Excerpt: Keep the Stars Running

About a Bot by Andrea Speed

Tahir was woken up by Bagel bot freaking out. “Variance off by point two of a percent,” Bagel bot was repeating, spinning in a very small circle. “Variance off by point two of a percent.”

“That’s within normal parameters,” he said muzzily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He wasn’t actually sure what Bagel bot was referring to, but it didn’t matter. Point two percent wasn’t anything to stress about in almost any context.

Tahir sat up with a groan, and asked, “What time is it?”

“Nine forty-three a.m.,” the computer replied in its mellifluous, gender neutral voice. Spider crept closer to him along the wall, and Tank’s stronger motor hummed as it maneuvered around the floor, clearing the way for his eventual walk to the bathroom.

He groaned. It was probably about time he got up and got going. The space station wasn’t going to clean itself. Although, actually, it might.

Tahir was, according to the station roster, the Chief Maintenance Officer of the Galactic Force station M163, although it was known colloquially as Nebula Station. He enjoyed calling himself the head janitor, fully aware that he was the only janitor… Well, at least the only flesh and blood one. His entire staff was automated; they were all scutters and crawlers of various shapes and sizes, which, in theory, should have made his job easier. But the reason the job wasn’t fully automated was simply because no one had ever perfected the maintenance bot that could supervise and fix other maintenance bots. Who would fix the maintenance bot if it needed maintenance? So Tahir was essentially a custodian-slash-bot wrangler. He didn’t mind it, though, as he found machines more reliable than people.

He stretched and headed straight for the bathroom, ignoring the impatient robots circling his feet. Most of these were what he called his “pet” robots, ones that no longer served a specific janitorial purpose, but were too good to junk. He knew this made him an eccentric to many, but he didn’t care, as he had been called worse.

He’d been counting on the sonic shower to wake him up, but it didn’t. What inevitably woke Tahir up was checking his calendar on his internal optical implant, and seeing a new task there, added by Commander Leopold herself.

Tahir tapped the comm implant behind his ear. “Commander, this is CMO Domi.”

“Go ahead, Domi,” she replied.

“Why does it say I’m meeting with a representative of the Galactic News Service on my schedule?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she replied brightly. “GNS is doing a feature on people behind the scenes, those of us behind the lines. It’s not just the mech pilots and ship’s crew who are heroes.”

Tahir groaned as Bagel bot finally triggered the door open, and she wheeled in, circling around his ankles. She looked exactly like a Bagel, but with tiny wheels, and she was exactly Bagel sized too, a bit smaller than a human hand. She actually had a name, Maddy, but in his mind he always called her Bagel bot. She was just so darn cute, and so many of her brothers and sisters were thrown on the scrap heap once they upgraded the vent scrubbers. That had been just a couple of weeks before he came here, so he was only able to rescue Bagel bot, and to scavenge enough parts from broken units to repair Bagel’s busted pieces. Of course, he was probably the only one who thought these weird little cleaning bots were adorable. Most people didn’t think of them at all. “I don’t want to be someone’s feel-good human interest story.”

“No! I’ve seen the reports, they’re great. You’re a natural. Besides, he requested you.”

Now that was truly baffling. “He did? Who the hell is this guy?”

“Jorian Sanchez. He’s a real cutie too. Have you seen his profile on the GNS site?”

The name hit him like a blast of cold water. “Jorian? Oh, Einstein on a crutch.”

“What, you know him?”

Tahir stared at himself in the mirror, glad he never got the optical implant so he could see faces, and vice versa. Because much to his horror, he was watching himself blush, a physiological response he was sure he left behind in his teens. “We went to the same academy. I was pretty sure he didn’t know I was alive. I guess I was wrong.”

 

 

Flight Risk by Talya Andor

The thudding rush of blood pulsing in one ear was a louder backdrop to Kiel Navarro’s work in the Gear hangar than the whine of engines, roar of propulsion jets, or shouts from the Gryphon wings scattered throughout the multiple bays lining the launch lane for deployment. Kiel was half-deaf and kept a sound damper studded in his good ear as he worked. His hearing loss, like that of many of the long-term mechanics who worked at Cadlow Hangar, tended to be an asset to him when it allowed him to tune out the myriad auditory distractions of the Gear bays.

