Something in the Machine

Xyrl dipped the little twin-engine skimmer below the landing pads of Tower LN-T6. The air was thick with smog. Fullerenes doped with xenon and argon made for a wild violet dawn. Xyrl was just pleased that the pollutants provided some lift and saved fuel.

It kept the skimmer near the spiring arresters of the lightning farms. It was safer being close to known strike points than to tempt becoming a target in the open air, as unlikely as it was. The flashes were so frequent the sky never darkened. But amid the managed chaos of a shackled and angry sky, Xyrl saw no evidence of anything living. Just the endless expanse of a planet-spanning machine refusing to corrode in the acid air.

This was pointless, it thought.

Just then, it saw something plunge from a pad on Tower LN-V5, and it abruptly darted Xyrl’s direction. The acceleration was unreal. It passed beneath the skimmer too close for a human pilot, and the recompression shock sent the ship cartwheeling. Xyrl recovered quickly, signaling to the other pilot that there was no human here, either.

Even so, Xyrl had lost the other ship—it had come to think of it as a cutter, though it wasn’t sure why—somewhere in the depths of the amber haze hanging low over the metal lattice of the machinery. So Xyrl brought the skimmer low, slipping in and out of the framework and pushing itself to its limits. But the cutter didn’t reappear. Its first flyby had been a warning shot.

Perhaps Xyrl could provoke it more directly. It brought the skimmer back up and made for the platform from which the cutter had descended. It worked. The cutter dropped down from the storm above, dragging lighting behind it like a needle pulling thread. It passed the lighting to the skimmer as it flew by.

The skimmer exploded, and Xyrl compressed its body into a pill-shaped shell to brace for a hard collision when it hit the machine. This was not what it had signed up for. It would have to increase its fee.

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