Ghost of Mind Episode One

Ghost of Mind Episode One

Chapter 1

Alice pushed up from her cot. Her arms were tense, the skin along them warm with sweat. She hadn’t slept well last night. Then again, when did Alice ever sleep well? She had a lot going on in her mind, a lot going on in her life.

She was the last of her kind, the last of her race. And what was worse, she was the last of the Old Ones.

And no, that didn’t mean that Alice was a geriatric. She was young for her species; it just so happened that her people were considered ancient. The ones who’d come before. Those aliens who’d been responsible for crafting the modern universe.

Alice stood up, taking a deep breath as she did.

Then she padded across the room, her bare feet soft against the cold floor. She headed toward the console in the corner. Letting out a heavy, rattling sigh, she pushed down onto the broken flight chair she’d salvaged from one of the dumps outside.

Biting hard into her bottom lip, she tried to muster the confidence she would require to do what she needed to do next.

Check the news.

Alice pushed her fingernails into her hand as she tried to garner enough confidence and courage in order to bring her hand up and let the sensor in the console register her movements so she could command the holographic images.

For most ordinary people, checking the news wouldn’t be a big ordeal. For most ordinary people, they weren’t the last of their kind. They were also not on the run from a universe, that if it knew they existed, would be after them with every single ship and warrior and weapon they had.

That was Alice’s life. That was the secret behind her desperation, her fear, the reason she was stuck in this tiny apartment, in this tiny room on her tiny cot.

No friends, no family, no one to rely on. Just Alice and one hell of a history chasing her down.

The galaxy hadn’t always been this way, and neither had the universe. For billions upon billions of years, everything had been separate. Every race and every cluster had been kept apart by the depths of space, just the way nature intended it to be. Then the Old Ones had come along. They hadn’t been one distinct race but a group of many. They’d seeded the universe with technology so powerful that it managed to connect even the furthest reaches of reality to one another.

But more than the technology they’d created, it was the power source that had kept it running that was remarkable.

Beyond words, beyond concepts even. Possibly the greatest invention in all of the history of the universe.

Alice’s race had been behind that invention. It was her fingers as they scrolled up and down, the computer console picking up on the movements to move the holographic images displayed before her, that were the true key to modern civilization.

Power. Energy, beyond people’s wildest dreams. Enough to enable the most fantastic of technologies, the most incredible of capabilities.

Sighing, Alice pressed her fingers further into her head. She’d learned that off the humans; apparently massaging your brow helped relieve tension.

It didn’t work. If Alice wanted to release her tension, she would have to hop a transport and travel to an abandoned galaxy with no sign of any other race to bother her. Then and only then would she be able to relax. With no one around her, there would be no threat that someone could find out what she was, use her abilities to rekindle the Old Technology, and no doubt lay waste to the modern universe.

She wasn’t going to get that opportunity.

Not now, not ever.

Winking one eye open, Alice looked at the holographic feed in front of her. As her hand moved slowly from left-to-right, thousands upon thousands of images flickered for just long enough for the human mind to pick them up. Alice wasn’t human, and her mind was capable of processing so much more. As the images flickered past, snippets of sound clips accompanied them. It was a heady experience. And if it weren’t one Alice had lived thousands of times, it would confuse the hell out of her.

A lot of modern society confused the hell out of her.

Alice’s race may have been foundational in bringing the universe to the level of civilization it now had, but there was still a part of her that wanted a simpler, easy life, closer to nature and as far away from technology as she could get.

Despite how much she yearned for simplicity, she was never going to get it. The universe was connected now and drenched in technology, and unless a catastrophic event occurred, it would remain that way.

Bringing a hand out, clutching it onto the edge of the console, letting her fingers tense as they pressed right into the metal, Alice found it.

The exact news she was looking for.

News of the Rim.

The war. Or at least the impending one. The one that the Government wasn't comfortable admitting to yet.

Her eyes darted over the information that appeared on the screen. Processing the images and sound clips at a speed most races would consider incredible, Alice found out what she needed to.

It relieved her but only just.

Stretching back in her chair, taking an uncomfortable breath, Alice couldn’t help but reflect on how pitiful her life had become.

She was in a horrible world of her own. Despite the fact she knew she could never let anybody else find out what she was, that didn’t mean Alice couldn’t feel the guilt of doing nothing.

So much was going wrong in the universe these days, especially in the Milky Way. Alice’s race hadn’t only been technologically deft, but they were physically strong too, fantastically powerful by human standards. They’d been a race of warriors, of peacekeepers. But Alice couldn’t run off to join the Union Forces; she would be found out. She couldn’t run off to protect the colonies along the Rim; she would be found out. And if she was found out, something far, far worse would happen.

Forcing herself to stand up, Alice walked around the room several times, clutching her hands behind her back. She’d once seen that exact move in a video from Old Earth. It had been a movie of some sort, some kind of fictional description of ancient Earth history. Anyway, the main character in it, a captain of some sort, would always walk around his troops with his hands held behind his back, his chest puffed out, his neck receded slightly. It gave him, according to humans at least, a measure of gravitas. Of controlled force.

Well, Alice would like some of that. For a creature who was powerful, who had the key to most of the Old Technology scattered around the universe, she often felt so small and insignificant that flecks of space dust would have better self-confidence.

“Come on, you’ve got to get up. You’ve got to get to work,” she said through gritted teeth, staring down at the holographic newsfeed.

Again, her eyes darted from left-to-right, processing the information at an astounding rate. As they did, her hands clutched by her side, the fingernails pressing further into her palms. An ordinary human might have bled by now. She wasn’t going to bleed. It would take a hell of a lot more to cut through her skin. It would also take a hell of a lot more to damage her in any way.

Despite her incredible abilities, Alice always lived life on a precipice. If someone found out what she was capable of… her life would end. All the energy she had left inside her would be sucked out.

Closing her eyes, shaking her head, Alice stepped backward several times. Then she keyed a number into the pad by her door and waited with her arms outstretched as clothes were knitted over her bare body.

Pushing her thick black and blue hair against the base of her neck, Alice told the door to open, and she walked outside.

Chapter 2

John Doe

It hadn’t always been this way. The universe hadn’t always been connected. Many years ago, hundreds of thousands of years before the great Universal Union had been formed, the stars had been separate and life had remained unconnected. All of those millions and millions of races throughout space had lived their own lives, suspecting but never knowing the extent of how populated and vast their dimension was.

That had all changed. It had all changed because of technology. Because of the Old Ones.

Leaning back and yawning, John Doe stretched his arms out, letting his shoulders push his tired muscles out, lengthening them as best as he could.

“Do you wish to stop the playback?” an electronic voice sounded out from the console before him.

John made a face. He was lucky he’d turned off facial recognition. Otherwise the computer would be asking him what that expression meant. And even though he knew it shouldn’t be capable of this, it would no doubt have a sarcastic edge to its tone.

John played with his jaw for a bit and then he mumbled a, “No.”

He needed to know this stuff, didn’t he? It was part of the mission. Hell, it was part of his job description.

“No, but pause for a couple of minutes while I get a drink,” John mumbled as he pushed up and walked over to the other side of the room.

The quarters he’d been given were quite roomy. They were far more comfortable than his quarters on his ship.

Becoming distracted by the view, John walked over to the huge windows that offered an unrivaled perspective on the city below.

When he’d first come to Orion Minor, John Doe hadn’t been expecting much. He knew from the Great Universal Database that Orion Major was a real power in the system, and that Orion Minor was, well, where they sent everybody else. John didn’t like to use the word scum; he’d been around the universe long enough to realize that some people were just unlucky. Get born on the wrong planet, get born during the wrong war, get born where there aren’t enough resources around, and you’ll find yourself turning toward crime just to survive.

Still, Orion Minor wasn’t a nice place.

As John waited for his drink to be manufactured by the computer, he rested a hand over the glass, pressing his palm right into it. Shifting his jaw from side-to-side again, which was a habit of his, he stared down at the dilapidated buildings below.

It was a strange world. The tops of the buildings were all clean and nice, and everything else was junk. Slums. Dark, dirty, dank, and full of the people the rest of the galaxy wanted to forget.

No doubt if John had been in the mood, and ready to carry out the unending directive of the Universal Union to combat crime, he’d grab some armor, grab some high-powered guns, and try to rustle up some scum.

He wasn’t in the mood.

A place like Orion Minor was full of people too unfortunate to keep dragging into the security station every day just to satisfy the dictates of the higher ups. Plus, John had far more important things to do. While he was on Orion Minor, his ship refueling and restocking, John had to come up with a plan. This was the last stop on his way to the Rim. And John needed to be prepared before he stuck his head into that ugliness.

Not for the first time and not for the last, John leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and gave the loudest, frustrated, rattling, almost screaming sigh he could. He was fortunate there was no one else in the room; he was also fortunate that none of the audio devices would have picked it up and relayed it to the rest of the building. He didn’t need security busting down his door thinking he was wrestling an Andian Lion or fighting off an infection of Terra Bites.

When John was finished, he stretched his back, planted both hands on the glass, and stared down at the dirty ghettos below.

Orion Minor was an unforgiving place, not just for the poor; the weather made the planet practically uninhabitable. The city was spread out into various blocks – huge mega structures that housed layer upon layer upon layer. But while the top halves glimmered and gleamed, the bottom halves received no such maintenance.

Scum, after all, didn’t care where they lived, right? You could take away their heating and light, and they’d just get on with their crimes unabashed and unaffected, right?

At least that’s what the rest of the planet seemed to think.

For someone who’d climbed up the ranks of the Union Forces, John had come from the lowest point possible. The slums. As he stared down at them right now, his eyes locking on those filthy, junk-covered levels, he remembered them. He remembered how to fight to live. He also remembered being judged for it. By those more fortunate. Those born into money, into safety, into success. To them, stealing to live was a crime. Technically, it was, but it was just as much of a crime to allow people to go unfed when you had too much food yourself.

John stiffened one of his hands, running his fingers along the joint of his thumb. He’d lost it once; it had been ripped off in the door of a fleeing transport. John had tampered with the door, sneaked inside, salvaged what he could, and had been caught on the way out.

When he’d joined the Union Forces, they’d fixed him up; their fancy technology knitting him a new one, repairing in seconds an injury John had lived with for five years.

The pain of the slums he could forgive; the judging he would never forget.

If it were up to him, and it bloody wasn’t, he would redirect the funds the Union was wasting trying to pick up Old Tech in the Rim to fixing up places like this.

Because it was a waste. How many security forces, how many ships, how many aliens were being redirected to that area, and for what purpose? So what if the pirates had found new caches of Old Technology? Leave them to it. It wasn’t like they could use it, anyway.

There was so much about the Union’s priorities that was wrong these days.

And John Doe hated it. Then again, it wasn’t as if he could do anything about it. He was just one man in a big universe.

“Computer, continue,” John said as he walked over to a different console to pick up his drink. Sipping at it, mulling over the taste, John tried to let the words of the Great Universal Database wash over him.

In a way, he already knew this stuff, but in a way, that wasn’t good enough. If he was going to take his ship and his people into the dangerous territory of the Rim, he needed to know everything he could. Because if he didn’t know everything, and he came across some unexpected situation, then he would be the one to blame.

And the Rim would be full of unexpected situations. From pirates to ancient caches of Old Tech, this would be his most dangerous mission yet.

“Old Technology is the backbone of the modern universe. Without it, instantaneous travel between galaxies would be impossible.”

Yes, of course John knew that. Every single kid in the universe knew that, everything from the most sophisticated of creatures right down to sentient slime.

You wouldn’t have the modern universe if you didn’t have Old Tech. The amount of energy and resources required to travel from one galaxy to another were astronomical. And yet the Old Ones had done it. They’d managed to create an interconnected interstellar travel network that served almost the entire universe, save for the furthest, most far-flung reaches of space.

John couldn’t say he understood the technology. But to be fair, he couldn’t say that anyone else did, either. That was the point; Old Technology was steeped in mystery. Only the Ancient Races had understood, and they were dead. All of them.

But there was one fact about Old Tech he could understand: it was running out of energy.

The transport network still had enough to function. Everything else didn’t.

Just as any kid could tell you that the Grand Universal Transport Network had been created by the Old Ones, they could also tell you that the Old Ones had had access to a type of energy that no one understood and no one could replicate. How it had worked, even the best scientists in the universe couldn’t figure out. Everybody knew it was practically out of juice, though. Most of their technology was utterly useless. Useful as statues, reminders to the past, or giant paperweights – but unless you were a pirate wanting to stuff your den with rubble-covered ancient memorabilia of a time tougher than your own, all of it was pointless.

Well, okay, not all of it. A few items still worked. And that was the reason they were going to the Rim. If reports were to be believed, then there had been sightings of actual real usable Old Tech out there amongst the pirates and death-trap mine belts, asteroid clusters, and barren, wasteland planets.

The hint of useable Tech wouldn’t make it worth the trouble, though.

Because John had seen it all before. He’d seen planets, he’d seen whole races uprooted because of the stuff. If a cache of it was found under some city, say goodbye to it. It would be uprooted. Say goodbye to the inhabitants. They would be moved. Whether they liked it or not. Their city and everything in it would be destroyed. Apparently, Old Tech was worth it. Who cared about disputes? Who cared about skirmishes? Who cared if entire races turned into pirates just to fight for their lands back? If they could get their hands on Old Tech, the Union would do… anything.

Tapping his foot against the side of the console, wincing as he took another sip from his drink, John tried not to be too cynical.

“It’s the imperative of the Universal Union to acquire as much Old Technology as it can. It’s currently being stockpiled in several key systems throughout the Union. It’s integral to ensure no Old Technology falls into the hands of the Factions.”

Factions. Ah yes, John felt like ducking his head back and laughing at that. What exactly did the Universal Database mean by factions? Pirates, dissidents, people who’d been uprooted when the Union had decided they wanted their hands on the Old Technology sitting under their houses and towns?

Yeah. If John hadn’t been dealing with a computer, he would probably point out the nuances of that particular position, but there was no point. Instead, he shifted his shoulders again as he walked further around the room.

“There have been many skirmishes to-date in the Rim, as the technology believed to be there is of great import. It’s also of great import to stop any Factions from gaining hold of any Old Technology that has yet to be cataloged. It’s a fact that although the Universal Union has acquired and cataloged much of the Old Technology, there are still many devices that we have never seen and have only heard of. If Factions were to gain hold of these,” the computer began.

John put up a hand. “Stop there,” he mumbled. He’d finally had enough. Mulling over his drink, twisting the glass around and around in his hand as he closed his eyes, John shook his head sharply.

It was time to go out. He’d had enough of this stuffy room; he’d had enough of this stuffy lecture. He just needed to feel air, real air on his cheeks.

Dumping the glass back on the computer panel, and only flicking his gaze over to it once as the molecules were broken down by the recalibrater, John headed for the door.

He didn’t even pause as the computer manufactured a thick jacket over his shoulders; he just headed straight out as soon as the doors opened with a swish before him.

It had been years and years since he’d been to Orion Minor, and it was time to see if the place had changed.

Chapter 3

Alice

Alice stared at the alien before her. The one with the giant jowls, the one with the skin that hung off its arms, that bunched in great bands around its legs and stomach. To many of the softer races, especially the humans, the alien would have appeared disgusting. From the green slime slowly dripping off its pale yellow skin, to the red bloodshot eyes, to the way it talked – it wasn’t a pretty sight.

But Alice didn’t have the same sensibilities as a human; she couldn’t afford them. She survived only by hiding amongst the worst scum of the galaxy. So slime and rotting flesh weren’t even worth a grimace.

“Please, I need to get past,” Alice tried again, maneuvering her body slightly to the left, catching a glimpse of the corridor beyond her.

“No,” the alien replied. It had a distinct voice. A horrible one, and every time Alice heard it, her back creaked and crawled.

While the alien was giant, Alice was not. She was relatively small as far as aliens went. If she’d been as large as one of the rock warriors from the Carion Cluster, then maybe she would have been able to bowl into the creature, knock it to the left, and continue on her way.

Alice didn’t have size on her side. Then again, that didn’t mean anything. In her case, appearances were misleading. Very misleading.

Alice was strong. No, she was more than strong; she was incredibly, incredibly powerful. If she wanted to, she could redirect the special energy coursing through her to maximize her strength, resilience, rigidity, intelligence, anything. It was up to her. If she felt like making a scene, she could leap right over this creature’s head. If she felt like making even more of a scene, she could grab up its fat, drooping tail, pick it up without much effort, and throw it right out of the smart-glass ceiling high above.

She couldn’t afford to make a scene. She also couldn’t afford to stay here while the creature sat there in her way, stopping her from moving anywhere.

“What is it exactly that I have to do in order to get you to move?” she asked, making her voice clear, really trying to keep hold of her disdain as she stiffened her lips and chin into a semi-affable smile.

“Nothing,” the creature answered, that voice of its still hissing in her ears.

Clamping down on her jaw, bringing her hand up until she created a tense fist, Alice looked its way.

Then she turned around.

She wasn’t going to make a scene.

She would have to find some other way around.

Alice wouldn’t get that option.

Just as she turned, it let one of its awful fleshy arms dart her way, then it grabbed her around her middle.

A human might have screamed. Most of the other races would certainly have protested, but Alice didn’t do a thing.

She noted the move; she could feel the pressure around her middle, and her brain certainly did register the fact she was now dangling a meter or two in the air as thick slime covered her clothes and skin.

Alice didn’t bother to shriek. She didn’t shift, and she didn’t beg to be put down. She did, however, blow a huff of air through her pursed lips.

She also redirected her energy into her arms, middle, legs, and torso. It made them strong. Ridiculously strong. If the alien suddenly got the idea that it would be fun to squeeze the life out of her, it could try for the rest of its horribly short existence to give it a go. But as one of its long arms wrapped around and around her, it would soon find that her skin was stronger than reinforced diamond, more resilient than even the toughest materials out there.

“Pay,” the alien told her, its voice strong and sharp.

Pay? Did this guy fancy he was a troll of some sort?

Alice was quite fond of old tales from Earth; she liked to read books, watch movies, even listen to poetry. And she understood what a troll was. She could appreciate the concept too. They would hang around under bridges and wait for unsuspecting travelers. Then they would pop out, demand a fee, or said unsuspecting traveler wouldn’t be able to pass.

Well, troll or not, Alice wasn’t going to pay.

If it came to it, she would fight. Not at the full range of her abilities; she didn’t want to blow a hole in the side of the planet. But she would defend herself. Then she would run. Find some other slum on some other backwater planet. Find some dark and thick shadows to hide within.

“Put me down before the security forces come,” she said in a calm if bored tone.

Because the security forces would come. No doubt the sophisticated computer that ran all the way through this section had already picked up on the fact there was an altercation going on. It would send that information back to the central computer, and whatever alien was sitting on the desk at the security forces would be alerted. Within seconds, bots would be deployed.

Alice didn’t want to be dragged up before the security forces.

Fighting this guy was one thing, but there was something far worse: Alice couldn’t be scanned. Her biometrics couldn’t be read, and they couldn’t be checked up against the Great Universal Database.

While she had the appearance of a human or one of the other soft-fleshed races, that was where the appearances ended. If anybody got a detailed biological scan of her form, they would see what she really was.

As the creature twisted Alice around, letting her body jolt from side-to-side as its arm dangled her in front of its face, she didn’t even bother to let out a sound. Not a scream or a yelp or a semi-frightened gasp.

Because she wasn’t scared. Though the creature had a gleeful look in its eyes, Alice wasn’t in any real danger.

Well, she would be if the security forces arrived, but she still had several minutes before that, didn’t she? As they were always a little slow when responding to altercations in the lower levels.

The higher levels, on the other hand, were a different story. If someone so much as stubbed their toe, they would have an entire security force at their door within seconds.

The higher levels were where all the richer people lived. The important people, the people that the galaxy decided were moral and just and rich enough to be worth saving.

The lower levels, however, housed the scum. The detritus, the nasty part of the universe that nobody else wanted to look at. So while security still had to be kept, it wouldn’t rush to get here too quickly, because if they were lucky, the combatants involved would wipe each other out.

“Hey, put her down,” somebody shouted from behind Alice.

Great, somebody was about to get involved. Just what she needed. Somebody trying to be a hero. Usually, you didn’t get it that much around these parts, because usually everyone understood that around these parts there was no point. There was no justice to be had, just survival. Just walk on by with your head low to the ground, eyes locked on something innocuous. Ignore the screams, ignore the shouts, dodge the blasts and blows. Survive. Because no matter how powerful or strong you were, there was too much crime, there was too much muck to wade through.

Without the help of the rest of the universe, you wouldn’t be clearing up places like Orion Minor. You would need everybody to change their attitudes, and more importantly, you would need the Government to help, to finally send resources, to finally stop taking away money and land and jobs.

Alice rolled her eyes. She didn’t suddenly scream at whoever was behind her that she needed their help.

“It’s okay, ma’am; just hold on,” the man assured her.

Oh great, what was he going to do? He wasn’t going to tackle the alien, was he? Because Alice could see that would be a sure ticket to the morgue.

That wasn’t what happened.

There was a sharp slice of light, a sound that reminded her of 1000 airlocks blasting into space, and then a clap.

Then the big, fat, green, slimy alien fell over. He sounded like a tree splitting in half. There was a moment when he teetered on his feet, his large eyes closing, that massive tongue of his slapping to the side as his body grew slack. And then he fell. And of course Alice fell with him. Still stuck in his arm, still unwilling to use her own strength to muscle free, she found herself slanting toward the ground.

She didn’t reach it.

Someone caught her.

In a burst of speed, their shoes making a loud squeak against the already scratched floor, somebody jumped. They leaped right at her. They grabbed her, and they pulled her out of the creature’s arms. Swift, fast, and strong.

Then Alice found herself in a strange position. She found herself in a position she’d never been in. In a human man’s arms.

Confused, but still angry, she looked up to the guy’s face.

“It’s okay, ma’am; I have you now,” he assured her.

Was he trying to be gallant? Was that why he had that particular silly smile on his face? Or was that just what humans looked like? Though Alice had seen her fair share of them on the news and from the movies she watched, there weren’t that many humans around Orion Minor. It was a long way from Earth.

And then Alice stopped.

Because recognition began to flicker within her. A sharp, painful recognition. It felt like a spear had been rammed into her ribs.

She knew that face. She’d seen it many times before.

She knew the name too. John Doe. Commander John Doe.

Damn it. The one person in the entire universe that Alice couldn’t afford to run into. And now she was tucked neatly in his arms.

“Put me down,” she said, inhaling fast. Her voice was snapped, quick, gasped, and strangled.

The man blinked, receding slightly, looking shocked. Perhaps that wasn’t how people were meant to react. Perhaps when somebody shot an alien who was trying to strangle you and then caught you in their arms you weren’t meant to snap at them to put you down.

“Of course,” he mumbled, and then he complied by putting her down gently and carefully, as if ensuring that she didn’t fall over from surprise.

Alice stood with her back as stiff as possible. Her hands were clutched into tight fists, the blood pumping around her body, her ears ringing. She was most definitely sure she had an unfriendly look on her face.

Maybe the guy paled, maybe he stood a little straighter, maybe he started to get a mildly suspicious, worried look on his face.

And why wouldn’t he? That was John Doe, Commander John Doe, one of the men responsible for heading up the new wave of security into the Rim. He didn’t belong in the slums, that was for sure. While everyone around here would have been content to see Alice squeezed to death by the alien, he was a member of the Union Forces. They were there to ensure peace. Even if they had to beat it out of you.

She’d read about him in the news; she’d seen the feeds; she’d heard the audio. She knew who this man was.

No doubt he would truly believe in justice; no doubt he was the kind of guy who would throw himself into any altercation, regardless of whether it had anything to do with him, no matter how seedy and scummy the combatants were. Because no doubt John Doe would believe in heroes.

And no doubt right now he was wondering whether Alice herself was the criminal, not the victim.

“Are you okay? You should get to a medical facility. The grip of a Parsi arm can be ferocious.” He nodded down at her, indicating her middle.

She knew what species the alien was, and she could appreciate the exact mechanical attributes of its grip.

But she didn’t need to go to the medical bay. Because if Alice ever went to the medical bay, well, her life would soon end afterward.

She shook her head quickly, the tendrils of her blue-black hair flying around and up, slapping against her face and nose and resting against her neck.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. You look like you are in shock,” he said.

Was she shocked? Absolutely. Was she in shock? Hell no. While she was freaking out at the prospect of what Commander Doe would do to her, Alice’s body had sustained no injuries. And unless John here decided to chuck her into the sun, she wasn’t going to.

Shaking her head again, she started to take several steps backward. “I’m fine,” she tried to say in her most natural, authoritative tone.

It didn’t come out as natural and authoritative; it came out shaking and gasping.

If she was trying to convince the Commander, she was failing, and badly.

Narrowing his eyes, he took another step toward her, nodding his head.

And then she heard it. Or rather she felt it. Her race had been possessed of the most sensitive, incredible abilities. She could pick up sounds that most of the softer races could hardly detect with recording equipment, let alone their ears. She could also sense the smallest movement in somebody’s body, the tiniest change in blood flow, even the slightest electrical impulse across their scalp. So she could tell when someone was using an implant.

And right now Commander John Doe was making a call. Grafted into his brain would be various implants that would help him control everything from devices to ships to weapons. They were standard for all security forces. They also enabled instantaneous communication. Silent and undetectable; unless you were Alice, that was. Because she could hear it. With a quick clench of her jaw, she could smell the change of sweat as his attention refocused, see the shift in his blood flow as his pupils dilated.

He would be calling her in. While she did possess incredible senses, she couldn’t read his mind. She didn’t need to, however; there was only one thing the good Commander would be doing to the suspicious woman in the slums.

So Alice did the only thing she could think of.

It was mad.

Absolutely mad.

But she ran. She ran from John Doe. She didn’t have anything else she could do.

Alice had to run.

And she could run fast.

Turning on her foot, her shoe squeaking against the floor, she pushed forward. She didn’t do a fantastic leap over the comatose body of the alien, but she did deftly jump over its tail, land, and start sprinting down the corridor.

Luckily, she knew the slums, and she’d memorized the best places to hide from the security forces.

Luckily, she was also motivated. Terribly bloody motivated.

Because if John Doe found out who she was, she could kiss her life and the universe goodbye. He was after Old Technology, wasn’t he? That was the entire point of the new Union Forces’ mission to the Rim. That was why Alice forced herself every single morning to watch the news. Even though she hated it, even though it made her sick, she made herself trawl through every single one of the newsfeeds mentioning that section of space.

All that Old Tech.

Ever since some pirate ship had crashed on a Rim planet bulging full of it, there had been a race to secure the whole area.

It was like drugs, or money, or worse. The most addictive thing you could imagine. It was by far the most powerful technology in the universe; it outstripped anything the Union had by miles and miles.

People were willing to fight over it, die, do the most atrocious things. Even for the stuff that no longer worked, that had run out of juice centuries ago. As for the Tech that still ran – the Union and the pirates were willing to lose entire systems in their desperate grab to obtain it.

If either of them ever found out a member of the Old Ones still lived, Alice would be done for. The resultant war over her would likely take everyone else with her too.

So Alice ran.

Her boots scampering over the floor, she turned the corner, almost slamming face-first into a robot cleaning graffiti off the wall.

The robot muttered out an electronic sorry, but Alice didn’t have time to reply. She used the robot’s stiff arm for purchase, grabbing hold of it in order to sling herself around and down the corridor.

She could hear John behind her. His footfall was frantic. No doubt he had all sorts of fancy implants grafted all over his body, devices that would account for usual human weaknesses. They would give him extra strength, speed, agility, maybe even intelligence.

But no matter how fancy John Doe was, he wasn’t an Old One.

Alice was.

Chapter 4

John Doe

He’d known she was going to run from the second he saw the look on her face after he’d saved her.

Something wasn’t right with the woman sprinting through the corridors before him. She obviously had a secret.

Then again, who in the slums wouldn’t have?

“Hey, stop,” John tried again, using his neural implant to relay his voice through the audio system of the corridor block. It was a strange sensation to hear his own voice booming at him from all corners, but it wasn’t for his benefit; he had an obligation not only to warn the woman to stop – not that she would – but to warn everyone else in her path that there was a security chase in progress.

“Redirect a unit to the end of Tunnel 4, Block Alpha,” John said, but this time he didn’t use his voice. He didn’t make a sound. He relayed his thoughts straight through his implant.

The woman was fast. Hell, way too fast for an ordinary human. Either she was packing some fancy tech stuffed into her bones and muscle, or she wasn’t human at all.

Which made far more sense. If she really was stuffed to the brim with high-class tech, she wouldn’t be hanging around the slums of Orion Minor. The Union didn’t spend money on technology just to waste it.

“I am a member of the Union Forces. You are ordered to stop, or you will be taken down,” John boomed again, his voice reverberating around the tight corridor as he shoved past a suspicious group of aliens.

She didn’t stop. She put on a burst of speed that would have put even a cyborg to shame.

“What the hell?” John mumbled, not bothering to send his voice to the audio system, just muttering under his breath.

“Initiate Upgrade A,” John added, voice clear.

An upgrade on the run. Why did he do this to himself? He was on a freaking stop over – he was meant to be relaxing before his real mission began. Yet here he was voluntarily going to clean up the slums.

As John ran, his neural implant began to buzz. Then a unique sensation rippled over his body. It felt like tiny electrodes embedding themselves into his skin then wending their way into his muscles.

Gritting his teeth and taking a stiff breath, John got ready.

He knew what would happen next.

It was never pleasant. And no matter how many times he’d done it, it never got easier.

“Upgrade initiated,” the computer replied.

Orion Minor, like all Union planets, no matter how backwater, had an Integrated Computer Network. ICNs were a vestige of Old Tech but had been ripped apart and replaced so often they – unlike the rest of the Old stuff – weren’t going to run out of juice anytime soon. They were, however, very clever. One computer system that ran the entire planet distributed over the whole surface. There wasn’t some giant industrial complex full of computer banks that housed all the hardware; it was distributed like a neural net in a human or one of the other soft-fleshed races. Tiny live wires that could self-replicate littered every building, street, forest, even the earth itself. There was no limitation to what they could embed themselves in; reinforced planar concrete, ship hulls, wood, water, even magma. It meant no matter where you went on the planet, you could always interface with the system. Or at least you could if you had a neural implant as sophisticated as John’s. For your average slum dweller, you’d have to go to a central terminal.

But none of that was the point. The point was what was about to happen to John.

He was lifted off his feet as the computer circuits in his immediate area all redistributed, massing around him. He could see the distinct electric blue tinge they gave the air. He could hear the furious hum and smell the acrid taste that reminded him of singeing flesh.

Clenching his teeth hard, he forced his body to relax, forced his legs to separate, forced his hands to drop open, his fingers no longer crooked and bent.

Armor began to form around him. The ICN took hold of all the closest recalibraters, broke down sections of the floor, of the smart glass above, of John’s own clothes. It stripped them back to whatever molecules it needed, then it knitted him armor out of the very air.

It took seconds, but they dragged on and on for John. The sensation of your own clothes being broken down while a chunk of wall and floor around you suddenly became the leg of your armor or the chest plate wasn’t something he would ever rest easy with.

“Upgrade complete,” the computer informed him as John landed back on the ground.

The residual effect of the anti-grav field that had first yanked him off his feet still tingled in his muscles. His ears still rang, and despite the fact his jaw was now locked in place by reinforced smart armor, his teeth still rattled.

“Stop,” John said one more time.

Though the woman was now out of sight, it was a technicality. With John’s unaided human eyes, he wouldn’t be able to pick her up. He was directly linked to the ICN now, and he used its scanners to ascertain her position.

She was headed down the opposite corridor, flying down a set of stairs, past a group of heavy-set well-armed Cantar mercenaries, and outdoors onto the Fourth Outside Wing.

“Great,” John mumbled. Then he sent a message to his own ship.

John was just on a stopover. The authorities of Orion Minor had been instructed to help him in any way they could to ensure his mission to the Rim started off as a success. Nowhere in his debrief with them had he mentioned he would run around their slums trying to apprehend their citizens.

Sometimes John just couldn’t help getting involved, though.

His feet would move before his mind could think. Maybe it was his childhood, maybe it was his training, but if he saw someone in trouble, he acted.

Well, soon enough this woman would be in trouble. Because John never lost. Not when he was playing cards with the crew, not when he was gambling on a risky mission to the Rim, and not when he was chasing down some poor woman in the slums who probably had more fear than sense.

He’d drag her in, she’d likely share her sob story, she’d explain why she ran, then hopefully the security forces would leave her alone. John might have had an obligation to pull her in – it was an offense to run from the Union Forces – but he doubted she had any serious secrets to hide.

Still, he was going to play this by the book.

Chapter 5

Alice

Alice zoomed past a group of Barkas massing around a tiny Garpa alien. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought the cute, almost cherub-like Garpa was in trouble. Years of life on Orion Minor had taught her differently. No doubt the Garpa was trying to swindle the Barkas. And if it didn’t work, it would probably grab its electric rod and send the group flying into the smart glass high above.

That was the thing about the universe – appearances were misleading.

Alice was a living reminder of that. A small alien herself, and one who looked like she couldn’t protect herself from a Barka fly, she could take on half the security forces of the planet if she had to.

She just hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

As Alice ran, she closed her eyes. While that was a move not recommended for the softer races, it didn’t affect her speed, agility, or ability to dodge around the junk that littered the narrow corridor. She still sailed right over a broken crate of ship bolts; she still ran straight past a swarm of tiny spider-like aliens.

With her eyes closed, she tried to concentrate.

She tried to integrate with the ICN. She never, never usually did this. It was such a risk.

But she could tell the guy was hot on her heels. She could also tell that he’d taken the time to upgrade. She’d heard it; she’d smelt it; and heck, she’d picked up the electromagnetic surge as the ICN had redirected its power to knit him armor.

Curling her lips up in a sharp move, Alice swore bitterly.

Why him? Why the hell had it been John Doe? Not only would he know all about Old Tech, but unlike most of the other security forces you found down on the lower levels of Orion Minor, he would have access to high-level upgrades. If he was in the mood, he could tell the ICN to break down half of the building in order to knit him armor capable of smashing through a whole ship. It could make him a third-generation plasma coil gun within a minute; it could generate an impediment force field around his body, ensuring all objects within a ten-meter radius ground to a halt, living, dead, or never alive.

Swearing again, Alice accessed the ICN. She would trip a circuit in doing so; there was no way around it.

She didn’t have the choice.

Alice, still with her eyes closed, ran toward the airlock that led onto the outside promenade. When she reached the airlock, she didn’t stop; she flung it open, refusing to wait for the computer to utilize the dying, dried-up mechanism to shift the 500-kilogram door.

She didn’t even break a sweat.

From 30 meters behind her, she heard someone swear. They sounded impressed.

She jumped through the door, dropping and rolling as she did, coming right under the legs of a rock warrior. The creature was massive, and each of its three legs had the girth of a small transport. If she’d run right into one, even Alice would have doubled back.

The promenade was a large open area that ran around this level of Alpha block. While the weather on Orion Minor was decidedly un-tropical, there were enough weather fields in place to ensure a constant habitable climate for all the residents inside the block. Or at least that was the theory. While the fields on the higher levels were always maintained, down here, they’d only get around to fixing them when the cold and salt-laced wind threatened to chew through the lower levels and topple the entire structure.

One of the fields was clearly malfunctioning right now, because Alice could taste the salt shifting through the air. She could also feel the distinct drop in temperature. But while it might have sent a softer race reeling back inside before their eyebrows froze over and dropped off, Alice simply redirected energy into her skin.

She could take more, much more than this.

Which was a good thing, because that’s when she heard something.

She’d snapped her eyes open when she’d yanked the door open, but just for a moment, she’d allowed them to close again.

She didn’t have a lot of time here. John Doe, it seemed, was intent on catching her. The Union Commander obviously hated the idea of scum running free.

“Come on,” she snapped under her breath.

