io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is "Nightside on Callisto" by Linda Nagata. Enjoy!
Top image via NASA.
Nightside on Callisto
by Linda Nagata
A faint, steady vibration carried through the igloo's massive ice walls-a vibration that shouldn't have been there. Jayne heard it in her sleep. Age had not dulled her soldier's reflexes, honed by decades spent on watch against incursions of the Red. Her eyes snapped open. She held her breath. The vibration hummed in the walls, in the bed frame, in the mattress, perceivable even over Carly's raspy breathing.
Jayne reminded herself that the Red was far, far away, its existence bound to Earth, where it bled through every aspect of life-a relentless tide of information and influence shepherding the thoughts and actions of billions along paths determined by its unknowable goals. Whether the Red was alive, or aware, Jayne couldn't say, and she had no opinion either on its virtue. She only wanted to keep it out of the Shell Cities. Most of her life had gone to the long defense of their growing union, an association of scattered orbital habitats determined to stay free of the Red. But in retirement, Jayne had found new opportunities.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, her team of four had touched down on Callisto, Jupiter's outermost Galilean moon and the only one that lay beyond the gas giant's killing radiation belts. A raft of construction equipment had preceded them, including a gang of ten small mechs that had assembled a sprawling igloo in time for them to move in. It was the team's task to establish a prototype ice-mining station to supply the expansion of the Shell Cities.
Maybe the vibration was generated by some new construction activity at the launch rail? Probably that was it. But "probably" never was a sufficient explanation. Jayne slipped out from under the shared blanket, careful not to wake Carly, who'd crawled into bed just an hour ago. Each team member worked a staggered, twelve-hour shift. Jayne had taken the first rotation, and her night was almost through.
The air-skin membrane lining the walls and the ceiling sensed her movement and responded with a glimmer of vague gray illumination. Jayne stood up slowly on sleep-stiffened limbs. A century of existence had left her thin and tough and inclined to feel cold, so over a foundation of thermal underwear she added insulated slacks, a pullover of the same material, thin gloves for her hands, and cozy house boots for her feet-one more layer in the cocoon that protected them from the cold and vacuum beyond the igloo's walls.
Jayne knew with utter certainty that they were alone in Jupiter system. The Red could not be here-the lightspeed lag in information flow kept it confined near Earth-and no other expedition had ventured so far in years. So their team was on its own, with no backup if something went wrong-which was why the four of them had been awarded this project: They were each experienced, competent, and expendable.
The bedchamber was sealed off from the rest of the igloo by an air-skin lock. Jayne touched the membrane. It felt smooth and hard beneath her gloved hand, but when she swept her fingers across it, the skin lock responded, pulling aside in neat, glassy ripples.
Massive blocks of ancient ice made up the igloo's walls and ceiling, insulating the interior spaces from background radiation, but it was the air-skin that made the igloo habitable. A semi-intelligent, quasi-living tissue, the skin lined every chamber, locking in pressure, and providing heat and fresh air. If perforated, it would self-seal, and its motility allowed it to repair even major tears.
Jayne stepped past the plastic-panel door into a central alcove with toilets and showers on either side. Two steps ahead, a lock on the right stood open to the easy room with its cushy inflatable furnishings, food stores, and oven, while on the left, another open lock hooked up to HQ, where the work was done. Jayne heard Berit speaking. She couldn't make out the words, but Berit's sharp, angry tone confirmed Jayne's first suspicion: Something had gone wrong.
Jayne resisted the impulse to sprint into HQ. Age and experience had taught her to always attend to basics, so she slipped into the toilet first, and only when that necessity was out of the way did she trot around the corner.
Berit heard her coming and greeted her with a scowl. She was ninety-nine, an age that could be seen in the translucence of her brown skin, in the drape of tissue around her stern eyes, and in the thinning of her bright white hair. Like Jayne, Berit had lived most of her life as a soldier in the defense force and, like Jayne, she'd been lucky, surviving to tell the tale. The two women had partnered on more assignments than either cared to remember. "What woke you up?" Berit snapped.
