A Plain Jane Book One
Jane sat on the window ledge, gazing toward the night sky. She watched the stars high above as they punctuated the darkness. She saw them twinkle and light up the land below.
She didn’t shift her gaze once. Though she had work to do, she didn’t move. She simply sat there staring up at those stars. She often did so, almost every single night. The stars never changed, and neither did she.
They called her plain Jane. From her appearance, to her job, to her leisure time, the name suited her well. There was no excitement in her life, there was no growth, there wasn’t stimulation or challenge – just the same old thing, day in and day out.
Yet there was a contradiction in Jane: while every night she did nothing but sit there gazing at the heavens, her mind moved. In her fantasies, she would travel the Galaxy. She would do the things she never did in real life.
Every single night her imagination moved, it grew. It created the most fantastic, wondrous adventures. So plain Jane closed her eyes, a small smile spreading across her lips as she opened up the doors of her imagination.
Jane sat at her desk, staring down at the console in front of her. Blue and green holographic images moved around above the console display panel. She stared at them glumly, her head propped on one hand. She’d been staring at the same damn images for the past hour, and now her eyes were losing focus.
Around Jane, her co-workers chatted, laughed, and socialized. Mandy – a beautiful blue-skinned Hoya who sat alongside Jane – kept chortling as she talked loudly about everything other than work.
“You should have seen what he said to those new recruits.” She laughed, her lips spreading wide as her large eyes sparkled.
“Well, I suppose the rookies weren’t expecting a lesson from a professional,” noted Tarta. He came from an insect-like race, and he spread his pincers as he chuckled wildly.
Jane knew who they were talking about, because there was only one person they ever talked about: Lucas Stone. The shining star of the Security Division of the Galactic Force. When he’d been a student, he thwarted an attack on the Galactic Union Senate. That same rookie had once single-handedly saved an entire battle cruiser by heroically plugging an engine leak with his own armor. He was also the man who’d practically rewritten the book on security procedures throughout the Galactic Force. Most importantly, he was the guy everybody knew would be picked to lead the new expedition to the outer rim. It felt like when it came to the Galactic Force, he was the only one anybody ever talked about or acknowledged. The legendary Lucas Stone.
As for Jane – she was just plain. She was also getting bored; the strain of focusing so hard was giving her a headache.
“I heard from one of the med students that they’re just going to give the new expedition to him. They’re going to let him pick whatever ship he wants and whatever crew he wants, too,” Mandy continued, her long tail flicking around as she gesticulated with it.
Tarta nodded soberly. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. Lucas is the best we’ve got. He’ll know how to make that mission a success.”
Jane fought against the urge to close her eyes but couldn’t quite manage it. Everything was so boring. People always accused her of being boring. Fair enough, she hadn’t gone out last night to see Lucas Stone give an impromptu lesson to a couple of first-year security students on how to save the Galaxy. She’d stayed at home. Yet while she had, her mind hadn’t. Jane had traveled the Galaxy. She’d pretended she was an ambassador, someone special, someone unique, someone with incredible power, someone who a crafty and malevolent ancient race had wanted to kidnap. Then, in the nick of time, a daring hero had come to her rescue. Last night, her hero had been a xenobiologist – capable, kind, and willing to go against an entire squadron of robots to save her and the Galaxy.
Now she was here again – back at work. While she was fighting it, her mind was wandering. She’d heard about the dreams that humans had. She’d even learned about something called day-dreaming. Well, Jane now knew she was a day-dreamer. A serious, serious day-dreamer. It was no doubt a quirk of her alien DNA.
She tried to open her eyes but found herself closing them languidly.
She could feel her cheek bunch against her hand, her mouth drooping open as her head nodded forward. Her muscles relaxed as her body succumbed to the boredom and transported her to dreamland….
Just as her head nodded forward again, someone jabbed her hard in the back.
She spluttered, making a choking, startled noise halfway between a hiccup and a yelp.
“Wake up, Plain Jane.” Mandy whipped her tail in front of Jane’s face, the same tail that had poked Jane in the first place. “We’ve got company.”
Jane blinked as she looked up to the door on the other side of the room. It was still hard to focus, but….
Talk of the devil.
It was Lucas Stone.
He was standing just inside the doorway, one of his trademark smiles on his trademark face. The head of the Administrative Division was standing next to him.
It was such a surreal scene that Jane thought she’d wandered off into a daydream, after all. All her colleagues were on their feet, eyes sparkling. How wonderful it was for a living legend to pop in before morning break to parley with them.
But why exactly was Mr. Universe taking time off from saving the Galaxy to come see the admin staff?
Was he just walking into the room so he could get a glass of water from the sustenance terminal on the other side? Or did he like to play this kind of game all over the city? Occasionally pop into random offices, workstations, schools even, flash that amazing smile of his then wait for his adoring fans to cheer?
Jane blinked but remained seated, even though most of her colleagues had been standing from the moment he appeared in the doorway. It was a peculiar thing, but usually she wasn’t all that cynical. Plain, yes, boring, yes, but cynical, no. She was the kind of person who preferred to see the better side of somebody, and who didn’t like to say anything unless it was positive. Which was another thing her colleagues, especially Mandy, liked to point out: Jane was innocent. She wasn’t interesting in any way and didn’t have any depth to her opinions because she hadn’t been anywhere or done anything or been challenged by anyone or any event.
Then there was Lucas Stone. When it came to Jane, he was different – he got on her nerves. Perhaps it was the fact that whenever anybody concluded she was boring, they would always contrast her with Lucas. Look at Lucas Stone, they would say, how interesting, how handsome, how accomplished. He saves the world on Tuesday, teaches the next generation on Wednesday, and woos the daughter of Senator Cooper on Thursday. A busy boy, a perfect boy, an immensely interesting boy. Then there was Jane, who went home every single night and stared up at exactly the same night sky and dreamed about adventures but never, of course, had one.
So while it went against most of her personality, she had a bone to pick with Mr. Stone. Though she’d only met him once and was sure he wouldn’t remember it. She’d run into him on his first day at the Galactic Force. It had been her first day as well, but unlike Lucas, she hadn’t gone on to rule the universe. How had they met, again? Had she done something clumsy, stupid, and incredibly embarrassing in front of him? Had she fallen from one of the transports only to be caught by Lucas at the last moment? Had she tripped over one of the cleaning robots only to smack right into his chest? Had she slipped in the mud? Nope, because she was plain Jane. Those were the types of amusing if not embarrassing things that happened to interesting people. He’d simply asked for directions.
Nothing amazing, nothing spectacularly klutzy.
They’d crossed paths several times in the corridors over the years, and each time Lucas would have a different colored stripe down the arms of his armor or uniform, indicating that once again he’d been promoted or had acquired some new astounding skill. A couple of times he’d asked what the time was or where the nearest sustenance receptacle was. On another occasion, he’d even asked her where the bathroom was. That was the total sum of their interactions. Jane had no question in her mind that Lucas didn’t even know who she was. Yet she didn’t mind one bit. She was sick of being compared to the best the Galaxy had to offer.
“Don’t do anything embarrassing,” Mandy hissed from her side.
While her colleague’s tone was terse, Jane didn’t pay any attention to it; when it came to rationalizing or making excuses for other people’s behavior, she was well trained. Unless it came to Lucas Stone, that was.
Jane waited silently for whatever would happen to hurry up so she could return to her task – trying not to daydream at her desk while avoiding work.
The general manager clapped his hands together, his green scaly flesh glinting under the light. “I have some exciting news.” He smiled broadly. Though he was from a race who didn’t usually show emotion through facial movements – preferring instead to communicate solely with their hands – even he had to crack a grin around Lucas Stone. “Now, Lucas here needs no introduction.”
There was a smattering of overjoyed laughter, a smattering that Jane didn’t join in with.
“I have some incredible news,” the general manager continued, his green skin turning purple, indicating his uncontrollable excitement, “but perhaps I should now step aside to let the man of the moment fill you in.”
The general manager bowed out as he gestured for Lucas to step forward.
Lucas stood there, smiling heartily, his teeth practically glittering. He didn’t have his armor on today; he was in his dress uniform. As with everything he wore, he looked damn near perfect in it. Or at least some version of perfect – a version of perfect that Jane didn’t share. While she went home every single night and dreamed up romantic fantasies for herself, the likes of Lucas Stone were never included in them. Her romantic leads weren’t anything like Lucas; they were kind, bashful, capable but dignified. They had flaws, fears, and limitations, with a great sense of humor added in. And most importantly, they always displayed modesty and humility. In other words, they were light years away from Mr. Universe, Lucas Stone.
Still smiling, Jane watched Lucas take a big breath, his chest puffing out against the white, black, and gold of his dress uniform. “I’m sure you have all heard about the upcoming mission to the outer rim.” He kept on smiling, but now there was a glint in his eye, a glint that appeared to suggest there was nothing more important in the world to him. “I don’t need to tell you that no Galactic ship has traveled through Hell’s Gate for almost one hundred years. The scientific and technological discoveries to be made could redefine our generation and pave the way for a brighter future for all the races of the Galaxy.”
Everyone in the room gave a smattering of applause. Of course they’d all heard about the mission, and everyone knew that nobody had passed through Hell’s Gate in over one hundred years.
“If we pull this mission off, we will be the first people to cross beyond the Pillars and to come back again. The scientific data we can gather by studying the unique singularities throughout Hell’s Gate could advance our current understanding of quantum field theory by decades….”
Jane started to tune out. She could still hear Lucas speaking, but she began to pay less attention to him. She let her gaze wander to her left until it settled on the view outside of the huge flex windows. She could see the other buildings of the Galactic Force, see the rest of the city stretching out behind and especially the sky above. She loved the sky; it was always so big and inviting and, quite frankly, non-judgmental. The sky didn’t care that Jane was boring. The sky hadn’t once called her plain.
As always happened when Jane started to get distracted by the view, her mind began to wander. She liked to plan her night-time fantasies in advance. Right now, she imagined a dignified, capable, handsome, accomplished galactic adventurer, someone a bit like Lucas Stone but without his personality. Someone who didn’t command the limelight but shunned it. Someone who wouldn’t ever consider her plain, because they wouldn’t ever consider anyone plain. They would look beyond appearances – they would see the beautiful dynamism and creativity inherent in everything. Perhaps he would have sandy-blond hair. Perhaps he would be half human and half Elurian, his eyes a glowing electric blue. But most of all, he wouldn’t judge her.
It was while Jane was engaged in her daydream, twisting her long mousy-brown hair around her fingers, that she missed something important.
It was also when Mandy whipped out her tail, poking Jane hard in the back.
Jane gave a splutter, falling forward right into the holographic display of her terminal.
Of course everyone turned to look at her, because the sound she’d made was a loud, awkward, and disrespectful noise considering present company.
Rather than stop to admonish her in front of her colleagues, Lucas didn’t appear to notice. He might have glanced her way once, but that was it.
In fact, he seemed to be finished. Everyone was now back up on their feet, clapping.
Jane had no idea what they were clapping about as she’d fazed out through the entire thing only to tune back in from a tail poking her in the back.
He gave a bow, turning on his heel as he immediately left the room, leaving them in peace. Well, not peace, because the second he left was the second the entire room erupted in happy chatter.
Mandy turned to Tarta, her face alight with interest. “By the Lord of Yarla, can you believe it?”
Tarta nodded his head. “I have never been wrong about that man; he has, as the humans say, a head on his shoulders.”
Jane wanted to point out she had a head on her shoulders too – having such a feature didn’t mean a great deal.
She turned back to her holo terminal to get on with her work. Though she didn’t want to know what Lucas had said, she couldn’t help from overhearing everyone in the room. You would think Lucas had come in offering everybody signed autographs or a personal dinner with him that night. Nope, it was nowhere near that grand. He hadn’t offered anybody a role in the team for his upcoming mission, but he had said that their division would be involved in the administrative side of putting the team together from the best, most promising recruits and seniors at the Galactic Force. By the way everybody else was talking, you would’ve thought they’d all won the Galactic lottery – not been assigned extra work that they wouldn’t get paid anything more for. Ordinarily, Jane didn’t think too much about money. She didn’t gripe about how much she was paid, but for some reason, the thought that Lucas Stone was trying to give them more work made her want a small moon in return and maybe even a large planet, too.
It was unusual for her to be in a bad mood because, as Mandy would point out, she was far too boring to have an emotional reaction as interesting as anger. Yet Jane wasn’t pleased at the moment. So she sat there, pursed her lips, and returned to her work. The administrative unit she worked for was responsible for the data collection, consolidation, and maintenance of low-security data that went on throughout the Galactic Force. It was a simple job and didn’t require a great deal of skill or training, but Jane liked to think she was at least okay at it, if that was something worthy to admit on the same day the great Lucas Stone had popped his head through the door.
The best and the brightest, that was what Lucas wanted on his trip. Fair enough, everyone always wanted the best and brightest; nobody ever wanted the slightly okay and the moderately interesting. Well, nobody but Jane, that was.
Jane worked until late that night. With the hullabaloo over Stone’s visit, everyone else had been far too busy talking about his heroic mission to bother getting any more work done. So Jane, being Jane, had offered to stay late and do what was needed. She always liked working late, anyway; if she had her way, she would work alone. It wasn’t because she shunned human or alien company. Jane wasn’t antisocial; she was just awkward, quiet, and apparently far too innocent. Whenever she espoused her “sugar-coated, candy-style views of the universe,” Mandy or others always told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about. That was another reason why Jane never bothered to go out. Whenever people started to talk about the current state of the Galactic Senate, as they always did, she would put forth her happy, optimistic views only to be shot down and told she was thinking like a child.
Yet she didn’t hate her co-workers, far from it; Jane held them in high esteem and valued each and every one of them. She just knew she was different. Different in a way that everybody else would assume made her ordinary, but she knew it went beyond that. She knew there was more to her, and that if people bothered, if they tried, if they suspended their views and judgments for long enough to get to know her, they would see what was on the inside. All the adventures, all the romance, all the life.
Jane knew she didn’t fit in. She knew that she’d never fitted in. Even as a child, she’d been different. After all, she wasn’t a human, but she had grown up on Earth. Not that you could tell without a thorough physical exam, but Jane was technically an alien. She wasn’t an interesting alien – she wasn’t like an Elurian mercenary or a Hirean sprinter, or anything like that. Jane’s alien DNA was, fittingly, quite plain. She had the full appearance of a human, but she wasn’t quite as strong, quick, or attractive. As one of her colleagues had once joked, Jane managed to do human duller than the humans did. She didn’t have any pincers, any tails, no third eye, no incredible strength and agility, nothing to set her aside from the crowd. Which pretty much summed up Jane perfectly: there wasn’t a thing in her history, schooling, ability, or her appearance that could set her apart from the crowd. All her features did the opposite – they embedded her so far into the realm of normalcy that she became just too normal. So normal, in fact, that there was zero point in talking to her or looking her way.
She planned to work for at least the next two hours and then take the late transport back home. She would have all tomorrow morning off because of the overtime, so she could spend most of the night sitting up on the window ledge gazing at the stars. One peculiarity about Jane’s physiology, and possibly the most interesting thing about her, was that she didn’t sleep. To a normal person, that would seem like an unbelievable feat and would pave the way for an enormous increase in productivity, but it didn’t have that effect on Jane. She spent the time when everyone else would be sleeping staring at the sky and imagining. She knew it was a regenerative process for her body – she always got cranky if she wasn’t given time to daydream – yet she didn’t lose consciousness while she did it. It was as if her brain never wanted to lose control of her body.
It was when Jane had almost finished her work and was getting ready to leave that the building shook. It was slight at first, and she hardly noticed it. But when the Central Intelligence – an interconnected computer system that ran throughout the entire Galactic Force – began to blare with a warning, she realized something serious was up.
“Ci, what’s going on?” she asked the computer. She always called it Ci for short – its full title being Centralized Intelligence Unit, but Ci being far shorter and far cuter. That was another thing that set Jane apart – though Ci was just a computer, Jane liked to treat her as something more. Yes, she was an artificial intelligence, just a system of computer banks and interconnecting panels; she didn’t have real intelligence or emotions, and in fact, one could say “she” wasn’t real at all. But Jane liked to think she should treat everything – from a tree, to a human, to an alien, to a rock – exactly the same. With perfect dignity. Well, maybe everything except stones. Lucas Stones to be more specific.
“Depressurization has occurred in containment chamber one,” Ci replied, her synthesized voice expressing no emotion.
While technically Ci didn’t show any outward feeling, Jane liked to think there was a certain warm efficiency about her.
“Thank you, Ci. Is it serious?” Jane asked.
“Containment has been re-established. Correct personnel have been notified. There is no risk to life or property,” Ci advised, voice maintaining an even tone.
“Thank you, Ci,” Jane said with a sigh. Which was a little silly, really, because she shouldn’t be sighing at the pleasant fact the building and everybody in it were fine. Perhaps a deeply buried, mutinous part of her personality had wanted something more exciting, something more adventurous for a Monday night. Jane buried that voice, said good night to Ci, and walked out of the office.
It was when she was walking across the campus to one of the transport hubs that the thing attacked her. She had no warning, she had nowhere to run, and she had no chance.
“Prack, how could we lose containment?” Lucas slammed his hand down on the bench, his armor suddenly deploying.
“No idea, but we’ve got it back now. No problem,” Alex replied.
No problem? Like hell. If there’d been no problem, they would never have lost containment in the first place. No problem meant the experiment going off without a hitch and Lucas finally getting one freaking night off.
With his armor now in place, he was picking up readings from his environment that were being transferred directly to his central nervous system. It sharpened his senses, gave him details that he couldn’t see with his ordinary eyes and couldn’t hear with his ordinary ears. The armor was like a living second skin. As soon as he activated it with a single thought, it would grow up and cover his whole body in a second. He had to admit that he thought it was some of the coolest technology out there and definitely the most fun.
Fun was nowhere on his mind right now.
“That thing is meant to be dead,” he said, crossing his arms, the move easy despite the bulk of his armor.
“Well, it is still dead,” Alex replied.
“I just saw it move, Alex,” Lucas snapped, tone tense. He knew at some level that he should relax. Alex was right, and the containment field was back in place. Nothing was damaged, and nothing had happened. However, Lucas couldn’t shake the feeling that this was important. Hell, ever since he’d been given this command, he couldn’t shake the feeling that every single action was the most important thing he would ever do. He was hardly sleeping at night because he would spend every minute of every day going over the troop manifest, the personnel list, the supplies, even the programs that were to be loaded on the computer. Every detail, every hour of every day – he was already living his mission non-stop, and it hadn’t even started yet.
“It could have simply been a fluctuation in the power grid,” Alex said, his voice calm and reasonable.
“I swear I saw it move.”
“I’m pretty sure you haven’t slept in the past 48 hours.” Alex raised an eyebrow as he popped his head up from staring at the computer panel. “As I’m soon to be your Chief Medical Officer, let me tell you that’s not a good look.”
“Soon to be Chief Medical Officer, Alex. I think you will find I’m fine and that I look great,” Lucas added with a chuckle.
Alex put his hands up. “Far be it from me to say that the great Lucas Stone doesn’t look fantastic. What exactly would the good Senator’s daughter say?”
“Don’t bring that up again,” Lucas warned, but his tone was playful.
Perhaps Alex was right – perhaps he was just tired, and he’d imagined the whole thing. Because now Lucas had his armor on and he had access to the onboard computer and his augmented senses, he couldn’t deny that there was no evidence that the specimen had moved a nanometer, let alone an inch.
Lucas let out another massive sigh, finally allowing his armor to melt back into his implants.
“I’m telling you, you need to get some rest.” Alex waggled his finger. “Our friend can wait. After all, he has waited for the past 100 years. I really don’t think he’s going to mind if you take the night off.”
“Right,” Lucas managed.
“Really, that’s your comeback? I thought the great Lucas Stone was meant to be charming and witty? You call that witty?” Alex smiled.
“Knock it off.” Lucas put a hand up to his brow and started to massage it, letting his eyes close for a thankful moment. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong; this is probably the most important mission I will ever go on.”
Alex shrugged. “Why would anything go wrong? You will have the best team, the best ship, and the best leader: you.”
Lucas rolled his eyes. He knew Alex was just teasing him, but it was fair to say Lucas was starting to get fed up with all the attention. Lieutenant Saber had run up to him only last week to let him know there was going to be a documentary series on Lucas’ life that was going to run on all the major Galactic news channels before the mission. That was on top of the fact that he’d learned only the month before that he had a fan club with a subscription of over 1 million Galactic citizens. It was all too much. Hell, Alex had told him yesterday there were some people on the moons of the Dia System that now worshiped Lucas as a god.
Lucas hated it. He’d never done this for the attention; despite what everybody liked to believe, he hated attention. It had never been about that; it had always been about something more. Though the Galactic media liked to think he did it all because he was some kind of hero, they were wrong. He just always found himself the only person around when trouble erupted, and it always seemed to be up to him to solve it. He didn’t seek it out; he just found himself having to face it alone. Prack, sometimes he thought he was cursed. The number of transports or cruisers or battleships that he’d been on that had faced terrible crashes or some dastardly plot that only he could solve – it wasn’t normal. Or maybe it was normal and other people were doing what he was doing, but they weren’t getting the attention for it.
Now, that was something that kept Lucas up at night. He had a whole Galaxy telling him that he was the bee’s knees, in the prime of his game, the absolute perfect man for the job. But what if he wasn’t? What if he’d always simply been lucky? What if there was somebody out there, or millions and billions of people who could do the job better than him?
He knew he was tired and that he was thinking negatively, but Lucas also knew he wasn’t going to get any less tired. For the next several weeks he would be planning the mission, and then for the next several months he would be implementing it. As everybody kept telling him, it would be the most important operation of his life and perhaps the most important mission mounted by the entire Galaxy in the past 100 years.
Lucas swallowed hard and massaged his brow again.
That wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part was in the containment field two meters to his left.
That was the real reason they were heading through Hell’s Gate. It wasn’t to study quantum singularities. It wasn’t to study the planets beyond the rim. Oh no, it was all about that thing two meters to his left.
“Look, Lucas, just go home. There is nothing more you can do here tonight. I’m running the tests, but I really don’t need you to stand there and look sullen. Go home and stand in your own house and look sullen.” Alex kept shaking his head as he looked up from his console. “If you keep staying up all night and poring over all of that data, you will find the mission short indeed, because I will call you up and send you home the second we get out of space dock.”
Lucas looked up from under his hand.
“Go home,” Alex mouthed again.
Lucas shrugged. “Fine, fine, but I don’t want to run any risks, so have the computer triple the containment field.”
Alex gave an impressed whistle. “Triple the field? That’s going to be a mighty drain on power. Lucky you are Lucas Stone, or you would be getting dragged up before the Chief Engineer in the morning.”
Lucas replied with another massive sigh, turned on his heel, and walked out the door.
Alex was right – he needed sleep. Then again, the Galaxy needed him to pull this mission off. If he didn’t… hell, he had no idea what would happen. Because that was the thing, there was much more to this mission than the public were being told. Of course there was more to it. The powers that be wouldn’t fund such an enormous operation if all they wanted to do was have a look at a couple of swirly whirly twisting space oddities.
It had to do with them. Those things they’d been finding. The peculiar, frightening things that had been popping up throughout that area of space for the past 50 years. Nearly every day they would find new samples, new signals, new artifacts that hinted at something far darker, far more menacing than a bunch of quantum singularities.
That was why Lucas Stone was going on this mission, and that was why he was populating his team with more than scientists.
He was aware that his thoughts were rambling; he was so damn tired. He clamped another hand on his temple and tried to push the fatigue and worry out. It wouldn’t work, but at least it would distract him. Plus, he had every intention of ignoring Alex’s demand. He was going home, not to sleep, but to do more study. Lucas wouldn’t go on this mission, with so much at stake, without knowing exactly what he was up against.
Lucas didn’t live far out of town. While everyone else he knew chose to live in the city, in one of the beautifully appointed apartments full to the brim with modern technology, he chose to live outside. He had a rustic-style house from 300 years ago out in the country. It was an old but well-preserved log cabin, and it had something that nobody seemed to talk about anymore: charm. When Lucas had been growing up with his grandfather, he’d learned the importance of charm. The future could bring you every technological advantage you could imagine – it could bring you convenience beyond your wildest dreams; it could open up your abilities and your mind to frontiers that humans had once thought impossible – but it couldn’t give you charm. Waking up in the morning to see the sunrise from an old log cabin in an old-style bed had a hell of a lot of charm. Lucas had been nearly everywhere you could go in this Galaxy, and he’d never found charm like that anywhere else. So though it set him apart from his friends and colleagues, he lived outside the city. He knew he was probably the only one who did so in the entire Galactic Force. When he’d been going through his studies, his friends had labeled him a Luddite and a technophobe, but he wasn’t. He simply had different priorities.
It would definitely be something he would miss on the mission, as he was well aware it was scheduled to take several months. Scheduled, that was. If they found whatever mysterious race was out there, then… god, he had no idea. He just hoped it wouldn’t come to war.
Lucas realized he was walking in a daze and was on automatic pilot as he half jogged across the Galactic Force grounds toward the nearest transport hub. There was a report on recent archaeological activity close to the rim that he hoped would give him valuable insight on what was out there.
Lucas walked along, paying the bare minimum attention to his body and surroundings so he didn’t fall over or trip into a bush. He was in such a daze that it took a while to realize there was a hum in the air. This close to the transport hub, there was always a low vibration to be heard. Yet the hum he was detecting was a higher, discordant pitch. When he looked up, eyebrows pressed down in confusion, he saw something.
That was when he ran.
It happened too fast for her to react. One minute she was walking toward the transport hub, the next something had flown at her from out of the shadows, pressing into her shoulders and pushing her to the ground in a snap. She didn’t scream; the thing was on top of her chest, crushing her lungs in an instant, and she didn’t have the breath.
The thing, whatever it was, pulled back its lips and let out a sharp and intense hiss. Out of the corner of Jane’s eye, she saw something like a tail with a sharp, pointed end whip around from the side. It flashed around, and Jane saw the light from the nearby transport hub glinting off it.
It shot toward her. As it did, her mind, far from filling with fear, filled with a heavy, charged energy.
There was a buzzing in her head, a buzzing that vibrated through her whole skull.
The tail was milliseconds from stabbing right through her.
Before it could strike, something slammed into the side of the creature, and she heard a considerable grunt as it was pulled to the side.
Shaking, blinking wildly, her breath coming in short, sharp bursts, she remained on the ground, stock still.
The buzzing in her mind started to abate, leveling out and disappearing behind the wall of fear that now pressed in on her from every side. She could see a security officer in full armor grappling with something. She could discern him because of the distinct blue and white lines down one shoulder which glowed in the dark. But whatever he was fighting was black and indiscernible.
It was over quickly, and in a few seconds, the security officer snapped up, punching a hand to the side and latching it onto the same tail that had almost killed Jane only moments before. He tugged on it then pulled a pulse rifle from his back holster and shot the thing.
… It had barely lasted 30 seconds, yet now it was over.
But what was over? What on Earth had just happened?
“Are you okay? Are you okay, ma’am?” The soldier straightened up but kept his rifle trained on the black shape. His head was half-turned toward her, but she couldn’t tell his expression as his face was covered by the dark black of his helmet and visor.
Jane didn’t answer him; she just kept standing there. She was aware that her mouth was hanging open, her lips pouted, not in an attempt to look attractive, but because she didn’t have any control over them. Her gaze, though it did flick up to the soldier, now locked on the creature at his feet. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the weird black tail – the glinting, pointed tail that had only moments before been ready to slice right through her chest. It felt as though her body had frozen in place, as if she had no control over it whatsoever.
The buzzing was still in her head, but the more she stared down at the creature, and the more it remained still and lifeless at the soldier’s feet, the more the ringing subsided.
“We need a security team here,” the soldier snapped. He didn’t move or clutch a hand to any kind of communication device. He just spoke. Though Jane had never had the fortune of trying out one of the fancy biomechanical armor suits that all the security forces wore, she knew what was happening here. They could connect to the wearer’s motor and sensory systems, wind right in there as if they were an extension of the wearer’s body. They were controlled by thoughts alone. So if the guy wanted to make a call, all he had to do was think about it.
“Make it quick. We need a MAG team as well,” the soldier snapped out his words quickly and efficiently but didn’t once shift his gun, keeping it pointed at the thing by his feet.
Jane began to shake. It was a seriously delayed reaction. But as the ringing subsided, the fear flooded in and filled her like a balloon ready to pop.
“What the hell is this thing?” the soldier asked. His voice was low, his words directed more at himself. “How did it get to Earth?” There were long pauses between his words as he no doubt accessed the onboard sensors of his armor to scan the creature.
Jane didn’t have that advantage, and the only thing she could use to gain information on the now lifeless carcass that had almost killed her was her sight. And she couldn’t stop looking at it.
“Are you injured?” the soldier asked again. “Are you okay?”
Jane could hear the man, and she also knew that she wasn’t injured, but she still didn’t answer.
“You work in the Administrative Division, don’t you?” The soldier kept trying to engage her in conversation.
How did this man know where she worked? The question was enough to break her out of the pall of fear and surprise she was drowning in, and she tore her gaze from the black creature.
“I’ve seen you around. You’ve been here for a while, right? What’s your name?” While he still had his gun pointed at the creature, and he only half turned to Jane as he spoke, it appeared that the note of concern in his voice was genuine.
As Jane heard the sound of heavy footsteps running over the Galactic Force grounds toward them and the sharp blare of a warning signal as a security field was set in place around the building and grounds, she recognized the voice she was hearing. It was Lucas Stone. It had to be. She knew that distinctive deep baritone.
Before she could ask him, the security group arrived, and the commotion began anew.
Soon, Jane was whisked away by a medical bot, even though she was plainly not injured. And soon, though not soon enough, she whispered her name. “Jane.” But Lucas Stone was no longer there to hear it.
What in the hell had happened? He’d been walking across the Galactic Force grounds only to see something moving through the dark. His armor had activated itself instantly. Even when it wasn’t in place, it was linked with his nervous system. When a part of his brain felt impending danger, even if he wasn’t conscious of it, the armor would activate itself.
He was bloody lucky it had, because if it hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to move that creature off her. It was fast, it was strong, and it was illegal in nearly every single Galactic nation.
It was an assassin robot. It was a model he’d never come across before.
Lucas knew he’d been lucky. He’d only defeated it through the element of surprise. If the thing hadn’t been so consumed by attacking the woman, it would have put up one hell of a fight. That was why assassin robots were illegal; they were too fast, too strong, too agile, too technologically advanced, and hell, they were only there to kill people.
They also regenerated, and that was why Lucas had never taken his gun off the creature. Though he’d fought every instinct to run up to the woman to check she was okay. An assassin robot could regenerate even if only one tenth of its synthetic tissue remained. You could chop it up, slice it in half with a plasma ray, blow up most of it with a linear mine, but as long as one tenth remained, it would regrow. Sure, it might take a couple of hours, but soon enough the creature you’d lost half your team to would be back on your tail.
Lucas had only ever fought one once, and it wasn’t an experience he could forget. It had been on a planet far from Earth, one that was a hotbed of pirate activity. It hadn’t been one of the most protected planets in the Galactic Union.
“I don’t get it, what was it after?” one of the security officers at the security station asked.
“I have no idea,” Lucas mumbled to himself as he stood in the corner, arms crossed, gaze directed to somewhere in the middle distance. He didn’t need this right now. Weeks away from beginning his mission, he should be spending every last second picking the crew and consolidating his plan.
He heaved a great sigh and shook his head several times, finally letting it rest back on the wall behind him. “Any news from the med bay?”
The security officer shrugged dismissively. It was clear that wasn’t where his priorities lay. Lucas couldn’t blame him. If you were in charge of security at the Galactic Force and one of the most illegal and highly trained killers in the universe violated your grounds and attacked one of your staff, it should command your full and total attention. The blowback from this would be extraordinary.
“Are we sure we’ve got it contained?” Lucas asked, shifting his eyes toward the security officer but not shifting his head from the wall behind him. He was tired, seriously tired. It hadn’t just been the impromptu battle with the fiend on his way home – it was everything. He was weary, and he was running out of time before he went on the most important mission of his life. The truth was, he didn’t feel he was ready.
“I’m going to head up to the med bay to see how that woman is. Ensure proper security protocols; I don’t want that thing getting out again.” Lucas uncrossed his arms and pulled away from the wall. He realized he didn’t need to be telling the security officer what to do; Lucas was no longer in charge of Galactic Force security. The security officer, though surprised, would still know his job. Hell, anybody who knew the slightest thing about assassin robots would know what to do with them, and they would know not to leave the containment field open while they went to get a coffee or a snack. But Lucas had to be careful – he always had to be careful. He couldn’t afford mistakes, because the whole Galaxy was relying on him.
His armor was still engaged, and though he’d let his helmet turn transparent, he wasn’t about to deactivate it. Too many surprises. First, there’d been the problem with the containment field in the basement, and now a bona fide assassin robot had popped up on the grounds. Next, he would probably find a gang of space pirates dancing around in the cafeteria, stealing all the hotdogs and destroying the chairs and tables.
When he made it to the med bay, he didn’t see the commotion he’d expected. In his mind, if someone had just had a close scrape with an assassin robot, a team of physicians would be caring for them around the clock. Lucas had seen what an assassin robot could do; he’d lost two good people to one. The robots were focused, they were brutal, and they were effective. While he’d seen the woman sit up and even stand, it didn’t mean much. He knew another thing or two about assassin-bots – they could create interference fields that could send a person into a coma or scramble their endocrine and neurological systems, killing them in an instant or shutting them down in a slow, excruciating way.
Yet when he entered the med bay, it was to the sight of the woman sitting up on the edge of one of the beds, staring out the window to the night sky beyond. There were several doctors attending to other patients, but they weren’t all crowded around her, ensuring her body didn’t shut down.
The woman hardly glanced at him as he walked past, her gaze fixed on the view outside. It was the same look she’d given that creature after it had attacked her. At first, Lucas had put it down to shock, but now he noticed there was a strange quality to her attention. Before he could assess it further, one of the doctors walked over to him, shaking her head and looking as though it had all been his fault.
“Lucas,” she said, voice curt as she crossed her arms, a holographic data pad in her hand.
“Miranda,” he noted through a swallow. Lucas had known Miranda ever since he’d been a recruit. And ever since Lucas had been a recruit, Miranda had always treated him in the same way – as a reckless individual who needed her services far too often. She’d told him on more than one occasion that she was sick of fixing him up after fights. Though Lucas would point out that he was saving the Galaxy here and she should cut him a bit of slack, she never did.
Yet he liked Miranda. She was one of the rare people out there who didn’t treat him like a walking god. Hell no, Miranda treated him like a walking accident.
“I should have guessed you were involved in this,” Miranda said as she raised a single eyebrow, her head still shaking and her expression crumpled with disappointment.
Lucas felt the need to put his hands up in surrender. “It wasn’t exactly my fault. I just intervened. If I hadn’t, we’d have a body bag instead.” He let his gaze shift back to the strange woman on the edge of the bed.
While he didn’t know her name, he’d seen her around. Heck, he could remember the first time he’d met her: as a recruit, he’d asked her for directions. She’d mumbled that it was her first day too and she had no idea where she was. The only reason he remembered the interaction was because she’d been painfully cute. There’d been something about the way she’d blinked at him, her lips wobbling, that had stayed with him over the years, even though he’d only rarely seen her since. Sure, he’d noticed her today in the admin office when the general manager had made him give that seriously awkward speech. While everybody else had been on their feet clapping, she’d been sitting down staring out the window. And yeah, he’d also noticed she’d been nodding off when he’d first walked into the room.
Once a pleasant curiosity, now she was an enigma. Because now she was sitting on a hospital bed after she’d been attacked by the most illegal and dangerous synthetic life form in the Galaxy.
Lucas glanced back at Miranda, and he could tell she’d been looking at his expression the entire time.
“A friend of yours?” Miranda had a slight but suggestive smile on her face. “Should I be calling the papers, or the good Senator and his daughter?”
He let out a small laugh and shook his head. “What have you got for me, Miranda? And why aren’t you dealing with her?” He nodded toward the woman. “I’ve seen what one of those robots can do, and I know you don’t just walk away from that.”
Miranda set her head to the side and gave him a look that said it all: she was the doctor and didn’t need to be told what to do by a little soldier boy. “I have run all the tests, Lucas, and I can assure you that Jane is fine.”
“Jane?” His eyebrows descended.
Miranda pointed to the woman on the bed. “You don’t even know her name? Oh, Lucas, you are lame.”
That was another thing, another thing that dogged him. If the fame weren’t bad enough, for some reason the rest of the Galaxy thought Lucas was a womanizer. They believed that every single night he wasn’t on duty he was out with somebody new. That he didn’t just blaze his way across the universe, but he slept his way through it too. No matter what Lucas did or said, he couldn’t shake that view from his friends, let alone the media. So he just wore it these days. He stopped fighting it and went silent whenever anyone would mention it.
“Just tell me,” Lucas said with a sigh.
“Lucas Stone, you sound tired. Do I need to fix you up again? Have you broken something? Have you scratched something? Have you been in a bar fight? Have you taken on an entire group of mercenaries? Have you dived into the dying engine of a cruiser with nothing but stupidity and a gun again?” Miranda asked, her eyes narrowing.
Lucas shook his head, even clapping a hand to one of his temples and looking around from underneath it. “Believe it or not, Miranda, I’m just tired.”
“I have trouble believing that. You are not just tired – you are overworked. If I had my way, you would be taken off duty, and you would be forced to have a holiday. When was the last time you had any recreational leave?”
Lucas offered her a thin smile. “I’m afraid you no longer have the authority to order me off duty for medical reasons.”
Miranda looked at him darkly. “So much the worse for you, Lucas. Because if I had, I would be delaying that little mission of yours until you are properly rested, maybe even until you get a life outside of work for a change.”
“Thank you, Miranda, but I do have a life. I would have thought as a physician you would have picked that up already.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that kind of life, Lucas. I mean the kind of life with meaning, with happiness. You know, the kind of life everybody else has? With recreation, with holidays, with something other than endless work.”
“I don’t need one of those,” Lucas replied with another thin smile. “But I really do need you to tell me that the woman over there, Jane, is okay.” Lucas could tell that his expression had changed. Before, he’d been sarcastic; now, he was concerned. He couldn’t help it. That woman had just been attacked by one of the most vicious and capable robots in the galaxy.
Miranda crossed her arms, kept her lips pressed together for a moment, then took a sniff. “She’s fine. In fact, she’s better than fine. If you asked me, and you’d just brought her in off the street, I would have told you that this woman was in peak physical condition and hadn’t just had a run in with an assassin robot.”
Lucas could feel his eyes narrow and his lips spread wide, not in a smile, but in a confused frown. “Excuse me?”
Miranda shrugged her arms and shoulders, the move expressive. She looked confused, but then the usual control and barely suppressed annoyance that always commanded Miranda’s expression returned to her. “I don’t know, Lucas. The important thing is she’s fine. She’s also not human, which might have helped her rebound.”
“Not human?” Lucas glanced back at Jane. She looked human. Though these days that didn’t mean much. The Galaxy was a big place, and if there was anything the last several centuries had taught humanity, it was that their idea of an alien had to be expanded. He’d read a little about Earth’s history, and for a period there, their idea of aliens was of the giant-headed, beady eye, slimy, gray-skinned variety with three fingers and a penchant for crashing into military airbases. In reality, there were so many planets and so many aliens out there that the range of forms that life came in was innumerable. Some aliens did look almost exactly like humans. Some of them could make themselves look exactly like humans, and yet again, others underwent simple surgery to obtain the same effect. Though such surgery was rarely effective. The point was, you could never be too surprised if the apparent Homo Sapiens in front of you was in fact a creature from the planet Alpha Terra.
That being said, Lucas was still shocked. Jane just looked… he couldn’t quite get a handle on it, but she looked plain. No, that wasn’t the right word, because she wasn’t plain. The way she looked so fixedly out the windows was intriguing, not boring. And while she didn’t have the kind of standout features that would see her getting work as a Galactic anchorwoman or the like, she wasn’t ugly, even though that was a term he hardly used. There were so many aliens out there with such different looks and concepts of beauty that ugly didn’t mean much these days. By human standards, while Jane looked normal and wouldn’t stand out, there was still something unique and intriguing about her….
She’d also had a run-in with an assassin robot and was now apparently okay, which was something Lucas was having trouble believing.
He crossed his arms and stared over at Jane, his eyes pressed together, his jaw set.
She looked around at him, tearing her gaze from the view. She took one look at his expression, blinked, and turned right back to the window.
She’d obviously thought he was staring over at her in anger, as his expression hadn’t exactly been friendly.
He was putting it off, but he took a sigh and walked over to her. “Are you all right, Jane?”
It took a moment for her to look up at him, and when she did, she still had that same pursed-lipped expression on her face, her eyes filled with a wary look. She nodded.
Miranda walked up beside him, her holo-pad still in her hand as she flicked through some readings. “Your readings are fine, perfect even. You really don’t need to stay here much longer.”
Jane gave a brief nod. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“That being said, I’m sure Lucas probably wants to ask you some questions. If he gets too annoying, just call me and I’ll sedate him.” Miranda winked.
Jane gave a small, flickering, awkward little laugh, and Lucas couldn’t stop himself from smiling at it. It was cute in a weird way.
Miranda walked off, but not before patting a hand on his shoulder and bending in to tell him that if he didn’t get any sleep, she would get into his house, break his legs, and put him into an induced coma.
Finally, the two of them were alone. It was odd that Lucas could remember the first time he’d met Jane. It was odd because Lucas had met many people over the years, done many things, and had a head full of memories with a hell of a lot more power and import. Yet he couldn’t deny that it had stuck with him, anyhow. “I need to ask you a couple of questions,” he managed, realizing that his voice was quieter and more hesitant than it usually was. He was used to questioning people after security incidents, and he’d fought one-on-one with some of the deadliest and highly trained creatures in the Galaxy. He was also accustomed to salvaging crucial missions just in the nick of time. And yes, his friends were right about one thing: he was used to talking to women, even if he didn’t deserve the wild reputation they’d invented for him. Yet now he was having trouble.
Jane looked up at him.
