Broken Episode One

Broken Episode One

Chapter 1

Special Commander Joshua Cook opened his cruiser’s hatch while it was still shooting through the atmosphere.

The computer immediately blared an alarm. He ignored it.

He latched one armored hand onto the side of the hatch, and leaned right out into the air.

Clouds shot past him, billowing and puffing like smoke on fast forward.

The cold didn’t chill his bones, nor did the clouds obscure his sight; he was wearing some of the most sophisticated armor in the Milky Way.

As his ship broke through the cloud bank, he saw the planet below.

It was a broken mass of brown and grey rock. Nothing but a barren wasteland stretching from horizon to horizon.

Without a word, or a prayer, Josh suddenly jumped. His ship was still miles up, but it didn’t matter.

He walked right out into the air.

He didn’t have a chute – he didn’t need one.

As his body plunged through the sky, his ship suddenly stopped its descent, leveling out with a jerk.

It would descend to pick him up when he called. Now it was time to complete his mission.

Shifting his body around until he dropped with his head angled to the ground, he tucked his arms against his side and squeezed his legs together.

He reached terminal velocity, his body shooting down towards the planet. Though the air was technically thin and the cold should have punched him unconscious by now, he was safe behind his armor. He couldn’t even hear the scream of the howling wind.

The surface of the planet got closer and closer – the dust and rocks and crags growing in detail until he could see each shadow and count each stone.

Three. Two. One.

With a massive thud, he landed, his body cracking the rock and sending an almighty cloud of dust billowing around him.

He didn’t pause to orient – he leapt into action.

He had a mission, one only he could complete.

He wasn’t an ordinary Coalition officer. He was a special commander, for one. That meant he had certain privileges, certain powers, and a certain kind of history.

Josh hadn’t always worked for the Academy. A little over five years ago he’d been a pirate for hire. Now he ran top-secret missions for the same Coalition he once despised.

Josh powered forward, his boots sending up a hail of dust and small rock as he sprinted across the landscape. Over hills, around crags, along cliff faces – he was aiming for a cavern.

He had to get in there, get his mission done, and get the hell out of Barbarian space before they found him and strung him up to die.

With a grunt, he leapt over a massive boulder, landing on his shoulder and rolling until he jumped back to his feet and continued the plunge.

In the distance, a valley opened up. Along a sheer cliff face against the far side he saw a black dot.

The cave.

His sensors went haywire.

They were in there.

The Rebuilders.

Your average Coalition citizen was naive enough to believe they were a myth. Josh was unlucky enough to know they weren’t.

According to a legend scraped together from various ancient galactic races, 20,000 years ago life was almost extinguished in the Milky Way.

Planets were overrun, civilizations toppled, all at the hand of the same enemy. The Rebuilders.

They weren’t human or biological – they were machines. The first true machine virus, in fact. They could infect any advanced technological device, reprogramming and recreating it in their image.

To the modern hi-tech Coalition, they were a nightmare. A true monster of myth. An unstoppable enemy that could not be reasoned with, and was after one thing and one thing alone: total annihilation of biological entities.

To the Milky Way of 20,000 years ago, they spelt certain doom. One race, however, stood in their way. 498. That was it – that was their name. There was insufficient historical data to know what it meant. One fact was known, though: they sacrificed everything to bring the Rebuilders under control.

Now, back in the modern day, the Coalition only dealt with sporadic infestations. Maybe some cruiser would crash on a previously undisturbed asteroid, or some foolish treasure hunter would come across the wrong cave.

The Rebuilders had not reached plague proportions since 498 sacrificed its civilization to destroy them. It was now up to crack soldiers and teams like Josh and the other specialized units of the Academy to ensure the Rebuilders never gained a foothold again.

They were no normal enemy. You couldn’t fight them like you fought a Barbarian raiding party. The Rebuilders were attracted to anything electrical – anything they could infect. If you landed your cruiser on their planet, they would swarm. If you walked up to them with your Coalition pulse rifle, they would swarm.

As soon as they sensed technology, they became like a hive of frantic, chaotic bees. They attacked from all directions, relentlessly and unpredictably.

If you wanted to fight them, you had to do it quickly and with as little technological impact as you could.

If it had been up to Josh, he would have stayed in orbit and peppered this dead planet with high-yield plasma blasts. Unfortunately it wasn’t up to him. He was deep in Barbarian space and a heck of a long way from Coalition help.

Plus, he had to be sure he got the root of the infection. The only way to do that, was to get up close.

He powered into the valley, his boots skidding over the rock and dust.

The more sophisticated and larger the technology, the more the Rebuilders would swarm. Josh’s armor and weapons were small enough that the Rebuilders wouldn’t take this planet by storm, but sufficiently enticing to get their attention.

Just as Josh reached the cave, he heard the scrabbling.

His mouth became dry.

Though he’d done various sorties like this before, familiarity didn’t make it easy. Nor should it. Rebuilders were one of the most dangerous enemies the Coalition faced, even if most of her citizens were unaware of it.

So he had an understandable but thankfully brief moment of hesitation before he pushed himself forward. Hands gripping into fists, Special Commander Joshua Cook entered the cave.

He wasn’t met with a hail of Rebuilder technology. Those mechanical viruses didn’t wash forward in a wave of terror.

But his sensors did detect they were straight ahead.

The cave mouth was rough, just rock hewn by weather and age instead of the hand of intelligence. After he travelled 100 meters or so, it opened into a room of carved pillars. If he hadn't been so focused on finding Rebuilder tech and keeping himself alive, he would have appreciated the beauty. There was something stark about this place, something that reminded him of the carved palaces of the Centaur I Plains.

For all the bad in Josh's life, at least he’d travelled. He'd seen more of the galaxy than most Coalition commanders. But part and parcel of the experience was seeing the dark side. From the slums of the Phoenix Sector to the inside of a Barbarian prison, Josh had witnessed brutality. And though he hated to remind himself, he'd doled it out time and time again until the Coalition had found him. They'd resurrected him, washed away his sins, and given him a purpose in life.

For the first time Josh Cook was saving people, not condemning them.

So he wasn't going to fail now.

Instinctively, he grabbed the rifle from the holster along his back. There was a barely audible hiss as it disconnected from its magnetic lock.

Once he held it in his hands he felt stronger. It didn't chase away the fear, though, and nor should it. If you wanted to survive in this galaxy, you soon learnt fear had its place. Only the fortunate and safe ever sought to eradicate it. For them it was a niggling anxiety. For Josh it was survival.

Then he saw it. He finally saw it.

Shifting out of the darkness like interconnected vines, or veins trailing up a human’s wrist, came the machines. On close inspection, they were cables, thick black and textured with a matte finish. Cables that could move, snaking along the walls and floor like a pernicious infection climbing flesh.

This was the first stage of a Rebuilder infection. Their true nascent form. Once they started infecting tech, they’d become more robotic, like an army of scuttling metallic spiders.

The Rebuilder technology would be attracted to his armor, his gun – anything and everything electronic. They were like mosquitoes beckoned by blood, or leeches by breath. As soon as they got a whiff of electromagnetic activity from any electronic device, they swarmed.

He stopped as he saw them amassing in the dark. Primal fear pulsed through his mind, the kind of white-knuckled panic that blasts the hindbrain before certain death.

Then he pushed past it.

He brought up his gun and started firing. Bullet after bullet slammed into that coiling dark mass.

As one cable whipped to his left, he dipped to the side, rolling out of reach.

As another cable sliced towards his throat, he grabbed the electro whip from his holster and caught it. Then he shot it with his gun.

It was frantic, like a horror movie condensed into every passing second.

He had to be careful to keep hold of his weapons. If the Rebuilders got hold of them, they'd surge. Not only would their numbers grow as they carved up his gun and whip into more of their own, but their intelligence would grow too.

Though this situation was unquestionably dire, it wasn't the worst he'd faced.

The worst had been on Fori Prime approximately five years ago.

He'd come across them, not as a special commander of the Coalition, but as a pirate for hire.

He'd barely gotten out alive, and it had been the turning point of his life. Though he hadn't known at the time, a Coalition team had been trapped by that same Rebuilder tech, and he’d saved their lives.

He wouldn’t be here today if he’d lost.

And he wouldn’t live through another day if he lost now.

The black, snake-like pipes kept amassing over him. Though their intelligence was still rudimentary compared to the full-blown genius of a Rebuilder swarm, they kept trying to lure and trap him. As he fought a seething mass to his left, several tried to flank him from the right.

The battle was frantic, but somehow he managed to keep his distance.

He also made a serious dent in their numbers.

He could keep fighting for hours like this – days if he absolutely had to.

Josh's life had been all the training he needed. When he'd gained his commission as a special commander, Admiral Gaks had told him no one else could do what Josh did. Because no one else shared his checkered history. For better or worse, the Coalition recruited from the most peaceful planets of the Milky Way. A lot of their cadets came from Earth itself, and Earth hadn't seen an attack for almost 50 years.

While that made for hopeful, kind, sympathetic recruits, you needed someone like Josh to fight for hours on end.

He rolled to the side, bringing up his whip and collecting one of those slithering black tubes as he fired several bullets from his gun and destroyed it.

Shifting to the side, he dodged as several Rebuilders snaked towards his leg, trying to coil around his ankle to trip him up.

'Christ, how many of you are there?' Josh stuttered as he shot bullet after bullet at the black sea of pipes.

No matter how many he attacked, more took their places.

If he wanted to contain this infection, he had to destroy each and every last one of those pipes. Even a fragment of Rebuilder could rebuild itself.

His plan of attack was to decimate the population before setting up a land mine.

Packed with sophisticated explosives, the land mine would obliterate this entire cave system. From rock to water to metal – it would superheat everything to temperatures beyond the molten core of a heavy cruiser.

He couldn't deploy the mine until the Rebuilders were so few they couldn't infect it. The very last thing he wanted was to give them one of the most sophisticated explosives in the Coalition arsenal.

So he kept fighting and fighting. Time passed, but he wasn't aware of it. Hours could have ticked by, but it wouldn’t matter.

He concentrated on one task alone. Not even a sun going nova next to him would shift his attention.

Slowly but surely the Rebuilders began to thin. As they did, they became more desperate. As their numbers dwindled, their intelligence became fractured. Their moves were more erratic, more chaotic.

Those black tubes flipped around like snakes with their heads cut off.

“Come on,” he breathed to himself as the last few Rebuilders twitched towards him.

Though he was on the verge of winning, he couldn't afford to get cocky. He couldn't afford to lay aside his fear and desperation, only to make a mistake.

So he kept on his toes right until the end.

The last Rebuilder shifted before him, its black undulating body making scraping noises against the stone floor.

Josh took a single second to stare at it.

There were few enemies in this galaxy you could indiscriminately destroy without a feeling of regret. Though the Barbarians were vicious and by all accounts anathema to everything the Coalition stood for, they were still alive, still sentient.

The Rebuilders were a virus. Devoid of true sentience, devastation was programed into them. They would never stop for reason, never stop for compassion. They were not constrained by the same set of moral laws the Coalition army was. The only law that constrained them was rebuilding.

So as Josh leveled his gun and shot the final Rebuilder, he did so without blinking, without even a scrap of regret.

Then he jogged into the center of the cavern, un-latched the land mine from the holster on his back, and proceeded to set it up. He worked as quickly as he could, his fingers a blur as he programmed the land mine to explode as soon as he got out of range. He also set it to continually sense its environment and relay those scans directly to his armor. If whatever scraps were left of the Rebuilders managed to rebuild themselves before the land-mine exploded, Josh would head back into the tunnel to begin the battle anew.

Once he was done programming the land mine, he snapped to his feet, then he stared for a single second at the mess of black tubes that had once been the Rebuilders. He waited to see movement, and when he saw nothing, he pivoted on his foot and sprinted forward.

He ran as fast as he could out of the cavern and back into the light.

Before he’d set the land mine, he’d relayed a message to his ship, instructing it to fly to the mouth of the cave. So once he exited into the light, he saw it hovering several meters away.

Dashing towards it, his feet a blur against the dust and rock, he jumped into the air, latched his hands over the open hatch, and pulled his body up, rolling until he snapped to his feet. Then he commanded his small experimental shuttle to shoot into orbit as fast as it could.

Seconds later the land mine exploded.

With it, it destroyed the cavern and every last remaining speck of Rebuilder technology.

There would be more, though. Maybe not on this planet, but out in the Milky Way. Josh’s task was endless. But it needed to be done. He had sins to expunge, and every time he dealt with a Rebuilder infection, he came a step closer to expunging them.

Chapter 2

“Don’t look now,” Bradley Marshal sniggered to his friend, Mathewson, “it’s Buzz Kill.”

Mimi ignored him. Mimi was very good at ignoring snide comments, especially from idiots like Marshal. She smoothed the smile back on her face, checked the holo recording device on her wrist, and marched towards him. “Excuse me, do you have time for an interview?”

Marshal visibly rolled his eyes, his friend cackling at the move.

Mimi took the opportunity to flick her device to record. As soon as she did, the hovering ball above her left shoulder turned towards Marshal and started to scan him.

“Hey, I didn’t say you could start recording,” Marshal snapped.

“Cadet Marshal, this is Mimi Chester for Galactic Source News. What are your views on the current communications blackout in the Carq Cluster?” Mimi forged ahead, always keeping her pretty smile locked on her lips.

Her father told her success came from a smile. Well, a smile and a heck of a lot of hard work.

Marshal snorted, blowing a breath of air against his floppy fringe. “Really? I thought you were going to ask me a smart question. Everyone knows the communications blackout is caused by background cosmic radiation. It happens every two to three years, and it’s hardly newsworthy.”

“What are your opinions about the upcoming Galactic Leaders' summit? Do you think having all those heads of state on the same planet is a security risk?”

Marshal now snorted even louder. “Really, Chester? Do you come up with these questions all on your own? Because they are cutting.”

“Are you worried about the recent increase in Barbarian activity along the Coalition’s eastern boarder? Do you think it’s an ominous indication of what’s to come?”

Marshal tipped his head back and laughed, his friend joining in.

“You are on the news,” Mimi reminded him in a professional tone.

“No, Mimi, I’m not on the news, because this is never going to be broadcast. It’s illegal to record an interview with an Academy officer without their express written permission.”

“You’re not an officer.”

“I’m close enough,” Marshal pointed out threateningly. “Now you either hand over your recording, or we’ll wipe your device, deleting all your other cutting edge journalism,” he said harshly. Pausing for little more than a second, he brought up his watch and typed something into it.

The recording ball above Mimi’s left shoulder started to spin erratically. “Hey,” she said quickly, “you can’t do that.”

“Already did,” Marshal laughed, “now get the hell off Academy grounds before I call security.”

“These grounds are public.” She latched her hands on her hips. “I have rights you know.”

“Nope, pretty sure you don’t. You’re nothing more than a lowly buzz kill. And you don’t work for Galactic Source News. Admit it, they’ve never accepted one of your stories, have they?”

Marshal’s friend laughed harder now.

If Mimi were the kind of girl to care what they thought, she’d be turning red in the face. Instead, she smiled harder, albeit with an irritated edge. “You can delete my recordings, Marshal, but you can’t silence me.”

Marshal erupted into laughter. “Listen to her,” he said, “she honestly thinks she’s a journalist, upholding the truth or something. Get it through your head, Chester, you’re a failure. You were kicked out of the Academy, despite your daddy’s influence, and now you’re playing at being a journo.”

Mimi could ignore most things. She didn’t just have thick skin; the damn stuff was made of diamond. There was one thing, however, she could never forgive.

“He didn’t help,” she said through bared teeth.

“What was that?” Marshal crossed his arms.

“My father never intervened on my behalf. I’d never let him do that.”

Marshal now laughed lower, and it had a dangerous kind of note to it. “You expect me to believe that? Your father is head of one of the largest corporations in the Milky Way. The only reason you weren’t court martialed for what you did is because of him. You should be rotting in prison, not waltzing around pretending to work for Galactic Source News.”

Mimi took a hold of herself. Before her anger could boil over, she drew a calm, collected breath.

She wasn’t going to be derailed by a man like Marshal.

Instead, she did the one thing she could do, and smiled.

It was her secret weapon. It always unsettled someone if you smiled through their vitriol.

“You done? The only reason I’m not rotting in prison, Marshal, is because this is the Coalition, and we’re a little more civilized than that. Oh, and a full hearing of the Academy Board found me not guilty. It was an accident, end of story. You may believe my father intervened, but he didn’t. Now, what exactly is your opinion on the recent inclusion of a time travel clause to the standard operating manual of the Academy?”

Marshal exploded with laughter, but one look at his eyes and it was clear he was starting to get uncomfortable.

She had that effect on most people. You could hurl a litany of insults Mimi’s way, but she would always pick herself up, dust herself off, and smile.

“Do you find something funny, Cadet?”

“Just get out of here, Mimi.” Marshal turned to walk away. “And seriously, where do you get these questions? Time travel clause? What the heck are you talking about?”

“Reputable sources indicate a recent incident on Remus 12 has caused the Academy Board to write a new clause into the standard operating manual given to all active Coalition Army members. What are your thoughts?”

“My thoughts are you’re crazy.” With that, Marshal snorted one last time and flicked his friend forwards with a wave.

The two men walked away, exchanging rude jokes at Mimi’s expense as they did.

Not once did her smile shift.

In fact, she put more effort into it until her cheeks grew so stiff it was a surprise they didn’t crack.

Eventually, however, she gave up, turned on her heel, and checked on her recording ball. It was still jerking around erratically. “You okay, Klutzo?”

Klutzo was her pet name for the recording orb, as the darn thing had been wiped so many times, the constant deletions had effected its navigations. It often flew into the side of buildings, trees, people, or her head.

Klutzo gave a soft beep. “Feeling sad,” it admitted. “Memory deleted once more.”

She smiled. “Same here. But that’s why you’ve got to keep smiling, Klutzo.”

“Can’t smile – no mouth.”

“Okay, let me do the smiling, then,” Mimi promised as she pushed up on her tiptoes, plucked Klutzo from the air, and hugged him to her chest.

She nursed him until she made it back to her apartment.

Once she was inside, she placed him carefully in his cradle and set the computer to rebuild his databases.

When she was done, she collapsed on the couch. Pressing her eyes closed, she tried not to let Marshal’s words rattle her.

Mimi hadn’t always been a freelance journalist, or Buzz Kill, as mean spirited folk like Marshal called it. A few short years ago she’d been an Academy cadet.

She loved space. She loved exploring. And those things were on tap when you worked for the Academy.

But her dream had died.

She pressed her eyes tightly closed now.

Approximately 2 years and 214 days ago, there’d been an accident. A simulation had gone awry, killing a young cadet – Lilly Williams. A name etched into Mimi’s mind as if it had been burnt onto her brainstem.

They’d been prepping for a simulated battle mission.

It had been Mimi’s job to check the equipment was running properly. She’d done her best, but she’d missed a fault. A fault that had cost Lilly her life.

Everyone blamed Mimi. If she’d been better, if she’d been more careful, she would have picked up that fault, and the promising Cadet Williams would now be an officer.

Though initially Mimi had blamed herself, she’d been exonerated by the Academy Board. The fault had been no ordinary mechanical problem. Only an experienced engineer would have been able to find it. Mimi never had a chance.

She still thought about that day. She still remembered, in perfect detail, watching the training craft explode in a hail of sparks and hot white metal. She still remembered being told by the investigating officers that she’d missed an error in the engine cooling program that had gone on to cause the explosion. And she still remembered, dear god did she still remember the reactions of all her friends and colleagues.

They'd turned on her. Even Carinthia, who had been Mimi’s best friend at the time. Carinthia, daughter of Admirals Forest and Nok, practically led the witch hunt against Mimi. She told anyone who would listen that Mimi had always been a careless recruit.

But that was all ancient history, right? Mimi was now a journalist, or at least an aspiring one.

So even though it was hard to push back the memories of that day, she forcibly pressed a smile into her lips. In her experience there was little smiling couldn't fix.

She pushed herself up from the couch and once again checked on Klutzo. When she was satisfied he was recharging correctly, she made herself some food and sat down to the important task of keeping astride of the news. She read articles from every single news outlet, no matter how far afield. She took notes, she interacted with holographic visuals, and she tried to squirrel away every fact she learnt. Because who knew when the current taxation climate in the Hagar province would come in handy?

It was when she was trawling through the massive galactic news database that she received a message from her father. As she accepted the call, her computer projected a hologram onto the table before her. It was her father’s always smiling face.

“What’s news, kid?”

“Hagar province is now taxing its citizens at 300% of their annual income,” Mimi pointed out.

“That’s what happens when you pull your tax laws out of a hat,” her father pointed out.

Citizens of the Hagar province practiced random living. All key decisions in their existence were decided by random number generators. To the Hagars, that made life all the more exciting.

“What about you, dad? How are you?”

Her father smiled. It was important to note that Theodore Francis Chester the Third had many kinds of smiles. When her dad’s lips pulled in, it was a veiled threat. When one lip kinked to the left, he was curious. When one lip kinked to the right, he was ignoring you.

Right now, he had the kind of smile that told Mimi he was planning something.

Her lips pressed in and her nose crinkled. “Dad, what is it? What are you planning?”

“What, me? Nothing. I’m just running one of the Milky Way’s largest corporations, as usual.”

“Nice try. Now tell me, what are you up to?”

“Well, funny you should mention it, but this morning I had an invigorating game of pulse squash with Yop J’k, head of Galactic News.”

Though Mimi had been slouching, suddenly she stiffened. “Dad, no,” she said quickly.

“You haven’t even heard what I’m about to offer.”

“I told you, you can’t interfere. If I do this, I have to do it on my own.”

“Nobody ever got anywhere without a helping hand. Show me an Admiral who hasn’t had a mentor. Show me a successful business person who hasn’t struck it lucky. Show me a famous scientist who wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with the combined knowledge of the Coalition. As the old humans used to say, Mimi, no man is an island, and no achievement is truly down to the individual.”

“That’s not the saying,” she tried.

Her father ignored her. “It doesn’t matter. A true businessman knows when to co-opt old and outdated material and modernize it. Now, just listen to me. I have a very interesting offer.”

She stood suddenly, her chair clattering out from underneath her and striking the smooth floorboards with a thump. “Dad, I have to do this on my own. I can’t keep leaning on you when I need something. I have to be self-sufficient.”

“You are self-sufficient. I only pay for half of your apartment.”

“About that, I’ve been thinking of trying to pay my own way. I know it will be hard, but if I am lucky enough to get work,” she began.

“Listen to me, kid, the only way you are ever going to break into galactic news, is if you have friends. That journalist you’re always idolizing, Poy Verity, do you know how she made it big? She was the daughter of the editor-in-chief.”

“She made it big because of cutting-edge journalism and her willingness to track down stories, no matter how dangerous.”

Her father snorted. “I love you, kid, and I always will, but one of these days you’re going to have to wake up to the real galaxy.”

Mimi’s cheeks started to turn red. She took several steps away from her father, ready to storm off.

“Now hold on, that came out wrong. Mimi, you’re the smartest most capable kid I have, and I believe you’re capable of anything.”

“I’m your only child,” she pointed out dryly.

“A scarce resource is the best resource to have,” he quipped. Then the hologram of his face shifted to the side as his smile almost threatened to drop from his mouth. “But seriously, listen to me. I taught you to always bounce back, and by god you learnt that lesson. But there’s another lesson you need to learn, Mimi, and that is you can’t do everything on your own. And that’s okay. Accepting this job with the galactic news is okay. It doesn’t matter how you get your foot in the door, it’s what you do once you’re there. Now you’ve got the morals and guts to be a great journalist. Better than Verity. But, kid, you’ll never get there alone.”

“I can’t accept your help, dad,” she said. “I have to do this on my own.”

“Why? Why don't you want my help, Mimi? Is it because of those fools at the Academy you once called friends? Is it because you want to prove to them you don’t need me? Well wake up, kid, because they aren't doing it on their own. Carinthia has been schooled since she was born on how to become an Academy officer. Her success isn't due to her will and stamina; she's just had more opportunities than others. Now maybe she doesn’t realize that, maybe she thinks she got to where she did on her own. But she's a fool if she thinks that. Nobody gets to where they are on their own.”

“I… I just need to do this, okay, dad?”

“You’re not going to give in, are you? Even if I go ahead and set this job up, you’re never going to do it, right?”

She nodded.

Her dad closed his eyes and shook his head. “Mimi Chester, you’re a hard one to bargain with. I’m glad you’re not my competition.”

Biting her lips, she smiled.

“I'm giving up for now, but not forever. And neither am I going to let you pay for your apartment all on your own. You won’t be able to afford a place so close to the Academy, and we all know that’s where the real stories happen. So call this an investment, I’ll help pay your way as long as you keep trying, kid. I want you to find a story that will blow them all out of the water. That will make your doubters rue the day they thought you, Mimi Chester, were anything but brilliant.”

Her smile blossomed into a full-blown grin. “Thanks. But really, I think I should start paying my own way with the apartment. I looked into it, and I can get a place out in Australia.”

“Australia?” Her dad’s voice went up like a kazoo. “That’s on the other side of the world from the Academy’s main campus. Plus, full of snakes, right? And sharks, heaps of sharks.”

“I can take the super-fast transport to the various Academy campuses whenever I need to. It won’t be that much trouble.”

“No. Stay where you are. Like I said, call it an investment. I want to see you come up with a story that will rattle this galaxy. Find some secret, uncover some conspiracy. But keep safe,” her dad warned quickly.

“What, seriously? You don’t want me to hop a transport into Barbarian space?”

Her father’s face visibly paled.

“Relax, I’ve always been a careful person, and I’m not about to stop.”

“Right. Seriously, though, when I said I want to see you uncover some grand secret, just ensure it’s a safe one. Maybe you can find out what Admiral Forest’s favorite color is, or something.”