"The smell of trouble. Why am I hearing tones of displeasure in your voice?"
"Because I am not pleased."
Lorelei was their civilian engineer, a petite, soft-spoken woman who, at a hundred-and-three, was older even than Jayne. She provided more details without turning away from a 3D model of the station. "Our mechs are tainted. Something's gotten into them and they aren't accepting commands."
"The Red followed us here," Berit added, with fatalistic certainty.
When Jayne joined them, they made a circle around the model. "How?"
Lorelei looked up, her deep blue eyes nestled in the folds and rough texture of her dark skin. Her hair was brilliant white and still thick despite the years, confined in a heavy braid at her shoulder. She opened her mouth to speak-and a high-pitched whistle screamed through the igloo. Jayne's ears popped. The air-skin lock rustled shut, sealing HQ from the rest of the station and muting the whistle, but Jayne could still hear a distant wail of escaping air.
"Pressure suits!" she barked. "Now! Go!"
The suits hung ready on the wall beside the external lock. Jayne had taken only two steps toward them when a faint pop! put an end to the whistle. The igloo shuddered as massive ice blocks groaned against each other. Goddamnit, Jayne thought, grabbing two suits and tossing them to Berit and Lorelei. Goddamnit, if the roof comes down . . .
They'd celebrated when they'd won this mission, knowing they'd gotten it because it was risky and because they were old. Medical technologists in the Shell Cities had learned to minimize the deterioration of old age so that hale and healthy lifespans stretched past a century, but inevitable, catastrophic failure still loomed: a blood vessel bursting in the brain, a heart chamber undergoing sudden collapse, a lung growing irreparably brittle. The cold fact was, none of them had much time left. If they didn't survive this mission, well, only a handful of unlived years would be lost. But in the meantime they were privileged to set foot on one of Jupiter's moons and to have the chance of leaving the Shell Cities just a little more secure.
And the goddamned roof was not going to come down. Not if Jayne could help it.
She grabbed a third pressure suit and stepped into it, pulling the edges together to let it seal.
A pressure suit was just another form of air-skin, made to wrap around the body. An inch thick in most places, it was powered by slender, flexible fuel cells embedded across the back. Robotic carbon-fiber hands at the sleeve ends exactly mimicked every twitch of Jayne's own fingers, which remained safe and warm within the sleeves.
Using an artificial hand, Jayne reached up and grabbed her hood, preventing it from sealing. Lorelei and Berit were still wrapping their suits on. "Lorelei, stay here and get those mechs in order. Berit, get outside and figure out what the hell just happened. I'm going after Carly."
She released her hood, not waiting for an answer. It rolled across her face, where it sealed, shaped, and hardened.
The air-skin lock to the central alcove had sealed, but the color-coded indicator glowed green, confirming full pressure beyond. Jayne passed through, carrying Carly's suit with her. The lock sealed again behind her.
A glance around the alcove confirmed all the locks had closed. Those to HQ, the easy room, and the toilets, showed green, but the indicator beside the bedchamber flashed in calamitous red.
Jayne bit down on the inside of her lip, remembering Carly's warmth and her good humor. "Berit?"
"I'm heading out now," she answered over the suit radio. Then, "Oh." A single word, the pain in it as sharp as shattered ice. "I see what you're looking at."
"I'm going in." Jayne brushed her fingers across the skin lock. Her suit stiffened as air was evacuated from the alcove, and for a moment she couldn't move. Then the suit's crosslinked cells adapted to the pressure change, and once again sensors picked up the motion of her body and echoed it, moving as she moved, tripling her strength-though if the power unit ever ran down, the pressure suit would become her diamond coffin.
She still held onto Carly's suit, for all the good it would do.
The air-skin opened. Light that didn't belong illuminated the bedchamber with a faint glow. Their station was sited away from Jupiter and the Sun was too far away to make a difference, but a small measure of starlight spilled in through a ragged hole, three-feet wide and slanting up through a massive block of ice. The light wasn't enough to make out any details until the suit's faceplate switched to nightvision. Then Berit's voice sighed over the com. "Oh, Carly. Blood-red piss! She was trying to get to the lock!"
