Normally silenced by so much noise and fury of roaring fusion engines and myriad humming systems, the hull was beginning to groan loudly, as though it were unhappy with current circumstances. The asteroid it gripped onto was one of millions in this belt, and though its rotation was slower than its neighbours, the force still put considerable strain on the Ship’s claws which clung to it.
The Pilot flexed in their iridescent carapace-suit and checked over the instruments again, using duty as a distraction from the craft’s noisy worrying. Organic circuits lit up sporadically along the interior walls, a smattering of fireflies in the otherwise carapace black of the cockpit. Some showed proximity warnings or levels of nutrient stores; others seemed to display only the Ship’s own agitation. Heat flares lit up the asteroid field closer to the planet, signifying that the patrol was still searching for them.
The Ship’s hull pinged as if annoyed by this news, and the Pilot nodded silently, running simulations through the Shiplink. Sharing processing power with the Ship’s amalgamated brains, they quickly saw their options. Detaching from the asteroid would be risky, but they were a hairsbreadth from death regardless. Syncing nav computers with external cameras for maneuvering and reducing all drives to 1% was the cleanest path, even if the Ship still glowed infrared next to the frozen rocks it hid among. The Pilot waited for the right moment between their pursuers’ sweeping cones of radar and sonar, then released the docking clamps from their rooted position in the rock.
Sudden, sheer panic flew through the Pilot-Ship, lateral thrusters engaging at the speed of thought as a smaller rock hurtled inches from the hull. With nothing but the Ship’s own internal gel and outer shell, even a glancing hit could rupture the body and quickly freeze the organics (Pilot included) within. The walls quietly hummed with relief at the near-miss, glittering panels reflecting luminescence from within; The pilot, illuminated from all sides, focused on rotating the ship at a commensurate rate with the surrounding field, a slow, tumbling dance in a sea of drunken revelers. Without any external viewports, the Pilot relied both on the exoskeleton-mounted cameras and the Ship’s linked senses to navigate through the treacherous ring.
Lining up the landing proved even more difficult than expected, and it took more than seventy attempts to find a suitable host for berth. Emissions were low, but not low enough to avoid detection if their pursuers had any merit. Cutting all drives and powering down all but life support, the Pilot utilized embedded gas sacs in the hull to subtly adjust their spin. Barely a breath after they had landed and the Ship’s skin mimicked the rock-face, engine trails soared overhead, fuel particles alight in the void.
Following the smaller ship came a great burgeoning beetle of a vessel, swarming with striped offspring, pushing through the field; its thick armor allowed it to safely pass through the hazards, and several rocks were pulverized and harvested as she crawled onward. Her berths were open wide to the vacuum, and scout craft docked and launched in beautiful harmony amid the glittering bay lights. Had they not been hunting them, the Pilot might have enjoyed their organized flight, as winged insects darting to and fro, collecting nectar for their burgeoning hive.
The Ship was taut against the asteroid, flexing its body to resist any movement of the hull that might give them away; muscles straining, the Pilot similarly fought to maintain their position, air growing staler by the minute. Their camoflauge would stand up to cursory inspection, but only just; one tap, one errant twitch, and the chase would begin anew. Excess gas was building in the Ship’s reserves, with circuits showing the slow but steady increase in the harmful chemicals. They couldn’t vent until the fleet had moved on, even if the levels were well above their accepted maximum.
Time slowed to a crawl. The Pilot, eyes left to watch the alien vessels crawling over every asteroid like a scuttling horde, felt as if they were watching a species in the wild from relative safety: strange, bulbous shapes, flickering signals to each other like deep ocean creatures; occasional tussles between vessels, as a show of dominance or discontent; the soft, low hum of the hive-beetle mothership, possibly directing the search effort by specific vibrations.
Recording their movements was left to the Ship’s own senses, though telemetry and other readings weren’t available through the organic route. They would have to fit the Ship with emission-less sensors and recording equipment when next they docked, the Pilot noted. That was, of course, assuming the scout ship overhead continued its course and didn’t slow.
Without a cockpit viewscreen, the Pilot watched and felt through a facsimile of external feeds and mingled sensory input. Left to sit in the eerily comforting twilight of the Ship’s interior, with only a shared link to connect them to the outside. The experience was more isolating than expected, almost as terrifying as the escape from planetside had been hours ago.
The sheer stress of the Pilot’s body helping to keep the Ship’s hull rigidly in place was draining both parties, and as the wake of the mothership slid over them, the camouflage wavered. Weight and strain was put on an over-exerted frame, and the Ship twitched. The Pilot did nothing, face frozen in concentration mixed with shock. Seconds became days as they waited for plasma fire to lance through their disguise.
But the scout had passed, and no other came. The large beetle-ship trundled on through the field, though another hour passed before it was deemed safe to vent. The Ship’s distended hull, bulging from the excess waste gas, deflated as the poisonous emissions scattered outward, and the silent alarms in the Pilot’s mind disappeared. Both of them began breathing normally again, the stale sealed air replaced with a newly filtered and chemically ideal mixture. The Ship, using the exhaled Pilot’s gases to breath, in turn expelled gases toxic to itself but amenable to its occupant. A near-perfect symbiosis, engineered over centuries for long-distance flight, the process could leave pilots with a disdain for natural plant-processed air; Some captains rarely left their vessels even during shore leave, and the Gantry deliberated whether to enforce disembark after every docking.
Reliance on the Shipbond could leave pilots unable to acclimate to planetary service, leaving them to slowly become a permanent part of their ships. The Pilot hadn’t heard of more than a handful of these so-called Fused, but their skill at flying was unparalleled, despite the drawback of never being able to leave their ship.
After relaxing and checking internal damages from the chase and gas build-up, the Pilot engaged the drives enough to maneuver out from the planet’s ring, then set a ten-second burst before shutting the drives again. Inertia would carry them far enough from the gravity well that the Yenin Dynamo could plot a course to the nearest Antenna.
The information aboard the Ship was more important than the last three hundred years of history combined. And it must find its way to the Gantry at any cost. That was why, after stumbling upon the hive-fleet on the planet, the Pilot had not only visited and recorded three separate host-sites but led a merry chase through the asteroid field, hoping to discover their methods of flight and combat capabilities.
The Ship’s skin tingled, then rippled as the Dynamo wound tighter inside it, sending waves through the cockpit akin to a tide rapidly coming in, threatening to drown the Pilot. Hard sections in the control pod kneaded and rolled along the Pilot’s body, keeping circulation at a moderate rate as the pressure built to intolerable levels. More stars appeared at the edge of their vision, brought on not by stellar fusion but by blood pooling with nowhere to go. The Ship vibrated in a controlled but violent manner, shuddering and creaking under the intense tightness until suddenly, the muscle unclenched. All the potential energy from the Ship was turned into thrust, and the Pilot-Ship became one solid entity hurtling through the void at speeds once thought impossible and fatal.
A feeling of euphoria strangled the Pilot, dragging down all thoughts of lucidity and struggle, dampening any reactions to the unnatural situation. A cocoon of flesh enveloped the Pilot, and their last thoughts were of two stars burning brightly in the distance, a beach of hot-white sand, and naught but horizon in any direction.
Too far from home…