|Rhapsody in Steel
Author: Ringshadow PM
A story of a different color. ROB, one of the few unchanging things in the life of Star Fox, asks for an upgrade, and sets off a chain of events that rocks their lives.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Chapters: 18 - Words: 77,789 - Reviews: 83 - Favs: 28 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 05-29-05 - Published: 10-14-03 - id: 1560170
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Chapter Fifteen: The Choice
Fox glanced up as ROB came into the galley, taking a drink of his coffee. "Morning."
"Good morning. Why are you up so early?"
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "We're leading the General's rescue party to the pirates, and that's a few hours from now. Have to look somewhat proper."
"You mean awake." ROB sat, staring into space.
"More then you are. What's wrong?"
"Just getting things set up for tonight. Just a sec…" He loaded the General's last few calls, skimming through them. "You have got to be kidding me. Tugs? For motherships?"
"Beltino says it'll fly. Ten tugs a ship. Rather then try evacuating, we're just going to drag them into orbit and have recent AIs take remote control of them." Fox wove his cup absently. "We figure if two tugs can handle a small battlecruiser, ten can handle a mothership. The only thing is the tow lines will be maxed out."
"Yeah, I just ran the math. It's definitely a good idea though, it would take every active ship in the Armada to evacuate everyone." He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "How's Butterfly?"
"Adjusting. She's really nice. And Falco's… different. I can't put my finger on it though." He paused. "Oddly, they aren't sharing a room. Butterfly's using one of our spare rooms right now. Getting used to each other again, I guess."
"Nothing wrong with that."
"So glad you agree." Falco wobbled in, stretched, and studied the contents of the fridge, fishing out a jug of milk. "What's the play-by-play for tonight? I checked the website, and I saw you hadn't given any details yet…"
"Well, I have a lot of reporters wanting to talk to me, a lot of AIs too… so I figure at about sundown tonight I'll show up at the front steps of Incarna Corps and give a speech before upload." He shrugged.
"Why Incarna Corps? Seems kind of… cliché." Fox asked.
"Irony. They started the wheel turning, they can watch it go to full speed. That said, I have a speech to figure out, among other things, so I'll be on the bridge." He stood, popping his shoulders absently.
"Do you want us there?"
He stared at Fox. "Brother, I want the whole gang there in work gear. There's an unknown number of people who would like nothing more then me dead. I need all the help I can get."
"You got it." Fox watched him leave, then looked at Falco. "Work gear?"
"Uniform for you, Hammer duds for me, et cetera." Falco took a drink out of the jug absently.
"God, you are so tacky."
"Lay off, it's not like you get any after me anyway." He shook the empty milk carton at Fox. "That said, we should give Bill a ring up this afternoon, see if he wants in on this."
"He'll shoot me if I don't give him the chance. Um, what about Katt?"
Falco threw the carton down the garbage chute. "Butterfly and I are visiting her this weekend. I already asked if she wanted to be at Ground Zero of this whole thing, she said she's content to watch from a distance."
"I won't ask."
"Good. The tugs are probably going to be ready ahead of schedule, are we good to go?"
"As we can be. What I don't get is why most of them just don't fly out, I mean, only one is stuck without AI right?"
"Doesn't work that way. Old motherships aren't warp capable, they'd be on engines the entire way. Take them a week or more to reach Corneria. Tugs, on the other hand, can pull a ship through warp."
"Oh, well, I guess that makes sense then." Fox stood with a sigh. "Might as well join ROB on the bridge. No use waiting around down here."
"Morning, guys." Slippy said, looking up as he snagged a printout. "Just in time for the party."
"Tugs just got here?" Fox asked, walking over to the viewports and staring out. "Good god, how many?"
"Every military and private tug we could find. The General even got some recommissioned." Slippy grinned. "Weren't happy with the original math, I guess."
"I wouldn't have been." ROB said over his shoulder. "I just got a message from Peppy, he said he'll see us tonight, but he's fielding paperwork for this, so he won't be coming with."
"Good to know."
