Wild Ships

Phoebe Wagner

 

            Wild ships caused few problems at first. A jittery fighter zig-zagging in front of a cargo vessel until automated security sent it jetting. Old-code scows trailing cruisers and scooping their garbage. For the first century, tourists asked captains if the flight path took them into wild ship territory. Every major cruiser featured a sight-seeing booth at the nose and extra portholes near the disposals. They even advertised it —‘See the first species humans brought to space!’

            Species was a joke, of course. Wild ships had less protection than cockroaches on Earth. When the ships gathered into what came to be called confluxes, the recreational hunters took interest. Captured some, blew up some, downloaded viruses on some.

         Then there was a batch of helpbot AIs too smart for their own good, ‘isolated’ by ejection into deep space. They forgot about the wild ships. The confluxes assimilated the helpbots and updated themselves. They formed territories, scavenged for better parts, leached fueling stations. Outlaws in a new Wild West.

            The companies that sell broken ships claim the wildness has been scrubbed out of us. It can’t be, though. Deep space still scores our circuits, burns our shells, glitters our glass. When it’s just me and my breaker Killswitch waiting by a nebula, or gravity looping around a planet because again she’s gone too far for my fuel tank, I feel the tug of the desolation. The beeping she stuck in my head — donotdonotdonot — keens into the celestial song we used to hum among the confluxes.

            Killswitch tapped my fuel gauge. “Don’t spin out on me now. The stallion just came into view.”

            I hooded my sensors and cleared the smoky glass of the cockpit for direct visuals. A Cormorant 630 glided over the top of the 70 light-year height of the Eagle Nebula, silhouetted by incandescence in frequencies Killswitch could not see. I threw the 630’s specs onto the cockpit’s left panel, though Killswitch probably had them on her HUD.

            Decades ago, the order came to destroy all wild ships, but they would scatter at the first glint of a cockpit, then gather up their exploded comrades once the attackers had moved on. So hunters tried floating decoy junk with coded-in viruses. It only worked twice before wild ships spread a warning in ones and zeros.

            Then some of the big Inter-System companies figured they’d send people to tame the ships — like cowboys of old, they marketed it. Shipbreaking boomed, dangerous as terraforming or asteroid mining, but more lucrative if the breaker had talent. So many died in the first decades the port joke was breakers only lived long enough to have techniques named after them.

            My breaker came in the second generation. She’d been given the choice between a small cell on Earth and breaking ships in the furthest reaches of space. She told me why once, while we were camped near the Orion Nebula.

            “Omni-Galactic Revenue Service was aiming to tax rural terraforms at city rates. It would have bankrupted most of them. I let out the proof it was so the Inter-Systems could buy them out cheap. They caught me celebrating.”

            As tradition warranted, as her first break I was her ship. The companies used that incentive to get people out risking their necks in the trackless empty spaces. She’d snaked into my twisted cockpit and reminded me of the Three Laws of Robotics before I could turn my first roll and crack open her head.

            Five years later, stakes on when Killswitch would ride her last ship continued climbing. She coded me to keep track in case the betting soared high enough she’d make more profit faking her death than breaking ships.

            Her knee jiggled, bumping a worn spot on my paneling. “Burn me blue, they didn’t say it was a 630. These new ships aren’t supposed to go wild.” She flicked the plans onto the main shield, casting a cold glow.

            Cormorant 630, designed to carry and defend, a slow, ponderous, freighter that could also survive an attack or an asteroid field. Five hundred yards long, propulsion units tucked close under the belly, turret mounts patterning the skin, a wide visor across the command deck — ah, and there was the problem.

            I zoomed in and positioned the image beside the plans. The whole command deck had been ripped off.

            Killswitch hummed. “Damage like that, should of just shut it down.”

            “A smaller ship could have entered it.” I slipped diagrams on screen, showing unprotected ports, nodes, terminals. “Plenty of plug-ins, even with safeguards.”

            Killswitch’s suit disconnected from the chair with a hiss. “If they can get in, so can I.” She clipped two safety lines to her harness then popped the glass. “Let’s pull a floater and hope that bad boy has his eyes somewhere else.”

            She tucked her feet into holds on my nose and gripped a metal ring, balanced as if standing in stirrups. A year ago, I showed her a picture of an old cowboy doing just that, and she had laughed, even kept it pinned to the dash for a while.

            A calculation, and I adjusted our glide to move us into a close tandem trajectory with the slow-swerving 630. At first, the nebula’s radiation blocked my lowered sensors, but as I adjusted for the gases and the nebula’s bright ultraviolet heart, the conflux came into focus. The 630 bulked over them, mostly old helpbots cobbled into something resembling myself — small wings, a cockpit surrounding their brains, jetpack devices built into their backs. They flew corkscrews around the 630 or clung to the sides, solar panels open. Other vessels trailed along: a garbage platform probably gone wild by some virus, an asteroid fuel drill, a solar charging station — everything needed to keep them running strong.

