been augmented with neural implants especially for this mission. Apprehension showed through his body language despite the vacuum suit. Delton didn’t blame him.
     “Be careful," the captain interjected. "Our neural tech is a little unrefined compared to the FN, and the ship will be calibrated for a Nullartus brain.
     The pilot paused. “Aren’t our brains basically the same?”
     “Well, yeah, in theory. But we modified ourselves thousands of years ago; our species might have changed in ways we haven’t thought of. And, again, we don’t have the same level of neural cybernetics, which is packed into their brains like bacteria in a rotten egg. What you’ve got is basically a wooden stake where they have scalpels. But, yeah, good luck.”
      He didn’t look terribly comforted. "It might have been nice to know that before I volunteered." Nonetheless, he approached the panels at the front of the room.
     "Alright, making handshake now."
     He was silent for a tense moment, sweat dripping audibly down his forehead.
     "I'm connected."
     He and everyone else breathed a sigh.
"Ok, Elya. Good job. Run some diagnostics, see what we can get running."
     Elya pointed and waved his fingers in the air, like he was interacting with a hologram display, which probably wasn't strictly necessary. It seemed, however, to help him deal with the unusual sensation of an interface projected straight into his sensory cortices.
     "Shouldn't we have more of me?" he said as he worked. "This ship is meant to have a crew of hundreds."
     "Just over a thousand. But our understanding is that they're mostly redundant. The ship's AI can take care of basic function. It just needs a pilot to power it up and make important decisions. We're not going to be flying it in combat."
     Their communications suddenly filled with static. Or what sounded like static.
     “That's an Exodus transmission! Cut off all coms, now!” screamed the lieutenant. Delton obeyed swiftly, as did the others. But Elya, responsible for the Supernought's communications array as well as his suit's, was too slow. His suit went haywire, firing his navigation jets in all directions. Delton could see him silently screaming inside as he bounced around. Then, as the program that had taken over the suit became accustomed to its new home, it jetted straight toward Delton, accelerating the flailing Semartus at a terrifying speed. She dodged, but he clipped her rear leg and sent her spinning away. With something resembling purpose, the pilot's suit shot out the bridge door and down the corridors of the Supernought. Delton kicked after him, weaving through the Nullartus hallways, not waiting to see if anyone followed. She almost caught him, but then Elya blew out of the gaping wound in the Supernought's side and into space.
     He wasn't alone out there.
     Delton reversed her jets, scrabbling desperately for a handhold. She found it just prior to leaving the ship's confines, and magnetised herself to the ragged edge.
     A mechanically sinuous form had appeared there, looming towards Elya from the depths of space. A Defender.
"Stars blast it!" Delton swore to herself. The enormous automaton, like a miniature version of the Supernought, paused over Elya's flailing body, peering down its nose at him. The Honour was nowhere to be seen. There had been no warning of a Defender approaching; the Semartus captain must have seen it coming and bailed after the Exodus jamming started. Oh captain, my captain.
     Delton decided to risk a communication. Transmit-only, in case Exodus was still shooting takeover messages around. She beamed the signal inwards, away from the Defender, so that hopefully it wouldn't catch it.
     “We’ve got Defenders inbound. Everyone do your best rock impressions."
     A second Defender suddenly rose silently past the hole. Delton flicked off her coms and did her best to look both dead and Limbless, which was difficult without committing to the role (even then, cutting off her multiple, branching limbs would compromise the vacuum suit, unleashing the high temperatures inside and somewhat giving away the game).
     The Defender's hull was flowing and wave-like, turning downward into a beak-like nose at the front. Its wing was marked with a bulbous Ω. Delton groaned inwardly. Omega Defenders.
     The bizarre politics between the Seedworld Coordinators and the First Nullartus were a mystery to Delton, but she did know that the symbol meant absolute loyalty to the First Nullartus. That was bad news, given that they were effectively performing an act of piracy.
     After what Exodus had done to their worlds, the Coordinators had been more than happy to devote their Defenders to the war. But they were hardwire-limited to one million each, and six million Defenders was a drop in the sea against an Exodus that had already shown itself adept at defeating them. That changed after Omega was discovered. The Battle of Seedworld Omega had awakened something, a Coordinator with no limitations in terms of military strength.