It was her turn to snort. “That isn’t exactly going to earn me journalistic fame.”

“Right, right. Just be safe, Mimi.”

“Don’t worry, I will be.”

“And if you have time, give the GNS a call. I kind of promised Yop that he would have first dibs on any stories you come across.”

“Really?”

“Yep. So if you do come across something worthy, give him a call.”

“… Okay,” she conceded, figuring she had to honor her dad’s deal.

“Alright then, you have a good one. Get to work. Now is there anything you need? How about a new recording ball? I reckon it’s finally time you replace that old piece of junk.”

“Don’t call him that,” her voice became piercing.

“It’s a recording ball, Mimi, it’s not alive.”

“It’s my friend,” she said bluntly.

Her dad opened his mouth, but whatever he wanted to say quickly died on his lips as he shook his head instead.

Though Mimi wasn’t a mind reader, she could guess what her dad wanted to point out. It was time for her to get some real friends. So what if everyone at the Academy had turned against her, there were still other sentient beings in this galaxy. It was time to give up the safety net that was Klutzo and find some real people to spend her time with.

Thankfully her dad held his tongue. She didn’t want to face those facts right now, because despite the fact she always put on a smile, she wasn’t completely over the accident and never would be.

“Alright then, Mimi Chester, you get back to work. I need to get onto our finance department to tell them to cease all imports to the Hagar province.”

She smiled. Her dad would already know what was happening on Hagar, as would his finance department. He was clearly trying to make her feel useful. He always did that. And it kept her going. So she offered him another warm smile and ended the recording.

Though she resisted it, she was kind of excited about what he’d told her. Even though she categorically couldn’t accept a job her father had found for her, just the possibility the galactic service would want first dibs on any proper story she found was a cause for hope. It made her turn around, head over to Klutzo, and grab him up.

It was time to get back to work.

Even though Mimi was just a buzz kill, and hadn’t technically sold one of her stories yet, she still had the right to attend any official Academy press event. Sometimes they were crisis updates, and sometimes they were thinly veiled attempts at propaganda. Okay, not propaganda. Mimi knew the Academy did an incredible job of training the forces that kept the Coalition safe. But she had learnt a lot of business principles from her dad, and she recognized a great PR machine when she saw one. The Academy’s press wing was just that. When there wasn’t any real news to report, they would fill the wires with back rubs instead. And what were back rubs? A bit of good old-fashioned hero worship.

The Academy was big on heroes. From the up and coming in the E club, to their favorite captains and admirals, the Academy was never shy of praising its best and brightest.

And who was its new golden boy?

Special Commander Joshua Cook.

Unlike previous heroes, however, Cook wasn’t your classic goody two shoes. The information on his past was sketchy, but by all accounts he’d taken an unusual route into the Academy. One that included profiteering, smuggling, and being a gun for hire.

Nobody talked about this though, and to be fair, the information Mimi had on Joshua wasn’t solid. It was enough, however, to suggest that the man had a past. One that seemed at odds with his label as a hero.

Well right now as Mimi made her way into the press wing in the Academy command building, she mulled over those facts. Because this briefing would be about him. Apparently he’d just returned from some super-secret super-important mission that had saved innumerable Coalition lives. While the Academy couldn’t expand on the exact details of his mission, they weren’t gonna miss another opportunity for some positive PR. They were going to parade him in front of reporters, tell them he was a bona fide hero, and make him pose for photos.

Despite the fact Mimi didn’t work for a registered news agency, she still knew how these things went down.

After her conversation with her father, she realized that if she honestly wanted to make something of herself, she wouldn’t be able to stand for the status quo anymore. She wanted to find the story of a lifetime, and she wasn’t going to get it by standing around taking holo footage with the Academy’s new golden boy, even if technically he was a little tarnished.

As Mimi walked across Academy grounds towards the main building, she ignored the stares. The comments too. She locked her gaze forward and she smiled.

She was used to it by now. From Bradley Marshal to Carinthia herself, Mimi had put up with her fair share of vitriol, and then a little more. Even though she kept getting pushed down, she kept getting up too. And she would keep getting up until she was knocked down for good.

Chapter 3

He always got edgy before an official press release. Rebuilders he could manage, journos he couldn’t. Every time he stood up on the podium, his hands would clam up, his heart would race, and he’d turn into a meathead. Not, of course, that his mannerisms and vocabulary were ever that sophisticated – no matter how much he changed, you wouldn’t be able to strip the pirate from his bones completely.

“This should be an easy one,” Kathleen, head of the Academy’s press wing, assured him as she fussed about ensuring his collar and hair sat just right. “We’ll let them know that you narrowly averted a major disaster, and they’ll lap it up.”

“Right.”

“We’ve already handed most of the news agencies a list of preferred questions, so you shouldn’t get anything left of field. If you do, just repeat that you can’t comment about the mission.”

“Got it.”

“Of course you do. If you can fight the Rebuilders,” she lowered her voice, even though no one was in ear shot, “you can knock a couple of journalists dead, right?”

“… Yeah.”

“Alright then, happy hunting.” With that, Kathleen took a step back, inclined her head as she assessed him one last time, and pointed towards the doors.

Josh wanted to run. Instead he walked forward, step after goddamn step, until the doors opened.

He faced the journalists.

The recording began.

And the questions.

“Special Commander Cook, how does it feel to be called a hero?”

“Special Commander, can you confirm reports your recent mission took you behind Barbarian lines?”

“… Ah,” Josh began. He could take on a horde of pirates, but this was already killing him.

“Special Commander Cook cannot confirm or deny any reports regarding his recent mission. Now, you all know that, so please don’t ask him again.” Kathleen strode off to his side and shot the assembled journos a curt but still friendly look.

“Thanks,” he muttered.

In honesty, he’d find it easier answering questions about his mission than about being a hero. Because, frankly, he wasn’t the guy they thought he was.

He had the kind of past that made him the exact opposite of a golden boy.

So every time they talked of his heroics, it made his back itch and his stomach clench.

“I’m really not that great,” he tried at one point.

“Don’t be modest,” one of the reporters rebuked him, “we’ve read the reports, we’ve seen the evidence – you’re a galactic hero.”

Josh wanted to disappear behind his collar. Instead he shrugged.

“It’s all in a day’s work for a member of the Coalition.” Kathleen marched up and patted him on the shoulder. “The Special Commander here may not like to be thanked, but that isn’t going to stop the Academy Board from giving him a commendation.”

“… What?” Josh half turned to her.

He hadn’t heard anything about this. Then again, it was common practice for the Academy to spring surprises like this on unsuspecting "heroes," just so the press could see their genuine reactions.

“That’s right, a full commendation will be added to his record this afternoon,” Kathleen continued. “Now, anymore questions? Maybe nothing about Josh here being a hero, as he seems uncomfortable with them.” Kathleen chuckled heartily, and the journalists joined in.

Then someone put their hand up. “I have a different kind of question.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman. She was standing back from the rest of the crowd with her arms crossed and a recording ball hovering over her left shoulder.

He had the strangest feeling he should know her. Was she a famous reporter or something?

A second later, Kathleen answered his question as she gave the slightest huff and said, “yes, Miss Chester?”

Chester. Damn. That was the daughter of Theodore Francis Chester III, one of the richest men in the galaxy.

“Sick of being called a hero? What exactly did you do before you joined the Academy, Mr.. Cook?” Miss Chester asked.

Josh stiffened.

“He led the kind of life that prepared him for the tough missions we send him on. Tough missions that ensure all of us are safe,” Kathleen jumped in.

“Yeah, I’m not doubting that. I’d just like a little more detail on exactly what kind of life that was. How do you respond to reports from known mercenaries in the Scorpion Cluster who claim they used to work with you, Mr. Cooke?”

“He’s a Special Commander,” Kathleen jumped in.

“I think we all know that,” Mimi countered, “but he’s also a man. Now, does it make you uncomfortable to read some of the things your apparent 'former colleagues' said about you?”

“None of these reports have been confirmed. They are just the desperate and sad attempts of criminals to tarnish the record of one of our true heroes.” Kathleen actually took a step in front of him, as if she was ready to stave off a physical attack, rather than a verbal one.

“Okay then, so tell us exactly what kind of life Special Commander Cook led before he joined the Coalition. You said it was hard, you said he learned the kinds of things he needs to know to get him through the toughest of missions. What exactly does that entail?”

“I survived,” Josh managed in a low tone, the first time he’d spoken up in his own defense. It was also the first time he’d looked Miss Chester right in the eye.

“How?”

“I really don’t think someone like you would understand,” he said.

His words drew a muttering laugh from the assembled journalists.

“Why? Because I’m not the one standing on a podium receiving a hero’s commendation for a dangerous mission, even though answering a couple of simple questions seems impossible for you?”

Josh stiffened. He bristled, in fact. His gut instinct was to shout at Miss Chester that she had no goddamn idea what she was talking about. He couldn’t though; he was surrounded by recording orbs.

Instead he took a calming breath. Or at least he tried to.

“I think that’s enough for today,” Kathleen interrupted. “We need time to process the Special Commander’s commendation.”

Miss Chester didn’t push any further. She returned to the other side of the room, crossed her arms, and watched.

Despite the fact he’d been doing nothing but standing, he was out of breath.

In short order, Kathleen shepherded him out of the room.

She didn’t say a thing as the doors shut behind them. It was only after she’d fussed with her wrist device that she looked at him and smiled. “That went well.”

“It did?”

“Sure, you cut quite the figure of a hero with your broad chest and tall figure. The audience will lap it up.”

“… What about Miss Chester’s questions?”

“Her? No one’s going to believe anything she says. Trust me on that one. She’s been showing up to these events for years, but she’s never sold a story. I’m surprised her daddy hasn’t stepped in to help her out. Then again, maybe he’s embarrassed.” She shrugged.

Josh didn’t know what to say. On the one hand he felt thankful Miss Chester and her inconvenient questions would be ignored, on the other, it felt… kind of wrong.

Everything she’d said was right: he did have the kind of past that ought to be brought into the light. And no, he wasn’t a hero.

“Anyway, you did great, Spec.” Kathleen beamed at him. “The Coalition needs more officers like you.”

Spec was shorthand around the Academy for special commander. Somehow, despite the fact there were a dozen other men and women holding that title, it had become his nickname too. Better than his previous one: Cold Bones. Back in his old life, he’d earned a reputation for cruel efficiency.

“Okay, I’ll see you next press briefing.” Kathleen gave a short wave as she exited the room into the corridor outside.

Reluctantly, Josh followed.

Rather than take the usual route back to his office, he took a circuitous one. There was a nice little laneway in between the buildings that had a Japanese maple ensconced within patches of moss-covered rocks. There was even a koi pond. It was peaceful, the kind of peaceful he sure hadn’t grown up with. Thankfully, it was usually deserted too – there was a glass walkway connecting the command buildings, so why bother going outside?

He quickly became lost in his thoughts as he marched outside. In fact, as he approached the koi pound it took him too long to realize there was already someone there.

It was a woman. Miss Chester to be precise.

She looked up and caught his gaze.

“I can’t believe this.” He snorted. “You followed me. The interview is over, Miss Chester.”

“… What? I was already here.”

“Yeah, of course. Or did you do your research and figure out I always walk along this laneway?”

“You’re paranoid. Didn’t it enter your head that maybe you’re not the only one who likes this place?”

“Paranoid? You’ve been digging into my past, and you call me paranoid?” Josh spat.

He was aware he should calm down. No, he needed to calm down. Miss Chester had every right to investigate his past – he was a public figure. And, frankly, he had exactly the kind of past worth investigating.

He couldn’t quell his anger though. It kept bubbling up at the sight of her.

“Look, it’s okay, I’ll leave.” She stood up and turned.

He wasn’t done.

“I heard about what you did. You ruined your Academy career, and now you want to ruin mine.”

She stopped.

He could see the side of her face. Her cheeks whitened as she pressed her lips together.

Anyone would be able to see he’d just hurt her. He didn’t care.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Josh might have had a past, but so did Miss Chester.

For a second there, she’d been proud of herself. Out of all the other assembled reporters at that briefing, she’d been the only one to ask any real questions. Okay, no one had answered them, but that didn’t matter.

She’d been brave enough to ask.

Maybe the Academy had found it inconvenient, and maybe the other reporters had thought she was being unfair, that didn’t matter. A journalist was meant to uncover the truth, they weren’t meant to stand around and find new synonyms for the word hero.

Maybe it was growing up with her dad, but Mimi didn’t have the same kind of rosy view of the Academy that all her peers did. She appreciated it, and god knows she was thankful for its protection, but she also appreciated it had an image. One crafted carefully through every press briefing and report.

You see, despite the Academy’s rhetoric, the real world didn’t have heroes and golden boys. It had ordinary people who sometimes faced the harshest of scenarios. Painting the galaxy in shades of good and bad, of hero and villain, didn’t help anyone. It simplified incredibly complex situations and made people less likely to work hard enough to find lasting solutions.

So yeah, it might have been harsh to call Special Commander Cook up on his past. But it was necessary. No one was a hero, no matter how rosy their past. But Josh? It sounded like he was about as far away from a hero as it was possible to get.

Well, right now he was standing in front of her, seething.

“You’ve got some real nerve looking into my past when your own is just as tarnished.”

“That’s not fair,” she countered quietly, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Fair? You want to talk to me about fair?” Special Commander Cook spat. “You grew up in the lap of luxury, shepherded and protected, with your every need cared for. You always have your father to turn to. Well, some of us aren’t that lucky, Miss Chester. Some of us had to survive in a hostile galaxy. Now, if you’re done morally judging me, get out of my way.”

Mimi stared up into his blazing gaze.

She’d always been taught that if you wanted to become a good journalist the very first thing you had to learn was psychology. Minds. Motivations. They were behind every single story. If you understood how a man’s mind ticked, you knew exactly why he did what he did. And if you could transmit that understanding to your readers, you would prove your worth.

So even though Cook’s gaze was fierce and his words even more so, she didn’t back down. Instead she lifted her chin and continued to consider him. “I have faced hardship before, Special Commander Cook.”

“You had trouble figuring out how to spend all that money?”

“Every day I pick myself up. I walk back into an Academy full of cadets who hate me. They insult me, I pick myself back up. They tell me I can’t make a life for myself as a journalist, I pick myself back up. They hack into my recording orb and wipe it, and I pick myself back up. And I keep picking myself back up. You can storm away from me and ignore my questions, you can shout at me and berate me, but Special Commander Cook, I will pick myself back up.”

She watched his mouth open, she watched the anger spread across his features, then he hesitated. Maybe he actually heard her, or maybe he paused long enough to realize that a proper commander doesn’t shout at journalists. A proper commander is always calm, approachable, and authoritative. And never, ever abusive.

“So, Mr.. Cook, are you going to answer my questions now?”

Slowly he closed his mouth, his lips pressing into a thin line. “No comment.” With that, he turned on his foot, his shoes digging into the grass. Then he stormed off.

Mimi could have followed him, but she knew enough about psychology to realize that despite his rank, Joshua Cook certainly wasn’t calm and approachable. If she pushed him, he’d likely throw her out a window.

So she comforted herself with the thought that there would always be tomorrow. She wouldn’t give up. She’d keep pushing on until she found out the truth. But she wouldn’t do it no matter the costs. There were lines she would never cross. And maybe that was the real reason Mimi couldn’t cut it as a journalist. Though she was desperate to get to the truth, sometimes to get to it you had to hurt people.

So she would skirt the thin line between compassion and journalism for now.

Chapter 4

He was seething. As soon as he got back to his office, he was going to engage in a good session of sparring with a holographic enemy. He wanted to punch something, and the only way to make that feeling go away was to actually punch something. Preferably something that wouldn’t get him chucked into prison.

Though he tried to convince himself that he hated being called a hero, he’d hated Miss Chester’s questions even more.

While she was right, and he did have a past, he couldn’t have it brought into the light. Though in part he wanted people to know where he’d come from, if he told the truth, he’d be stripped of his rank. And if he was stripped of his rank, he’d lose his only reason to exist: destroying the Rebuilders and keeping the Coalition’s enemies at bay so he could slowly expunge his sins one good deed at a time.

While the Academy command clearly knew of his past and had come to terms with it, the wider populous of the Coalition was still clueless about the kind of man he once was. Though there were rumors, and here and there his old enemies were happy to give interviews, the exact details of all the terrible things he’d done had not come to light. If they did, public opinion would swing against him. Everyone and everything would swing against him. The Coalition Academy would try to keep him on, but they’d have a fight on their hands.

Or would they?

The Academy was very good at making heroes. They were also very good at molding public opinion. When they recruited him, they knew his past would eventually come to light. So rather than have it revealed suddenly and sensationally, they released trickles once in a while, but only ever after Josh finished some important mission.

They were trying to control his image.

And it sickened him.

Yet he needed them to continue. Josh couldn’t lose this new life. He couldn’t lose the opportunity to reinvent himself. To make up for everything he’d done.

Still, he probably shouldn’t have shouted at her like that. That being said, she’d taken it remarkably well.

Unusually well.

She’d smiled every time he’d berated her.

Whenever somebody verbally or physically attacked Josh, his standard reaction certainly wasn’t a smile. It was to fight back.

It was with these thoughts on his mind that Jack finally made it back to his office. As he programmed the computer to create a holographic sparring partner, he found his hands typing in another command.

He was looking her up.

Miss Chester.

He didn’t know much about her, save for the most important fact: she was the only child of Theodore Francis Chester the Third, possibly one of the richest men in the entire galaxy. Josh knew what that meant: it meant Mimi was a spoiled brat. A kid who’d grown up without a care in the world, with everything she ever wanted delivered at the drop of a hat.

He did, however, know one other thing about Mimi: she’d been an Academy recruit a few years ago. Then there’d been an accident, her fault, apparently. She’d been kicked out.

As he read the official report, it painted a different picture. The accident had been just that, an accident. There’d been some kind of fault in an engine system, Mimi had missed it due to inexperience rather than negligence, and she’d been exonerated of any wrongdoing. She’d left the Academy by choice, not by an edict.

That wasn’t the story the cadets told. He’d heard a couple of them talking about her once. Apparently, she was arrogant, careless, and operated on the understanding that whatever she stuffed up, her father would fix.

It was easier to believe the cadets over the official report. Not because official reports were usually wrong, just because it felt easier. Labelling Mimi as arrogant and stuck up made it simpler to ignore her accusations.

Because if he couldn’t ignore her accusations, he’d have to pay attention to them. And he just couldn’t do that right now.

So, finally satisfied that Mimi could be written off, Josh pushed up. He set his armor to disengage, ensuring it wouldn’t suddenly leap over his body at the first sign of a fight. Then he balled his hands into fists and approached his holographic enemy.

He was going to do this bare knuckled. With a man like Josh, that was the only way.

Chapter 5

She woke up to an annoying buzzing. Blinking back the sleep, she realized it was Klutzo. He was zipping above her bed, making an irritating crackling noise.

“What?” She wiped the sleep from her eyes with her sleeves.

“Received important message,” he announced as he did a little loop in the air.

“What?”

“Job offer.”

“What?” Mimi leapt from her bed. She nearly tripped on a pile of clothes, but she kicked them away as she steadied herself. “What do you mean a job offer?”

“GNS saw your report on Joshua Cook. Yop J’k has sent you a message.”

“What does it say?!” She bounced around excitedly.

“It’s 100 pages long,” Klutzo pointed out, still speaking in his excited electronic buzz, “I shall read it all.”

Yop J’k belonged to one of the most verbose alien races in the galaxy. Fascinated by all languages, they would throw every word they could into a sentence, as if they were hoarding them. As a result, their communications tended to be astronomically long.

“Whoa, no, wait up. Just summarize it.”

“He believes you’re someone willing to ask the hard questions. He thinks you would make an effective investigative reporter. He’s willing to give you an assignment to test your worth.”

Mimi slapped a hand over her mouth. She couldn’t believe it. Or could she? Just as her elation peaked, so did her suspicion. Had her dad set this up?

She had asked him to stay out of it, and he’d always listened to her in the past. So hopefully he hadn’t called Yop J’k and begged the guy to offer her a job.

Maybe, just maybe, Yop really was impressed by her questioning skills.

With her stomach still churning with excitement, albeit a little subdued now, she nestled her hands onto her tummy as she got ready to ask the most important question. “Where does he want me to go?”

“He wants you to do a report on the Suqo Interstellar Baking Championship.” Klutzo did another loop in the air.

“A… baking championship?”

“It is a contest in which people compete to decide who makes the most delicious baked goods from across the galaxy.”

“I know what it is. I just thought… I’d get something more exciting for my first assignment.”

“According to the official report, the Interstellar Baking Championship is the most thrilling baking stand-off in all the Milky Way.”

It was useless arguing with Klutzo, so Mimi chose to nod her head instead.

Plus, it wouldn’t be that bad, would it? And Klutzo was right – it probably could get pretty thrilling. The contestants could get pretty heated. Last year two pulled pulse rifles on each other and had a shootout in the donut round.

And, to be honest, she could understand why she wasn’t getting a better assignment as her first job; she had to be tested first. In fact, when she looked at it objectively, this was a pretty good first mission to get.

“The Interstellar Baking Championship is in approximately one standard Earth week. It will take you that long to travel there.”

“Wow, so we have to leave now?”

“We have five minutes to relax,” Klutzo pointed out.

“Five minutes? I have to pack!” Mimi ran out of her room and into the main area of her spacious apartment. It had an incredible view of the bay beyond, and just to the left she could see the sprawling Academy grounds.

As she raced about, she paused for a second to stare at the Academy. To think, she was finally putting the past behind her. She was finally getting her break.

And she had Josh Cook to thank, of all people.

“GNS will fund your transport, and they have sent through your tickets. Due to a glut of travelers heading to the Championship, unfortunately we will not be traveling in style.”

“That’s fine,” she snorted, “it’s been a long time since I’ve been out in a luxury cruiser. I think I can handle cramped spaces and reconditioned food.”

“The transport in question is a modified Class Y tug. It is the only ship leaving Earth today that is headed in that direction.”

“Class Y? Oh… well, I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. It’s my first job, and I’ll be happy to get to it if I have to walk frankly.”

When it came to rating the comfort of transportation vessels, Class Y was practically the worst. It was one above Class Z, which meant the ship technically had to have life support and nothing else. She’d have to bring her own rations and hope like hell she got a seat.

Nothing could dampen her mood as she prepared, though. By the time she made it out the door with Klutzo in tow, she was ready to burst out into song.

She’d been trying for her break for so darn long.

It was finally here.

Though the sun was shining and the birds were actually chirping as she raced across the city to the secondary transport hub, the day wouldn’t turn out quite as nice as promised.

Josh took a seat on the rust bucket of a transport. By the time he sat down, she was already full to the brim. Though he usually travelled in Coalition cruisers, this mission was different. He’d been sent to look into a potential smuggling ring, and the captain of this very vessel was suspected to be involved.

Though Josh usually dealt with Rebuilder tech, when there wasn’t an imminent threat, the Coalition used his skills elsewhere. Plus, he had a unique perspective when it came to smuggling rings; unlike the other Coalition officers sent to investigate, he’d been in one.

He knew exactly how operations like this worked.

He tried to arrange himself in his seat so the springs under the threadbare foam didn’t dig into his butt. It was a thankless task, but eventually he found a position with his legs sprawled out before him and his scuffed boots lodged against a raised section on the floor.

He wasn’t in his uniform, hence the scuffed boots. He was in civilian clothes, as, according to his ticket information, he was visiting a resort ship out in the Nubria Cluster.

He hated resorts, even though technically he’d never been to one. Still, the very idea of them irritated him: rich folk swanning around spending all their money while others waited on them like slaves.

Just thinking of it brought up one prime example: Mimi Chester.

It wasn’t the first time he’d thought about her since her “interview”. For some reason, she wouldn’t get out of his head.

“Holy crap, speak of the devil,” he said as he watched in surprise as none other than Mimi Chester walked onto the transport.

At first he couldn’t believe it. What the hell was a spoilt brat like her doing on a tin-bucket transport? Was she lost? Or was she looking for him?

“Take your seat,” the Captain said to her as she let him scan her wrist device, no doubt checking she had a valid ticket.

“Sure, one question though… umm, are there any bathrooms on this ahh… cruiser?”

“Yep, but the gravity ain’t working in there. Hasn’t worked for years.”

“Oh. So… we have to sleep in our seats until we get to our destination?”

“If you want to sleep, yeah.” With that, the Captain walked off.

“Oh wow, I can’t believe this is my first assignment,” Mimi muttered to herself as she clearly looked for a seat. “This is just—”

Josh watched her turn his way. It took her a second, then her eyes drew wide.

He crossed his arms.

“Take your seat,” the Captain suddenly snapped at her.

“Oh, I’m just looking for a place to sit,” Mimi said politely.

“There.” The Captain pointed to a seat next to Josh.

Mimi looked sick, but nodded and made her way over.

“Oh my god, it’s you,” Mimi muttered as she took her seat, immediately closing her arms around herself.

“Correct, it’s me.” Josh leaned back in his seat, enjoying the sound of the leather creaking as he crossed his arms. “And no, you can’t have an interview. If you turn that on,” he pointed to the recording orb with a stiff finger, “I will throw it against the wall and stamp on its memory circuits. Got it?”

Though she looked uncomfortable to begin with, she didn’t gasp or swallow. He’d just threatened her, and all Mimi Chester did was bite her lip awkwardly. “… Throw it against the wall and stamp on its memory circuits? That’s not the usual threat I get. I thought the only legal action you could take against an unsolicited recording was to wipe its memory banks, not crush them under your foot.”

Josh crossed his arms stiffer. “I think we’ve both ascertained I’m not an ordinary Coalition officer.”

