The Softwire: Betrayal on Orbis 2

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2008 by PJ Haarsma

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.

First electronic edition 2010

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Haarsma, PJ.
The softwire :betrayal on Orbis 2 / PJ Haarsma. — 1st ed.
p.  cm.
Summary: On his second rotation of service, Johnny Turnbull uses his ability as a human softwire to communicate with the Samirans and free them from their enslavement.
ISBN 978-0-7636-2710-2 (hardcover)
[1. Computers — Fiction. 2. Science fiction.]
I. Title. II. Title: Betrayal on Orbis 2. III. Title: Betrayal on Orbis Two.
PZ7.H11132Si 2008
[Fic] — dc22    2007038285

ISBN 978-0-7636-4269-3 (paperback)
ISBN 978-0-7636-5236-4 (electronic)

Candlewick Press
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Somerville, Massachusetts 02144

visit us at
www.candlewick.com

“Here it comes!” Theodore Malone shouted.

“But we’re not ready yet!” I yelled back, scoping the sorting bay for any sign of
it.
I snatched the hand laser off the floor and hid it inside my vest.

“Give me that,” Maxine Bennett protested, and took the tool from me. She pointed it at the scavenger-bot now dissected on the metal floor in front of us. “This is the last one. If that thing gets its paws on this before we fix it, who’s gonna clean this place up? Not me,” she said. “I plan to do more on this ring than just pick up after Switzer.”

I did too. I just hadn’t figured what that was yet. I strained my neck to see past the huge cranes rooted on the inner dome at the center of Weegin’s World. There was no sign of
it.

“Fine, Max. Then you keep working, and I’ll find some way to block the lift,” I said, standing up and tearing back toward the other kids.

“Better hurry, JT,” Theodore said from across the sorting-bay floor and to my far right.

“You could help,” I told him, but Theodore shook his head. He was safely out of the way, perched atop one of the electric-blue sorting belts. The belts were placed every meter or so inside the curved factory. Theodore waved me over to join him on the gaseous device, but I needed to make it to the second-floor lift, located between him and the last belt.

Our roommate, Randall Switzer, was dozing on that farthest belt. I could see a portable O-dat clutched in his oversize paw. It was a weak attempt to prove his intelligence, but I knew the lazy malf only wanted to nap.

I heard the lift squawk into action. Theodore stood up on the belt. “It’s on the lift! Forget about the bot, JT — just run!”

I froze. From where I stood, I couldn’t see the lift, but I could definitely hear what was on it.

“Work! Work! Now work!”
it
screamed over the machine’s metallic hum like a distress beacon.

“It’s getting off the lift — now,” another kid said.

I turned back toward Max. “Leave it,” I shouted at her.

I took my chances and charged toward Theodore.

I hadn’t even broken stride when my feet were knocked out from under me. Before I hit the floor, a heavy, clawed foot (the worst kind) thumped against the lower part of my vest, knocking the wind out of me.

“I see you with tools. Where you get tools?”
it
screamed at me.

“I’m fixing the scavenger-bot,” I shouted back. “You broke them all!” But I knew speaking to him was useless. The bald little beast just tilted his head whenever I spoke, as if amazed I could make sounds with my mouth. It was worse than trying to reason with Switzer.

“My tools!” he said, and pushed down on my chest.

When I was first assigned to Weegin, almost one complete rotation ago, my Guarantor always cradled a yellowed larva in his thick, three-fingered hands. He nursed that puffy thing phase after phase, and I never once bothered to ask him what it was. No one did. Weegin answered most questions with a twist of your nose or your ear, or even a painful yank on your hair. If he had wanted me to know what it was, he would have told me. But the mystery was gone now. Two phases ago, right after I fought the Belaran, Madame Lee, inside the central computer, that puffy lump of flesh hatched into the little monster that stood over me as I gasped for air.

“Who gave knudnik my tools?” he demanded, and lifted his disgusting foot off my chest.

Previous confrontations with Weegin’s offspring taught me to give up early since he never understood a word I said anyway. I simply curled up on the floor, clutched my stomach, and waited for the oxygen to find its way into my lungs. Looking satisfied with my condition, the undersize monster set his beady eyes on Switzer.

The alien was not exactly a miniature version of Weegin, as you might expect. His hands were far more muscular, and his legs appeared thicker and stronger than they should for a Choi from Krig. The bald protégé stalked the corridors of Weegin’s World with his lower jaw thrust absurdly forward, the result of a severe underbite. A row of pointed teeth curled up and over his top lip as he marched around barking orders at everyone. Somehow this pink little maggot thought he was in charge.

