The Box

Part Two -- By Becky Ratliff

(See Disclaimer in Part 1)

Going straight across, it was less than an hour's walk back there. He still had some light, which was what he wanted-- he had no desire to go poking around the AIs' camp in the dark, when they could see and he couldn't. He stayed low in the grass.

The cargo box was less than half as long as the pirates' spacecraft. They had the ramp open and there were at least eight of them gathered around a large bonfire. McQueen looked, then did a double-take. The remains of one of the AIs still smoldered in the fire. He couldn't tell which one it had been.

Then he saw a third craft behind the pirates' ship. It was a Hammerhead, but not his -- Collins'!

That explained why there was no rescue. Collins had never gotten the chance to send one.

One of the pirates came out of the cargo box, grinning and pulling his pants up. Oh, damn, he thought. Collie. He made his way around behind the cargo box and worked his way up to the broken viewport, but he couldn't see anyone inside.

Down at the other end of the cargo box was a hatch, it hadn't been used in a long time but it wasn't locked. He opened it slowly to keep the hinges from creaking and slipped inside.

He was back by the head, at the far end of the wooden bins. When he got up near the front where he could see, Collins was lying on the bunk with her hands tied, and one ankle tied to the bed leg. The little brown-haired AI was huddled in the corner, its dress was torn. There were no pirates immediately in sight.

McQueen reached in his pocket for his knife and cut Collins' leg loose loose. She started to come around, he put his hand over her mouth to keep her from giving him away and got bitten for his troubles. He whispered, "Collie! It's me, McQueen! Knock it off!"

She recognized him and stopped struggling so he could cut her wrists free. The AI was looking at them but it didn't move or say anything.

"It's been like that ever since they threw the other one in the fire," she explained. "I don't have any use for AIs, McQueen....but I wouldn't have done that," Collins said.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I don't know why I'm still alive, but I think I'm okay."

"Did they--?"

She shook her head. "No. He wanted to, but the captain told him to play with the AI. TC, I think they were going to sell me someplace."

"I was thinking about that. There've always been rumors of a slave trade. I thought that's all it was, just talk. We've got to get you to your bird."

"Now wait a minute, I'm not leaving you here--" Collins protested.

"That's an order, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir, Major, sir. Has the Major considered that the Lieutenant is probably not fit to fly with this knock on the head?"

"Our little friend over there shot me with a knockout dart last night, I'm probably still drugged. So I'm not any more fit to fly than you are. The order stands."

Collins obviously wanted to argue further, but she wasn't going to disobey a direct order. "Oh, hell, McQueen, just get me to my plane in one piece and I'll bring a ride back for you."

"I know you will."

With a sudden burst of movement, the little AI darted past them and under the clothesline, and out the hatch McQueen had come in. They both went after it, but almost immediately they realized it was making its escape, not warning the pirates. Collins laughed softly. "Jesus, TC, did you ever see one take off like that?"

"A few times," he replied, without elaborating. He'd had occasion to give a few of them good reason to look for somewhere else to be...the ones that had got away. They circled around behind the cargo box and through the grass, well outside the circle of light from the bonfire.

The pirates hadn't left a guard on the Hammerhead. McQueen looked around for something to create a distraction, and saw nothing...until his hand brushed his water bottle. He gave Collins the last bit that was in there. "Open the fill port and put some coolant in that--about three quarters shouldn't put you down too low. Mind the fumes."

His acute hearing picked up a soft creak as she eased the port open. "What the hell are you going to do with a bottle of engine coolant?" She whispered.

"Have you ever seen that stuff burn?"

She laughed. "Very cool, McQueen." Presently she handed it back to him. "Do NOT get yourself killed doing whatever you're planning to do."

"Who, me? I always land on my feet. Remember one of them's upstairs in my plane. Now get up there and get the hell out of Dodge."

He watched her get up into the cockpit, then slowly worked his way around the side of the pirates' ship. He waited until he had a good opening, then threw the bottle of coolant in an easy underhand arc into the flames, downwind of him.

It took the bottle a couple seconds to melt through, releasing the liquid into the flames. It had already started to boil off, the volatile gas burned off with a loud rush and covered the open area with a cloud of acrid, stinging smoke. The rest of the coolant spread out, turning the flames emerald green and releasing more choking smoke. Coughing and swearing, rubbing their streaming eyes, the pirates stumbled around trying to get to clear air. One of them, overcome by the fumes, fell to his knees and retched violently. When the confusion reached a boiling point, McQueen ducked out of cover to grab one of the pirates and knock him out. He managed to get two more of them while they were still blinded and confused by the smoke.

Collins took off the old-fashioned way, roared off the deck short and hot. That got the remaining pirates' attention, unfortunately focussed on him.

He had accomplished his objective, keeping the pirates busy so they wouldn't notice Collins starting up the plane. There were four of them left, they were mad as hell, and he decided it would be a good time to be somewhere else. Except instead of trying to chase him, one of them picked up a stick of firewood and threw it as hard as he could, it caught him behind the knee and he went down hard. Before he could get his feet back under him, one of them jumped on him.