The Omega Coordinator seemed to be equal parts military commander, engineer, and miner. It was freely able to open wormholes to other systems in search of raw materials for its factories. It could even move entire stars. While the other Coordinators were essentially confined to tending their own Seedworlds, the OC had far wider interests. Also, while the other six AI giants were wary, even somewhat resentful, of the First Nullartus, Omega was totally loyal to them, as though grateful to at last flex its extensive manufacturing capabilities. Seedworld Omega was one big factory, and once it was reactivated it began churning out Defenders and Supernoughts in the billions.
     The SDU had studied Defenders for some time, and knew their routine. The machines would collect data passively at first, filtering through every wavelength of the electromagnetic, neutrino and gravitational spectrums. Then they would bombard any suspicious objects with carefully selected frequencies to see how they responded. All information would then be relayed to the Defenders’ respective Coordinator, in this case Omega, to decide what action should be taken.
     The crew's SDU environment suits were designed to prevent any spurious emissions, hopefully making the boarding party seem like non-living objects to the Defender sensors; however, the sophisticated drones were more than capable of recognising visible shapes. The unexplained presence of Semartus and Darax bodies in the wreckage of a destroyed First Nullartus Supernought had to set off some kind of alarm. And Elya was making no attempt to remain still; although the Exodus program seemed to have abandoned his suit, he was still squirming incriminatingly.
     Both Defenders turned their attention to the ship, leaving the helpless Semartus to drift away. They swept over the Supernought, leaving Delton's sightline. She leapt back into action, bending her knees to prepare to push off after Elya.
     A hand suddenly gripped her arm. She turned to see that Nedia had followed her. She tried to shake him off, but he shook his head.
     Then, without warning, one of the Defenders came careening past the hole again, firing gravitational wave cannons over the Supernought's spine. Pursuing it came a swarm of angular, spider-like craft. Neidia relaxed his grip and stared, wide-jawed. Exodus, he mouthed.
     The Exodus Avatars fired warheads, ducking and weaving around the Defender's heavy weaponry. One of the missiles made contact, shattering and spraying glittering dust over the drone. As Delton watched, the Defender's skin began to etch away at the point of impact. The drone rose away, and Exodus chased after it, attempting to flank.
     The way was clear to Elya. Although his suit was no longer actively trying to kill him, it wasn't responding to him, either, meaning it was up to Delton to collect him. So long as he wasn't torn to shreds by an errant g-wave before she reached him.
     She crouched again, looking back at Neidia.
     Don't even think about it, his eyes said. She spread her arms, the Darax equivalent of a shrug, and kicked off.
     Once again she found herself in open space. She fired her jets to maximum acceleration, burning after Elya's dwindling form.
     They were in interstellar space, so there was only distant starlight to mitigate the vast emptiness. Elya himself resembled a dim, terrified star, growing slowly larger as Delton caught up. For several minutes there was only silence. Then, as she approached, she fired her retro jets, extending her three arms to grab him. She came in a little too fast and slammed into him, spinning them both out. She realigned herself with her jets and came in a little more cautiously, taking him by the hand. Then she thrust towards the ship, enough to decelerate them back to stationary.
     Something bad was unfolding at the Supernought, now several thousand metres distant. It was drifting closer and closer to the hulking asteroid. Swarms of arachnoid craft were pouring from the big rock's craters, streaming towards the Supernought and assaulting the Defenders. The two drones were swivelling to meet them, firing their own reality-tearing projectiles.
     Exodus was hiding in the asteroid, Delton realised. This was a trap.
     The Defenders' gravitational waves swept Avatars to fragments, but the swarm was swift and cunning, outmanoeuvring the two drones. Some closed the gap and started latching onto their reflective hulls. The Defenders started shooting at each other as well as at the swarm, precisely skimming their skins to knock the Avatars off. It wouldn't work forever; already pieces of Defender were floating away as Exodus chewed into them. Dubious Honour was still missing.
     Delton ran some calculations through her suit, then waved her hand in front of Elya's faceplate. She pointed to the ship, now resembling an angry beehive, then at her head. His eyes stared wide and uncomprehending. Sighing, she risked switching on her coms in a private channel. Hopefully Exodus was too busy fighting the Defenders to hijack them again. "Can you fly the ship from out here?"
     He tilted his head, staring into emptiness, then nodded frantically. "I still have contact with the computer, I just needed to be on the bridge to initiate it. What are you thinking?"
     She began thrusting away from the ship again, as fast as she could without tearing Elya's arm off.
     "Bring it towards us. Get it up to around 100 metres per second."
     "Ow! Seriously?"
     "Just do it. We're gonna need all the headstart we can get on those things,"
     Elya nodded, and his eyes went unfocused as his optical cortex received inputs from multiple other sources.

