By the 23rd century, commercial space travel was the most accessible it had ever been. The invention of true fusion propulsion gave humanity an unfettered grasp of the heavens since its inception centuries prior. Coupled with rapid advances in artificial intelligence and automation, colonization efforts grew larger and more ambitious in scale over the decades. The Moon, Venus, Mars and even the Jovian Satellites were all settled by an ever-adventurous human diaspora and it seemed it was only a matter of time before even the stars themselves followed suit.
Spearheading these advancements were the menagerie of spacecraft built over the decades. Cargo haulers, colony transports, mining vessels and countless others had been manufactured in the tens of thousands to project the influence of humanity across the solar system. With time newer and newer models quickly supplanted them, and it became a lucrative business to disassemble and salvage the parts of the old and aging vessels into the next model generation. Soon there proved to be no shortage of spacecraft in the solar system in need of decommissioning, and the relatively vacant orbit around the Earth was the perfect place for it.
By now, the orbit of Earth resembled something of a vast bustling industrial park suspended by the abyss of space, littered with manufacturing plants, shipyards, and salvage yards as far as the eye could see. Governments and aerospace agencies had at one point pioneered its development, but this hegemony had inevitably found its way in the hands of powerful mega corporations who prioritized profits over exploration. In one way or another, history had begun to repeat itself even in the new, final frontier.
The Hagen-Gupta Conglomerate steadily acquired these lucrative orbital paths above Earth, all of it. Eventually, marking the entire area above the atmosphere as their own and began construction on all manner of orbital infrastructure. One of them was an orbital Salvage Yard, christened the Labour of Love. It would take a generation to construct it, but sections of it became available for work as soon as they were finished and sealed while construction crews continued onward. In time it came to resemble a kilometer long, spaceborne ring. Derelict ships were towed into hangars along the outside of the station and there were grand views for crew on the inside, all of whom were kept stationary with artificially generated gravity. Hundreds of workers lived and worked aboard the station. It wasn’t a glorious life, but there was good money to be made and it could be transferred to family Earth-side.
It was on these dusty, somewhat grimy halls, soaked in oil and fluids from scrapped ships, that the short clip of hard heeled boots resounded. The sound of the magnetically-locking boots was strolling through one of the many scrap yards in the heavy freighter district on the station. Passing by the dull gray bulkheads, smeared with ages of grime, cleaning fluids, brush strokes, and then more grime. It was impossible to keep a scrap yard like this clean, much like the errant stain of oil was impossible to prevent in a mechanics shop. It was a badge of use and survival.
Two freight scrappers donned in their bright orange vac-suits were floating along the hull, tethered securely over an absolutely massive primary thrust engine. There were no less than half a dozen thick tubes dangling from it, tangles of wires scattered and floating all around. They were in the process of digging through the internal workings to find as many working components as they could. An engine burn out had finally doomed the frigate it had belonged to, though there might still be something there that could be salvaged, refurbished, and sold.
The younger of the two men looked down at the figure striding through the scrapping bay below them. They had both seen her enter, but a knowing look from the older of the two workers was all it took to silence the rookie. There was an unspoken knowing there, the promise to tell him who she was once she had left her initial inspection of the entirety of the ship. The hard clomp of the mag-boots faded into the distance as the rookie watched a woman, staring entirely at a data pad in her hands, strolled past and through the airlock.
“Clementine, or Tipper, depending on the company she’s in.”
The confused look from the rookie told the whole story, there was a whole crew roster the had been handed when he came on board the crew, and he had surely read her name, but in the few months since he had been on the station, he had never heard her name.
“Everyone just calls her Clipper.”
That name stuck out to the new guy. He had heard the nickname and thought it belonged to some holier than thou, try hard commander. Glancing at the figure as the doors swished shut behind her, all he could see was the last of a regulation second-skin style vac-suit. She had been wearing a white vest, emblazoned with her name and rank on it and the tell-tale sign of long service. Small traces of loosening threads, a slight grease stain here or there. She was one of the few higher up the ladder who clearly still got her hands dirty.
“What does she do around here?” There was a wavering sense of concern in the rookie’s voice. Her look didn’t quite match with the rumors about her.
“Everything. Hand me that spanner-” the veteran muttered as he dipped back into the drive and continued to work, while his rookie trainee gawked after the lingering image of the woman.
“Yeah, training new rookies, getting them up to speed on the tools, processes, boring admin stuff.”
There was a muffled grunt and a squeal of metal as the spanner ratcheted the last restraining bolt out of the way and freed the controller core they had been after.
“Woe unto whoever she takes under her wing-” rising from the bay of the fusion drive, holding a large tan coloured box, marred by scorch marks on the outer casing. “Ta-da.”
“What makes her so bad?”
