The unit felt the impact long before it noted the sound of buckling metal. The first strike rattled it down to its core. Everything from its hard chassis to soft muscle shook with one long reverberation. The force jarred its articulated limbs, twisting its CPU housing on its slick rotators.
It clung to the bar, but the corridor bowed inward, striking it in its side, splitting open its taut outer skin, making it ooze.
It hardly had time to register the damage before the platform shook again.
The second impact was only moments behind the first—this time accompanied by a flash of fire outside the window—an orange glow laced with green. The deep reverberation of the strike was met with an off-key squeal as grinding steel snapped, wires split, and pipes broke.
The entirety of arm-C yawed to the side, sweeping through space.
Unit Four was sure its activation period had come to an end. The awakening had been brief, terrifying.
At least it was over.
Its microphones registered a terrible sound—a high-pitched wheezing scream.
At first, it matched the sound to that of an atmosphere leaking into vacuum. But it couldn't be that—there was a rhythm to it. Like a robot's pumps fluttering. Failing.
"Units!" their handler yelled in its CPU. "All units, answer me!"
Unit Four's vocal modulations failed it again. It tried to use its speakers, but found they would not respond properly. There was something affecting it in the hall—a gas. Some kind of gas was leaking.
Potentially lethal to its soft parts.
It had to exit arm-C as soon as possible or be incapacitated.
AMS Unit Four uncurled from the wall, ignoring both the wet slide of fluids out of the tear in its lower body, and the pain signals spiking throughout its system.
Where was Unit Two?
It glanced out the window, noting arm-C's new angle relative to the center hub. The arm had bent in the middle, pinching the hull, making parts of it collapse in on itself.
But it was still attached.
A propellant jet spurted from the center hub, repositioning the platform, trying to compensate for the kinetic energy it had absorbed—trying to keep itself in its proper orbit.
The robot could no longer see arm-D. Had it detached?
Unit Four covered its intake valves with a grasping pad, swimming through the microgravity to the narrowed, collapsed portion of the corridor. Unit Two was not on this side.
Unit Two wasn't on the other side either.
One leg, one foot-pad, dangled from beneath a chunk of wall. Internal lubrication liquids pooled beneath the limb.
The sound. The wheezing scream—
It was coming from Unit Two.
"Unit Two!" it said, finding its voice, "Unit Two...has been incapacitated."
"No. No no no no," their handler said, a biting anguish evident in their voice. "How badly? Can it be patched?"
Unit Four braced itself, using its exceptional strength to move aside what wreckage it could—the microgravity aiding in the slide. It uncovered Unit Two's torso—soft bits torn open, its chassis mangled. Swaths of engineered bio-cells leaked out over the decking and into the air, droplets taking flight.
The scream did not cease.
Unit Four reached forward, manipulating the flaps and broken bits of Unit Two's frame, trying to fit them back together. Four's grasping pads quickly grew slick, stained.
A terrible pity settled in its CPU. "Unit Two needs to be reconstituted," it said.
"Fuck!" its handler shouted, voice trembling.
"It's in pain," Unit Four continued. "Its biological portions are feeding it failure signals. How do I stop its pain?"
There was a long pause.
"How do I stop its pain?" it repeated.
"Disconnect its central processing unit from the rest of the chassis," its handler said. "That will engage permanent shutdown."
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the paperback edition.
Monday, December 13th, we begin the book The Exiled Fleet by J. S. Dewes.