That morning Kiel’s concentration had renewed focus as he bent his efforts on the new Gear that had arrived in one of Wing Bravo’s bays at some point after his previous shift. Its lines were slimmer than the other Gears he’d worked on, its propulsion jets set to a higher output than he was accustomed, and its handling yoke was tuned more sensitively than Kiel would have recommended for the Gryphons at Cadlow.

Kiel wanted to run his hands over the Gear’s matte frame and acquaint himself with it, from front-mounted rail guns to rearmost output manifold, but it appeared to be in top condition and he didn’t have any excuses to touch it. Yet. All Gryphons, no matter how good, crashed and burned at some point and Kiel was among those who fixed their Gears.

There was no harm looking, however, and Kiel put a finger to his MagLens goggles, switching to a higher magnification with a flick. His vision was degrading after years of squinting at small machine parts and smaller circuits and couplings, but that hadn’t fazed him. He’d switched to using the MagLens to augment his vision and never looked back—the goggles held over twenty layers of lens filters and made his job exponentially easier.

He flicked over to his energy output lens and studied the Gear for a moment, noting the contrast between cool metal and all the places where residual energy from the fusion drive core kept the Gear ready to roar out at a single pulse from the throttle in its handling yoke. Improvements had been made in the fuel lines that snaked like arteries throughout the frame. After a moment of admiration, Kiel switched back to color vision.

Most visiting Gears that came from hangars closer to the interior of Gilbrand were black or silver, following with the republic’s colors, but this one was in buff and sage colors, its subtle contouring similar to the camouflage pattern the rest of Cadlow Hangar used. Outside the hangar, the sparsely-populated scrub steppes stretched for many klicks beyond North Cataranga, one of the furthest settlements out along the Gilbrandan border. There wasn’t much cover, but if the Gears blended against the turf, their Gryphons were less likely to be shot off.

“—does that ratty barn owl think he’s doing, going over Lafaele’s brand new Gear? Hardly needs maintenance!” The jeer was distant, distorted as though reaching him through a wall, but Kiel heard the nearest Gryphon nonetheless.

“Probably assessing his chances for coupling with it when the hangar gets quiet,” the Gryphon’s wingmate suggested.

The Gryphons knew by now that maintenance was his passion as well as trade, that he kept them in the air, yet their jibes were unceasing. Kiel kept his face impassive and cycled to another lens, looking over the frame for wear and tear. He kept his attention where it belonged, because acquainting himself with the new Gear rated higher. Though the matte colors were unscratched in a way that suggested fresh paint, the Gear had seen its share of fighting. His gaze followed the wrinkles of an old scar to the crest of the vehicle and the name etched there. Battlehawk.

It was a traditional Gear name, fairly common. Gilbrand’s first Admiral Scanlan had ridden the premiere Battlehawk to war.

The name suited the Gear, sleek and maneuverable but sturdy in the way frontline Gears had to be. Kiel turned, reminding himself of his schedule, one hand raised to shift his MagLens back to normal vision. He pulled up short, vision gone blank with darkness until he noticed an eyelash in the upper right quadrant and realized he was face to face with a person. He cursed himself, cycling lenses.

A dark-skinned man in a Gryphon flight suit stood blocking his path. He had lean features and alert brown eyes under thick brows, and black hair outlined the curves of full lips beneath a broad, blunt nose. “Hello,” he mouthed. His helmet was tucked under his arm.

Kiel merely widened his eyes in response, knowing it made him look even more owlish but not caring. This brand-new Gryphon would only go the way of the rest. Kiel was good enough to keep their Gears in the air, but otherwise beneath notice. The sooner he got past any attempts at friendship, the better.

The new Gryphon’s brows rose. Instead of stepping around Kiel to get to his Gear, though, he did something astonishing. He set his helmet down beside his feet and lifted both hands.

Kiel tilted his head, sure the Gryphon was wasting his time, but fascinated.

Hello, the Gryphon signed to him in standard Gilbrandan DHHL, the language of gestures used by the deaf and hard of hearing. Most Gryphons would only be familiar with the abbreviated military sign language. I’m Marco Lafaele. The new Gryphon.

Kiel couldn’t help snorting, though he was reluctantly impressed. He pulled the sound damper out of his good ear. “I’m only half-deaf,” he admitted. His DHHL was decent enough to get by with Bryzha, the hangar’s fully deaf mechanic, but not good enough for extended conversation. “Wasn’t born deaf. I’m Kiel Navarro. One of your mechanics.”

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