“Bad? Nothing. She’s flawless. She’s never had a major incident on her service record. Mostly because you are either working as perfectly as she does, or you get-” He drew a finger across his neck and then thumbed over his shoulder.
The two men untethered and coasted down onto the bay below using their suit’s thrusters, cradling the prize they had been after for two days. It was placed with a few other components from inside of the engine that might prove valuable. They would all be shuttled off for evaluation and cleaning by another crew. The pair turned to the frigate that had just finished inspection under Clipper’s scrutiny.
“She’s really not that bad, just, you know, efficient is all.” The older of the two mentioned as they shoved a hefty toolbox, suspended by an antigravity platform into the ship.
“Because she was raised by bots?”
It was a common enough rumor. Hushed conversations about Clipper’s upbringing at the tutelage of a pair of androids. It was never confirmed by Clipper herself, mostly because she didn’t believe that rumors about personal life had any right to be spoken about in her work place. So, it remained unconfirmed, but widely believed.
“Never been confirmed, but I wouldn’t bring it up around her. Really, just keep your head down around her, always reply with ‘yes ma’am’ and stay safe.”
Clipper was walking down the long, dingy, but brightly lit hallways. She encountered very few other crew members as she moved along. Most got a curt nod from her and little else. Crew members politely swerved out of her way and Clipper did the same, endeavoring to not get herself in anyone else’s way as she wove through the halls. She worked hard to cultivate an attitude of equality from the crew she oversaw, but never once crossed the line into friendly territory. She wanted her charges to know she was in charge but was not there to be a tyrant. It was a thin line to skate.
As she moved closer to the habitation sectors and moved further away from the scrap yards, the presence of the crew became thinner. It was the middle of the simulated day and night cycle. The overhead lights were still shining bright and wouldn’t dim into a simulated evening for another several hours. She was taking her required break, though she was still tapping furiously away on the tablet in her hands, confirming the inspection she had just concluded and checking the mail system for any updates on new and incoming crew for training.
The doors to her personal habitation room hissed open and Clipper looked up just in time to see a figure there.
Clipper was taller than most of the crew, a life lived in mostly diminished gravity would do that to someone. Clipper was over six feet tall, lean from a consistent regiment of exercise, making her look slender but toned. A fact that was difficult to tell in her second skin. The suit was tight enough to reduce the chances of it snagging on some loose piece of salvage, but not so tight as to reduce dexterity. It made it difficult to truly see how toned Clipper truly was. The only exception was the graphite-colored mechanical arm that occupied her right side. The vest on her shoulder did a good job at covering up the ugly scarring of flesh as it melded into the metallic arm.
Clipper stopped in her tracks and lowered her head slightly, letting her eyes travel further down to meet the smiling face of the person in her cabin. Her hand was already raised to her forehead in salute and she stood at attention, but her smile was infectious.
“Helen Anderson, reporting to duty Ms.Tipper.” The girl said.
It was uncommon to catch Clipper off guard, but Helen had managed to do so. Clipper’s eyes flicked to the girl’s face, down to the tablet and then back. Her visitor was certainly prettier than most of her crew, looking to be a young woman in her mid-twenties. She was certainly cute with her bob style hair, even as it was dyed blue along the bottom, showing her dark roots.
Helen was still clad in the standard issue space travel suit she would have been issued when she joined the Hagen-Gupta Department of Salvage. Prominently orange and yellow to increase visibility and festooned with corporate logos, it hung from her body quite a bit in a few places. It was clearly meant to be more of a “one size fits most” situation when they were made. Built in padding at the knees and elbows and a clear set of harness straps were built in around the legs, abdomen, and chest. A communications panel installed on the wrist and a life support system rated for up to twelve hours was worked into the sturdy dark gray chest plating. Oxygen hoses running from the life support system to the solid ring around her neck and shoulders where the helmet would have connected. The sleek yellow helmet was at her feet, the tinted gold sun visor closed on it.
The small name badge and rank was readily visible on the left side of her chest, which is right where Clipper’s eyes darted.
“Helen Anderson. Ah, nice to meet you. Why are you in my habitat?”
Her tone wasn’t rude, more inquisitive with an air of expectation. Clipper was used to having answers presented to her, usually before she felt the need to ask the question. The fact that this rookie hadn’t answered the question before it was asked was already a point of annoyance.
“I was told to find you in the freight yard, but you weren’t there, so the nav-comp guided me here. I figured you would have to show up eventually.”
It was a truthful answer, but the dawning realization that there was probably a better course of action clearly crept into Helen’s mind, and it was reflected in her voice. It had started as confident and as she relayed her answer it clearly became more and more ridiculous as she spoke it. All of this was punctuated by a deep breath turned to a heavy sigh from Clipper.