Carly's body lay face down against the floor, her legs and hips crushed beneath the ice that had fallen from the ceiling. Her fate had been set the moment Jayne decided to leave her sleeping-while Jayne's own bitter luck still held.
She forced herself to look away from the body, to look up. The air-skin had been ripped open around the deep, ragged hole in the ice roof. Its tattered edges writhed, questing blindly for each other. More and more of it peeled away from the low ceiling, from the walls. It would keep peeling, until the torn edges could reach each other, and then it would seal. All this, Jayne took in at a glance-and then she noticed movement, just outside the hole: a mech, outlined against the stars.
All ten of the station mechs were the same model. They had a core carapace in the shape of a disk and roughly the size of a seat cushion, mounted on three highly flexible, telescoping legs. Each hemisphere of the carapace had a working arm. The upper half could swivel, so that the two arms could be positioned at any angle to one another. Most often, though, the arms were combined into a single limb for additional strength. By default, mechs stood with their legs at full extension, making them roughly waist high. Half-inch circles of cold blue light dotted their legs and made a glowing belt around their carapaces.
The mech on the igloo's roof had a subordinate drill unit set up at the edge of the hole. The drill was just a tool with no onboard intelligence. Its cylindrical column waited motionless, while the mech paced around it in what looked like frantic indecision. Jayne felt her skin crawl, watching it. Mechs should not behave that way. She wondered what directive had brought it to the igloo's roof.
"Here." Lorelei's voice was a choked whisper.
"Tell me that mech showed up to repair the damage."
"I don't know why it's there. I can't know. Its directives have been changed. I can't get any data out of it. I can't get any instructions in. The mechs are talking to each other, but they won't communicate with me."
Mechs possessed a limited machine intelligence. Though they could learn by experience, they weren't remotely self-aware, and still . . . the directives that guided them could result in behavior that imitated volition in a truly unsettling way.
As Jayne watched, one of the mech's arms darted under its belly, then flashed out again, dropping a finger-sized cylinder through the hole. The cylinder fell in slow motion, bouncing off the mound of fallen ice before tumbling to the floor. A bang rod, Jayne realized-a small explosive used by the mechs to quarry the granite-hard ice at Callisto's surface.
"Get down!" Berit screamed over the suit's com system. Jayne was already moving, diving behind the bed just before the bang rod exploded with a brilliant flash. The floor jumped, a flash of heat washed past, and then Jayne rolled, the suit providing a smooth muscle-assist to get her to her feet again.
Ice flakes and frozen flecks of blood dropped like snow, blanketing a shallow crater, and the raw, red, frozen mass that had been Carly's body.
"Lorelei," Jayne asked in a steely voice, "did that mech just try to blow me up?"
Lorelei's mind was on other things. She spoke in breathy excitement. "I just found a record of a transmission from the landing pod, right before everything fell apart-"
"What are you talking about? The landing pod's sitting empty outside our front door. It's powered down."
"Power's back on," Lorelei said, her voice breaking. "There's some device in it we didn't know about. We're at war, Jayne-"
"I goddamn well know that!"
"-and we've just been hit! Whatever was in the pod pumped tainted directives into the mechs and changed their access codes. God knows what they're programmed to do now-"
"They're programmed to sabotage this mission," Berit growled over the com. "Because the Red doesn't want us growing. We should have seen this coming."
Jayne watched the mech reach out with a mechanical hand, disconnecting the tether that tied it to the drill subordinate. A second mech appeared, and immediately hopped down through the hole, dropping into the bedchamber with dreamlike lethargy. It was still falling when a six-inch jet of tightly focused blue flame spat from a torch gripped in its mechanical arm. Jayne fell back as it landed in the blast crater. Its telescoping legs flexed to absorb the impact, and then flexed again as it launched itself at her.
Screams filled the com, but Jayne ducked nimbly aside. The mech's carapace spun around as it landed, its arm extended as it tried to rake her with the torch. But it had been built for construction, not battle. Jayne was faster.
