Rucker stared back at the formation of autonomous drones that had followed them up from the surface. To port, Abydos shone as a green crescent, the planet all but eclipsed by Hyperion's six-mile spherical hull. Spaced at intervals of one thousand feet, the line of drones arced down and around Hyperion toward the surface of Abydos.
"Eos," Rucker said, "take the controls. Hold this position and tell Hyperion to open the airlock." Rucker rotated his seat, the top of his head pivoting a foot below the apex of the crystal dome enclosing TAV301's cockpit.
Eos, 301's AI, said, "Message acknowledged. Airlock hatch opening."
Rucker glanced down at Dana, his copilot. She also rode high the crystal dome, although ten feet off the centerline and below Rucker's line of sight. Dana's primary task was to monitor the fleet of two hundred drones. "How we doing?" Rucker asked.
"So far so good," Dana said, pivoting her seat to face him. Her eyes widened. "Rucker," she said, pointing above his shoulder.
Rucker twisted the joystick, swiveling his seat. A ship floated motionless near Hyperion's airlock, its laser cannon aimed squarely at them. "Is that one of our drones?" Rucker said. "Or did it come out of the airlock?"
"Not the airlock," Dana said. "The hatch was still opening."
Directing a spotlight on its canopy, Rucker inspected the flight deck. Finding no seats or controls, he reaffirmed the vessel was unmanned. "It is a drone, alright," Rucker said. "But why no lights? Eos, request status from that drone off our bow."
Hyperion had been on orbit at Abydos for six months, refitting and provisioning for its next mission: construction and settlement of Outpost Arcus. The jump to Arcus, a frozen planet on the outskirts of the known universe, would take one hundred and fifty-three days. The ice miners and ground crew, asleep in A-cells, had already been aboard for nearly two weeks. The miners would remain comatose until the ground crew could assemble the living quarters on the surface of the barren planet. Immediately following the jump, the flight crew would deploy the drones. The fleet of sweeper drones would seek out and pulverizing all navigational hazards within a billion miles of Arcus' sun. While Hyperion would jump blindly into "dirty" space, the ships that followed would jump into an ADZ, a hazard free zone cleaned and maintained by the drones of Outpost Arcus.
"The drone refuses to communicate," Eos said.
"What the hell?" Rucker said. "Less than a day old, and it's already screwed up. Eos, have Hyperion override that piece of crap and take it inside. And arm our cannon. Target its--" Rucker stopped as the drone flickered to life. Its ring of yellow navigational beacons now flashed sequentially around the canopy, a visual warning of autonomous operations.
"Rucker," Dana said. "That thing woke up the instant Eos armed our cannon. It's monitoring us. Shouldn't we shut it down? What if it--"
"Take it easy," Rucker said. "If we shut it down, we'll have to tow it around to the salvage bay. If Hyperion can't get it moving we'll drag it out of the way and force it to reboot while we're loading the others."
"Rucker," Dana said, "please...just shut it down."
"Proto is unable to commandeer the drone," Eos said, referring to Hyperion's AI.
"Damn it," Rucker said.
"The lead drone is still behind us," Dana said. "Why would any of the others break formation?"
"They wouldn't," Rucker said. "They're in transport mode. They can't make decisions."
"That one did," Dana said. "Any chance it also decided to arm its cannon?"
Rucker glanced down, finding Dana's innocent face now lined with worry. He and Dana had grown up together aboard Hyperion. After graduating from the academy, only days earlier, they returned home and officially signed on as crew. While attending school they had drifted apart, but they were once again a team. They'd always been best friends, equals, but now, as his copilot, she was his responsibility. Rucker wasn't sure he liked, or wanted, that type of relationship with Dana, although he did want to keep her close. Having watched Dana grow up and then blossom as a woman, he'd spent many nights imagining how she might feel in his arms, on his lips. Our hot naked bodies--
"Rucker," Dana said.
Rucker flinched, met her eyes.
"Please," she said, "shut it down."
"Eos," Rucker said, "open comm with Mason."
Howard Mason, CEO of Masonic Industries, had followed up the last drone. His factory on Abydos produced sweeper drones from recycled Thrust Assist Vehicles identical to TAV301. TAVs were the workhorse of the Universal Imperium Fleet.
"Mason probably sent it up from the back," Rucker said, glancing over his shoulder.
"Mason is not acknowledging your request for comm," Eos said.
"Rucker, please," Dana said.
"Okay," Rucker snapped. "Eos, order the drone to power down. Override: Delta nine five."
"Order transmitted and received," Eos said. "The drone refuses to comply."
"How is that even possible?" Rucker said. He stared down at Dana. "Wasn't that the code Mason gave us?"
"Yes," she said, "delta nine five."
Rucker shook his head. "Its RF receiver must be garbling our commands. Attach a comm umbilical and shut that thing down."
Dana extended 301's articulated arm to attach the cable, but the drone backed away. Its beacons winked out. "Did it power down?" Dana said.
Rucker shook his head. "No, it's holding station. We should just spike it with a towing harpoon and drag it out of there. Eos, arm the harpoon and--"
"What's the hold up, son?" Captain Bill Teague said.
Rucker pivoted his seat. His father's TAV floated a hundred feet off their stern. Captain Teague sat in the center seat, high in the dome. His copilot, an attractive young woman, sat on his right. Rucker enlarged her image on his monitory.
Bree? Rucker smiled. "Is that Bree?"
"It's me," Bree said. "Good to see you, Rucker."
"Wow," Rucker said, "you've dropped a ton of weight. You look great."
Dana glared up at Rucker.
The last time, and only time, Rucker had been with Bree, they'd taken each other's virginity.
"Same old Rucker," Bree said. "You open your mouth and shit falls out."
Captain Teague laughed.