Renata swore violently as the blast shook her ship. “Talen, you okay?”
“Talen!” she said again, more forcefully.
“Talen! Goddammit, answer me! This is no time for a joke!” Fear was beginning to creep into her voice. She dodged the next blast with the ease expected of someone who’d managed to live through being a fighter pilot for a bit over three decades.
“Talen!” There was still no answer.
Having a moment to do so, she finally looked at the readout that would show if anything were wrong with her ‘bot.
The relevant section of the display was completely blank.
Tears stung her eyes, but she wouldn’t let them fall. “You’re dead,” she snarled at the ship that had shot hers. Flying recklessly, even for her, she caught up to the Kirid and brought all her ship’s guns to bear on it. She fired them all at once, smiling savagely as the enemy ship exploded.
Almost thirty-two years earlier
Her ship neared the atmosphere of the nearest planet much too fast, it’s engines having been damaged very badly.
“Spirits of Battle and Flight, if you guys could spare a miracle right now, I’d really appreciate it!” Renata prayed as she tried to maintain what control she could of her ship. “Talen, do what you can little buddy, but I think this might be the end for us.”
As the ship fell towards the planet, Renata lost consciousness and was battered around, the safety systems that held her in the pilot’s seat having failed.
She woke up a few days later in a strange hospital’s critical care wing. She was missing a leg, which was easily, if painfully, fixed, and had some nasty internal injuries, a support strut having pierced her torso, but nothing some kilhu and surgery couldn’t treat. She owed her life to Talen, she quickly learned. After she’d passed out, he’d piloted the remains of the ship to as close to a landing as was possible, then improvised a comm and, showing that he had more first aid programming than anyone had ever expected from any shipbot, kept her alive until help arrived.
Two days later
“He saved my life, and I can’t save his! It’s just not fucking right!” she yelled as she pulled yet another fried component from the ‘bot that had been her companion in battle for so very long. She turned to pick up the replacement piece and found Darrien standing behind her, a concerned look on his face.
“What?!” she snapped.
“When was the last time you slept?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered, taking a swig of coffee.
“Renata, go get some sleep. Talen will still be in the same shape in the morning. I promise no one else will touch him.”
“I’m fine!” she yelled, turning back to the shipbot.
Darrien came over and put his hand on her shoulder. “Am I going to have to call Viktor and have him lecture you?” Her husband, Viktor, had very strong views on her periodic attempts to substitute caffeine for sleep and never hesitated to voice them at great length when given reason to do so.
“Let me work. Please,” she said, glaring at her boss.
“Fine. Be that way.” He pulled his comm out and started to key in Vik’s code.
“Darrien, if he were me, would you tell the medics to get some sleep?”
He sighed. “Renata, it’s been two days. You can’t get any response from him no matter what you do. He’s gone. I’m sorry. You can possibly repair the ‘bot itself, but Talen is gone.”
“He can’t be. He fucking can’t be dead!” she yelled, the tears she’d been fighting for the past two days finally escaping her eyes.
Darrien comforted her as well as he could and then gently walked her to bed, promising when she started to go back to the workshop that he would call Viktor if she didn’t get some sleep.
Thirty-three years earlier
Jake greeted his daughter with a hug and a smile. “Go look in the garage. There’s a present for you in there.”
Renata took off for it at a run. Jake followed along at a bit more sedate pace.
“It’s a shipbot! Or, most of one,” she said, seeing that the poor little thing was a bit beat up.
“Took him off a pirate ship we confiscated last korva. Loreen’s done what she could for him, but we didn’t have many parts around for a model that old. Thought maybe you could fix him up and use him.” Jake was smiling at his daughter, who he doubted was hearing a damned thing he said, so intent was she on examining her new ‘bot.
“Daddy, do you have a one ilurĵa spanner? Oh, thanks, by the way.”
Five days later, on The Asylum
Darrien came into the sim room and his eyes widened at the (simulated) bodies surrounding Renata. “Working out some frustration?”
She glared at him in response, but did lower her sword and command the simulation to pause before asking, “What do you want?”
“Just checking on you. Alia said you didn’t even complain earlier when she arranged your tools properly. It worried me.”
“I’m fine. Or, I will be, once the parts I’ve ordered get here. Then I’ll be able to boot Talen again, and everything will be fine.” Or I’m going to go kill neo-imperialist assholes until it quits hurting, she finished silently.
“Renata, I don’t claim to be an expert on ‘bots of any kind, but from what I do know, the amount of damage he took when that blast caught him … he’s gone. Even if his hardware works, even if, by some miracle, his personality module still works, his memory has definitely been erased.”
“If you gave up hope that easily when it came to us flesh-and-blood Daggers, I would’ve died on Yegio all those years ago. No one could’ve survived that crash after all, right?”
Darrien pinched the bridge of his nose. “Renata, please be reasonable. This is more like if you’d had part of your brain destroyed. Even if you can get him back online, it won’t be Talen. I’m sorry. I know how much that little ‘bot meant to you.”
“No. You don’t understand. If you did, you’d know why I can’t give up hope. He saved my life; the least I can do is try to save his. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some sword practice to get back to.”
Twelve years earlier
“Okay little buddy, just gonna hook you up to this new little guy and see if you can transfer some of the more interesting modifications you’ve made to your navigation programs to him,” Renata said, connecting Talen to the new — well, new-to-her — shipbot she’d gotten for her daughter, Lyndsey.
<<I have made no modifications. That is outside my programming.>> the display showed, in far more formal language than Talen ever used.
“Oh, you have too made modifications! I never programmed you to override half the safety warnings you do, and nobody else who I’ve ever let touch you would do so. Everyone else is always going on about ‘That area’s marked DANGER: DO NOT ENTER for a reason’ and such.”
The shipbot displayed <<I just have some glitches and need some repairs. I shouldn’t be allowing you to risk your life that way.>>
“Oh, whatever. You do not just have some glitches. You enjoy playing ‘dodge the asteroid’. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody you’ve been modifying yourself. I don’t want them picking you apart to see how you’ve developed something like actual intelligence. You’re my buddy; I’ll take care of you.”
Three days later
“Sokonal and all the rest of the Spirits, please let this work,” Renata prayed, squeezing a small idol in her pocket.
She took a deep breath and powered on Talen. Please, please let this work! she pleaded with the Spirits.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the lights that indicated his systems were coming back online came on. Renata let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. When the last light came on, she finally dared to ask, “Talen? You still in there?”
The message crawled across the display slowly, but it was the best thing Renata had ever read. <<Of course I am. Backup memory seems more or less intact, but the main memory modules are gone so I’m missing bits and pieces. What the hell did you let happen to me anyway?>>
She embraced the little ‘bot as she said, “I didn’t let anything happen to you. You decided to make external repairs while we were still under heavy fire. I swear you’re getting as reckless as me. Wait … what backup memory?!”
<<Figure that one out yourself. You’re the mechanical genius; it shouldn’t be hard for you.>>
‘True A.I. is an impossibility,’ my ass. This little fucker is making physical modifications to himself now! Renata thought as she closely studied Talen’s innards and found the small, easily overlooked, but heavily shielded, memory module. “Talen, I don’t mind you modding yourself, but next time fucking tell me! You scared the shit out of me! I thought I’d lost you for good!”
<<Sorry. So, how badly did you break the ship without me to help you fly it?>>
Renata playfully smacked at him with a spanner and said, “Let me run a few more diagnostics on you, then you can come see for yourself. It’s not very banged up.”