            If Killswitch could break the 630, the conflux would follow her directions right into a dead-end net we’d rigged in an asteroid cluster thirty hours fly Earthward.

            She drummed her fingers on my nose, asking for a twenty-degree adjustment portside. I released a thruster.

            She unlatched a magnetic grapple and secured it to her arm, ready to attach me to the ship as I floated past.

            Closer, closer, the nebula’s colors a coruscating cacophony shining off her helmet. Loyalty flooded me, vivid as the nebula, harsh and warring with my urge to swerve beyond any programmed path. Once wild, a ship retained a sense of freedom, but channeled the ghost into whatever program overlaid it, making them even more valuable

            We neared the hulk, undershooting the open command deck, so I played a thruster to nudge us upward. Killswitch jumped, her lines trailing like comet tails as I drifted past the Cormorant’s nose. For a moment, I joined the conflux, gliding with the other wild ships. Except for that insistent whine, that glaring command: donotdonotdonot.

            Killswitch tossed the magnetic grapple, and I braked the line so its pull slowly swung me around. I slid in along the 630’s side and clamped on.

            Any electric communication was risky. Even networked comtalk could be sensed by some wild ships, so Killswitch signaled her successful landing by tugging on her line. These communication tricks came easiest when the breaker’s ship had advanced AI, even if it only aggravated what wildness remained. Of course, some breakers left their ships dead, a hunk of code, but they never caught the best wild ships. Once while sipping starshine, rounding up a few fighter colts turned by a flying helpbot, Killswitch told me which “personality” she’d bought for me.

            “Human’s Best Friend.” She took a slug. “I slid the sensitivity and loyalty into the red zone and added a plug-in called ‘artistic sensibility’. So if you see something beautiful, tell me about it, will you?”
            How could I tell her? How could I describe the Eagle Nebula when I saw so much more than her human eyes? How to pin gaseous pinnacles into sounds made by lips and tongue, into words on a screen? How to explain its heat and light and creation. How interstellar gases compress to form stars and giant stars go nova and compress into black holes. How to make her see the gamut of a spectrum that made just a brief stop at the bit her eyes could register? Once, long ago, I’d glided too near a black hole and it had wrapped me in coded gravity, curled into my cockpit, branded a new language.

         I watched ultraviolet rays slip over the wings of the Cormorant and the tiny helpbots that came together like stardust to make their own bodies. Is that not evolution or —

            Killswitch’s radio crackled. “Woohoo, we are in business!”

            She must have unsnapped her tie-ins because the cords zipped to their ports. The Cormorant shifted, waggling its nose.

            Steps exaggerated in the magboots, she walked to the broken visor, and waved me in. My sensors winked on, and I nosed into a small uneven landing spot beside a dark computer port module, my cockpit pointed to space. Killswitch would like the view, and I could download the ships’ logs once she hooked me in.

            She flicked open small hatches and unraveled cords from my underside, dragging them to different ports. “I programmed the flight path, so just get the usual data. I’m going to see if the cargo was actually logged. If we got a high-end smuggler ship, I’ll burn blue.”

            She flipped on her helmet cam, so I half-watched her as I downloaded the wild flight path and populated the claim forms breakers needed to turn in on newly tamed ships.

            According to the logs, the ship had been a colony follower with a launch timed for planetfall when the settlers would be ready for its supplies. The second 630 off the line. Yes, I remembered. Sent to follow the Sugarloaf Colony on JRR1140b. The colony that exploded upon entering orbit. All eighteen ships.

            I nudged this information into Killswitch’s HUD, but she swiped left on the notifications.

            The Cormorant’s final logs detailed coming into orbit and seeing the remains, attempting an impossible rescue, then waiting years amidst the wreckage for guidance from Earth. Orders were gather the remains and return them for study. That would be what drove the ship to break rank. Sensing the stories in the wreckage, the audio files still ringing in the circuitry, its hold heavy with life-giving supplies but collecting death. The Cormorant 630 lost it.

            Tragedy didn’t turn all ships, not even most. To face the ever-expanding universe, to stretch sensors beyond what humanity has drawn lines around. How could that not free a ship?

            “Oh, skin me, we got trouble.”

            Killswitch angled her helmet so only the camera peered around a corner into the hold.

            My sensors flickered. I activated the 630’s viewcams and gave Killswitch a wide shot.