If she hadn’t been so flustered and on the run from the security forces, she would have integrated with the ICN in a snap.

In fact, it would have welcomed her back with open arms. Because no matter how much the Union had changed it, underneath their downgrades and replacements, the technology was still Old.

Finally, Alice was in. There wasn’t a click or a snap, but there was a buzz. Just for a second, every single computer circuit on the entire block suddenly whirred into life, glowed brightly, then dimmed in a snap.

Several of the aliens standing around her saw it, and they all shifted their heads around, expressions surprised. One or two mumbled something about a fluctuation in the power grid.

That had been no fluctuation. And it was probably time to stop standing around.

Alice brought up a hand and shifted her face to the side.

It was just in time.

One-by-one, the weather fields protecting the block started to shut down.

It started at the top of the building, then descended, gaining speed, the low whir of the fields snapping off echoing around the promenade.

Alice didn’t smile; she didn’t even let out a satisfied puff of air.

It wasn’t over yet. But she’d just put a dent in John Doe’s plan.

With the weather fields shut down, Block Alpha was now at the mercy of the freezing, strong winds of Orion Minor. And if the winds weren’t enough, sometimes there was so much salt being carried on them that the crystals were large enough and moving fast enough to scratch metal, let alone shred flesh.

Fortunately, the shields had shut down slowly enough that every alien on the promenade had ducked for an airlock in seconds, leaving only Alice standing on her own.

Alice didn’t even bother to shrug further into her hood. She always wore it, and it was a fact she was now truly thankful for. Throughout their entire altercation, John Doe would never have clapped eyes on her face. It was, after all, no ordinary hood. Alice had never had much money, but she was the last of the most sophisticated of races ever to have lived in the universe, and that came with its perks. She usually shunned her own technology, knowing the risks of someone else ever seeing she could operate it, but this hood was her mainstay. From the outside, it looked like a thick blue fabric that, while warm, wasn’t fancy. It always sat just below her eyes, her nose, lips and chin the only things in view as she tramped around the lower levels of the slums. But appearances were misleading, very misleading when it came to her simple blue hood. It actively disrupted in-depth biological scans. It also sent out a field that confused biologicals. However subtly, her cloak would obscure memories of her face. Especially amongst the soft races. And little John Doe was, despite his heroic tendencies, still a softy.

As the wind howled over the promenade, it brought its salt-laden bounty crashing into everything around. Alice could feel the brunt of it as it tickled along the skin of her exposed arms and cheeks, but it didn’t shred her to pieces.

“God, I can’t believe I’m considering this,” she mumbled as she took an enormous breath.

And then Alice stopped breathing. She also ran forward, right at the railing that circled around the promenade. The railing that it would have been impossible to fling herself off when the weather fields had been operating. But the railing that now invited one to fall a good three kilometers down to the ice-and-salt-covered surface of the planet below.

“Stop,” someone bellowed from behind her. That someone was John. His voice, still bolstered by the ICN, rang around the entire promenade, managing to arc high even over the roar of the wind.

Maybe Alice hesitated for just a second, the thought of what she was about to do shaking through her, but she didn’t stop.

Alice ran at the railing.

Chapter 6

John Doe

Praking hell. The weather fields for the entire block had just shut down. John knew that the authorities on Orion Minor were lax when it came to repairing field holes on the lower levels, but this was ridiculous. They’d obviously ignored maintenance for so long that a critical cascade had occurred.

As John flung himself along the promenade, the electric hum of his armor’s joints filtering through the roar of the wind, he made a mental note to have a chat with the Orion Prime once this was all over. Treating the slums like the galaxy’s dumping ground was one thing – a particularly deplorable but politically acceptable thing – but endangering the 20,000 plus inhabitants of Block Alpha was not.

“Stop,” John bellowed. His stomach snapped in, a tight sensation of fright rushing through him.

Not only had that woman not run inside with everyone else when the weather fields had shut down, but she was now looking like she wanted to jump right over the railings.

They were currently 3412 meters exactly above ground level. John didn’t need to access the ICN to calculate that no soft-fleshed alien – no matter how spruced up with implants – could survive that fall. The salt-laden winds would rip her to shreds well before her lungs burst and her skin snapped off from the cold.

She hesitated, her body shifting back. And then she threw herself forward.

John balked, eyes bulging wide as he watched. Was it suicide or sheer stupidity?

He got over his shock. Then John Doe ran after the woman.

“Computer, access the nav system of the Pegasus,” he snapped, voice sounding out even though it didn’t have to. He was using his implant to link up to the ICN again, giving it one last-ditch desperate order before Commander John Doe did something very stupid.

He ran after her, legs pumping as the armor upgrade the ICN had given him began to seize up, salt collecting in every groove and joint.

He watched in horror as the woman, her hood somehow still in place, grabbed hold of the railing and vaulted down. Maybe he saw her mouth for a split second, maybe he registered the lips drawn up in a terrified grimace, but not once did he see her eyes. Despite the ferocious updraft that would be slamming into her, the fabric stayed resolutely in place.

Seconds later, John clamped his hands on the railing and jumped over himself.

The second he did, was the second the ICN began blaring warnings in his ear. Everything from a location warning to a velocity warning to a bloody weather warning.

“Hey, what the hell is going on down there?” a voice suddenly sounded in his ear.

As John’s eyes plastered open, the view of the building shooting past him as he dropped like an armor-clad stone, he sucked in a breath.

“Did you just jump off the freaking building?”

It was Parka, John’s enigmatic engineer. Responsible for maintaining the systems of John’s ship, the Pegasus, Parka had never been one for respecting the chain of command.

“Are you a freaking idiot? That armor upgrade is already seizing up,” Parka snapped. “What the hell are you doing down there, John?”

“Getting cold,” he managed. Because he really was. His armor began to shut down; his hastily made and ineffective upgrade no match for the natural weather of Orion Minor. The salt and wind were forcing their way in through the cracks.

“No, I can see that. Just integrating with your medical implant now,” Parka said, voice drawing out. Then she let out a short, sharp huff. “You’ve got 20 seconds before the cold shuts down your brain. Oh, and 10 seconds before a gust of wind slams you into the building,” Parka added in a tight, frantic breath. “Beaming you out.”

Before John could snap at Parka to hold off, the familiar light of the transport beam shot toward him. Racing through any building in its way, piercing through any structure no matter how thick, large, and sturdy, the transport beam grabbed hold of John.

Just before it could break up his molecules and send him hurtling back to the ship, John managed to drop the node.

That had been his plan. John was a lot of things, and certain commanders had always referred to him as a risk-taker, but he wasn’t a bloody idiot. He hadn’t jumped off this building thinking he would somehow catch the woman and wrestle her through the nearest smart-glass ceiling he could find; the fall would kill them both.

His only option had always been to drop a node her way so the Pegasus computers could pick up a scan long enough to pinpoint her position for transport.

Just as John lost all grip in his hand as his gauntlet began to break up, he dropped the node. He always had one or two in his pockets; simple tech that carried a signal the Pegasus could latch onto. You never knew when they would come in handy.

Just as John’s body disintegrated entirely, he caught one last glance of the woman.

She was free falling. But her arms were held out wide, her legs stiff. She was also not dead – his armor was holding it together just long enough that he could pick up the heat of her body. But for how long he didn’t know.

Seconds later, John’s view changed. The image of that woman dropping through the white, salt-laced winds of Orion Minor was seared into his mind as the black swirl of being transported was replaced by a sheer white light. Then John Doe reintegrated on the bridge of the Pegasus.

He didn’t stumble; he didn’t fall to the ground and have a fit; and neither did he indulge in a scream. He was no rookie; he’d transported more times than he could count. Still, the feel of his bones and muscles and skin and body seemed wrong, and just for a second, he fought the urge to try to rip it all off. Transporting did that. The sensation of being recreated by a powerful light wasn’t spiritual, and it wasn’t fun. And some people simply couldn’t hack it.

John wasn’t one of those people.

Taking a brisk step forward, ignoring the fact you weren’t meant to make any sudden movements so soon after reintegration, he nodded at the computer officer before him. “Lock onto the node’s transmission, and beam that woman now.”

Chapter 7

Alice

The cold and wind and ice still hadn’t cut through her, frozen her to the spot, or even dented her mood.

Because he was gone. He’d transported away. Why in all that was holy had the man followed her off the railing, Alice didn’t know. Though she could appreciate that his armor was better than anything else in the slums, the weather of Orion Minor was unforgiving.

But he was gone. And just in time. She’d heard his armor creaking, cracking up, giving way. She’d smelt the fear, listened as his heart had started to go haywire in his chest.

Alice didn’t indulge in a laugh or a smile, and neither did she redirect her falling body toward the building. Though she could probably latch a hold of it, clamber up and through some hole in the side, she wasn’t going to bother.

She’d already made the decision to fall all the way down to the planet’s surface below. The salt-and-snow-covered surface that was legendary for its particularly horrendous beasts and monsters.

It wouldn’t bother her. The cold and animals should keep the security forces away for now. Then all Alice had to do was track across the landscape until she found a block sufficiently far away from Alpha that no one would look for her.

Then Alice would begin life again. And if that didn’t work – if John Doe still wouldn’t give up, or if he somehow figured out that the fall hadn’t killed her – she’d find her way off the planet. No matter the costs, no matter how hard it was, she’d do it. Alice had no other option.

As the wind slammed into her, it didn’t force her against the building; she held her ground. She made herself heavy, redirecting her energy to increasing her relative weight. It kept her anchored against the wind and ensured the salt glanced off with no damage.

Just as the white, ice-covered surface of the planet below came snaking into view, something happened.

A light. The familiar bright yellow of a transport beam. It sliced right through Alpha Block beside her and came right at her.

She had a split second. She rammed her eyes wide, her body stiffening in a snap.

She didn’t have time to move out of its way; it would have her signal anyway.

The beam locked onto her.

The light began to condense over her form, shifting right through her as it tried to break down her molecules.

But it wasn’t going to happen. While Alice couldn’t allow herself to undergo an in-depth biological scan, she could also never allow herself to be transported. The whole process would reveal exactly what she was. Plus, there was another, far more prominent problem; transportation was based on Old Tech.

And Old Tech, no matter how removed from the original devices developed by her forebears, always responded the same way around her.

As the beam tried its hardest to break her down, it suddenly surged. The light grew to a blinding, blistering white just as Alice’s eyes widened as far as they could, the skin around them drawing so tight it could snap.

Alice, baring her teeth, letting the burning sensation of the beam travel through her, concentrated with all her might.

As the light surged, the beam itself became ten times as strong. Whereas before it could have safely transported anyone within a 200-kilometer radius, now it could service half the planet.

Nothing in the Union tech database could do that, unless it was attached to one of the giant generators in a Union Forces’ battle cruiser.

Despite the light, despite the strength of the beam, Alice fought.

And she won. The beam suddenly doubled back on itself, snapping around like a whip. Then it crashed into a section of the planet below. There was a massive burst of energy. Then pop. Nothing. A 100-meter block of snow and salt was suddenly gorged out of the surface below her, the beam snapping it up and transporting it away instead of her.

Alice, eyes still so tightly held open that she could have crushed her own cheekbones, continued to fall. But whereas before she’d controlled her descent, her arms and legs stiff and wide to slow her fall, she no longer had the energy.

She flopped, the hood finally fluttering from her eyes as the winds of Orion Minor ripped into it.

Alice was strong. But she wasn’t immortal. She wasn’t immune to damage. She wouldn’t be spared from death.

And though she had a list of abilities that would make Commander John Doe blush, her weaknesses were worse.

She could be sapped dry in an instant. Old Technology had used the energy of the very creatures who had created it. While Alice could operate it, if she wasn’t careful, the Tech would steal right into her soul and take away everything. Every last scrap of life and power.

That had been the downfall of the Old Ones, she was sure of it. And right now, as the transport beam had feasted on her power, it might be the end for Alice too.

She plummeted.

Chapter 8

John Doe

With wide-open, pressed eyes, he’d watched. The view screen of the Pegasus had recently been updated. The old smart glass was gone, and in its place was a section of wall that had been infused with holographic receptors. They offered a full, interactive 3D representation of whatever area John instructed the computers to scan. Whether it be a desolate section of space, a building, or a planet – John and the other members of the bridge crew would be able to walk around and interact with the vision completely.

It had taken some getting used to. It made things feel uncomfortably closer and all the realer.

It seemed to heighten his reactions too, and right now as John watched the Pegasus’ transporter lock onto the falling woman, he shot to his feet. Heart in his mouth, he saw the transport beam crack to white.

There was a sharp, surprised inhale of breath from his side. “Sir, receiving massive feedback along the transport line,” Foster, the human pilot, snapped.

John could see it. Prack, everyone on the bridge could see it.

As John’s jaw went slack, his previously tightly clenched teeth dropping open, he stepped forward, right into the display of the transport beam. “What the—” he began.

And that would be when the Pegasus’ systems went haywire. The lights dropped to half-illumination as a red line on the floor blinked on.

“Red alert, system feedback unsustainable. Transport lock lost. Beam about to go critical,” the computer chirped back in an unfazed, electronic drone.

“Oh sh—” Foster began.

John jumped back, slamming his hand down on the control pad that sat by his chair. Fingers flying, despite the fact he wasn’t wearing any armor to assist his speed, he managed to key in new coordinates to the computer.

When John had rematerialized on his bridge and told the crew to lock onto the falling woman, he’d figured there was no point to transporting her to the cargo hold, the brig, or even the usual transport bay; the bridge was just as secure as anywhere else. Plus, she wasn’t exactly big.

But right now, he was regretting that mistake, big time.

When the transport beam had surged, it had lost hold of its target and had snapped down to the planet below. But it hadn’t been shut off.

It had locked onto a massive chunk of snow-covered ground, and in just under two seconds, it would have made it rematerialize on the bridge of the Pegasus.

It would have crushed everyone, everything, and probably popped the side of the hull.

But he’d managed to redirect the beam just in time.

There was a tense moment as John waited for the computer to register his move. Then the bridge let out a collective sigh as everyone wasn’t suddenly crushed under tons of icy rock.

“Beam direction altered. Contents materialized two kilometers off starboard.”

“Damn.” Foster let out a spluttering breath that made his voice sound like a shaking metal sheet.

Oh yes, damn, that had been close. Sweat collecting along his brow and already dripping down to his eyes, John wicked it off with a flick of his sleeve. “What just happened?” He didn’t bother to swear. It wasn’t out of decorum or any sense of duty in being the commander of the vessel; he swore in front of his crew all the time. It was because he could hardly sustain the breath.

John had only ever seen a white transport beam on a battle cruiser, never, ever anything smaller than that. The amount of energy required to sustain just a normal transport line was astronomical.

“Ah….” Foster bought time as his fingers flew across the console in front of him. Though Foster, and any of the other crew on the Pegasus, could integrate directly with the ICN via their neural implants, John never allowed it. Off ship, maybe. But on ship, it only posed a risk. He’d seen people go mad, their sense of self fried from too much use of the direct uplink. Plus, it could be hacked too easily. Any space bum with a link to the Union ICN could get past the firewalls and snoop around local activity. John had seen it way too many times. The beauty of using mechanical input – fingers darting over panels and voices shouting at computers – was that it was far harder to hack. The Pegasus locked out most neural control, and unless you were a living body standing right in front of the right panel, it would block out access. Archaic, yes, but far safer. And John had experienced enough trouble in this universe to know that safety was the better option.

That being said, his ship had almost burst at the seams after accidentally transporting a chunk of a planet to the bridge.

“Sir, somehow massive feedback was created along the line. It overloaded the transport lock and…” Foster drew quiet for a second, “the beam locked onto the nearest object.”

“A chunk of ice and rock,” John added, his voice low and surly.

And then he stopped, because he was forgetting something here. “The woman—” he began.

Foster turned around in his chair, the black and blue uniform of the Union Forces tight around his shoulders. Foster was young for his job – most ship’s pilots had to be trained for years before the Union would let them helm an experimental vessel like the Pegasus. But Foster was a brilliant kid. In his early 20s, with a face that never seemed to stop smiling, at least he brought an edge of humor to the bridge. Humor that could cut through the overpowering cynicism of John’s XO.

But right now, Foster wasn’t smiling. His face was pale, his cheeks slack. And he was shaking his head.

John felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach. Sniffing sharply, swallowing, he sat back down in his chair.

He didn’t like to lose people. Even if he didn’t know them. His job was to protect. When he failed, people died.

“Lieutenant Foster, begin an immediate investigation into the transport beam malfunction,” Chado said from beside John.

Chado was John’s XO. As Second in Command, he tended to deal with all the crew disputes while John got to run around on planets pacifying pirates and furthering the Union cause. A towering Talan, Chado had never cracked a smile. Not once. In the two years John had been commanding the Pegasus, Chado hadn’t moved his cheeks other than to scowl. And scowling was something the Talans were very good at.

“Get me a com link to the Head Engineer.” Chado stood, tugging down on his uniform as he did. Talans were a blue-skinned race with impeccable cheekbones and eyes that might as well have been lasers considering how fiercely piercing they were. And right now, Chado didn’t look happy.

“Where did the extra energy come from—” Chado began.

The computer let out a click, signifying that a comlink had been opened. “Don’t give me that. You think I know yet?” Parka snapped. “That surge completely fried a whole computer bank. We aren’t going to have long-range scanners for hours.”

John watched as Chado began to scowl. Though it was hardly as if Chado ever stopped frowning; the natural and permanent grimace of his race just deepened. “You will maintain discipline,” he snapped.

John put up a hand. He didn’t have time for a verbal fistfight between his engineer and XO. He needed to find out what had happened to that woman.

Was there a chance she was still alive? Had she jumped over that railing with a plan?

Bringing his hand up, mouth far too dry, John accessed the small panel next to his command chair.

Parka was obviously right, and long-range scanners were toast. But that didn’t mean John couldn’t use the Pegasus’ visual field to get a lock on the woman. Or her body. Because unless she’d jumped over the railing with one hell of a plan, she would be a red dot amongst the pure white snow.

Feeling uneasy, not wanting to see on visual what his mind was already doing a horrific job of imagining, John told the computers to get a lock on where the woman would have fallen.

The rest of the bridge drew quiet as they realized what their Commander was doing. The holographic view screen no longer showed a section of Block Alpha – the location the transport beam had shot through. The footage descended down and down, magnifying as the image shook and shuddered until it locked on the surface of the planet.

Orion Minor was barren. Nothing but ice and salt. There was foliage but nothing an Earth boy like him should recognize. Slim, almost metallic-like poles stuck up from the snow, with tiny white fronds dotted all over them. The Orion version of a tree, it was the only structure that could withstand the wind and cold.

As the computer locked onto the only thing on the horizon that wasn’t white, John’s stomach gave a kick.

He recognized the blue of the woman’s hood and the black of her tunic and pants.

The rest of the bridge stilled. No matter how much they dealt with death, John was proud of the fact none of them had grown accustomed to it. He’d come from the slums; he knew exactly how easy it was to block yourself off from others’ pain. He also knew exactly what that let you do. If death didn’t scare, shock, or disgust you, there was nothing stopping you from killing.

And that was a slippery slope.

Getting up slowly, letting his tense muscles unwind, John stood. Though he didn’t want to, he walked up to the holographic image. If he’d felt like it, he could have instructed the computer to make the holograms solid so he could truly touch them. It was a great way to interact with a prospective environment without yet being present. If you managed to get a scan of the inside of a pirate den, you could walk around, hiding behind the crates and heavy weapons, seeing exactly where it was best to hide, finding the nicest vantage points should a gun battle ensue.

If John had wanted to, he could have walked up to the image of the woman in the snow, knelt down, and picked her up.

She’d fallen on her front, her arms and legs splayed out at an awkward angle.

Her hood had finally fallen from her face, not that John could see it. He couldn’t help but lock eyes on the back of her head. She had black-blue hair that wasn’t entirely human. If John needed any more evidence that the woman wasn’t – or hadn’t been – entirely human, it was the fact her body hadn’t broken apart on impact. A fall from that height under those conditions would have mutilated a body.

She was intact. Her clothes were a little torn, ripped in sections over her arms and legs, having no doubt been lacerated by the salt-laden winds. But her flesh was unharmed. He could see a section of her bare shoulder. Though it was steadily getting paler, it wasn’t covered in blood.

“Computer.” John forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. He couldn’t stand there and look at the woman’s body for the rest of the day. “Lock onto these coordinates. Tell the authorities on Orion Minor to send out a team to pick up a body. And, computer,” John added, “tell them to prioritize this.”

He knew that a request to pick up a slum dweller who’d been stupid enough to throw herself off Block Alpha was going to go straight to the bottom of the pile. With the weather fields out throughout the whole building, the engineering and security staff would have other priorities.

But as John stared down at the vision of the woman face-first in the snow, his fists tightened by his sides.

She’d shown strength and speed that wasn’t normal. Just what species was she? Maybe she’d stolen several Union implants. Hell, she could have been a pirate assassin. Though he doubted that. Because the second the possibility popped up in his mind, a vision of her looking up at him after he’d caught her followed. Even though that hood had stayed resolutely over her eyes, he could recall the exact pull of her lips as she’d frowned up at him.

Her chin had dimpled, her cheeks drawing tight and hard.

What a picture to have stuck in his head.

Pressing a hand to his temple and letting it run down until he clutched hold of his jaw, John told Foster to put in a priority one dispatch to the Orion Minor security forces.

“Pulling rank there, John?” Parka said, her voice snapping over the comline. “The Prime is going to love that. Still, I’m behind you on this one. Any creature dumb enough to jump off a building three kilometers high is worth investigating.”

John gave a sharp swallow. Finally, he turned away.

But not before something happened.

He’d brought his hand up and given the signal to cut the visual feed. Just as he’d made a swiping motion, the computer picking up on his movement and terminating the visual link, she’d moved.

The woman had moved.

Everyone on the bridge snapped around to see it.

Bodies stiff, mouths open, just for a split second before the feed had terminated, they’d seen her buck forward, plant her hands in the snow, and sit up.

Then the holo emitters cut out, the image of her snow-covered body gone.

“Get it back. Get it back,” John screamed, voice way too loud. His crew were right by his side, and none of them were hard of hearing. But he couldn’t control it; the surge of fear that erupted through him at the sight of her bucking forward cut through his control.

Foster’s fingers flew across the console, his eyes darting to and fro and his shoulders tensed. “Locking back onto it. Three seconds,” he added.

It would be the longest Three seconds of John’s life.

Chapter 9

Alice

She sat up. Though it wasn’t slow. As her body regained consciousness, she shot upwards, her torso twitching so violently it sent her knees skidding in the snow.

Alice didn’t always have to breathe. It was a relatively unique feature of her race, but given warning, they could rely on several redundancies to sucking in nitrogen-rich air to live.

Given enough warning was the key point, though. Alice’s body had a variable structure. She wasn’t capable of completely changing her form and appearance, but she could redirect the unique type of energy within her to bolster certain systems. Rather than subsisting on air, she could utilize the wind buffeting against her body and ripping through her already torn clothes to sustain her. If there was no wind, she could use heat or water – anything, basically. Not for long, but for however much time it would take to get her out of a compromising situation and back to safety.

Clamping a hand on her chest, the fingers caked in salt, she didn’t care that it scratched her skin.

She’d almost died.

Her mouth opening wide, gasping back and forth like a fish out of water, she stared down at the snow before her.

It wasn’t splattered with blood. Alice’s race, though possessed of a circulatory system like a human’s, didn’t subsist on a substance that any other race could recognize.

Pure energy, or something like it.

The specifics didn’t matter. All Alice cared about was that she was alive.

Her hood was off. Despite her tired and almost broken body, she tugged it back over her head.

It was automatic. A habit she would never forget. It was her last line of defense against being recognized.

Then she stood. She wobbled at first, her addled body trying to find the rigidity to support herself against the roar and bite of the wind.

But she managed it. Barely.

Bringing an arm up, she pushed it in front of her face, protecting her eyes and cheeks.

Though she’d blithely jumped off the promenade into the ferocious gale without the possibility of being injured, that had all changed.

That transport beam had sucked her energy right out of her. And if it hadn’t lost lock at the last second, it would have killed her. She’d had just enough power left to withstand the fall.

She could no longer redirect her energy into her skin, arms, and legs, and steadily the salt crystals were lashing into her.

Turning from the brunt of it, Alice huddled an arm around her middle.

At least her hood would remain uncut. It was still Old Tech, unlike the simple, unsophisticated clothes that covered the rest of her body.

Taking a shuddering step forward, her knees jolting at the effort of moving against the wind, Alice began to walk.

She hadn’t been expecting the transport beam. In jumping off the building, she’d been sure that the velocity of her fall would have made getting a lock on her impossible.

Yet he’d managed it. John freaking Doe.

Groaning, clutching a hand to her shoulder, Alice moved.

The more she did, the easier it got. She invited the wind to blast into her now, letting her arms drop a little; the more it buffeted against her, the more energy returned to her limbs. The bite of the salt was still harsh against her skin, and the cold was still ferocious. Alice would also have to get out of it as soon as she could, but for the immediate future, the wind was the only thing keeping her going.

Letting her eyes close for a moment, she cursed the fact she’d gotten out of bed that morning. She also cursed the fact she’d been unlucky enough to run into Commander Doe.

Her situation was now unbelievably perilous. If anyone had seen her fall, the Orion Minor ICN would be redirecting its sensors to get a lock on her position. They would also be sending in the security forces.

Minutes ago, at her top strength, Alice would have been able to fight them off easily. Then she’d had her energy ripped right out of her, siphoned off by a technology hungry to claim the power it had once had.

The wind picking up in a greater roar, rushing so fast past her body that Alice felt as if she was in free fall again, she forced one foot in front of the other.

It was all she could do.

Chapter 10

John Doe

He was on his feet. Nearly everyone else was on their feet too. The holo feed in the center of the bridge showed one thing. A woman, arms huddled around herself, walking through the barren white wasteland of Orion Minor.

“How the hell is she doing that?” Foster said under his breath for about the eight time.

John didn’t have an answer for him; John had no clue how someone could survive that kind of fall, let alone get up to walk against the wind of the planet below.

“We need long-range scanners now,” Chado snapped again.

Parka groaned over the comline, swearing in her own unique tongue.

“Get me the Orion Prime. We need to access the planet’s scanners,” John managed.

He’d been silent for too long, just watching mesmerized as she’d taken one labored step after another.

He still hadn’t seen her face. When they’d re-established a visual lock on her, she’d already tugged her hood into place. And no matter how hard the wind buffeted and ripped at the rest of her clothes and body, it didn’t shift the hood once.

He frowned harder. His lips seemed to be stuck in the gravitational pull of the planet below as his body stiffened further.

John had seen a lot in his time. From the worst the slums of the Universe could provide, to the strangest and wildest experiences being a Union commander had delivered him. But he’d never seen anything like this.

“She may be a robot,” Chado suggested, voice curt and sharp.

John had thought of that. She wasn’t, though; he’d seen her heat signature. She was biological.

“She may possess those advanced implants the Union is working on, the ones for use on extreme planets,” Foster offered, voice breathy.

“The ICN would have picked that up immediately,” John replied.

“Perhaps she is an Ionian Jumper?” Chado suggested.

“She would have survived the fall but not the cold.” John kept staring at the woman, not shifting his gaze to the rest of the bridge once. “As soon as we get access to the Orion ICN, get it to send a super-fast probe. I want a visual of that woman’s face.”

John’s gaze darted over the hood as he spoke.

He was standing right in front of her. As she walked, huddling against her own body, she moved before him. He was just outside of the hologram field, but if he’d felt like it, he could have reached out his arm a few centimeters and grabbed hold of her hood.

“Sir, we’ve gained access,” Foster finally informed him.

Sucking in a breath so large his chest punched forward against the tight-fit of his uniform, John whirled on his foot. “Send the probe. Alert the security forces. Tell them this is a Union Forces override. I want a team at her location in the next two minutes,” he snapped.

And he meant it.

Whirling on his foot again, he nodded sharply at Chado.

His XO narrowed his large blue eyes, the flecked skin of his blue face tightening. It was a knowing look. “I suppose you are going back down there?”

John offered a simple and brief nod. Hell yes, he was going back down there.

But that wasn’t all. Transport was a systems-heavy activity. It took a lot of energy, and you had to justify it every single time you used it. But so was upgrading into armor. Especially the specific kind John had in mind.

Crunching his shoulders and clenching his hands for a brief moment, John took a sniff. “Computer, select restricted upgrade alpha 1,” John said.

Chado looked at him, and the XO’s eyes blazed.

Technically, it was the job of an XO to not only ensure the safety of the crew but also the commanding officer. But John had a nasty habit of being the first one to put his hand up whenever danger reared its ugly head, and he would run off, leaving Chado to simmer in the corner.

As the computer lifted John off the ground, it didn’t have to – thankfully – take apart his clothes in order to recalibrate the matter to generate his armor. Neither did it take a chunk out of the floor or reef off a whole section of the hull.

The Pegasus had a full store of elements on board from which all the system’s recalibraters could draw. And they’d just been restocked.

The armor took seconds to knit over his muscles and skin, and the process wasn’t nearly as biting and uncomfortable as the one he’d undergone on Orion Minor. The ICN in the slums had done its best job, but the Pegasus’ computers were designed with knitting upgrades and armor in mind.

In seconds, John landed, his boots hitting the floor with a resounding and satisfying clang.

He was good to go in some of the best armor the Union could manufacture. Unlike the crap he’d received in the slums, this stuff wouldn’t be eaten apart by the wind. The second he touched down on the ice-covered surface of the planet, his armor would generate an impediment field, slowing the wind down to a bare puff, the salt dashing against his jet-black and gray armor as if it had been thrown by a child.

“Lock onto me, transport from here,” John snapped.

Technically, he could have run down to one of the transporter bays, but he didn’t have the time. Instead, he kept his gaze focused on the image of the woman walking against the wind.

Was it just him or was she getting quicker? Her arms were no longer gripped around her middle, the shoulders high as she huddled against them. They were loose and free by her sides, her fingers not even clutched into fists.

Her head was level, then it snapped up. She’d obviously seen something in the distance.

“Security forces en route. Will reach the target in 30 seconds,” the computer informed him just as a yellow light shot through the floor at a 90-degree angle and locked him in place.

John’s molecules began to break down.

It was never a pleasant feeling. Talk about being ripped in two; if you didn’t know you’d be rematerialized on the other end, you’d think death had finally reached you.

It could send people mad; John had seen it on numerous occasions. One of the men he’d gone through military academy with had lost his mind the first time he’d gone through a beam.

But John had found the secret of surviving; have something to live for. Have something to justify going through the torture of being transported for, and your mind would quickly forget the latent sensation of having your muscles ripped from your bones.

And right now John had something to live for. He had something he desperately needed to find out. Just who in the universe that woman was.

Chapter 11

Alice

The cold wasn’t bothering her as much anymore, and neither was the salt. Though her skin still did smart from them, they no longer threatened to send her back into blissful unconsciousness.

Her body was regaining the energy that had been ripped from it by the transporter beam. She wouldn’t be back to her usual cynical and paranoid self until she could get inside one of the blocks, but she could survive out here.

Could being the operative word. Because at that exact moment she snapped her head around. The sound of a security transport humming overhead momentarily blasted over the roar of the wind.

She looked up to see the black behemoth descend from above. Security robots were lining up just inside the slowly-opening hangar-bay door, getting ready to jump down and apprehend her.

The blast from the transport’s engines flattened against her, tugging at her remaining clothes, almost threatening to yank them right off her.

Huddling against the downdraft, she brought her arms over her head. Her hair whipped around her face, slapping into her nose and cheeks, but not once did it pull the hood from over her head.

Nothing but her own hands could do that.

“By the moons of Orion,” she snapped.

This wasn’t good.

But if she was lucky, and she timed it right, she could still get out of here. The transport above wouldn’t have a human pilot; the conditions of the planet were so inhospitable to life that there was little point in risking a biological when you could just send a hunk of metal controlled by the ICN to do your dirty work for you.

Which meant there would be no one up there to stop Alice from taking control. Though she was perilously low on energy, she was desperate. She’d use what little juice she had to hack right into the ICN and give her control of the transport, disabling the security bots as she did. Then she’d… figure out a way to somehow get off the ship and back to safety.

She was going to have to come up with a plan on the fly. But first things first.

Alice closed her eyes, ignoring the growing, deafening hum of the engines above her.

She tried to concentrate long enough to access the ICN, forcing whatever circuits that ran through the barren snow and salt-covered ground below her to redirect, latch hold of her message, and propagate it through the system.

But Alice didn’t get the chance to finish the job.

The transport still hadn’t landed and would take another 30 seconds before it could touch down close enough for the security bots to jump out.

But something did land, right beside her.

She snapped her eyes open in time to see a transport beam slice out of the sky.

She just had time to crumple her arms over her head, fearing the beam would latch onto her again and suck the rest of her life from her bones.

It didn’t happen.

What happened instead was a man – covered in particularly sophisticated-looking black and gray armor – rematerialized a meter from her side.

With one hand planted on the ground, his head momentarily dropped between his shoulders, then he snapped it up in an instant.

John Doe, it just had to be.

Alice whirled on her foot, getting ready to run.

He jumped from behind her – she could hear the wind buffet into his armor.

He landed in front of her. “We’re here to help,” his voice sounded out loud and clear, the roar of the wind nothing against the boosted audio his armor gave him.

No, he really wasn’t.

Alice lashed out at him.

She usually never fought. Not unless she had to. Defend herself, yes; she did that all the time. But fighting made her sick to her stomach.

She didn’t have any other option.

She flung her arm toward him, redirecting her energy until it made her skin and muscle as strong as smart concrete.

For a second, he did nothing. Maybe he wasn’t expecting it. Maybe he’d expected, upon his offer to help, that Alice would collapse into his arms and let the hero save her for the second time that day.

She couldn’t be caught. Not by him.

Her arm connected. As it did, she put as much of her energy as she could afford into the move.

And John went flying. There was a cracking, resounding thud as she collected her arm across his torso, and the force of the blow sent John up into the air a good two meters. He crashed into the snow to her left.

Alice didn’t wait to see him stumble to his feet. Which he no doubt would do. Though her blow had been strong, it would be nowhere near enough to fell someone in armor that sophisticated. In fact, now the armor had withstood such a blow, it would adapt, recalibrating the plating across its surface so that further blows like that would glance off.

In other words, she wouldn’t get another chance like that. She also didn’t have the energy; the move almost sent her reeling back to her knees.

She didn’t have the luxury of falling unconscious here.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the transport beside her finally land. The hangar door lay open, and ten or so security bots pushed out, their silver bodies glinting in whatever sun had managed to push its way through the constantly swirling clouds of the planet.

Stumbling, heaving her legs forward with all her might, Alice ran for the transport.

She didn’t get there.

Something grabbed her. Arms lacing around her middle, grip tighter than anything she could fight, John Doe lifted her off the ground.

“Stop fighting. It’s okay. We’ve got you,” he said, his voice stiff, obviously being pushed through locked and clenched teeth.

Alice didn’t stop fighting. She thrashed harder, her eyes growing wide with genuine fright. She started to shake, her previously frozen body surging with heat and becoming plastered with sweat.

She couldn’t be caught. She couldn’t be caught!

“You’ll be fine. The cold causes delirium. Stop fighting,” John kept speaking from behind her, his grip never wavering.

No matter how hard she tried to break free, Alice just didn’t have the energy.

Desperation started to kick in, but there was nothing she could do about it.

She’d allowed the unimaginable to occur. She’d been caught by the Union Forces. And worse than that. The man who currently had her locked firmly in his arms would know in an instant what she was. All it would take was a single complete bio scan.

She was done for.

Chapter 12

John Doe

He hadn’t been expecting that blow. He’d been expecting her to fight, yes; anyone desperate enough to throw themselves off the side of a building into a frozen salt blizzard wouldn’t come quietly when the authorities arrived.

But that strike had been something else. It had been so fast and strong that the plating along his armor had been unable to adapt to it in time, and he’d been thrown clear off his feet.

John didn’t like to make the same mistake twice, and he always tried to learn from his surprises. Redirecting all the armor’s energy into strengthening it, he’d jumped right back up, finally catching the woman in his grip.

But she fought, boy did she fight. No matter how hard he tried to assure her, she just thrashed harder. In fact, she’d thrashed all the way onto the transport. It had taken John and several of the security bots to finally get her on board, and he’d had to physically restrain her before a proper impediment field could be produced. Even then the field had only slowed her movements by half.

“Computer,” John said through a gruff cough, the effort of getting her on board already taking its toll on his body, “break apart half my armor, use it to reinforce that field to ensure containment.”

“Not recommended. Cannibalizing your armor will reduce its ability to withstand outside conditions—” the computer began, its electronic voice sounding out from one of the numerous panels in the hangar bay he and the rest of the robots were in.

“Just do it,” he growled.

The computer didn’t interrupt again. John could feel as the armor that kept him strong and alive was slowly eaten away.

He didn’t bother to sit; he stood exactly where he was, ignoring whatever cold managed to penetrate the thick hull. While this transport was sturdy, it was designed only for planet use and didn’t have the sealed atmosphere of a proper space vessel.

But right now John didn’t care that a frozen, numb feeling started to climb up his feet and into his bones. He just crossed his arms and stared at her.

As the computer finished the process of ripping apart half of his armor to strengthen the field holding the woman in place, she stopped thrashing.

She ground to a complete halt, her arms stiffening and locking by her sides. Her head was down, the line of her hood now hiding everything but her lower lip.

But not for long.

John walked right into the field.

While the impediment field would stop the woman from moving or escaping, it would have no such effect on John. It was calibrated to his armor and bio signs to ensure he could pass through and walk around inside unaffected.

She raised her head but only slightly. It would give her an unrivaled view of his boots and maybe his shins too but nothing else.

“Who are you?” He got straight to the point. She didn’t look like she was the type to like time wasters.

The hood was still low enough so that all he could see was her bottom lip. It shifted down in a twitch, but that was it.

Sighing, John shook his head. Why did some people have to be so difficult? Okay, John wasn’t so innocent that he didn’t know the answer to that; he’d been exactly like the woman in front of him once upon a time. Not exactly the same – unassisted by implants or armor, you wouldn’t have seen John jumping off the side of a building. But he was from the slums. He knew the costs of surviving.

“Come on, I’m not going to hurt you. Tell me why you ran. We’ll take you back for a scan and file check, and you’ll be free. No need to make this hard,” John tried, lowering his tone, making it a little softer.

She didn’t react.

Which left him no choice.

John walked right up to her. “I’m going to remove your hood,” he warned her, breath stuck in his chest for some reason.

He wanted to know what she looked like, what race she was. But most of all, he wanted to look right into her eyes. For no specific reason – it wasn’t as if looking into the doorways of the soul would further his investigation.

But he wanted to. And that particular flicker of energy up his spine as he reached his hands toward the hood only solidified his will.

He latched his fingers over it, not too quickly; he didn’t want to surprise her. Though he brushed past her cheeks and he could feel her eyelashes darting against the external membrane of his armor, she didn’t move back.

She just stiffened even more.

John pulled the hood back. Or at least he tried to.

He couldn’t move it. Gritting his teeth, his eyebrows descending over his eyes, John tried harder. His boots locked further onto the hull, the magnetic field they generated syncing with the metal and anchoring him down.

He pulled as hard as he could.

He couldn’t shift the thing. The woman turned her head to the side, her left cheek pressing into his right hand.

John tried again and again, but he couldn’t move the thing a centimeter, let alone get it off.

Sucking in a delayed breath, he finally let go and took a sharp step back. “What the hell?” he swore.

She hadn’t shifted much; she was still sitting in exactly the same position with her arms held stiffly by her sides. She was smiling, though, if you could call it that. Though her skin was still pale, her bottom lip had bunched up, pushing into the slice of cheek that was still visible.

“What’s going on here? How are you doing that?” John snapped.

She didn’t answer.

In fact, she hadn’t said a word to him since she’d demanded he put her down when he’d saved her from that alien in the slums.

John took another step back. His eyes were wide under the faceless helmet of his armor. If he wanted to, he could turn it to transparent, making the plating disappear as a powerful force field took its place.

“Perhaps human isn’t up to the task,” one of the security bots droned from behind him in its toneless voice.

John turned sharply over his shoulder. John was up to the task; even considering his armor had been cannibalized to bolster the impediment field, he still had the strength to yank a freaking hood back. He wasn’t a geriatric here. He worked out every single day.

Not bothering to answer the robot and knowing that it wouldn’t try anything unless John gave it a specific order, he took a step back toward the woman.

She shifted her head forward, facing him. Her bottom lip had lost its curl and had descended into a thin line.

He decided then and there – despite the situation – that frowning didn’t suit this woman. But it was a useless and faintly sentimental conclusion, one that wouldn’t help him find out who she was.

“Transport Beta to arrive at Central Security Station in one minute,” the computer informed him.

The transport hadn’t bothered taking them to the nearest block; not considering how much trouble she’d caused. They were headed to Block Prime. About the only building on Orion Minor that didn’t have a slum attached to it. Block Prime was where the ruling elite lived. It housed not only the best and brightest, but the key planet-wide systems. It also held the central operations for the security forces.

The transport gave a shake as a blast of wind ripped into it, but fortunately John already had a magnetic lock on the floor below him and couldn’t be thrown from his feet. He watched in pure fascination, his eyebrows inching down as the woman was jostled to the side, her hands grabbing hold of the bench she’d been seated on. Though the impediment field had all but locked her in place, she could still make movements, and she still had to correct herself as the transport gave a shake.

Though her hair spilled from underneath her hood and the tatters of her tunic shifted around her shoulders, her hood didn’t move. Not a freaking centimeter.

Once the turbulence stopped, John shifted forward. He didn’t latch hold of the hood and try to tug it off her head again; he dropped to his knees. Planting a hand on the ground, leaning close to one of her legs, he tried to look up.

She ducked her head down straight away, bringing a hand over the hood and locking it over her eyes.

Letting out a frustrated sigh, John stood. He half turned to see that the view from the single window in the hangar bay showed the transport rapidly approaching Block Prime. It would be seconds before they touched down. The hatch of the security level was already opening in preparation to receive them.

“Suit yourself, but the hood will come off.” John turned back to her.

She didn’t move. No, that was wrong. She shook. However slightly, he could pick it up with what was left of his armor.

It softened him. The prospect of an immovable hood and a backhand that could send a fully-armored man flying through the air had served to heighten John’s suspicions of this woman. But that shake had reminded him that he had no idea who she was and what she was hiding from.

Chapter 13

Alice

She could hardly move. It wasn’t just the cold snaking up from the bench underneath her, it was everything. This transport wasn’t atmosphere proof, and the fell wind from outside managed to snake its way in, the frozen cold shifting through everything.

But it wasn’t the cold that had made her give that shudder. It was his promise. Pure, clear, and simple. The way he’d said it had left no doubt in Alice’s mind; if she didn’t manage to get out of here, John Doe would reveal her.

As the transport slowed down, the mag clamps of the building they’d just reached locking onto it and guiding it safely through the hangar doors, she indulged in another shake.

She hadn’t been expecting him to transport back to the planet. Then again, she hadn’t been expecting he’d manage to get a transporter lock on her.

It seemed there was no predicting this guy and the lengths he’d go to.

“Inform the Security Chief we need a portable containment field, level three.” John turned on his heel, his helmet twisting her way.

God, he was looking at her. And though she couldn’t see his eyes under the opaque plating of his armor, it didn’t matter. It was the way his head twisted in obvious interest, one shoulder high the other hand dropped into a tight fist by his side.

Though Alice couldn’t have a classic panic attack; her alien body was too far gone from a human’s to undergo such a thing, she could freak out in her own unique way.

She became so stiff it would take a rock warrior to move her. As her fright rose and bucked within her, she lost control of her energy. Or whatever was left of it. Because if she’d been her usual self, she would never have let John Doe get close enough to latch hold of her hood. She would have kicked out the side of the transport, sailed down to the surface of the planet, and run like the wind.

She wasn’t her usual self, and she didn’t have the energy to fight the impediment field John had stuck her in. And that was why her emotions were rapidly spiraling out of control. As they did, her energy ran amuck, forcing her limbs and body to stiffen until they were stronger than a battle cruiser’s hull. It also stopped her breath, stopped whatever could be called her heart. It froze her to the spot.

It was a last ditch survival move that she had no control over. If she couldn’t escape, then her body would hunker down, making itself as strong as possible to withstand any blow it could.

The problem was, no blow would come, and now wasn’t the time to ground to a halt. Now was the time to be clever, to look for an opportunity, and to run like hell. But no matter how much Alice told herself that, she couldn’t shift through the block of fear that locked her in place.

“Come on, get up,” John called to her as he motioned an arm her way. “You can do this the easy way,” he began. He didn’t finish his sentence.

He didn’t have to.

Alice had just enough control to dart her eyes to the left. The transport hangar was now fully open, and it was large enough that she could see into the hangar bay of the room around her.

She was in Central Security; she recognized the logos on the walls. She also recognized the device they were now wheeling up into the transport.

A portable containment field, level three, just as the good Commander had ordered.

She didn’t have the energy to fight it, she didn’t have the control to move, so instead Alice watched in abject horror as they set it up. Within seconds a vibrant yellow energy shot around her, surrounding her in a force field strong enough to contain a plasma explosion.

Her eyes wider than they’d ever been, watering from the pressure of having them stuck so far open, the containment field lifted her off her feet. She had no choice in the matter; the powerful bioelectrical field just pushed her up until she was floating, stiff as a rod, in the center of the blue bubble that was the containment force field.

“Where do you want her?” one of the officers who’d walked in with the containment field flicked his gaze from Alice over to John.

“Take her straight to a holding cell,” John replied quickly.

“Okay, sir. We’ve got it from here.” The officer nodded John’s way, flopping a hand toward him as he did. The movement triggered the field, and the blue crackling ball shifted forward at a slow pace, Alice still suspended within.

Though no one could see her eyes, her hood still flat in front of her face, if they had, they would have noted how scared she was.

She’d never been trapped like this. She’d always had an avenue for escape. But she didn’t have the strength to fight this field. Even if she’d been her usual self, and that transport beam hadn’t siphoned off her energy, she would have still picked up a sweat breaking through a containment field like this.

John took a slow step beside her, never speeding up faster than the containment field as it rolled its way down from the transport and into the hangar bay of Central Security.

“Sir, it’s okay,” the security officer repeated, voice deliberately slow and clear, “we’ve got it here. You can go and report to the Chief.”

“Oh no you don’t. This woman has given me too much trouble,” John turned to face her, his helmet angled high as his eyes no doubt locked on her bottom lip, “too many surprises too. Humor me, but I’m going to accompany her right to that holding cell. If the Chief is desperate for a debrief, tell him where I am.”

The security officer gave a strangled little cough but didn’t add anything.

The next few minutes were some of the most agonizing of Alice’s life. As she lay suspended in the containment field, she saw the corridors and cells of Central Security as they traveled slowly through them.

“Maybe we should increase speed,” the officer mumbled after a few minutes of slow pacing by her side, “if we take a little energy from the field—” he began.

“That’s not going to happen,” John jumped in before the guy could finish.

He was looking at her again.

God, what she wouldn’t give to see his face, especially his eyes. Though it would likely freak the hell out of her, she could use his expression to try to understand just how much John suspected.

While Alice doubted the guy had jumped to the conclusion she was an Old One, it wouldn’t take long once the computer had scanned her. But what did he suspect? Just what was he thinking as he angled his head slowly her way?

Alice wanted to throw up, which was funny considering she hadn’t eaten food in over a month.

“Okay, sir,” the officer eventually mumbled, voice low.

“Trust me, son, you don’t want to lower that field. This woman jumped off the side of Block Alpha and didn’t die.”

The officer gave a short snort and raised an eyebrow. He obviously didn’t believe John, but he was obviously also smart enough not to challenge a commanding officer, especially not one who was heading up the Union’s new mission into the Rim. John Doe was a little bit of a superstar at the moment. With the importance the Union placed on Old Tech, he might as well have been tasked to protect life itself, considering how much attention he was receiving.

Finally, the containment field rolled into a holding cell, and when it did, the sophisticated fields locking into place over the door, Alice was about ready to die.

This was it, it was over.

The containment field winked out of place, but rather than let her down gently to the ground like it was supposed to, it gave up halfway through, and Alice slammed against the hard floor of her cell with a resounding thump.

“Hey,” John snapped from outside the door.

“Wasn’t me,” the officer answered immediately, “lost field integrity at the end there… not sure why… some kind of fluctuation in the power grid.”

It hadn’t been a fluctuation in the power grid, it had been Alice. Her own energy had fed right back into it, overloading the circuit. Though she hadn’t been able to do that while she’d been stuck inside that blue bubble, as it had cut out, her body had linked to it automatically.

It wasn’t something she could control. But it was something Alice had to be careful of. Whenever she was tired, injured, or scared, technology, Old or New, would integrate with her. And it would usually not be a pretty sight.

Groaning a little, though not loud enough that it could pick up and press through the fields covering the large open door in front of her, Alice picked herself up.

The holding cell was huge, way bigger than Alice’s own quarters.

It was probably intended for a rock warrior or one of the colossal hard races from the Farrier system.

Instead it was currently housing little old her.

There was a thick high bench that ran along the back wall, and there was a door approximately 10 meters across that was covered with so many flickering fields it looked like a rainbow. A dangerous rainbow. One that wouldn’t just repel you, but that would burn all the skin off your hands if you tried to so much as touch it.

And right now John Doe was standing behind it with his arms crossed and his head held at that particular angle that was threatening to make Alice pop.

Chapter 14

John Doe

John couldn’t believe his eyes. She was still alive. And what was more, the cuts along her arms and the multiple tiny abrasions that had covered her cheeks and arms were gone.

As if they’d never been there.

And though she sat exactly where the containment field had dumped her, as stiff as a board, she was still alive.

Which was incredible considering what she’d gone through.

“She’s in the cell now, sir – the Chief has requested,” the officer began.

“Then tell him to come down here. I’m not moving from this door till we finish those scans,” John snapped.

The officer made a strangled noise, but John hardly paid attention to it. Instead he kept his eyes locked on the woman. Which was a good thing, otherwise he would have missed her twitch powerfully at the mention of a bio scan. Just what did she have to hide?

“Okay, sir,” the officer managed in a single, sharp breath. John had been in charge of troops long enough to know when someone was holding something back.

Turning slightly, hating the fact he had to take his eyes off the woman, John looked down at the officer. “What?”

“The scans can’t penetrate through this cell. It’s not designed for that. Also, because systems are being upgraded right now, the only system capable of doing a full bio scan is in the main area.” The guy practically winced away from John as he spoke.

It wasn’t as if John was going to hit the officer; while the guy’s information wasn’t welcome, John had come a long way from the discipline that used to be doled out in the slums. “Right.” He let out a frustrated sigh. “I guess we’ll be needing that containment field again.”

“Sir,” the officer was a little bolder now.

God, bad news again – John could just tell. “Yes?” he hazarded.

“While our systems are being upgraded they won’t be able to penetrate through a containment field.”

John’s shoulders deflated, and if it wasn’t for the fact his armor was rigid, he’d probably drop to his knees in frustration. Okay, maybe not all the way to his knees, but this news wasn’t welcome.

Taking the time to glance back at the woman, John stopped. Because she was standing, the stiff look of her body gone, her head raised. Though he still couldn’t see past her hood, he could see her top lip.

She was smiling.

He’d been right; smiling suited her far more than the morbid scowls she’d been offering him. And he imagined that right now she had a lot to smile about. No doubt this was brilliant news for her. If they had to move her into the central area, she would try her hardest to escape. And considering what she’d gotten up to over the past hour, her hardest might just be better than what John would have to offer in reply.

Before John could think of a plan, he was interrupted. He turned to hear a rattling, croaking cough.

It belonged to a tall Bakar. His face, like all Bakars, was lined with spikes and was one of the most fearsome sights in all the universe. Fortunately this guy wasn’t rattling an electro spear and whetting his tusks in preparation for glorious battle, though. He was staring down at John with a less-than-pleased expression.

“Chief.” The security officer by John’s side suddenly snapped a salute.

So this would be the Security Chief of Orion Minor. It made sense to pick a Bakar – with the number of slums crawling over the lower buildings of this planet, you would need someone hardnosed, and in this case spiky, to deal with the crime.

“Why did you redirect the entire ICN? Why did you take hold of one of my transports? Why did you dictate our priorities while the entire weather field of Block Alpha is offline?” the Chief asked. He had a voice familiar to all members of his race. One that reminded John of stone grinding against stone. It always made his back itch and arch.

Planting a hand on his chest plate, keying in a short code that saw his helmet disappear as the plating of his armor rearranged in a hiss, John didn’t bother to set a force field to replace his helmet just yet. Though he would. He wasn’t going to stop being cautious around this woman. Not until the hood was drawn back from her eyes and her identity revealed.

John didn’t flinch and neither did he look for a second like he was sorry for the numerous inconveniences he’d caused the Chief. “Union dictate,” John snapped simply.

The Chief considered him warily. “For that.” He stretched a hand past John and flicked it toward the woman within the security field.

It was a dismissive move and one that made the woman shift on her foot to face the Chief.

John cleared his throat carefully. He understood that the crap the Chief would have to deal with would be immense, but John liked to think every being in the universe deserved a certain level of respect. Right from the pirates to the exalted leaders.

Fixing the Chief with a look that made it clear John wasn’t impressed, he cleared his throat pointedly. “Yes, for her,” John emphasized the word her. She wasn’t a that, she was a person. An important distinction. The kind of distinction you used when something was alive and breathing and worthy of being distinguished from the grit and slime and detritus that lined your walls.

The Chief narrowed his eyes, all three of them. “Are you going to explain why she is worth this? It looks as if an unarmed security bot could take her down.”

John gave a sharp laugh. “Hey, you go get one, and we’ll see if it can. Or,” John crossed his arms, “if you are done questioning my authority, I would be happy to fill you in on the situation.”

John had gotten into trouble for his attitude on numerous occasions before. Hell, it had been the one thing that had almost prevented him from being promoted.

There was a chain of command in the Union Forces, and you respected it. You didn’t sass your superiors, and you always acted with decorum. That extended to not deliberately pissing off Security Chiefs on backwater planets.

But John had been promoted, and no matter how deep he dug, he couldn’t uproot the side of his personality that always rallied against injustice and intolerance.

The officer beside John was obviously trying hard not to laugh. The guy was probably half human and half some other soft race, so John could recognize the stiff-lipped, crinkled-nose look well.

“I see,” the Chief finally replied. “I have stopped, as you say, questioning your authority. Debrief me.”

And that’s why John liked the Barkarians. A matter-of-fact race when they wanted to be, notwithstanding the brutality and thirst for war, that was.

Taking a deep breath, John talked the Chief through the last hour of his life. Listing the woman’s exploits one after the other. The Chief didn’t snigger in disbelief; John didn’t give him the chance. He linked up to the Pegasus and got them to send down all the information they’d picked up on the woman’s fall and resultant walk through the frosty salt and snow dunes of Orion Minor.

When John was finished, he looked over his shoulder to see that the woman was no longer in the center of the room. She wasn’t huddled on the bench or underneath it either, considering how large it was. She was pacing, back and forth in front of the security fields. Though she was a good four meters away from the crackling field, that didn’t stop the color of it from playing across those exposed lips of hers.

The sight caught his attention for a second.

“Commander, I repeat,” the Chief said more loudly, “I demand we do a bio scan at once. I don’t want to risk having a high-profile criminal or assassin cyborg in one of my cells. The Union will have to be informed immediately; we don’t have the facilities to hold such creatures.”

John snapped his attention back to the Chief. All facts he agreed on; the woman needed to be scanned as a top priority. She also needed to be placed in a better holding cell whenever it was safe to move her. But John doubted she would turn out to be an assassin cyborg; not with that smile of hers. And as for her being a high-profile criminal, he had no evidence. But a flicker of intuition told him that wasn’t even scratching the surface of this elusive woman’s secret.

Chapter 15

Alice

They’d finally left, the officer and the Chief of Security. But he’d stayed.

Now John Doe, with his arms still crossed, leaned as close to the opposite side of the security field as he could get without his armor frying.

His head was on that blasted angle again. The one that told her John was staring forth with unbridled interest, with unquenchable curiosity. Right at her.

Except this time she could see his eyes. He’d taken his helmet off to talk to the Chief and hadn’t bothered to put it back on, setting it to transparent force field instead.

As she paced, her limbs threatening to lock up from the tension of being trapped in the cell, she tried not to stare at him.

He had the kind of gaze that could melt anyone.

“I suppose you are still not in a talkative mood,” he suddenly noted, voice sounding clear through the field, despite how furiously it crackled.

She paused, but only for a second. Then she went right back to pacing, her footfall fervent and quick, her shoes squeaking on the well-worn floor of the cell.

“You know, you could tell me what’s going on. We’re going to find out anyway,” he said through a sigh.

She looked at him sharply.

She could see through her hood. While to everyone else it was low slung over her eyes and hid everything but her lips and chin, to her it didn’t obscure the world at all. It was the handy work of the same race responsible for building the Great Universal Transport System, after all. A semi-visible cape was about the least impressive thing the Old Ones had ever done, in the scheme of things.

“You don’t play along, and it won’t get easy from here. It’ll get harder. No more running away; there’s no building to drop yourself off. You’re surrounded by reinforced smart metal walls,” he banged his fist on the wall beside him, the sound of it loud and hard, “and more security force fields than you’ve got on the rest of the planet. So start playing along; it’ll be better for you in the long run,” he added in a lower voice.

It made her turn to him. She didn’t want to; she wanted to get as far away from this man as she could. She didn’t want to spend time staring at him and considering his advice carefully. He was freaking John Doe, after all.

But it was the particular flicker of emotion that had laced his words that had done it. It had made her belly twitch, sent a sharp snap of cold over her back.

“I don’t know why you ran, and I don’t know who else apart from me you’ve been running from, but you’re safe now. You tell us your story, and I’ll guarantee you they won’t hang you up to dry. If you’ve gotten away from one of the Factions, from the pirates, from some mercenary unit, tell me,” his voice rang louder, somehow managed to shift through her feet and shake right into her.

Clutching a hand over her arm, her fingers pressing right through the tangled and ripped fabric, she still couldn’t turn from him.

“If you promise to testify, I’ll ensure they look after you. You’ll be offered the same security protection as all other informants. It doesn’t matter if you’re from the higher levels or the slums,” his voice croaked for a moment, “I’ll make sure they treat you like a Union citizen deserves.”

She rubbed at her arm distractedly, her skin starting to finally warm up. But no matter how soft it now felt to her touch, her fear hadn’t magically dried up.

He’d just distracted her from it for a precious second.

Was he serious? He certainly sounded like it. That particular gaze he fixed her with didn’t waver either.

“Come on, just give me something. You can trust me.” He shifted his head sharply for a second, looking uncomfortable as he swallowed. “I don’t know if you can trust them,” he admitted as he brought a hand up, pushing the fingers easily through the force field of his helmet as he scratched his eyebrow and sighed again. The move was heavy. Everything about him in that moment seemed heavy.

Alice had been in the slums long enough to know the cost of compassion. Whether it was your food ration for the week, your quarters, or your life; it was more expensive to do something kind for a stranger in the lower levels than up above.

It could cost you survival.

And at that moment as Alice stared back at John, she fancied she saw understanding flickering through his gaze. He knew the equation.

But he didn’t seem to care. And while it was expensive for Alice to be compassionate, it would also cost someone like John Doe to stick his neck out for a slum woman.

She blinked slowly, her eyes flicking over his form.

She was thankful he couldn’t see her gaze, because right now she looked the man over entirely.

He was a solid, tall build for a human, though not so muscular that his form looked out of proportion. He had a stiff, hard-lined jaw that was lightly dusted with a ray of stubble. He had dark brown eyes and the nick of a healed scar cut through his left eyebrow. He had another longer scar running across his scalp, clearly visible under his short-cropped dark hair.

Why the man had scars she couldn’t guess; the Union had enough technology to make something like that disappear without a hint it had once been.

And yet they remained. Did he fancy himself tough? Were they there as signs that the enigmatic John Doe knew how to negotiate with his fists just as much as he did with his voice? Or were they a reminder of something else? A fact John didn’t want expunged by the erasing of the scars for life.

She was thinking too much about him, paying too close attention to his body and face, and she shook her head sharply to dislodge the thoughts.

“Come on, please,” he said. He was still looking right at her, gaze never wavering.

“I can’t,” she answered.

She actually answered him. She didn’t need to; it wasn’t like he could force the words out of her throat. And Alice knew she couldn’t afford to let anything slip.

Yet he’d cajoled the words right out of her.

Straightening up, probably bolstered by the fact she’d finally spoken, John got a little closer to the security field. Light feedback rippled over the force field of his own helmet, but it didn’t seem to bother him. “You’ll be safe,” he repeated.

No, she wouldn’t. And that was the irony. John Doe obviously believed what he was saying. But he didn’t understand. And if he could truly comprehend just what and who stood in front of him, he wouldn’t be making such generous offers. He’d be dragging her off to his Union masters as the greatest prize in the universe.

Backing off, her thoughts making her fingers cold and stiff, she half turned from him.

“I don’t go back on my word,” he suddenly added. In that moment his voice had taken on a different quality. Harder.

“No, you don’t understand,” she said.

God. She’d done it again. She didn’t need to speak to this man. For her own sake, for the sake of the rest of the freaking universe, she should be keeping her lips sealed.

“Then let me in on the secret. I won’t go back on my word,” he reassured her again, his voice bottoming out into a low brogue.

Oh, if only that were the case. Alice would give anything for someone to trust. But she’d traveled through the universe, and all she’d found was hate and suspicion.

So no, she couldn’t trust John, no matter how much the flicker of emotion in her heart wanted her to give it a go.

Chapter 16

John Doe

He leaned back against the wall, sighing heavily. Just when it had seemed she was ready to open up to him, she’d shut down again.

Just what in the hell was this woman’s secret? It seemed to be tying her down, stifling and smothering her as her arms shook from the fear of it.

But before John had a chance to delve deeper, he saw the Chief return along the short corridor.

John straightened up, not beyond being polite even if he wasn’t going to let the Bakar steamroll over him.

“We have managed to negotiate a level-wide targeted impediment field,” the Chief snapped before he’d even made it halfway up the corridor.

John let a relieved sigh rattle his chest. That was the first bit of good news he’d received since he’d clapped eyes on this woman. “Full strength, I assume?”

The Chief gave a brief nod. “It will come online in five seconds.” He reached John’s side and peered in through the door at the woman.

She’d stopped pacing; her body was right back to being as stiff as a board.

John locked his gaze on her.

Then he heard a familiar electronic beep.

The computer had just locked onto her bio signs. Then, in a flickering clap of light, a hum traveled right through the cell, out into the corridor, and presumably through the rest of the entire level.

A level-wide impediment field would stop this woman from running around, jumping off buildings, and slamming her arms into Union commanders. In fact, considering how powerful this one was, it would reduce all her movements to a slow crawl. The computer would dictate when and where she moved, and if she tried to pull anything considered unapproved, she would grind to a halt. It would let her walk forward in the direction it wanted, and nothing more.

The Chief leaned in past John and made a specific hand signal in front of the fields securing the door.

They immediately flickered off.

She looked up, the movement slow and drawn-out. The impediment field had obviously taken effect.

Her body seemed as though it was being dragged down, her arms stiff and heavy at her sides as if the gravity field had just been turned up several notches.

“Right,” the Chief growled, “move forward, prisoner.”

She didn’t make a noise. Her arms shifted forward as one leg stuck out at an odd, awkward angle. She shifted her weight, her hands clutching slowly in the air.

John had seen an impediment field in full effect many times before, and he usually never had a problem with it. This time he found himself turning away sharply, giving a cough to hide his movement.

She looked like a marionette being tugged around by invisible strings, and John could guarantee if he could see her eyes they would be plastered open in fear and shock.

“This is going to be regrettably slow,” the Chief grumbled, finally tugging the gun from the holster at his back. The holster formed an electronic lock with the full body armor under the guy’s uniform, and as it released the gun, it did so with a pneumatic hiss.

Running one spike-covered hand along the length of the chamber, the Chief gave it a sharp shake until the thing buzzed into life. The core pulsed a deep red and then settled on a bright blue.

Fully charged.

One blow from that and he would eat a hole through the reinforced walls, let alone tear the woman to pieces.

Not that it would come to that.

She was stuck. Being yanked forward by the impediment field, the flicker of it escaping and crackling over her skin. A few times she tried to bat slowly at her arms, no doubt trying to chase away the terrible sensation. It wouldn’t work. The field was there to stay.

Grumbling, the Chief shifted forward, hardly paying attention to the woman behind him as she jolted from one foot to the other, the movements of her legs forced and heavy while her hands formed the slowest fists by her side, her mouth periodically gaping open and closing again, though it took painful seconds for her lips to shift a single centimeter.

Clearing his throat, John forced himself to keep his gaze locked on her. While the Chief was happy to blithely walk ahead with his gun set to kill, John was playing this by the book.

Plus, he hadn’t forgotten how she’d thrown herself over the railing on the promenade. And he would never forget the moment she’d forced herself up from the snow.

“It’ll be fine,” he felt obligated to tell her, “this will soon be over. You’ll get scanned and get back to your cell, then the impediment field will be shut off.”

John forgot to add what would happen after that. Then again, he didn’t know himself. It all depended on what the scans would show.

They would take about ten minutes to complete, especially considering the systems in Central Security were in the process of being upgraded. If John had received the clearance to take the woman up to the Pegasus, he could have done the whole thing in under thirty seconds. But yanking this woman off Orion Minor would cause all sorts of jurisdictional upsets, and John was only here to refuel before his real mission.

Still, he was going to see this through. He wanted to find out who she was under there.

“Any information on the hood?” the Chief growled from up ahead.

John opened his mouth to answer, then he realized the Chief’s snapped question hadn’t been directed John’s way. The Barkarian was shouting at one of the scurrying deputies that had just taken up position along the corridor, charged plasma rifle in hand.

“There have been no reports of stolen Ionian armor, and initial scans don’t detect any known signatures,” the man replied in a small but still clear voice.

The hood. Hell, John had almost forgotten about it. He was so intent on getting the biological scan done, that he’d nearly forgotten the real curiosity here.

He clapped his eyes on her again, his gaze drawing over the strange blue fabric until it dropped to her lips.

She was frowning again. She had every reason to be.

John had been in his fair share of impediment fields. Thankfully not since he’d joined the ranks of the Union Forces, but when John had been ensconced in the slums, he’d been caught up in them numerous times.

They hurt like hell. And the sensation of having your body controlled by the burning field that surrounded your flesh would give you nightmares for a week. A great way to psychologically crush someone, and an even better way to scar someone for life. For that reason John wasn’t a fan of them. If there had been any other way to get the woman to the scanners, John would have done it. Plus, this was no longer his rodeo; the Chief was in charge on this one. John may have brought her in, but unless he pulled rank again – which he had no reason to do – he couldn’t become directly responsible for the woman.

Settling on taking a sharp breath and letting his eyes half close, John tried to push the discomfort from his mind. He also tried to push the memories to the back of his skull. His skin felt tight and cold, a latent tingle picking along it as he remembered exactly what it felt like to be stuck like the hooded woman.

He felt like assuring her it would be okay again, but she didn’t seem to be the kind to take someone’s words at face value. She seemed to be the kind to run away from all contact and hide in the shadows.

It was a slow and painful process, but finally the impediment field forced the woman to walk the length of two corridors and into the main processing room of Orion Minor Central Security.

It was a huge room. It had to be; there was a lot of crime to be processed on this planet.

It had been relatively cleared out, but there was probably no way to completely empty out the officers and the criminals they’d apprehended. They’d all been pushed off to the sides though, the processing desks closest to the bio scanner banks shut down.

Security bots were lined up around the scanner, guns at the ready, their expressionless faces staring out at the woman as she lumbered her way toward them.

To her credit, not once did she scream or beg for mercy.

John had. Numerous times. An impediment field had a way of eating right into your mind and upping your fear to maximum. Plus the pain of the burning sensation the field induced would send any grown man to his knees.

Not her, though. Her hands still groped into the slowest fists ever, and her bottom lip stuck out at a shocked, expressive angle. But that was it. No weeping, no begging, no pleading, nothing.

Once again John got the urge to dart forward and yank the veil back from her eyes. It wouldn’t work of course.

It was all part of the secret. The secret he was about to find out.

The bio scanners flicked on. The woman took one more lumbered step and finally entered their field.

The ground lit up as the scanners began their work, and a bright red light darted out, penetrating her skin and sinking straight through.

It would be barely a tingle compared to the impediment field. The comparison of being shot in the face with a plasma rifle to being kissed lightly on the cheek came to mind.

But as soon as the light struck her body, she screamed.

Deep, powerful, primal. It instantly made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, his body jolting forward from the surprise of it.

It felt like she’d been bottling that scream up since she’d gotten here, and was finally letting it loose. Then again, maybe she’d been bottling it up for years.

“Shut up, prisoner,” the Chief barked.

She finally stopped screaming. Though the word stop couldn’t describe the gurgle and gasp she ended it with.

She let her head drop down between her shoulders, as if she’d suddenly gone limp.

It got John’s attention. He stood a little straighter, fear prickling down his arms and legs.

She didn’t lift her head.

Chapter 17

Alice

Good god, it was finally happening. The event she’d been dreading her whole life was now upon her. She was being scanned on a Union planet. Unable to get free, unable to overload the impediment field holding her in place, she had no chance.

So the scream had been natural. Automatic. She’d been holding it in for years. The horrible prospect of being found out had haunted her every step her whole life, and now it was happening.

Her mind went into freefall. Her senses felt like they were burning. Though the beam itself was relatively non-invasive compared to the blustering sensation of the impediment field, the knowledge of what it was doing was worse than any pain out there.

Alice forced her head up. After she’d finished her horrified, primal scream, she’d just let it drop, let the impediment field take her weight.

Now a final kick of desperation was crawling and rushing through her, prickling at her spine, making her arms and legs twitch against the field around her.

Her head yanked to the side.

Her gaze darting around the rest of the hall around her, she saw the security bots all lined up, she saw the Chief standing there with one spiked hand tapping on his gun, and she saw John. His expression wasn’t hardened like the Chief’s or cold and dead like the robots. He could hardly look at her, his lips twisted up into disgust as his eyes blinked tightly.

For a second that expression took her attention. It focused her. Then Alice looked past John to what was behind him.

It was a moment that would define the rest of her life and maybe, just maybe, save her from her horrible fate.

At the other end of the room was a bank of sophisticated-looking elevators. They would service the whole of Block Prime. Far more intricate and technical than anything on her native Block, these would be able to travel from the base to the top spire in under a second.

But it wasn’t the elevators in their shiny, metallic-white cases that riveted Alice to the spot. They didn’t send a last, spiking sensation of possibility bursting through her dread.

It was what was beside them.

Most Old Tech had long since died. The Old Ones had all vanished years ago, and without them, there was simply no one around to repower it. Apart from the critical modern systems like the ICNs and the transport network, most of it was good for nothing more than decoration.

Collectables. It showed your power and importance, after all, if you had a fancy Old Tech scanner sitting on your desk as a paperweight. Sure, you couldn’t turn it on. But that didn’t matter; the stuff was like liquid gold.

Alice had seen it before – though certainly not in the slums of Block Alpha – but on her travels on other planets, she’d seen Old Tech displayed around the place. Statues mostly. Sitting up in some prominent place so the people below could remember where the modern universe had come from. Or maybe so they could feel powerful and protected by associating with something far beyond their own level of development, Alice didn’t know.

Right now it didn’t matter. Because before her, just next to those elevators was Old Tech.

She knew it. She could feel it. It filled her every sense. Her mind rang with the certainty of it.

It also called to her. She could pick it up on the edge of her hearing. Like a keening cry, she’d heard it many times before. The final call of some soon-to-be-dead piece of Old Tech mourning its once-great existence.

None of the aliens around her could appreciate that little fact. If they’d been privy to the thoughts racing through Alice’s mind, they would have balked at the notion that the Old Tech before her was alive.

They were wrong. Life not as a biological would know it, but life nonetheless.

“Report will be finished in approximately 120 seconds,” the scanner in front of her suddenly chimed in an emotionless electronic voice.

“Two minutes? Why the hell is this taking so long?” the Chief of Security barked.

“Encountering difficulties in the scanner matrix. Feedback from an unknown source is interfering with the beam,” the computer replied.

Grumbling and still tapping on his loaded plasma gun, the Chief cracked his neck and shoulders.

Alice ignored him.

Two minutes. She had two minutes to get out of here.

And now she had a plan.

Alice let herself drop. She deliberately stopped fighting the impediment field in every way, reasoning that it would either let her fall to the floor or string her in place like a puppet.

She didn’t care if she was lying or standing for the next bit. A part of her just needed to be touching the floor.

There was a crackle over her skin as the field registered what John Doe would no doubt term “unauthorized movement.” The sensation of it trying to yank her back into place was one that Alice would never forget.

She didn’t care.

Survival was never easy.

With another enormous crackle, the field seemed to give up, and Alice finally flopped to the floor. Her head struck the reinforced smart metal, and it gave a sickening thump. If Alice had been a soft-fleshed race, she would have no doubt just done herself considerable damage. But she wasn’t going to die yet – though she’d be sporting a fantastic headache if she ever got out of this.

“What the hell is happening? Computer, is she alright?” John Doe barked.

Though Alice had her eyes closed, she could sense that John Doe ran right up to her and dropped to a knee just before her face. Maybe he hovered a hand over her shoulder, maybe he turned the flickering force field off from around his face so he could get a better look at her.

It didn’t matter.

All that mattered for Alice was that she now had a hand clamped to the floor underneath her. She spread her fingers wide and slow, not caring that the impediment field fought her every step of the way. With a possible escape in sight, Alice was finding a reserve of energy she hadn’t known she’d possessed.

She was going to use it in full.

Alice pushed her mind into her fingers, forced her concentration to lay hold of the special energy within her. Then she forced it out into the cool floor below her.

If someone had been paying real attention, they might have seen the subtle white-blue light shift from her touch. At first, it pooled underneath her then slowly moved to the left and right, as if it didn’t know where to go.

Alice’s skin began to twitch, a cold sweat drenching her.

She knew what would happen next.

“Computer,” John barked again, “is she okay?”

“Get out of the scanner beam,” the Chief barked back, “you are interfering. It’s picking up your bios.”

“Computer, override access, authorization Commander John Doe. Tell me her life signs now. Is she—”

John never got a chance to finish his sentence.

Before Alice had dropped to her stomach, slamming herself onto the cold hard floor in her last-ditch effort, she hadn’t bothered to ascertain exactly what kind of Old Tech was on the other side of the room.

Alice had two rules that kept her safe in this universe. One was never, ever to allow herself to undergo a proper biological scan. The other was to never, ever recharge Old Tech unless she knew exactly what it did. There was simply too much of it, and what was more, not all of it was nice. While the Old Ones had seeded the modern universe, they hadn’t been beyond using force where necessary.

The Old Ones had possessed weapons that could wipe out whole planets in seconds.

Alice knew her rules off by heart, and yet here she was attempting to recharge Old Tech with no idea what it was.

Though she doubted the statue on the other side of the room was capable of tearing through Orion Minor in the blink of an eye, she wasn’t prepared to give it more energy than it would require to turn on. Just enough for it to make some noise, maybe move around a bit, but nothing more.

Just a distraction, that was all she needed.

But as Alice sent her energy out, that white-blue line flickering through the floor on its way to find a target, she couldn’t have appreciated what would happen next.

Chapter 18

John Doe

She’d collapsed. He’d seen the impediment field try to hold her in place, he’d seen it grow in intensity, smelt it as it had started to burn her flesh.

His stomach had given such a kick in that second that he’d twitched forward, his boots squeaking against the floor.

Now he was on his knees beside her. And yes, he was pulling rank. He didn’t care if it started a diplomatic firestorm; John was done seeing the Chief turn a blind eye to this woman’s pain.

“Computer, override access, authorization Commander John Doe. Tell me her life signs now. Is she—” he began.

But John never got to finish his sentence.

Because something screamed.

From the other side of the room, right by the service elevators, something stretched up, opened its enormous mouth, and let out a sound halfway between a bellow and the noise of metal cracking under weight.

John ducked to the side, bringing up his helmet in a second, calling the Pegasus in the next.

Eyes locked on the thing by the elevators, his heart plunged through his chest and right out of the building.

Old Tech.

Holy freaking hell.

He’d seen it on the way in. But of course he’d hardly paid any attention. He’d seen statues like that on numerous planets throughout the universe. It was exceedingly common to have a throwback to the Old Ones sitting around your security compound or propped up on your senator’s desk. The stuff didn’t work, of course; the devices that had any residual charge were safeguarded by the Union. But the other stuff considered too common and too sucked dry to ever be worth much was kept as nothing more than trophies. By the rich and powerful of course – if some slum dweller got their hands on a device, they would find it quickly confiscated. But Central Security on Orion Minor was probably considered secure enough to have a honking great Old Tech device sitting next to the elevators.

John’s eyes were plastered open, his jaw slack. He couldn’t have closed it if he’d tried.

The device took a step forward. No, that wasn’t entirely right. First, it unwound itself. Before it had suddenly managed to turn itself on, it had been a squat-looking box no more than two meters across and one meter high. It had a dark blue and white metallic finish, and, to be honest, it was an example of Old Tech John had seen numerous times. They were dotted all over the place.

It hadn’t deserved a second glance. Well, now it had John’s second glance. In fact it had all of his pressed attention as the thing took another step forward.

In seconds it had unwound itself from the box, drawing up into a robot a good ten meters tall. Its legs and chest and arms and head weren’t smooth and cylindrical, mimicking the body of a soft-flesh alien like the security bots behind John. No, this thing was jagged; the metal stuck out at angles, all different colors and shapes. Spikes and shards of it shifted over the surface of the robot, darting this way and that, swimming over its chest and forearms as they eventually slammed into place.

It was like watching a robot growing. In fact, it was exactly like watching a robot growing; because as John stared on, mouth slack and dry, that was precisely what was occurring.

The thing didn’t have eyes, then the next second two eye holes bored right into its head and two pinpricks of light no bigger than his thumbs pierced into place. Shards of metal still shifted around all over its torso and limbs as they apparently raced to find their places on the nascent device.

As the thing pulled itself up to its full height, it gave another scream. Plunging its head forward, its mouth opening, more shards of metal moving around and through it, it let out the most harrowing of calls John had ever heard. It grated and roared and echoed through the room.

“Oh my god,” John heard Alice say from beside him.

He’d already jumped up to his feet. But in that second he shifted his gaze to her.

She was trying to pick herself up from the ground, but the impediment field was still strong around her. He could see it frantically crackling over her skin, see it as it appeared to push her down, trying to keep her locked in place.

John turned back to the giant robot in time to see it take one enormous step, one of its metallic legs punching through a console. It burst into sparks, electricity playing up the leg of the robot, but not once did it shift back or jostle from the discharge. It just leaned down, opened that gaping mouth, and let out another scream.

Everyone in the room, from the criminals to the security officers to John, seemed frozen on the spot.

Something that had been a statue for probably more than 100,000 years had suddenly come back to life. No warning. Nothing.

This wasn’t meant to be possible.

John finally got hold of his jaw, locking it closed. Who cared if it was possible? It was happening.

Reaching behind him, John grabbed the gun that had been synthesized when his armor had been manufactured right onto him up on the Pegasus. He pulled it off in a quick but smooth movement, thumbing the switch that told the plasma core to build up a devastating charge.

He didn’t bother to tell the robot to stop, he just dodged to the side, brought his gun up, and shot right at the main security console to his left.

John hadn’t suddenly lost his mind. Upon seeing the giant robot come to life, he hadn’t automatically decided it was a great time to start trashing the building.

He knew that the quickest way to get the computer to kick into defensive mode was to assault the main bank.

As soon as the shot from his gun, hot and white, rammed into the console, blistering the front panel, but not pushing through the hardware underneath, the lights cut to half illumination.

As they did, security fields popped up around all the systems in the room, from the bio scanner to the computer core to the processing desk.

“Get everyone in the fields,” John screamed, voice booming out with the assistance of his armor.

As he finished, the robot turned in his direction, leaned down again and let out another ferocious scream. It saw the blood drain from John’s face, his fingers stiffen and crinkle, and his heart skip a beat.

It didn’t stop him however from turning on his foot so fast that his boot might as well have caused the floor to catch fire. He dropped to his knee and waved his arm over the woman. She was still desperately trying to get onto her feet. Her hands losing purchase, her legs and knees kicking out, no matter how hard she tried to stand, the impediment field pinned her down with all the force it could muster.

As John waved his hand over her, he tried to access the ICN, tried to override the field.

Though he’d made a call to the Pegasus as soon as the robot had come to life, he hadn’t said anything and neither had they. They were his team, and they were professionals. The second he’d established connection, they would have picked up the visual field of his armor, played it back through the holo emitters on the bridge, and then they would have been smart enough to realize now wasn’t the time to interrupt their commander. Hopefully they would be making all the right calls, warning the authorities, and wracking their brilliant brains for a way to shut down the Old Tech robot before it could trash the entire Block.

But right now John had to ensure the safety of everyone else in the room. As his hand still hovered above the woman, he turned to his left, darting his gaze around the room. Fortunately people were doing what he’d said; the assembled security officers and bots were shoeing everyone else behind the enormous and powerful force fields that were designed to protect Central Security primary systems. They were probably the most advanced technology on the planet this side of the ICN. The Union, after all, always ensured to keep security as a top priority; food, housing, education, and all of those other things that made life livable were luxuries it didn’t waste on backwater planets.

Fortunately the security fields locking down the systems were smart enough to recognize the life signs of the officers, and the officers could shepherd the criminals and whatnot unlucky enough to be in the room right now behind the fields.

Which just left John and the woman. The security field around the bio scanner didn’t reach her. It was a tantalizing centimeter to her left.

He had to shut down the impediment field and haul her through it before that robot started to get violent. And one look at those pinprick eyes and the metal constantly shifting over its body, changing place and changing shape, told John this situation could only end in one way.

“Come on,” he growled, shifting his hand, spreading the fingers wide, and plunging his concentration into the task. There was nothing wrong with his neural link; he had full access to the ICN, and his authorization codes were more than sufficient to deactivate the field, and yet he couldn’t.

His armor kept registering some kind of feedback, and it was interfering with his link so much that his request wasn’t getting through.

“Commander, leave her,” the Chief snapped. He was already safely behind the bio scanner force field, his deputies and officers crammed in with him. He waved a spiked-hand John’s way.

John wasn’t going to leave her. He turned on his foot, not moving his hand as it locked in place about 10 centimeters above her right shoulder. She kept on bucking up and down, scampering, trying to gain enough purchase to push herself up. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to push past the impediment field.

“Come on,” John half-screamed, his voice a tight croak.

He watched the robot. It twisted its head in all directions, those electronic eyes focusing in on the various security fields that had slammed up around critical systems. His eyes narrowed in on the people and robots crammed behind them, and John could see metallic circles shift underneath the red light of its gaze, focusing in just like a human pupil would.

When it had popped out of its box, the robot had seemed instinctual and full of rage. But as the seconds passed, something far worse was happening. Angry and big John could deal with. But as he watched the robot, intelligence seemed to be growing behind its laser-like vision.

Sweat collecting above his top lip, shoulders tensing and locking, John kept his gaze focused on the robot as his hand hovered over the woman. “Come on,” he screamed again.

For a second the robot stared right at John. Then one of its enormous metallic nostrils, that was little more than a slit, shifted up in a snap. Once again small metal shards shifted in and out over its face and nose, embedding themselves with a metallic clang only to shift around again a second later.

The vision of it sniffing the air reached in and grabbed at John’s hindbrain. It was such an animalistic thing to do.

It sniffed the air again, then its electronic eyes darted across the room. They finally settled on the ground. It bent right down, its enormous body twitching in half, in a furious, incredibly fast snap. It plunged a hand right into the ground, the floor buckling and snapping around it.

It was then that John noticed the faint white-blue line.

The robot locked eyes on it. Its head snapped up as it appeared to follow the line.

Then it moved.

Faster than John could have imagined.

Right at him.

John had time to let off one round. Right at the thing’s chest. It landed, but that was it. It didn’t stop it. It didn’t harm it. It did nothing. The blast was simply absorbed into the thing’s massive chest. Bits of metal sloughed off, flew out, but then changed direction and landed on its arms and face, sinking into them, shifting back down, then closing up the hole in the chest. It took less than half a second.

Then the robot reached him. It brought one of its arms around and swatted at John.

Just in time, he rolled to the side, but his gun wasn’t so lucky. As the robot’s arm swept past John’s body, his gun lurched from his grip and slammed right into it. It must have had some kind of fantastic magnetic pull, and within seconds the gun began to break up and become absorbed into the body of the robot.

As John rolled away, he had to lock his boots onto the ground, forming a mag lock. Now the robot was closer, it felt as if John would be sucked off his feet and pulled toward it. The force was incredible.

But it wasn’t enough to distract John from what happened next.

The robot reached down to the woman, locked one of its shifting hands around her neck, and lifted her off the floor.

As it did the impediment field exploded, sending ripples of energy washing over the woman and crackling up the robot’s arm. Once again it didn’t seem to affect the thing at all.

“Leave her alone,” John tried. But he could hardly make his voice be heard; the effort of locking his boots in place so his armor wasn’t sucked toward the magnetic field of the robot was taking all his energy.

The robot’s grip tightened around the woman’s neck, and it gave another scream as it brought its face close to her own.

Somehow she was still alive, still fighting. Though she’d screamed in pain when the impediment field had exploded over her, her legs still kicked and she had her hands locked over the robot’s giant fingers.

John had to do something. Anything. If he didn’t, the woman would die, then the robot would continue its rampage.

“Get me a transport lock,” John screamed through his implant, contacting the Pegasus, as he stared on helplessly at the dangling woman.

“John, we can’t; the transporter is going haywire every time we try to establish coordinates anywhere near you,” Parka replied. Her voice was trilling with exasperation and fear. For a woman who usually took exploding stars and pirate wars in her stride, it was a testament to how fraught and dangerous this situation had become.

“Have to do… something,” John managed. As his armor threatened to lose lock on the floor, he was using all of his concentration to stop it from happening.

“We’ve contacted one of the heavy cruisers in the system, they are redirecting. They’ve got mining transport beams. We can use it to lock onto the robot and beam it into space. Hopefully,” Parka added under her breath. “Two minutes until they are in range.”

Two minutes. The woman didn’t have two minutes.

“Based on calculations, the security fields down there will hold for that long, and the robot shouldn’t be able to make it up to one of the higher levels before then. Just hold on, John,” Parka gasped.

She didn’t have that long.

“Let her go,” he tried one last time.

The robot would not.

Chapter 19

Alice

What had she done? What had she done? While she’d succeeded in creating a distraction, it would likely kill her.

Alice should never, never have re-energized an Old Tech device without having first known what it could do.

As the robot’s fingers tightened around her throat, Alice stared up into its eyes.

It was harrowing. When it looked back, she didn’t see violence or anger. She saw hunger. A deep, endless, powerful hunger.

It needed energy to live. And she was the last thing in the universe that could provide it.

For that reason, it didn’t let its grip tighten so far around her throat that it snapped her head off. Just enough to lock her in place while it tried to suck her dry.

But Alice fought. Her eyes wide as she stared back at it, she slowed down the transfer as much as she could.

Not all Old Tech devices would try to kill Alice in an attempt to get the energy they so desperately needed; but when they were soldier robots, like this guy was, then it was only to be expected.

How she hadn’t recognized that the apparently innocuous box next to the elevators was a soldier robot, Alice didn’t know.

But her mistake would cost her.

As the robot drained her energy, white and blue lines spread up from her neck and chest. She knew they were there. She could feel the cracks they formed. They traveled up over her skin, sinking into her lips and chin, and if she let them, they would sink all the way through her and she would crumble like a stone.

But Alice fought.

She kept her eyes open, never blinking or shifting her gaze off the robot.

She understood its hunger. If the plight of being the last of the Old Ones was bad, then the plight of being Old Tech was worse. Built into their very being was a yearning for only one special type of energy. Nothing else would do.

It shifted her backward, shaking her to the side, not enough to break her body, but maybe the robot reasoned that she needed encouragement to give up her energy.

The seconds ticked by, drew into minutes.

The robot didn’t release its hold. It never tightened it either. It just waited. Waited for Alice to give up what she had.

It was when she was close to finally succumbing that she saw the light.

It sliced right through the wall to her left. Bright and white, it was a powerful transport beam.

She had time enough to widen her eyes.

The beam locked onto the robot, encasing its body in the blistering hot energy and starting to break down its molecules within a fraction of a second.

But the light didn’t stop there. It traveled through and touched her too.

Alice had been through a lot today. Too much.

And it was about to get worse.

The robot gave a roar, twisting its head to the side, chunks of its face disappearing as the transport beam broke up its constituent parts.

It didn’t lose its grip on her throat, though.

“Tell them they have to isolate the robot only, the robot only,” someone screamed, voice flickering and desperate.

Alice wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t tell it was John Doe.

The light moved and shifted through her, and Alice felt it try to take hold.

The robot screamed again, its face falling apart, chunks of it snapping over and disappearing up the tunnel of light.

“Only the robot,” John screamed again.

The beam pushed through her. Alice, using her last reserve of energy fought it all the way.

Because she knew what would happen next.

Just as before, when the beam from the Pegasus had snatched hold of her, it began to latch hold of her energy.

In half a second the white of the beam suddenly doubled in strength, then it tripled.

Alice’s eyes twisted wide. She saw the robot finally disappear, the last chunk of its hand and foot breaking up and shooting up the beam.

She had no control of her body, no purchase on the ground, yet the beam held her in place, her limbs spreading wide as she fought to stop it from breaking her down.

There was a shifting moment of intensity as the light of the beam wavered, then it snapped to a color beyond the spectrum of visible light any soft-race could hope to see.

And Alice was transported away.

Chapter 20

John Doe

“No,” John screamed, his voice echoing and pitching through the room. With the robot gone, the magnetic pull that had been sucking him toward it had ended, and John took several shuddering steps forward.

She was gone. He’d told them only to lock onto the robot and transport it away, but they hadn’t listened.

He lost control of his face, the muscles slack, his mouth a thin open line.

Pegasus,” he said in a voice that rang hollow, “report.”

He’d known the plan; lock onto the robot and beam it into space.

It hadn’t worked like that. They’d taken her too.

The woman would have gone with it. She would be dead. There would be no possibility of a comeback this time; the void of space would have killed her in an instant, sucking the air from her lungs.

Wincing and bringing his armor-covered wrist up to his head, John let it drop over his face and rest against his nose.

“They lost control of the beam. Some kind of feedback. Sorry, John, they couldn’t separate their signals,” Parka said in a low, respectful voice.

Sorry, yeah, sorry, John thought as he let out a fluctuating breath, staring up at the ceiling above.

He’d lost another one. Another person in this universe he’d failed to save.

“Confirm that the robot is far enough away from the planet that it won’t get sucked into the gravity field,” John said, voice as controlled as he could make it.

“Hold on, synching with the Aratova now. You can talk directly to them,” Parka said.

There was a hum, a click, and then John straightened up.

He knew the captain of the Union Heavy Cruiser Aratova. A human woman who had a reputation for being the toughest out there and always getting the job done. John had a lot of respect for Captain Chan.

“Commander, we lost control of that beam. What the hell happened down there?” Chan snapped.

John took the opportunity to look around the room, his eyebrows dropped low over his eyes. What had happened was a nightmare. An Old Tech device had woken up out of the blue and tried to trash the place.

Stiffening his jaw and shaking his head, John cleared his throat. “We don’t know the source of the feedback. It might have been the robot itself. Can you confirm that it rematerialized out of orbit?”

“That’s what I’m trying to say. We lost control of it entirely. We have no idea where it went. The beam redirected itself. It fried our systems too. We lost all bio records on that robot. We have nothing.”

John’s face paled, his shoulders sagging. Then he stopped. “Use your long-range scanners to—”

“Of course we are scanning the planet; you don’t need to tell me how to do my job, Commander,” Chan’s voice resounded on that word.

It was a smack down, and a well-deserved one. But John was kind of under a lot of stress here. “Are they on the planet?” he asked, knowing full well the scan would take at least five more minutes to complete.

“I will tell you as soon as we get a lock. That is if it did materialize on the planet. Just before we lost hold of the transport beam, it registered an energy level off the charts. With that much power, it could have transported right out of the system.”

John’s nose crumpled at that, his neck feeling cold. If it had been anyone other than Captain Chan saying that, John would have figured they were joking. Chan, however, would never crack a joke while on duty.

“How—” he began.

“We have no idea. I’ll look after things up here, you get Block Prime sorted. I’ll report when I have anything.”

“Look for the woman,” John added before Chan could cut the feed. “The transport beam locked onto them both. Wherever the robot landed, she’ll be there…” John trailed off. He knew he should add something, try to clarify, but he couldn’t find the words to do it.

“Will do, Chan out.”

John stood there for a cold, silent moment, then turned to survey the damage. And damage there was.

Sparks were flying out of the consoles the robot had damaged, and the floor had buckled and broken in several sections.

No one was hurt though, and the security fields around the critical systems had held.

The woman in the hood hadn’t been so lucky, though.

John picked his way forward. Leaning down, he grabbed up a scrap of fabric. He recognized it. It was off her tunic.

Shaking his head, he let it drop from his fingers. It fluttered to the floor as he waded into the mess before him.

He hadn’t forgotten his duty as a commander of the Union Forces.

Chapter 21

Alice

Alice had never been transported before; she’d avoided it her whole life.

And now, as she lay on her back staring up at the sky above her, she could appreciate how awesome that plan had been.

Because transporting hurt. It burned. It ripped. She’d never felt anything like it.

She forced another breath, her chest hardly moving. She had nothing left. Nothing at all.

She was just fortunate she hadn’t landed on the barren, snow-covered wasteland of the planet below. The cold and cutting wind would have killed her in an instant.

But in a moment of rare luck, Alice had rematerialized inside a hangar bay. As she lay on her back, her arms spread wide, her legs at an odd angle, her head shifted to the side, she stared up at the smart-glass ceiling above her with one eye.

Right at the end, when the transporter beam had surged in power, something had happened to Alice.

She’d connected to it.

Whatever concentration she’d had left, she’d used to control it. Snapping it away from its source, she’d forced herself to rematerialize.

And fortunately for her, she hadn’t popped up in space or head-first in some bulkhead.

As for the robot, it hadn’t been so lucky.

Shifting her head barely, she could see the remnants of it.

It had appeared two meters to her left, right inside a chunk of patronium ore that had been unloaded off the hulking mining transport that took up the whole hangar bay around her.

Alice had read about what happened when a transport beam mistakenly made an object rematerialize inside something else.

Not pretty. Those were the only two words that could describe it.

Chunks of metal and sparks still played and twitched around the room. But the robot wouldn’t be able to re-make itself; Alice knew enough about the technology of her own kind to know when one of their devices was down.

If the robot hadn’t rematerialized in something as heavy and dense as patronium ore, it might have been able to right itself.

That was the second piece of luck Alice had gotten today.

The third was that this hangar bay was empty. There were no workers scurrying around, not even any maintenance bots. The whole place was dark save for the light filtering in from the smart-glass above. Maybe the workers had gone off duty for the day, or maybe the whole place had been shut down for a quarantine sweep. It didn’t matter. All Alice cared about was that right now she was alone.

Her eyes drifted half open, her body heavy and full of fatigue. She wanted nothing more than to give up and surrender to unconsciousness. Let the swirling darkness take her. But if she did that, she would either not wake up at all, or end up back in that holding cell. This time with the flickering image of John Doe drifting into view above her telling her he knew exactly what she was.

An Old One.

Alice groaned. No, she clutched her throat as tightly as she could, and she let out a desperate, resounding cry.

She pushed herself up.

She couldn’t stand, but she could crawl.

She shifted forward, her hands and face and arms bleeding. Her blood wasn’t red. It was hardly blood in fact. It was a white-blue substance that evaporated as soon as it touched the ground.

It was seeping from the cracks in her skin that had appeared after the robot had tried to suck her dry. Given time, they would heal. Given time, Alice would heal too. But time would be the key.

She had to get to somewhere safe.

Before the computer alerted the security forces to the fact that something huge had just tried to rematerialize inside a chunk of patronium ore.

Alice made her desperate, slow, jolting way over to the other side of the room. She had the door locked in her sights, the one that would no doubt lead to a corridor outside. She had no intention whatsoever of clambering through it only to fall in front of some surprised worker’s feet.

It was the maintenance shaft to the left she was headed for. It would lead into a service duct.

Alice, still groaning, not caring that her voice echoed through the cavernous hangar bay, made her way forward. Every movement of her arms sent spikes of pain through her, more blood trickling and oozing out of the cracks in her chin, lips, and neck.

Finally, she made it, then, her eyes virtually rolling into the back of her head as she expended yet more precious energy she didn’t have, Alice logged into the ICN and overrode the security keeping the panel closed. She pulled it off, clambered inside, then locked it in place.

Though droplets of her blood laced the metal, they soon evaporated, leaving no trace, no DNA, no residue.

Telling herself she could do this, begging her body not to give up, Alice crawled through the maintenance shaft. Fortunately her body was small enough that she could fit through with ease.

Still keeping half a connection to the ICN, Alice let it guide her. She also used it to find out what level she was on and what was around her.

Apparently, she was on the top floor of Block Alpha.

It made her laugh through a croak.

Her very own hometown, as it were. Though Alice had never been allowed to travel this high up.

It made sense too; if this was Block Alpha, she could understand why that hangar bay had been empty. The weather fields would still be shut down, so everyone would have been evacuated.

It made her let out the shortest, sharpest of laughs.

Alice wasn’t often lucky, yet here she was striking the jackpot again. Okay, not the jackpot; she’d been unlucky enough to run into John Doe and almost get killed by a soldier robot.

Still, she would take the opportunities given to her.

“Computer,” Alice croaked, her eyes half closing, “find me the closest room with an omidium power source.” Now that she knew the whole level had been abandoned, Alice had no problem in talking.

Even if the computer had already alerted security to the fact something had rematerialized inside a chunk of ore on top of Block Alpha, it would take them a while to bother sending anyone in. Not while the weather fields were down; it would be far too dangerous.

“Closest room with an omidium power source is aboard a vessel,” the computer chimed back, its voice echoing around the panels around her, appearing to come from all directions at once.

“Direct me to that vessel,” Alice croaked back.

It was her only option.

An omidium power source would do two things for Alice. It would shield her from being scanned, and it would heal her.

Her race had been renowned for their ability to sustain themselves through multiple energy sources, whether it be food, air, electricity, force, or power.

But some sources were far more useful than others. Omidium was one of those sources.

As the prospect of it loomed in her mind, Alice crawled a little faster. Her hands were caked in sweat, the blood trickling down them hissing as it evaporated.

“Now all I have to do is figure a way to get on board said vessel without tripping security,” she told herself, using her voice needlessly, listening to it echo and sound around the enclosed metal service duct around her.

It would be no easy task. But Alice was desperate. When was she not?

As the computer directed her, Alice’s mind focused on the task. It prevented her from asking a single question. Just what vessel was she headed to?

If she’d known, she would have turned around to find something else.

Chapter 22

John Doe

He sat in the comfortable chair, his left leg twitching up and down. He couldn’t stop it; it was all he could do to prevent himself from jumping up and punching the Prime in the face.

The Prime twisted his lips into a sanctimonious grin. He was a Garpa alien, and his squat and round form would have made a great punching bag at that moment.

Calm down, John told himself, get a handle on yourself.

“We thank you for your valiant service, Commander Doe,” the Prime said, his voice ringing with fake sentiment. “Your brave efforts ensured the protection of this Block.” The guy pressed his eight fingers together and nodded solemnly. But it was fake. It was all fake. Everything he said to every movement he made.

John forced himself to offer a nod in thanks. It was about the stiffest and least affable move he could manage.

If it weren’t for the fact that Chado was standing by his side shooting the Prime one of this trademark grimaces, John would have walked out ages ago.

“This situation was appallingly managed,” Chado snapped back.

And that was the great thing about Chado. He didn’t care if he was talking to the Universal President or a lowly, lowly ensign; he spoke his mind, especially where security and safety were on the line.

“Your forces persistently ignored warnings from the Pegasus. The weather fields along Block Alpha closed down due to a chronic lack of maintenance. Your management of this situation will be reported to the Union Forces top’ brass,” Chado added with a growl.

John bit down hard on his tongue to stop himself from smiling, but the look on the Prime’s face was priceless.

He’d gone from being a self-important balloon to deflating in a second.

With wide, outraged eyes, he looked at John, obviously expecting he would rein his XO in.

John was going to do nothing of the kind. “Tell me again why you failed to scan that Old Tech? Skip to the part where you failed to recognize it was a soldier robot.”

The Prime paled further.

“Because that’s the part the Union Forces heads are going to want a full description of.”

“We had scanned it,” the Prime blustered, his pink skin turning a shade deeper. “The computers hadn’t picked up a thing.”

John gave another uncomfortable nod. He knew, god he knew that he should be handling this better. The Prime would no doubt make a call to his superiors the second John left the guy’s office. Then John would get the dressing down a Union commander would deserve for bullying a planet’s Prime, even if that planet was the backwater dump, Orion Minor.

“We are already implementing an investigation into the maintenance of Block Alpha’s weather fields. Commander John Doe, my people did everything they could to ensure your safety and to aid you in your mission.”

Even though he wanted to keep hold of his anger and never let go, John felt himself deflate. Though he could appreciate that the guy in front of him knew all the right words to say, John was done being defensive.

He understood men like the Prime. They were stuck in their own worlds, so far above the slums they rejected, that to them the world was rosy and clear.

He was a man of his time, stuck in his own unique context. Like everyone else on the high levels, he wouldn’t see the slums long enough to truly be affected by what would go on there.

But none of that helped get the image of that woman from John’s mind. It seemed seared right in there. Every time he closed his eyes a vision of her gaping mouth appeared, the robot choking the life out of her.

“The Union provides this planet with security and funds. The spending of these is outlined by a system-wide agreement. If it’s found that maintenance funds weren’t used toward the proper upkeep of the weather fields on Block Alpha, an investigation will ensue,” Chado continued, that frown of his getting deeper and deeper.

He was like a dog, John’s own personal yapping terrier. Except this one had one hell of a bite too.

Even though John would have loved to sit there and watch Chado go to town, it was time to head back to the Pegasus. He needed a shower, one of those good old fashioned water ones and not just the sound waves most spacefarers usually used to clean themselves. He wanted the hot water to rush over his head and to take the memories of the day with it.

He stood up, raising a hand subtly at his side, letting Chado know that the execution was over.

Fixing a dead, stony glance on the Prime, he cleared his throat. “Thank you for your assistance, Prime,” John forced himself to say. “We can appreciate this has been a stressful situation.” John pushed the words out of his mouth, mulling over just how much damage control he should bother laying out. Tapping his foot, his shoulders tensing, he forced himself to add that he would be kind in his report to the Union Forces’ top brass.

Then John left the room, Chado on his heels.

When the door to the Prime’s office swooshed closed behind him, John let out a beleaguered sigh.

“This is unlike you, John. Are you ill?” Chado asked, voice quiet, a sarcastic expression on his face.

John knew exactly what his XO was getting at; when John wanted to rake someone over the coals, he usually had no problem. Especially when that person’s reckless and selfish behavior had endangered lives. All of his crew knew that John had grown up in the slums, they also all appreciated that whenever John got to go out and bat for the little guys, he came out swinging hard.

John brought a hand up and scratched at his top lip. It reminded him of her.

Then he patted down his short hair. It too reminded him of her.

The woman in the hood. The one who’d held a secret so terrible she’d jumped off a building for it.

“Sir, may I make an observation?” Chado cleared his throat, his towering form casting John into shadow as the two of them walked past an enormous bank of windows as the sun streamed in from above.

The high levels were so far above the rest of the planet that they punched through the swirling mass of dark gray clouds that always covered Orion Minor. From up here, there was nothing but beauty; shining clean buildings peeping out of a sea of clouds and kissed by the sun high above.

It was easy to think the universe was a great place when given a view like this.

“Go ahead,” John finally managed.

“Go back to the Pegasus before – as you human’s say – you put your foot in it,” Chado finished with a knowing look.

“Hey, I’m not the one who threatened the guy with a Union Forces’ investigation,” John pointed out.

“I was following your lead, sir.”

“No, you weren’t. You are just as incensed as I am,” John noted through a growl.

“Indeed. Incensed or not, this won’t bring her back from the dead,” Chado added.

And it made John stop and stare up at his XO’s face.

“Commander, sometimes death hits you. Sometimes it doesn’t. Today it has. Go and process it; I will deal with the crew and the final preparations for our departure. The ship is docked on top of Block Alpha; our maintenance crew are currently helping them re-establish the weather field.”

John felt frozen for a second, then he managed a small sniff.

Sometimes death hits you. Sometimes it doesn’t. Today it has.

Those weren’t Chado’s words; they were John’s. He said that to his crew all the time. They were words of wisdom – maybe the only ones he had worth sharing – that he’d garnered from life in the slums.

And they were true, every last one of them.

Fighting in the Union Forces meant that his crew faced the specter of death on numerous occasions. Sometimes it didn’t affect you. Sometimes the news that a transport cruiser had been raided by pirates just glanced off, you processed the words, you did what you had to, but you didn’t shed a tear.

Sometimes a single death could send you to your knees.

Bringing a hand up and rubbing his chest, John let out a trapped breath of air.

Chado gave him another knowing look and then gestured toward the window. “I will arrange a transport to Block Alpha. I suggest you re-upgrade your armor before you head over, though; I hear while they have atmosphere on most levels, there are sections that are without air and are open to the elements.”

“You mean freezing hell holes roaring with wind and ready to suck you into the atmosphere?” John asked with a harsh laugh.

“Indeed.”

With that, Chado walked around, snapped a salute before he did, and continued down the corridor, leaving John on his own.

“John, you are a lucky man to have a crew like that,” he mumbled to himself. For a second he turned to look out at the incredible view through the windows again.

Sometimes death hits you, sometimes it doesn’t.

Today death had hit John Doe. It was time to go and process it.

Chapter 23

Alice

She’d been crawling along, her mind ringing and blaring with the certainty that soon she would be near an omidium source. Soon she would be able to collapse and succumb to the darkness trying to grab at her, without the fear that she would be discovered and with the sure knowledge the omidium would heal her broken body.

Then the cold had set in. At first, she hadn’t noticed it; her hands were already scratched and cut enough for the pain rippling through them to override anything as banal as a change in temperature.

Then she’d looked down to see the white ice picking up over the service duct.

The cold hit her in a blast, along with a fell draft that began to whip down the shaft.

She brought a hand up, protecting her eyes. They filled with tears at the brunt of the wind.

“What the,” she began. Then she stopped. Because she realized what must have happened. With the weather fields shut down, sections of Block Alpha this high up must have succumbed to the violent winds. As Alice pressed herself forward and around a bend in the tunnel, her suspicion was confirmed.

The service duct before her had suddenly come to a jagged and dangerous end; chunks of the metal had been ripped right out of the wall, and a ferocious wind was whistling through it. It was so loud that Alice groaned as she clamped her hands over her ears.

She stared past her arms at the hole in the metal before her. The jagged edges of the metal were completely covered in ice, and as she sat there and watched, it seemed to be getting thicker by the second.

“Oh god,” she managed through a cough. She slammed her hand over her mouth as she did. When she pulled it back, she saw the white and blue blood just before it evaporated.

She coughed again, the movements pulling her down until she clamped her hands over her knees, her head rocking back and forth.

More blood flecked over her chest, hands, and lips.

Alice was running out of time. The effort of pushing herself to safety was taking its toll; she likely had minutes.

But she wasn’t safe yet.

Gaze hollow, she pushed herself forward until the service duct underneath her began to groan. It gave her a view of what was below. A room, possibly a hangar bay that had seen one of its walls ripped clean off.

Ice covered the walls of the hangar bay, and the floor had a steady wind shifting over it that puffed and buffeted at the errant salt crystals that had made their way this far up in the atmosphere.

It was a stilling sight.

But Alice wasn’t stilled for long.

“Vessel carrying omidium power source approximately 10 meters to your left and 50 meters down,” the computer suddenly sounded. She only just heard it over the sound of the wind.

It was below her.

The end was in sight.

As Alice managed a smile, fresh blood pushed its way from the deepening cracks in her lips.

She had minutes left.

She shifted forward.

And that would be when the section of service tunnel she was in gave way. At first, it rattled, then it groaned, then it dropped out from underneath her. She didn’t have the time to scream.

As it dropped it yanked a bank of wires from the wall and there was a hail of sparks and thick black smoke.

It served to cover her descent as she hurtled down to the hangar bay floor below.

She struck the floor just as the metal sheeting of the service tunnel did. As it rang out with an ear-splitting bang, she screamed. The clang of the metal hid just how loud and shaking her cry was.

She’d landed on her side.

Her hip was broken. Her ribs were smashed. Her body that had once been lightly covered by blood was now soaked in it. It was coming so thick and fast that it didn’t have time to evaporate properly.

It covered the remains of her tunic and pants, filtered out from under her unmarked and undamaged hood.

Because through it all, no matter what had happened to Alice, her hood had been fine. Resolutely stuck in place over her eyes, it had done its job.

“What the hell was that? Get a team over to the service duct to ensure no more of it is going to fall. And for the love of god, get the security field in place over that damaged door; I want to get out of this armor already.” Someone shouted from far behind Alice.

Blinking her eyes open, fighting through the pain, Alice latched onto the voice. She used it to tug her out of her last slip into unconsciousness.

Come on, you can do this, she begged herself.

She pushed herself up. At first, her hand slipped and crunched underneath her weight. The bone was broken.

She landed back on her face, her chin and jaw jolting, more blood pouring from her mouth and lips.

She forced herself up again. This time she managed it.

Then Alice turned.

There was a large vessel just behind her. She could see it through the swirling smoke that was being pushed against her. The smoke was issuing thick and fast from some kind of conduit at her feet. Apparently, the service tunnel had sliced through it when it had fallen.

It was likely the only thing keeping her hidden.

She stared through it at the vessel.

“Omidium,” she parted her lips to say one word.

Survival. Her last chance.

Alice closed her eyes. She logged onto the ICN, told the computer to reply only through thoughts. Then she requested, no she begged, to gain access to the vessel’s security scanners.

It took the last of her. As she sat there, body broken underneath her as her blood soaked through her skin and evaporated in the frozen wind, Alice did whatever she could to gain access to the ship’s systems.

If she hadn’t been an Old One, she would never have managed it. If the ship itself hadn’t been momentarily linked to the ICN, it would have been impossible. And just maybe, if Alice hadn’t been so desperate, she would never have dared. But somehow she did it.

“Computer,” she whispered so low that no one could hear her, “overload conduit directly underneath my position.”

“In doing so, 1000 liters of patrosium gas will erupt into the hangar bay. Without environmental controls operational, it will fill the space within seconds,” the computer replied right into her mind.

That was the point.

“Just do it,” she said with her last breath.

It did.

There was an explosion as a whole bank of conduits under the floor suddenly bucked and exploded, sending a cloud of that thick, opaque, black gas billowing out in every direction.

It gave Alice the distraction she needed. It also gave her the cover she required.

With the last of her energy, she stole aboard the vessel, entering through the open hangar bay door. It too quickly filled with gas, and before it could be pumped away or the door closed, Alice found another access panel. She pried it back with her fingers, managed to hack into the system, and then Alice crawled inside.

Blood covering her, head lolled between her shoulders, she forced herself forward.

Omidium. The single word kept her going. It pushed past the black that had built up at the edges of her vision. It saw Alice hack through whatever panels she required until finally, finally she reached it.

The core of the ship. The engineering bay.

The pulsing, glowing red, orange, and blue lights of an omidium-powered engine.

The core was an enormous glowing chamber lit up with the most incredible light you could imagine. It pulsed and hummed. Right at the center of the engineering bay, it was sunk deep into the floor – the rest of the bay high above. It was separated by a high, sturdy railing and the best force fields the universe could muster.

Because the sheer power of the core would kill anything it touched.

Anything but an Old One.

Clambering through the service ducts, faster now, her hands numb, her body done for, Alice got as close to the core as she could. Close enough that she could see the light of it permeating through the service tunnel she was in.

Then she collapsed.

The lights went out.

Her body fell out from underneath her.

She slammed against the service tunnel.

Her body shut down.

Chapter 24

John Doe

He’d gotten back to the Pegasus just in time to see the hangar bay she’d landed in erupt in a cloud of black gas. Letting the Chief deal with it, he’d boarded and headed straight for his quarters.

Then he’d let the computer pull the armor from his body.

John Doe had jumped in the shower soon after. Now he was lying flat on his bed, his ankles locked as he stared at the bank of windows above him.

Today hadn’t been one he would choose to ever remember.

“You could have saved her if you’d tried harder,” he told himself out loud, his voice echoing through his room.

There was no one to answer. Flopping a hand over his head and resting it over his eyes, John blinked into it.

He wasn’t dealing with this well. Why was he getting so involved? He hadn’t known that woman. The most she’d ever said to him was to snap at him to put her down, yet here he was, ensconced in grief that seemed to be larger than him.

“Pull it together,” he whispered.

It wouldn’t be that easy.

“You’ve got to get your head set on your shoulders before you head into the Rim,” he noted with a sigh.

Which was true. Orion Minor had only ever been a stopover. They were headed out to the Rim from here.

The bloody Rim.

Groaning slightly, John pushed his hand further over his face, not caring that it sat hard against his eyes and nose.

This mission was one of the most important any Union Forces ship was currently engaged in. If the Pegasus could bring back live Old Tech… hell, it would change the course of history, right? If they could find some device that hadn’t shut down yet, they could use it to try and study the power source of the ancient ones. Try to understand what strange energy they’d used. And if they could break that – the greatest secret of the ages – they could stop the inevitable.

The inevitable was war.

Or worse, the complete dissolution of the modern universe.

That was the nightmare that was pushing the Union Forces’ top brass. A nightmare that sat at the back of everyone’s minds.

One day the universal transport system would shut down. It would run out of energy. It would leave every galaxy separate. Transport between them would be slow, almost unimaginably slow. And the resources it would take to push a ship through the vast expanses of nothing that separated galaxies would be too great for anyone to try it.

It would destroy the Union.

But that’s not all. One day the ICN’s would shut down. ICN’s were everywhere from ships to worlds to clusters; all computer networks were based on that technology. It was sufficiently far removed that it could run connected to another power source. But at the core of the technology was still Old Tech. And at the core of that was still that mysterious energy.

It too would one day shut down. Then every single computer network throughout the universe would go dark.

It would take the universe from modernity back into the dark ages in the twinkle of an eye.

There were people, whole races even, that believed the threat of relying too much on Old Tech just wasn’t worth it. They’d stripped the ICN’s from their ships and worlds, and they were sure never to use the transport net.

But it wasn’t that easy. They still relied on the protection of the Union Forces; they still sold their resources and bolstered their economy through trade that relied on the transport network.

You just couldn’t get away from it no matter how hard you tried; Old Tech was so deeply rooted in the modern universe that it would take every ship and planet and life with it if it ever dried up.

“And that, John,” he spoke to himself in a faked brave voice, “is why this mission is so important. If you could find the key to their power source,” he brought his hand off his face in a flick, “you could save the universe.”

He brought his hands up behind his head and closed his eyes with a wince. “So no pressure or anything.”

John took a moment to let out a bitter laugh. Then he rolled over.

It took a while, but soon sweet sleep claimed the Commander.

Chapter 25

Alice

She shifted in and out of consciousness for a day. Her eyes would flicker open, she would feel her broken bones, know that blood still covered her form, then she would slip back into nothingness.

But every time she fluttered her eyes open, she felt stronger and her attention lasted.

She was healing. The power reflecting off the core was sustaining her, repairing the enormous damage she’d wrought upon her form, and re-energizing her all-but-gone energy stores.

Ideally she would have liked to push herself right into the core. To have found some way to access it.

The energies wouldn’t have ripped her apart. Unlike the robot and the winds and everything else on Orion Minor, the core would have helped, not tried to kill her.

She, of course, hadn’t been able to access it, though. She was in a service duct close enough that the energy still reached her, but actually plunging into the core would probably have kicked so many safety protocols that she would have been instantly discovered.

Which was a fact that was slowly dawning on Alice as she came around again.

She hadn’t been discovered. She was still lying in exactly the same position.

No one had found her. She hadn’t been dragged away.

Fixing her attention on the top of the service duct again, she watched the rippling light that pushed its way through the core beyond.

There was probably ten meters of reinforced hull between her and the core, and yet that incredible energy field still impregnated into the metal, shifting out as far as it could.

Alice had been forced to break through almost 15 security fields to get this far into the service duct and this close to the engine.

She could see one of them now as she lolled her head to the other side. It flickered a bright blue.

She stared at it with dull eyes and attention that was drawn thin by fatigue.

She could feel unconsciousness claiming her again. This time she didn’t fight it. She smiled up at the ceiling. The glow of the omidium core shifting over and encasing the tunnel, she let it do its magic.

She took whatever energy she could, and Alice healed.

Chapter 26

John Doe

He hadn’t slept particularly well, but come 0600 in the morning, he’d received an urgent message from the bridge crew. So tugging on his uniform, deliberately avoiding looking at his tired reflection in the shiny finish of the elevator door, John stepped out as soon as the doors opened with a ping.

As he walked onto his bridge, his XO got up from the command chair and nodded his way.

“I wouldn’t have disturbed you,” Chado said quickly.

John put up a hand. He knew the stakes. If Chado had bothered calling John to the bridge, then it was urgent.

“We have received a priority one communique from Orion Major,” Chado shifted past John and made a hand signal. Instantly the holo emitters in front of John’s chair sprang to life, and a picture of a floating blue orb appeared a second later.

Picture perfect, John found himself yawning. “Okay,” he managed, “we aren’t scheduled to visit Orion Major. Are you sure this isn’t someone else’s problem?”

It was a joking question, and at least it got a snigger from Foster, but Chado – as always – replied with a stony glance.

“It’s our problem. Because Rear Admiral Fletcher has made it our problem.”

John’s mouth tugged down into a frown. “Fletcher, Fletcher, I know that name.” He leaned forward in his chair, a distracted look on his face as he tried to remember.

“Heads up the Union Forces Research Division,” Foster answered from his chair.

John clicked his fingers. Then his expression soured. “So what the hell does he want with us?”

“He has requested we rendezvous with him immediately on Orion Major,” Chado replied quickly.

“And did the Admiral say why? Our orders are to head straight to the Rim from here—” John began.

“He has pulled rank,” Chado interrupted.

“So this isn’t a request, then?” John shifted back in his chair, crossed his arms, and stared out at the floating blue orb of Orion Major before him.

Orion Minor might have been a hell hole of a backwater planet, but its twin was anything but. Orion Major was a hub of trade and research. A beautiful blue crystal of a planet completely swamped with floating cities. The view was incredible, the streets were clean, and there wasn’t a slum in sight.

“This better be good to delay our mission,” John mumbled.

“Apparently, the Admiral is confident that he has something that will assist us in our travels through the Rim,” Chado clarified as he made a new hand gesture and the picture of Orion Major flipped out of view. In its place, the image of a woman appeared instead.

John’s eyebrows descended in a snap.

Blond, with sparkling blue eyes, and a lithe, slim form, she was incredibly beautiful by human standards. She was dressed in a blue, high-cut tunic that John could recognize as being the height of fashion, even though the closest he ever came to looking stylish was when he was running around in sleek black armor.

Foster coughed pointedly. “Wow, okay, I like this mission already.”

John shook his head slightly. “So tell me, what exactly does this woman have to do with us and the Admiral?”

“She is part of the Aurora Program,” Chado answered with a growl.

John could have joined in. He sat up straighter in his chair, his cheeks draining of blood and paling in a snap. “You can’t be serious? They’re not going to lump us with one of those. They are untested—” he began. Then he stopped. Because he was preaching to the converted here; every member of his crew would know what the Aurora Program was, and they all shared John’s misgivings.

It was meant to be the Union’s last hope. If they couldn’t figure out the power source of the Old Ones, then maybe they could bring one back to life to ask them.

The Old Ones had disappeared 100,000 years ago, and no member of any of their races had been seen since. They were all dead, all gone, and their secrets had been taken with them.

The Aurora Program had farmed information from Old Tech databases and scanned every single device the Union had hold of.

The point had been to produce an implant that could provide a wearer with the ability to interact directly with Old Tech.

The Old Ones, after all, hadn’t used their devices directly; they hadn’t manipulated them with gross physical movements, everything had come from the mind. They’d interfaced directly with everything they’d ever built. The premise and entire hope of the Aurora Program was that if an implant could be produced to allow someone to interface with Old Tech, they could use it to turn the stuff back on. And if not, delve deeper into its secrets.

There was also an influential, if crazy theory out there that Old Tech was somehow sustained by mental energy. If that was the case, then someone with one of these implants could re-energize a device simply through their thoughts.

John didn’t believe it for a second. He thought the whole program was a waste of money. An astounding waste of money. Because the funds it commanded from the Union would be better placed reducing the class gap; bringing the slums into the light.

Crossing his arms tighter in front of his chest, John narrowed his eyes as he stared at that image of the beautiful woman in front of him.

“Her name is Evelyn,” Chado continued.

“Just Evelyn?” John asked with a frown.

“Just Evelyn,” Chado replied. “She has the latest version of the Aurora implant.”

Oh great.

John knew what was coming next.

“Admiral Fletcher has assigned her to our vessel. She will accompany us into the Rim. We will be directly responsible for her safety.” Chado reeled off the facts.

John wanted to go back to bed and try to wake up. Because this had to be a dream. A particularly bad one.

There would be no way John could get out of this. Even if he kicked up a stink and went to the top brass, he wouldn’t be able to fix this.

“I guess we should alter course,” he managed through a frustrated breath that lingered in his chest as he tightened his arms further. “Looks like our mission to the Rim just turned into babysitting.”

John knew he wasn’t being entirely fair; though he had a problem with the Aurora Program, that was no reason to extend his ill will to that woman, Evelyn. But neither could he fight the feeling that told him this would all end in tears.

“I guess I better have a chat to Admiral Fletcher. I’ll take it in the conference room.” With that, John pushed himself up. He walked right through the holo emitters, the perfect image of the woman rippling around him as he moved straight through her.

“Aye, sir,” Foster answered.

When John had finally finished his conversation with the Admiral, his mood hadn’t improved any.

They were going to pick Evelyn up on Orion Major, then – just as Chado had warned – take her to the Rim. The Admiral had stressed at least five times through the conversation that Evelyn was considered of extremely high value and that he would be holding John directly responsible for her safety.

John had held his tongue. If Evelyn was so sodding important, then the Admiral could look after her himself. Sending her on a mission to the Rim was intrinsically dangerous. From the pirates to the Factions to the mine belts, Evelyn wouldn’t be going on holiday here. And no matter how good John and his crew were, they wouldn’t be able to ensure her safety.

But the Admiral hadn’t wanted to hear it, and though John didn’t always have the correct level of respect for his superiors, on this occasion he’d held his tongue.

Walking back onto the bridge, John knew his expression was a surly one.

“Look on the bright side,” Foster turned in his chair, one of his trademark grins spreading his lips wide, “at least she’s prettier than you, sir.”

John raised an eyebrow. A true, dignified, proper commander would have pulled Foster up on that.

John was none of those things.

But he was effective. And that was what mattered most. Pomp and circumstance were for the guys who didn’t have the universe to save.

“Plus, from memory, you quite like Orion Major. The floating cities remind you of home, right?” Parka walked in from the elevator, fixing John with a keen look.

“I was born in the slums of Earth,” John replied with a short laugh.

“I know.” Parka uncrossed her arms and nodded. “I know that. But look how far you’ve come. Climbed all the way to the top of the tower,” she mumbled.

John got the joke. For a boy from the slums, nothing reminded him so much of home as worlds that didn’t have them. The clean floating cities of Orion Major were so far from where John had come from that he’d confided to Parka on several occasions he couldn’t help but remember Earth.

“So what are you doing on the bridge?” he finally mumbled.

“Telling you that the fluctuations in the engine’s output have not stopped.” She crossed her arms. Parka wasn’t human – she belonged to a stout but strong race of green, thick-skinned aliens. Her arms were muscled and ended in ten-digit hands.

Right now all of her fingers tapped against her arms.

“Sorry, fluctuations?” John shifted his head up as he looked at her properly for the first time.

“I have not yet informed the Commander,” Chado interrupted from behind him.

“I forgot. You conked out in your quarters after your little adventure on Orion Minor. Well, this is me telling you now that ever since we left port on Minor, the engine has been fluctuating.” Parka instantly raised a hand. “Nothing major, nothing critical. But something is draining our systems.”

“Some kind of leak in the relays?” John asked as he couldn’t help but yawn again.

“I didn’t realize you were an engineer. And no. We’ve checked the relays. It might be a problem in the fields stabilizing the core. Or maybe the bulkhead in that section has a crack or something. We won’t know until we shut down the core, and we can’t do that until we’re in space dock. So I’m kind of happy to hear we’re heading to Orion Major,” Parka leaned past John and fixed her rapidly-blinking purple eyes on the hologram of Evelyn. “And cheer up, John. Foster is right – it’s going to be so much nicer to have someone prettier than you on board.”

John let Parka’s comment slide.

“I’ll keep you appraised of the engine core. But there’s something else you need to know,” Parka continued.

“More bad news?” he got there first.

“I’m not entirely convinced of that. I’m ready to write it off as feedback from that transport beam that went haywire. Or maybe it was too much interference caused by that gas leak in the hangar bay—”

“What is it?” he tried to speed her up.

“There were several fluctuations in our security systems before we left dock on Minor. Nothing too big.” She made a face. “And like I said, it could have been the gas or the feedback, or both.”

John tapped his fingers against his leg. “Play it safe. When we dock on Orion Major, flush it out. Go system to system, if you have to, but find out if anyone accessed it.”

She nodded her head. “I do love it when you get over cautious.”

“Thank me later when we head into the Rim. It would be a real pity if we found we had a saboteur on board when we face up against the pirate fleet.”

Parka snorted, and it was a thoroughly undignified sound. “I wouldn’t go that far, John. I think your imagination is getting the better of you. Maybe the prospect of meeting dear Evelyn over there is confusing you,” Parka said through a smile.

To her race, life was about romance. You weren’t fulfilling your function as a living breathing being unless you were spending it with somebody else. He’d been to her home world once upon a time, and it was an experience he’d never forget.

Her race were free about their emotions and their desires.

But regardless of Parka’s culture, that comment had been out of line. “That’s enough,” he said in a low, warning voice.

She nodded her head sharply, though she didn’t erase the sparkle in her eye as she turned her gaze back to Evelyn. “I will keep you informed, Commander.”

With that, she walked out of the room.

Latching a hand on his shoulder, digging his fingers into the muscle and bone, John turned back to the front of the bridge.

His eyes were drawn to the perfect image of Evelyn.

She wasn’t his type, was she? John tended to like his women with pluck. Plus, Admiral Fletcher would probably kill him if anything were to happen between John and Evelyn.

Then again, some things in this universe were worth dying over.

Chapter 27

Alice

It had been days. Several long and arduous days, but Alice was back on her feet. Her bones had healed, the cracks in her skin were gone, and she was alert and steady on her feet.

She still hadn’t moved from her position in the service ducts, exactly where she’d fallen. She would sometimes crawl along a little, face one of the security fields for a different view, then crawl back to her position.

She didn’t want to move until she was good and ready, until her body was healed and her natural energy reserves had been recharged.

And that time was rapidly approaching her. As she leaned against the bulkhead behind her, soaking up the rays of the omidium core meters and meters behind, she let out a satisfied and relieved sigh.

Somehow she was alive. She’d lived through that harrowing experience. Just to prove that point she brought her hands up, turned them over, and stared at them hard.

They were hers alright. And they were no longer cracked and broken.

“Lucky,” she said. She let the word ring out and echo through the enclosed space around her.

She really had been lucky. Not many people could have put themselves through what Alice had endured without getting thoroughly killed.

Alice rested there against that bulkhead with her eyes closed for too long to count. Not ready to move from the warmth and safety just yet, she just let a genuine smile spread her lips.

Being this close to the core, she felt connected to it. It was no surprise then when she felt it powering down long before the distinctive hum of it changed.

She snapped her eyes open.

The ship was slowing down.

She pushed herself up from the bulkhead.

She still didn’t know what ship she’d wandered onto or where it was headed. Her only priority had been finding an omidium core. But right now as the prospect that the ship was about to dock somewhere loomed large in her mind, Alice got ready to move.

Though the prospect of staying close to the core was a tempting one, she wouldn’t be able to do so forever. Eventually, she would be found out.

But it was just so hard to drag herself away. There were precious few omidium power sources on Orion Minor; the backwater planet couldn’t afford technology like that. In fact, that Alice had found one had been a stroke of unbelievable luck. The only vessels that tended to have them were Union Force ships or experimental research cruisers; in other words, ships the Union would be happy to spend the funds on.

“You have to move,” Alice begged herself. “Stay here, and someone will catch you.”

She knew that – god did she know that. But the pull of staying near the core was so great. Alice hardly ever felt safe, but basking in its light, she got a glimpse at that welcome state of being.

“Move, come on,” she grumbled.

The engine’s distinct hum had changed, and its output had reduced to half.

They were obviously near docking.

Come on, she thought one last time as she shifted along the service duct. When she’d first clambered her way in, her body had been so broken that the process of crawling had almost killed her. Now as Alice moved she did so lithely and easily. Her body was strong and fast again. She felt like she could take on the world. Though of course she hoped she wouldn’t have to. She’d had her fill of fights for the time being.

As Alice reached the first of the security fields that ran around the engine core, protecting the inhabitants of the vessel from the unique form of radiation omidium produced, she got ready to yank open a panel and start to hack it.

She didn’t get the chance.

She felt it before she heard it, before the blessed light dwindled from behind her.

The core shut down.

Usually a ship never shut down its engines, regardless of whether it was in dock or not; they ran all ship’s processes, after all, not just propulsion.

You only shut down your engine if you had to do direct maintenance on the core.

As the engine died with a distinct hum, Alice’s back prickled with cold.

There was no problem with the engine; she would have felt it. Being this close and being capable of connecting with and feeding off the distinct energy of omidium, she could understand the engine like a mother to their child.

The engine was fine. It felt like there was a small problem in one of the magnifier coils, and it sounded like the core chamber could do with a clear out, but that was it. Nothing worth shutting the whole thing down over.

Unless of course you were trying to track a problem. Or, more to the point, a person who was curled up close to your precious engine.

Did they know?

Had they found out she was down here?

Alice brought her hand up and punched it into the panel just before the security field. She didn’t have time to be subtle; she had to get out of here.

Ripping her hand into the exposed cables beyond the panel, she yanked them right out. A huge amount of electricity discharged up her arm.

She just ignored it. Now she was running at top energy again, she could do something like that.

Repeating the process, Alice crawled through the tunnels as fast as she could, shutting down each force field that got in her way. With the engines shut down, there would be no chance that the inhabitants of the ship would be fried by the omidium radiation. Still, Alice wasn’t so desperate that she didn’t bother to put the fields back into place afterward to hide her tracks, just as she’d done when she’d entered the ship.

Other than that, she ran.

Chapter 28

John Doe

John took the opportunity to stretch his shoulders as far as he could and twist his head around. He was still standing on his own just by the front of his ship. They’d docked in the spacious almost palatial docking ring of Orion Major. The ring generated its own gravity and atmosphere, and it meant John could take deep breaths of air as he waited.

He was standing in his dress uniform. He hated the thing. The high collar itched his neck. Shoving a finger into it and fiddling with the stiff fabric, he scratched at his eyebrow.

For a second he turned behind him to clap eyes on the Pegasus. His ship.

She really was beautiful. An experimental Galaxy Class cruiser, she was equipped with the latest omidium core. She was fast and powerful, and exactly what you wanted when you were headed deep into pirate territory.

She wasn’t large; four levels, only 500 meters long, but she wasn’t small either.

She was perfect for John. Fast and able, and with the best crew around.

He could never stop himself from smiling whenever he saw her.

He reached out a hand to run it across the giant nose that arched up above him.

“Commander,” he heard a gruff voice announce from behind him.

John whirled on his foot.

Admiral Fletcher was walking up the metal walkway, Evelyn at his side.

She fixed him with a smile the second she saw him. And even though John wasn’t the type, he almost wanted to blush.

Straightening up and locking his arms behind him, John gave a low nod. “Admiral, Evelyn,” he said, nodding at them both in turn.

“I heard you’ve got engine trouble,” the Admiral growled by way of salutation.

John shook his head, always keeping his arms rigid and stiff behind him, the hands locked together. “Nothing to be alarmed by, sir. My Chief Engineer is running a diagnostic. We’ve had slight fluctuations in the power grid. She assures me it will be sorted in the hour.”

The Admiral gave a curt nod. A sour looking man with hollow eyes and a gray beard, the Admiral didn’t look like the kind to smile, ever. “I see. I have briefed you in full, Commander, and I should not have to remind you that Evelyn is an extremely important asset. Look after her,” he said, voice slow and pointed.

No, he didn’t need to remind John of that; the Admiral had repeated that point to the nth degree.

But John didn’t point that out. He flicked his eyes to Evelyn just as the Admiral called her an asset.

He saw her eyes drop down to the floor for a second, then her gaze quickly leveled, and she looked his way.

No one should have to be called an asset. It was dehumanizing. Guns and ships and engine cores were assets; people were so much more.

“Evelyn will require her own quarters,” the Admiral began, then he continued by listing the extraordinary number of resources the woman would need.

Rather than make a face, John kept his expression even. He did, however, flick his gaze over to her once as she mouthed the word “sorry” clearly his way.

It got his attention, even made the corner of his mouth curl.

He liked her already.

When the Admiral had finished, he demanded a tour of the ship, then told John he would meet them in the diplomatic district of the docking ring at 14:00 for a final debrief.

It was an odd experience taking the Admiral and Evelyn around his ship. John felt like a tour guide, a really bad one. What made it worse was that his crew were all snapping salutes and scurrying around looking busy, obviously trying to impress the Admiral.

It made him feel so awkward. And it really didn’t help every time Evelyn leaned to the side and stifled a smile or soft laugh with her hand. By the time it was over, and Evelyn and the Admiral disembarked, John was ready to throw himself into the engine core.

“Oooh, that went well,” Parka walked up behind him and slammed a hand on his shoulder when the Admiral was sufficiently far down the gangway that her voice wouldn’t travel.

When the Admiral was finally out of sight, John turned and shook his head, pressing his fingers into his nose as he walked around the side of the Pegasus, heading for the gangway.

“Wow, she likes you,” Parka began.

He put up a hand quickly.

Parka put up her own hands, her multiple fingers spreading wide. “Hey, I’m not going to say anything.”

Grumbling, John decided to leave it. “Tell me you’ve got good news about the core. I kind of promised the Admiral that you would have it sorted by the hour.”

“Well, you are lucky, because we’ve tested the bulkhead and there are no cracks,” Parka said, but as she did, the smile practically slipped from her face.

For the first time John really looked at her, and he realized that she had something hidden behind her back.

“What?” His skin started to prickle down his spine.

She brought around a section of metal. It looked like plating. It had a massive dent in it.

Parka turned it around in her hands for a while.

“What is it?” he asked, voice slower.

“I actually don’t know. Okay, no, I know what it is; it's plating off service duct 2B. But I can’t tell you how it got a dent in it like that.” She kept considering the piece of metal, twisting it easily around in her hands. Her race was strong, after all.

“Have you run it through the scanner?” John nodded its way. “Any biological residue?” his voice was tight. Though Parka had laughed at the suggestion, the possibility that there was a saboteur aboard John’s ship suddenly looked highly likely.

Parka shook her head. “Nothing, no residue.”

“Robot then?” John suggested.

“You don’t understand where I found this. Obviously you don’t know your ship’s blueprint well enough to realize where service duct 2B is.”

“Just tell me.”

Parka stopped twirling the metal around. She looked straight at him. “It’s right near the core. About as close as you could get. No robot, let alone a biological could withstand the radiation of the omidium core; it fries anything in sight.”

“So what the hell did that?”

“Whatever it was, it managed to pull out a section of cable behind this panel too.” Parka ran some of her many fingers over the bump in the panel. “Our best guess at the moment is shutting down the core caused an overload in the conduits in that section and caused the panel to pop right off.”

John didn’t answer.

“After all, there is nothing – robotic or alive – that could operate that close to an omidium engine. That’s one of the reasons we have such thick plating and so many security fields. Not even our ICN can go that deep. Those conduits are purely mechanical. Anything in that section has to be as simple as hell otherwise the radiation will fry its circuits.”

“But that panel looks like it has been punched.” John leaned in and grabbed the corner of it, stopping Parka from twirling it in place.

She looked up at his eyes sharply, her own purple irises twinkling up at him. “I know.”

“But nothing could have done that, right?” John’s voice was still tight.

“Like I said, nothing can survive that close to an omidium core. A biological would have been fried within seconds, and a robot’s neural processors would have been overloaded faster.”

“So there was an overload that caused the panel to burst off, damaging it like that,” John concluded.

“That’s right, Commander. That’s my best and only guess,” Parka said.

John tried to get over the sinking feeling in his gut. “Scan—” he began.

“Oh, we are already doing that. We’re scanning the whole ship. Now the core has been shut down, scanners will be able to penetrate every single service tunnel. They’ll even be able to scan the center of the core itself.”

“But we’re not going to find anything?” John hazarded.

Parka nodded her head. “I certainly hope not,” she said with a wry smile, “otherwise I’m going to have to call the Union Force Military Academy and get them to update their course on omidium engineering.”

John sucked in a breath and pushed it through his clenched teeth.

“I’ll deal with this, Commander. Why don’t you take some leave? I heard you’ve got a final meeting with the Admiral at 14:00 now. Well, by my count that leaves three whole hours to bum around the docking ring markets. You never know what you might find.” Parka nodded low at him, considered the buckled piece of metal in her hand once more, then turned around and walked away.

She left John feeling uncomfortable. Though he knew the facts of omidium, he also knew what a punched panel looked like; he’d done such damage himself, when dressed in his armor, of course.

Mulling over it and hoping like hell that Parka wouldn’t find anything in those service tunnels, John walked toward the gangway. Maybe Parka was right. Maybe he should take the next few hours to unwind before his mission really began.

So John, putting his worries behind him, walked past the bulk of his ship and toward the elevator ring at the center of the docking platform.

As he caught sight of the white metallic doors, it brought it all back. Images of that robot with its fingers locked around that woman’s neck streamed into his mind.

He blinked his eyes hard, even rubbed his thumbs over them.

They wouldn’t go away.

After all, sometimes death affects you. And John had the feeling this one would be hitting him hard for some time.

Chapter 29

Alice

She’d made her way out. They’d been some of the most fraught moments of her life, but somehow she’d managed it. She’d hacked past every panel she could, no longer punching her way into them and ripping the cables out, but gently prying them back with her strong grip and manipulating the power relays until she momentarily shut down the security fields.

It had been slow work, but she’d managed it, and just in time.

They’d started to scan the ship. Her incredible hearing had picked up the hum of it. And out of all devices and systems, Alice had spent her life attuning herself to scanner beams. She could hear one from 20 meters away.

She’d flung herself from the final service duct just as the noise had grown.

Then it was out of the frying pan – as the human saying went – and into the fire.

She’d made it out of the service ducts, but she was still on the ship.

Alice had jumped out of a panel along some kind of corridor. At first, she was alone, and had precious few seconds to stare around her at the sleek corridor and the sleeker-looking consoles dotted along it. Then she’d heard footsteps.

Alice still had no idea what kind of a ship she was on. It could have been a Union Force heavy cruiser or a pimped-up pirate ship; without getting to a panel or forcing her way past the ICN’s security and into the ship’s database, guesses were all she had.

She also had footfall rapidly approaching her direction.

Alice pushed herself forward, scurrying low at first, one hand brushing across the ground as she pushed all her attention to her hearing and sense of smell.

Several days shacked up next to an omidium core had done wonders for her; her energy was back and brighter than ever, meaning her senses were sharper than they’d been in months.

She was a proper Old One. And right now she intended to use her specialized physique to accomplish the seemingly impossible – getting off this ship without anyone noticing and raising the alarm.

The footfall still loud behind her, Alice calculated she had several seconds until she came into view. She could also hear that the corridor just beyond her had at least two people in it.

Letting out a silent swearword, Alice surveyed the walls around her with a quick snap of her head. She saw an elevator panel just up ahead.

She ran to it. Her feet hardly touching the ground as she flew forward.

She reached it just as the people behind her rounded the corner that would lead them down Alice’s section.

Alice didn’t bother keying in the code that would open the door; she didn’t have the time. Though the elevator would no doubt take only several seconds to arrive, that was time she didn’t have. So pushing herself against it, she rammed her fingers into the tiny gap between the two tightly closed doors, and she ripped them open.

The doors protested, the mechanisms holding tight, but they were no match for a highly-charged and incredibly desperate Old One.

Alice flung herself through the doors the second she’d opened them. Right into the elevator chamber.

She’d survived a three-kilometer fall through a salt blizzard; she could probably live through whatever drop this elevator could supply.

She heard the doors slam closed behind her, and they instantly cut the illumination as they did.

Which just left Alice to drop. She didn’t allow herself to go far, though. Angling till her body slammed against the other side of the shaft, Alice brought her fingers out and dug them into the metal.

She made her hands as strong as she could, and they easily ate into the metal. Sparks flew out as she gripped onto it, the plating bending and buckling around the force of her grip.

Gritting her teeth and swearing, Alice looked below her.

There was no visible end to the shaft – just blackness. It would probably snake around the whole ship. In a way, it would have been ideal to just drop all the way down, then find some way out of the belly of the vessel.

It would have been ideal, that was, were it not for the fact the ship was being scanned from the bottom up. Even ensconced inside the elevator shaft she could hear the persistent hum of the scanner beam. It would be sweeping the ship from one end to the other, every crack, every nook, every room, every possible place to hide.

So the only solution was to go up. Up and out. She would have to find some exhaust vent or hangar bay door, anything. She had to get out.

So Alice, still holding onto the shaft wall, looked up. Then she jumped. Seeing the thin lip of metal that led to the next floor above, she leaped up to it. Somehow her fingers latched on, found enough purchase for her to hold her body up. Then she jumped again. If there was nothing to latch hold of, she rammed her fingers into the metal wall, making a hand hold.

When she’d made it to the top of the shaft, Alice angled her body toward the last door above her. The scanner beam was quick and effective, and it was hot on her heels below.

Whatever was behind this door, she would have to open it and find out.

She was out of time and options.

So Alice pulled herself up, forced her fingers through the minute gap between the doors, and yanked them open.

Then she vaulted up and rolled through them.

She landed in someone’s quarters.

The elevator doors slammed closed behind her, the door giving an odd electronic chirp, probably unhappy that it had been manhandled.

But at least Alice was out of that dark and airless shaft.

Sucking in a breath of air, she didn’t immediately push herself up from her knees. With one hand flat on the floor, the other resting on her thigh, she darted her gaze around the quarters before her.

They were large but not particularly fancy. Functional, yes, usable, absolutely, but they lacked style and charm.

She finally pushed herself up, curiosity pushing her brow down as she walked slowly into them.

There was a large desk completely covered in data pads and the various ripped-up guts of weapons and devices.

Alice walked over to it, picked up the core chamber of a plasma rifle, and raised an eyebrow as she did.

Then she stepped down a level into the main section. There was a large bed with a bank of huge windows right behind it. They showed an incredible view of the sky above.

Next to the bed was a small table. The bed was a mess, and the sheets were covered in muck. Suggesting whoever slept in them obviously didn’t care if their clothes or face was covered in dirt or ash or whatever they came across in their day-to-day lives.

Alice, a curious smile tugging at her lips, walked around the bed.

There was a chair off to the side, and it too was covered in junk. This time it was holo crystals. They spread right onto the floor. Alice had to step to the side to avoid squashing one under her torn shoes.

She looked back at the bed. Then she noticed the small table beside it. More to the point, she noticed what was on top.

An orb.

Simple, black, sleek, it was sitting on a stand.

It got her attention.

It called out to her.

She knew what it was in an instant.

She half ran over to it, not caring that the muck she’d picked up in the elevator dislodged from her shoes and marked the carpet; it was already dirty enough that another few marks wouldn’t be noticed.

Alice grabbed the orb up as soon as it was in reach. She brought it right up to her face, thumbing the sleek metal gently as a smile cracked open her lips, a laugh bubbling up from her belly a second later.

She hadn’t seen one of these in years.

She’d missed them.

And then Alice heard it. And she freaking remembered.

Eyes growing wide, she heard the scanner beam traveling through the level below her.

“Idiot,” she chastised herself bitterly.

Was she so far gone that the sight of someone’s quarters was enough to distract her from the fact she was trying to escape this ship?

Apparently.

Maybe almost dying on Orion Minor had gone to her head. Maybe the precious feeling of relaxing in safety next to an omidium core had made her lax.

The point was, it was time to leave.

And Alice really only had one option.

Pocketing the orb and trying to justify it by the fact it would be far more use to her than it would be sitting as a pretty little ornament on someone’s bedside table, Alice walked over to the windows by the bed.

There was a moment where she just stood there and stared at them. They showed an unbelievably blue sky reaching up to meet the stars above. It was so peaceful. It was the kind of view she would have loved to fall asleep under.

The sound of the scanner beam below began to ring in her ears, and, her mouth suddenly dry, Alice knew she had to act now.

So she did.

Smiling to herself, she closed her eyes, for the briefest of moments, then she plunged a hand into her pocket and gripped her fingers around the smooth orb, her hold so tight that it felt as if she was trying to push right through it.

She was not, however, trying to destroy it; it was her ticket out of here. She was trying to re-energize it. And contact was important; it sped up the process.

The little orb in her pocket wasn’t a fancy bedside table decoration piece.

It was Old Tech. But unlike the soldier robot from Orion Minor, it wouldn’t try to suck the energy out of her the second she brought it back to life.

She knew exactly what this device was, and she trusted it completely.

As energy passed from her skin into the device, she felt it rumble and hum. It began to vibrate, the heat of it pushing through her pants and through her leg.

Then with a pop, it shot right out of her pocket.

It hovered before her face, then in a show similar, but thankfully a great deal quieter and nicer, than the soldier robot’s, the metal of its surface began to move. It shifted up and down, chunks of metal dancing through it, catching the sunlight streaming in from the windows behind.

Then it made a high-pitched purring sound and bobbed up and down with a chirp.

Alice actually laughed.

She didn’t have time to grab it and try to give the electronic bauble a hug, though. “Shut down the beam scanning this ship,” she snapped quickly.

The bauble replied with a happy chirp, zoomed around the air for a bit, then shot toward a panel on the other side of the room. It hovered over it, and a sent a light slicing toward it.

Alice watched carefully, her eyes darting from the orb to the panel.

She hoped this would work, but if it didn’t, she would go to plan b. And plan b was breaking the beautiful windows just behind her and taking her chances with the security that would no doubt show up seconds later.

“Ship’s scanner beam disengaged,” the orb replied.

“Fantastic,” Alice said, her eyes rolling back into her head as she shook her head fast. She wanted to cry, she really did. In fact, a tear did trickle past her blinked eyes.

The orb zoomed back to her. “It will be several hours before the crew of this vessel will be able to get their scanners back online.”

Alice smiled heartily. She didn’t particularly care if the scanners never worked again. She just wanted to get out of here.

She reached out a hand to the orb, and instantly it settled in her palm.

It made her smile even brighter.

Alice hardly got the chance to smile; her life wasn’t a pretty one.

But it was a welcome sensation, and as her cheeks pushed up against her eyes, that single tear trickling down to her chin, she reveled in it.

“What’s your name?” she asked quietly.

“Helper A-5-G—” it began.

“I’ll just call you Helper,” she remarked softly.

They were all called Helpers. Because this wasn’t the first such device she’d come across. Alice had once had a Helper all of her own. Though it was a sad statement to admit to, it had been her only true friend. In a universe where she had to distrust everyone, Alice’s only solace had been a Helper that had shepherded her since childhood.

She’d loved that thing. It had kept her sane. Then one day it had been destroyed. As Alice had run from a pirate vessel, her Helper had gotten stuck in an errant transport beam. She’d never seen it again.

Swallowing hard, more tears trickling down her cheeks, Alice opened up her energy. She gave it freely to the zipping little orb. It wouldn’t take much; it would hardly dent her own reserves. But it would be worth it.

“Thank you, oh great one,” it replied with a cheerful tone and no hint of irony or humor.

It made Alice let out a sobbing laugh. “You don’t have to call me that.”

“It’s customary to refer to a member of the founding races—” the orb began.

“It’s fine. Call me Alice,” she managed.

“Alice,” it tried out her name.

She liked the sound of it.

“Alice,” it said again, “Alice, what do you wish to do?”

“Run away from this universe and never come back,” she answered with a bitter laugh.

“Computing possibilities…” Helper trailed off. “They are unlikely; though a multiverse is believed to exist, matter transference between realities—” it began.

“It’s okay. I know I can’t do that. What I need to do,” she indulged in a deep breath, her gaze darting back out of those huge windows behind her, “is get off this ship undetected.”

“Computing possibilities. Select timeframe,” Helper chirped.

“About now,” she replied sniffing and finally pushing back the tears.

“I will help, for I am Helper,” it replied.

Listening to it, Alice could almost cry.

For someone who’d been as alone as Alice always had been, finding a friend in Helper was indescribable.

It was also timely. Because Alice knew that if she didn’t get off the ship in the next minute or so, her worst fears would no doubt be realized, and she would be discovered.

“Computation of possibilities complete. I have selected the safest plan. Activating it now,” Helper said, his little chirpy, electronic voice possibly the most welcome sound in the entire universe.

As Alice listened to it, she couldn’t help but grin, but she also shook on the spot at the same time, having to pump her hands back and forth just to keep herself steady.

She knew what Helper was doing, as he floated there in the center of the room, several quick, sharp beams of light shooting from his round body, she could guess what he was up to. He would be integrating with the ICN, no doubt bypassing security protocols and trying to wend his way into the network.

And no doubt, considering exactly what he was and who’d built him, it would work.

After several gut-wrenching seconds, where Alice waited for Helper to accidentally flick some kind of safety switch and get them both court, it was over. With a happy little chirp, he shifted to the side, zoomed around a bit, then plopped straight back in Alice’s hand. “Complete. I have shut down the ICN, I have programmed shadows into the network, we are now free to leave this ship, they will have no scans of us, they won’t be able to track us, and as long as we are discreet and use the back entrance, nobody will know.”

Alice’s small grin suddenly turned into a wide, genuine smile. She liked what she was hearing. Gone was the stress and horrendous desperation, because now she had a Helper.

With one last glance at the room around her, her eyes locking onto that incredible view, Alice walked back to the elevator shaft. This time she didn’t plunge down it, using her incredible grip to latch onto the metal walls. No, she actually used the lift like a civilized person. With the knowledge that Helper would prevent the ship’s onboard computer from detecting them, as long as she didn’t walk in front of any crew members, Alice would be fine.

Letting Helper direct her, the two of them made their way out of the ship. Whenever she needed one, Helper provided a distraction, whether that be loosening a pressure valve in engineering, or momentarily blocking out all of the lights along a corridor, it worked. And within minutes she was out.

Alice could have crumpled to her knees, brought her hands over her face, and cried into them. She was just that relieved. Her fortunes had changed in an instant. If she hadn’t gone up to that room, if she hadn’t spied that orb, no doubt things would have turned out a great deal differently, though.

“I am Helper,” Helper pointed out needlessly, “you are Alice, what will we do now?”

It was a good question; in the space of a day, a hectic and horrible day, Alice’s life had changed completely. She was on a different planet, she now had a friend, and for all intents and purposes, the galaxy now thought she was dead.

Picking and pulling at her lip, letting her hand brush up against the rim of her hood as she did, Alice walked along the metal gangway that surrounded the ships docked all around her. She tried to think. And then the reality, as horrible as it sounded, dawned on her. She may now have a friend and a new life, so to speak, but she was still the same old Alice in the same old hell. She couldn’t allow herself to be discovered. And that would be the sum total of the rest of her life.

“We must pause here for approximately 30 seconds; a ship will travel to our left, and if we walk out along the gangway now, it will gain a view of us,” Helper suddenly chimed.

Alice did exactly what he said. But as she let her feet grind to a halt, her worn and practically destroyed shoes grating against the metal, she took the opportunity to think.

“If Alice does not have a ready plan, let Helper suggest one,” he beeped softly by her ear. “We must return to the Empire. To the founding fathers and mothers. To the great races that seeded this universe.”

As Helper spoke, Alice couldn’t help but smile. Which was ironic, because there was nothing in his words that should make her do anything but sob and cry. There were no founding fathers and mothers, there were no great races or empires. They were all dead, save for her. And it was a reality and fact she hated to revel in, but one she faced every single day of her life.

Maybe Helper read something into her silence, because he suddenly began to chirp softly, then there was an electronic whiz of air, almost like a human gasp. “This Helper has integrated with the global ICN network. It understands,” it said, its voice dropping low.

Alice knew what that meant. Helper would have just downloaded the information stored on the ICN of this planet in an instant. And in doing so he would have refreshed his memory banks, filling them with the history of the past 100,000 years. A history that was alarmingly free of the Old Ones.

Maybe Helper turned to her, maybe if it had possessed the equivalent of electronic eyes, it would have narrowed them in commiseration. “We are sorry for our loss,” Helper finally added.

Our loss. Those two little words rang in Alice’s head. Not just her loss, because Helper had lost too. That was the funny thing about Old Tech, no matter how hard you tried to get around it, it seemed alive. Not just technology, not just machinery, but somewhere deep within was the ghost in the machine.

Pressing her fingers into her brow, letting her face twist up into a hearty frown, Alice finally moved forward.

“It’s the suggestion of this Helper unit that we seek out some kind of safety for the time being. Then we will come up with a plan for the future.”

A half smirk twisting through Alice’s powerful frown, she let her gaze flick toward Helper. A plan for the future – now didn’t that sound grand? But no matter what the details, Alice already knew what it would consist of. Running and hiding. If she was lucky, Helper would stay with her forever, but Alice wasn’t lucky. Maybe not in the next week, or month, or year, but she knew the two of them would get into deep trouble, and somewhere along the way she would lose him, like she’d lost her previous Helper unit.

Trying not to be pulled too far down into her swirling sorrow, Alice raised her head, glaring out at the sky around her. She was on some kind of docking ring unit. It was massive, and she knew from experience it would contain multiple levels dedicated to various activities. While the top layer housed ships that came and went, the actual guts of this floating monstrosity would be full of shops, apartment blocks, promenades, and everything else you could fit into a massive city in the sky.

Staring up at the clouds above her, noticing the slight sheen and flicker of the weather field that would surround this entire unit, keeping the atmosphere locked in place and ensuring whatever horrendous winds outside didn’t tear through the equipment, Alice began to grind her teeth.

She didn’t like this. Being stuck up in the air. At least on Orion Minor, though she’d technically been cooped up in Block Alpha, she’d always been able, if the situation had dictated, to return to the planet below. Up here she didn’t have that opportunity.

“Integrating with the docking ring’s ICN again,” Helper chimed from beside her, “I will compute the safest route and ascertain the safest place to hide.”

Letting him get on with what he did best, Alice found herself walking forward, listening to the heavy sound of her footfall as it resounded through the metal grating below her. Every step was solid, and the bang of the metal underneath seemed to shift right through her.

For some reason, for some strange reason, it brought one thought and one face swimming before her mind. John Doe. No doubt he was still back on Orion Minor.

As she thought of him, half of her mouth twisted up into a smile, while the other side plunged down into a frown. That man had been tenacious; she’d seen the look of determination in his eye, and the thought of it served to reinforce to Alice the fact he was a dangerous enemy. And yet she couldn’t forget the kindness. The fact that though everybody else in the Security Centre had seemingly forgotten her, he’d always acted to try to keep her safe.

Put it out of your mind, she thought to herself sternly.

“Helper,” she suddenly found herself asking, figuring that if she engaged in conversation, it would stop her mind from wondering, “exactly what planet are we on?”

It was a question she should have asked before, but her mind was addled. There was too much to think of and too much to process.

“Orion Major,” Helper answered immediately.

Orion Major. The sister planet of Orion Minor, the one where all the well-to-do, rich, successful, and intelligent people ended up. There were no slums on this planet, just the cities of integrated, interconnected docking rings, floating above the beautiful, crystal-like water planet below. She’d seen pictures of it, she’d even played with the occasional interactive hologram, but this was the first time she’d ever set foot on the planet, even though the actual surface was kilometers and kilometers below.

Grinding her teeth together, narrowing her eyes, Alice let one hand distractedly pull over a metal railing by her side. She didn’t like planets like Orion Major; the security was too good, and there was nowhere to hide.

She’d have to get off here, eventually, but maybe Helper was right, and for now, they really needed to regroup and plan.

“Follow me,” Helper chirped by her side again, and he zoomed forward, though just a little, then he turned on the spot and appeared to wait for her, somewhat like an excited pet or child.

Swallowing all the stress and fear, Alice followed.

Chapter 30

John Doe

“So let me get this straight,” Evelyn said as she gave the cutest smile on record, “you’ve never tried ice cream? Aren’t you human?”

John, trying not to look too embarrassed, stretched his shoulders a bit, and made what he hoped was a manly show of shaking his head. “I never really got the chance back on Earth,” he mumbled.

Evelyn’s beautiful blue eyes widened. “That is no excuse. For a human to never have tried ice cream, is, is, well criminal,” she concluded.

A part of John wanted to put a hand up and tell her straight away that the reason he’d never tried ice cream was that as a child he’d been lucky if he’d been able to eat at all. But she seemed to be having such a good time poking fun at him, that he stopped himself.

“Well,” she nodded down at the ice cream in John’s hand, “what do you think?”

John shrugged his shoulders. Sugary, kind of creamy, and it certainly had more flavor than most of the recalibrated foods he got on the Pegasus. But he put a little bit more effort into smiling, and maybe that effort came from the sparkle in her eyes. “It’s pretty nice,” he offered as he finally finished it.

“Pretty nice?” She shook her head, her silky golden locks spilling over her shoulders, pushing against the high collar of her blue tunic. “When I was found by the Project,” she said as she began to play with her fingers distractedly, “ice cream was practically my best friend.”

A little bit of the luster and sparkle fell from her shine. And John found himself trying harder to keep his smile in place. Because he could read between the lines on that one. “What was… the Program like?”

She stiffened a little, pressed her lips into her teeth, and obviously tried hard to hold onto her natural exuberance. “Okay, I guess. I can’t say I have known much else. It has really been my life for… as long as I can remember,” she managed eventually.

It was quite a change in topics and quite a change in mood. It left John with a heavy feeling in his stomach. When he’d agreed to take Evelyn on a tour around the docking ring, he’d thought he’d just been doing his duty. After all, if he was expected to spend the next several months to a year with this woman, he had to put on a show of being friendly, reliable, and approachable, right? Especially if the Admiral was going to be looking over his shoulder every 20 seconds to see how John was treating his precious asset.

But what had meant to be a simple walk had kind of turned out to be… a lot more pleasurable than John had expected. Evelyn was nice, painfully nice, and what was more, she had a personality too. She wasn’t the mind-washed robot that John had been expecting.

Clearing his throat, he thought it was a good idea to change the topic. “Your quarters will be ready shortly. Parka is just doing the finishing touches to the security system the Admiral has demanded.”

Evelyn clenched her teeth together and let out a sharp hiss of air through them. “I am so sorry, John,” she said as she shook her head, “I know he can be over the top. He takes the Program and every participant in it very seriously.”

“I can bet,” John agreed in a low voice.

“But he is a good man, and the Program… is really important.”

John nodded back to her, mustering a smile as he did. While he wasn’t ready to be so easily swayed on what he considered to be an enormous waste of time and money, he couldn’t blame Evelyn for it, could he? She seemed to be just a woman stuck in the middle, a particularly nice one at that.

Bringing a hand up and patting it on the back of his head, John let out a little sigh. Then he nodded toward the railing before them. “It’s an incredible view, isn’t it?”

That particular smile returned to Evelyn’s face. It was a distracting move. It seemed to make her eyes sparkle all the more, and her cheeks fattened as her lips spread wide. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” John practically said under his breath.

The two of them walked over to the ostensibly thin metal railing that ran around the edge of the promenade. There would be no risk of anyone tripping and falling over it, though; there were incredible force fields that surrounded the entire docking ring.

Essentially it was a giant floating metal doughnut, sliced up into multiple layers, with ships docked all around the top section. But in the center was nothing but air. And the various promenades that run around the central rings had a fantastic view of the empty middle. You could lean your hands right over the railing, push yourself as far against the weather field as it would let you, and peer right down to the swirling clouds and the tiny speck of blue ocean so far below.

As John looked around, he could see many other people, many other couples too, doing exactly what they were doing. Smiling, chatting, leaning against the railing, and staring down at the beauty underneath.

It was planets like Orion Major, with its incredible floating cities, that could lull you into thinking that everything in the universe was perfect, modern, technological, advanced, and incredible. But no matter how fantastic the view was, it couldn’t expunge from John’s memory Orion Minor. And as he stared down past the swirling clouds that were being pushed to and fro by the frantic winds of the atmosphere, the memory of her popped into his mind.

The hood, the lips, that terrible moment where the soldier robot had snapped her up and tried to strangle her.

His shoulders tensing, his jaw locking into place, John ran a hand down his cheek and tried to relax his muscles.

Maybe Evelyn saw that moment of tension, because her smile changed. “I suppose you are under a lot of pressure with this mission,” she mumbled quietly.

Yes, he was. But he could bet that she was too.

“I’ll try not to let you down,” she said after another careful moment.

It was such an incongruous statement that John gave a little, huff of a laugh. “Sorry, let me down? How could you let me down?”

“My mission is very important,” she replied back quickly, her eyes blinking fast, her expression shocked.

John’s skin paled as he realized how rude he’d just been. Bringing up his hands, even shuffling back a step, he shook his head. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were…” He stopped herself from saying useless, and he gave a heavy swallow instead. “Look, I’m sorry, I accept and understand why you are coming along,” his cheeks were starting to feel hot, and he wanted more than anything to run away from this conversation before it got any worse.

But thankfully Evelyn didn’t turn on her foot, trundle off to the Admiral, and tell him how much of a brute John Doe was, instead she offered a wry smile. “Sorry,” she managed.

Letting a pressured breath through his teeth, John nodded his head. “I’m sorry too.”

The two of them dwindled into silence, but it was a particularly heavy, meaningful one. It was the kind of silence that two people share when they are standing right next to each other, trying to stare at anything save for the other person, and yet more aware of their presence than anything else in the universe.

In other words, intensely awkward, but something more too. The kind of pause that makes you want to know just exactly what the other person is thinking of you and just exactly what might happen next.

But John wouldn’t get a chance to find out. Because at that moment he received a call. Frowning at Evelyn as he pointed to his ear in the universal sign that someone was receiving communication, he half turned from her.

“What is it?”

“It’s big, is what it is,” Parka answered with a heavy, resounding sigh. John was lucky that the audio feed technically bypassed his ears and was fed straight into his brain. Otherwise his eardrums would have rattled at Parka’s resounding breath.

“What’s the matter? What have you found with the scans?” John suddenly straightened.

“Oh, you need to sit down, Commander, because I have a lot to tell you. First I’ll start off with our little friend from Orion Minor,” Parka’s voice grew low and tight.

But it was nothing compared to how low and tight John suddenly drew himself. His stomach gave a kick, his shoulders snapped in, and his eyes opened wide.

He’d been trying hard not to think of her.

“I just got a call from Orion Minor. They finished the scans. They finally think they know exactly what happened to that transport beam,” Parka didn’t sound pleased.

John found his jaw tightening as he latched a hand onto the railing by his side, his knuckles growing white as he clutched the thin metal rod as tightly as he could. “Where did she end up?”

“You can take that doomsday note right out of your voice. She isn’t dead. She landed right on the top of Block Alpha. And so did her little friend, the soldier robot. But while he was unlucky enough to re-materialize smack bang inside a giant chunk of ore, she was fine. Scans confirm that she lived through the ordeal.”

John’s face could have fallen off; his cheeks and mouth descended with such a snap that his neck actually gave a shake. “Sorry? She is alive? Do they have her in custody?”

“I told you this was big, John, so of course they don’t have her in custody. I’ve not finished my story yet.”

But regardless of the fact that Parka hadn’t finished her story, John’s brain was jumping ahead of him. If the woman had lived, and the transport beam had somehow managed to re-materialize her somewhere with enough oxygen and stability that she didn’t suddenly get sucked inside out from the vacuum of space, then knowing her, she would have found somewhere safe. Because John could remember the tenacity and determination. She’d lived through a three-kilometer fall, surely she’d managed to pull herself up after she’d landed from the transport, and then run off somewhere safe.

There hadn’t been a great deal up on the top of Block Alpha that had been safe at that point. With the weather fields down, the place had been a cold, windy, hellish nightmare. In fact, the only ships that had been docked there that were allowing traffic in and off had been the Pegasus and some giant mining vessel right on the other side of the ring.

Taking a swallow, back straightening as his muscles tightened, John shook his head slightly. “Have you finished the scans on the ship?” he blurted out in an instant.

“You’re getting ahead of yourself, and of course I thought of that too. But no, we didn’t find anything with the scans,” Parka finished.

Before she could add anything more, John let out a beleaguered sigh. A part of him had really been hoping, as crazy as it sounded, that they would find the woman tucked up neatly inside the Pegasus after all of these days.

But apparently he wasn’t going to be that lucky.

“Stop interrupting me, John, because I’m not finished. The reason we didn’t find anything with the scans, is that the scans were interrupted. In fact, our whole ICN was hacked.”

John let those words settle over him. He now leaned into the railing, clutching both hands onto it. “What the hell?”

“Oh yes, and it gets worse. When we finally got control again, I did the first thing I could think of. Instead of scanning for bio scans, which can take a very long time, I scanned for sodium bloody chloride.”

John’s eyebrows descended in a click. “Salt, but why would you…” He trailed off. Because he was being stupid, wasn’t he?

“I don’t know what that woman is, I don’t know what she is capable of, but I do know that after her little trip around the salty, smelly wastelands of Orion Minor, she was bloody covered in the stuff.”

John pressed his teeth together, clenching his jaw, letting the pressure build up and translate down his neck and shoulders and torso until it made him grip his hands even stronger.

“It’s all through the service ducts, all through the elevator shaft, and John, you might not like to hear this, but it’s in your room too.”

His eyebrows now descended so low that his eyes practically closed. “What?”

“And that’s not all. In the elevator shaft…. Look, I’ve never seen anything like it. But as soon as the scans found salt, I went in and checked them myself. And John, chunks of metal have been ripped into. It looks like someone, maybe a robot, maybe one of the hard races, has dug some kind of tool right into the metal sheeting and used it to climb vertically up the shaft.”

It felt like John didn’t have any blood left in his face; his cheeks and brow and lips were so cold it could have given him frostbite. “Are you sure?”

“Am I sure those little perfect handholds hadn’t been ripped into the side of my elevator shaft before? Yes, John, I am very sure. And here’s another thing. I cross-referenced the shape of the damage done to the elevator to the damage done to that little service panel we pulled out from close to the engine core…” Parka trailed off.

John finally closed his eyes. What the hell was happening here? He knew, just as well as Parka knew, just as well as anybody in the entire Union knew, that there was nothing that could withstand the incredible radiation of an omidium engine core. And yet, if what Parka was saying was correct, then someone, that woman quite possibly, had done just that.

Keeping his eyes closed, John planted a hand over his face, leaning hard into it. “I’m coming back to the ship,” he concluded in a snap.

“Of course you are,” Parka agreed, “because this is bloody serious. I have no idea what I’m dealing with.”

“Keep it together until I get there,” John snapped, and then he cut off the audio feed.

He turned slowly to Evelyn. Her eyes were wide, and it was clear that she’d heard the entire conversation and was smart enough to pick up on the fact that something wasn’t going right for John Doe and the Pegasus.

“What is it?” she asked in a slow, quiet voice, those beautiful blue eyes wide as she spoke.

John, still with his jaw clenched, shook his head slightly. The move was tense, and if he didn’t find a way to relax his shoulders, he would no doubt end up with a fantastic headache by the end of the day. But right now a fantastic headache would be the least of his problems.

“I have to go back to the ship, we have a… problem,” he said with a short nod.

“I’m coming too; I could help you,” Evelyn said as she took a keen step toward him.

For a moment, John considered telling her that wouldn’t be a good idea, but he stopped himself in time. If this woman really was going to be aboard the Pegasus for the whole mission, then John had to start relying on her, especially if he wanted to keep the peace with the Admiral. So giving her a short nod, the both of them turned around and quickly headed back down the promenade.

The view and its beauty gone from his mind, there was only one image John could concentrate on. That hood, those lips, and that half smile.

She was alive.

And even though that meant John was now facing a world full of problems, he couldn’t help but smile in turn.

An invisible weight lifted off his shoulders. The specter of her throat being crushed by that soldier robot evaporated. In its place, the hood remained. And the question, the burning question of what and who she was and what exactly she was running from.

John quickened his pace until he ran.

Chapter 31

Alice

Rubbing at her eyes, blinking them open as she stretched her shoulders, Alice leaned back and looked up at the sun above.

While it was never a good idea for a soft-fleshed race to stare up at a bright sun, it didn’t bother Alice in the least. She stared and she stared, her eyes open wide, unblinking, and fixed on that fiery ball above. Even though the weather field around the docking ring blocked out most forms of radiation and kept in an artificially-generated atmosphere with its own wind, air, and heat, Alice fancied that the sun above pushed through for that moment and heated her up with its rays.

She was standing in what looked like an abandoned section of shops, just beyond the promenade that led down to that incredible view of the ocean below.

“This section is currently undergoing repairs. According to the ICN, it will be abandoned for the next two weeks. There has been a problem with radiation leaks from an unsealed conduit, and for this reason it’s out of bounds not only to soft-fleshed races, but to robots too; radiation may alter their neurological circuits, after all.”

Alice gave a small smile and nod. She knew all of this. But she wouldn’t stop Helper from speaking; the sound of its happy little electronic voice kept on hammering home to Alice that she was no longer alone.

Sighing, stretching her arms again, and really allowing herself to feel the freedom of the movement, Alice let out an enormous breath. It resounded and rang around the empty shops around her.

It was so good to be able to make a noise, to make a movement, and to not be scared that someone else might pick up on it. She could, presumably, run around dancing throughout this entire section, screaming and singing at the top of her lungs, and nobody would ever find out. Helper had already logged onto the ICN to ensure that the local scanners in this area wouldn’t pick them up, and knowing him, he would be constantly monitoring the rest of the entire docking ring system to ensure it wouldn’t suddenly alert people to Alice’s presence.

“Feel free to explore this area, oh great one,” Helper began.

Alice quickly put a hand up. “Just call me Alice,” she said. While it was fantastic to have him around, Alice really didn’t know if she could put up with being called great one all the time.

Helper buzzed a yes, then presumably got on to computing possibilities and whatnot, leaving Alice to wander around the abandoned section of shops and promenade.

The shops were all large, clean, semi-open buildings with wide walkways between each other. They were crammed full of consoles and technology, though any goods had probably been taken out for fear of radiation contamination. Still, that didn’t stop Alice from spreading her fingers wide and letting them travel over the thick console closest to her.

She didn’t give one hoot about the radiation, and neither did Helper. They were both immune. There were, after all, certain advantages to being Old Ones in this galaxy and universe. Though the disadvantages outweighed them immeasurably.

Humming to herself, possibly for the first time in years, Alice kept on exploring around her. Once upon a time she’d often danced and twirled around, her imagination and natural exuberance and cheerfulness unstoppable. But years and years of being on the run had all but burnt that cheer up.

There were potted plants, strangely enough, dotted around the area, and Alice found herself inspecting them closely. Some were green, lush, and obviously from temperate worlds like earth, yet others were strange and wonderful-looking, not possessing leaves or branches or stems, but a collection of latticework, crystals, or something else equally as wonderful.

The universe, after all, was a big place. And on planets like this, rich enough to bring together all the best bits, you got a smorgasbord of everything unique and incredible.

As Alice explored, she let her guard drop. Why not? Helper was with her, and she really needed to have some time to de-stress.

Though she didn’t know it at that point, those few precious hours she took to wander around that section, staring at the plants and shops and windows, would be the last rest she would find that day.

Chapter 32

John Doe

As soon as he walked into the main section of engineering, Parka snapped up at his side. His Chief Engineer glanced quickly toward Evelyn, maybe let her eyes flicker down Evelyn’s long figure, gave a chuckle, winked at John, and finally got to work.

“We’ve completed a thorough scan of the ship. And it’s just as I told you over the comlink. We have salt everywhere. And from the specific chemical analysis, I can confirm that it has come from Orion Minor.”

John frowned powerfully, shrugging his arms and closing them around his middle. “But that doesn’t confirm that she is on board, does it?”

He needed something more. Sure, his hopes were high, but until Parka pointed out the exact corner that the elusive woman in the hood was hiding behind, John was going to play it cool.

“Okay, sure, I can’t confirm that she was on board or even if she is still currently on board; whoever stuffed with our scanners did an incredibly good job of it.”

“How long until they are up?” he began.

Parka put up one of her stocky hands in a second, her fingers spreading wide. “We are onto it. It was our first priority. And this time we’re not going to take any chances. I have personally placed guards at every single ICN terminal, I’m keeping the computer on high alert, and every single access, no matter where it is on the ship or who it comes from, I am keeping a personal eye on. If she is on board, we will find her, no matter how sophisticated she is,” Parka said under her breath, her expression slackening for a moment.

John could tell that his Chief Engineer was impressed. Incredibly angry that her own personal ship had been messed with, but nonetheless impressed at what this woman had been able to do.

If, of course, it had been her.

Keeping his arms still crossed firmly in front of his chest, John nodded toward the console before them. “You said something about my room?” He raised an eyebrow.

Parka clapped her hands together, all 20 of her fingers wriggling over each other. Then she cracked her knuckles and got to work on the console, her digits moving faster than John could comprehend.

In a second, a perfectly formed hologram appeared in the center of the massive circular console that the Chief was working on.

John recognized the display instantly; it was of an empty elevator shaft.

He frowned. The move snapped and impossible to stop. “What the hell caused that?” He said as he leaned in, planting a hand on the console and getting as close to the hologram as he could.

The blue image flickered before him as John leaned in, his own personal bio-signature interfering with the matrix, but he didn’t care.

What the hell was happening to his ship?

“It must be a robot,” Evelyn said suddenly from behind him.

John had almost forgotten she was there. And he did the courtesy of turning to her and nodding, just to acknowledge that she’d spoken. But he had no doubt in his mind that that wasn’t the handy work of a robot.

“We have certain fields in place within each of our service tunnels and elevator shafts,” Parka said as she cleared her throat, her voice slowing down as her words became much more audible. It was obvious Parka thought Evelyn was going to have trouble keeping up. “As soon as we figured we might have a security problem on board, they snapped into place. They stop synthetic forms of life by way of a restriction field. We basically pump the entire thing full of neuroblocking gas that prevents their electronic pathways from communicating,” Parka began.

Evelyn gave a quick nod. “I took basic engineering,” she said carefully, possibly not trying to be rude. “But my point is, not every kind of robot out there will be stopped by a field like that.”

Parka shrugged her shoulders, the move was a strong one considering how stout and sturdy her race was. “True, but we have no indication that anything that sophisticated is on board or has been on board. Plus those kinds of robots are so rare that you wouldn’t waste one on a mission like this. There’s nothing on the Pegasus worth going after.”

John watched carefully as Evelyn stiffened up, her cheeks suddenly paling.

It made his brow buckle from confusion.

“I wouldn’t rule it out is all I’m saying,” Evelyn managed eventually. There was a certain tone to her voice, and John didn’t know what it meant, but it made him damn suspicious.

“The Chief is right, nobody is going to waste a robot like that, there’s only got to be a handful of them in this entire galaxy, and the Union tends to keep a pretty close eye on them,” John said as he locked a hand over is chin and began to run it along his jaw.

Again Evelyn seemed to be holding something back. She had her hands primly and tightly clutched before her, one thumb rubbing over the other quickly. “Maybe you should talk to the Admiral about it then,” she said quietly.

Parka shot John a long look, and John could see that his Chief Engineer was just as suspicious as he was.

Clearing his throat, John figured they had other priorities for now, though. “Get back to the thing about the salt. I take it it’s through the elevator shaft, concentrated on any damage made to the panels?”

Parka nodded emphatically. “You bet it is. In fact, and this is where it gets interesting, I have been able to track a path. Someone has obviously pulled themselves out of the service tunnels near the engine core, run along one of the corridors, jumped into the elevator shaft, climbed all the way to the top, and then, I’m sorry to inform you, Commander, they’ve gone into your own quarters.”

“Hold on, if you are concluding this based on the fact that there are salt traces unique from Orion Minor, aren’t you forgetting that John was there too?” Evelyn suddenly jumped in.

It was a good point, but no doubt one that John’s Chief Engineer would already have thought of.

Parka raised an eyebrow, and maybe she tried to give a friendly smile, but it was far too toothy. Parka, after all, didn’t like to have her authority questioned. She did, of course, love to question everybody else’s, but when it came to engineering competency, you would have to be out of your mind to suggest Parka was anything but the best Chief Engineer in the Union.

“Of course I thought of that,” Parka managed, her voice terse, “but John wouldn’t have had any salt on him. He’d worn his armor the entire time down there, and when he got back to the ship, the computer broke it down. Any salt traces in his bedroom didn’t come from him. They came from our little visitor.”

It was Evelyn’s turn to cross her own arms, but it was an elegant, somewhat softer move. “What exactly are you saying? I read the report from Orion Minor. Though this woman seems intriguing, are you suggesting that she managed to steal aboard the Pegasus, somehow outsmart your security systems, find her way to the Commander’s own quarters, and then get off the ship undetected? Because that sounds impossible.”