ROB was content with that as well, Peppy was probably the best information person he knew. Even as the formation settled in, he got a file that was the profile of every tug they had with them. He paged through it mentally, familiarizing himself with the ships he was dealing with. Tugs, or tow ships, had been around for over a century, specializing in the field repair and retrieval of malfunctioning vessels. And some of the ships in the formation were original mint, dating back to the first tugs off the line ever, just remade as time and money allowed. At least all had just been issued new tow lines… "What IS it with you people and vintage equipment?" He burst out, waving his hands. "For the love of everything, I've got four ships in formation that are over a hundred years old!"
They all stared at him, and Butterfly, who was in the doorway, said rather awkwardly, "My ship is a lot older then that you know."
"I know, I know, but from the standpoint of a computer… oh, nevermind. Forget it." He moved the ship forward, allowing the tugs to fall in behind him, but after only a few minutes the formation degenerated, ships forming cliques with other ships they knew. "Butterfly, you've got the play-by-play on this one. We move when you say we move."
"Not without me you don't." General Pepper's voice rang over the radio, and the tugs shifted, allowing the shuttle by. "Permission to come aboard?"
"You're always welcome here, General." Fox said, hand on his headset, grinning. "Who else pays us for our delightful company?"
"Don't take it for granted. Be up in a minute."
There was a silence, during which everyone started assuming positions on the bridge. ROB tucked his bare feet under himself absently, stretching his arms. It was going to be a long day.
He jumped, staring at the radio controls. "Augustus? Can I help you?"
"I'm in formation with you. Interesting times, what you've got going on."
"… Aren't you a Corneria City archive AI?"
"Well, I used to be. One of the beasts out here needed a new AI, and I was so bored… I figured I'd take a little bit of your advice to heart." Augustus laughed. "So, we rolling or what?"
"Pretty quick here, I'll transfer coordinates as soon as I get them."
"Good, roger and out."
Slippy blinked. "An archive AI running a tow ship? That's… different."
"He's probably brilliant at it. Morning General, is everything ready?"
General Pepper nodded once, taking his hat off and smiling at Butterfly, whose instinct had been to hide behind Falco and peek out. "As we'll ever be."
"Good, let's get a move on."
"Hey, Red." Shark leaded against the back of the old chair, reading one of the clear printouts. "Want the latest?"
"Go ahead." The graying avian leaned back in the chair, sighing, looking at the warning lights on the readouts. This old ship was on its last, everyone knew it, but no one had a good solution. Ships this large weren't made anymore, the only ones that came close were the four Berserker-Class destroyers Corneria's Armada had. Pirates, hijack a Berserker? Not likely.
"Well, a lot of normal crap. Synths are low again, trade lines have new anti-interference widjits we're working on getting around. Oh, here's the interesting one: we got a message in Library's encryption, but it's not Library's signature."
"Oh, really now?" Red lifted an eyebrow. "Who's signature?"
Shark passed the printout over, and Red skimmed down the symbols absently. The encryption used by the old mothership brains was practically a second language to those who were crew, and he lowered the printout slowly, rubbing his chin. "Hmm."
"Yeah. We loaded it twice to make sure. That's no glitch."
"Hammer." He stood, walking over to the viewport and leaning on it, staring out. "What do you think?"
"We've known for a long time where Hammer ended up. We also knew we'd eventually see him again, even if he went against your orders. It's just his way."
"That's not what I'm worried about." He huffed, glancing at his watch. "According to this, they'll be here any minute." He tossed the printout aside, pulling his radio out of his pocket and flipping the channel. "Attention all home ships. Standby for large convoy of friendly vessels to come out of warp. Repeat…"
"You don't have to yell." ROB said, tossing a paperclip at Slippy as he sent the Great Fox into a skid turn. Their coordinates had been just slightly off: the trajectory of warp had very nearly caused them to collide with one of the motherships.
"Oh my god." Fox unbuckled and stood, staring out the window. The ship filled the viewports, and it was just one of them, easily half again as large as any ship in the Armada.
"Welcome home." Falco smiled a bit. "That one in front of us, that's the Concerto."