“Yeah. So… maybe I should find somewhere else to sit.” Mimi pushed up from her seat, neatening her casual clothes as she did. For somebody who was the daughter of the richest man in the galaxy, she sure didn’t dress like it. She was in plain grey pants with a light blue tunic on top. They didn’t match, and here and there they were slightly threadbare.

She had a pretty face, though. It was probably genetically engineered, he thought meanly. From her red cheeks to her sparkling eyes to her lustrous brown hair, no doubt her father had picked her out of a catalogue. It didn’t matter that genetically engineering humans was illegal, and that Mimi really wasn’t pretty enough to justify such an accusation, Josh didn’t edit his thoughts.

But he did watch in barely subdued glee as she walked over to one of the flight crew and asked for another seat. When the man told her that the only other seat was on his lap, Mimi politely declined and made her way back.

Josh shot her a sarcastic smile. “What, you didn’t immediately call daddy and get him to buy you a transport instead?”

She sat down next to him, adjusting her ugly tunic until it sat neatly across her knees. Then she set her recording orb down, as far away from Josh as she could.

They dwindled into silence.

It was uneasy.

Though she wasn’t rising to his bait, that didn’t matter. He had this urge to keep insulting her. So as the transport started with an ominous rattling gurgle, and Mimi made a worried noise, Josh took the opportunity to lean a little closer. “Not too late to get out.”

It was her turn to lean closer to him. “Not too late to start acting like a commander.”

“I’m a special commander.”

“Does that mean you have special dispensation to act like a dick?”

He snorted, but before he could continue the conversation, the engines hummed into life. No, hum wasn’t the right word – they roared. This transport had such little insulation between the engine room and the main deck that it sounded like they were inside a storm.

He watched Mimi cup her ears uncomfortably.

“It’s not going to get better. As soon as we hit faster-than-light speed, it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse,” he told her, raising his voice to be heard over the engines.

“Why are you even on this transport? You’re a Coalition officer, don’t they usually ship you to missions in a little more style?”

He laughed, maybe a little too loudly. “Sorry, you’re talking to me about traveling in style? How many luxury cruisers have you been on, Miss Chester?”

“Don’t call me that. I’m just Mimi. And to answer your question, one.”

“What, you don’t book a luxury boat every time you head to the store?”

“No, I walk.”

Josh took the opportunity to smile at her snidely as he thought of what to say next.

She got there first. “Let’s not start this. I’ll agree to leave you alone if you agree to leave me alone.”

“You didn’t leave me alone at that briefing. I’m not sure if this is a fair deal.”

She turned to him. She had particularly pretty, piercing blue eyes. They were an odd pale shade that reminded him of the sun reflecting off a clear lake. “Special Commander, no offense, but you’re a member of the Academy. You have a public role, and you’re entrusted with a great deal of responsibility. But you also have a lot of power. Now not everyone may appreciate that the Academy has an excellent PR machine, but it does. When a company is so used to controlling its public image, it becomes even more important to keep asking hard questions. You may think I’m harassing you, I’m not. To be honest, I appreciate you’ve had a different upbringing to mine, and I appreciate you did what you had to to survive. All I want to know – and all the galaxy deserves to know – is whether you crossed the line one too many times. Only you can answer that right now.”

Josh’s gut clenched. A mix of nerves, anger, and shame washed through him.

Her words had cut way too close to the bone.

“Considering your past, I wouldn’t lecture me, if I were you,” he threatened.

“My past? You mean what happened at the Academy? I’d never encountered an engine fault like that – I was a third year student. You think I did it on purpose? You think I was too arrogant to waste my time with looking? Well guess what? Unlike your past, mine’s been thoroughly documented. The whole exercise was recorded for training purposes – you can see me making the mistake, if you’d like. You can read through the numerous logs. As an officer, you can probably read the actual deliberations of the committee that acquitted me. It’s all there, because I don’t have anything to hide.”

Josh felt the heat of anger rise through him. “Every cadet thinks you made a mistake because you were too cocky to do the job properly. With your daddy there to fix your mistakes, you don’t care what you do.”

“Cocky? You want cocky? How about ignoring evidence in favor of hearsay. Three qualified engineers testified that the engine fault was virtually undetectable, and only a seasoned pro would have picked it up. I know what the cadets say about me, I also know that it’s easier to paint me as a target than look at their own responsibility. That training exercise should never have been approved. We were too young and inexperienced.”

“Really? You think you can exonerate yourself by pushing the blame onto your teammates. I see you didn’t stick around the Academy long enough to learn loyalty.”

“We were all part of E Club, though I’d only just joined. I’m not sure if you know what E Club is, as you kind of skipped standard training, but it’s full of people who think they’re the best and brightest. I think I was only invited to join because of my dad…. Anyway, Carinthia Forest wanted to organize a special training group to undertake battle simulations outside of classes. Cadets who go through more simulations have a higher chance of graduating as an officer, rather than a standard ensign. The harder the simulations, the better. So the E Club made them brutal. It should take a team of proper technicians to set them up and ensure safety protocols are working – all we had were undergrads. I was stuck with checking the engine systems. I wasn’t qualified. Once I finished, I realized I couldn’t trust my work, and I told them I wasn’t comfortable with the simulation going ahead without another person checking. They ignored me.”

Josh opened his mouth, but she put up her hand.

“Before you ask, that’s on the footage too. I even made a note in the log. And you want to know why I was stuck with engineering duty even though I wasn’t even studying engineering? Because they all wanted to take part in the actual simulation. I wasn’t bothered.”

“So what, you think this makes up for what you did?”

“Yes, I do,” she said flatly.

“You think your teammates are the ones to blame? Well I’ve got news for you, you made the mistake.” He stabbed a finger her way.

“Yeah and no. I missed the fault – there’s no doubting that. But we should never have been there.”

“If you couldn’t handle the assignment, you should never have accepted it,” he said indignantly.

“Really? That’s it? That’s the solution? I was a weak link, end of story? So it will never happen again, then?”

“What?”

“I’m asking you if a training accident like that will happen again. Surely if it was just my fault, then you get rid of me, and you’ve fixed the problem.”

“I’m not saying it will never happen again,” he conceded gruffly. “I’m saying you can’t dilute your responsibility by shifting the blame onto others.”

“Oh, for a second there I thought you were actually interested in stopping things like this from happening. Because if you were, you’d look at the culture within the E Club and the Academy as a whole. Having experienced that culture, I can absolutely guarantee you that it will happen again. Those cadets think the only way to get ahead is to push themselves. The Academy encourages that.”

He had to laugh. “The galaxy out there is pretty dangerous, Miss.” He leaned a little closer to her as he hissed the word Miss. “I’ve got news for you, the only reason you enjoy the peace you do is that men and women push themselves every day to keep you safe.”

He was expecting her to cower back. She didn’t. She looked him right in the eye, not even bothering to lean away, considering how close their seats were.

“I know that.”

“Really? It sounds like you take it for granted. It sounds like you’re all too ready to turn on your teammates, even though their only crime is trying their hardest to be the best they can be.”

“To be heroes?” She asked.

He opened his mouth to say an emphatic yes, but the word stuck in his throat.

Hero. He hated that goddamn word.

“What if the cadets in E Club aren’t trying to be the best they can be, what if they’re trying to be heroes?”

He shrunk away from her questions.

“What if they live in a culture that’s steeped in this myth of Coalition heroes single-handedly saving the galaxy? What if they’re bombarded with stories from the Academy’s press wing day in and day out espousing the incredible deeds of a few? What if they graduate thinking that the only way to save the galaxy is to become a hero? Do you think that will ensure peace, Special Commander?”

It was his turn to lean away from her.

“You don’t need to answer. We both know it won’t. You might be a lot of things, but you don’t strike me as dumb. I think you appreciate more than most that painting a world of heroes and villains only ever hides the truth. It simplifies complex situations into good and bad, epic and dull. It prevents us from ever finding peace, because a hero always needs an enemy.”

Josh stood up. It was a knee jerk reaction. His body was so tense with anger it felt like he’d snap.

She looked up at him, never blinking once.

Mimi was turning out to be a lot of things, but he couldn’t deny she was brave.

And terribly goddamn obstinate.

“I’m going to find another seat,” he managed as he turned on his heel.

“I’m pretty sure the only one that’s left is on the Captain’s lap,” she quipped from behind him.

His back was rigid, his shoulders so stiff it felt as if they’d burst out of his top. Without another word, he walked away.

Her words followed him.

A hero always needs an enemy….

Chapter 6

Mimi bit her lip as he walked off.

He looked seriously mad. Maybe she’d gone too far?

Maybe she should apologize when he got back?

Or maybe he deserved it.

Though Mimi liked to think of herself as a nice person, that wasn’t always true. Sometimes she got very direct. When pushed, she’d push back. She usually tried to be more tactful than she had been with Josh, though.

There was something about him that truly irritated her.

She wasn’t entirely sure it was his murky past, either. Because while she did suspect there was a story there, she realized it couldn’t be too bad; the Academy wouldn’t have taken him on if he was an irredeemable criminal.

No, there was something else about the man that got to her. She’d barely met him, but it was clear his personality grated against hers.

Still, it was always better to be polite. And to smile. You always had to smile.

By the time he made it back from his wander, she was ready to apologize.

He ruined the moment when he sat down gruffly and shoved her to the side. “You’re seat is over there.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re on my side.”

“So you shove me rather than asking me to shift slightly? And what do you mean I’m on your side? You’re way bigger than me and these seats are tiny. If anything, you’re on my side.”

Josh said nothing as he sat down and shifted his shoulders about.

Rather than have his big arms brush up against her, she pulled herself closer to the right to get away from him. However, there was a bulkhead next to her, so she couldn’t move far enough to stop his arm from touching hers.

She could still hear his breath, feel the heat off his body, and see the cold, angry look in his eyes.

At the sight of her pressing herself up against the bulkhead, she saw his lips curl.

“Stay there and shut up, and we’ll get through this,” he said as he crossed his arms, invading her personal space with his massive shoulders and elbows.

“Excuse me? You know, I was thinking it over, and I was going to apologize to you. I was going to say sorry for going too far. I should have appreciated your feelings. But you know what I’m going to do now?”

He turned his head towards her slowly, his neck muscles practically creaking. His eyes glinted with a challenging look, one that kind of did weird things to her stomach.

She ignored her tummy and angled her chin up. “I’m going to apologize anyway, because I won’t be bullied.”

He snorted. “So this is you apologizing?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.” She looked at him directly and bowed her head.

“But?” He prompted.

“But you have a serious attitude problem. You’re the rudest Coalition officer I’ve ever met. I understand your job is stressful, but that doesn’t give you the right to snap at everyone.”

“I don’t snap at everyone.”

“So it’s just me?”

“Pretty much.”

“Is it because of my father?”

He gave a low laugh. “I’ve got no problems with Theodore Chester, I just don’t like spoilt brats.”

“Hey, maybe don’t say my dad’s name so loud, okay?” She asked quickly.

As soon as Josh mentioned her dad’s name, several people in the transport turned their way. While everyone had been happy to ignore her argument with Josh before, now she was gathering stares.

Uncomfortable ones.

Josh darted his gaze around the transport. “They all know who you are. You’re infamous around the Academy. Plus, presumably the ticket was purchased under your name. It’s a little too late to think about discretion.”

She snorted and tried to cross her arms. But there simply wasn’t room.

“Fine, let’s go back to our original deal: you be quiet and I’ll be quiet.”

“The deal was you would shut up,” he countered immediately.

“Oh my god, you’re acting like a child. Can you actually hear yourself? Is that anyway for an on-duty special commander to act?”

He leaned in quickly. “Keep your voice down.”

“What?” She stuttered, slightly breathless at the sight of a looming Joshua Cook.

“I said, keep your mouth shut. And don’t say I’m on duty – I’m not. I’m heading to a resort ship for some R and R.”

She deliberately let her brow shoot up behind her fringe. “Resort ship? You? I don’t buy it. Not only would it make you the biggest hypocrite in the world, as they’re astronomically expensive, but you strike me as the kind of guy who would hate places like that. In fact, you strike me as the kind of guy who never stops working.”

“Just stop talking now,” he warned. “I am going to a resort ship, and that’s the end of the story.”

With that, he turned from her and appeared to try to get comfortable in his chair. Yet as he did, Mimi swore he shot a calculating gaze towards the front of the ship and the small command bridge.

In fact, the quality of his gaze was so concentrated that Mimi realized something had to be up.

She was certain she was right, and Josh was still on duty. She could bet he would only willingly go to a resort ship if he could ransack it.

So what was his mission? And why did he need such a flimsy cover?

As they dwindled into silence and the hours ticked by, she never stopped watching him. He was very surreptitious, but she could see that every now and then he craned his neck to watch the Captain whenever he strode out of the bridge and through the main deck.

Despite the intrigue of finding out what Josh was doing, it slowly dawned on her that she would have to stay in this seat for the next seven days, pressed between him and the wall.

Realizing the best and only thing to do would be to sleep through it, she settled down and tried to get comfortable.

Soon enough she drifted off.

The last thing she thought as her mind wound down was that it could be worse. She didn’t know how, but surely it could be worse.

Chapter 7

He was still fuming. But he also had to work. He paid close attention to the Captain’s movements. He also took every chance he could to explore the ship.

No, that was a lie – he didn’t take every chance to explore the ship – he’d only staked out the place a couple of times on the way to the bathroom. He wanted the opportunity to explore more, but something was holding him back.

Something exceedingly stupid and pathetic.

Miss Mimi Chester.

She was asleep, and as dumb as it sounded, he didn’t want to leave her alone. He’d seen a few of the other passengers casting her certain kinds of looks. Looks Josh knew all too well – he’d been a pirate, and he knew the exact kind of greedy glint you’d get in your eye when you saw a soft target.

Even though this transport had left from Earth, not all the passengers had departed from there. Some had already been on the vessel. So it wasn’t entirely impossible that there were bona fide brigands on board. Especially not considering the Captain was a potential smuggler.

She’d gone and wandered into a pretty dangerous situation, and she was fast asleep, unable to protect herself should anyone make a move for her stuff.

The longer he sat there and the more she snuffled softly, the more resentful he felt. He shouldn’t have to baby sit her – he had a real mission to complete. He’d overheard her talking to the Captain before, and he knew she was off on her first real assignment. Well he could bet it was something pathetic, and something that didn’t justify wasting his time.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore, and he elbowed her in the side. Not too hard, but hard enough to see her rouse.

She made an entirely cute “hup” sound as she bolted awake.

She looked at him.

“Turbulence,” he muttered.

“Oh….” She leant her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.

“You’ve already been asleep for eight hours.”

“I’m hoping to make it seven days.”

“Nobody can sleep that long.” He crossed his arms. There was something about this woman that made him want to cross his arms permanently.

“You want to try me? I can sleep for days if I want to. And I’m gonna. Because it’s certainly preferable to being conscious for this journey. Now, goodnight.”

“I don’t think so. Wake up and stay awake. I’m done watching you.”

Mimi pulled her head from the wall and looked at him. Slowly her sleepy eyes widened with alarm. “Sorry? You were watching me while I slept?”

“I was watching over you,” he corrected through an awkward grumble. “Now it’s your turn. You need to keep your wits about you; you’re not on Earth anymore.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Christ, can you really be this dumb? You know before when you didn’t want me talking about your dad,” he lowered his voice, even though it would have been fun to see her reaction as he blurted it out once more.

Mimi turned from him and quickly surveyed the other passengers. Her eyes locked on a few particularly suspicious looking ones – the same ones he was sure were criminals. “Oh dear,” she said quietly.

“You should never have booked a ticket on this transport,” he pointed out indignantly.

“I didn’t exactly have a choice – it was booked for me. There’s so much traffic going to the Interstellar Baking Championship, that this was the only ride they could find.”

“… Hold on, what? Interstellar Baking Championship?”

She blushed slightly, but didn’t turn away. “Yes, what of it?”

“That’s your first assignment?” He started to laugh. As he did, all his tension washed away.

This was the best thing he’d heard all year.

“Yes it is, but how do you know that?”

“I overheard you talking to the Captain. But this… wow, you’ve really made it big now, haven’t you, Miss? I mean, a baking championship. You must be the best journalist in the galaxy.”

“It’s an interstellar baking championship. And I’ll have you know that it can get pretty exciting. Last year there was a shootout in the donut round.”

He laughed harder and harder. Until all his tension disappeared entirely.

“It’s nothing to laugh about; some races take it incredibly seriously. The Hakar have bakers training all year round, not just in cooking skills, but in combat skills too, in case it comes down to fists over dough.”

Josh kept laughing. He rocked back and forth in his chair, and it was a surprise he didn’t fall off.

“It’s really not that funny. You know the winner gets the opportunity to bake for the President herself?”

Josh finally tried to calm himself. Clamping a hand over his mouth, he let a few more chuckles escape before stifling them with a cough. “Oh wow. Just wow.”

“You know, you’re kind of mean. A lot of people take this championship very seriously. Just because you don’t share their views doesn’t mean you should belittle them. I mean, I’ve got to admit I was a little hesitant about it at first, but the more I read, the more I realize how important this event is. It can change lives.”

Despite his best attempts, Josh started laughing again.

“Okay fine. You have your chuckle. I’m going to the bathroom.” She stood up abruptly, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she did.

Josh pushed to his feet too, pushing away his mirth at the same time. “Not on your own.”

“What? What do you mean not on my own? I don’t need you to chaperone me to the bathroom. I’ve got my recording ball, I’ll be fine.”

“I have no idea what that means, and it sounds pretty weird, but you’re still not going on your own.”

He watched her cheeks start to burn. A mighty flush climbed her neck so quickly it looked as if she’d swallowed hot coals.

“My recording orb is programmed to scan my surroundings, and can alert me should anything untoward happen,” she clarified in a single breath.

“You don’t want to be alerted when something bad happens – you want to prevent it from happening in the first place. So I’m coming with you.”

She closed her eyes and took a massive breath that saw her chest punch distractingly against her top.

He only looked away once she opened her eyes.

“Fine.” She picked up her recording orb and stalked off.

Josh followed. He paid keen attention to the other passengers as he did.

To be honest, he wasn’t sure they were going to try anything. This did, however, provide him with a great opportunity to explore the ship. While Mimi was busy wrestling with zero gravity, he’d be able to scan the rooms next to the bathroom. He’d tried to do it before, but without a reason to loiter in the corridor, he’d been shooed on.

This was his excuse.

It was a short walk to the bathroom, but it was a treacherous one. This old tin-bucket ship surely deserved its lowly rating as a Class Y tug. There was junk everywhere, and the walls were nearly all broken. As they made their way through the corridor, they had to navigate through pipes jutting out of the floor and patches of oil. Once or twice Mimi nearly slipped.

He could have caught her. He didn’t.

Let her fall, he thought. Someone had been propping her up all her life. She needed to learn to survive on her own.

Also, it was kind of fun to watch her tripping up.

When they finally made it to the bathroom, Mimi had to press herself against the wall to navigate around a particularly obstructive pipe in the floor. It was very much a tripping hazard, but the Captain was very much not the kind of shady operator to care.

“God, I hope I don’t die on this thing. Why are there all these pipes everywhere? And what’s with all the oil?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” he lectured, “we’re not going to die. The pipes and oil are from non-essential systems.”

“If they’re non-essential, why are they on the ship?”

“Just hurry up. I don’t have all day to shepherd you.”

“What, you need to get back to sitting in your seat and looking surly?”

He pressed his lips together and offered her a sarcastic smile. “I’m doing you a favor, Princess. Now less of the attitude. Go.” He waved her on with a brief flick of his hand.

She rolled her eyes and turned.

That would be when the ship lurched.

It wasn’t too bad, but it was enough to see Mimi stumble. She caught herself before she could fall over, but her torso came perilously close to the jutting end of the pipe.

“You okay?” He asked quickly.

Before she could answer, the ship lurched again.

This one was worse. It felt like the damn thing struck an asteroid.

Mimi was thrown towards the pipe.

He somehow got there first, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her away from the pipe before it could impale her.

They struck the floor together, his arms still around her middle.

Before she could pull free, the ship lurched again and again.

He held onto her. She held onto him.

The floor started to buckle.

She screamed.

Seconds later, a klaxon blazed through the ship. Old and crackly, he still picked up the message: “Warning, warning, immanent crash landing. Immanent crash landing.”

He cradled her head and closed his eyes.

Chapter 8

Somehow it didn’t kill them. He felt it though, in every bone of his body.

The transport crashed.

The thing buckled around him, pipes protruding from the walls like bones from a broken body.

The ceiling bowed down too, but somehow held its integrity, rather than buckling and bringing the hull down on their heads.

They were knocked around badly, but were lucky enough not to get skewered or squashed.

Through it all he held onto her, one arm around her back and one hand cradling her head. She held onto him fast, too.

Then, as the shaking abated, and the ship came to a stop, he loosened his grip and stared around him.

The corridor was ruined. The ship would be unsalvageable. Yet somehow, somehow they’d survived.

He tried to sit up. Mimi was still holding onto him.

“Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You’re fine. We’re alive,” he said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.

Her face was littered with scratches and there was a deep gash in her arm. He knew she was alive, though; he could feel her heart beating through her chest and into his torso as she still held on tight around his middle.

“Mimi, it’s okay now. We’re alive,” he said in a voice as close to a coo as Josh Cook would ever manage.

She opened her eyes.

Those piercing pools of blue stared up at him.

It was an arresting sight.

The whole damn situation was arresting. They’d just freaking crash landed and somehow survived.

She slowly let him go. Shaking, she tried to push up to her feet.

“Careful,” he warned as he put out a hand to steady her.

“What happened?” She coughed into her hand before checking on the gash in her arm and groaning.

“We crash landed.”

“What? Where? Weren’t we on a transport route?”

“That’s a good point. I don’t really know. Let’s go find out. If we make it to the bridge—” he began.

Mimi stopped him with another coughing fit. She doubled over, and he hooked a hand on her arm to ensure she didn’t topple onto the broken, buckled floor.

He patted a hand on her back. “Come on, we’ll get you to a med kit. I’ve got one in my luggage… wherever that is now. But we should get to the bridge first to find out what we’re dealing with. If I had a scanner with me, I could do it from here.”

“Klutzo,” she managed through coughs.

“Sorry, what did you just call me?”

She pointed behind her to her recording orb. The little device had been smart enough not to get squashed during the crash, and was now floating a half meter from Mimi.

“You gave it a name?” Josh questioned. Though now felt like the perfect opportunity to insult Mimi again – as only fools named soulless machines – it really wasn’t. They’d just crash landed, Mimi was injured, and god knows what planet they’d ended up on. So he held his tongue.

“Of course,” she coughed again, placing a hand on his arm for support as she finally righted herself, “he’s a friend.”

“Right… but standard recording orbs shouldn’t be able to scan through this much hull,” he pointed out as he helped her stand.

“Oh, Klutzo has… added features.” She called the little recording orb over to her with a flick of her hand. “What happened, Klutzo? And where are we? Have we struck a planet outside, or an asteroid? How’s hull integrity? Are there any other survivors?”

“Hull integrity has failed,” Klutzo informed them in an electronic tone that sounded way too chipper, given the circumstances.

Josh stiffened, automatically tightening his grip on Mimi’s arm.

“We have crash landed on a planet. Accessing local information networks,” he informed them as the lights along the outside of his form started to blip between green and red.

Josh started to relax. If they were on a planet and hull integrity had already failed, it meant the air outside was breathable.

“I have ascertained we are on Omacka Four,” Klutzo announced.

Josh immediately tensed up again. “What?”

“Where’s Omacka Four? I’ve never heard of it.” Mimi turned to look at Josh, her expression worried.

“It’s a long way from our transport route. How the hell did we get here?” Josh answered. “And are you sure, recording orb?”

“Yes, I am certain,” Klutzo informed them, “but if you do not trust my assessment, ask the Captain.”

“He’s alive?” Josh snapped forward.

“Yes, all the crew of this transport are alive. The main deck and bridge were shielded during the crash landing. Only this area was not.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.” Mimi let out a tense breath.

Josh just snorted. There was every possibility that the Captain removed the shielding from the corridor area because he knew Josh and Mimi were there. Though Josh doubted the Captain had any particular beef with Mimi, he could bet the guy was already suspicious of him.

“Let’s go check it out.” He nodded at Mimi.

“Right.” She pushed her hair from her face and smiled.

Christ, they’d crash-landed and she was smiling.

What was this girl on?

Chapter 9

He was being… strangely nice. Up until the crash, Josh Cook had been one of the meanest people she’d met. Now it felt like he was a different guy.

She was appreciating his total personality makeover, yet she got the feeling it wouldn’t last.

Maybe he’d look out for her for the time being, but as soon as the situation calmed down, she could bet he would become the same rude bully she’d sat next to for the past day.

Still, she’d enjoy this while it lasted.

“Watch your step,” he pointed out as they made their way through the corridor. “The floor is pretty weak in this section.”

She smiled. Okay, she always smiled, but she put a little more effort into it.

“Right, the main deck should be right around this corner.” Josh shifted around a massive section of cables that had spilled from the wall like guts from a split belly.

Before she could follow, she heard him sigh in frustration. “Great, it’s blocked ahead,” he managed.

She ducked her head around the corner to see that, indeed, there was no way through. The wall had collapsed, and though there was a tiny gap between the massive chunks of warped metal, she wouldn’t even be able to push her finger through it, let alone her body.

“What do we do now?” She asked.

Josh looked at her, his eyes getting stuck on her arm. “We need to get you some first aid.”

“Ha?” She looked down at her arm. The gash was deep and bleeding profusely. Though it hurt a bit, she was surprised by how much blood was trickling down her sleeve.

“Just hold tight. Technically this ship should have a med kit in each service panel; it’s a requirement of accreditation as a transport vessel.” Josh turned from her and started to search along the broken corridor. “Hold that wound,” he snapped at her as he got down on his hands and knees and tried to pry a service panel from the wall.