“Umm.” Lucas found himself trying to pat a hand over his short, sandy-blond hair. But his armor got in the way, and his hand glanced off the transparent but still rigid structure of his helmet. He tried to hide the move by giving a cough and tucking his hands behind his back as if he were on parade. “What happened before I arrived?”
Jane looked down at her hands, then out at the night sky above, and then finally back to him. Her expression still hadn’t improved any, and he had to note that it was at odds with the kind but awkward smile she’d offered Miranda. “I don’t know. I was just walking to the transport hub, and then…” she trailed off. She looked confused, and her features crumpled, her hands forming fists.
She was probably frightened, probably scared out of her mind, probably shocked. Maybe Miranda’s biological readings were wrong and something was confusing the medical scanners, because Lucas could tell that this woman was still scared out of her wits. “It’s okay,” he said gently, nodding his head. “You are fine in here.”
She flicked her gaze back up at him. Her expression was pained, almost annoyed.
“Ahh, do you… do you have any enemies?” Lucas asked, even though he knew it was a ridiculous question. He’d already looked up Jane’s file and could tell that she was about the most normal, plain, and simple Galactic citizen you could hope for. She had no fines, no tickets, no warnings, and she’d never been in anything that could be described as an “incident.” In fact, it appeared as if she’d led the quietest life possible. Yet people with such quiet lives didn’t find assassin robots trying to hunt them down. No, he’d already made up his mind that for whatever reason the robot had attacked her, it hadn’t been because she was its target. Perhaps she’d seen something, and it had come after her in order to cover its trail. That was the only version of events that made any sense to him. So the entire point of asking her if she had any enemies – if she knew of anybody rich enough, brazen enough, and capable enough to smuggle one of the most illegal creatures in the Galaxy to Earth – was a waste of time. She wasn’t the real target. But dammit, her odd, clearly annoyed look had thrown him.
Lucas wasn’t accustomed to receiving looks like that, especially not from women and especially not around the Galactic Force. While he spent most of his time complaining about it to Alex, it was a fact that most of the people around here treated him like an untouchable celebrity. Whenever he asked anyone anything, whether it be for directions, the time, you name it, people would drop whatever they were doing and organize a crack team to get him the best directions, estimation of time, or response possible. Lucas honestly hated all the attention, but he couldn’t deny he was used to it. Now to have a woman he hardly knew look at him with such annoyance… well, he didn’t understand. Perhaps she blamed him for the assassin robot getting on the grounds in the first place? Perhaps she thought he could have acted sooner, intervened before it had even touched her? Yeah, that was probably it.
“Enemies?” The same annoyed look of confusion still crumpled her face. “I don’t have any enemies. I’m far too plain for that.”
While Lucas was still smarting under the force of her irritated look, he couldn’t help but let his lips curl. “Plain?” he questioned. What would that have to do with anything? It was an odd way to describe oneself. Lucas had seen enough violence and destruction throughout the Galaxy to know that whether you were plain or interesting, danger could still knock on your door. You could still be on a cruiser when it lost life support; you could still be on a planet when it got wiped out by a supernova; you could still be on a street when space pirates attacked. Plain had nothing to do with how this Galaxy operated and how you got along in it.
“I’m plain,” Jane repeated, “and nothing like this has ever happened to me.” Her features crumpled, returning to the confused look he’d noted before.
He wanted to laugh, and he had to grit his teeth to stop himself. It wouldn’t look good to laugh at the woman who’d just had a harrowing experience and had almost died at the tail-point of an assassin robot. News like that would spread quickly, and Lucas would get a letter from his fan club telling him to treat damsels-in-distress better.
He tried to flatten his hair again, and once again his hand jammed against his helmet. “Okay,” he said carefully. “Do you….” He was going to ask her whether she had any idea why the assassin robot might have attacked her, but it was stupid. It hadn’t been after her. Honestly, there was little point in questioning her at all. If Lucas wanted to find out what was going on, he should just go to the security headquarters and trawl through the various computer files and sensor readings that had been picked up before, during, and after the attack. He could attempt to trace where the assassin robot had come from, and maybe if he was lucky, he could find the name of the person who’d imported it by the end of the night. Questioning Jane was pointless. Yet while he knew that, he couldn’t drag himself away.
“Why were you here so late? Doesn’t your division close at…” he trailed off. He had no idea what time the Administrative Division of the Galactic Force closed; it wasn’t his area. He could guess that they normally didn’t hang around until 11 o’clock at night, though.
“I was working late,” she said primly.
“Okay.” He wanted to say something more sophisticated, but he couldn’t think of anything. The woman’s standoffish attitude was throwing him. He wasn’t used to negative attention like this. “Look, I’m really sorry that this has happened, and I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner,” he tried, swallowing loudly at the end.
Jane didn’t reply immediately. “How was it your fault?” she asked.
“Well,” he shrugged his shoulders, his arms suddenly feeling awkward as he moved them around, not sure of where to place them, “I’m in security—”
“I know what you do,” she said quickly, “and it isn’t your responsibility to ensure that nothing at all goes wrong at the Galactic Force ever,” she pointed out curtly.
Lucas nodded, now totally confused. It wasn’t the response he’d been expecting. He had, over the years, saved many women, men too of course, from hundreds of different species. Yet this would be the first time someone he’d rescued had been so… so unresponsive about it. Hell, only last week he’d prevented a woman from getting electrocuted by a badly installed holographic panel, and when she’d turned out to be a card-carrying member of his Fan Club, she’d demanded a holographic scan of the two of them so she could send it to her parents and friends. Yet here was Jane, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed, splitting her attention between looking mildly annoyed at him and looking back outside the window, up at the night sky.
“I…” he began, no real idea of what to say next.
“It must have been a mistake,” Jane said. “Perhaps that creature was confused and thought I was someone else. Or perhaps it thought I’d seen something or overheard something, and it was coming after me in order to cover its trail,” she suggested. “No, it must have been a mistake. Things like this don’t happen to me.” There was a great deal of authority and certainty behind her words, and once again Lucas found himself smiling at her, although he wasn’t sure why.
Things like that didn’t happen to her? What kind of rationale was that? Just because she’d never been attacked by an assassin robot before, didn’t mean she would never have the misfortune of being attacked by one ever. Just because she’d never received a ticket or even a warning, didn’t mean she couldn’t find herself in a Galaxy full of trouble. And just because she referred to herself as being plain, didn’t mean that she couldn’t intrigue the hell out of him. That was exactly what she was doing. She seemed so certain about the fact everything had been a mistake, and she stared up at the night sky with such a fixed look in her eyes that, well, Lucas was dying to know more about her.
He didn’t get the chance, because at that moment a live communication feed filtered in, being redirected from his armor. For the sake of privacy, he turned from her and took several steps away from her bed.
Lucas Stone. It had to be Lucas Stone. She couldn’t have been saved by anybody else in the Galaxy. Oh no, just Lucas Stone. She was right about him too – he was seriously annoying. From the way he looked, to the way he acted, to the way he seemed put out because she wasn’t throwing herself at his feet and kissing his boots because he’d saved her.
Jane realized she was obsessing over Mr. Universe as a distraction from a far more important thought: she could have died. That creature, whatever it was, it could have killed her. It had tried – it had tried really hard to kill her. She’d seen the glint in its eyes, she could still hear its hiss echoing around her mind, and she’d watched that tail pull back ready to strike her through the heart.
Things like that didn’t happen to her, they had never happened to her, and they were not meant to happen to her. Being attacked on Galactic Force grounds and being saved by the Galaxy’s most eligible bachelor was the kind of thing that would happen to Mandy.
She was having immense trouble trying to process it all. She’d decided that whatever that creature was, its attack on her had been opportunistic or simply mistaken. Jane had never done anything to anyone, had never been in any kind of incident, and had never put herself in any kind of scenario where danger would come her way. Yet now she was sitting on a hospital bed, Lucas Stone standing several meters away from her as he talked into the com-line of his armor.
It didn’t help that she was tired, not for want of sleep, but from the need to stare up at the sky and let her mind roam free. She was constantly being interrupted. Doctors coming over to do readings on her, telling her that she was fine, looks of surprise on their faces as if they rather preferred that she were on the verge of death. And now Lucas Stone.
Jane crossed her arms and let out a heavy sigh. It was a funny thing, but while she often found herself imagining wild, crazy, and dangerous adventures for herself at night, she couldn’t imagine them really happening to her. Imagination, after all, was different from reality. While her imagination ran wild, her real life just sat there quietly and boringly in a small corner.
When Lucas finished his conversation, he appeared to hesitate before turning back to her. His expression was one of confusion, and perhaps he was having trouble figuring out why she wasn’t throwing herself at him in praise and thanks for his brave deed. Instead, she sat there, her arms still crossed, knowing that her expression showed clear irritation. Which was odd, because Jane usually went out of her way to ensure that her expression was just as kind and gentle as it could be. She believed that every single person or alien in the Galaxy deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet that rule didn’t extend to Lucas Stone.
He tried to pat his hair again, and once again his hand glanced off something. Jane knew enough about his armor to realize his helmet was still on but set to transparent. She doubted Lucas Stone would ever forget his helmet was on, so Jane figured that rather than trying to pat his hair he was probably checking for faults or imperfections along the back of his armor.
Before Lucas could begin questioning her about whether she had enemies again, Jane pushed off the bed. “Can I go home now?” she asked directly. “The doctor said I was fine,” she pointed out, crossing her arms. There was something about Lucas Stone that made her want to cross her arms and keep them there.
He looked a little taken aback. “I…” he trailed off.
“I’m fine. I’m not scared or anything,” she added quickly. It was true. Jane wasn’t scared at all; she was just confused. Confused that something like this could happen to someone like her. She was also tired.
He looked at her for a long moment, and though Jane wasn’t the kind, she felt a blush paint her cheeks pink. She repressed it immediately by crossing her arms even tighter. While she spent most of her nights fantasizing about romantic adventures, Lucas Stone was never in them.
“No,” he said, and a great deal of confidence ran through his tone. “Until we know exactly why that thing was after you…” he began. Before he could finish his sentence, he turned away once again, his eyes flicking to the left.
He was getting yet another call on his com-line.
Jane stuck her bottom lip out and blew a puff of air up until it played against her fringe.
After a while, it became clear that whatever conversation Lucas was having was an important one, so she sat back down on her bed.
“Dammit,” she heard Lucas say bitterly. She even saw his shoulders hunch over for a second.
That managed to get her attention, and rather than stare at him like he was a giant universal creep, she found herself wondering what could make the great Lucas Stone express such bitter disappointment. She didn’t have the chance to find out, because he turned, jogged across the room to the doctor, told her something, and then headed for the door. Before he went through it, he paused, half turned to Jane, his mouth open as if he wanted to say something, but then stopped, shook his head, and exited the room.
Jane stared on, her eyes narrowed, her eyebrows furrowed with confusion, and her arms still crossed.
Then she couldn’t resist it any longer and turned her head back up to the night sky outside, and she let her mind wander off.
It was all going to hell. He hadn’t had any sleep all night long, and now he was in his third meeting, and the morning wasn’t even over. This one was with the Chief Engineer, who was telling him curtly, though still politely, that it was taking too much energy to keep two level-three containment fields running around the clock.
Lucas sat there, wincing, his breath heavy.
“We just can’t keep running them much longer. We’ll exceed our generating capacity,” the Chief Engineer repeated as she sat back in her chair, crossing her three long green arms.
“I know. I understand that,” Lucas acknowledged as he rested his head in one hand, “but I don’t see any way around this.”
“Just disintegrate it,” the Chief Engineer said, tapping one of her hands on the table quickly. “You know it’s an assassin robot. We’ve taken all the readings we can, and we don’t need it anymore. Keeping it in that containment field and stopping it from regenerating is pointless. They are illegal, and there is a Galactic Senate decree that they have to be destroyed if found. Disintegrating it is the only option. We don’t need to keep it around any longer.”
Lucas nodded. He could see her point. Still, he couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that he needed to keep that robot around for some reason. But the Chief Engineer was right, and they had taken extensive scans of the creature which should give them all the information they required. There was also sufficient evidence to hold up in court should he find the idiot who’d imported the creature in the first place. The most sensible and smartest thing to do was to destroy it. Still….
“I do understand that I don’t have clearance to know what you’re keeping in the basement, but if you want whatever is down there under a level three, then you can’t have the assassin robot under one at the same time. We just don’t have the resources. There are too many other systems we need to run, too many other experiments that people are conducting, and if you keep these two containment fields up, we’re going to have to start draining from the city’s energy grid, and you know how much the Mayor hates it when we do that.”
Lucas nodded several times as if he were just a leaf flapping in the wind. Which was kind of how he felt at the moment, with no energy, no control, and pretty much zero idea of what was happening. “How long can we keep it operating before we have to drain the city’s power supply?” he asked, looking the Chief in the eye.
The Chief was annoyed, and she drummed all eight fingers of her far left hand on the table. “If it were anyone else, Stone, I wouldn’t be telling you this – I would just go and pull both fields myself…. But you’ve probably got at least two days before it becomes a major issue. And you will owe me several Edarian beers for this.”
Lucas let out a small laugh and nodded. “Thank you, Chief.”
“They’d better be a good brew too,” the Chief added as she stood up from the table and left the room.
Now Lucas was alone. He hunched his shoulders forward and closed his eyes, pressing against his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger. Dammit, things were happening too quickly. Not only had there been the mess with the assassin robot, but he’d also received a priority call from a scientific mission out on the rim with some interesting if not disturbing information about an archaeological site they were at. He should have spent the whole night reading their report, not running around trying to find out how somebody had managed to ship an illegal synthetic life form onto Earth.
Plus, he couldn’t get her out of his head. He’d called sick bay several times to ensure she was still there and she hadn’t walked out. Each time Miranda had confirmed that Jane was still sitting right on the edge of her hospital bed, staring up at the sky as she’d done all night long. At first, Lucas had thought that sounded odd and had urged Miranda to check that there was nothing wrong with Jane. Miranda had snapped back that it was, in fact, a perfectly normal part of Jane’s physiology and had told him to hang up the com-line so she could get some work done.
To top it all off, Alex had finished the tests he’d been running on the thing down in the basement, and the news was disturbing in the extreme. They still didn’t know what it was, but now Alex had confirmed that it had a sophisticated nervous system, suggesting that it had once been alive. Whether it was a being from that mysterious race, Lucas didn’t know, but he wasn’t resting easily about it. Alex had also managed to perform several other tests, and they’d all suggested that whatever it was, when it had been alive, it would have been a force to reckon with.
There was so much going on, and to top it all off, the Dean of the Galactic Force herself had requested – no, demanded – that Lucas attend a party that night. It was meant to be some informal gathering to celebrate the imminent mission. Lucas knew what informal would mean: everybody would be there, from the Galactic Force, to the news, to the Mayor of the city – just everybody. If Lucas even dreamed of leaving the party early and actually getting some sleep, he knew he’d have no hope of doing so. He would be expected to spend the entire night at the party, flying the flag of the Galactic Force. A flag he never had permission to put down… ever. And it was a flag that was getting heavier the longer he held it.
But more than the party and the specimen in the basement and even the curious Jane, it was meant to be arriving today.
They’d found it on a world not too far away from the rim, right on the edge of Hell’s Gate. It was on one of the old home-worlds of an empire called Para. The Parans were now a fractured, nomadic race, made up mostly of refugees. Though once, they’d been a great power. In fact, only 100 years ago, the Parans had been a major force in Galactic politics. Then one day they’d upped and disappeared.
The Parans had always been a reclusive, secretive race. They’d never let outsiders onto any of their planets, and they’d rarely let their representatives travel out into the Galaxy. So when one day the communication lines between the home-worlds of Para had gone dark, nobody had been able to find out what was going on. Then, slowly, over the years, the news trickled out that their ruling government – their Royal Family – were no more. The history was still sketchy and was made up, not of hard facts, but of anecdotal evidence gleaned from refugees, traders, and adventurers dumb enough to go that far out. Yet somehow and with someone, the Parans had gone to war. It had been the last war between two sovereign nations that had occurred in the Galactic Union to-date.
Without the ruling family and without a government, the empire that had been Para was no more. When the first probe had been sent to that area of space and had managed to successfully scan a Paran home-world close to the edge of Hell’s Gate, the information it had sent back had been simple and clear. Every planet had been razed. There was nothing left anywhere. The once great race was no more.
The thing that Lucas was now waiting for – the artifact, as they called it – was meant to arrive this morning. It had been excavated on one of the outermost Paran worlds. They couldn’t get to the central planets of Para, as they were all inside Hell’s Gate, and the sheer quantum disturbance that ran through that area made it far too unsafe to mount any sustained mission… until now, that was.
Yet another reason Lucas was being sent on his mission was to find out what had happened to the Parans and whether it had anything to do with that mysterious, unknown race.
Now an artifact from one of their home-worlds was on its way here. Though Lucas should give it his full and total attention, considering its probable importance, he had to go to a goddamn party. Sometimes he wondered whether he was cursed; whether he’d done something once to irritate some mysterious god of some mysterious race and now he was paying for it. He would never sleep, he would never get any peace, and he would be forced to spend the rest of his days running around the Galaxy with hardly time to blink and breathe as he went from mystery to confusion to crisis. Miranda had told him to get a life, and even though Lucas had insisted he already had one, the fact was he didn’t. He didn’t have a life; he had a job, and his job completely consumed him.
While he knew he should prepare before the artifact arrived, Lucas found his legs taking him somewhere else. Before he was aware of it, he’d already walked down the corridor that led, not to the basement or the hangar bay where the artifact would be arriving, but to the med bay. It was stupid, and it was a useless waste of time, but now that he found his legs mutinously taking over his body and directing him there, he went with it, letting out another sigh and telling himself that he needed to get his priorities straight. Right now, with the possibility that somebody had imported an assassin robot onto Earth, combined with the fact he had an example of a mysterious, deadly ancient Galactic race in his basement, his priorities shouldn’t be strange, strange plain Jane in the med bay.
Yet he couldn’t deny that he kept thinking about her. There were two things that managed to hold his attention, and only one of them was the fact she’d had a run-in with an assassin robot and had somehow managed to come away Scot-free. The other one… well, Lucas couldn’t put his finger on it – it eluded him. But it was still there.
When he arrived in the med bay, it was to the sight of Miranda rushing around, busy as always, and Jane nowhere to be seen.
Miranda glanced up at him, and she looked annoyed, just as she always did whenever she clapped eyes on him. She seemed to scan his body, looking for life-threatening injuries or maybe even mud on his shoes.
She walked over to him, peeling away from whatever frantic job she was doing at one of the sophisticated computer terminals. “She has gone home.”
“Don’t play cute, Lucas. I’m talking about Jane. The same woman you’ve been calling me about every two darn hours. The same woman you no doubt came in here to check on. I’m telling you that she has gone home. I will tell you once and once only that she’s fine. There is nothing wrong with her, and she wasn’t injured in the slightest.” Miranda clapped her hands on her hips and had the kind of look which challenged Lucas to say something. The kind of look that she would accompany with a quick jab of a hypodermic to the neck if she didn’t like what he was about to say next.
Lucas was in no mood to be chased off by Miranda, not today, not when so much was going on. “What do you mean she’s gone home? I didn’t allow—” he began.
Miranda rolled her eyes and let out a sharp, angry laugh. “The last time I checked, you were not a doctor, and you are not the Chief Medical Officer of the Galactic Force Main Campus,” she said emphatically. “That, Mr. Lucas Stone, means that your opinion about whether my patients are fit to return home or not is entirely irrelevant.”
He shrugged, putting his hands up. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I meant that as far as I know, she wasn’t given security clearance—”
“It came through this morning. Apparently, they are confident that they have fixed the hole in the security net, and something like this is not going to happen again. Plus, they assured me they would do standard protocol on this, and they have fixed her biometric readings into one of the planetary scanners, and she’ll be monitored. If anything happens to her biometrics, if any threat is detected in her vicinity, she’ll be transported out of there.” Miranda crossed her arms, and for a moment she maintained her annoyed expression, but then she sighed and looked across at Lucas like he wasn’t the nastiest piece of scum in the universe. “Lucas, you look horrible. You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
He replied with a sigh. “There’s too much going on. I just have too much to do.”
“Oh, you are busy, are you? What do you think I will be doing the next time you’re dragged in from fatigue or the next time you make a silly mistake and get your arm blown off? I shouldn’t have to tell this to somebody who isn’t a child, but sleep, Mr. Lucas Stone, is not a luxury – it is a necessity. If you can find the time to go to parties, then you can find the time to go to sleep.”
It was his turn to roll his eyes. “So you’ve heard about that, then?”
“We have all heard about it. Apparently, the entire Galactic Force has been invited. After all, it isn’t every day that wonder boy Lucas Stone is given command of one of the most important missions of our century.” Miranda’s usually curt tone turned conversational, and it was clear that she was trying to mimic the tone the Dean of the Galactic Force always used when talking about Lucas and the mission.
“You know, Miranda, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t be going,” Lucas said through a tight smile.
“Oh, grow a backbone, man, and break your own leg and get exempt for health reasons. I would be happy to give you a hand.” Miranda grinned.
Lucas replied with a short chuckle. Then he remembered something: sleep. Miranda had said that Jane didn’t sleep. It wasn’t that surprising, not considering he already knew Jane was an alien. Different aliens had different sleep patterns, and some of them didn’t sleep at all. It was a big Galaxy, and there were a lot of surprises out there.
“What do you…” he trailed off, not sure what he wanted to ask. He wanted to know who Jane was – more than what was written in her file. She was such an enigma, from the way she acted, to the fact she’d been attacked by an assassin robot and had, rather than being scared out of her wits, been annoyed at the prospect something exciting had happened to her on her way home from work. But how did you put that question into words? More importantly, how could it be answered? By someone other than Jane, that was. He could appreciate from his brief interaction with her last night that she wasn’t going to tell him.
He didn’t have to formulate his question, because Miranda looked down and to her side, her eyes narrowing, her lips closing slowly. It was the kind of look she always got when she was thinking, when something had stumped her, and when she was trying to chase it down and make sense of it. “She’s an odd girl,” Miranda acknowledged slowly. “Nice enough. Actually, an absolute sweetie, but she is….”
Lucas felt an electrical tingle rush down his spine. He had to be careful because he didn’t want to inadvertently activate his armor, but he couldn’t deny that Miranda’s expression and what she’d said had an effect on him.
An odd girl.
Lucas met a lot of women in his line of work, and they were everything from Galactic Security Officers, to the daughters of Senators, to the best and brightest, to glow-in-the-dark fans. Yet he rarely met odd girls, and not in the way Miranda was suggesting.
“Strange physiology,” Miranda sucked in her lips and shook her shoulders, “well, not strange. In fact, that’s just the thing – she’s slower, less agile, weaker than your average human, but… oh, I don’t know, I just can’t seem to put my finger on it. There is nothing there in the readings to suggest she isn’t anything but normal, but…” Miranda trailed off again.
Lucas stood there, and the more he listened, the more he felt… something he couldn’t quite describe. It was like anticipation. What was Miranda getting at? She was one of the most capable doctors he’d ever met, and she was one of the most determined and least flustered. For Miranda to be stumped by something...? Lucas didn’t know what that meant, but it made him feel nervous. “You said she doesn’t sleep. Is that normal?”
Miranda looked back at him, and she shrugged her shoulders again. “Not for you or me, maybe, but for her it seems fine. There are many, many races out there that don’t sleep and some that simply don’t sleep in a way that we can recognize. Jane, as far as I can tell… sleeps while she’s awake. It’s not that unusual, and I have seen it before.”
Sleeping while she was awake? Damn, he would give anything to have that kind of physiology right now. If he could somehow manage to get some rest while in one of the many boring meetings he was forced to go to these days, he would bloody well do it.
He frowned as something clicked into place in his mind. “Is that why she stares off into space?”
Miranda smiled. “I imagine so – that, or she finds you boring. How long did you think it would take, Lucas, before somebody out there would find the great Lucas Stone not all he was reputed to be?”
“Thank you, Miranda. But…” he trailed off yet again.
Miranda threw up her hands and shrugged emphatically. “Look, Lucas, you have a lot more to think about right now than this. Plus, you also have a party to get ready for, and what exactly would all your adoring fans think if you didn’t show up looking your best?”
He gave a snort. “That I’m only human?”
“Oh no, Lucas, you are a walking, living legend. And walking, living legends always look their best. Now, for the love of god, get some rest.”
He smiled. He wasn’t about to tell Miranda that he had no time to sleep. That in about half an hour he had to go to the hangar bay to oversee the arrival of an artifact from Paran space. While Miranda often joked that she would break his legs and put him into a coma in order to see that he finally rested, he wouldn’t put it past her to jab him with a potent sedative and knock him out for a couple of hours. She was plucky with a dash of determined madness.
“I suggest you put her out of your head for the time being. I can assure you that all the correct security measures have been put in place. I even asked the Security Office to relay a live feed of Jane’s biometrics to me here. I will know the second something goes wrong, if it goes wrong,” she emphasized if with a great puff of air. “But the likelihood, Lucas, is that whatever happened last night was an accident, and it will not happen again. I can assure you that Jane is fine, but I can equally assure you that you won’t be unless you tuck your head under your wing, get some shut eye, and get your priorities straight.”
He twisted his head to the side and gave Miranda a smile as he shrugged. It was something he always did, and though he’d thought it was painfully awkward and a great embarrassment growing up, now it was his signature move that drove the fans wild. He’d once caught a rookie on Galactic Force grounds with a small, palm-sized holo-recording of him making exactly that same gesture.
Get his priorities straight – they always said that. From Alex to Miranda to his commanding officers. They always told him to narrow down, to focus in on what was important, that he couldn’t do everything and he had to find where his priorities really lay. But that was just the thing – they would say one thing and expect another. Everybody, each and every freaking citizen of the Galactic Union seemed to be relying on him to get everything done. From the security of Earth to the upcoming mission, he was expected to do it all and never fail.
These weren’t thoughts he was about to share with Miranda; she would whack him over the shoulder for being pathetic and self-indulgent, and maybe he would deserve it.
Before he could find an excuse to stand there any longer – before he could find some way to put into words the questions he really wanted to ask about Jane – another live com-feed came in. The transport had arrived early.
Jane wasn’t tired anymore, but she felt agitated. Though she sat at home, pressed up on her window ledge, her eyes couldn’t focus and her mind wouldn’t wander. Something had her in its grip. That something was Lucas Stone.
She felt a headache welling inside her skull. The same low-grade, irritating buzzing that had filled her mind ever since she’d run into the assassin robot.
After several hours, she gave up trying to get some more rest. Instead, she sat down to read her messages.
Jane let out a frustrated sigh. There was a message from Mandy telling her she’d stuffed up her work last night and needed to come in to fix it. Either Mandy wasn’t aware of what had happened to Jane last night, or she didn’t care.
Though the doctor at the Galactic Force had told her to go home and rest in whatever way her race rested, Jane threw up her hands and decided to go back to work. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t in the mood to sit here and rest, and frankly, she had nothing else to do.
So soon Jane found herself back at work. After all, there was always more work to do. While she wasn’t in the business of saving the Galaxy and was rather in the business of crunching data, it was still work, and it still needed to be done.
All too soon, Jane realized her mistake, but it was far too late. The second she sat down at her desk was the second Mandy scooted over to her, tail whipping about with excitement.
“Ah, what is it? You called me in because I made a mistake. What did I do?”
“Oh, that. Whatever. I just wanted to talk to you.” A wide, toothy grin spread Mandy’s lips.
Jane sat there and stared at Mandy, completely confused.
Mandy stared back, her wide, beautiful eyes bursting with interest. “So,” she said slowly as if she were talking to a three-year-old or one of those alien races that were especially hard of hearing, “tell us what happened.”
Jane glanced sideways and realized that Tarta was staring at her, an interested look on his insect-like face. In fact, everyone who was sitting close to Jane had now turned in their chairs in order to see her more clearly.
She felt herself starting to blush.
“So,” Mandy bent down, her face hovering right in front of Jane’s, “tell us what happened.” She smiled widely.
“What do you mean?” Jane stuttered.
Mandy dropped her head back, and she let out a robust laugh. “You are just so innocent and plain, Jane. What do you mean what happened? It’s all over the internal news. You,” she poked a finger right into Jane’s chest, “were attacked last night by a creature on Galactic Force grounds. Your savior,” Mandy poked Jane two more times, “was Lucas freaking Stone.”
Jane blinked rapidly. “You heard about that?”
Mandy rolled her eyes. “Everybody has heard about that. Stop dodging the question. What was he like?” Mandy used her tail to whip her chair closer. She sat, her knees pressed right up against Jane’s. Mandy’s race wasn’t big on personal space.
Now that Jane realized she had an audience, she started to recede, trying to hide in the collar of her uniform. She never, ever had attention like this usually. She was the one they all ignored. She was the one who never had exciting stories about her weekend. She was the one everyone assumed was boring. Yet she was the one who now had the complete attention of every single person in the room.
Jane wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but with a resolute smile curling her lips, she told her story. Though, as far as she could tell, it wasn’t much of a story at all. Walking home and being attacked by something called an assassin robot and being saved by Lucas Stone? It probably happened to all the girls.
Mandy kept clapping her hands, a look of genuine interest in her eyes. When Jane finished her story, Mandy fanned her face. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. You actually met him. You now know Lucas Stone.”
Jane, still feeling awkward, shrugged her shoulders. She hardly knew Lucas Stone. Granted, he’d saved her life and she’d had a brief if awkward and irritating conversation with the man. Yet the way Mandy was now phrasing it – it was as if Jane and Lucas were bosom buddies.
Tarta looked thrilled. “You handled the situation well, Jane. For a human,” he added.
“She isn’t human,” Mandy clarified.
“Whatever,” Tarta retorted.
Mandy waved him off and bent down again, her smile still conspiratorial. “I have to admit, Jane, I thought you were boring, but this is fantastic. You do know what that creature that attacked you was, right? I mean, we didn’t know until you told us, as there was no information on it on the news. But you know what an assassin robot is, right?” Mandy’s eyes were glowing now.
Jane shook her head.
“They use them to, funnily enough, assassinate dignitaries, leaders, kings, queens. Not mild-mannered office workers. And somebody sent one after you.” Mandy poked Jane in the chest again. “This is just so fantastic!”
Jane knew enough about Mandy’s race not to take anything to heart. Hoyans were known for their love of adventure. One of the humans had once said that Mandy was like a house cat, and she would bat at anything that moved. Jane could expand that theory to include the fact that Mandy always tried to hit you with her tail and often ate whatever food you left on your desk.
It was nice to have somebody else interested in Jane’s life for once, even if it was Mandy, and even if Mandy had lied to get Jane to come into work in the first place. Even though Jane had never and would never tell Mandy, the Hoyan was the closest thing Jane had to a friend. A sharp, acerbic friend with a tail, but a friend nonetheless.
“I mean, Jane, think about it – something interesting has finally happened to you. You were attacked by an assassin robot. I’m just so proud of you,” Mandy said again, looking genuinely enthused. “This is just such fantastic news.”
Before Jane could process what it meant that Mandy, who was the primary user of the phrase “plain Jane,” now thought that Jane was interesting, someone cleared their throat.
That was when Jane looked up to see none other than Lucas Stone standing there. She’d been too distracted by the fact Mandy was now interested in her to realize that the room had gone solemnly quiet.
Lucas stared down, not at Jane, but at Mandy, with a look of controlled anger on his face.
“I think you’ll find that being attacked by an assassin robot is not fantastic,” he said, tone curt.
Mandy’s eyes lit up again, and she snapped to her feet.
Jane sat there, looking up at Lucas before she shifted her gaze to the side as she blinked.
Lucas opened his mouth to say something, but before he managed to get it out, there was a commotion behind him as the general manager burst into the room, running through the door so quickly he had to hold onto the doorframe so he didn’t fall over and roll into one of the computer panels. Obviously, someone had told him over the com-line that Lucas Stone was visiting again. “Lucas,” the general manager boomed, “to have you visit twice in two days,” he shook his head to the side, “is an honor indeed.”
Lucas turned around to face the general manager, his expression confused.
The second Lucas turned was the second Mandy bent down to Jane and fanned a hand in front of her face wildly, her smile toothy and wide.
Jane couldn’t help but press her lips together and grin back. Which was strange, really, as Jane was certain she wasn’t the kind of girl who would smile at the fact Lucas Stone had popped in to see her.
“To what do we owe this fantastic pleasure?” the general manager asked, his eyes glittering with excitement. “Are you here to rally the troops again? I can assure you that you have our full support. Whatever help we can give you to make sure your mission is a success, is help we will gladly offer.” The general manager gave the cheesiest of smiles.
Lucas nodded, returning the smile, though his was far more pained.
“Thank you. The Galactic Force knows that it can rely… on your support,” he managed, his words coming out in a choppy manner, his usually eloquent speech abandoning him. “But I have to admit I’m here on other business.”
The general manager, cheesy smile still spreading his lips, clapped his hands together. “You are welcome to drop by anytime, Lucas. I can have my secretary clear my calendar—” he began.
Lucas put up a hand. “I’m not here to see you, Yiro. I’m here…” he trailed off.
Mandy was practically dancing around on the spot and was pretty much draped over Jane’s shoulder as she tried to fan the both of their faces.
“This is so incredible,” she whispered into Jane’s ear. “Look at him, look at him – he’s awkward,” she hissed a bit louder.
Jane didn’t need to be a genius to know that with the armor that was built into Lucas’ body, he would be able to hear clearly what Mandy was saying. Yet Jane knew enough about Mandy to realize she wasn’t the kind of alien who cared. Mandy was built for intrigue and gossip. While that had meant that for most of the time Jane had known Mandy, Mandy hadn’t had two seconds for her, that had all changed now.
Lucas cleared his throat again and straightened up. “I believe you are aware of the security issue we had on campus grounds last night,” Lucas said, the command back in his tone. “I’m here to discuss the matter with the woman who was involved in the incident.”
For a second, the manager looked crestfallen, and then he nodded and his smile returned to his face. “Of course, of course. Lucas Stone always has the security of the Galactic Force in mind,” he winked, “and we can all feel safer having you on board. Please, take all the time you need.”
Lucas gave a brief nod, sighed, and turned on his heel to face Jane.
Mandy was still draped over Jane’s shoulder, her tail flashing with keen interest.
Lucas gave Mandy a polite but careful look. Then he appeared to notice as Jane’s eyes flicked up and glanced at the dancing tip of Mandy’s tail.
“Your co-worker has just been involved in a traumatic incident with an assassin robot. I would suggest that you do not refer to the incident as fantastic. It was harrowing. Also—” He glanced again at her tail. It was obvious he was about to tell Mandy to tuck her tail away because only last night Jane had almost been stabbed by one, and obviously in his mind that meant she would cry at the mere sight of one.
Jane sniffed and shook her head. “I’m fine. It doesn’t matter how Mandy refers to it,” she followed up quickly, “because nothing happened.”
Lucas frowned at her, his eyes narrowing in frustration. He gave a short chuckle. “I think you’ll find, Jane, that something did happen. I was there.”
She straightened. She was suddenly aware that all her coworkers were staring at her. Obviously, Mandy was being the least subtle about it as she was still draped over Jane’s shoulder, looking excitedly between Jane and Lucas.
Lucas gave a gruff cough. “I was wondering if you’d have some time to answer some questions.”
Before Jane could tell him that she was actually quite busy, Mandy snapped up. “She has got plenty of time. I can do all of her work. Jane,” Mandy looked down at her, her eyes still wide and glittering, “you go with Lucas, and you tell him everything he needs to know, everything. Don’t leave out a detail, Jane,” Mandy said, voice forthright and loud.
Jane knew enough about Mandy to realize exactly what she meant. She wanted Jane to go speak to Lucas alright, but what she really wanted was for Jane to come right back and tell her and everyone else every single detail of the conversation.
When Jane remained in her chair, Mandy acted by looping her tail into a bunch and pushing gently but pointedly in the center of Jane’s back.
Lucas got another annoyed look on his face, and before he could snap at Mandy to have some dignity and respect, Jane stood quickly, stumbling a little but finally making it around the side of her console. “I suppose I can spare a couple of minutes,” she said quietly with only a single glance back to Mandy who now had both of her thumbs up and was grinning wildly.
“Don’t you leave out a detail,” Mandy said as Jane walked out of the office with Lucas.
When the two of them were out into the corridor, Lucas sighed heavily. “I sometimes forget how… forthright Hoyans can be.” He shook his head. Then he returned his gaze to Jane, a hint of concern obvious as it stretched the corners of his eyes. “Are you okay?”
While Jane was trying hard to maintain the exact angle of her frown and the exact hint of frustration and irritation narrowing her eyes, she mellowed and shrugged. “I’m fine.”
He nodded, and she could see that his hand went up to pat his head, but this time, rather than have it glance off his transparent helmet, he managed to flatten down his short, sandy-blond hair. He looked down to the ground and finally back up at her. “You told everybody it was an assassin robot.” His voice wasn’t exactly angry, but he didn’t sound pleased, either.
“Nobody told me not to. I overheard the doctor talking about it. I don’t know what one is,” she added at the end for good measure.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound annoyed. It’s just…” he trailed off.
The two of them were walking down the corridor slowly. Jane had no idea where they were headed and wasn’t sure whether Lucas knew, either, but she followed him nonetheless.
“The doctor said that she sent you home. Why are you back at work so quickly?” Lucas asked.
“I’m fine,” Jane found herself repeating, as if it were a mantra.
“I would have thought that you would have wanted to rest,” Lucas said as he glanced her way, an intrigued look on his face. “The doc said you don’t sleep, something about the fact you can rest while you’re awake. Sounds cool,” he added. It seemed awkward, and he instantly grimaced at himself.
“I guess. I’ve never really thought about it like that…” she trailed off. “I know that I don’t sleep, but, well, I never really knew why.” Her voice grew steadily quieter until she dwindled into silence.
Lucas got the kind of look that suggested she was all kinds of crazy for not knowing or bothering to investigate earlier in her life why she never slept.
“Okay,” he managed. “I guess there are always so many differences between alien physiologies,” he supplied politely.
For some reason, Jane latched hold of her ponytail and started twisting it around and around her fingers.
“I… I guess I want to ask you some more questions about what happened last night,” Lucas managed. His words didn’t flow smoothly, almost as if he had to think about each and every one of them.
“I told you everything I know,” Jane said plainly.
Lucas tensed, and the look he shot Jane seemed to suggest she’d caught him out on a lie.
“Look, I’ve gone over the security parameters that have been put in place, and I have confirmed that they are… okay for now. But still, I think you should be careful.” That note of authority was back in his tone.
“But it was just an accident,” she repeated, and she was aware of the innocent note in her voice.
He stopped in the corridor, turning to her fully, brow compressed and creased over his eyes. “We don’t know that. Not for sure, and until—”
“But nothing like that happens to me,” she repeated. Yes, she was aware of how stupid it sounded. Though people sometimes accused her of being slow or painfully naive, Jane was neither. She was aware that simply repeating that nothing like this ever happened to her was useless in the face of recent events, but she couldn’t stop herself from doing it. It felt like something was hardwired into her brain that made her believe and act like she was normal and shun anything exciting, dangerous, or adventurous, even if it were just a suggestion of it.
“Okay… actually, not okay. Jane, look, I don’t know if you know much about how the Galaxy works…” he began.
That would be when Jane took a sharp step away from him. Bloody Lucas Stone accusing her of not knowing how the Galaxy works, typical of someone like him.
Before she could get too irritated at him, he put up his hands and looked genuinely sorry. “Sorry, I’m sorry. That came out wrong. What I meant is… look, until we know why that thing was here and what it was really after, we shouldn’t assume…. Look, it’s just always safer to put security measures in place until we know the full truth.” Lucas gave another awkward shrug and even put a hand up to his neck and tried to stretch out one of his shoulders. “What I’m saying is that until we complete this investigation, it is probably safest for you to stay somewhere where there are a lot of people, somewhere populated. I know you live out in the country, but do you know anybody in the city—”
Jane frowned at him. How did he know that she lived out in the country?
Yet again he put his hands up. “I read your file, and for us to put up a proper security field around you, we needed to know where you live.” Once again he looked awkward.
Jane was starting to realize he put his hands up quite a bit, as if there were a lot out there that the great Lucas Stone was willing to surrender to, despite his usual reputation.
“It’s just…” Lucas trailed off again.
Though Jane hardly ever watched the television and never read or listened to any of the Galactic news feeds, she knew enough about Lucas Stone. She knew his reputation, she knew his character, and she knew that Lucas didn’t react awkwardly around people. Lucas Stone always had a commanding, arrogant tone and countenance. He didn’t put up his hands in surrender, and he didn’t mean to pat his hair down only to realize at the last moment that he was still wearing his helmet.
“Is there anywhere you can stay, Jane?” Lucas asked again, his voice finally becoming more forthright.
While Jane still wanted to be angry and aloof at the man, she shook her head. “I don’t have any family,” she admitted in a small voice. It was probably stupid and unnecessary, as Lucas had, by his own admission, read her file, and he would know that Jane had no relatives on Earth. In fact, technically, Jane had no family at all. They weren’t on file; there was no record of them. That wasn’t as unusual as it sounded. With the number of different races in the Galaxy and the sheer number of citizens in the Galactic Union as a whole, it was hard to track the life history of each and every one of them. For every so-called normal human who’d grown up at home with two parents and a stable home life, you would get at least ten aliens who’d one day woken up on the side of a mountain, all alone and with no one to rely on but themselves. Or somebody who’d been the last surviving member of a cruiser crash, or somebody whose parents had simply abandoned them at birth because that’s what their race did.
Lucas looked solemn. Then he appeared to think. “You could stay here, in the Galactic Force dormitories. There would be plenty of spare room. And, in fact, it would be the most secure place for you; the Galactic Force security fields are some of the strongest on Earth. Now we know there’s been a breach, they’ll be kept running at optimal strength.” He looked pleased with himself as he finally came up with a solution to what Jane honestly thought was his problem and not hers.
She wasn’t in any danger, was she? What had happened last night had been…. Jane trailed off, frowning at herself as she realized just how stupid her thoughts were. She kept trying to convince herself that nothing had happened and that nothing like that could ever or should ever happen to a girl like her.
She glanced up to see Lucas looking at her, expression interested, gaze darting over her face. “You will be fine here,” he repeated, voice gentle.
Jane shrugged. “Does it have a window?” she asked, the question popping into her head quickly. As far as her priorities went, she wouldn’t care a bit if the dormitory room didn’t have a bed or was filled with junk. All she would want was a window. Preferably a window with a lovely unobstructed view of the sky above.
An enigmatic smile pushed up Lucas’ cheeks. “I can get you one with a window.”
A moment passed between them, and Jane had no idea what it meant. Yet she was sure that she’d never experienced a moment like that before. It was odd and seemed to give her heightened expectations for some reason. But then, before anything could grow from it, Lucas walked off to the side, and it was clear he was getting yet another live com feed into his armor.
Jane stood there and wondered exactly how many details she should include of their conversation in her report to Mandy. Though even if Jane tried to keep some of it back, she was confident Mandy would make her squeal eventually.
Lucas finished his conversation and turned to her, swallowing for some reason. “I have to go.” He half turned on his foot, ready to jog off down the corridor to whatever Galactic disaster was calling the great Lucas Stone, but he stopped and turned all the way back to her. “There is a… party…” he began, and then he stopped, giving an odd smile as he latched a hand onto his jaw and manipulated it.
Jane simply stared at him, aware that her expression was still stern and thoroughly irritated.
“Never mind. I will ensure a dormitory room is found for you. Stay safe.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked off down the corridor.
Jane watched him go, her eyes narrowing with confusion. Mandy often called her naive, and Tarta said that she was quite probably one of the most innocent humans he had ever met, even if she wasn’t in fact human. Yet Jane wasn’t innocent, and she wasn’t naïve. She could easily tell that Lucas Stone was being awkward around her. The problem was, she had no idea why.
Wow, that had been uncomfortable. No, that had been close to disastrous. He hadn’t felt this strange around a girl since he’d been a teenager. And he genuinely had no idea why. Hell, he’d been through enough and seen enough not to get put off by a conversation in the corridor with a woman. Yet, somehow he’d stood there, mumbling and stretching his shoulder as if all he’d wanted to do was run away and hide behind the closest chair.
It must be the fatigue, he told himself. The fact he was gut-wrenchingly tired. The fact he hadn’t slept at all last night, and that last night had been pretty big, considering he’d managed to single-handedly take down an assassin robot. That had to be the reason. Okay, maybe not the entire reason, because he could freely admit to himself that Jane was a pleasant enigma. From her attitude to him, to the fact she didn’t sleep, to the prospect she’d been attacked by one of the most fiendish creatures in the Galaxy and yet she’d popped into work the next day as if nothing had happened. He really, really didn’t meet girls like that often.
That being said, he’d been thankful he’d received a call when he had. He was sure that if he’d stayed there chatting to Jane any longer, he would have inevitably put his foot in his mouth, said something stupid, or probably just fallen over on the spot in an awkward mess of limbs with a stupid grin on his face.
Plus, the call had been important. They’d finished the initial scans on the artifact. All Alex had said was that he needed to get his butt up to Research Lab Two, pronto. It took a lot in this universe to make Alex Wong excited.
So as Lucas ran up the stairs, he attempted to push Jane from his thoughts, and though it wasn’t successful, at least he tried.
Jane had gone back to work. Though of course she hadn’t been allowed to actually do any work. The second she’d walked in the door was the second Mandy had run over to her, begging Jane to tell her every single detail of her conversation with Lucas Stone. Jane had happily spilled the beans.
“Oh my god,” Mandy said as she sat there in her chair, shaking her head to and fro, “this is incredible. I’m almost definitely sure, Jane, that right now something interesting is happening to you.” Mandy clutched her hands into fists and grinned wildly.
Jane bit her lip. She wasn’t sure what to think about that. While she wanted to believe Mandy, she still couldn’t deny that there was some part of her that flatly refused to believe that something other than the ordinary was happening to Jane. She hadn’t been lying when she’d said there was some part of her hardwired to always return to normal and to never ever put herself in any danger. That part of Jane was strong, incredibly strong; it was the part that had her continually repeating to Lucas Stone that whatever had happened with the assassin robot, it had been an accident. Things like that couldn’t happen to people like her.
The rest of the day passed quickly though not productively. When she’d been ready to go home, or back to a dormitory, or whatever, Mandy had clutched a hand over her arm and pulled her sharply to the side. “Oh no, you are coming to the party,” Mandy said, her grin solid and obvious.
Jane blinked back in surprise. “What?”
“The party. Tonight there’s a party for Lucas Stone. All the Galactic Force are invited. Though I don’t imagine they expect everybody to arrive. It’s in one of those entertainment halls in the city. It’s to congratulate him for being given the command of that mission. Gosh, everybody’s going, and that means you too.” Mandy poked Jane several times in the shoulder.
“But I never go to parties,” Jane said simply.
Mandy threw her head back and laughed heartily. “No, Jane, you never used to go to parties. Because you never had a life back then, but now, now it’s different. Now exciting things are happening to you, so you have to do exciting things to ensure that more exciting things happen next. Trust me. I’m Hoyan, and we know these things.”
Jane pressed her lips together and shook her head. “I don’t think I should….”
“Oh yes, you sure do. Trust me. I have no idea what is happening to you, but I do know it is far more interesting than what usually happens to you. So you have to go to the party.” Mandy nodded her head as if she were impressed with her own reasoning, even though Jane clearly wasn’t.
“I don’t… want to go,” Jane admitted, and as she let the words escape from her lips, she was convinced by them. That instinct that told her to never put her head out had suddenly kicked back into gear. It was assuring her that she had to go straight back to that dormitory, to close the door, lock it, and spend the entire night staring up at the sky and not going out to parties. She couldn’t court trouble of any kind. “Look, I can’t,” she repeated, this time far more firmly.
Mandy looked at her disappointedly. “I never understand you humans, or whatever race you are.” Her tail flicked around in annoyance. “My race lives for adventure; they live for what is interesting. Humans, or whatever you are, are far too preoccupied with comfort. You don’t seem to care how much you have to pay for boredom, just as long as you’re sure that you’re safe. But let me tell you, Jane, when you look back at your life, you won’t remember the boredom and the safety, you will remember the adventure. If you don’t have any at all, then what have you lived for?” Mandy whipped her tail around, the point of it dancing to and fro just in front of Jane’s face.
Rather than be convinced by Mandy’s argument, Jane shrugged. “Okay, maybe I will think about going,” she lied.
Mandy clapped a hand on her shoulder. “This will be fantastic. I don’t know what will happen, but it will just be so interesting. I will have gossip enough for a year.” Mandy clutched her hands and shook them there, a wide smile stiffening her lips.
Finally, Mandy turned and left Jane alone, and Jane, true to her real intention, didn’t go and prepare for the party, but instead went straight to her dormitory room, closed the door, and locked it.
Good god, it had been a mad day. Lucas couldn’t remember the last time so many strange things had happened to him in the space of only 24 hours. Okay, he could easily remember, as his life was truly peppered with the bizarre, the terrifying, and the fraught. The point was, today had been wild, and he was now over it. He was also now standing in the corner of one of the largest entertainment halls in the city, a drink in his hand and a placid but bland look on his face.
The entertainment hall was packed, of course, and Lucas was the center of attention. Dignitary after Senator after esteemed scientist came up to talk to him and congratulate him on his command and to wish him good luck with his mission. Alex was even there, standing at his side, chuckling as he drank his wine and telling Lucas that if he got any more compliments, his head would grow so fat it would have its own gravity pool and would get its own moon.
“I really don’t want to be here,” Lucas acknowledged quietly.
“No, really? I couldn’t pick that up from the fact you’ve been standing in the corner all night, staring into space with a sour look on your face, passing up the chance to talk to all the women here.”
“Shut up, Alex,” Lucas managed.
“You, my son, are in a fantastic mood. Someone obviously ignored my recommendation and didn’t sleep last night.” Alex shook his head.
“I had other things to do.” Lucas rolled the glass around in his grip but didn’t actually drink from it once. He wasn’t in the mood. He just didn’t want to be here. There were so many other things he had to do. The artifact they’d brought back from the edge of Paran space was fantastic. They’d only managed to do some initial scans, so who knew what a deeper and more thorough investigation would reveal? They still didn’t understand what it was, yet they knew it incorporated organic technology. The Parans had been renowned for their use of it and had guarded the secrets to it jealously. Yet now they were an all-but-dead race, and the few who remained couldn’t stop their technological secrets from being revealed.
“You have a fantastically shocking and odd expression on your face, Lucas,” Alex said with a chuckle.
“Thank you,” Lucas replied.
“Something on your mind?” Alex tried again.
“The future of the Galaxy,” Lucas said distractedly. It wasn’t a lie, because the future of the Galaxy was on his mind, but then again, something else was on his mind too. His thoughts kept returning to plain Jane, as she called herself. It wasn’t just because his interaction in the corridor with her had been supremely awkward and had reminded him so painfully of what it felt like to be a teenager – it was something more than that. While ostensibly everything pointed to the fact that what had happened to her last night had been an accident, Lucas couldn’t shake the feeling it was important. Yet he had no evidence to back that thought up. In fact, his belief seemed patently wrong. He’d read Jane’s file, and she was just as normal as she kept trying to tell him. And normal people like her didn’t get attacked by assassin robots.
Lucas was aware that he was staring over the top of his glass at a point on the floor, gaze fixed.
“If I didn’t know more about you, Lucas, I would think that you are completely spaced out. You haven’t been finding strange pills on the street and popping them into your mouth, have you?” Alex tried through a chuckle.
Lucas shrugged his shoulders. “I have a strange creature in the basement of the Galactic Force,” he said quietly, “an artifact from Paran space that just arrived this morning, an assassin robot in a level-three containment field, and a woman…” he trailed off.
Alex got an expression that reminded Lucas of the look Jane’s colleague, the Hoyan, had fixed him with that morning. Perversely interested was the only way he could describe it.
“Woman?” Alex asked, leaning forward, his lips forming around the word perfectly. “Are you talking about the one from last night?” That smile didn’t shift from Alex’s face once, and Lucas would probably need a crowbar to get it off.
“It’s nothing.” Lucas coughed.
“Ha, of course it’s nothing. So, who is she?” Alex’s smile became even toothier.
“No one.” Lucas looked askance at him.
“Does this no one have a name?” Alex kept grinning wildly.
“You’ve probably already read the report, Alex, and you would know what her name is,” Lucas pointed out.
“I know that. I want to see you when you say her name. I want to see if your pupils dilate, if your breath gets faster, if the areas with rich capillary beds under the surface of your skin get redder.”
Lucas rolled his eyes, clutched at his glass a little too hard, and shook his head. “Stow it, Alex. I really don’t need this right now.”
“Actually, I think this is exactly what you need now,” Alex said cryptically.
Lucas knew what Alex meant, and rather than tell him to stow it for the tenth time that night, he found some inane patch of ground to stare at, his lips pulled up to the side in a slight grimace.
That was the other thing about being in the public eye constantly: he was never allowed any room to have a genuine emotional reaction to something. Right now he could hardly slam his glass down and walk off, telling everyone he was sick of their stupid party and that he just wanted a sodding holiday. That kind of behavior would not only lose him his command, but would send his Fan Club into a frenzy. By the morning, he would have thousands of messages either stating how disappointing he was or offering him a back rub to soothe his stress. Frankly, most of the time it was simply disturbing to him that he had an actual registered fan club at all.
But the point was, Lucas never had the room he needed to be himself. He constantly spent his time trying to be the person that everybody else thought he was instead. It was tiring, far more tiring than actually running around doing his job. He always had to keep an eye on his image and what people thought about him. He had to keep an eye on security too, and on Galactic politics, and quite frankly, Lucas didn’t have enough eyes.
“What is she like? Nice? Pretty? What does she do? I read the file, said she worked in admin or something. She human?” Alex bombarded him with questions, hardly taking a breath as he chucked down yet another glass of wine. The annoying thing about Alex was that no matter how much he drank, he didn’t get drunk. While Alex was human, he was only half human. His mother was Chinese, and his father was from a species called Yaran. As such, Alex had a high tolerance for not just toxic substances, but general body shock as well. It also meant Alex could get away with eating and drinking whatever the hell he liked. More often than not, Lucas would find Alex chowing down on a dozen jam doughnuts for lunch, and Lucas knew perfectly well that the jam doughnuts would do no damage whatsoever to Alex. He could probably live on sawdust if he felt like it. Yet as Alex had told Lucas many times, sawdust wasn’t tasty, but jam doughnuts were great.
“Can we not talk about this?” Lucas tried.
“No, we have to talk about this. Because everything else going on in your life is of the epic, Galaxy-wide-destruction variety. Face it, Lucas, you haven’t done anything normal for years.” Alex actually waggled a finger at him.
“That’s because I haven’t had time to do anything normal.” Lucas sighed.
“Yet you have somehow managed to find the time to get a real, card-carrying fan club.” Alex cracked a grin. “You need to get your priorities straight.”
There was that word again. Priorities. Lucas seemed to be getting it from every single angle every single hour of every single day. It appeared that the entire Galaxy thought it knew exactly what Lucas’ priorities should and shouldn’t be and felt the need to admonish him endlessly about that point.
Though Lucas knew Alex was just teasing, he still stiffened up, straightened his back, and set his lips into a thin line.
“Oh dear, you look a bit angry. Do you need a sedative?”
Lucas twisted his glass of wine around in his hand. What he needed was for Alex to shut up. What he needed was for the party to end. What he needed was to spend the rest of the night going through the information on the strange artifact that had been brought in from Paran space. And maybe, just maybe what he also needed was to head around to the dormitories to check that Jane was okay.
Before he could throw his hands up and race out of the entertainment hall, he got a live feed through his suit. Though his armor wasn’t currently engaged, it still enabled him to have a direct mental link with the planet-wide communications network. Yep, that was just as horrible as it sounded, because it meant that Lucas would never be able to go anywhere on Planet Earth without being in range of a signal and being contactable by anybody. It didn’t matter if he was sleeping, it didn’t matter if he was in the shower, it didn’t matter if he was in a bloody cave or traipsing up a mountain somewhere; he was contactable 24/7. If something arose and it was deemed to be serious enough, he would be quantum transported from wherever he was right to the problem. While quantum transportation was expensive and draining on energy stores, they always seemed to think Lucas was worth it. Alex joked that Lucas had been transported so many times that it was no wonder he was mad, because every single one of his molecules would be scrambled like eggs with pepper, cheese, and parsley (the pepper, cheese, and parsley being Lucas’ internal organs, apparently).
Lucas always tried to turn away when he got a message so he could let people know that he wasn’t mad and he wasn’t talking to himself. Sometimes he even put a hand up to his ear, even though it had no use whatsoever; it wasn’t as if the audio was being picked up by his ears. It was being transmitted directly to his brain. Yet it was at least a signal he could use to let people know that he was talking on the phone here, even if the phone was technically implanted inside his brain.
“Excuse me? What kind of reading? Right, I’ll be right there,” Lucas said quickly. He turned, found a convenient table, and abandoned his untouched drink.
“What is it?” Alex asked automatically, every hint of sarcasm gone from his tone.
“We’ve got an anomalous reading on Specimen 14,” Lucas said, heading straight for the door without so much as a goodbye.
As soon as the Dean of the Galactic Force got in his way, Lucas pointed to his ear and frowned. “Sorry, something has come up.”
“I just got a feed myself,” she replied with a curt nod. “Sort it out. And I will sort this out for you.”
Lucas nodded. He always liked the Dean; she seemed to have a sound head on her shoulders, or two, rather. Of all the people who worked at the Galactic Force, even though she was never shy of bragging about Lucas’ exploits, she did have a pragmatic side to her. She knew when to reel in the show and to let him get on with his job.
As he walked out, trying to dodge past people, Alex ran up to his side.
“What are we talking here?” Alex asked quickly.
“No idea. There’s some kind of drain on the containment field. I got a call from the Chief Engineer. She said it’s sending feedback through the energy grid. Said she wasn’t sure how long it could hold out.” Lucas was running now as he headed across the street to one of the nearest transport hubs. One of the great things about his job, and perhaps his only perk, was that he had a certain level of clearance, and if he needed to use it, he could shut down whatever transport was scheduled and redirect it to wherever he felt he needed to go. He was only permitted to use it in times of need, but it still meant, technically, that he could hop on a transport and send everybody off to Italy to get him a pizza. Well, he could if he were a lot more ballsy and less of a do-gooder.
“I don’t see how that’s possible. That thing is dead. Whatever it was to begin with, there is no way it’s alive now. I did those readings myself. It must be some kind of external influence. Perhaps someone is trying to hack the grid,” Alex tried, easily keeping up with Lucas’ speed at the moment, but Lucas knew that if he activated his armor and pushed himself, he would leave Alex behind in a second.
Lucas didn’t reply. His jaw was so stiff that he could hardly open his mouth. This felt wrong. And he’d been doing his job long enough to know that you had to trust your gut instinct. If your gut told you to run the hell away from the engine core, then you ran the hell away from the engine core. And more often than not, it would blow up barely moments later, and you would save yourself a one-way trip to the morgue. Lucas couldn’t deny that he was having that exact same sharp foreboding right now. Yet once again, he couldn’t stop his thoughts from bending back toward Jane.
The assassin robot… was this somehow connected to it? If Alex was right and somebody was hacking the power grid to make the containment field fail, had they also sent the assassin robot here in the first place? Perhaps that had been the point? Maybe the assassin robot had been after Lucas or Alex or maybe the Chief Engineer herself. Or it could have been sent here as a distraction to pull the security forces thin and make the hacking far easier and far less detectable.
Lucas broke into a run.
“Wait for me,” Alex called from behind him.
Lucas couldn’t wait. His gut told him that he didn’t have the time. “Something’s wrong. I’ll meet you there,” he shouted, and then, with a simple thought, he activated his armor. Half a second later, it covered his body. As soon as it did, it gave him what you could easily call superpowers.
He ran like crazy toward the Galactic Force. He bypassed the transport hub, reasoning that by the time he got in and redirected traffic, he could already be at the Galactic Force if he just set his armor to full-power and pelted there.
Something was happening to Jane. She was sitting on the edge of the bed in the dormitory Lucas Stone had managed to obtain for her, and she was trying hard to look up at the night sky outside, but she couldn’t concentrate. The buzzing was back in her mind. Boy, oh boy was the buzzing back. For some reason, her hands were fidgety and her legs were bouncing up and down. Yet no matter what she did, she couldn’t keep still.
She was afraid. Yet there was nothing to be afraid of. The feeling had come upon her slowly and didn’t seem to be related to any event or thought. One moment, she’d been staring up at the night sky, trying to let her body rest as her mind raced, and the next thing this ominous foreboding had crept up on her.
It was as if somebody had reached right into her brain to flick some kind of switch, sending alarm twisting and writhing down her back and burning deep into her gut. The more she sat there and tried to rationalize it away, the more it grew until she snapped her legs up and hugged them close to her chest.
“Calm down. Calm down,” she told herself forcefully. “Nothing is wrong. There is nobody after you. You haven’t done anything, and you aren’t injured or sick. There isn’t anything to be afraid of.” She kept talking to herself out loud as if somehow hearing her own voice would make her believe her words.
Though it was a mutinous thought, she got the urge to call Lucas. Firstly, and most importantly, she didn’t know his number and didn’t have access or authority to call him. Secondly, he was Lucas Stone, and Jane didn’t like Lucas Stone. He was the kind of man she had no time for – arrogant, self-important, and far too adventurous for her. Yet that didn’t stop Jane from desperately wanting to find him, to see if he could fix her. It was such a strange thought, and it gave Jane pause to laugh at how silly she was. But it was only a sweet, short pause, and in just another second, she was feeling trapped and frightened again.
As the tension rose in her body, her thoughts became more forceful. She also felt a cold kind of detachment creep up on her.
She stood suddenly, her limbs twitching so fast, the move jolted through her.
For a fraction of a second, it felt like she was no longer in control of her body.
She headed to the door, her hands now slick with sweat, her shoulders shaking.
“This is crazy,” she told herself, “completely crazy. Go sit back on your bed,” she pleaded as she opened the door and closed it behind her. She started to half-jog down the corridor. “Try to get some rest,” she told herself as she ran toward one of the linear lifts that would take her anywhere in the Galactic Force in seconds. “This is just crazy,” she said one last time as she entered the closest transport hub into the panel of the lift. Or, at least she intended to enter the location of the closest transport hub, but her fingers seemed to have a mind of their own. Before she could stop herself, she’d entered the location of one of the research levels. In the blink of an eye, the lift took off.
“What?” Jane blinked wildly as the lift reached the research facility in a little over two seconds, the door opening with a snap. When Jane doggedly tried to stay in the lift and make her hand type in the correct location of the closest transport hub, or simply the location that would take her back to her dormitory, she found her legs walking her out of the lift. She barely had any control over her limbs anymore. They appeared to be doing whatever they wanted to, taking her wherever they directed.
Her legs walked her right down the corridor and right toward Research Lab Two.
There were two guards standing outside of it, and as she approached, they looked at her askance. “Can we help you?” one of them asked, her expression careful but stern. “This is a restricted area. Unless you have the correct access, you have to turn around and leave at once.”
Jane found herself nodding. “I need to go back to bed, because this is crazy,” she said.
Both of the guards looked at each other, sharing that particular look that all species do when they realize someone off-putting has just said something entirely crazy.
“Okay, ma’am, you can’t come any closer.” One of the guards held out his hand in a stopping motion.
Jane understood, but her legs didn’t pay any attention whatsoever. She kept walking right up to them. “My god, oh my god, oh my god, what’s happening?” Jane choked out her words. Her face and voice appeared to be the only things she could control.
One of the guards reached for his plasma stun gun and pulled it out, first pointing it to the ground and then pointing it at Jane as she clearly kept walking toward them. “Ma’am, you have to stop now.” The other guard leveled his gun as well. “Just turn around.”
Jane paid no attention. Well, her body paid no attention; Jane herself was screaming at her limbs to stop, to turn her the hell around, and to walk back to bed. But they were beyond suggestion.
As she watched the lead guard tighten his grip on his plasma stun gun, obviously readying to shoot Jane, Jane did something odd.
She put on a burst of speed and tucked into a quick, tight roll. Before she knew it, she’d come up right next to the guard, one of her hands jerking up, latching onto the gun and pulling it sideways as another hand pushed hard into the guard’s opposite shoulder. Then, hardly stopping, Jane twisted to the side, rolled again, jumped up, brought the gun around, and setting it to light stun with her thumb, she shot the other guard. Twisting, she shot the remaining guard. In a quiet instant, both were still on the ground.
Jane hadn’t killed them; she’d only stunned them, and both would be awake in under an hour though with considerable headaches.
Yet even though Jane hadn’t killed them, she hardly felt that she’d shot them, either. Something else – whatever had control of her body – had done that. Never in her life had she showed such agility, speed, and strength. Many doctors had told her that her general mobility was below that of the average human. Yet what Jane had just done was not average in any sense. She’d overcome two tough, well-trained guards. And she wasn’t even sweating.
“Oh my god,” she said to herself quickly as she gulped back her fear. “What have I done? What have I done? What’s going on?” No matter how often she pleaded with herself to stop, turn around, and go back to bed, her limbs had a different idea. The gun was still lightly and expertly clutched in her right hand. With the other hand, she reached up to the panel on the side of the door that led into the research lab beyond. The panel and the door would be locked out – the second Jane had fired a weapon, the whole defensive net in this section would have turned on. Jane had little doubt that an entire team of security officers was on their way now. No doubt her gun would no longer work too, an interference field likely in place in the corridor by now.
As if to confirm her suspicions, the lighting in the corridor flickered and then cut to half illumination. Then a blaring siren echoed through the hall.
Rather than turn around, put the gun on the ground, crumple up against a wall, and wait to be dragged off to prison, Jane watched as one of her hands reached out to the panel, and she started typing something blindingly fast. She had no idea what she was typing, and in a second, she stopped and latched her fingers onto the side of the panel. In a neat and even move, she easily pulled it away from the wall. Then she turned the gun around in her grip, ripped off the panel that led to the energy node that powered it within, and pulled out some kind of glowing crystal. She expertly managed to place the crystal into the exposed panel, and she hooked it up to the system core. She put the panel back on the wall and typed something into it, her fingers still blisteringly fast.
The doors opened.
“My god, my god, what’s happening?” Jane kept asking. She walked through the door to the scene of three security officers with plasma rifles, not stun guns, trained right at her, and several other scientists standing off carefully to the side.
It was now far too late to turn around and go back to bed. Jane had just attacked two security officers and had apparently hacked right into the Galactic Force computer. Nope, she wouldn’t be going back to bed for a long time yet, but a quick trip to the morgue wasn’t out of the question.
Filled with horror at what she was doing, she waited to be shot. Her body had other plans.
By the time he made it to the Galactic Force, it was in full shutdown. Lucas, via his armor, was getting live security feeds telling him that two shots had been fired on the research level and that an interference field was now in place. While the research level wasn’t where Specimen 14 was, the Paran Artifact was being kept there.
Lucas paused, his head swiveling from the different buildings that held Specimen 14 and the Paran Artifact.
“What’s going on? What’s happening?” he asked through his live com-line, directing his message right to the Head of Security.
“We have a massive energy drain in Basement Level One. We’ve had two shots fired outside Research Lab Two,” the Security Chief said, her breath heavy and loud. She was obviously midway through running or chasing something.
“Direct me,” Lucas said.
“They’ve just hacked – Prack! They’ve just hacked through the Galactic Force computer. They are into Research Lab Two.”
That made his mind up for him. Without waiting for another word, he set his priorities. And his priority was to get the hell to Research Lab Two as fast as his armor could manage. As he ran, he sent a quick message to Alex, telling him to get his butt down to Basement Level One as soon as he arrived.
Lucas had no idea what he was up against, but something or someone who could hack so easily and quickly into the Galactic Force was something he needed to stop.
So Lucas ran.
She didn’t even pause. One of the security officers told her to halt, but she did the exact opposite. She ducked down, pushed onto the floor, and did an automatic, quick roll, coming up and pressing into a full and neat somersault until she had landed right behind a console.
Two blistering rifle shots slammed into the side of the console.
She didn’t hold her breath or scream; whatever had control of her body didn’t want to waste the energy.
There was no doubt that it was in full control now.
Jane somehow still had the ability to speak, and she was mumbling to herself frantically, begging her body to stop.
Yet her body had something else in mind.
The research lab was a big one, and though Jane had never had much to do with them, she’d seen a couple in her time. This one was almost the size of a hangar and had several banks of highly sophisticated computer terminals with rows and rows of different holographic pictures and images swirling over them.
Beyond the bank of computers and floating holograms, right at the back of the room, was something else. It was surrounded by a heavy circle of yellow light, no doubt a sophisticated containment field of some sort, or perhaps a security field. Really, she’d never had much to do with anything like this, so she was just guessing.
Within the field was a simple black box. It was neat, it was even, it had no markings, it appeared to be perfectly flat on every side, and it was jet black.
The second Jane saw it was the second a powerful shock of recognition blazed through her stomach. Though she couldn’t control her limbs, she could still feel the sensation as it ran through them.
Several more plasma blasts ate into the side of the console beside her, and in another moment, she heard a clicking sound. Before she could wonder what it was, she scooted to the side, dug her hand into the panel of one of the consoles beside her and yanked it up above her head as an object slammed down. There was a great electrical discharge that was absorbed by the panel casing, and then Jane found herself throwing the casing to the side.
She looked down briefly to notice that something looking suspiciously like a shock grenade was lying on the ground.
Dear god, they’d thrown a shock grenade at her, and she’d ripped the panel off a computer console to protect herself. She’d had no idea what they were throwing at her, and yet her body had reacted before the thing had come into sight.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” was all she could repeat to herself.
She waited, still pressed up against the bank of consoles behind her. She could hear the footsteps of someone coming up behind. Perhaps they believed the shock grenade had stunned her, because the cadence of their step was easy and light.
She waited – or more accurately, her body waited – until the steps drew parallel with the bank of consoles. She flipped up, faster than she’d ever moved in her life. She brought a hand up and twisted it over the grip of the security guard’s gun, using her leg to push between his and then flicking up her ankle, making the security guard lose balance as she forced his leg off the ground. She pushed heavily into him, grabbed the gun, and then dived back behind the security console.
“Good god, what the prack is going on?” she heard somebody ask desperately from the other side of the room.
She shared their sentiment. Jane desperately needed to know what was going on too.
Once again, her body had other plans.
Before she could wait for the two remaining security guards to come up with another plan to disable or kill her, she felt her arm lift up behind her and twist until her palm was resting against the console panel above. She was still sitting there with her back pressed against the console, her legs still pulled up in front of her, her free hand still holding the gun. Without even looking at the panel, she started to feel her fingers dance across it as they typed something quickly and efficiently. She had no idea what she was doing, but obviously that didn’t matter.
There was a low hum and then a quick click, and finally she let herself stand up. Well, not that she let herself do anything; her body decided that it could stand up. When it did, Jane noted that all three security guards and all the scientists were now locked in place with security fields.
They were all looking at her, human or alien, with expressions of total horror on their faces.
“Who the hell are you?” one of the security guards snapped out in a gruff growl. “You won’t get away with this. You would have triggered the security alarms; they’ll be coming for you. There’s nowhere to go.”
“Who are you?” one of the scientists repeated, a human female, her expression perhaps the most horrified of all.
“I work in admin,” Jane said simply, her voice shaking but her body remaining still and controlled. She felt herself turning, felt her grip tighten around the rifle as she brought it up, her other hand holding it firmly in place.
She started to walk toward the little black box on the far side of the room.
Jane was aware of a large commotion outside of the research lab doors. She could feel something shaking under her feet, and though the doors were soundproof, she still fancied she could hear the shouts and screams of what was no doubt the entire security corps of the Galactic Force waiting to burst through and shoot her dead.
Jane didn’t wait to find out. She started walking toward the field on the other side of the room, and she started shooting. At first, it buzzed as the shots had little effect. But with every step she took closer and every blistering round she fired, it started to weaken. And then, when Jane was almost upon it, it changed color to a deep red.
There was a massive bang as the doors behind her exploded. Before Jane could turn around and watch herself get shot, she felt herself twist the rifle in her grip and she lunged toward the security field, using the butt of the rifle to strike it. That strike was all it took. The security field blinked out.
There were several screams from the other side of the room, and she could hear round after round being fired at something. Out of the corner of her eye, as her body lunged toward the box on the ground, she saw a flickering blue security field in front of the door. Apparently, when her body had expertly managed to fool the computer into putting security fields around all the people in the room, it had also, quite smartly, put one right in front of the door. But just as Jane had been able to shoot through the security field containing the box, the people in front of the door would be able to do the same. The second they did was the second they would shoot her.
She didn’t stop to wait and find out. She felt her body collapse to the ground as she snatched up the box. She slammed one of her palms onto the underside of it and then twisted it in her grip and slammed her other palm down on the top.
There was a snapping sound and an enormous crackling, and Jane was sure that the security field in front of the door had finally failed.
Suddenly something happened to the box. Something surprising, something quick. In the blink of an eye, it was no longer a box. In the blink of an eye, it was something else entirely. It jumped right out of her hand and landed on the ground, and then it morphed and grew. In a second, it was a creature, a tall, incredible, completely black creature. It looked like a robot with a large barrel chest, but it seemed to have human, organic eyes.
Suddenly, it moved. It moved faster than anything Jane had ever seen. It flipped right over her and landed behind her, just as a shot slammed into it, a shot that was meant for her. The shot didn’t affect it in the least, and it snapped down and jammed its hand right into the edge of the yellow ring that had been producing the security field. As several more shots slammed into it, the security field buzzed back into place. Yet this time it was different; it now crackled with energy. It was also no longer a simple yellow; it was now a dynamic, electric blue.
Jane realized she had control over her body again, and slowly, as she shook violently, she let herself crumple down onto the floor, brought her knees in, grabbed her arms around them, and just sat there, trembling wildly, rocking back and forth in fear and desperation.
Shot after shot slammed into the security field, but soon they stopped; nothing could get through.
Jane didn’t care anymore. She just sat there, huddled behind the creature, her back to all the action, rocking back and forth, her arms clutched around her legs, her head huddled down between them.
Lucas finally lowered his gun, but it was slow. He’d called off the shooting; it didn’t seem to be having any effect. No matter what they threw at the strange blue security field, nothing weakened it.
Pracking hell, what was going on?
The thing wasn’t attacking anyone or moving anywhere. It simply knelt there with one of its peculiar arms jammed right into the ring that produced the security field.
“What the hell is going on?” one of the security officers asked by his side.
Lucas didn’t answer. His eyes were stuck open and focused on the creature before him.
A robot had sprung to life right from the Paran Artifact.
While that was incredible, it wasn’t what stopped him from breathing.
When he’d rushed into Research Lab Two – when they’d finally broken through the insanely sophisticated hack that had kept the doors closed, only to find a security field in front of them – was when he’d seen her. He hadn’t believed his eyes at first. Hadn’t believed it when he’d watched her walk carefully, with perfect poise and control, toward the security field and the Artifact, blasting away as she neared.
He hadn’t wanted to shoot her. So he’d ground to a halt and watched as she’d collapsed on top of the box, bringing it up to her chest and slamming her palms onto it, the robot forming instantly.
Now she was simply sitting there, crumpled into a ball, rocking back and forth, head between her legs, back toward them.
“Lucas, Lucas,” someone called from his side. He turned to see Marie.
It was hard to tear his eyes off Jane and the creature, but when he realized that Marie was in the room, he took several steps toward her. “Get these containment fields down now,” he snapped quickly. “Are you okay, Marie?”
Marie nodded her head, her beautiful tousled blond hair bouncing in front of her face. “What’s going on? Who is she? What is that thing?” Marie asked quickly, her wide brown eyes pressed with concern and surprise.
Lucas turned away from her, settling his gaze back on the sight before him. The creature, whatever it was, wasn’t attacking. It had never attacked. The second someone had shot at Jane, was the second it had sprung into action. And Lucas did mean sprung. He’d never seen anything move so fast. Whatever that creature was, it was amazing.
In any case, it didn’t seem much interested in them. It still had its hand jammed into the security field, and it was clear that whatever it was, it was capable of redirecting its own energy into the field and making it far, far stronger than anything Lucas currently had to attack it with.
Jane was still crumpled into a ball, rocking herself backward and forward.
He had no idea what was going on. Dear god, he had no idea.
It didn’t take them long to get the containment fields down. Lucas had the feeling that the only reason it didn’t take long was that the creature didn’t care.
The second they got the scientists and other security guards loose, was the second Marie ran over to him and placed a hand on his arm. He put his own hand over hers. “You’ll be okay; we’ve got it under control.”
“Got this under control?” somebody snapped from behind him.
Lucas turned to see none other than Yaka Bakal – one of the best scientists the Galactic Force had. It was clear by the stiff, stern look on his green face that Yaka wasn’t pleased. “Don’t fool yourself, Stone; we aren’t in control here.” Yaka pointed a heavy finger toward the creature. “That thing is.”
Lucas let his helmet flick to transparent. He also let his gaze slip past Yaka and back onto Jane. She was still sitting there in exactly the same position, with her head tucked between her knees and her back turned to everyone. She looked completely overcome. If he hadn’t seen her easily and calmly walk toward that security field and shoot the hell out of it before twisting around and pistol whipping it, he would suspect she was traumatized by the whole situation.
“Who is she?” Marie asked. “Is she a mercenary? A space pirate?”
“She works in admin,” Yaka replied with a grunt.
“What?” Marie asked, her confusion obvious.
Lucas couldn’t blame her. His own confusion was like a wildfire burning right between his eyes. He had no idea what was going on. Granted, he’d only really met Jane last night, and although he’d seen her on and off over the past five years, he wouldn’t have suspected her to be… to have done… to be the perpetrator of whatever the prack had just happened.
Lucas often felt he was an okay judge of character, and when he’d met Jane, even all those years ago, he’d formed the impression she was one of those genuinely kind people. The kind of person who wouldn’t begrudge you, who wouldn’t mind what you did or what race you came from, who would give you space and would help you out whenever she could. She didn’t seem to be the kind to pistol-whip a security field, shoot three security officers, and hack through Galactic Force terminals.
Yaka walked right past the security officers and headed straight up to the security field and the creature behind.
“Hey, get back,” one of the security officers said, trying to grab Yaka’s shoulder. Yaka shrugged out of his grip and gave a snarl for good measure.
“Dammit,” Lucas spat and jogged up after him.
“Right, what are you?” Yaka said as he approached the security field, his walk determined and his voice sounding not at all putout or frightened.
“Yaka,” Lucas growled as he caught up with the scientist. Lucas kept his gun raised and pointed right at the robot. “We need to get out of here. We don’t know what it can—”
Yaka gestured to the field offhandedly. “It is plainly not a threat to us, Stone. If it was a threat to us, it would have killed us already. Trust me, I saw that girl move, and I saw how fast the robot moved too. If they wanted to, we would be gone by now. Yet we are still here, and the both of them are hiding behind that security field. Now, I want to know why.” Yaka walked up to the field, and though the creature watched with interest, it didn’t move, and it didn’t attack.
Feeling the fear and hesitation rip through him, Lucas still walked right up next to Yaka. He kept his gun raised but pointed it at that creature rather than Jane behind it.
Yaka leaned over and put a hand on the end of Lucas’ rifle, pressing it down. “Don’t aggravate it,” he snapped. Then he turned back to the creature.
There was complete silence in the room now, and while Lucas knew that every security guard would be pointing their weapon right at the creature, none of them were moving and none of them were shooting. Everybody seemed to be waiting.
“What are you? What do you want?” Yaka asked, letting his hands drop down to his sides, his tone even and careful and lacking the aggravated edge he’d used on Lucas.
The creature twisted its head to the side, and the look to its gaze was one of keen intelligence.
Lucas shifted his weight, the tension in his body threatening to seize his muscles. As he did, his gun shifted with him and momentarily pointed toward Jane. As soon as it did, one of the creature’s eyes shifted and focused right on him. Now it had one eye focused on Yaka and one eye focused on Lucas.
“Do not,” it said simply. Its voice was a low but sharp one.
“Yes, don’t,” Yaka agreed. “Put the gun down, Lucas.”
Lucas clamped down hard on his teeth, looking from the creature to Yaka and then back at Jane. The second he glanced her way was the second the creature directed both eyes toward him.
Despite his years of training, Lucas let the gun drop in his grip until it was pointed at the ground.
“Right. We aren’t a threat to you,” Yaka said directly. “Tell us what you want.”
“Protect,” the creature answered.
“You want protection? What’s after you?” Yaka kept his arms down by his sides evenly, and Lucas could tell that the scientist was fighting the urge to cross them. Whenever Lucas saw Yaka, the alien always had his arms crossed and his expression was always a scowling one.
The creature darted its head to the side. “Protect,” it repeated.
“Right. What are you trying to protect?” Yaka nodded his head toward Jane. “Is it her? If it is, let me tell you, she doesn’t appear to need any protection.”
“Needs,” the creature replied.
“Right. Why?” Yaka narrowed his eyes, but his expression was still neutral. The scientist was trying hard not to give away any signs of aggression.
It was something that Lucas was failing at. His body was tensed, his shoulders up around his ears, his lips stuck open, his jaw locked. He hoped like hell Yaka knew what he was doing.
“From what?” Yaka asked.
The creature let its head turn to one side, then its gaze slid down to the ground until it finally looked back up at the both of them.
“I’m going to need more than that,” Yaka noted quickly.
The creature paused for a moment and then looked straight at Lucas.
Suddenly, the usual steady stream of live information feeds coming from the Galactic Force computer straight into Lucas’ armor changed. The creature somehow got access to them, and immediately Lucas was bombarded with a new stream of information. It was so fast, there was so much of it, and it was such a shock that he clutched a hand to his head in pain.
Yaka twisted to the side to stare at Lucas. “What’s it doing?”
“It is, it is, it’s giving me… it’s giving me.” Lucas kept trying to speak, but the searing pain of having so much information thrust upon the computer that connected his bio-armor with his brain was overwhelming.
Yaka slowly pulled a device off his wrist, and as he did, it emitted a small blue hologram. It was a personalized computer – a data pad with a sophisticated sensor array. “I’m linking my computer to yours,” Yaka said, glancing up at the creature as he did.
Lucas kept clutching his head, but slowly the information was starting to abate. In those brief few seconds, the creature had managed to upload more information into Lucas’ system than he’d processed in years. Hell, Lucas doubted there was this much information in the whole Galactic Force computers, let alone the relatively small memory capacity of his suit.
“I’m having trouble linking up to your computer,” Yaka said, voice low and irritated. “What is it? What did it tell you?”
The creature didn’t move; its hand was still pressed into the ring of the security field, but it did keep both eyes directed at Lucas. It was obviously waiting for something.
Lucas had both hands clutched to his head. Though he couldn’t actually touch his skin – the armor of his helmet in the way – it was the only thing he could do to fight against the pain. He stumbled forward, but before he could stumble right into the arcing blue electricity of the security field, Yaka put a hand up and stopped him.
“Are you okay? What did it do?” Yaka snapped. Perhaps he was starting to lose his diplomacy, or maybe he was just jealous that the strange alien robot hadn’t bombarded his head with a planet-full of data.
Slowly Lucas was starting to come around, and he let his hands drop from his head. Straightening up, he closed his eyes for a moment and then finally blinked them open.
“What the prack was that?” He managed to swallow.
Yaka moved his fingers about until the blue hologram hovering above his hand changed shape and it looked like a small, square scanning device. He stared down at the display, his eyes darting to and fro. “It has uploaded a great deal of information right into the living membrane of your suit…” Yaka trailed off, and it was obvious from his tone that he was impressed. And Yaka was never impressed. Supernovas, incredibly rare quantum singularities, a half-price sale at ChemEquip – nothing moved Yaka. Now the guy was whistling through his teeth, his jaw slack, his eyes wide with interest. “This is incredible technology. Somehow it has updated the organic memory system of your bio suit. You are now storing more information in that thing than we can store in the entirety of the Galactic Force computer banks.”
Lucas took a massive breath. It might have been incredible, but what it felt like was a giant headache. Yet slowly, through the edges of the pain, he was starting to find access to information he’d never had before. Ordinarily, Lucas could access the Galactic Force computers through his bio suit, and within a fraction of a second, he could know whatever it was he wanted. Yet there was a limit to how much data he could store at any one time and how much he could access. If he ever went too far away from the Galactic Force computers – like deep into dead space – he would lose that connection completely, and he would have to rely on the onboard memory systems of his armor…. But this, this was different. It felt like somebody had crammed several hectares worth of computer banks right into his implant.
“No time,” the creature said, “no time,” he repeated.
“No time until what?” Yaka looked back up at it. “Are we about to be attacked? What kind of enemy are we looking for?”
The creature nodded down toward Lucas. “Ask,” it said.
“Right.” Yaka put a hand on Lucas’ chest and steadied him. “Stone, you heard the creature – what are we after?”
“I, I…” he trailed off, blinking wildly as he tried to force through the pain and latent pressure in his head, attempting to access the memory banks of his armor in the same way he always did. It was hard this time. There was a cloud of information, almost like a fog, and he had trouble seeing what he needed to. Everything was jumbled together – just a sea of information clogging his mind. Yet out of all that information – the symbols and images that haunted him – he recognized one. It was Specimen 14.
“What… what is that thing?” Lucas asked mostly to himself as nobody else could see the images bombarding his mind. The more he followed the vision of Specimen 14, or the impression of something similar, the more a cold sweat trickled down his back. On fast forward, it was as if he were getting a whole life history of the thing, or if not a life history, at least the history of its interactions with the Parans. He saw hordes of creatures like it attacking Paran home-world after Paran home-world. They were vicious, they were fast, and they were unique. Their bodies didn’t seem to have one form, but rather they were capable of morphing and changing depending on what situation they were in. If they were required to jump fast, to run far, they grew long capable legs. If they needed to rip through metal, to tear down defenses, they grew great big arms and claws. Yet their ordinary form appeared to be one of a white, fleshy creature. Its skin was pristine and clear, glistening and wet. It had no eyes, but a long snout that ended in a jagged jaw with protruding sharp teeth.
Lucas snapped his eyes open and took a sharp, quick breath. He could now appreciate that Specimen 14 was one of those creatures.
“It is about to break free,” the robot noted. “Many deaths. Unless you stop.”
Lucas shuddered and clamped a hand to his head as another stream of information dashed through his mind. It was data on how to fight Specimen 14 and its race. They were fast, violent, chaotic and could assume any disguise. They also picked out the most important target and went after it relentlessly, leaving the weaker targets until last.
“You must stop,” the robot said again, “stop before it gets here.”
“Why?” Yaka asked quickly, his countenance now less diplomatic and far more worried. It was strange to see Yaka worried; usually, the man didn’t even look up when the engine core was on fire or when there were reports of space pirates heading to their position. Now he looked worried, his expression pressed, his voice quick. It wasn’t every day that an apparently ancient and broken Paran relic turned into a robot and started prophesying your destruction.
The cold sweat that had raced down Lucas’ back now covered his palms and forehead. “It goes after the most important targets first,” he repeated, aware that his voice was shaky and unsure.
The Paran Artifact nodded.
“So you are an important target?” Yaka asked quickly.
The Artifact shook its head.
“Jane is an important target,” Lucas found himself saying quietly and softly.
“You are about to lose containment,” the robot interrupted, its eyes darting off Lucas and then down as if it were trying to look through the floor.
Jane shook and whimpered as she clutched her legs even tighter.
Suddenly, the Galactic Force security alarms went haywire. The illumination in the room cut in half, and the familiar red strips along the ceiling that indicated red alert began to flicker.
“Security alert, level A,” the computer warned. “Breach in containment field – possible unknown biological entity. Worldwide security forces alerted. Security measures Alpha Beta Two enacted.”
Yaka immediately turned around, surveying the room. “What’s going on? Stone?”
Though the pain was still roaring through his head, Lucas straightened up. Still breathing heavily, he forced his armor to make a call to Alex. The call didn’t go through. “Prack,” he spat bitterly. “It’s coming here, isn’t it? It’s coming here.” Lucas strode straight up to the security field, as close as he could get, his face now so near to the crackling, arcing blue electricity that if it weren’t for the transparent helmet he wore, it would have burnt his skin off.
The robot only used one eye to look back at him, its other eye still directed to the ground. It didn’t have to say yes. Lucas knew he was right. Specimen 14 was coming here. As he entertained a mental image of it, a name popped into his head. Darq… it was a Darq. That was the name of its race. Out of the chaos of Paran data uploaded to his armor, that single fact made itself clearly known.
“What do we do?” Yaka demanded, pointing to the consoles close by the door. “Marie, try to get me a level-three security field around this room.”
Lucas was still breathing through the pain as he tried to access as much information as he could, attempting to get an idea of how to beat this thing. But there was a problem. Out of the little information he could make sense of, he knew one thing for sure: the Darq were practically unbeatable. They had destroyed the Parans, perhaps the most technologically advanced race in the entire Galaxy. They had done it quickly, efficiently, and silently. So what kind of hope did the Galactic Force have?
“There’s only one,” the Paran Artifact said as if it could read Lucas’ mind. “It’s close now.”
“Stone?” Yaka asked, his tone tight with fear. “What do we do?”
Lucas felt paralyzed – the amount of information, the sheer certainty that there was no way to defeat the creature…. It felt hopeless.
So he just stood there, covered in cold sweat, image after image flashing through his mind, certainty after certainty rolling around his brain. He couldn’t….
“Stone,” Yaka snapped loudly.
When Lucas didn’t reply, Yaka growled and turned from him. “Try to make some defenses, try to contact the security division, tell them what’s going on.” He pointed at the other security forces in the room.
It was too late.
Suddenly, the Paran Artifact looked down at the floor, both of its eyes snapping there, its shoulders and body tucking in.
Without warning, the floor underneath it melted away. Jane screamed and started to fall down, but in an instant, the Paran Artifact twisted around, pulled its arm from the security ring, and grabbed her. It threw Jane out of the way then jumped out of the security ring itself. Snapping down, it jammed its arm into the security ring again, the field flickering back into place just as something snapped forward.
It was Specimen 14, and now it was trapped by that wall of flickering energy.
It had happened so quickly, in the blink of an eye.
Nobody in the room moved.
There was a giant, tall, perfectly white, wet, snarling creature with no eyes. Though there was hardly any floor left below it, the Paran Artifact had obviously extended the security field there to form a floor as well. The Darq appeared contained for the moment, though it didn’t look injured from the sheer power of the field.
The Darq leaned down slowly, crumpling its tall body in half until its face was directly opposite the Paran Artifact. It opened its mouth and snarled.
If Lucas thought there’d been a cold sweat racing down his back before, it was nothing compared to the wave of fear that now washed over him. All of his hair stood on end, his heart beating erratically and frantically fast as his breath stopped.
“Contained, not for long,” the Paran Artifact said, its voice crackling as if it were under pressure.
The Darq kept growling, bringing its face as close as it could to the security field, its teeth glinting and glistening under the electrical arc.
“What the…” Yaka trailed off, his eyes strained wide with surprise and fear. It was an expression that Lucas had never seen on the usually controlled, hardened scientist. To be fair, Lucas had never felt fear like this himself, either.
Everyone in the room stared at the Darq, stilled by the horrible sight.
Except for Jane.
Lucas snapped his head to the side and saw that she was still hunched up on the floor, exactly where she’d landed after the Paran Artifact had thrown her.
Though the Darq didn’t have eyes, it still twisted its head toward her. The instant it did, an electrical shock of desperate fear jumped through Lucas. It was the way it looked – the way it stared at her without any eyes.
“Get out,” the Paran Artifact said. “Get off planet.”
Immediately, Jane stood up. While seconds before she’d been huddled on the ground as if she could hardly move, she now stood up with grace and ease that suggested she was hardly affected by the situation at all. She turned around, and Lucas caught sight of her face. It was shattered by fright. Her eyes were squeezed shut, tears trickling down either side of her nose, her lips pressed tightly closed. Yet her body didn’t seem to care.
The second she started moving, the rest of the security forces pulled up their guns and trained them right on her.
“Don’t,” the Paran Artifact said.
The security forces didn’t put their guns down. Lucas twisted around and saw the expressions on their faces, or at least the expressions on the faces of the ones that weren’t wearing armor. They were all terrified, shocked; none of them would have ever seen anything like this.
“Get out, get off planet,” the Paran Artifact said again.
Again Jane started to move.
Lucas grabbed his rifle.
He was aware that one of the eyes of the Paran Artifact was trained on him.
Jane opened her own eyes, and her gaze darted all the way around the room and then settled on Lucas. He was barely two meters from her. She looked down at his gun and then up at his face.
“Put your damn guns down,” Yaka snarled from behind him. “Get a brain on your shoulders; you attack that girl, and she’ll attack back. Plus, I don’t think the Paran Artifact over there is going to play friendly if you do. Right now, I would rather it keep us from whatever the hell is on the other side of that security field. So put your guns down,” Yaka growled, and the note of command in his voice rang through the room.
The security forces didn’t pay attention to him. Instead, they looked right at Lucas. Lucas, after all, still had his gun raised.
He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know who or what to believe. Technically, standard operating procedure in a situation like this would dictate that he at least try to take Jane into custody. She’d shot three security guards, hacked through Galactic Force computers, destroyed a security field protecting the Paran Artifact, and had then gone on to activate it somehow. And if he couldn’t take her into custody… he would have to eliminate her. She’d just proved herself to be a threat not only to the Galactic Force, but to the Galactic Union as a whole.
… Hadn’t she?
She was still standing there, crying.
“Lucas,” Yaka growled from behind him. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
For all Lucas knew, the information that the Paran Artifact had downloaded into his bio suit was wrong. Lucas didn’t have any way of knowing that it all wasn’t made up; he didn’t have the time or the resources to cross check it with the Galactic Force database. Plus, the Parans had always been such a secretive race that he doubted there would be sufficient information on them to check against, anyway.
It could all be some kind of ruse. Some kind of play. Perhaps Specimen 14 was working with Jane. Maybe it was working with the Paran Artifact too.
He had to make some kind of decision.
He had to decide whether the Darq was working for Jane or, as seemed obvious, wanted to rip her limb from limb.
He finally made eye contact with her.
Lucas put his gun down.
As soon as he did, the other security forces followed.
“Get off planet; get off planet now,” the Paran Artifact repeated.
As it spoke, Jane turned and started to walk toward the door. Then she started to jog, then started to run. And she ran fast, a hell of a lot faster than Lucas would have expected was possible for her.
“What…” he began.
“You heard the Artifact, Stone – we have to get her off the planet,” Yaka repeated.
“But we have to fight that thing.” Lucas turned back to Specimen 14. “If it gets out….”
“It will go after her,” the Paran Artifact answered. “Won’t damage anything else. Won’t waste energy – has only one goal. Takes out most important first. Will ignore all others; it will go after her.”
Lucas felt his skin pale. It was a kind of assurance, but it was a horrible one. He wanted to ask the Artifact why the hell Specimen 14 would be so damned intent on going after Jane – a woman who worked in the Administrative Division of the Galactic Force. Someone who was self-admittedly so normal that nothing interesting could or should ever happen to her. Why then would someone so damn simple and normal be the primary target for something so old, mysterious, and horrible?
The decision came to him. It was the only one he could make. Though it went against all his training. “How do we get a ship cleared?” he asked out loud.
“Leave that to me, Stone. Just get after her,” Yaka snapped.
So Lucas did. He stowed his gun, and he ran like the wind after Jane, the most ordinary girl in the Galaxy.
What was happening, what was happening to her? Was she in a dream? But she didn’t dream. So was she hallucinating?
None of it made sense. She couldn’t move her body, couldn’t control anything but her face and her voice. And what had that creature been? A strange black box that had grown up into an organic-looking robot?
The second she’d seen it, an explosion of recognition had gone off in her mind, and yet she hadn’t been able to pin down why she knew it. She couldn’t deny the familiarity that surged within her.
Why? She’d never seen it before….
What was going on…?
She was running now. Running because the thing had told her to run. No, that wasn’t right; her body was running because the thing had told her body to run. The robot. It was as if it could bypass her mind and talk right to her limbs.
She was sprinting full pelt, faster than she’d ever run in her life, faster than she would have thought possible without the assistance of bio-armor. While she had no idea where she was going, her body did, or at least it seemed to. She twisted around the right corners, pelted up the correct stairs, sprinted down the right corridors. After a while, she realized she was heading up to one of the hangar bays above the building.
Occasionally, she would face security blocks: fields that had been put in place along corridors to stop enemies from accessing all areas of the Galactic Force. Every time she came across one, she darted forward and ripped open some panel, her body knowing how to hack right into it until the security field flickered out. Then she kept running.
“Why? Why is this happening to me?” she asked herself, her breath shaky as her body didn’t stop.
She was normal; she was meant to be completely normal…. Wasn’t she?
Her tears had dried up long ago. Or maybe she didn’t have any left. What good would they do, anyway? Crying wouldn’t give her back control over her arms and legs.
Jane kept heading down the corridor, and she knew that the hangar bays were now only two levels above. Obviously, the security systems were catching on to the fact somebody was hacking through them, and she could now hear the sound of security forces assembling on the other side of the door she was currently trying to bypass.
What would she do? What would her body make her do? When she’d tried to get into that research lab, she’d been so agile, trained, and competent. She’d managed to take down those three security guards as if she’d spent her whole life preparing to do just that. It was so terribly strange, it was as if someone had swapped her body with that of Lucas Stone’s, for god’s sake.
Before Jane could finish hacking through the door, she heard somebody running up from behind her. Her body stilled for a moment, but then it went straight back to switching around the control crystals in the panel.
“Jane? Jane?” somebody called. She realized it was Lucas.
… Lucas Stone. When this had all begun, she’d fought the urge to go find him. Her mind had been convinced of the fact that if anybody could solve her problem, it was him. After all, wasn’t that what the Galactic news had told her over and over again? Wasn’t that what every single member of the Galactic Force believed? If you had a problem, and especially if it was of the big universally threatening kind, you sought out Lucas Stone. There was nothing the man couldn’t fix.
And Jane was starting to appreciate that her problem… it was big, it was awfully big.
She heard him race down the corridor toward her, and though the lights had been turned to a quarter illumination, she picked out the form of his armor easily. He sprinted, ran at full bore, his arms flashes by his sides as his legs pumped. She could make out the blue and white stripes along the shoulders of his black armor.
“Jane,” he called once more.
She waited for her body to act. She squeezed her eyes closed, not wanting to see it. She was sure her limbs would make her snap up, rush toward him, and land a punch somewhere, perhaps push him over, maybe steal his rifle and try shooting him with it… but she didn’t. She just kept trying to bypass the console.
He reached her. His gun was in his hand, and her eyes widened as she watched it. After a moment’s hesitation, he didn’t raise it at her.
His helmet flicked to transparent, and she could see his expression even in the dim, dim light.
“Jane,” he repeated, voice quiet, throat constricted.
“What’s going on? What’s going on?” she asked through a choke.
Lucas’ skin was pale, his mouth open, his eyes drooped, and he shook his head slowly. “I have no idea.”
Jane swallowed hard and tried not to cry. While she tried not to cry, her body ignored her. Her hands expertly and quickly manipulated the controls within the panel, and soon the door clicked open. She found herself instantly ducking behind the side of it, her body smart enough to know that if she was standing right in front of it, whatever assembled security forces were behind it would shoot her on the spot.
Lucas didn’t move.
His gaze locked on her, and then he shifted his head to look through the doors. “Stand down,” he snapped.
“Sir, what’s going on? We have reports that the entity is—”
“We have a major disruption in Research Lab Two, that’s the problem,” Lucas snapped. “Redirect all forces to Research Lab Two. Have someone check on Basement Level One. Get the Chief Engineer. Tell her to try to relay as much power as she can to the grid. Tell her I don’t care what the Mayor says; tell her to get it all. We have a major, major incident going on here.”
Jane heard a noise as if someone were snapping a salute, and then the sound of a whole host of heavy footfall started to recede from them.
“But, but why didn’t they shoot me? Are you going to shoot me?” Jane found herself stuttering. Before she could get her answer, her body twisted around and began to run full pelt through the door.
Lucas ran up behind her, but it seemed as if he could only just match her speed.
“I’m not going to shoot you, Jane,” he finally replied. It was muffled, indistinct as if it came relayed through his armor, as if he were having a hard time catching his breath.
“What have I done? What have I done?” she kept asking herself. It seemed to be the only thing she could do. Well, not the only thing – her body was busy trying to save her, or trying to commit every single crime under the sun. “Where am I going? What am I doing?”
“We’re heading to Hangar Bay One. Yaka is trying to clear us a ship,” Lucas replied.
“A ship? What? To get off the planet? But I’ve never been off the planet,” she replied with a stutter, but then her body drew to a shuddering halt as another security field blocked off their access. She found herself turning to the panel by the field and ripping it off easily with her fingers.
“Disable security fields between corridor 2B and Hangar Bay One,” Lucas snapped.
Jane’s fingers kept pulling out and switching around the various security crystals in the wall.
The security field blinked off, anyway.
“I…” Jane began. Then she found her body running again.
“It’s going to be okay,” Lucas replied from her side as he kept pace with her.
“But I’m a criminal; I shot two people.” She grabbed hold of a door frame and used it to pivot so she could run up a different corridor without ever losing speed.
Lucas fell behind, but then he put on another burst of speed and ran up to her again. “They are fine. You stunned them; you didn’t shoot them.” His voice was heavy, his breath loud and choppy.
“I can’t go off planet,” Jane repeated to herself. The same voice in her head that told her to shun adventure had always warned her to stay on home soil. If she wanted to go somewhere, she could darn well imagine it instead. It was cheaper and far, far safer.
Yet now Jane ran toward a hangar bay, apparently trying like crazy to get off the planet. While she couldn’t control her limbs and had no idea what was happening to her, she still understood why. She had to escape because of the white, eyeless entity back in Research Lab Two.
It made her cold to think about it. Whenever a picture of it flickered before her mind’s eye, she wanted to stop, double over, and throw up. While she hadn’t raised her head to look at it, she knew it had stared at her. The entire time. Its eyeless face directed toward her, its jaw open wide, its teeth glinting. She’d never seen anything like it in her life, but that didn’t matter; some part of her recognized it. The same part of her that was now running like crazy to get the hell away from it.
“How can I go off world if I’ve never been off world before?” Jane asked, breath choppy yet still far steadier than Lucas’. Though she could feel that her body was under considerable strain, she imagined she could keep doing this, whatever this was, for some time. Lucas, on the other hand, seemed to be at full pelt, and she could tell from his movements that he couldn’t keep it up for long.
He also didn’t seem to know how to answer such a stupid question. After all, it was fairly obvious: you went off world in a spaceship, the same as everybody else. If you’d never been off world before, it didn’t really matter, because there always had to be a first time for everything.
They were nearly at Hangar Bay One now, but Jane wasn’t slowing down.
“Why is this happening?” she croaked out one last time, her voice low.
“I don’t know,” was all Lucas could reply.
He’d found her, but damn it had taken him a while. She could run, and she was fast. And the speed with which she hacked through security terminals was phenomenal. Lucas had never seen anything like it, not from a robot, not from a bio-synthetic, and not from a biological life form. She was possessed of speed, agility, and knowledge that was far, far beyond her.
When he’d finally reached her, he’d had a moment of hesitation. Seeing her bypass that security panel with such expertise… he’d wondered whether this was a trap, after all. Perhaps Jane was working with Specimen 14 somehow.
Then he’d seen her expression again. Her expression had been at complete odds with the expert moves of her hands, with the slack, easy posture of her shoulders and the comfortable stance of her legs. Her expression had been wild with fear and such obvious, genuine fright that he knew in an instant it couldn’t be faked.
She kept talking, and what she kept saying sounded exactly like Jane. Not that he’d known her for long. Yet even the way her expression crumpled and her nose crinkled reminded him of the first time they’d met. Whatever the movements of her body were, they weren’t Jane. Though he had no evidence to go on, he wondered whether it had something to do with the Paran Artifact. Whenever it had told Jane to move, she’d moved, whether she’d looked like she wanted to or not.
So Lucas made another decision: he would trust her. At least for now. Too much was happening and it was happening too quickly, and unless he acted to create certainty, he would be swept up by the chaos.
Plus, even if he had no idea who Jane really was or what she was capable of, his gut told him one thing: Specimen 14 was dangerous. No, it was beyond dangerous; it was terrifying. Terrifying in a way that the Galaxy had never experienced before. Most species of the Galaxy, that was, except the Parans.
All of his worst suspicions, his nightmares about the mysterious ancient race from Hell’s Gate, were turning out to be true. The Darq, as the Paran database had called them. They were fiendish, deadly, and intent on destruction.
He didn’t know why, and while he now had access to the Paran database, he couldn’t make sense of most of it. He did know one thing, however: he had to stop them at all costs. They felt like a deadly force that could easily sweep their way across the Galaxy, conquering what they could and annihilating what they could not. The Galaxy would be a soft target. It hadn’t been to war in years, maybe didn’t even know how to protect itself anymore. Maybe it thought that there weren’t any real enemies left out there to threaten it. Well, they were wrong. There was one downstairs.
Lucas swallowed hard and put on another burst of speed. He didn’t know how long he could keep this up for; his armor was already giving him feedback that he was taxing not only the living membrane of his bio suit but his joints, tendons, muscles, and bones. It was weakening him. They were almost at Hangar Bay One, though, so hopefully he could hold out just a little longer.
Jane wasn’t slowing down. She kept up the exact same pace. Lucas wondered how long she could do it for. He knew she wasn’t human; Miranda had told him so. Yet Miranda had also told him that she had lower agility and strength than your average human. Which was obviously completely wrong, because Jane had speed you never associated with a human. Still, all races had their limits. Jane could run like this for a while, but she couldn’t run like this forever.
To get to the hangar, they had to pass through the decontamination unit. It was a long corridor which, ordinarily, you walked through at a healthy pace, and while you walked, all the nasties that you’d picked up on Earth that you didn’t want to incubate with you in space were irradiated right off you. The process was perfectly timed to how long it took to walk to the hangar, but if you ran, or even half jogged, the computer would snap at you to stop running in the corridor. Jane ignored it.
There was now no security personnel around. Obviously, they’d all been redirected to the real problem: the Darq in Research Lab Two.
They reached the decontamination doors, and before Jane could rip into the panel and hack into it, Lucas put a hand forward and typed in the right code, the doors opening for them easily.
The number of panels that Jane had now torn through and hacked in her attempt to run to the hangar bay was clocking up, and Lucas knew that when this had all died down, if it died down, the Chief Engineer would have some strict words for him.
When the decontamination doors opened, Jane began to run down the corridor behind them, but Lucas did notice that she was starting to flag. She was breathing heavier now, and there was sweat dripping down her face. Lucas used the onboard biometric scanners of his armor to note that whereas her life signs had been steady and almost vibrant before, they were starting to taper off quickly.
“Jane?” he asked her. “Are you okay?”
“Tired,” she replied simply, breath heavy. She still didn’t stop; she kept on running. Sure enough, the computer blared out several times to slow the hell down so it could decontaminate them properly.
He just snapped at the computer to prioritize decontamination and hurry the hell up. And, being Lucas Stone, the computer paid attention. After all, there were several benefits to having his rank, one of which was the ability to prioritize computer functions. Even if every person under the sun accused him of always having his priorities wrong, at least he could dictate to the computer what it should do and when.
By the time they reached the end of the decontamination corridor, Jane was stumbling.
He glanced up to see the ship in dock one, and he was happy to note it was one of the fastest cruisers the Galactic Force had. A small, nimble ship usually used in reconnaissance.
How Yaka had managed to clear it so fast, Lucas would never know. Well, possibly it had something to do with the Darq in Research Lab Two threatening to tear up the planet to get to Jane. Getting her off-world before that security field failed was everyone’s last and best hope.
In any case, Lucas didn’t have the time to wait around on the hangar deck and make the right calls to ensure everything was legitimate. Plus, Jane was already running up the ramp to the ship.
There were two surprised engineers either side of the hangar door, and they glanced at Jane and then straight at Lucas.
“Umm,” one of them began.
“Priority mission,” Lucas snapped back. “Is the ship ready to go?”
“Yes, sir,” one of the engineers said as he glanced at Jane and then back at Lucas. “But there is no crew.”
“We will pick them up later. We just have to get off-world as soon as possible. Has she got clearance?”
“Not yet,” the other engineer replied through a stutter.
“I need you to get on the net, get absolute priority clearance. I need to be the next ship that goes off.”
“Yes, sir,” both of the engineers replied.
Lucas ran into the ship. As soon as he did, he turned, he clamped his hand over a panel on the side, and his armor instantly linked to the on-board computer. The hangar door closed in a whisper-quiet move. Then Lucas, his armor still linked to the ship, instructed it to begin the takeoff process. Soon enough the engines hummed into life. He also set the shields to maximum, primed the scanners, and even uploaded some biometric data from the Paran database into the computer. Data on the Darq. Should one come close, the ship would let loose with every gun and torpedo it had.
Only when takeoff was well under way and the ship was unclamped and moved toward the giant hangar bay doors at the end of the room did Lucas take a massive sigh. He let his head tip back, closed his eyes, and took several relieved breaths.
He’d already plugged the course into the ship’s onboard computer and had set the navigation to autopilot.
He finally undocked his hand from the panel and moved forward into the rest of the ship.
He’d always been fond of these smaller, faster reconnaissance ships. There was so much you could do in one of these that you couldn’t do in the heavier battle cruisers. Fair enough, you probably couldn’t take on a horde of space pirates or blow up an asteroid field, but you were quick, you were silent, and you went unnoticed. Now he needed to be unnoticed. If Specimen 14 really came after them, then maybe this was exactly the kind of ship they needed to have a hope of getting out of here.
If it came after them, that was. After all, Lucas still didn’t know anything for sure. He was still working on instinct, working on full throttle, going from one problem to the next without having the time to properly analyze the situation. The Paran Artifact could have been lying to him; he was still aware of that fact. And though he’d decided to trust Jane for now, he still wasn’t stupid enough to think that the case was solved. He had no idea what Jane was or why she’d done the things that she’d done. Or even how she’d done them. She’d undergone a physical examination the day previous, and Lucas was pretty sure that if Miranda had uncovered that Jane had superhuman agility, speed, and strength she might have mentioned it. No, and it wasn’t as if Miranda would make any mistakes; Miranda was one of the best doctors Lucas had ever met. Which meant one thing: Jane was far more extraordinary than she’d ever let on.
Lucas made his way toward the bridge.
The ship was small but was still large enough to be comfortable. There were two small dormitories, a small mess hall, an armory, and of course the bridge. Underneath the bridge was the engine, computer, and life-support core. It was compact, but still, it had enough room so you wouldn’t be running into the other crew and stepping on each other’s toes.
When Lucas entered the bridge, he stopped. Jane was there alright, but she was crumpled on the floor, her hair covering her face, her limbs an awkward mess.
He snapped down to his knees, put a hand on her back, and let the highly sensitive sensors over the surface of his armor pick up Jane’s life signs.
They were weak. Obviously the amount of energy that had gone into getting her to race here like a super soldier had taken its toll. She was breathing, but only just, and the lactic acid build up in her limbs was dangerously high.
“Prack.” Lucas spat.
Reluctantly, he left Jane as he snapped up to his feet and slammed his hand down onto the docking panel in the middle of the major console at the front of the bridge. All reconnaissance ships like this had docking panels for bio-armor like his. They introduced a new level of control that you simply couldn’t get with holo manipulation and the ordinary user interfaces. He could link directly with the computer system, the living membrane of his armor almost melding perfectly with it, enabling him to borrow the processing power of the computer and also enabling him to make quick flight decisions and movements that would take too long to input by hand. Right now he was feeding the computer Jane’s biosignatures, using its onboard medical knowledge to diagnose and treat her. In another moment, it blinked into action and told him it was synthesizing some kind of drug for her. While synthesis was expensive and took up a great deal of energy, Lucas gave it clearance without a second thought.
Unfortunately, it would take at least five minutes to manufacture the drug. Lucas instantly asked whether she had five minutes, and the computer bleeped out a worrying answer: it didn’t know.
Grimacing, Lucas let his helmet recede into his armor, not just letting it go to transparent but getting it right out of his face for once. Then he let his legs fall out from underneath him, and he sat heavily, one hand going up to his brow, the other hand clamping back onto her shoulder.
He waited there right beside Jane.
She wasn’t moving; she was still crumpled on the floor. Considering what she’d been through, he couldn’t blame her. Considering the pounding he’d given his own body, he felt like passing out. But he couldn’t do that right now; Jane needed him.
“Jane, it will be okay; you will be okay,” he tried to reassure her. Which was useless as she was unconscious. Yet he said it anyway because he said it for himself. He was vocalizing a wish, not a fact. He wanted her to be okay.
The next five minutes were agonizing, and Lucas could do nothing but wait there, one hand on her shoulder as his armor picked up the live feed of her life signs. He couldn’t do anything to make her better. He could only wait for the computer to synthesize the drug.
So he waited. He kept one hand on her back as he used his free hand to massage his brow. And he waited.
Lucas hated waiting. His whole life was built on action. Never-ending action. One move after another, one disaster after another, one mission after another. There was never any time to stop, and there was never any time to rest.
Yet here he was, waiting.
Two minutes left.
She was weak, terribly weak.
He started to get angry about it. Furious even. Why had she done this to herself? Had she done this to herself? Or was it that Artifact that had done it? He knew one thing – while her body had moved confidently and competently, her expression and voice had been laden with genuine fear. So it seemed sane to conclude that whatever had been happening to her, Jane hadn’t had much to do with it. She’d been the victim.
How did she fall into the rest of this? Did she have something to do with the Artifact, with Specimen 14? While Lucas had never believed that Jane was plain, and would not use that word to describe her, she was, until a few hours ago, normal. She led a peaceful and ordinary life. She wasn’t the kind of girl to be right at the center of this Galactic mess, whatever this Galactic mess was.
Yet he could no longer deny what he’d seen.
She was at the center of it all. There was no doubt that the Paran Artifact had acted to keep her safe. It had also told him in no uncertain terms that she was the target of Specimen 14. A fact he could believe; he’d seen the way the Darq had looked at her. He’d felt the aggression and hatred lap off it.
Lucas now stood up, hand hovering over the service panel where the drug would be formed and delivered to an endo syringe.
His fingers were tensed as they hovered over the panel, waiting, waiting until he could snap the drug right up.
He clamped his jaw down, his teeth so solidly stuck together that the pressure translated all the way through his skull.
Lucas snapped up the syringe, got down to the floor, and injected it right into Jane’s neck.
Then he stood back, and he waited again.
“What is the effect?” he asked the computer.
The computer waited for a moment, beeping softly. It told him it was analyzing and not ready to answer his question.
“Effective,” it answered after an agonizing wait. “Patient will regain consciousness shortly. Unusual biology; the computer has adjusted.”
Lucas doubled over in exhausted relief.
“Are we cleared for exit from Earth?” he asked as he remembered the most important thing. If those two engineers hadn’t managed to secure his ship priority, there was a high chance that Lucas would be ordered back to the hangar bay until they could fit him into the flight pattern.
“Processing. Yes,” the computer replied.
Lucas shook his head and even indulged in a smile. That had to be the first thing that was going right today.
Then Jane groaned.
She felt… she felt horrible. She’d never felt like this before, it was….
She saw Lucas kneel down beside her, his face coming into view, his expression displaying genuine and obvious concern.
“Jane? Jane? Are you okay?” he asked quickly, his voice snapping but his tone hardly angry, only anxious.
She didn’t answer as a wave of nausea rolled over her. She’d never felt like this. In fact, she’d hardly ever felt sick in her entire life. She’d been lucky in that respect; she’d never been injured, she’d never come down with some kind of space virus, and she’d hardly ever had a runny nose. But now… now….
“I…” she managed.
“Oh god, you’re okay. Prack, you’re okay.” Lucas looked relieved, and he closed his eyes and shook his head, his mouth pressing up into a confused smile. Then he opened his eyes again, and he looked down at Jane warily.
“I’m going to throw up,” she realized.
Lucas blinked. Before he could do anything, Jane twisted to the side and threw up all over the command chair. Then she clapped a hand over her mouth and one over her stomach, and she bent forward.
“Right,” Lucas said as he slowly stood. “Computer…” he began.
“Decontamination equipment in storage cell one,” the computer replied.
Lucas nodded, thrust his bottom lip forward, and blew a blast of air up against the short edges of his fringe. “Right. Didn’t think I would be cleaning up puke tonight,” he mumbled as he started to walk back toward the other end of the cruiser. Before he did, he turned and faced her. “Will you be okay?”
She was aware that her eyebrows were shifting up and down, her cheeks puffing in and out, her chin wobbling. She kept on swallowing. “I’ve never thrown up before,” she managed.
Lucas’ eyebrows descended, and he looked confused. “Okay,” he replied.
“There is a funny taste in my mouth,” she added.
“I’ll bet there is. I’ll get you some water. Are you okay? Do you need some help to sit up?” The look of concern on his face… it honestly did seem to be real.
Jane was aware that she was looking up at him, confusion pressing down on her eyebrows, her lips pulling out into a line. Could it be that the media had been wrong? Or maybe that she’d been wrong? Despite what she liked to believe, Lucas Stone was turning out to be almost kind. Or was it some kind of act? Would he go out back and suddenly bring out a registration form for his Fan Club? Or demand that she give an exclusive interview to some news crew telling them how fabulous he was?
Lucas was watching her, and he started to pale. “You need to throw up again?”
She patted her lips then shook her head.
“Just wait here,” he said as he walked back out from the bridge.
Which left her alone. Alone with her thoughts. Jane had a lot of thoughts right now, because she had a lot to think about. Never before in her entire life had so much happened to her in such a short time. In fact, even in her various fantasies, she’d never faced so much danger, so much action, and so much… awkwardness.
She swallowed again, trying to ignore the horribly acidic taste in her mouth, and she pulled herself up off the floor and onto the remaining chair – the chair that wasn’t covered in puke. She sat there, feeling sick and sorry for herself until Lucas came back into the room. He handed her a glass of water and then set about cleaning up the mess.
When Lucas was finished, he sat down on the command chair and swiveled to face her.
Jane had never seen an expression like the one he now wore, and she had no idea what it meant. His eyes were narrowed as if they were pressed with concern, yet one corner of his lip was curled in a half smile.
“Well, that was… different.” He brushed his hand over his chin.
This confused Jane, and she frowned back at him. “I don’t understand.”
Lucas gave a short and uncontrollable laugh. “Okay. Well, what I meant was, well,” he stuttered and automatically put a hand up to touch the back of his head. This time it didn’t bounce off his armor, and he patted his hair down with no trouble. “That was different,” he ended up repeating.
“What usually happens?” Jane asked plainly.
Lucas laughed again, but it was somewhere between mirth and awkwardness. “Usually….” He opened his mouth and closed it again. “I don’t know what I’m saying,” he answered, laughing.
Jane gave him a quizzical look. “I’ve never been into space before,” she pointed out again.
“And you’ve never thrown up before,” Lucas said as he turned back to the computer console and typed something into one of the panels, “but you seem to have a natural talent for it.”
Jane’s eyebrows danced around, her expression shifting between irritation and confusion. She wasn’t sure what to make of that comment.
Lucas turned back to her, and the awkwardness and mirth were gone from his expression. “Do you have any idea what just happened?”
Jane’s gaze darted down to her hands, and she moved her fingers around, lacing them through each other. She shook her head.
“I didn’t think you would,” Lucas sighed. “Now I’m on a ship with you, leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, running from a creature that wiped out the Parans,” he appeared to be speaking to himself, “and neither of us has any idea what’s going on. Well, at least this beats the Dean’s party.”
“But you like parties,” Jane noted weakly. “I read it in one of the fan supplements that Mandy gets. She’s a card-carrying member of your Fan Club. She’s always talking about you.” A part of her was aware how innocent and stupid she sounded right now. But that part was weak considering she’d just had her body controlled, had run around like a super soldier on stimulants, and had thrown up all over a reconnaissance spaceship.
Once again one side of Lucas’ mouth started to curl up, and his lips darted around until he couldn’t stop it anymore and the other side of his mouth snapped up into a grin. “Sorry?”
“I read it,” Jane said plainly, aware of the fact she was tired and that she should seriously be putting more thought into what she was saying. “Lucas Stone likes to go to parties. It said you also like to go walking,” she started counting on her fingers, “cooking in the traditional old-style human manner, and going…” she trailed off for a moment as she tried to remember the exact phrase, “for long walks on the beach with a special person,” she finished, nodding to herself in satisfaction that she’d managed to remember all the details.
If Lucas had been trying not to laugh before, it was nothing compared to the titanic struggle that now twisted across his face. His lips wobbled, and he closed his eyes for a second. “Going for long walks on the beach with a special person?” he repeated, shaking through a laugh.
Jane realized how idiotic she’d sounded, and she crossed her arms. Her body still burnt with fatigue, but she was happy to waste energy on the move. “Well, I don’t know. It was written in your fan supplement.”
Lucas laughed out loud. “I think you’ll find there is a lot of junk written in those things. If I did half the things they said I do, I would be superhuman.” He shook his head and turned back to the panel, fingers darting across it as he no doubt checked that their flight plan was still operational.
Jane kept her arms crossed in front of her. She wanted to repeat to him that the fan supplement had clearly said that he liked going to parties. If that was wrong, then… well, everything she knew about Lucas Stone was probably wrong too. The only information she had on the man, other than the brief interactions she’d had with him, was what she’d learned off Mandy and the news. And what she’d learned from those sources was the primary reason Jane had grown to hate the man so much. After all, the impression she had was that Lucas Stone was larger than life, and not larger than life in a good way – in a way that made everybody else feel small, normal, ordinary, and plain.
“You are pretty strange,” Lucas said, still chuckling as he turned back to face her. “No, I really don’t like parties. They bore the hell out of me.” He was still smiling, and his nose had crumpled, his eyes narrowing as his cheeks puffed up against them. He apparently thought this was hilarious. “Now, what else was there? Something to do with walking? Well, to be honest, I actually do like walking. But I just don’t get the time. The last time I went on a hike…” he trailed off and looked up to his left, “I was transported away when I was only probably a hundred meters from the top of the mountain.” He shrugged his shoulders. “There was an incident I had to deal with. But I will tell you one thing, I do prefer old-style cooking. It’s got a certain charm to it. As for long walks on the beach with someone special—” He chuckled.
Jane found herself growing ever more defensive, and if she crossed her arms any tighter in front of her chest, she would probably suffocate herself. She was aware she was looking at him darkly.
He waved a hand at her. “Sorry, you probably don’t need this. Ignore me; I’m tired,” he said as he brushed a hand over his cheek and nose. “But it doesn’t look as if I’ll be getting any rest anytime soon,” he mumbled to himself. “I really wish I could sleep while I was awake like you.”
Jane watched him warily and let her arms uncross a little. “Where are we going?” she asked.
Lucas looked back at her, and the mirth was gone from his expression. “We’re currently heading to the Central Shipyards. From there…” he trailed off. “I have no idea.”
Jane swallowed hard, and she started to play with her hands. “Are they going to take me and put me on a prison planet?” she asked quietly.
“Jane, of course they…” Lucas trailed off again. He seemed to trail off a lot. He seemed to start off knowing what he wanted to do or say and then change his mind halfway through. It was odd, and it was also something that hadn’t been written about in his fan supplements.
“You don’t know,” Jane replied carefully. “I just broke… I just shot… I just did…” she found herself trailing off too. She was too confused to make sense of what she had and hadn’t done. The only two things she could be sure of were both equally horrible: she hadn’t been in control of her body, and that white eyeless creature wanted her dead.
Fear gripped her gut as she thought about it, an ice-cold sensation spreading through her chest. She shivered and rubbed at her arms and throat, trying to coax the warmth back.
Lucas noticed the move and flicked something on the panel in front of him. “I can increase the heat if you’re cold.”
Jane was aware that her teeth were now chattering.
“It might be the after-effects of the drug,” he noted as his eyes darted over the holographic image that suddenly appeared over the panel in front of him. “You should probably try to get some rest. You can go into one of the dormitory rooms—”
Jane shook her head suddenly, and she was surprised at how quick and vehement the move was.
“Or you can stay here,” Lucas said, blinking back his shock, but his voice was still even and careful.
Silence stretched between them. She wanted to ask him what would happen next, what would happen to her, and what had really happened in the research lab. Yet she wasn’t sure whether he knew the answers. Plus, she didn’t want to make a fool of herself anymore and come up with any other snippets from Mandy’s fan supplements about the great Lucas Stone. So she just sat there, rubbing her arms and staring out of the view screen at the front of the cruiser.
After a while, Lucas noticed what she was doing, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see the confused but interested look on his face.
“Is that… is that how you sleep?” Lucas asked after a pause.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
That same expression of puzzlement and mirth crumpled his brow again. “How can you not know?” His voice was high with controlled exasperation. “I mean—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jane interrupted defensively. “Different species have different sleeping habits, and some of them don’t sleep at all. I learned that in school, and that was what the doctor told me at the Galactic Force,” she said plainly. Once again, as she said it, she realized how thoroughly innocent and stupid it sounded. She was repeating a fact she’d learned in school to a man who had access to the combined Galactic Database.
Lucas looked uncomfortable. “Yes, of course.” He started to frown. “But what species are you?”
Jane wouldn’t look at him.
“I never asked the doctor, and she never told me,” Lucas shrugged his shoulders, but his expression was still pressed with interest, “and it wasn’t on your file.”
She felt uncomfortable, and the sensation went beyond the situation, if that made any sense. It was the same intense reaction she’d had toward Research Lab Two. “I don’t know,” she snapped at him. “There are many, many refugees in this Galaxy, many drifters. Not every species has the same kind of family history as a human.”
Lucas looked shocked. “I’m sorry,” he managed.
She realized her reaction had been vehement and was completely at odds with her usual character.
She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them again. That buzzing was back. The same odd white noise that had filled her mind when the assassin robot had attacked her.
He was still looking at her with that same confused interest, but where it had been sharper before, now there was a different kind of edge to it. He looked determined, and determined in a way that Jane had no real experience with.
“So you don’t have any idea whatsoever what race you’re from?” Lucas tried again.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Jane snapped.
Once again Lucas blinked in surprise, but once again the surprise quickly shifted down into interest. He even stuck his head forward a bit, and though there were a good two meters between them, Jane was suddenly aware of how close he was. “So you have no idea whatsoever what kind of race you’re from?” he repeated the same question.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Jane practically shouted now.
Lucas no longer looked surprised, and he didn’t look as if Jane had just shouted at him with the kind of viciousness that was light years away from her usual character.
“So you have no idea—” Lucas started again.
She snapped up to her feet. “I don’t want to talk about this,” she now screamed.
Lucas didn’t seem concerned at her move or at her tone. He appeared to be looking at her, or, more accurately, through her. He narrowed his gaze as if he were trying to read something that was far off and hard to see.
“Right, you have no idea what race you’re from—” he began again, tone easy.
“Lucas—” Jane screamed. She wound on her foot, readying to storm out of the room.
“You don’t know where you’re from, but you do have an implant.” Lucas leaned back, a startled expression smoothing his brow.
She felt cold.
“I’m not surprised Miranda didn’t pick it up… I have never seen technology like that. The computer only just noticed it.”
Jane turned to note that Lucas was staring at her, his eyes darting to and fro, his expression one of extreme interest.
“Maybe it only became visible after the effects of the drug, or maybe after whatever the hell just happened to you down on Earth.” His voice was soft, his words stuttering as he apparently paid far more attention to staring at her. He sat back further in his chair. “Wow, and I thought my armor was sophisticated. I have never seen an implant like that.”
Jane still felt cold. Though her head was screaming at her to turn around and walk the hell out of the room and never talk to him ever again, she somehow overrode the feeling and managed to clamp her feet to the ground and stand there, facing him.
“I’m just going to try something,” his voice was low. “Jane, what species—”
“Stop it!” she bellowed at him.
“Wow,” was his only response. His face lit up with surprise and interest. “Prack, that thing is linked almost perfectly with your brain. I’ve never seen an implant with so—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jane found herself snapping, and again she had to fight the urge to storm off on him.
“It must have been the drug… or maybe it overtaxed itself.” Lucas’ eyes were narrowed. “That must be it. The implant,” he pointed right at her, “that would have been responsible for the speed, the agility. Wow,” he repeated.
Jane felt her expression grow sallow, her lips slowly parting as she seemed to lose all control of her jaw.
She couldn’t deny that she had an overwhelming urge to get the hell out of there or to just scream at Lucas until he shut up, but the urge… she could fight it.
“It wouldn’t have had to output like that before.” He kept shaking his head. “Getting you out of danger like that, it had to override all the messages coming from your brain and even control your body. It must have run itself dry.” Lucas crossed his arms and leaned right back in his chair. He finally stopped looking at whatever picture his bio-armor was displaying to his brain and flicked up his gaze to her face. “What are you?”
Jane took a step back.
“It’s okay. I don’t—”
Jane shook her head shakily.
Lucas put his hands up slowly. “It’s okay, Jane.”
The urge to run was now getting stronger and stronger.
Lucas narrowed his eyes again, and they shifted out of focus as no doubt his onboard computer started to display him telemetry and readings again.
He snapped his head forward and stood up. “Prack, it’s regenerating. It’s fast.” His mouth was open, his words almost slurred as it was clear his attention was taken up by what he was seeing.
She felt cold again, but she still managed to stand there. It took everything she had, but a big part of her wanted to know what Lucas was talking about. He seemed to be so adamant, so intrigued by it….
“It must be the effects of the drug too, maybe it blocked it somehow,” he noted, eyebrows pressed low over his eyes.
Jane turned around and walked out the door. Something else was in control of her limbs again, and she was too tired to fight it, too confused, too overcome. Her normal life, after all, had just taken a sharp and surprising twist.
Lucas let her go as he doubted he could stop her. Not without sedating her or tying her down somehow. That implant appeared to have measurable control over not only her body but her moods as well.
He hadn’t been lying when he’d said he’d never seen technology like it. While he did have an implant that functioned in somewhat the same manner, it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated, and it didn’t have nearly as much control over his body. His armor was there to assist him, to allow quick and direct uplink to computers, to allow augmentation of his abilities and senses. Jane’s implant, on the other hand… he had no idea what it did, but he could guess. It appeared to be programmed to get her out of trouble. And not just that – it seemed to have the ability to stop her from ever seeking out trouble in the first place. It had incredible evasion capabilities. After all, he could remember the strange conversation he’d had with Jane in the corridor that morning, where she’d replied to his questions about why an assassin robot would be sent after her with the adamant response that she was normal and those kinds of things do not happen to normal people.
It had to be an evasion tactic. And the way she’d reacted when questioned on what species she was, that was just the icing on the cake. That implant was obviously programmed not just to keep her safe but to prevent her from finding out what species she was from.
Lucas sat there, his head resting back against the chair behind him, his eyes staring at the ceiling as he tried to process everything.
What kind of person had an implant like that? One more sophisticated than any technology he’d ever seen? An implant that was bizarrely programmed to stop her from ever doing anything dangerous, from ever putting her head out, from ever finding out what race she was from, and that obviously had provisions to take control of her body should she ever actually find herself in danger.
What kind of person had an implant like that? Not an admin officer.
Perhaps the Paran Artifact was right, and Specimen 14 really was after Jane, because Jane really was… well, special. Important somehow. Important in a way that Lucas had no idea of yet, but which he would now use every resource he had to figure out. In other words, he would set this as a priority.
He used the onboard scanner to check that Jane was okay and that she wasn’t running off to the hangar bay door and trying to smash it open to jump out into space. She was, in fact, entrenched in one of the dormitory rooms, huddled up in the corner quietly. Though he wanted to go to her and check that she was okay, he fought the urge. The implant would just kick in again, he was sure of it.
Was she Paran? It was the only possibility that made any sense. She’d managed to activate the Paran Artifact. He’d handled it himself, and not once had the black box turned into a great big robot.
There was only one problem – no one really knew what a Paran looked like. They’d always been a stupendously paranoid race and had never revealed their true identity to the rest of the Galaxy. Whenever a Paran had traveled outside of their empire, they’d all undergone extensive genetic surgery to mimic whatever race they went to live with or visit.
Lucas leaned forward and shook his head, laughing to himself.
He was trying to piece together little snippets of probably inaccurate information about an ancient race when he had a database about them loaded into his armor.
When the Paran Artifact had uploaded it, there’d been no time to go through it. What, with the pressing fact that Specimen 14 had broken out of its containment field and had actually melted the floor to get to Jane.
Now Lucas had the time. It would probably be an hour or so until they reached the Central Shipyards. While he knew Jane was safe, the best way for him to spend that time was finding out exactly who she was and why she was so integral to all of this. So Lucas rested his head back again, tried to get comfortable, crossed his arms in front of him, and closed his eyes. He opened his mind to the onboard computer of his armor, and he tried to access the database.
At first, it was hard, almost painful. Then it would work but in confusing bursts. He would get rushes of disparate information flashing before his mind. Pictures, words, symbols. The words and symbols were in the Paran language, and he had to wait for the computer to translate them.
Lucas clutched a hand to his head and tried to squeeze his eyes closed tighter as he fought harder to get the information he needed.
The database was clearly having problems integrating with the rest of the knowledge in his armor. And he couldn’t forget that the Paran Artifact had somehow managed to alter his armor, upgrading it to upload the database in the first place.
“Come on,” he mumbled to himself through gritted teeth. “Show me what I need to know.”
The more he tried to find out about the Parans, the more images of the Darq appeared before his mind. He would see buildings that were on the Paran worlds destroyed in seconds. The Darq would rush them, starting off with their white forms and then melding and shifting their bodies until they were dark shadows that destroyed whatever lay in their path. They were like a horrible swarm, a relentless storm.
Lucas opened his eyes, his breath heavy as he tried to process the horrible images. Then he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes again, forcing his mind forward. “Come on, come on,” he said through clenched teeth. “Show me what you know.”
Yet the more he tried to find out about the Parans, the more he found out about the Darq. He saw image after image of the destruction of the Paran worlds. He saw whole cities fall within hours.
Eventually, reluctantly, he gave up, and he opened his eyes.
Jane was standing on the other side of the room looking at him warily.
He blinked heavily as he tried to shift through the pain that was clenching at his skull. He leaned forward. “Are you okay?” he said in a shaky voice.
“We should be arriving at the Central Shipyards in another 10 minutes or so.”
“There’s something in my head, isn’t there?” Jane blurted out, but her voice wasn’t angry, and there wasn’t a touch of the vehemence that there’d been before. In fact, her expression was exactly the kind of expression he would expect to see on Jane. She looked concerned, awkward, uneasy, but still… well, still cute. Still Jane.
He nodded uneasily, keeping his eyes on her at all times. He didn’t want to make the wrong move and cause the implant to kick into gear again. He was almost certain that if he started to question what race she was from or heaven forbid whether she was normal or plain, Jane would turn on her heel, scream at him, and run out of the room. Or maybe the implant would decide that it’d had enough and cause her to outright attack him. And he really didn’t want that. So he just looked at her carefully and waited for her to make the next move.
“I’m not normal, am I?” she asked through a stuttering sigh.
Lucas had to try hard, really hard not to laugh. He wasn’t amused because he thought she was stupid. It was just the sheer innocence in her voice, as though she’d been asleep during the last hour’s terrifying events.
He didn’t answer; he kept waiting for her to make the next move.
She sighed again. “I don’t know what to do.” She looked over at him, fixing her large and expressive hazel eyes right on his.
He sat up straighter; he was pretty sure that Jane was now looking to him for a solution. Or something like that. Though he couldn’t say for sure that her expression was pleading, he still got the distinct impression that she didn’t have anywhere else to turn, but that she’d turned to him nonetheless.
“There will be scientists, doctors at the Central Shipyards. We will be able to…” he trailed off. Prack it, he kept trailing off at the moment. It was as if he couldn’t form a full damn sentence anymore. As if he’d gone back to preschool, and he’d forgotten how to carry on a conversation. Jane probably thought he was going mad. If, in fact, she had enough attention left over to spare on something as frivolous as his sanity right now. Still, Lucas was aware of how stupid he sounded, and it irritated the hell out of him.
“But what, then?” she asked carefully.
Then we get that implant out of your head, Lucas said to himself. There was no way he would say it out loud, though. He was sure that if he threatened the implant, it would go bananas and take control of the ship, lunging Jane’s body toward the console and setting her fingers to work as it hacked everything in sight. Still, that’s what he was planning to do, even if he wasn’t going to admit it to her.
He could appreciate the point of the implant; without it, she would have been a ready and soft target for Specimen 14. But he seriously didn’t think its insidious effects on her were worth it. Her actions, her mood, the way she thought about herself were all being controlled by the implant. The more Lucas thought about it, the more it disgusted him. It seemed to be a parasite that was hooked up to her brain. And parasites were not nice.
He leaned forward in his chair, clapped his hands together softly, and looked up at her. “We will find a solution,” he said simply, though he didn’t dare articulate what he thought the problem was.
“What about… that strange robot down at the Galactic Force Main Campus?” she managed to force her words out, but they were slow and stuttering. Lucas didn’t know whether she was having a hard time fighting against the implant or if she was just understandably tired.
“You mean the Paran Artifact?” Lucas asked, realizing that she honestly had no idea what it had been. She’d simply broken into the laboratory, activated it, and let it protect her.
The second he mentioned the word Paran was the second she started to frown. Though the expression was obvious, it didn’t last long. Eventually, she closed her eyes and opened them again. Although she still looked irritated, it just reminded him of the way she usually looked around him.
A mild level of irritation that, to be honest, Lucas wasn’t used to seeing in people, especially not women, not while they were looking at him, anyway. Nonetheless, a mild look of irritation that Miranda would probably say was healthy for him to be on the receiving end of.
While the expression remained on Jane’s face, she appeared to loosen up. “What about… that…” she trailed off.
Lucas didn’t need her to say it. He knew exactly what she was talking about. She was talking about Specimen 14, the Darq. She may not have the vocabulary to describe it or even have the slightest idea of what it was, but he could see in the fear marching across her face that she knew at least one thing: it was deadly, and it had been after her.
“Look,” Lucas felt uncomfortable, incredibly uncomfortable. There wasn’t anything he could say to Jane to make her believe that she was okay, because, in all honesty, he doubted she was. Too much was happening and there weren’t any certainties. Nothing was concrete enough for him to know what to do next, let alone to know how to solve this problem. “We will go to the Central Shipyards, and then from there—”
“We will see what happens next?” Jane suggested, her voice light.
He shrugged, offering a wan smile in agreement. It was probably the best way to sum up their current plan. They would just have to wait to see what would happen next.
The computer behind him started to beep, and he turned to see the view on the main screen: they were starting to zero in on the Central Shipyards.
The Central Shipyards were out near Jupiter, taking advantage of the powerful gravity of the planet. Ordinarily, you had to schedule weeks beforehand if you intended to visit them. They were one of the most sophisticated shipbuilding docks in the entire quadrant. They were a hub of scientific activity and technological advancement. And, considering the number of secrets they held, they weren’t exactly the kind of place you could drop in on while on a cruise through the star system. You had to have clearance, and your clearance had to be checked by people with higher clearance. Yet Lucas had just set course and bombed his way toward them without heed for the usual procedures.
Now he was starting to get the messages – the angry beeping ones – that told him to either turn around or come up with a damn good reason as to why he was ignoring the standard operating procedure.
“Prack.” Lucas turned toward the panel and started to type something quickly. Eventually getting frustrated with that method, he simply docked his hand right into the center of the panel and let his armor do all the work.
Jane slowly walked up to him and sat in the navigator’s chair. “You swear too much,” she mumbled.
Though Lucas was concentrating on relaying a message to the Shipyards – one that would tell them in no uncertain terms that they were to let him in, and that they were not to ask questions – he looked to the side at Jane, his eyebrows dropping low, his lips sucking in as he smiled automatically. “They didn’t talk about that in the fan supplements, did they?”
She shook her head.
His smile doubled. “Well, I have a lot to swear about.”
She flicked her gaze over to him.
He shrugged his shoulders in reply.
She shook her head.
It was a simple and painfully cute interaction, and while Lucas should be paying attention to relaying his urgent message, he couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. “I think you will find there is a lot about me that the fan supplements got wrong.”
“Your favorite meal isn’t beef stew?” Jane asked.
Lucas snorted. “No.”
“Your favorite color isn’t blue?”
“Actually, it is, but I have to say, I’m not the kind of guy who defines himself by what his favorite color is.” He kept shaking his head and chuckling.
“You aren’t dating Marie Cooper, daughter of Senator Cooper?” Jane asked, her tone artificially even.
Lucas finally turned to Jane, but it wasn’t because of the question; it was because he remembered something. Marie. Prack she’d been in Research Lab Two. Prack, prack, prack, with all that had happened, he’d forgotten about it. He’d left her there. And what about Alex? He’d been in Basement Level One when Specimen 14 had….
Jane watched his expression carefully as she probably noted how sallow his skin had become and how he suddenly yanked his hand free from the dock.
“I hope…. Dammit, I can’t believe I didn’t check up on them.” He closed his eyes and shook his head bitterly.
Her mouth gently dropped open. “It’s my fault,” she responded immediately. “You didn’t have to come. I did this to myself… what I did…” she trailed off. It wasn’t the first time she’d trailed off after trying to make sense of what she’d done down on the planet. Lucas didn’t wonder whether it had something to do with the implant. Maybe it was blocking her from remembering it. Perhaps it accurately reasoned that if she paid enough attention to the fact something had taken over her body, she would try to figure out what the implant was and try to get rid of it.
… But what about Marie and Alex?
Lucas suddenly slammed his hand back on the panel and docked his glove. “No, you listen to me,” he said sharply as he activated the audio, “this is a priority mission. You get me clearance. I’m not waiting out here in space for the bureaucracy to make their mind up.”
Jane blinked with obvious surprise.
Maybe that was another thing his fan supplements had missed – but Lucas did have a temper. Of course he did. He was under so much pressure nearly every day of every week. It was up to him to solve the most nuanced and hardest of situations. When people got in the way, when damn bureaucracy stood before him and tried to tell him that stupid infrastructure or money was more important than people’s lives, then yes, he got angry.
Only when the flight operator on the Central Shipyards mumbled that he would see what he could do, did Lucas un-dock his hand and lean back in his chair, closing his eyes and shaking his head bitterly.
“Why don’t you send a message?” Jane asked, voice quiet. “If you are worried about Marie Cooper and your friend Alex Wong, then you should send a message. It would get there instantly. You are still within the solar system communication network.”
Lucas knew he was still within the solar system communication network, and he also knew something more. He knew that Specimen 14, the Darq, had skills and capabilities that were far beyond anything he’d ever dealt with. And when you were dealing with something that powerful, you had to be careful about how much information you put out there. Simply put, he couldn’t risk making contact with Earth, because it could give away their location to the Darq. No, he had to maintain a full communication blackout. For the time being that meant not knowing what had happened to his friends.
“I’m… sure they are…” she tried, but she stopped.
He knew that she wanted to say she was sure they were okay, but he also knew she doubted it. The Darq was an enemy unlike any the Galactic Force had ever seen.
…. So why was it after her?
Just who was Jane?
In another moment there was a beep, and Lucas could see that the Central Shipyards had disabled their dampening field.
“It’s about time,” he snapped.
“Maybe they’ll know what happened on Earth,” Jane tried. “Or maybe it will be easy for them to find out.” Her voice was kind and soft, and Lucas got the impression he was hearing the real Jane, momentarily unaffected by her implant.
There seemed to be many shades to her, and none of them were plain.
As soon as the ship started to approach the Central Shipyards, Lucas had to give up control of the navigation system to the station’s computer, and he stood up from his chair, arching his back. Then he looked down at Jane. He hesitated. What would happen next? He was almost certain that the Central Shipyards would have had some kind of communication with the Galactic Force by now, even if they’d only been notified that there was a security breach without knowing the full story. If they’d been alerted in full, and now knew exactly who Jane was and what she’d done, then… what exactly was he going to face outside? The combined force of the Central Shipyards security team? He wanted to tell Jane that it would all be okay, but he had no idea whether it would be.
He gestured with his head to the back of the ship. “Come on.”
She followed his gesture, but she didn’t immediately stand up. She simply sat there and latched a hand onto the end of her ponytail, twisting it through her fingers. It was the same move that she’d done in the corridor earlier that day.
After watching her and waiting for her to move, he did something on impulse: he held out his hand to her.
She looked at it, then looked up at his eyes, and then just stood up on her own.
Lucas let his hand drop to his side, an awkward smile kinking his lips. He started to walk toward the other end of the ship. There was a slight shake as it made contact with the large magnetic docking clamp that came up from underneath and connected to the belly of the ship, locking it into place and pulling it toward the station’s primary hangar bay.
There was a view panel just next to Jane, and he noted with interest that she craned her head to have a look at it. He reminded himself with a smile that this was her first time in space, and being her first time in space, she would never have seen Central Shipyards, let alone been in a spaceship as it had been manually moved around by a giant magnetic clamp. She looked fascinated, still craning her head to the side, her eyes wide.
Once the ship docked, the hangar door opened.
Lucas steeled himself, he stiffened up, he straightened his back, and even though he shouldn’t, he formed his hands into fists. These were his friends, his allies, but he still had no idea what they would do to Jane.
And he cared, Lucas actually cared what they did to her. He’d promised himself to find out who she was, what was after her, and to help her. He hadn’t made the promise to her face – he’d made it to himself – but that was good enough for him.
The hangar door opened in an instant, and she wasn’t expecting it. She’d thought she would have time. She’d assumed she would have to wait for Lucas to go over to the docking panel by the doors and use his armor to open it up. Yet they’d opened of their own accord.
Surprised by the suddenness of it all, Jane jumped with fright and, embarrassingly, actually tried to hide behind Lucas. He obviously noticed, because he shifted his head to the side and looked at her.
Hiding behind Lucas Stone… that wasn’t something Jane had ever thought she would be doing. Yet reality was contradicting her expectations here.
Jane felt a rush of exhilaration as the light from the hangar room outside filtered in and mixed with that of their ship. It sliced through her, blazing into her stomach and rushing down her back. She felt her breath quicken, her chest pumping up and down as she tried to hold herself still.
She was scared it would happen again. Not that she would be able to stop it if it did. If she got too frightened, wouldn’t it take control again? Whatever it was? The implant that Lucas had talked about? The one that was meant to be in her brain? Inside her actual brain?
Jane suddenly tipped her head to the side as a sharp slice of pain shot through her forehead, and she tried to squeeze her eyes against it until it stopped.
The second she thought about it, was the second the pain returned, and she clutched at her face with her hand.
“Come on,” she heard Lucas say.
Jane didn’t move immediately.
She couldn’t see what was outside, because the light was too bright. For all she knew, there was a platoon of security forces, maybe even some security robots, perhaps some flying drones. God, they probably had an entire army out there considering what she’d done to the Galactic Force. She could hardly blame them; what she’d done was horrible and not the kind of act you encouraged by your administrative staff.
“Jane,” Lucas said softly, and yet again he held his hand out to her. She looked at it, and though she really wanted to grab it, she didn’t. Because he was Lucas Stone, right?
“Come on,” he tried again.
Finally, once again not taking his hand, she followed him out of the ship.
The view that met her was breathtaking, for more than one reason.
Jane had seen the hangar bays above the Galactic Force Main Campus before. She’d seen spaceships too, of course, even though she’d never been on one as it had left Earth’s atmosphere. Yet that didn’t prepare her for the sight of the Central Shipyards. They were huge, massive. In fact, she doubted she’d ever seen a structure so large. Though their reconnaissance vessel wasn’t that small, it was dwarfed by some of the ships that were docked beside it. Actual battlecruisers and long-range scientific vessels. They were the kind of ships that Jane had only ever seen on holoimages and never up close.
This was space, apparently, and Jane was starting to realize how little of it she’d seen.
There were also security guards. Galactic Force security guards.
There were about seven of them all lined up outside the door to their cruiser, all in jet-black armor just like Lucas’. They all had guns too, and they were all held fast in their grips, though currently they were pointed at the ground and not at her.
That didn’t stop Jane from starting to shake.
Lucas put his hands up, and he walked out. “We are on the same team, guys,” he said, voice careful.
“On the same team?” he heard someone snap from further down the corridor, and in a moment he realized that they were stalking toward him, having just arrived through one of the many linear lifts that serviced the main docking bay.
He knew that voice. He knew that walk too; it was Chief Scientist Priya.
As always, she looked fantastic. And, as always, she looked at him like he was one of the dirtiest scumbags in the entire universe. After all, they had a history. They had a history where he’d once dated Priya, and where it had ended, for all sorts of reasons, in a messy breakup.
There was a reason Lucas never liked to go to Central Shipyards, and that reason was Chief Scientist Priya.
He grimaced. Was there anything else that could go wrong? Was there any other thing in this Galaxy that could stuff up and get in his way today? Was this just a continuation of the curse that had been dogging him his entire life? Or would it end here? Would Priya grab one of the security officer’s rifles and just shoot him or chase him around the corridor, screaming at him as she tried to hit him on the head with the butt of the gun?
Priya glared at him, but then she let her gaze turn to Jane, and from the look on Priya’s face, Lucas could tell that she knew something about Jane. Whether it was the entire story or not, he knew that was why there were now seven armed security guards standing in front of them.
“I received a communiqué from Earth,” Priya snapped, returning her gaze to him. “Now, what the hell have you dragged in?”
Lucas twisted his jaw at that statement. It was one thing for Priya to hate him, and he probably deserved it on quite a few levels, but she didn’t have to be rude to Jane. Strangely, it was a quality he’d actually fancied in her to begin with. She’d always been willing to be direct and determined. Yet there was direct and there was determined, and then there was telling the frightened, confused woman behind him that she was the kind of thing that was “dragged in.”
“Priya, where is the Director?” Lucas straightened up and fought the urge to cross his arms.
“Are you trying to go over my head, Lucas? It wouldn’t be the first time.” She put her hands on her hips, staring out at him, her dark eyes flashing.
Lucas sighed through a laugh, but it wasn’t a happy laugh, and it wasn’t the kind of confused chuckle he’d been giving Jane all trip. No, it was an entirely frustrated move. “Look, listen to me, this situation—”
“Is out of your hands.” Priya kept her hands on her hips and glowered back at Jane.
“I’m sorry?” Lucas asked slowly, an obvious note of warning in his voice.
“The Director has given orders that she’s to be taken to a secure medical facility.”
“What?” Lucas asked again, that dangerous note of warning still hardening his tone, frustration starting to arch his back as he realized the situation was starting to go to hell.
“Don’t play cute, Lucas. We know what she did down at the Galactic Force,” Priya snapped.
Lucas was aware that Jane was slowly inching more and more behind him. He really couldn’t blame her. The kind of glare that Priya was giving Jane could cut through a sun. Plus, at least while Jane was acting docile and frightened she wasn’t running around high kicking security officers, stealing their guns, and hacking into systems. He couldn’t guarantee how long that would last, though.
“Look, I believe she has…” Lucas thought of what to say for a moment but then realized there was no way he could convey to Priya how stupid she was acting considering exactly what she was up against. Lucas shook his head. “She has some kind of implant, it can—”
Lucas heard Jane breathe suddenly and sharply behind him.
“If she has an implant, we will figure it out. She has to go to a secure medical facility.”
Lucas just clenched his teeth. “Look, Yaka—”
“Yaka hacked into the Galactic Force system to get you that ship. He bypassed all security rules. He even tried to obtain the Dean’s own clearances to get you that reconnaissance vessel. So I wouldn’t start talking about Yaka,” Priya snarled.
“Right,” Lucas said, tone dropping. He’d had enough of this. “You listen to me, I’m telling you that this situation is beyond what you have been told. We had a massive security incident on Earth, and it is of utmost importance that we deliver Jane to a secure facility, not because she’s a threat to us, but because—” Lucas was suddenly aware that Jane was starting to back off toward the reconnaissance ship. He turned sharply to her.
“Don’t move, don’t move,” the head of the security forces said.
“Jane,” Lucas tried to make eye contact with her. At the same time, he used his armor to scan her implant.
Jane shook her head, her ponytail whipping over her shoulder and back again.
“Just stun her,” Priya snapped.
Before Lucas could act, they’d already fired. And their aim was true; several stun blasts slammed right into Jane’s chest, and she doubled over in an instant.
Lucas snapped forward, threatening to double over himself as if he’d been the one shot. “What the—” he began, his voice bitter.
“Deliver her to a secure medical facility,” Priya said curtly, and then she turned on her heel. “Stone, you have to come with me. The Director wants to see you.”
He just stood there for a moment, and he was aware of where his gun was. Far too aware considering he was on the same team as everyone here. Yet he couldn’t wrench his eyes off Jane. She just lay there crumpled up, head lolled to the side, hair a mess over her face, shoulder, and arm.
The sight of it steeled him. Steeled him in an awful way. It plucked right at his spine. He used everything he had not to reach his hand around and grab at his own rifle to return fire.
“This situation is not what you think it is,” Priya snapped again and began to walk off, obviously not waiting for him to follow.
It took several gut-wrenching seconds, but finally Lucas turned to follow her.
He left Jane, left her right there on the floor.
Yet he promised himself that he wouldn’t be leaving her for long. He would go through the proper channels first, and he would try to convince the Director and Priya of what he was starting to realize. Jane was innocent, she was caught up in this mess, but she had to be protected, because dammit, she was important. But if the correct channels didn’t work, well then, Lucas Stone knew where his gun was. His Fan Club was about to find out that he didn’t always act within the law, not when something mattered to him.
She woke up on a medical bed, or at least she thought it was a medical bed. It was unusually hard. There was a heady crackling in the air too, and it felt as if her hair was standing on end. When she managed to open her eyes, she realized why: there was a glowing red containment field around her. An actual containment field.
Jane hadn’t had much to do with science and security in the past but did at least know the difference between a containment field and a security field, or at least she thought she did. A security field was simply used as a form of shielding or to block one thing off from another. A containment field, on the other hand, had a built-in feature: it could disintegrate what was inside. It was the kind of field you used when you caught hold of a specimen that you wanted to study, but the kind of specimen that was also dangerous and that you might have to, at any moment, dispose of for the good of everybody.
And Jane was now in a containment field. She understood what that meant.
She closed her eyes again, then opened them up, and the red glow of the containment field was still there.
She was aware that somebody off to her side, perhaps across the other side of the room, had mumbled something along the lines of “she’s awake.” She hoped they didn’t add, “let’s disintegrate her.” That didn’t stop Jane from biting heavily into her lip and letting a rush of fear flow through her.
Lucas had said that everything would be okay. He’d promised that once they got to the Central Shipyards, she would be fine. Well, okay, he hadn’t ever actually brought himself to say it, as he’d always trailed off. Now Jane could appreciate why. It wasn’t fine. She was now contained in some kind of medical lab, under the threat of disintegration, being treated like a dangerous and nasty specimen.
“Right, what kind of information do we have on the implant?” one of the voices at the other end of the room asked.
Implant. There was that word again. As soon as the person said it, another searing slice of pain shot through Jane’s head. She was really starting to hate that word.
“Sophisticated, seriously sophisticated,” somebody replied through a whistle, “haven’t ever seen anything like it. Looks Paran, though.”
At that word, Jane felt yet another shot of searing pain slice through her mind. She clutched both her hands either side of her head, trying to squeeze them together, as if she could make her skull smaller and thereby reduce the effect of her agony.
“Right. Continue analysis,” one of the other voices snapped.
In one of the many night-time fantasies Jane had entertained over the years, she’d once or twice imagined she was some kind of experiment, but then she’d always been saved in the nick of time by her handsome suitor. She opened one eye and looked around her, but she couldn’t see her handsome suitor.
Which made her think of Lucas. He was here, right? Yet where was he now? Had they taken him off to prison? She just couldn’t remember anything. They had shot her so quickly and then…. Where was he?
“It seems to have some kind of power source,” one of the scientists mumbled. “Extremely sophisticated.”
“How does it work? I want to do full scans on it,” the other scientist snapped.
While Jane couldn’t be sure, and though she could hardly muster the strength to roll over to check, she didn’t fancy that the voice belonged to the woman who’d stalked up to them in the hangar bay. The woman who had seemed to know Lucas. Now Jane paused to think, she realized she recognized her from one of Mandy’s fan supplements. Her name was Priya Lakesh, and she was a rising star in the field of mechanical science. According to the fan supplements, Lucas had dated her while he was a student.
Yet all of those facts were irrelevant. The only thing that Jane should be thinking about was that she was now in a containment field on Central Shipyards, waiting for the scientists to stop prodding her and end up disintegrating her instead.
Suddenly she felt something in her head. It was a hot, erratic, vibrating sensation.
“Ahh, we can’t scan that thing…. It’s… doing something to our scanners,” one of the scientists mumbled, his voice indistinct as he spoke quickly.
“What do you mean it’s interfering? That containment field is one way, it should not be able—” Priya snapped.
“It’s definitely interfering, or something is happening,” the other scientist said, voice high and scared now.
“We’ll shut it down. Increase the field,” Priya shouted.
“I’m trying to increase the field, but it’s not working,” the other scientist really did sound scared now.
Jane snapped her eyes open, stared at the ceiling, and noted the particular red hue of the containment field around her.
They were going to do it, weren’t they? They were going to disintegrate her. She clapped her hands over her face, screwed her eyes shut, and waited.
“If she’s getting into our systems, use the failsafe. Disintegrate—” Priya began.
“Like hell,” a far lower, far tighter, and far more recognizable voice growled. It was Lucas. “Just stop your scan. The implant is programmed to protect itself. Stop trying to scan it, and it will stop trying to interfere with your systems.”
“Lucas, get out of here, you don’t know what you’re—” Priya began.
“Of course I don’t know what I’m dealing with. I have had a Paran database uploaded into my armor, and I still don’t know what I’m talking about, ha? I was the one who actually saw what happened on Earth, and I still don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m overriding you.”
Soon there was a click, and slowly the buzzing, shifting feeling in Jane’s brain subsided.
She let out a massive, relieved breath of air, letting her arms fall loosely by her sides.
“She’s not a pracking lab rat, Priya,” Lucas snapped, and Jane had never heard that exact note of anger in his voice.
Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, as Jane clearly didn’t know as much about Lucas as she’d thought. Everything she’d learned from those fan supplements had been wrong. The real Lucas Stone wasn’t the smile, the jaw, and the legend. The real Lucas was the only thing standing between her and disintegration.
“What the hell are you doing, Lucas? You have no right to come in here and tell me how to run my lab,” Priya screeched at him. “That thing in the containment field—”
“Is a person, not a thing,” Lucas snapped, his voice dangerously tight with anger.
Jane wanted to roll over to watch them, but she kept as still as she could, as if that would somehow make everybody forget she was there.
“Don’t snap at me, Lucas, I read that report, I know what she—” Priya began.
“It was a fraud. The report was wrong. It didn’t have the right Galactic Force watermark. It was faked. Trust me, Priya, because I was there.”
Faked? A fraudulent report? What was Lucas talking about? Technically, Priya was justified in acting the way she was. Jane had gone crazy on Earth, bolted from the planet, and had thrown up all over a command chair. She deserved to be contained, right?
“Listen to me, I’ve cleared it with the Director. We have ascertained that the signal you received was somehow implanted right into our system. It didn’t have the right codes embedded. It doesn’t line up with the live feed from my armor. It was a fake.”
Jane could hear somebody spluttering, and she concluded that it was Priya by the sound of how flabbergasted it was. “I doubt that, Lucas. I would have noticed—”
“Priya, for the love of god, I’m not trying to lie to you. Get on the com-line and talk to the Director. And take your hand off that button.” there was a note of warning in Lucas’ voice, and it went beyond anything Jane had ever heard before. What it promised, she didn’t know, but she fancied it would be quick and it would be forthright. “Just do it, Priya.”
There was a pause, and Jane opened her eyes and shifted her body to the side until she could see the rest of the room. Lucas and Priya were there, and there was also a pale-faced human scientist sitting at a console, looking at her and then back to Lucas, and then back to her.
Though she was some distance away, Jane fancied she could still make out the expression on Lucas’ face. He was staring right at her, gaze locked with hers, jaw set.
They stared at each other for a moment.
Perhaps her savior was here after all.
Prack, he’d managed to get there just in time. What if he’d been late? What if he hadn’t made it? Would Priya have actually done it? Would she have disintegrated Jane? It was crazy, it was mad. It went against everything he’d ever been taught by the Galactic Force. The disintegration of a real live being wasn’t something you did at the flick of a switch. Well, actually, it was something you did at the flick of a switch, but you bloody well got permission first. It wasn’t an easy decision; it was a hard, perilous moral problem. It was the kind of thing you only did if it was 100% necessary. Killing was a last resort, not something you mulled over afterward.
Though Priya had likely been seconds away from actually doing it, a part of him doubted the implant would have let it get that far. As soon as he’d snapped into the room, his bio suit had picked up a reading coming off Jane. Some kind of energy, some kind of interference. The same inference that was messing up Priya’s computers. If it had come to it, no doubt the implant would have found a way to get through the containment field, and then… well, who knew what would have happened next. If it felt Jane was under sufficient threat, it would get her out of the situation, no matter what the costs. And Lucas didn’t want that to happen. Though he knew that the implant was effective, and he could appreciate why it was there, he could see what it cost Jane. The amount of damage it had done to her body in its desperate attempt to get her off Earth was staggering.
Yet despite how good the implant was, she would need help. The damn thing left her confused. She couldn’t even hear the word Para, for crying out loud. It the implant managed to whisk her off the station and out into deep space, it would leave Jane alone and with no idea what was happening to her.
Priya looked up, and her expression was humbled but humbled in a determined way. Priya did everything in a determined way. “I have never seen a hack like this,” she conceded.
Lucas forced a breath through his clenched teeth. “Trust me, I have seen things today that put this hack to shame. It doesn’t surprise me. That creature, Specimen 14, is capable of…” he couldn’t finish his sentence. He swiveled to stare at Jane, checking to see if she would react to the mention of the Darq.
She lay there. She didn’t clutch a hand to her head or start screaming at him to shut up. At least now she’d turned to face him, though. And he could see from the interest in her eyes that she was okay, or at least a measure of okay.
“I don’t understand, Lucas,” Priya admitted. “What kind of—”
“Just drop the containment field,” Lucas jumped in, setting his priorities. Yes, he was setting his own priorities here, he wasn’t waiting for other people to do it for him. “Let her out, for god’s sake.” And do not play with that implant, he added to himself.
Priya pressed her lips together and looked up at him. She’d always had the prettiest eyes: large, dark, and rimmed with long eyelashes. It was easily the first feature he’d noticed when he’d met her, and probably the last thing he’d seen when she’d glared at him and thrown a glass right at his head.
Now her eyes blinked, confusion obvious. “But there is some kind of implant, we scanned it, we know it’s there, it’s of—”
Lucas quickly put up a hand and made a cutting motion. While he wanted to know everything he could about the implant, he also knew the cost of discussing it in front of Jane. “Later,” he mouthed to Priya.
Though she gave him a confused look, she nodded. Then she straightened up.
“Take off the containment field, but, at least keep a security field separating her from us,” she told the other scientist in the room. She turned back to Lucas. “I’ll grant you that the message we received was a hack, but I’m still going standard operating procedure on this. I’m keeping a security field around her until we know what’s going on here.”
Though it irritated the hell out of him, he managed a curt nod. After all, reducing from a containment field to a security field was still a damn good thing. At least Jane could no longer be disintegrated at the press of a single button.
Lucas sighed. He was suddenly aware of the fact he hadn’t slept in days now. Not for the first time he became jealous that Jane could sleep while she was awake. Though, the more he thought about it, the more he wondered whether that had something to do with the implant. They had no real idea what it did, other than try to keep her safe, quiet, and out of trouble like an overly protective parent that had somehow gotten into her brain.
There was a lot to find out. And Lucas wasn’t going to stop until he understood everything.
“Look, she should be okay here.” He glanced back at Jane and nodded low at her, hoping she understood his assurance was more for her than anyone else. Then he turned back to Priya. “Come with me and discuss it with the Director. Please, Priya,” he added in a soft voice.
Priya sighed and nodded. Then she turned to the other scientist. “Keep an eye on her, and if anything happens, and I do mean anything, you contact me. You have the authority,” she let her eyes dart back to Lucas, “to upgrade the security field. But if it comes to it, I want you to check-in before you upgrade it to a containment field. You understand?”
The other scientist nodded his head. Lucas felt sorry for the guy. Not only was he confused out of his skull by what was going on with Jane, but he had to work with Priya. In fact, worse than that, Priya was his boss. Some people were just born unlucky. Then again, Lucas had dated her, so who was he to talk?
“Don’t mention that word.” Lucas shook his head sharply, trying to make meaningful eye contact with the other scientist.
The guy nodded. “Got it.” He turned back to his console, an obvious mix of surprise and confusion still plastered over his face.
“Lucas, you better be right about this. Or—” Priya began as she led the way out of the room.
“You will throw a glass at my head?” he asked pointedly.
“Oh, don’t be a baby. I knew you had armor on. I knew it wouldn’t hurt your precious little face,” she snapped.
“I see you have been working on your people skills,” Lucas snapped back.
“I see you are still running about with ridiculous notions, trying to save the Galaxy not from any danger, but from your own stupidity,” Priya replied as she stalked off down the corridor.
“Thank you for that, Priya,” Lucas said quietly. To be honest, he could go toe-to-toe with Priya easily, but he didn’t have the energy. He was tired, and there was too much going on. He didn’t want to waste any breath on arguing with her; he needed everything he had to convince both her and the Director that they had to protect Jane as best they could.
“Where did you find her, anyway?” Priya asked, and she glanced sideways at him, a careful look in her eyes.
Jealousy? Could the great Priya be jealous? He doubted it, as she spent most of her time berating him. Yet there was a certain look in her eyes nonetheless.
“She works at the Galactic Force,” he answered.
“Recruit? A scientist?” Priya asked.
“Works in admin, actually.” Lucas matched pace beside her and fought the urge to push his armor and sprint all the way back to the Director’s office. He wanted to get this sorted as soon as he could so Jane could get out of that damn security field.
Priya snorted. “You never had a sense of humor, Lucas, so please don’t pretend you have one now. Who is she?”
He laughed, and it was an unhappy laugh. “I’m telling the truth. But you want more? I don’t really know. I think she’s Paran, but that’s about it. I can’t confirm it.”
“Paran?” Priya’s expression became interested, but it still had that haughty touch of determination. “She doesn’t look anything like a Paran.”
“You know most Parans undergo extensive genetic surgery. And we really don’t know what the full effect of that implant is either.”
“What is that implant?” Priya now looked incredibly interested.
Lucas glanced sideways at her. Suffice to say, he didn’t like that glint in her eye. Priya was excellent at what she did. She was the Chief Scientist at the Central Shipyards because she was the kind of woman who would not compromise on quality and would chase down developments in research like a wolf chasing down her prey. That also meant that when it came to morals, sometimes they didn’t exactly see eye to eye. He’d had this argument with her many times. She seemed to think that technological advancement, no matter what it cost the few, was worth it if it could benefit the many. Lucas, on the other hand, thought that without the few there would be no many. If you backed an indiscriminate policy that enabled you to impinge on the rights of the individual as long as everybody else thought they could benefit from it, then what was the point of having morals? All you needed to ensure your decision was right was a formula and a cold, calculating heart.
Yet he didn’t want to get into those kinds of heavy moral issues right now. He drummed his fingers on his leg and tried to think about how much to tell her.
“You always do that when you are about to lie,” Priya pointed out as she threw her head back and flicked her hair.
“Of course I do,” he said drolly.
Before their spat could continue, they finally reached the Director’s office. Priya nodded at the two security guards outside, and though they gave Lucas quite long and pointed glances, they moved to the side. Perhaps they thought he was muscling in on their turf. Well, Lucas didn’t care. One of the great things about having a blue line down his armor meant that he rarely had to care. He outranked them, and though ranks usually didn’t mean a great deal to him, he now walked right past them, head held high.
It had taken some doing to get the Director to believe him. Lucas had even slammed a hand down on the table and had pointed out exactly how serious it would be for the Director to make the serious mistake of acting on a Galactic Force transmission that turned out to be fake. There were many checks and balances in the communication system to ensure that people could, if they paid attention, find a fraudulent message. Sure enough, when Lucas had looked, all the right flags had been raised: it was clear the original message regarding Jane was bogus.
Thankfully the Director had given Lucas the all-clear to stop Priya, or at least negotiate with her.
The Director wasn’t human, he was from a race that resembled extremely tall stick insects. As Lucas and Priya entered the room, the Director rose from his chair.
“We have received several more transmissions from Earth, directly from the Galactic Force, and all them… lack the correct watermark. They are all fake transmissions,” the Director acknowledged, his voice clicking like two sticks hitting together in the wind.
Priya whistled. “What the hell is happening down there?”
“What do the transmissions say?” Lucas jumped in, his breath shallow.
“All them say the same thing. They tell us that the specimen Jane is dangerous, that it must be destroyed, that it must not be allowed to go beyond this solar system. They tell us that she’s called Specimen 14 and that she was found on one of the rim planets and brought to Earth for study. They state she belongs to a mysterious and previously unknown race with the ability to change their form at will.”
Lucas’ mouth practically hung open. The Darq had switched stories. It was now pretending that Jane wasn’t the mild-mannered administrative officer, but she was, in fact, the Darq.
“But they lack the correct codes,” the Director clicked, bringing his hands up and moving them over and over again in an obvious sign of worry for his race. “It would be foolish to act on these transmissions as they lack the correct codes, however… the cost of ignoring them if they are correct—”
“Listen to yourself,” Lucas snapped, “they don’t have the correct transmission codes. Somebody has hacked into the Galactic Force’s computers, and they are bombarding you with messages to kill… Jane. For the love of god, don’t do it.”
“But this species… this species that Specimen 14 is meant to be from—” the Director began.
“The Darq, trust me, I saw a Darq. I saw the real Specimen 14. Hell,” Lucas now shut his eyes for a brief moment and shook his head to the side, “I was one of the people responsible for bringing it to Earth in the first place. Not many people know this, Director, as it is strictly confidential at this time. The real reason for the mission beyond Hell’s Gates is to study the Darq. Not that we knew what their name was back when we planned it. For months now, even years, we’ve been receiving sketchy intel of a race right at the rim, right past Hell’s Gate. We’ve dug up some strange things on some of the rim planets…” Lucas swallowed hard, “Specimen 14 was one of those things. The Union Senate decided that it couldn’t simply wait around to see whether this mysterious race would materialize and turn out to be a threat. It decided to mount a mission beyond Hell’s Gate to find out what is out there. That was the whole point of bringing Specimen 14 to Earth, to do some more preliminary studies before we set out on the mission. Now, listen to me, I saw a Darq, and Jane is not one of them,” he articulated every single word, slowed it down, moved his mouth precisely to form each sound. He needed to be heard on this one.
“Not a Darq,” the Director repeated.
Priya took a heavy breath. “But what do we do? We need to contact the Galactic Force—”
“Tell them you killed her,” Lucas interrupted, the thought popping into his mind. “Tell them you have disintegrated her. Tell them that you followed their orders exactly, and you destroyed Specimen 14.”
“What?” Priya’s eyebrows crumpled, and she looked halfway between confused and angry. “Lying to the Galactic Force—”
“Look, whoever is sending you these messages is going to be the one who picks up your response. Now lie to it. Tell it exactly what it wants to hear. That you’ve killed Jane.”
“I do not understand the point of this misdirection,” the Director said, twisting his hands over and over again – if you could call them hands, that was. They were more like pincers with digits. They made a clicking sound as they kept on running into each other. It was clear that he was nervous, worried even. Lucas would have it no other way. This situation wasn’t an easy one; it was intense and far too fragile.
“It wants her dead. It is not going to stop until it thinks she’s dead… trust me, it will come here. If you tell it you haven’t killed her, it will find a way to get here as quickly as it can. Then it will,” he swallowed through a choke, “kill her itself.”
“But why? You just said she’s an administrative officer,” Priya pointed out as she crossed her arms, “I’m sorry, but I have trouble believing that a member of a mysterious and dangerous race has come all the way to Earth just to hunt out administrative officers. She obviously doesn’t have any specialized knowledge or skills. Why on Earth would this creature be after her?”
Lucas drummed his fingers on his leg and realized that Priya was wrong about him. She only ever saw what she wanted to see, anyway. Lucas didn’t drum his fingers when he was about to lie; he did it when he had no idea what to do next. When he was nervous – when he had to try to come up with a solution on the fly. “The Paran Artifact told us that Specimen 14, the Darq, will go after the most important targets first, and leave everything else to last.”
Priya snorted. “I’m failing to see how Jane could be important then. Do you think it is after her implant?”
Lucas shook his head. “No, I think the implant is what tried to keep her safe. Look, all I know is that I think she’s Paran, and that in itself is important. The Darq wiped out the Parans. Maybe it is trying to finish off the job….” Lucas flinched as he realized that while his suggestion sounded plausible, it was missing the point. There were plenty of other Parans out there in the Galaxy, well, okay, not plenty, as they were reduced to a disparate and wandering race these days. After the destruction of their worlds, the few surviving Parans had disappeared into the various races, cultures, and nation states of the Galaxy. Yet they were out there. Lucas was sure that some of them, perhaps all them, would hold positions that were more important in the grand scheme of things than an administrative officer. Wouldn’t the Darq go after them first? If it were simply trying to kill off all the Parans, wouldn’t it go for the most important ones before it worked its way down to Jane?
No, he was definitely missing something; there was still so much he didn’t know. Yet he did know one thing: it was beyond doubt that Specimen 14 wanted Jane dead.
“If we lie in our communication, if we tell the Galactic Force that we have gone through with their desires, fake or not, and claim to have killed Specimen 14—”
“Her name is Jane,” Lucas pointed out fruitlessly. It was obvious the Director knew what her name was. Yet Lucas did it anyway; it was important to him.
“Jane then. If we tell the Galactic Force that we have done as the communiqué suggested, will not this creature come and check? Will it not come here anyway to ensure that the job is done? If it is as determined and skilled as you suggest, then I doubt it will simply take our word for it.”
“It will buy us some time,” Lucas looked up at the Director, and he hoped his expression was just as steely and gutsy as he needed it to be. “And we really, really need time here.”
The Director kept on moving his pincers around and around.
“Lucas, this is mad, standard operating procedure—” Priya began.
“No longer operates,” Lucas jumped in. “Galactic Force communications have been compromised. We can no longer rely on directives from them, so it is up to us to act autonomously until we can re-establish clear communication.”
“But sending a communiqué back lying—” Priya began.
“Listen to me, Priya,” Lucas turned on her, and he was surprised at the raw edge of emotion in his voice, “this is important, trust me, this is important. We need to do something now.”
Priya blinked, and it was clear she was surprised. She probably had a great deal to be surprised about; Lucas had never displayed emotion like that in front of her before.
“Lucas,” she said softly, “what is going on?”
He shook his head, the move jolting through his neck and shoulders.
The Director started to move his pincers around faster and faster. “We have now received ten more communiqués from Galactic Force asking for immediate confirmation,” the Director looked right up at Lucas.
“Tell them you’ve killed her,” he pleaded again. While Lucas could technically take command of the security forces of the station, he didn’t have the authority to tell the Director what to do, unless he outright removed the man from his position. Though that was a power Lucas had – if he deemed the Director to be compromised – that was a huge step. You needed a hell of a lot of evidence to remove a senior official from command. Right now the only evidence that Lucas had was a database that had been uploaded to his armor by an artifact that had sprung out of a box. That kind of crazy story never got you much support in court.
There was a tense moment of silence, and Lucas didn’t shift his eyes off the Director once.
Then finally the Director nodded. “I will trust you, Lucas Stone, because you are Lucas Stone,” he said simply and with a staccato voice, a usual feature of his race.
Priya rolled her eyes derisively. “Just because he’s Lucas Stone doesn’t mean anything,” she pointed out, though thankfully she didn’t turn around and beg the Director not to follow through with his crazy plan. She just set her gaze on Lucas and shook her head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Lucas admitted, “but I know what I’m not prepared to do, and that’s enough,” he added in a far more determined voice. “Now remove the security field from Jane. I need to get her out of here.”
“What, on that reconnaissance ship of yours? Is that safe? Do you really know who she is? Do you really know what that implant can do?” Priya bombarded him with questions.
“What is the nature of this implant?” the Director asked quickly.
“It’s some of the most sophisticated technology I have ever seen,” Priya answered without turning to the Director; her gaze was still locked on Lucas, “it’s also Paran.”
“Well then, it makes sense to conclude that she’s Paran also,” the Director stated plainly.
Priya shook her head. “That’s an unwarranted jump.”
“The Parans have never let another race use their technology. In fact, I have read many historical accounts that suggest only Parans can utilize it. So if she has a Paran implant, it makes sense to conclude that she’s Paran. Otherwise, it would not operate,” the Director’s voice was still choppy, but it was firm.
Priya now looked around at him, and perhaps she took a moment to remind herself that while she was the Chief Scientist, she wasn’t the Director.
The Director stood up straighter, and Lucas reminded himself just how tall his race was. The Director towered over Lucas by a good meter and a half.
“I wish to go and meet this Jane now,” the Director said. “I have just sent a false communique to the Galactic Force suggesting that we have disintegrated her. It is only polite that I now go and introduce myself.” The Director walked out of his office, having to bend low to get through the door.
Though the situation was still fraught and incredible, Lucas couldn’t help but laugh at that. The Director’s race always did have a strange sense of humor. And when the situation was as black as this one, sometimes you needed to laugh.
At least now she was sitting up on the edge of her bed, satisfied that she would not be disintegrated if she so much as sniffed, let alone moved her hand to brush the hair out of her face.
She tried not to look at the worried human scientist too much. Every single time she glanced over at him, he flinched in his chair. He was obviously under the impression that she was about to race through the security field and gobble him right up. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she was a vegetarian, though.
She sat there and tried to think, and while there was a great deal to think about, she couldn’t make her brain play nice. The thoughts kept dashing all over the place, and though she wanted to concentrate hard on this situation, they always coalesced to the same point: Lucas Stone.
It hadn’t escaped Jane’s attention that she’d spent most of her life fantasizing about adventures and that she was and most definitely having one right now. But there was a niggling thought that danced at the edge of her mind too: every single one of her adventures had always had romance.
While she was almost certain she was having an adventure now, she wasn’t sure there was romance, though. Well, not yet anyway. With that thought Jane found herself blinking furiously. What was she thinking, really? Lucas Stone? He wasn’t her type. She’d read all the various fan supplements from Mandy’s subscription to his Fan Club, and Jane knew that they described a man that she could never, ever like, let alone love.
That niggling little voice deep inside her tried to point out that the fan supplements hadn’t been quite as accurate as she’d once believed. Next, she would probably find out that Lucas didn’t own a Catamaran space dog and didn’t do extreme asteroid hopping every other weekend.
Honestly, Jane should not be thinking about this now. She should be concentrating on the dark, horrible creature back on Earth. The one that clearly wanted her dead. She should also be consumed by the prospect she could be disintegrated at any moment. In other words, the situation was a horrible and terrible one, and now wasn’t the time to try to remember Lucas Stone’s favorite dessert, or when he’d taken his first spaceship ride, or his mark in sixth-grade mathematics.
It was an odd fact, and it wasn’t one that Jane had entertained before, but she’d sure read through a heap of those fan supplements. Mandy had always left them scattered over their desk, and Jane had often picked them up because there was nothing else around to read. She was exactly the kind of personality that would pick up a data pad, or holo supplement, and analyze the entire thing, regardless of whether she was enjoying it or not. She had to be thorough. And she’d been thorough, alright; she’d probably read every single one of the fan supplements ever produced by the Lucas Stone Fan Club.
Again she admonished herself that she was getting distracted.
Then again, there wasn’t a great deal she could do while she was stuck behind a security field. If only she had access to that strange black cube, the artifact that had been in Research Lab Two. That… that had been incredible. The way it had moved, the power it had displayed. If only she had that cube with her now, then she could get out….
Jane sighed heavily, and then she looked up to see that the door had opened. She had to blink back her surprise as an incredibly tall Darwai walked through, having to bend itself in half to get through the doorway. Priya and Lucas followed behind, and Lucas immediately made eye contact with Jane, and he smiled and nodded reassuringly.
Jane smiled back. She couldn’t help it, it was automatic.
Then her eyes darted back to Priya and the Darwai. Were they here for round two of “let’s disintegrate Jane day?”
The Darwai walked right up to the edge of the security field, and using its considerable height, darted its head to and fro, apparently assessing each and every corner of the room, and each and every corner of Jane.
“I must admit, Stone, that this Jane specimen does not look all that dangerous. She looks, as you humans might call it, mild.”
Jane clamped her lips together and tried not to make any sudden movements. She looked mild? It had also called her specimen Jane. What on Earth did that mean?
“Her name is just Jane, Director,” Lucas said patiently from behind him. “But I agree, she isn’t a threat to us.”
She wasn’t a threat to them? Well, though she understood Lucas’ sentiment, she couldn’t quite agree with him. While she wanted to believe she wasn’t a threat to anyone, she couldn’t ignore what had happened back on Earth. Something had taken control of her body… the… she didn’t want to think about it, because she didn’t want to have to put up with the searing pain that always accompanied the mention of its name. But back on Earth, that thing had managed to make Jane an incredible threat. Nonetheless, she tried to sit there meekly and look on at them in a thoroughly non-aggressive way.
“I must admit, Stone, that I’m still confused by the situation. Yet perhaps I can help to shed some light on it. Before I became the Director of this institute, I worked extensively on xenobiology. In fact, it was my pioneering work in that area that enabled me to take this command in the first place. If specimen… if Jane here is willing, I can do a full analysis of her DNA and genetic structure to assess what race she’s from.”
Lucas suddenly clamped his teeth together, and Jane could see that he breathed a hiss through them. He looked at her immediately, his expression tensed and obviously waiting for something.
She didn’t react. Jane knew what Lucas was waiting for, though. Whenever Lucas had… whenever he’d… questioned…. Jane just couldn’t think about it. Every time she tried to, she started to get a headache again, and the buzzing would return. So instead she put a hand up to her brow and tried to distract herself with something inane, something safe.
Lucas looked concerned, and took several quick steps to the Director, even tapping him on the shoulder and suggesting they fall back to discuss something.
A part of Jane knew exactly what they were going to discuss, but the rest Jane knew enough about what was going on with her not to press that fact. So she left it as an elusive impression in her mind and tried to concentrate on something a lot easier. Something distracting, something almost pleasant.
She’d once spent a boring afternoon in the office with nothing to do. She’d set about trying to find something to read, and of course the only thing had been Mandy’s incredible collection of Lucas Stone fan supplements. Jane had tried her hand at one of the quizzes she’d found. Somehow, she’d managed to get every single answer right apart from one. Nowhere in the entirety of all the fan supplements she’d read had she come across that one fact, though. What was Lucas Stone’s favorite thing to do in all the universe? It was such an important question, and she was surprised that she hadn’t come across it before. The quiz was loaded right into the holoprojector, and it marked your answers, but it didn’t give you the correct answers if you were wrong. It probably reasoned that if you didn’t know enough about Lucas Stone, then you jolly well had to research and read all the fan supplements like a good little fan should.
So what was Lucas Stone’s favorite thing to do in all the universe? Now Jane had actually met the man, surely that gave her an edge on this. Could she try to derive the answer from all the experiences they’d shared together?
Well, he seemed to look awkward a lot. But Jane doubted that was his favorite thing to do in all the universe. What else did he do? He often tried to pat his hair down even though his helmet was still on. That seemed more like a mistake and not like an incredible thrill, though. What else?
She also knew, from his reputation, that he had a certain way with the women of the Galaxy. Perhaps that was his favorite thing to do?
Jane found herself blushing and tried not to suck her lips in and give a chuckle of a laugh.
Here she was, behind the security field, while a Darwai discussed what to do with her, while some kind of creature was still out there trying it’s hardest to hunt her down, and she was imagining Lucas Stone in compromising situations indeed.
If Jane were a bit less like herself, and quite a bit more like Mandy, she would come out and ask Lucas straight.
Though Jane could appreciate that, now wasn’t the time to ask that question.
So she just sat there and tried to come up with even crazier answers to it.
Despite the fact she knew all of her answers were stupid and highly improbable, she had to admit one little thing to herself: she didn’t have a headache anymore. She felt fine in fact. The more she didn’t think about her current situation, and especially the more she didn’t think about that thing in her mind, the better and better she felt. The more she felt like herself again. Right now, as the world was going crazy around her, that was a nice feeling to indulge in.
He kept on glancing at her, just to check she was okay. Her expression kept on shifting, her lips wobbling around erratically, her skin even flushing. She was clearly worried, because she had no idea what was going to happen next. Or maybe it was the effect of the implant. He didn’t put it past that sophisticated piece of technology to know exactly what they were discussing, even though Jane herself was out of earshot.
At least the implant hadn’t done anything yet, though. For all he knew, maybe it was still too taxed to take full control of Jane’s body yet. Yes, it could make her shout at him. Yes, it could make her clamp her hands over her ears to stop her from hearing “Paran,” but perhaps it couldn’t completely control her limbs, giving her the strength, agility, and technological skills she would need to break out of the security field.
“I find it curious,” the Director whispered, “that the implant is set to protect itself. This is most fascinating. This is incredible technology.”
“… Look, it sounds crazy, but you can’t mention it around her, okay?” Lucas repeated, trying to hammer the point home. Whereas Jane had been able to walk out of the room while aboard the reconnaissance ship, she was now in a security field. Lucas didn’t want to find out what the implant would make her do when she was trapped. It probably wouldn’t be pretty.
“I see. Perhaps there is a way around that. If it is an implant, after all, it will have some kind of mechanism by which it exerts its control over her brain’s physiology, whether it is chemical or electrical. If we could find something we might be able to—”
Suddenly there was a beeping sound, and the security field in front of Jane began to flicker.
“Ahhh, we have got incredible interference coming into the computer,” the other scientist began.
Prack, the Director hadn’t even finished his sentence. Lucas knew what he’d been about to say – the Director wanted to suggest interfering with the implant – finding a drug or synthesizing some kind of device that could block it somehow. Without even mentioning it, and without even being within earshot, the implant had obviously picked up on it. And it had acted.
“Lucas,” Priya snapped, “what is she doing?”
Jane was now sitting on the edge of her bed, eyes darting around wildly. Her skin was deadly pale.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” He put his hands up and took a step toward the security field. “You have my word that we aren’t going to interfere with the implant.” He saw Jane wince at the word, but in another few seconds, the interference with the security field stopped.
Hell… what were they dealing with here?
When Lucas was sure the implant was no longer interfering with the security field, he turned around and walked back to the Director. Yet he looked over his shoulder at Jane the entire time.
“I see,” the Director said quietly, “I now understand what we are dealing with.”
“You do,” Lucas shook his head, “because I have no idea. It won’t let us—” he quickly stopped what he was saying. He didn’t want to provoke the implant any further. He was now starting to get the distinct impression that the only reason Jane was still in the room was that the implant trusted them, or at least it trusted them a measure. If they ruined that measure, if they broke that trust, then she would get out of there. He couldn’t let that happen. Because he could easily imagine Jane huddled over the navigational console of a ship, her hands moving effortlessly under the control of the implant, yet her face crumpled with fear.
He just couldn’t let that happen.
“I believe we must be exceptionally careful here,” the Director nodded. “I do not think that the device will let me do the studies I wish to perform.”
Lucas pressed two fingers into his temple and gave a brief nod. The implant appeared to be running the show. And though he hated the damn thing for controlling her life, he had to admit that it was damned effective. If you wanted to keep someone safe, then that implant would be exactly how you would do it.
“Lucas, I don’t… what the hell are we meant to do here?” Priya asked him, and there was a real note of pleading in her voice.
He turned to her and shrugged. “Look, I think the best thing to do is… just let me take Jane back onto the reconnaissance ship and then we will….” He had no idea what they would do next. Run? Run where? Specimen 14 had already proved itself to be incredibly canny. It had managed to hack into the Galactic Force communiqués and had sent a message to Central Shipyards, a faked message yes, but still a message along official Galactic Force lines. If it had managed to do that, Lucas wouldn’t wonder if it could do the same to any Galactic Force ship, cruiser, or institution. Hell, maybe it could even hack into official Galactic Union com system, even though it was meant to be impossible. The point was if Lucas honestly wanted to run with Jane, he wasn’t sure where he could run to and whether it would safer than here.
Plus, he still didn’t know what was going on. Confirming Jane was a Paran might be a start, but at what cost?
“I suggest that whatever means we use to prove her… particular racial identity that they are arranged from a meta-analysis of other data, and not from any invasive procedure or scan,” the Director noted quietly.
Lucas nodded. That was a damn good plan considering the current circumstances.
“If only we had access to the Central Galactic Union databases. I know though it is not common knowledge and though it requires a great deal of security clearance, that they have information on the Parans. Information that we do not have the privilege to access through the Galactic Force databases.”
“I didn’t know that,” Lucas frowned.
“Though you are Lucas Stone, I’m afraid there is much that you do not know about this Galaxy,” the Director stated as he dipped his head low.
Apparently. A fact that was being made clear to Lucas today. It wasn’t just the Galaxy he didn’t know much about – it was turning out that he had a wealth of ignorance when it came to the administrative staff of the Galactic Force.
“Where can we access this?” Lucas shifted his weight. He was tired, really tired, and he would give anything for some rest. But he had to keep moving.
“If you go through the correct diplomatic channels, it may take the Galactic Force several months to clear this information,” the Director said.
Lucas gave a frustrated laugh. “I don’t have several months. I honestly doubt whether I have several days, let alone hours here.”
The Director put up a hand. “If you go through proper diplomatic channels. There are other ways, Stone.”
Lucas narrowed his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“There are…” the Director glanced at Priya and then back at Lucas, “certain members of the Galactic Union that have been interested in the demise of the Parans,” his voice went low at that point, “for some time. They feel that there must be a proper and full investigation into how such a technologically advanced and powerful race came to fall. Particularly to whom it fell.”
Lucas shared the sentiment. It was such a strange and curious fact about the Galaxy, and one he’d often wondered whether other people found as mad as he did. The most powerful race in the Galaxy had been almost completely wiped out in the space of several years. Nobody knew anything about how it had happened. Sure, now Lucas knew more than most, as he had access to the Paran database. Yet without being able to access it properly, he was still left with questions. What exactly were the Darq capable of, and why had they attacked the Parans? Was it a prelude to an invasion of the Galaxy, or simply an isolated incident?
“There are those who believe that whatever it was that destroyed the Parans so easily is not something that we should just—” the Director looked to the side for a moment, “sweep under the rug, as I believe you humans used to say. Something with such power – the Darq as you put it, though I hadn’t heard that name until today – should not be allowed to fall forgotten into history.”
Tension gripped Lucas’ arms and shoulders as a dull surge of fatigue washed over him. He tried to ignore it; he had to. “Where do I go to get this information?”
“I can give you a contact. They are on the Yaran home-world,” the Director nodded his head low, “if anybody can confirm whether specimen… whether Jane is Paran, it will be that contact. For they are,” the Director glanced sideways again and blinked his eyes closed for a moment, “Paran themselves,” he added carefully.
Lucas immediately darted his gaze over to Jane to see whether she would react to that news. She didn’t. She was still sitting on the edge of the bed, her limbs huddled together, her eyes wide as she watched them.
Right, so apparently the implant didn’t care if they were to go and meet with a Paran, but it objected if someone tried to tell Jane she was one. It seemed remarkably fickle.
“They may be able to help you with the…” the Director moved his pincers up and down.
Lucas got the picture. The Paran might be able to help them with Jane’s implant. After all, if all the scans had been correct and the thing was Paran, then it stood to reason that a Paran would be able to at least decipher what it was, maybe even give them some idea of how it worked.
“Okay,” Lucas breathed through his teeth, “okay. Give me the contact.”
The Director dipped his head. “I will, but there is one thing I must warn you of, Stone: there are certain elements of the Galactic Union, even of the Galactic Force, that do not approve of this line of thought.”
Lucas frowned heavily. “What are you talking about?”
“Let us just say that… over the years…” it was clear that the Director didn’t want to be forced to say it. Perhaps he was wary that he’d already said enough in front of Priya and the other scientist, or maybe he just didn’t want to give away too much information in front of the implant.
“It’s dangerous, right? Well, I guess that’s all I need to know,” Lucas straightened up. “Actually, there is one more thing I need to know. Are you going to let her out? Are you going to let us go?”
The Director took a moment and then nodded. He walked over to the console where the other scientist was sitting and clicked over the panel with his pincers. The security field flickered off.
Jane didn’t react immediately; she didn’t jump off her bed and run out of the room, happy that she was finally free.
Even if she didn’t jump up and run, Lucas had to stop himself from running over to her and checking that she was fine. Checking that she was okay… because it seemed to be really important to him that she was okay. Only several hours before he’d faced the prospect that Jane was some kind of highly trained and disguised spy who’d bided her time in the Administrative Division of the Galactic Force only to hack into its systems when the Paran Artifact had arrived. Now that thought was far from his mind. He couldn’t identify when his attitude had changed. He could simply appreciate that now he was determined to sort this out for her. He was also determined to get that implant out of her brain, though he knew that would take time.
It was strange. Though Lucas had saved people in the past – in fact, it was pretty much the entire point of his job – this was different. Maybe he felt sorry for her; she didn’t belong in this world, his world. Or maybe she did. The implant had been controlling Jane her entire life. Who knew what she would have done without it? She could have joined the Galactic Force herself, hell she could have become his superior. One thing was clear – Jane was more than she believed herself to be. Something else was also clear – Lucas was now determined. And when he was determined, things got done.
Jane was fighting the urge to jump off the bed and practically throw herself right at Lucas Stone. After all, it was a little inappropriate; she’d spent nearly every interaction she’d had with him either shouting, glowering, or throwing up next to him. Still, he was the only thing she could count on right now. Everything was crazy and unknown. Yet she knew Lucas Stone. Hell, she’d practically studied the man. With all the fan supplements she’d read, she probably knew more about him than he did. It was that bedrock of certainty that she now wanted to hold onto.
Fighting the urge until the end, Jane slowly got off the bed. Taking several steadying breaths, she waited there, not wanting to act until she was told to. She didn’t want them to suddenly change their minds and disintegrate her.
Eventually, Lucas gestured toward her. “It’s okay,” he shifted his head to the side, “we can go.”
Rather than simply believe him, she made sure to look at everyone else in the room. While the Director looked at her curiously, and Priya stared on with angry confusion, the other scientist… he looked… well, Jane couldn’t put her finger on it.
Then Jane moved.
She didn’t intend to, but she did.
She snapped up, and she ran right at Lucas.
She wasn’t in control of her limbs. It wasn’t a cute and rather romantic way of suggesting she was giving into her desire to throw herself at Lucas. Oh no, it was in control.
In another second a containment field snapped into place just where she’d been standing. In fact, she could feel the arc of it sizzle against the back of her arms.
“What—” Lucas began.
Jane slammed into him, pushing him to the ground just as a shot sliced past Lucas and ate into the opposite wall.
Jane didn’t wait. She snapped up to her feet, twisting her head to the side, tracking the scientist.
He shot again, but she dodged, or her body dodged more accurately.
“It’s happening again,” Jane managed. In the time it took to speak, she tucked into a roll and came up behind one of the consoles, close to the scientist.
“What’s going on?” the Darwai roared, his usually staccato voice booming.
Jane didn’t wait for the scientist to answer, she just rolled to the side as some kind of energy beam sliced through the console she was hiding behind. She flicked herself onto her feet, moving easily and with an agility that she’d never, ever shown in her ordinary life.
Before she could jump up and her body could do whatever it was planning on doing, she saw a black flash streak past her. In another moment there was a heavy grunt, and she saw Lucas plow right into the scientist. There was a flash of a light blue energy, but Lucas reached for his plasma handgun and managed to squeeze off several rounds.
Then the scientist fell.
Something clattered out of his hand. Something Jane had never even seen before. It was a long blade that had an arcing electrical field traveling all the way up it.
The scientist lay still, and Lucas snapped to his feet, bringing his gun around, firing several more rounds into the man.
Jane knew enough about plasma weapons to know that it was set to stun and that none of the shots would kill the man. Lucas was clearly just being thorough.
Lucas took several steps back and knelt down to pick up the strange electrical blade. He twisted the handle. The electricity shooting up and down it stopped, and the actual blade disappeared back into the hilt. He stared at it for a moment, then finally turned to face her.
“It’s okay,” he said clearly, “the situation is now under control. You can leave this to me.”
Jane got the distinct impression that while he was speaking at her, he wasn’t talking to her. He was talking to it.
“You can leave this to me,” he repeated once more. Though his helmet was set to opaque, Jane could just imagine the look of pressed, perfect sincerity on his face.
She slowly stood up, and it was her that did the standing.
She could tell that Lucas watched her the entire time, his helmet angled down toward her. After a long pause he let out a massive sigh, his chest punching forward. “Is that you, Jane?”
She gave a brief nod.
“What the hell was that?” Priya said, her voice shaking as she took several nervous steps toward Lucas.
“How long have you worked with that man?” Lucas asked immediately. While his voice was direct, his words quick, he still reached out a hand and latched it onto Priya’s shoulder.
Jane noted the move and realized that even though Lucas was standing stiffly, his armor affirming the impression he was nothing but a soldier, he still managed to look tender.
“He must have been some kind of spy,” the Director said, his hands clicking over each other at such a frantic pace he had to raise his voice to be heard. “But how did he get here? What was he waiting for?”
Jane stood there and listened. Soon she started to realize that she was feeling sick, and she clutched a hand on her stomach.
She watched Lucas twist toward her, his helmet angling her way, light tracking along the smooth metal finish. “Jane?” he asked warily.
She pitched forward and threw up. This time it wasn’t on a command chair; this time it was all over a console.
She didn’t mean to do it, it kind of just happened. She grimaced, pressing her back into the wall behind her. “I feel terrible,” she admitted honestly.
Lucas just stood there, and he shook his head.
It had been close. Dammit, it had been really close. He hadn’t been expecting the other scientist to do anything. Hell, the man had looked mild in the extreme. He’d not given away any indications that he was a) highly trained, and that b) he was after Jane. Yet he’d clearly been after her, which made Lucas sick to think he’d left her alone in the room with him.
Lucas swallowed hard, looked down at the man, and then back across at Jane. She was resting with her back against the wall, one hand on her stomach and one hand on her mouth. She’d thrown up yet again. He was starting to get the impression that whenever her implant took full control of her body, the consequences weren’t just fatigue and the fact Jane could end up fighting off half the Galaxy, nope, she would also inevitably end up throwing up.
Before he could do anything, the Director clicked several buttons on one of the clean consoles, and a small containment field flickered into place over the mess. In another second it was simply disintegrated clean off. If you asked Lucas, that was a huge waste of energy, but perhaps the Director didn’t like the idea of his expensive computer equipment being fouled up.
“What’s going on?” Priya asked again. She had a certain note of uncertainty and fear in her voice that Lucas had never heard before. It was the kind of note that told Lucas – no, reminded him – that underneath the acerbic personality, there was a real person. Yes, Priya always put on a nasty face, but deep down she was still capable of fear and surprise.
The Director, despite the fact his race were insect-like and had an exoskeleton, still managed to look pale, as if the shock had sunk deep into his carapace. In fact, the only person that didn’t appear to be completely confused was Jane. She just leaned against that wall, looking mildly sick and sniffing occasionally.
“Put a security field up around him,” Lucas pushed his words out, realizing that he had to act. This situation had just taken a turn for the worse, and Lucas couldn’t guarantee that there weren’t more spies or enemies lurking around the ship.
“I do not understand why he did that,” the Director said as his pincers clicked across the console. “Adam Thomson was a good man. He was never late for work,” the Director added as if that alone conclusively proved his positive character assessment.
Priya closed her eyes and shook her head bitterly, then she glanced at Jane. Lucas watched the move carefully and though he tried to fight the urge, he found his hand gripping harder over his gun.
“Who is she?” Priya asked so quietly that it was almost a whisper.
Jane looked up slowly, warily.
“If he wanted her dead, why didn’t he just use the containment field when we were out of the room?” Priya narrowed her eyes visibly.
“I don’t think the… implant,” he said quietly, “would have let him. Every single time it sensed a threat, it interfered with your field and the computers. Perhaps the electro blade was his backup plan.”
Priya took a steadying breath. “What’s going on, Lucas?” she asked again, this time turning to him fully.
He couldn’t answer.
“Whatever is going on, I suggest that we act quickly.” The Director slowed his pincers down, as he visibly started to calm. “I do not think this situation it is as simple as we once believed.” He shot a look at Jane.
Lucas felt like laughing and pointing out that he’d never believed the situation was simple. In fact, if anything, this unexpected incident reaffirmed what he already knew about this situation: it was desperately dangerous.
He faced Jane and saw that she now had two hands clutched over her mouth, and though she didn’t look like she was immediately going to be sick, she appeared overcome. He realized that while he didn’t have any idea what was going on, it wouldn’t be a touch on what Jane was going through. Less than 24 hours ago she’d still been under the impression that she was normal and that nothing extraordinary could ever happen to her.
“Lucas Stone, I do not believe it is safe for you here anymore,” the Director walked up to him, his head angled toward Jane, but one of his pincers pointing right at Lucas.
Lucas just nodded.
“I will load the details of my contact into your armor. Then, though it may contravene many Galactic Force protocols, I suggest you get on your ship, and you run,” the Director finally turned his head around to face Lucas.
“But we need to find out what is going on first. We need to find out why Adam… why he did that. For all we know, he works for Shadow One, and he’s actually on our side,” Priya clutched a hand to her chest as she spoke uncharacteristically emphatically.
Lucas couldn’t help but narrow his eyes as he stared back at her. Shadow One was the intelligence division of the Galactic Force. The hush-hush, only-ever-whispered-about intelligence service that had agents scattered throughout the Galaxy in an attempt to find out information wherever and whenever necessary.
“Maybe…” Priya slid her gaze warily toward Jane and then shot it back to Lucas, “he…” it was obvious she didn’t want to say it, not in front of Jane at least.
Lucas knew exactly what Priya was trying to suggest. Jane was a threat, a risk. Adam, knowing this, had tried to deal with her as best he could.
Lucas crossed his arms firmly.
He didn’t have any solid evidence to prove his suspicion, but he just… he couldn’t believe Jane was the bad one here. Maybe it was her personality, maybe it was her genuine surprise at the situation, and maybe it was something more, but Lucas was having trouble concluding Jane was the real enemy. Also, he’d seen Specimen 14 back on Earth, and Lucas had no trouble in imagining that abomination was the genuine enemy.
“Lucas Stone, I do not believe we have much time, I have just received several more communiqués from the Galactic Force asking us to send evidence to prove that we have disintegrated specimen… Jane. None of them bear the proper watermark, and I believe all them are faked,” the Director said as his pincers clicked across the console.
Apparently, Specimen 14 wasn’t going to be so easily fooled.
“Lucas, we still don’t—” Priya tried.
“It doesn’t matter, Priya; I’ve made up my mind,” he said clearly. “Jane,” he turned to her, “we have to go.”
“Lucas,” Priya tried again, “this is just foolish. You don’t know—”
It was true, he didn’t know, but that didn’t stop him from putting up a hand. “Just leave it.”
“I can clear your ship from here,” the Director said, “I can also upload information to your armor.”
“Do it,” Lucas snapped quickly.
He was aware that Jane kept on watching him, and she had a careful look on her face. As a tingle rushed up his back, he got the distinct impression that the implant was most definitely watching him as well. If it didn’t like what he did, if it didn’t like what he said, if it seemed for one moment that Lucas was about to side with Priya, he knew the implant would act. And he could now appreciate there would be no stopping it.
While on many levels Priya was right and Lucas should aim to keep Jane here while they studied her more, he knew that wouldn’t work. Any threat to Jane, and the implant would whisk her away. If Lucas wanted to find out what was going on, he had to stay with Jane, and that meant trusting her, or at least never acting against her.
Lucas couldn’t put all of this into words and simply tell Priya, so he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “I have to stay with Jane,” he managed.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jane take a small breath, a look of relief brightening her cheeks.
“I have completed the upload to your armor, Lucas Stone, though I must warn you, the computer has found abnormalities in your living matrix: something has altered your implant, increasing its memory storage exponentially,” the Director let out a puff of air, and it was clear that he was surprised.
The Paran database. While he’d been aware the Artifact had made changes to his armor, he hadn’t guessed it was that significant. There was no time right now to find out more, though.
The computer suddenly gave several warning beeps.
The Director made a strange hissing and clicking noise. “The Galactic Force, it seems, is attempting to take remote control of this computer processor using Security Protocol A 39. I suggest you leave right now, Lucas Stone, as I do not know how long we have.”
Priya, giving him one final glance, turned and ran up to one of the consoles next to the Director, and the two of them started to type frantically.
Then Lucas turned to Jane. “We have to go.”
There was a lot happening, and it was all happening in a short space of time. Of course, Jane didn’t know much about adventure, but she still suspected that ordinary people didn’t go through so much in barely 24 hours. Which was an incredibly uncomfortable thought, because it confirmed that perhaps Jane wasn’t normal, after all.
… Wasn’t normal. It was such an unpleasant thing to think about; she’d labored under that belief her entire life. So what was happening to her felt like the greatest injustice in the world. Nothing like this could happen to her, nothing like this should happen to her.
She wanted to return home and try to forget about it, but she knew Lucas wouldn’t let her.
He was turning out to be different from the person she’d once hated – the person the rest of the Galaxy assumed him to be. Yes, some things were correct: Lucas Stone did like to save people, but he wasn’t arrogant about it or even triumphant. In fact, it simply appeared to fatigue him. He went from one save to the next, with no rest, with no recuperation, and with no celebration. And it seemed the longer he stayed with her, the more he would be doing just that. She could tell that he was tired. His shoulders drooped whenever he was talking to her, his head leaning to the side, not in apparent interest, but because he clearly couldn’t muster the energy to hold himself straight.
She wondered how long he could keep on doing it for. She got away without sleeping, but she knew enough about humans to know that they couldn’t.
Yet with disaster after disaster happening all around her, she knew that Lucas would not let himself rest. Another thing the fan supplements had gotten right – he was determined to the point of exhaustion. It didn’t come from any grandiose self-belief; he simply seemed to try to solve whatever problem was in front of him without any ability to let himself rest until the solution came to hand.
He was now sitting next to her in the command chair, his palm squarely docked with the console, his head leaned forward. He still had his armor on, and he hadn’t yet switched his helmet to transparent. Perhaps he was trying to catch some quick shut-eye underneath there and didn’t want Jane to notice. Though she really doubted it.
She sat in the chair next to him, her hands clutched firmly in her lap, her lips pressed together, and her gaze settling on some innocuous point on the view screen.
The ship was now traveling at BL, beyond light speed, and the image on the view screen, though mostly black, sometimes speckled with sudden flashes of light, the twisted view of distant stars racing past them at unbelievable speeds. Though Jane had never seen it in real life, she’d seen simulations of it before.
He hadn’t said anything to her since they’d boarded the ship and had undocked from the Central Shipyards.
In fact, he’d simply synthesized her a glass of water, handing it to her in silence, then he’d immediately docked his glove, sitting in the command chair and not moving once.
She was starting to wonder whether he was angry at her, or in fact whether he was starting to have questions, probably valid questions about whether he should help her at all.
The evidence was mounting against her. She’d overheard the Director when he’d said they’d received communications from the Galactic Force asking whether they had disintegrated her yet. Worse than that, he’d referred to her as Specimen Jane. Specimen Jane. She’d seen enough low-quality holo-adventures to know that whenever the scientists and good guys referred to something as a specimen, they almost always ended up killing it.
Jane found herself twisting her fingers around and around each other. It was a move that reminded her of what the Director had done immediately after Adam Thomson had tried to attack her. She couldn’t stop it; she seemed too nervous, filled with a horrible tension.
Who could blame her? She had no idea whether Lucas trusted her anymore, no idea what was after her, and no idea what would come next. She was starting to get the impression that the thing in her head knew exactly what was going on, though. The… the thing… had acted on instinct, keeping her safe while Adam Thomson had tried to cut right through her with an electro blade. Even if Jane didn’t have anything to rely on, she seemed to be able to rely on it. While it was insidious, and could control her body and mind, it still acted to preserve her, and that was something.
Jane gave a stuttering sigh and rested further back in her chair. She greatly wanted this adventure to be over now; she’d had enough of it.
That finally managed to get Lucas’ attention, and he turned her way. “Are you okay?”
He always asked that question, it was as if he couldn’t think of anything else to say to her. Though, to be fair to him, it was a pertinent and valid question considering the current situation. She just nodded and then shook her head, and then nodded again. She was thoroughly confused by everything. And yeah, she kept on thinking about Priya. The way that Priya had acted so familiarly with Lucas, and, more importantly, the way she’d begged Lucas not to trust Jane, and not to go anywhere with her.
“We will figure it out. We will head to the contact, and then…” Lucas trailed off.
The contact. The Paran. As soon as Jane thought that word, a stab of pain crossed through her head, and she winced.
She could see that Lucas suddenly clutched his free hand into a fist.
“Everything will be okay,” he settled on saying again, and it was apparent that he thought it was safer to simply repeat that over and over rather than try to discuss the details of where they were going and who they were going to see.
It didn’t want her to know. It didn’t want her to think about it. Yet it seemed to be letting her follow through with the plan.
It was confusing.
Jane wasn’t going to let herself be completely confused by it; she was starting to realize that if she thought carefully, she could think around it. If she didn’t use the “I” word or the “P” word, she didn’t get the stabbing pain. As long as she thought in general terms about where they were going and what they were going to do, it didn’t seem to object.
As she sat there, fingers twisting around each other, her face still angled up toward the view screen and not toward Lucas, she finally made a decision. She was going to do everything she could to find out what was going on. Though she still wanted to scream at herself occasionally that she was far too normal for any of this, she was going to push past that, and she was going to figure it out. It was no doubt going to be incredibly hard, but she was going to do it nonetheless.
Jane had never had cause to be determined in her life: things had happened to her easily, she’d never faced any problems, and by and large everything had been comfortable and, yes, normal. Though she’d never had any family, she’d never been without help, money, or some form of protection and housing. When she’d needed a job, she’d fallen into one. When she’d needed a house, she’d found one. When she’d needed schooling, she’d received it. There had never been trials or obstacles and Jane had never found herself in a situation where she’d needed to push herself.
Now she was no longer that lucky; for the first time in Jane’s life she was finding out that she needed a great deal of determination to get through this.
So Jane sniffed again.
“You should get some rest,” Lucas suddenly said, probably thinking that her sniffs were not of the determined variety but were of the incredibly tired and fatigued kind.
She turned to him and shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think you should get some rest. I don’t need sleep and I’m not tired,” she said forthrightly.
Though she still couldn’t see Lucas’ face, she could appreciate that he receded slightly in his chair, and she imagined that he looked surprised underneath all of that hulking black armor.
“I can’t—” he began.
“You have to,” she interrupted immediately. “You look as if you haven’t slept in ages. And even though I’m not human, I think I understand that if you don’t sleep, you will eventually die,” she said plainly, “and if you intend to eventually die, then why don’t you just shoot yourself right now and get it over with?” she ended with another sniff.
Lucas made a strange noise, and his shoulders tipped forward in an instant. It was halfway between a choke and a laugh. “Look, I’m fine—”
“You will begin to lose speed and agility,” Jane said as she looked up to the left, trying to remember as much as she could about human physiology, “and, while I don’t know a lot about your armor, I do know that it is linked to your nervous system. I once saw something on the Galactic News where a security officer had gone several weeks without sleep, and then his armor had kind of overridden his brain or something and put him into a coma. Something to do with overriding suicidal tendencies…” she said slowly, having to think hard about each word as she tried to remember exactly what the report had said.
Finally, Lucas switched his helmet to transparent, and Jane saw just how tired he looked underneath there. He shrugged his shoulders again. “It is true: built into all bio-armor is a certain set of emergency protocols that will stop the wearer from acting in a way that’s threatening to their own life, unless needed in combat, of course. But trust me, I’m not about to slip into a coma,” he gave a chuckle, though it was throaty and croaky.
Jane just shook her head. “I once read in a fan supplement that you said that any proper soldier is always willing to keep themselves in top physical condition to be able to respond in the best possible way that they can in every situation they face.” Whereas before she’d had to think quite hard about her words, now they came freely and easily. After all, she may not know that much about bio-armor, but she did know a hell of a lot about Lucas Stone. A simple fact she’d not appreciated much until she’d actually met the man.
Lucas laughed again. “They got me to say that so that kids would stop eating so much Hoyan candy,” he said bluntly.
“Well, I didn’t realize you were a liar then,” she stared at him blankly.
“Liar?” he asked quickly, a note of annoyance in his voice.
“I think you know what I mean,” she turned back to the console in front of her and crossed her arms.
She was aware that Lucas was still staring at her, and she could see just how surprised, confused, and almost amused he was in her peripheral vision. Yet she didn’t turn back to him, she just kept her arms crossed and her gaze fixed in front of her.
Lucas chuckled awkwardly. “Alright, alright, maybe I can try to get a couple of minutes’ rest.” He even stretched his shoulders at that.
Jane nodded her head firmly.
“I can set the computer to wake me up in ten minutes or so,” he said with a heavy sigh.
Jane nodded her head, though she didn’t completely agree with his statement ten minutes? Try ten hours.
“We are at BL, and the computer has set course… we should be okay,” Lucas said again, finally standing up. Then he just sat down again.
Jane looked at him, knowing that her eyes were narrowed in anger. She guessed that he was intending to sleep right in the command chair rather than going to use one of the fully appointed sleeping quarters. “Oh no you don’t,” she said at once. “Go to bed,” she pointed toward the back of the ship.
Lucas spluttered through a laugh at her again. “You can’t order me around; you just work in admin,” he set his jaw at an angle and looked at her pointedly.
She didn’t move her finger. “Go to bed. To maximize the efficiency of your nap, you should lie down, so that all of your muscles can rest.”
Lucas shook his head as he looked at her, and laughed again, finally rolling his eyes. “Fine,” he said, “fine, you win. Ten minutes,” he repeated, and then he leaned forward to the console, docking his hand, and no doubt telling the computer to wake him up just when he wanted to.
Then, finally, Lucas Stone turned around and walked heavily out of the room, leaving Jane alone.
He didn’t wake up to the feel of his armor jogging him out of sleep. No, he woke up naturally. Then he blinked his eyes several times and wondered whether he’d reached his ten minutes yet. The strange thing was he felt refreshed, refreshed, far more refreshed than six or seven minutes of a power nap could account for. So he opened his eyes and sat up in bed, stretching easily. “What’s the time?” he asked out loud. He didn’t need to do it; he could easily request the time with a single thought to his armor, but he did so anyway. It was a habit, more than anything, a habit that stemmed from the fact he’d not always had bio-armor implanted in him. Once he’d been a normal, non-augmented child. The kind of child that had run around all day in the fields and valley just outside of his grandfather’s house. His grandfather had practically shunned technology. Instead of having an integrated communications system wired through their place, his grandfather hadn’t even had a food synthesizer, preferring an old stove instead. So Lucas had grown up looking at the clock to find out the time or asking someone, not submitting a mental thought to the bio-armor grafted onto his bones and waiting for it to respond with perfect accuracy.
Now for the first time in what felt like years, he’d woken up naturally.
That didn’t fill Lucas with a sense of nostalgia. He jumped up from his bed, jammed his finger on the button that opened the door, and ran at full pelt to the bridge. He didn’t know what he was expecting to see, and his armor shot into place immediately.
When he rounded the corner onto the bridge, running as fast as he could considering it was a small ship with narrow corridors, he didn’t see a war, a battle, or even a small skirmish. What he saw was Jane sitting peacefully in the navigator chair, staring out into the middle distance, with nobody trying to attack her.
She turned around as he pelted into the room, her eyes blinking languidly and finally focusing on him. Then she smiled slowly.
“What happened?” he asked immediately, aware that his voice was filled with concern, suspicion, and just a little note of blame.
He couldn’t deny that Jane was sitting there and smiling with quite obvious satisfaction. “You slept,” she pointed out plainly.
“For almost ten hours,” he said quickly, voice curt. “What happened? I set the computer to wake me up in ten minutes—”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, but I wasn’t about to wake you up. Ten minutes’ rest is —”
“Jane, what did you do to the computer?” he interrupted, voice strained with accusation as he crossed his arms.
She blinked back at him. “Excuse me? I didn’t do—”
“You hacked into the computer and stopped it from waking me up on time, didn’t you?” he was annoyed, annoyed.
She narrowed her eyes at him, her usually cute button nose crumpling with obvious anger. “Excuse me? Hacked into the computer? How on Earth would I do that? I just work in admin—”
“Jane,” he repeated once more, arms still crossed in front of him. Then he stopped. Because she was right. She couldn’t hack into the computer; she was just a simple office worker.
She couldn’t have done it, but the implant could have.
He locked his jaw in place, looked at her for another moment, and then let his arms fall loosely to his sides. “Sorry,” he managed as he walked up to the command chair and sat roughly in it.
She continued to stare at him for a moment, her eyes narrowed and expression irritated and suspicious, then she shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever.”
“Did anything happen?” he asked quickly, though he didn’t need to, as he instantly docked his glove with the main console and waited for the computer to give him any situation reports. In another second, before she could even answer, he had the full history of the last ten hours. He could confirm that nothing at all had happened. They hadn’t received any notifications, no ships had come alongside them, and no rogue Darq had somehow latched onto their ship and tried to attack them while he’d been napping.
“Nothing,” she answered, her voice still sharp with irritation.
Though Lucas had confirmed that for himself, he still wasn’t pleased with the situation. If he was right, and that implant of hers had hacked into the main computers and into his armor to let him sleep…. He just shook his head at the thought. Though he was completely fuming at the idea, a little quiet voice in the back of his head noted at least he’d gotten some sleep. A full uninterrupted ten hours to be exact. Though he would probably need a nice holiday to get over the months of stress and overwork that he’d been putting himself through, that ten hours had gone a fair way into paying back his most immediate sleep deficit. While he didn’t feel on top of the world, he felt refreshed.
Finally, he rested back in his chair, undocked his glove, and took a moment before he swiveled his head to her. She’d likely been staring off into space the entire time – when her implant hadn’t been hacking the computer systems, that was. While he could try his hardest to get angry at her for it, it simply wasn’t her fault: he’d seen ample evidence that the implant acted without her knowledge and without her control. He had also seen ample evidence that it only ever acted to keep her safe, even if he didn’t agree with the way that it often did so. Was it all that strange to conclude that the implant wanted Lucas to rest because it was a good thing for Jane? Did it not want him running around alongside her bleary eyed, totally weary, and just about to collapse from fatigue?
Lucas shook his head and wondered exactly what the implant was prepared to do to keep Jane safe. And, importantly, considering what had just happened to him, he wondered what it was willing to do to him to ensure that same outcome.
“Stop shaking your head,” Jane pointed out tersely, “nothing happened, and you got a lot of sleep. This isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps you just set the alarm wrong, or maybe your armor overrode your ridiculous intention to only sleep for a mere ten minutes,” Jane suggested through a sniff.
Lucas nodded, pretending he agreed with her. “I guess you are right, sorry for accusing you. I guess I was just surprised by it,” he used his most diplomatic and careful tone, usually the voice he found himself employing whenever he had to talk to despots, pirate kings, or Senators. The voice that said he believed them, and he was on their side. Lucas wasn’t using that voice for Jane; he was using it for the implant.
Things were getting complicated, but as Jane shrugged her shoulders, most of the annoyed edge to her expression fading away, he couldn’t help but smile. Sure, things were getting complicated, but on some level, they were getting interesting too.
Almost grinning now, Lucas turned back to the viewscreen. He didn’t need to dock again with the computer to know where they were in their flight path. It would only be another hour or so until they landed on the planet. When they reached it… well, Lucas Stone was going to meet his first confirmed Paran. While that would be somewhat monumental for him, as he’d grown up hearing so much about the mysterious race, he knew it would not be a touch on the probable significance that it held for Jane.
Not for the first time, Lucas found himself thinking about how curious it was that the implant seemed to stop Jane from thinking or even hearing about the Parans, but it was content to let him take her to see one in the flesh. Was it all just a ruse? Were they going to get out of the spaceship and head off to meet the contact, only for Jane to run off in the other direction as the implant took control? Taking her out of his life for good?
He didn’t know the right answer, but he hoped like hell that wouldn’t happen.
As he sat in the command chair, occasionally docking his glove as he thought of new questions to ask the computer, he noticed the sharp silence that had spread among them. Jane was still sitting there, but she wasn’t staring off into space with that fixed look anymore. Her current expression had a sad edge to it, her lips pressed together with the corners of them drooped slightly.
He didn’t blame her; she had a lot going on.
If it were anyone else, Lucas would try to repeat to them that everything would be okay, that they would find a way to fix this. Yet he’d repeated that to Jane so many times that it seemed simply futile to keep on saying it anymore. Plus, it was obvious she didn’t believe him. Who was he to state categorically that everything would work out in the end? He didn’t know what he was dealing with, neither of them did. Neither of them knew who Jane was, who was really after her, why Adam Thomson had attacked her, and what would happen next.
“Only 50 minutes till we arrive,” Lucas noted quietly.
Jane dipped her head in acknowledged. She opened her mouth, looking as if she wanted to ask something, and then turned back to the viewscreen.
He watched with interest and waited for her to say whatever was on her mind. It took a long time for her to rub a hand over her eyes and mumble: “What do we do… if it doesn’t work?”
“I… we try someone else,” he replied slowly.
“Then what?” She kept on staring at the view screen.
“Look, Jane, I know there is a lot about this situation that we don’t know, but if we keep on trying to find out more information, we will eventually figure this out. The Director’s contact is a start. If that doesn’t work…” he drummed his hand on the console. If that doesn’t work, he wanted to say, then they would simply try to find another Paran. Lucas got the distinct impression that another member of her race – if Jane were indeed a Paran – would be able to help. After all, the Director had said that only Parans were capable of using their own technology. It had been confirmed that the implant inside Jane’s brain was Paran. At the least a Paran could give them some insights into what it was, how it worked, and why in the hell it might be in there in the first place.
“We will solve this,” he promised.
He stared up at the view screen. They were nearing their destination. Now all he had to do was wait for whatever would happen next, even though a part of him suspected that it would probably be frantic, dangerous, and likely unstoppable.
The ship finally entered planetary orbit.
Jane had never been much fascinated by Galactic geography and hardly knew anything about the planet below her. Yet she could see with her eyes that it was mostly water with only the occasional patch of green. Its atmosphere also gave off a soft yellow glow. It was really quite beautiful and reminded her of a gem glittering in the sun.
Lucas keyed different commands into the computer, and then their ship began to descend toward the surface. As it did, the pit of Jane’s stomach bottomed out.
What was waiting for them down there? The Director had said that a member of that “P” race would meet them, and would hopefully help them find out what was going on.
The exact second Jane thought about meeting someone from that race, she gave a violent shudder. Lucas looked up at her quickly, and rather than stare at her face, his eyes fixed on a point just behind her left ear. Was he looking at the… at it? Was he using the fancy scanners in his armor to take readings of it, to see if it was active, to see if it was about to take control of her body and send her spinning around the room, cartwheeling, kicking, rolling, and fighting everything in sight?
“Not long now,” Lucas mumbled, “and I have got this,” he said in a far more certain voice, “I will do everything I can to ensure you are safe,” he put a lot of effort into making his words slow, deliberate, and genuine.
Jane just nodded. Then her gaze slipped back to the view screen, and she watched the clouds race around the ship as it descended toward the planet below. Eventually, the fantastic view was enough to pull her thoughts away from her problems and to the wonder that was around her. It was such a surreal experience to see the ship moving so quickly in relation to the clouds but not to feel anything move in the ship itself: inertia dampeners were stopping Jane from being smashed up against the ceiling as the ship dropped toward the surface.
Now they broke through a cloud bank, and a glittering blue ocean engulfed the entire view screen. Jane gasped in amazement. It was beautiful, better than beautiful, incredible. She could see the ocean below glittering, and as they got closer and closer, she could make out various buildings dotted here and there amongst the waves. They were silver and white, obviously made of metal as their surfaces glistened so beautifully in the sun. They were all interconnected, though some were dotted out on the periphery with nothing but the waves lapping around them.
“Not a bad view, is it?” Lucas stated from her side.
Jane didn’t answer, and she didn’t look at him but not because she was ignoring him; the view before her completely held and captivated her. In all her fantasies, she’d never imagined something quite so beautiful.
The ship now slowed and leveled out, traveling flat over the water. Just before it could dock with one of the massive buildings that were now shooting into view, it started to plunge down toward the waves again, and Jane found her hands snaking out and latching onto the armrests of her chair.
“It’s okay, it docks underwater,” Lucas said immediately, that same genuine, careful edge to his voice.
In another instant the ship plunged underneath the ocean waves, sinking with incredible speed, the water lapping over the view screen.
Suddenly there was nothing but blue ocean all around them, but before Jane could get her bearings, the ship started to shoot forward again, and soon it neared one of the massive buildings. Docking in space was one thing and was incredible to behold. But docking underwater… well Jane had never thought such things occurred in the Galaxy, but of course they did: there were so many planets out there all with such different environmental conditions. She was simply finding out just how naïve she truly was.
The massive building before them that Jane could see stretching out in all directions had a large tunnel that the ship now shot through. Rather than travel through it and for a door to close behind them, cutting off the ocean beyond, they shot through a kind of security field instead: a blue flickering wall of energy that Jane didn’t notice until they actually passed through it.
She jumped in fright.
“It’s all right; the ship’s shields prevent us from getting fried by the security field,” Lucas pointed out clearly.
Now they were in a tunnel, it was completely dry. It was also dark, save for two single lines of illumination that were either side of the ship.
“Not long now,” Lucas mumbled as he entered something into the panel before him.
He was right, because in another instant, the ship came hurtling toward what Jane realized was a solid black wall. Once again, before she could scream, the ship suddenly changed angle and started to shoot up through a tunnel that opened out above them. Then finally the tunnel disappeared, and they found themselves in a massive hangar bay, ship after ship docked with magnetic clamps in neat rows to their sides.
In barely half a minute their own ship docked, a magnetic clamp latching onto the bottom of it and dragging it toward the metal gangway to their left.
Lucas kept entering things into the panel for a little, and then turned to her, a smile shifting across his face. “Welcome to Planet Gold,” he spread his hand toward the view screen.
Planet Gold? Strange name, surely Planet Ocean or Planet Blue would be better. Jane didn’t point that out for fear of sounding stupid. As she’d already overreacted several times when the ship had plunged through the ocean, gone through the security field, and had shot up the tunnel, she didn’t want to seem like any more of a Galactic newbie.
“All right, I have done a preliminary scan of news feeds and any communiqués I have been able to access, and it doesn’t look as if there will be an entire army waiting out there for us,” Lucas kept on staring at the panel in front of him. “But that being said, maybe it is best for you to stay on the ship—”
“No,” Jane snapped, and there was an edge to her voice, one that she’d never found herself using before. In fact, it almost seemed as if her voice didn’t belong to her at all.
Lucas blinked in surprise, his eyebrows actually shooting up. “It’s just—” he tried.
“I’m going with you,” Jane used the same voice and stood up quickly.
Lucas appeared to wait a moment and then stood up beside her. “Okay.”
Jane shivered as she caught up to what she’d just said. She was going to follow Lucas Stone as he tried to meet a shadowy contact given to him by the Director of the Central Shipyards, in the hope that the contact would be able to tell him exactly what Jane was and why half the Galaxy apparently wanted her dead. Really, she would much prefer to stay on the ship and let him do all the footwork, the running, the fighting, and the adventure. Yet she couldn’t… she couldn’t turn around and sit back down in that chair; it felt as if that option simply wasn’t available to her body…. It was exerting control. While it wasn’t taking full control yet, she knew that if she fought it, it would. So she took a shaky step closer to Lucas, as if that would help, and set her gaze in front of her, resigning herself to the fact that yes, she was about to continue the adventure. There would be no sitting out this part of it apparently.
The situation was getting ever more complex. Worse yet: Jane was going to follow him. He didn’t know what was waiting for them on Planet Gold. They were meant to be going to see a Paran, but that didn’t mean that a Paran would actually be waiting there for them. Specimen 14 was turning out to be resourceful and calculating – anticipating their every move. Plus, Lucas still didn’t know how Adam Thomson fitted into all of this. The kid had obviously been trained, equipped, and had sat there on the Central Shipyards well before Jane had ever arrived. Meaning that his attack had likely been opportune rather than planned.
Was he some kind of spy? Or was he something else? Did Specimen 14 have abilities that Lucas wasn’t yet aware of? Something psychic? Had the creature somehow been able to take command of Adam Thompson’s body just like Jane’s implant had the ability to take control of her own? Though Lucas couldn’t rule it out, he doubted it. Adam Thomson had been equipped with an electro blade, and not only were they banned for use by citizens, but someone usually required a great deal of training in using them to be effective with them, let alone turn them on.
No, whoever Adam Thompson was, he’d been on Central Shipyards waiting long before Jane had arrived. Which meant that the situation was, in fact, even more complicated than Lucas had once believed.
He’d been to Planet Gold several times – it was one of the central worlds of the Galactic Union. There was often a lot going on here, everything from politics to corruption to just general and quite fun watersports. Yet this wasn’t going to be a holiday.
He keyed in the code that opened the door at the end of the ship, and he braced himself. He braced himself for the possible army that was waiting outside.
The door opened. There was no army.
Well, at least not an armed one.
As soon as the doors opened, the filming began. Hovering holographic cameras lined up in front of him, humans and aliens from different news crews standing just behind the row of cameras, all yammering to him as one, their voices creating an unpleasant din, a cacophony he wanted to get away from by turning his armor onto full and disabling all audio feeds.
Jane was standing right behind him now, one of her arms actually pressed up against his.
“Lucas Stone,” the closest reporter shouted, “do you have any comments?”
The question was repeated by all the other reporters.
Lucas winced at the noise of their shouts and the glare of the holographic projectors as they scanned him over and over again.
“Comment, do you have a comment?” one of the other reporters shouted.
“About the incredible events on Earth? About the fact Galactic Force transmissions have been intercepted without correct security codes? Has it been overrun?” one far more excited reporter asked as he jumped up and down on the spot, his tail twisting around and around like a rotor.
“What?” was all Lucas could ask.
“All communications with Earth went dark after the Galactic Senate began an investigation into why recent Galactic Force communiques appear to be faked,” the excited reporter said, his tail now twisting around so fast that Lucas wouldn’t have been surprised if the little guy took off in flight.
“What?” Lucas snapped desperately.
“Do you have any comment?” one of the other reporters asked. This one was a human woman, and the more Lucas looked at her, the more he realized he knew her. In fact, he was damn certain she had something to do with his Fan Club. Yes, that was it: she’d once done an interview with him when the Fan Club was just getting off the ground, in an attempt to get some kind of exclusive story to pique reader interest. Out of all the other reporters there, she was the only one who looked genuinely concerned. “All communications have gone dead,” she repeated, voice hollow, “you have just come from Earth—”
Lucas put a hand up. He’d dealt with media circuses before, and the trick was to never let them get into full swing. When they started to bring out the tigers and the clowns, was when you inevitably put your foot in your mouth and said something that would lose you your command. “I have no comment at this stage. I will prepare a comment and send it to the United News Service shortly. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to disperse, as I’m on an important mission,” he puffed his chest out and looked as stern as he could.
The effect was almost instant, and all the reporters stood off to one side, though continuing to record him with their holo cameras, of course. Even if they couldn’t get him to give a comment, at least they could catch him trying to be the hero, and going about his important business with his chest punched out, his jaw set and his eyes blazing.
Jane shadowed him, as close to his back as she could get, as they finally made it through all the reporters. Everyone turned to Jane, interest obvious on all their faces, their cameras now swooping in on her and scanning her. Though it set Lucas’ teeth on edge, he didn’t do anything, and he didn’t say anything. Plus, there was always the possibility that Jane’s implant was messing with their equipment anyway, or in fact wiping everything they had just recorded.
Lucas could only hope.
When the two of them eventually managed to get free from the crowd, he noticed that she let out a quick and erratic breath of air. “That was horrible,” she managed eventually, “they are like animals.”
Lucas smiled, though he didn’t turn to Jane so that she could see his expression. Yes, yes, they were much like animals. The kind of frantic almost crazed attention that they gave him was often disturbing. So it was nice to finally have someone else acknowledge that fact.
“I don’t know how you put up with that,” she continued, “one of those holo cameras got so close it started to singe my hair.”
Once Lucas had been banged right on the nose by one, and it had left an angry red burn there for several days until he’d bothered to have it fixed. And once a fairly ambitious reporter had tried to actually dock one of his cameras right with Lucas’ armor. His armor, naturally, had recorded it as a threat and had fried it with an interference field. Said reporter had been so angry that he’d chased Lucas all afternoon until he’d finally paid for a new one.
Oh no, the press weren’t pleasant. That was one fact you could count on throughout the entire Galaxy. That being said, it didn’t stop Lucas from feeling reflective as he remembered the expression on the female reporter’s face. She’d looked concerned… no, more than concerned, she’d looked out right worried. Of course she was, because if what the press were saying was correct, and Earth…. Lucas started to walk a bit faster, his armor increasing his pace as his mind entertained the alarming possibility that something was wrong on Earth, his home planet, his world.
“Hey, hold on, wait up from me,” Jane called from behind him.
Before he’d realized it, he’d practically sprinted off, leaving her a good ten meters behind. He stopped, shook his head, and mumbled a sorry. She eventually caught up, and then she rested her hands on her knees, panting heavily.
It was worlds and worlds apart from the incredible speed, strength, and agility she’d shown both back in Research Lab Two and again in the research lab on the Central Shipyards. Now she was having trouble going for the shortest run. Miranda obviously hadn’t been lying, and Jane’s physiology really was weaker than the average human. Well, not always weaker, that was for sure.
Despite the fact his mind was filled with the horrible possibility that something was going wrong with Earth, he still found the time to look at her with a compressed, confused expression on his face. She really was an enigma.
She stopped panting and stood up properly. She looked concerned, her top teeth sunk heavily into her bottom lip, her eyebrows peaked over her eyes. “What’s going on with Earth? I don’t understand, what did those reporters mean?”
Lucas didn’t know, but one of the reasons he was racing was that he wanted to get to the nearest worldwide computer hub so he could access the interconnected central processing unit of Planet Gold and find out himself. Though technically he could simply send a request with his armor and try to upload information wirelessly, he really didn’t want to do that. While there were ample security protocols in place to ensure that nobody could hack his feed, he had to suspect, considering the current situation, that those were not as secure as they once had been. Plus, he didn’t want to just announce the fact he was on Planet Gold so loudly and so obviously. If he docked with a hub rather than sending a request, he could at least try to hide his presence. Though it really didn’t matter as he’d just been harangued by an entire tribe of reporters, so it was obvious that someone knew he was on the planet. Still, there was a difference between knowing he was on the planet and knowing exactly where he was. So that was why Lucas kept on walking quickly the second Jane had managed to catch her breath. Though she was panting heavily, he kept up a steady pace. At this rate even if he had to carry her he would. Yet he got the distinct impression that the implant would not like that.
“How do we find out what’s going on? Can’t you just use your armor—” Jane began, but she stopped as she ran out of breath.
She really did have a weaker physiology. Or maybe she didn’t; for all Lucas knew Jane had a completely normal physiology or in fact one far in advance of most other races, but the implant simply exerted its control to ensure she never acted in a way that indicated she was special, that brought attention to her.
Once again Lucas found himself gritting his teeth and repeating that he was going to find out what that thing was and get it out of her head. It was a useful parasite for now, but it was a parasite he was going to get rid of eventually.
Soon Lucas managed to find a computer hub, and he even waited in line until the row of other aliens in front of him had finished imputing their requests. Some of them docked devices to the various interfaces of the hub, some of them just used wireless hologram feeds, some simply spoke, and some of the more telepathic races just stood around, eyes closed, arms crossed in front of them as they connected their thoughts to the computer.
Lucas waited, and he waited until the crowd had died down a bit before he eventually found a free console to dock his glove with. He couldn’t deny that his heart was beating fast, his breath shallow, a small slip of sweat picking up across his brow.
It was his planet.
He’d grown up there.
That was where his grandfather had lived. That was where his old log cabin was.
That was where Lucas had joined the Galactic Force, where he’d trained.
Though he honestly believed that every single planet in the Galactic Union deserved equal and complete protection, the prospect of something going wrong with Earth sent tendrils of dread wrapping around his gut.
Earth was incredibly protected, housing the headquarters of the Galactic Force. In all Lucas’ time, there had never been a real threat to the planet. A couple of security incidents here and there, but nothing that endangered everything as a whole, nothing that would have a sea of reporters mobbing him, asking if he had any comment, if he knew why Earth had gone into a communications blackout….
Lucas was aware that his shoulders were stiff, his arm almost locked into place as his glove maintained the dock with the computer.
“What is it? Have you found out yet?” Jane asked softly from his side, possibly for the fifth time already.
He was still sifting through the information, and for some reason, it was harder than usual. Everything was slower than the lightning speed at which he could send and receive information through a direct uplink with his armor. It was almost as if the onboard computer, embedded in the live matrix of his bio-armor, was running some kind of subroutine at the same time, something Lucas wasn’t conscious of, but something that was taking up most of the processing power nonetheless.
Finally, he began to get several sketchy reports. He confirmed the fact there was a communications blackout, he confirmed that there had been communiqué after communiqué sent by the Galactic Force but that the Galactic Union had almost immediately realized that they lacked the correct security codes, and had instigated an immediate investigation. Yet the second the investigation had begun, was the second the communiqués stopped, and the second that all communication with Earth had gone dark.
Though Lucas was hardly learning anything new, his back became completely cold, his forehead damp with sweat.
He undocked his hand.
He hadn’t found out anything he didn’t know. There simply wasn’t enough information out there. Though he had seriously high security clearance, it hadn’t managed to secure him anything that wasn’t on the general channels, anyway. He finally turned to Jane, then he shook his head.
Jane took a careful breath and nodded simply. “I hope everybody is okay,”
So did Lucas.
“We have to go,” he eventually managed, “we can’t just hang around here and wait for more information to come,” he said more for his benefit than for Jane’s.
He saw her swallow, saw her eyes instantly darting to the side, her gaze settling on some patch of wall.
Well, this was it, wasn’t it? He was finally going to find out whether her implant was going to let her actually meet a fellow Paran.
No time to wait, he would have to find out on the run. He nodded his head to the side. Time to go.
What was wrong with Earth? What had happened? Was it that thing?
Though Jane had no real evidence, she knew that yes, it was the thing. She’d heard Lucas refer to it as Specimen 14, and while she appreciated it had another name, she couldn’t dare use the word.
Just thinking about it managed to send a horrible chill racing through Jane, and she pressed her lips closed in an instant, even flickering her eyes shut until the cold past.
Exactly what it had done, she didn’t know, but she did know one thing for sure: whatever it was doing, it was all in aid of tracking Jane down. Earth wasn’t the target of Specimen 14, Jane was.
Yet she was still walking, with Lucas Stone by her side, and that meant something.
He was turning out to be completely different from his legend. In fact, the only thing she’d been right about was what he looked like: tall and thoroughly handsome by human standards, and perhaps even by several other alien standards as well. But tall and handsome didn’t mean that much when the Galaxy was full of aliens, and everybody looked different; there were so many bodies and shapes and ideals of beauty. In fact, these days people could be attractive no matter what they looked like, and concepts of beauty tended to parallel far more with confidence and authority than long legs and a charming smile. That being said, Lucas still had something, and while Jane had once convinced herself that she would never, ever be drawn in by that certain something, she could still appreciate that it was there. More importantly, she could still appreciate that he was there, that he was walking confidently beside her, not leaving her, not deviating from their path, his head always held solidly forward, his eyes always gazing fixedly and determinedly toward whatever lay ahead.
… What lay ahead… Jane clamped down hard on her jaw, her teeth setting together, even grating. They were walking through what looked like an expensive and posh section of town. Though Jane couldn’t exactly be sure, as every building was astounding in her eyes. Even so, the aliens she now saw walking around all wore expensive tunics and had looks on their faces that suggested they deemed themselves to be more than your average lazy Galactic bum.
The closer they neared their destination, the more Jane started to pant and the more her breath came in shallow little bursts. It wasn’t because she was tired – even though she could hardly keep up with Lucas as he raced along – it was because she was scared. Actually, it was more than that, it was as if her body was preparing for something as if every single one of her cells was now poised in anticipation.
The more poised and expectant she became, the more she found herself walking closer and closer to Lucas until she even bumped into him several times. He didn’t put a hand on her shoulder and push her away, but he did at least glance down at her and acknowledge it with a bare smile. “It is going to be fine,” he tried once more.
She doubted that. It was going to be something, but it wasn’t going to be fine. Coming home from work and sitting on her window ledge while she ate a lovely, warm Hoyan hotpot, was fine. Sitting at work as a stream of beautiful sunshine warmed her back was fine. Meeting a shadowy contact on a planet far away from Earth in the hope that he would be able to tell her what was going on, wasn’t fine; it was adventurous. Jane had spent her entire life distinguishing well and competently between fine and adventure. She didn’t waste her breath pointing this out to Lucas, though, because she hardly had the breath to force her body to keep on following him.
She really wasn’t built for this; she could hardly walk at a brisk pace, let alone run around the Galaxy as they frantically sought answers to their conundrum. Yet, despite that fact, Jane continued on.
Eventually, they managed to reach a tall tower. It wasn’t connected to the main city: they’d had to use a slingshot transport to get to it, because it was a good 500 meters away from the rest of the interconnected buildings that made up the main metropolis.
At first, Jane had been incredibly wary as she’d approached the peculiar transport, but when Lucas had offered her a hand, accompanied by a rather inviting smile, she’d ignored the hand and walked up into the transport next to him, being sure to shoot him an intense look. He’d shrugged, laughed, and had told her in a quiet voice to hold onto something strong.
Before Jane had processed that, the platform suddenly shot up and out from the street. She let out a yelp, latching her hands onto the railing before her, even though the platform was shielded from whatever inertia that should be accompanying its movement. Then it shot toward the other building. The effect of it was like being slung from a canon. In fact, Jane had once seen a documentary about a peculiar ancient human activity of loading oneself into a cannon and being shot at various targets. Apparently, humans had done so for entertainment, but Jane didn’t find this entertaining one little bit. In barely several seconds the platform docked with the building 500 meters away. Rather than slowing down like a ship would, it slammed into a security field. At that moment, Lucas latched a hand over her arm, no doubt ensuring she didn’t fall over from the shock of it all.
“Steady there,” he said as he let her go, the security field around the platform blinking off and allowing them to leave.
As she stumbled to her feet, her legs shaking as she followed Lucas off the platform, she could hear that he was laughing quietly. “What was that thing?” she demanded. “And why are you laughing?”
“It’s a slingshot transport, Jane,” he answered, “and I’m laughing because that was impossibly cute.” He kept on chuckling as he started to walk away from the platform, not bothering to turn to her.
Which just left Jane completely confused and a great deal flustered. Cute? Impossibly cute? What exactly was that meant to mean?
Before she could storm up to him and ask, she noticed that Lucas came to a sudden halt in front of the building before them.
It didn’t have any doors, or perhaps its entrance was somewhere around the side and simply not visible from her angle. Nonetheless, Jane found herself staring up at it, confusion on her face. “How do we get in?”
Lucas didn’t answer. In fact, he was just standing there, body stiff. After a while, she realized that he was probably talking to somebody over his com-line, and she just left him in peace.
She walked around behind him for a bit, waiting, trying to be the good sidekick as he no doubt received an important call. She headed over to the side of the path that ran all the way around the building and found herself staring down at the ocean below. She hardly ever saw the ocean: it wasn’t close to either the Galactic Force nor where she lived, and Jane wasn’t one for travel.
Yet now that she stared down at the dark blue mass before her, she had to admit that it was beautiful, inviting even.
Lucas was still busy having his conversation, and who knew how long it would take. Maybe the Galactic Force had finally managed to re-establish control over its communication lines, and they’d called their wonder boy to see how he was going. Lucas was probably talking to the Dean herself, or perhaps even the Galactic Union President. Yes, that made sense.
The more Jane stared down at the ocean below, the more she was filled with the frankly peculiar and entirely inappropriate compulsion to jump in and have a swim. It was inappropriate because she was half way through a mission to find out why some mysterious and thoroughly fiendish creature was out to get her. It was peculiar because Jane couldn’t swim. She’d never had the chance to learn, after all; swimming was too close to adventure.
Yet now here she was, body inching closer and closer to the end of the pathway and the ocean below. As her body moved, a sharp, tight pressure began to build in her brain.
It was mad, thoroughly mad, but the desire to just jump into the water was starting to build and build and build within her. The desire was different to the by-now familiar control of the implant. It felt uneven somehow, clunky; it seemed to lack the seamless integration that the implant was capable of.
The more the desire built within her, the more a stabbing pain began to radiate from her head.
As Jane battled with her almost suicidal compulsion, Lucas was still simply standing there, ramrod straight, obviously still confabbing with whatever heads of state, dignitaries, and Galactic leaders that had called for a chat.
… Jane jumped in.
She actually jumped into the water.
The shield that she knew would have been in place around the pathway to stop people from falling in and drowning just wasn’t there.
So Jane hit the water.
She started to sink.
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move a muscle. His armor had just seized up. Every single joint of it had locked into place without a single command from him and, in fact, despite every single attempt to override it.
It wouldn’t listen to him: the living membrane was accepting no commands from his mind.
He practically swore at it to get going, but it wouldn’t respond.
That strange subroutine he’d been vaguely aware of since arriving had started to consume more and more power the second they’d walked off the slingshot transport (well, Jane had wobbled off).
Now that program was using every single scrap of power that he had, and there didn’t seem to be a thing he could do to override it.
If that weren’t bad enough, he’d just heard a splash from behind him.
Although his heart had raced at the sudden and unexpected sound, a sharp and punctuated breath leaving his chest, he hadn’t been able to turn around to see what it was or what had happened. And with his armor completely unresponsive to his commands, he couldn’t use it to obtain readings on the environment.
He couldn’t move, and he had no idea what was going on. He also couldn’t see Jane.
She’d been behind him when he’d stopped, when his armor had ground to a halt.
She hadn’t once walked in front of him.
He had no idea where she was.
As the seconds passed, the sound of that splash still ringing in his ears, his blood turned cold.
He wanted to shout out her name. He couldn’t.
He wanted to turn to see if she was still behind him. He couldn’t.
Instead, whatever program that had seized his armor remained in control, completely paralyzing him.
Then he heard something floundering in the water behind him, heard the frequent and erratic splashes as something thrashed about in the ocean just several meters to his left.
He started to hear the choking.
Something was drowning.
Lucas knew it was Jane.
Fear seized Jane’s mind as water lapped into her mouth. She started to choke, thrashing as she tried to move to one of the pillars that held up the path she’d just jumped off. But she couldn’t gain enough control over her body, couldn’t will her arms and legs to move quick enough. She didn’t seem to have control over them.
Through it all, the buzzing in her mind grew in strength.
Jane started to swallow water; the waves lapping up and into her mouth as she slipped below the surface.
As she started to sink, she saw something.
It was on the other side of the city, near the slingshot transport.
It was black. It had a thick body with six legs extending from its torso like a spider, and a single, pointed tail whipping up around it. It looked like an Earth scorpion, except jet-black and huge.
It glanced her way.
Before her eyes sunk below the waves, she saw it move. It launched itself off the opposite platform.
Then she started to drown, her mind filling with static as she swallowed water in her frantic attempts to breathe.
The static built and built, and Jane got the distinct impression it was trying to fight something.
Her whole body shook from the electrifying effect of that ringing.
It grew and grew and grew until suddenly a pulse shivered through her.
Jane regained control over her body; the insidious pain that had forced her into the water now gone.
Yet it was too late, though.
Jane’s body was shutting down.
Yet at the last instant, as her eyes closed, her senses dimming, she felt her limbs kick into gear. As she moved, something reached her, wrapped around her middle, and pulled her out of the water.
Jane’s body shot from the water so quickly that her wet hair slapped against her face.
Whatever had a hold of her twisted her around until it dumped her on the path, her body hitting the ground with a violent, wet, resounding smack.
Then she saw it. The assassin robot. It was standing barely a yard from her, its small head tilted to the side, its large, intelligent, electronic eyes locked down on her.
It twisted its tail around, the point of it glinting in the sun.
It was about to strike.
She tried not to move but shook forward as she coughed and spluttered. Her mind began to whirl; the buzzing that had overcome the urge to drown returning with a surge.
It filled her brain. There was nothing but the buzzing. It resonated down her arms and legs, shaking her body as she lay there on the ground.
Lucas still stood there, his back turned to her, his body stiff and unmoving. Either he was having one hell of a fabulous conversation, or he couldn’t move at all.
So she waited, the buzzing still shaking through her limbs, the assassin robot still poised to attack.
Yet time wound on, and it didn’t strike.
It seemed frozen there, poised but unmoving.
The buzzing in her mind built to a point until there was a clicking sound that echoed through her thoughts.
The assassin robot finally did something, but it didn’t attack. It leaned down to her, its eyes coming so close to her own, that she could see each of the concentric, blue, electronic lenses turn around as it focused its attention on her.
It didn’t attack; it just looked.
A whole minute went past, Jane choking as quietly as she could, her shoulders shaking, her body soaked, but her face always angled up to the robot right in front of her.
“What do you want?” she finally asked, her voice such a choking mess that her words were almost indiscernible.
It didn’t answer, but it did keep on looking at her, its eyes, and more accurately the little electronic lenses that kept on twisting and circling around as its computer controlled its attention, now moved frantically. It was such a strange sight, and though an assassin robot was right before her, its intentions clear, Jane did nothing but stare.
Suddenly she heard Lucas speak: “Jane,” Lucas managed, his voice sounding strained, almost distant.
He didn’t move, though. He obviously couldn’t.
The assassin robot still didn’t attack. It still simply looked on at Jane, those little lenses in its eyes moving faster and faster. Perhaps it could shoot lasers from them, and it was standing there while the ability charged.
So she just sat there, still shaking, still frozen, still staring out at it, the buzzing in her mind never leaving her.
“Jane,” Lucas repeated, his voice still as strangled as before.
Though Lucas’ voice punctuated the silence, the assassin robot still didn’t attack. What was more, nothing else did, either. None of the planet security fields suddenly whizzed into place, and no security officers suddenly appeared around the corner in spaceships, telling Jane that it was illegal to jump into the ocean, and telling the assassin robot that was also quite illegal to be, well, an assassin robot.
The more the assassin robot just stood there, kneeling down toward her, staring right at her, the less intimidated she felt. In fact, the more she started at it, the more she was sucked into the strange concentration that seemed to be expressed over the assassin robot’s rather plain and simple face. Most importantly the eyes, the eyes were incredible.
“Jane,” Lucas tried again, his voice finally starting to become stronger. Yet he still wasn’t moving.
“Jane,” the assassin robot said. At first, it completely mimicked Lucas’ tone, perfectly matching the swaying motion that was rippling through the word. Then it repeated her name again, and this time it sounded electronic and bland. It went on to repeat her name three more times, as if it were a child learning how to speak.
The effect was electrifying on Jane, and she started to recede, her body still shaking, but her breath now slowing down, even stopping at the incredible sight before her.
“You are Jane,” the assassin robot now said.
“Jane,” Lucas managed, and this time his voice was filled with complete and obvious fear.
Yet the assassin robot still wasn’t attacking.
Finally, Jane made a decision, and it was probably an incredibly stupid one. She stood up, her body still shaking, and a curious thing happened – the assassin robot’s tail flipped around, and it didn’t suddenly slice through her chest in an easy and incredibly vicious movement. Rather it pressed easily into her back and seemed to hover there. It didn’t latch hold of her in any obviously violent way; it simply provided her with something to lean against. Then the assassin robot stood, bringing its torso and head down until it was facing Jane again. “Jane,” it repeated.
Jane took a shaky breath and kept on coughing, the effect of her near drowning still playing havoc with her throat and lungs. “What’s your name?” she asked.
… She asked the assassin robot what its name was. Though Jane hadn’t known what an assassin robot was only several days ago, she’d taken the chance to do some reading on them. She’d confirmed what she’d already suspected: they were meant to be among the most vicious, trained, efficient killers this side of Hell’s Gate. They were a form of biosynthetic life: a creature that employed the equal use of technology and biology; each cell a happy synthesis of the two. Yet that was as far as the happy analogy stretched: an assassin robot used its unique physiology to accomplish one simple task – It killed people. It killed aliens. It destroyed things. So it was much banned.
Yet Jane was now facing one and asking what its name was. She almost expected a reply, a reply that wasn’t a tail through the heart, that was.
“Element 52,” the assassin robot answered.
“… Nice to meet you,” Jane responded after a moment.
Yep, she’d just told the assassin robot that it was nice to meet him.
The static that had picked up in Jane’s mind when she’d started to drown was finally abating. Even though Jane was paying little attention to it, and far more attention to the universal-class killer in front of her, she still noted how strange it was. She’d never experienced such a symptom in her life: a full, heavy static that seemed to engulf her mind like an electrical storm. It felt as if something, her brain maybe, it more likely, had been running at absolute full force. Yet now it was abating, and now she was talking to the assassin robot instead. But she couldn’t deny one simple fact: she didn’t feel at all frightened. Perhaps it was calming her, because, quite possibly, it had done something to the assassin robot to ensure it wouldn’t get any assassination done today after all.
“Jane,” Lucas said, and now his voice was louder. “Jane,” he said again, and the note of insistence was so obvious that she twisted her head from the assassin robot and looked at him.
She saw him shift. He stumbled forward, his body so stiff that the move looked like some kind of caricature. Then, after a few steps, the move became more fluid until finally he turned around.
Though he was still stumbling, he immediately reached for his gun.
Then Jane found herself on her feet, her body moving incredibly fast until she planted herself exactly between Lucas and the assassin robot. She held her arms out wide, trying to make herself as large as she could, trying to make it as hard as possible for Lucas to manage to shoot past her and kill the assassin robot.
“Jane, what the prack are you doing?” Lucas shouted as he tried to stumble to the left and get a shot off from her side.
Jane found herself following his move, and she was quicker than Lucas, easily managing to keep herself in front of Element 52 at all times.
“Jane, get the hell out of the way,” Lucas spat, his voice finally sounding clearer. In fact, with every second he seemed to be looking more confident, more capable, less like a broken robot that was stumbling from step to step. “Jane,” he snapped one final time.
“Don’t interfere,” she found herself saying, the same firm, confident tone that she’d used on him in the reconnaissance ship suddenly taking hold.
“Jane?” Lucas didn’t drop his gun, but finally he stopped trying to dart around her to get a safe shot off at the assassin robot.
“Don’t interfere,” she said again, “we need it. I have completed the hack; it is no danger. We need it,” she repeated.
It was so surreal to hear herself speaking, to feel her mouth moving and forming words perfectly and clearly without any desire to do so. She’d completed her hack? What was she talking about?
It was speaking, wasn’t it? It had taken control of her again, it was using her, using her body, doing whatever it had to do.
Lucas shook his head. It was clear he was having trouble believing her, and fair enough. There was a real live assassin robot behind her, granted, one that had a name, Element 52, but still, it was an assassin robot. Of course Lucas didn’t believe her. In fact, she didn’t believe herself, but she didn’t have the luxury of pointing that out to him. “I need it,” she said one final time, and as she finished, she realized that she now had control over her throat, and instantly took a spluttering breath. “What…” she mumbled, wanting to put a hand up to her mouth, to her lips, to her neck, to inspect it all, to find out if they were hers after all. She couldn’t move the rest of her body, though, and it seemed clear it had no intention of moving Jane out from in front of the assassin robot until Lucas put his firearm down. Unfortunately, it appeared that Lucas had no intention of lowering his gun in the presence of one of the most illegal and vicious creatures in the Galaxy, though.
“Jane,” Element 52 repeated, “Jane,” it said again.
She wasn’t sure whether it was trying to get her attention or whether it just liked repeating her name. Honestly, even though this situation was incredible, peculiar, and frantic, Element 52 was starting to remind her of a kid, a dangerous kid, a kid that was shaped like a scorpion and that had a challenged and nasty past.
“Jane, you have to step out of the way,” Lucas tried to step to his left to get around her again.
“Lucas,” she said his name, and it was her speaking, and her voice wavered up and down as she sucked in another breath, choking on it as she still tried to dislodge all the water she’d swallowed from before.
“Get out of the way. You can’t trust it; I’ve seen what these things can do,” he pleaded.
So Jane closed her eyes. Apparently she couldn’t control her body, and apparently Lucas had no intention of heeding Jane’s wishes, even if they weren’t exactly her own.
She didn’t want to see what would happen next.
Prack… he’d heard her drowning. Heard her choking, heard her thrashing. Yet he hadn’t been able to move. He hadn’t been able to do anything. He had tried. Goddamn it, he’d tried. He’d put every single effort he could muster into moving, into turning around, into jumping into the water and saving her. Yet nothing worked. His armor just wouldn’t move.
This wasn’t meant to happen; bio-armor was never meant to be controlled by anyone other than the wearer. It had incredible security protocols in place to ensure that it couldn’t suddenly act without the intention of whoever was inside; of course it did. Otherwise, anyone wearing it could become the victim of external control. In fact, all you would require was a sophisticated hack, and you could find yourself in possession of an army of bio suits.
Yet somebody had still hacked his armor, he was sure of it. While at first, he’d suspected his armor was running some kind of program that was taking up all the processing power, he’d realized too late that it was more than that. Not only was the living membrane consumed with some task, but it had also started to sedate him, calming his muscles, possibly even trying to make him go to sleep.
He’d fought it.
Then, as he’d squeezed his eyes shut at the sound of Jane’s choking, he’d heard an incredible splash. Precious seconds later there had been a shake on the path behind him as something heavy had landed, and seconds after that he’d heard Jane choking and spluttering her heart out less than a meter behind him.
What had followed next had chilled Lucas until no trace of warmth had been left anywhere in his limbs, chest, and heart.
She’d started talking to something. Then, when he’d found his own voice, that something had repeated his words, had mimicked his voice perfectly.
When he’d finally managed to turn, it had been to the sight of an assassin robot. It was right in front of her face, its eyes almost touching her own.
Then she’d thrown herself between him and the robot, just as he’d brought his gun around, just as he’d been ready to fight it off, to get it away from her, to protect her.
Worse than that, she’d used that voice. Or, more accurately, the implant had spoken.
Yet despite its authority and certainty, he wasn’t about to believe it. He knew what an assassin robot was capable of.
So he’d kept his gun held steady as he’d tried to move around her.
Her eyes were squeezed completely shut now, her lips pressed in, her expression almost one of surrender. Yet despite the fact she couldn’t see him, the implant always expertly moved her between Lucas and the robot.
If he moved fast enough, if he managed to roll to the side, he might be able to dodge her to get a clear line of sight. Yet he doubted the implant would let him; he knew it could move Jane faster than he could move, even in his armor.
… But there was something else.
The assassin robot wasn’t moving.
In fact, it simply stood behind Jane, and whenever Jane moved, it moved too, but not in a way that suggested it now wanted to kill her; it just let her always keep herself between it and Lucas.
It was using her as protection.
Lucas slammed his teeth down, not caring that it sent an unpleasant jolt all the way through his jaw.
It seemed a lot of things used Jane.
“Get out of the way,” he snapped again, knowing that it wouldn’t work, but needing to speak out loud, anyway. Plus, even if the implant wasn’t going to listen, at least Jane, the real Jane, could hear him.
“Lucas,” she replied, but she didn’t say anything else, maybe she didn’t have anything to add, or perhaps the implant would only let her repeat his name.
He set his jaw even firmer.
“Lucas,” the assassin robot, Element 52, as it apparently called itself, now repeated his name. While the electronic voice had a detached edge, Lucas could swear it still sounded interested. According to all the files that Lucas had ever read on assassin robots, they couldn’t talk. Fair enough, they could growl, scream, yelp, and make any kind of frightening sound they wanted to scare their prey, but they couldn’t speak. Perhaps it was because the original designers had decided that such a feature wasn’t needed, and would simply take up processing power and room that should be devoted to far more lethal skills and abilities. Or perhaps it was because assassin robots never had anything interesting to say: having single-track minds, as it were. Yet this one spoke.
“Lucas,” Element 52 repeated. “We must leave, Lucas Stone, something is coming,” its voice pitched up and down with every word, giving the impression that it was surprised and worried. “We must leave; it will try to hack us again,” he added.
Jane started to walk backward toward it, her arms still held out wide, and her eyes still completely pressed shut.
“Jane, don’t do it. I have this under control. Honestly, don’t do it,” he begged, knowing that the implant was now not only exerting control over Jane but obviously threatening to finally take her away from him. He couldn’t let that happen. “Jane.”
“Suggest you come; more susceptible to hack on surface,” Element 52 said, its voice still pitching up and down, “plus, we need you.”
Lucas didn’t move, and he didn’t put his gun down, shrug his shoulders, and go with the assassin robot because it told him that it needed him.
He just kept his gun raised and tried to think.
“Running out of time,” the assassin robot said, its voice still pitching up and down, and giving it, despite its reputation, a far more human countenance, as if it were in fact genuinely frightened about what would happen next.
“Lucas,” Jane managed. Once again she didn’t say anything more, just his name.
He gritted his teeth, and he made his decision. He rolled to the left, attempting to get a clear line of sight of the creature. Yet the second he did was the second Jane moved. It was also the second that his armor stopped: once again the exact same force that had come over him moments before, re-exerted control. Lucas faltered, stumbling forward, but it was too late. Jane had turned around and jumped into the ocean. A second later the assassin robot followed. But not after actually taking a moment to shake its head at Lucas, as if it were somehow disappointed in him.
Then the two of them were gone. There was no choking or blustering, no thrashing around as if Jane were drowning, and Lucas knew that now the implant had full control over her body it was probably swimming with the efficiency of an underwater jet ship.
He tried to gain control of his armor again, but he couldn’t. He pleaded with his body to move, but it wouldn’t. He simply stumbled down until his knees met the ground until his palms landed either side of them, his head becoming so heavy that it now dropped between his shoulders.
“Jane,” he managed to say before he lost complete control over his armor.
Then Lucas stopped, or his armor stopped. He couldn’t move. Hands and knees on the ground, face directed at nothing but the path, the great Lucas Stone could no longer put up a fight.
She was swimming, actually swimming, and not drowning. She didn’t have control over her body, she knew that it was once again doing whatever it needed to get her out of trouble. Though she was screaming in her mind with everything she had to go back to Lucas, it wasn’t letting her. Instead, she was swimming down, apparently with no need for air, the black shape of Element 52 close to her left, the compulsion to drown herself all but a distant, distant memory.
They swam down for untold minutes until they finally reached the bottom of the seafloor. Jane didn’t know a great deal about oceans, but she did understand that under this much water there should be considerable pressure. Pressure of the kind that a soft-fleshed, unsupported body should not be able to withstand. Oh, and there was a pressing little fact that she didn’t seem to need air anymore.
The static was back. Oh boy, was the static back. It was ringing in her head. In fact, it was such an overpowering sensation that she was having trouble focusing on the fact she was now swimming unaided, all the way to the bottom of the ocean floor, even though she couldn’t actually swim.
She just wanted it to stop. She needed it to go away.
Finally, she saw a black hatch on the seafloor before her through the shadowy, murky depths of the water.
Element 52 darted forward, its tail latching around some kind of handle until it pulled back and a door opened.
Jane swam forward.
The static was now everywhere. It was all she could hear, and it was all she could see.
She was no longer aware of where she was going or what she was doing, she was only aware of the static.
Jane blanked out. The static took over.
He didn’t know how long he knelt there, body hunched over, armor forcing him to remain completely still. He tried everything, everything to get it to move. He ran every single command he could think of, attempting to use every emergency protocol that he’d ever been taught to turn the armor off. None of that worked. He couldn’t regain even a minuscule amount of control.
The more he remained immobile, the further Jane got away from him. No, ran away from him.
Who knew where she was by now? Still in the company of the assassin robot no doubt. And who knew what it would do to her?
Lucas’ arms were tired, his shoulders aching from fatigue. His body was in such an awkward position, but he couldn’t move it to alleviate any of the strain. He couldn’t even use his com-line to make a call, to try to find some help. No, all he could do was remain exactly as he was, almost soldered to the spot.
Inside his armor at least he could move his face and his mouth. He repeated her name over and over again, swore at himself, swore at his armor. None of it helped of course; he could rail and shout all he wanted, but the armor was far more powerful than Lucas was.
He wasn’t aware of how much time had passed, but as it wound on, his body growing more fatigued as he resigned himself to the fact Jane was now too far away for him to catch up, he considered doing something he’d never had recourse to do in the past. He considered giving up. After all, there was nothing he could do. He’d tried everything, and everything had failed. So now there was only one more option: stop trying.
Lucas fought with the demon of surrender for countless more minutes, until finally he just closed his eyes, clenched his teeth together, and tried one last time to get his armor to move.
There was a sound behind him.
Lucas moved. No, Lucas snapped up. All agility and control back, he punched to his feet so quickly that he jumped into the air almost half a meter.
The sound from behind, the footsteps, finally neared, and a person suddenly dashed in front of him. “Are you all right, security officer?” the person asked.
Lucas stumbled backward, breathing heavily, moving his arms up and down as he clutched his hands into fists. Then he turned his palms toward his face and stared at them, or stared at the armor.
“Security Officer,” the person repeated, “can I assist you in any way?”
Lucas stared at his hands for a few more precious seconds, wondering if they would suddenly stop working again, and then finally looked up.
There was an Endurian before him. An elegant, tall, red-skinned race that resembled humans, but had two stunted horns coming from their head and a pair of relatively inoperative wings tucked neatly at their back. This Endurian was dressed in a tunic that suggested he worked for the Galactic Senate.
“Are you okay, security officer?” he asked again.
Lucas managed a nod. “We have… there’s a situation. There is an assassin robot on this planet. We need to contact planet-wide security now and alert them. We need to redirect all scanners to root out its biosignature,” Lucas was aware he was panting, that he was trying to cram his words all out at once, but he didn’t stop himself. He was just happy that he had some kind of control over his armor again. He even set his helmet to transparent, satisfied that it obeyed his every command.
The Endurian suddenly blinked quickly as no doubt he recognized that the security officer before him was none other than Lucas Stone.
“You are here,” the man said, voice now a whisper, “but where is your friend?”
“Sorry?” Lucas asked quickly, even shaking his head. “The security—”
“I understand, Mr. Stone, and I will make the calls immediately. However….” His eyes darted back and forth, looking all the way over the path as if he were checking for something. “I was expecting there to be someone else with you. Director Karta said—”
“You’re the contact,” Lucas said through a hasty breath. “An assassin robot has got her.”
“The assassin robot didn’t kill her on the spot?” The Endurian asked so quickly Lucas had to wait for his brain to catch up.
“No.” Lucas kept on trying to catch his breath. “She… I don’t think it is going to kill her yet. But we need to get to her as soon as we can.”
The Endurian paled and just for a moment a flicker of anger seemed to dance between his eyes, but as soon as it occurred it stopped. Then he simply shook his head. “What horrible news. We must make the relevant security calls at once. Quickly, come inside.”
The Endurian gestured toward the massive building before them.
She woke up.
She’d been asleep.
Or something like that.
It was the first time Jane could remember that her consciousness had ever been interrupted for so long; the incident at Central Shipyards when she’d been stunned hadn’t drawn on as long as this. It was such a strange, strange feeling to adjust to. She had no experience with it; she didn’t sleep, and she’d never swum to the depths of the ocean only to black out due to lack of oxygen.
It was the weirdest of sensations. It felt like a part of her was missing, that her memory had been edited, that her awareness had been snapped off for a couple of hours.
Yet now she was awake. More importantly, she wasn’t alone.
She was in some kind of chamber, and it appeared to be made of rock, like a cave. The stone was crafted and molded here and there, a doorway to her left, a semblance of a ceiling above her.
There was also something, or someone, right in front of her.
She narrowed her eyes, her vision blurry.
“Thank the gods of Hoya, you are awake.” Whatever creature was in front of her clutched a hand to its chest.
The more Jane stared at it, the more her vision started to correct itself, and she finally realized it was a Hoya. The same elegant, blue, tailed race to which Mandy belonged.
Yet unlike Mandy, this Hoya was neither ignoring Jane for being boring, nor was it draping itself over her shoulders as it waited for something exciting to happen to her. Oh no, it was just standing right in front of her, its wide, beautiful blue eyes open as far as they could be, as it stared down at Jane with clear wonder.
“Jane,” Element 52 said. “Jane,” it repeated in a strange and unique voice.
She turned her head to see that it was standing at the other side of the room, in the doorway, looking at her.
Rather than ask where exactly she was and what exactly had happened, one word and one word alone jumped into her mind. “Lucas?” she asked immediately. Twisting her head this way and that to see where he was.
“Lucas?” she said a little louder, hoping that he was simply in whatever corridor lay beyond the door.
“Lucas didn’t come,” Element 52 replied, “he chose… not to,” it said, voice sounding neutral.
Suddenly Jane remembered. She remembered Lucas trying to duck behind her, trying to shoot Element 52. She also remembered that Lucas had then stumbled, falling to the ground. Then Jane, her body controlled by it, had simply turned around and jumped into the water.
Then she remembered the static.
Jane clutched a hand to her head, closed her eyes, and tried to recall, even though the memory was disturbing, just how incredible that sensation had felt.
“The Assister has currently been disabled; it has used too much energy in fending off the external attack on its processor, in hacking Element 52, and in bringing you here, and must now regenerate,” the Hoyan said quickly, its eyes still perfectly wide as it stared down at her. “You will be safe here, Pala,” it added with a nod.
Jane opened her eyes. “Pala?” she asked. “My name is Jane.”
“Nevertheless, you are Pala,” the Hoyan repeated with a low bow.
Over the years, Jane had learned enough about Mandy to realize that her race loved any kind of game, especially word games. So while Jane didn’t know what Pala meant, she doubted it was important. Perhaps it was Hoyan for monkey, jacket, cheese, or metallic gangway. It wouldn’t matter. What did matter was that Lucas wasn’t here? What did matter was that the last time she’d seen him, he’d stumbled to the ground?
“Is Lucas okay?” she asked out loud, not knowing whether anyone would know the answer, but asking desperately nonetheless.
“The biosynthetic membrane of his armor was momentarily overcome by an external hack,” Element 52 replied, “the same hack that forced you to jump in the ocean. Though the Assister fended it off eventually, his armor is less advanced.”
“What?” Jane put a hand up to her head, trying to push past the pain and confusion, and then finally took a steadying breath.
“Come now, Pala, you have to get up,” the Hoya helped her forward, using its tail to gently press into her back as it pushed her to stand.
“But what about Lucas? I need to go and find Lucas,” she repeated almost in a daze.
“Too late,” Element 52 shook his head, “has been contacted by Krill.”
Jane blinked back through a steady headache that was now growing in her head but managed to force her eyes open and stared at Element 52. “What do you mean? Krill? Isn’t that some kind of fish or algae? Don’t whales eat that?” she was aware that her question was quite stupid, but she didn’t exactly have the brain cells to think of something smarter.
“Krill is secret Galactic-wide organization that’s being masterminded by Darq—”
Jane waited for the pain. She waited for the horrible, fiendish stabbing pain that she knew should accompany that word. Darq was the name of the species that had attacked her in Research Lab Two, the name of the species that Specimen 14 belonged to. She knew she wasn’t allowed to think about that. She knew that the implant would act in any way possible to stop her from even entertaining the thought of thinking about that.
…. Soon she realized she’d thought about the implant.
She opened her eyes warily.
“You must give the Assister time to rest,” the Hoyan said as he kept on trying to push her up, onto her feet, and get her moving. “But we have no time. We must get you off this planet. There are Krill here, we must move, they’ll try to contact the Darq, or they’ll try to kill you themselves. We must move.” The Hoyan now pushed her through the door.
Element 52 snapped easily to the side and then began to walk behind her. Jane got the distinct impression that it now shadowed her footsteps like a bodyguard or a faithful dog.
“But Lucas,” she tried again, “we can’t leave without him.”
“He made his decision,” the Hoyan said, a note of detachment in his voice. “Unfortunate. We could have used him. But now that’s in the past, and we must act, and you must move. We must get you off this planet as soon as possible. Before they send anything after you.”
“What are you talking about? Why? And what do you mean Lucas made up his mind?” Jane asked, trying to slow down, but not being able to as the Hoyan kept on pushing her in the back.
“There will be time to discuss this later. But now we must act.” The Hoyan didn’t once stop pushing forward.
Jane finally acted herself. She dug her feet into the ground, and she resisted every single push. “No. I’m not going another step until you tell me what is going on.”
“Jane, it is dangerous here. They have turned on the planetary-wide sensors, and it will not be long until they can scan down to this depth,” Element 52 replied. “So we must move. I can inform you as we walk.” He now talked in fully formed and intelligent sentences, and it was obvious that his sophisticated system was adapting to the task quickly; whereas only hours before he’d been talking in baby sentences and just repeating her name, he’d probably be reciting sonnets off balconies by tomorrow.
Element 52 paused, looking right at Jane, clearly waiting for her to hold up her part of the bargain. When Jane took several steps forward, keeping her eyes locked on the assassin robot as she did, it gave a brief nod.
“Lucas Stone attempted to act against you—” Element 52 began.
“No, he didn’t,” she snapped passionately.
“He attempted to shoot me, despite your orders,” Element 52 clarified.
“Lucas doesn’t take orders from me,” she pointed out quickly, still walking forward, but still staring at Element 52, making sure her expression was stern, irritated, and yet resolute. “He was doing whatever he thought was best—”
“I’m now integral to your safety; in hacking and rewriting my systems and subroutines, the Assister has enabled me to track your biosensors; I will be able to locate and assist you no matter the distance between us,” Element 52 responded easily. “In threatening me, Lucas threatened you. In threatening you, he can no longer be trusted—”
“I trust him.” She ground to a halt again.
“We have to keep on moving,” the Hoyan hissed, though the hiss wasn’t angry, it was just nervous and quick.
Begrudgingly she kept on moving.
“I trust Lucas,” she repeated.
“Perhaps, but we cannot trust him completely,” the Hoyan interjected. “He doesn’t know what is going on here, he’s Galactic Force trained, he’s not Paran; he has no business interfering with this. He was useful in getting you off Earth, but—”
“I trust Lucas,” she said, voice now entirely terse. “And he wasn’t just instrumental in getting me off Earth; if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive. Now you tell me, both of you, what is going on.” She stopped, crossed her arms, took a step away from the both of them, and stared their way warily.
“Pala, please,” the Hoyan begged, “we don’t have time.”
Jane didn’t uncross her arms.
“Jane is determined,” Element 52 pointed out quite insightfully.
“You are right I’m determined, I want to go and find Lucas, and I want to find him now. I don’t care if we don’t have time to get off this planet; I’m not leaving without him.”
The Hoyan shot a sideways look at Element 52. “The Assister can no longer assist, it must re-energize.”
“Excuse me?” Jane narrowed her eyes. She was going to get what she wanted: she wasn’t going to leave until she got Lucas. That was a fact.
“Jane, I repeat to you that we must leave now. Please understand that with so many Krill informants, it will not be long until the Darq finds this planet, and finds you. It will not be possible to defeat it; in fact, it will be unlikely that you will be able to run from it again. I was sent to Earth by the Krill in the first place, to break the Darq out of containment. I have also been programmed by Krill agents to sense out Paran technology and to obtain or eliminate it. I sensed you on those grounds, I followed through with the impulse to eliminate you. Yet your Assister fought back, enabling Lucas Stone to defeat me before it could complete its hack on me. However, the Krill still had full access to my systems: they learned of your whereabouts and your existence on that night, and the Darq learned from them not long after. I was sent to this planet to finish what I started and attempt to eliminate you, but the Assister intervened in full this time. It has completely destroyed the external operating procedure of the Krill; they can no longer control me. It has also reprogrammed my base matrix, introducing moral subroutines. I’m no longer a threat to you. However, the Krill know that you are here, and had full access to my operations and sensor logs up until the Assister completed its hack; they’ll use this information to identify your whereabouts and track you down. And they’ll kill you. We must get off the planet before they are capable of enacting this plan.” Element 52 kept on flashing its tail around as it spoke, as if it were gesticulating. Yet one thing was clear, Element 52 might technically be an assassin robot, but he probably wasn’t your regular, run-of-the-mill, universal killer anymore. Her Assister had done something to him, given him morals, or something like it – changed him from the inside out. That or assassins were getting chatty these days.
“I’m not going to—” Jane began. Despite the fact everything Element 52 had just told her was startling, she still had to follow through with her first and foremost priority: Lucas. She couldn’t leave without him.
“I’m sorry, Pala, but you leave me with no choice.” The Hoyan said.
In another moment Jane felt something press up against her neck, then she blacked out. For only the third time in her entire life, she lost consciousness.
He was sitting on a chair in the Endurian’s office, even though the last thing he wanted to do was sit down. What he wanted to do was run outside, jump into the water, and swim down until he could find her. Hell, he would swim all over the damn water planet until he could finally reach her.
Yet he was still sitting there.
Waiting, waiting for the Endurian to make his calls, to ensure the correct security protocols were now in place. While it was taking longer than Lucas would have liked, and longer than Lucas would have suspected, he didn’t interrupt.
Eventually, the Endurian looked up, blinking its perfectly black eyes at him. “All the measures are now in place,” he said simply.
Lucas snapped up to his feet. “I will go and—”
The Endurian gestured for him to sit down. “Please, Mr. Stone, take a seat.”
Lucas resisted the urge to point out that it wasn’t Mr., and that Lucas had a rank and was hardly a civilian, but he just pressed his lips together and waited.
“I assure you, all correct security procedures are now in place, and your friend will be found. And she’ll be found quickly. Trust me, there is no point in rushing out to join the hunt; it will be over in moments,” the Endurian blinked heavily.
Lucas narrowed his eyes at the move; as far as he knew, Endurians didn’t blink. “Look, I’m not just going to sit—” he began.
“Of course not, Mr. Stone, I expect you have many, many questions. I will answer them. Shall we start with who Jane is?”
Lucas stilled in his chair. Though moments before he’d been bouncing his legs up and down, he now stopped, even his breath stilled in his chest.
“She’s Paran, I can confirm that,” the Endurian answered, blinking again.
“I thought you were meant to be Paran too? The Director said—”
The Endurian put up a hand. “I will tell you a secret, Mr. Stone, a secret about us Parans. Ever since the fall of our great empire, we have deliberately weeded out all of our racial characteristics.”
Lucas grated his teeth together quietly. It was something to do with the term “weeded.”
“I see you are confused, let me explain. We have always been a… secretive race, Mr. Stone, and when our home planets were overrun, those of us who survived found that we had to integrate with the rest of the Galaxy to live on. And it is forbidden in our culture to reveal our features to an outsider. So in becoming refugees, Mr. Stone, in becoming drifters, we naturally had to adapt our appearances. Each of us, as we went our separate ways, adapted to whatever race we found ourselves living with.”
“That’s why she looks like a human,” Lucas confirmed something he’d suspected already.
The Endurian, or Paran, or whatever it was, nodded his head low. “Your friend Jane would have grown up on Earth, and naturally, she would have been adapted to resemble your race.”
Though Lucas was keen on hearing the rest of the story, because he seriously needed to know what the hell was going on here, he couldn’t deny that a part of him felt sickened by one simple phrase: she’d been adapted to. She hadn’t adapted herself, and she hadn’t chosen to change. No, she’d been adapted to. Yet Lucas didn’t say anything, he simply waited.
“I’m Endurian, your friend is Human,” the Endurian repeated.
“But who is she? What is that thing, the Darq, and why is it after her? Is it just because she’s Paran and she happened to be close by when it woke up?”
The Endurian didn’t answer for a moment, and in fact, looked at him, its black eyes blinking again. Lucas now realized that he’d been correct, and that Endurians didn’t blink, but the man sitting in front of him wasn’t an Endurian.
He was Paran, or at least that was what he was telling Lucas.
And so was Jane.
“Why is it after her? How do we stop it? How do we kill it?” Lucas now sat forward in his chair, his movement tense and quick.
That was when the Endurian flicked his head to the side and looked Lucas’ armor up and down. “Why don’t you tell me? I have learned, no, I sense, that stored within your armor is a living Paran database.” It blinked its eyes feverishly again.
Lucas leaned back and narrowed his eyes. “You can sense that?”
The Endurian nodded his head emphatically. “All Parans can sense our own technology, and only Parans can operate it. If you allow me, I may be able to help you access the information you now store. Make sense of it, try to find out how to destroy the Darq.” The Endurian now stood.
Lucas didn’t, in fact, he receded in his chair a little.
He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something didn’t feel right, and he had the distinct feeling that the Endurian or Paran in front of him wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
Yet Lucas didn’t do anything, he just sat there, locked his teeth together, and watched carefully.
“If only you allow me to help you, I will be able to decode the information stored in the Paran database.” The Endurian now walked around the desk until he was facing Lucas.
Lucas finally stood. “How are those security measures going? Have they found Jane yet?” This Endurian obviously didn’t get it; right now Lucas didn’t care about the Paran database, he just wanted Jane back. This talk could wait.
The Endurian ticked his head to the side, blinked rapidly, and then faced Lucas again. “I’m sure everything is fine, and soon Jane will be found, but while we wait, we must make the most of this opportunity. Believe me, the information that’s now stored in your database could help you, could help us win this war.”
Though Lucas held his position, he got the distinct urge to take a step back from the Endurian, but instead he simply let his expression crumple. “Look, shouldn’t Jane be our priority now?”
“There is a war coming, and we must prepare,” the Endurian snapped, as if he were angry that Lucas had even asked the question. Then he gave a breath, and a distinctly faked smile crossed his lips. “Now, Mister Stone, we must act quickly. Allow me access to your database, give me a direct uplink to your armor. I will download the information to my personal computer.”
“I know this is important, but it isn’t my priority now,” Lucas replied, keeping his eyes on the Endurian the whole time, noting every single expression and every single movement. “Right now I need to know that Jane is safe. So right now I’m going to go find her.” Lucas turned on his foot and headed for the door. Except, when he reached it, he bounced right off a security field, his own armor crackling with energy as it absorbed the electricity and redirected it through his feet and into the floor until it was grounded. “What the hell?” he snapped quickly.
“These are standard security procedures during an event such as this,” the Endurian clarified. “Do not be alarmed, Mr. Stone.”
“Well, you can turn these shields off. I’m going to find Jane,” Lucas stood right next to the security field and waited for it to shut down.
“Mr. Stone, please, sit back down,” the Endurian tried again.
Lucas finally snapped; he’d had enough of this. He had to find Jane, and that was honestly the only thing he had to do. He didn’t need to give the Endurian access to the Paran database, or whatever it really wanted. That could wait, the questions could wait, the war – if it was even going to happen – could wait. Right now Jane was running around Planet Gold with an assassin robot, and Lucas just couldn’t let that happen. He was going to find her, and well, do what Lucas Stone did best: he was going to save her, probably whether she liked it or not.
“Mr. Stone, I would have thought that your loyalties should lie with your people, to the people of the Galactic Union. I assure you that all security measures are in place, and Jane will be found soon, without your help. If you have any care for this Galaxy, for your Galactic Force, you will turn around, sit back down, and give me access to your Paran database. It is imperative that we have access to that information as soon as we can,” the Endurian’s voice was now curt and harsh, almost like a whip.
Lucas turned around. “Shut down the field,” he pointed a gloved finger right at the Endurian, “and that’s an order. I’m on official Galactic Force business.”
“The Galactic Force? You have every duty to the Galactic Force, Mr. Stone, you must give me access,” he tried again, now blinking so furiously that Lucas could hardly make out the blacks of his eyes.
Lucas ignored the man, turned around, pulled out his gun, and shot several times into the security field. A field like that would only take a single round of blasts before it would fail. Yet it didn’t. So Lucas kept on slamming round after round into it until he’d shot a steady pulse of almost one hundred blasts. The field still didn’t falter once. “What the hell? What’s going on here?” he spat.
Lucas didn’t get a chance to find out; in another second he lost control of his armor. He now felt the familiar sensation of his armor locking into place around him, his muscles no longer able to move within it, his mind trying its hardest to relay order after order to his non-responsive living membrane.
“It is unfortunate I have had to take that step. But you are uncooperative. They assumed you would be uncooperative. They hoped that you would understand, but they were wrong,” the Endurian spoke behind him, but Lucas couldn’t reply; even though he could scream all he wanted from inside the confines of his armor, he couldn’t make the words travel through the toughened and hardened exoskeleton. Yet his helmet was still set to transparent, and he could see the flickering field in front of him, see his arms as they were locked in place, gun still clutched in his hand, but with no capability of using it.
“If you do not surrender the information, we will take it,” the Endurian pointed out in a voice that told Lucas the alien was smiling through his words.
Lucas just stood there. The Endurian was doing the seemingly impossible; it was hacking Lucas’ armor.
“This is more difficult than we would have expected, but given time, we will breakthrough. Mr. Stone, it is unfortunate that you didn’t choose to help us. With your help, this would have been quicker,” the Endurian continued to talk, this time its voice calm and even as if it were admonishing somebody for being late for a party, not telling a man forcibly trapped in his armor that it was disappointing that he hadn’t chosen the bad side in the fight for the Galaxy.
Inside his armor, Lucas screamed and swore, shouting at the Endurian until his throat went dry.
“Mr. Stone, I cannot hear you,” the Endurian eventually pointed out. “I can see that your head is moving around underneath your transparent helmet, and I imagine that if I were to move in front of you, I might be able to make out what you are saying by reading your lips. However, I have no care to. I will repeat once more that it is a shame that you couldn’t find it in your heart to help us.”
Lucas didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to help his armor, how to try to stop the hack. Now he knew it was a hack, and it wasn’t just his armor playing up on him, Lucas panicked. He had precious seconds until the Endurian gained complete control. This wasn’t meant to be able to happen anymore. The Galaxy had spent 100 years perfecting bio-armor so this couldn’t happen. It had learned the lessons of the bad old days, when soldiers had been hacked into, some external force turning them against each other and finally themselves.
Yet Lucas was still standing there, his armor being hacked, moments away from losing control completely.
“I must say it is complicated, but we are finally managing to break through the defenses,” the Endurian assured him. “We Krill are a resourceful group.”
It was happening. Lucas was losing control. All he could think of as he waited, on the edge of something truly horrible, was Jane. Her name kept on popping into his mind and swimming through his thoughts as he just stood there, arms locked in position, body stiff. Where was she? Was she okay? Had the assassin robot killed her by now? What if the security forces of this planet were just as efficient as the Endurian had led him to believe and had already plucked her out of the water? What exactly would the Endurian do to her? Whatever it was, Lucas wouldn’t be able to stop it, as Lucas couldn’t move, all he could do was wait until the alien behind him managed to gain full control of his armor…. He just had to wait.
Jane, hang in there, he thought one last time before the Endurian finally broke through.
She didn’t wake up on a bed, she didn’t wake up on a ship. She woke up on an exposed launch pad, a fiendish wind whipping around her, flattening her hair against her face, chilling her skin. The sound of the ocean echoed up from far below, and she could hear the searing blast of a plasma rifle firing round after round at something, the sound of metal crunching and blistering under each impact. She tried to press herself up, tried to get to her knees at least, move her head about, find out what was going on. After a while, she realized she was on the top of a building, and she could see the dramatic and almost frightening view of the ocean a kilometer below. Worse than the view was the wind. It was horrendous; it roared at her, it whistled, and it plastered her clothes against her frigid skin.
Something wasn’t right. She kept on hearing that plasma rifle firing round after round at something, while something else hissed, even yelped, the sound quite metallic, quite artificial. In a snapped second, Jane saw a chunk of metal whistle all the way over her head and over the side of the building and down, down, down until it finally plunged into the ocean below. Despite the distance, Jane still heard the splash.
There was obviously no shielding in place up here; this entire exposed roof had no railing and no shielding, and Jane was lying so close to the edge, so close that she had an unimpeded view of the ocean and the drop below. Her body shaking from the fear of falling, carefully she shifted herself backward, her arms shuddering as she moved.
There was a searing blast of heat, and a plasma shot slammed onto the floor beside her. She screamed, threw her hands up and over her head, and huddled down.
It was instinct, and it was stupid; she was a sitting duck. Yet she couldn’t make herself move. With the Assister in her head momentarily off-line while it regenerated, there was nothing to make her move either. Then something twisted around her ankle and pulled her to the side, just as another series of blasts slammed into where she’d been sitting. Her hands scrambled against the smooth metal of the roof as she slid across it, the force of the thing wrapped around her leg far too strong to fight against. Eventually, it let go, whipping past her so fast it cracked like a whip. Jane followed the view, saw that the tail belonged to Element 52, and then she saw Element 52 was fighting a security officer in full black armor with two stripes down each of his shoulders, one white and one blue.
Jane liked to think that she knew quite a bit about Lucas Stone, even if most of it was built up from dodgy documentaries and even dodgier fan supplements. Of that knowledge, there was one fact Jane was sure of: Lucas Stone was about the only security officer in the Galactic Force that had one blue and one white stripe. In fact, the only officer to hold the same rank with the same clearance and abilities was at least a full five feet taller than Lucas. Which meant that the man that was now tussling with Element 52 was Lucas Stone. And Lucas… Lucas was shooting at her. Element 52 kept on getting in the way, kept on whipping its tail around and slamming it right into Lucas’ chest, trying to get him off the top of the roof, trying to trip him up, trying to stop him in any way it could. Yet Lucas would slam into Element 52 with the butt of his rifle, shoot several rounds right into it, and then twist out of its grip to attempt another shot Jane’s way.
She stared at him. She stared at Lucas. Because he was trying to kill her….
With her mouth open, her lips cold, her eyes fixed in place on him, she managed to croak out his name in a harsh, constricted, surprised whisper before he tried to shoot her again, this time one of the rounds from his plasma rifle getting so close to her that it singed and burnt the skin of her left arm. She let out a scream of pain, clutched a hand to it, and shifted to the left, scuttling to the side like a crab. He had no reaction to the fact she’d screamed, and he managed to get off another round. Just in time, Element 52’s tail whipped around and slammed into his wrist, shifting his aim, and protecting Jane at the last moment.
She shook, her whole body practically convulsing. He wasn’t far from her now – the two of them were grappling barely five meters from where she still sat, her body limp and motionless from fright. It felt like he was closer, it felt like she was right at his feet, looking up into his helmet, unable to do anything, unable to make him stop.
As she kept watching him, he tried to shoot her again. Element 52 got there first and whipped out with his tail and pulled her to the side. She cried out in pain as the arm that had been singed by the plasma shot grated roughly over the metal of the roof as she was dragged along it.
“Hold on, Jane,” it said. It wasn’t Lucas, it was Element 52. Lucas didn’t speak to her, didn’t say a word, just kept on trying to kill her.
Jane didn’t have anything to hold on to, as the roof was completely smooth and below was nothing but an incredibly long drop into a certain and watery death. She had nowhere to run either; she couldn’t see where the door was that would lead down from this roof, and she was hardly about to merrily skip over to the edge to see if she couldn’t find a convenient window on her way down.
“It’s coming, help is coming,” Element 52 repeated, its voice pitching up and down in a now familiar and almost comforting way. Yes, comforting, because right now as Lucas Stone was trying to kill her all she had to rely on was Element 52, an assassin robot.
Lucas broke away, slamming his fist around in a fiendish punch, making it connect right with the side of Element 52’s head. The assassin robot stumbled backward, even teetered close to the edge of the roof. Then Lucas raised his gun and slammed shot after shot right into the assassin robot. It fell off the edge of the building: Element 52 dropped right out of sight. He didn’t scream, he didn’t make a sound.
Lucas turned to her.
“No, Lucas, don’t do it, don’t do it. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m not bad, Lucas. Don’t do it,” she tried to plead with him as he walked slowly toward her, raised his gun, and then clicked something on the side. He depressed his finger on the trigger. The muzzle of the gun began to glow. It was building up a charge. It was obvious he intended to make his next shot count, intended to make his next shot have the force and power of one hundred rounds. It would likely blow an incredible hole in the roof, let alone kill Jane. In fact, it would likely disintegrate her.
She just shook her head. “Don’t,” she said as the noise of the charging gun began to build up and she could tell that the rifle was about to fire.
She just closed her eyes, squeezed them shut, and directed her face to the ground.
Then it fired.
Jane snapped her eyes open; no, something else had fired. There was a ship behind her, coming into land, and it had fired right at Lucas using its powerful gun turrets. It blasted him off the roof. One second he was there, only a half meter from her as the charge picked up in his gun, the next he was nowhere to be seen. Jane screamed, and she finally forced herself to her feet and ran to the other side of the roof. She flung herself to her knees when she reached it, clutched her hands on the edge of the metal, pushed her body over, and tried to see as much as she could.
She saw a splash far down below.
“Lucas,” she screamed, but then someone started to pull her back.
“We must escape, we must leave, we must leave,” they said.
She fought against their grip as they pulled her backward. She tried to stare down at the ocean below, tried to get back to the edge of the roof. “Lucas,” she screamed again.
“Please hurry, Pala,” they finally slackened their grip on her wrist, but in another moment they wrapped their strong arms around her middle, lifting her off the ground and pulling her toward the spaceship that was now hovering just at the edge of the roof.
She screamed for Lucas, but Lucas didn’t answer; how could he? He’d just been shot off the roof by the plasma turrets of a spaceship.
Lucas was dead, he had to be.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks and over her chin, but she didn’t care. She just kept on saying his name over and over again.
She was loaded onto the ship, and then the ship took off. In minutes it was out of the atmosphere. In barely an hour it had left the solar system. In days it had left the quadrant.
END OF BOOK ONE
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