Horizon: Rebuilt Chapter 3

The flight back to the base was subdued, slowed by the damaged aircraft. By the time they arrived Bill, and three of the survivors they’d rescued, had expired. Jenny, one of the few members of the Friendly Society who was privy to Horizon’s identity and had medical qualifications, came to extract her from the cockpit of the drone carrier.

The arctic squirrel tugged at the shrapnel in Horizon’s stomach with a pneumatic clasp while the raccoon gritted her teeth and tried to ignore the pain. Blood leaked out with each centimeter of metal that came out, only to flow back up the spar into the constantly re-opening wound. “I can’t believe I’m saying this hon, but your microbots are doing too good of a job.”

Horizon’s breath wheezed through her teeth, “just pull it out. They can handle the rest.”

“Actually,” Samantha materialized behind Jenny. “If you just waited a few more hours our leukosynths could take care of it. No need to ask your girlfriend for help.”

“Huh,” the squirrel commented, staring at the latest stretch of metal to emerge. “This looks like it was partially dissolved in acid.”

Horizon looked down as far as her awkward position would allow. The spar was pitted and scored like a photo of an asteroid. “Weird,” she commented. “Maybe it was my stomach acid?”

“Nah,” Jenny replied. “I don’t think parahuman stomach acids could do this.”

“And you got hit in the intestines, not the stomach,” Sam added. “Hence the smell.”

Horizon had been trying to ignore the acrid, cloying odor that had spilled out into the cockpit after the strike. “I figured that was from the dead body right in front of me,” she retorted.

Jenny twitched an ear inquisitively, “what?”

“Not you,” the raccoon replied. “The AI is here.”

The squirrel’s eyes lit up in surprise and excitement, “really? You activated her?”

Horizon grumbled in response, “more like she barged in and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“She shows that much initiative?” Jenny’s ears twitched excitedly. “And you’re talking to her now? Can I speak to her?”

“Sure thing.” The squirrel jumped in place and turned her head to face the projected red panda standing behind her, a smug smile on her face.

“Oh, wow,” Jenny set down the graspers and reached for Sam. Her hand passed through the panda’s chest without resistance. “An AR illusion, right?”

“No haptic feedback for you, I’m afraid,” Sam quipped. “Now, are you going to remove that thing from our duodenum or not?”

“Oh right,” Jenny picked up the clasp again and resumed slowly pulling the spar from Horizon’s torso, prompting another fresh wince of pain as it shifted position in her guts.

“My, duodenum,” Horizon groaned in objection. “Not yours.”

“Oh please,” Sam snorted. “Do you have any idea of much of that body was built by the Federation’s best autodocs? The autodocs that built me?”

Horizon gasped as the last centimeter of the shrapnel slid out of her guts, leaving a gaping hole in her skin that quickly filled with a thick blackish-red blood the consistency of pudding. Within seconds the blood had scabbed over. Jenny looked at the scored end of the metallic spar and turned back to the AI, “can you take care of any remaining bits that might have broken off? Or should we prep for surgery?”

“We’ll be fine,” Sam replied. “Construction on this moon uses a lot of carbon, calcium, and iron that the leukosynths can use for raw material. Whatever they don’t need can be purged.”

Horizon carefully started to rise out of the cockpit seat, careful not to damage her wound. “At least I can move this way. If slowly,” she said with a grimace directed at the AI.

“Raw materials? For what?” Jenny turned the piece of steel around, examining the marks made by the microscopic robots in Horizon’s blood.

“Replacement cells, mostly new leukosynths really,” Sam explained.

“Wait,” Jenny’s ears shot up in alarm. “If your microbots can scavenge materials from their environment and self-replicate, does that mean we have to worry about a Gray Goo scenario?”

“What?” Horizon asked. She thought she’d heard the term somewhere, probably from one of MechRat’s rants, but couldn’t quite recall what it meant. Though she got the sense that it was quite serious from the tone Jenny used.

Sam laughed, “no, you don’t have to worry about a runaway replicator situation. Aside from the safeguards the Federation put in place to prevent such a RunRep they need a ready source of chemical energy to scavenge and collect resources. Most likely any leukosynths Tanya here lost track off would just go dormant until she went and picked them up again.”

Jenny let out a deep breath, “that’s a relief. I always thought the guys going on about big gray blobs eating everything were a bit alarmist.”

“And they’re primarily made of corundum and iron,” Sam added. “It would be “red” goo, not gray.”

A button on Jenny’s shirt started vibrating, she pressed it with a finger and listened for a minute. “Sorry, I’m needed in theater 3, guess we’ll have to continue this conversation later.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Horizon said with a wave of her arm.

“Bye!” Sam waved after the squirrel enthusiastically as she turned and left. As soon as Jenny was out of earshot the panda turned back to the raccoon. “You know,” she whispered, “we could inoculate her, and the Friendly Society would have two Paladins at their disposal.”

“What? No!” Horizon slapped the illusion across the cheek, to her immense satisfaction she felt furry flesh under her palm and Sam staggered back as if she had a physical presence.

Sam’s tail reared up, the mouth at its end uttering a low growl, but she laid a hand on top of it with an air of command. “Okay, we’ll table that for now,” the panda conceded. “But what about your pilot? Bill, was it? It might not be too late to save him.”

That possibility gave Horizon pause, inserting her microbots into a healthy, albeit eccentric parahuman was one thing, but if someone would die otherwise… “No,” she concluded. “He knew the risks when he signed up. I didn’t have a choice to get you implanted into my head, I’m not going to take that choice away from someone else.”