She smiled again, then – as instructed – grabbed her arm, pressing the fingers against her gash and wincing as she did.

Josh grunted as he tried to yank the service panel off, but after a few seconds it was clear the warped metal was jammed into the walls. So, grabbing onto a broken pipe jutting from the wall for support, he leaned back and kicked the panel instead. The wall shook under his barrage, and soon enough the panel dropped off and clanged to the floor.

He leaned down and stuck his head and torso into the service duct, despite the fact she could smell it was flooded with some foul gas and the buzz of exposed electrical circuits. He ferreted around a bit before finally pulling out a slim flexi metal case with a medical symbol emblazoned over the top in holographic ink.

“Alright.” He opened the box, slamming his fist on it when it wouldn’t unclip, then surveyed the contents.

She walked over to him just in time to watch him swear.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Goddamn contraband.” He started to laugh.

“Sorry?”

“They’re restricted tri-phasic gun batteries.” Josh chuckled.

“Ah, why is that funny?”

“Because I’ve been looking for these. It seems our Captain really is a smuggler. Now if only we hadn’t crash landed in the freaking Omacka system.”

“Ah… is there any spray-on skin in there? Because my arm's still kind of bleeding.” Despite the fact she pressed her fingers hard into her wound, blood seeped between them. She was starting to feel a little light headed, too.

“Yeah, yeah, hold on,” he muttered as he carefully removed the gun batteries, counting them as he lay them to his side. “Alright, here we go.” He finally uncovered the legitimate contents of the med pack, pushing to his knees as he grabbed the spray-on skin.

Mimi sighed in relief, but tensed a little as Josh neared. It wasn’t that she thought Josh was going to hurt her – far from it. For some reason his proximity made her skin tingle.

Without a word, he grabbed her arm with one hand, and shook the spray with the other.

“Wait, isn’t that the wrong color?” Mimi managed nervously.

Josh gave her a pointed look.

“Never mind. I guess I’ve always wanted a purple tan…” she trailed off.

“Hold still,” he commanded.

With a soft touch that was very much at odds with his character, Joshua Cook proceeded to spray her wound with the specialized compound. As soon as it touched her arm, the whole thing prickled. It felt like her pain had been replaced by thousands of dancing ants. When she shifted uncomfortably, Josh snapped at her to “stay still,” again.

When he was finished, without a word, he cupped her chin in his hand.

“What are you doing?” She spluttered.

He gave a derisive snort. “Relax, Princess, I’m dealing with the cuts on your face.”

“You can leave them; they’re not very serious,” she stuttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that. Plus, they could get infected. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but this ain’t exactly the cleanest transport in the galaxy,” he mumbled as he gently applied the spray-on skin to her cheek and neck.

Though Mimi’s skin prickled as he applied the compound, it was where his fingers held her chin that really tingled. Her stomach too.

She couldn’t look him in the eye, and instead concentrated way too keenly on the patch of wall over his left shoulder.

“Okay, all done,” he said as he stepped back and pocketed the spray-on skin.

“Thank you,” she managed, her voice way too high for some reason.

There was an awkward moment where they looked at each other, then Josh snorted. “Purple really suits you.”

“Wait, what?” She delicately felt her cheeks.

“That’s a stand-out statement, that is.” He chuckled meanly to himself. “Now hurry up; we need to find a way out of this tin can so we can have a little chat to the Captain.”

Mimi didn’t say anything as Josh led her forward with a brief wave.

He was about to turn mean again, wasn’t he? She could feel it. Now the immediate threat was almost over, Josh Cook was going to become the same cruel man she’d learned to loathe.

Chapter 10

It took him ages to find a way out of the ship. If he’d had his armor, he could have done it in seconds. The damn stuff was back at the Academy though. He was meant to be under cover for this mission, and there was no good excuse to take your battle armor on a resort cruise.

The longer they remained trapped in the belly of that broken ship, the more irritated he got.

Mimi thankfully was silent. In fact, she was doing a pretty darn good job of staying out of his way.

That wouldn’t last though, would it? As soon as they got out of here, she’d go back to being the arrogant, maddening brat he’d learned to loathe. In fact, it was a surprise she hadn’t taken the opportunity to turn her recording orb on to document this whole mess. It was also a surprise she hadn’t started asking him more questions about his past.

Finally, after what felt like hours, they made their way into the cargo bay. He had to pry apart a door with his bare hands to make it in, but once they were inside, they saw light.

Josh swore and laughed.

At the other end of the room, there was a massive crack in the hull. It had let in a mountain of sand. Enough sand, in fact, to climb up.

He raced towards it. It was only when he was halfway up that he realized Mimi wasn’t following. He turned around, his boots skidding in the sand as he lost the purchase his momentum had given him.

She was searching through the cargo, biting her lip as she concentrated.

“What the heck are you doing?” He called to her.

“Looking for my luggage.”

“Are you serious? We need to get out of here.”

“Hold on, I think I’ve found it. It’s just under this enormous chunk of metal.”

“Mimi, get your ass over here now,” he snapped at her. “Don’t you jeopardize our lives just because you’re looking for your precious stuff. Your dad can replace whatever you’ve lost.”

She blinked at him, her surprise obvious. “I’m just—”

“I said move,” he snarled.

Still clearly shocked, she made her way up the sand bank towards him. She kept her distance though.

“It figures someone like you would prioritize possessions over people,” he said meanly.

“Why are you suddenly being so mean again?” She asked quietly.

“You just reminded me why I hate you; you’re a spoilt brat.”

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting? I just thought having luggage would be kind of useful considering we’re stuck on a desert planet a long way from home.”

“Yeah, right. You’ve probably got your jewelry hoard in there or something.”

“Do I look like the kind of person to wear enough jewelry to have a hoard of it, Josh?”

“Shut up and keep walking,” he snapped.

She fumed.

It had finally happened; Josh had turned mean again. And she was right – it had happened right when they’d reached safety. With the immediate threat over, he could default to being a prick once more.

She crossed her arms as she followed him up the sand drift, until finally they made it out into the light. Though there was a considerable lip of metal she had to scramble over in order to get out of the ship, Josh didn’t help her. He marched ahead, slamming his hands on his hips as he stared at the landscape around them.

Mimi eventually made it out and scrambled up the sand dune beside him.

She stared.

They were in a desert. Though the sun was starting to set, it was still remarkably warm.

“Oh my,” she muttered under her breath as she looked up into the sky. There were dual suns.

This really wasn’t Earth.

Suddenly she felt something to her side. She looked down, confusion crumpling her brow.

An object burst from the sand next to her.

She screamed and threw herself to the side.

Josh grabbed her protectively. Then they both watched in surprise as the object turned out to be a small subterranean drilling vehicle. It protruded from the sand, the drilling mechanism on the nose winding down as a door was thrust open along the body.

A massive alien who had no right fitting into such a small vehicle pulled its way out.

Mimi held onto Josh fast.

The alien looked the both of them over, then tipped its head back and laughed. It sounded like an engine roaring into orbit. “More survivors,” it said, its voice a gravelly mix between boots crunching over rock and the deepest baritone you’ve ever heard. “The Captain said it was ready to salvage. Said all the crew was accounted for and had already been rescued. Guess he didn’t count you guys as rescuable. Still, you got out just in time; a few more minutes, and we would have torn that ship to shreds.”

Mimi gripped Josh’s arm so hard it was a wonder she didn’t break his bones.

He didn’t push her off. He did, however, shift to the side until he was in front of her. “Where the hell is the Captain?”

“Back in town. It’s a two-hour walk that way. Or you could wait a bit, and I’ll give you a lift.”

“We’ll take the lift,” Josh said immediately.

“Wait, we will? No offense, sir, but how exactly are we going to fit inside that thing?” She tried to be polite as she pointed to the very cramped drilling vehicle.

“By squeezing in,” the alien informed her with a chuckle.

“Oh my, okay.” Mimi bit her lip.

“Plus, it’s preferable to walking out in these parts, ma’am – there are sand wolves, salvagers, and brigands.”

“Umm… aren’t you a salvager?” Mimi asked in a falsely light tone.

“That’s right. I am. And I know how bad my kind can be.”

“That’s comforting.” Though she wasn’t aware of it, Mimi unconsciously shifted closer to Josh.

He didn’t tell her to get back.

Because he was doing it again. There was danger, and he was going into protection mode, dropping his usual attitude in favor of helping her out.

“How long will you be?” Josh asked as he nodded towards the broken ship down the side of the sand dune.

“An hour, max. Sit back and enjoy the show, humans.”

With that, the alien saluted, squeezed himself back into his vehicle, somehow managed to close the door, and gunned the engine. With a sound like a million swarming insects, the drill revved up, spinning so fast it became white hot. Then Josh pulled her back as the vehicle tipped, slid down the sand, and plunged back into it.

She watched in astonishment as the broken transport suddenly lurched to the side, the sound of screeching metal filling the air.

Out of the sand, she saw more drill vehicles as they rammed into the transport’s hull, eating into it as sparks escaped, dancing over the sand and leaving tiny swathes of singe marks.

Once the drills heated up to a blistering red-white, they started to melt the metal of the hull. As they did, great big pumps on either side of the drill head would suck in the molten metal, turn it into cubes, and spit it out onto the sand.

Mimi had never seen a ship being salvaged, and it was an incredible sight to watch.

“They’ll melt down everything – from seats to the engine core – and create matter blocks,” Josh suddenly explained as he shifted beside her and angled his head down to watch the show.

She was no longer holding onto his arm, even though she still rather wanted to.

“The pumps on either side of the drill head have sophisticated matter filters, and can separate the different elements coming in. They then fuse them together into easily transportable blocks and spit them out.”

“How do you know so much about salvaging?”

Josh stiffened. He didn’t answer.

Realizing she’d crossed a line, she didn’t push. Instead she turned back to the show.

She watched as the various drills burst out of the sand, attacking the downed ship in a coordinated fashion. It was mesmerizing, and she was almost sorry when the show stopped.

No, scratch that – she was sorry when the show stopped, because now she had to squeeze inside a tiny drill vessel with Josh and a massive alien.

Soon enough the alien parked his drill back on top of the dune and pushed open the hatch at the front. “All done, humans. Get in.”

Mimi made a face. Josh hissed at her not to be rude, then waved her forward.

Somehow Josh managed to leap up the distance between the top of the sand dune and the hatch, pulling himself into the small vehicle and arranging himself until he somehow looked comfortable.

Mimi really didn’t want to get in there.

“Hurry up,” Josh snapped at her.

“But what about Klutzo, I don’t think he can fit in?”

“Program him to fly behind us. Now hurry up!”

With a squeak, she moved. In an uncoordinated manner, she somehow managed to pull her body into the tiny, cramped cockpit, practically rolling over the alien until she reached one of the walls. She was lodged there, sandwiched between the metal, the alien's back, and Josh’s side.

She could only just breathe; her face was so smooshed into the wall, her nose was crumpled.

“Comfortable?” The alien asked.

“Ah, what am I sitting on?” Mimi tried to shift, but there was nowhere to move to.

“My arm,” Josh announced as he tried to push her off. Eventually he managed to slide his arm out from underneath her, and stuck it behind the back of her neck instead. There was literally nowhere else to put it apart from back under her butt.

She took a breath and tried to pretend this wasn’t as uncomfortable as it very much was. She also tried to ignore the reassuring feel of Josh so close.

Without another word, the alien turned his salvage vessel back on, and a series of terrible tremors passed through the cockpit. With her face squeezed up against the wall, she felt each shake rattle through her jaw.

Then the drill shifted direction and slammed back into the sand.

Mimi would have been thrown forward, but there was literally nowhere to go.

“So, what brings you two out to this neck of the woods? Honeymoon?” The alien asked conversationally.

“Who would honeymoon on Omacka?” Josh questioned with a chuckle.

“Ah, we are not married,” Mimi jumped in.

She swore Josh shifted his head around to look at her.

She couldn’t look up to check, but she could feel his arm move behind her.

“What, really? So when’s the happy date?” The alien continued. “Because, you know, we have some real cheap celebrants in town. There’s even an ex cargo captain who’ll marry you for a bottle of space whiskey.”

“We are not getting married,” Mimi squeaked.

“Oh. Fair enough. It’s not for everyone. De facto relationships are just as rewarding,” the alien chuckled.

“What? No, we aren’t—” Mimi began.

“What my girlfriend here is trying to say is that we’re very anti marriage. We view it as nothing more than property exchange,” Josh cut in.

“I hear you, I hear you,” the salvager agreed.

Mimi found the space to turn and stare at Josh. “What are you doing?” She mouthed.

Despite the cramped quarters, he somehow still managed to look aloof. “Trust me,” he mouthed back.

She did not want to trust him, but when she opened her mouth to clarify the situation, Josh deliberately banged her on the head with his arm. “So, what’s your name?” He asked the alien.

“Hogartiynu’tkauquo Fok’yaayayaya,” the alien said.

“I’m going to call you Hogart for short, then,” Josh said. “What are our chances of booking a transport off this planet?”

“There’ll be a trader or two willing to take you in their cargo ships,” Hogart said jovially.

“Cargo ships…” Josh swallowed through a laugh. “Not exactly the most comfortable transports.”

“Anything’s got to be better than that damn Class Y tug,” Mimi interrupted.

Josh looked at her and slowly raised an eyebrow. “What about a Class Omega transport?”

“That’s not a thing… is it?”

He nodded knowingly.

She pressed her lips into a line and groaned.

“So, what are your names?” Hogart asked.

“Josh and Claire,” Josh answered quickly.

Claire? Did she look like a Claire?

“You know, Claire, you look kind of familiar,” Hogart pointed out.

“She gets that a lot. She just has one of those faces, I guess,” Josh said with a chuckle.

“Nah, it’s more than that,” Hogart continued. “You look like… it’s on the tip of my tongue… ah yeah, Mimi Chester. Which is kind of a coincidence, considering she was on the passenger manifest for that transport – but you said your name is Claire, right?”

Josh acted.

Without another word from the alien, Josh flung himself forward and wrapped his arms around the guy’s massive green throat.

Mimi screamed. “What are you doing?”

“He’s trying to kidnap you, idiot. Salvagers don’t just go after downed ships,” Josh stuttered through breaths.

Hogart was thrashing around, trying to get to the stun gun at his side. But Josh was somehow stronger. Despite the fact he wasn’t in armor, and the alien was easily three times bigger than him and a heck of a lot fleshier, Josh kept his grip around the guy’s neck.

Hogart tried to ram Josh against the wall, but Josh took the blows.

Through it all, Mimi was pressed up against the back of the cockpit, her hands over her head.

Then there was a clatter.

The gun.

She forced her eyes open, and flung herself forward, grabbing the gun just before the alien could reach for it with one of his massive hands.

Though she got the gun, the alien grabbed her arm. His grip was crippling, his fingers digging into her flesh like vises.

Just as Hogart squeezed hard enough to break her arm, she managed to squeeze off a shot.

She expected a standard pulse beam to slice out of the gun and into the alien.

That is not what happened.

Instead, a bullet bounced out of the chamber. One that proceeded to bounce around the cockpit like a pinball attached to a rocket.

“No,” Josh screamed as he barreled into her, knocked the gun from her hand, and slammed her against the only patch of floor. He protected her with the bulk of his form, wrapping his arms around her head.

There was an unholy noise as the bullet kept ricocheting off the walls. A couple of times, it hit her in the leg and arm. It didn’t kill her though, nor did it stun her – it simply rammed into her with all the, well, force of a speeding ball of metal.

Despite the fact she was hit, Josh was hit more; she could feel the ball impacting his back.

Neither of them suffered as bad as Hogart. With his sheer size, there was no getting away from the bullet.

Eventually she could feel him slump forward, and about a half minute later, the ball stopped. Clanging into the wall with one final thrust before falling to the floor, its momentum was spent.

Josh pulled himself up.

She had no idea what had just happened.

Without a groan, Josh thrust forward, checked Hogart was down, and leaned past his massive form to access the navigation panel. With a few typed commands, the drill reversed direction and soon burst out of the sand. Before the drill died down, Josh kicked open the hatch door, and proceeded to shove Hogart out.

Mimi was still speechless.

“A hand would be nice,” Josh groaned as he pushed his shoulder into Hogart and hefted the guy towards the hatch.

Mimi didn’t move.

With one last groan, Josh shoved the alien out of the hatch. The massive guy fell onto the sand, where his body proceeded to sink about 30 centimeters before stopping with a soft scattering sound.

“What… what…” she tried to speak.

“What happened?” Josh jumped down from the hatch to check on Hogart. “You fired a bruiser in a confined space. You could have killed us both.”

“Bruiser?” She stuttered as she staggered out of the digger, falling to her knees and sinking into the sand.

“That bullet. It sends a ball of metal hurtling around a room until the thing runs out of momentum. It’s called a bruiser, because that’s what it leaves. It’s a great way of clearing a room full of enemies. It is, however, the last thing you should fire in closed confines.”

He looked at her very sternly, but she was still too shocked to care.

With a pathetic sound, she brought her hand up and checked her arm and leg. They felt bruised alright.

“Don’t whimper, it can’t be that bad,” Josh admonished her, “I took most of the blows. Well, the ones our friend here didn’t take.” Josh motioned to Hogart with the tip of his boot.

“… Thanks,” she forced herself to say.

“Yeah, I should imagine you’re thankful. Without me, you would have been kidnapped.”

Mimi felt cold. She shivered, despite the heat. “But… Hogart seemed so nice to begin with. And you trusted him enough to let us ride with him.”

Josh’s left eyebrow kinked up. He was clearly amused. “Trusted him? I never trusted him. I kind of figured this would happen,” Josh admitted.

“What?”

“It was always a possibility.”

“So why did you let us get on board?”

Josh shrugged. “I figured I could take him if anything happened, then we could take his vessel.”

“But, but—”

“Taking our chances with him was preferable to trundling through the desert, trust me on that. Now get back in.” He motioned to the digger with a flick of his head. “We want to make it to the city before dark.”

Mimi was flabbergasted.

“Mimi, please just get back in here.”

Though she wanted to turn on her heel and walk away, she found herself boarding the sand driller instead. She did shoot him a very peeved look as she sat down and crossed her arms.

“You know, that look really suits you; it brings out the purple tones of your spray-on skin,” Josh quipped.

“You know, I don’t get you, Special Commander.”

“What’s not to get?” He didn’t bother turning to her as he sat in the command seat and manipulated the driller’s controls.

“One minute you go from the galaxy’s greatest prick to being almost kind and sweet.”

Josh spluttered. “Kind and sweet? Trust me, I have never been kind and sweet to you, and I never will. Now sit down and shut up; I want to make it to the city as quickly as we can.”

“What do we do when we’re there?”

“Stick together, watch each other’s backs, and pray Hogart doesn’t have a brother.”

Stick together? Did Josh actually mean that? Or was he going to do it again? Get them both out of trouble, then return to being a world-class meany?

It took about 20 minutes to make it to the city. Mimi was quiet throughout the trip. Though a part of him wanted to check on any bruises she’d sustained, that part was quickly quashed.

She was starting to irritate him again, which was surprising considering she wasn’t doing anything.

It was her mere presence, her very existence. She stood for everything he loathed, all wrapped up into one mouthy little package. The sooner they got off this planet the better.

Maybe she was smart enough to tell he was cooling towards her again, because she shifted away from him and stared out the tiny cockpit window. It showed a constant view of churning sand. It was black until the particles of fine sand hit the windscreen and reflected the light from within. Then you could see the yellows and golds and pale oranges.

It could have been pretty, but he was too distracted to tell.

Something was bothering him. It was her. Again. With time enough to pause, he was thinking, and he remembered in short order how this was all her fault. She’d dallied in the cargo bay, looking for her stuff, and it could have cost them their lives. A few minutes later and the ship would have been torn to shreds.

She’d also been dumb enough to fire that bruiser bullet, and his back was killing him. It felt like a horse had done a tango on it.

What else? Oh yeah, there was the little fact that he kept having to look after her. He wouldn’t be in this situation if Hogart hadn’t tried to kidnap her.

As the minutes ticked on by, his mood became darker and darker.

By the time they arrived in the city, if she so much as breathed too loud, he shouted at her.

A part of Josh realized his behavior was way out of line. Not only was it entirely inappropriate for a Coalition officer, but it was just wrong. She’d had a tough day, and he was adding to it.

His anger wasn’t ready to listen to reason though, so when he kicked open the hatch door, he didn’t bother to give her a hand as he jumped onto the ground. Instead he watched her practically fall out of the hatch, and he offered nothing but a snigger.

“Right.” Without bothering to explain anything to her, he turned on his heel and marched forward.

He’d parked his driller on the outskirts of town, but it didn’t take long to make their way to the packed center of the city. There were so many various aliens around, it was practically a mob.

While he was okay to stride ahead, pushing his way through the various alien bodies, Mimi was having a much harder time. She kept getting stepped on or elbowed in the face.

When they’d reached the city, the aptly named Klutzo had finally caught up to them. He’d done it in style by flying straight into the side of a building before reorienting and zooming up to Mimi.

She’d been clutching him protectively ever since, wrapping her arms around the recording ball as if it was somehow more important than protecting her own face.

"Wait, hold up a sec," Mimi said as she tried to make her way around a massive alien with a face like a bull.

Josh ignored her.

"Seriously, just hold on so I can catch up."

"Look,” he stopped abruptly and turned to her, "I only agreed to look after you if you could keep up. So keep up." He turned to march away.

She latched a hand on his arm. "Wait, I thought we agreed to stick together so we could watch each other’s backs? That’s what you said in the driller."

He looked at her hand pointedly, but she wouldn't move it. He was rapidly learning Mimi Chester was dogged. More dogged than he was, and that was saying something.

"Seriously, just slow down a little. That way we can watch each other’s backs."

He couldn't help it – he snorted so loud it sounded like his nose collapsed. "You think I need you to watch my back? You're delusional. I guess the cadets were right. Now keep up."

She removed her hand from his arm. It wasn't a strong move, though; she let it drop to her side weakly. Her expression also changed, her usually bright and cheery smile faltering.

If Josh had an ounce of empathy, he would realize he'd crossed a line. Compassion wasn't his forte, though – fighting was. Whether on the battlefield or with irritating daddy's girls like Mimi Chester.

So Josh didn't stop. He kept crossing the line: "the only reason I'm letting you tag along is that you're a risk to yourself. If anyone else finds out who you are, you'll get kidnapped. And we can't disappoint Theodore Chester, can we? That’s the only reason anyone is ever going to give a hoot about you, Mimi; you have a famous father. I only told you that stuff about sticking together and watching each other’s backs so you didn’t argue. You were dumb enough to believe it. What, you think I actually need someone like you watching my back? You will only ever get people killed, like Lilly Williams,” Josh spat.

He watched her smile fall from her lips as her cheeks paled with some mix of disappointment and shame.

If he were a nicer guy, he'd stop. Instead he gave a sharp chuckle; it felt pretty darn good to wipe the ever-present smile from Mimi Chester's lips.

Without another word, he turned on his heel and kept marching forward.

If he'd been cognizant of anything save for his own success at putting her down, he'd have realized she wasn't following him anymore. In fact, Mimi had turned away to forge her own path through the crowd.

Chapter 11

She was done with him. Her worst fears had been confirmed: Josh was cruel. She could forgive his history – she understood some people came from troubled backgrounds, and you had to cut them slack. But she could never forgive cruelty – that little glint of satisfaction in his eyes whenever he insulted or belittled her.

She didn't want to travel with him, even if he was the only "friendly” face in this crowd. She'd have to head out on her own and try to find a transport off this planet.

Though she was apprehensive of the task ahead, she wasn't scared. She'd always been taught that fear hid the best things in life. To succeed, you had to leverage loss against gain. If that meant striking out on her own on an unfamiliar and potentially hostile alien planet, so be it. But if she was lucky and diligent, she could turn this into an opportunity: a planet like this would be full of stories just waiting to be told.

She wasn't about to walk up to the first dodgy looking dude she saw to ask him if he had any juicy goss; she wasn't that stupid. Though she hated to admit it, Josh was right: if any more people found out who she was, she would be a target. But he was forgetting something – she'd lived with that fact her whole life. She knew how to handle herself. She knew how to keep a low profile. Okay, so Hogart had been a bit of a surprise, but she hadn’t had Klutzo with her then.

You see, in a pinch, Klutzo could turn into a security drone. Not many people knew that – her father had designed the orb himself, and had ensured it had enough shielding in place to pass as an ordinary journo ball. But the point was, now Klutzo was back with her, she was safe again.

So as she walked forward, she was sure to keep him close.

She didn’t need a guy like Josh; she could do this herself.

It took him too long to realize she wasn’t following anymore. It took him even longer to realize she hadn’t tripped over or lagged behind.

She’d wandered off.

When he realized that, he flipped out. In that single instant Mimi managed to confirm every suspicion he had about her; only an arrogant idiot who relied on other people to fix her problems would do something like this.

His very first instinct was to leave her. She deserved whatever was coming. If she was foolish enough to think she could make it alone on a planet like this, she might as well be taken out of the gene pool. Okay, that sounded kind of harsh. And as soon as he thought it, Josh realized it was the old him thinking. Still, the very fact she could nick off on her own meant she either wildly overestimated her own abilities or underestimated the enthusiasm of criminals to kidnap high fliers. Every two-bit pirate on this planet would give his left arm for the daughter of Theodore Chester. And they’d gladly lop off both her arms if required.

Back when Josh had been a smuggler and pirate himself, he would have given anything for a target like Mimi. She could be ransomed for a fortune. Then again, now that he knew how annoying she was, maybe she wouldn’t be worth the effort.

The goons in the throng around him wouldn’t share his same compunctions. If Mimi got too rowdy for them, they’d knock her out. If she talked too much and started asking inconvenient questions, they’d just cut her tongue off.