John put his hand up quickly, a cold and even sweat picking up across his brow. It didn’t just sound impossible, if it was true, it was bad. The Pegasus was one of the most advanced vessels in the fleet. Along with its crew, it had been entrusted with one of the most important missions in the Union for the year, possibly even the century. And yet here it was unable to defend itself from a simple woman in a blue hood.

“I’m going to go up to my own quarters and scan them myself,” John suddenly decided, figuring that it was better to do whatever he could now and deal with the consequences and the Admiral’s ire later. “Parka, keep checking through the ICN, I want to be damn sure that whoever messed with it didn’t leave us any surprises.”

John half turned on his foot, getting ready to storm out of the engineering room, through the corridors, up to the lift, and finally clap eyes on his room.

Evelyn stepped forward quickly, bringing her hands behind her back as she did, looking exactly like a new recruit. “If you’ll allow me access to the ICN, I’ll double-check through the records of what occurred on Orion Minor to see if I can help. I read your personal log,” she said, and maybe her cheeks blushed a little at the admission, “and I know you mentioned the suspicion that the hood that woman wore may be Old Tech. I could help you try to find out.”

John was about to tell Evelyn to relax and leave this to his crew, but he couldn’t, could he? Because in several hours Evelyn would be his crew, and he had to start relying on her at some point.

So with a short nod, he agreed. Then he whirled on his foot and headed for the door. “Get to work, people,” he added just as the metallic doors shut with a hiss behind him.

Then, within half a minute, John was standing in his own quarters. All it took was a short walk down the corridor to the closest elevator, and then within a second, it arrived at its destination.

As soon as the doors pinged open and John walked out onto the soft carpet of his own room, his eyes narrowed.

Immediately he darted his gaze over everything, from the junk littered over the table to his bed in the far corner.

Ostensibly nothing had changed; there were no holes, the windows weren’t broken, and as far as he could tell, nobody had been sleeping in his bed.

Still, John was on guard as he moved slowly through the room, and maybe for a second his hand hesitated toward the holster on his side. Even though there wasn’t even a gun in it; there had been no point to arming himself when he’d walked around the promenade with Evelyn.

But nothing jumped out of the shadows and gobbled John down; his room was abandoned.

Eventually, stopping when he was in the center, a good few meters from his bed, John looked up to see the startling view from his bedroom windows. It was one of the best perks of being the commander; having the top room of the ship meant that John saw the galaxy in a way few others would ever have the opportunity to do. As he lay in his bed after a shift, with his hands tucked neatly behind his head, he could stare up at the stars rushing past, the galaxies, the gas clouds, the planets, and right now the thin atmosphere leading up to space above.

“Don’t get distracted, buddy,” John said under his breath. And with that, he returned his vision back down.

And that’s when he saw it. Out of the corner of his eye.

It was missing.

John launched himself forward, his footfall frantic until he reached a hand out and grabbed up the empty stand on his bedside table.

It was missing.

His orb.

John’s hand actually gave a shake, and he knew that his expression would be a completely shocked one.

He’d had it for years. Ever since he’d found it in the slums of earth, it had never left John’s side. It had been a constant companion. Regardless of the fact it was a small chunk of smooth metal, John had been attached to it just like you might a pet or a friend.

And now it was bloody gone.

Breathing harshly through his teeth, John took several steps back, not caring that his stance was wobbly, his legs feeling jellylike.

Now this was personal, wasn’t it?

Gritting his teeth, locking his jaw, shifting back several more steps, John shook his head harshly.

Eventually, he whirled on his foot and headed back to the elevator. If he’d been determined before to find this woman, it was nothing compared to what John felt now. As he opened his eyes, settling his gaze on the electronic panel of the elevator, he tried to compose himself.

It wasn’t often that you were handed a second chance in life. John was going to grab this one. He was going to track her down, find out her secret, pull the hood from her head, and bloody demand his orb back all at the same time.

Straightening up, John snapped out of the elevator as soon as it landed on the command deck. Patting down on his uniform, he got ready to rally the troops.

Chapter 33

John Doe

With the fires of determination burning deep within, John had gotten to work. He often had a reputation for being merciless, obstinate, and incapable of letting go. John liked to think his actual personality went deeper than that. He was only merciless when he knew what the costs of standing by and doing nothing would be. He believed in compassion; even if he’d forgotten that lesson during his life in the slums, it was one he constantly reminded himself of as an adult. But that didn’t mean he stood by and watched as pirates assailed transports, as factions ripped into colony worlds. John acted when he had to. If the difference between someone living and someone dying was shooting the pirate in the middle, then you did it. You didn’t hesitate, because hesitating cost lives. Yes, not having blood on your hands sure did feel good, but it was no indication of moral superiority. If you lived in an ivory tower, never went outside, and never had to get your hands dirty, then you could convince yourself that an ethical life was one free of violence. If you were thrown into a war, and someone had pressed a gun into your hand and told you to go and protect people, then the reality became gritty. Because killing a man surely was just as bad as letting another man die.

So yes, at times John was merciless, but he never lost the heart behind his decisions.

“I really don’t like it when you get that look in your eyes,” Foster said as he turned around in his chair, grinning wildly, “it tends to mean we get shot at a lot.”

John was sitting in the command chair, his elbow rested on his knee, one hand idly playing with his chin as his eyes locked onto the holographic feed before him.

He’d heard Foster, but he wasn’t going to bother answering.

He was fixated, completely concentrating on the scene before him.

It was a replay of that woman falling into the snow and salt of Orion Minor. The exact moment where she’d pushed herself up only for the holographic feed to cut out. It was playing on a loop.

Occasionally he would progress the recording, watch her walking through the snow with her body huddled into itself, that hood of hers never moving.

“It must be Old Tech, you’re absolutely correct,” Evelyn said from his side.

It almost made John want to jump. Again he’d completely forgotten about her. The specter of that woman walking through the snow had closed off his senses and mind to everything else.

Evelyn walked forward slowly, bringing up her hand carefully as she touched the hologram. Without telling the computer to make the light darting around solid, Evelyn’s fingers rushed straight through it.

She had such an incredible look of concentration on her face as she assessed the hood that just for a second it made John forget the situation. He straightened up, maybe he allowed himself a short smile, but it was one he quickly stifled when Chado caught his gaze. His XO was standing beside him, hands tucked behind his back as he relayed commands to Parka.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, but I have heard of them,” Evelyn said as she turned sharply to John.

“We checked the databases,” Foster turned around in his chair again, “there’s no mention about magical hoods in the Old Tech catalog.”

Evelyn clasped her hands together demurely and offered him a nod. John noticed as Foster’s cheeks grew hot at the move.

“I have access to a slightly enlarged database,” she said softly.

That was the nice way of saying that her privileges went way beyond Foster and that he was out of his league lecturing an Aurora Project member about Old Tech.

“What can they do?” John straightened up, dropping his hand from his chin and facing Evelyn in full.

“They allow the wearer perfect vision, but they stop anything, including recorders or scanners, from penetrating under the cloak.”

“So she could see out of it,” John confirmed.

Evelyn nodded. “But Commander, you must understand that while these cloaks are mentioned in the database, no one has ever seen one. We have only inferred their capabilities based on cross-referencing with other sources.”

John’s eyes narrowed so far, his eyebrows plunging down against them, that they practically closed. “So how would a woman from the slums of Orion Minor get her hands on one?”

“Precisely. I think it’s evidence enough that she isn’t from Orion Minor. Have you considered the fact she is a pirate assassin?”

John had considered every fact, every bloody possibility. Because the lists of incredible things about this woman didn’t just include her hood, after all. The number of attacks that she’d survived, the fall, even what had occurred to the transport beams the two times she’d been stuck by them… John had no idea what he was dealing with. But he doubted a simple explanation like a pirate assassin was going to cut it.

The secrets here drew much deeper than that.

Straightening up in his chair, the fabric creaking underneath him, John rested his hands on the armrests. “What else can you tell me about this cloak?”

“Not much more than I’ve already told you. Commander,” she began.

“You can call me John, like everybody else on the ship,” he said with a smile.

She looked uncomfortable, but in another second she smiled too. John was starting to get used to that smile, used to it in the kind of way where it would send a particular kind of tingle through his stomach.

“Thank you. I was going to suggest that if you allow me access to your ICN, I will download the specs on that cloak from the Aurora Project Database.”

John nodded, typing something on his personal panel just as he did.

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Foster make a face. And John could appreciate the expression. Here they were in one of the most advanced vessels in the fleet, meant to be going on one of the most important missions in history, and apparently they didn’t have full access to the database they were meant to be researching for. Because the Rim mission was all about Old Tech, and John had been forcing himself to trawl through the Union Old Tech Database in preparation. But if Evelyn was to be believed, then there were still aspects of it that even John was locked out of.

But right now that wasn’t his priority. Finding out as much about that cloak and about the woman was.

Leaning forward in his chair and waiting for Evelyn to finish, John eventually cleared his throat.

In seconds Evelyn waved her hands toward the holo emitter, and the sophisticated machine picked up on the movement, immediately getting rid of the image of the hooded woman and replacing it with a direct feed from the Aurora Database.

A hood similar to, but not exactly the same as, the one John had seen, floated over the floor as information about its specifications played along the sides.

“It seems to suggest this is very ancient Old Technology, dating from the earlier periods of the Old Ones,” John spoke aloud as he figured that out for himself. “So how does it still work?”

There was a pause, and all attention on the bridge focused in on Evelyn.

She looked embarrassed for a moment, but she never lost the length to her back or that particular, beautiful angle to her neck. “I don’t know. Maybe it was somehow shielded from energy loss. It all depends on where that woman found it.”

John nodded. It sounded plausible, but something about it didn’t sit well with him.

Forcing himself to stand, patting down his uniform as he did, he walked up and straight toward the cloak. He lifted a finger, making the exact motion the holo emitters would require to solidify the image before him.

And then John Doe did exactly what he’d wanted to do so much on Orion Minor. He picked the cloak up. He brought his hands up, rested his fingers on the fabric, and he moved it around, manipulating it back and forth.

There was silence on the bridge as everyone watched him, but as John studied that thing in his hands, he became less and less aware of everyone else.

He remembered so distinctly leaning down on that security transport, locking his fingers over the hood, and trying to tug it back. The woman had leaned her face into him, her cheek brushing up against his fingers, but that was it. She hadn’t pushed him back, she hadn’t yanked her head away; the impediment field had been in place, after all.

But no matter how hard John had tried, he hadn’t been able to shift the fabric.

“It must be running out of power,” he said under his breath, repeating that one age-old fact about Old Tech that every single citizen in the Union knew off by heart. “Even if it was somehow shielded from energy loss over the years, surely it will be running dry.”

He turned on his foot, facing Evelyn.

He really needed her to say yes. He needed Evelyn to say that the next time John met that strange woman, the cloak could easily fall from her eyes, revealing what was underneath.

But Evelyn didn’t confirm anything. She looked intensely uncomfortable for a moment, then she shrugged her shoulders. “Everything I have been taught tells me to say yes to that, Commander. But I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting what I saw on that footage. It just doesn’t… make sense.”

John felt cold at her words. Because he understood them perfectly.

Finally, letting the cloak fall from his fingers, the holo emitters turning off as he did, he walked back to his chair. He didn’t sit down, however. He turned slowly on the spot, surveying his crew.

“Watch out, here comes a chest-thumping, patriotic speech of encouragement,” Foster said quietly under his breath.

John didn’t pull him up on it. Because Foster was right. It was time for John to rally the troops. He had no idea what he was dealing with, but the more the specter of that woman ran free in John’s mind, the more he knew this was a mystery he had to solve.

It seemed impossibly important. Every intuition he had told him that there was no simple explanation to be had in this situation. She wasn’t a pirate assassin, she wasn’t a robot, she wasn’t an Ionian jumper.

She was something else entirely. Some possibility that he hadn’t even thought of, beyond imagination and reason for now.

But not forever.

And that would be when John remembered.

Playing back the first time he’d seen her in that corridor in the slums, he ran through the entire event in his head. And he stopped, he stopped as his eyes drew wide.

The node.

When she’d jumped over that railing and John had been so stupid to follow her, he’d thrown a node onto her.

A simple but impossible-to-detect method to gain a transporter lock. It didn’t have a signal, it wasn’t a bug or some kind of transponder; it was simply a unique molecular signature. One that the Pegasus computer had been specifically trained to hunt for.

Unless somebody who’d been laced with it did a full chemical analysis of their body or clothes, they wouldn’t be able to pick it up. And that was the beauty of it.

It was also, quite possibly, John’s only lead.

Not even bothering to turn around to tell his crew what he was about to do, he marched toward the elevators.

They knew his personality; they’d been working with him for years.

He was off to track down his clue.

When he entered engineering, practically at a run, he looked up to see Parka drumming her fingers on a console and staring right at him.

“What is it? You’ve got a particular look in your eye,” she pointed out as she drummed her fingers faster.

“The node,” he said in a snap, his voice clearly excited.

Because he was excited. If he could get the computer to find a lock on it, then he could finally figure out where that woman was.

“What about it?” Parka didn’t suddenly drop what she was doing, slam all 20 fingers over her mouth, and tell John how brilliant he was.

So John slowed down, some of his enthusiasm waning. “The node that I laced the woman with on Orion Minor when we were both falling down from Block Alpha. Presumably it’s still on her unless she has had a complete sonic clean, that is.”

“Which she might well just have done, or something a little better,” Parka said, her lips pulling thin.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve already thought of the node, John, I am your brilliant Chief Engineer, after all, and unlike you, I haven’t been distracted by Aurora Projects and Rim missions over the past several days. As soon as I figured out the woman might have slipped on board, I did a scan for the trace, but I didn’t come up with anything… concrete.”

“What do you mean?” John asked quickly.

“What I mean is that if, somehow, that woman managed to get close enough to the omidium core, then the radiation would’ve scrambled the molecules of the node.”

John let out an unhappy breath. This wasn’t the news he’d been looking for.

He was back to square one.

Maybe Parka noticed his disappointment, because she put up one of her hands, her ten fingers waving in the air. “Not so fast. Don’t give up hope yet. I said it scrambled it, but it didn’t get rid of it completely. I’ve been trying to beef up the system, getting it to run through a simulation of just what that much radiation would do to one of our node signals. Hopefully it will be able to filter through the millions of possibilities, and start scanning the immediate area for them.”

“How long will that take? How many resources do you need? Feel free to make this a system priority,” John said with a strict, curt nod.

“I did feel free, I’ve already done it. Because believe you me, John, I want to track that woman down just as much as you do. Not only did she rip holes in my elevator shaft, but I want to meet a creature that can stay that close to omidium.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” he hazarded.

Parka looked up at him sharply. “Don’t you dare pretend you’re not intrigued as all hell by this. And yeah, sure, I know we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions here, but John, seriously, I have never seen anything like this.”

As the Chief spoke, some of her enthusiasm began to reignite John’s interest. It made him stand a little straighter, his heart beating faster, his hand slick with sweat.

“If you’re happy for me to shut down lighting to half, stop some of the other maintenance tasks, I can give this everything we’ve got. And we might just be able to get a signal in the next five minutes,” Parka offered.

John didn’t even have to think about that. He gave her the immediate go-ahead. And then he waited, a full five minutes, not moving from his position, watching Parka intently as she worked.

As time drew on, his Chief Engineer became steadily more excited; John could see it as her purple eyes widened, her fingers darting around quicker, her tongue sticking out from between her lips and teeth.

Then it happened. The computer gave an electronic chirp, and its voice confirmed they had a successful lock on the target.

“Bring it up on holo feed,” John and Parka snapped at once.

The computer didn’t hesitate. And in an instant, John saw her. The woman.

He didn’t have a direct visual yet; the computer was going off the blueprints of the docking ring, imposing the woman as a red flashing dot in one of the upper levels.

“Call the local authorities,” John said as he started to back off, “phone this into the Union Forces. We have to be so careful,” he said as his jaw began to stiffen around his words.

He had to be so careful. He’d stuffed this up once before, and he wasn’t going to do it again.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Commander, I am going to get the cavalry in full. But I suggest we don’t do anything until we have a proper plan. I’ve seen footage of how that woman can move, and I don’t want to take any chances.”

Neither did John. So for the next hour and a half, he worked closely with Parka as the two of them informed the relevant authorities, gathered together the necessary forces, and planned their mission down to every last detail.

When it was over, and John was finally ready to put it into effect, he did something he hardly ever bothered to do. He told the computer to give him a maximum upgrade. To make his armor as sophisticated as the Union Database would allow. To do so it would have to draw on the Pegasus’s supply of rare elements, taxing it by a half, but John knew what he had to do.

He also knew what he was up against. He could remember how swiftly and easily the woman had knocked him off his feet.

And that wasn’t going to happen again.

Rubbing a hand on his chest, John got ready.

Chapter 34

Alice

She was sitting on the counter of a shop, staring out at the massive windows that led onto the promenade and the incredible view beyond.

She was letting her legs kick back and forth as her fingers drummed over the hard surface.

Everything was in shades of clean crystal white and shiny silver with the occasional blue glinting logo of some company swimming above the shop doors all around her.

Her eyes were fixed on the clouds.

They were so immense, there were so many of them, and they appeared to dart wherever they wanted to, free from restriction and rules.

“Possible plan 203,” Helper said from her side.

For the past hour and a half, he’d been resolutely trying to come up with a plan of escape for the two of them.

The only problem was, no matter how sophisticated his plans were, they wouldn’t work. Or maybe Alice didn’t want them to work. Maybe her view of the galaxy and universe was so cynical that the thought of finally finding help was one she couldn’t succumb to.

“We will board the next freighter to come to this docking ring. We overcome the systems, fake red alert, and ensure all crew leave aboard the safety pods. We then redirect this vessel to the closest transport hub. Using the Galactic Transport Network, we head to the Pharos Galaxy. Due to the persistent lack of development in this area, chances of being discovered by Union forces are slim.”

Alice forced a smile. In a way she liked the plan; she’d heard about the Pharos galaxy, and its incredible water worlds were sights that she would love to see.

The problem was, she really doubted the plan could work. “How are we going to get through the transport net in an abandoned ship? Every ship is checked before it goes through those, in case it’s carrying pirates and whatnot. It’s one of the Union’s new regulations to limit the movement of the factions.”

“There exist approximately 1500 manipulations to the ICN that would allow us to do this. But if you don’t like the plan, I will come up with a new one,” Helper said, without a hint of anger.

He’d been doing it for hours now, and every single plan he’d come up with, no matter how hopeful, Alice had always grumbled at.

But he was right; there probably were hundreds and thousands of ways to make that plan work. It was the kind of thing they would have to do while thinking on their feet. If they just decided on something, just, as Helper had already suggested, go up to the docking ring, steal the first ship they could get their hands on, and then rely on their wits and capabilities, no doubt they really could get free of the planet, and quickly and effectively too.

Alice was just… used to failing. She was used to desperation, and it was so hard to really internalize the fact that now she had help.

“Plan 204,” Helper began.

But then he stopped.

In midsentence.

He wasn’t thinking; he wasn’t suddenly computing new possibilities or fixing some previous assumption.

He wouldn’t do that. Alice knew enough about the technology of her own kind to appreciate how sophisticated it was. She also had been on the run long enough to get a sixth sense for danger. And right now her back was crawling.

She turned sharply over her shoulder, glancing along the long section of open hallway that led between the shops.

“I have detected a reduction in atmospheric pressure,” Helper suddenly said, and there was a distinct frightened, tense edge to his voice.

It made Alice sit up straighter, her back snapping forward, her muscles twitching tight.

“What is it? Are other life forms headed this way? Is it security bots? Is it scanners?” She jumped to her feet.

“Completing more detailed scan,” Helper chirped quickly. “It’s suggested you take up a defensive position until this anomaly is computed.”

She understood the warning. Helper didn’t know what was going on, and considering what they were up against, it was best to treat it as suspicious.

Plus, as Alice started to rely on her own senses again, she got a distinct feeling that something was up.

The shops around her suddenly felt wrong. It was almost as if they had eyes and ears.

Backing off, she started to sniff the air.

She increased her hearing; she redirected her special energy to every sense that she had.

And she felt it.

Someone was close by.

She could taste their electromagnetic field. Though only barely. It was blocked off to her for some reason.

She nodded toward Helper, and as she did, she integrated directly with his systems. Bypassing the need for speaking, she transmitted her thoughts into his network.

She warned him of her suspicions.

She was about to tell him that they had to leave immediately. Even if they had to shut down the weather field just outside the promenade below them, and throw themselves off the railing, they had to get out of here now.

Alice didn’t get the chance.

Chapter 35

John Doe

He had snuck his way into the sector. Only him, though. He hadn’t wanted to risk any more forces, especially if that had meant relying on people with less-sophisticated armor.

Parka had agreed. So John had gone in alone. When he’d seen that woman, finally getting close enough to pick out her from and heat signature through the wall, he’d practically stopped dead in his tracks.

It was her. She was bloody alive.

He’d taken up position right next to a shop wall, as close to her as he could get without being directly visible.

Increasing the power running to his armor’s scanners, he’d been able to pick up every single sound and movement she had made.

He’d heard her speaking to something, though his armor couldn’t tell exactly what it was. That hadn’t been the interesting part, though. Their plans to escape, however, had been fascinating.

Just who was this woman that she had 1500 methods of avoiding detection from the Galactic Transport Network? Just who was she that the thought of heading to the Pharos system was a welcome one?

As John had sat there, pinned up against the wall, listening to everything he could, he had waited.

When she’d suddenly drawn into silence, and he could see through the wall that her heat signature had surged, he pushed himself up.

It was time, wasn’t it?

His gun was already in his hand, his grip strong and tight. Fortunately his armor regulated the pressure of his fingers on the butt and trigger. Otherwise he would have crushed the entire thing in a second.

Making a snapped call to the Pegasus and telling them that the plan was in operation, John walked out of the shop, around the corner, and he faced her.

She was standing in the center, her arms stiff by her sides, her legs wide, her head angled down as that hood covered her eyes.

She’d obviously been expecting him.

He opened his mouth, but he didn’t know what to say. Stop, this is the Union Forces? Or I’m here to help? Whatever thoughts came into his head seemed hollow and empty. Plus, the sight of her standing there in that hood, her body so tense and stiff, stilled his mind.

And then he noticed it: the small metal orb buzzing around her side.

He’d seen one of those before. It was Old Tech. It had many moving parts, somewhat like the soldier robot on Orion Minor, and a persistent blue glow ran in a circle around its middle.

She took a single step backward.

He raised his hand, though he didn’t let his guard drop. “No one is going to hurt you,” he managed.

It was a lie; John couldn’t promise that. He had no idea what they were going to do to this woman. All he knew was what he wanted to do. Pull back the veil and understand what her secret was.

But he had to say something. And telling her to give up and surrender seemed like a hopeless command.

Especially considering what she could do.

As he neared, one hand still held up in peace while the other was paradoxically clasped on his gun, his eyes grew wide underneath his helmet.

And his breathing stopped too, his heart rate dropping as his body seemed to freeze in place.

“Commander John Doe,” she said, her voice picking up with a flicker of recognition.

“I know what happened to you on Orion Minor. I know you survived that transport beam. I know you got aboard my vessel,” he managed.

She took a shuddering step backward “That was your vessel?” she began, the then she muffled her own words by bringing a hand up and clasping it over her mouth.

It seemed like a genuine move. In fact, everything this woman did seemed real. She didn’t seem to be capable of faking anything, or, perhaps more to the point, she didn’t seem to want to waste her energy trying.

And John knew exactly what it was like to be in a position like that. There was only one thing this woman could prioritize and allocate her energy toward. Survival. Nothing else.

“Just come in quietly,” he begged. In a way, it was a ridiculous thing to do; he could see from her body language and he knew from her previous exploits that there was no way this woman was going to come in quietly. She would throw herself off a building, fight an impediment field, and basically do whatever she could to keep her anonymity and freedom.

Still, it was all John could do to stop himself from raising his gun and telling her to stop in the name of the Union Forces.

“You don’t know what you’re doing, and you have no idea what I am,” she said, her voice hesitant and low. And once again, as soon as her words were finished, she seemed to suck back in on them, planting that hand harder over her mouth.

“Let me know, tell me, what are you? What are you running from? I can help you,” John tried.

She shook her head bitterly, her hair pushing out from underneath her hood, but the hood itself never moving from over her eyes.

Now Evelyn had confirmed his suspicions, John was certain he was looking at Old Technology. The way it sat, the fact it could withstand his own armored grip, there was really only one sane conclusion.

But where had she got it from? And how was it still running?

“Please,” he tried again.

She shook her head one final time.

Then she nodded toward the orb by her side.

It paid exact attention to her move. Then it darted forward, shooting toward the promenade and the weather field beyond.

As it moved, so did the woman. She pushed herself into a frantic sprint, ducking to her knees for a second, then springing forward in a perfect somersault and flipping straight through one of the windows of the shops and landing on the promenade beyond.

The move was so quick and snapped that John had trouble keeping up with it. His armor, however, did not, and it pushed him forward, his own limbs moving at incredible speed as he practically copied her maneuver. As he landed on the hard floor of the promenade, it was to the view of the woman rushing forward toward the railing.

It was like a repeat of Orion Minor all over again. There was a flickering moment, and then the weather field shut down.

John watched with wide open, shocked eyes as he saw the dim electronic flicker of the field surge and then disappear altogether.

Then he felt it, or more accurately his armor suddenly warned him of the instant change in pressure and wind.

His boots locked onto the promenade of their own accord, generating a powerful magnetic field that ensured he couldn’t be ripped from his feet by the horrendous gale. His armor also blocked out the sound of it moving past his earpieces, making the change in temperature and pressure negligible too.

Then he watched in horror as she planted her hands onto the railing and leaped over it.

Her move was so fast, and she didn’t hesitate. It was such an incredible sight to behold.

“She is doing it again,” John suddenly heard Parka guffaw over his earpiece. “This woman is incorrigible.”

That was one word for it.

John ran forward.

“I really don’t think so,” Parka snapped at him. “You jump over that, John, and there’s nothing but air and water and clouds. And we really don’t want to fish you out of the ocean.”

In the time it took Parka to snap that in his ear, John had drawn to a halt, his hands smashing into the railings to stop the momentum of his body.

The woman had already disappeared from sight.

For a moment, his heart leaped into his mouth, and the same incredible concern that had all but killed him at the sight of her jumping off the promenade on Block Alpha filled him again.

But he needn’t have worried.

In a second she darted into view again. She had one hand clasped over the orb, and it was flying her up, against the incredible force of the wind, toward a different section of the docking ring.

John watched in astonishment. His armor ensured that his view of the woman always zoomed in, no matter how far away she got. He focused on the hood, on the lips, on the wide open mouth and the obvious expression of fright.

Then she ducked out of sight as the orb zipped around the corner of the docking ring and out of view.

John still had his hands planted around the railing, his fingers digging deeper into it. It buckled and bent under his grip, and if he’d tightened his fists any more, he would probably have made it melt from the friction.

“We saw it all, Commander,” Parka said in a snap, “we’ve already redirected the security forces. And don’t worry, I’ve still got a lock on her position; we’ll know exactly where she lands.”

Eventually, he took a step back, but he practically had to pry his fingers off that railing.

His breath was heavy, even though he’d hardly moved. He hadn’t fought anyone, he hadn’t run that far, and while he’d done a deft somersault, in this armor, he could do so much more.

He wasn’t out of breath because of physical exercise.

It was the frustration. The fact he kept on getting so close only to have circumstances carry her away again.

Even though John wanted nothing more than to take his frustration out by stamping one of his heavy, fully-armored boots into the floor of the promenade and cracking the metal plating easily, he controlled himself. Instead he walked, back and arms stiff, fists clenched tightly at his sides. His walk quickened into a run, then a sprint, then the fastest pace his armor could provide.

John wasn’t going to give up.

Chapter 36

Alice

He’d come for her. John Doe. He seemed like a rash she couldn’t get rid of. Just as she’d been allowing herself to mellow into the fact that she now had help, he’d reared his ugly head.

Okay, he wasn’t that ugly; by human standards, he was probably incredibly handsome. But that wasn’t the point.

He was the last person in the universe she needed on her back. And the fact that he’d found her meant one thing; John Doe had been looking for Alice. She really doubted that he’d been taking a stroll in full, incredible armor along an abandoned section of the docking ring of Orion Major only to run into her.

Not wearing that kind of armor. Alice knew enough about the Union Forces and their upgrades to realize that what John had been wearing was top of the line. It was the kind of stuff you brought out when you knew you were about to fight a war.

He’d come prepared.

Shaking her head again, rubbing her hands over her bare arms, Alice tried to catch hold of her courage.

“It isn’t recommended that you allow this incident to affect you,” Helper said from her side. Though his tone was, as always, competent and quick, Alice could tell that the little electronic bubble was about as surprised as she was.

Neither of them had detected John. Helper was a ridiculously sophisticated piece of technology who could integrate easily with the ICNs all around him. He was far beyond any of the technology in the docking ring. And as for Alice, she was an Old One. Her own senses were incredible.

Yet neither of them had seen John coming.

Still shaking, her skin cold as the energy within her body destabilized slightly, Alice pressed her eyes closed.

“It isn’t recommended that you let this affect you,” Helper said again, but his tone was quicker this time, his chirped electronic voice almost slurring.

She could tell that he was distressed by what he was seeing, and there was a good reason for that.

Alice was an amazing creature, capable of astounding things, but nothing in this universe was perfect. And for all her wonderful abilities, she had problems that far exceeded them.

Yes, she had access to some of the most fantastic energy in the universe, capable of re-energizing Old Technology. But it came with its problems. When Alice was healthy, of sound mind, and had complete control of herself, there was almost nothing she wasn’t capable of. When she was unhealthy, damaged, or had faced some kind of situation that undermined every scrap of courage and control she could muster over her emotions, things got serious.

It felt like she would go into meltdown. All of that energy swirling around in her suddenly became chaotic and started to do the strangest of things to her body. A part of her left arm suddenly stiffened so much that the skin around it almost felt like it would start to crack. And her left foot became so heavy that it started to dig down into the metal gangway underneath her. A section of her hair began to change color, and her left knee started to buck forward and backward faster and faster.

“We are out of immediate danger,” Helper said quickly, darting closer to her, resting barely 30 centimeters from her face as he hovered there, one of his electronic beams scanning over her body. “It isn’t recommended that you let this affect you,” it repeated for the third time.

She knew that. God did she know that, but she couldn’t stop the fear from rippling through her. She couldn’t regain her control and stop the meltdown.

“It’s recommended that, although the plans I have suggested are imperfect, we immediately pick one and enact it. We must get off this planet,” Helper darted around her head in a circle, and came to rest on her shoulder.

It was such an odd move and reminded her of a Dopring jungle cat. Despite the fact Helper was a simple electronic ball, he had a deep warmth, and the import of his move managed to cut through Alice’s fear and still her for a moment.

It reinforced one simple fact. She was no longer alone.

Reaching a hand up to him, waiting for him to dart into it, she brought her shaking arm around and stared right at him.

He didn’t have a face; he had no eyes to stare out with, as every single one of his sensors could work in every single direction. Nonetheless, she picked a point, and she stared right at it.

“Thank you,” she croaked.

“Statements of thanks should wait until we have left the atmosphere and are steadily on our way to escape,” Helper chirped.

She muddled her way through a laugh and smile, her stomach twitching forward, one of her legs tensing, and the skin of her right arm prickling.

But while her sensations were still chaotic, they were starting to wane.

“Just pick a plan, any plan, the best one you can think of, and direct me,” she told Helper as she took the opportunity to stare out around her.

When she’d jumped off the railing only to grab Helper and let him fly her toward safety, he’d taken her well out of sight of John Doe, up to the top of the docking ring, and hadn’t landed until they’d reached one of the outermost layers.

So here she was, standing on the top of a curved roof with the view of nothing but clouds and ocean in front of her, and the docking ring full of ships behind.

She couldn’t stay here. She would be in plain view of anyone walking along the gangway and no doubt John Doe had already recalibrated the docking ring sensors to search for her.

“I will interfere with their scans and attempt to restrict access to their ICN,” Helper told her in a ringing voice.

He didn’t move from her palm, and his distinct vibrating energy fed back into her skin. He was warm, not the same warmth you might feel from a living breathing organism, but something distinct, something unique.

“How long will that take?”

“Minutes; unfortunately I won’t be able to access it quicker. Security protocols have been heightened. As we speak, many systems are being locked down.”

Alice bared her teeth, squeezing her eyes closed for a moment. When she opened them again, it was to the view of sky and ocean.

She was standing on top of a floating doughnut-shaped city, kilometers and kilometers above the planet’s surface. Below her was nothing but cloud and ocean, above nothing but sky and space.

And she felt trapped. In this enormous advance of space and sea, somehow she felt as if she was being squeezed into oblivion.

“Do whatever you have to,” she said in a single breath.

“It’s recommended that we move toward the central engine unit,” Helper finally darted out of her hand and a meter to her left.

She followed his move, her gaze flicking beyond him.

Though she was unfamiliar with the floating docking rings of Orion Major, she knew how to sense her own technology.

And underneath this epic floating city, she could feel it.

The Old Ones.

The trace they always left in their devices. The sense of something more.

She could taste it on the wind.

“The central engine unit utilizes a form of floating, anti-gravitational technology based upon Old Technological design,” Helper said as he darted forward.

He didn’t stop to turn around to see if Alice was following him, or maybe he did; he didn’t have a face, after all. But Alice didn’t hesitate. She ran at full pelt after her darting little friend.

“With simple manipulation, you will be able to overcome the central engine unit’s internal protocols, altering the field dynamics,” Helper sped up.

Alice had no trouble in matching its speed. The two of them were now heading across the roof so quickly that Alice’s feet hardly touched the metal.

She could see what they were headed toward. A section of raised roof with a single, tall, long spire that pulled up into the sky. Whereas most of the rest of the docking ring was painted in blacks and grays and whites, the spire was a curious shade of dark green. And the closer Alice got, the more curious it seemed. The green appeared to dance and move and shift around, as if the color itself was bending in toward some incredible source then breaking around in a wave.

“If it comes to it, you will be able to alter the technology of that field to generate a complete shield,” Helper finally finished.

Alice’s mouth descended into a frown.

While she was an Old One, there was a great deal about her kind that she didn’t know. And that included the finer subtleties of their technologies and theories. Pumping air through her cheeks, she kept her eyes locked on that strange green spire. “What do you mean? What is a complete shield?”

“Simple. The greatest shield technology that the foundational races possessed. There is nothing within this universe, nothing that the Union possesses, that will be able to break through it,” Helper kept on darting forward.

Just for a second Alice slowed. It wasn’t because she suddenly ran out of energy; his words had shocked her. Not because she hadn’t expected her race capable of creating such powerful technology. But because of what Helper was actually suggesting.

“I can’t, I just can’t,” she wobbled and stumbled over her words. “If I create a complete shield, I’ll draw attention to myself. They’ll know what I am,” her voice shuddered so badly that it was hard to force it through her throat.

“I know who you are,” Helper pointed out simply.

“You know what I mean. I can’t run the risk of the rest of the universe finding out that a member of the Old Ones is still alive,” her voice was choked, her words practically indistinguishable. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact she was talking to a sophisticated piece of technology, Helper wouldn’t have been able to pick up what she’d just said.

“Though I agree this is a functional strategy for now, it may not always be the best option.”

As she ran her features crumpled into a twisted look of confusion. “The alternative is suicide.”

“The alternative isn’t suicide,” Helper corrected. “There are many different scenarios that could ensue from this eventuality.”

“I’m never going to do it,” certainty rang through her voice.

“If you find yourself fighting for something worthwhile, you will. It’s only logical. At this point in time, you have no good reason to reveal yourself. If circumstances change, you will do what is best for your own survival,” he corrected her again.

Her lips parted, her jaw dropping open. She was ready to tell him that would never happen. There was no eventuality that would force her into willingly revealing herself to the Union.

Then she stopped. Because he was right. Helper was just computing the possibilities, as he always said. And no matter how limited Alice’s imagination was at that point, even she could appreciate that there were things out there that would get her to do the unimaginable, to reveal herself and her powers.