He ran straight at Switzer and slammed the operation button next to his head. The sorting belts hissed into motion.

“Work. You. Big thing. Work now!” he yelled, and stood guard so no one could get at the controls.

Theodore had jumped to the floor. Switzer, however, remained soundly asleep. Even the clatter of the awakened cranes did not stir him.

“Maybe he’s deaf
and
dumb?” Theodore said.

“Switzer!” Max shouted, but he did not move. Switzer kept right on sleeping as the blue mist holding him up headed for the chute. The chute was a hole in the wall that led to a furnace burning deep beneath Weegin’s World. It was a drop Switzer would not survive. Max and another kid tried to get to Switzer, but Weegin’s hatchling snapped his large, protruding snout at anyone who moved.

I pulled myself off the ground. “Distract that thing,” I told Max, and she chucked a wrench at him. The alien turned on his heels and stomped straight toward her, his lengthy claws clacking on the metal floor.

“Tools are expensive!” he screamed.

I stuck my hand in the greenish-gray radiation gel used to protect our skin when there was junk to sort. I slid over to Switzer and reached my hand under his nose. The ghastly smell — rotten meat mixed with crusty socks and a touch of recycled toilet water — did the job. Switzer wrenched his head away and fell to the floor as Weegin dashed out from his glass bunker. I ran to an O-dat at the other side of the bay and accessed the local computer network with my softwire. I shut the cranes down instantly.

“Is it here? Speak. Is it here yet?” Joca Krig Weegin shouted from the second-floor balcony that jutted out over the sorting-bay floor. He hoisted his knobby body onto the railing and canvassed each one of us with his bloodshot eyes.

“Is what here, Weegin?” said a voice from the tall glass doorway.

I spun around to see the Keeper, Theylor. His purple velvety robes swept the floor as he entered Weegin’s World.

“You’re not welcome here!” Weegin screamed at the regal alien, raining spit on anyone below him. “They’re mine. Every last one of them!” With that he turned and scrambled back into his office.

I saw Theylor’s left head frown while his right head turned to all of us and said, “Hello. I hope everyone is fine?”

“We’re a little bored,” I said.

“No,
really
bored,” Switzer added.

Switzer was right. There was nothing to do at Weegin’s anymore. Our Guarantor’s junk business was in shambles ever since his dealings with the disgraced Trading Council member, Madame Lee, had failed. Most cycles, I simply roamed around the complex while Weegin barricaded himself in his office. It was nowhere near the life I had imagined for Ketheria and myself before we had arrived on the Rings of Orbis.

“Hello? Hey! I need a little help here, anyone?” Max said, jumping from side to side using an even larger wrench to swipe at Weegin’s offspring.

“Weegin hasn’t even named that thing,” Theodore said.

“His name is Nugget,” said my sister, Ketheria, as she entered the sorting bay. She noticed Theylor immediately. “Hi, Theylor.”

“Hello, Ketheria,” he replied.

“Come here, Nugget,” Ketheria said, and the creature immediately stopped harassing Max and marched over to Ketheria, sticking his chin out and up. For some reason he never bothered my little sister. Ketheria tickled him under his chin while he reached up and played with her light brown hair.

“Ooh, ooh,” the alien moaned.

“Freak,” Switzer said, sneering.

“Which one?” Dalton Billings said, and Max shot Switzer’s friend a steely look.

“Why does she like that thing?” Switzer asked.

“Jealous?” Max teased him.

Switzer snarled at her but caught Theodore grinning. Theodore was easier prey for him than Max, and he moved toward my friend, fists raised. I stepped forward, too.

Nugget saw this and sprang to his feet, charging at us with his ridiculous lower jaw smacking against his upper lip.

“Work. Now. More work!”

“There is no work, you little rat,” Dalton shouted at Nugget as he stomped past.

“He doesn’t understand anything we tell him, Theylor,” Max said.

As Nugget got close, Theylor raised his long right hand, and the alien was frozen in midstride. I could see a soft, warm glow from a bronze device wrapped around Theylor’s arm. I’d seen him silence someone before, when we first arrived on the ring, but I’d never noticed that gadget before.


Thank
you,” Max exclaimed.

“This may help,” he said, and made a sweeping motion with his slender arm.

The blue translucent skin on his fingers peeked out from underneath his velvet robe as he pointed to an R5 that now entered Weegin’s World. “Right there will be fine,” he told the robot.

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