“Um-hm,” Sam muttered. Horizon started to think about dismissing the AI but before she could finalize the decision the panda held up a hand. “Wait! Before I go, there’s one last thing we need to discuss.”

“One thing,” Horizon held up a finger in warning.

“If that bit of debris had hit you just 3.7 centimeters higher, it would have hit the Thing.”

Horizon raised a quizzical eyebrow, “what thing?”

“That Thing you ate.” At Horizon’s puzzled expression she attempted to elaborate, “as we were crashing into Surt.”

“Oh,” Horizon clutched her stomach, a few centimeters above the rapidly healing wound. These days she barely noticed the weight of the mysterious metal sphere she’d swallowed months ago. “MechRat’s orb.”

“Yes, that,” Sam held up a hand and a projection of the orb appeared above it. “Whatever it is, it’s not safe inside your digestive tract. Even if you don’t digest it, and you can if you want to, or the leukosynths get desperate for resources.”

“You don’t know what it is?” Horizon inquired. “With your databases of Federation technology?”

“It’s not in my databases, no,” Sam explained. “It’s most likely a custom design of Luke Didelph’s, though I can’t guarantee that it is his work.”

“Do you have any idea what it is?”

Sam shook her head, “none. My priorities have been focused on keeping us alive and running your drones. I could run a data analysis of the orb and speculate though.”

Horizon thought for a minute, “how long would that analysis take?”

Sam shrugged, “it might be as short as an hour. Or it might take several days.”

The raccoon smirked, if it would get the AI out of her hair for a while all the better. “Run the analysis.”

Sam nodded, “alright then. I strongly advise you regurgitate it soon though.”

“Fine,” Horizon stated. Sam disappeared and Horizon started off towards the dormitories to wait for Jenny. On her way over she received a message on her BCI:

To volunteer pilot Horizon: Your presence is requested in conference room C at your earliest convenience.

The raccoon read the message and shrugged, whatever it was they wanted, it couldn’t be worse than vomiting up a mysterious artifact that had dislocated her jaw on the way down. She’d experienced enough pain for today.

On her way to the conference room Horizon stepped into the showers to rinse the blood and grime off. Her suit’s smart materials shed the particulates easily, sloughing off a stream of brown and red down the drain. Fortunately, her fur hadn’t absorbed too much dirt save for around her still-healing stomach wound. The jumpsuit had started to repair itself where it had been torn, but for now it left her midriff exposed. She momentarily contemplated finding something to cover her wound up but decided it might be advantageous to have the injury she’d sustained in the recent action on display, depending on what was going on.

After blow-drying off the raccoon headed up to the conference room, she opened the door with a press of her palm to the reader and stepped inside. Coordinator Taranda sat at a circular table inside, around the table holographic texts of the positions of the Friendly Society’s other regional coordinators in the Surt system floated in the places of their owners. Horizon paused, realizing whom she’d kept waiting all this time, and introduced herself before taking a seat.

“Coordinators,” she started, head dipped apologetically. “I’m sorry for the delay. I am Horizon.”

“Ah yes,” said the coordinator for the southwestern subcontinent. “The arctic region’s mysterious posthuman volunteer.”

“I don’t know if I’d call myself that,” Horizon replied. Grateful at least that they hadn’t referred to her as a “ghul.”

Taranda glanced at Horizon’s giant scab. “I heard you were impaled by a support strut out there. How is it healing?” the caribou inquired.

“It should be fully sealed up in a couple hours,” the raccoon answered. “I might be able to eat something without it leaking into my abdominal cavity this evening.” She spotted a slight wince in Taranda’s expression, and thought she heard a gasp from one of the other coordinators.

The southwestern coordinator’s icon lit up as they spoke, “you get injured a lot, don’t you?”

Horizon nodded, “I suppose I do. My posthuman durability, as you would call it, means that I can volunteer for the most dangerous missions and expect to come back alive.”

“It’s not just that,” the eastern coordinator chimed in. “We’ve noted a 28% uptick in violent engagements since you signed on.”

Horizon mentally reviewed the missions she’d gone on in the months since she had arrived on Surtur. Two dozen search-and-rescues, a couple of moonquakes, and four “raids” to save workers the Company had hung out to dry for the sake of profit. “I save lives and only damage equipment that can be replaced.”

“Your forays into airborne piracy aside,” the southwestern coordinator added. “We’ve noticed that missions you are on tend to run into explosions, cave-ins, and chemical spills. Much more than is typical for such things.”

“What are you suggesting?” Horizon asked.

Coordinator Taranda let out a deep breath, “there are suspicions, just suspicions mind you. That someone or something might be targeting you.”

That gave Horizon pause. She had cut into the Surt Company’s oh-so-sacred profit margins, and made them look bad for sure, but would they dare to try and assassinate an immortal? She did not know whether Princeps was still alive or if the singularity bomb had killed him, but there’d been no sign of the Resolution for nearly a Jordian year. Maybe what was left of the Nebula Company was waging a guerrilla war against one of the posthumans who destroyed their base ship? It was a bit of a stretch, but now that she thought about it that jagged spar had seemed rather accurate when it impaled the cockpit of her drone carrier, and Bill hadn’t had the protection of her augmentations.

“I could go on solo missions from now on,” the raccoon suggested. “No need to put other Friendlies in danger.”

Taranda nodded, “we noted before you arrived that you seemed to have managed the drones and the carrier after your pilot was taken out. Do you think you could do that again?”

Horizon nodded with some reluctance, “I had to use my implant’s AI to pull that off. But I think I could manage it.”

“Good,” the caribou continued. “We agreed to try keeping you separate from larger missions for three months and see what happened. Is this agreeable?”

Horizon sighed, “yes.”

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