Dodging the flame, she threw herself on top of it, landing chest-first on its carapace. To her surprise, its legs collapsed under her weight. She rode it to the floor, using the suit's mechanical hands to hold onto its arm, forcing the fiery torch away from her face. With the suit's muscle-assist, she had as much strength as the mech, and to her astonishment, it stopped struggling after just a few seconds. Its torch switched off.
"What just happened?" Jayne whispered.
Lorelei answered over the com. "It summoned a crane to get the weight off its back. Logical response to baseline directive: ‘Don't damage yourself.' Now shut it down."
"There's a panel on the carapace. Don't shift your weight. Just feel for it."
Jayne scowled. She was holding the mech's arm with both her mechanical hands, but now, cautiously, she let one go. As her carbon-fiber fingers slid around the carapace, the suit replicated the texture for her organic fingers. She found the panel, popped the release, slipped her hand inside.
"This is a whole keypad! What am I supposed to do?"
"Lower two corners. Top center. Press them all at once. Hold them down."
Jayne did it, suddenly aware of a faint vibration within the mech, only because it ceased.
"That's it," Lorelei said grimly. "One down. Nine to go."
But the mech didn't look like it had been shut down. The lights on its legs and carapace still glowed. "Lorelei, why are the lights still on?"
"They're self-powered. Ever tried finding a quiescent mech in the dark?"
Jayne snorted. "So that's it? That's all there is to it? We just switch them off? This is going to be-"
"Lorelei!" Berit's voice cut across the com, edged in panic. "Get outside now! Mechs are above you, drilling on the roof. Jayne-"
"On my way."
First, though, Jayne took the torch from the switched-off mech and used it to cut a five-foot length out of the twisted remains of the plastic bed frame. Steel would have been better, but at least now she had a weapon with better reach than the torch.
The torn air-skin had continued to peel off the wall, rolling down so far that it was writhing around her, its raw edges beginning to seal. Jayne took a giant step to get on top of it. Then she lobbed her plastic rod through the hole in the roof, vaulting after it with a powerful muscle-assist from the suit.
Under Callisto's low gravity, she shot up through the hole. Her mechanical fingers hooked over the rim of ice and she hauled herself out onto the roof.
The igloo's ice blocks had been quarried from beneath the dusty regolith. Impurities in the ice infused it with a gray, piebald cast that gleamed only faintly under the star-spangled sky. The land around was even darker: a gray, granular plane that rolled away to low, encircling hills with steep profiles that rose in black outline against the stars. Frost glimmered faintly, looking like a mist laid across the rounded peaks.
The construction site was a half-mile away, on flat ground, where steel bars for the launch rail were piled up into their own small hill. The mechs should have been at work on the rail bed, but Jayne saw nothing moving out there. Closer in, the landing pod crouched on bent legs, sparkling like gold foil. Jayne spotted two mechs loitering near it. Then she turned, to look across the flat roof.
The blast hole was close to one end. In the open area beyond it, Berit chased a retreating mech. Another circled around to where three drill units bored into the ice above HQ, each one sending up a plume of frost that glittered in the starlight. Jayne imagined the mechs' simple logic: drills bore holes into ice; bang rods drop into holes; heavy, ice-insulated roofs get blown asunder.
The third mech on the roof was the one that had dropped the bang rod. It skittered toward her around the edge of the blast hole, but it didn't have a torch and it had already used its explosive. Jayne didn't see how it could be dangerous, so she circled the hole to meet it.
It saw her move, and hesitated.
Jayne didn't. Taking two long strides, she threw herself at it, just as she had with the other-but this mech anticipated her. Its legs flexed and it jumped out of reach. Jayne slammed against the roof, sliding several feet past the hole, only remembering to dig in with her mechanical fingers a moment before she went hurtling over the roof's edge.
Over the com, Berit's breath came fast and heavy. "Guess what, Jaynie? The mechs have figured out that move. I can't get near them."
Jayne groaned-"Thanks for letting me know"-and got back onto her feet.
The mech stood, unmoving, a few meters away. "It looks confused," Jayne muttered. Maybe it didn't know what to do next; maybe its directives didn't include all the necessary details of murder when the first assault had failed.