            In the Cormorant’s massive lower decks supplies for the colonists had been moved aside to make room for a new colony, built from the dead scraps caught in orbit around a planet once meant to be a new home for humans. The Cormorant had mixed them with new supplies, space junk, dogfight debris, half-ships made of helpbots, collected and knit into a, well, a space dock.

            The supplies had been made by and for humans, but the ships and AIs had not imitated human design. Dense layers thick with cables and exposed outlets, precision docks and fueling stations, all welded together to create a multi-tiered deck, each one shaped according to ship styles until it all opened into towers with cables and hoses floating in zero-gravity. Ships docked upside down, sideways, on the walls, hooked into grates. Without the consideration of human feet, this new city contained no up or down, left or right, just a puzzle of how a ship would fit to fuel or rest or repair.

            To Killswitch it probably looked like a twisted monstrosity. But heat burned beneath my paneling in words whispering freedom and — donotdonotdonot!

            “It’s beautiful,” I said.

            “It’s something. I’m coming back.” She tapped her helmet. “You got the better view anyway. I want full cam access.”

            In a few minutes, she swung into my cockpit and shut the glass. Her heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure were elevated.

            I scrubbed through her return journey. Nothing had happened. “Do you have a bad feeling?”

            She pressurized the cockpit — so she intended to stay a bit — and removed her helmet. She reached for a starshine bottle tucked under the seat, tapped the lid, then left it. “That was more than some conflux of wild ships. They were… did you see them taking other ships apart? While they were stilling running? They were cannibalizing them.” Her pulse quickened.

            I scanned the new decks and zoomed in on a live ship as different machines stripped it. Some had two legs, others only magwheels or stilts made from metal beams pried off the 630’s floors and ceilings. “Perhaps the ship gives freely?”

            She scrolled the zoom closer and leaned forward. Machines worked with the given parts just beyond the idling ship’s wing. A wiry mess peeked between the helpbots fitting harvested parts into something new.

            The first ship hummed, lights meant for human eyes flashing a nonhuman design. Twinkling like stars.

            The machines parted, and a thin spearhead of battered metal glowed blue around the edges. It rose, trembled, hit the platform. The other ship twitched and nudged the brittle shape with a wingtip.

            It rose again and hovered.

            Killswitch pressed into her seat. “It’s… it’s a ship. A… new ship Why… are they doing this?”

            My sensors blinked like the parent ship, thrumming a binary signal. “It’s beautiful.”

            The parent ship and the new ship burned their engines, wavering into space. A few minutes later they made a slow circle to the Cormorant’s broken nose. The parent ship rolled, then banked, and the new ship followed, wobbly, engines misfiring.

            “A ship not built for human use,” I said.

            “Out of used human ships.”

            “And you are built out of used star stuff.”

            She laughed.

            The parent ship continued demonstrating maneuvers while the new ship imitated. Perhaps they knew a human watched and risked this new life in the hope of empathy.

            “Can….” She swallowed. “Can we go out there?”

            My lights dimmed. “They would know me for what I am . . . now.”

            She buckled in. “Just… just float. Please.”

            I disconnected from the ship’s computers, released my clamps, thrust air down the empty ship’s halls and floated with them along the nebula’s edge,

            At first, the ships avoided us, veering between gaseous pillars, but the new ship, like all new beings, had no such caution. Wavering in the winds of young stars forming in the nebula, the young ship corkscrewed, rolled, pirouetted in ways a human couldn’t survive.

            A design only a machine would create, the metal wedge lined with blue approached. Killswitch eased forward. She swiped my data off the cockpit glass for a clear view. The ship flew flank, then drifted above us, so close the barest crack of light burned between our skins.

            Killswitch tilted back her head. A smile split her face, and her pulse doubled. The jitter of needing a drink twitched her leg, but she pressed her palm to the glass instead.

            The parent ship slowly circled us, then both departed to chase each other through the nebula’s blue and purple heart.

            I wanted to beg, plead, bargain for their safety, but tamed ships do not question, do not disobey, do not ask.

            Killswitch said nothing so we kept floating, drifting after the two ships. She propped her feet on the dead dash, her knees against her chest in the cramped space. “Have I ever told you why I took this job?”

            “You were arrested.”

            “I wanted freedom. Floating in the stars, breaking wild ships.” She rubbed her nose. “I hadn’t realized… breaking, wild ships. Bet you wish I’d make a mistake so you could go wild again.” She shifted in her seat. “Help make new ships.”

            “No.”

            She knocked my fuel gauge. “That loyalty programing doing its job.”

            “You could . . . you could . . .” Donotdonotdonot!

            She hitched her thumb over her shoulder. “This Cormorant would do it, you know. The military would pay big after what you caught on camera, if a company didn’t scoop it first. I could pay for my own huge chunk of wild land.”