“Okay. Why are you looking for me?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m your new recruit. I was told to report to you for training.”
“Put your damned hand down, I’m not an enlisted officer or anything.” Clipper spat back as she raised her tablet back up to look at it.
Helen hesitated for a moment, bringing her hand away from her forehead and letting it fall to her side. She remained chipper, but her smile was fading slightly. She watched for a moment as Clipper tapped away on her tablet, scrolling through something before looking back up at Helen. Her eyes darted back and forth for a moment or two before she sighed once again.
“Helen Anderson, class 1 salvage crew, unit fifty-three, division three, correct?”
“Looks like you were a last-minute assignment here, by your request.”
“Yes ma’am, if you please.”
“Oh, uh, yes ma’am.”
“Fine. We'll begin tomorrow morning. Says here your habitat is in section five, you’re currently in section twenty. Out the door, to the left, walk until you see the big green circle that says ‘section five.’ your room is-”
“Number nineteen. I know.”
Clippers eyes narrowed, if they could bore a hole through Helen, they would have. Her face darkened and it seemed the room did too.
“You’ll refrain from interrupting me when I am speaking. Understood.”
“Y-yes ma’am.” Helen replied, her smile finally disappearing.
“You will be washed, ready, and at the hanger bay in scrap yard nine by oh eight thirty. Understood?”
“Good, you’re dismissed.”
Helen immediately squatted down and picked up her helmet, raised her hand to salute once more but stopped. She nodded once and quickly stepped out of the room. Once the door had shut behind her, she began a brisk pace down the gently curved hallways towards section five. She was following orders, but the route that Clipper had sent her on would take her around the majority of the ring-shaped station. There were only twenty sections in the ring, meaning turning to the left would have brought her to section five in a matter of about fifteen minutes. The route Clipper had sent her on was going to take almost an hour, depending on how fast Helen walked.
With the door closed now, Clipper brought her hands up to her hair, releasing the tight bun of auburn hair there. She tossed her head back and forth, loosening it and allowing it to fall all around her face and shoulders in voluminous cascades. She stared down at her tablet again, the communication about a last-minute recruit still displayed on screen. It showed Helen’s details, service record, relevant information and vital statistics. This was her first job on record even though she showed an incredible talent for deconstructing electronics and vessels. A small note from her superiors noted that she seemed to be something of a savant, and would likely only need some guidance and a firm hand to lead her.
It was what Clipper was good at, what she had trained for and built her career around, and now it was time to put it into practice once again.
Helen’s trek to her room took her almost exactly an hour. She was lugging along the small duffle bag that contained all of her known possessions, which wasn’t much. A few changes of clothes, mostly rugged traveling clothes, and one nice summer dress she had purchased for herself long ago. Some basic necessities, and not much else.
Her walk to her room was met with a number of greetings from several crew members who were just waking up for the evening shift, all of which she was delighted to greet with a sunny smile and some variant of a ‘hello.’ The groggy crew generally waved in return, though there were more than a few who were happy to see a fresh new face pacing the hallways.
Once she arrived at the green section five entryway, she saw that there was a long green stripe painted along the walls here to indicate what section she was in. She followed it along, counting the numbers on the doors until she came to nineteen. The bold black letters were bordered by the same green coloring that had marked the hallway here. She waved the communicator on the wrist of her suit over the sensor pad, it beeped and illuminated with a red glow for a moment. She swiped again, then again, finally on the fourth try it finally registered her identity and the door slid open.
Her habitat was small compared to Clipper’s. She almost wished she hadn’t seen the inside of one of the nicer habitats before seeing her own. Clipper’s habitat had a bedroom, a small kitchen and a sitting area with a closed door that Helen assumed was a bathroom. Clipper’s had been nicely decorated with some small smattering of artwork on the walls, two chairs, a love seat and a coffee table. She hadn’t seen the bedroom but images of plush comforters with soft sheets and fluffy pillows danced in her head. Clipper’s small dorm even sported a rarity this far out in space, a real, honest to goodness, plant. The lush green leaves had stood out in stark contrast to the bland white walls.
Helen, meanwhile, had just stepped into her own habitat. It was a single room and nothing more. The white walls showed signs of a previous resident, with the occasional smudge on the wall and some clear scuffing on the floor. There was a single bed that was built into the wall with a lopsided curtain rod for privacy. There was a semicircle track in the ceiling with a curtain dangling from it that was intended to be pulled across the corner where the toilet and sink were located.
Three drawers were set into the wall, marking the only dresser Helen had to work with. It was more than enough to store the small amount of clothing she had brought with her, but little more. The only additional item in the room was her company issued jumpsuit. It looked used, sporting more than a few stains and some wear and tear, mainly at the knees and elbows.
