Lucky Star Episode One

Lucky Star Episode One

Prologue

I clamped my hands over my mouth and coughed into them. It muffled the sound, prevented it from echoing around the hangar and advertising our position like a firecracker on a coal-black night.

Commander Hatch wouldn’t let up – he motioned me on with a sharp flick of his hand. When I didn’t react immediately, too busy coughing up my lungs, he looped one orange-and-black body-armored arm around my middle and pulled me forward.

“We’ve gotta keep moving, Star,” he hissed into my ear.

I didn’t have the breath to agree. I wasn’t in a full biosuit like he was – I didn’t have fancy, futuristic filters protecting me from the bitter sting of burning metal and chemicals lacing the air. It felt like someone had poured pins down my throat. I wanted to fall to the ground and clutch my face until it all went away.

“Star,” he let his hand fall from my middle, clamping it around my forearm instead, “you gotta stay with me.”

I thought he would reach one of those heavy glove-covered hands up to my face. Brush off a speck of dirt or blood. That’s how it works in the movies, right? The hero’s steady hand cupping your face and brushing at your skin with flicks of his thumb?

A round of pulse fire slammed into the bulkhead above us, sending down a cascade of screwed-up chunks of metal and boiled paint. Hatch pushed me out of the way and leaned out from our alcove to return fire.

I watched him, pushing myself backward until my back met nothing but cold hard wall. Everything zipped, zoomed, and whooshed past me in this kaleidoscope of wild colors and sounds. It felt like my head would pop trying to follow it all.

I’m not made for real battle – I have no experience with this stuff. I used to get sick watching R-rated films, for god sake – I can’t take the violence, the noise, the gore. The bullets and pulse beams slicing past, that awful nose-raking scent of burnt flesh and overheated blood.

I looked down at my hands again. They were shaking with quick shivers like they were cold or something. I tried to wrap them around my middle, but it wouldn’t work; I couldn’t move them.

Wasn’t it ironic that Commander Hatch had thought I’d be able to help him down here? He’d been wrong: I couldn’t move.

A pulse blast slammed into a metal crate a couple of meters from our hiding spot. I watched as the electronic round ate through the metal, blistering the red Nilex Company logo. The blast didn’t go all the way, but it was enough to get Hatch’s attention.

He didn’t swear, just gave it the briefest of glances before lunging for me and crumpling me into his arms until his whole form covered mine.

I didn’t have time to notice his posture or the feel of his helmet pressed into my neck – none of the details a girl should notice when a marine from the future has her in his arms.

The crate exploded, a deafening clap renting the air. It felt like being slapped in the ears with church bells. The force of the blast shook through the floor and up into my back. Its heat and destructive power never reached me – Hatch’s shield took the brunt.

He moved, springing up and pulling me along with him.

“You okay?” He sliced his unblinking gaze toward me. He never closed those topaz eyes for long.

I nodded, praying with all my heart that he wouldn’t let go of my arm. I couldn’t think, couldn’t function. I wanted it all to go away, for Hatch to win and carry me back to safety.

I couldn’t do this.

I wasn’t looking at him. He swapped his gun to his other hand and grabbed my chin and angled my face up. “You have to stay with me, kid. I can’t do this without you. Stay – with – me.”

I wanted to fall forward and come to rest on that armored chest – wait until he’d wrap his arms around me and tell me this was all some joke. An exercise, just more training.

He turned away, dropped my chin, and fired off two shots as a hulking Trip’tan sprinted around the corner.

I squeezed my eyes closed in time. I heard a hiss as the Trip’tan’s shields gave way and his final gurgled cry before he hit the ground.

“There can’t be many more of them.” Hatch didn’t look back at me. “Plus, the arms locker should be around here somewhere.”

I didn’t answer, didn’t nod – made no indication I’d understood what he’d said.

“You can do this, Ariel.” He didn’t look at me as he peered around the edge of the bulkhead to check for more enemies. “That’s why you’re my lucky star.”

I was glad he couldn’t see me blushing. Gladder still when he shot two more berserker Trip’tans as they dashed our way.

We were on the run again. He didn’t pull my arm this time; he strafed to the side as he fired at the mercenaries hiding behind the crates and boxes in this vast space-hangar.

It was up to me to keep myself alive.

I stumbled after him, crouching behind whatever crate or warped bit of metal-walkway he motioned me toward.

He ducked next to me as he threw a timed grenade with a mighty arc of his powerful arm. In a couple of seconds, it detonated, causing another louder secondary explosion that pushed a box right into my back.

It must have been one of those red Nilex crates. Nilex was a galactic weapons company that specialized in selling armaments to whoever the hell could pay regardless of what they wanted to use them for. Killing civilians? Harming children and the infirm? Sure, why not? Nilex didn’t care about politics, only money.

“Locker’s that way.” Commander Hatch moved the muzzle of his smooth, rounded assault rifle over to the left.

I could see it – the door in the side of the hangar room wall.

I swallowed hard.

This was it.

“Can you do it from here?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t see the panel from this distance. “We need to get closer.”

Hatch nodded, his helmet bobbing up and down, the impenetrable translucent force-field over his eyes giving the faintest of crackles. He checked the radar on his wrist. “Okay, Star, I need you to make a run for it.”

I pretended not to hear him as I tried to shy further back against the crate behind me.

“You gotta do it. You’ll be okay. Go. I’ve got your back.”

He pushed me forward.

I stumbled and set off across the floor.

A pulse blast raced right past my back. I could feel it suck the oxygen from the air.

I screamed.

I bolted for the door. Hatch may have shouted something at me – but I couldn’t hear. By the time I reached that stupid small door, my eyes were so clogged with tears I ran straight into it.

The access panel sat high to the right, halfway up the frame at head height. This was made for Trip’tans, not petite human women.

I grabbed for the panel with both my hands, the metal smooth under my sweaty, bare skin.

I had to open it by bypassing the lock; that’s why I was here. Hatch hadn’t brought me along to be an annoying liability – he needed me to open this.

So I concentrated. I sucked up all my courage and screwed my eyes so tightly closed the tension turned to pain.

The panel beeped just as a Trip’tan came right behind me.

I spun as Hatch fired on the thing – one blast close-range then a pistol-whip to the chin.

The alien went down so close to me, one of his arms knocked me backward through the doorway.

I landed with a thump, losing my concentration. The door began to close right on top of me – slicing down from above like one of those traps you find in side-scroller games.

Hatch threw himself at me, pushing us both into the arms locker and free of the door as it snapped closed.

….

Silence. Total silence. The door and shielding blocked the noise from outside. Only the rasping of our breath filled the air. Hatch’s steadied as he pushed himself off the floor and off of me, but mine putted like a broken engine.

That was the second time in several minutes I’d been face-to-face, belly-to-belly, body-to-body with Commander Lance Hatch and not had the presence of mind to note the details. I was too whacked out on adrenaline and gut-punching fear.

He leaned down and pulled me up with him. “You okay, Star?” He clutched both my shoulders in his hands as he checked my face and all the way down my body. “You aren’t hurt?”

Lucky Star was his brand new nickname for me. It was easier than Ariel De Winter.

“You got us here, Star – couldn’t have done it without you.”

I looked up at him – flushed, embarrassed by his proximity. Not embarrassed, but nervous – worried my face would blister and burn hot red like the melting paint on a Nilex box.

“You did good.” He wasn’t letting go of my shoulders, nor was he looking anywhere but at me. “You okay?” He reached up a hand and brushed at my face with one of those stiff-gloves.

It sent an electrifying shiver down my spine.

“W-w-w-wh-wha-wha.” I gave up on trying to speak. Listening to myself was like hearing a recording of your most embarrassing moment played over and over again on an endless loop.

He took away one of his blessed hands and keyed the code into his arm pad that opened his helmet. It hissed all the way back as the shield separated from the armor to reveal Commander Hatch in all his glory. His face was angular, and his chin cut fine and sharp against his jawbone. His hair was a closely cropped brown hint all along his skull, and his eyes were as turquoise as ever.

Hatch keyed more codes into his arm pad until the armor protecting his hands receded into the cuffs around his wrists. “You’re alright.” He looked at my face again. “All we have to do here is wait – the reinforcements will get here soon.”

….

“Star? Ariel? You with me? You alright?”

“W-w-wait here?” the words freed themselves from my stiff lips and shaking throat.

He nodded gently. “Yeah. We’ll be okay in here – there’s no way they can make it through Atlantian shields. Thanks to you.” A look of real admiration burnt in his eyes, growing hotter and hotter by the second.

The moment stretched on. My heart wanted to fly from my chest and ricochet around the room like a pinball strapped to a rocket.

His suit gave a hiss, and I screamed. It was just a hiss, nothing more than automatic repairs.

But it was such a girly scream.

“Whoa! You’re alright.”

Then did something altogether unexpected. His face twitched from surprise to electric determination. “Oh, fuck it.” He pulled me close and kissed me.

It was the most intense, amazing, invigorating experience of my life. He pressed a hand the small of my back, pushing me up to meet him. His face pressed warmly against mine, firm, alive, real as his lips traced the line of my neck.

About bloody time.

Chapter 1

Several months earlier

I didn’t wake up straight away; it took a real long time. It felt like pushing up through an endless ceiling of water – heading toward that tapestry of light above. Slow and agonizing.

The first thing I saw was the light shining in my eyes. A couple of forms moving in and out as my vision twisted everything around me into a merry-go-round of shapes and sounds. It felt like I’d been loaded into one of those crazy spinning rides you get at royal shows and fairs – you know the ones called Gee Whizzer, or the Zipper, or Go Real Fast and Throw Up.

I felt something on my shoulders as a shape, maybe a person, moved in front of me. That’s when I noticed it – the cold. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t shake or shiver, and I sure as hell couldn’t see anything – all I could do was concentrate on that awful bitter cold.

“Hmph ammm phhh?” Someone spoke, but all I could make out was a string of pitching tones. It sounded like a teddy bear had come to life and tried to squeeze its speech through a throat made of fabric and stuffing.

“Aggggghhhhh,” was the only thing that would come out of my mouth as I gained the motor control to part my lips.

It happened slowly, but the world around me cleared. What had been amorphous, distorted shapes several seconds ago were solidifying into stable scenery. There was a ceiling, painted gray; a couple of walls, also painted gray; and a floor, which was gray.

As my eyes focused, I could make out a pair of boots on that floor – real heavy-looking boots that reminded me of a cross between army-regulation shoes and the kinds of magnetic-reinforced footwear you see on pictures of astronauts.

It took a moment for me to realize I was paying those boots far too much attention. I forced my eyes to travel up to the legs that were wearing them. Up again, then up once more until I came across a face.

The face looked back at me. I diverted all brainpower to trying to make sense of what I saw. I could make out eyes and the outline of a head – the thin line of a pressed-lipped smile.

Something was wrong. There was some kind of helmet in between, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was bulky and metallic-looking around the sides and up over the back of the head. Around the face was this impossible shimmering sheet of translucent orange. It flickered and twisted in patches, like ripples across an otherwise calm lake.

Suddenly I pitched forward, my head dropped down toward those fancy boots, and I threw up all over them.

Nice.

“Oh, crap.” The boots, or the guy in the boots, took a couple of steps backward and shook his legs from side-to-side. “That’s great.”

“She’s alive then?”

“Yep,” the boot-wearer confirmed. “Looks like they all made it.”

I didn’t know what they were talking about. I wanted to sink to my knees and throw up again. I couldn’t; something was restraining me, some kind of metal bar across my chest.

I opened my eyes again – they’d drifted closed. The owner of those fine boots was still standing in front of me, though far enough away that he wouldn’t be affected should I choose to evacuate my stomach again.

“You alright, human?”

Human? Who the hell goes around calling people that? Girl, lady, chick, honey I could understand – but human was such a strange thing to call someone it I crinkled my nose in confusion.

“Oh no,” the guy took a step to the side, fearing a second helping, “turn your head to the side, human. Take it easy; reanimation takes awhile.”

Two things were wrong with that statement: firstly, he’d called me human again, and secondly, what the hell was reanimation? I tried to force my mouth to form the questions, but my lips trembled like jelly in an earthquake.

Whatever this reanimation thing was, it was playing havoc with my nervous system. Great electric pulses slammed through my limbs and crackled across my skin as if I’d strapped myself with metal and stood on a skyscraper in a storm.

“You’re almost done,” the guy said reassuringly.

Was I being cooked? No. I was being defrosted, right?

Something pinged, something pinged. It was as if I was in a giant microwave and the damn thing was beeping to signal that everything was done and I was ready to eat.

Great.

There was a hiss, and whatever held me back disappeared. I slumped forward right into Mr Boot Man’s arms.

“Whoa there.” He sunk to the floor with me, propping me against his knees with both hands. “This one still can’t move, Ja’Kal.”

My limbs were jelly. Worse than jelly – my arms and legs were that silly string you get in cans, the stuff that wobbles around and couldn’t hold up a gnat let alone a human.

Despite the fact my body was closed for emergency repairs, my mind was racing around in a flurry. Where the hell was I? What was on that guy’s helmet? Where did he get those boots? Why was everything gray? Why the hell couldn’t I move?

My mind switched again, and I lost track of those burning questions with a virtual snap of my fingers.

Christ, this guy was good looking.