Unlike the mech, Jayne could come up with alternatives.
An image of the blood-red pulp of Carly's body flashed across her mind. Returning to the hole, she grabbed the abandoned drill unit. The tool probably massed as much as she did, but this was low-grav Callisto and Jayne was wearing a powered suit. It was no problem at all to hurl the drill straight at the mech's carapace.
The mech ducked by collapsing its telescoping legs. It dropped with astonishing speed and the drill shot harmlessly past it, spinning away in a trajectory that took it beyond the roof and far out over the gray flats. So. Projectiles weren't going to work. Jayne bent to retrieve her plastic staff, determined to give that a try. As she straightened up again, the two mechs from below vaulted onto the roof above HQ.
One at a time, Jaynie, she reminded herself, and with an overhead stroke she brought the rod down hard against the first mech's carapace. The staff snapped in two. The mech took no damage at all. Jayne flung away the remnant in disgust. So much for that idea-and now they had to contend with four mechs on the roof instead of just two.
The drills were unattended, but they continued to work, boring ever deeper into the igloo. Jayne turned her attention to them. There was no way she was going to let another chamber get blown. She bounded past the blast hole, toward the nearest drill. Ice flakes showered her as she reached it.
The drill stood thigh high, a slender cylinder hot enough to turn the falling flakes to vapor. Jayne grabbed it with her mechanical hand and yanked-but bolts locked it to the ice. She crouched, searching the drill for a panel like the one on the mech, but she couldn't find one.
"Lorelei, you still alive?"
"How do I shut off a drill?"
"You don't unless you know how to send drill codes."
"Fine, then. Berit? Watch my back." Flicking on the torch she'd taken from the mech, Jayne started cutting. The drill shook when she sliced away the first bolt holding it to the ice. It bucked when she cut the second. And then it shut down. Safety override?
Two other drills were running. With Berit standing guard, she cut bolts on both of them, and when they unbalanced, they shut down too.
"Nice," Berit said. "But we still have nine hostile mechs to contend with." She was standing a few feet away, jumping at any mech that dared to come close.
"Lorelei," Jayne asked, "where are you?"
"In the landing pod."
Jayne glanced at the gold-foil dome resting on the regolith below. The door was closed. "Okay, stay there. Berit, let's get out to the construction site, pick up some explosives and maybe a rebar or two to smash these Red traitors."
"Jayne, no!" Lorelei snapped. "Do not damage the mechs!"
"Oh," Berit said. "I guess you didn't see her hurl that drill unit."
"What?" Lorelei sounded outraged. "Jayne, we need the mechs. Every one of them, or this project fails."
"We've already lost the mechs," Jayne shot back. She longed to get her mechanical hands around a steel rebar and test that against a carapace, maybe find out what a mech was made of inside. "Carly is dead and this project has failed."
"Carly is dead," Lorelei agreed, speaking softly now, hurriedly. "But we're still here and the Shell Cities are still going to need every crystal of water we can send them and we're not going to be able to send even one drop without mechs to build the launch rail. I am not lifting off from here until that rail is built."
"Goddamn it, Lorelei. You're the expert on the mechs, and you said you can't communicate with them, you can't override their rogue programming-"
"I can't! Not until they're shut down. Manually shut down, each and every one of them, just like that mech in the bedchamber." Her voice softened again. "Then they can be reset to factory specs. They won't know how to build anymore, but we can teach them that."
Jayne turned to Berit. Her faceplate was black in the dim light, but her bitter mood came through in her voice. "You hear that, Jaynie? The first rule of this little battle is ‘do no harm.' You better give me that torch before the rule slips your mind."
Lorelei wanted to close off the honey hole.
The mechs had a hybrid, bio-mechanical architecture that required them to resupply and re-power every twelve hours or so inside the honey hole-an excavated ice cave out by the construction site, stocked with fuel cells and organic supplies.
Jayne, though, wasn't willing to leave four functioning mechs on the roof. Three of them probably still had bang rods. Why didn't they use them? Maybe they didn't know how. Without a drill hole to stuff them into or a blast hole to toss them down, their simple behavioral algorithms might be stymied.