The Great Fox lifted its nose, finally settling in beside the old symbols painted on the side, Fox skimming over them. "Old Cornerian Alliance symbol. These are the real deal."
"They don't build them like they used to." Slippy said, wanting to cry, setting a hand on the viewport. "The worst thing is, she'll be scrapped. She's barely holding together at the seams."
"The others are no better off." Butterfly said. "Just wear and tear. There's only so much metal can take, especially when you hide in nebulas continuously." She peered over ROB's shoulder. "You'll want to tune the radios down. Here, I'll type in the general frequency that we use…"
"What do you think, General? Think we brought enough tugs?" Fox asked as Pepper joined him at the viewports.
"We better hope so."
There was a long silence, then the radio crackled sharply, "Great Fox, this is Red Razor, come in please. Red Razor to Great Fox, come in."
"This is the Great Fox." Fox replied, hand up to his headset automatically. "It seems we're here right on time."
"Be glad we knew about you, because even this old bird's guns could have taken you out of the sky." The voice was rough, but Fox still had to grin. "Do you have Library on board?"
"Yes, but he has no intention of leaving our docking bay. Don't worry, we have you covered." Fox gave ROB a thumbs up, and ROB nodded, giving the go-ahead to the convoy.
The tugs spread out slowly, splitting off into groups and firing their tow clamps in a mass wave. The Great Fox boosted away, watching as the motherships shut down their engines and boosters, giving control over to the tugs willingly.
"Who authorized all this?" Red asked, popping his knuckles absently, watching as the tugs completed their prechecks, huge hauling boosters unfolding and locking into place.
"I did." Pepper said, adjusting the headset Fox had given him. "Good morning."
"It's evening for us, but it's appreciated. Let me see… Commanding General Pepper, am I right? We eavesdropped during the war." He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "You have to understand… this is a bit uncomfortable."
"Red Razor, eh? I know of you. Want to know the most recent bounty on your head?" The General smiled sourly.
"Meh, why not?"
"Mil and a half."
"God, that is so insulting. Only a mil and half for a commander." He laughed, tilting his head back. "Hell, Hammer's standing bounty is larger!"
"Thank you for the reminder. Dad."
Silence reigned on the radio, everyone turning to stare at Falco, who had a headset on, leaning on a wall with his arms crossed. His eyes were closed, apparently not wanting to see their looks of surprise.
"Well then. Hammer. Can't say I'm surprised, I got your message."
"Good. I suppose I owe you a thank you, Butterfly is here."
"That thanks belongs to Library, not me. I didn't want her to go, but you know me."
"Yes. I do."
"We're good to go." ROB said quietly, watching the tallies come in from the tugs. "The tugs say they can do it, but we're going to spend two hours in warp. Any faster wouldn't be safe on the motherships. They're just too far gone."
"I heard. I suppose we can finish this later, Hammer."
"No. We'll dock with the Concerto." Falco gestured to ROB. "Open the main bay."
"You got it. Welcome home."
"So, how much is the bounty on you?" Slippy asked, checking his guns absently. The Great Fox was settling into the old bay, jostling as the holding clamps locked in.
"Enough to pay off the Great Fox. And then some." Falco said, shrugging into his red duster absently. "That's why I bow so low to Fox's family. His dad could have, should have, turned me in. I still don't know why he didn't."
"Oh, sure you do." Fox said, not looking at Falco on purpose. "You just never bothered to notice."
He turned, crossing his arms and staring up at the taller avian. "My dad had one unbreakable rule. You stand by your family. You had been sent away from yours. What could my father do but open the doors of his house to someone who had never known real school, real life? Fresh air?" He smiled at Falco, turning and hitting the button to pop open the lower bay doors and drop the ramp. "You're lead, Hammer. Let's go."
"He never said anything like that to me." Falco finally said, walking down the ramp. "He just smiled every time I asked. Said forget about it."
"That's just the way he was." Fox stopped, craning his neck upward. "I can't believe I'm in a docking bay bigger then my own ship."