A hologram appeared on the bridge, startling the already thoroughly panicked salvage crew. "Strap yourselves in," it said.

As Delton watched, the Nullartus ship rotated, without any visible means of propulsion, pointing its nose straight at them. The duelling drones must have noticed, but were too engaged with their own furious battle to bother about it.
      "Are you sure about this?"
     "Yes! Do it!"
     "Just... Ok, but fair warning, my control over the ship isn't quite perfect!"
     Even at 20%, the Supernought accelerated with a hell of a kick, shuddering into movement that didn't quite match the smoothness of its little brothers. A cluster of Avatars peeled off after it, while the majority stayed on the still-kicking Defenders.
     "Good! Now spin it so that that dirty great hole is pointing at us. Don't slow down."
     "What!? You're nuts!"
     "Just do it! And tell me the speed." She never stopped thrusting.
     The rapidly growing Supernought rotated again, presenting the entry wound to the floating pair of astronauts. "113.5 metres per second."
     "That's... Fine. This is fine."
     "You can't match that, we'll be crushed!"
     "I don't have to," she said. Hopefully.
      She continued to thrust away from it, approaching speeds that would make a falcon jealous. But the Supernought was moving faster. Like a great fish chasing its prey, its gaping mouth came upon them.
      "Don't you dare twitch," she warned the pilot, as she turned her feet towards the ship and magnetised them.
      When it met them, the Supernought was travelling 30 metres per second faster than the two. But Delton's three legs, evolved to withstand shock in the high gravity of Daraxus, and further adapted to her even higher-gravity homeworld of Trailmix, met the wall and bore the brunt of deceleration. Even so, she felt the bones in the branches of her third leg snap, with extraordinary pain. She screamed a number of expletives that revealed several surprising facts about the origin of the Universe and the nature of spacetime.
      "You're Attractor-damned insane!" gasped the winded Elya, who had been cushioned by her arms, as he too thudded to the wall.
     "Yes she bloody is!" shouted Nedia, who had been watching the whole thing. "You don't think we could have used a little more warning before you blasted us towards you?"
     "I'll give you warning, you..."
     To precisely translate what came next would be impolite, but it involved questioning the state of several of Neidia's internal organs, and those of his relatives. Then her suit's painkillers kicked in, and she sighed in sudden relaxation. 
     "Come on, we have to get to the bridge."
     "Just... Woah. Just a sec."

Read Part 2 Here

[For the benefit of Earth-based readers, when translating this story Delton's idioms were converted into the equivalent English speech]

By 243_ida.jpg: NASA/JPL derivative work: Chzz ► (243_ida.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By 243_ida.jpg: NASA/JPL derivative work: Chzz ► (243_ida.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons