Betrothed Episode One

Betrothed Episode One

Chapter One

The day I woke up, I threw up. I shook, I cried, and I almost died.

Again.

But it didn’t last.

Soon I said hello to the future.

I’m a newfound one.

On the 1st of January 2020, I died of a virus. No one knew what it was, and no one could treat it.

I was put on ice – cryogenically frozen until they found a cure.

The cryo facility wasn’t on land; it was in orbit, and over the tumultuous 22nd century, the facility broke orbit and drifted away, just another piece of space junk traveling through the solar system.

In 2420, they found us.

I was the only cryo pod still viable; space can be unrelenting. If they hadn’t found me when they had, in a few short weeks I would have died too. This time permanently.

They woke me up.

I was now referred to as a newfound one. I wasn’t the only person who’d ever woken up from a frozen sleep. Apparently the universe was full of those who’d been awakened from some kind of slumber, be it cryo or stasis or something more alien.

And all of us arrived in a strange new world.

2020 did not prepare me for 2420. Not at all.

Fortunately I wasn’t alone.

I awoke on Earth.

And there, my story begins.

...

Anna Carter

“Hey, Annie, you still writing in your diary?” Mark leaned against the wall to my room, crossing his arms and smiling.

I turned around, dropping my pen onto the table.

He chuckled. “I can’t believe you’re still using pens and paper.”

“I like pens and paper.”

“They were old fashioned even back in your day,” he snorted.

“Well I guess that makes me old fashioned too.” I stood primly but shot him a friendly smile.

He grinned. “Anyhow, you still want to go through with this?”

I nodded.

“Annie, you don’t need to do this.”

“Mark, I have to give back. I need a job. I have to stop skiving off the benefactors of the Foundation.”

“You’re not skiving; this institute was set up to help people like you. We all know how hard it is to adjust to this time when you weren’t born here. Christ, it took me ages to figure this place out when I was woken up.”

“Mark, you woke up five years ago. I woke up three years ago now. And look at you – you’re a lieutenant in the Foundation Forces. I’m nothing at all.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” He shot me a serious look. “Waking up is hard on us all. It just takes longer for some people to adjust.”

I shot him a pressed-lip frown. “Mark, it’s time for me to be more like you. It’s time for me to move on and get a job.”

“You don’t want to be more like me,” he muttered under his breath. “And anyhow,” he said louder, “you don’t need to get a job.”

“Yeah, I do. I’ve already picked one, too.”

“Don’t tell me, pen seller. You’re going to open a planet-to-planet service, like a floating ice cream van, except you’re only going to sell pens.”

I rolled my eyes. “Has anyone ever told you you’re funny? Nope? I would take that as a sign.”

Mark chuckled as we walked along. “So what’s the job?”

“I want to work for the government,” I said excitedly.

One of his eyebrows twitched up. “... You’re serious, aren’t you?”

I nodded, my long, tousled red hair bouncing around my ears. “I researched the recruitment program. Apparently once you’ve cleared all their security checks, they’ll do a detailed assessment of your abilities, and then match you to a job anywhere in the universe.” I made a show of spreading my hands wide.

Mark pressed his lips together. “You don’t need to pretend to be brave. The thought of going anywhere in the universe scares you senseless.”

I turned from him and tucked my hair behind my ears. “I’m not scared.”

“So why’s your voice shaking?”

I didn’t answer.

“Annie, come on, you don’t want to go on a government deployment. We’ll find you a job closer to home.”

“No,” I said forcefully, and I meant it. Yeah, Mark was right, and the thought of being deployed anywhere in the universe for any kind of job was terrifying. But ... I had to do it, because I had to do something.

I couldn’t stay in this facility forever.

“Are you sure … the Facility is okay with this?” His brow crumpled as he looked at me directly. “I mean, they know about this, right?”

I nodded. “Of course they do.”

“... And no one’s got a problem with it? You leaving, I mean?”

“Oh, I imagine they’ll be happy to see the back of me. Mark, no matter what you say, this is happening. I’m joining the government.”

“Alright,” Mark let out a sigh that shook his shoulders and he shoved his hands into the pockets of his unbuttoned jacket. “But you’re lucky the future is so open minded. Back in our day, you would have been knocked back for your tats and sense of humor.” He shrugged towards my bare right arm.

I had a beautiful flower-motif tattoo along my shoulder and down my arm. I wasn’t the kind of girl to have ink, but it artfully obscured a birth mark. “You’re just picking on my tattoo and sense of humor because you’re jealous.”

He nodded and shot me a faked serious look. “Yeah, I really wish I had an enormous colorful flower pattern covering my left shoulder.”

“See, you try to be funny, but you just aren’t.”

He chuckled. “Well, now we’ve got that out of the way, if you’re hell-bent on doing this, how can I help?”

I tilted my head back. “I don’t need help.”

One of his eyebrows kinked up. “You sure?”

I shot him a grin. “Pretty sure. I’m going to do this on my own. It’s time for me to spread my wings. I’m three years old.”

He sniggered. “That’s definitely old enough to sign your life away to the government. Seriously though, let me help you. There’s a government office on Earth. I can have you there by this afternoon, me’ lady.” He crooked his arm and leaned it towards me.

I chuckled. “Mark, I’ll be fine. Plus, I’m not going to apply on Earth.”

His brow crumpled with a twitch. “What?”

“I’m going to spend a little of my savings to go to the Alpha System.”

His lips slackened. “What?”

“I’ve always wanted to see the Alpha system – ever since you showed me holo photos. So ...” I swung my arms back and forth, “I’m going.”

“... Annie, are you sure the Institute knows about this?”

“Yeah,” I fobbed a hand at him. “Of course they do. They helped me book tickets.”

Mark looked confused. He even wiped a strangely stiff hand down his face, then he hid it behind his back as he pretended to bow. “Well then, who am I to stand in your way? But how about I come with you? The Alpha System is pretty mean. You’ll need someone to hide behind – someone strong.” He brought up an arm and flexed his bicep.

I rolled my eyes, determined not to let my gaze linger on his muscles. “You really need to work on your jokes. But I’ll be fine. Plus, the Alpha System is described as one of the most peaceful spots in all the universe. I most definitely will not have to hide behind anyone strong.”

“... You sure the Institute is happy for you to go off on your own to the Alpha System?”

I snorted. “Like I said – they’ll be happy to see the back of me. Everyone’s been wishing me well. They’ll probably have a parade when I leave,” I joked.

Mark didn’t laugh. “... I better check with the Institute, just to make sure you’re not doing a runner.”

I sighed, but it quickly turned into a frown. “You don’t have to keep checking up on me, Mark.”

He patted his chest, and for a brief second his usually cheery expression became oddly serious. “It’s my mission, kid. Anyhow,” his demeanor changed as he flicked me a trademark grin, “I’m also heading off on patrol. I’ll be at your beck and call though.”

I shot him a look. “Really, the Foundation Forces will allow you to be at the beck and call of some random newfound one?”

“You’re not random. And they know I have existing duties with the Institute. Plus, no rest for the wicked,” his voice dipped low.

I hit him softly on the arm. “You aren’t wicked, Mark, so that doesn’t include you. And what are you saying? You only hang around me because it’s your job?”

“Pretty much,” he joked. “The pay’s pretty good too.”

“Ooh, you’re cruel, you are. Admit it, you like hanging out with me.”

“Okay,” he put his hands up in surrender, “the day you woke up, Annie Carter, was the day I died and came back to life.”

I laughed awkwardly. “You tell the weirdest jokes.”

“It’s a gift. Anyhow, when are you leaving?”

“Today.” I pressed my hands together and shot him an excited but nervous grin.

“Well then, how about I see you to your transport?” He held his hand out to me.

“That would be nice.”

I smiled.

There were times I felt lost in this new world. Times the future seemed too big to ever understand.

Then I was reminded I still had friends.

Or at least I had Mark.

He’d been assigned to me the day I’d woken up. I’d thrown up on him, three damn times, but he’d still stuck around.

He was a newfound one just like me, and he was my guide to this modern universe.

He always made me feel welcome and safe, especially when he flashed me one of his handsome, cheeky smiles.

But it was still time for me to spread my wings.

It was time for me – Annie Carter – to find my place in this universe.

Chapter 2

The Alpha System was incredible.

Space travel, not so much.

I hardly had any savings, so I’d booked a transport I could afford. A stinky, cramped freighter hauling borinian ore.

It had terrified me when I’d boarded, but the longer I’d spent in my cramped room, the more I’d calmed down.

It was kind of crazy to travel all the way to the Alpha System just to apply for a goddamn job.

It felt right though.

I’d been at the institute too long. I needed to find myself.

I wasn’t brave – at least not now. The old me had travelled everywhere. The old me had enjoyed packing up, grabbing her wallet and passport, and traveling wherever the wind had blown.

The new me – who’d wound up 400 years in the future without family, friends, and far away from anything she’d ever known – was different. The new me was scared to leave the building.

The new me figured that the moment I set foot outside was the moment the universe came crashing down around my ears.

But I was still doing this.

I landed on the main planet in the Alpha System, a cheery rock called Begia Prime.

It had spectacular scenery. It was like New Zealand on steroids. Enormous snow-capped mountain ranges plunged down into azure blue rivers. Forests of sprawling, knotted alien trees clung to hillsides, giving way to golden grassed plains.

And in the middle, for no good reason, was a dirty stinky city.

There I would find the application office.

Mark had made me promise to call him after I’d applied. He’d mumbled something about needing to ensure I hadn’t been assigned to the role of president.

President of the universe? Yeah, right. If my family were still alive, they’d tip their heads back and laugh at the thought that flaky Annie would ever amount to anything, let alone president of the goddamn universe.

I figured I’d get my application out of the way before exploring the planet.

And even then, I’d probably have to go back to my tiny habitat pod – my accommodation – and chew my nails for a few hours to muster up the courage to head out into the wilderness.

It wouldn’t be dangerous – the Alpha System was a premier tourist spot.

I was just agoraphobic from spending three years in the institute.

It didn't take me long to find the application office.

I walked inside to face an opaque black window.

There was no one else around, and for a few awkward minutes I stood there and did nothing.

Then I cleared my throat.

With a click, the window disappeared, revealing a squat alien behind a counter. “Application, please.” He shunted one of his pudgy hands towards me.

“Ah,” I hesitated.

“Application.” He twiddled his ten fingers.

“I-is this the application office for the Foundation Government Corps?”

“Of course it is.”

“So ... I just hand you my application then?”

He twiddled his fingers and nodded.

I handed him my data pad.

“Step forward and place your hand on the biometric scanner,” the alien said in a bored tone.

I complied.

After a few seconds there was a beep.

The alien sniffed. “Alright then, looks as if you can’t apply yet.”

“Ah, what?”

“There’s a contract out on you. No one can apply for a job in the government until all existing contracts taken against them are satisfied.”

I frowned at the clerk. “Sorry?”

“There’s a contract out on you,” he said slowly, as if I was hard of hearing. He had an impassive, blank expression, and brought a two pronged finger up to scratch his ear.

“... Ah, sorry? You ... y-you mean someone wants to kill me?” My heart skipped a beat.

His eyebrows flattened and he shot me a quizzical look. “What?”

“Y-you said there’s a contract out on me—”

“It means someone has some controlling interest in you.” He shrugged his shoulders and started to shuffle the data pads on his desk again.

“... What does that mean?”

“It means, humie, you can’t take this job until you get your contract satisfied. There are strict universal laws about that kind of stuff.”

“I, um, I, ah ... what kind of contract are we talking about here?” I was floundering. My face was red, my hands were sweaty. Just when I thought I was settling into the future, it was throwing me more surprises.

I had never heard of contracts.

The clerk shot me a bored look. “How should I know? You could be indentured, you could have an inheritance, you could be betrothed.”

I latched onto one word. “Sorry, betrothed?”

“You know, legally obliged to marry someone.”

“That’s a thing?” My voice pitched and shook.

“Of course it’s a thing.” He shot me another bored look. “Now, you gotta go find out what contract is out on you, and you’ll have to satisfy it before you can apply for a job with the government.”

“H-how do I do that?”

I didn’t know if the clerk’s race rolled their eyes, but this guy sure looked like he wanted to. He leaned over his desk, his pudgy pronged fingers disturbing the heaped pile of tools and datapads, sending a few scattering to the floor. “Lady, don’t you know anything? You been living under a rock your whole life?”

“I’m a newfound one. I only woke up 3 years ago,” I admitted as I slid my gaze to my hands.

“Oh.” He appeared to relax. “In that case, listen carefully. You have to book a transport to the Central System. Then you need to visit Cluster. When there, you’ll need to visit the Contracts Office. Depending on the type of contract out on you, you’ll probably have to head to the Identity Office too. Then, when the contract is confirmed, all you have to do is satisfy it, and once that’s done you can reapply for this job.” He shoved my application back at me, receded into his chair, punched something on the panel in front of him, and flicked me a smile as the window to his office turned opaque. “Good luck,” he called before his voice cut out.

“Ah ha,” I managed after a long pause.

My body stiff, it took me awhile to turn away.

My hand shook as I held my application.

There was a contract out on me. I could be indentured – and god knows what that would entail. Or I could have inherited something.

Or ... I could be betrothed.

I’d come here today to get my life sorted – to join the modern galaxy.

Before today, I hadn’t even known about contracts.

... Christ.

I wiped a hand down my face and forced myself to walk away.

I barely had any money, and the few savings I had would now be burnt away.

Great.

Back to square one.

I hated the future.

...

I couldn’t calm down. My body was wired, my mind filled with crazy thoughts.

I could inherit a small moon, or I could be indentured to a crazy alien warlord.

I’d gone back to my accommodation – a small pod on the outskirts of a transport town. It had an incredible view of the wild wilderness of this planet on one side, then the dingy transport town behind me.

I stood there and stared at the tall majestic mountain ranges, my gaze drawing towards the horizon as dusk set.

I needed to talk to someone, someone I could trust.

In this lonely galaxy, there was only one man.

I called Mark.

“Hey, kid, how did your application go?”

“Ah, not great,” I couldn’t control my tone.

“What happened?”

“Um, Mark, have you ever heard of contracts?”

“... Sure. Why are you bringing them up?”

“Like, I don’t mean ordinary legal contracts, I mean ... Christ, I don’t know what I mean. Some kind of universal, ah ... thing.” I couldn’t find my words. I stared at the view with wide open eyes and a pounding heart. I rubbed my hand back and forth along the window ledge, until the smooth metal started to grate against my fingers.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Universally Binding Contracts. Why are you bringing them up?”

I paused. I couldn’t speak. My breath had stuck in my chest.

I patted a hand on my middle, crunching over.

“... Annie?”

“I have a contract out on me,” I blurted, “I have no idea what it is. But if I don’t satisfy it, I can’t apply for this job. And I need this job, Mark – it’s like the only thing I can do in the future. I feel so freaking useless most of the time, and totally out of my depth. And now this has come along,” I sucked in a breath, “and I have no idea what it is. I could be betrothed, Mark – betrothed.” I couldn’t stop the torrent of thoughts from spilling out of my mouth. “The clerk at the applications office told me I have to go to the Central System, and to the Contracts Office and then the Identity Office. But I hardly have any money, Mark. It will take up all my savings, and then some. I don’t know what to do. Just when I thought I was getting used to this future, this comes up.”

Mark didn’t interrupt. I fancied wherever he was, he had a calm smile plastered across his lips.

I took an enormous breath and flopped onto my butt. I could still see a slice of the horizon through the windows, and I concentrated on the white sleek mountain peaks beyond.

I stuck a fingernail in my mouth and started to chew it.

“Take a breath, Annie, it’s all going to be okay. First things first: it isn’t that unusual to have a contract. It won’t be that hard to find out what it is. It won’t take up all your savings either – as a newfound one, you can apply for a grant to head to the Central System to get this all sorted.”

“... Oh. But – but what if I’m indentured, or betrothed!”

He laughed. “I like how you’re more scared of being betrothed than you are of being indentured.”

“Mark, this is serious!”

“Yeah, I haven’t heard you give a thought dump like that since your first year after waking up. Anyhow, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Yes there is—”

“Annie,” he interrupted before I could get going again.

I shoved my thumb further into my mouth, grating my teeth back and forth over my nail.

“You aren’t betrothed,” he said confidently, “nor would you be indentured.”

“What? I’m not? How can you be so sure?” I jumped to my feet.

“Because you’re over 400 years old, technically.”

“... And?”

“Come on, Annie, think. You were born a long, long time ago. You can’t possibly be betrothed to someone, nor indentured – the contract holder would be well and truly dead by now.”

“But ... what if the contract holder came from a really long-lived race?”

“Why would someone have indentured or betrothed little Annie Carter from 21st century Earth? Earth wasn’t even part of the Foundation Protectorate 400 years ago.”

“Oh,” I conceded, my shoulders finally dropping from up around my ears.

“There’s really only one possibility – you’ve inherited something.”

“But who would leave anything to me? As you keep saying, I’m more than 400 years old.”

“The Contracts Office picks up and deals with contracts from every member of the Foundation. My guess is 400 years ago, someone put you in their will with a clause that should you be woken up, you get the cash – or whatever they’ve left you.”

I blinked, suddenly feeling extremely stupid. I stared at my feet sheepishly. “Oh. Ah, yeah, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, it does. So can you do me a favor and stop chewing your nail?”

He knew me well enough to remember what I did when I was nervous.

“I stopped chewing it a few seconds ago, actually.”

“Alright then. Now, all you have to do is contact the Contracts Office, prove your newfound status, and they’ll help arrange transport.”

“Why can’t I just get them to look into my contract for me? I mean, do I really need to travel all the way to Central?”

“Yep, unfortunately you do. They’ll have to do a full atomic scan of your DNA to check it’s really you. But hey, it won’t be so bad – you keep telling me you want to travel.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Just don’t overthink it, Annie. Go claim your inheritance. Who knows, with interest, maybe you won’t have to apply for that job after all – you might be inheriting a small fortune.”

“Mark, we’ve talked about this – I want to give back. I want to do something worthwhile. I’m sick of sitting around doing nothing. I feel so useless.”

“You’re not useless, Annie. You’ve got an incredible head on your shoulders.”

I blushed.

“Keep me in the loop. If you have inherited a fortune, I expect you to take me out for a drink.”

I let out a soft laugh. “Sure thing.”

“Let me know when you’re headed to Central, too – as I might be around those parts. We could meet up.”

“Mark, that would be great.” I smiled, tucking my hair behind my ears as I did a quick turn on the floor, heading towards my luggage.

“Alright then. Keep safe, Annie.”

“Always.”

“See you around, kid.”

“Thanks so much, Mark.”

With that, he ended the call.

I stood staring at the view, feeling extremely foolish.

Of course it was an inheritance, and of course it wasn’t that serious.

I sighed, shook my head, and turned around to call Central.

Chapter 3

It didn’t take long to organize transport to the Central System. As soon as I explained my situation and revealed my newfound status, they took me under the government’s considerable wing.

Everything was organized for me.

Within two days, I was aboard a transport headed straight for Central.

It was a four-week trip, even utilizing priority jump routs.

It gave me a lot of time to calm down.

But the closer we got, the more my nerves reignited.

I tried to rationalize them away – I tried to tell myself it was nothing. The clump of worry forming in my gut wouldn’t shift, though.

I felt as if I was heading towards something.

By the time we arrived in the Central System, I was jumpy.

The small transport I was on had a viewing platform with seats and a massive window that showcased space flitting on past.

Needing to keep my mind off things, I paced in front of the view.

The Central System was unquestionably incredible. It would have to be; it housed the primary administrative units of the Foundation.

From security to identity – everything was dealt with on the cluster planets.

The cluster planets were a group of artificial and natural planets joined together in a modern feat of technology to form one enormous celestial body.

For a simple girl from 400 years ago, they were astounding.

When my transport approached, my nerves dropped away to be replaced with awe.

The cluster of planets were joined by an enormous artificial gravity generator about the size of a small moon that modulated the natural gravitational forces of each planet to keep them at a constant synchronous distance.

It enabled sky bridges and elevators and space stations to join up the planets without the fear of them being crushed or torn apart.

Standing there in my transport, I pressed a hand to the enormous viewing window before me, and I leaned in close until my breath condensed against the techno glass.

My eyes grew wide and a sense of true wonder filled my heart.

“Approaching Central,” a voice filtered over the ship-wide coms. “Passengers disembarking in the security body must go to the second-floor starboard airlock. Passengers disembarking for the Contracts Office should head to the third-floor port airlock.”

The message continued, but I didn’t need to hear the rest.

I didn’t have any luggage, just a few synth credits. The credits would allow me to synthesize whatever clothes or food I needed.

The credits were already pre-loaded into my identity tag – a subcutaneous implant just behind my left ear. In fact, everything was in the implant, from proof of my newfound status, to my itinerary.

Taking a deep calming breath, I made my way to deck three.

That sense that something was building – that I was heading towards something – settled deep in my stomach. It felt like a knot, or a hard clump of fright ready to explode.

I tried to push it out of my mind.

It was just nerves.

I would soon find out it was more, much more.

Chapter 4

For the past three years I’d barely left the institute.

Now here I was on my own in the most important destination in the entire universe. Suffice to say, it was packed with aliens. Every person I passed appeared to be from a new and different race I’d never seen before.

If the people weren’t confronting enough, then the sheer megalithic technologically advanced architecture was.

The planet I disembarked on was arguably the biggest.

I’d been expecting an enormous densely populated city that stretched across the whole planet. That’s not what I found.

It was beautiful. Large glistening white buildings separated by bridges and lakes and gardens.

In the sky you could see the other planets and security stations and bridges of Central.

I’d been in the future three years now, but this was decidedly the most futuristic experience I’d had.

It felt as if I’d walked into the concept art for a video game or somehow wandered inside a sci-fi movie.

I disembarked with a bunch of other passengers, but they quickly walked off, keen to complete whatever task had brought them here.

Me, I walked around in a bit of a daze for an hour or two.

There was so much to see. From hanging gardens to floating lakes, it was a wild trip for my eyes and my imagination.

It was also a distraction.

I’d already identified where the Central contract building was. It would be hard not to. It was the biggest building I’d ever seen. It was like a whole city back on old earth. The outside was made of undulating white sail-like constructions that glistened under the sun.

It took a damn long time for me to find the courage to approach the building, then even longer to go inside.

There were a series of security checkpoints leading up to the building, which I thought was overkill considering the number of security checkpoints I’d had to go through in order to get onto the planet in the first place.

Each time my implant would be scanned, and I’d be let through, often with a curious glance when the guard realized I was a newfound one.

It took about 20 minutes to actually get inside the building.

By that time my nerves had exploded. It felt as if live wires were crackling through my entire body. I was so jittery, I had to secure a hand onto my stomach and force myself to breathe lest I faint.

If I thought the outside of the contract building was incredible, then the inside was mind blowing.

It was that same odd mishmash of styles that I’d encountered in so much of the rest of the universe. The building was like a warren, with countless corridors and rooms branching off.

Occasionally a door would roll open to let someone through, and I’d catch a glimpse of the room inside. Devices would be strewn across tables, or neatly stacked along walls, with pot plants and artwork dotted everywhere, and aliens rushing to and fro.

In fact, come to think of it, there was artwork everywhere. Statues, vases, old contraptions. It was like walking through the greatest museum I’d ever seen.

It took me a moment to realize that the art wasn’t there for show. I saw an official-looking man in the regal attire of the Foundation leading two aliens to a room where they carted away a boxful of a hodgepodge of items from intricate statues to old engine parts.

These were all inheritances, weren’t they?

It took me a long time to reach the main reception area of the contract building. I hadn’t been lying when I’d said it was a small city. I saw people whizzing around on small hovercraft, but I had no idea where they got them, and I doubted anyone would give one to me. So I just had to walk.

Eventually I found the line, and what a line it was. I swear it stretched for blocks. There was every imaginable alien, every imaginable color, form, and shape.

It should have been boring waiting there for hours, but it wasn’t.

Well, at least it wasn’t until he showed up.

It was when I was close to the front of the line that something happened.

The massive queue started to break apart, everybody muttering in their own tongue.

At first I didn’t know what was happening, and I stood there and watched.

A man was walking down the enormous long hallway.

He was human, or at least he resembled a human. Tall, proportioned shoulders, a sharp jawline, and a piercing gaze.

He should have been handsome, except for that gaze.

It was like staring into the center of the Big Bang.

It was also exceedingly arrogant.

He was dressed in a well cut black tunic with a high collar that showed off his trim neck and angled jaw. There were no decorations save for a purple pin on the left breast of his jacket. There was also a slim line of purple trimming around his collar.

He looked like an extremely trendy priest, well, apart from the death glare.

I stood there and I stared at him until he walked right up to me.

“What are you doing?” he asked in a clipped, curt tone.

I turned bright red; I could feel my cheeks threatening to burn right off.

“Why aren’t you following customs?” Those piercing steely grey eyes narrowed.

I started to stutter, my blush becoming iridescent. “Sorry, did I do something wrong?”

“You are refusing to yield your position in the line to me.”

Everyone was looking at me, including officials.

“I …” I bit my lip and shrugged my shoulders. “Who are you exactly?” It was probably the wrong question to ask. Considering the cowed awed gazes everybody else was shooting this man, I shouldn’t be questioning who he was, I should just be getting out of his way. But the question blurted out of my lips before I could stop it.

He looked shocked, but in a thoroughly arrogant way. I’d never met somebody more sure of themselves, more certain of their power and their right to hold it. He angled his head back and shot me a terrifying gaze. “I don’t play games.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It wasn’t an answer to my question; it was a random snippet of information. Great, so this guy wouldn’t want to play Monopoly with me, I’m glad we’d sorted that, but honestly, who the heck was he and what did he want?

I didn’t know what to do, so I stood there looking exceedingly embarrassed.

“Don’t pretend not to know who I am, I am an Illuminate,” he spoke through bared teeth now, and he gestured to the purple pin on his breast.

I looked at it, then looked at him nonplussed. “Oh,” I managed, “what’s an Illuminate?” Again, I should have kept my stupid mouth shut, but my lips wouldn’t oblige.

He either looked like he wanted to kill me or he’d seen the most curious thing in the universe, I wasn’t sure; this guy was hard to read. The only emotion I could pick up was arrogance. And in that second, he turned it on full bore.

He looked me up and down, his gaze not exactly flattering. “Where have you been that you do not know what an Illuminate is and how to treat them properly?”

“I’m a newfound one,” I stuttered.

“... I see. Well, here is a lesson you shouldn’t forget, newfound one, if you see this pip,” he pointed to the relatively plain looking brooch, “you move. No questions, no attitude,” he hissed. Then he brushed past me.

Attitude? He was the one accusing me of having attitude? He was the greatest bully I’d ever met!

Still, I shuffled backwards, mortified, not by him but by the way everyone else looked at me. It was as if I’d committed the greatest faux pas this side of spitting in the Queen’s soup.

As the Illuminate walked away, he tipped his regal head back and didn’t once look my way. I was worse than insignificant to him: I was non-existent.

I blinked quickly and turned, taking a calming breath as I tried not to look at the accusatory glances around me.

Sometimes I thought this future was incredible – modern in every way imaginable. From faster-than-light travel, to planets tethered together – they’d managed to achieve so much.

And then I was brought right back down to Earth. For all this incredible universe’s achievements, it was still riddled with outdated traditions. From royalty to whatever the hell that Illuminate guy was, there was still class inequity. Even in my day back on 21st century Earth we’d been trying to make that a thing of the past.

As I looked around me, I realized how entrenched it was in the future.

Far ahead, the Illuminate strode, his head tilted back as he didn’t even bother to acknowledge the people shuffling out of his way.

What a jerk. Everyone else here may not be able to see that, but I could. I didn’t care what this guy did, but no one earned the right to treat people like that.

I stowed my mutinous thoughts as the lines reformed. It didn’t happen right away, though – everyone waited until the Illuminate was far out of sight, his polished boots echoing down the enormously long corridor.

When the lines did reform, I was shunted to the back. Various aliens kept shooting me accusatory glares, as if I’d killed their puppies or something.

I meekly took my place at the end of the line, waiting around until some new people joined it who hadn’t been around to see my apparent social transgression.

As I stood there at the end of the new line, I stewed. I entertained every unkind thought about that jerk I could, then I moved on to how much I hated this universe.

If only I’d never contracted that virus 400 years ago, I wouldn’t be here now. I would have lived out my existence in the 21st century. I would have had a great life, I’m sure. Better than this, anyway.

Eventually, after what felt like half a day, I reached the front of the line. The single clerk who sat behind an enormous polished wood desk barely looked up at me.

I had to shout to be heard.

“Place your hand on the bio scanner,” the alien woman snapped.

I did as I was told.

A few seconds later she brought up one of her twenty arms and pointed down one of the twenty corridors branching off from behind her desk.

“Ah,” I began.

“That way,” she snapped, then leaned past me to wave on the next person in the queue.

I stood around for a little, unsure of what to do, but when everyone continued to ignore me, I shuffled towards the hall she’d pointed to.

There were no signs. I had absolutely no idea where I was going. She hadn’t said anything, either. For all I knew, she could have sent me back to the start of the line.

With a heavy heart and by now a rumbly stomach, I walked off down the hallway.

After a few lengths, the architecture around me started to change. Gone was the sleek white modern feel of the main hall, until I found myself in a narrow winding corridor interrupted every 20 meters or so with spiral staircases.

The design was a hodge podge, and made me feel as though someone had taken an old castle from Earth and smashed it together with a space ship.

At least it distracted me.

I kept walking until I reached a checkpoint. A security officer scanned my implant and waved me on.

I tried to ask him where I was going, but he ignored me, turned, and started chatting to his buddy.

I caught a few snippets of their conversation. It was the same topic everyone in Central seemed to be discussing – the upcoming Illuminate wedding.

I hadn’t been paying attention, but as I thought about it now, I wondered if that jerk Illuminate in the main hall had anything to do with it.

If it was his wedding, I hoped he was getting married to someone awful who’d ruin his life forever.

....

Okay, that was mean. I’d been brought up as a good girl. But honestly, some people were beyond kindness.

I continued down the winding corridor, wondering if I’d reach my destination before I succumbed to hunger and thirst. If I’d known trekking through the contracts building would be like traversing a city, I’d have brought supplies.

I tried not to let my spirits slip as I trekked on, reminding myself I would be picking up an inheritance soon. It could be anything, from a small moon to a box of my grandma’s old gnomes.

Finally the corridor widened into a large room. Just like the main hall above, there was an enormous bench, this one made out of gleaming white metal trimmed with gold.

There was an alien man on the opposite side of the counter.

He didn’t look up as I approached. I was the only person in this enormous room other than him, but he didn’t register my presence at all.

It wasn’t until I’d cleared my throat for the tenth time and managed a timid, “excuse me,” that he bothered to roll his three eyes towards me.

“Can I help you?” he asked in the standard tongue.

“Ah, yeah, I was sent here by the lady at reception.”

He didn’t respond. He looked at me with those three luminescent eyes and appeared to wait.

“So, ah, do you want my biometric scan?” I hazarded through a swallow.

“I already have it.”

“O-kay ... so what do you need me to do?”

“Nothing.” He turned to look at something on the sunken panel embedded in the smooth counter before him.

I stood there and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Had I already mentioned how much I hated this modern universe? If I’d thought 21st century Earth had been beset by irritating useless traditions and bureaucracies, I’d been wrong. Give me a line up at a toll booth any day.

“... Ah, so what contract do I have?” I broke the silence.

“I don’t see why you’ve come here to ask.”

I blinked my eyes slowly. “Y-you, what? I, I was sent here from reception. I’m just trying to find out what contract I have. I’ve come here all the way from the Alpha System,” I began to babble, “to find out why the heck I can’t get a job with the government. The clerk at the applications office told me there was some kind of contract out on me and I’m here to find out what that is.” I pressed my lips together, realizing ranting would get me nowhere.

“You are a newfound One, yes?”

I nodded, stomach sinking. I was about to get another lecture on proper modern universal etiquette, wasn’t I? Maybe that jerk of an Illuminate would swan in to berate me too.

Instead of launching into a spiel about how ignorant I was, the alien looked confused for a moment. “Then you should go to the Identity Office to find out who it is.”

“Ah, sorry. I think you missed a step. Find out who what is?”

“You're betrothed. You’ve come to the wrong office. I can only confirm your betrothal, I can’t tell you the details of who you are contracted to wed.”

I stood there. I didn’t move. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

“You must have been told upon awaking as a newfound one. Your identity would have been checked.”

I must have looked like I was about to throw up. That, or faint.

The alien compressed his ridged brow. “You look unwell, human.”

“B-betrothed?” I couldn’t breathe. There was a lump stuck in my throat, and I knew I was going to choke. “I, I can’t be betrothed. It’s not possible.”

“Didn’t you know?” He gave me an enquiring look.

I stood there and stared at him as sweat slicked my brow.

“Ma’am, are you alright?”

“I … feel sick.”

“Have you received your latest space flu shot?”

I stared at him.

“Ma’am?”

“I, I d-d-don’t understand. How can I be betrothed?”

“A contract was created at the time of your birth,” he began.

“No, no, that can’t be. I’m a newfound one. I was born over 400 years ago!”

The alien rested back in his chair and looked thoughtful. “That is an extremely long time for a betrothal to run. There are two possibilities – you have been betrothed to a member of a long-lived race or you were betrothed only recently.”

“Recently? What? I ... but why? How does that even work? I mean, honestly, what kind of a universe is this? I’ve never met the person I’m supposedly betrothed to—”

“There is no supposedly, ma’am – you are legally bound to them,” he interrupted.

I pressed my hands into fists, not caring as the nails dug hard into my palms. “I don’t care; this still isn’t right. Don’t I get any say in the matter?”

He looked at me impassively. “I do not see what the problem is. Most people are thrilled to find they are betrothed. It is an ancient and respected tradition—”

“It’s ridiculous,” I ranted.

The alien – who’d looked relatively kind up until now – frowned, his fat green lips drawing thin. “You are a newfound one, so you may not understand the traditions of the modern universe. However, you should still respect them.”

“Why?”

The alien’s expression suddenly drew slack.

“This whole thing is ridiculous.” I knew I should keep my tone down, but I couldn’t. All the stress and frustration were pouring out of me. “You know, I may be in the so-called future, but it doesn’t feel like it. Sure, you have fancy space ships, but your traditions are ancient. We got rid of class inequality years ago.”

The alien said nothing. Instead he stared behind me, his three luminescent eyes opening as far as the skin would allow.

I should have clicked that he was looking at someone behind me, but I was too angry.

“I can’t believe I have to satisfy this ridiculous contract just to get a job with the government.”

“It is your choice whether you choose to satisfy it or not. A betrothal is an ancient and sacred tradition, and if you can’t see that, you are better off ignoring it and returning to your ordinary life,” someone said from behind me.

By this stage I was livid. Angry at everything. Incensed by how this could possibly be occurring in a future where they could cure almost every disease and travel to the furthest reaches of the universe.

Then I turned and I saw him.

The Illuminate.

An entourage of reverent staff and security were holed up by the doorway, either too timid to come in or not permitted to try.

He stared at me, those awful piercing eyes boring into my soul. On any other day, I would have backed down, I would’ve mumbled my apologies and darted away like a minnow before the shark. Today wasn’t any other day. I'd just found out that without my permission someone had contracted me to marry them.

Despite the fact his gaze was as challenging as a gun to the head, I squared off my jaw. “Just because something is tradition, doesn’t mean it’s right.” Arguing with this guy was exactly what I shouldn’t do. I’d already seen how everybody else was treating him. He was either royalty or something more important. In other words, far, far above my station.

He shot me the kind of look that said I was nothing and knew nothing. “The Foundation has already given you much, newfound one, and they deserve your respect in return, not your ire. Presumably, you were brought back to life, and the taxpayers and citizens of the Foundation have funded you ever since. The least you can do is respect our beliefs.”

I could feel my anger melting away. I tried to hold onto it – if only because of the arrogant look glinting in his eyes – but I couldn’t deny his reason.

The future sure had given me a lot, and if the least I could do was whine less, then so be it.

That wouldn’t mean I’d drop this.

There had to be a way to fight this betrothal.

His expression was the epitome of disgrace, his lips drawn thin, and his piercing pale eyes narrowed. “If I were you, I would ignore your betrothal; you clearly aren’t worth such a sacred contract.”

With that he turned and started talking to the alien.

I stood there stunned.

Then I turned on my heel and began to walk away.

“Wait,” he commanded.

Despite myself, I stopped, as if his words were like chains that locked me to the spot.

“You have forgotten your contract.” Without turning to me, he took something off the alien, then tossed it onto the ground by my feet.

Oddly, it was parchment paper.

Or at least I thought it was paper.

As I leaned down to pick it up, feeling sick from his dismissive behavior, I saw it was different to the parchment paper I was accustomed to.

It was flexible and light, but extremely strong. It was also embedded with holographic symbols, and as soon as I touched it, I could feel it was made of some unusual substance.

“It cannot be destroyed,” the man said without turning to me, “but it can be ignored.”

And with that, he ignored me.

I thought of turning around and giving him another serve, telling him that no matter how important he thought he was, he didn’t earn the right to treat people like that.

I didn’t.

I was hot in the face from embarrassment, and I could see the Illuminate’s entourage by the door shooting me death glares.

So I walked away.

I made my way through the judging crowd, and slowly ascended the winding staircases until I made it to the main floor.

As time passed, and my initial shock at his reaction faded, the reality of the situation set in.

My nerves started to mount, climbing up my back and diving into my chest with jolts like electric shocks.

By the time I made it through the labyrinthine building and out into the light, I was a wreck. My heart felt like it had switched places with a flighty bird.

Clamping a hand on my stomach, I had to force myself to breathe.

I walked over to the jutting platform that commanded a view of the sprawling city below. I clamped my hands on the smooth white rails, digging my fingernails into the metal.

Then I closed my eyes and tried to process what I’d just learnt.

Ever since I’d woken up as a newfound one, there’d been a lot to learn. Life in the future wasn’t easy. But this … this was different. This was horrible.

I was betrothed.

Shaking, I brought the contract up and stared at it. At first my eyes got stuck on a slowly spinning holographic symbol in the upper right corner. The blues and whites and golds of the Foundation insignia lulled my mind, but it couldn’t distract me forever.

With another rattling gulp, I jerked my gaze down to stare at the text. Betrothed was written in great big bold letters, it was even underlined.

Under that was a bunch of gibberish. Letters and numbers – strings of symbols I didn’t understand.

Apparently, if I took it to the identity office, they’d let me know who exactly I was betrothed to.

Which was a thought I hadn’t let into my mind until now.

Somewhere out there was someone for me. It wasn’t destiny, though. It was a contract. A contract bound me to them and them to me for the rest of our lives.

I crumpled a hand over my mouth, my lips indenting against my fingers as another wave of nausea and emotion washed over me.

Before I could tumble to my knees, I thought of what the Illuminate had said. I could ignore this. The arrogant jerk had pretty much told me that whoever I was betrothed to wouldn’t want me.

So what was the harm of walking away?

Sure, if I didn’t satisfy the betrothal, I’d never get a job with the government, but surely there were other things I could do in this universe?

Or maybe there was some way to annul the betrothal. There had to be legal loopholes. All I needed to do was calm down and think this through logically.

Oh, and tell somebody I could trust.

Mark.

It didn’t take too long until I unwrapped my hands from that metal railing and rubbed the fingernail marks from my palms.

Then I walked away.

Chapter 5

I called Mark. Before I could break down and tell him what happened, he casually mentioned he was on the same planet I was.

We decided to meet up for a drink. It would be easier to tell him in person. I could show him the damn betrothal contract. Otherwise it was so ridiculous I doubted he’d believe me.

I used the implant in my neck to help me navigate to the bar Mark had suggested.

This planet was beautiful. Away from the Contracts Office, the city was denser, tall buildings leading up to the horizon line, connected with sky bridges and platforms thronging with aliens staring at the view.

I walked amongst them, head still in the clouds.

I found the right bar, a cozy looking affair sunk into the floor like a basement. I walked inside to wait, finding a table next to the wall, far away from the view, but far away from people’s enquiring glances too.

I wanted to be alone right now.

There was a holo television above the bar, showing footage of the news.

As I looked up from inspecting my hands for about the hundredth time, I saw a familiar face.

That Illuminate.

I wanted to ignore him – hell, I never wanted to see or hear about that man again.

I couldn’t stop my hand from walking up my neck and tapping my implant though.

It automatically caught the audio feed of the televised broadcast and played it directly into my mind.

“Central saw a rare visit from Illuminate Hart today. A precursor to the upcoming Illuminate wedding – the event of the century – rumor had it he visited the contract building, possibly to find out what lucky person is betrothed to him.”

I stiffened on that word and my fingernails curled in until they dug hard against my palms.

So he was betrothed too, ha?

That probably explained why he’d been in the betrothal office with me. It didn’t, however, explain why he was such a jerk and why people obviously had no problem with this.

Who was this man that his wedding would be the event of the century?

I stopped fuming long enough to tune back into the televised broadcast. An alien of some indefinite gender tittered loudly and shot onto the holographic screen in front of the picture of a scowling Hart. “Details of the betrothal will be revealed in the coming days. Whoever is betrothed to Illuminate Hart will enter into one of the most important families in the universe. An Illuminate wedding is a rare event, and allows us, the ordinary public, a brief glimpse into the mysterious lives of the universal protectors.”

Universal protectors?

What the heck?

Hart didn’t look like he could protect anyone; that hateful, judgmental gaze could only do damage.

Though the broadcast was making me progressively angrier, I didn’t get to see the end.

I got a message from Mark saying he’d just arrived.

I stood up to see him walk down the stairs and into the bar.

“Hey, kid.” Mark ducked his head down to avoid hitting the low ceiling and plucked a hand from his pocket to wave casually at me.

I smiled. Despite everything, I still managed the smallest of friendly greetings.

His eyebrows dug low into his eyes. “What’s the matter? You look tired.”

“I’m not tired,” I said. Technically it was a lie – my day had drained me. But my fatigue had nothing to do with my washed out expression.

“You okay?” His eyebrows peaked together.

“Ah ... I found out what my contract is,” my voice barely registered above a whisper.

“Don’t sweat it, Annie – if you didn’t inherit that much, I can pay for the drinks.” He shrugged a shoulder towards the bar.

I didn’t move.

“Drinks are this way.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his trim navy blue uniform and angled his head towards the bar.

“Ah, can we maybe go outside? I want some air.” Before he had a chance to answer, I turned and walked through the door.

He shot me an odd look and followed.

I made it all the way out to one of the platforms that offered a panoramic view of the city below. Ships darted in and out of tall sleek buildings, the lights of their exhausts like fireflies in the dark.

I leaned against a railing, a strong wind ruffling my hair.

Mark walked up beside me and silently rested an elbow on the railing. After a few seconds of staring at the same view, he swiveled his head to face me. A tiny smile crept across his lips. “You’re not about to have another rant, are you?”

I didn’t react.

“Annie, it was just a joke. Tell me what happened, kid.”

“Why do you always call me kid?” I suddenly asked, latching onto that because it was a hell of a lot easier than admitting what my real problem was.

He ran a hand over the back of his head then shrugged. “I guess because you were woken up after me. You’re a little like the little sister I never had.”

I nodded. It was a slight move, and I kept my gaze fixed on the view as I did.

“Ah, Annie, what’s going on?”

“I’m betrothed.” I pulled the document out of my pocket and handed it to him.

I couldn’t stop my hand from shaking.

He looked from my hand, to the document, then up to my deadened expression. “You’re kidding right?” His mouth crumpled into an amused smile.

I stared past him, my wide-open eyes locking onto the view. “No,” I said in a dead voice.

He stiffened, that smile melting away. “Annie, there has to have been a mistake. You can’t be betrothed. You’re a newfound one. There’s no way that could work. You were born over 400 years ago. If for some insane reason you were betrothed back then, the person you were betrothed to would be dead by now. There has to have been a mistake.”

I darted my eyes over to him and swallowed.

“We’ll go back to the Contracts Office, and we’ll sort this out.” He let a commiserating smile crumple his lips and it extended up to his piercing blue eyes.

Even though that smile should have washed away my every concern, it didn’t.

I shook my head. “I already told the guy at the Contracts Office I’m a newfound one. He said it didn’t matter. I’m still betrothed,” I could barely speak now. My voice was a stuttering squeak, like rubber soled shoes running quickly over marble.

Mark blinked back his surprise. His usually dark cheeks paled. “There has to be some kind of mistake.”

I shook my head, bringing up two sweaty fingers and pressing them against my lips. “There’s no mistake, Mark. I’ve got the contract.” I pushed the contract towards him.

Mark took it off me and his eyes darted from the holographic symbol in the upper right corner to the enormous underlined betrothed in the middle.

A few seconds later, he met my gaze.

He looked like I felt. “This is impossible,” he said softly, but the conviction was gone from his voice.

I took a step back, pressed my lips against my teeth, and shook my head bitterly. “I sure do hope it is, but unless there’s been a monumental cock up, it’s real.”

“But how? You were born 400 years ago,” he repeated.

I shrugged my shoulders. It wasn’t an apathetic move; it was defeated. I was defeated.

Maybe my surrender was obvious, because Mark took a quick step towards me. He angled his head down until he caught my gaze. “Hey, this ain’t over, kid. There’ll be something we can do. Trust me.”

“It’s a binding contract through time and space.” I pushed a hand down my face, trying to hide my emotion.

He reached out a hand and locked it on my shoulder. “Don’t give up yet. Look, even if this is real,” he gestured with the paper, “it clearly hasn’t come into effect yet.”

I looked up at him, an iota of hope kindling in my gaze. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re still here, Annie. I mean your betrothed – whoever the hell they are – clearly doesn’t know about you, or …” he trailed off with a shrug.

“Or what?”

“Or – and this is going to sound harsh – they don’t care about you.”

My brow crumpled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean there is every chance that they know who you are, and they don’t want to bring the contract into effect.”

“… So you don’t think I should go to the Identity Office and see who I’m betrothed to?”

He considered my question, his brow crumpling. He shook his head. “They’ve had plenty of time. Whoever it is, they would know they’re betrothed. If they haven’t found you by now—”

“They aren’t looking,” I finished his sentence. A gust of wind tugged at my hair, sending it tumbling and whipping over my shoulder as a blue hover ship swung close by our platform. I stared at the exhaust as it lit us up in a blue glow.

“Hey,” he ducked his head close to mine and shot me a distracting smile, “it’ll all be okay. I promise.”

I eventually looked over at him. “Are you sure you can promise that?”

He patted his chest and chuckled, his broad fingers barely rumpling the well-fitted fabric of his uniform. “Heck yes. You know who you’re talking to here, right? I’m the Foundation Forces’ best soldier.”

“Are you also their most arrogant soldier?” I managed a crinkled-lipped smile.

He tipped his head back and chuckled. “Damn straight I am. I’m arrogant enough to promise that this,” he gestured with the contract, “will all be sorted.”

“I thought you recommended that I just ignore it?”

“I’ll still look into it for you.”

I shot him a thankful smile. “Really?”

“For you, anything. Now what do you say we go inside and you buy me a drink?”

“I didn’t inherit anything. Unless you want water, I suggest you pay.”

He chuckled. “What would you do without me?” He shifted his head towards the bar and walked ahead.

What would I do without Mark? Oh, I don’t know, probably nothing. I was useless without him. He was my one rock in this whole confusing universe, and without him I’d drown.

Chapter 6

I didn’t get long with Mark – he was called away. Unlike me, he had an important job.

Mark had promised to sort out my betrothal contract, which left me at a loose end.

I had nowhere to be, so with the little savings I had, I decided to travel around Central System.

I didn’t go far, just to some of the other central planets.

I usually liked traveling, but at the moment my mind was too distracted to take in the sights. Still, it was nice to keep moving.

I kept nervously checking to see if Mark had left me any messages.

Nothing.

Slowly the days ticked by.

There was really only one thing to distract myself with. It appeared to be the same thing the rest of the universe was distracting itself with.

The upcoming Illuminate wedding.

The more I heard about Hart, the more I hated him. He seemed to embody everything that had once been wrong with Earth. Class inequality. The view that by virtue of somebody’s birth, they were better than someone else.

I’d always despised the idea of royalty. Nobody deserves to be treated like a god among men.

And yet it seemed that nobody else in this universe shared that particular view.

Everyone I met was thrilled about the upcoming wedding, and they all gushed the virtues of the Illuminate family.

I still didn’t know anything about them, and frankly, I didn’t care.

I didn’t want to know how they justified themselves, whatever ridiculous story they spun to the rest of the universe to validate their existence.

They were leeches, just like royalty throughout the ages, I was confident of that.

Back on Earth, back before my virus, I’d hated sitting still. I’d always kept myself busy, learning a new language, perfecting some new skill, or just cleaning up.

None of those skills were useful anymore: there was only one universal standard language, and there wasn’t a great deal to clean.

Whenever I stopped for too long, my mind started imploding in on itself.

That’s what it was doing now.

Waiting for Mark was truly hell.

Honestly, it was giving me a headache. An odd one. This pressure was building behind my left eye.

Once upon a time I got migraines, and I was sure this was just another one coming on.

So I dismissed it.

A mistake I would later regret.

On the fourth day of mooching around, I found myself in a bar.

It was mostly filled with flight crew and government workers.

I kept to myself.

I needed somewhere dry to sit and wait as rain pounded down outside.

And I waited.

I pushed my way to a corner and rested my back up against a wall.

And I waited.

I watched the people around me for a while.

There was some kind of Foundation Forces captain in the corner talking to an important looking government official. They kept shooting the holo TV above the bar excited looks.

In fact, now I bothered to look, there were an awful lot of people in this bar. As I glanced up, more pushed their way in.

They all shot the holo TV expectant looks.

What was going on?

With a cheer, the holo TV turned itself on – a ball of vibrant light slowly filtering out until it formed perfect 3D images.

It was a broadcast of Illuminate Hart.

I suddenly realized what was happening here. Today was the day Hart’s betrothed would be announced.

I rolled my eyes, thankful I was far off on my own in a corner. Everyone else was thronging towards the TV.

Though I wanted to ignore the news, I couldn’t. The audio was being broadcast throughout the bar, and it was damn loud.

I crumpled further over my simple drink and shot the golden liquid an angry look.

“The results are in, and the betrothed has been announced,” the news presenter said.

The results are in? Sounded like she was reeling off the winning ticket in a lottery.

Marrying Hart, however, didn’t sound like a lottery. It sounded like torture.

“For the first time ever,” the news presenter got a manic grin on their face, “a newfound one will be welcomed into the Illuminate family.”

I stiffened, my gaze swiveling to lock onto the TV.

A newfound one?

“A woman from old Earth, Hart’s betrothed only woke up three years ago.”

A knot of hot-white nerves formed in my stomach.

“She was cryogenically frozen over 400 years ago on the first of January 2020 after succumbing to a deadly virus, which at the time had no cure.”

I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t breathe.

Everyone in the bar crowded around the TV, so there was no one to see me breakdown in the corner.

I crumpled a sweaty hand over my chest, trying to suck in a tortured breath, but failing.

Sweat slicked my brow and my heart skipped every second beat.

“Come on, tell us her name,” someone in the crowd said.

I couldn’t breathe!

“The wedding will be held in one year, during the alignment. It will be the biggest event the universe has seen since the last Illuminate wedding.”

“God, they drag these things out,” someone commented.

“Have respect,” the Foundation captain snapped.

“I’m sure you all want to know who this lucky earthling is,” the news presenter was clearly stringing this out.

The crowd in the bar were still packed around the TV.

No one even glanced my way.

No one saw as I shook and trembled.

“Her name is Anna Carter,” the presenter finally revealed.

I knew that.

I knew my own story.

Before I could fall off my seat and tumble to the floor, the footage panned out to reveal an enormous building. It looked like some kind of palace, and had massive lengths of purple fabric draped over the sides.

The camera zoomed in to show two people standing on a huge balcony that could have fitted a small house on the smoothed white metal.

Illuminate Hart and ... a woman.

She was standing there holding hands with Hart. He had a smile on his face. A genuine smile. It even reached his eyes.

“Anna Carter will join the Illuminate family, and in doing so, history,” the presenter continued to waffle.

....

What was going on here?

“The next few weeks will be a whirlwind for the young Earthling. She will be introduced to the Illuminate family and its traditions before the formal engagement in three months’ time. The wedding will occur in exactly one year, during the final alignment.”

I didn’t understand. What was being said, what was happening.

I didn’t understand.

“Anna’s first interview will be televised this evening. She does, however, have a few words for our captive audience.”

The camera zoomed into the woman standing next to Hart. It lingered on a shot of the two of them staring into each other’s eyes and smiling.

Hart looked like a different man.

And me, I was a different woman.

Because the lady standing next to Hart wasn’t me, even though she had my name and my exact story.

“I don’t understand.” I crumpled a hand over my mouth and stared at the holographic TV.

T-there had to be some kind of mistake. That woman wasn’t Anna Carter – I was.

There couldn’t be two of us. Two Anna Carters who’d died on January 1 2020 from an untreatable virus, only to be woken up 400 years later.

What would the odds of that be?

I crumpled my arms around my middle, my sweaty fingers digging into the fabric of my plain tunic.

And I stared – stared with a wide dead gaze at the telecast.

I’d fought to claw back my sanity after waking up 400 years in the future. I’d fought – every day – to understand this place and to leave all memories of my past behind.

Now my world was tumbling around me and there was no one to turn to.

No ... no, there was Mark.

I stumbled away from my table, knocking my drink to the floor.

I staggered out of the bar before anyone could stop me.

A hard sharp sensation was building behind my left eye.

I ignored it and ran.

...

I didn’t have to find Mark; he found me.

I ran into his chest.

Just as I was darting away from the bar, my cheeks awash with tears, I slammed into him.

At first I thought it was some random security officer, but when I pushed away to see Mark, I unashamedly fell forward and hugged him. “Oh my god, what the hell just happened?”

With a firm hand on my shoulder, he pushed me back.

I saw him glance behind me.

“What's going on here?” Someone asked in a curt tone as they marched up to us.

“Sorry, sir.” Mark snapped a salute.

I turned to see the Captain from the bar.

He was wearing the same trim uniform Mark was, except his was embellished with three bars of alternating gold and white trimming around his cuffs and collar.

He shot me a suspicious look. “Why did you run out of that bar?”

I opened my mouth to answer in whatever choked tone I could manage.

I didn't have to.

Mark pushed in front of me. “Sorry, sir. She's a newfound one. Just woke up recently. She's still quite confused. I've been helping her out at the institute.”

The Captain's suspicious gaze softened. “Oh, I see. What's she doing off on her own if she just woke up?”

“Our mistake, sir – we thought she was better integrated than she is. I'll take her somewhere safe.”

“Very well.” The Captain nodded and offered me a compressed smile. “I know this future might be confusing now, but with people here to help you, you'll be fine.”

I didn't say a word.

What was Mark doing?

I'd woken up three years ago.

The Captain nodded at me once more, then turned his attention to Mark. “These are confusing and dangerous times for us all, Lieutenant, I suggest you take this newfound one back to the closest institute and return to duty. We must all be vigilant in the build up to the wedding.”

Mark snapped a salute.

The Captain returned it, flashed me a warm smile, and walked off.

I stared at him as he left, then, mouth still opened, turned to stare at Mark.

He watched the Captain go, a strange expression pulling at his usually handsome features. I couldn’t place it, but there was definitely a hard edge to Mark’s usually soft gaze.

A few seconds later, he caught me staring at him, and he lifted an eyebrow. “I got something in my teeth?”

Mark tried to crack a joke no matter the situation. You could be running from the apocalypse and he’d still pull you aside and try to make a funny face.

Right now I was in no mood to laugh.

I waited until the Captain was out of earshot, then I let my mouth drop open. “What was that?”

“Oh him? He’s just Captain of Police. Captain Fargo. Half human, half cyborg.”

“Mark, you know what I’m talking about.”

Mark pressed his lips together, trying for a smile, but there was a distracted edge to it. An edge that didn’t disappear until Fargo was well out of sight.

Mark turned to me in full, and for a few short seconds he looked at me as if he’d never seen me before. His pale brown eyes darted left and right as if he was trying to memorize every detail of my features.

“... Mark?”

He shook his head. Then he leaned down and plucked up my hand.

I spluttered. “What are you doing?”

“Getting you off the streets, kid. Following orders and getting you some place safe.”

“Mark, why did you tell that guy I only woke up recently?”

He ran a hand down his mouth, digging a thumb distractedly into his chin. “He asked, so I told him.”

I stared at Mark as he all but dragged me along. His grip was firm around my wrist, and he kept darting his eyes left and right as if he was expecting something.

Nerves shot through my back, and I drew to a stop, digging my feet into the smooth path before us.

We were in a leafy, garden-like area of town. Buildings were sunk down behind alien trees, their knotted roots climbing up walls and onto roofs.

Mark and I were now walking down a smooth metal path rimmed on both sides by golden grass.

“Come on, kid, we need to get you some place safe.” Mark tugged on my arm.

His grip almost hurt as it dug into my wrist, but I didn’t yield.

“No, Mark, tell me what the hell is going on. I-I-I saw the broadcast. And t-there—”

Mark checked over his shoulder, apparently ignoring me.

“Mark, what’s going on? Why did they say that woman betrothed to Illuminate Hart is Annie Carter? I’m Annie Carter. That’s my history. I’m Annie Carter.”

Mark visibly stiffened, the muscles down his back and along his shoulders turning rigid like stone. He flicked his gaze towards me. “You're confused, and we need to get you some place safe.”

“I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on.”

He wiped a sweaty hand down his mouth. I could see his fingers and palm glistening. “Just move.”

“Mark—”

“Listen, kid, just move. I'll explain everything on the way. You trust me, right?”

It was such a sudden question, and the look behind his eyes was so damn intense. I couldn't help but stand there and stare at him.

“Do you trust me?” he repeated, his gaze somehow growing more intense, like a star ready to go nova.

I stuttered and nodded.

“Then come with me.” He tugged me forward.

This time I didn't resist.

I let him pull me down the path and back into the city.

There was plenty of time and opportunity for Mark to explain, yet he didn't.

Nor did he ever drop his grip on my wrist.

I had no idea what was going on, and I couldn't calm down. My heart beat so erratically, I thought I'd faint.

The city, which had once seemed so beautiful, suddenly felt clinical and cold. All those tall white buildings and smooth walls reminded me of the room I'd woken up in three years ago.

The day my life had changed forever.

“Where are we going?” I asked a few times, but I never got an answer.

As a security officer in the Foundation Forces, Mark had an implant in both his wrists. It could produce a holographic input panel just above his hand. He was now manipulating it, light from the hologram playing up under the side of his jaw and down his neck.

He was so focused.

“Come on, where the hell are they?” he muttered a few times.

“M-Mark, what's happening, where are you taking me?”

“Don't worry. Some place safe,” he muttered for the tenth time.

“D-does this have something to do with Illuminate Hart?” I couldn't control my voice or my thoughts as I spoke.

Had there honestly been some kind of mistake? Had the wrong woman stood on the platform beside Hart during the ceremony?

Had Hart figured it out? Had he sent for me?

My thoughts kept whipping around my mind like water sucking down a vortex. I thought I'd be pulled to my knees.

I clutched my free hand to my chest, my sweaty fingers digging into the collar of my plain tunic.

I couldn't breathe again.

Every time I tried to inhale, nerves drove my breath back.

I started to wheeze.

“Just calm down,” Mark said with a quick look my way.

“Calm down? H-how the hell can I calm down? I don't know what's happening—”

“Just be quiet,” he snapped.

Mark never snapped at me. No matter how much I unloaded on him, he would always take it with a smile. That's why he'd been so brilliant. Without him, I'd never have adjusted to this future.

“I need to concentrate,” he explained as he looked sharply over his left shoulder.

By now it was night. The dusk on this planet was short and sharp. It was like a stage set - curtains closed. You would get a quick burst of deep purple and gold light along the horizon, then the dark would descend.

I had no idea what section of the city we were in. Though I'd been on this particular cluster planet for a couple of days, I hadn't explored it that much.

Though every building we passed was new and sleek ... somehow this place felt darker than the rest of the city. It wasn't the architecture so much as the vibe. We could have easily been standing in the dingiest darkest slum of the universe.

I shivered.

The streets were narrower here, like labyrinths at the feet of tall towers that reached high up to the sky.

The buildings cast long shadows, and though there was street lighting everywhere, it didn't matter.

It still felt cold and dark.

There were more people hanging about. Which was unusual for the cluster planets. This may have been my first visit to the Central System, but I was starting to realize this place really was the hub of the universe. Here was where it was all run.

Everyone I'd met so far had been rushing around with some incredibly important task to complete.

And yet now I saw aliens leaning against walls or, for want of a better word, loitering.

There was something in their gazes.

“Mark,” I used my free hand to grab on his sleeve, “I don't like it here.”

He didn't respond.

“Mark, I want to go back to my hotel. I ... we should call security or something. And ... I should go back to the Contracts Office. Somebody there will be able to help me.”

“That's not going to happen, kid.”

“Mark, just, please, tell me what’s going on?” I whimpered.

Maybe it was something in my tone, because he finally turned to face me. With a single darting look around us, he stepped closer. “You said you trusted me.”

“I do.”

“Well keep trusting me.” He tightened his grip on my wrist and tugged me forward.

Unashamedly a few tears streaked down my cheeks.

But I didn’t resist.

He was the only man in the universe I trusted. It sounded grand, but it was true. I knew no one else. Sure, there were a few people from the institute, but no one like Mark.

No one who seemed to give a damn.

I couldn’t control myself as we continued, and I started to sob.

As soon as I made a noise, Mark hissed at me to be quiet.

I didn’t know what was going on. From the second I’d stepped foot in the contracts building, my life had started to break.

Finally we appeared to arrive somewhere.

It was a staircase leading down. A massive staircase. It appeared to descend into a basement level, not of a building, but of the whole goddamn city.

My eyes widened in wonder as I saw it, but the wonder couldn’t last.

There was something ominous about that staircase.

I didn’t know why, but a peculiar sensation started to build in my chest.

“Mark, I don’t want to go down there,” I suddenly said, my voice firm for the first time that day.

I stood my ground as he tried to drag me closer.

He whirled on me, clapped his hands on my shoulders, and looked right into my eyes. “Annie, you’ve got to.”

It was the first time he’d said my name since he’d found me.

I swallowed at the look he shot me.

“Annie, something’s going on, and I’ve got to get you somewhere safe.”

“I-is it about the betrothal—” I began.

He hushed me quiet immediately. “Just trust me, okay?” He tried to pull me towards the staircase.

There were a lot of people using it, but none of them looked, well, savory.

They all had a specific feel to them, the kind of feel I’d once associated with people who hung around alley mouths or loitered in the subway.

“Just down these steps. We’ll get there soon,” he promised.

I didn’t move.

I couldn’t.

I swear something locked me to the spot. It was like concrete had been poured into my legs. My knees stiffened and my feet locked into the ground.

“Annie,” Mark hissed quietly, his frustration shaking through his voice, “come on.”

I couldn’t move.

What had started as a niggling pain behind my left eye now built to true agony. It felt like someone had sliced into my brain.

Before I could let out a gasp, I got a compulsion.

It was the only way to describe it.

I could almost, almost see myself doing something.

Once upon a time I’d liked to dream. Most of all, I’d liked falling asleep and watching the hypnogogic flashes as the conscious mind slipped into sleep.

Well now it was like I was half falling asleep.

I tipped back on my heels then I clutched my eye.

Mark snapped towards me. If he’d looked frustrated before, now he looked focused.

Mark was a funny guy, light and charming, the perfect man to rely on.

Now he looked so different.

Before he could say or do anything, I jerked to the left.

Someone was coming.

A group of people.

It was important I got their attention.

I stepped forward.

I didn’t know what I was doing – I was following the compulsion building in my limbs.

I jerked a hand up and started waving, just as a group of security officers came thundering around a corner.

“He ran that way,” I found myself saying, copying the compulsion in my mind. “Just there.” I pointed to a random alien.

Or at least I thought he was random.

As soon as the security guards saw him, they took off after him, and he began to run.

The alien – a large Borgolian warrior – pulled out a flip rifle, and started firing.

A flip rifle was a compact weapon that could be worn around the finger as a ring until you needed it. With a flick of your hand, it would transform into a long-nosed powerful pulse rifle.

The guy got off a shot, and a security guard slammed into my side, knocking me out of the way.

Everything happened so fast.

... And yet I kept up. Not because I was used to danger, but because I somehow knew what was going to happen.

My left eye felt like it was burning.

“Get those civilians to safety,” someone shouted.

I recognized the voice: Captain Fargo.

Sure enough, he came powering around the corner, a personal shield flickering over his body.

As soon as he saw Mark, he threw him a gun and commanded him to go after the Borgolian.

For a split second, Mark stood there and stared at me, his hand visibly twitching over his gun.

“Move,” Fargo yelled.

Mark darted around and followed the other security officers down the stairs.

The security guard who’d saved me shepherded me and the other civilians to safety, then erected an emergency shield.

I had no idea what was going on my – my body was a tangled mess of nerves.

And yet at the same time I knew exactly what was going on.

In approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds they’d catch the Borgolian.

Sure enough, in precisely 2 minutes and 45 seconds there was a loud explosion and a sharp scream.

Seconds later, Fargo walked up the now trashed steps, the Borgolian attached to him in a containment field.

Fargo ordered his guards around, handing the Borgolian to a fresh new detachment who came tearing around the corner.

Then he moved to walk away, but he saw me.

He walked over.

I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

He was going to thank me then question why I was here.

It wasn’t a guess – it was ... I ... I didn’t know.

I winced and clamped a hand over my left eye.

“Thank you. My guards said you pointed out the Borgolian. Things could have gotten ugly if he’d managed to reach the basement levels.”

I didn’t respond.

“... What are you doing here, anyway?” Fargo’s gaze darted over my face.

“I ... where’s Mark?” I forced my hand to drop.

“Helping clean up the mess down there. That Borgolian is not the only person we’re after. But don’t worry, I’ll have one of my guards take you some place safe. You must be very confused.”

“I’m not confused,” I said automatically in a remarkably toneless voice.

It wasn’t a lie and at the same time it was.

The fight hadn’t befuddled me – I’d kept up with every shot and shout.

But why I’d kept up was a mystery. Why I still knew, even know, what would happen next was terrifying.

“You’re clutching the side of your face,” Fargo said in a kind tone, “are you in pain.”

“I have a headache,” I said.

“What’s your name?”

“Anna Carter.”

Fargo’s eyebrows crumpled but he managed another kind smile. “You’re confused. You saw Anna Carter on the news in the bar, didn’t you?”

I shook my head.

“I saw you in the bar,” he continued in a patient tone. “Do you remember watching the telecast?”

I shook my head so sharply I heard a click in my neck. “No, I’m Anna Carter. I’m betrothed.”

“No, you’re confused. Don’t worry, I’ll get you some help. It’s normal to confuse memories when you wake up as a newfound. I’ll get you the help you need.” Fargo took a sharp step away from me and ordered one of his guards over. He explained the situation to the alien woman, and directed me to be taken away.

I didn’t resist.

The pain behind my left eye was finally starting to subside, and it left me feeling numb.

Before I knew it I’d been taken to a clinic, and from there to a room.

I lay down on a bed and I slept.

I dreamt of a future bathed in green light.

Chapter 7

When I awoke, it took me a long time to remember. My mind was filled with a dense cold fog.

It felt like I’d been hit in the head with a brick.

The room I was in had a small round window above the bed that showed a startling view of the towers around me.

I had to be high up, because I could see the clouds creeping by at eye-level.

I stared at them, looping my hair over my shoulder as I pulled my legs up and hugged them to my chest.

I was confused ... and yet calm.

I didn’t know why I was calm – I had no right to be. Considering what had happened to me yesterday, I should be a wreck.

And yet I wasn’t.

For now.

I looked up as I heard a beep from the door.

After a polite pause, someone walked in.

It was a doctor. “You’ve been cleared, newfound Miranda.”

“Sorry?”

“You are fit and healthy, Miranda.”

“... Why are you calling me Miranda?”

“That is your name.” The doctor was an alien of indiscriminate gender. They had a barrel chest and spindly legs, but a kindly face.

I shook my head. “My name is Annie, Annie Carter—”

“It is normal after waking up from stasis from a long period to be confused.”

“I wasn’t in stasis, I was cryogenically frozen for 400 years.” Though I still felt calm, it was starting to be chipped away by alarm.

What the hell was going on here?

“Ah, perhaps you are still confused. You had a slight brain event yesterday, and I imagine it coincided with your current confusion.”

“Brain event, current confusion? What does that mean?”

“You had a mild stroke in your left hemisphere.” He quickly put a hand up. “All damage has been healed, and all weaknesses in your blood vessels corrected.”

“I had a stroke?”

“There is nothing to be alarmed about. However, you will be confused for a while yet. You may find yourself incorrectly remembering events.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded.

This couldn’t be happening to me.

“You will stay here until you are recovered.”

“How long will that take?” I clutched at my covers with sweaty hands.

“Approximately three months.”

“Three months? I thought this was the future. I mean, you said you’d already healed my brain, so—”

He put up a hand quickly. I swore there was a slight shake to it. “You are a recent newfound one, and you must be monitored. Your confusion will pass, and you will remember your life correctly, however you must be monitored until that occurs.”

“And that’s going to take exactly three months, is it?” I asked, incapable of modulating my tone, the surprise tearing through it and shaking my every word.

The doctor offered me a calming smile. “About that, yes.”

“Isn’t that the time frame for Illuminate Hart to marry Annie Carter?” I asked. I’m not sure where that question came from, but I found myself asking it before I could think it through.

I also found myself keenly observing the doctor for his reaction.

The man didn’t make a movement. He kept that same calming smile locked on his lips. “A coincidence.”

I stared at him.

My calm shattered.

Suddenly I felt in danger again.

It rushed into me like a river breaking its banks.

I gulped.

Then I thought of Mark.

I practically jolted out of bed.

“Where’s Mark? Lieutenant Mark Havelock? He’s a friend, and I need to see him,” my voice shook, but not as badly as my hands as I clutched hold of the hem of my bed sheet.

“He came to see me last night,” the doctor said.

For the first time, I swear the doctor’s calm façade cracked. But only for an instant.

It was long enough to see something akin to fear playing in his purple eyes.

“Your friend is worried about you and eager for you to get well,” the doctor continued, clamping his hands behind his back.

From the rustle of fabric and the strain reflected in the alien’s shoulders, I could bet the guy was clutching his hands so tightly they were about to atrophy.

“I want to see him,” I blurted.

“You will,” the alien promised through a swallow, “soon. But for now, rest.”

He turned and walked out of the room before I could say anything more.

I stared at the door as it closed then disappeared into the wall.

I was suddenly very aware of my heart as it beat like a drum in my chest.

With a stiff back and sweaty hands, I repositioned myself and stared out of the tiny window beside me.

Suddenly the view wasn’t beautiful – it was intimidating.

I was in a future I didn’t understand.

I brought my shaking hands up and stared at them.

People were trying to tell me I wasn’t Annie Carter, but I knew I was.

How couldn’t I?

These were my hands.

That old scar across my thumb was from where I’d trapped it in the car door as a kid.

I shifted back and pulled up the light white fabric of my tunic. Sure enough, the scar from my appendix surgery was still there. I tracked my thumb across it just to check it was real.

Then I turned my hands over and stared at my knuckles. Then down at my wrists, then up my arms.

I slowly and progressively stared at every inch of my body.

It was me, alright.

Annie Carter.

And I could remember my life just fine.

I would never forget my family crowding around me in the hospital, my mother sobbing as the doc told her there was no cure for my virus.

I even remembered my dad’s decision to freeze me.

I could still see his worry-lined face.

Christ, I would never ever be able to wash those memories away – they were etched into my bones.

I pulled my arms around my middle and hugged myself.

Then I squeezed my eyes tightly closed.

Something terrible was happening and I was so confused - running only on instincts. .

It was everyone else who was confused. But with grit, logic, and a calm mind, I’d be able to make them see sense.

All I had to do was get to Mark. He knew I was Annie Carter. Then he’d help me contact the institute on Earth, and they’d be able to confirm it too.

My eyes suddenly shot open.

I brought my hand up and clutched the implant in the side of my neck.

It would be able to confirm my identity.

... Except it wasn’t there.

There was a tiny scar instead.

My eyes jerked wide and my fingers froze as they groped at the point under my left ear.

What the hell was happening? Why had my implant been removed?

Just when I’d thought I’d be able to get through this with a calm rational mind, fear flooded back in.

I let my hands drop to my lap as I stiffly turned to stare at the view.

Then I cried, unashamedly.

...

When Mark came to see me, I was curled up in a ball on my bed. I was like a frightened animal trying to remove themselves from danger by making themselves as small as they could.

As soon as I heard the door open with a strange pneumatic hiss, I curled up tighter, sure it was the doctor ready to assure me for the umpteenth time that I was just confused.

“You trying to become a tire? Because you’re not round enough. You’ll have to chop off your feet.”

It was Mark.

I shivered and snapped up.

He was standing in the open door, one hand in his pocket as he leaned against the frame.

He stared at me.

For a few seconds, his gaze had that same odd intensity he’d used on me yesterday. The one that told me he was looking at me – really looking at me.

I swallowed.

Then he flashed me a smile. “Is that all the hello I get?”

“M-Mark?”

He pushed off from the wall and walked into the room, his gait easy and his glance friendly. “You’re alright now, Miranda. The doc checked you out. Just a bit of confusion. But once it’s gone, you’ll be as right as rain.”

I stared at him.

There was nothing else I could do.

Miranda?

Mark knew me.

He was one of the first people I saw after waking up from my cryo-sleep. He’d always shown an interest in me, always been there for me.

And now he was calling me Miranda.

He took another step into the room, but I pressed myself against the wall to get away from him.

“Hey,” he said softly, “it’s okay. I know you’re confused.”

I swallowed and found my voice, “I’m not confused. I know who I am.”

“You had a tiny little stroke.” He plucked his hand from his pocket and pressed two fingers together. “And it’s making you a bit confused. But it will pass.”

My mouth opened and I shook.

God. This couldn’t be happening.

If Mark could see my utter terror, he didn’t register it. He simply kept shooting me that charming, easy smile.

“Miranda,” he moved over and plonked himself on the end of my bed, “you trust me, right?”

I couldn’t answer.

“Well you should – and you should trust everyone here. We all just want you to get better.”

“Mark, what’s going on? Why are you doing this?” I croaked.

“Because I was a newfound once too, remember? I know how confusing it can be to wake up.” He shot me another smile.

From his expression to his tone, it was clear he thought nothing was wrong.

....

I blinked hard before a treacherous thought could enter my mind.

I shook my head too.

I was not about to question who I was.

Goddammit, I knew.

I knew I was Annie Carter.

A stroke couldn’t invent memories like that. Sure, maybe it could make you a little confused, and maybe waking up could rattle your brain for a while, but it couldn’t invent a whole life.

I set my gaze hard as I stared back at him.

Though his entire act had been an easy one up until now, I swear it changed for a moment. I swear he looked at me with a wary edge to his pale brown gaze.

Then he forced a smile, his cheeks climbing high into his eyes. “You’ll be alright, A- Miranda,” he corrected.

He’d been about to say Annie, right?

The correction had been quick and seamless, but I was sure I was right.

I stared at him, and it was my turn to analyze him in full.

It sounded terrible considering what he’d meant to me, but how much did I really know about Mark?

Maybe he could guess what I was thinking, because he straightened up and let his brow crumple. “We’ve worked hard to help you, Miranda. And god knows I’ve always been there for you,” he dipped his head low to look at me, “so why can’t you trust me?”

“... I trust you, Mark,” I forced myself to say.

His smile returned with a twitch. “Well that’s alright now. So, what do you say to some holo TV? I’ll see if I can get the doc to clear one for you, and even if I can’t, I’ll sneak you in one myself.” He winked at me.

After a few seconds I smiled. It was the fakest smile I’d ever given. The movement of my mouth and lips was purely mechanical.

If Mark noticed, he didn’t let on.

With a happy chuckle, he pushed up from the bed and nodded at the view. “Incredible, isn’t she?”

I turned to follow his gaze. “Who?”

“The city,” he plunged his hands into his pocket and took a deep breath, “this future.”

I didn’t reply.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye.

The quality of his gaze changed for a brief snap.

I couldn’t describe it, though.

It went to a place I’d never been – some complex emotion I couldn’t recognize.

I swallowed.

Mark slipped his gaze towards me and grinned once more. “Buck up, kid. It’ll all be okay soon.”

“... In three months, right?”

He stiffened. I swear he stiffened. I swear I could see his neck tighten against his trim collar.

“The doctor said it would take about three months until this ... confusion passes,” I forced myself to explain as I looked at Mark.

He relaxed. “He said that, did he?” His gaze darted towards the door. “Well, he’s the doc, so I guess he’s right.” He looked distracted for a second as he stared through the open door into the corridor.

I too stared into the corridor, leaning past Mark to get a better view.

Mark repositioned himself until he stood right in front of me. “You just concentrate on getting better, okay?”

He clapped a hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes.

Well, one of my eyes. For some reason his gaze lingered on the left side of my face.

“... Sure, Mark,” I managed.

He chuckled, walked backwards, winked, and walked out with a wave.

I stared at him.

The door closed, then disappeared seamlessly into the wall.

Shaking, I forced myself out of bed. My sweaty feet left wet footprints as I padded over to the wall.

I ran a hand over the point where the door had disappeared.

I couldn’t see it.

It was just a smooth white wall.

After several more seconds of checking, running my fingers over every centimeter of the wall I could reach, I stopped.

I stood there frozen, driving my knuckles into the metal.

Then I turned with a sharp breath and pressed my back into the wall.

I inhaled and held it in my chest, letting it out in a shaking exhalation that buffeted my fringe and sent it darting over my cheeks.

My eyes were drawn towards the view. I stared at the white towers and the white clouds darting between them.

I wanted this to be a dream. I wanted to wake up to realize the past few hellish days had been nothing but a nightmare.

I knew that wouldn’t happen.

This was real, and I wasn’t confused.

I knew I was Annie Carter.

It just seemed no one else did.

Chapter 8

The days passed.

Whenever Mark visited, I asked him about experiences we’d shared, trying to catch him in a lie.

He was too smooth.

It was only when I asked him about my betrothal contract that I saw him twitch.

He stiffened, his left cheek contracting.

But then he found some excuse to leave.

I’d given him my betrothal contract, and I now realized that if I still had it, it could be the proof I so desperately needed. With my identity implant removed, it would be harder to prove who I was. The Newfound Institute would still have a full atomic scan of me, as would the Contracts Office. But getting out of this room was the problem.

Unless I could prove to the doctor I really was Annie Carter, he wasn’t going to take me to the Contracts Office just to check.

Then again, my doctors kept changing. I never saw that kindly looking alien with the barrel chest again.

I was fragile, an emotional wreck, and yet a part of me wasn’t.

A part of me was waiting and watching for an opportunity.

I didn’t know what Mark was doing.

As crazy as it sounded, I still wanted to trust the guy.

Maybe it was Stockholm syndrome talking, or maybe his constant requests for me to trust him were working.

He’d been my rock. Without him, I would have gone nuts years ago.

Most days I sat on my bed doing nothing.

Mark had provided me with a holo TV, but it only had entertainment shows.

I usually adored entertainment shows, but not right now.

I wanted to see the news. I wanted to see the fake Anna Carter and hear about the upcoming wedding.

When I asked Mark about getting some news channels, he just laughed and told me I hated the news.

Slowly the pain behind my left eye returned. It seemed to flicker back on whenever my fear mounted.

I told one of the doctors about it, fearful it was another stroke in the making. They took scans, but assured me it was fine.

Relax, they kept telling me.

Soon I’d remember who I really was.

They kept repeating that phrase so much, it was the last thing I heard when I fell asleep and the first thing I remembered upon waking.

As the days flashed by and the pain behind my left eye increased, something strange happened.

I started to get the compulsions again.

The ones that told me what to do.

At one point a doctor came in to run some kind of brain scan, but rather than tell them about the piercing pain behind my left eye, I lied and said I was fine.

Because the compulsion told me to.

It sounded like a crazy defense – and it was crazy, completely crazy – but I couldn’t stop myself.

I had to get out of here.

I had to get to the Contracts Office and prove my identity.

So I started to hatch a plan of escape.

I kept going back to my window, checking its integrity with prying fingers. Pretty soon I realized it wasn’t a window at all. It was a goddamn hologram.

I wasn’t in a room; I was in a cell.

My determination to escape grew. Though I couldn’t be 100% sure it was my determination; the compulsion was growing and growing. And every time it grew, so too did the pain behind my left eye.

Soon it didn’t feel like I was in control anymore.

I wasn’t hatching a plan; my brain was.

And finally, after about a week of being locked up and studied, my opportunity came.

A doctor came in to do a scan, and he dragged a heavy looking device with him that hovered off the ground a few centimeters on blue glowing hover pads.

The pain behind my left eye exploded. It was excruciating. I jerked my head to the side and clamped a hand over my face.

Far from looking concerned, the doctor looked elated. The emotion didn’t last long, but long enough for me to see it flickering in his three alien eyes.

He took a step back, bringing up his wrist and playing with a holographic implant as he sent some kind of message.

A message he didn’t get to finish.

I did something.

I swear I saw myself doing it before I did it. It was just like the strange vision I’d had when I’d helped Captain Fargo catch the Borgolian.

I reached over, my fingers as quick as darting insects. I grabbed something behind the device, and started manipulating it.

The doctor jerked his head around, all three of his eyes pulling wide open with fear.

Before he could say or do anything, the device gave a sharp beep then sent an electric pulse shooting towards the doctor.

He jolted backwards, eyes rolling into the back of his head as he fell to his knees then hit the ground.

I sat there for a few seconds and shook. All over. Like I was convulsing.

Then I pushed myself up and off my bed.

I stood over the doctor, staring down at him as I pressed a sweaty hand against my mouth.

I saw myself turn and head towards the door.

I honestly saw myself do it before I did it.

It was like some kind of dream playing in my mind, and all I had to do was follow in its footsteps.

So I did.

Before I made it out of the door, however, I saw myself lean down and pluck something from the device.

I had no idea what it was, but I pocketed it in my simple white tunic, then I walked out.

Fortunately there were no security guards out in the corridor, and there was no one to stop me as I turned around and keyed something into a panel by the wall. With a whisper quiet hiss, the door closed and then disappeared into the wall.

I took several staggered steps back, my eyes opened wide as I surveyed the corridor.

I was free.

After a week of being trapped in that cell, I was free.

Though not completely.

I still had to break out of this building, wherever it was.

I pushed off down the corridor, my breath a hard lump in my chest and my heart beating like a drum.

Though I was terrified, that didn't stop me from running down the corridor, pausing at a junction, then picking a left turn and rushing off again.

My terror didn't stop me, because something else was in control.

The compulsion.

Though I couldn't really say it was in control; I could stop myself and ignore it at any moment. But it was still there. A vision playing in my mind over and over again like a set of instructions for me to follow.

It was crazy. Insane.

And yet it helped me select the right corridors. As I ran along, though I could hear other people in the building, they never came my way.

I never encountered security checkpoints either.

Soon I found myself in front of a great big door with several panels beside it.

It looked secure, like the kind of door you had to keep out an enemy or the cold vacuum of space.

I hesitated for a brief moment, the pain behind my left eye becoming excruciating.

It was like an explosion going off in my brain.

I had to dig my teeth hard into my lips not to scream.

Seconds later I saw myself reaching out and typing something hurriedly into the panel.

With a jolt, I moved forward and followed my vision. I could barely control my fingers, and they twitched and shivered as if I was trying to hold a live wire.

Nerves pumped through me, and yet after several seconds of manipulating that panel, the door opened.

With a shuddering gasp, I stepped back and saw what was outside.

I wasn't high up in the sky on some kind of tower like the view from my so-called window had shown.

Instead I was underground.

Way underground.

A basement city stretched out before me.

It had a massive hollowed ceiling, and many, many levels all carved out of the rock and braced with metal.

The level I was on was quite high up, and it offered a stunning vantage as I stared down at the rest of that dark city.

I'd seen a lot of things in this universe since waking up, all of them amazing. But this, this was in another league.

I felt like I'd been taken out of reality and put into some kind of a science fiction novel.

After several seconds of standing there and staring, I walked forward. It was the compulsion, the compulsion telling me to run.

My heartbeat increased three fold, my arms and hands actually shaking from it, and I pushed myself out of the door.

There was a metal gangway beyond it, one that looped around and connected to other gangways and bridges that formed an interconnected pathway through this underground maze.

Though there were lights, nothing seemed to push the gloom back. Because it was more of a feeling. This oppressive sense you got when you were underground, and no amount of artificial lighting would change that.

As I ran along the gangway, my bare feet struck the metal, the indents and grooves transferring onto my soft flesh.

The tunic I was in was overly large and bunched around me as I sprinted forward, my loose hair trailing over one shoulder as I turned sharply to check on the doorway.

No one streamed out to run after me.

They clearly didn't know I'd escaped.

But had I escaped? Sure, I wasn’t in that building anymore, but I was still underground.

I had no idea where I was, but I realized it was probably the basement level Mark had tried to lead me to a week ago.

I jerked my head around and concentrated on running.

Soon enough I could see people. They were walking along the gangways, entering doorways and buildings, their expressions locked with concentration.

As soon as I saw them, I slowed down. I tried to look like I belonged here.

Which was hard.

I clearly didn't fit in. A small human woman in a large white hospital tunic with crumpled hair and terrified expression.

Fortunately everyone I passed was too busy with their own business to pay me much attention.

I hunched my shoulders in, locked my hands on my arms, tucked my head down, and tried to hide behind my hair.

And I hurried.

Somehow I knew which direction to head. Though the pain behind my left eye was subsiding, it wasn’t gone completely, and neither was my vision.

It stayed with me, guiding me until finally I reached an enormous set of stairs. Beyond them I could see the flickering glow of sunshine.

I couldn’t control myself. I threw myself at the stairs, my bare feet padding against them.

Everyone I passed jerked their heads around to stare at me, but I didn’t care anymore.

I was almost free.

I was almost free.

Though the stairs were long, I ran all the way up until finally I reached the surface.

I recognized the planet, recognized the architecture of the distinct skyline, but I didn’t recognize where I was.

These weren't the stairs Mark had tried to lead me down a week ago.

I was somewhere else in the city.

Somewhere that looked, frankly, dangerous.

Though the sun was high, with one look at it I realized soon it would be dusk.

Considering dusk lasted for all of two minutes, after that, it would rapidly become night.

I drove my teeth hard into my bottom lip and tried to think.

Now my vision was no longer pushing me forward, my fear could return. And it returned in spades. It felt like someone had stabbed me with an adrenaline filled syringe, and my limbs started to shake, a slick of sweat covering my top lip and running across my shoulders.

People were staring at me.

And the stares weren't kind. They were enquiring, suspicious, and calculating.

I had to get out of here, and I had to get to safety.

I pushed away, trying to make myself a small target as I hunched my shoulders in and huddled my arms around my middle, but I couldn’t control my thoughts.

One question kept impressing itself upon my mind. Was this the right thing to do?

Out of everyone in this entire universe, Mark Havelock was my only friend.

And he’d kept asking me to trust him.

Yet I’d just run away.

Was this the right thing to do?

I couldn’t answer that. I had no idea what Mark was doing and no idea what was happening to me. I had no idea why he was pretending I was someone else.

But there was one thing I knew: I couldn’t go back down there.

I had to get some place safe. Though the compulsion was gone, that fact rang true in my mind, louder and larger than any other thought.

Now I no longer had my implant, I couldn’t use the few universal credits to my name. If I’d had access to money, I could have ducked into any number of shops and synthesized myself some new clothes and shoes.

I had to find something else to wear; I was sticking out. Everyone kept staring from my rumpled tunic to my bare feet, then back to my face with suspicion. I probably look like I’d broken out of the hospital ... because I had.

I didn’t have anything to trade, and I doubted anyone around these parts would help me for free.

I just had to get out of here. So I tucked my head down, and I walked.

...

Anna Carter

It didn't take long until I reached the familiar clean streets of the diplomatic district.

By that time I was a wreck. It was also becoming impossible to stop the stares. I was still dressed in my overly large white hospital tunic, and by now my expression was haunted, my cheeks a sickly white.

If someone hadn't called the security forces, they would soon.

I didn't know where I was going, or at least my conscious mind didn't.

My body kept pushing me forward, until finally I ran right into the back of someone.

They were rock hard, and I bounced off their back, promptly falling on my ass.

Captain Fargo turned. At first he looked concerned, but then his expression quickly contorted with alarm. “You.”

“You’ve got to help me.” I latched a hand on his sleeve and looked pleadingly into his eyes.

He looked shocked.

“I just ... I escaped from the clinic where they were holding me. If you could call it a clinic. I ... I don’t know what’s going on,” I stumbled over my words.

He pressed his lips into a frown and checked something on his wrist device. “Escaped from your clinic? According to records, you were discharged and sent to the nearest newfound institute.”

“... That’s impossible. It wasn’t an institute – it was a cell. They ... They kept running tests on me. And I ....” I shivered as I locked my arms around my middle.

“You are confused. I will take you somewhere and get you the help you need.”

“No, the only thing I need right now is for someone to start listening to me,” I snapped, voice teetering on the edge of hysteria.

“Why is that every time I see you, you’re harassing the people who are trying to help you?” Someone said from behind me.

Fargo’s expression slackened, his eyes drawing wide.

I knew who it was before I turned, knotted hair tumbling over my shoulder.

Hart.

He locked me in the same disdainful look I’d become used to. Though, just for a second it crumpled with something close to concern as he took in my disheveled appearance.

“I am sorry for disturbing you, your grace.” Fargo nodded his head low. Then he took a step in front of me, as if trying to hide my appearance from view.

“First it was your betrothal, and now it is the police. Newfound one, you are granted a certain period upon waking to adjust to this universe. But you do not mistake that as an allowance to attack and belittle the people who are trying to help you.”

I felt sick. But that wasn’t all: the pain behind my left eye was back.

A feeling – a truly peculiar one – started to build in my stomach. It was so sudden and strange, I had to clamp a hand over it.

Fargo’s brow crumpled. “Sorry, what was that? Betrothal?” He looked back at me.

“I first met this woman in the Contracts Office,” Hart pointed out dismissively, “when she was complaining vociferously about her betrothal.”

Fargo’s brow dug harder into his eyebrows. “That’s impossible; she’s not betrothed. There must have been some kind of mistake, your grace. Her name is Miranda Fall, and there is no existing contract to her name. She is a recent newfound one, and she is suffering from confusion.”

“I saw this woman’s betrothal contract, and I’m not confused,” Hart said with an impassive stare. “I suggest you check her identity again, as you are the one who’s mistaken.”

Relief flooded through me, but I could barely note it. For some reason I was frozen on the spot as if someone had turned me to ice.

That strange feeling kept building. It was dancing faster and faster with every second.

Fargo’s brow crumpled with obvious concern and confusion. “I simply don’t understand how that’s possible,” he said after a lengthy pause in which he studied me closely.

“Do not question my witness,” Hart said.

“I apologize, Illuminate.” Fargo dipped his head low in a clearly respectful move. When he raised his head again, he swiveled his gaze over to me for a brief second. “I was not questioning your witness, I’m simply confused about the situation. There is no record about this earthling's betrothal.”

Illuminate Hart looked nonplussed. “Then there has been a mistake. I suggest you solve it. Now I must leave; there is much for me to organize.”

I found my voice. It burst out of me. “No, no wait. I ... I’m Annie Carter,” I managed. “Something’s going on and I—”

“No, you are not.” Hart turned and walked away.

That was it.

“I apologize, your grace. This Newfound one is confused,” Fargo managed.

He needn’t have bothered; Hart was already gone.

I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare with an open mouth at his departing form.

I’d told him who I was ... and he’d dismissed me. Maybe that made sense – there was no evidence to back up my crazy claim. But it ... it felt so wrong.

It felt like something had broken.

I whimpered and pressed a hand into my left eyebrow.

Fargo turned to look at me. For several seconds he said nothing; he surveyed me as closely as a targeting sensor.

“Do you know what’s going on here?” he asked plainly.

I shook my head, still incapable of turning my head from Hart’s departing form.

He assessed me again, before taking a step back, clamping his hands on his hips, and sighing deeply. “This is not something I have time to deal with now. The lead up to an Illuminate wedding is always one of the tensest periods for our security forces.”

“I-I’m sorry,” I managed.

He twitched an eyebrow up. “Don’t be sorry, earthling. Come with me, and we'll try to sort this out.”

Finally I tugged my gaze off Hart’s departing form, and I turned to study Fargo.

He had a kindly expression.

I knew then and there I could trust him.

So I did. I followed him forward.

After several minutes, my head tugged to the west. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I saw a figure on one of the level below us.

Despite the distance, I recognized him. Illuminate Hart. He had a hand pressed on the railing as he stared at the view. Not at the sprawling city below, but at the stars above.

I walked with my head turned to the left as I stared at him, until Fargo led me out of sight.

A twitch of nerves started to build in my gut.

It was the oddest of sensations. And yet, despite its strangeness, I still knew what it meant.

Somehow, some strange how, I knew what I was afraid of.

Being apart from Illuminate Hart.

Which was impossible; I hated the guy. Yet I couldn’t deny the certainty forming in my mind.

...

Fargo took me to the Central police building. I was glad of the number of people darting around. It made me feel more secure.

He led me up to a front desk.

The security officer on duty behind the front desk snapped a sharp salute.

“At ease,” Fargo said. “I need to make enquiries.”

The security officer nodded. Her gaze darted towards me. “Is she a Crim?”

“I honestly don’t know.” Fargo leaned forward and started typing something into the panel sunk into the counter before us.

I stiffened, my mouth becoming as dry as a desert.

Had I been wrong? I thought I could trust Fargo, but maybe this was a mistake.

“Do you want me to look after this?” The security officer tucked her hands behind her back and shot me a steely gaze.

Fargo didn’t answer immediately. Instead he shot me a slow look. “No,” he said with some finality, “I’ve got this one. First things first, I want to confirm her identity.”

The security officer shifted forward and glanced at the panel beside her. “Miranda Fall. Earthling. Newfound one, woken up 100 years ago from stasis.”

“Any contracts out on her?” Fargo asked as he stared at the same panel.

The security officer shook her head. “Nothing.”

“I see,” Fargo said quietly.

I didn’t.

How the hell did they know who I was? Or, rather, who I wasn’t?

My identity chip had been removed. They shouldn't be able to access information on me – even if it was a lie – so quickly.

I took a nervous step towards the bench, my feet squeaking against the floor.

The security officer jerked her gaze up to stare at me.

“I – sorry, but … how are you getting that information?” I managed.

“Identity chip,” the security officer snapped.

“But mine was removed,” my voice shook as I brought a hand up and pressed my fingers into the point just below my left ear.

The security officer shot me an impassive look. She leaned forward and slapped a hand over her panel, and the image hovering above it changed. It turned into a biometric scan of my body, and an implant blinked in red. It was now lodged below my right ear.

Instantly I jerked a hand up and pressed my fingers into the point shown by my biometric scan. As I palpated the flesh, I felt something small and hard underneath my searching fingers.

Fargo watched me out of the corner of his eye.

I made no attempt to hide my shaking surprise. “B-but my identity implant was on the left.”

The security officer pressed her lips together, and it was clear from her unwavering expression she had no sympathy for me. In her mind I was either wasting Fargo’s time, or I was a criminal pretending to be innocent. “You’re confused,” she said bluntly.

“I think I’ll be the judge of that.” Fargo shifted back and brought up his left hand. He swiped his fingers over his wrist, and a hologram appeared over the flesh. He manipulated it for a moment, grabbing the data off the security officer's panel, until it saved a copy on his wrist device.

He shifted back. “Organize me a transport to the Contracts Office.” Though he spoke to the security officer, he still watched me out of the corner of his eyes.

I knew I was pale, I knew I was jumpy, and I knew I looked like a wreck.

I was a wreck.

“I want you to organize me a meeting with the primary contract chief in charge of betrothals. What's his name again, F’xial or something?”

“You haven’t heard?” The security officer’s usually hard expression softened.

“Haven’t heard what? He hasn’t gone on holiday, has he?”

“No, sir, he’s dead.”

“… When?”

“Seven days ago.”

“Cause?”

“Natural.”

“Bring up his file,” Fargo commanded.

The security officer complied. A hologram appeared over her panel alongside scrolling text.

The hologram depicted the very same alien who had delivered me my betrothal contract.

I planted a hand over my mouth, pushing my sweaty fingers into my lips.

Fargo darted his gaze towards me. “What?”

I couldn’t shift my eyes off the slowly spinning hologram of that alien. “He’s the guy who served me my contract.”

Fargo didn’t say anything. Instead he leaned right over the bench and swiped the image of F’xial, dumping it into his wrist device.

He turned, saluted the security officer, then nodded to me. “Follow,” he said simply.

I did.

He led me forward through the crowd in the main building, then up several stories until we reached an office.

It was expansive, and had a great view over the city. It also had a spectacular view of the sky, and for a few seconds I stood there and watched as ships darted on by, their blue and red exhausts like shooting stars.

There was an old style wooden desk on the far side of the room, facing the door, rather than the view.

Fargo walked over to it and sat down, gesturing to a chair for me to sit too.

I complied.

I sat right on the edge of my seat, planting my hands on my lap and fumbling with my thumbs.

“I want you to tell me everything, from the beginning.” He swiped his wrist device over an input panel on his desk, and soon a quick flashing array of holograms appeared over the sunken computer panel.

Tell him everything?

I’d been trying to tell people, but no one believed me.

I had no idea what was happening, and worse than that, no idea who I was up against.

Why would anyone want to steal my identity?

Distractedly, I brought a hand up and palpated the implant just under my right ear.

Fargo watched with interest.

When my silence stretched on for too long, however, he interrupted with a cough.

I snapped my gaze back to him. “I don’t know what’s going on,” I admitted truthfully.

“Then start from the beginning, and let me figure it out.”

It was a tempting offer, but it wouldn’t work.

Somehow I knew I was on my own with this.

Yet as soon as I entertained that thought, another leaped into my mind.

I wasn’t alone. There was always Illuminate Hart.

As soon as his name flashed before my consciousness, I practically balked.

I hated that man. So what if he’d been instrumental in proving I was betrothed; he was still a brute.

So I shouldn’t be thinking about him.

I forced every thought of him back, and I focused on Fargo.

...

Captain Fargo

I had other things to do. Far more important things.

That sounded harsh, but was true.

The build up to an Illuminate wedding was one of the riskiest times in the universe. The universe could be plenty dangerous on its own, but whenever another was added to the Illuminate clan, it always dragged the worst from every star cluster and planet.

Now more than ever I had to concentrate on the security of Cluster, and the Foundation as a whole.

This earthling – whatever her troubles – was ultimately a distraction.

So why wasn’t I palming this job off to somebody else?

Sure, she’d been instrumental in helping to capture that Borgolian, but I didn’t owe her anything.

Plus, the emotion locking me to my seat and tilting my head forward as I stared at her in interest wasn’t loyalty or a sense of being indebted. It was curiosity.

As a captain in the Foundation Forces, I’d come across my fair share of curiosities. This universe was as mysterious as it was large.

But why did this feel different? Why did this woman’s obvious confusion pluck at my heartstrings?

She kept playing with her hands, rolling her thumbs around and around each other, the move jerky and nervous.

She was clearly afraid. I didn’t need to access her active bio scans to see the terror ripping through her body.

“Tell me everything,” I prompted once more.

“I don’t know where to begin,” she admitted in a shaking tone as she tried to push her hair behind her ears.

That’s when I noticed the tiny scar just underneath her left ear.

It was small enough that she could have nicked herself with a nail. But was in the exact position where implants were usually embedded.

I swallowed hard. “From the beginning,” I commanded.

“I woke up three years ago. Three years and 14 days ago to be precise.”

“Your implant says you woke up a little over one month ago,” I corrected.

She shot me a distressed look, her wide, expressive eyes crumpling as her brow furrowed. “I know what my implant says. But it’s wrong. I remember every detail of the Institute on Earth. And I can tell you what happened to me over the past three years.”

I glanced at one of the several floating holograms hovering over my input panel. It was her file, and it told me she hadn’t woken up on Earth at all; she’d woken up on a station.

I brought two fingers up and pressed them into my brow.

It would have been so easy to dismiss this woman.

Easy, that is, if it weren’t for Illuminate Hart’s witness report.

He’d seen her in the betrothal office, and what’s more, he’d seen her contract. He wouldn’t have been able to read her name off it; contracts contained long strings of gibberish that only meant something when you took it to the Identity Office. Still, she would only have been handed one if she were betrothed.

He was quite possibly the only person who could corroborate her story – especially now F’xial was dead.

When it came to witness reports, there was none more trustworthy than an Illuminate’s. Hart would have no reason to lie, so I had to count on the fact that this earthling – whoever she was – was betrothed.

And someone had gone to great lengths to hide that.

I pressed my two fingers even harder into my brow, not pulling back until I felt a stab of pain flash down my temple.

“At first it was pretty hard,” she stuttered as she spoke, twiddling her thumbs faster and faster, “the future is … different to the past.”

It was an obvious statement, but that would be denying the emotional import it had for the earthling. Her face stiffened as she spoke, her eyebrows peaking and her lips wobbling.

I had a great deal of compassion for newfound ones. Especially those who were centuries old. This universe seemed to change every day, and it was hard to keep up with. It would be impossible for someone from that far into the past. “But Mark was there, and he helped.” Her moves became almost frantic now, her thumbs jamming into each other as she twisted them around and around.

I leaned back and I frowned. “Lieutenant Mark Havelock? The man you were with outside that bar?”

She nodded. Her expression changed. It got a terrified edge, those expressive eyes flashing with fear. “Do you … you,” she pressed her lips closed and swallowed harshly, “do you know where he is?”

I lifted an eyebrow. “I have no idea. He’s not under my command. I assumed he was visiting Cluster as part of a patrol. But hold on.” I quickly accessed my computer and found the information I needed. “According to this, he left a week ago.”

I watched her blink. It was as if every muscle in her face was recruited to perform the action. Her lips shuddered open. “What? I don’t understand. Where did he go?”

“Off world. As far as I know, he’s currently in the Scorpion cluster.”

She looked terrified.

“I assure you, I can help you. You might feel more comfortable with Mark, but you can rely on the rest of us.”

Her terror didn’t shift. In fact, it became sharper, like a piercing cry. “I saw him this morning.”

My brow crumpled. “That’s impossible.”

She shook her head, the move frantic, her hair trailing over her shoulders and bunching around her cheeks like a frame for those wide open expressive eyes. “No, no,” she said in a firm tone, her hands coming to rest as she clutched them until her white knuckles pressed against her flesh. “I saw him this morning. I’ve seen him all week. He’s the one who took me to that strange hospital.”

“Strange hospital?”

“The place I’ve been trapped in for the past week. It was underground, in some kind of basement level. There was a city there.” She brought a hand up and pressed it flat into her brow.

It would have been easy, so damn easy to dismiss what she was saying. In fact, that’s what my gut told me to do.

So why was I leaning forward, clamping my hands on the desk, and looking at her with worried interest.

“I don’t know what’s going on.” She pushed her fingers through her hair, but they got stuck.

“You’re just confused,” I defaulted to saying.

It was a mistake.

I watched her shut down. Suspicion flared in her gaze.

I realized people had been telling this woman she was confused for the past week.

I shifted back in my chair and brought up a hand in a surrendering motion. “That’s not what I mean. Just take a breath, clear your mind, and continue your story.”

She reacted badly on the word story.

I watched her sit even further forward on her chair, until she was balanced on the very edge of it. She pressed her lips together and darted her gaze to the left, until she focused on some patch of the wall. “What’s the point? You don’t believe me. Nobody believes me.”

“Miranda, I know this has been … a trying time for you, but please trust us.”

“That’s what Mark was saying. Trust me.” She spoke with stiff movements of her lips. “And my name is not Miranda. It’s Anna, Anna Carter.”

She wouldn’t look at me.

It gave me the opportunity to stare at her unashamedly as I tried to assess her expression for any hint of manipulation.

She didn’t look like she was acting, but she had to be.

She was not Anna Carter.

Anna Carter was now one of the most important people in the universe. As Illuminate Hart’s betrothed, she had to be protected above all others.

And vetted. God knows she would have been vetted. The betrothed of an Illuminate is not picked up off the street. Every detail of their lives is checked and rechecked.

A mistake cannot be made.

The woman before me could not be Anna Carter.

So why did she think she was?

I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms.

It was a defensive move, and though she was focusing her attention on the wall, her gaze twitched towards me.

“You need to start telling the truth,” I said.

“Really? Wouldn’t it be more convenient if I just started lying and agreeing with the story someone’s concocted for me?” Her voice broke with bitter emotion.

“It’s an offence,” I began, “to knowingly divulge untruthful information to a member of the Foundation Forces.”

She pressed her lips into a bitter line and didn’t look my way. “I hate this universe,” she said under her breath.

My expression became stony. My gut reaction was to snap at her that she was ungrateful. This universe – this future – had woken her up and given her everything she now had.

But I had not become a captain by going with my gut reaction.

I was a man of reason, not passion.

So I shifted forward. “I don’t know what’s going on. And I can appreciate that this is an extremely hard time for you. I don’t want to put you off side, and I apologize if I have. But please, tell me everything that happened to you. I can’t promise to believe you without evidence, but I can promise that if you disclose your story, I will look for evidence.”

Slowly she pulled her gaze from the wall and walked her eyes towards me. It was as if she was waiting for me to lurch forward and snap at her.

When I didn’t, I watched her take a small shallow breath. “Okay.”

I nodded. “Perhaps you can start by telling me where your betrothal papers are? If we can find them, then we can go to the Contracts Office and verify your identity. Your true identity,” I emphasized to bring her onside.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Mark has my betrothal papers. I gave them to him. He said he was going to look into it for me. When I found out I was betrothed I,” she shuddered, “I was terrified. I didn’t understand how something like that can happen in the future. I didn’t want to be betrothed. Mark said he could look into it for me, so I gave him the papers.”

I didn’t say a word. I watched her. In fact, I recruited every one of my skills as I stared at her face and noted every micro movement.

Was she lying?

It simply didn’t look like it.

“It is an offence to give your betrothal papers to somebody else,” I said quietly. Before she could withdraw I added, “did you know that?” in a kind tone.

She shook her head.

“Did Mark tell you that?”

She shook her head again. Then she shot me a terrified look. “Mark is … my friend. I don’t want him to get in trouble for this,” even as she spoke, I could tell she wasn’t sure of what she was saying. A great deal of confusion was flickering behind her large, saucer like eyes.

I didn’t say anything. “What did Mark promise to do exactly?”

“He promised to make it all go away.”

Again, I didn’t say anything.

“He’s my friend,” she added suddenly in a conflicted tone.

“You said you’ve seen him in the past week. What was he doing?”

“Checking up on me. Like the doctors. It was like,” she started to tap her foot against her chair leg, “I don’t know, they were waiting for something.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged her shoulders. The move was quick, and it was clear she was growing more emotionally fragile by the second. She jammed a well chewed nail into her mouth. “I’ve been getting headaches,” she admitted in the quietest tone possible, her gaze quickly darting from me then down to her feet.

There was a lie.

Or if not a lie, then only a partial truth.

She was clearly holding something back.

She started to tap her foot against her chair leg faster and faster, until it sounded like footsteps running towards me.

“Have you had someone look at those headaches of yours?” I asked lightly, leaning forward and locking an elbow on to my desk as I rested my chin in my hand.

She deliberately didn’t look at me.

“If you want my full help, I need your full cooperation. You need to tell me everything, so I can look for the evidence that will corroborate your story.”

She twitched. Then, with a shaking glance, she turned her attention towards me.

She opened her mouth, and I got an electric sense of anticipation as I waited for her to tell me whatever she was holding back.

She didn’t.

Suddenly she darted her eyes to the left, and she winced as if someone had struck her on the side of the face.

“Are you alright?”

Her eyes darted out of focus for a second, then she jerked her head around and forced a nod. “Fine.”

“Maybe we should have someone look at your headache now.” I rose from behind my desk.

“There won’t be time.” She stood up and turned towards the door.

She turned towards the door several seconds before it open.

My office was soundproof, and though I had sensors that would alert me whenever anyone approached, they weren’t on.

Before I could truly process what had just happened, a nervous looking security officer darted into the room. They didn’t bother to snap a salute, which was always a bad sign. “Sir, there’s been a terrorist attack in the lower quarter.”

“What?” I felt my skin blanch as I darted around the side of my desk.

“No casualty reports yet, but damage appears significant.”

“What was the target?” I snap.

“The place they were holding me,” Miranda said under her breath, her tone distant, and her gaze even more so.

“Basement level 28, appears to be some kind of medical facility.”

The hairs along the back of my neck stood on end, and I slid my gaze from the worried security officer over to Miranda.

To be honest, I didn’t know if that was her name, but it was a good enough name to call her for now.

She had a haunted expression on her face.

It made my gut twitch with nerves.

“Your presence is requested, sir.” The security officer tried to snap a salute, but it was hasty and he dropped his hand fast.

“Of course.” I didn’t rush out of the room. Instead I turned and pointed to Miranda. “Take her to a room. A secure room,” I added.

The security officer jerked his gaze over to Miranda. “We can put her in the holding cell.”

“No,” I snapped quickly, “she’s not a prisoner. She needs protection. I want her on one of the upper levels, and I want a guard outside her door. Got it?”

The security officer nodded.

I turned back to Miranda.

She wasn’t looking at me. Instead her head was turned towards the view, her eyebrows pressed low over her searching gaze.

For a few seconds I watched nervously.

Something had changed in the past few minutes. When I’d first brought this woman in, I’d wanted to dismiss her story.

Now I was more determined than ever to find out what was going on.

As soon as I was back, I would find out everything I could about her.

I hurried out of the room, pausing at the threshold of the door to glance back at her one last time.

I’d never seen someone look more conflicted. She brought a hand up and placed it over the left side of her face as she stared with peaked eyebrows and worry filled eyes at the city below her.

Then, almost with a violent twitch, her gaze shifted and locked onto the tallest tower of the horizon. The Illuminate pillar.

I forced myself to turn and leave.

I would solve this on my return.

Chapter 9

Anna Carter

I was taken to a room. Not a cell, a room. And it had a real view of the city. As I pressed my fingers over the window sill, I could tell it wasn’t a hologram.

When the doors closed behind me and I was alone, I let out the loudest of sighs.

It didn’t change how nervous I felt.

I clamped a hand onto my stomach, and then one onto my chest. Seconds later, my hand moved of its own accord and clamped onto the left side of my face.

Energy was building up behind my eye.

Energy.

This wasn’t paranoia talking, it wasn’t my adrenaline addled mind making up stories.

I could feel some kind of force building up in my face.

I knew I should turn around, go to the door, and ask for a doctor, but I didn’t.

I stood there, staring at the view, shaking.

That terrorist attack hadn’t been a terrorist attack at all. I was sure – 100% certain – that the so-called hospital I’d been held in for the past week had been destroyed to cover-up my captor’s tracks.

I rocked back and forth on my feet, finding it harder and harder to breathe.

I needed to turn to somebody, but there was no one to turn to.

All I could do was stand here and look at that view.

My eyes, seemingly of their own accord, were drawn to one single tower on the horizon. Tall, and built like a pillar, illuminated with blue and white strips of light down its entire length, it was a commanding sight. But that didn’t account for my attraction to it. My eyes locked onto it as if they had a magnetic connection to the metal monolith.

That tower, or someone or something in it, was the only thing that could help me now.

I jammed a finger into my mouth as I thought that. Because I didn’t know why I had thought it. The notion had entered my mind beyond my conscious control.

The pressure behind my eye built until it felt like there was a hurricane lodged in my skull.

Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. There was something wrong with my chest. It felt like I’d swallowed ice.

I pushed a hand into my sternum, trying to massage away that growing tension.

It wouldn’t work.

My breathing shortened into sharp, frantic pants.

“What’s going on?” I had time to wheeze before a wave of weakness hit me. I stumbled, hand fumbling against the table beside me and knocking everything off as I fell to the floor. I hit my side with a sharp thump.

I couldn’t scream. I tried, but that growing cold spread further and further through my chest until it felt like I’d turned into a frozen wasteland.

Just when I thought I’d lose consciousness, something happened.

Something violent.

My head twitched back as if I’d been struck on the chin, and my temple gashed against the hard metal leg of the table.

Then the darkness swelled in. It flowed into my vision like it was trying to drown me.

Something terrible was happening to me.

I started to see things. I knew I was still frozen on the floor, a bead of blood trickling from my brow, but I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t see the room around me.

I saw a different room instead.

One filled with people. Dressed in regal attire, they all looked important, and they all turned their heads to stare at a raised platform. It had an enormous window behind it, a huge constellation dotted with vibrant shining stars visible beyond.

Two people stood atop the platform. One was Illuminate Hart. The other person was irrelevant.

All my concentration focused on him.

He smiled, and I saw every movement of his lips and chin and jaw. He stared over adoringly at the person beside him.

But I stared at the view behind.

I watched the star-studded constellation behind him morph. Suddenly blackness cut across it, dark and violent.

Then something sliced out of space.

An enormous ship appeared.

I didn’t get a chance to recognize it before it started firing.

Hart was thrown to his knees. I watched him turn, I watched his face slacken with fear.

Then blackness.

Blackness overtook me, and it overtook him.

The vision ended.

I tried to scream. I couldn’t. My body was paralyzed, and all I could do was stare at the carpet underneath me, my face pressed against it as the weight of my body pinned me to the ground.

Slowly control returned to my limbs.

But I didn’t move. Not for ages. I lay there on the floor, the blood still trickling down from the cut in my brow. My breath was uneven, my chest heavy.

I couldn’t blink; I didn’t dare close my eyes. Instead they were riveted open as if someone had stapled them.

I could hear my breath coming in uneven, desperate gasps. It was like listening to a broken engine trying to rev up.

Eventually I brought up a shaking hand and pressed it into my brow. I could feel a sticky slick of blood collect under my nails.

“… W-what just happened to me?”

There was no one to answer.

I pressed a hand into my chest, took a breath, and pushed myself up.

My hair flopped over my face as I locked my gaze on the view through the window.

It showed the horizon line, with tall buildings jutting towards the sky.

It did not show that enormous purple-green constellation. It did not show Hart’s elegant ship. It did not show a black swathe of energy cutting across space as a vessel sliced its way towards me.

To confirm that, I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled over to the window. I pressed a hand into the tempered force-field enhanced glass, and pressed my face against it.

There wasn’t a constellation in sight.

I pushed back from the glass and tried to breathe. It was getting easier, and my heart wasn’t trying to rip its way out of my chest anymore.

I forced a hand over my eyes and closed them briefly. When I wasn’t assaulted by another vision, I winked an eye open.

The room – my room – didn’t change. It was still here around me, though messy from where I’d staggered into the table.

“You … you’re just tired,” I tried to tell myself.

It was the weakest, most pathetic lie I’d ever tried to tell myself.

Something terrible was happening to me.

I had to tell somebody.

I tried to push towards the door, but suddenly my limbs locked as if concrete had been poured into the joints again.

I couldn’t move.

Because ... I couldn’t tell anybody.

That thought flashed through my mind as if it had been shot from a gun.

I couldn’t tell anybody.

I was in danger.

I had to get to Hart.

I tried to push that thought back, but I couldn’t. It kept repeating in my mind as if someone was persistently writing it right onto my brain cells.

I rocked back and forth, but nothing – nothing – could assuage my fear.

I had to get to Hart.

I had to warn him.

Yes, that’s it – I had to warn him.

My limbs unlocked, and I jerked towards the door, stumbling, and having to lock a hand onto the table to right myself.

Before I could take another step, I stopped myself.

What the hell was I doing?

What the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t know Hart, and what little I knew of him confirmed I hated the guy.

So why was I turning to him now?

I got another compulsion to move, but I used every ounce of will to stop myself in place.

No.

I wasn’t going to do this. I was going to tell somebody what was happening to me. I was going to request a brain scan or something. I was going to ask for help.

I was not going to lurch my way out of here and find Hart, because that was crazy.

I couldn’t deny something was happening to me, but if I wanted to find out what it was and stop it, I had to be smart, not reactive.

Gritting my teeth together, I tried to suck a breath through them. It was the hardest thing ever, but I managed to keep myself standing and away from the door, even though the compulsion to rush through it kept surging in my mind.

I took a step away from the door, but my head jerked towards the view instead, my eyes locking on that tower.

I had to warn Hart.

It was imperative I go to his side and warn him.

Of what?

Did I honestly think that vision, or whatever it was, was real?

I tried to tell myself it couldn’t possibly be real, but it didn’t work.

All my other visions – though they hadn’t been as complete and violent – had come true.

Somehow, some crazy how, I could tell the future.

And the future was telling me that Illuminate Hart was in danger.

...

Captain Fargo

There wasn’t much that could be done. The terrorists – whoever they were – had been meticulous.

They had destroyed all evidence.

For a so-called terrorist attack, it was too clean. They also hadn’t taken out a population center or a building that would be missed. Just a single floor on a single block in the lower quarter.

I stood before one of the enormous long sets of stairs that led down into the lower quarter. Both hands were in my pockets as I stared at my security guards and watched them work.

Miranda’s words kept echoing in my mind. She’d said this building was the place they had been holding her for a week.

They.

Who?

What the hell was going on here?

Either she was lying, or she was telling the truth, and I didn’t like either option.

As I stood there, I suddenly got a call on my wrist device. I activated the holo feed and linked it to my neural implant so my conversation could be silent.

It was the Captain of the Corax.

I’d gone to the Academy with her, but she wasn’t calling for a friendly chat.

“I received a request for information on Lieutenant Mark Havelock,” she said before I could greet her.

“Thank you for getting back to me so quickly, but you needn’t have called. I just want confirmation he’s on-board your vessel.”

“And I called you, Francis, to tell you he isn’t.”

“… Excuse me?”

“Lieutenant Mark Havelock was never assigned to my vessel.”

“But the official records—”

“I know. I looked them up myself. They show he was assigned to my ship, but I’m telling you, I okayed that assignment, and he sure as hell isn’t here.”

I frowned, the move etching itself into my lips and chin. “What’s going on?”

“Beats me. What do you want this man for anyway?”

I withdrew into silence.

“You can’t tell me, can you?” She asked perceptively.

“I don’t know what’s going on yet, Bethany, and until I do, I don’t want to speculate.”

“It’s meant to be impossible to fake Foundation Forces assignment records,” she pointed out.

I knew that, and that’s the reason my gut was twisting and contorting as if someone was wrapping it up in chains.

“I heard about the terrorist attack on the ground there, you okay?”

“It wasn’t a terrorist attack,” I said in a quiet tone. So much for not sharing my misgivings. The official report would show it was a damn terrorist attack, and I would be wise to keep my suspicions to myself.

Bethany knew me though. She paused. “These are strange times.”

“Yes they are.”

“If you need anything, just let me know.”

“Thank you, I will.”

With that we signed off.

I jammed my hands back into my pockets and tried to think. Try being the operative word.

Lieutenant Mark Havelock was not in the Scorpion Cluster.

So where was he? And what did all of this have to do with the mysterious Miranda?

One of my security guards marched up to me. “Sir, we don’t have any clues yet, but we have a lead.”

“So do I,” I realized. “Relay any information to my wrist device; I’m going back to central to question a witness.”

It wasn’t wise to put off questioning Miranda any longer.

She could very well be the clue at the heart of this.

Chapter 10

Anna Carter

I couldn’t stop myself.

I couldn’t stop myself from leaving. Though my rational mind screamed at me not to, it accounted for nothing. The compulsion building within me was too strong.

And I could see it. This vision playing just behind my eyes showing me how to escape the central security building.

I followed it.

I followed the vision as it showed me what to do.

First, I went to the bathroom and pulled out a small sharp piece of metal from one of the grooming kits.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I jammed it into my neck, just below my right ear.

I squealed with pain, but muffled my mouth with a hand so my voice didn’t carry.

I worked the small shard of metal down and under the skin until it connected with my implant. Then I flicked it out as if I was removing a tick from my flesh.

It left a gaping wound which quickly trickled with blood.

I ignored it and instead watched my identity implant fall to the floor.

I’d seen an identity implant before, and I knew what they looked like. This was different. Larger, sleeker, and with more nodes.

I wasn’t allowed to stand there and stare at it for too long; the vision told me to move.

My visions were stronger now, sharper. They didn’t have the detail and the all-encompassing reality of the one involving Hart, but they were still strong enough that they left me knowing exactly what to do.

I picked up the identity chip and walked into the main section of my room. I placed it onto the table, a few flecks of blood pooling underneath it.

Ignoring the wound in my neck, I walked over to the panel by my door. Still holding the small sharp piece of metal, I stuck it into the side of the panel, fidgeting it back and forth until I pulled the metal casing off.

It clattered to the floor.

Then I focused, not on the panel, but my vision.

It was diffuse, filtering in and out, but the more I concentrated on it, the sharper it became.

As did the pain building behind my left eye. It was like something was gouging into my skull, second after second.

And there was nothing I could do to stop it.

After several minutes of tinkering, something happened.

The panel flashed and a low hum filtered out from behind me.

I turned in time to see the force field reinforced glass of my window flicker off. As soon as the shield disappeared in a winding down hum like an engine stopping, the glass wobbled.

I walked over to it, picking up a chair on my way.

With strength I barely knew I had, I slammed the chair into the glass.

Somehow through whatever I’d done with the panel, I’d weakened the glass, and my blow was enough to shatter it.

It tumbled around me, falling over my arms and feet, but not cutting me.

The wind came. It raced into the building, slamming against me, setting my hair buffeting behind me like a wet sheet.

I made no attempt to bring a hand up to protect my face.

Instead I leaned down and put on the shoes I had been given on being ushered to this room. Fortunately Fargo had been kind enough to ensure I had clothes that fitted.

I walked over to the now wide open window.

I placed my hand on the sill, then, before I knew what I was doing, I clambered on to it.

My heart raced. It felt like it was trying to reach light speed. Fear pulled and tugged through me like a gravity well or a black hole sucking me into it.

And yet that didn’t stop me from standing up on that same sill, the wind tearing into my clothes and sending them slapping and flapping around my body.

Before I could scream, I did something.

I followed my vision, and in my vision, I jumped.

Before I could lock a hand onto the sill, my legs jerked forward.

I jumped out of the window.

I was so far up I couldn’t see the streets below, the towers were just so many sky bridges and metal ascending to the heavens.

Finally a scream ripped from my mouth, but it was too late.

I was already falling.

...

Captain Fargo

I stood in her room and I stared.

I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

The force fields protecting the glass had been turned off, and the window had been smashed.

There was a bloody implant sitting on the table, the rest of the items that had once been stacked neatly on it were now a jumble on the floor.

Security officers rushed around me, but I stood stock still.

I was immobilized, not by fear, but my questions.

I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be immobilized for long.

“Whoever hacked this panel,” a technician said beside the door, “is a genius. I’ve never seen work like this.”

“What do you mean there is no footage?” A security guard said from the window as she talked to another technician. “Every side of the building is always monitored.”

“No footage. Whoever hacked that panel, turned it off.”

“How the hell is that possible?” The guard spluttered with frustration.

The technician shrugged his shoulders, his shock obvious. “I wish I knew, but I don’t. Those panels are meant to be separate from the main systems.”

I stood there and I listened to every conversation, and I looked at every detail.

Eventually my gaze darted back to the bloody implant on the table.

I was no technician, but I knew enough to realize it was a tracker implant.

While everybody else concentrated on the wide open window and the hacked panel, I grabbed a scanner from a passing technician and walked over to the implant.

I didn’t scan it. I wasn’t that stupid.

Tracker implants, depending on their sophistication, could detect when they were being scanned, and some of them could self-destruct.

Instead I scanned the blood in the micro specs of flesh surrounding it.

I needed to confirm where they were from.

With 98% accuracy, the scanner told me they were from a human female’s neck.

It was a fact I already knew.

This was Miranda’s identity implant, except it wasn’t an identity implant. It was a cleverly disguised tracker implant. One that would have been relaying her position, despite the secure shielding and jamming fields of this building.

“Whoever kidnapped her …” one of the technicians shook his head, “Christ, they must have some sophisticated tech. I’m not registering any bio signs other than the woman’s.”

And I doubted he would.

Because if Miranda was kidnapped, why would the tracking implant have been removed from her neck?

What was going on here?

I turned on my foot and walked towards the window. I looked up, then I look down.

There were lines of hover traffic flying in between the buildings, and my eyes caught the various colored vessels as I tried to stare down to the street below.

So much for concentrating on the upcoming Illuminate wedding. I wouldn’t be dropping this until I found out what was going on.

I turned and started barking orders.

...

Anna Carter

I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t dead.

I’d just jumped out of a window more than 100 floors up, and I wasn’t dead.

I didn’t sail through the lines of hover traffic darting through the high towers and platforms of the city. Instead I barely fell several meters.

I landed on the back of a large transport craft.

It wasn’t moving fast; it was stuck in traffic.

The top of the vessel was large enough and rounded enough that when I struck it, I rolled down, part of the impact of my fall being absorbed until I rolled onto a flat section of the hull and stopped.

For several seconds I lay there, as still as a dead woman, staring up at the sky, mouth open but no breath capable of passing my frozen white lips.

I’d just jumped from a building.

I’d just jumped from a building.

I wasn’t permitted to rest there for long.

More visions kept assaulting me, the pain behind my left eye felt like a knife stabbing into the socket.

I pulled myself up, my limbs shaking, but my body still moving forward.

I stood, I stood on top of a freaking hovercraft as it moved in traffic hundreds upon hundreds of meters off the ground.

I started to see other vessels flying near, the drivers and passengers pointing at me in surprise.

The wind pounded into me. It was like standing in the sea as tidal wave after tidal wave slammed into my body.

Somehow I managed to hold myself steady.

Whoever was driving the transport I’d landed on had clearly been contacted by the other drivers, as slowly the vessel swung around and headed for the nearest port.

There were small stations dotted along the sky bridges and platforms that ran around the towers, and transports and crafts could land there to unload their goods and passengers.

My vessel moved towards the nearest one, with me still standing on top, my hair buffeting like crazy as the long slits of my tunic played around my pants.

I must have looked crazy. Or incredible. Or both.

This human woman without armor or protection standing on top of a transport vessel like she was riding a horse.

I had no time to think of that.

The vision kept playing in my mind.

As soon as the vessel docked, I moved. With a run up, I jumped. Thankfully not off the vessel and down the side of the building.

Instead, there was a small lip of metal to my left jutting out from one of the higher levels above me.

If I’d been the ordinary Anna Carter who didn’t see things, I wouldn’t have managed that jump. Fear would have locked me in place.

I wasn’t the ordinary Anna Carter anymore.

I wasn’t in control of my body.

As my mind focused on the vision playing over and over again, my limbs followed and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

My hand caught that lip of metal, and forcing my feet into the wall, I clambered until I pulled myself up and over the railing.

It led to a small platform with a ladder that reached up to one of the levels above.

I took it quickly, ascending the floor above long before I heard the worried calls from the transport below.

They would be looking for me on the roof of their vessel, but I was already long gone.

I paused just before I clambered off the ladder onto the next level of the building; I was waiting.

The vision was telling me to wait.

Soon enough I moved, and when I clambered out, no one was around.

I shouldn’t be doing this.

I paused, glancing towards the view with fear-filled white-rimmed eyes.

The huge sprawling city lay before me, every tall spire and pillar-like building catching the light.

I could not pause for long.

The vision moved me.

As it did, I regained enough control to open my lips a crack. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

That thought echoed in my mind as I flung myself into a desperate run.

Captain Fargo could help me, and now I was running away from him. I was also committing a crime.

But could I stop myself?

No.

No matter how hard I tried to ground my feet into the metal walkway, it wouldn’t work. My muscles jerked forward with a nervous tension, and it would have taken ropes or chains to hold me in place.

I locked a hand on my stomach, my belly churning with fear and my eyes opening wide to survey the world around me.

As I rounded a corner, I saw people. I wanted to shrink back, but my feet walked me forward.

I was going mad – that had to be it. It was the only way to explain this.

I’d just escaped the police station, and pretty soon they’d start looking for me, if they weren’t already. When they found me, all Fargo’s good will would be burnt up.

I’d be treated like a criminal.

There was no way this plan would work.

Escape the police and find Hart – it was insane to even think it was possible. What did I think would happen? Hart – the most arrogant, rude man I’d ever met – would accept me with open arms?

No. As soon as I found him, he would hand me back to the police.

But could that sane, rational realization stop me?

No.

It seemed nothing could stop me.

I kept dashing down the path, headed for a man I did not know, yet one the compulsion led me towards like a magnet attracted to a lodestone.

The further I walked along the clean, smooth walkways of the upper towers, the more I realized this was insane.

There was nothing I could do though.

Nothing I could do.

Captain Fargo

None of this made any sense.

I’d made a career in the Foundation Forces, and precious few crimes ever made any sense.

I stood at the loading platform on one of the upper towers, staring at a transport captain as he stuttered about seeing a woman ride his ship.

Miranda.

The description fitted, and so did footage from ships that had passed the transport.

The footage was bizarre.

It showed Miranda in freefall, screaming for her life, until she struck the roof of the transport, rolled down, and lay there for a few seconds.

Then, like a seasoned thrill seeker, she stood up, wind whipping through her hair and clothes, her expression locked with panic and yet determination.

I kept playing it over and over again, half staring at the footage on my wrist device as I kept the rest of my attention focused on the transport captain.

A large fleshy alien with green dappled skin, he held his three fingered hands before himself, rubbing his wrists in nervous tension. “Nothing I could do,” he repeated for the hundredth time, “nothing I could do.”

I finally tore my eyes off the footage and nodded at him. “I understand that. Thank you for your time. You may be contacted for an official witness report.” With a deep nod, I turned.

I’d already put out a Cluster-wide warrant for Miranda’s arrest.

It wouldn’t take long to capture her.

Or at least that’s what my rational mind told me. My gut instinct knew it would be different.

Nothing here was ordinary.

Despite my enquiries, nobody had been able to locate the mysterious Lieutenant Mark Havelock.

At first, I believed everything Miranda had said about him. Now, I was wondering whether they were working together.

Though I entertained that thought, I had to admit it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t wash away the genuine surprise and fear Miranda had shown in my office when she talked of the so-called hospital she’d been held at.

I clutched my jaw, letting my thumb and fingers dig hard into my chin. For a few seconds I stared with an unfocused gaze at the view.

The city.

My city.

Though it was true the Illuminate’s ensured this universe enjoyed continuous peace, that peace was not always complete. They protected us all from the deadly enemies of the Gap, but that left all the ordinary enemies for men like me.

Ordinary.

My mind got stuck on that word, because none of this was goddamn ordinary.

Something about Miranda – whether it be her expression, her story, or the way she’d sat there staring at me pleadingly – wasn’t right.

That didn’t for a second mean I believed her claim that she was somehow Anna Carter.

It made me wonder whether something equally as extraordinary was going on though.

As I walked away from the transport captain, I spied one of my guards. I marched up to him. “Any news? Have you captured her yet?”

The guard shook his head. “No news, sir.”

I frowned. The transport captain had confirmed it had been barely half an hour since he’d spied Miranda. She was on foot, and unless she had help, she should still be around this section of the city.

So she had to have help, right?

If my people could not locate her, it meant she was long gone or she could disappear easily in one of the most secure cities in the universe.

“Redouble efforts.” I turned to walk away. I stopped. I inclined my head to the left, a thought springing through my mind. “And inform the guards at the Illuminate palace.”

“Sir?” The guard shot me a confused look.

“Just do it.”

He saluted.

I turned away, walking with slow cautious steps towards a viewing platform. Resting my elbows on the railing, I glanced across the city, my eyes soon locking onto the Illuminate tower. Built like a pillar of light, it was easily the most secure building on Cluster. And it wasn’t even the true palace of the Illuminates. It was simply the residence they use when they visited the Central System.

The Illuminates had their own fleet. The most sophisticated, well-armed fleet in the entire universe. It outpaced even the Foundation Forces flagships.

It had to.

Without it, the Illuminates would not be able to keep back the Gap.

So it sounded crazy to warn the Illuminate guards there may be trouble; there was precious little in this universe they couldn’t deal with.

Yet I had to do it. The twitching, niggling, gurgling feeling in my gut told me to.

Miranda was somehow convinced she was Anna Carter. But if I’d misjudged her character, and Miranda was a terrorist in cahoots with Lieutenant Mark Havelock, then there was every possibility she was going after Anna Carter.

Hart and the other Illuminates should be able to protect his fiancée, but I would be negligent if I didn’t hand on the warning.

As I turned from the view, I let my gaze dart over the closest platforms and sky bridges.

I would find her.

However long it took.

Chapter 11

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

“I’ve got it. I understand.” I clenched my hands into tighter and tighter fists as I stared at the wall.

“Act now. No more mistakes,” the loud guttural voice of my employer rang through my small room.

I was glad they couldn’t see me. Glad because I twisted my already stiff face into an expression of pure loathing.

If I didn’t believe in the cause – and I didn’t need them to complete it – I would walk away.

But I needed them. And they needed her.

“No more mistakes,” they repeated, their usually gravelly voice pitching high like screeching metal about to break.

“I’ve got it,” I tried to keep my tone neutral, but it was impossible.

“Gain back her trust.”

“That may not be possible.”

“Do it,” they commanded me.

I let out a silent snarl. “Fine,” I could barely move my jaw let alone my stiff white lips.

“We must gain her trust before the alignment.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” I should have kept my misgivings to myself, but I couldn’t. Not in my current mood. If the audio feed wasn’t quite so accurate, I would ball up a fist and punch the wall.

“Capture her. We will do the rest.”

I let out a tight breath. “Fine.”

“Do not fail us,” they warned.

“I won’t.” What I really wanted to do was return the threat. If they couldn’t uphold their side of the bargain, they’d be dead. I had enough contacts in the Forces and the government to track them down wherever they were.

The audio feed cut out with a distinct hum, and I was finally free to punch the wall.

I balled up my fist and struck the metal, my knuckles indenting into it as if it was nothing but butter.

The cybernetic implants grafted into my body ensured a little thing like a solid metal wall couldn’t get in my way.

And yet, Anna Carter could. Simple, little, cute, irritating ... Anna Carter.

The key to everything I had worked my entire life for.

She’d escaped. Escaped under my watch. Now I had no idea where she was. If I didn’t get to her in time, everything could be lost.

Truth be told, I didn’t know how she fitted into this. I knew she was important, and now I knew she was betrothed to Illuminate Hart too – a surprise that had nearly floored me. But there was something else going on here.

When we’d held her for a week, we’d been instructed to run tests. The doctors had known more than me, but I fancied even they hadn’t known what they were looking for.

Something was happening with little Annie – something huge.

I didn’t know the full details; I just had to find her.

With another guttural scream, I brought my fist back and punched the wall, until the entire room shook.

Despite my vicious blow, the wall was far worse off than me. My knuckles weren’t even red.

With a forced calming breath, I let my arm drop, and took a stiff step back on my regulation boots.

I was still wearing my uniform, and I jammed a thumb into my collar to loosen it, not caring as I tore the fabric.

If I didn’t find Anna and gain her trust, everything would be ruined.

So with one more calming breath, I centered my awareness, closed my eyes, and concentrated.

Then with a grunt, I walked out the door.

She couldn’t be far.

For all her importance, she was one of the flakiest people I’d ever met.

Breaking out of my facility had been nothing but luck. Escaping me forever, would be impossible.

With that determined thought ringing in my mind, I walked out, my heavy footfall beating like a pounding drum.

Anna Carter

It wasn’t long before I stopped. Not because I had somehow regained control over my crazy body, but because the vision suddenly swelled in my mind.

Pain erupted through my head, and I fell to one knee, clutching my temples as I screamed.

A few passing aliens rushed to my side, but I staggered back, pushing them away.

I could barely see. The vision wasn’t complete – not like the one I experienced in the police station – but it was close.

It overlapped my vision almost seamlessly.

I must have looked insane as I staggered around, one hand clutched on my face, the other outstretched as I tried to differentiate the world around me from the world inside my mind.

I could hear people making frightened calls, no doubt to the police.

There was nothing I could do but stand there and try but fail to push away the vision tearing through me.

I could see the police. I could see them coming for me. Captain Fargo, even, chasing me down this very walkway.

But then the vision slipped and changed.

Now I could see myself running forward, as fast as I could, legs pelting, arms pumping, breath a constant wheeze in my chest.

I followed the vision. I could feel my feet launch forward like shots from a gun.

My arm jostled into someone by my side, but I didn’t fall down. I twisted around and kept running.

I could see a building before me, both in reality and in my vision.

There was a door.

I reached it, slamming my palm onto a panel lodged into the wall.

A biometric scan appeared under my hand, even though the wall had been smooth and seamless before.

With a beep, it registered my bio scans, but the door didn’t open. “Access denied.”

I slammed my hand back onto the scanner, a frustrated, terrified cry splitting from my lips.

Then my hand darted back to the scanner, but this time I didn’t beat it. My fingers snarled around the edges, my nails cracking and tearing in my frenzy to tear off the casing.

Fortunately no one tried to stop me. I didn’t know what I would have done if they had. No, not me, the vision. If it had told me to turn around and take a swipe at them, I would have. If it told me to go for their throats and try to throw them off the railing, I would have.

There was nothing I could do but follow.

Finally, somehow, I managed to gain the purchase I needed to tear the casing from the wall. Rather than let it tumble to my feet, I caught it with my other hand, then brought it up and started to get into the wires.

There was a blaring alarm, one I ignored as I continued to dig at the wires feverishly. Finally I located one, right at the back, protected by a thin line of shielding.

I shoved my hand towards it, ignoring the pain that blistered along my fingers as soon as I touched the electrified field.

The shielding was obviously some kind of communications dampening field, and not designed to stop a forceful desperate hand from grabbing right through it.

After a few more seconds of exploding pain, I managed to rip it right out of the wall.

My hand was burnt, badly burnt, and skin would have to be replaced. But that didn’t stop me from reaching my good hand in and manipulating a few more wires.

Finally the door opened. I ran through it just as I heard sirens echo around the platform.

As soon as I was through the door, thankfully it closed behind me. There was another panel by the door, and I darted towards it, manipulating it with frightening ease.

Every second, the vision told me what to do. Every step, every minute movement of my hand.

This had to be some bad dream, some horrifying hallucination.

Yet even as I thought that, I knew it wasn’t.

This was real.

I had never felt more terrified, not even when I’d lain in my hospital bed dying 400 years ago.

Fortunately there was no one in the building, and as I ran through it, I figured out why. It was some kind of systems hub. It didn’t have the smooth clean feel of the rest of the city; it was rough and poorly lit. Obviously people only ever came in here when they needed to for maintenance activities.

Yet now I ran, feet thundering over the floor.

I wanted to cradle my hand, but I couldn’t. That wasn’t part of the vision.

The vision had me throttling forward, like a ship entering light speed.

My eyes were fastened wide open, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t blink.

My hair was a sweaty mess tapering down my neck and shoulders, and it itched where it touched the skin. I couldn’t scratch it. I couldn’t pause and lock a hand over my stomach and chest as I tried to breathe in a calming breath.

I honestly couldn’t do anything but watch and follow.

As I ran through the winding maze of maintenance tunnels, I paused periodically to access panels. I didn’t know what I was doing – not a clue – but my hands clearly did.

Whenever I finished with a panel, there would be a whirring down noise, like helicopter rotors coming to rest.

As I darted forward again, I started to mumble. It took me a few seconds to realize what I was saying.

Short bursts of hurried, frantic words. “I’m Anna Carter. I’m Anna Carter. And I can see things. You need to help me.”

It was like I was rehearsing what I was going to say to Illuminate Hart.

The words trembled and broke from my lips like water running down panes of broken glass.

Finally I started to ascend, climbing ladders with one hand while I held my badly burnt arm against me, jamming it into the rungs for support.

Though my mind was well and truly occupied, my last bastion of reason realized something. This was it. If this ever stopped, and I was captured, I would be thrown into prison forever.

There would be no going back.

A short week ago I had been terrified by the prospect of being betrothed; now that didn’t matter.

Nothing did.

No, my mind suddenly interrupted. Getting to Illuminate Hart mattered.

With sweat slicking my brow, my burnt hand trembling against my chest, I staggered forward, telling the corridors and walls and panels I was Anna Carter and I could see things.

...

Captain Fargo

She’d entered one of the primary maintenance towers. She’d locked us out.

The city was on high alert.

My technicians were working feverishly to gain access to the building, but they couldn’t.

Miranda was a terrorist ... an extremely capable one.

She had hacking skills that could put even the most powerful and sophisticated AIs to shame.

She couldn’t be a newfound one. If her file was correct, and she’d woken up a short number of months ago, then she had learned more about subverting the security of critical systems in those few months than I would ever be able to master in my whole life.

Something wasn’t right, but it was useless to keep telling myself that.

Things had gone to hell on my watch in the space of less than a day.

Right now, all I could do was watch. Watch, and wait for the technicians to blast their way in. Once they did, I was going to find Miranda and stop her before she could finish whatever she had planned.

...

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

I’d found her, or rather the police had. For some crazy reason she was holed up in one of the main maintenance towers.

I didn’t have time to wonder how she got there; now I knew where she was, I had to get to her before the police did.

I still hadn’t taken off my uniform, which was risky, but it was a risk I knew I could take.

I had friends. Other people in this universe who wanted the same thing I did and were willing to sacrifice everything for it.

And those friends had power.

I knew there was a warrant out for my arrest; the detestable Captain Fargo had lodged it. It didn’t matter though. There were ways around the police.

As I ran along one of the sky bridges, I tapped my wrist device. It was currently sending out a subtle jamming signal that would stop identity scanners from locating me. It would also obscure my appearance in any footage.

To top things off, I had a dermal disguise holographic implant lodged just under my jaw. With a single word, it would activate, and my appearance would change.

In the unlikely event I ran into somebody who knew me, I’d be able to change my appearance before they saw me.

Technically, I should use the implant now. It didn’t have a limited power source or anything like that. The reason I hadn’t turned the thing on was because… I didn’t want to. Not yet. I had something to prove to this universe. I wanted to demonstrate that it wasn’t as goddamn perfect as it liked to believe.

My psych evaluation had identified me as a needless risk taker. That was true, but it wasn’t a character default. I found power in what others shrunk away from.

That’s why I was perfect for this task.

The universe was relying on me, and I wouldn’t let everyone down.

...

Anna Carter

I was in a daze now. I barely recognized what was going on, and only watched the vision with half a mind. It was as if the rational, aware side of my personality was shutting down from too much abuse.

I was tired, bone tired, but there was nothing I could do to stop the feverish movements of my limbs.

In fact, as I continued to run through the labyrinthine building, accessing panels here and there, my movements became even quicker.

New visions flashed before my mind. Not just ones telling me how to escape, but others too.

They flitted by, and I could barely catch hold of them, but I caught enough to realize this was some kind of practice run. Some kind of simulation. It was as if my brain was running through every possible scenario in the blink of an eye.

It was such an incredible thought, and one I could barely comprehend as I tried to stop the feverish movements of my body.

All of a sudden, they stopped on their own.

I stumbled, and for a short few seconds, I regained complete control over myself.

It was long enough for me to let out a terrified scream.

Then I dropped to one knee as something struck me. My head jerked back, and I saw a flash of another vision. This one more complete than the half hallucinations that had torn through my mind for the past hour and a half.

It wasn’t on the same delirious level as the vision I’d experienced about Illuminate Hart, but it was close.

And it left me with a distinct undeniable conclusion that I was in danger.

I had to get off this planet. I had to get off this planet.

That new thought echoed through my mind, growing louder and louder with every reverberating heartbeat. It felt like it shook through my body and enveloped every cell.

I staggered back, my eyes glassing over as I stared at the vision.

Getting to Hart no longer mattered. Not right now, anyway.

I was in danger, critical danger, and I had to escape.

Get off the planet, the vision screamed.

And I screamed with it.

Clutching two sweaty rigid hands to my head, my fingers pressing and dragging against the skin, I lurched forward.

I looked like a wreck, like a crazy woman, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

Only getting off this planet did.

I staggered through the maintenance shaft, and with every step, the vision gained more control, until my hand dropped from my face and my glassy stare focussed ahead. My eyes darted to the left and right, watching the vision, not my environment. I could see myself escaping.

And escape I would.

...

Captain Fargo

The impossible was happening: my technicians couldn’t get through. Nearly every data or security scientist in Cluster had been recruited to the task, but no one was successful.

Whatever Miranda had done to lock us out of the building, the smartest minds in the universe could not reverse it.

“A Cluster-wide alert has been issued,” a security officer said to me, her words nervous and jumbled. She would never have seen anything like this, at least not in the Central System – the most protected place in all the universe, aside from an Illuminate ship. “Critical personnel are being evacuated.”

“Does that include the Illuminates and Anna Carter?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

She offered me a curt but still nervous nod.

Despite the distraction of my city falling apart, I found the time to turn and search out the Illuminate tower on the horizon. My eyes narrowed and locked onto it, and sure enough I saw a few distinct, sleek ships take off from the top of the tower.

If I didn’t know the import of the Illuminates, I would take their evacuation as cowardly. But I knew what they did for me, for everyone, for the entire universe, so I prayed for their successful and safe departure.

I turned, returning my attention to the maintenance tower and the terrorist within. “If we can’t break in there in another five minutes, we’re going to destroy it,” I concluded.

The security officer spluttered, but didn’t say anything.

That maintenance tower was critical to several key processes within Cluster. But it wasn’t so critical that if I destroyed it the city would fall. If I let it stand, there was every chance the city could fall, however. Because there was every chance Miranda would find some way to undermine us all.

...

Anna Carter

I had to get off this planet. I had to get off this planet.

First, I had to get out of this building.

I didn’t need to witness the visions flashing through my mind to know that this place would be surrounded by security. After the kerfuffle I’d made screaming and clutching at my face before I’d broken into this place, Fargo and his men would be looking for me.

If I’d been on my own, without these scenarios twisting and turning through my mind, I would crumple to my knees, huddle into the corner, wrap my hands around my head, and give up with a whimper.

Instead, I kept pushing forward.

I could guarantee that every exit to this building would have a security checkpoint set up in front of it, in case I was brazen enough to walk outside. In my mind that meant there was no way to get out.

There clearly was however, as I could see a vision of my escape playing out in my head.

First I made my way down to the basement. Not the bottom floor, but many, many floors underneath that.

It didn’t take as long as it should. I seemed to know instinctively where lifts were, or ladders, or interconnecting tunnels.

I didn’t move in a logical manner, or at least not logical to my mind. Soon I entered the basement floor, and immediately turned and charged towards a massive bank of panels on the far left wall.

I punched my fingers into the buttons, my hands scrabbling over the controls like frantic spiders.

I didn’t have to look at what my hands were doing; all I had to do was stare at what my hands did in my mind.

If I’d looked crazy before, I guaranteed that now I looked like a demon from the depths of hell. A sweaty brow, my fringe stuck to it in clumps. Wide open, but dead eyes darting to and fro as they saw the unseen. My reason locked inside a frazzled, fatigued, frantically moving body.

After several moments of punching something into the keys on the panel, I staggered back. For a brief moment I controlled my body and I slammed a hand over my mouth, crumpling my brow low, squeezing my eyes shut, and whimpering as if I’d just been struck.

I had been struck. Second after second by this insane on-going vision.

I staggered back from the wall. I turned, and ran into the middle of the room, away from the far wall.

Then I crumpled down briefly as my legs lost the ability to stand.

Seconds later a worrying hum built in the air. I watched the panels along the far wall start to crackle with electricity.

They exploded, taking a massive chunk of the wall with them.

Before I could be crushed by the roof or sliced apart by flying shrapnel, a security force-field flickered in place around me.

It stopped chunks of the ceiling from falling down and crushing my head, it even dampened out the vibrations rattling through the floor until all I felt was a slight shake as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder lightly.

I stared at the wall, stared at the destruction, chunks of panel scattering over the floor and trailing sparks and black swathes of carbon particles.

Once the rubble had settled and the fire abated, the security force-field around me cut out.

I saw myself running forward, so I scampered to my feet and I ran forward.

I dashed through the still smoldering hole in the wall.

No alarms blared, and I knew the reason why. It wasn’t because they didn’t work or they hadn’t been installed; I’d turned them off. Somewhere on one of the many panels I’d accessed, I’d disengaged the alarm system, among other things.

Who knew how much damage I’d done, but whatever it was, I knew I was headed for prison.

As powerful as that thought was, it was pushed to the back of my mind as the vision took hold again.

The wall I’d blown up led onto a winding access tunnel, and I ran through it as if my life depended on it.

My conscious mind started to shut down. There was no lighting in this access tunnel, and from the look of it, it was little more than a shaft that had been used to construct the tower.

Despite the fact there was no lighting, I did not once stumble or miss my footing.

I observed my brain go through several iterations - stumble and fall a few times, but after several iterations the vision in my mind would settle and it would show me how to run forward without harm.

I didn’t want to believe what was happening to me was even possible, so I withdrew, turning in on myself, drawing into my mind as if I was falling down and drawing my arms around my body.

I followed the tunnels, always turning and twisting, following the impulses within my mind until I came to another door with an access panel. In by now familiar style, the vision informed my fingers how to manipulate the access panel until the door opened.

I didn’t hesitate, bursting through.

Fortunately the room before me wasn’t populated. It was completely empty, strewn with building equipment.

I picked my way through it, grabbing supplies, though I had no idea what I was picking up. Devices I couldn’t identify, yet things the vision told me I needed.

A few times I tried to reason that this couldn’t be real. That despite how immediate and intense it felt, it was a hallucination.

It had to be a hallucination, because it wasn’t possible. Simulations that predicted the future and told you what to do could not be real.

Yet the more I tried to convince myself it was a hallucination, the more terrified I became.

Because it just wouldn’t stop.

It wouldn’t stop.

I made my way through the storeroom, hacking past every access panel I came across.

Soon I entered a populated area.

It must’ve been far away from the original maintenance tower, because there were no security staff in sight. Just a hurried worried crowd. I slipped into it with ease.

Before I could stop myself, I grabbed a cloak off a passing alien, stealing it with such quick deft hands I swore they didn’t belong to me.

The alien somehow didn’t notice, and within a few steps I’d furled it around my shoulders and slipped further into the crowd.

The cloak was made of a very heavy sturdy black fabric, and it hung off my body like a tent.

Underneath it, my hands shook, fingers clutching onto the collar of my tunic as the vision propelled me forward.

While I hadn’t been in this future long, three years was plenty to realize how sophisticated security systems were now. I should have been picked up the moment I left the maintenance building. But I wasn’t.

Biometric scanners should have identified my bio signs. They hadn’t.

Sophisticated security cameras should have been able to pick up my identity, even under the protection of my coat.

They didn’t.

The vision had taught me how to turn those scanners off. Somehow – running through millions upon millions of scenarios in my mind – it had struck upon a way to use that maintenance tower to turn off the security systems of the capital.

That thought couldn’t sink in. It was two enormous.

I continued through the crowd, the coat feeling like a blanket as it hung around my shoulders and face. It fell far across my eyes until only my chin and bottom lip were visible.

I couldn’t see, but what did that matter.

I didn’t have to.

Eventually I made my way through the crowd. I continued, never stopping for a rest.

I made my way through the sky bridges to a building several blocks away.

Somehow I dodged every security patrol, even though I could see they were thronging through the city. Yet the vision always kept them at arm’s-length, knowing where they would be and driving me elsewhere.

When I reached my destination – a very tall tower that pierced through the cloud line – it was getting harder to stay safe. The vision was working frantically in my mind. Scenario after scenario playing out in every hundredth of a second.

I’d never felt fatigue like this. It wasn’t only locked in my limbs; it sunk deep into my mind. I felt like I was living a life time in every minute.

I started to shut down, like a part of me was descending into a vegetative state.

Did that stop my body? No. It followed the vision. It followed the vision until I broke my way into that tower.

There was nobody about. From the people being orderly taken through the streets I’d already guessed the city was being evacuated. I’d also already guessed the reason they were being evacuated: me.

Me.

Briefly that terrifying thought threatened to crash through the control of the vision, but as soon as I stumbled, my body righted itself.

Once upon a time I’d thought I’d be going to prison. That wasn’t going to happen now, was it?

I was going to be killed.

I was threatening the security of this entire city, possibly the whole planet, and possibly Cluster too.

If I stopped, called the authorities, and tried to explain myself, maybe, maybe they wouldn’t kill me. Yet there was no way I could stop.

Even as I thought about it, I found myself rehearsing what I’d tell Illuminate Hart once more.

“My name is Anna Carter. I’m Anna Carter, and I can see things. Illuminate Hart, you have to help me.” My voice was at times even and controlled, but at times cracked through with emotion.

I plowed my way through that building, accessing the superfast lift that quickly took me to the top.

What waited there was a hangar.

There were no security guards or technicians, and as I staggered into the room, I saw another few simulations blast through my mind. My head twitched to the side, and I gained enough control over my hand to press it into my temple.

Soon enough the simulations stopped, and a vision of what I had to do played instead.

I selected a ship at the far end of the room, and I sprinted towards it, somehow ignoring the terrible cold pressure in my chest.

I wasn’t used to this much exercise, and the body simply wasn’t designed to maintain this level of frantic activity for this long.

Yet mine did.

I made it to the ship.

It was sleek, new, but small.

If I’d been the ordinary Anna Carter, I would have had no idea how to get inside.

The vision-assisted Anna Carter somehow did.

She lightly patted a point along the hull, just next to an almost seamless line.

Immediately a biometric hologram appeared and started to scan me.

Just when I thought it would blare an alarm, it stopped.

A door appeared along the hull and opened inwards with a hiss of air.

I stumbled in.

Had I somehow done something when I’d accessed all those panels in the maintenance tower? Something that now allowed me to access this ship?

It was a phenomenal thought. I was simple Annie Carter, a fish out of water in this wide new future. I didn’t have any skills, and most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing. And yet I knew enough about this time to realize that whatever I had done to gain access to this ship should be impossible.

Should be, were it not for the millions upon millions of simulations running through my mind.

I started to slow down when I entered the ship, but I didn’t stop. I made my way towards the front, stumbling into a cockpit. It was small; it was clear it was only designed to be manned by two or three crew.

I did not know how to fly a spaceship. There were so many buttons, so many procedures, but did that matter now?

No.

My fingers darted across the front panel, my chin lifted high as my dead gaze darted from the left to the right, the vision swamping my mind as it told me how to take off.

“Coordinates entered, security clearance accepted. Take-off procedure initiated,” the computer suddenly told me.

My hands drew slack and tumbled off the panel, falling loose by my sides.

My eyes rolled into the back of my head, and I slumped into the flight seat.

I was dimly aware of a wet trickle forming over my top lip.

My nose was bleeding.

I couldn’t move to wipe the blood off; I couldn’t move at all.

The fatigue caught up to me and slammed into my body like a freight train.

With the last scrap of energy I had, I managed to pry one eye open as I locked it onto the view screen.

I saw my ship take off, darting forward and through the open door of the hangar bay.

I remained conscious as it veered to the left and I saw a slice of the city below.

Then it tipped and shot towards the sky.

I fell into unconsciousness.

I wouldn’t wake until I’d reached my next destination.

Chapter 12

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

She’d left the city. She’d left the planet. She’d goddamn left Cluster.

I didn’t want to believe it; the Anna Carter I knew wouldn’t be able to navigate her way to the shops, let alone circumvent the security systems of a Cluster city to escape.

It stunned me, yet it didn’t stun them.

Maybe it had something to do with whatever medical tests they’d forced us to do on her. Maybe it didn’t. Christ, I didn’t know what was going on.

I bent over the controls of my cruiser, studying the navigation readings. After several minutes my back was so stiff it felt like every muscle had been turned into steel.

With a crack, I straightened up, seeing my frown reflected in one of the shiny panels to my left.

I focused on it.

Gain her trust, they kept telling me, gain her goddamn trust.

That was meant to be easy, was it?

I couldn’t even find her.

Maybe I didn’t know as much about this situation as I wanted, but I had to keep hold of one fact: I knew why I was doing this.

I knew why I was doing this.

Every sacrifice, every freaking sacrifice was towards one goal.

I couldn’t forget that.

So I bent over the control panel again.

Even if I somehow found Anna, I now wasn’t that confident I’d be able to catch her. The entire security division of Cluster had let her escape. I was confident of my abilities, sure, but I wasn’t that confident.

I brought up a sweaty hand and pressed it over my chin, letting a finger drag down my cheek until I dug the nail into my jawline.

I was starting to realize I needed more help. Not from friends, but from enemies turned allies.

Them.

Pressing that same sweaty hand into my forehead and letting my thumb shut my eyes closed, I sucked a breath through my teeth.

I would have to call them, wouldn’t I?

As much as I hated to admit it, they may be able to help me.

Swearing and slamming my hand down on the console, though not too close to the critical navigational controls that I could damage them, I shoved myself back in my seat and let out an angry grunt.

Once it finished echoing through the small confines of my cockpit, I pushed my left hand forward and let it dart over the communication controls.

Seconds later I had them on the line.

“You are calling us,” they stated the obvious.

“I need help,” I reluctantly admitted.

“You must capture her, regain her trust, and deliver her to us. If you do not, we will not uphold our end of the bargain.”

I knew that. For the love of god, I knew that. They didn’t have to keep repeating the obvious.

I swallowed my anger. “She escaped from Cluster. I have no idea how. She stole a ship according to security reports, but nobody’s been able to track her.”

There was a long pause. “We will manufacture you a medicine.”

“Sorry?” I had no idea what they were talking about. “I’m fine; I don’t need any medicine.”

“Not for you. For her. It will …” there was a substantial pause where I could hear them breathing, whatever they were, “subdue the effects of the ability.”

“Ability?” I knew cute little Annie Carter was at the center of this. I knew she was betrothed to Illuminate Hart. I knew she was the key to unlock the future we all so desperately needed. But did I really know why?

No.

They did. Or at least they thought they did.

“You do not need to know any more information. All you need to do is deliver the medicine.”

“… Alright,” I managed as I pushed myself as far back in my seat as I could go, my tense back pushing hard against the yielding fabric of the backrest.

I brought my hand up and pressed my thumb and fingers over my eyes.

“Specifications of medicine delivered. We have also calculated the most likely location of her ship. It is critical you deliver the medicine before you approach.”

“Okay,” I grunted.

“Diffuse airborne deployment is suggested. Manufacture the medicine in sufficient quantities and bombard her location with it.”

“Won’t that be risky? Can she overdose on it?” I shouldn’t have been questioning them, but I was.

“Risk negligible. Follow orders. Likely location has now been sent to your vessel. Find Annie Carter, regain her trust, and deliver her to us. If you cannot regain her trust, simply deliver her.”

“Yes,” I answered.

The audio feed cut out without so much as a goodbye. Then again, they weren’t much for politeness.

For a few seconds I didn’t do anything. I sat there, glassy eyed as I stared at the view screen.

When my mind started to question what I was doing I reminded it that what I was doing was saving the universe. Maybe in the movies you could avert disaster without spilling blood, but this was the real world.

With that thought playing through my mind, I steeled myself, hardened my jaw, and leaned forward, hands darting over the navigational panel.

I quickly accessed the coordinates they’d sent me. It wasn’t that far away and was within long-range scanners. I scanned the coordinates, and sure enough I picked up a ship.

While my scanners identified it as nothing more than a simple freighter hauling engine parts, the information they’d given me assured me it was likely Annie.

So I punched the coordinates into navigation and told the computer to follow.

With a sigh that barely made it out of my tight, constricted throat, I pushed up and walked towards the back of the ship. There was an extremely sophisticated matter reconstructor lodged into the wall. A gift from a friend.

I plugged in the specifications they’d sent me, and sat back as it began to synthesize them.

“Computer, what medication will this synthesize?”

“Medication not in the known database,” the computer replied.

“Then predict what the effects of medication will be.”

“… Substance unknown, prediction impossible.”

My brow crumpled. “What do you mean prediction impossible? And what do you mean it’s an unknown substance?”

“Substance unknown, prediction impossible. Lieutenant Mark Havelock does not need to know what the medicine will do,” the computer suddenly said, mimicking the tone and speech pattern of them.

The skin along the back of my neck prickled, and I stiffened.

“All Mark Havelock has to do is to deliver it and secure Anna Carter.”

I stood there. I breathed. I nodded.

After several beeps, a large vial of a blood-red liquid materialized in the synthesizer.

I left it there and returned to the navigation seat.

As I waited for my sophisticated vessel to catch up to Annie, I had plenty of time to think. But, wisely, I stopped myself from doing it.

Think, and I might start questioning what I was doing. So instead I sat there, rested my hands on the panel, and locked my gaze somewhere on the wall above the view screen.

Space darted past outside, just a swathe of dark penetrated by blasts of bright starlight.

Captain Fargo

She was gone.

Miranda had left the planet. Don’t ask me how she’d done it. Don’t ask any of the technicians or esteemed scientists how she’d done it. Nobody knew.

But she wasn’t here.

She’d stolen a prototype ship and escaped.

I sat in my office staring at the wall. The wall didn’t hold the solutions I was seeking, but at least it didn’t judge me either.

I kept telling myself I should have seen this coming. That after one look into Miranda’s eyes, I should have realized she was some incredible criminal with the hacking abilities of the universe’s greatest AIs all meshed into one seemingly human mind.

Despite everything she’d done, my mind kept going back to one point.

You couldn’t fake a betrothal.

No mistakes were ever made with them.

It was one of the most secure practices in the universe.

So even though I couldn’t be sure of her name or where she’d come from or what she was, I knew Miranda was betrothed.

And that was my clue.

Maybe all I had to do was figure out who she was betrothed to, and I would crack this mystery open.

But how would I do that?

She claimed that she’d given her betrothal papers to Lieutenant Mark Havelock, and he was long gone.

Believe it or not, despite how serious this situation was, I would not be able to walk into the Contracts Office and demand information on her betrothal either. It would blow apart the tradition. Only the two involved in a betrothal contract could access information on it. I would need a special order, not from the president of the Foundation, but from the entire Senate and every member of it to break the tradition. And they wouldn’t do that.

Nor, in fact, would the Illuminates let them.

The Illuminates guarded the betrothal tradition almost as closely as they guarded the universe from the Gap.

Plus, even if I could somehow get a Senate order to access Miranda’s betrothal, I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Somehow, some goddamn how, we didn’t have enough information to access her identity. She’d done something when she’d hacked into the maintenance tower. She’d scrambled what information we had on her; there wasn’t even any footage left.

Even the Contracts Office no longer had records on who had come to see them one week ago when Miranda had picked up her contract.

It was incredible to even comprehend that something like this was possible in the modern universe. There were meant to be so many checks and balances to prevent security breaches on this level.

It was incomprehensible and yet it was happening.

And it was happening on my watch.

I crossed my arms further in front of my chest until it felt like I was trying to crush my lungs.

Every technician and science officer who wasn’t looking into the security breach in the city was trying to figure out where she’d gone.

I doubted they’d be able to find her.

It was as if Miranda knew exactly how we were going to look for her before we did.

Which meant she had to know the intricate security operations of the Foundation Forces extremely well. Another reason to cast doubt on the premise she was a newfound one.

But if she wasn’t a newfound one, who the hell was she and where had she come from?

“Sir,” a voice suddenly echoed out from the com panel by my wall.