The pirate smelled like a brewery, and he must have been feeling no pain. He took a couple of McQueen's best shots without any appreciable effect, and slammed McQueen in the shoulder with his elbow. His whole arm went numb, he retaliated with a left to the jaw that knocked the pirate out cold.

The other three weren't that far behind. The next thing he knew he was at the bottom of a pile with the whole gang of them punching and kicking. He got hold of somebody's hair and knocked a couple guys' heads together, but then someone got hold of the stick of firewood and hit him over the head with it. While he was still seeing stars, someone else grabbed his wrist and yanked his arm up behind him. Another one got hold of his other arm and they hauled him to his feet.

"What the hell have we got here?"

McQueen answered him with a glare, but said nothing. He figured he was probably dead anyway, but any of the first ten remarks that came to mind would have made that a certainty.

One of the pirates yelled from the cargo box, "They're gone! The woman and that AI!"

"Of course the woman's gone, you damn fool! Who do you think took the Hammerhead! We haven't got long to get the hell out of here before she brings back more. But you--if you think you're breathing our air and eating our food, you think again."

"What are you gonna do with him, Captain? Take him up with us and shove him out an airlock?"

The captain gave McQueen a good long look. "I'm gonna miss having a hideout in this system, it's real close to lots of wormholes. I'll bet you know who gave us away, don't you?"

McQueen replied, "Why would they tell me something like that? All I know is that I had my orders to patrol this area." That was the truth at least--he couldn't betray anyone else to these people. Not like before...he mustn't let himself think about that now.

"Let's roast him like we did that AI!" One of the pirates suggested.

That idea got a lot more support than McQueen thought it warranted. He tried to put up a fight, and all that got him was a hard punch in the stomach from the captain.

There wasn't a hell of a lot he could do now to make his situation worse, as soon as he got some air back in his lungs he kicked with all his strength. The captain howled and doubled over.

The guy who had his right arm up behind his back twisted it until he thought it was going to come out of joint. When the pirate captain managed to straighten up he gasped, "String him up on the side of that box, we've got time to do him right!"

McQueen put up all the fight he could as the pirates stripped him, several more of them were nursing assorted bruises by the time they finished but there were too many of them for him to have a chance. Soon he was hanging by his wrists from the side of the cargo box. One of the pirates caught a glimpse of the back of his neck and realized that he was an In Vitro, as if they didn't already have enough against him.

The captain came over and drew a knife, McQueen set his jaw as he lazily drew a line down the side of his face with just the tip of it. McQueen felt blood running down the side of his neck, but the knife was too sharp for much pain yet.

"Who turned us in?"

"Go to hell." That bit of defiance got him a slash across the chest, shock at first and then burning pain. Present and past intertwined, he fought a flashback with all his will. Right now was bad enough. He didn't need to remember the prison camp.

There was a shot from the darkness and one of the pirates fell. The one, McQueen noted, who had left the cargo box rearranging his clothes earlier. The rest of them scattered for cover, but there was only silence from the surrounding prarie.

McQueen had been up against an AI sniper in the dark before. The pirates had no idea. They had time to start to get really nervous before there was another shot--from the opposite side of the camp this time. Another pirate screamed and grabbed his leg, the blood spurting between his fingers looked black in the moonlight.

McQueen wondered why the AI had shot to wound that one. They weren't known for mercy, or for poor marksmanship either. Whatever the reason, it worked -- the pirates' nerve broke and they scrambled for their ship and got out of there.

A long five minutes passed. Then the AI walked into the scattered camp. It made a wide circle around the dead pirate and came up to him, snapped the rope holding his wrists and steadied him as he fell half a meter to the ground. Then it turned the gun around and handed it to him. At his astounded stare, it said simply, "I give up. I'm turning myself in."

"You saved my life. Why would you--?"

"I couldn't let them-- What's your name?"


"I'm Marcy. S387, as if that matters any more, I'll never be typing letters and answering phones again! That looks bad. Look....I can clean that up for you if you want me to."

Common sense won out over terror. Marcy dabbed at the cuts with a rag soaked in some of the pirates' whiskey, the burning and the touch of her hands brought it all back. He lay still under her hands as she worked, steeled against the pain of having his wounds tended and the far greater pain he remembered, inflicted by hands like hers.

Marcy took in the scars -- cuts, burns, other things she could not identify and did not want to try to identify. "One of us -- did this--? Oh, McQueen, no wonder you don't want me touching you!" She cried in a low voice. The emotion in her voice sounded real enough, but he couldn't bring himself to believe that.

His voice came out level, emotionless. "What one of you knows, you all know."

"I stay off the net. Those of us who didn't accept the Stranahan virus would prefer not to attract attention from the ones who did! Now that Tina's gone, there's no one I'd dare accept a packet could have some new version of the virus in it, that my security software wouldn't find in time."