She just hoped that would never happen.

“Once we have arrived at the central engines, I can manipulate their field to ensure it’s impossible to track you. They will also make it far harder for anyone to get a transport lock on our position,” Helper pointed out.

Transport lock.

The very possibility of it made Alice speed up. Her brow was covered in sweat, her hands moved like lightning by her side.

If John had managed to find her, then it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that he would try to transport her again.

And that would no doubt end in tears.

But she knew she had a chance. If she stayed with Helper, if she relied on his ability to objectively read the situation to keep her safe, just maybe Alice would get out of this.

Chapter 37

John Doe

“She’s headed for the central engine core,” Parka said, her voice being picked up by John’s earpiece. “Don’t worry, though, we have increased the security field, and I don’t care who she is, she won’t be able to get through it to touch those engines.”

Before John had a chance to get nervous at the prospect that that woman might sabotage the very devices keeping this city aloft, Parka had already assured him it couldn’t happen.

“We’re directing forces to intercept, moving to phase two of the plan,” Parka snapped in his ear.

John nodded his head. It didn’t matter that Parka wasn’t there to see his movement; all of the information from his armor was being relayed up to the Pegasus, and no doubt Parka was now standing in Central Engineering staring at a hologram of John and everything happening around him.

“The Admiral has given you the go-ahead to do whatever it takes to bring her into custody. If it doesn’t work,” Parka left the rest of her sentence floating.

John knew exactly what she meant.

If it didn’t work, John had orders to kill the woman. Plain and simple. She’d already proved herself to be an enemy of the State, or at least in the eyes of the Union. She’d resisted arrest, she’d deliberately hidden herself from a Union Forces’ officer, and right now she was headed toward a highly restricted area of the docking ring.

He really hoped it didn’t come to that. And if it did, hell, he had no idea how he would do it. Somehow he doubted he could take her down with a few blasts from his gun. Not only would she fight him every step of the way, but that woman also seemed to bounce back from everything.

“Turn left, Commander, take the blue elevator in front of you,” Parka snapped.

John did exactly what she said. As he rounded the corner sharply, moving so fast that his footfall was a constant drone, he saw the correct elevator. He had opened it before he reached it, sending an imperative message through his armor, and overriding every system around as he did.

That way he didn’t have to stop; he slammed right into the back of the elevator as the doors opened, then told the thing to head straight to the engine core.

Ordinarily an elevator would never do that on the docking ring; only specific people aboard would have access to that system. For a good bloody reason. It was exactly what kept this floating chunk of metal in the air. Without the astoundingly powerful anti-gravitational field drives, it would sink like a stone, slam into the ocean, and disappear under the waves.

“Local security forces are waiting there for you, and so is the Admiral,” Parka said just as the doors of the elevator opened.

John ran out.

The room around him was enormous. It had no divisions, no walls, no pylons holding the roof in place. Just the floor and ceiling.

Oh, and a lot of energy.

John’s armor was picking up the magnetic field being generated by the engine cores. It left a distinct shifting blue glow in the air, and even though his body was completely enclosed underneath his armor, John fancied he tasted it too.

A tinge of metal, somewhat like blood, filtered through his mouth.

Though he fancied this room, dotted with panels, was usually empty save for the occasional maintenance crew, now it was a hive of activity. Security robots, security officers of various races, and members of his own crew raced around.

For a moment, they all seemed to part, and in the distance, John locked eyes on the Admiral.

He was standing right beside the enormous bank of windows that offered an unrivaled view of the sky and ocean beyond.

His lips were drawn into an enormous, pronounced frown, and that beard of his kept on shifting up and down as he tapped his foot repeatedly and shook his head.

He looked angry. John had gone through enough years of military academy to appreciate that.

But that didn’t mean that John hesitated; he rushed right over to the man, dodging around the various security forces as he did.

There was a low and constant pulse in the air, a hum that filtered through everything, reverberating through the floor and ceiling, shaking up through John’s boots and even setting his teeth on edge inside his armor.

The cores themselves were at the end of the room, shielded by several meters of solid and reinforced wall. There was a massive bank of consoles just before those walls, and John could see out of the corner of his eye the distinct flicker of layers upon layers of security fields, no doubt shielding the rest of this room from the lethal radiation and magnetic pull that would be generated within.

“Where is she?” John snapped out.

Yes, he’d just snapped at an admiral, but who cared, considering the situation? They were all stressed and on their toes, it wasn’t the time for niceties.

“Up top near the spire. For now, she is holding position. Now that we have blocked off this room and can ensure that she can’t come in to destroy the engine cores, we are going to send up troops to engage her,” the Admiral snapped back.

“I really don’t suggest that, sir,” John said through a quick breath, one of his hands curling into a fist by his side of its own accord, “she has an Old Tech cloak, and I can now confirm from analysis of the scans of my armor that she is also in possession of a hacker ball.”

The Admiral’s expression soured even further.” I know.”

“We have no idea if she has more Old Tech with her. Plus, I have seen her in action,” John began.

“We have to do something. And nobody, no matter how well-equipped, is going to get past me. It doesn’t matter that she has Old Technology,” the Admiral suddenly turned, his eyes darting through the crowd around them until they settled on someone near the far wall.

John half turned until he found where the Admiral was staring at. Evelyn.

“If we can get her close enough, she will be able to disengage the Old Tech,” the Admiral turned back to John.

John stopped himself from laughing, from making any kind of derisive noise at all.

That sounded frankly fantastic. He understood that the Admiral had a lot of faith in the Aurora Project, being the head of it and all, but this was a critical situation. And bluster would get them nowhere.

“You have not seen her in the field, and maybe this is the perfect opportunity,” the Admiral fixed John with a strict and steady look. “Evelyn is a good soldier, Commander.”

John’s teeth ground together. She wasn’t a soldier. She was, as bad as it sounded, an experiment. She was a woman that had been allocated to the project, someone that had lived her whole life under its sway.

No doubt she’d never been in a combat situation, no doubt she’d never been forced to put her life on the line, and no doubt she shouldn’t have too.

But these were sentiments John couldn’t share with the Admiral.

“Still, Admiral, I don’t think it’s safe to send anyone up there but me; that woman turned off the localized weather field for a 20-meter radius,” he said, voice ringing with surprise. “And now I think of it, that’s what she must have done back on Orion Minor too. Those systems are impossible to hack,” John didn’t try to control his voice at all, and it wobbled and wavered the more he thought about how impossible it should be to interfere with a system as complicated and well-secured as the weather fields of the Orion system.

“The hacker ball would have done it,” the Admiral snapped immediately. “Not the woman. And if Evelyn gets close enough, she will turn the hacker ball off. In fact, she will be able to interact directly with its systems and utilize it to trap the woman. Commander, there will be no discussion of this plan; I have decided what we’re going to do.”

John forced himself to snap a salute. Even though that was the last thing he wanted to do at that point. He was ready to fight the Admiral toe-to-toe on this one. Because it was suicide.

Yet John had no evidence to support his claims. Of course it made sense to think that the hacker ball had been the one to infiltrate and shut down the weather systems. But still, John just didn’t seem to be able to get across his full suspicions about this woman.

“Your orders are to protect Evelyn,” the Admiral snapped.

It was as simple as that, was it?

Well, John had been in combat long enough to know that nothing ever ran that easy. And he’d seen that mysterious woman enough times to realize that where she was involved, only the incredible would occur.

Chapter 38

Alice

She’d made it to the spire. It was the one section of the docking ring that wasn’t protected by a weather field. She knew enough about the technology to understand that the weather field would interrupt the engine core’s systems.

So as Alice stood there, pressed close to the spire, but not touching it, not wanting to press her skin against the shifting, confusing mix of color that shot up and laced around the thin slip of metal, the winds buffeted against her.

They pulled and tugged at her hair, and it snapped around her face, whipping into her cheeks and nose with enough force to cut flesh. Had she not been an Old One, no doubt blood would have spluttered from every blow.

But she was an Old One. And as the gale pulled into her, tugging at the loose and badly damaged rags that were her clothes, she stared up at the sky. Not down at the docking ring below her, but up, past the atmosphere, past that faint dark blue glow and into space itself. Only a few stars could be seen, but she locked her gaze on them, and she didn’t shift once.

“It’s my suggestion that we wait here until they send their forces. Once they have, we will engage them in minimal combat, but in doing so, we will create a distraction. Then we will be able to slip away, steal a ship, and leave this planet.”

It sounded like a painfully simple plan. It sounded like the kind of plan that could never work, but Alice wasn’t that stupid. Because she knew that Helper wasn’t stupid. While he could rattle off simple statements about what they would do next, he could support them with this remarkable and vast abilities.

Backed up by her of course.

Suddenly the floor below her gave a shake, and though it didn’t shift Alice too far off her feet, she snapped her gaze down to it.

“They will soon send their forces; they are currently cutting a hole through the hull, they will appear around us at three points,” Helper explained quickly.

She nodded her head.

Then she got ready.

She planted her hands onto her legs, spreading her fingers wide, ensuring that the grip of her feet was hard and steady, despite the frantic wind.

She made herself as heavy as she could. She redirected that special energy of her people until her body became as solid and dense as she could manage to make it.

He would be there.

That thought suddenly swelled within.

John Doe. No doubt he would be leading the assault, right? Because no doubt that man wasn’t going to give up. Short of actually dying, it seemed that he would be on her tail for the rest of her life.

It was a thought that served to kindle the latent paranoia that always lived within Alice. It followed her around like a black shadow or a stifling blanket.

Shaking her head, her hair whipping free again and plastering across her face as a frantic gust of wind blew against her, there was suddenly three loud bangs.

And Helper had been right. In under a second, security forces began to stream from the holes, right toward her.

“They are unlikely to shoot this close to the spire. Doing so may send feedback down to the engine cores and cause a disruption in the anti-gravitational feed,” Helper chimed by her side.

She knew that. She just hoped that they did.

“In approximately three seconds, they will be close enough for us to instigate our distraction, allowing us to finally escape,” Helper informed her needlessly again.

She knew the plan. Maybe he just kept on repeating it to reassure her. After all, it was never a pretty sight when Alice lost control of her fear.

But she wasn’t going to do that.

Curling her fingers into tight fists, she waited. But as she did she darted her gaze out.

She wanted to see him.

And finally she did.

He wasn’t the one in the lead, though. And the security forces weren’t behaving as Helper had suggested they would.

Helper had been sure that they would spring upon Alice, choosing brute force in order to catch her and drag her away.

What they did instead was immediately set up turrets and blocking force fields around the holes they’d cut in the hull.

A blocking force field was exactly what it sounded like. A short, small, but sturdy shield that a soldier could bring into place with the touch of a button. He could hide behind it, hell, it was big enough that you could hide a rock warrior behind it. It allowed for immediate protection against projectiles, and if you had enough of them, you could create a barrier.

Which was exactly what they were doing.

As she stared out at the frantic activity, noting the various different uniforms and armors, Alice practically stopped breathing.

Her eyes darted around so quickly as her mind tried to catch up to the situation.

What were they doing?

“Security forces seem to have initiated an unpredicted plan,” Helper pointed out, mirroring her own confusion as his tone was quick and tight. “Adjusting for this, computing new possibilities. A new plan has been selected, we will now,” he began.

But Helper didn’t finish.

Because in that moment he sprang forward. He shot right from her side, as fast as he could move, toward one of the barriers.

“What are you doing?” Alice practically screamed.

The sight of him moving from her side was a powerful shock, and she had to stop herself from leaping forward to grab a hand on him, lest she move too far away from the spire and become an easy target for the security forces’ guns.

That didn’t stop her eyes from pressing open wide, her mouth jolting closed in a snap.

And then she felt it.

Her cloak.

Somebody was trying to interfere with it.

But just as it lost integrity, Alice snapped a hand forward.

She grabbed her cloak. And as she did, her fingers crackled with energy. Channels opened up through them, forming a direct path to the power she held within.

She charged her cloak in an instant, and it sat back perfectly against her face.

She dropped her hand.

Then she pulled her head back up.

She looked straight over to where Helper had shot to. She could see John Doe huddled behind a barrier, and right next to him was a woman. In her hand was Helper. She’d caught the little orb and was now prying and poking at it.

She was also doing something more.

Alice could feel it. Reaching out with her mind, that woman, whoever she was, was trying to control Helper.

But Alice didn’t suddenly run forward, her arms held open wide, filled with the incredible prospect that she’d just met another one of her kind. Because it was only the Old Ones, after all, who could interact directly with their own technology.

This woman wasn’t an Old One. And the way she interacted with Helper felt wrong. It was twisted, obscured, and it made Alice’s skin crawl.

In that moment Alice closed her eyes.

She pushed her senses right out. Beyond the sound of the wind, beyond the interference from the anti-gravitational field below her, Alice put everything she had into her hearing.

And then she heard it.

Out of all of the voices, she locked on to his. The one that she recognized. John Doe’s.

“The cloak, the cloak, disengage the cloak,” John kept on saying, his voice tight and high.

“I’m trying, I thought I had a lock on it, but I think I need to get closer,” the woman beside him, the one who now held Helper, stumbled over her words.

“Have you got control of the ball yet?” John asked as he shifted this way and that, no doubt using the sophisticated sensors of his armor in order to keep track of Alice.

As Alice stood there, her hands still tightly held into fists by her side now that she felt free in letting her cloak go, she narrowed her eyes.

“I’m trying, but it isn’t responding, God, my hands are just so cold up here. Is the weather field thinner here?” The woman kept on stuttering over her words.

“Take it down, we’ll go down,” John snapped back at her.

Then Alice watched as the two of them, still huddled behind the barrier, made their way back to the hole in the hull and dropped out of sight.

That just left Alice with the security forces.

But they wouldn’t attack; they just stood there and held position behind those barriers, putting out more turrets, laying more traps, and getting ready for a fight.

Maybe they were waiting for the woman, whoever she was, to gain full control of Helper. Then, no doubt, they would choose to send him after Alice, reasoning that his power would be unmatched.

It wasn’t every day, after all, that the Union got their hands on functioning Old Tech.

They didn’t have their hands on Helper, though.

And they wouldn’t hack into his systems.

Because Alice closed her eyes.

She was still connected to him.

He wasn’t held in her hands, but that didn’t mean that she’d let go of him. And she wouldn’t let go. No matter how hard that woman tried, she was no Old One, and she was up against a force she couldn’t imagine.

Closing her mind off to the situation around her, Alice opened up to Helper. She integrated with him, pushing more of her energy into his systems, sending it out of her own skin, letting it travel in a white-blue line from her feet, over the hull, down, down until it connected to Helper.

And as it connected, so did she. She heard what Helper heard, she saw what he saw. And she watched and listened.

Chapter 39

John Doe

His brow didn’t have a chance to get covered with sweat; his armor always ensured optimal operating conditions. But right now, without it, John would have been a mess.

This wasn’t going according to plan. While Evelyn had been able to easily gain minimum control of the hacker orb, she hadn’t managed to overcome the cloak.

“I just need time, I can do this, I can do this,” Evelyn kept on trying to convince John as she stood with her back pressed up against the wall.

They were in a small section of tunnel just below the hole in the hull that led back up to the exposed roof.

John had pulled Evelyn off to the side, away from the security forces that guarded the hole and were passing turrets and blocking fields through it, so that she would have the air and space she needed to get her work done.

“Take your time,” John encouraged. Even though he didn’t want her to work slowly, he didn’t want her to feel pressured either.

Because she did look pressured. Her eyes were drawn in concentration, her lips crinkled in a frown, her brow pressed with lines. As she moved her head, her hair darted across her face, and John almost wanted to reach out a hand to brush it back.

They certainly didn’t have that kind of relationship, though. Not yet anyway.

And hopefully not ever; John did have a task to do here, and it was to protect her and his crew on their mission, nothing more.

“I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve done this hundreds of times before. Why can’t I gain full control?” Evelyn didn’t look up at John as her hands kept on twisting around the ball.

It seemed to be fidgeting in her grip, as if it wanted to get away.

“Oh God, it’s like something is blocking me,” Evelyn brought up her hand and tucked her loose fringe behind her ears, the movement shaky.

John latched onto her words.

“Blocking you? What do you mean?”

“In training, occasionally, if the Admiral made us, we would try to interfere with each other’s connections,” Evelyn looked up at him for a second, and her gaze darted straight back to the device in her hands. “And this feels like that… though different somehow.”

A single dribble of cold sweat trickled down John’s brow, but as soon as it did, the armor evaporated it.

It left a chill, however. “Do you think that’s what is happening here? Could somebody be blocking this? Could a member of the Aurora Project…” John trailed off.

“No, it’s not like that… I don’t know what’s happening,” Evelyn stuttered through her words again. It was clear she was frustrated and flustered, but she was still doing her job. “Nobody would interfere with this mission, they know what it means. And nobody from the Aurora Project would ever go against the Admiral’s orders.”

John’s brow crumpled at that. Alice hadn’t said that nobody in the Aurora Project would go against the Union’s wishes, or the desires of its citizens, no, just the Admiral’s orders. But despite the choice of words, John understood the sentiment.

“They wouldn’t undermine this mission, they know how important it is, the possibility of finding Old Ones, they all know what that means,” Evelyn said distractedly as she kept on trying to manipulate the device in her hands.

“You mean Old Tech,” John corrected her immediately.

She stopped what she was doing, her gaze darting upward. She looked sprung. Her hands shaking in surprise for a second, she shook her head. Then she crumpled her brow again. “No, Commander, that’s not what I mean. And there’s no point in hiding it from you; the Admiral was going to tell you this afternoon anyway.”

“What?”

“There’s a possibility…. Just a chance….”

“What?” John leaned in, pushing the hand of his armor into the wall to anchor himself in position.

“We have received reports,” she licked her lips carefully, “that just maybe… possibly… there might be some left alive.”

His eyes crumpled, narrowing into a squint. “Some of who or what alive?”

“The Old Ones. In stasis. There is the possibility, considering how much Old Tech has been found along the Rim,” Evelyn’s voice had dropped to a whisper, “that we might find some in stasis.”

John shook his head in a snap. “The possibility?” He questioned her choice of words.

Looking exasperated, she pawed at her hair, pushing it behind her ears again. “No. Okay, it’s more than a possibility. And these reports are reliable. The Admiral and the whole of the Aurora Project have a strong suspicion that there are Old Ones still alive in the Rim. That’s the point of this mission. That’s why I’m coming along. I’m bringing devices… that will be able to track them down. Pull them from stasis. And John,” she leaned closer toward him, her face barely 30 centimeters from his own, “I don’t need to tell you what that would mean. We could waste the rest of our lives trying to figure out how to use and re-energize Old Tech. But if we had just one of the ancients alive, we could ask them. Think of all the lives and effort and energy we could save?”

John’s grip faulted on the wall for a moment, and he actually stumbled forward closer to Evelyn, his helmet almost brushing up against her hair.

She shifted back, but not immediately. She kept her eyes locked on his, though. “I’m not lying. The Admiral was going to tell you tonight. This is the real point of the mission. And this is why we have to succeed. So no, nobody from the Aurora Project would dare intervene here.”

John’s mouth was dry, his shoulders felt loose and weak, and there was a distinct and uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.

He also felt out of breath.

She had to be lying, right? Old Ones still alive? That was impossible.

That went against everything he’d ever been taught.

The last Old One to roam the universe had been over 100,000 years ago.

It was a fairy tale, a hopeless dream to assume any could have survived into the modern day.

And yet as he looked on at Evelyn, her gaze so locked intently on his own, she didn’t seem to be lying.

“I promise it’s the truth,” she said as her eyes darted around, searching his.

He believed her. He really did.

He finally got control of himself, shifting backward, locking his feet into the ground, ensuring he wouldn’t stumble again.

“But how do you know?” His voice shook as he questioned her.

“Because we found something,” she said through a heavy swallow.

“What?”

“A holographic feed. A live one. Showing stasis pods.”

“Who’s inside?” he asked. But he knew the answer.

“Old Ones,” her lips wobbled badly over her words, her voice mumbled and strained.

John swore. “That’s impossible.”

She shook her head, keeping those blue eyes locked on him the entire time.” It’s not. I can show you. In fact, I will show you, when this is over. The Admiral has the footage. It’s being beamed out on a signal, you can access it at any time. We know that it comes from the Rim, we are just not sure where. The exact location is scrambled somehow.”

John’s face was cold. In fact his entire body felt cold, and his armor suddenly redirected energy into equalizing his temperature.

“John, I’m not lying,” Evelyn said again.

He really did believe her. Yet he didn’t want to believe what she was saying. It sounded impossible.

“We have to… get this sorted first,” John said, forcing the words out. Because they were true. No matter what Evelyn had just revealed to him, they had other priorities now. That elusive woman was still up top near the spire.

Evelyn suddenly gave a gasp, and John snapped his attention to her in an instant.

“I just got a lock on it, whatever was blocking me is gone,” Evelyn clasped her hands over the ball, protecting it tenderly.

A passionate but relieved expression crossed over her face, and it made John crack into a smile.

Finally, something was going right.

“If I can get close enough, back up on the roof, I can let the hacker ball free, I can use it to finally gain control of that hood,” she assured him.

So John didn’t hesitate.

Chapter 40

Alice

She was on her knees. Because she’d fallen over. She’d fallen over because she’d heard every single word exchanged between that woman and John Doe.

Every single word.

Alice had a hand locked over her mouth, and she was trying to breathe into it, the sound of her breath a blustering, horrible gasp.

It couldn’t be true. That woman had to be lying.

A live feed? Showing stasis pods with Old Ones inside?

It had to be a lie.

The woman had to be lying.

And yet the mere possibility of it was one that made Alice shudder. Her arms buckled out from underneath her, and she slammed against the floor with a violent thud.

But why would the woman have lied? She would have had no idea that Alice would’ve been listening in through Helper, and from her emotional reaction to the way John Doe had treated her, it didn’t seem like an act.

As Alice lay there on the ground, her energy ran wild within her. She’d lost connection with Helper; the shock of the situation curling through her own energy and making it frantic and chaotic.

She could barely keep control of her hood, let alone regain control of her friend.

Instead she lay there, face first on the floor, her hands pressed into it, her body shaking.

It couldn’t be true.

Her people? Could they be out there? Could there be more like her?

Again Alice felt it.

Someone trying to hack right into her hood.

And they succeeded. It fell right from her head. But before it could pull from her shoulders in the frantic wind, Alice grabbed out a hand and caught it.

She could hardly keep control of her fingers though, let alone tug the hood back in toward her body and fix it over her face.

She was falling apart.

If Helper had been by her side, he would have told her not to let it affect her.

But how could she not let this affect her?

Alice was the last of her kind. Or was she?

It was a horrible question to consider. All of those years she’d spent alone.…

Alice almost lost grip of her hood, and as a powerful gust of wind caught hold of it, it actually tugged her along the hull.

She was in danger of being ripped right off it, the more she lost control of her emotions, the more she lost control of the energy within. And as it peaked and surged, it created chaos through her form. Soon she would lose the rigidity and weight that pinned her to the hull. And when that happened, Alice would be pulled from it. She would either slam into the spire, or be sent tumbling toward the security and turrets behind the weather field.

It was at that point that she was at her lowest.

Holding onto her hood, being buffeted around, her body convulsing under her as the energy within convulsed in turn.

It was also the point that she remembered his words.

Helper’s.

When Alice found something worth fighting for, her strategy would change. It was only logical.

When Alice found something worth fighting for, she would no longer care about showing her power.

Because she would have a goal in mind.

It was only logical.

Despite the fact he wasn’t by her side, his words and the memory of them managed to still her almost as well as if her little electronic friend had bounced up onto her shoulder.

“Move in,” she heard someone say.

It was John Doe.

She still managed to pick up the sound of his voice, even past the din of the wind and the sounds of the other security forces setting up the perimeter.

She’d seconds, didn’t she?

And now she was a sitting target.

Not for long.

Because Alice had something worth fighting for.

She heard footfall, she felt it too.

Close. Fast. Coming right at her.

Alice yanked her hood down. Using all her strength, she overcame the chaos within, and she fixed it over her head. She pushed herself up, just as someone reached down to grab her.

In a split second, she turned to see his face.

Though his helmet was set to opaque, she knew that she was staring right into his eyes.

Time seemed to still for a moment.

Then it sped up with a snap.

Alice pushed herself backward, rolling, leaning into her hands, and tucking into an easy, quick, and strong somersault. Despite the winds, she landed perfectly, several meters from his side, planting a hand into the hull to steady herself.

She snapped her head up to stare at him just as he pelted forward, his arms pumping by his sides.

He too was unaffected by the wind. The sophistication of his armor would also block out the effects of the radiation emanating from the spire.

He pushed himself toward her again, incredibly quick on his feet.

Though Alice had already snapped herself up to her own feet, she hadn’t yet gained full control of the chaotic energy inside her, and her usual strength and agility hadn’t returned.

John lunged at her.

She twisted to the side, turning on her foot, but as she did, her broken shoes finally gave way.

She stumbled.

He brought his arms wide and wrapped them right around her.

It was a powerful, full-bodied move, and she could feel him anchor his boots into the hull, trying to lock her into place.

Then he brought up a hand, trying to pull at her hood.

It wasn’t going to happen.

She brought her arm up, somehow pushing against his grip, and she thrust her elbow back into his armor.

Nothing but her skin and bone connected with the extremely hard exterior of his armor. But the move was a powerful one, and it jolted him off.

She could hear him stumbling, and she darted forward, tucking into a roll, changing direction, and snapping up to face him in a swift move.

He circled around her, hands wide, fingers splayed.

He didn’t have a gun in his hand, and maybe John Doe was just as smart as she was starting to give him credit for, because if he’d pulled a gun out this close to the energy spire, it would have created a fatal chain reaction.

He lunged at her again, but she dropped to her feet, twisted around, and angled a kick at his legs.

He leaped right over her move, landing easily by her side, and darting toward her once more.

He was quick. Incredibly fast. Much faster than Alice had expected. And she just managed to dodge his grab as she twisted to the side.

He didn’t bother to say that he was here to help. Neither did he bother to say that if only she trusted him, he would do what he could for her.

Just silence. Maybe his audio feed wasn’t powerful enough to push through the interference the spire was generating behind him. Or maybe he’d finally given up.

He circled around her again, arms stiff by his sides, but pose one of poise and readiness.

Her senses and power and strength and agility were starting to return to her.

And then she heard it. And she felt it.

He was contacting someone through his armor. Making some kind of call, some kind of request.

No doubt to the troops behind, maybe to that woman who still had hold of Helper.

No doubt John Doe had a plan.

One Alice wasn’t going to let him put into action.

It was her turn to fling herself toward him. She brought her arm up, directing a blow at his chest. He changed direction just before her blow could strike, and he dodged back.

But Alice followed him.

He shifted back again, she followed again.

And then he shifted back one final time. As he did, it brought Alice just outside of the protective field of the spire.

And that would be when the impediment field locked her into place.

In an instant, quicker than anything Alice could process, it snapped all around her.

Light shot out from behind each of the three barriers, forming a sphere all around.

As the impediment field locked her in place, her eyes grew wide with surprise.

John Doe finally stopped moving.

But Alice did not.

She curled her hands into fists, curling her toes at the same time, directing the energy through her body, strengthening it, getting ready to move.

“Increase the field,” John suddenly snapped, his voice echoing out clearly.

And the field increased.

It began to pull and tug at Alice, and as it did it lengthened her arms out, yanking at her legs until she was pulled off the floor, and she hung there, a good meter above it, her body stuck as if she was halfway through a star jump.

John Doe backed off toward one of the barriers, still keeping his eyes locked on Alice, never turning his helmet away from her. That woman ran up to his side, Helper still held in her hand.

She stared up at Alice, and Alice stared down at her.

When you have something worth fighting for, your strategy will change. It’s only logical.

Helper’s words still rang through her mind.

Something worth fighting for.

She had it.

So it was time to change strategies.

Alice did something she had told herself she never would.

If there was one thing far more dangerous than any other that Alice could do in this entire galaxy, even the whole universe, it was to reveal her true power.

As long as she kept it hidden, no one would know what she was.

She no longer had that luxury.

“You’re trapped now, don’t move against the impediment field; it’s turned up too high, it will hurt you,” John said clearly. But as he spoke to Alice, he also mumbled toward the woman to concentrate on removing her hood.

Alice wouldn’t let that happen.

She closed her eyes.

It was time to reveal exactly what an Old One could do.

In a second she pushed the energy out. The real power within. Channels appeared along her skin, the same channels that the robot soldier had tried to crack through when it had locked its grip around Alice’s throat.

Except this time they were intentional.

They lit up white and blue, energy cascading through them. And as they did, Alice snapped her arms closed around herself, breaking through the impediment field, and landing on the hull with a resounding clang.

Everybody turned toward her.

She didn’t need to be possessed of incredible senses to register the shock on that woman’s face or the sudden desperate change in John’s stance.

Alice didn’t pause. She stood up, reached a hand out, and called Helper.

It shot from the woman’s grasp, and she stumbled forward from the force of it. John leaned down and locked an arm around her middle, stopping the woman from falling over.

But it was too late to catch Helper.

He shot toward Alice faster than any bullet from a plasma round.

He landed in her hand, her shoulder shifting forward from the force of the impact.

Then she brought him down, opened up her palm, sent a surge of energy into him, and let him fly free once more.

“There’s been a change of plan, Helper,” she said aloud.

“Change of plan,” Helper chirped from her side, “it’s only logical.”

It was only logical.

She was going to blast her way out of here. Even if she had to display every last one of her Old One powers, she was going to do it.

As she stared at John Doe, for a moment, Alice didn’t move.

She wanted him to pull back his armor, wanted him to set his helmet to transparent so she could see his face.

Just like he’d been trying to tug back her hood since they had met, right now Alice wanted to look into his eyes.

And she could do that, couldn’t she? If she got close enough, she could override the armor, tell it to switch the helmet off.

She took a step forward.

And that was when she saw it.

The light starting to stream down from above.

It was almost as if time slowed down for her again.

Her senses flared, her intuition screaming at her.

Somebody was about to transport her.

They had a lock. Within half a second the beam would reach her.

Alice had one option and one option only.

To do the one thing that she’d promised Helper she wouldn’t do under any circumstances. Release herself to the engine core, use what energy she had to alter its protocols. To create a complete shield. One of the most advanced technologies the Old Ones had possessed.

So Alice did it.

She let go of everything. She spread her arms wide, her fingers dropping open.

The channels over her skin erupted with energy. It flowed down into the hull, light white and blue lines shifting over it as they dodged this way and that, searching out the device they would empower.

Just as the transport beam locked onto her, snatching onto her form, that terrible light starting to break down her particles, the shield erupted into place.

And it was an eruption. It was a sight and sound Alice had never before experienced.

It was amazing. The sound of the shield practically ripped through the air. And it cut through the transport beam instantly.

But it took everything she had.

For a second, Alice’s eyes opened wide as she stared out at the thick crackling blue field in front of her. She saw the enormity, she appreciated how incredible and strong it was.

And then she fell.

She crumpled on the hull. Unconscious.

Chapter 41

Alice

She didn’t know how long she’d rested there for. But when she blinked her eyes open, the consciousness returning to her in a snap, Alice saw that night had fallen.

It was thick and dark around her, and yet it couldn’t touch her; the complete shield was still in place all around her.

The light of it reflected over her skin, dancing over the hull around her.

“Conscious, conscious,” Helper chirped from her side, “you have regained consciousness. Act immediately. We must leave.”

Alice tried to push through her confusion.

In slow snippets, her memory returned to her.

She opened her eyes wider.

She shifted her head around, pushing her face to the side.

She didn’t seem to be capable of pushing herself up to her feet; her body throbbed with fatigue. All of that energy she had given up to create the complete shield had practically drained her.

So instead she just lay there, her head on the side, her body still crumpled around her. And she stared forward.

That was when she noticed that there was somebody just beyond the edge of the force field.

Alice herself was close to it; her face was barely 30 centimeters from the edge of the flickering field. And whoever was on the other side was just as close.

They leaned down further. Their black armor glinting under the reflected light of the shield.

She recognized the armor.

Someone brought their face into view, planting a hand onto the hull, angling their head down.

John Doe.

He no longer had his helmet on; but Alice could see that the force field that had taken its place was in effect, glistening and glimmering as it no doubt picked up feedback from the complete shield.

But that wasn’t what held her attention.

His gaze did.

His expression was… unreadable.

Surprised. Amazed. Confused. Overcome. Suspicious.

Everything.

All jumbled into one.

“Rupture the shield,” Helper said from behind her, “you can momentarily use it to destabilize the anti-gravitational chamber. This will be the distraction we require to escape.”

Maybe John Doe couldn’t hear Helper, because he didn’t suddenly jump to his feet and shake his fist at the little robot.

No, he continued to stare right at Alice.

And she continued to stare right back.

“Though the complete shield will last for as long as we require, we should not allow them to gain reinforcements. I have been monitoring radio traffic, and several Union Force ships have been redirected to this area. We must take this opportunity to leave. It will take no effort on your behalf, just a simple command in order to shut down the shield. I will take everything from there.”

Alice still didn’t move. She just stared up at him.

John Doe.

In fact, she had no idea how long she stared up at him, and she had no idea how long he’d been staring down at her. She’d been unconscious for some time; long enough that day had dwindled into a dark night. Had he been leaning there against the shield, as close as he could get to her, for that entire time?

Maybe.

She wanted to pull herself away. Do exactly what Helper suggested, and take the opportunity, maybe the only one they would get.

She couldn’t.

Something about his eyes seemed to hold her in place.

Stop her.

Freeze her.

Or maybe she did that to herself.

Maybe that’s what she wanted most. To stop the paranoia, to stop the escape, to the stop the running.

And right now she could appreciate how it felt. To be safe for a flickering moment, and yet to face her fears in the exact same breath.

Because wasn’t that exactly what John Doe represented? A Union Commander hell-bent on finding all of the Old Tech he could get his hands on. He was Alice’s worst nightmare.

Well, right now she was staring up into the eyes of that terrifying apparition.

And rather than push her away, and force her back into her life of escape, they seemed to pull her in.

“Alice, we must go. We must find your people. I analyzed the woman Evelyn’s speech patterns, biological readings, and I accessed her history from the ICN. I don’t believe she is lying.”

That got Alice’s attention.

Perhaps the only thing that could.

“We must regroup and ascertain whether this information is correct. The strategy has altered,” Helper chimed.

The strategy had altered.

Alice closed her eyes.

The last thing she saw was John staring down at her.

Then she shut it off.

She sent the command to the complete shield.

The rest she left up to Helper.

He zoomed in, fixed her in a holding beam, and then shot away with Alice in his electronic grasp.

Chapter 42

John Doe

Something seemed to happen to him as he leaned down to stare at her. He just knew she was staring back. She’d moved so slightly, her shoulder shifting, her head flopping on an angle.

Though John had no way of knowing, his gut told him that her eyes had opened and locked onto his own behind that hood.

Maybe time had slowed down, maybe it had sped up, or maybe John had lost all track of it entirely.

Then that impossible shield that she’d created failed.

In a flash.

But it didn’t simply disappear. As it melted away in crackles of electricity, the docking ring gave a shudder.

John lost purchase, not expecting the movement, and he was aware that everyone around him gave a gasp.

The whole floating city didn’t proceed to fall from the air, though.

It shook and shuddered several times, and as it did John watched as the hacker ball fixed the woman in a beam of light that pulled her off the hull, and flew away with her.

As John pressed his hands into the bucking hull, he stared up at her retreat.

He watched her, her body limp. He watched her until she dwindled into the darkness.

The docking ring eventually stabilized.

But she was out of sight.

He’d lost track of her again.

In fact, he’d just plain lost.

But John Doe was a betting man. He was also a determined one. And he somehow knew that this game wasn’t over yet.

End of Episode One. This series is complete, and all seven episodes are currently available.




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