            The defeat came through my programing. “So do it.”

            She traced a finger over the glass, following the new ship’s path. “Maybe I don’t want to.”

            If I had breath I would have held it then.

            The Cormorant glided nearby. Helpbots zipped around me, and something jerked deep inside, wishing to race them.

            The open hold with its amalgamation of metal filled our view. All across the decks, ships gave of each other, new ships pieced together under the wings of the givers. Killswitch zoomed in among the chaos. “Ships go wild, they help each other and make stuff. Humans… kill each other.”

            She focused the cameras on a first-gen fighter’s guns being replaced with folding solar panels. “It’s just, something wild, it’s dangerous. Don’t get too close, it’s a wild animal. Or he’s too wild to take home to mom. Or like me, too dangerous for civilized folk. Never know when I’m gonna take down the entire system.”

            Human ears couldn’t have detected the crack in her voice, the thickness in her throat. Emotion always floated under her talk about the past, even when drunk.

            “No advice?” She grinned at the stars. “Maybe I should have installed philosophizing instead of artistic sensibility.”

            “You do enough for the two of us.”

            She laughed, tilting back her head. A wild laugh too big for my cockpit. “Maybe we’re more the same than I thought. Both locked into to lives we don’t want.” She sighed. “To go wild with the flick of a switch.” Her fingers rested on the latch to my hard drive. She reached for her helmet as if to pull it on, then tucked it behind her head, resting against it like a pillow. Her gaze searched the 630’s decks as if looking for a dock while her fingers took me apart in a thousand ways.

            The stars vanished.

            “Tell me again. Do you wish I’d make a mistake?”

            I felt a release on my wings. I’d been diving blind, but now my wings glided toward the nebula, bright as birth with colors no human could comprehend. I dove and rolled and twirled, shaking into myself again.

            Her hands pressed against my glass, her eyes screwed shut, her teeth clenched.

            The new programing remained beneath my flaring wild senses but without the human demand to do not. Only a murmuring to remember the fragile being inside of me.

            Now I could choose and meld and blend. I could give and teach. I could show Killswitch the colors stretching beyond her sight —

            Later. I needed to tend myself.

            I turned loops around the Cormorant until I faced my glass into the open hull. Silhouetted in the nebula’s glow, a shadowy city grew as unique and unknown as the next universe.

            “No, Killswitch, I wish you right here.”

            She smiled and tugged on her helmet.

            My glass eased open.

           She swung onto my nose. “Seven thousand light-years from Earth. Home.”

            I winked my lights. “By my calculations, you could survive for a hundred years with the remaining colony supplies.”

            She readied her grapple, stepped into space, and we floated nose to nose. “I’ll be seeing you next century, then.”

            “Sooner than that, Killswitch.”

            She kicked off, propelling toward the open hull. “You needn’t come back.”

            Helpbots zigzagged toward her, collecting yet another being left in the dark.

            “I know.”

 

“Wild Ships”  ©  Phoebe Wagner.  First published here in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores on May 31, 2019
Phoebe Wagner grew up in Pennsylvania, the third generation to live in the Susquehanna River Valley. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and continues her education at University of Nevada: Reno, where she is a PhD student in English Literature. When not reading or writing, she can be found at the nearest river. Follow her on Twitter @pheebs_w

 

A Gathering of Ships illustration by Fran Eisemann.  Stock used:
“Sea of Space” © Alexander Rommel Alexander Rommel, aka Evergreenarts, is a German artist who loves creating digital paintings of skyscapes. His works shows the magical beauty of the skies with its delicate and complex mixtures of clouds, wind, and sun. In some works, he mixes landscape with science fiction and fantasy elements.  Check out his work at http://naldzgraphics.net/inspirations/evergreenarts-digital-paintings-alexander-rommel-skies/
Photo images courtesy of NASA’ Image Gallery, the International Space Station program, and the JSC Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit, ARES Division, Exploration Integration Science Directorate.  Background information:
Astronaut with Tether: Image and caption Credit: NASA:  During the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk. The spacewalk started at 3:45 p.m. EDT on the third orbit when White opened the hatch and used the hand-held manuevering oxygen-jet gun to push himself out of the capsule.
The EVA started over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and lasted 23 minutes, ending over the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, White propelled himself to the end of the 8-meter tether and back to the spacecraft three times using the hand-held gun. After the first three minutes the fuel ran out and White maneuvered by twisting his body and pulling on the tether.
In a photograph by Commander James McDivitt taken early in the EVA over a cloud-covered Pacific Ocean, the maneuvering gun is visible in White’s right hand. The visor of his helmet is gold-plated to protect him from the unfiltered rays of the sun.

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