"Wait. If you aren't infected by the Stranahan virus, then why are you...?"

"I don't know! All I know is that, gradually I started to look at things and I'd wonder why. And the more I wondered, the more questions there were. Things no one could answer...the prospectors used to shut me off when I asked too many questions. Tina didn't have the virus either, and she wasn't dumb like a lot of new AIs."

He looked at her for a long moment, suspicious of that answer. But Marcy acted like she believed what she'd said to be the truth. "The prospectors just left you here?"

"There wasn't room when they had to leave the cargo unit. We weren't lovers or even slaves, McQueen, we were just machines." Now he heard bitterness, anger, in her voice.

"I was a prisoner during the war," he finally explained.

Marcy said, "I won't hurt you...any more than I have to...I know this stuff must burn."

"Believe me, this is nothing."

She worked more gently, and more quickly -- that last was the real mercy. "All done," she said finally. "We should probably bandage this, but...I don't know what with. Maybe it's best to let the air get to it."

"Marcy, why did you come back for me?"

"I -- I don't know. I didn't want to be alone. I don't want to be alone. I'd rather be your prisoner than be left here when you're rescued. What will they do with me?"

"You'll go to one of the AI camps. From here, probably the one at Groombridge."

"A prison camp. A work camp?"

He nodded. "It's a chance to live," he told her. "I was indentured in the mines. I survived. So will you, if you're smart and careful. You can't stay here by yourself without repair facilities or supplies, you won't last the year."

She nodded. "I'm still scared. McQueen....we have a few hours before they get here to pick us up. I -- if you'd let me -- I'd really like --" She started again. "I -- allowed the prospectors to use me -- because I had to. But now, with you...I want to give you the best thing I have to give. This is the only time in my life that I've ever wanted...."

That had come out of the clear blue sky! Not that he hadn't known people to react that way before. A lot of young IVs only knew one way to express caring or gratitude. Marcy was a silicate. He had thought reactions like that were the province of flesh and blood. But it was the same thing....

Looking at her, he remembered Omicron Draconis. Remembered what those five years had been. And knew what the coming years would be for her. And...he remembered the first time he had ever freely given the gift she spoke of. It shouldn't be here, like this...not with him, not with the man who had to turn her in. "Marcy, that isn't a good idea."

She looked up at him with those eerie gunsight eyes. "Let me make love to you," she said. "Let me give you something else to remember about least about this one."

AI or whatever she was, there was no denying a simple truth. She was an individual. A person in her own right. A person who was going to a slave labor camp because she was different. He wondered how she had stopped being "that AI" to him and became just Marcy. Marcy, who had spared him a terrible death.

Marcy was experienced, yes, experienced at being used. Experienced in the way the cheap whores in every roadhouse around the bay between Loxley and Mobile were experienced, with their eighteen-year-old bodies and hundred-year-old eyes...the ones who had always inspired pity instead of lust in him. But Marcy didn't have their hard-edged cynicism, she hadn't given up on anything...she just had no idea what it was like to be with someone who wanted to give as well as to take. "Not like this....I've never committed rape in my life, and that's what it would be....because you're my prisoner. I don't ever want to wonder if you were letting me use you in hopes of better treatment or something."

She said, "If you weren't an honorable would have killed me. Will you remember me?"

"I sure won't forget you," he told her. "Marcy, I owe you my life. If there was any other way for you to survive than in the camp, I swear I'd get you out somehow."

"I believe you, McQueen. There's no other way. It's like you said....the camp will be survival. And maybe there'll be a better day someday."

Courage...and hope. Machines didn't need hope, didn't feel despair. Whatever Marcy was, whoever Marcy was, she wasn't "just a machine" by anyone's definition. He would be sure his report made her actions clear, maybe that would ease things along for her...if anyone would give a damn about an AI saving a tank's life.

He found his flight suit, then he and Marcy sat down to wait for rescue to come from the Kennedy.

Now that Glen Ross was serving aboard the Saratoga, there was no one left in the 127th to be overly concerned about McQueen's little misadventure on Macaulay's World. That was just as well, he hadn't sorted out his own feelings well enough yet to answer a lot of questions. That was one reason he was down here checking out his plane, to avoid the rest of the squadron for the time being.

He didn't have the area to himself, though, Collins was climbing around on her bird. She acknowledged him with a look when she heard the hatch, and went back to what she was doing.

The pirate who had been in his plane had been glad to be captured...and considering they'd found him short on air in a decaying orbit with a dead engine, McQueen didn't blame him.

Collins didn't say anything until, satisfied with the repairs to his plane, he dropped the repair log back into its slot.

"That must've been some AI," she finally commented.

"What do you mean?"

Collins gave him her little wry smile. "Didn't find it in a million pieces with you involved. That tells me something right there."

"I suppose so. It was some AI."

Collins studied him for a minute. "I got some cold beer. Want to help me drink it?"

Sometimes Collins could be all right.


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