Helen dropped her duffle bag and began unpacking, which took all of about half an hour, and most of that time was spent trying to find a flat surface to set something down on. In the end, her clothes and effects were stored, leaving her with the better part of the evening to get acquainted with the station.
She left her room and began to casually pace along the halls, still wearing her vac-suit, earning her some confused looks, but everyone seemed unconcerned enough to bring it up with her. She found her way into several of the scattered cafeteria units, which allowed her to connect the dots as to why Clipper had a kitchen in her dorm, and Helen did not. The upper crust of the company likely didn’t spend their time fraternizing with the lower crew members. She also discovered, after a short while, that the station looped around and found herself in front of Clipper’s dormitory again, swearing quietly to herself and then stomped back towards her own habitat.
The night cycle passed, marked only by the lights in most of the dorm halls dimming to a lower light, and the outer station lights dimming around the single window that looked out into space. Helen flopped into her bed, stretched a little and placed her hands behind her head and letting her eyes slip closed.
Helen arrived at the hangar bay approximately thirty seconds before the official station time rolled over to eighth thirty. Clipper was already in the bay, her artificial hand clasped in her organic hand and facing away from the door. She was looking over the freighter that was docked there. It was small, not terribly complicated and Clipper already knew exactly what was and was not good for salvage on it. Her ear twitched as she heard the faint hissing of the door behind her unsealing and opening, the sound of boots clinking on the flooring indicated that Helen had arrived. She looked down at her tablet for a moment, noting that the time had just changed.
“You are barely not late.” Clipper said, turning to face Helen.
“It wasn’t a compliment.” She turned back and gestured to the small cargo vessel that sat idly in the bay. “This is your assignment for the day. I want to see what you know, and what you can do. So, I’ve inspected the ship and structure. It’s safe for entry. You are welcome to the tools along the perimeter of the bay. I’m going to give you four hours to mark the most valuable salvage you can find.”
Helen was smiling again, eager to get to work and to prove to Clipper that, despite her initial bumble into Clipper’s dorm, that she was a competent mechanic and scrapper.
“Time’s wasting.” Clipper said and turned to leave. “I’ll be in the observation deck if you need me.”
Helen was already moving, setting her sights on the plethora of highly specialized tools that were arrayed alongside the more mundane tools. All she took with her into the ship was a flashlight, a simple screwdriver and some wrenches. It was enough to pique Clipper’s attention as she stepped into the observation room. A large, pressurized room with plexiglass safety windows that looked into the hangar bay. She was watching Helen as she floated up into the ship, her suit’s thruster’s spraying thin jets of propellant in a trail behind her. Clipper wouldn’t see her again for another quarter of an hour when she emerged, humming to herself and smiling the same friendly smile as always.
Once she emerged, she returned to the tools on the floor and began picking up more specialized equipment. A plasma cutter, a wire stripping kit, some pry bars, and an assortment of smaller tools were all strapped onto her suit’s tool belt and accompanied Helen into the ship. It was certainly an unorthodox approach.
Over the course of the next three and a half hours Helen would occasionally emerge from the ship carrying armfuls of scrap and salvage, a feat made easier by the Love’s lower than usual artificial gravity. She laid it out on a workbench along the side of the bay and then she would move back in only to return with more and more. At the end of the allotted four-hour period Helen had pulled out far more than Clipper had originally marked, which wasn’t unexpected. Anyone could take apart electronics and pull pieces out, but it took some talent to find the real value in it. Clipper was an expert in it, but it was time to see if Helen was too.
“Well, let’s see what we have here.”
Clipper had entered the hangar bay and was striding over to Helen, hands clasped behind her back and her steps measured and crisp.
“You look to have pulled out a significant amount of seemingly useless junk. Explain yourself.”
Helen let a small smirk quirk up at the side of her mouth. She had expected as much from Clipper. The freighter was filled with salvage, and Helen was able to puckout with relative ease the kinds of things that Clipper would have earmarked as “valuable” but Helen had other ideas. Almost everything Clipper would have marked was present in her piles of salvage, masked only partially by some of the other scrap she had pulled.
“Well, as you can see, I pulled the navigation computer from the captain's console. Wide beam transmitters are highly valuable, and over here, the life support controller module. I also noted that there are two half-filled oxygen tanks inside the ship which were too big and cumbersome for me to pull out all by myself, so to avoid an accident I left them where they were.”
Clipper nodded along with each explanation.
“Impressive, I would have thought most people would have dropped the belly casing off and attempted to haul the tanks out of there without a grav-cart, but that’s against regulation, good job. And the rest of this…garbage?” She nodded towards the mass of other components, electronics, and wiring that was scattered across the workbench.
“Copper wiring, good shielding, it might not be good for resale, but you can certainly put it to good use for other things.”
“Well, the shielding melts before the rest of the circuitry in some of the more vital modules, so if you have a stock of it you can pretty easily repair a heat damaged component, it’s easier than you might think. And these targeting computers are pretty cheap, but every ship has at least two, so you could double your profits from taking them both.”
Clipper nodded along, making notes occasionally on her tablet. Helen’s ideas were good, but they wouldn’t turn the kind of profits that Hagen-Gupta demanded from their salvage yard. Regardless, there was talent to be had, and a drive to think outside the box. Clipper was ready to sign off on the evaluation when she spied something else, and raised an eyebrow at it.
It was a small crystalline figure. A thick rounded base, with a smaller oblong portion at the top with two long, poofy protrusions. Four small stumpy attachments were seen on it as well, two at the bottom and another two in the middle somewhere. Small, dark beads were affixed on either side of the upper portion of the thing.
As clipper picked it up and held it to the light, spears of rainbow light scattered in all directions, refracted by the facets on it. Rotating it made the light dance and move along walls. Helen instinctually raised a hand to stop Clipper, but only just barely put it down as Clipper looked the thing over. Rolling it in her hands and examining it.
“I thought it looked neat.”
“Do you know what that is? Th- the shape of it that is.” Helen asked.
“It’s a wild Rabbit! Those are the ears, the head is that oblong part there, and the body. It’s an extinct animal from back on Earth.”
Clipper looked from the trinket back to Helen and set it back down on the workbench.
“I know, but I was hoping I might keep it as a souvenir of my first job here.” Helen said hopefully. “The first of many.”
Clipper looked down at the crystalline creature and then to her tablet. Helen had more than proven she was competent, knowledgeable, and had a sharp eye for what constituted as valuable, and what wasn’t. She had at very least passed the safety test by not extracting the oxygen canisters. Her report was already filled in on her tablet and ready for submission, it would likely be more of a hassle to make note of the trinket than to let it slide.
Clipper tapped on the submit button and tucked the tablet under her arm.
“Good job. Feel free to take a break if you need it and meet me in hangar bay twenty in half an hour.”
Clipper turned and began walking away.
“You may dispose of the worthless parts of the salvage as you see fit.”
Helen had scooped the scrap into a disposal bin, which included the copper wiring and some of the miscellaneous circuitry she had pulled out. The crystalline figure, though, was placed into the pocket on her jumpsuit and was gingerly cradled all the way back to her habitat. It took a center position on the window that overlooked the vastness of space beyond.
“Keep a watch out for me, alright?”
Helen whispered to the rabbit and then dashed out of the room. She would miss her chance to eat anything as she power-walked through the halls to make her way to the next shuttle bay where Clipper was already waiting for her.
The doors to the hangar swished open and Helen stepped in. It was well lit in here, and in front of her sat a much larger frigate than she had just been on. It was an imposing thing and occupied most of the available space inside the bay. Heavy straps were attached to the four thrusters that faced Helen as she entered. Thick rubber pads were attached to the straps and cradled the fusion drive. Partially to prevent more damage to the engine, and partially to help diffuse any kind of errant short circuit that might occur. The ship had clearly been prepared by experts who followed the rule book down to the letter.
“Probably a clone army of Clippers, all working as one hive mind.” Helen muttered to no one.
Clipper had just stepped through the airlock doors and into the hangar bay, still tapping along on her tablet.
“Do you run your entire life on that thing?” Helen asked, the sarcasm in her voice was unmistakable.
“No, but I’ll be running yours from it.”
Clipper walked past Helen and towards the ship. She kept a steady gait as she strode around the behemoth of a vessel, and Helen found that she needed to jog to catch up to her before falling in step behind her.
“Claxton-Class deep space transport. More for passengers than cargo. You’ll find much more delicate equipment in here packed behind leather seats and polished marble counters.”
The pair came to stop at the end of the ramp leading into the maintenance airlock bay of the grand ship.
“All the equipment is on board already, but you should know that the Gunner-Wright Plasma-”
“I’m well acquainted with plasma cutters, ma’am.”
Clipper’s brow was furrowed in an instant and her face already reddening with anger. If there was one thing, she hated it was to be interrupted when she was relaying crucial information. Not only that but Helen had placed a boot on the walkway and was already striding into the ship’s airlock.
“H- Helen stop!” Clipper brought a hand to her ear and pressed the direct communication button on her headset to send a message directly to the comm system in Helen’s ear.
“Helen, get out of there immediately!”
“I’m fine, I know what I’m do-”
A flash of light erupted from just inside of the airless maintenance bay. Through Clipper’s comms, it sounded like a combination of a thousand lightning bolts muddled with the twang of someone slamming a sledge hammer into a high-tension wire. Helen’s body came careening back out of the opening and slowly floated away from the ship and beyond the ramp.
Clipper had already tossed her tablet aside, cursing as she did so and hopped back. She uncharacteristically stumbled and fell to her rear, scooting backwards another several feet from the sheer volume of the explosion, then stopped as she smacked against a wall. Once she got her bearings and her ears stopped ringing, she swore again and got to her feet.
“Helen! Helen! Shit.”
There were wisps of dark smoke peeling off of Helen’s suit. Her small life support system was sparking still and sending small arcs of electric blue bolts in all directions for a moment. Then, seemingly the device had had enough and let out a small puff of acrid black smoke and stopped all activity. Helen, meanwhile, remained limp, unmoving, and unresponsive.
Clipper knew that grabbing her body might trigger another short circuit within her own suit. She also knew the ship itself was stable and safe so long as no unshielded electronics got in close contact with the hull. The life support pack on Helen’s back might have had some kind of malfunction in it that caused the electrical burst.
Clipper dashed to the tool racks and picked up a grav-claw before pointing it at Helen and, after a few tries, managed to snag her in the semi-translucent beam and pull her back towards the ground. Clipper pulled her a full fifteen or twenty feet from the hull before gently lowering the body to the floor. When she felt it was safe, she tossed aside the tool and dashed to Helen’s body. She rolled the rookie around face front and and looked her over. Her face was frozen in a mask of shock and surprise. Clipper barely registered how odd that was, instead she scooped up Helen and settled her onto one of the anti-gravity carts and turned towards the door. She was not about to allow a new recruit to tarnish her perfect record by dying.
The halls were barren as crew members labored in their scrap hangars, allowing Clipper to make a snap decision. The medical bays were scattered around the facility, but Clipper wasn’t ready to report this just yet. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or maybe there was some wild thought process that ran through Clipper’s mind, but regardless, she pushed the cart to her habitat module.
Once there, Clipper lifted Helen’s motionless body onto the bed and took a step back. At least she had stopped smoking in transit. She ran to the hall and returned with the automatic external defibrillator that had been attached to the wall a few doors up from Clipper’s dorm. She set it on the bed next to Helen and set about undoing the vac-suit that encased Helen. It took time, but Clipper was frantic, and soon she was peeling off the second skin suit below it. She didn’t manage to get it all the way off though.
She had pulled the suit down to Helen’s abdomen before she noticed the lingering acrid smell of burnt silicone and singed electronics. She stopped for a moment and looked over Helen.
The skin along Helen’s shoulder was melting and dribbling into her arm. It had long ago stopped burning, but the lingering heat was still causing a small drip. The electronic interior to her arm was clearly visible, and even as Clipper peered inside, she could see the charred and burnt remains of wires. Copper wires. The shielding had melted off of them as a result of the heat and caused some soot deposits along the electronics there, but they could be easily extracted and repaired. Clipper was beginning to see why a rookie like Helen might want to keep an on-station supply of spare electronics and wiring.
Clipper’s eyes traced over Helen’s naked chest, following the contours of her body until she found the place where the rib cage would end. She placed her finger nail against Helen’s still warm skin and moved her nail up and down, gently pressing in on the skin until she felt her finger nail catch on the almost invisible seam line darting through the middle of her toros.
Clipper brushed aside the defibrillator on the bed and lowered herself to the mattress, sinking into it. She looked over at Helen, the disabled android. Clipper could only blink for a few moments, which melted into minutes, and soon she had spent more than enough time wrapping her mind around what had happened. She needed more information and more importantly, she needed to get Helen back up and running.
Clipper was no slouch when it came to repairing robotic components. Her mechanical arm had allowed her ample opportunity to hone her skills with the inner workings of mechanical components. The first step, though, was to finish stripping Helen of her suit and second skin. She was thinking much more clearly now that the adrenaline and panic that had laid siege to her mind had faded. She removed the suits and let them crumple to a messy heap on the floor of her otherwise sparkling clean room.
She took some time to find the necessary tools for the job and bring them back to her quarters. No one questioned her or even looked at her as she stomped through the halls. She had earned enough of a reputation that no one thought to question her armfuls of tools, wiring, electronic components and equipment. Some questions were best not asked.
Like everything that Clipper did, she laid out her tools meticulously along the desk in her room and got to work.
Helen was naked on the bed, and as Clipper stepped up to get to work, she noticed Helen’s proportions and more importantly, her human like sexual module. It looked realistic to a fault, if not for the hole seared in Helen’s shoulder, Clipper would have thought she was a human. Her skin looked and felt too real, her personality annoyed Clipper in a way that only a human could, and her body was flawless. It was no wonder she had hidden it below layer upon layer of space suits.