So, despite the fact he really wanted to leave her so she’d learn her lesson, he knew he couldn’t. He had a duty as a Coalition officer. Chester Enterprises, or CE for short, was one of the Academy’s biggest contractors. Their R and D division was responsible for all the coolest new tech. To get Theodore Chester offside would be suicide for Josh’s career.

“You owe me, Mimi,” he muttered to himself as he turned around, searching for her through the crowd. He was glad of her plain clothes – she’d stick out like a daisy in an oilfield. Everyone around him was dressed in the usual mashed up style of pirates, drifters, and vagabonds. From stained leather vests adorned with broken devices, to necklaces made out of salvaged pulse fuses – there wasn’t a simple tunic and pants in sight.

Drawing his hands into fists and setting his jaw into a hard line, he pushed through the crowd.

She’d be sorry if he couldn’t get to her in time. Then again, she’d be sorry when he did find her; he was going to give her hell.

The secret of fitting into a place like this was to get the right set of clothes. She stuck out like a sore thumb in her tunic and pants. So the very first thing she did was grab a whole bunch of junk she saw on the side of the street and cobble together a costume. Under Klutzo’s instruction, she managed to make an outfit fitting of a planet like this: a vest fashioned from a piece of stinky leather ripped off an old flight seat, pants sewn together from scraps of flexi-metal, and a necklace of discarded gun batteries.

It was very cool, but very smelly.

She also changed her hair. With liberal use of engine grease, she made a mohawk on one side, and let it lie loose on the other. It looked like a frozen wave ready to crash on her scalp.

Now she was dressed, she was getting fewer and fewer stares, and with Klutzo’s help, managed to navigate to the less seedy areas of town.

“Right,” she mumbled under her breath, “time to get out of here.”

She’d already figured out that the best and only way off this rust bucket of a planet was to assume a false identity. One more mention of her real name and things could get messy.

To get a false identity, she’d have to get somewhere quiet enough so Klutzo could reprogram her chip. Embedded in her sternum from birth, her identity microchip could be used by anyone with the correct scanner to ascertain her name and other pertinent information. But given time, Klutzo would be able to alter it so it told the galaxy she was someone else.

You weren’t meant to be able to reprogram identity chips – in fact, it was very, very illegal. It was also technically tricky. Klutzo could do it though – just another feature her father had built into its operating system. If the Academy ever realized what Klutzo could do, she’d be in serious trouble. Then again, they’d probably turn right around and order a bunch for themselves. An undetectable security drone always had its uses.

While Klutzo was – as the name suggested – a total klutz most of the time, his security program was unaffected. If he needed to, he’d transform from a cutey always banging into walls and muttering an electronic sorry, to a top class armored drone ready to chase down even the most agile of enemies.

If she’d had him inside the driller, things would have gone differently. Then again, it was probably a good idea that Josh hadn’t seen Klutzo’s true abilities; Josh would have ratted on her to the Academy for sure. Despite the fact he clearly had a litany of crimes hiding in his closet, he struck her as the kind of guy to take glee in getting someone else in trouble.

Now Mimi was ready, she needed to find a ticket out of here. Even with her identity chip reprogramed and her disguise in place, she couldn’t be confident she wouldn’t be recognized. She could run into some of the other passengers on the ship. Or, for all she knew, the inhabitants of this god awful planet could deliberately keep astride of all matters relating to the richest folk in the galaxy, including the exact identities of their kids.

She had to be careful.

So, with that mantra playing on her lips, she travelled to the very edge of town. This far out, the cramped buildings of the inner city thinned. The rusted metal towers got shorter and shorter, until only a few squat buildings remained right on the edge of the city.

In the distance, the desert was a strike of yellow-gold along the horizon. Even as she walked through the streets she could feel the crunch of sand under her feet. It was hotter too, though a chill late-evening breeze was starting to make her cheeks tingle and her arms shiver.

“If we continue on for two more blocks, we will reach the very edge of the populace,” Klutzo informed her.

He was speaking in full sentences, which was a good sign. His ordinary operating system had been wiped so many times it was a wonder he didn’t slur and dribble. It was also an indication that, in part, his security program had kicked in. In fact, it had likely initiated back when the transport had crashed. While Klutzo could technically have easily gotten her and Josh out of the belly of that broken ship, he would have only done it if absolutely necessary. To reveal his true identity prematurely could get Mimi in a lot of trouble.

“Why would we want to get all the way to the edge of the city?” Mimi asked, careful to keep her voice low so she didn’t disturb any of the few people she passed. Then again, her soft voice was unlikely to disturb anyone in these parts – a hit to the head with a sledgehammer likely wouldn’t disturb these guys.

“So we can find transportation to cross it,” Klutzo now informed her.

“Wait… what? When were you going to tell me this? I thought the plan was to find transport off this planet, not around it?”

“I have altered my plan.”

“Why?”

“… I do not believe it is safe to procure interstellar transport in this city. Having observed everyone I have passed, I can confirm they are all unsavory characters.”

“… Yeah. But how is it safer to travel across the freaking desert? I mean, we were just out there. It’s not a nice place. And apparently temperatures can get as high as 100 degrees during the day, and as low as minus 50 at night,” she pointed out with a frightened squeak.

“Though the terrain may be extreme, I have calculated it is less likely to kill us.”

“You might be able to survive that, buddy, but I sure as hell can’t.”

“I will procure us a shielded sand slider. If it fails, I’ll fix it,” he stated flatly.

Though her mouth was open as she readied another protest, her lips slowly pressed together.

She was forgetting something, wasn’t she? Klutzo would be better at reading this situation than she was; her father had programmed him to be one of the best security drones on the market. Even if technically he wasn’t on the market, and he was a one-off piece. Still, the point stood: she shouldn’t second-guess him. She should do exactly as he said, even if, on the face of it, going into the desert sounded like suicide.

Though it was hard, she took a breath, squeezed her lips and cheeks together in a wince, and nodded. “Okay, say I believe you, and going into the desert really is our best option – how the heck are we going to procure a sand slider?”

“We will procure one,” he answered.

“Yeah, that doesn’t answer my question. You mean steal, don’t you?”

Klutzo became conspicuously silent.

Mimi blew a frustrated breath of air through her puckered lips and winced once more.

So much for finding a story on this planet; soon, she was going to become the story.

The galactic headlines would read: daughter of renowned inventor and businessman, Theodore Francis Chester III, steals sand slider off pirates while dressed as a punk.

Yeah, that would be a great way to start her career, or rather end it before it had even begun.

“Trust me, Mimi; I’m programmed to do this.”

Again she winced, though it was a lighter move. Trust him? Could she do that? Yeah, she could. Because there was no one else. For a long time now, it had just been him and her. Her so-called friends had abandoned her years ago, and even if they hadn’t, they weren’t on this planet. The only person she knew here was Josh Cook, and she’d rather stab herself in the eye with a fuse than trust that guy.

So Mimi nodded. “I trust you.”

“Then follow me.”

With dusk giving way to a dark night, the desert beyond the city looked like so many piles of shadows. Above, a swathe of glittering stars sparkled, but their light could not penetrate the murk. With that much darkness, who knew what secrets lay hidden amongst the dunes and lonely rocky ranges.

Chapter 12

Where the hell had she gotten to? He was starting to get worried now. Not for her safety, but for his. If word spread that he abandoned the daughter of Theodore Chester on a hostile planet, he’d be a goner.

His hands were slicked with sweat, and the damn stuff was pooling between his shoulder blades, making his top stick to his skin. Even though night had set in, and that familiar icy cold you always found in deserts like this ate into his exposed skin, nothing dried the sweat.

He was nervous. He’d given up a lot to get to where he was now, and he wasn’t going to lose it on a girl like her.

A while ago he’d ditched his casual clothes for something more fitting: a vest, pants, a top, and heavy desert boots. Oh, and guns. Lots of guns. As a special commander, he had access to an unlimited supply of Coalition credits, meaning he could buy his way out of any problem, if it came to that. Okay, it didn’t work that way – the credits were there when he needed emergency supplies or transport – but sometimes it felt like he’d been given a blank check, as the old humans used to say. He had an unlimited credit chip in his pocket, and today it had come in real handy.

He had a desert rifle strapped to his back, and two short-range rock razors on his hips. Both types of guns were optimized to work on planets like this. From the heat to the constant abrasive sand, they were designed to last for years, with proper care.

He’d also invested in a scanner. A certain type of illegal scanner. Or at least illegal if you didn’t work for the Coalition Army. Strapped to his wrist was a gene tracker. Give it the right data, and it could track someone for thousands of kilometers. While it was a crime for an ordinary punter to procure one, they were used in the Academy and the Army, but even then you had to justify their use.

Well, he was a special commander, and the word “special” was there for a reason. Not only would the Coalition not give a hoot that he bought one, they’d probably never question what he used it for. He had a lot of freedom, but it came with a lot of responsibility.

“You better not have wandered far,” he muttered under his breath. He’d been repeating that same statement for about a half hour now. He still hadn’t found her, though, hence the sweaty fingers.

Gripping his chin and letting his dirty fingers dig into his stubble, he shifted his jaw from side to side as he tried to eke out the tension.

It didn’t work.

Only getting off this hellhole would.

He tried to manipulate the scanner as he walked. It was tricky – considering it was a sophisticated piece of equipment – but he managed it.

It wasn’t too hard to find a few fragments of Mimi’s DNA – she’d grabbed his arm just before wandering off, and this scanner was sophisticated enough to detect whatever minute fractions of skin cells she’d left behind. It took all of half a minute to confirm the DNA had to be hers; it was human, and apart from him, she was the only human he’d come across.

He started to follow, keeping the scanner held close to his chest so he could hide it with the bulk of his sleeve. It was an expensive piece of equipment, and he wouldn’t put it past some random alien to make a grab for it. Nor would he put it past the guy who sold it to him to try to nick it back.

When Josh had crash-landed on a planet like this 7 years ago, he’d run the same scheme. He’d sold sophisticated tech to the dull-witted, then stolen it back, ensuring a steady stream of income without the bother of having to procure more stock.

The memory made him smile, then he caught himself – he was a different man now. God dammit, he was a different man.

Ideally a DNA scanner could be used to track a laced target. You’d get close to your prey in a bar or transport station, sidle up to them, and bump into their arm or neck, transferring a sophisticated but undetectable chemical tracer onto their skin. The DNA scanner would use the tracer to keep a lock on the target for up to hundreds of kilometers, depending on the terrain.

He hadn’t laced Mimi, so his only hope was to carefully retrace her steps using the weak DNA signature the scanner was picking up. Tracing whatever tiny fractions of skin or hair she’d left behind as she’d travelled through this city, the DNA scanner could ascertain her path, but only within a few meters.

Josh hated slow work. He lived for action, not details, and work like this had to be damn precise. If he hurried ahead, the scanner could lose its link, and he’d have to search for it again. When you thought about it, it was trying to sift through the enormous mountain of DNA in this city – from live beings to dead hair cells – to zero in on one target.

The more he walked, the further his brow compressed, as the irritation of having to track Mimi flickered into worry.

His path was taking him to the outskirts of town.

When she’d first wandered off, he’d assumed she’d be dumb enough to walk up to the first rickety old transport hub she saw and try to buy a lift off this planet.

All the transport hubs were in the center of town.

The only thing on the outskirts of this trash heap of a city was sand. Sand and the kind of pirates desperate enough to try to make a living off the desert.

Over the thousands of years of space travel the Milky Way had seen, there’d been untold accidents. For every successful space voyage – especially in the early days – there were ten or so disasters. Space, after all, was an exceedingly dangerous place. If the temperature didn’t kill you, the vacuum would.

So planets like this were littered with junk. From transport carcasses to old cargo satellites, if you were brave enough to face the desert, it could be a rewarding place.

Or it could kill you. The extra fine particles of sand on this planet were known to clog guns, stuff up scanners, and kill engines. They were also known to cut people to death if the winds picked up.

“Where the hell are you?” Josh asked under his breath as his heart skipped a few beats. Turning around a corner, he faced the last few buildings right at the edge of the city. Beyond was nothing but sand. Though it was dark, he could see the dunes connected together like mountain ranges. Mountain ranges that could change in a night if the wind took to them.

He sucked in a calming breath. It didn’t work. It made him tenser.

Either the scanner was wrong, or Mimi had… what? Gone back into the desert? He liked to think she was stupid, but he had to admit this was insane even for her. She may not have finished her tenure at the Academy, but surely she’d managed to figure out that deserts like this one could kill you. They weren’t pleasant places for midnight strolls; they were death wrapped in sand, wind, and heat.

“Looking for someone?”

Josh jolted as surprise ripped through him. He’d been so transfixed on the scanner and Mimi’s possible whereabouts that he hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings.

Big mistake.

A planet like this was full of desperate brutal people just waiting for a chance to kill you if it could earn them a buck or two.

Thankfully Josh wasn’t immediately shot down in a hail of bright white laser fire. Instead, a small figure pulled itself out of the shadows of a low building to his left. Josh didn’t jump for joy, thinking it was Mimi. While the size was right, the voice wasn’t. Unless she’d done nothing but drink space whiskey for the past four hours while trying her hand at slitting her own throat, it wasn’t her.

Sure enough, as the figure resolved out of the darkness, he saw it was an Arkba – a short but lithe alien from the Arkba Crescent – a system a long way from here.

Arkbas had a reputation for creating trouble. Not ordinary trouble, though. They didn’t go into bars and punch the first pirate they saw – they just… started things. They enjoyed mischief. They liked setting in motion unstoppable events, kicking back, and watching the show.

“Looking for someone?” The alien licked its chin. It had a long black tongue with a red tip, which it constantly used to moisten the sense organ protruding from its chin. Unlike humans, Arkba’s had a third eye – one lodged into their jaw. It was pretty disgusting, or at least it would be if Josh hadn’t seen worse.

“I can’t say I am, no,” Josh answered. He was lying, but he wasn’t about to engage an Arkba in conversation. Either the guy would try to sell him a faulty cruiser stolen from a pirate king, or he’d find some other way of embroiling Josh in trouble.

And Josh already had plenty of trouble as it was without adding to it.

“Human is looking for someone, because someone was looking for human.”

Though he tried to hide it, Josh stiffened.

Mimi?

The Arkba licked his third eye again. He had green scaly skin with deep purple hands and feet. Now, as he likely sensed Josh’s tension, he shuffled forward a few steps.

The alien came into a shaft of light reflecting from a building to his right. He was naked – like all Arkbas – except for a top pulled over his torso.

Mimi’s top, to be exact. Josh didn’t need his DNA scanner to blip excitedly – he recognized it on his own.

His heart tumbled into his chest, as if someone had shaken it loose from his rib cage.

“Human interested. I see human interested.” The alien’s third eye shifted back and forth as it surveyed Josh. “Now, want to know other human’s whereabouts?”

Josh tried to think quickly. The Arkba had Mimi’s top. It was clear it had come in contact with her. Did it know who she was? Had it run a simple identity scan to confirm she was the only child of Theodore Chester? Was it about to bargain for her release?

Though Josh’s heart kept pounding in his ears, he realized it was unlikely the Arkba had kidnapped her. While they loved to start trouble, they were never that direct.

“Human not want to know where other human is? No worries. I’ll tell pirates instead.”

“Wait.” Josh put up his hand, his fingers so stiff they could snap right off. “Where is she?”

He watched a slow smile spread across the Arkba’s purple lips. “Desert.”

“Sorry?”

“Desert. Bought a sand slider and a story and left 20 minutes ago.”

“… What? What do you mean she bought a sand slider and a story?”

“Watched her as she sat at bar.” The Arkba gestured behind Josh to a rundown building that was no doubt the local watering hole. One of the many local watering holes. On a planet like this, there was a bar for every house. Though there’d be sand in your drink, you’d ignore it for the chance to imbibe your worries away.

“What happened?”

“She listened as pirates talked about the Black Mass.”

“Black Mass?”

The Arkba’s third eye glittered, catching the light coming in from the buildings and looking like a ruby lodged in its chin. “Myth. Story. Legend. Lost ship from First Age.”

The First Age was a term certain alien races used for the first wave of space travel throughout the Milky Way. Though there were a lot of quality archaeological studies pertaining to the first spacefaring races, the myths outweighed the facts by far.

The stories told of technology beyond the modern age, of unlimited sources of power – of mysteries and riches that would make a pirate or a down-on-his-luck goon drop everything and wander into a desert on the slim chance of striking the mother load.

Considering his history, Josh had heard his fair share of First-Age tales. Would Mimi have been dumb enough to believe in one, though?

“Human female listened to story, then asked pirates where she could buy a sand slider.”

Josh swallowed. He could just imagine what happened next – the pirates would have taken one look at her, realized she was a hilariously easy target, and kidnapped her.

“Human female bargained hard, got sand slider at good price, bought supplies, fixed stylish hair, and left into the night,” the Arkba finished.

Josh choked. “Sorry?”

“Good hair. Arkba impressed.”

“What? No, you said she bargained for a slider and went into the desert? Why didn’t the pirates…” he trailed off.

“Human female hard bargainer – pirates respect that.”

Josh was dumbstruck. Then he shook his head. “We must be talking about different people.”

“Only human female in city. Must be talking about same person. Small, like Akbar, brown hair like wet rock, blue eyes like plasma exhaust, fat cheeks like Kandor apples.”

Josh’s stomach sank. That was Mimi, alright.

“And Mohawk like pirate king.”

“… Ahhh, what?”

“Mohawk also win pirates' respect. Now, human, you want to buy sand slider to go after her?”

Josh didn’t respond.

“Or does human still not believe? Well, human, use prohibited DNA scanner to search and confirm.” With a nod like a loose spring, the Arkba stepped graciously out of Josh’s way and gestured to the desert beyond.

Josh reluctantly pulled up his scanner and set it to search for Mimi again.

….

It soon confirmed that, indeed, her signal continued on into the desert.

A cold wind started to blow, that, or it just felt like something chilled Josh to the bones.

“Arkba sell human sand slider at good price. Human go after other human and… all will be good.”

Josh clenched his jaw.

This was bad. Everything about this was bad. He was clearly being led into some kind of trap by the Arkba, but what choice did he have? If Mimi had been foolish enough to head into the desert in the middle of the freaking night, he had to follow her. She had an hour max before she crashed her sand slider and froze to death.

“Good price, human. Just want to help, human, so Arkba give him bargain deal.”

Josh found himself nodding.

The Arkba smiled and led Josh forward.

Out in the desert the night wolves howled, and as the wind picked up, those super fine particles of dust started to scratch their way into the city. While the breeze and its cutting edge was an irritation to the populace, it would be nothing compared to the roaring winds of the desert. Unshielded, a person could be cut to death in seconds. And even if the sand didn’t get you, the pirates or creatures of the night would.

Chapter 13

“This is insane,” Mimi said for the hundredth time.

“You are in no immediate danger,” Klutzo assured her.

“Apart from falling off this rust bucket, or being eaten by night wolves, or the shields failing and being cut to death by the wind. Yeah, sure, this is entirely safe!”

“I have ascertained that this rust bucket will continue to operate with minimal maintenance for the next two days. We are shielded from the sand, the wind, and the wolves. You are safe.”

Mimi didn’t reply, instead she held onto the rails with white knuckles and sweaty palms.

A sand slider was a mad contraption.

As far as she could ascertain, it was a flat oblong disk with a couple of reconfigured cruiser engines strapped to the back and a layer of inertia-free – one of the slipperiest compounds in the galaxy – whacked on the bottom.

It was unruly, it was fast, and it made her want to hurl.

It was shielded, thankfully. If you travelled this fast in a desert without any kind of barrier between you and the razor-sharp sand, you’d end up as dust yourself in all of about five seconds.

There was barely any suspension, however, and she felt every bump, rattle, and jolt right in her bones. It reminded her of the transport’s crash landing. Except this time if she fell, there’d be no Special Commander Cook to catch her.

Which was a good thing, right?

Even though she kept trying to convince herself she’d done the right thing by leaving him behind, she had a niggling suspicion she should have stuck with him. He, presumably, wouldn’t have taken her into the desert on a sand slider. Then again, he’d have taken every opportunity to put her down, and she didn’t need that.

“I’m better off without him,” she concluded suddenly.

“I assume you’re talking about Special Commander Joshua Cook,” Klutzo said.

He sure was a lot sharper when he was in security mode. Ordinary Klutzo wouldn’t have understood what she was talking about, because ordinary Klutzo would have been too busy banging into walls.

She pressed her lips together and felt her cheeks warm for some reason.

“I am incapable of agreeing or disagreeing; Joshua Cook is hard to predict. He is easily one of the strangest Coalition officers this security unit has come across,” Klutzo announced.

He always referred to himself as “this security unit” when he was in protection mode.

“Strange? What do you mean strange? He’s mean, rude, and cruel.”

“By strange I mean out of the ordinary. There is only one other Coalition officer this unit has come across like Special Commander Cook.”

“Who’s that?”

“Galactic Hero Captain Bob,” Klutzo announced.

Mimi snorted, then she shot Klutzo a worried glance. “Ah, Klutzo, he’s a fictional character. He’s not real.”

“This unit understands that. However this unit can still draw parallels between Galactic Hero Bob’s history and mannerisms and that of Joshua Cook.”

“What?”

“They are both bad boys with checkered pasts who have had to assume responsibilities.”

“… Did you just refer to Josh as a bad boy?”

“It is the correct vernacular. It also fits him, wouldn’t you agree?”

Mimi pressed the back of her hand into her mouth and laughed. It started off a little like a giggle, but she quickly turned it into a snort. “Um, no, I don’t agree. He’s not a bad boy – he’s nasty and he’s an idiot.” Though Mimi usually didn’t like referring to people as smart or dumb, she had no such compunction when it came to Mr.. Cook.

“Perhaps you do not agree with his behaviors, but I have no evidence to suggest he has compromised intelligence. On the contrary, to receive a position like special commander, he must have extreme competence when it comes to field missions and all the intricacies they entail.”

“… Let’s just talk about something else,” Mimi interrupted. “How long until we reach that outpost you were talking about?”

Before Mimi agreed to come into the desert, Klutzo had told her about an outpost, one he was certain would have transport off the planet.

“7 hours and 35 minutes.”

“That long? I thought we’d made good time so far. I mean, this thing feels like it’s traveling faster than the speed of light.”

“It isn’t. And – due to the size of this planet – it will take a long time to reach our destination at our current speed.”

“… Ah, I wish I’d never crash-landed here. No, scratch that, I wish I’d never met Josh Cook. This is all his fault.”

“How?”

“Trust me, it is.” With that, Mimi turned around to concentrate on holding the rails.

With nothing to distract her, her thoughts ran wild. Initially they all centered on a certain Mr.. Cook and how cruel he was. Eventually, however, she started to ponder what she’d overheard in the bar. Before she’d bought her sand slider for a pretty good price, she’d listened to some story about a Black Mass out in the desert.

On principle, Mimi didn’t believe in stories, but she sure as heck believed in their power over people. That was one of the very first lessons her father had taught her: if you want to run a successful business, you need to control people’s narratives. More than perceptions, it’s the way people speak about your products that dictates the fate of a company.

Though Mimi wasn’t running a business here, the principle stood: to those pirates and other assembled brigands, the Black Mass was clearly an object of power, even if it was probably fictional. It would inform their beliefs and behaviors, and she could leverage that to her advantage, if she was smart enough.

She also might find a story, if she was lucky. If the Black Mass was real, she very much doubted it was a relic from the First Age. It could still be interesting, though. It could be a crashed research vessel, or a Barbarian probe, or some experimental weapon gone wrong the Coalition tried to hide in the sand.

In other words, it might be something she could report on. If she could leave this planet with a quality news piece, maybe she could secure the job with GNS after all.

Planning and fantasizing, Mimi passed the next several hours in relative peace.

The peace wouldn’t last.

The night on this planet was long, dark, and cold. The winds were worse in the wee hours of the morning. So bad, in fact, at times they changed the whole desert, blowing at the dunes and shifting them about like pieces on a chessboard. Though Klutzo was doing his best, there were certain factors even he couldn’t account for.

Mimi was about to walk into a legend. One that would change her life forever.

Chapter 14

He had a love-hate relationship with sand sliders. On the one hand, they went appreciably fast, on the other, you could crash them way too easily.

He had to keep his wits about him as he navigated through the dark. While the sand slider had its own rudimentary navigation controls, they were mostly shot. That’s what happened when you bought a vehicle from an Arkba.

“They better give me a commendation for this,” he muttered as he choked on a lungful of the desert. Though his sand slider was technically shielded, it still let in the occasional puff of sand. He was covered in the stuff. It shifted against his legs as he sat in his tiny command seat – the only seat on the vessel – and it crunched under his boots every time he moved. It also covered his hands, collecting under his nails and scratching at his skin.

He hated sand. Trying to survive on a desert planet for a few years had completely ruined the stuff for him. He never went to the beach, and he avoided resorts like the plague.

Now, because of her, he had to endure mounds of the stuff.

When he finally ran into her, he was going to… check that she was safe and then give her what for.

Brushing the sweat from his brow, Josh stared out into the desert as the sand slider shot forward. The suspension was pretty bad, and he always kept one hand on the rails in case the slider hit a dune.

The DNA scanner was practically useless out here. Though he tried to stop every few minutes to readjust the sensors and get a lock, it was never going to work. Instead, he relied on a combination of dumb luck and dull wit. That is, he followed the tracks in the sand. Whilst they could lead to Mimi, they could equally lead to a pack of very angry and very hungry sand wolves.

As the night drew on, his flippant attitude disappeared. It waned in time with every second and every minute. Because as every second and minute passed, Mimi was likely flying further from his reach. For a man who had lived most of his life as a vagabond and a pirate, he knew exactly, in perfect visual detail, what was in store for her. That’s why he leant further over the rails, clutched them as tight as he could in his white knuckled hands, and didn’t stop.

He joked that if he found her he’d kill her. First, he’d take the opportunity to revel in the fact she was fine, then he would kill her.

Miss Mimi Chester was turning out to be the greatest pain in the butt this side of the Rebuilders.

Chapter 15

They travelled most of the night without incident. That was the good thing about having a recording ball that could transform into a decked out, efficient security orb.

It wasn’t until dawn started to rise above the endless mountains of sand that they stopped. Suddenly, with no warning, Klutzo sped off to the side. Mimi wasn’t expecting it, and by the time she noticed, her speeding slider had already rounded another dune.

She came to a screeching stop. Setting the brakes to full, she held onto the rails for dear life. Thankfully the suspension and shielding didn’t fail, though they did groan in protest. The very last thing she wanted was to end up headfirst in a sand dune. By the time she managed to wriggle free, no doubt her shoes would have been stolen by a scavenger, and her feet eaten by a wolf.

She managed to pull the slider to a stop before jumping off. “Klutzo, Klutzo, what are you doing?” She waved at him, trying to get him to return to her.

He wasn’t paying any attention.

He was hovering a good 20 meters above the ground. She could barely make him out as the rays of dawn infiltrated the night.

“Klutzo?” She couldn’t keep the fear from shaking her voice. For all Klutzo’s eccentricities, when he was in security mode, he was reliable. He would not dart off without warning unless there was a problem.

She checked around her, drawing her shoulders in as she stared at the dark shadowy dunes to her left and right. Dawn was a slow, languid affair on this planet, and though the first rays of sunshine were peeking across the horizon, it would be another half hour before the shadows no longer scared her. There was something about how the darkness appeared to pool like water that made her shiver.

Finally she got Klutzo’s attention. He flew towards her. As he did, he appeared to twist to the side, as if he was staring at something as he headed her way.

Nerves kicked through her gut, spiraling up her back and chilling the skin as they went. Swallowing and pressing a thin breath through her lips, she held her hand out to him. He did not come to rest in her grip.

“Danger,” he said.

Her nerves turned into fully fledged fear. Mimi turned around quickly, her eyes widening as she stared at the sand.

What was out there?

Not for the first time, she started to regret her decision. Leaving Josh Cook behind had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now she’d be lucky if that little fact didn’t kill her.

“There is an object…” Klutzo trailed off. He was a recording device, and never usually trailed off. Unlike a human, he didn’t have to search for his words, nor did his emotion ever overcome him.

Mimi would be a fool not to realize her recording ball was frightened.

She started to shiver, and she took several careful steps back towards her slider. “What is it?”

“I do not know.”

“What do you mean? What kind of object is out there?”

Klutzo took a long time to answer. Again, it appeared as if all his attention was centered back towards whatever mysterious object was out there. “It is a black spike, protruding from the sand, approximately 45 centimeters into the air.”

She shivered. But she also blinked. Black spike? By the way he was behaving, she’d expected a pack of sand wolves, or an angry platoon of scavengers, or a horde of barbarians out for a picnic.

She wasn’t dumb enough to brush off Klutzo’s comment. He was still the security drone. If he was scared, it wouldn’t be without reason.

She tried to swallow. Her mouth was so dry she gave up and coughed instead. “What do you mean?”

“Danger,” he repeated.

She shivered again. Though her instincts told her to get back on her slider and drive as far away from this spot as she could get, something held her back.

Curiosity.

Maybe whatever lessons they’d managed to instill in her at the Academy still remained, or maybe it was courage, or maybe it was plain stupidity. But Mimi, wiping the sweat off her brow with her thumb and wrist, took a step towards Klutzo, not away. “Where is it? What is it?”

“It is over there, approximately 15.5 meters to your left, right at the base of this sand dune.”

Mimi clutched a hand to her stomach in an effort to control her nerves. Before she took a step towards the object, she hesitated. She wasn’t an idiot. She might be curious, but she needed to find out more about this mysterious spike before she accidentally tripped over it in the waning dark. “Is it safe to approach? Are there any other enemies around?”

Klutzo didn’t answer.

“Klutzo?” Her voice wavered with fear.

“There are no other enemies around. There is only the spike.”

“Well… is it weaponized? Is it irradiated? Is it okay to approach?”

“I do not detect the presence of explosives or weapons of any kind. Radiation levels are normal.”

Mimi blinked hard. Then she narrowed her eyes against the dawn and bit her lip. Slowly, cautiously she started to walk towards it. When the world didn’t end and the sun didn’t fall from the sky, she sped up a little, but only a fraction.

Finally she reached it. At first it was hard to discern the spike in the dim light, but once her eyes spied it, it garnered her full attention.

Klutzo’s description had been correct: it was a thin black spike sticking about 45 centimeters out of the sand. What it was, however, was a mystery.

“Wh – what is that?” Mimi stuttered as she came to a wary stop about a meter from its side.

“I am unable to scan it.”

“What?” She half turned to Klutzo.

He appeared to hesitate a few meters away, as if, somehow, the electronic orb was scared. Klutzo was a lot of things, considering the number of times his memory banks had been wiped, but he never displayed fear. It wasn’t part of his programming.

Still, as she waved him forward and he reluctantly zoomed up to her, she couldn’t deny how hesitant he appeared.

“Try scanning it again,” she suggested.

“… I still cannot detect the object.”

“Wait, what? You can’t detect it – it’s right in front of us.”

“Of this I am aware. However, my sensors cannot penetrate the object. In many ways, it’s as if it’s not there.”

“Sorry? You mean something is shielding it from being scanned, right?”

“No. I mean though I register the same visual image as you, that is it. There is nothing to suggest it has mass, charge, weight, or any other standard properties of matter.”

Mimi curled her toes inside her shoes, letting the move distract her. “Ah, what does that mean?”

“It means we must proceed with extreme caution.”

“Oh.” She felt sick, and immediately slapped a hand on her stomach.

“Perhaps we should turn back,” Klutzo suggested. There was a waver in his voice, something that sounded suspiciously like relief.

Mimi thought about it. She turned back to the black object. If it weren’t so small, she’d wonder whether this was the vaunted Black Mass. But surely something fitting of such a legend would be enormous?

The object in front of her was little more than a pole.

When she’d struck out into the desert, she’d told herself she would investigate the Black Mass legend. As well as finding a ticket off this planet, of course.

Now she wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. If a solitary black pole sticking out of the scorched sand was too much for her to handle, the real Black Mass would likely scare her to death.

With her hands sweaty and a lump forming in her throat, she nodded.

“Good idea, Klutzo. I think it’s time we get out of here.”

Klutzo didn’t wait – he zoomed back to the sand slider like a frightened dog.

Mimi followed. Yet she turned her head, half walking backwards as her gaze was drawn once more towards the pole.

There was something… weird about it. The way it made her feel… she couldn’t put her finger on it. She was merely aware of this unwanted presence in her mind.

Shaking her head and finally turning around, she clambered onto the sand slider.

Once she was seated, she turned one more time to look at it.

….

She shivered.

“Let’s get out of here,” she suggested quickly, turning around and starting the slider up.

Just as she started to maneuver it out of the dip she was in, she heard something. It sounded like a knife cutting over the desert. “Ah, what is that?”

Klutzo appeared to concentrate. Maybe the presence of the black pole was still affecting his scanners, because he had to launch into the sky to obtain a visual, rather than use his sensors.

She craned her neck to watch him hovering about 30 meters above her.

The sound got louder.

Something was coming. Friend or foe, she was soon to find out.

Chapter 16

It was when he started losing hope that he saw something small dart up into the sky. Using his hyper-binoculars, he quickly ascertained what it was.

“Klutzo,” he said victoriously as he pulled the binoculars from his eyes. Casting them aside and hearing them tumble to the floor of his slider, he leaned over the rails and gunned the engine.

His slider shot over the desert, churning up great clouds of sand that lifted high into the sky.

He’d been traveling all night. Dawn was on the horizon, and thankfully it calmed the frenzied wind of the night.

Nothing would calm his mood.

“She better be okay,” he muttered, leaning even further over the rails until his shoulders tightened with tension.

He kept an eye on Klutzo, and watched him dart back out of sight under the lip of a tall dune.

If Klutzo was fine, that was a good sign Mimi would be too.

….

Actually, no it wasn’t. Josh was kidding himself. Klutzo could have wandered off, malfunctioned, or been left behind by her kidnappers. So as Josh’s slider mounted the dune, he didn’t stop. He shot down the side of it so fast he practically caused an avalanche.

He could see a sand slider parked with its nose towards him.

He parked alongside it. If parking can include yanking on the brake and swinging in alongside the vehicle with a screech of inertia drives and a great cloud of sand.

Josh didn’t stop. He jumped onto the sand. He sunk in up to his knees, but pulled himself free and stalked forward.

Klutzo was hovering off to the side, doing a good impression of looking sprung.

As for Mimi….

Before Josh could fear she wasn’t here, he heard her whimper.

She was on the slider.

He rounded the back of it and vaulted onto the vehicle. His move was so strong he made the thing shake.

Then, then he finally saw her.

She was hiding under the dash with her hands over her head.

He growled.

She looked up. He watched recognition widen her startlingly blue eyes. “Josh.”

“That’s right, Princess,” he spat as he marched forward, leaned down, and pulled her up by the arm. “I’m surprised you remember me. You did abandon me, after all.”

Though he was furious, he couldn’t deny his relief. It lapped at him like waves, washing away the past days’ worth of fear.

Mimi was fine. Surprised at his sudden appearance, sure, but okay.

“I… I didn’t abandon you,” she tried, not bothering to pull her arm free as he yanked her forward and off the back of the slider.

“What do you call it then?” He let her arm go, but didn’t take a step back to reinstate his personal space. Instead he stared right into her eyes, despite the fact she was close enough that his breath buffeted her fringe.

“I… I….”

“You ran off, put yourself in danger, and wasted my time.”

She shrunk back from him. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Then what exactly was it like, Mimi? What the hell were you thinking? That you were better off without me—” he began, barely getting started on his tirade. He had a lot to get off his chest. A day of thinking she was either dead or kidnapped, to be precise.

“Yes,” she interrupted, her surprise abating as her brow crumpled, “yes, I thought I was better off without you.”

“Excuse me?” He stuttered, shocked at her honesty.

Before, she had been shrinking away from him, clearly scared. Now she stood her ground. “I thought I was better off without you,” she repeated bluntly.

Josh’s jaw dropped open.

“Surprised?” She crossed her arms. She had the tenacity to cross her arms despite the fact she had wandered off into the desert on her own, leaving him to track her down.

Briefly he couldn’t say anything, then the anger came thundering back. “I knew you were arrogant, but this is insane.”

“Arrogant? You want to talk about being arrogant? Why don’t you look at yourself first? You have the emotional understanding of a meteor.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you’re the rudest, meanest, coldest person I have ever met. Now leave me alone.” With that, she attempted to walk back to her sand slider.

Josh got there first, leaning in and grabbing her arm. She didn’t let him hold it long, as she shoved him off. To be honest, he could easily have kept his grip, but he stumbled back nonetheless.

“What’s wrong with you?” He asked.

She stopped and turned very slowly, sand scattering over her boots. “What’s wrong with me? Seriously? Can you honestly be that obtuse? You accused me of killing someone,” she choked through her words.

“What? When?”

She made an exasperated noise, threw her hands in the air, and walked back to her slider.

“Do you have any idea what you put me through by walking off on your own?” Josh tried to maneuver in front of her, but she kept ducking around his arms. “I thought you’d been kidnapped. You may not have much experience with planets like this, Princess, but trust me, I do. You would have roused the attention of every criminal and two-bit scavenger. You’re lucky you made it this far. Speaking of which, what the hell were you thinking going off into the desert on your own? This place is dangerous.” Throughout his entire tirade, he didn’t take a single breath. He let the anger push his words out in rapid-fire, like pulses from a gun.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t been kidnapped. Also,” she spread her arms wide, indicating her body, “I’m fine. The desert hasn’t killed me.”

“Yet.”

“You know, I don’t need someone like you looking out for me.”

He snorted. “I’m not sure if you remember, but if it weren’t for me, you would have been impaled back on that transport. You would also have been kidnapped by that scavenger. I don’t know how it works in that rich brat world of yours, but in my world, I’m owed a thank you, not an ear bashing.”

“You want to know how it works in my world, Josh? It’s funny, because it actually works the same as in your world,” she said in a singsong sarcastic voice, “if you do nothing but insult and belittle someone, they leave you. You might have protected me in the past, and I’ve already thanked you for that, but the benefit of traveling with you is not worth the price.”

He snorted. “I can’t believe this,” he said, pressing his dirty fingers into his brow and letting the nails dig hard into his flesh until half-moon circles appeared over the sweat and grit. “I drop everything, purchase a sand slider from a shifty alien, and stay up the whole night tracking you down. You are the most ungrateful brat in the universe.”

“And you’re an idiot.”

“Right, I’ve had enough of this. You are coming back with me whether you like it or not. I have a duty as an officer of the Coalition. If I let the daughter of Theodore Chester die in the desert, my career is done for. And I will not let you destroy my career, Princess,” his voice became dark and edgy.

Her expression paled somewhat, but she didn’t lose the defiant edge to her gaze. “I am not going anywhere with you.”

He gave an exasperated laugh, pushing both hands through his hair and dislodging the scarf he’d used to protect himself from the sand. As the fabric fell down his neck, a whole pile of sand cascaded down his collar. It itched his back and reminded him exquisitely how much he hated the desert.

“I will tie you up if I have to. But you will not ruin what I’ve been working for for the past five damn years. You got that, Princess?”

“Stop calling me Princess. And I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Josh brought his hands up and dug his fingers into his palms as hard as he could. Rebuilders he could deal with. Barbarians were a walk in the park. Mimi Chester was murder.

He took a step towards her, and immediately she turned and ran for his sand slider.

Throughout the entire altercation her recording orb drifted overhead, looking mildly curious, or as curious as an electronic ball could. It didn’t interrupt, and nor, thankfully, did it zip around banging into every object, including his head.

If Josh had been paying keen attention, though, he would have noticed that Klutzo was maintaining a specific distance from them. And if not from them, from an object Josh had not yet noticed. But one that was about to change his world.

Chapter 17

She darted away from him. She was determined not to go back with Josh. Yes, he had saved her in the past. Yes, occasionally he could be nice, gentle even. But she couldn’t put up with that cruel side of his personality. She couldn’t stand there and wait for the kind Josh to be replaced with a monster.

So she ran up the sand dune towards his slider.

If she were being smart, instead of emotional, she would have realized there was no way she could outrun a special commander in the Coalition forces. Not only was he bigger than her, he was trained. Though she exercised occasionally, that exercise never included stamina training and running up freaking dunes. With every step, her foot plunged into the sand up to her ankle. It was excruciating to pull it out again. It was also slow.

Within a matter of seconds, he was right behind her.

Her heart fluttered, and it wasn’t only with fear. In fact, she wasn’t sure she was even afraid. Despite the fact she had made a decision not to travel with Josh, she still honestly didn’t think he would hurt her.

That would be when two massive arms wrapped around her middle and tugged her right off the dune she was clambering up. She let out a pitching scream, to which he immediately replied, “calm the heck down; I’m not going to hurt you.”

With that, he unceremoniously dumped her next to his feet.

She was furious now. Maybe he could see it, because as she snapped to her feet, he let one eyebrow slowly lift up in a clear warning. “You want to run, go ahead. Be aware I’ll catch you again.”

She stared at him darkly. It was her turn to dig her fingers into her palms as hard as she could as frustration flooded through her.

“You are categorically the nastiest person I have ever met,” she screamed.

Josh appeared unmoved. “Go ahead, Princess, get it all out. But once you’re done, we’re getting back on my slider, and we’re getting out of here.” Josh pointed over his shoulder towards his slider. A second later, however, he appeared to change his mind. After a quick appraisal of both sliders, he shrugged his shoulders. “Actually, we’re getting on your slider. But we’re still getting out of here. Together. Then you are going to give me no trouble until I hand you over to your dear dad so I can return to my normal life. You got that?”

“I really have no idea why the Coalition gave you a job.”

Josh’s jaw stiffened. “I wouldn’t cross that line. Don’t talk about my past. It’s the only warning I’m going to give you.”

“Or what,” she brought her arms up and gesticulated in a jerked, quick fashion, “you’ll hit me? You’ll kill me? You’ll leave me in the desert to rot?”

“Just don’t push me.”

“I don’t get you, Special Commander. You threaten me one minute and then the next you pretend to care. You’re almost sweet one second, then the next you’re a monster. Do you have any idea how crazy your behavior seems?”

He leaned in. It appeared to be his favorite move. It accentuated the strong line of his jaw and shoulders. “Do you think I care what you think about me?”

“No, I’m pretty sure you don’t care what anyone thinks about you. And I’m pretty sure that’s your problem. Real people, nice people, kind and decent people don’t tackle women off sand dunes.”

“Real nice, kind, and decent people would have left you in the desert, Princess. You are not worth anyone’s trouble.”

“There you go again,” she made a frustrated noise, “you want to protect me, but you also want to leave me in the desert. What’s it like living in two worlds, Josh? Do you actually have two personalities in your head? The good cop and the bad cop? The pirate and the Coalition officer?”

Josh’s jaw didn’t stiffen this time; it slackened. In fact, she watched as his hard, dirty cheeks paled.

She’d struck a nerve.

Though her heart still pumped with frustration and anger, she swallowed.

“Get on the slider,” he managed after a substantial pause. “And don’t mention my past again.”

She opened her mouth. Any number of insults were on her tongue. She couldn’t say them.

Instead, her gaze flicked towards her feet.

She couldn’t win this, could she? She wouldn’t be able to convince Josh to leave her alone. In fact, if she took a step back from this situation, she appreciated his point. In his position, as a special commander, he would have an obligation to look after her. And if something did happen to her, it would be his responsibility, and it would reflect on his career.

Maybe that wasn’t the only reason she was starting to give up. Maybe, just maybe, on some remote level she was happy Josh was back. Sure, she’d managed fine on her own. But he was bigger than her, better trained, and knew how to survive.

“Fine,” she conceded. She took a step towards the slider, but out of her peripheral vision, saw she had dropped her goggles further up the dune. She turned towards them.

“The slider is that way,” he warned.

She put a hand up quickly. “Relax, I just dropped something. I’m going to get it. I’m not going to make a run for it, promise.”

“You stay there; I’ll get it.”

She crossed her arms and watched him as he walked off. He also watched her. He kept his head angled her way as his body marched up the dune. His gaze was cold.

She had the urge to stick her tongue out at him. Though that would be childish in the extreme, it wasn’t as if he was acting like an adult.

Still watching her, Josh leaned down, plucked up the goggles, and turned to march back down towards her.

And that would be when he stumbled. His boots struck something, he overbalanced, and he tipped over.

He tumbled down the hill. Right towards the black spike.

Before she was aware of what she was doing, Mimi ran towards him.

She reached him, just as he rolled to his feet. But he took a stumble back, and fell towards the spike.

She wrapped her small arms around Special Commander Joshua Cook, and pulled him to the side. It was exactly like tackling a mountain, and just as rewarding. He fell on top of her. It felt like being body-slammed by a cruiser.

It knocked the breath out of her. It stilled her heart too. For entirely different reasons.

Josh’s body stiffened in surprise. “What the hell are you doing?"

There was a moment where she looked up into his eyes and he looked down into hers. While her heart was fluttering, his gaze looked as if he’d turned to stone.

“You think you can fight me?” He warned as he pushed to his feet.

He grabbed her wrist and yanked her up.

“For a second there, I thought you were being reasonable. I thought, somewhere in that spoilt mind of yours, you could see my point,” he began. “Well, I guess you’ve proven I can’t trust you.” He whirled on his foot.

It was her turn to grab his arm. “Hold on, be careful.”

“Shut up.”

“No, listen to me. Look down to your left, genius.”

Holding her gaze for several seconds, and looking as if he did want to tie her up, Josh finally let his head drop.

He blinked in surprise. That hard edge to his jaw dropped as his mouth opened. “What the hell is that?”

“That, Mr., is something you almost impaled yourself on. Something I saved you from. Now, do you think you could possibly stop holding onto my arm so tight? You’re going to bruise it.” She tried to yank her arm back.

He let her, his grip growing slack.

She watched him take a step back, his brow crumpling as he stared at the black spike.

“I’m pretty sure this is where you say thank you.”

She watched him ignore her, get down on his knees, and inspect the spike.

Throughout her entire argument with Josh, she’d pretty much forgotten about it. Now, as silence descended, the fear started to creep back in. Though she liked to think she was rational, she couldn’t deny she wanted to get as far away from that strange black spike as was possible.

“What is this?” Josh asked again, tipping his head up to look at her.

“I don’t know. Klutzo came across it. We stopped the slider to have a closer look. That’s when you came along.”

Josh turned back from her without another word. Then he reached out his hand towards the spike.

Mimi jumped towards him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him back. “Are you serious? You can’t touch that.”

He turned around to look at her. They were close, not as close as they’d been moments before when she’d tackled him, but close enough that his face took up most of her view, and all of her attention.

She found herself swallowing again.

“Why don’t you let go of my arm? I know what I’m doing,” he suggested in a gruff voice that had an unusual effect on her stomach.

She shook her head, not letting go. “Do you? I’m pretty sure it’s something like lesson one at the Academy that you shouldn’t go around touching mysterious objects on alien planets.”

He snorted at her, trying to pull his arm back at the same time.

She held on fast. It meant that as he tried to pull his arm free, he pulled her closer.

“I don’t need to be lectured on Academy lessons. I’m not the one who got kicked out.”

“I didn’t get kicked out. We discussed this before. And do you think, maybe, just for a second, you could wait to listen to what I have to say before deciding it’s irrelevant?” She stared into his eyes.

Several awkward seconds passed where she tried to keep hold of her determined expression, but found her gaze wandering over Josh’s face instead. From the hard edge to his jaw, to his defiant, but somewhat mesmerizing eyes.

“Well, hurry up and tell me,” he stated flatly.

“Okay, just promise not to touch it,” she said as she tentatively let go of his hand. When he didn’t snap forward and grab the black spike, she rested back on her haunches and let out a breath. “I don’t know what to say, really.”

“It better be something good considering the lead up you just gave it. That, or I’m going to have to conclude once more that you just love wasting my time.”

She put up a hand tersely. “Cool your jets. Fine, I’ll tell you. When we came across it, I got Klutzo to scan it.” She started to play with her arms, brushing her hand over her wrist. She wanted to tell Josh about the feeling she got off that thin piece of metal sticking up out of the desert sands, but she couldn’t. Because, seriously, she had known the guy long enough now to realize he would pay absolutely zero attention to her feelings. “Anyhow, he said while he can get a visual on it, that’s it. He can’t get any other readings.”

Josh snorted. “It just means it’s being shielded from sensors.”

She offered him a sarcastic smile. “No, that’s not what he said. He said there are no readings available, because it doesn’t appear as if it has a mass, charge, or any other physical property.”

He leveled his gaze at her, waited for her to meet it, then he snorted. Loudly. Grotesquely. “You’re an idiot. That makes no sense.”

“Fine, why don’t you ask Klutzo yourself?”

“You think I’m going to trust the ramblings of a recording ball that has been wiped so many times it can’t fly straight?”

“You know, Josh, you’ve got a serious problem.”

“Is it you? It’s you, isn’t it?” He answered sarcastically as he shifted past her and tried to touch the spike.

She grabbed his hand again. Once more it brought her within close proximity of his face.

He arched an eyebrow. “My patience is running out.”

“Just, just don’t touch it! Seriously, can’t you feel it? It’s so… creepy.”

He arched his other eyebrow. “Creepy? It’s a freaking black spike sticking out of the sand.”

“No. It’s more. Klutzo had the same reaction as I did. It’s… I don’t think we should disturb it.”

He gave another of his rattling, world-ending snorts. It was a surprise he didn’t suck the whole desert up his nostrils. “You accuse me of being the idiot? I wouldn’t have thought you would be superstitious. Then again, you never cease to surprise me,” his voice bottomed out and his lip kinked to the side.

“Just don’t—”

He tried to reach past her to touch the spike. She got in his way, but in doing so, he bumped her towards it.

Her side pressed up against that thin piece of metal.

Immediately, Josh grabbed her back. “Be careful,” he snarled.

“Careful? You’re the one who should be careful. We have no idea what that thing can do,” she said, trying to ignore the lingering touch of his hands around her middle.

He looked at her pointedly. “You just bumped into that thing, Princess. If anything were to happen, it would have happened by now.”

She opened her mouth.

Something began to shift underneath her. A rumbling travelled up through the sand, sending it scattering about her.

“What the hell?” She had time to say.

Then the ground below her gave way.

In the blink of an eye metal plates opened underneath them, and both her and Josh tumbled into the darkness.

Chapter 18

It happened too quickly. He went from teasing her, to feeling the ground below give way. He tried to reach her, tried to grab her, but in the tumble of sand and metal, she fell from his grasp.

He felt his body fall, felt the sand wash around him, like dry water, striking his body, covering his face, cascading down his back.

There was a crash, the sound of metal buckling, and finally the thump as his body struck something.

Instinctively, he rolled, absorbing the force of the fall. The sand helped to soften the blow, too.

He rolled to his feet. “Mimi? Mimi?” He called into the darkness. Bringing a hand up and covering his mouth, he coughed through the sand, batting a hand at it as he waited for it to disburse.

His heart was in his throat, pounding, thrumming, threatening to shake through his jaw and shatter his teeth.

Realizing he couldn’t wait for the great clouds of sand to disburse, he got down on his knees and proceeded to methodically feel around with his fingers.

Soon enough he struck a leg.

It had to be her.

She wasn’t moving.

“Mimi,” he screamed her name, his voice echoing off some distant wall.

He had no idea where he was, but as his mind caught up to the situation, he realized it was likely some kind of downed spaceship. One that had lain undisturbed in this great desert for countless years.

It would be a scavenger’s dream. The old Josh would have been over the moon.

The new Josh didn’t care. The new Josh quickly found Mimi’s face and pressed a hand over her mouth to check her breathing. “Mimi,” he shouted once more.

The dust and sand started to settle, and finally he saw her.

Her head was at an odd angle. Just before fear could shoot through him, she started to rouse.

He fell back on his haunches, relief pumping through him with every beat of his heart.

“What… happened?” She managed.

He resisted the urge to crumple over her and hug her. For one, he hated her. For another, goddamn it, he hated her. But the urge, nonetheless, had to be controlled.

“Josh?” She tried to turn towards him. Suddenly she twitched in pain. That’s when he noticed a pool of blood trickling out from behind her head. It was staining the sand as it marched towards him.

“Hold still,” he said quickly, weighing a hand into her shoulder. “We fell through the sand into some kind of ship,” he explained in a soft voice, “you’ve hit your head.”

“I feel okay.”

“Mimi, don’t argue with me. Just hold still.” As fear caught him, and his brow slicked with sweat, a memory surged up to meet it.

The spray-on skin was still in his pocket. He’d wisely kept it after changing his clothes. At the time, he mused it could likely come in handy.

It was about to.

Still, whilst the spray-on skin would immediately stop the bleeding and cancel out any pain, he needed a scanner to ensure there was no brain damage. He also needed drugs to fight her concussion, and to fight any damage, should it be there.

“I want you to keep talking to me,” he said as he pushed to his knees.

“What, why?”

“Mimi, just talk to me.” He turned from her and started to search through the sand. If he was lucky, one of the sliders might have fallen down into the ship with them. The sliders would be equipped with standard med packs.

“I don’t get it, you keep telling me to shut up.”

“Now I’m changing my mind. I do that a lot.”

“I’ve kind of noticed that.”

His lips kinked into a smile as he searched through the mounds of sand and broken metal. He soon reached the point where they’d fallen, and he stared up.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. It felt like he’d tumbled quite a distance, to be sure, but as he stared at the roof high above, he realized they’d dropped a good 15 meters. How they’d both survived, he didn’t know. Though it was likely a combination of the sand offering them a cushion and the falling chunks of ceiling forming a kind of ramp as they rolled down into the belly of the ship.

The point was, he wouldn’t be able to make it back up into the desert; there was nothing to climb.

He swore softly under his breath.

“What is it?” Mimi asked.

“Just keep talking,” he encouraged her. “Tell me about… the interstellar baking championship.”

“I thought you said that was pathetic.”

“It is pathetic. Just tell me about it.”

“I… I’m kind of tired. I just want to…” she trailed off.

He turned sharply on his foot. “Mimi,” he said in a booming voice, “you are not going to sleep. Now talk to me about the interstellar baking championship.”

“There’s no need to be so mean. Why are you so mean, anyway? I mean, I’ve met people who’ve come from difficult backgrounds before, and they’re not like you,” she began.

He smiled. Not because she was putting him down, but because Mimi was about to have a rant. He’d heard enough of them to know she was only getting started.

As she continued to berate him, he searched the ship, hoping like hope to come across one of the sliders. Soon, he realized there simply wasn’t one down here.

Just as desperation struck him, he looked up and saw something small and dark zip into view. Putting his hand over his eyes to cut out the sunshine streaming in from the massive hole in the roof, he quickly realized it was Klutzo.

Klutzo.

The ball appeared to be… reticent. Scared, even. Rather than zip into the ship and check on Mimi, it flew back and forth like a worried dog.

“What are you doing?” Josh chided it. “Get down here. You need to scan Mimi. No, wait, go to one of the sliders and bring the med kit.”

“… Dangerous.”

“What?” Josh spat.

“It’s dangerous down there.”

“Go and get me that med kit and get down here now,” Josh shouted, using the exact tone he would on a recruit.

Klutzo zoomed away, and within less than a minute was back. He dragged a med kit in a small holding beam behind him. As he flew into the belly of the ship, however, the little recording ball appeared to hesitate. It was honestly as if the damn thing was scared. Maybe it had been wiped so many times that it had forgotten it was a machine.

As Klutzo flew towards him, Josh snapped forward, grabbed the med kit from the holding beam, before it was even turned off, then turned and ran towards Mimi. He plunged down to his knees, skidded slightly, and started to rip into the kit. He grabbed up the medical scanner, set it to work with several practiced moves, and only then took a breath.

….

Mimi Chester had a nasty concussion, a deep gash in the back of her skull, but no brain damage. Or at least nothing the contents of the medical kit wouldn’t fix.

Josh sighed. Maybe a little too loudly, as Mimi crumpled her brow. Fortunately she didn’t say anything, and he quickly set to work selecting the correct drugs.

“Okay, I just need you to sit up,” he said gently as he helped her into a seated position.

Again she didn’t say anything. But she watched him. And those two piercing blue eyes were quite the distraction.

He swallowed, then swallowed again. In fact, he swallowed entirely too much as he went about the delicate and quite tactile job of fixing her injuries.

Once he’d administered the drugs, he set about seeing to the gash on the back of her head. Carefully he separated her hair then sprayed on the skin.

Once he was done, he checked her again with the medical scanner.

When it confirmed that no more medical intervention was necessary, he let out another massive sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” she said softly. She could have taken the time to point out that Josh was being a massive hypocrite once again. He knew very well he spent most of his time putting her down. So surely he had no right to pretend to care about her safety.

The problem was, it wasn’t a pretense.

He did care. Kind of. Because he still hated her. Kind of.

He shifted back and set about packing up the med kit. Knowing Mimi, they would need it again. Probably pretty soon.

She was still watching him. It didn’t take long for her attention to become too uncomfortable to ignore. He set the med kit down and looked up at her. “What?”

“I’m waiting.”

“For what?”

“For you to change again.”

His brow crumpled. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I’ve noticed a pattern with you, Josh Cook. Whenever you go into this protective mode, whenever you save me, it doesn’t take too long for you to turn back into the other Josh.”

He pressed his lips together and tried to control the flare of anger that ignited at her words.

She narrowed her eyes. “Still waiting. It is about to happen, isn’t it? Any minute now, you’re going to snap at me again. You’re going to tell me I’m the most useless person in the universe and that I killed Lilly Williams,” her voice broke with tension.

“… What? I wouldn’t say that.”

“You did say that. Don’t you remember? That’s why I walked away from you. I didn’t kill her….” She started to choke up.

Josh blinked back his surprise.

He’d been ready to shout at her. Of course he had. What an ungrateful brat. He’d busted a gut to save her, and the second thing she’d said was she was waiting for him to turn back into a monster again.

Now, he couldn’t do anything but stare as tears tumbled down her cheeks.

“Look, Mimi, I’m sorry,” he said, his voice choking for some reason.

She didn’t look at him. Instead, she stared at her hands.

This was a Mimi he’d never met. Up until this point, he’d convinced himself she had completely gotten over the death of Lilly Williams. Up until this point, he’d assumed she was arrogant enough to push away whatever responsibility she’d had in the so-called accident.

Now he realized he was wrong.

Her tears attested to that.

“Do you have any idea what it feels like to try to overcome something like that, but to constantly be reminded by everyone you know that you are not allowed to move on? I tried to come to terms with my role in Lilly’s death. I tried to get on with the rest of my life. But people won’t let me. They keep reminding me, over and over again. They won’t move on themselves. You know what that feels like?”

“Yes,” the word was out before he could stop himself. Rational Josh knew that at a time like this he should just shut up. Problem was, Josh hardly ever listened to his rational side.

She looked up at him from under her crinkled brow. “What?”

“You asked me if I know how it feels to have people constantly remind me of my past. To stop me from moving on. I know exactly how that feels. You had a partial role in an accident, Mimi, I was a pirate and a scavenger and a criminal for years. If you think it’s hard to turn your back on your past and continue with your life, it’s impossible for me. Somewhere along the line, no matter how far you distance yourself from what you did, someone will remind you.”

She thumbed the tears from her cheeks and pressed her lips together. “Sorry. I… I guess I didn’t make the connection.”

He laughed. It was half frustrated, half relieved.

In his head, Mimi Chester wasn’t the kind of girl to apologize like this. In his head, he expected her to use the opportunity to pry further into his history.

She didn’t. She continued to thumb her cheeks dry. “I’m sorry,” she said once more.

He opened his mouth to tell her she should be. The words didn’t come out. “You didn’t kill Lilly Williams,” he said instead. Though he was surprised by his words, he didn’t stop speaking them. “I read your file. I know what happened. It was an accident. They happen.”

She let her hands fall into her lap as she saved all her attention for him. “What?”

“So here’s a word of advice, Mimi, ignore everyone else and move on anyway. In fact, you seem to have already done that. Maybe I’m the one who needs that advice,” he realized as he sighed. He let his knees fall out from underneath him, and he sighed again.

She watched him attentively. “It would be tougher for you,” she acknowledged.

He massaged his brow, but looked at her from underneath his hand. “I guess you’re right. You had a hand in an accident, whereas me,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I was a criminal. I quite enjoyed smuggling. There’s a certain kind of skill involved in picking the right kind of transport. It’s a bit like cat and mouse. Kind of exhilarating, I guess.” He let his hands fall into his lap too. “It took me a long time to realize… I was hurting people. No, scratch that, I knew that from the beginning. It just took me a long time to care. All I saw was a universe that had given me nothing and taken everything. I’d lost my family, I’d lost my friends, and there was no one to look after me. So I grew up in a world where looking after yourself meant taking from other people. I can sit here and try to justify that to you, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is I’m a different person now. I got an opportunity, I took it. I want to say that I never looked back, but I look back every single damned day. Not because I want to be a smuggler again, because I worry I haven’t really changed. No, I worry I’m not allowed to.”

“Josh, it’s okay. I understand,” she said in a soft voice. “I know what it feels like to be constantly beset by the fear that you are not permitted to move on. That if you get over what you’ve done, you’re somehow pretending it wasn’t significant. I waited around for a long time for people to give me permission to forgive myself. But they were never going to do it,” she bit her lip, “it was my father who told me I couldn’t wait for permission. My guilt is not their responsibility; it’s mine.”

“Yeah, but Mimi, you said yourself, and I read it in your file, it was an accident. You have no reason for guilt.” In many ways, he couldn’t believe what he was saying. He’d held onto the fact Mimi was responsible for Lilly William’s death ever since he’d learnt about it. Why? Because he’d used it as a weapon against Mimi. He’d ignored the truth of the Academy’s report because it was easier. Because he wanted to. Because it gave him ammunition.

Now he realized how cruel that had been.

His stomach kicked with something suspiciously close to empathy, empathy wrapped up in guilt.

“I could have done more,” she suddenly conceded as she hunched her shoulders together, “when I realized it was a bad idea to go ahead with the simulation, I could have fought harder to prevent it. I could have gone to a superior, could have pulled the plug on it. I didn’t.”

“Maybe,” he conceded.

She looked crestfallen.

“Or maybe that wouldn’t have done a thing. That’s the problem with hindsight, Mimi, it tricks you into believing you know how things could have turned out differently. If you fought the E Club, if you pulled the plug on the simulation, they might have done it without you. It could have been a bigger accident, for all you know. You did all you could at the time. Maybe you could have shouted louder, maybe you could have fought harder, but it doesn’t matter. You learn and you move on.”

“But Lilly Williams is dead. I could have—”

“Died in her place? Would that have made it okay?”

“What? I….”

“You’re trying to figure out how much penance you should pay. You’re trying to logically figure out just how responsible you were, so you can calculate how long you should feel guilty, right? The problem is, the goalposts keep shifting. Every time you think you’ve figured out just how responsible you were, another thought crops up. You could have done this, you could have done that. Suddenly, the guilt comes flooding back in. Well, in my years as a bona fide brigand, I’ve learned a lot about guilt. Even more about pushing it away. It’s the least logical emotion there is. Reasoning with it only feeds it.”

“So what do I do?”

“I don’t know. When you get the answer, tell me; I’ll be real interested.”

She pressed her lips together, let her head drop, and slowly pulled it up as she met his gaze. “I was kind of hoping you’d tell me exactly how to get over it.”

He chuckled. “Ha, that’s funny; I was hoping you would tell me the same.” He pushed to his feet. He took two steps towards her and reached a hand out. “I might be the world’s least competent psychologist, considering I have all the compassion of a desert, but I wonder if the key is moving on. You obsess about the past, you miss the future. Guilt has its place, but if you let it, it will only force you to make more mistakes. And if we sit here yammering about our problems too long, we’re not going to get out of here.”

She considered his hand. For a moment he suspected she would reject it. Then she gently placed her palm into his and let him pull her to her feet.

“How’s your head feeling?” He asked through a cough, trying to distract himself from the feeling of her hand in his.

“Actually, you may not be the universe’s worst psychologist; I’m feeling a lot better.”

“I meant your actual head; your skull. Any pain?”

She shook her head and offered him an embarrassed smile.

It made him chuckle. “Right, it’s now time to a) find out where we are, then b) get the hell out of here.”

He shifted forward, angling his head up as he checked the ceiling. It took another five seconds to realize he was still holding her hand. He dropped it, as if it were covered in spikes, then coughed casually.

Fortunately she didn’t say anything.

It took a while for his embarrassment to dissipate, but not as long as it usually would. Because when the lingering touch of her hand in his started to fade, his attention snapped back to the situation.

Where exactly were they?

What was this ship?

Josh may have referred to this as a scavenger’s dream, but as he took several echoing steps through it he realized it could also be a nightmare.

Scavenging was a dangerous job. Not only did you have to put up with a whole host of unsavory characters, including yourself, but sometimes you came across space junk too dangerous to handle.

He couldn’t count the number of people he knew of who’d died trying to rip the hull plating from an unstable vessel, or who’d been foolish and greedy enough to ransack a ship before it spiraled into a sun.

Those were the usual dangers, though.

Occasionally you were unlucky enough to come across the unusual ones.

Space was a vast place. And in its vasts were countless races, some who’d been engaged in interstellar travel for millennia rather than the few pitiful centuries humans had been exploring the stars. All of that meant a lot of junk. A lot of old spaceships. A lot of satellites, a lot of probes.

And most importantly, a lot of damn surprises.

If you wanted to stay alive as a scavenger, the number one most important rule was to pick your targets wisely. Never enter a mysterious shielded ship stuck in the desert, not before doing your homework to ensure it wasn’t a) filled with space zombies, b) booby-trapped and wired to explode, c) a barbarian trap, or d) all of the above.

Josh had a problem though. He was already in this damn ship. Now, if he didn’t find a way to quickly get out of here, he had no idea what he would face.

Okay, there could be nothing down here but sand and metal, but somehow he doubted that. Though he wasn’t a superstitious man, there was something about the dark, creepy, unsettling feel to this ship that made him want to blast a hole in the side and get the hell out of here before Hell itself reared its ugly head.

Rather than share any of these thoughts with Mimi, he kept his worries to himself. He did, however, reach for his gun.

That’s when he realized it wasn’t there. The rifle that was meant to be locked into the magnetic holster on his back must have fallen free as he tumbled into the ship. With a nervous twitch of his hands, he checked his hips, but soon enough realized that those guns were gone too.

He let out a bitter, sharp swearword.

Mimi was a step behind him, and he heard her stop, sand scattering at her feet. “What is it?” Maybe she was trying to hide the fear from her voice, but he heard it. That light waver.

He half turned to her, gritting his teeth as he did. “Nothing. I just remembered I left the oven on,” he lied.

“Oven? What’s a oven?”

“Never mind, it’s an old human saying. Now hurry up.”

He heard her sigh heavily behind him, and despite the situation, he smiled. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was smiling. Maybe it was because she hadn’t been kidnapped after all. Maybe it was that she was standing after such a nasty head injury. Or maybe his lips were just twitching and it didn’t mean anything at all.

“Why are we walking along this corridor?” She suddenly asked. “Shouldn’t we concentrate on getting out of here?”

He turned to her fully this time. Furrowing his brow and hoping she could see it even in the dim light he shook his head. “I know you just had a head injury, so I’ll say this slowly: we are looking for a way out.”

“Why don’t we just blast our way out?” She gestured behind her with her thumb, indicating the massive hole in the ceiling back the way they’d come.

Josh clenched his teeth. This time it wasn’t in feigned frustration or sarcasm. He didn’t want to tell her he’d lost his guns. There was no way to blast a ramp up to that hole. “Just leave the thinking to me, Princess.”

“Why? I told you not to touch that spike.”

“We don’t even know if touching the spike caused the cave in. In fact, I doubt it did. It was probably your considerable weight impacting on an already fragile roof,” he snarled. His heart wasn’t in it. In fact, his insult was a judicious move, not an emotional one; he wanted to distract her, and he knew from experience riling her up was the only way to go.

She slammed her hands on her hips. “Why do you always have to be so rude?”

“Because it sure as hell beats being polite. Do you think I want to have a sweet little conversation with you, Mimi? I’d rather stab myself in the eye. Now hurry up already.” He turned and waved over his shoulder.

Mimi didn’t move.

He let out an exasperated breath that echoed through the corridor. For a spaceship, it had an unusually wide hallway. Most ship design ensured thoroughfares were small, saving space for the systems that would need it like engineering and life support.

“Stop trying to fob me off. Seriously, why don’t we just blast our way out of here?”

He opened his mouth to insult her. Maybe he would point out he was the Coalition officer while she was nothing more than a reject. Or perhaps he’d default to the fact she was a spoiled brat. Instead, he said, “because I dropped my guns.” He hadn’t meant to say it; it had tumbled out.

She didn’t recede away in fear. Instead she shrugged her shoulders. “I didn’t even know you were carrying them. But that doesn’t matter, we can still blast our way out of here.”

He looked at her askance. “Maybe I should check your head again.”

“Klutzo,” she called, ignoring him as she turned around.

The orb was still following them, though at a considerable distance. It also needed constant encouragement. For an electronic device, somehow it was showing all the signs of fear.

“Klutzo, let’s get out of here. Can you blast a hole in the roof back there? Can you calculate how to make us a ramp back up into the desert?”

Josh snorted. Maybe he honestly ought to scan her head again, because she was being crazy. Klutzo was nothing more than a recording device. Granted, Josh had used him to pick up the med pack and fly it into the ship, but that pack was about the heaviest thing Klutzo would be able to carry.

Short of continually flying into the sand dune and causing an avalanche, there was no way it would be able to blast them a ramp.

“Ah, Mim,” he said distractedly as he rummaged around and grabbed the medical scanner, “just come here for a second."

“What did you just call me?”

He blinked. “… Mim?”

“That’s not my name.”

“It’s pretty darn close, plus, it’s easier to say. Now come here.” He waved her forward as he prepared the scanner.

“Are you serious? You find Mimi hard to say? Did you actually have to pass a test to get into the Academy?”

He shot her a stony look. Then he marched up to her. As he did, it was impossible to ignore how her expression changed. Though it was subtle, her eyes widened. Her cheeks didn’t pale, though, and there was no other indication she was frightened.

She simply looked extra attentive as he approached.

“Once you are done insulting me, I think I need to check your head again,” he mumbled as he brought the scanner close to the side of her face.

She watched him tersely, her cheeks reddening in something that looked suspiciously like a blush and not anger. “There is nothing wrong with my head. I just think this is a dumb plan. We can get Klutzo to shoot us a ramp out of here. I really don’t… want to continue any further.” She rubbed her arms as she stared past him into the darkened hallway.

“It’s a recording device, Mim, it can’t shoot us a ramp,” he muttered as he continued to check the scanner.

“It’s a security drone.”

One of his eyebrows arched up as he brought the scanner closer to her head, his thumb accidentally brushing against her soft cheek. She blinked quickly, her eyelashes gently tickling his hand.

In fact, it was a collection of pretty distracting sensations, so distracting it took him a moment to realize what she’d said. “Security drone? Oh man, you really must have hit your head too hard.”

She rolled her eyes and took a terse breath. “It’s a security drone as well as being a recording device. I’m the daughter of Theodore Chester, I do have to take precautions about my safety.”

He looked at her suspiciously as he finally shifted back. The medical scanner wasn’t picking up any sign of injury. It was too rudimentary to be able to tell whether she was crazy though.

“Don’t look at me like that; it’s true. Klutzo, show Josh what you can do.” A small smile spread across Mimi’s face.

For a split second, he felt anticipation. Because, seriously, she was right; she was the daughter of Theodore Chester, and it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he'd souped up her recording orb.

When Klutzo did nothing but float there, Josh shook his head. “Stop wasting my time, Mim, we need to find a way out of here.”

“Klutzo.” She turned to the device, waving him forward with a quick flick of her wrist. “Come on, it’s okay. Show the Special Commander here what you can do.” She turned back to Josh and lifted her chin triumphantly.

Klutzo still didn’t move.

Mimi darted her eyes to the left. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Danger. Danger,” Klutzo said as he shifted back, appearing to shiver in the air.

A laugh had been on Josh’s lips, but now he stifled it. As much as he wanted to dismiss the recording orb, since it had been wiped more times than a window, there was something about its fear he couldn’t dismiss.

“Must retreat. Must retreat.”

“Klutzo, we want to get out of here. Just make us a ramp,” she tried.

“Can’t make noise. It will hear.”

The hair along the back of Josh’s neck stood on end. A lightning bolt of nerves shot down his back. “Sorry? What will hear us?” Though he was determined to ignore Klutzo, it didn’t stop Josh from turning his head to the left and right as he checked the hallway carefully.

“Klutzo?” Mimi asked in a small voice that barely carried, yet nonetheless felt like it was a foghorn.

Josh took an automatic step closer to her. “Come on,” he tried, knowing it was now more important than ever to continue. If, by some extraordinary stroke of bad luck, Klutzo was right, and they were not alone down here, staying in the same place was suicide. “Come on, Mim,” he said again as he latched a hand on her arm, quickly realizing she was all too good at ignoring him.

Thankfully she didn’t resist, and Josh managed to pull her several steps down the hallway. Every beat of their footfall sounded like a drum, one that advertised their position more effectively than a holographic arrow pointing in their direction.

“What do you mean we’re not alone?” Mimi turned her head to ask Klutzo.

“Be quiet,” Josh warned her in a whisper, “and keep moving.”

“No, we just need to convince Klutzo to help us. He can blast us a ramp,” she began.

Josh stopped, turned on his foot so suddenly his boot squeaked against the floor, and collapsed his hands over both her shoulders. It was a dramatic move, and had the desired effect; her eyes shot open and her lips closed in surprise.

“Mim, trust me,” he said simply.

There were a lot of things he could tell her in that moment. He could remind her he was the special commander and the only one trained enough to take the lead. He could point out he had extensive experience dealing with creepy abandoned spaceships. He could emphasize he had already saved her numerous times before.

But the words trust me bubbled up, and when they were out, they had a curious effect.

Her expression softened. Digging her teeth into her lips, she nodded. “But he really is a security drone,” she added.

“Of course he is,” Josh said dismissively as he let go of her shoulders and grabbed up one of her hands instead.

Before he could pull her forward, something curious happened. Klutzo darted backwards. With a move like a full-bodied shudder, he turned around and shot off.

“Klutzo,” Mimi began to shout his name.

Josh slammed a hand over her mouth. Pressing his fingers into her soft lips and feeling the warmth of her cheeks under his palm, he whispered to "keep quiet," as he finally removed his hand.

From fingertip to palm, his skin tingled. That didn’t stop him from shaking his head and mouthing, “stay quiet.”

“But Klutzo—”

“Is clearly malfunctioning,” Josh said in the softest voice he could manage.

“But—”

“Just trust me, Mim.”

Before Josh could lead her forward, Klutzo’s voice echoed back through the hallway. “Must leave. Must leave. Attracted to technology.”

It was the recording orb's last three words that struck Josh like a bullet. Maybe he had misheard, or maybe Klutzo really was malfunctioning, or just possibly, just maybe the device was right.

Could there be something out there? Could it be attracted to technology?

Josh may have learnt a lot as a scavenger about the evils that can lurk in abandoned spacecraft. But he'd learnt a thing or two as a special commander about the extraordinary dangers that littered the Milky Way. From experimental weapons to Barbarian traps, he could list 10 things off the top of his head that were attracted to technology, and none of them were nice.

He didn’t have a gun, he had the daughter of the richest man in the galaxy one step behind him, and he had no one to rely on for backup.

He tried to swallow, but the move was so gruff it stuck in his throat.

“Josh, what’s going on? What was Klutzo talking about?” Mimi whispered.

“He’s malfunctioning. We just need to keep moving. But keep quiet,” Josh added quickly. He needed to play a careful game here; while he didn’t want to alert Mimi to just how dangerous things were, he couldn’t allow her to act normally either.

As they continued along the darkened hallway, Josh felt the med pack bang softly into his leg. He’d secured it against his belt. Though it was light and designed to be of minimum inconvenience, it felt like he was lugging around a stone. Not because it was particularly heavy, but because of the scanner inside.

If something out there really was attracted to technology, then the medical device inside the med pack was surely sophisticated enough to warrant its attention.

Josh should leave it behind or crush it under his boot. But he wasn’t going to do that; 10 to 1 Mimi would hurt herself again.

Not for the first time and not for the last, he cursed this stupid situation. If he had never met Mimi, presumably he wouldn’t be in this current predicament.

As for Mimi, however, he couldn’t say the same for her. She appeared to be accident-prone, and he was certain that if she hadn’t met him, she’d be dead by now. Or kidnapped. Or worse.

When things calmed down, if they ever did, he would have to solicit a genuine apology from her for all the times she’d acted like a brat.