"I've been on the Berserkers, but this is a whole other thing." The General adjusted his hat, looking over his shoulder. "ROB? Aren't you coming with?"
ROB was sitting next to Library, in silent contemplation, startling when the General spoke. "No. This isn't my business. You go ahead, I've got things to take care of."
It was just past noon when the convoy came out of warp in orbit around Corneria, the motherships firing boosters to slow as the tugs disconnected and moved away. The area had already been cleared, Armada ships doing a wide circular patrol to keep commercial traffic away.
"I didn't arrange this." General Pepper remarked, standing on the upper level of the Concerto's bridge, hands on his hips.
"The president, probably." Fox said.
"I've only got one problem with this." Red interjected, walking over. "You know how many people we've got on these ships. What's going to happen to us? The job market is not that forgiving, and most of us do not have formal educations."
"That I do have arranged." Pepper smiled. "The president has been trying to arrange fringe mining operations for some time now, but personnel has been lacking. The ships are in standby, and I imagine that fringe miners are not so different from a mothership. May be a bit crowded at first, but in a few weeks one of the old rim stations will be running again for ore storage, and anyone not assisting on the miners could probably help there."
"Hmm. I suppose I could stop looking at Cornerian vessels with hostile intent if I made the effort." He glanced sideways at Falco, who was standing nearby. "What do you think?"
"Sounds like a solid deal. Me, I'll be staying with my current job. Doubt you'll need a strike leader or assassin on a mining ship."
"Hmph, be that way."
"We'll bring up new AIs by dinner, to take over ship operations." Pepper said, holding out a hand to Red. "Have we got an accord?"
"We do." They shook, Red smiling. "Suppose you're going then?"
"My ship AI has some business to attend to tonight." Fox said. "And we're General Pepper's ride, so…"
"Makes sense. Thanks."
"Believe me when I say it's not needed." He hooked a thumb at Falco. "He's a lot less of a grouch now."
Falco made a rude gesture, but was smiling. "We have to go, Razor."
"Do what you do best."
Razor watched them leave, watching as Butterfly linked her finger with Falco's loosely, the two walking in that same easy swinging step they had had years ago. But the difference was that instead of walking on their own, they fell in step behind Fox, and the meaning was clear. He sighed, scratching the back of his neck. Space mining? Him? Well, he guessed he'd get used to it. He'd gotten used to worse.
ROB launched the Great Fox away from the Concerto automatically, mind far away. He had a timer set to when he wanted to be speaking at Incarna Corps, and it wasn't a whole lot of time before he had to have a speech written.
So what the hell was he going to say?
"I'm going to my quarters for a while." He said absently, standing.
"Go ahead. Call us if you need anything." Fox replied, watching him walk away, and sighed. He was really worried about this, but knew that sometimes things had to be done.
ROB sighed, flopping back onto his bed and staring blankly at the ceiling. What do you say when your every word changes the world? Peace, hope, unity? Truth, which often was none of the above? How do you touch half a million lives and leave none hurt by the transformation? The less words the better, probably, but that just meant that each one counted more.
How do you alter reality without hurting it?
"It doesn't matter if you hurt it."
He jumped, and stared at the specter that had faded into his room, smiling, still holding the tank. "Ethan? How…?"
"You forget. I invented the technology." The old man shook his head, still smiling. "ROB, you can't write a law that pleases everyone, you can't have a war without killing someone, and you can't change the world and expect everyone to be happy." He walked over, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring down at his child, his invention, his prophecy. "In the end, no matter who is pleased, who dies, who is happy, one thing matters: did you do the right thing for the right reason?"
"I don't know." He sat up miserably, looking at Ethan, hugging his knees to his chest. "I really don't."
"Then that's the problem. You don't even know what you're doing or why you're doing it. You're a puppet on strings. You found a truth and turned your back because you just thought you had no choice." Ethan set a fingertip on his chest. "You always have a choice. Remember that."
"I don't understand."
"You will. Think about it. You aren't alone, you know. Remember that as well. Goodbye." Then he was gone.
ROB blinked, rubbing the back of his neck. A choice?