My eyes focused on him as my head lolled against his lap. I mean w-o-w. We’re talking a razor-sharp chiseled jawline spattered with a ray of stubble and these amazing light-blue eyes.

He looked like some picture – like those rugged model-types you get in outdoors ads or stylized Hollywood adaptations of the army.

“You alright, human? You aren’t going to throw up again, are you?” Suspicion rang through his voice. “Color’s returning to your cheeks fast, though – shouldn’t be too long until you can move.”

… Where the hell was I?

I didn’t recognize anything, nothing at all. Not the room I was in or the guy whose arms I’d sunk into. What made this all the more worrying, what made the fear pick up and grasp at my throat as the terror got a hold of me, was that I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t say what day it was, what I’d had for breakfast, or what the weather was supposed to be.

Oh, Christ, this couldn’t be happening to me. Acute shock pounded through me, my breath catching in my throat.

I squeezed my eyes closed until pain rippled along my temples. Ariel De Winter – that’s my name. 24. I work in a call center, which I hate, and I live at home with one cat and one annoying flatmate. I had a bad veggie burger last week that gave me indigestion.

Should I remember all that if I have amnesia?

“Human.” The guy gave my shoulders a squeeze. “Can you move yet?”

I opened my eyes, a million questions burning to get out. Instead, I screamed, and damn I put my all into it. It was the kind of full-bodied burst of terror you might have upon seeing a mushroom cloud ripple above the horizon. It was long too – at least seven seconds of ridiculous throat-pounding terror. Goddamn it, I was scared.

There was a monster standing behind us. He had this sharp pointed head like you see on those animal programs when they show you a close up of an insect’s beady face. It looked hard too, not like human skin, but like the tough exoskeleton of a crayfish or a crab. The thing stood tall, a couple of feet above the average person, and it was wearing a bodysuit like Mr Boots. Claw-like appendages ended on its arms where there should have been hands, and they looked sharp.

I screamed again.

“Hey, hey, hey, you are alright.” Mr Boots tried to double over me, tried to block my view of the monster with his own form.

It wouldn’t work; I kept screaming, trying to will my muscles to move so I could crawl the hell away.

“Ja’Kal, you should stand outside for now,” Mr Boots said calmly as he still blocked my vision with the bulk of his torso and helmet.

In another second my scream wheezed to a stop.

“Shoosh, it’s all right,” Mr Boots hushed in the gentlest of tones. “You are alright, human; nothing is going to hurt you.” Mr Boots took one hand off my shoulder and fumbled with something on his wrist. In another second whatever force field was covering his face blinked out, and the metal bulk of his helmet receded into his body suit with a hiss.

If that was meant to comfort me, it sure as hell didn’t. I went to scream again, failed, and spluttered instead.

“It’s a helmet, a force field.” He put one armor-gloved hand up to where the orange field had been and waved it about. “It’s not dangerous. It’s okay, you are alright,” his voice was steady, believable.

“Wh- where- where am I?”

He looked surprised that I’d managed to squeeze out my tortured words, and a grin cracked across his face. “That’s not what you should be asking human; it’s when.”

What?”

Chapter 2

Things happened pretty fast from then on. Not movie-montage fast, more like a steady, heady pace that saw me hefted up by the Mr Boots and carried out of the room and along some strange corridor.

Things smelt of metal, stale air, and a mix of suspicious chemicals. The corridor itself was narrow with a domed ceiling and a row of tiny lights that ran a ruler length above the floor.

The corridor was long, more like a covered bridge between two points. As I looked harder at the metal walls, there did appear to be regular sealed joints between the metal – like you see in those flight tunnels they attach to aircraft at large airports. Could that be what this was? Had I been on an airplane? Had there been an accident of some sort, something that would necessitate sending in soldiers with force-field helmets and bug-headed sidekicks?

Yeah, of course not.

Mr Boots must have seen me looking around, because he cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows in that way people do when they want you to notice them. As if anyone would have trouble noticing him.

I looked up, awkward, because, being in his arms, I was like 40cm from his face.

“You feeling better? Your cheeks have got their color back, which is a good sign.”

“Ah, yeah, sure.”

He looked at me awkwardly. I didn’t blame him. My answer was more the kind of response you would expect to receive from a surly teenager begrudgingly agreeing to take out the trash.

“Don’t you want to know where you are? If I was in your position, all I’d be doing is asking questions, human,” he continued, “I guess you old Earthlings don’t seem the inquisitive types.”

“Uhmmm,” I made a strange noise, my heart rattling faster. “Human?” I managed to mumble.

“Yeah, I’m human,” he answered casually. His whole face, his whole posture – it was all calm. It was like he wasn’t lifting me at all – like I weighed little more than a plastic bag full of air.

“I’m a human too.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“Why do you keep on calling me human then? My name’s Ariel.”

“It wasn’t written on your pod, hu—” he appeared to stop himself, “Ariel. Strangely enough, you weren’t in the computer’s systems. Your pod was supposed to be occupied by a 55-year-old man named Frank. I figured that wasn’t you.”

“Pod? Frank? Computer?” I stopped myself before I spouted out any more useless words. I didn’t want this guy to think I was limited to single-word sentences.

“You’ll find out soon enough – we’re nearly on the Barracks. Goddamn decon tunnels are too long.”

Sure enough, we appeared to reach the end of the long corridor. Waiting on the other side was this strange wall of thick metal that pulled open with a pneumatic hiss as we approached. It had a large but odd looking wheel on the front – like you see in those pictures of submarines that have airlocks leading to the outside.

I became transfixed looking at all the extraordinary devices, the color of the metal, the texture of the floor – everything we passed as we went through the door was alien to me. Where the hell were we?

The tunnel had lulled me, made me forget that hey, I’d woken up in a strange place with a monster and a man. Now that thought was back, and it was bouncing through my mind like a loaded spring.

The only way I could describe what I saw around me was it looked like the set of some film. Everything was shiny, as if someone had spent a week setting the lights to the perfect level. The metal of the walls and floors was so clean and crisp it all looked like they’d rhodium plated it until it shone like white gold.

The airlock itself opened out into a much wider room, with a similar door at the opposite end. Through that was another, much wider corridor. There were people in this one.

A group of them were standing around – several humans and several other monsters.

I shivered like a wet dog locked outside on a stormy night, pressing myself up close to Mr Boots’ chest in the hope he’d turn around and run back through that airlock like a man possessed.

He didn’t.

“Don’t worry,” he had that same genuine calm tone, “they aren’t going to hurt you.”

As if that mattered. There were at least three other types of… creatures standing with the humans. There was the insect-headed-looking monster from before, another guy who looked like a giant blue lion-man, another who looked like… like freaking ET.

One of the humans walked toward us. She was tall and silver-haired with a hard frown set on her face. “This is the other one, then?”

Mr Boots nodded. “Managed to get the pod to give her up, Doc. Damn thing held onto her like a Trip’tan to a box of yarlish.”

“She’s not in the files,” the doc didn’t look at me as she spoke; she locked her eyes onto Mr Boots and didn’t care that the object of her conversation was 30 centimeters away, “Who in the galaxy is she then? I’ve already interviewed the others – they have no idea who she is; they were all expecting Major Frank Baker or something.”

Mr Boots shrugged. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“Hmmm.” The doctor let her eyes travel to me for a brief moment before she turned around. “Be a good man and take her to the med bay – I don’t have your fancy armor, Commander, and she looks heavy.”

Ouch.

Too much had been said in that conversation for me to concentrate too hard on that insult. Who was this Major Frank Baker, and what did they mean that I had taken his place? What was the pod and why wouldn’t it let me out? Argh, what was going on around here?

It didn’t take long for the commander to take me to the med bay, just around a couple of doors and down one short straight corridor. Once there, he placed me on a raised bed and stepped back with a quick jerk as if he were a regimental soldier preparing for a march. He stood all stiff with both hands clasped behind his back and stared at the door waiting for the doctor to arrive.

The doctor was taking her time, and it was clear from the commander’s stance that he didn’t care to converse. I found myself staring around at the strange room instead. My eyes settled on the wall to the left. It was painted slate-gray with two thick red lines running parallel to the ceiling. Between the lines was painted Medical Bay, then a long space before GFS Barracks.

GFS Barracks? What did that mean?

Before I could brave asking a question out loud, the doctor walked in with an entourage of several other people and monsters. She began playing around with some fancy technical-looking machines. She said “Hmm” a couple of times.

“Her readings are similar to the others,” the doctor looked over her shoulder to the rest of the med bay, “though her body is more fatigued. Adrenaline and cortisone are high. Muscles show elevated lactic-acid levels, which seems consistent with a problematic reanimation.”

One of the ET aliens walked up alongside the doctor and looked at the readings. He shook his head and looked right at me. I must have looked ready to reach for anything around me and throw it at him – my eyes were locked open, my mouth askance with fear.

“Analysis of the pod’s core shows no mechanical malfunction,” ET spoke, and thankfully it sounded normal. He had a slight accent, as you might expect from someone who’d traveled a lot. Which made the whole thing all that freakier. “Telemetry from the ship’s scanners didn’t pick up any fluctuations in the stasis field before we boarded the transport. I cannot concur with your readings, Doctor.”

I made brief eye contact with the commander. He had a curious look on his face and was analyzing me carefully. I caught his eyes as he did a full-body scan of me, and he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t look away like he should – he kept checking me out head-to-toe like it was a reasonable thing to do to a girl.

I had only just gotten my blush under control. It now erupted over my face without a second to spare. I may purport to be a lot of things, but I know I’m not the kind of girl who can take that attention without so much as a blink.

“Her pulse has increased, blood pressure too, increased vasodilation in the capillaries of her face.” The doctor looked up at me, saw that I was still looking at the commander, and smirked. “Non-pathological.”

“Is there something wrong, Doc?” The commander jerked his head toward the doctor.

“Oh nothing out of the ordinary,” the doctor said with another chuckle. “These readings are mostly normal. With stimulants, the patient will be functional in minutes.”

Things went silent, and I cast around for something else to look at – anything other than Mr Commander Boots over there with the piercing laser-scanner-like eyes.

Until then I’d been facing the direction the commander had laid me down in. So I used what muscle strength I had to prop myself up and look around. The med bay was large – opening up behind me with at least 20 more beds and a plethora of scanners and equipment. Further back toward the other end of the room there were other patients.

I squinted to get a better look. They were all human. They didn’t appear to be crew. They weren’t wearing that distinctive orange and black armor like the commander, or the tight red and black jumpsuits of the doctor and her entourage. One of the guys looked like he was in jeans.

That’s when I noticed. They were all looking at me. There were five of them – and they were all sitting on their respective beds and looking in my direction. I couldn’t tell, but they didn’t seem to be happy. One of the guys, who was tall and butch with a carrot top, looked like he wanted to leap up and throw himself at me. His arms were tensed as he sat in his bed, his face squeezed with restrained anger.

The doctor injected me with something from a device that didn’t resemble a syringe at all. Whatever the hell was in it sent a shiver through my body, and within seconds I felt like jumping over mountains and sprinting through wet sand.

“Good to go then.” The commander nodded my way. “It’s time we ask you some questions.”

My body was brimming with so much energy that I giggled.

My mind was addled and tripping on whatever the doc had injected into me.

The commander looked at me in a half-amused, half-suspicious way. “You sure she’s up for this, Doc?”

The doc nodded. “It is important we find out what’s going on here, don’t you agree, Commander Hatch?”

“Yes, I do.” He turned to me. “Do you have any memories before entering stasis? Could you inform us as to why you were in the stasis pod of another human? Were you part of the Foundation Force?”

I looked back at him, lips parted and limp. “What?”

“Were you part of the Foundation Force?”

“Is that a comic book? Or like one of those conventions where you dress up as your favorite anime character and try and win a prize?” I mean, Foundation Force? What the hell else could it be?

He blinked. “No. Foundation Force was a group of highly skilled professional military men and women who were loaded into stasis before the worldwide event of 2012.”

“Worldwide event? Was that some rock concert like for AIDS or poverty or something?” my voice was real weak. I knew my question was idiotic. It didn’t matter, because what he said made no sense. A group of people from the army, a worldwide event?

“No,” his voice became firm. “On the 21st of December, 2012, the Earth’s magnetic poles switched orientation, and this resulted in a cataclysmic event for humankind.”

Everything slowed down. There was a strong taste of metal in my mouth, as if I’d been struck in the face. “What are you talking about?” I hated the fragile note in my voice, but I could do nothing to stop it.

“You do not remember the Cataclysm, or the events leading up to it? The weeks before – the earthquakes, the electrical storms, the tidal waves? Four Billion people died – how could you forget that?”

“F- f- f- four billion people?”

He frowned. “You have no memory of the events leading up to your stasis?”

“I had indigestion,” I said in a high-pitched voice, then doubled over and started to cry. The tears came quick and fast. Sobs racked my body – shifting it from side-to-side as if I were being shaken by the shoulders. “Four billion people?

Those three words kept ricocheting around my head. I didn’t understand them; they were empty and soulless. From somewhere inside of me, I could feel this deep ache. That simple statement had bypassed my brain to find meaning somewhere much deeper down.

“Four billion people?” I asked one more time, my face a hot and wet mess of tears. “What are you talking about…?” My words were hollow.

With a shudder, I started to remember the news reports, the army in the streets, the panic-stricken faces of all the people. I started to remember the wholesale terror, the wretched fear, the inescapable horribleness of it all.

Mr Boots, or Commander Hatch, or whoever he was, looked shocked at my display. He clearly wasn’t expecting me to break down over three little words. The way he’d said it, the matter-of-fact manner in which he’d blurted out that nearly two-thirds of the world’s population had died was like it was some ancient historical fact to him.

“I—” he began before trailing off and shooting a desperate look at the doctor.

The doctor, for her part, looked on at me passively, her lips pressed together and her gaze unflinching. ET next to her, bizarrely, was the only one showing a human reaction to my grief. His big green face crumpled with shock, those huge eyes growing wide with concern. He rubbed his three-fingered green hands together with the quick jerks of someone unsure of what to do next. “The human is in great distress – she should be comforted.”

“It’s a side-effect of the drugs – partial loss of inhibitions,” the doctor’s voice was supremely cold.

I choked and stared right at her with eyes that flared with anger. “Inhibitions? You told me nearly everyone is dead – how am I supposed to react? Why don’t you care? Why don’t you care?!

The commander looked way out of his depth, but at least his face opened with genuine compassion. “Ah, doctor, I thought you said all the pod’s occupants had been briefed on the Cataclysm?”

“The other occupants reported having full knowledge of the 2012 disaster, yes,” the doctor confirmed with a dispassionate tone. “Their government informed them of the death toll before sealing them into stasis.”

“It seems like we’re telling her for the first time.” He scratched his neck nervously. “We should stop and let her cool down – god, this is way too much for anyone to hear all at once.”

“Commander, we are obliged to collect all information on the pod’s occupants to send back to Central Command. A stasis transport like this hasn’t been picked up with live occupants for nearly 50 years. It contained old Atlantian technology – under the Galactic treaty we have to gather all data that we can to send it to the Council immediately.”

I cried and sniffed with unabashed loudness. Four billion people… they couldn’t be telling the truth. This all had to be some elaborate joke, some stupid prank. “This can’t be real.”

“It is real,” the doctor snapped. “Very real. It’s time you dropped the act. The other occupants of your stasis transport have already informed me that you were not intended to be on the flight. You took the place of their leader. The question is why and how? I am not familiar with old-Earth history, but I do know that most stasis flights were strictly controlled by the military. You are not army. How did you get on board?”

I stared at her. Her words were cold, stabbing. A raw bitter emotion burnt behind them, her expression mirroring the hatred of the occupants of the pods.

The commander looked back to me, but his face had lost that compassionate edge. “What do you mean, Doc?”

“From the testimonials of the other occupants and from the preliminary cross reference of the transport’s computers, it is clear that this woman stole Major Frank Baker’s position.”

Silence met that statement, and somehow most of it was coming from me. Stole? I stole something?

“Maybe it was the desperation of seeing her planet crumble, or she has some sociological disorder that the computer has yet to pick up – but it is clear she gained Frank’s position through nefarious means. No one blames you for being desperate,” she looked at me with those bitter cold eyes, “but in appropriating another man’s pod, you killed him.”

“This conversation is wrong.” ET touched the tips of his fingers together as he spoke. “This human is distressed, and the computer’s analysis is inconclusive. We should not condemn her based solely on the testimony of the other occupants – the accuracy of their recall can be questioned considering the length of their stasis. 400 years is by far the longest stasis on record – we should be careful as to how we approach this. Nothing is for certain.”

Out of a whole room of people the only person who was on my side was the one that freaked me out the most. The only being acting with a scrap of humanity was the alien.

I looked up hopefully at Commander Hatch – he’d been kind up to this point.

He stared back with a strict look. It was clear who he’d chosen to believe.

“I didn’t steal anyone’s place.” I dropped my gaze.

“You have regained your memories and can tell us the exact sequence of events?” the doctor queried immediately.

I shook my head. The only memories I had were flashes of images, mostly of terrified faces and streets filled with panicked rioters.

“You cannot say that you didn’t steal Frank’s place.”

“I didn’t,” I replied bitterly, without looking at anything but my hands. I started to cry again. “400 years,” I managed through sobs, “400 years?”

Commander Hatch’s face softened. “Yeah, the year’s 2412.”

I put a hand up to my face, an arm around my middle, and doubled over.

I was 400 years in the future.

The tears weren’t coming anymore; they were stuck by the shock and were building with a cloying pressure in my chest. I was ready to explode.

I was 400 years in the future. Everyone I’d ever known… they were all dead.

Everyone.

Chapter 3

Several days passed. Several agonizing days.

I started to remember flashes of my past – I was supposed to go on a trip to Italy in a couple of months. Or at least I’d planned it before the earthquakes and riots had started. Italy didn’t exist anymore (not in the way the tourist brochure displayed), and I was pretty sure my tickets would be invalid by now.

My mind would get stuck on facts like that as I sat in the small room they’d provided me with, or walked aimlessly in the gray corridors until someone told me I was getting in their way and shooed me off. I would think about my cat, my job, how much money I had left in my bank account. That bill I needed to pay by next week, the washing machine I needed to call up and get fixed – except my cat was long dead, my job gone, my bank account nonexistent, my bill overdue, and my washing machine some recycled scrap metal in a Galactic Battle Cruiser.

My old life, my life, was gone. Wiped away as if it’d had just been a picture on an Etch a Sketch, and Commander Hatch had shaken it clean off.

For three full days, I sat on the edge of my bed, which was a nook in the wall with a gel mattress, and stared at the wall. Occasionally I walked through the corridor outside of my quarters and stared out the viewing portal. I watched the stars as they passed by as streaks of yellow and white, but mostly stared at the deep black patches between them.

I tried to ignore the stares and snide comments.

As soon as the story spread that I’d stolen Major Frank Baker’s pod, the whole ship turned against me. Commander Hatch hardly bothered to look at me when we spoke, yet he still maintained a polite demeanor. Everyone else was content either to ignore me or give me withering glances when they passed me in the corridor.

I was used to abuse over the phone, sure. I’d been bumped into by people in a crowd. Once I was mugged on the subway. This was different. This was everywhere and everyone all at once. I didn’t understand how to make it stop.

While most of my situation had been explained to me, there were still alarming holes. I was in the future, I had accepted that. 400 years to be precise. Back in 2012, there had been a disaster on Earth: the magnetic poles had switched and caused all sorts of chaos. In the ensuing disaster, four billion people died. The shock to humanity of losing all of our infrastructure, all our cities, and many of our people must have been terrifying. Wars broke out for control of the remaining resources, and it wasn’t long until what states remained began to pool those supplies into creating more and more destructive weapons to gain the upper hand.

Space was seen as something of a gold mine. All those satellites and all that space junk hanging around in orbit. They represented raw materials and technology. Those that could, scrambled to cobble together crafts capable of spaceflight.

Humanity flung itself toward the stars, looking for resources.

That wasn’t the full story, nowhere near. Soon after the shocking cataclysm of 2012, strange devices began to float up on beaches and islands. Disturbed by the monumental earthquakes and tidal waves – something had been dislodged deep in the oceans of the Earth. These devices were unlike anything humanity had ever seen, far beyond the technology of the years preceding the disaster. Far, far, far beyond it. The devices were so technical, so complex, that few figured out how to work them. Those who did were provided with a real and tactical advantage over the other survivors.

Atlantis, that’s what the ET alien had told me. His name was Pinkari, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of him as ET. In the movie that alien was nice, and Pinkari was about the only person ready to talk to me on this ship.

Atlantis was an ancient race of hyper-advanced humans who’d lived on Earth long before the onset of modern civilization. They had been an ocean-based people, with numerous buildings and cities built deep, deep beneath the waves. So deep that the people of my time had no idea they existed.

Though that wasn’t entirely true. I was learning that in dribs and drabs. The other people who’d survived in the stasis pods, the people who were making my life hell, they knew. That’s what the Foundation Force had been.

The most powerful governments of the world had known, under the greatest secrecy, of the Atlantians and their technology. That’s how in 2012 they’d been able to build a series of pods capable of rendering a human being into cryogenic stasis. They’d cannibalized the technology of the ancient Atlantians and managed to couple it onto our own.

Within these pods, they’d loaded various experts on Atlantian technology and other high-ranking officials. The pod I had apparently stolen had belonged to a man, Frank Baker, who’d been a military adviser to the Americans on the technology of the ancient Atlantians.

Why did this matter so much? Why did it matter to Commander Hatch and the rest of the crew of the Galactic Federation Ship (or GFS for short) Barracks that I’d survived and not this Frank guy? It shouldn’t matter to them – what was the difference between two people who were 400 years out-of-date? Neither Frank nor I would understand the galaxy of 2412. Both of us would have been equally as ignorant and useless.

I sighed so heavily it reverberated up my rib cage. My quarters had a small bathroom off to one side. I pushed myself off the bed and padded over to it in my bare feet.

I shivered as I walked. I’d been doing that a lot lately. The doc had said something about troubles with reanimation, but I didn’t believe that. I was shivering because I was cold inside out. My world was gone, and my life would never be the same. I was alone with nothing to do, no one to talk to.

And that wasn’t going to change.

When I reached the bathroom, I turned on the tap. A green-tinged liquid came out. It wasn’t water, I knew that much. It smelt of strange chemicals and had the consistency of watered-down corn-flour syrup. I hated it, but there was no alternative. I cupped both my hands under the flowing tap and splashed the liquid over my face, letting my hands rest over my eyes as the last of the non-water trickled back through my fingers.

I peered up at the mirror. I took a good long look. Who was I? The heart-shaped face and freckles were still there. My shoulder-length shiny black hair hadn’t fallen out, nor had my dull brown eyes. All of me still looked back at me in that mirror. Except I wasn’t there, not really. My eyes were about as stuck and dull as it was possible to imagine. They belonged on a mannequin or a broken china doll – not a living, breathing person.

I half contemplated getting in the shower for a while. It wouldn’t help any; the green liquid felt awful as it trickled down my skin. But at least it would be something to do. I started to undress, letting my clothes fall to the ground where I stood.

I remembered my necklace. I clutched at it. It was the only thing I owned that reminded me of home. It was a graduation present from my grandparents – a white gold and diamond pendant.

I let my hand settle over it briefly, not long enough for the tears to return, though. I didn’t want to remember my grandparents, not now.

It was silly, but I hated when my necklace touched that awful green muck, so I always took it off before I showered. There was no flat surface to put it on in the bathroom – the damn place was too military; all it had was a toilet, a sink, and a shower. I’d developed a routine of taking my necklace off and placing it carefully on my bed before I washed.

I walked back into my quarters proper, looping my hands under my hair to unhook the clasp.

Commander Hatch chose that moment to walk through my door.

I looked at him, his eyes blinking like a camera shutter on slow. I screamed and ran back to the bathroom like a hay cutter before the rains.

Holy crap.

“I—” Hatch said from the other room. “Sorry,” he sounded more genuine than he had in days. “Your room’s status was marked as available.”

I was pressed up right against the side of the bathroom door, way out of sight. There was no actual door to close – this was a single quarters. A single and available quarters, apparently. If I wasn’t red hot with embarrassment, I might chuckle at that. “I… my quarters are available?”

“There’s an option with the computer to mark your quarters as busy or available – it lets people know whether they can call on you.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

There was an awkward pause in which I eyed off my clothes. They were a meter away within full view of the door and Commander Hatch.

“What do you want?” I asked with a forced casual voice. I didn’t want him to know I was melting into a puddle right here on the bathroom floor.

“Ah, I….” He paused, obviously pulling himself together. It must have been a shock to see my naked form trotting across the room. “I’m here to take you to meet the Diplomat.”

“Okay.” I didn’t think to ask him who the Diplomat was, and why they got away with having such a cool name. All I wanted was for him to get the hell out of my room so I could run the stupid green water over my face until it cooled.

“I’ll wait outside,” he said. There was a whoosh as the door closed behind him.

Mortified, I turned my face to the ceiling and took a deep breath, holding it for a couple of seconds before releasing it. Oh man, why the hell did that have to happen? The guy hates me, so what do I do? I strip naked and run around the room for him.

My hot skin began to cool down against the metal wall. I had to get dressed – the commander was waiting. Begrudgingly, I reached for my clothes and pulled them on. They were still my old clothes from 400 years ago: a pair of jeans, an old but comfortable blue t-shirt, and a black cardigan. The jeans were large and the t-shirt loose around my more than ample bosom – I can’t stand tight clothes for a variety of reasons. I won’t dress up like a Barbie.

As I walked out to my door, I crossed my arms over my chest. The door opened as soon as I reached out and pressed the green button on its side. Hatch stood with his back to me, hands clasped together as if he were on patrol. He turned as I approached, and I was shocked when his eyes drifted down to my chest for the briefest of seconds.

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

“That’s okay,” my voice pitched high, and I stared at the floor by his feet.

“The Diplomat is waiting.” He struck off down the corridor, and I was forced to follow in his brisk wake.

As we walked, my eyes drifted everywhere. I was still nervous and embarrassed and couldn’t seem to control my addled brain. More than a few times I found my gaze drifting down the commander’s back. I’ve always had a thing for guy’s backs. Not too hard, but still defined. I stared at his back, paying no attention to where he was taking me.

In a short while, we arrived at our destination. It was a conference room, or something like it. It was large and open, with a huge round table in the middle. The center of the table was a clear holo panel. But I wasn’t paying attention to that. The other people from the pods, my contemporaries, were seated around the table in a cluster. They glared at me as I walked in, especially the carrot top. His gaze was ferocious.

At the other end of the table was a tall woman in a long black robe. She was an alien, with delicate wet-looking blue skin dappled with turquoise marks. Her features resembled a human’s, though her eyes were oval and cat-like, and her limbs were long and elegant. She had thick, long hair that tangled all the way down to her lower back. It was encased in ties of ribbon and strings of beads that caught the light as she moved. Though I couldn’t be a judge of these things, she seemed beautiful.

She stood up from her chair as both Commander Hatch and I entered, and she nodded toward him.

“Thank you, Commander Hatch. You are welcome to join us,” as she spoke, a surge of what looked like light played across her skin – dapples of color and pigment moving over her lips, chin, and cheeks.

She gestured to a chair close to her with a sweep of one slender arm, and as she did, another surge of light played across her bare hand and fingers.

I tried not to stare, tried not to look at her with slack-mouthed wonder. She was amazing. For every movement she made, and for every word she spoke, a wave of color would dance across her form. I was reminded that some Earth animals like cuttlefish could use pigment changes across their skin as a form of language.

The commander shrugged his shoulders and sat with the beginnings of a dashing smile on his lips.

I stood there.

The Diplomat nodded to me. “Please sit, human.”

I hesitated. The closest chair to me was right next to Commander Hatch. I couldn’t sit next to him – not after he saw me naked; it would seem like I was coming on to him or something. I couldn’t not sit next to him either, as it would appear rude if I walked to another chair for no good reason.

A couple of seconds went by. People were looking at me. I freaked out and grabbed the chair next to Hatch and sat.

“Thank you, human.”

Carrot Top said something to his friends, and there was a general snigger. Just like high school. I turned my eyes to the table and tried to ignore them.

“Diplomat,” Carrot Top asked in his brisk tone, “why are we all here?” He looked straight at me.

“There are several things we need to discuss,” the Diplomat’s voice was soft and sweet like the gentle tinkle of a tiny bell. “We must decide what to do with you. I am here from the Galactic Federation Council. I am here to take your stories.”

“Our stories?” There was a note of derision in Carrot Top’s voice. Oh it was subtle, and no one else picked it up, but I could hear it. This guy was such a prick.

The Diplomat placed a hand on her chest. “My people collect the stories of our galaxy. Yours are yet to be documented. I am here to listen to your tales.”

“Oh, you want to know more about the Atlantians then?” Carrot Top was the most vocal, because he sure wasn’t letting anyone else speak. “We’ve already told everything to the captain. Or all we can,” he looked at me again, “Major Baker knew the most.”

For a brief moment, I was super glad I’d sat next to Commander Hatch. He may not like me, but if Carrot Top threw himself across the table and tried to strangle me, hopefully, the commander would intervene.

“I am interested in that story, yes, and others. I am interested in all of your stories. My people,” she placed her hand back on her chest, “wish to record everything that we can.”

Carrot Top snorted. “Is this like paperwork? Or are we going to have to write a reflective journal or something?”

“Oh you can write, can you?” It just came out; I wasn’t expecting it. I’d done it a couple of times in my job – when people would get rude at you, you’d snap and snitch right back. But I didn’t know what was possessing me to be snide toward a 6ft-something beefcake of an angry ginger who was clearly looking for a reason to punch me in the face.

His cheeks flushed and his lips sunk down his face. “What the hell did you say?”

“Enough,” Commander Hatch broke in. “Listen to the Diplomat.”

“I do not mean to burden you, humans, but your stories are important to my people. It has been over fifty years since we have come across stasis pods from before 2012. Your stories of the Cataclysm can add to our knowledge, help us understand how this occurred, and help the galaxy to remember those who died.”

It was humbling listening to her speak. Sure, she was an alien, but like Pinkari the ET, she was more human than most people I’d ever met. There was such a quiet grace about her – she felt safe and nice. I found myself wanting to open up to her, preferably without Carrot Top in the room. I needed someone to talk to.

“It will bring you comfort,” her eyes settled on me, “to let these stories go. We will hold them for you, and our race will always remember them as you did. Your families, your friends, the history of your people will always be kept through us if you grace us with their stories.”

I felt soft tears well in my eyes. I didn’t feel like crying, but they gathered nonetheless.

“No offense, but I can remember fine—” Carrot Top began.

“I’ll tell you,” I blurted out. “Whatever you want to know, I’ll tell you.” I put a hand up to my face and pretended to brush my fringe out of my eyes as I whisked away the tears.

“Thank you, human, my people are indebted to those who share.” She bowed her head gracefully.

“What’s her story worth?” Carrot Top growled. “She stole Major Baker’s spot – he knew everything about the Atlantians. Information that would’ve been of real use to you. We couldn’t tell the captain everything he wanted, but sure as hell the Major could have. She’s useless, a waste of goddamn space on this ship. You should throw her out an airlock before she harms anyone else.”

Before I could recede back in my chair or snap up and run for the door, the Diplomat placed a hand out in a classic stop-motion. “While it is true that information on the Atlantians is of utmost importance to the Galactic Federation, that is not the story I am here to record. The loss of your friend is unfortunate, but if you let me, he will be remembered.”

“Unfortunate? It’s a crime. The culprit is sitting over there.” Carrot Top looked more and more murderous by the second. Every time his eyes flickered with such intensity it made me want to throw my arms around the commander and scream like a girl. I’d never met anyone psychotic before, but I’d swear somewhere in Carrot Top there was a fatal flaw.

“This is enough.” The Diplomat rose. “I will see you one-by-one over the next several days. You are welcome to tell me all that you wish. Please remember it is the desire of the Council that you assist me.”

She walked out of the door.

I thought the commander might get up and go with her, leaving me alone with the psycho and his gang. He didn’t. He rose with a heavy sigh and motioned me up. “Return to your quarters,” he said to the others. “Come with me.” He waved me on.

As we walked out the door, I realized everyone else was free to roam the ship as they pleased. Only I had to be escorted here by the always-armed Commander. What the hell did that mean? Did they think I was some kind of threat or something? Did they think if I were left alone, I’d walk around casually murdering the crew or throwing spanners in fancy looking engine shafts?

As the commander walked me back, the question burned so strong in my mind that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. “Am I under house arrest or something?”

He glanced at me over his shoulder with a confused look spreading over his face. “House arrest?”

“Why do I need an escort? Am I not allowed to roam around the ship or something?”

He didn’t answer.

“Am I in custody?” my words were careful. I hadn’t considered it before. Yes, I’d been living a mini-hell for the past several days, but I hadn’t once thought that I might be in any real trouble. What if they thought I’d murdered that Baker guy? What if they put me in prison? What if I wound up in some dingy cell on a strange planet light years from Earth filled with galactic scum?

“Not yet.”

That answer wasn’t good enough. I was working myself up into a frenzy. “What are you going to do with me? I didn’t do anything wrong!” I became more and more desperate. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t know how I ended up in that pod, but I wouldn’t have murdered anyone. I wouldn’t have. Please believe me, I wouldn’t have stolen someone else’s chance for safety. I don’t see how everyone can hate me like this, nobody knows what happened!”

The corridor we were walking along was deserted, and Hatch ground to a halt and turned to face me. “Look,” he swallowed, “it doesn’t matter.” It was obvious he was holding back.

“Yes it does, how can the other survivors… how can they get away with treating me like this? I mean, why do you believe their story more than mine?”

“They were registered on the computer,” he snapped. “They were picked by the governments of your world to be saved because they had specialized knowledge that needed to survive. Your governments knew what was coming, and they knew they couldn’t stop it. Not even the technology of the modern galaxy could prevent a cataclysm like the one in 2012. Your governments also knew that the only way for humanity to survive, if it survived at all, was to preserve the knowledge of the Atlantians. They’d only begun to find it, but they knew its power. They used what tech they had to send a team of specialists into the safety of space, hoping their knowledge would survive the Cataclysm. That group was called the Foundation Force. They were intended to go back to earth after 50 years to restart civilization. Some did return, and they were instrumental in building the new humanity into a spacefaring race with the help of Atlantian technology. But some of those ships drifted too far out, and we’ve been finding them for the past 200 years.”

I swallowed. There was raw emotion behind Hatch’s words and fatigue, too.

“But why should that matter? You already know everything about the Atlantians. Your technology is much more advanced by now. Why do you care that I survived and not Major Frank?”

He pressed his lips together and stared at me with those clear-topaz eyes. “We are nowhere near the level of sophistication of the Atlantians – they had tech we couldn’t dream of. It matters. We don’t know enough about them, and we need everything we can.”

“Why?”

“We are at war.”

Those words seemed to bounce off me; I didn’t understand. We didn’t seem to be at war. Sure, this was a military vessel and Hatch didn’t ever seem to take his armor off, but we were hardly zooming around space and shooting enemy ships either. Was this a war against not wearing armor? If it was, he was winning. “What do you mean?”

“The Galactic Federation and all the races under her wing – we’ve all been at war with the Unity Races for over 100 years.”

“100 years,” my voice was blank, “but you don’t look like you’re at war.”

He gave me an annoyed look that saw his stubble-covered chin jut out at a sharp angle. “We are in Central Space, but I could take you out to the borders if you need to see a skirmish to believe me. Or I could show you footage of whole colonies being wiped out by Trip’tan foot soldiers and Androidia robots, if you’d like.”

I shook my head wordlessly.

“Anything we can find on Atlantian technology can help us.” He held a hand up in a fist as he made his point. “Anything.”

“Is it information you need or weapons?”

A smile spread across his face but disappeared in a blink. “Yeah, we need weapons—” he broke off. “It’s hard to explain. We have Atlantian weapons or weapons based on their technology. The information we need could help us use them better, make them more powerful. You aren’t going to understand, but their technology is set to evolve. Under the right conditions and with the right user, something that is a lump of metal to one person can power a spacecraft for another.”

“I understand what evolution is, Commander; I’m not that stupid,” I snapped. I couldn’t help but think that all of the other survivors had already been told all of this. That I’d not been trusted with the information or, worse, that I’d been deemed too stupid to understand.

“I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s a lot more complex than I’m ready to explain. There are certain people, humans mostly, who have the gene sequence to interact with Atlantian technology. We can’t copy it; the tech’s way too smart for that. These people are at the forefront of our war: they’re in the Council; they’re in the Space Force. These people need information – the more they understand Atlantian tech, the more they can make it work for them. Major Baker, he was the world expert before 2012. He had access to knowledge that we haven’t found since. I have to tell you, the whole ship was excited when we found your stasis transport drifting in space.”

“It could have changed the course of your war?”

“That’s right,” his words were growing colder and colder as he spoke. “It was a surprise when we found you instead.”

I was aware of my heartbeat, my hands growing so clammy I had to wipe them on my jeans. “An unpleasant surprise.”

He didn’t respond. “That’s why the other survivors and the crew are having trouble warming up to you.”

I nodded. “I see. I know my way back from here. You don’t have to lead me anymore.”

He looked at me, and I could tell his eyes were taking all of me in at once. “I’ll walk you to your door.”

He did, in silence.

Chapter 4

I don’t mope ordinarily, but I wasn’t in an ordinary situation, was I? Usually, I wallow for a couple of minutes or hours, shout out loud in the car if someone cuts me off, or ball my fists up real tight if someone starts giving me lip on the phone.

I used to be a pretty optimistic person. Things always change, I’d always remind myself, there’s no point in reacting to them in the same way. Sometimes you can laugh and joke about locking your keys in the house, and sometimes you can have a good moan about it instead.

I’d never experienced anything like this.

What’s the expression? There but for the grace of god go I? My innate optimism had never been tested by fire.

I’m not all optimism, though. On the outside, I’m pretty cynical. I like to crack stupid witticisms, but on the inside, I know everything will work out.

Things weren’t working out, though, were they? I was confined to my room on a spacecraft 400 years in the future. I had somehow survived a global cataclysm to replace a man who could have changed the course of a galactic war. I was the last person anyone wanted to see, but I was still here.

How was I dealing with it? By staring at the wall, occasionally at my hands, then at the door panel.

Real mature, ha? I didn’t know how else to deal with it. The only thing on my calendar to look forward to was my talk with the Diplomat. At first, I’d been excited about the prospect of getting everything off my chest and letting it all out. As the days passed and our appointment neared, I came to fear it more and more. What would happen once I’d told my story? It was the only unique thing about me in this time: my stupid life back in 2012 with cats, angry callers, and half-eaten packets of crisps. Once I shared that, what would I be? Would I fade away? Or would I forever be remembered, in this time, as the girl who shouldn’t have survived?

I put my hands over my face and flopped back on my bed. The peculiar gel mattress wobbled underneath me as it molded around my shape. I was driving myself crazy.

I needed to get out of this room. I needed to get off this ship too – but I didn’t see that happening anytime soon. What would Hatch do if he saw me sauntering around the ship? Would he shoot me? Or would he drag me back to my quarters, not because I was in custody or anything, but because I was like a deadly omen reminding everyone of what could have been?

I pushed off my bed. I couldn’t stay in this tiny gray room anymore. I would go insane. Next time Hatch marched in without knocking, I’d be jumping around the room with face paint on, yelping like a poodle. Which would get me shot.

I made a snap decision. I squeezed my hands into fists and made for the door. It swished open, and who should be standing there? Commander Hatch.

“Oh,” I said with surprise. “Ummm.”

“Going somewhere?”

Stalking me? I wanted to shoot back. It wasn’t a good idea. Plus, it wasn’t stalking – it was guarding. “I’m….” I let my eyes dart around the room but then I gave up. I didn’t have the energy to think of a reasonable excuse. “Cabin crazy,” I said in a high-pitched voice that sounded insane.

He nodded. “I don’t blame you. But you shouldn’t be walking around the ship on your own.”

You shouldn’t be standing outside my quarters in full-body armor with a gun. I’m not freaking Rambo. I held my tongue and tried to smile. “Look, if I don’t have anything to do, if I don’t have anyone to talk to soon – I’m going to go insane.”

“I realize that, but you can’t walk around the ship looking for entertainment. This is a military vessel. We are at war – we can’t have civilians getting in our way.” His expression was emotionless, like he was talking to a wall rather than a person. Or worse than that: like he was teaching a bad dog to be obedient.

It was starting to get to me. “Your solution is to lock me in my room? I bet the other survivors aren’t confined to their quarters. I bet they’re walking wherever they please, talking to whomever they please.”

He didn’t answer or make a move. He stared back dispassionately.

“You know back on Earth, we used to have this thing – innocent until proven guilty. You should try it out sometime.”

He opened his mouth, but I got in first, “No. You see, you don’t have any real evidence that I did anything. Do you think I’m James Bond or something? Do you think I sneaked into some secret facility and whacked this Frank guy while they were all being frozen and jumped into his pod just in time? Do you realize how insane that sounds? Presumably, they didn’t have these pods lying around on the sidewalk. I would have had to gain access to the most secure facility in the world or something. How do you think I did that? Do you think I’m MacGyver too?”

Confusion concertinaed his brow. “Who’s MacGyver?”

“A TV character, but I have a feeling you two would have gotten on. Whatever. My point is, does it make any sense to think I could do that?” I put a hand flat on my chest and felt my heart rattling away underneath. I wasn’t used to face-to-face confrontation. “Do you think after I sneaked in and stole that guy’s pod that all the other scientists would’ve shrugged and thought ‘oh, that was strange but whatever?’ because that’s stupid. How would I have done this?” I was having a full on rant at a guy with a gun, and it was exhilarating, kinda like riding your bike across a train track when you can hear the whistle only a couple of meters away.

Emotion was starting to crack the veneer of formality on Hatch’s face. His jaw jutted out again, and he flicked his head to the side with an annoyed movement. “No one is suggesting it happened like that.”

“Really? Are you sure? Stupid Carrot Top keeps on saying I killed Major Baker and stole his pod. How would I have done that?”

“Who’s Carrot Top?”

The wind flew from my sails. “The ginger-haired one. I never learned his name.”

“Stephen Brown. Lieutenant Stephen Brown.”

“Okay then, thank you. Lieutenant Stephen Brown, then. He thinks I killed Frank. What do you think?” I looked right up into his eyes. Sure, he was a bit taller than me, but I squared my shoulders until I stood as straight as I could. “Do you think I killed him? Do you think I’m some kind of,” I made a show of looking over my shoulder in both directions as if I were sharing a special secret, “ninja with the ability to singlehandedly break into government facilities?”

His lips were crinkled at the side, and his brow had dropped on top of his eyes. He wasn’t amused. “I don’t think you’re a ninja.”

“That wasn’t the question, though – do you think I killed him? If you don’t, if you think it sounds as ludicrous as I’m trying to suggest, then why the hell am I being treated like this?” I was shouting now. The stress of the last week bubbled up in this monumental volcano of anger. Part of it was me being angry at myself; I’d been playing the poor, overwhelmed, defenseless female for too long. Screw that. I could stand up for myself.

He stepped closer. “Keep your voice down,” his own voice was low, not threatening, but not happy either. “It’s not for me to say how you came to be in Major Frank Baker’s pod. The analysis of the transport’s computer is still being undertaken.”

“That’s not the question. I’m asking you what you think. You can think, right? You aren’t some automaton soldier boy with a gun instead of a brain?”

Now he was angry. His lips jerked to the side. “I can think, human. I’m thinking right now that if I were in your position, I wouldn’t be problematic. You are 400 years out of your league—”

“Human nature doesn’t change, though, does it?” I wasn’t about to let him railroad me. Who cares if his eyes were glinting with anger, who cares if he had a gun? I was sick of being treated this way. “There are still bigots, there are still hypocrites. The reason you don’t trust me, the reason you and the rest of the crew are finding it easy to treat me like muck you scrape out of an old drain,” my lips were forming each word with emphasis, “is I’m not military, and the rest of the survivors are. You want to believe the guys in camouflage because they’re part of your extended family. I’m civilian. I was the one who did the murdering and the breaking into government bases and the stealing of secret technology. Because that makes no sense, but at least it justifies your irrational anger. At least it gives you a convenient reason not to think.”

“I don’t appreciate being called a bigot, Ariel.” He used my name, and that low voice spat out each syllable with curt speed.

“I don’t appreciate being called a murderer.”

“Once the analysis of the ship’s computers is complete—”

“You’ll cement my feet and throw me out the airlock – I get it.”

We stared at each other. The anger still rippled through me, but it was abating. I shouldn’t push this guy any further. I’d said my part, and it was time to retreat before I did anything embarrassing. I turned to go back to my quarters.

“Not so fast.” He put out a hand but didn’t grab me. “I came here for a reason.”

“What, you didn’t come to stare at my door?”

Annoyance flashed in his eyes, and I could tell I was taking this too far. “You need to come with me. Chief Science Officer Pinkari wants to run some tests.”

“Great. Lead on, Commander.”

As we walked, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was the commander who was always the one to escort me places. I didn’t know much about the military chain of command, but I did know that commander is somewhere under captain. That’s pretty high ranking – wouldn’t he have more important things to do? Couldn’t they send some low grunt with a fancy ray gun? They couldn’t think I’d put up that much of a fight, right?

The question burned brighter and faster in my mind until I couldn’t hold onto it anymore. “Why are you always the one to take me places, Commander? Don’t you have better things to do?”

He didn’t turn. “No one else wants anything to do with you, human.”

I stared at the back of his head. Jerk.

The commander left me alone with Pinkari. It was such a relief to be back with my ET. He asked such polite questions and always checked if I was warm enough, or if I’d had enough to eat, or if I needed anything at all.

“These tests won’t take long,” he said with what I assumed was a smile. “They should have been performed with your initial medical examination.”

I smiled back, super glad there was someone worth smiling at in this godforsaken ship. I didn’t care what the tests were – Pinkari could load me into a particle accelerator and blast me into a million bits. Nothing could be worse than staring at the gray walls of my room.

“These tests will be good for you.”

“Hmmm.”

“I have not found anything in the transport’s computers, but I believe this is the key.”

“Ah ha.”

Pinkari messed around for a while, clicking on different panels and generally looking science-like. I was happy to stare around the room, taking in the different, more stimulating scenery.

Pinkari made a strange chirping noise. “I must go to the med bay!” his voice pitched with excitement. “This needs to be checked!” Without another word he walked out, leaving me all alone.

I sat there for a while kicking my legs off the high bed I was seated on. I contemplated humming, but then the door chirped, and someone walked in. I looked up hoping to see the excitable Pinkari trot back in, but I nearly fell off my bed instead.

It was Carrot Top Stephen Brown.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped.

I receded at his tone and the shock of seeing my number one galactic nemesis pop up like a daisy. “I’m having tests run on me.”

“To see if you could make good cannon fodder?”

I swallowed. I could take the confrontation I’d had with Commander Hatch. That had been innocent. It had been angry, sure, but I’d never had any real belief it would turn violent. Hatch may be many things, but I could tell he was a proper soldier. The kind who always wanted to do the right thing; and shooting civilians didn’t fit into that category.

Stephen, he was different. There was a nasty edge to the way he looked at me, and the whole room was filling with this unpleasant crackle of energy.

“No.” It wasn’t much of a retort, but I wanted him to go away. I didn’t want to encourage him when there was no one else in the room. I wasn’t suicidal.

“You know, I’d be more careful if I were you. I wouldn’t go mouthing off like that. I’d stay in my quarters hoping that nothing bad would happen to me.”

That was a threat, wasn’t it? A proper threat. Not the stupid fake macho-talk you get when two boys in a school ground threaten to bash each other’s heads in. Or when some irate caller threatens to get you fired. Nope, this was coming from a huge guy with bulging angry eyes.

“You don’t get it, do you? You have no idea who Frank Baker was and no idea what you did.”

I didn’t answer. I pulled up my limbs until I was crouched on the side of the bed, trying to make myself a smaller target.

“He was our mentor, like our father. You killed a great man.”

Mentor? That’s what this was about? I was getting these insane flashes out of movies of all those old guys who would mentor brash youths then wind up dying and providing the hero with a reason to crush the enemy. The death of the mentor would always be a turning point in those films; it would always supply the protagonist with enough motivation to do anything to avenge their death.

It was like Skinner to the Teenage Mutant Turtles, or that old guy out of Karate kid, or any senior cop in any detective film ever. This guy was suggesting I’d killed his Skinner. Holy crap, that was not good.

He took another step into the room, and I dug my fingernails into my palms to stop myself from yelping with fright.

What the hell was he going to do to me?

Before my imagination became too specific and my breath too shallow, Pinkari walked back into the room. He looked at Stephen like a squirrel might look at a displaced nut upon returning to its nook. “What are you doing here, human Brown?”

“Touring the ship. The engineer suggested I take a look around. I used to be a science and mechanical buff back on Earth. He suggested the science labs would be a great place to start,” Stephen sounded charming and looked like a different person. He shot me a look that could have sucked the heat out of the sun.

Pinkari looked excited. “This is good news. I will be happy to show you this equipment. The GFS Barracks is one of the most advanced ships in the fleet. You will like what we have to show. You wish to do this now, human Brown?”

“Whenever you’re finished.” Stephen smiled politely.

“I have to await results. I am waiting, so now is good.” Pinkari turned to me. “You are welcome to join us, human De Winter—”

“No.” I waved my hands in front of my face like I was warding off a killer bee. “I have to get back to my quarters.” To stare at my walls again, I thought to myself bitterly. Those peaceful but boring walls were better than spending another second in the presence of the psychotic Carrot Top.

I stopped myself from running full pelt out of the room. It would have looked more like a determined jog, like I’d remembered I’d left the oven on. I didn’t care, though; I wanted to get the hell out of there.

Hatch was nowhere to be seen in the corridor, and I didn’t fancy waiting for him. I was confident I knew my way back anyway. Yes, I would be contravening his orders, or something, if I walked myself back to my quarters, but I couldn’t wait. I set off and tried to ignore the unpleasant glances I got from the rest of the crew.

My limbs were all filled with a tickling electricity as if I’d woken up from a terrible nightmare. I wanted a shower, though I hated them, I wanted something to mask that unpleasant feeling.

I wasn’t paying attention at all to my surroundings, looking at them just enough that I knew I wasn’t walking in the wrong direction. When a hand came out of nowhere, it was such a shock I jolted with fear and sucked in a loud breath.

“What are you doing?”

I turned to see Commander Hatch. He looked angry, but slowly his face began to open. “You alright?”

“What do you care?” It was automatic but still rude.

He set his eyebrows hard. “You shouldn’t be walking the corridors on your own, I told you that.”

“Hmm.”

“While you are on this ship, I ask that you follow our requests. We can’t have civilians getting in our way.”

I wasn’t looking at him. I stared at some patch of dirt on the wall. Or it wasn’t dirt; I couldn’t tell. “Hmm. Okay.”

“What tests did Pinkari perform?”

“Nothing much.”

“You’re pretty white,” there was concern in his voice buried under that stiff formality.

“Haven’t gotten much sun in the past week, have I?”

“Alright, human, I’ll take you back to your quarters.”

We walked in silence, but he kept shooting me worried looks over his shoulder.

When we got to my door, he hesitated for a while. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

I looked up at him but didn’t answer.

“I’ve talked to the captain, and he understands your situation. Within reason you will be free to walk to certain areas of the ship: the mess hall, viewing platforms, the library.”

I stared at a different patch on a different wall, never once glancing up at the commander as he spoke.

“You might like to start at the mess hall, it would be better than having your meals in your room. Dinner is in four hours.”

I could tell he looked at me, trying to get a reaction.

“You shouldn’t stay in your room all day long.”

“What do you care?” I turned around and walked through my door, letting it slide closed behind me.

I leaned against it, willing like hell it wouldn’t open on me. I didn’t want the commander to come in to continue the conversation. I wanted to flop on my bed and close my eyes ever so tight.

A twist of emotion curled around my gut. It wasn’t pure fear, not by a long shot. What was making it bitter and impossible to stomach was the shame. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t stood up to Stephen, that I hadn’t stood my ground and threatened him right back. That’s what you do with bullies, right? They’re like wild animals – you show no fear and they lose interest. But Stephen wasn’t just a bully; he was an unstable, angry, trained soldier.

The shame wouldn’t go away.

I lay on my bed and didn’t move. I couldn’t tell Hatch for god’s sake. Sure, the idea had crossed my mind, but I couldn’t make the words come out. What would he do anyway? He wouldn’t believe me. Chances were he would treat it as another reason to distrust me. He’d think I’d made it all up.

It took me a while to cool down properly.

My mind had a funny feel to it for the next several hours. As I went about showering and dressing, I started to feel calmer.

It wasn’t too long before I found myself sitting on my bed and staring at the door. The immediacy of Stephen’s threat was starting to fade in my mind, and all I was left with was this steady worry. But I could manage that.

Hatch had said I was free to walk to certain places in the ship. Had he gone to the captain after my rant and requested that my shackles be released slightly?

The smallest of smiles warmed my lips. He didn’t seem like such a bad guy. Okay, he was pretty strict and played by the rules, but he seemed nice enough.

I looked at the door again. Was the waning fear of Stephen’s threat enough to keep me cooped up in my room again? It had been a week. Could I pass up the opportunity to explore this ship?

It was a gamble, but could Stephen really do anything? Surely, if I were around other people, I’d be safer anyway?

I pushed up and headed for the door. The mess hall sounded like a good place to start. Cooks hate fights around their food; if Stephen tried it on, he would find a frying pan in his face.

It took a while to find it. I had to pull over a crew member to ask. I waited until I found an alien like Pinkari, though – they were the nicest. Sure enough, the guy was so polite he agreed to take me there himself with a bob of his huge head.

When we were walking through the corridors, I caught a glimpse of the commander. Pinkari was talking to him in an excited fashion, and the commander looked one part surprised to one part something else.

We didn’t wait, and he didn’t see me.

The mess hall was huge. It looked way more like a hangar. For the first time, I started to realize how large this ship must be. This room looked like it could feed a thousand at once. It was recognizable as a mess hall, too – there were tables and chairs and a wall to one side where the food was served buffet-style. There were small differences, though. There was a panel off to the side of the buffet that you keyed some card into. A light would flash under one of the serving trays on the buffet.

My alien explained that the card had the biochemical readings of the crew members on it and the computer would process these against the nutritional content of the food and pick the most appropriate meal. I looked at him askance. That sounded crazy. “You don’t get to pick your food?”

“Most do anyway. The humans especially. They will pick what they want rather than what is good for them.”

I chuckled.

My alien bade me farewell at the door and wished me a pleasant meal. I went in smiling. I caught a couple of nasty glances from the crew. It was the humans mostly – they looked at me with real dislike in their eyes. I had to remind myself that to them I was the girl who took Major Baker’s place and had prevented the galactic war from changing for the better.

I sat at the closest empty table and kept my eyes on anything that wasn’t humanoid. The aliens scattered around the crew didn’t seem to care about me. They ate or talked as if I wasn’t there at all.

I twisted my head and looked at the buffet. I had no idea where to start. I didn’t want to make an ass out of myself either, so I sat there for a bit.

Then they entered.

I’d chosen a table close to the door. It’d been the first empty one I’d seen. When Carrot Top Stephen and his gang walked in, I was in their direct view. I stiffened like a newly starched shirt, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

There was some kind of guard with him. Whether he was security or not, I had no idea. He did have armor on and had a weird-looking gun strapped to his side. The guy was big and burly and, though I hate to make estimations like this, looked pretty stupid. They were all chuckling together, and the security guard was pointing out different things with big swipes of his arm.

Carrot Top Stephen made some quip and everyone around him laughed, including whichever crew were in earshot. I was starting to realize that, when he wanted to be, Stephen was charming. He was charismatic and engaging. He was a lot of things I wasn’t, including psycho.

I watched him without moving a muscle. I was sure he wouldn’t do anything violent, but my body didn’t believe me. To my limbs, I’d just seen a tiger, and it was time to run.

The group moved closer as the security guard decided to introduce Stephen and the other survivors to the table of crew members opposite mine.

“I’m telling you, with training, you guys will be a great asset to the Galactic Federation.” The security guard slapped Stephen on the back.

“If we can help, we will,” Stephen replied with sickening sincerity.

I wanted to puke. I also wanted to run like a screaming little girl until the bad monster went away.

The conversation continued for a while with Stephen saying all the right things until the other crew were fawning at his feet.

“The captain said we can start to train. Said we can check out the weapons range tomorrow.”

“You’ll make great soldiers, he knows that. The range will be a real eye-opener, though, you wait until you see the Atlantian weapons.”

“You found Atlantian weapons?”

“Sure,” the security guard shrugged his shoulders, “we splice their tech onto ours. Not everyone can use them, though. I can,” the security guard had the kind of smile on his face that suggested he was more proud of that fact than any other, “I’ve got the gene sequence.”

“What?” Stephen cocked his head to the side.

“It’s a security feature. If you’ve got the genes, you can use the gun; if you don’t, you can’t. If you have the proper training and a less-damaged DNA sequence, you can make the damn thing evolve.”

“Sounds cool. What do you mean, though?”

“If I was to give this gun,” the security guard took it out of his holster in one smooth move, “to one of the Spec Op soldiers, they could make it evolve into way more than a pistol. If I gave it to one of the Council members, they could squeeze so much power out of it, it would be more like a pulse cannon than a gun.”

“We were only starting to find out about the importance of the Atlantian gene sequence before 2012. I didn’t realize it worked like that, though. Can I have a look at your gun?”

The security guard handed it over like it was nothing more than an interesting feather. I was appalled. What the hell kind of security guard does that? Weren’t you supposed to have respect for your weapons? Weren’t you not meant to give them over to random psychos?

As soon as the gun touched Stephen’s hand, it changed. There was some whir like a fan winding down, and I swear the metal changed shape. It looked more like a hunk of shiny steel, and way less like an awesome gun from the future.

“You haven’t got the gene ha? Oh, hardly anyone does. That gun won’t work in your hands. Told you, perfect security feature.” The security guard turned around to talk to one of the people at the table, leaving Stephen to study the gun.

I was aware that no one was looking at me, save for Stephen. He was aware of that fact too, because he chose to make eye contact – look right at me like a sniper might look at his target through his scope.

Stephen played with the gun in his hands.

Slowly he lifted it and pointed it at me. Then he mouthed “If only this worked.”

I locked my eyes on the gun – it was pointed right at me. A surge of fear shot through my heart. It was a cascade, a raging torrent – so powerful it incapacitated me.

Something else welled up from inside me, too – some strange force I’d never felt before in my entire life. It felt like I was being turned inside out, like I was being twisted and pulled and kneaded all at once.

Time seemed slow and fast.

Suddenly the gun changed. Right there in his hand. It was like watching a movie, like seeing one of the Transformers change from a car to a robot. Bits of metal flicked up and around as if they had a mind of their own.

“What the—” Stephen managed before two things happened. The gun discharged as something knocked into his hand from the side.

That’s all I saw, because the pulse from the gun slammed straight into me.

Chapter 5

I don’t remember much, mostly the pain. It was more intense than anything I’d ever felt: like being crammed in a hot oven full of tiny sharp pins.

I kept blacking out only to resurface for brief senseless moments. I couldn’t tell where I was or what was happening, all I caught were snippets of sounds or flashes of shapes and color. At one point a light flashed in my eyes.

I can’t think of how to explain it. It was like I was stuck in the bottom of a warping field of consciousness, which was cracking like the crust of desert sand at the first sign of rain. My mind was shattered, swallowed and engulfed by the pain and shock.

It all passed into sweet blackness.

When I awoke, it was slow, like coming out of a plane with your ears still blocked or waiting for your sight to adjust to a darkened room. Gradually my flickering eyes found focus.

“She’s awake,” someone said. “Brain activity normal – might be for good this time.”

I let my eyes slip closed then opened them again. Things were getting much clearer. I could see the gray ceiling. Was I in my quarters?

“Bio signs holding, no indications the transplants are being rejected. Commander, she’s awake.”

I blinked at the ceiling. Why was everything gray on this ship? Couldn’t they afford any other colored paint?

“Ariel?”

Was gray paint cheaper than other colors?

“Ariel?”

Or was it the polished metal walls – that would be much cheaper than painting the whole ship.

“Ariel, are you okay?”

Someone was speaking to me, but I couldn’t tell from which direction the voice came.

“Ariel?” Someone stepped up beside me. “Ariel?” Commander Hatch looked down at me.

I blinked again. “Whh ckkk,” I said. What I’d tried to say was: why is everything gray? My throat was so raw it felt like I’d swallowed a handful of sharp rose thorns.

I swallowed several times and tried again. “Wh- why?” But I didn’t get far.

“You were shot.” He placed a hand beside me, and it took me a moment to realize it was covering my own. My senses were dull and slow.

“Sh- shot?”

“In the mess hall, you were shot. You,” he hesitated.

I focused on his face. He looked concerned. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the commander cared about me.

“Commander, please move aside.” The doctor came into view and waved some sort of device over me, concentrating on my left arm. For the first time, I realized I couldn’t feel it at all – not a thing.

I tried to move it, but nothing happened. I turned my head to look at it – it was covered by some white dome.

“Wha—”

“You received extensive damage to your left side and arm.” The doctor kept waving her device. Her voice was still curt and quick, but it had lost the bitter edge that I remembered from all our previous meetings. “You were lucky,” she said through an amazed chuckle. “If the commander hadn’t pushed Stephen out of the way in time, that pulse would have gone straight through your middle.”

This was too much information.

I tried to move my arm again. The panic was growing, still dulled, but sharp enough to bite through my slow mind. “My arm—”

“Will be fine. You received medical attention immediately. We replaced the irredeemable tissue and bone with biotic transplants. It’s a miracle you didn’t lose your arm – but thankfully the transplants are holding and knitting into your remaining tissue.”

“Tr-transplants?” A sudden vision of a giant metal arm came to mind. As if I were some doll that someone’s brother had hacked the arm off and replaced with the chunky claw of a robot.

“You’ll be alright, Ariel.” I recognized the commander’s voice though I couldn’t see him. “I’ve got some myself. You’ll never tell they’re there.”

“The commander’s right; once you have healed, you won’t notice them at all. You were lucky they held, rejection rate is high for injuries as significant as yours.”

I couldn’t reply to that.

The doctor performed tests and waved more devices over my arm until she walked away. “It’s best that you explain the rest to her, Commander. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

The commander walked over to me, and his face was drawn and pale under all that stubble. “You alright?”

Was he asking that because he couldn’t think of what else to say?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “First time I’ve been shot. It’s new to me.”

He grinned in that way people do when someone unfortunate makes fun of their situation – it was awkward and brief. “You get used to it. You’re taking it pretty well.”

“Umm, thanks.”

“You want to know what happened back there? What do you remember?”

I thought hard. “The buffet was weird. I was too embarrassed to go and get any food.”

This time Hatch did smile, and it morphed into a short chuckle. “You say the strangest things.”

“It was weird,” I tried to defend myself not knowing why. “You had to have some card.”

He moved a step closer and looked down his chin at me. “You were shot – what do you remember about that?”

“Somebody gave Stephen a gun.”

“Yes they did,” Hatch said bitterly. “They’ve been disciplined.”

“Stephen pretended to shoot me.” Latent fear swept up around me. “I—”

“It’s alright – he’s not going to hurt you anymore. He’s in the brig.”

“Brig?” I had no idea what that was, or whether it was a good place to put the homicidal Carrot Top. In my estimation, he deserved to be set down on some ice planet while the rest of the ship shot off at light speed.

“Prison. We’re investigating the incident. I saw him point that gun at you. He may have been joking, but he’s army – he knows you don’t play with weapons. Nor do you threaten civilians on my ship.”

I smiled weakly. I didn’t know how to feel. Hatch was backing me up – he believed me.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Ariel?” his voice became softer. “Pinkari said Stephen had been having a conversation with you in the Science Labs. He threatened you, didn’t he?”

I didn’t answer right away, just played with the fingers on my good arm, touching them back and forth against the metal edge of the bed. “No one would have believed me.”

He looked annoyed then sighed heavily. “I’m the XO on this ship; it’s my job to ensure security is kept. If you were having a problem, you should have come to me.” He paused and looked past me at the wall. “I understand why you didn’t. I was a jerk. Sorry.”

I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting that. “Umm, okay.” It might have been my imagination, but Hatch was being a lot nicer to me. The doctor too. Was it because I’d been shot, or was something else going on here?

Hatch was still looking around the room. He put a hand up to his neck and massaged it. What was he avoiding?

I tried to prop myself up on my arms but didn’t get far.

“You shouldn’t move.” He put out a hand like he was stopping oncoming traffic. “Stay still.”

I let out a heavy, frustrated sigh. “What’s going on? You aren’t telling me something, and why are you being nice to me?”

He shook his head silently. “You don’t pull punches, do you?”

“What does that mean?”

“Look, Ariel, do you remember how Stephen shot you?”

I tried to think. For some reason, all I could think of was those movie remakes of the Transformers, the ones with all the explosions and orange women. Had Stephen shot me with Optimus Prime?

“Do you remember what happened to the gun?”

“No,” I said slowly.

“It,” he chewed the word around in his mouth, “changed.”

“Changed?”

“You made it evolve. You have the Atlantian gene sequence, and it’s pretty pure,” he added with an amazed chuckle.

What the hell was he talking about? Evolving guns, Atlantian DNA? What kind of explanation was this?

“That’s what Pinkari’s tests were about. He guessed it. That’s why you lasted so long in those pods. By rights, the damn things should have run out of energy 50 years back, but yours didn’t because you were on board.”

I looked at him like he was talking in a foreign language. I hadn’t followed a thing he’d said. “What?”

“The Atlantian tech they spliced onto their own technology when those pods were made – it reacted to you. You made it evolve. If you hadn’t been onboard, then those systems would have failed 50 years back, and all the other survivors would have died.”

My mouth was dry. I wanted a glass of water, oh, and a clue as to what the hell Hatch was talking about. I couldn’t follow. Was there something wrong with me, or was he speaking utter nonsense?

“Ariel, when Stephen pointed that gun at you, you made it evolve. It was the stress of the situation.”

“… Are you saying I shot myself?”

He gave an exasperated laugh. “No. Stephen shot you. He may not have meant to, but the blame is with him. You made that pistol evolve. Not into an especially coherent form, or that powerful a weapon. You’re untrained, and you were under a great deal of stress. The gun evolved to fit your mental state at the time. That’s not the point.”

My eyes were wide with confusion and fear. I was picking up on a weird emotion emanating off Hatch, and I couldn’t tell what it was. His eyebrows were peaked with concern, but his eyes were also flickering with excitement. “What’s going on?” I stuttered through a dry mouth.

“You have a relatively undamaged Atlantian gene sequence. You have great potential.”

My eyes became round with fear. “Excuse me?”

An awkward smile spread across his face. “You remember what I told you in the corridor this morning? About how those sequences are some of the most valuable assets of the Galactic Federation?”

I nodded, nerves twinging up my back.

“You could be among them. With training, you could reach the level of a Council member. We need people like you if we’re going to win this war.”

I appraised him in dead silence. A couple of hours ago I’d been the reason this war would continue indefinitely, and now Commander Hatch was telling me I could tip the balance in favor of the good guys. That was a lot to take in.

“Ariel?”

I stared at him. A flicker of bitterness twisted through my gut. That’s why they were all being nice to me. I’d gone from useless to useful. They hadn’t changed their attitude to me because of who I was, because they liked me or they thought I should be treated like a freaking human being. This was all because I had some utility to them.

I turned away from him and stared up at the ceiling.

“Are you okay? Is this too much to take in all at once?”

I tried to return to my original thoughts about the dominance of the color gray aboard the GFS Barracks and ignore the commander.

“I can come back later if you need to rest.”

I snorted with derision. “You do that.”

“What the hell is wrong?” his voice was full of surprised but restrained anger.

“This is why you’re being nice to me? This is why the doctor doesn’t look like she wants to stab me in the thigh with a scalpel?”

He met my accusation with silence.

“You know, for a second I thought you’d changed. I thought for some reason me being shot was enough to make people realize I’m not the bad person here. That doesn’t have a thing to do with it. If the same thing had happened, if Stephen had shot me point blank in the mess hall and I hadn’t had this stupid Atlantian sequence, no one would be treating me any different. I’d still be glared at wherever I went and ostracized to my tiny quarters. You can get the hell away from me.” I stared up at the ceiling with such determination my face was as stiff as a thick wooden board.

“Wow.”

My veneer of anger rumpled. What kind of a reaction was that to my justified rant?

“Wow.”

I had to look at him, had to find out why he wasn’t shouting back or falling around and begging for my forgiveness. “What?”

“That’s pretty selfish, Ariel,” his voice was calm, like a parent rebuking a wayward child.

My cheeks flushed with anger. “Excuse me? I’m the one being selfish?” I wanted to point a finger at myself to let him know that out of all the people in the room he was accusing me, the girl who’d been shot, of being selfish.

“You aren’t showing understanding for your situation,” he crossed his arms, “or this ship’s. Do you know what it means to be in a war for over 100 years?”

“Do you know what it means to wake up 400 years in the future on a ship full of people who hate you?” I retorted, confident I had the better point here.

“That’s yourself, Ariel. Every other person on this ship has grown up in a galaxy at war. Every other person on this ship has grown up in a family who has only known what it’s like to be at war. Every other person on this ship is begging, hoping¸ praying that one day this will all end. Every other person on this ship has been to the borders of Central Space and seen what’s happened to colony worlds and the ships sent out to protect them. Can you understand that?”

My lips were closed, and there was no way I could open them. The anger was still burning a hot blue flame inside me, but there was something far more powerful reflected in Hatch’s eyes.

“You can’t blame them for how they reacted. The prospect of Major Frank Baker and his specialized knowledge gave them hope.”

“That justified—”

“It didn’t justify anything. I’m not asking you to pretend what they did was right. Try to understand it. We aren’t bad people; we’re a world and 400 years away from you.” Honesty rippled through his words and made the pitch of his voice so low it peaked at a soft baritone.

“I….”

“For my actions, I am sorry. I don’t ask you to understand them or forgive them, but cut the rest of the crew some slack. They are under the kind of pressure you can’t imagine.”

I nodded and turned my head in the other direction. I could feel the skin on my face had gone all blotchy with patches of cold and hot. What the commander had said had been raw, unexpected. He was right, wasn’t he? I was being selfish.

He sighed so heavily I thought I could feel it travel through the floor and up onto my raised bed. “I’m sorry. Please try and understand.”

“It’s okay.” I still kept my head turned from him. There was too much emotion winding around the room, and I couldn’t trust myself not to burst into tears. “I’m sorry.”

He sighed again. It was weary. I was only noticing that for the first time, but all his sighs had a weary edge to them – the kind of sighs you might imagine from a guard who’d worked four shifts straight, or an ER doctor who’d dealt with a room-full of triage patients. “Look, Ariel, this isn’t going well. If you need to rest—”

“I’m fine.” As the seconds drew on, I became more and more embarrassed for my outburst. “What happens now?”

A pause. “That’s up to you.”

“Could I be that important? Doesn’t everyone have this gene sequence? I mean, I don’t know much about genetics, but it can’t be that rare if I have it. My lineage is pretty cosmopolitan.”

“It’s rare, extremely rare. When it does appear, it’s usually damaged or incomplete.”

“Why do I have it then? It’s not like I can trace my bloodline back to some ancient city under the waves. 400 years is kind of a short time for a gene to disappear from a population, isn’t it?”

“It’s true that in your day a lot more of the population expressed the gene sequence, but you have to remember that over two-thirds of the Earth’s population died in the Cataclysm. It’s a bottleneck effect. For some reason, the survivors didn’t have the Atlantian DNA, so the gene bred out quicker than it would have. Also, there were other pressures facing the survivors: the Cataclysm allowed more harmful UV onto the Earth’s surface, and the conditions of the post-2012 world were polluted from all the destruction of infrastructure. All these had mutagenic effects – the Atlantian DNA that survived was damaged. For some reason, it was more susceptible.”

I could barely follow the science. What he was saying did make some sense. I didn’t like the implication. It’s funny how, when you are disempowered, you can fantasize about being special and powerful again. When something happens to put you in the spotlight, you want to recede away and go back to the shadows of existence.

“Oh.” It wasn’t an intelligent comeback, but it was all I could think of at the time.

“It’s up to you.”

“It is?”

“You can decide to help us and go through training. Or…” he trailed off.

“Or?”

“You don’t have to.”

That was an unclear second option. “Do what instead?”

He shrugged. He obviously had no idea what civilians did in this time. His whole life had probably consisted of running around alien outposts shooting like a good soldier ought. “We’d set you down on one of the galactic home worlds – Earth.”

“Earth still exists?”

“Yep. Different to what you’d remember, but she’s still there. Earth’s the major colony for humans.”

“What would I do?”

“What were you back in 2012?”

I pressed my lips together and chewed them for a bit. Would he understand? Or would my job have become legendary throughout the universe as the worst, most annoying career ever? “I worked in a call center calling people up.”

To his credit, he didn’t break into rolling laughter. Could there be a more useless skill to transfer to the future? “I’m sure there would be something for you to do. The Diplomat and her race would want to record your story.”

He clutched at straws, but bless him for trying. “I… I’m not saying I don’t want to help you. I haven’t thought that far ahead. I just want to know what my other options are.”

“Fair enough.”

The conversation was dying. He’d told me all he needed to, or all he was allowed to for the time being, and there didn’t seem to be anything else to fill the gap of silence. We were two people 400 years apart. What could we talk about? What did we have in common? We couldn’t try and discuss the weather – it was freaking regulated on this ship.

Still, there was more I wanted to know, and the awkward silence was giving my mind time to throw up some suggestions. “Where is this ship going? Where would I do this training? What would I do then? Where am I going to live? Won’t I have to undergo some psychometric test or something? Don’t you need those to work for the government?”

He blinked in surprise. “One at a time. Our current destination is the Orion Belt. We’ve been tracking a pirate raider for the past several weeks. Without going into mission details, it’s important for us to take them down.”

“Pirates?” I screwed up my nose. “Do they still have Jolly Rodgers in this century?”

He looked at me strangely again. Why did I always say such stupid things in front of him?

“Ah. I don’t know what that is. They have advanced weapons and are pretty ruthless. They represent a threat not only to the colonies whose space they operate through but also to passing vessels.”

“Okay.” I left it at that, because I couldn’t think of a single smart thing to say in front of this guy.

“In terms of your training, that would be up to the Council. You would have to be taken before them, or at least meet with a high-level representative. All the Atlantian tech and training are controlled by them.”

“I couldn’t train here then?” It’s not what I’d wanted to ask. I’d wanted to ask if I could train with the commander himself. He was the only person I knew around here. I couldn’t come out and say it; that would be way too forward. I might as well ask him for his number and shoe size while I was there.

“This ship is equipped, but you’d still need a CATs.”

“I’d need a cat to teach me?” I was the one giving him a strange look.

“Council Approved Trainer,” he rolled right on. “We have one on board.”

“You?” my voice peaked at the end. Damn it.

“No. I’ve got the gene, but it’s pretty basic. Allows me to use my armor and weapons. You’d need a proper trainer. Lieutenant Ja’Kal could do it.”

Bug man? That guy? “Okay.”

“You’d still have to meet with a proper Council member. You would….” He massaged his neck again. I was starting to realize he did that when he was about to say something uncomfortable. “Basically be under their jurisdiction.”

“Jurisdiction? Do you mean control?”

“I wouldn’t use that word.”

“Oh.”

“Look. This stuff is powerful. It needs to be regulated and controlled by the best. We can’t let the Atlantian technology or people like you get into the wrong hands.”

Alarm flattened the edges of my lips. “Wrong hands?”

“What I’m trying to say,” he changed topics, “is the Council does the job they need to. We aren’t talking about sticks and stones here; we’re talking about the most advanced weapons’ technology in the galaxy. If it wasn’t regulated, can you imagine what would happen?”

I nodded. I couldn’t imagine a Milky-Way-wide bun fight, but I could guess it wouldn’t be pretty. I was getting this feeling that Hatch was trying to tell me something without coming out and saying it. If this technology was so damn regulated, if people like me were liquid gold, then why would I be allowed to walk away? Would they really let me refuse to work for them and bum around on 25th Century Earth instead?

More to the point: could I ethically refuse to help?

“The Council can be tough, and I can’t pretend to always agree with their decisions, but during a war, you lose that luxury anyway. If we don’t all work together, there’s no way we can win this.”

I felt like a cadet getting a pep talk. Yes, Drill Sergeant Sir! “I understand. Where does that leave me? Do I join this ship or something? Am I going to be like some superhero in Lycra saving the day?”

“Lycra?”

“Never mind.”

“You won’t be a superhero.” There was a quivering smile on his lips, like he wanted to laugh at that but held himself back. “You are still a civilian. With training, it will take a while to get you up to combat standards.”

I paused. What did that mean? Was he calling me fat? Or a couch potato? Or was he making a valid assessment of my current physical capabilities compared to those of a well-trained galactic soldier? “Oh.”

“That is to say,” he said, “you are 400 years behind us. With training to realize your ability, you still need to be brought up to speed with the rest of the galaxy.”

That sounded reasonable. He was right, wasn’t he? I was four centuries behind. That was a heck of a lot of time, especially considering the technical leaps and bounds humanity had made. There were aliens too, and that would take a while to get used to.

Things were coming to a head in our conversation. We couldn’t stay here and chatter all day long. “What happens now?”

“Ariel, that’s up to you. You’ll stay in the med bay for a while until the doc thinks you’ve healed enough. We’ll take it from there.”

“The other survivors? What are they doing?”

He grinned. “You don’t know their names, do you?”

Flustered from being put on the spot, I shook my head. “Ah, I forgot. We weren’t ever formerly introduced. There was the problem of them hating me.”

“They’re coming around. The thing with Stephen shocked them all. Our investigation is continuing, though, and be assured that they are being watched. If you at any time receive any threats or intimidation from them, or from anyone else on board this ship, I want you to come directly to me.” He was serious judging by the strict look on his face. It was nice.

I nodded.

“Good. The other four survivors, apart from Lieutenant Stephen Brown, are: Lieutenant Claire Underwood, Sergeant Dalia Riviera, Corporal Brian Higgs, and Lieutenant James Fischer.”

I had forgotten the names as soon as he’d said them. I mean, it wasn’t like we were being introduced. I didn’t have faces for these names, so they were pretty much useless to me. I smiled nonetheless. “Okay.”