Clipper shook her head once, and then got back on task. She turned her attention to the shoulders. One was still intact, looking unblemished. Clipper found the tool she needed in an instant. It looked like a standard precision screwdriver with an overly long shaft. The tip of which tapered down to a thin point until it was barely a pin point at the end. With the tool in hand, she found her way along the seam line that wrapped around Helen’s shoulder and pushed the pin point head into the skin and deep into the mechanisms hidden below the skin. She knew that there was a manual release somewhere inside of the arm, it was always a challenge to find it though. It took a moment or two of poking and prodding, but then the satisfying click was felt more than heard and she pulled the tool free.
Setting it aside she gingerly took hold of Helen’s arm and pulled it away from her shoulder just enough to expose the joint set in her body, but more importantly, exposed the rubber capped bundles of cables. Clipper wormed her fingers into the small space and wiggled the cable connectors apart before moving Helen’s arm completely away from her body. Clipper meticulously repeated the process on Helen’s legs, being careful to separate the limb from the body without dropping it or damaging any of the other wiring. She knew that whatever she broke here would have to be fixed by her.
Clipper worked off both legs, the one arm and poised herself over the damaged shoulder. Finding the manual release latch there was much less challenging, as it was clearly visible. She watched as the clamps disengaged as the tool was inserted and she pulled apart the cables. Clipper held up the arm once disconnected and inspected it from as many angles as she could. There was a large amount of visible damage. The circuitry was completely ruined, charred and showing signs of a complete overload. There were burst components all along the internal support structure and more than enough melted flesh mucking up the operation of it.
“Well, that’ll need a replacement.” Clipper muttered, placing the arm back on the bed.
She took some time to inspect the other limbs, each one appearing to be in good working order. Satisfied that the arm might be the only component that needed any kind of work, she settled loomed over Helen’s legless, armless torso. She pressed the tool into an almost imperceptible pinhole somewhere in the sternum of Helen’s chest. The tool slipped deep inside of her until it found its home in the small receptacle that housed the locking mechanism for Helen’s chest. Clipper pressed in and felt the mechanical locks retracting while clamping onto the tool at the same time.
She pulled up on the tool, bringing Helen’s chest plate with it. Like her arms, Clipper had to be careful and disconnect the dozens of bundles of wires that ran from the internal circuitry to the outer shell. Once freed though, Helen’s chest and abdomen joined the disconnected arms.
Helen lay completely exposed now. Her inner workings on full display for Clipper to evaluate. The framework looked to be in good condition still. It looked to be made of mostly lightweight plastics, meaning the electric jolt would have passed harmlessly through it. Clipper took note of some interesting construction choices once she gazed at the components inside of Helen’s open torso. There were several more rudimentary sub-systems, while others looked to have been heavily modified and upgraded. Clipper was used to seeing an android constructed with only proprietary components that would have been manufactured solely in house by the production company. Helen was a mish mash of a number of components and aftermarket modules.
The core processor unit, normally a fairly sizable board with rows and rows of powerful chips, was nestled behind the artificial rib cage. Helen’s processor core had been relocated to lower in her body, and wrapped in some kind of shock proof casing. The sight of that seemed to raise Clippers spirits. Processors that would allow a robot to operate at the level that Helen had been were not cheap. Clipper shuffled around inside of Helen’s body a bit more and found that the storage drives that housed Helen’s personality, memory, programming, and any number of other code blocks was similarly shielded in a faraday cage.
The power supply inside of Helen seemed to be the core cause of her condition. There was a small blinking red light on it that indicated some kind of warning. It was blinking in a pattern as well, and a swift search for the blink code revealed that it was damaged beyond repair. It was, however, a generic power supply and one that might be easily acquired from the scrap yards, or at very worst ordered. Clipper extracted it and set it aside, looking over her employee, opened and laid out on her bed like any other piece of salvage in her scrap yard. Clipper pressed her lips together into a thin line, she had a choice to make.
Helen’s eyes fluttered open, taking in her surroundings. She was laying on a far too firm bed, the sight of star light gently drifting past her window. As Helen turned her head to look out the small opening, she was greeted by the sight of her small crystalline rabbit, sending tiny beams of rainbow light all around her cubby. The curtain was pulled across it, making it impossible to see the rest of the dorm.
Her eyes widened in an instant. Her log files indicated that there was a massive system overload just as she had entered the cruise liner and worse still, Clipper had been standing right there. If she was awake now, that means that someone would have discovered her and now knew she wasn’t a human. She looked through the recent log files and found that a new arm module had been registered to her operating system, with new serial numbers and drivers. She held the arm up, it looked identical to the one she had before, but it was clearly new.