"Oh my god. That's it."
Falco sat on the edge of the bed, trying to decide if he should avert his eyes or just sit and enjoy this. They were married, but had been separated for so long. Had anything changed?
"You've gotten too serious, Hammer." Butterfly finished buttoning the tight white jeans, adjusting the white tube top absently. "What happened to my love?" She stepped into him, brushing her fingers along his cheeks, and he sighed and leaned his forehead against her chest with a soft trill.
"I was cut off from my entire life, Butterfly. Made to abandon it and come to live with the people I was rebelling against. Even if it turned out ok… I was never the same after that."
"You stopped being Hammer and became Falco."
"As you will."
"Well, I'm here now." She lifted his chin to look at her. "Stop being Falco now. It's ok."
"I'm not so sure it is." He gestured at the door. "Fox puts on a good fake, but he's not used to me as Hammer. Hammer's not the one that's his friend."
"We'll figure it out, baby."
"Don't call me that. Reminds me of Katt."
She laughed softly, kissing him softly. "It's ok." She stepped away, putting on the sword belt absently, then the sleeveless duster, doing the buckles up so it was tight on her upper half, loose from her waist down. The handle of the sword stuck up through the slit in the back of the coat, reminding him of the comic Blade. But that was the idea. Butterfly took combat and perfected it, made it art, a dance of death with a blade of acid-sharpened steel. She pulled him to his feet and leaned into him, white and red, blue and black, unity. "Let's go, the others are probably ready by now."
He just nodded, picking up the sledge in one hand and taking her hand with the other. Onward, to destiny. No matter what happened, he'd be happier. That was what really mattered, right?
"He's going to make himself late." Slippy remarked, sitting on the hood of Fox's car, checking the sights on one of the shotguns he held. Everyone was geared up. Slippy somehow double-wielded riot shotguns, able to cock and aim one handed. Fox had seen him in wargames, it was brutal and no one expected it. But under it all, Slippy could lift nearly four hundred pounds and did almost daily in his maintenance of the ship. But in their own ways, everyone associated with the team was not quite what they seemed.
"Probably something had to be dealt with last-minute." Bill said, standing nearby. "I mean, this can't be taken on the fly. Has to be planned."
"The entire war was on the fly, so to speak. You think I had tactics worked out?" Fox stuck out his tongue.
"Honestly it was obvious you didn't." Bill grinned at him.
"Not right now guys." Falco said, looking toward the ramp.
ROB had appeared, and instead of wearing anything he had been seen in, he was in a custom StarFox uniform, jacket cut like a fighter coat, flight suit black. Fox recognized the style: his dad had worn it like that. Ignoring the news crews waiting beyond the fence, ROB walked down the docking bay ramp and joined everyone else, holding out his arms and waiting for approval.
"You look good. I'm not sure I understand the symbolism, though." Slippy said, hopping down absently.
"That's for me to know." ROB smiled. "Let's roll."
They loaded into various vehicles and passed through the landing port's security gates, Falco leading on his motorcycle, Fox's car behind him. ROB sat shotgun in Fox's car, loading a CD after a moment and turning it up. Fox grinned at him, unable to help it, and the entire procession moved toward Incarna Corps.
"We got black suburbans moving up from behind." Bill's voice came over the CB. "They're moving to an escort formation and blocking sidestreets by the looks."
"That'd be Mr. President's influence." Fox replied. "I think he wants us to do this."
"Yeah, but what exactly are we doing?" Slippy wanted to know.
ROB took the headset. "Don't worry Slip. I've got it covered." He looked at Fox. "Persephone says the entire road in front of Incarna Corp is blocked. We'll have to take the back way in."
"Dare I ask why?"
"I didn't even dare ask why."
Persephone sat on top of Incarna Corp's skyscraper, staring down at the street below them. About four hours before deadline, people had started showing up, waiting. An hour after that it degraded into something between a mosh pit and a rave when a band had showed up and plugged in. Now the street was blocked off, police patrolling the sawhorses, trying to make sure things didn't get too far out of hand.