I shivered, suddenly pulled from my reverie, and swiveled towards the door. “Come in.”

The security officer practically charged into the room, and it was a surprise she didn’t leave skid marks with her shoes. “We found Mark Havelock.”

I looked up, breath stuck in my chest. “Where?”

The security officer’s brow twitched.

“Where?” I questioned again quickly.

“He’s dead.”

“Sorry?” My voice shook in surprise.

“He died three years ago.”

I was stunned. But I had a job to do. “What do you mean? I saw Lieutenant Mark Havelock a little over a week ago.”

The security officer took a much needed breath. “Mark Havelock was killed at one of the Newfound Institutes on Earth three years ago,” she stuttered, barely capable of believing what she was saying.

My mouth jutted wide open. “So who the hell are we dealing with now?”

“Mark Havelock,” she answered.

I trusted my offices – every single one of them. They were all good people, and I knew I could always rely on them.

They didn’t play games.

So even though this sounded like a game, I didn’t snap. “What’s going on here?”

“He’s a graft,” her voice shook.

My jaw slowly opened, my breath wheezing from my mouth. “A graft? How … how did you find that out?”

“Sir,” if she looked uncomfortable before, now she looked as if she wanted to crawl out of her skin.

My eyebrows crumpled so far over my eyes I could barely see out of them. “What?”

“It was an anonymous tip off.”

“And it’s been confirmed?”

“Yes. They sent us a bunch of information, including bio scans and data files. It’s stuff that’s been meticulously deleted from the Newfound Institute’s records. But once we had the information, our technicians ran a forensic audit and confirmed the information is definitely what was deleted from the newfound databases.”

I brought a hand up, unashamed of the slight tremble, and rested my palm flat against my chest, my crooked fingers barely capable of straightening. “So you’re telling me that the Newfound Institute at some point knew that Mark Havelock was a graft?”

She nodded.

I swore. I wasn’t usually one to swear. I was controlled, I was trained, and I knew my position and the dignity and respect it afforded me.

But that didn’t stop the expletive from cracking through my lips.

This was huge.

This implicated the Newfound Institute and God knows how many other people.

“Do we have any idea where this anonymous tip off came from?”

I knew the answer well before she shook her head.

I brought both hands up and locked them over my forehead, letting them drag slowly down my face, indenting against my cheeks and nose and mouth as if I was trying to drag my face off my skull.

“Maybe it’s somebody who used to work for the Institute? Maybe somebody who knew Havelock was a graft but their conscience caught up to them and they couldn’t hold that secret any longer.”

“Maybe,” I conceded in a weak tone. “Or maybe they appreciated that right now we need this information.”

She shot me a confused look. “You think somebody out there is on our side?”

I didn’t answer.

I couldn’t answer.

It was time to stop thinking and to start finding out.

Patting a hand down my face one final time I let my arm drop and I strode towards the door. “Keep me updated. And show me that information on Mark Havelock. If I’ve had a graft traipsing around Cluster, I want to know just how much damage he’s done.”

“Yes, sir.”

I strode out of my office. Though my stride was determined, determination wouldn’t be enough.

The complexities in this game had just doubled.

And the stakes of this game - the universe.

Chapter 13

Anna Carter

I awoke, stiff from head to foot as if I’d just run 10 marathons. In many ways, I had.

With a shaking, trembling, practically convulsing hand I pushed the scrappy fringe from my face. My hair was oily and here and there clumped with a few droplets of blood.

Bringing the same hand down, I wiped it over my top lip, and realized my bleeding nose had dried long ago but it had left a trail of sticky and dried blood all the way down my chin and neck.

I blinked hard, swaying back and forth in my chair as I pressed my still shaking hand over my eyes.

“We have reached the planet’s orbit. Landing protocol initiated. We will touch down in approximately two minutes,” the computer said, its electronic voice echoing around the room.

Though I was dizzy and my ears were ringing, I somehow managed to gather together the energy to open both eyes and stare at the view screen. Sure enough a large green-blue planet had come into view.

“As per your original instructions, we will utilize the long-range intergalactic communication satellite on the primary continent of this planet to send your message.”

“My message?” I stuttered.

“We will be unable to land near the tower. Security is too sophisticated. You will need to remove the communication manifold from this ship and manually enter the facility yourself.”

“What, why?” I managed.

“To send your message,” the computer repeated tonelessly.

“What message? I didn’t ask you to send a message.”

“You programed this computer with very specific orders. You programed this computer to remind you of those orders. You programed this computer to remind you that after you woke up you would be weak and you would require reminding.”

I could understand every separate word the computer was saying, but I just couldn’t comprehend them.

My mind rang like 1000 bells were lodge between my ears.

“This computer will assist you.”

“… Thank you,” I managed, for some reason remembering my manners even though I’d forgotten everything else.

Oh no … I hadn’t forgotten everything else. In a flash it returned to me.

Good God, I’d escaped from Cluster. I’d hacked into a maintenance tower and stolen a ship!

What was I doing?

My heartbeat tripled and my hands began to shake like they were tectonic plates crumbling under an earthquake.

“You should calm yourself,” the computer suggested.

Should I?

What I should do was contact the Foundation Forces, try to explain what was happening to me, and fall on their mercy.

Even though that was unquestionably the most sensible thing to do, I didn’t do it.

This time there was no vision playing in my mind to stop me, either. I stopped me.

Call it gut instinct or second sight, but I could tell it was too late to contact the Foundation Forces.

Something else was going on here.

I watched the view from the main screen as we came in to land. The planet went from a dot of green-blue to vast oceans and continents below me. We shot through the atmosphere with such speed it was seconds until a continent turned into a vast plain and then a mountain and then a rocky outcrop.

We landed, the ship plateauing smoothly and dropping without so much as a shake as it settled on the ground.

For several seconds I sat in my chair and I stared and I stared and I stared at the view screen. When I stopped I brought my hands up and stared at them instead.

I was looking for a solution, but there wasn’t one to be found.

“You must access the communications facility. You must remove the communications manifold from this vessel.”

“How do I do that?” I stuttered. Even as I asked that question, I started to see how it would be possible.

However fleetingly, a vision returned. But it was distant, extremely distant, and thankfully easy to ignore.

The pain, however, I could not ignore.

It seared behind my left eye as if a sun was going nova behind the lens.

Clutching a hand to my face, I screamed.

“It is unwise for you to use the ability at this time. Your body has been weakened.”

“Ability?” I questioned in a hesitant tone.

“You programed this computer to remind you about the ability. You programed this computer to tell you it is unwise to use the ability until you have had a chance to rest.”

“What’s the ability?” I asked with a dry mouth.

“This computer does not know.”

“How do I stop myself from using it?” My voice shook badly.

Fortunately the computer could make out what I was saying. “By keeping yourself safe. If you enter a dangerous scenario, the ability will return.”

I couldn’t process what the computer was saying. I didn’t want to.

Yet I knew it was right. Instinctively I knew it was right.

I couldn’t deny the existence of the ability, nor could I deny the fact it would return.

So reluctantly I pulled myself off the seat and stood before what I assumed was the communications panel. “How do I remove the manifold?”

“I will talk you through the process.”

I followed the computer’s instructions, but it was far less smooth and easy than when I was following the vision. My hands didn’t instinctively know what to do, and they kept fumbling and making mistakes.

The computer was thankfully patient, and was incapable of irony or insult. Eventually, I managed to remove the manifold.

Occasionally a few flecks of dried blood would flake off my lips and chin. I was in a right state. My oily hair clung to the sides of my neck, and my tunic was torn in places.

Thankfully the burn I’d received on my hand was now gone. Clearly the vision had dealt with it at the same time it had programmed the computer.

There was no time to clean myself up. I imagined if I paused for some personal grooming, the visions would return.

It was safer to do what I was told.

I couldn’t put up with the pain of seeing things again. It was like being torn in two over and over again. Maybe this is what Prometheus felt every time his liver was eaten out only for it to regrow and to be eaten out once more, endlessly.

Before I made my way out of the ship, the computer made me download something into a chunky portable gauntlet. I soon realized that it was the computer’s AI.

As weird as it sounded, considering it was only electronic and artificial, I was thankful to have company.

As soon as I reached the outside world, I shivered.

It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t my fatigue either; it was something else.

Something beyond intuition. Beyond my standard visions, too.

Something that reached further.

Something that warned me danger was coming.

“It will be difficult but not impossible to circumvent the security of the facility. Currently it is unmanned.”

“Well that’s good,” I muttered.

I didn’t want to bring anybody else into this. God knows how much destruction I’d wrought on Cluster. God knows what I’d done to that tower. I could have hurt people, even killed people, and I wouldn’t know.

That terrible thought settled on me like a dark cloud.

“You are shivering. You are cold. We can return to the ship and manufacture a jacket.”

“… No, I’m fine. We just need to get this done,” I added. Or did I? Was that a vestige of the vision controlling my lips for a few short seconds?

I didn’t want to get this done. I wanted to stop and crumple into a ball and forget any of this was happening.

So why was I still walking forward? Why was I trusting the computer or whatever I’d told the computer to tell me during my frenzied vision?

I couldn’t answer that question.

I just … had to keep going. Had to believe that somewhere at some point I would find out what was happening to me.

Captain Fargo

“So we aren’t the first people to go through this room then?” I pushed my hands into my pockets, my shoulders rigid with tension as I stared around the room.

I wasn’t any closer to solving this mystery; with every passing second, I was getting further and further away.

The mysteries kept mounting with no sign they would stop.

Right now I was standing in Miranda’s hotel room. There was no luggage and the room was clean.

Too clean.

Every trace of DNA had been removed from it.

Somebody had been through it before we had arrived.

“Whoever cleaned this room, they did a thorough job,” one of my technicians commented.

Stripping the room of all DNA and other biological identification factors wasn’t the only thing they cleaned, either.

Every record of why the elusive Miranda had booked into this room, how long she’d stayed, where she’d come from and why had also been deleted. There were holes in the hotel’s registration system, holes that had been put there by an extremely sophisticated hacker.

It would be easy to assume it was Miranda herself, but that would be denying one fact.

I cleared my throat. “Are you still picking up traces of stalker energy?”

The technician, a human, went white in the face and nodded.

Stalkers were the most sophisticated assassins in all the universe. Some theories had it that they were a leftover from the Gap; a force left behind to continue the Gap’s never-ending war.

I wasn’t sure if I could believe that. One thing I did know, though, was that they were categorically the most dangerous enemy anyone could face.

They weren’t a physical being; they were comprised of energy. Possessing sentience, uncanny intelligence, and an unquenchable drive to complete their mission, if a stalker was after you, you had no hope.

They were meant to be rare, and they were; I’d never faced one in my entire career, and there had only been a few sightings in the past century or so. That didn’t mean we’d forgotten how to look for them. Considering how dangerous they could be, every technician and security officer who worked for the Foundation Forces knew how to identify a stalker.

They also knew how to protect against them. Which raised one question: how in the hell had a Stalker managed to get into the most protected system in all the universe?

And what did this have to do with Miranda?

“Do we have any idea where the stalker went?” I asked as I shoved my hands further and further into my pockets until the fabric threatened to rip apart.

She shook her head. “We were lucky enough to pick up stalker energy in here, frankly.” She pointed a finger towards the window and the city beyond. “Out there, there will be too many competing signatures.”

“Well at least we know one fact,” I sighed.

“What’s that?”

“The last entity in this room was a stalker.”

“What does that tell us?”

I had no idea.

I turned sharply on my boot and headed for the door.

Anna Carter

Something wasn't right.

Something wasn't right.

The visions were no longer assaulting my mind, but that did not leave me devoid of intuition. And right now intuition was screaming at me.

My hands shook as I walked, not from the cold, but from fear.

This was different to the gut wrenching panic that had over taken me when I'd been on Cluster. When the inability to control my actions as I followed the vision had terrified me to the core.

This felt rawer. Realer.

“There's nothing to worry about,” I tried to tell myself.

“There are many things to worry about,” the computer corrected me. “But with correct planning we should be able to overcome them. As long as there are no surprises.”

Surprises?

I'd been enduring nothing but surprises since I'd arrived on Cluster.

I kept wanting to close my eyes, squeeze them shut, and wake up back in the past. With my family and friends and a normal world I could understand.

This was an ongoing horrific nightmare. One I would never be able to escape.

That sent a full cold shiver tracing down my back, shaking my shoulders, and even trembling my knees.

“If we continue along this path, soon we will reach the outer perimeter of the facility.”

“Are you absolutely sure there's nobody inside?”

“I cannot detect any life signs for a distance of over 100 km.”

“100 km is kind of close. Especially if somebody has a hovercraft or a vessel nearby.”

“I am not detecting any vessels nearby.”

I pressed my lips shut, realizing I didn't have the wherewithal to argue with a computer. I was just the idiot from the past.

Still, this idiot could not deny the fear growing in her gut.

My head kept jerking to the left and staring at the sky.

I had no idea what kind of planet I'd landed on, but there were three perfectly circular moons hanging low on the horizon. Silvery and pitted, they were large enough that I could see them in detail.

Though they were beautiful, and startling for a girl from old Earth, I shouldn't keep staring at them like this.

But could I stop myself?

No.

It wasn't the vision doing this to me either. It was that strange premonition-like sense that extended far beyond the vision’s scope.

I pressed a hand flat into my stomach, my fingers bunching against the fabric of my tunic.

“There will likely be a food synthesizer in the facility.”

“I'm not hungry.”

To be honest, I felt sick. A sickness I knew wouldn't be shifting anytime soon and certainly not from hunger.

The computer was right about one thing: the trek to the outer perimeter of the facility was short.

As I came up a rise on a hill, I saw it. A cluster of grey-white buildings surrounding a large set of modern satellite dishes. They were nothing like the satellite dishes I was used to; they were much, much larger for one, and the array of modern technology dotted around them, let alone the strong pillars of light they sent shooting into the atmosphere, left you with no questions that you were in the future.

“Is it safe to be this close to the facility? I mean, is it spewing out radiation or something?” I asked. It shouldn't have been the first of my questions. Honestly, I should be questioning everyone and everything I came across to try to figure out what was happening to me.

Still, perhaps there was a reason this facility was unmanned, and that reason was that it dealt with some pretty serious radiation that would fry a biological organism to a crisp.

“All critical systems are shielded,” the computer answered smoothly. “Once we reach the perimeter fence, you must find a service panel. There should be one at equal intervals of 22 meters.”

I nodded, then realized the computer couldn't see me. “Alright.”

Alright. I just agreed to help the computer hack into a secure communications facility. Was this the kind of thing I'd done on old Earth?

Heck no.

I'd done nothing. Well, pretty much nothing. My dad had been a wealthy entrepreneur, and I just floated around, coming up with plan after plan but never sticking with any.

My past would not prepare me for what I was about to do now.

Somehow I held myself together, despite the fact I could still feel the fatigue drawing through my body. It felt like I'd sliced every muscle in two and poured acid into them. I burnt all over, and with every step, my legs wobbled.

God knows how much sleep I'd managed to secure on the trip to this planet, but I fancied I'd need a week or two of rest before I was fighting fit again.

A week or two I would not get. At that exact moment, I felt my head twitching to the left and up towards the moons dotted along the horizon.

Why did I keep staring at them?

My teeth clenched together, the tension twisting through my jaw.

“We are approaching a service panel. When we arrive, you must decouple my subspace transponder and connected it to the panel.”

I nodded mutely.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I had no idea what I was doing.

That thought ground harder and harder into me as I reached the panel.

With shaking hands, I followed every step the computer relayed, making plenty of mistakes as usual. Fortunately none of them fried me, and after a few minutes of fumbling I stood back.

The perimeter fence wasn't made out of wire and concrete. It was made out of interconnecting fields of blue and green light.

The force fields looked strong. Strong enough that if I were to foolishly push a hand towards them, I wouldn't see the hand come back to me; it would be fried to a cinder or lopped right off at the wrist.

With a flickering hum, a section of the wall in front of me died. It was sudden and I wasn’t expecting it. The computer, however, was. In a seamless smooth tone, she told me to walk forward and head towards the nearest building.

I was shaking, I was honestly shaking all over. If I kept this up, I swore I would snap my back. Somehow I made it over the sparse rocky terrain and I reached the first building.

As I approached, I realized it was seamless. No windows, no doors. Just smooth walls leading up to a rounded ceiling. It looked like nothing more than a lump of metal, yet the nearer I got, the more I realized it was covered in a strange filmy substance. It was like slime growing over a wet rock.

My breath was uneasy, my heart beating hard in my chest. But with the computer’s help, I reached that building, then it directed me towards the door.

Though the walls were seamless, if I peered close at one specific section, I saw a tiny symbol.

“Jam your thumb into the symbol,” the computer told me.

I did as it stated.

There was an almost silent hiss and air escaped in a rush, striking my face and sending my fringe playing hard across my forehead and temples.

I pressed a hand to my eyes, and by the time I dropped it, the door had appeared. It didn't slide back into a wall, and it didn't shift up into the ceiling. Instead, the vision of the wall simply dropped away as if it were nothing more than a hologram.

“Proceed into the building,” the computer told me.

I stood at the threshold of the doorway for several seconds, shaking.

Did this computer really know what it was doing? Sure, apparently I had programmed it to help me during my frenzied vision. And considering my vision had helped me escape Cluster, I should trust it. But, honestly, one look at this building told me it was one of the most sophisticated places I'd seen. I was just a girl from old Earth! I wanted to shout at myself.

“Proceed into the building,” the computer prompted once more. “You should hurry; we don't have much time. We must access critical controls so that we can obscure our presence from security patrols.”

“Security patrols,” I suddenly wheezed.

“There are none in our vicinity at the moment. However, they may patrol this region in several hours.”

Several hours sounded like a lot, but good God, it wasn't. I was honestly one of the most useless people in the universe. Every time the computer gave me a detailed instruction, it would take me at least five minutes to figure out what I was doing.

I sucked in a calming breath, shoved my lips together, gritted my teeth, and entered the building.

As soon as I was inside the door appeared behind me. Or rather, the wall did – the vision of it returning as if it had always been there.

I stood and stared at it for a single second before the computer prompted me once more.

“We must continue along this maintenance tunnel until we reach the central computing area.”

“Alright.” I forced my stiff neck to turn, and then I walked.

If the outside of this building looked sophisticated, then the inside was insane. It wasn't like I was in some kind of sci-fi anymore; it was like I'd transcended every imagined future entirely.

The building was hard to describe, but it was filled – absolutely filled – with sophisticated devices and machinery. All of which I couldn't even guess the use of.

The corridor I was walking along had minimal lighting, and without the vision here to stop me from tumbling over, I kept running into things and tripping on cables that were crossing the floor.

“We must hurry,” the computer told me once more.

I complied.

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

Jesus Christ this couldn’t be happening. I wasn’t alone. I knew that because the damn sensors of my ship had picked up a certain energy that should be nowhere near this system: a bloody stalker.

I sat ramrod straight in my seat, staring at the view panel before me. I let a loud curse tear from my lips and I balled up a fist and struck it into the base of the panel, actually cracking the metal.

The ordinary Mark Havelock wouldn’t have been able to do that; the ordinary Mark Havelock hadn’t been able to do much. He’d been a junkie, a waste of space, and a no-hoper. Then he’d woken up in the goddamn future, and someone had decided they could do something more creative with him.

I was a graft.

I was still coming to terms with what that meant, but the strength, stamina, and willpower I’d already mastered.

With a creaking back I stood, pressing my hands into the control panel as I steadied myself and stared at the information running across the view screen.

Stalker energy was very specific. It could be detected easily, but it wasn’t always present; stalkers could clean up after themselves, eradicating every single particle of radiation that would reveal where they’d been.

But if it was present, it meant one thing: they wanted you to know they’d been there. Why? It was a kind of calling card. They would use it to warn pirates and bounty hunters, letting them know there was absolutely no reason to bother going after the same target.

If on the other hand, a stalker wanted to assassinate someone without leaving a trace, they could do that too. So if I was picking up stalker energy, it meant one thing: a stalker was going after Anna Carter.

I swore again. This time the word echoing around the room like a gunshot.

I brought one hand up and pressed it hard into my brow, taking a massive breath before I let the hand drop to my knee.

Technically, as a graft, I was one of the most fearsome enemies in the universe. That didn’t mean I was a match for a stalker. I’d heard the theories – stalkers were meant to be some kind of leftover from the Gap. One the Illuminates hadn’t been able to remove from the universe.

I wondered if this was worth a call to them. Whether I should tell them a stalker had locked onto our target and there was no longer any reason for me to go after Annie.

I instinctively knew what their response would be: they would tell me to continue with the mission. Because for some goddamn reason they needed Annie. Maybe it was her connection to Illuminate Hart or maybe it was that strange ability they talked of.

Instinctively I found myself turning and staring at the vials of concentrated red liquid still sitting in the synthesizer. My eyes locked on them and my hands tightened into fists. I hated not knowing what I was doing. It had taken a heck of a lot of willpower to come to terms with this universe. Once I’d been woken five years ago, it had been a strange kind of hell to live in a place so different to my past. You had to question everything you experienced, everything you saw, and it made you extremely easy to manipulate.

I tried not to think about that as I turned from the synthesizer and started to type something over the console in front of me. If there was a stalker going after Annie – and I could only assume it was going after her rather than some other insignificant dolt in this system – then I had to plan meticulously. I also had to hope, pray, and believe that she would be alive by the time I got there.

Annie Carter had a sense of humor, I’d grant you that. I hadn’t begrudged her company all that much. But the only reason I’d stuck close to her all these years was because I’d been told to. I hadn’t figured out the reason why until she’d handed me her betrothal certificate.

As soon as I’d handed that to my superiors, they’d confirmed who she was: goddamn Illuminate Hart’s betrothed.

Now I had a new mission: deliver her to them.

And who were they?

Who knew? Some shady dodgy group my superiors and friends had formed a brief alliance with, one necessary for securing the ultimate goal.

I pressed a sweaty hand into my face and let it close my eyes. Then I took in a steadying breath.

A strange twist of emotion wrapped its way around my gut. But just as I recognize what it was – guilt – I pushed it away. I pushed it away with the proficiency only a graft could manage. I could literally wash emotions from my body as if they were nothing but unsavory stains.

After several seconds of reasserting control over my mind, I sat straighter, my expression stiff and cold.

I knew what was at stake here. I knew why I was doing this and would never ever question my orders. If I needed Annie to get this done, I would get Annie. If that meant going up against a stalker, so be it.

Chapter 14

Anna Carter

It was when I found the computer cores that I heard something: an alarm fracturing the air like claws lacerating skin.

It instantly set my back shivering, my knees quaking, and my ears ringing. My body pumped so full of fear, it was like pure panic had been injected right into my bloodstream.

I started to shake, my sweaty palms clinging against the collar of my tunic as I stared around me with wide-open eyes.

“The facility is detecting an intruder,” the computer said in its electronic, emotionless tone.

“What kind of intruder? Is it a patrol?” I asked. Even as I asked it, I realized it wasn’t. I could feel the vision trying to form in my mind, but my body was still so tired. It couldn’t seem to push through.

A searing pain erupted behind my left eye. Rather than a full-blown detailed hallucination, I saw formless shadows.

I pressed a hand over my left eye and turned, backing away from the console I’d been working over. “What’s going on?” I asked in a terrified voice that shook through my chest.

“The facility is detecting an intruder,” the computer explained again. Even though its tone was still electronic and emotionless, I swore it picked up a beat, just as my heart threatened to shake out of my chest.

I kept walking backwards with jerky steps until my foot struck a console and I stumbled backwards, locking my hands onto the panel behind me. I turned my stiff neck from left to right; the vision was trying to push its way through my mind. But it was weak, too weak to see.

I could only discern dark shadows, but no detail.

Pushing a hand over my left eye, I whimpered, falling down the side of the panel until I sat on the floor, a huddled mess of pain and fright.

“The facility is unable to identify the intruder,” the computer pointed out.

I pushed my back into the panel behind me, my shoulders shaking so much they sounded like rain pattering against the metal.

Suddenly another warning alarm blared and then another. I stared at the view screen that took up the wall in front of me, and warning light after warning light began to blink on it. I kept a hand pressed over my eye and tried to dig in as far as it would go into the skin, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t stop the pain. It was like the vision was trying to tear out of my mind.

I couldn’t stop shaking.

Suddenly I heard a crack from the corridor outside my room.

I screamed.

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

I landed on the planet.

My computer detected Anna Carter’s bio signs, and it had also confirmed the presence of a stalker.

As soon as my ship landed and the hatch opened, I flung myself forward.

My only enemy now was time.

If I didn’t reach Anna first, I’d have no chance. Stalkers were efficient. They weren’t like people – they didn’t have minds, they didn’t have beliefs, wishes, and desires – they had a mission.

And they followed that through with cold efficiency.

It would take the stalker less than a second to kill her.

So I had to get there first.

As I ran blindingly fast without the assistance of armor, I brought up my weapon.

Despite my better judgement, I’d called them. I’d told them about the stalker, and surprisingly, they’d told me how to defeat it.

There wasn’t meant to be a weapon in the universe that could defeat a stalker. Only the Illuminates could do it.

Stalkers, being nothing more than energy, could withstand most blows. A punch, a standard shot, even pulse rifles wouldn’t do a thing; the blow would sail right through the stalker’s diffuse form.

You needed an enormous amount of directed energy to take one down. And you had to be extremely quick; as soon as the stalker knew what you were doing, it would diffuse its form into its environment – spreading out until it was nothing more than a thin layer of particles scattered over a distance of as much as a few thousand kilometers.

And yet, they had given me a weapon which they claimed would work on the stalker in a single shot, maybe two.

Maybe it was a trap. That made more sense. Maybe they didn’t like what I was doing and they wanted to replace me. So they’d sold me the lie that this gun would defeat the stalker, and when it ultimately failed, the stalker would kill me and they would find another means to get Anna Carter.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this gun would work.

They’d sent me the specifications and I’d manufactured it in the synthesizer on my ship. During the manufacture process the computer told me several times that the gun’s design was unknown and its purpose unpredictable.

I pushed myself forward, throwing my body up an incline until I breached a hill. Before me was a facility.

A long-range communications facility. Before I could question why Anna Carter was in there, I hurled myself into a sprint, fingers tightening around my gun.

I had to get there before the stalker reached her.

Anna Carter

There was a boom and the wall shook.

“Intruder attempting to enter the room,” the computer informed me. If I’d imagined there’d been no emotion in its tone before, now I swore its tone shook.

Or maybe that was because I shook – every part of me shook. From my convulsing shoulders to my mind.

I didn’t bother to press a hand over my left eye anymore. That wasn’t to say the pain had gone away; it was still there, searing as if someone had stuck a hot iron into my eye socket.

But what was the point?

Something howled. It wasn’t a wolf or a tiger or some alien animal.

It was a sound I’d never heard before. It sounded metallic, like some great structure about to crumble under an even greater force.

And yet it also sounded organic and intelligent.

Suddenly there was a warning alarm louder than any before. It split the air with its intensity. I slammed my hands over my ears, huddling further against the panel until I could make myself no smaller.

Then the alarm stopped.

Every alarm stopped.

The lights that had once been blazing their way over the view screen blinked out.

In fact, the view screen and every other panel went dead.

There was a hiss from behind me and the door opened.

I didn’t turn to stare at it.

I didn’t move at all. I couldn’t. I was soldered to the spot, stuck by my own pounding, bone rattling fear.

The computer didn’t say anything. Either it realized it was all over and there was no point in pointing that out, or it too had been turned off.

I felt a rush of air enter the room.

