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At One's Limits

The other day I was screening an old vid from Before in which the protagonist gave some very good advice: "A man's got to know his limitations."

I recognize very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.

Several tenspans back I found myself scrounging unsuccessfully in the Ruins--as is so often the case--and debating whether to continue or call it a day. Just one more rummage, I decided, and back to the Hotel. I'd poked around briefly in a half-toppled building earlier, but at the time I hadn't ventured up to the second floor. It seemed like a reasonable place to close out the trip.

The lifts were powerless, of course, and the stairs invisible under a heap of collapsed rubble, but the rubble itself looked climbable and reasonably stable. I got a good grip and hoisted myself up, one broken regocrete slab at a time, until I crawled through the empty space that used to be a wall and found myself in the remains of a second-floor hallway with several closed doors.

I hate closed doors.

I ignored the half-dozen or so that others had already ransacked, identifiable by the space before them being cleared of debris and the doors themselves being obviously battered from the outside rather than from above. A few paces away, however, I saw a more heavily reinforced door, with the same cleared space in front but only faint dents in its surface. Impervium, maybe? SX 5000? I'm no scientist, but I do know one thing: dren that tough is frakking expensive. And what would be behind an expensive door? Something even more expensive! At least I hoped so.

The entry pad on the wall bore similar faint dents and scratches, as if whoever failed to open the door had taken out their frustrations on the lock. Fortunately the pad material appeared to be as tough as the door itself. Which meant that it might still open the door. If it could get power. And I could figure out the code.

First things first. One lesson I learned fairly early on in my Ruins scavenging was that lack of power is almost always a problem. So I'd cobbled up a little portable battery pack of sorts. It would last only about two segments, but that was usually more than enough time for me either to accomplish what I was trying to accomplish or to give up on it. I found the entry pad's maintenance port--located a short distance away, as usual--and fumbled around until I was able to pop it open and hook up the battery. I glanced back at the entry pad, and was rewarded with a couple of glowing lights, one orange and one red.

After balancing the portable battery rather precariously on a nearby hunk of twisted metal, I headed back to the entry pad and stared at it for a while. I never had any criminal aspirations, but somehow surviving in the 'verse has made certain skills indispensable. Which is a rather roundabout way of saying "I know how to pick locks." Sort of.

This one was, as I should have expected given the quality of the door, an extremely sophisticated model resistant to all sorts of tampering. Now, security locks come with varying levels of deterrence: some just beep at you unhappily; some sound blaring alarms; some can give you nasty electric shocks, like being smacked with a stun baton (not that I would have any idea what that feels like, no Ser!); and a few rare types will actually use lethal force against the hapless intruder.

I didn't know what kind of security this had, so I had to assume the worst. Failure = death. Especially since I was already pretty exhausted. Always a pleasure working under additional stress.

I won't bore you with the details--which is to say, I won't give away any potentially incriminating techniques--but after almost a full segment of fierce concentration I was able to figure out how to disable the defenses and unlock that gorram door. Whatever's in there better be worth it, I thought, as I keyed in the new one-time override passcode I'd programmed, and crossed my fingers.

The door slid open as smoothly and silently as I could have wished.

Stepping inside, I was able to spot a few things right away:

  1. This had been a residence of some kind.
  2. The damage, while severe, all looked to be the result of the Catastrophe--that is, it hadn't been looted (yet).
  3. Whoever had lived here survived long enough to grab most of their things before they fled to parts unknown. Grozit.

While I was struggling to open what appeared to be a warped closet door, panting with the effort, a soft repeated chime from outside warned me that my battery was about to expire. I didn't relish the thought of being trapped inside wrecked quarters until I spawned into a clone, so it was time to grab and go. I could always return with a fresh-charged battery pack and do it all over again. Maybe at the beginning of the day this time, so I wasn't too worn out to pick through everything.

I stuck my arm through the opening I'd wrestled so far, snatched the first thing my hand fell upon--something long and smooth, maybe a long gun barrel?--and sprinted for the entry door. Making a quick left outside, I snatched up my battery and yanked the wiring free, and the door hissed shut.

I took a deep, relieved breath.

My prize wasn't a firearm after all. I held a beautifully polished and decorated quarterstaff, with shiny metal ferrules (titanium? platinum?) at both ends. I hefted it experimentally; the wood felt solid, heavy, well-balanced. Elated at my fortune, I turned back towards the heap of rubble functioning as stairs...

...which was no longer unimpeded.

An unsmiling Baseline man stood between me and any egress. I cursed myself for letting him get the jump on me; he'd probably been holed up in one of the other rooms nearby. His stance was aggressive, and the nasty-looking pistol in his hand made his intentions even more plain. He extended his free hand toward me, in the universal unspoken language of the Ruins Rat: Give. Give, or die.

Naturally, I chose Door #3.

I hefted the quarterstaff with one arm, and held it out towards him horizontally. As soon as he gripped it, though, I yanked it firmly back towards myself, at the same time whipping out a small blade with my other hand. He instinctively held on, stumbling momentarily, and that was enough: I slashed at his right hand with my left, eliciting a cry of pain and--more importantly--sending his gun arcing through the air.

I'd expected him to go after it, hoping to duck out while he was thus distracted. Instead, he ignored it and used his forward momentum to crash right into me, sending us both sprawling. His hands were around my neck in a unit, squeezing hard enough that I could feel it deep in my carotid artery. Frak. He must've been modified in some way. I didn't bother pondering it, though, since I probably had only a few units before I blacked out. So I did the only thing that occurred to me: I bashed him with the quarterstaff. Hard.

Something damp splattered on my arm. The Mugger's grip disappeared and he rolled to the side, groaning. I didn't wait around to check his condition; I leapt straight for the "stairs," slid down to the ground floor (accumulating some truly delightful lacerations en route), and shot out of there at just below light speed. As I ran, I could hear the sound of an enormous heap of regocrete slowly collapsing behind me, and ruefully realized that I wasn't going to be able to get back up to that second floor any time soon.

Some distance away, I finally slowed and chanced a look over my shoulder. Nothing. No shouts of pursuit, no one visibly chasing me, not so much as a rock flung in my direction. I heaved a sigh of relief, turned back to the station proper, and took one step.

...And I woke up in Sick Bay.

No, no injuries. I even still had the quarterstaff. "Acute exhaustion," they said. It seems between the scavenging, the code-breaking, and the fight, I'd simply used up all my energy. That single step more was all it had taken for me to collapse.

I really should know my limitations.


  1. Good to see you writing again.

  2. Thank you, Ser!

  3. No problemđŸ˜€