They could learn, though. They'd watched Jayne take down a mech and now they retreated if Jayne or Berit approached them. But if the women turned their backs, the mechs approached, carrying torches and saws in their mechanical hands like a pod of metallic zombies.
"Hey," Jayne said. "I'm going to walk away. If one starts to follow, you fall in behind. Push it close to me."
Berit nodded. "Go."
Jayne set off at a slow pace across the roof.
Berit hissed. "All four are behind you."
Jayne didn't turn to look. Instead, she picked up the feed from Berit's helmet and watched the mechs coming after her at a disturbingly fast pace. They were eight meters away, seven, six-one walked in front, two followed, and the fourth came behind. Berit trailed them, several steps back.
"I'll take the one closest to me," Jayne said.
"I'll get the laggard."
"Three, two, one, now."
Jayne turned and jumped. The mech she'd targeted jumped too, but not fast enough. They hit in midair. She spilled over its back, but managed a clawed grip on its carapace, hauling it down with her. It had a torch. She scrambled on top of it, holding its arm down with her foot. Flame touched ice, vapor roiled up, turning almost instantly into snow, while beneath her weight the mech went still. Jayne popped open its panel and slammed mechanical fingers down on the three keys, but she was breathing too hard to feel the mech's faint vibrations; she couldn't tell if the vibrations had stopped. "Did it shut down?" she panted. "Did it?"
"Move!" Berit shouted.
Jayne saw the bright blue light of another torch darting toward her face. She rolled. A line of heat seared her forearm, followed by a blade of cold. A muscle-assist popped her back onto her feet as two torches jabbed toward her. She jumped back, pursued by a pair of mechs, each with a torch in one hand, a saw in the other. Pain like a vice gripped her forearm.
She glanced at the wound. The torch had cut a line in her suit, but it had not cut quite through. She pinched the burnt edges together, helping the suit's healthy tissue to meet and seal. Then she jumped again to avoid the oncoming mechs. With chagrin, she realized they'd learned to work together in their attack-doubtless from the very recent example of cooperative assault that she and Berit had shown them.
"Okay, Jaynie?" Berit asked.
They'd brought down one mech each, but there were still two more on the roof. Both pursued Jayne, torches out in a coordinated rush-until Berit tackled one from behind. It went down. Berit slapped open the panel, decommissioned it, and was up again in seconds, while Jayne led the last one on a merry chase.
A column of snow marked every dropped torch. Jayne wove between them to distract the mech, while Berit stood still, trying to go unnoticed in the mech's busy visual field. Jayne slipped past her, the mech followed, and Berit pounced. Her breathing came ragged over the com. "That's five down, five to go."
Jayne made a quick circuit of the roof, gathering up the torches and switching them off before they could melt all the way down to the membrane. "Now we take care of the honey hole."
Berit was still pulling hard for air. "I hope you're planning to help out a little more this time."
Jayne snorted. "I thought it was very noble of me, to be the bait."
They jumped down from the roof. Lorelei came out of the gold-foil dome of the pod. She held up a rectangular wafer for them to see. It was no more than one by two inches, thin as foil. "Light a torch," she said.
Jayne complied. The blue flame was a needle in the dark. "That's it, then? That's the source of the rogue code? And it's the only one?"
"It's the only one I could find." Lorelei laid the wafer down on the ice and stepped back. "Burn it."
Jayne did. Then she ground it with her boot and burned the remnants again.
As they crossed the dusty regolith to the construction site, Jayne spotted a flock of tiny lights a few hundred yards away. "The mechs," she announced. If not for the glowing circles dotting their legs and carapaces, they might have come unseen. "They must have been recharging in the honey hole."
"No," Berit said grimly. "I think they were taking notes."
Lorelei stopped. "I don't understand. Why are they hauling rebars?"
The mechs' legs flashed as they stepped swiftly through the dust and after a few seconds Jayne saw what Berit and Lorelei had spotted first: Three of the mechs were armed with long steel rebars from the construction site.