No, not air; it was warmer, thicker, different.

Despite the overwhelming fear, I managed to push myself up. I ground my shoulders into the panel behind me and I used it to stabilize myself as I walked my back up.

I stood, my knees so stiff I wobbled on the spot.

I turned towards the door.

I stared at it.

The lights went out.

At first I saw them blink off in the corridor beyond. One after another, then the darkness reached my room too, and everything went black.

But that did not make it dark.

I saw something move into the room around me.

Some kind of energy. A crackling white-green cloud.

I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t regain control of my throat long enough to try.

The cloud didn’t move like gas or any other normal substance; it shifted about the room as if it were looking for something, as if it were sentient.

I couldn’t breathe. I was choking, gasping for air, and I couldn’t dare push my chest out far enough to inhale.

That diffuse cloud of white-green energy stopped. Though it didn’t have a face, I swear it stared at me.

Run. Something told me.

Run.

I took a jerking step backwards.

My move was quick, scared, and as soon as I made it, the cloud made an equivalent quick, jerking move. It was terrifying to see. It had all the instinctual intelligent movements of an animal, without the hindrance of a body.

It looked at me for one more thoughtful second.

Then it moved.

It rushed towards me, like water from a broken dam.

I screamed, and so did it. A terrifying slow grating howl that ripped through the air and echoed far into the corridor.

It didn’t reach me.

It didn’t reach me.

Suddenly a shield burst into place in front of me, and the cloud smashed into it, its diffuse body crackling against the force field, sending sparks exploding into the room and dancing over the floor like glittering red fireflies.

I choked, letting go of a tiny high-pitched wail as I stumbled backwards and into a wall.

The cloud, far from being disintegrated, brought itself back and then slammed its diffuse body into the force field.

The force field buckled like it was nothing more than a thin piece of paper being pushed by a finger.

It didn’t fall, not yet anyway, but as the cloud brought itself back for another assault, I instinctively knew the shield couldn’t take another blow.

It didn’t have to.

There was a sound from the corridor, I heard it even over the crackling of the force field.

So did the cloud. It darted around, swimming through the room like a water snake.

It didn’t make it far.

“I wouldn’t do that,” someone said.

The voice was male, and I swore I recognized it, but before I could figure out who it was, there was an enormous flash of energy through the room.

I had no idea where it came from, but it was so bright I had to slam my hands over my eyes lest I be blinded.

That cloud let out another scream, this one so guttural it shook through the floor and trembled up my feet.

I whimpered, clutching my hands harder over my face as I huddled against the wall.

“Well what do you know? This gun does work,” someone said.

There was another blinding flash of light.

Then a scream, one that echoed not just around me but through me.

The shield in front of me failed, and I felt a rush of cold air slam against my body. It set my head banging into the wall behind me.

Then silence.

Silence until I heard footsteps. Not the rush of air indicating the cloud was slamming towards me.

No, footsteps. And if I was any judge, they came from a human.

I forced my eyes open.

I looked up.

Someone entered the room.

Mark.

He was holding a gun. It was massive and had glowing lines tracing down the barrel.

“There you are, Annie. You okay?”

Shaking, I forced myself to stand. “Mark?”

He nodded. Then he spread his arms wide as if he expected me to throw myself at him.

I wanted to. He’d just saved me, right?

That meant I had been wrong about him. Didn’t it?

Maybe he hadn’t been holding me in that makeshift hospital for some nefarious reason. Maybe he’d been doing it for my own good.

I should have done what he’d asked and just trusted him.

So why wasn’t I throwing myself at him?

The invitation was there as he swept his arms open. Yet I couldn’t force my body forward.

Something was happening behind my left eye.

The visions were trying to push their way through, harder than before.

I started to shake and I brought a hand up and slammed it over my eye.

Mark’s eyes narrowed with interest.

He brought a hand behind him and grabbed something from the holster connected to his belt.

There was a hiss, and a strange smell filtered through the room.

As soon as I breathed it in, I felt dizzy.

In fact, I tipped backwards.

“Whoa, steady there.” Mark spread a hand towards me.

After a few seconds of instability, my balance returned.

And, fantastically, the pain disappeared.

There wasn’t even a hint of tension behind my eye anymore.

I blinked, my confusion obvious as I tentatively touched my cheek and eyebrow.

“You’re right, kid,” he assured me as he reached around and locked the enormous gun onto a holster along his back.

“… Mark?”

He pressed his lips together and offered me a subdued smile. “You ran away from me, Annie. I only ever tried to keep you safe.”

I glanced at my feet. “I … I’m sorry?” I couldn’t keep my tone steady. Was I sorry?

Could I trust Mark?

Of course I could, my rational mind kept telling me. He just saved me from that cloud, whatever the hell it had been.

But why had he taken me to that makeshift hospital? What wasn’t he telling me?

And why was he pretending I was Miranda?

It was then that I realized he’d called me Annie.

I tilted my head to the side and narrowed my eyes at him. “Who am I, Mark?”

He pressed his lips together and didn’t blink as he stared my way. “You’re Annie Carter.”

I tried to control my expression, but it was hard. Extremely bloody hard.

Everyone was telling me I was someone called Miranda. Mark had even said it.

Now he was admitting the truth.

“I know you want to know what’s going on, and I’ll tell you.”

I stared at him warily. “Why did you pretend I was Miranda? Why did you take me to that strange hospital? Why were they running so many tests?”

He spread both hands towards me in a peace motion. “Because you need to be protected.”

“From my own name?” I asked with exasperation.

He looked at me seriously. “Yes.”

I balked at his strange reaction. “Mark, what the hell is going on? What did you do with my betrothal certificate? Why did you pretend I was somebody else?”

“Because, kid, you’re Annie goddamn Carter. You’re betrothed to Illuminate Hart,” he said, genuine frustration shaking through his tone.

Mark hardly ever reacted with anything but cool, composed calm. But here he was, his eyes wide, his lips tight with tension, and his words tighter.

I shook at his statement.

He kept those wide-open eyes locked on me. “Annie, you’re one of the most important people in the universe right now. You have to be protected.”

There was such a fervor behind his words, I couldn’t help but stare at him. “So why … did you pretend I wasn’t Annie Carter?”

“To keep you away from him,” Mark answered through a clenched jaw.

“… What?” I shivered.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever met an Illuminate, Annie, but they’re terrible people. They are responsible for everything that is wrong with this universe,” as Mark spoke he pointed to the floor with a stiff finger, emphasizing every word.

I stared at him. “I’ve … I’ve met an Illuminate,” I admitted.

Mark became reserved.

“He was horrible,” I added.

His lips twisted into a bitter smile. “They are all horrible. Are you honestly telling me you want to be married to one?”

I went to shake my head, but for the strangest reason I couldn’t. It took all my energy to override whatever was stopping me until I let out the jerkiest shake I could.

“Of course you don’t.” Mark moved towards me, opening his arms wide.

I didn’t shift back.

He laid his palms onto my shoulders and stared into my eyes. “Annie. You can trust me, you know that, right?”

I paused for a long time, staring up into his eyes. Eventually I nodded.

I could trust Mark, couldn’t I?

I reckon I knew him better than anyone else in this universe, and he definitely knew me better than anyone else did.

He was my rock.

My rational mind kept returning to that point. Mark Havelock was my rock.

“So why … why did you stick me in that hospital and run tests on me?” I managed in a subdued tone as I stared at his unwavering gaze.

“Because this is … complicated,” he managed.

“Complicated?”

“We needed to confirm you were definitely betrothed to Illuminate Hart,” he said, his eyes darting around as if he was searching for his words.

Or maybe that was just my paranoid mind trying to convince me he was lying.

I shook my head to dislodge my thoughts. “And did you confirm it?”

He nodded. “Which means it’s critical we keep you safe from him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s an Illuminate, Annie. You may not know much about this universe, but I do. They are responsible for everything that is wrong,” he repeated, his jaw becoming so stiff it was a surprise he could push his words out.

I hated it when people told me I didn’t know much about the universe. Maybe that fact played across my face, because Mark suddenly shot me a smile.

“Hey, kid, it’s not all bad. Now I’ve found you and saved you from that stalker, I can take you some place safe.”

“Stalker?”

He shrugged over his shoulder towards the center of the room. “That cloud of energy that was attacking you.”

“What … what was it?”

“One of the deadliest assassins in the universe,” he appeared to answer honestly.

I shivered. “Why was it after to me?”

“Because,” he paused, “because one of the Illuminates sent it.”

“What?”

“Annie, this is so much more complicated than you can imagine. But first, we really need to get out of here.” He offered me another smile. The kind of smile that reminded me of how kind Mark was. How often he went out of his way to protect and shepherd me.

I softened. “Mark, I’m so sorry,” I began, voice shaking.

He patted his hand against my shoulder, his lips spreading even wider. “Don’t mention it, kid.”

“But I should never have escaped that hospital. And I shouldn’t have told Captain Fargo about you—”

“You spoke to Captain Fargo?” He asked, suddenly on edge.

“Mark, I’m so sorry.”

“… It doesn’t matter. Just come with me, and I’ll take you some place safe.” He extended a hand towards me.

I didn’t have to consider it; I took it.

Because I could trust Mark.

As he led me out of the room, I didn’t question where he was taking me. I didn’t question, because it felt as if every doubt had been swept from my mind.

For the first time in days I was thinking clearly without a hint of pain and with no visions on the horizon.

The visions ....

As Mark led me forward, his hand blessedly warm against my own, I pondered whether I should tell him about my hallucinations, if that’s what they were.

I opened my mouth several times as we walked, willing myself to reveal my secret. Yet I couldn’t.

Something stopped me.

Lieutenant Mark Havelock

This was easier than I’d thought it would be. Whatever had been in that ‘medication’ was clearly working.

Annie was like butter in my hands.

I couldn’t stop the smile of satisfaction from spreading over my lips as I led her out of that building.

I kept shooting her sideways glances. She looked confused, tired, but none the wiser.

Occasionally pangs of guilt would assail me, but I pushed them back.

I knew what I was doing, I kept telling myself, and I knew why I was doing it.

A brighter, more peaceful, better universe waited for me.

And in order to win peace, you always had to sacrifice something in a war.

“Thank you so much,” Annie suddenly said.

“… For what?”

“For being so reliable. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you,” she said when we finally reached the outside of the building.

There was a strong wind, and it caught the ends of her hair, sending them tumbling over her shoulders and the collar of her plain tunic.

I allowed myself to get distracted by her hair so I didn’t have to appreciate her sentiment.

“Mark, I’m so sorry. What was I thinking? You’re the most trustworthy guy in this whole universe, aren’t you?”

“Hmm,” I managed.

Most trustworthy guy in the universe? She wouldn’t be saying that if she knew I was a graft. Then again, simple little Annie Carter would have no idea what a graft was, just as she had no idea what a stalker was. If she’d had even the slightest clue, she would have realized an Illuminate could never have sent one after her; the Illuminates were sworn to track down every last stalker and eliminate them from the universe. But that’s what would make this mission simple, right? Annie knew nothing. She was like leading around a deaf, blind, dumb assed sheep.

Even as I entertained that thought, I frowned. Or some part of me frowned. Whatever vestige of humanity remained under my graft.

“Where are you taking me anyway?” She asked after a lengthy pause.

“Somewhere safe,” I repeated, dropping her gaze and pretending to focus on the horizon instead.

“… Where?” She pressed.

I darted my gaze towards her, looking for any hint she’d seen through my lie.

No, she was just curious.

I turned to her, grabbed up her hand, and patted it. “Annie, you’ve just got to trust me. Can you do that?”

Her eyes watered with tears. “Yes, of course I can.”

“Atta girl,” I said condescendingly.

Annie didn’t notice, and just smiled back at me. Because that’s what Annie was like. Sure, she knew nothing about this universe, and she had the courage and ability of a bunny rabbit. But for all those faults, she made up for them with kindness.

She wanted to believe the best in people.

But sometimes, you shouldn’t. Because sometimes people weren’t good. Like me, they’d had the good surgically removed and the bad grafted over whatever remained.

The wind picked up again, whistling over the bare rocky expanse that reached from the cluster of buildings to the security fence in the distance.

I glanced toward the fence, then shifted my head and looked over my shoulder.

Why had simple sweet stupid Annie Carter gone to this long-range communication facility? More to the point, how the heck had she broken in?

These places had secure defenses, and it wasn’t as if you could just walk in and knock on the door.

I wanted to ask her, but I knew the answer: the ability. The same ability I had suppressed with the use of the so-called medication.

I wanted to ask her what it was; I burned to know how Annie, of all people, could hack through the security of Cluster. But I wasn’t allowed to know, and I knew asking wouldn’t help; Annie would have no idea what was happening to her.

Still, I let my gaze dart over the buildings behind. The massive satellite arrays were clustered in the middle with a high thin tower between them.

My eyes narrowed. I swore I could see a black dot in the distance, past the tower, maybe a good 50 km away. Ordinary human eyes wouldn’t have been able to pick it out, but I was far beyond ordinary.

I stiffened and stopped.

Annie walked several steps before she realized I’d paused. She turned, hair playing across her cheeks as she stared at me inquiringly. “What’s the matter?”

I focused in on that black dot as it became larger and larger.

It was a ship.

Christ, it was a ship.

Instinctively I reached for the gun behind me, grabbing it off my back and whipping it around, thumbing the charge button.

“Mark?” Alarm punched through her tone.

“Get down,” I hissed.

This gun could take down a stalker in two shots, so I hoped like hell it would work against that ship.

The ship darted towards me, and I let off a shot, but despite my skills, I wasn’t quick enough; the ship darted out of my bullet’s path.

As the ship neared at a blistering pace, I realized it looked like a prototype. Modular in design, it was made of sleek white blue metal. Even though it was still a good 20 km away, I could detect the insignia along its side: Foundation Special Forces.

Christ. That was a prototype ship, one with a prototype AI.

Was somebody else after Annie?

I darted back, shunting the gun into my shoulder as I steadied the barrel and fired off another round.

Taking pot shots at a prototype ship was insane, but I didn’t have any choice.

I heard Annie fall onto the ground beside me, I even heard her throw her hands over her head and dig her trembling fingers over her face.

Suddenly I felt a tingle erupt through my body. It was one I knew well.

Somebody was trying to transport me.

Trying, but failing.

I was a graft, and if I didn’t want to be transported, I wouldn’t be. There were enough sophisticated devices grafted onto my body and implants embedded into my brain that I could disrupt a transport signal with ease.

The effect would also work on Annie, as long as she stayed close to my side.

Should she wander off by 10 or so meters, my dampening field would be ineffective.

“Annie, stick close,” I screamed as I kept on trying to take shots at the ship.

I’d been able to tackle the stalker because it had been distracted and hadn’t thought I’d be able to kill it in two shots.

I’d had the element of surprise.

This time, I didn’t have that on my side. This time, I was the one being hunted.

I swore again, stumbling back as I tried to use my sophisticated senses to track the ship.

I suddenly realized that if Annie hadn’t been by my side, this ship would have transported her away long ago.

I’d been an idiot.

Walking her across open ground, that was a rookie’s mistake.

The prototype ship was now close enough that I could smell its propulsion drives.

I watched Annie shudder back, practically banging into my side. Then her terrified expression slackened. “Isn’t that … my ship?”

My head swung around as I stared at her. “Your ship?”

The ship kept circling us at a distance.

It was waiting for a clear shot, wasn’t it?

It may be a prototype ship, but its weapons were too high yield. It wouldn’t be able to take me out without threatening Annie at the same time.

I darted towards Annie, grabbing her by the wrist.

“What are you doing?” She squealed.

“Keeping you safe,” I lied.

I was saving my own ass.

“Annie,” a voice boomed out from the ship. “I am the AI of this vessel.”

“The computer?” Annie stuttered.

I held onto Annie’s wrist tighter and tighter.

“You programmed me to warn you of Lieutenant Mark Havelock.”

“Warn me?” Annie’s voice shook.

“Don’t listen to it,” I shouted, “I’m the only one who can keep you safe, Annie.”

“He is dangerous,” the AI repeated as the ship swung above us.

I brought my gun forward and took a shot at it.

The blast sailed past its hull, not even searing the paintwork.

I tightened my grip on Annie’s wrist again, until she squealed. “Mark, you’re hurting me.”

“We have to get away from here.” I kept her right beside me as I walked backwards, gun pointed at the ship.

Rather than head towards my own vessel, I backed away towards the long-range communication facility.

“You cannot trust him,” the AI repeated. “You must escape.”

Annie’s eyes were open wide, her irises shaking with fear and surprise.

I pulled her along. If I could make it inside the building, maybe I had a chance. The ship wouldn’t dare bombard it while Annie was inside.

“Annie, you’ve got to trust me,” I said through bared teeth as I pulled her along.

“You must escape,” the AI retorted.

On the word escape, I felt Annie shiver.

So I pulled her along harder.

I wasn’t going to lose.

Anna Carter

What was going on?

What was happening?

Mark’s grip dug into my wrist like it was steel beams pushing into the flesh.

He kept pulling me along like he was dragging dead weight.

“Hurry up,” he hissed to me, “run.”

That ship – my ship – kept circling us.

The AI had told me I shouldn’t trust him.

But … Mark was my rock, wasn’t he?

Suddenly my mind filled with doubt, the same doubt that had seen me escape that makeshift hospital.

If Mark had only ever been trying to keep me safe, why had he pretended I was Miranda? Why not admit the truth back then? Why not tell me I was Annie Carter, I was betrothed to Illuminate Hart, and it was imperative I be kept away from that man?

No.

Suddenly I remembered the look in Mark’s eyes every time he lied to me. That distant cold calculating look.

And the way he twitched every time I’d mentioned my betrothal contract.

Could I trust this man?

He kept pulling me forward with a vicious force.

He was so strong.

So incredibly strong. This didn’t feel like fighting somebody twice my size; it felt like fighting a ship.

And come to think of it, the way he shot so blithely at my vessel defied a keen eye. Several times he’d almost struck it.

It hadn’t been potluck; he’d been aiming.

An ordinary man couldn’t aim at a darting ship.

What was going on here?

“You must escape,” the computer told me, its voice echoing over the rocky terrain as Mark dragged me towards the buildings. “He is employing dampening technology and I cannot transport you in his presence. You must escape, you must escape.”

Dampening technology?

“Annie, trust me,” Mark said through clenched teeth, his voice sounding like a hiss of steam.

Trust him?

I had to decide, didn’t I?

Could I trust Mark?

I suddenly realized why it was I’d escaped that hospital in the first place.

It hadn’t been me; it had been the vision.

But now the vision was gone. No more pain, no more shadows darting before my eyes.

In fact, the vision went when Mark had appeared.

Could those two facts be connected?

If the force behind my hallucinations was still present, wouldn’t it be telling me – no forcing me – to run?

As I questioned that, as I pushed myself into that thought, I also pushed myself into that sense. The strange one. The one that went beyond the fluxing visions in my mind. That deeper, wider, longer sense of premonition that sat right within my middle.

The one that had warned me something was coming every time I looked up at the horizon and those three perfectly shaped moons.

I settled my awareness on it.

Fear sparked out of it, traveling fast through my belly like electric shocks to the flesh.

I suddenly stopped, trying to pull myself back against Mark’s grip.

He stiffened, turning his head over his shoulder as he glared at me.

I’d never seen an expression like that. Not on Mark. It was hatred, anger, some cold terrifying violence.

And it answered all my questions.

“Let me go,” I said, voice pitching into a scream. “Let me go.”

“Fine, I can drag you,” Mark snapped.

Then he brought his hand around in a punch.

It didn’t connect.

The vessel shot the ground 10 meters to our left, the Earth shaking like it had been hit by an earthquake.

Mark was thrown off balance, and I fell to my knees.

My ship shot the ground again, this time closer to Mark.

Though my ears rang and my teeth shook in my head, I managed to push myself to my feet.

Then I staggered towards the building.

Towards safety.

I heard Mark roar from behind me. He pounced to his feet.

“Annie,” he screamed.

It was the most horrible sound I’d ever heard.

I didn’t waste time looking over my shoulder; I knew he was right behind me.

The ship darted low. So low, it was barely half a meter from the ground.

Then it did something incredible.

It rammed Mark.

Straight on.

I screamed until it felt my throat would crack.

Oh my God, Mark had just died.

Just as that thought flashed through my mind, I saw the ship tilt, and Mark fell off the front, body limp as it struck the ground.

I hesitated.

Then the unimaginable happened: Mark got up.

He brought his gun around, and shot the ship front on.

It obliterated the vessel’s shields in a scatter of sparks and sliced off a chunk of the hull.

Mark had just been run over by a prototype spaceship and he was fine.

“Run,” the computer blared at me.

I turned.

I ran.

Chapter 15

Anna Carter

I reached the building.

I threw myself at the wall, slamming my hand over the smooth surface, willing a maintenance panel to appear.

I screamed at it, cried, tears staining my cheeks.

Then there was a beep, and the door opened several meters to my left.

I flung herself towards it. In the distance, I caught sight of Mark.

He was limping, as if his leg was broken, but he was in better shape than the ship.

It had crash landed a good 200 meters away.

Oh god.

Mark moved towards me, dragging his leg, his expression locked with hatred.

I threw myself through the door and into the building.

I ran, as fast as my limbs could carry me.

In the distance, I heard Mark enter the building behind me, one foot dragging.

My breath came in strangled gasps as I twisted over my shoulder to see him, the underside of his face lit up by the glowing barrel.

I let out a scream as I twisted my head around.

Oh god.

“Annie, get back here,” Mark growled.

I slammed a hand over my mouth and whimpered.

I threw myself through the corridors of the building. The further I went, the narrower the hall became, until I was running over cables chunked and strewn along the floor like intertwined roots.

I had to be careful – so careful – not to trip.

I was faster than Mark, but just by a few steps. I could still hear him dragging his foot down the corridor behind me. Despite the fact metal-covered bones were protruding from his leg, he was still fast enough to keep up.

What was he?

And why was he after me?

I had no idea where I was going.

... Or did I?

I seemed to know which corners to take.

....

It was returning.

The pain behind my left eye – slowly, slowly it was returning.

I started to see shadows dance over my vision. They were diffuse, but they still had the power to influence me.

It may not be enough to see me hack into a sophisticated computer, but it was enough to direct me.

After I took a sharp corner, I reached an enormous door.

Far down the corridor I heard Mark chuckle. “You’re trapped now, kid; give up.”

I pressed my back against the door, eyes drawing wide.

I saw him round the corner.

He smiled. It wasn’t warm, it wasn’t charming, and it wasn’t technically a smile.

It was cold and triumphant.

Before I knew what I was doing, my hand darted up and typed something into the panel by the door.

The door opened and I staggered back.

Mark spluttered in surprise. “What the hell?”

I fell through the door, falling onto the ground.

I scuttled backwards, turning on my hands and pushing to my feet.

I was outside, the wind whistling past like a howling wolf.

I stared up to see the base of an enormous satellite dish.

I’d made my way into the internal compound.

“Annie!” Mark snapped. “How the hell did you get through this door?” His head suddenly ticked to the side. “I guess you need more medication,” he said, his lips curling with recognition.

I staggered away from him, the wind blasting against my legs and back, sending the flaps of my tunic slapping around my arms.

Medication?

Mark twisted his arm around his back and grabbed something.

It was a vial of thick red liquid lodged into some kind of device.

He pressed a button along the top, and with a hiss, the liquid disappeared.

I lost my balance. I stumbled to the side, tripping, but pushing off the ground with my hand and staggering back into a desperate run.

The pain was gone. Oh god, my left eye felt completely normal.

It wasn’t a blessing, I suddenly realized.

The visions were protecting me, but now they’d stopped.

Whatever that red liquid was, it had stripped me of the hallucinations.

I didn’t stop running though.

I sprinted around the base of the enormous satellite.

It took several minutes of heart-pounding running.

I was flagging. Mark wasn’t. He hadn’t reached me yet, and he was still dragging his leg, but he hadn’t dropped behind either.

Tears streaked down my cheeks. Without the visions to protect me and with the ship gone, I was alone.

I started to sob as I ran.

“Be a good girl and give up, Annie. No more tears, I promise.”

I whimpered at his words.

I wasn’t used to running this much, and I’d already been tired from my ordeal on Cluster.

A painful stitch dug into my ribs, like a knife thrust through the flesh. I now wheezed with every step.

I heard Mark chuckle from behind me.

As I rounded the base of the satellite, I saw a thin tall tower.

I threw myself towards it.

When I neared, I saw a lift at the base.

With nothing else to head to, I threw myself at it.

I had no idea how to operate the controls, but as I flung myself at it and tumbled into the base of the open lift, a shield formed behind me. Without a word or a command, the lift started to move up.

Before it did, I heard Mark utter, “Christ you’re stupid. Now you’re trapped, little Annie.”

A second later, the lift blasted up. I saw the world outside flit past in a few seconds.

With a jolt, I reached the top of the tower.

The shield over the door flickered out.

I considered sitting there with my back pressed into the wall behind me, but I realized that was suicide.

Mark would find some way of calling the lift down to him, then he’d pluck me right out.

I threw myself forward, shoes scrabbling against the smooth metal of the floor.

I reached a long thin exposed platform. There was a thin railing on both sides, but apart from that, no protection.

The wind beat me like thousands of hands.

I staggered back, lurching to the side and grabbing hold of the closest railing. My cold fingers latched around it.

There was a beep from behind me, and the lift shot down the tower.

Oh god.

Mark was coming.

I turned and hurled myself forward, fighting the wind with every step.

I had no idea what this tower did, but there was one thing I could figure out: it led to nowhere. The thin metal gangway I now flung myself along would end in 20 meters or less.

There was another beep from behind me.

Mark had arrived.

“Annie,” he called out with a blasting voice that reminded me of the powerful shots from his gun. “There’s nowhere to run, Annie.”

I didn’t stop running, not until I reached the end.

Then, I had to stop.

There was no railing over the end. Just a drop. A long one.

I shunted my feet into the metal grating, lurching to the side and grabbing onto the railing. As the wind thrashed me, it caught my hair and sent it whipping against my face.

“Oh Annie.” Mark slowed.

I locked a hand onto the railing as my terror-filled gaze locked on him. “Why are you doing this?” I could barely speak as the wind roared around us.

He kept walking confidently towards me. Not running now. What was the point?

Unlike me, he wasn’t affected by the wind. He didn’t have to latch a hand onto the railing to steady himself; he simply walked forward with poise and ease. He was still dragging his leg, but he wouldn’t have to run to reach me now.

There was a cold hardened edge to his gaze that told me nothing could affect him right now.

I shuddered back from that look in his eyes.

“Be a good girl, Annie,” he warned, “and don’t get too close to the edge there.” The wind rustled his short hair, pulling and tugging at his open jacket, the fabric slapping against his tense arms.

I convulsed with fear, momentarily losing my grip on the railing and teetering close to the drop behind me.

He paused. “Don’t go and do anything stupid, honey.”

“D-don’t call me that. A-and what are you doing?”

He smiled, the move callous. He’d lost the sparkle in his eye and that warmth to his expression.

He looked as cold and dead as the depths of space.

“I’m going to take you some place safe.”

I shook my head, my hair like wire as it sliced against my face, the wind whipping it into my shoulders and chest. “Mark, just ... just don’t do this. Whatever you’re planning, please, just let me go.”

“Let you go, Annie Carter? Why would I do that? You hold the fate of the universe in your hands. And someone wants to wrest it from your grip.”

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and you can buy all five episodes today. You can buy Betrothed Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo



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