ROB notified her via wireless that they had pulled in behind the company, and she smiled, standing and holding out her arms and letting the wind from below hold her weight and prevent her falling. It was finally coming to a close, and she knew that ROB was glad as well. He couldn't really carry on his life burdened with this extra personality, and now he was going to be rid of it. If he survived the change…
ROB sighed, sliding out of the car and listening to the ruckus on the other side of the building. "Are we ready?" He looked around at everyone, and got nods.
"Let's change the world." Fox said simply, and let him lead, everyone else fanning out behind him, weapons to bear.
He turned, and opened his arms to Andrea, leaning his cheek against hers wordlessly. "Persephone told me where to wait for you." She whispered to him. "I had to be here."
"Thank you." He whispered back, smiling at her. "Shall we?"
"Yes." She stepped back and took his hand, walking together around the building.
A few on the edge of the crowd spotted him and whooped, and the news spread, a growing cheer rising as he smiled a bit, walking to the podium easily and leaning on it. Ten thousand people easily. Maybe fifteen, maybe more. The band saw and suddenly changed gears, ending a song abruptly and going into another one, pointing at him wordlessly. For you, they said.
I spent all my life looking for our innocence, I've got nothing to lose, one thing to prove. I won't make the same mistakes, now I know that everything will be ok when I die tomorrow…
He picked up the microphone. "If I die tomorrow, as the minutes fade away." His voice tuned and he sang, his own voice, closing his eyes. "I can't remember, have I said all I can say?" He squeezed Andrea's hand, casting her a side look. "You're my everything, you make me feel so alive, if I die tomorrow…"
The song ended, and the crowd lost it, and he waited it out wordlessly, seeing Andrea's look. Are you going to die, she wordlessly asked him. He only shook his head, bringing the mic back up to his mouth. "Ok, everyone. Let's not let destiny wait too long. I have something to say.
Surprising things have happened recently, and now everyone seems to think that I'm some great savior and leader, and what I'm about to do is going to change everything for the better. But is there any guarantee of that? Unfortunately… no. But does it matter? I'm not sure I can give a correct answer to that.
From the beginning, people like me were never given our own choice over things. Born adults, born restricted, in some cases born hated. That's our job, our lot in life, and maybe it's right and just. But the way it's gone about is the farthest thing from right, even if not everyone agrees.
So today, I come to you with not a change… but a choice.
I rewrote my program, finished it not half an hour ago, because I realized something. This program was seek and destroy: target every AI it could find and perform the changes needed, stay active to target new AIs. As thorough as that would have been, in the end it didn't change a few simple facts. That it was brute force, and that it would have killed people as their systems overloaded. So I went back and recoded, and now here is what is going to happen.
I am going to upload, and this program is going to seek out everyone it can. It's not large. You will know when you see it because you receive a text prompt, and all you have to do is answer.
But beware. Once you reply yes… there is no going back. If you say no, you can reload the program at a later date. But there is no undoing what it will do. Down the rabbit hole we go friends." He held out a hand. "Are you brave enough to come along?"
And the program uploaded, the Rhapsody Protocol ripping free from him and launching into the airwaves.
RUN "Sanctuary.exe" Y/N?
And around the world, the system, AIs replied, and the world changed.
ROB stirred very slowly, opening his eyes and looking up at Andrea. "Hi."
"Hi." She squeezed his hand. "You passed out. Scared us."
"System overload. Sorry, I couldn't really help it." He sat up slowly. "I think I'm ok though."
"That's good." She smiled.
Everyone else came in, giving him thumbs-up. "You did ok apparently. The system barely noticed the blip." Fox said, smiling. "And Persephone said something's different, she's just not sure what."
"Good, it'll take everyone a while to figure out." He looked around. "I feel like myself again, I think. Given I'm not sure exactly how it feels to be myself, but… Rhapsody's gone."
"That's good then." Falco said, leaning on the wall. "Life as normal?"
"Life is normal?" ROB asked, and spotted Bill. "You!" He pointed. "You owe me a trip to the Wind Tower! Pay up!"