"Dammit, Jayne!" Berit groused. "They saw you hit that mech with a rod."
Lorelei turned. Jayne couldn't see her face, but her voice sounded scandalized. "You hit a mech? I told you-"
"This was before you told me."
"Did you damage it?"
Jayne snorted. "Sadly, no. I used a plastic rod. The mechs have improved my example. They've got steel."
"We aren't going to be able to get close to them," Berit warned.
By this time, the mechs were hardly a hundred yards away, and moving fast.
"We could just walk out on the ice," Lorelei said in a small voice. "Lead them away until they run out of power."
"If they've just come out of the honey hole they've got twelve hours. Our suits won't last that long, and besides, I don't want to give them a chance to blow the rest of the igloo."
"Then what do we do?"
Jayne touched the seam that marked the healed tear in the forearm of her suit. A pressure suit was just another form of air-skin. Without power, both turned into diamond-hard crystal. "We need to incapacitate the mechs without harming them."
"Right," Berit said with sharp impatience. "And how do we do that?"
"Let's go back to the igloo. I have an idea."
Jayne took everyone up to the roof. With a muscle-assist from the suits, the jump was easy.
"There are two ways we can lose this battle," Jayne reminded. "We lose if the mechs kill us and we lose if we kill the mechs-but if it comes down to it and we're going to lose anyway, let's lose the second way. Agreed?"
"We're going to win," Lorelei said in a hollow voice. Berit echoed the sentiment.
Jayne shrugged. "Fine, then. Let's win."
She jumped down through the blast hole into the blown bedchamber.
During the time Jayne had been outside, the ragged edges of the room's air skin had knit together, joining just a few feet above the floor. With the seal complete, the flexible membrane had hardened into a smooth, curved surface. Jayne kept her feet when she landed on it, but she couldn't stop herself from sliding until she fetched up against the exposed wall of ice.
It occurred to Jayne that not an hour before, she'd been sleeping in this room, in the cocoon of Carly's warmth.
"No time for sightseeing," Berit chided gently.
"Hush, child. Don't annoy your elders."
Jayne fired up her torch. Braced against the wall, she bent low and started cutting.
At the first touch of the flame, the air skin caved in, dropping away from the heat. Jayne bent lower and kept cutting, until slowly, slowly, the flame sliced the air skin open. The small space enclosed by the air skin had already started to re-pressurize, so for a second ice flakes geysered through the crack. Then, along the cut edges, the air skin softened, again becoming a flexible, rippling fabric as it strove to seal up the cut.
Jayne didn't let that happen. She jammed her foot through the crack and kicked it wider. Lorelei jumped down to help, folding the air skin back while Jayne kept cutting, separating a large sheet of it and exposing again the remains of the room.
Berit stayed on the roof, watching the approaching mechs and counting down the time to their arrival. "You've got maybe twenty seconds. Okay, ten. That's it! The first one just jumped to the roof."
Jayne passed the torch to Lorelei. "Be ready to make the last cut, but only when I tell you, not before."
It was too dark to see her face past the helmet, but she took the torch with steady hands.
With a corner of the membrane gripped in one mechanical hand, Jayne jumped back up through the blast hole. All five remaining mechs were already on the roof. Berit stood facing them, with the hole at her back.
The air skin writhed in Jayne's grip, rolling up and down her arm. She hadn't been afraid of the mechs before-not really, truly afraid. She'd known they were dangerous. After the first bang rod, she'd known her life and Berit's and Lorelei's could end as quickly as Carly's had, but the mech assault had happened so fast she'd had no time to really be afraid . . . until now.
Of the five mechs, three held ten-foot-long steel rebars, while two used their dexterous double arms to hold torches and drills. Jayne had a nasty suspicion the drills weren't meant for drilling.
"Look out!" she shouted, as a mech hurled its drill dead-on at Berit.
Berit dropped flat. The drill spun past her, disappearing into the dark as the mechs swarmed.
"Get up!" Jayne growled as the mechs came after Berit-a pack of mechanical zombies armed with sticks and stones and fire. "Berit, move."