Helen flung open the curtain only to be met with the sight of Clipper sitting in a simple folding chair. She had one leg crossed over the other at the knee and her tablet in her hands. Clipper’s eyes darted up from the tablet to Helen’s face. Helen’s lips were slightly parted, as if she wanted to speak, but was far too intimidated or maybe embarrassed to do so.
“You are aware that modifications to a drone that would result in an adjustment of their sentience level is a severe felony with the Blue Commonwealth, don’t you?”
“Yes ma’am” Helen replied, her face red and her eyes dropping to the flooring.
“And that any drone caught impersonating a human is to be immediately turned over to the authorities for disassembly?”
Helen didn’t need to answer, Clipper knew the law and Helen clearly did as well.
Helen looked upwards, still unable to meet Clipper’s gaze, but looking more in her general direction.
“I have an appointment with the station's board of directors in fifteen minutes. Tell me how you ended up here and I’ll make a decision on if I should report you.”
Helen opened her mouth to ask more questions, to plead and beg for another chance. In the end though, she would have to let her past deeds speak for themselves.
“I was manufactured as a pleasure/companion bot. An NH-8, Gen 3 unit. My previous owner wanted a little more out of me, added the modifications after he bought me. It made me more and more sentient until I could basically think for myself. Then the sharks called his loan and he didn’t have the funds. So, they took me instead.”
Clipper’s gaze was locked on to Helen, nodding along with the smallest of head movements.
“So, I started working as a call girl, trying to save up enough to buy my way to independence. It didn’t take long for the old computer brain to figure out that I would likely be so far out of maintenance before I paid off my debt, so I ran. I bought a fake ID, joined the scrappers guild because it paid well without many questions. I downloaded as much information as I could on the ins and outs of salvaging and here I am.”
Clipper’s facial expressions hadn’t changed. She was still staring down at Helen, stone faced, and sporting a single slightly raised eyebrow.
“I- I plan on paying off the debt as soon as I can so that they aren’t trying to track me down. I’ll work hard, and you can trust me. I just can’t have anyone know that I’m-”
Clipper had heard enough, she held up her hand and silenced Helen.
“You have already proven yourself to be more than competent in your abilities. You would make a fine scrapper that anyone would be proud to have on their team.” Clipper began. “But you are rash, and impulsive. I don’t have the skill to program that out of you, but if you are as sentient as you claim I’m sure, in time, you’ll learn how to curb that.”
Helen looked up at her, unsure of what Clipper was saying, if anything.
“You made a good call on the spare copper wiring. We’ll be sure to keep some of that and a few other components on hand in the general storage. However, you’ve already had three days off while I repaired you, so you’ll need to get back to work tomorrow morning. Hangar twelve, another freighter.”
“Wh- what? Why? You aren't going to turn me over?”
“No, I’m not. You remind me a lot of myself in some ways. Sharp, but unrefined. Keep your attitude in check and refrain from doing anything as stupid as not listening to me again and you should have a long and prosperous career with us.”
Clipper turned and stepped towards the door, but before pressing on the door release button, she looked over her shoulder at Helen.
“I’ll arrange for a sizable payment to be made towards your outstanding debt as well. As a down payment on an investment. You can pay it back by doing good work. Understood?”
Helen sprang to her feet. Her artificial mind demanding that she sprint across the space, throw her arms around Clipper and pull her into an embrace. She didn’t, choosing instead to remain prudent, smile and nod vigorously.
Clipper walked out of the door and into the hall, letting the door slide shut behind her, but she didn’t move. The sound of a delighted squeal from the other side of the door drew a genuine smile across her face. It was a rare sight for Clipper. She admitted to herself that flexing the muscles in her face that made her smile felt nice and in an odd way, comfortable. She stood there listening to the joy in Helen’s voice through the door for another moment before she turned and walked along the corridors of the station. They were dirty, grimy in places and even more so in the habitat zone for working crew members. The gunk from hundreds of jobs clinging to their boots and leaving a long history on the floor.
Clipper would attend her board meeting, reporting on all the new recruits and the progress each was making. There was a small question about a reported discharge from one of the jobs, a passenger craft. Clipper was quick to mention that it was a simple circuit overload and that there were no human crew members in the ship at the time of discharge. It was technically the truth and one that earned a grunt of acceptance from the rest of the board members. The rest of her report of the rookie scrappers was nothing less than glowing. She explained how each and every one had made major strides in their duties and she looked forward to working with all of them.
Clipper only vaguely paid attention to the rest of the meeting, choosing instead to think about Helen, and how she might help the flourishing android in the future. She had much to learn about being a scrapper, a good employee, and a human. That last one would take some gentle tutelage, but Clipper was sure she could help Helen flourish here.