If they ever got out of here.

They continued to walk along in silence, but the silence was incomplete. Sure, they’d stopped speaking, but every breath, every step, every movement sounded like a trumpet. Even the soft scattering of sand as their boots dislodged the grit trapped in their treads sounded like an avalanche.

Josh expected the hallway to open out into rooms, but as the minutes ticked by, he realized it was incredibly long. Either he was wrong, and he was in some kind of building rather than a downed ship, or this had to be one of the biggest spacecraft he’d ever seen.

Something wasn’t right here. From the design to the colors, even to the material, he’d never seen a ship like this.

Unbidden, from the back of his mind, a memory rose. The Black Mass. The outlandish tale of First Age technology the alien had told him before sending him into the desert after Mimi.

It couldn’t be true, right? It was just a myth, right?

Josh had seen a few First Age devices in his time; the Coalition made it its business to acquire and study all archaeological artifacts from that period. The problem was, they didn’t all look the same. Multiple races engaged in space travel during the First Age, so when you came across one of their devices, you weren’t guaranteed it would have a particular appearance. Indeed, the archaeological records were incomplete, and there were influential theories that there was still undiscovered races from that era.

So it was a real but unpleasant possibility that the very ship they were currently walking through could be from the First Age. As wild as it sounded, it just might be the Black Mass. Then again, it could be a Barbarian trap. Space travel was like that; it always stuck a gun in your face every time you thought you knew what you were doing.

They walked for a good half hour before the endless corridor changed. Suddenly, with little warning, it opened out. Josh was expecting a large room, maybe engineering or the crew deck. What he got, was something else.

Something impossible.

“What the hell?” He asked in a voice that shook uncontrollably.

Mimi took a step closer to him, banging into his arm. She took a sharp breath that shuddered in surprise.

This… was impossible.

Chapter 19

She had never seen anything like it. Okay, so Mimi hadn’t travelled as much of the galaxy as she’d like, but growing up as her father’s daughter, she had seen plenty of the Milky Way’s wonders. From the floating islands of the Alpha moons, to the triple suns of the Scorpion Cluster, she knew fully well that this galaxy had its fair share of surprises.

What was before her was….

Though they were presumably inside a spaceship and most definitely under the desert, it looked as if she had suddenly been transported into a forest. A massive room opened up before her. In fact, she wasn’t even sure it was a room; she couldn’t see the ceiling above nor the walls beyond. Instead it was as if the hallway had abruptly ended and had somehow transported them to another planet.

The floor gave way to dirt and an array of dark, lustrous plants. There were ferns and vines and shrubs. A grey-green and purple – they were not too distinct from the flora of Earth, though here and there some more luminescent.

There was a strong breeze marching through the room, and it rustled the leaves causing a low but constant whisper.

The breeze brought with it the unmistakable scent of dirt, water, and plants.

Either she was staring at a very sophisticated hologram, or somehow there was a veritable forest in the middle of this ship underneath the baking sands of the planet above.

Though at first she looked to Josh to figure out what was going on here, all too soon it became apparent he was just as surprised as she was.

There were no stars, no sun, and no moon down here, so the only light came from those softly luminescent purple leaves. It was enough to create a kind of eerie glow, but certainly not enough to discern the ceiling or walls, if in fact they were there.

“What is this place?” She finally broke the silence, keeping her voice low.

Josh jolted in surprise, turning to her quickly and pressing a finger over his lips. The last time he tried to shut her up, he’d slammed a hand over her mouth. It hadn’t hurt her, and yet for some reason she could still feel the indent of his fingers against her lips. She tried not to let the memory distract her as she turned her attention back to whatever was before them. With a tentative, careful move she reached a hand out to touch the closest planet.

Immediately Josh grabbed her arm and pulled it back. In many ways, it was ironic. She had warned him not to touch that black spike, and he’d ignored her. Now he was the one on high alert. She could feel the tension in his hand as he clasped her wrist.

“We should go back,” he concluded. Still holding onto her arm, he pulled her backwards.

She resisted. “Shouldn't we… explore? We haven’t passed another way out. What if there’s one just beyond,” she swallowed hard, “this forest?”

Josh didn’t miss a beat. “We’re getting out of here. Come on.” He tried to pull her again.

She resisted. “Josh, shouldn’t we—”

“Leave? Yes, we should leave,” he concluded before she could finish. Then, with more force than before, he pulled her forward.

They almost reached the lip of the corridor again.

Suddenly a noise filtered in from far down the hallway. Low and thumping, it was footfall. She stiffened, but it was nothing compared to Josh’s reaction; she could feel his whole body tense, and she watched as his eyes widened in frightened anticipation.

Before Mimi could question whether it was the wind or some lost animal, voices rang out. Though they were still too distant to discern, she could make out a low and ominous sounding laugh.

Without a word, Josh pushed her away from the hallway and into the forest. It was such a weird sensation to have the damp large leaves brush against her legs as she hurried forward. Barely an hour ago she’d been in the desert above, and a lush jungle had been the last thing on her mind.

He didn’t say anything. Didn’t tell her where they were headed, didn’t speculate about what or who could be behind. He pushed her forward, one hand locked on her shoulder as he took up position behind.

She tried to control her footfall, tried to be careful about where she stepped, but a few times she stumbled. Josh didn’t let her fall for long. He grabbed her up each time and kept pushing her onward.

Mimi had been frightened before in her life, terrified even. But she’d never endured an experience like this. Being chased. No, worse than that, she wasn’t even sure she was being chased. Maybe the group behind didn’t know she was here. Or maybe they were tracking her relentlessly. She had no idea. She had to keep her breathing controlled and her footfall measured nonetheless, and she had to worry that each noise she made advertised her position. If it weren’t for Josh right behind her, she would have become frantic long ago, likely falling over and breaking a leg on the uneven, vine-clogged terrain. With him by her side, though, he navigated a safe path through the jungle, maintaining a healthy pace, but never forcing her into a run.

She was more than thankful he was here with her, even though she’d cursed his very existence barely an hour ago. She'd accused Josh of changing his personality from moment to moment, but maybe she was the same. She kept oscillating from convincing herself he was a brute to realizing he was the only reason she was alive.

Now was not the time to ponder those facts. As Josh led her further into the jungle, the terrain changed. The vegetation became sparser, dense clumps of vines and ferns giving way to only a few bushes scattered across the dirt. They also began to approach… something. With the bare illumination offered by the luminescent leaves, it took a while to realize what it was. The closer they got, however, the more she recognized it was some kind of building. About 10 meters high and made of a pitch black matte metal, it was the oddest thing she’d ever seen – a building within a jungle within a ship. If she’d been in the right frame of mind, she would have realized this could make a great story for the news. Then again, an equally compelling tale could tell of how the only child of Theodore Chester was kidnapped and killed.

As they approached the strange building, Josh hesitated, but only for a fraction of a second. As he did, Mimi heard the voices even louder. There was now no mistaking they were being followed.

Though she barely had the time to notice, she was dimly aware that the building… didn't feel right. It gave her the same creepy, foreboding sensation that the black spike had done.

She didn’t have the luxury of running from it. Josh grabbed her once more and led her around the side of the building.

Though they were running now, no matter how fast they went, the voices behind grew louder and louder.

Josh tightened his grip on her wrist. Either he was trying to stabilize her so she didn’t fall over, or he was trying to comfort her. Both were welcome.

They raced around the side of the building. There were no plants growing next to it, nothing but moist dirt piled against its walls.

The voices grew louder. She could hear footfall. Thump, thump, thump. It was heavy, it was fast.

Her heart felt like it would tear from her chest, her breath felt like it couldn’t come fast enough.

They rounded the edge of the building. Suddenly, there was light.

She had to bring a hand up and cover her eyes at the sudden brilliance of it.

It took her a moment to realize where it was coming from. Then she saw it.

A door was opening in the side of the building. The wall of smooth black metal was opening up, bleeding a bright white light as it did.

Josh hesitated.

The voices got louder. They were angry, excited, vicious, victorious.

Josh hesitated one single second before running away from the light. He tried to direct them into the forest, but the second he did she started to hear voices in front of them.

This time Josh didn’t hesitate – reversing direction with a smooth turn, he pushed her towards the open door and into the light.

She barely had a chance to orient before something fantastic occurred: the doors closed. Whisper quiet and impossibly fast, they shut, blocking off the desperate angry voices from outside.

The doors were so thick that once they were in place, silence returned. No more scrabbling of feet, no more vicious laughter. Only the sound of her frantic breath.

It took only a few seconds for the thankful smile spreading across her face to freeze. She turned and looked at Josh. His eyes wide with terror, he stared back at her, his gaze shifting behind as he surveyed the room around them.

“We’re safe—” she began.

“We are trapped.”

Chapter 20

How had he been so stupid? He led her right into a trap. Because that’s what this was. He may not have realized that at first, but now there was no denying it; those voices had pushed them towards this door. Led them, like lambs to the slaughter.

He watched the relief on Mimi’s face freeze. Her eyes widened with terror as she stared at him. “… What do you mean it’s a trap?” She asked in a whispered, desperate voice.

How could he have been so stupid? Mimi had been right; they should have concentrated on trying to form a ramp to get out of here. Now, they’d likely never get that chance again.

He turned on the spot, clamping a hand over his sweaty mouth.

The room was brilliantly lit. He wasn’t even sure where the light source was coming from, but it was so damn bright in here he could see everything, from the set of stairs leading down to their left, to the ever mounting fear crossing Mimi’s expression.

He still didn’t know what this place was, but now more than ever he was certain of one fact: it was dangerous.

Recently, he’d heard reports of Barbarians luring scavengers and fortune hunters into abandoned vessels. They'd capture them and try out some new weapon on live targets. There shouldn’t be any Barbarians in this sector, but that didn’t mean he could stop his imagination from obsessing over what the Barbarians could do to Mimi Chester.

“Josh, what’s going on?” She whispered.

He turned to look at her. Maybe it was the first time he’d ever really just looked at her. Up until now, he'd held a lot of preconceived notions about Miss Chester. A lot of hate, too.

Now, as he looked at those startling blue eyes filled with worry, he couldn’t help but feel that none of that mattered anymore. It was very damn likely they were both about to die.

Her eyes searched his. “Josh? What’s going on, what do we do? Should we head down those stairs? Shouldn’t we get away from these doors before whoever is out there manages to get in?”

If only he had a weapon. A gun, an electro whip, a frigging knife. Anything.

“Josh, what do we do?”

“Mim, it’s a trap,” he said bluntly. "We were pushed in here,” he acknowledged as he turned over his shoulder and stared warily towards the stairs.

It was obvious, or at least to him, that someone or something wanted them to continue down those stairs. What was down there, he didn’t know, but he could guarantee it wouldn’t be a party.

“How can you be sure it’s a trap?”

“The voices pushed us here. The door opened and closed mightily conveniently. It’s a trap.”

“… Or maybe… something is looking out for us. We don’t know what the ship is, but it could have certain security protocols in place. Maybe it can understand that we're being chased, and it opened the door to help us,” she said hopefully.

He didn’t even bother replying. He’d never been one for wishful thinking.

Again he stared warily at the stairs. There was no way he was going to follow them and continue down into this building. He wasn’t an idiot.

Mimi took a step back and swiveled her head from the stairs to his face.

She took another step back, and surveyed the door. “We can’t stay here, and we can’t go back out there."

She didn’t get an opportunity to finish her sentence.

Suddenly something struck the doors. They did not open, but they buckled. Close enough to Mimi that they pushed against her shoulder as something protruded through the metal.

She screamed.

He darted forward and pulled her back, one sweaty hand locked on her shoulder as his heart jumped into his mouth.

Just as the metal stopped groaning from the impact, it was struck again. The deafening blow rang out through their small room.

Without any options, Josh grabbed her and headed for the stairs.

The stairwell, like the room above, was well lit. Made of the same dark metal, it shone under the powerful lights.

Again he was reminded of how unusual the architecture of this ship was. And that wasn’t even taking into account the fact there was a massive jungle in the middle of it. It was the feeling, the strange sense that clawed up his spine as he hurled himself down those stairs, his footfall ringing against each step.

The stairwell kept heading downwards, looping around and around, but never leading to another level. If his heart was in his mouth before, now it had jumped clean out of his body. With no level to exit on, there was nowhere to go but down. They were completely trapped.

Could it really end like this? His career, his life? Running through some mysterious ship with a woman he barely knew, but one he knew enough to loathe. Okay, not loathe, but close enough. Well, not even close, but the point was, he couldn’t believe it would end with Mimi Chester by his side. He’d always imagined he’d go out on some team mission, or alone in some abandoned cave full of Rebuilders. This just didn’t feel right.

He reminded himself quickly he couldn’t get ahead of himself; they weren’t dead yet. And maybe that’s why it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t time to feel surprised that this would be his ending; it was time to ensure it wouldn’t be.

Mimi was doing a good job of keeping up. Maybe it was sheer terror, or maybe she hadn’t forgotten all her training from the Academy.

They both hurtled down the stairs, and thankfully she didn’t trip once.

The more stairs they flew down, the more he found himself wondering just when this stairwell would end. How big was this ship? It would have to be truly massive to contain a veritable jungle and this deep building. While Coalition standard heavy cruisers were massive, they were never bigger than a kilometer or so squared. By his estimation, they’d already walked double that, and there was no sign the ship would end anytime soon.

He longed for a scanner, something more sophisticated than the medical device he had latched on his belt. If he had some proper Coalition equipment, he’d be able to figure out exactly where they were and precisely what lay ahead of them.

Instead, he would just have to find out.

 

Chapter 21

She couldn’t believe she was still running; this was the most exercise she’d had in the two years since she left the Academy. In fact, though endurance training as a cadet was tough, it wasn’t nearly this hard. Her knees protested every step, and her lungs ached from having to draw in rapid breath after rapid breath. Yet she could not stop. Because if she stopped… she had no idea what would happen. Actually, that was a lie. She knew exactly what would happen; Josh would keep pushing her forward.

He wasn’t about to let her die.

She was more thankful than ever for his presence. Without him, she would have succumbed long ago to whoever or whatever was chasing them.

Though Mimi wasn’t sure she believed Josh, she couldn’t deny there was a strange feeling welling within her.

It was the same uneasy fear that had settled upon her when she’d first come across the spike. Except it no longer repulsed her; it felt as though it pulled her forward. As if it was leading her.

If she'd had time to truly assess that thought, she would have realized how terrifying it was. But she didn’t have the brainpower; all her emotional and mental energy was funneled into pushing her onward.

Just when she thought the stairs would never end, they did. Abruptly.

They spilled out onto a long metal walkway. As she stared around, she realized it looked like some kind of hangar. No, that wasn’t right; it was more like a tunnel. As her feet struck the floor, she realized there were massive rails embedded into it.

With one glance at the ceiling, she also saw a continuous row of lights embedded in the metal.

If she had to guess, she would wager this massive tunnel once housed an equally massive vehicle or vehicles. Perhaps some kind of train, or ships. Considering the incredible size of this spaceship as a whole, it wasn’t a surprise that they’d need a massive transportation system like this within the ship.

Still, as they ran through it, she couldn’t help but feel dwarfed. The ceiling was so high above, and the rails lodged into the floor so massive, that she felt like she was nothing more than a speck of dust in space.

Just where was she? Had she really come across the Black Mass? Could it honestly be some relic from the First Age?

While that would be the story of a lifetime, it would be a particularly short lifetime; she could still hear her pursuers. Clearly they had managed to break through the door, and now their thundering footfall rang out over the stairs.

Josh didn’t stop. He never stopped. He might hesitate for a brief moment, but that was it.

Having gone through the Academy, she’d seen her fair share of bravado. She’d also seen people try to act like heroes. The E club was the perfect example. The group of elite recruits who lived off the myth of heroism.

She'd convinced herself real heroes didn’t exist. If Josh somehow got them through this, she’d have to revise her theory.

They kept running, and though she stumbled more and more, he wouldn’t leave her behind.

Just as she swore she heard a gunshot echo out from behind her, the tunnel opened out. They came down a dip, and then, without warning, the tunnel gave way to a massive room.

Unlike the jungle above, this was well lit, fantastically lit, in fact. For in the middle hundreds of massive pillars of light stretched from the floor to the ceiling far, far above.

It was an arresting, incredible sight. She’d never seen anything like it. When she heard a surprised hiss escape Josh’s lips, she realized it was likely new to him too.

A constant throbbing emanated from the room, traveling through the floor and shaking up into her feet and knees.

“What the hell is this place?” Josh asked in a badly wavering tone.

She couldn’t answer; she didn’t know. She couldn’t even begin to imagine. Though those hundreds of pillars of light could somehow form the engine of this incredible ship, she doubted it. They were unshielded, and she couldn’t see any devices connecting to them that would shunt their power to drive the rest of the vessel.

Then again, she was so far out of her depth here it was useless to speculate.

They had both stopped on the edge of that cavernous room.

Suddenly a shot rang out from behind. This time there was no doubting what it was; a massive pulsing burst of energy narrowly missed Josh’s shoulder and ate into the floor a meter to his left.

He launched towards her, pushed into her with his shoulder, and sent them both rolling down into the room below. There was a long incline, and they tumbled a good 20 meters before coming to a stop.

Despite the surprise of it all, Mimi kept her body controlled, and didn’t break anything nor bruise her shoulders and back too badly.

Josh got to his feet first.

He tugged her up just as another bullet sank into the ground by his feet. “Move,” he screamed at her.

Desperation a white hot lump in her belly, Mimi stumbled forward.

She…. couldn’t believe it would end here like this, with him. A man she’d barely met and one who clearly loathed her.

She had always imagined she’d get married, explore the galaxy, and grow old, just like her grandmother had.

Mimi could never have guessed it would end in a First Age ship with a man like Josh Cook.

She had so many things she wanted to achieve, so many places she wanted to explore.

These thoughts came upon her fast, flashing into her consciousness as death loomed.

She may be an Academy dropout, but she could appreciate the situation. There was an unknown number of enemies on a rise above them with high yield particle weapons. She was unarmed and out in the open.

It was only a matter of time….

She focused on the feeling of Josh’s hand around her wrist, let it distract her from the unbelievable fear.

Then Mimi Chester was shot in the back.

Chapter 22

It was just as he turned to her that it happened. Just as he opened his mouth to scream her name.

One of the particle rounds sliced into her back. It was so strong, it sent blood splattering over her front in an arc.

She was torn from his grip.

There was nothing he could do to hold onto her.

The bullet swung her around, and sent her skidding down the incline to his left.

Time slowed down. He saw her tumble away from him in slow motion, the blood blossoming through the hole in her middle and over her clothes.

She struck the bottom of the incline, falling on her back, her limbs collapsing around her as her head lolled towards him. Her eyes were open, and with striking blue clarity they stared lifelessly back at him.

He…. He….

“Mimi! Mimi!”

Two bullets sank close to him, but he didn’t react. He stared at her. Stared at the blood, stared at the open eyes.

She… couldn’t be dead.

Out of his peripheral vision, he saw three figures come into view. He saw they were likely scavengers, or pirates. It didn’t really matter. They held heavy particle weapons, and expressions that told him he would be next.

Maybe they had followed Mimi from town, or maybe they'd chanced upon this vessel just after he had. It didn’t matter. They would view Mimi and him as competition. And as a former pirate himself, Josh knew exactly what you did with competition.

He wanted to defend himself, but there was no point.

He couldn’t pull his gaze from Mimi.

From his peripheral vision, he watched the three scavengers slowly walk down the rise, lifting their particle weapons and aiming them at him.

Josh stood there, his hands loose by his sides, his shoulders hunched in, his eyes locked on her.

In the past, he would never have given up. That’s why he had the job he did; few could cut it as a special commander, and only those with the tenacity to continue on no matter the odds.

But the odds right now were impossible.

He was exposed, he had no weapon, there was nowhere to run.

And Mimi was dead.

He would not turn and run; he would not be shot in the back.

Finally he raised his head and stared at them.

He watched the closest one leer at him, pulling back its lips to reveal yellow tusks.

Josh didn’t flinch.

The scavengers raised their guns.

They didn’t fire.

In a split second, something incredible occurred.

Mimi had fallen into a section sunk about 20 centimeters into the floor. Around her was a metal ring. In an instant, it glowed. A brilliant, blinding white, it was like standing next to a sun as it was born.

Then… Mimi started to lift into the air. Her body limp, blood still trickling out of the wound in her middle, she raised off her feet, drifting upwards as if she was stuck in a zero gravity field.

The scavengers took that exact moment to fire at him, but their bullets slammed into an invisible force field around Mimi, one that sent them ricocheting back.

One scavenger managed to dart to the side, but the other two were struck by the redirected blasts.

They were dead before they hit the floor.

That white glow continued to bleed from the metal ring at Mimi’s feet. With a humming zing so loud it set his teeth chattering in his head, a pillar of light shot up and encased her completely. In the blink of an eye the light connected to the ceiling high above.

For a heart pounding moment he stared at it. Stared at her body as it became completely encased in light.

Then he heard the scrabble of the scavenger's boots as it tried to skirt around the light towards him.

Something clicked in Josh.

He’d been ready to give up before, now he saw an opportunity.

He shoved hard to his right, pushing himself into a sprint.

He came around the side of the light, and spied the two downed scavengers.

Their guns were gone.

Just as he realized this, he heard the other scavenger behind him.

Josh threw himself to his knees and rolled to the side just as two bullets slammed into the spot where he’d been standing.

He jumped to his feet, dodging to the left and the right as the scavenger squeezed off three more shots.

The guy was big, probably a Minator, judging by his massive yellow tusks and tiny pin prick eyes.

They were a formidable foe, and Josh had fought more than a few in his time.

Usually, he had his armor to rely on. Now, all he had was anger and desperation.

Without thinking, he threw himself at the Minator. The guy was easily twice Josh’s size, but right now, that didn’t matter.

Josh rammed his arm around the guy’s throat, pulling him back, despite the alien’s height.

With a growl that pierced the air like thunder, the Minator brought his arm back and elbowed Josh hard in the ribs.

Josh heard a crack, and felt the snapping of bone in his chest, but he didn’t stop. He rammed his arm tighter against the alien’s throat, screaming as he did.

The Minator tried to elbow him again, but Josh blocked out the pain.

With one final heave, the alien managed to throw Josh off. Grabbing hold of his collar, flipping him over his shoulder, and slamming him to the ground. The air was pushed from Josh’s lungs, but that didn’t stop him from whipping around with his legs, and catching the Minator on the back of the knees before the brute could sink one of its sharp tusks into Josh’s stomach.

The alien stumbled to the side, and Josh took the opportunity to kick him again viciously in the back of the knees. This time the guy buckled, and Josh pounced to his feet, wrapping his hands around the alien's back.

Like most Minators he was wearing heavy armor, but it didn’t extend to his throat. All Minators had a sensitive sense organ just underneath their jawbones. For this reason, they hated covering it up with thick layers of armor. It was right under their jaw, and well protected by the rest of their face. You could only get to it by digging your fingers in.

Josh screamed again as he redoubled his effort, trying to shove his fingers as far under the guy’s neck as he could.

His chest was filled with a blinding pain from where his ribs had broken, but he didn’t stop.

He didn’t stop.

The alien tried to throw him off one last time, but Josh held on.

He found the right spot, and shoved his fingers in as far as they would go. The Minator jerked on the spot, convulsing wildly as it tried, in last ditch desperation, to rip Josh from its back.

It didn’t work.

The alien fell to one knee, then the other. Then it fell face first onto the floor. Its massive body clanged against the metal plating, then moved no more.

Josh staggered to the side, blinking wildly as he realized he’d won.

Without hesitating, he grabbed all three particle weapons off the scavenger. Snatching the medical scanner from his belt, he confirmed that all three targets were down.

Then Josh turned back to her.

Mimi.

Again the fact she was dead washed over him. It was so powerful, he staggered to one knee.

He stared at that blinding pillar of light.

The medical scanner was still in his hand. It started to beep. At first he wasn’t aware of it; all of his attention was focused on the light. On the fact she was dead. On the fact she’d been shot in the back and pulled from his hand. In his mind, he could still see the blood blossoming over her top, see those wide blue lifeless eyes.

He’d dealt with death before. His family, his friends, his enemies.

Nothing had ever been this raw. This real. The emotions raging through him felt like storms trapped in his heart and mind.

The medical scanner kept beeping. Finally its incessant tone pierced through his fugue.

He looked down at it.

It was registering a bio sign. In the pillar of light. Mimi.

He dropped the scanner.

That’s when he saw her. In the light. Something was moving. Her body was moving. Pitching around, her hands and arms coming into view as if she was trying to slam against the force field, trying to break through it and break free.

He didn’t hesitate. Didn’t pause.

Special Commander Joshua Cook jumped to his feet, took a single step back, leveled his particle weapon, and shot at the ring in the floor. The very ring producing the pillar of light.

As the particle pulse slammed into the metal, it blistered, buckling inwards and screeching with a pitching cry.

Then it failed. The light. In a hail of sparks, it disappeared.

Mimi fell. She landed on the floor with a thud.

Then she screamed.

She screamed, because Miss Mimi Chester was alive.

Josh threw himself forward, skidded to his knees, and grabbed her.

He couldn’t believe his senses, couldn’t believe his eyes, couldn’t believe the incessantly beeping device that told him she wasn’t dead.

He’d seen that bullet rip through her.

She kept screaming, then her terror turned to tears as sobbing racked her body.

He collapsed his arms around her, folding her against his chest. She cried into his collar, her tears wet against his cheek and neck.

He didn’t understand, but that didn’t stop him from holding onto her as tightly as he could.

He couldn’t hold onto her forever – there were still scavengers out there – but for now, he couldn’t let go.

Josh Cook couldn’t let go….

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and you can buy all four episodes today. You can buy Broken Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

 

 


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