"Stop worrying about me and do your job!" Berit snapped, still lying face down.
"Fine, then!" Jayne tugged hard on the air skin. "Lorelei-cut it and jump!"
Berit waited another second, until the mechs were in rebar range, then she vaulted backward, landing on her feet. The startled mechs slowed. Berit turned and ran. The zombie mob took off after her, while Lorelei shouted, "Jumping!"
As Berit darted past the blast hole, Lorelei appeared at its mouth. She hauled herself out, clutching another corner of the air skin in one mechanical hand. They now had a sheet of it, cut free from the room. Severed from its power source, the skin had only seconds before it froze into a crystal coffin. Already Jayne felt it getting stiff in her hands. She got ready, knowing they'd have only one chance to make this work.
Alongside the blast hole there was only a narrow strip of intact roof. The mechs bunched together as they passed around it, just as Jayne had hoped.
"Stand firm," she said. "I'm going . . . now!"
With the air skin gripped in both hands, she stepped away from the mechanical mob. Lorelei held the other end and the skin became a trembling gray curtain between them. Lorelei stood behind it, but Jayne kept in sight. The mechs saw her and pursued, sweeping past Lorelei. As soon as they'd gone by, Lorelei cut behind them, bending the air skin to form a U.
Now came the critical part. Could they close the circle? Jayne waited an extra second. Then she turned and darted back along the roof's edge. The air skin billowed around the mechs as they turned to cut her off. And then she was past them. Lorelei was only a step away.
"Pull it tight!" Jayne warned.
An eight-foot rebar came spinning out of the mech mob. Jayne felt betrayed-she'd never taught them to throw a rebar! She ducked, but not fast enough. Steel slammed against her shoulder, knocking her down and sending her skidding across the ice-but she didn't let go of the air skin. Her mechanical hands kept their grip, even as she plunged over the roof's edge.
Jayne stirred, wondering how she'd come to be in the easy room. She was stretched out on a couch, a blanket pulled up to her chin. Berit sat in a cushy chair a few feet away, watching her with a critical expression. Jayne tried to speak, but she had to swallow a few times before she had enough moisture in her throat to ask, "What the hell is going on?"
Berit leaned back in her chair. Her eyes narrowed. "You fell off the roof. If you remember, that wasn't in the plan."
It all started coming back. "Where's Lorelei?"
"I'm here, Jayne!" Her gentle voice came sailing out of HQ.
"As it turns out," Berit went on, "falling off the roof probably saved us all. The air skin wasn't going to pull tight enough around the mechs to confine them-not until you went over. Then Lorelei jumped after you and dragged the mechs down with her. By the time they knew what hit them, the air skin had crystallized around them and they couldn't move. All but one. It got out, but I tackled it and shut it down."
"And the rest?"
"We cut them out one at a time and turned them off. Then we reset them all to factory specs. Lorelei's loading some basic construction directives into them now."
"So we got lucky again?"
"We got lucky. The Red didn't beat us this time. You did good, Jaynie. I'm proud of you. You didn't harm even a single enemy."
Jayne snorted. "Let's both try to live a few years longer-and make up for it next time."
If you enjoyed this story, please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2012 issue, which also features original science fiction by C. C. Finlay ("The Cross-Time Accountants Fail To Kill Hitler Because Chuck Berry Does The Twist") and SF reprints by Nicola Griffith ("Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese") and David Langford ("Different Kinds of Darkness"), along with original fantasy by Dale Bailey ("The Children of Hamelin") and Melanie Rawn ("Mother of All Russiya"), and fantasy reprints by Catherynne M. Valente ("A Hole to China") and the late Kage Baker ("The Ruby Incomparable"). All that plus our artist showcase, our usual assortment of author spotlights, and feature interviews with Michael Chabon and Vernor Vinge. And, for Lightspeed's ebook readers, our ebook-exclusive novella this month is part one of a two-part serial: The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford. Our ebook edition will also feature excerpts of Paolo Bacigalupi's new young adult novel The Drowned Cities and 2312, the new novel by visionary SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!