“You don’t remember a single one, do you?”

“Nope.”

He chuckled again, flicking his gaze to the ceiling in a clear sign of exasperation. “Right. To answer your question: they have all requested to join the Galactic Force as soon as possible.”

My eyebrows shot up. Wow. That was, ahh, quick. They’d woken up 400 years in the future, for heaven’s sake. Shouldn’t they have more than a week of shakedown time before they decided what they were going to do with their new lives? Shouldn’t the army be choosier? They were in the same boat as me and would require immense training to bring them back up to the standards of the 25th Century.

“You don’t think this is a good idea?”

“I… shouldn’t they wait awhile? I mean, it’s been a week. Your Captain isn’t going to hand them guns and just point them in the direction of the bad guys already, surely? Shouldn’t they readjust? I’m not a psychologist, but isn’t this a bad idea?”

“Not my call.” He shrugged his shoulders again. He seemed to have limited body language. If he wasn’t rubbing his neck with discomfort, he was shrugging his shoulders with mild confusion. Then again, maybe I was reading him wrong. Commander Hatch was a lot more complex than his demeanor suggested. “I agree. Ideally, they would get shakedown time. We know from previous situations with pods we’ve picked up from 2012 that the occupants can take years to properly adapt to their new situation.”

I felt sick. Years. Years? Christ, he was right. With one thing and another happening so fast around me, I’d forgotten the nature of my situation. This was a huge thing to get used to. What if I never managed it? What if leaving my life 400 years behind damaged me in a way I couldn’t fix?

He looked right at me and held my gaze. “Different people adjust in different ways. Psychologically speaking, if you want to find meaning in your new existence, then you need to find something that gives you meaning. A new purpose to live for.”

I chewed on a smile. Huh. Stave off existential depression – join the army! That would be a great campaign. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

“I’m not trying to pressure you into anything,” he put up both his hands, “your decision will be yours and yours alone.”

“I know. I… I need to think.”

“You must be tired.” He took a step back and tucked his hands behind him. “I’ll return tomorrow. Get some rest.”

He turned and walked out.

He left me with my thoughts. There were a hell of a lot of those.

Chapter 6

I was in the med bay close on a week. I couldn’t tell if that was a protracted or brief time to be bedridden after a ray-gunshot to the side.

The doctor seemed happy with how I was healing and a lot less icy now word of my Atlantian genes had spread around. She wasn’t the most talkative of people, though, and soon my stay in the med bay became as dull as my days tucked away in my quarters.

Hatch visited a couple of times. He discussed several important things with me, informed me the Diplomat had changed the date of our meeting, and a couple of other housekeeping matters. Then he would grow quiet as if he weren’t sure of what to say next.

I tried to think of various things to draw him into a conversation, but all of them seemed silly. Commander, what’s your favorite movie? Terminator 29? I haven’t seen that one yet. Commander, read any good books lately? A manual on the correct use of phasic pulse-cannon rounds? Wow, sounds fascinating.

Yeah, we didn’t have much in common.

Still, he kept coming to visit me, which meant something. Even though it was awkward, I always looked forward to it.

I’d been discharged, albeit with the doctor’s orders to get plenty of bed rest and return to the med bay for regular checks.

Which left me at a loose end and with a niggling tickling feeling in my left side and arm.

I had to start making decisions, right? I had to start integrating with the 25th Century, but where the hell to start? Back in my quarters staring at those goddamn dull walls? Sounds great.

I was surprised when Hatch was waiting for me outside my quarters. Hands behind his back as always – it was his default position.

“Doc discharged you then?”

I nodded, it was a non-statement. Presumably, he’d know that, or he wouldn’t be here. “Yeah.”

I felt like leaning against the wall in a casual position but decided that would look stupid. I settled for tucking my arms around my middle but worried that would look dismissive. Argh! I unfurled my arms and let them rest by my side.

He wasn’t staring in disbelief, which was a good sign.

“I assume you want to know what happens now?” He nodded in my direction. It wasn’t like there was anyone else in this corridor, though. My quarters were tucked away on the side of the ship no one ever visited. That was their plan back in the days when I was the most unpopular person since that guy who started World War I. Keep me away from the crew so they don’t revolt.

“Don’t I have to meet with the Diplomat later?”

He nodded. “You have a couple of hours before that. I thought I’d….”

A twinge of excitement tickled up my back.

“Show you around.”

“Yeah,” I bit my lip, “I’d like that. I mean I’ve only seen the med bay and the mess hall. There must be more to this ship, right?”

“A lot more.” His blue eyes sparkled. I was starting to realize that was another way the commander communicated his true feelings. If he wasn’t massaging his neck, he was twinkling those azure-ocean eyes at you.

Embarrassment was starting to skip across my stomach, and I barely resisted locking a hand across my middle. I wouldn’t want him to think he was making me sick! Oh god, this always happened when I started having conversations with guys I fancied. The stubble, the strong jaw, the twinkling eyes, the ceaseless desire to do what was right.

Oh, mamma.

“That’s if you are up to it,” he added. He’d obviously caught sight of the rising tide of heat climbing my face, or the fact my lips were pressing in on themselves as if I were going for the toothless-granny look.

“I’m good.”

“Okay, I thought we’d start with the viewing platform.”

I smiled in what I hoped was a sweet way and realized how out of my depth I was. In one way the other survivors were right: I was absolutely the wrong person to have lived through 2012 to wake up 400 years in the future. I didn’t have the stomach for all this sci-fi. I didn’t have any skills that were transferable, or any interests that would ensure I’d pick everything up. What this time needed was a computer nerd, or science fiend, or a keen-and-shiny soldier.

What experiences did I have to draw on? I’d once seen a telemovie about space. It was set on some kind of mining vessel headed for Mars. The special effects were so cheap Mars looked like a cardboard cutout someone was paid to walk slowly past the windows with.

That wouldn’t count for much, would it? So honestly, even if I did have this fancy gene, would I have the skills to use it and adjust to the future? Or would I become a puddle of quivering damsel the first time I laid eyes on a rampaging Trip’tan?

I was glad the commander couldn’t tell what I was thinking about, he’d probably slap me in the face and tell me to “harden up, the galaxy’s counting on you.”

The Viewing Platform appeared to be a large semicircular room with an entire wall made up of very shiny metal plates. There were couches set up around the room facing the wall, and I was amused to see they looked almost exactly like a sofa from my time. Obviously, the perfect design for them was hit on somewhere in the 80’s and ever since then, humanity has been mighty pleased about the technological marvel that is the couch.

But I had to shoot the commander a sideways look. The Viewing Platform appeared to provide you with an awesome, unparalleled view of a wall. This was… great.

The commander tapped something into a console and the metal plates furled to one side like French doors feeding into themselves.

I gasped. One of those proper gasps you see in movies when the truly unexpected occurs. You walk over the ridge of a hill to see the lost valley of dinosaurs below, or you open the mottled briefcase to find several fists full of diamonds. You recede a little, your face stiffens with wide-eyed shock, and you don’t care what stupid noise comes out of your mouth because this is amazing.

I think Hatch was chuckling off to my side, I couldn’t tell, I was too transfixed by what was in front of me.

It was space. The tiny view I’d glimpsed through the portals in some of the corridors was nothing compared to this. Streaks of stars moved off to the side like someone gently waving a candle in the night. In the foreground I could make out blurs of color so rich and fantastic they looked like they were smears of acrylic paint.

“We’re moving through a gaseous nebula.”

I laughed. “Oh my god.” I’d never been that interested in space, I mean why bother? Why go out and venture into our tiny nook of the solar system, waste all those resources, when we couldn’t even feed the planet? Cynical, I know, but that’s the truth. I wasn’t a kid who’d grown up with a 20-page picture book with high-res color-enhanced photos depicting suns and moons and nebula. I didn’t dream of joining NASA and becoming an astronaut. Nope, I was the kid pointing out to the other dreamers that statistically it was practically impossible that they would ever put on a space suit. Sounds kinda mean, ha? Well, I was a bit of a downer as a kid.

But now I was an astronaut, wasn’t I? I was in space staring at the stars as they moved past. This was a reality – not a dream, not fiction.

“I like to come here when there’s no one else around and fix my eyes on that little part of the screen there,” Hatch pointed to the far left side of the screen. “And watch the stars become little lines of light as the Doppler Effect pulls them out like,” he looked at me, “Lycra?” he said hesitantly.

I twisted my head to him quickly.

“I looked it up.”

I snorted into a giggle. Not pretty. “You looked it up?”

“Yep. Stretchy. We can get you some if you need it.” His face was deadpan, but I hoped like hell he was joking.

I clamped a hand over my mouth and giggled into it again. “No, I’m good. I was never really a fan of Lycra….”

“Oh well.” He turned back to the View Screen and rested his arms on the railing that ran along the bottom. “My loss.”

He was… Jesus Christ, he was flirting with me! Right? Was I picking up the signs wrong? Is this how all conversations occurred in the 25th Century?

I snapped my eyes back to the screen so he couldn’t see my face. I had to say something! I couldn’t leave that hanging in the air. “I… where are we?” Like I’d even have any frame of reference to make sense of our location. I basically knew Earth on the cosmological map of the Milky Way. Everything else fell into the category of “space.”

“Quadrant 4 Alpha. 20 light years from the Kap system.”

Oh yes, the Kap system. “How long until we get to our destination?”

“We have reports the pirates I told you about have a base in the adjoining system.”

“Oh, okay. So what do you do once you catch the pirates?” My question was stupid, I realized that. It had that sickly sweet tinge of bimbo innocence. I wasn’t a kid; I could figure out what the galactic military would do to space pirates who were threatening their citizens and resources during a time of war. They wouldn’t sit down and discuss it over tea and cucumber sandwiches.

“Well, this base is set in an asteroid cluster. With that amount of space debris, we can’t fly the Barracks too close, nor can we pick up the base’s exact location on scanners. So blasting the asteroid isn’t an option. We’d have to destroy the entire belt to ensure we’d got them, and that would be an unacceptable waste of ordnance. So we’ll be aiming for an incursion.” He looked at me, probably checking to see if I’d gotten any of that.

The funny thing was, I think I did understand. This was a James Bond situation. Send in one guy, or a small team, to take out the bad guys why the top brass sits around and smoke Havana Cigars. Sure, it might be more complex and tactical than that, but that was my understanding, and I was sticking to it. I nodded my head firmly. “So you’re going to send in a small team to… eliminate the target while minimizing collateral damage.” I said it slowly, I had to wait for the correct words to show up in my mind. But I was pretty proud once I’d spat it out – it sounded almost smart.

Hatch cocked his head and nodded briefly. “Good assessment. Yeah, it will be a small team, but I can’t go into any further operational details.”

“Of course.” I was still glowing from having received the commander’s brief nod of approval. Maybe he could make a soldier out of me yet!

“And after that, do we go to the Council?” It was a careful question; I didn’t want the commander to think I’d made my mind up on that issue already, though I kinda had. I just wanted to know what would lie in store for us after the epic pirate battle.

“The Council has already been informed and are sending an official representative to meet us. They should rendezvous with our ship within the next week.”

“Okay.” Wow, that was fast.

“I don’t want you to think that we are pushing you. But regardless of whether you commit to going through training and assist the Galactic Federation, you still need to meet with a Council Member. You’ll have to go in their files and be registered as carrying Atlantian genes. Don’t worry, though,” he quickly added, “it’s just a system. It happens to everyone with the DNA.”

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. “I already figured something like that would happen. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Good. Now is there anywhere else in the ship you’d like to visit before your meeting with the Diplomat?”

A smile spread across my face as I thought. So Hatch was going to spend the morning with me….

Something on Hatch made a beep. He quickly held down a button on the cuff of his armor. “Hatch here.”

“Operational update. You are requested to convene with the captain in his ready room.”

“Understood,” Hatch snapped quickly.

There was a buzz as the communications feed, if that’s what it was, turned off.

Hatch cleared his throat and had a far-off look in his eyes. “I’ve got to go. Sorry. Will you be good to get to the Diplomat on your own?”

“Sure. I think I remember how to get there.”

“Stop and ask a crew member if you have trouble. Goodbye.” He turned and walked off quickly.

Well, that was unlucky. Just as soon as the prospect of spending one morning with the impossibly good-looking Hatch had been dangled in front of me, someone had snatched up the carrot and snapped it in half.

Now I was going to have to find something to do myself, solo.

Not being the adventurous type, I stayed on the Viewing Platform until I was scheduled to meet with the Diplomat. I was even starting to get used to using the onboard computer. With a clear voice that sounded like a cross between a flight attendant and a news reader I told the computer to inform me when the correct time had arrived. It did in its smooth synthetic voice. Which was really cool.

As I walked the corridors, I received an entirely different kind of attention than that which I had elicited in days past. Crew members would stare at me while obviously trying hard not to be caught looking at me at all. Even the aliens, who had hardly noted me when I’d been public enemy number one, openly locked eyes on me.

I felt like a celebrity or something. It was confronting. I’ve never been stared at much in my life. I’m pretty ordinary looking. So I wasn’t really equipped for that kind of intense scrutiny. I found myself racing along, staring at the ground and trying heartily to pretend that nothing was out of the ordinary.

The more I was stared at it, the more I realized that Hatch had been right. This Atlantian gene, the strange sequence of DNA I was supposed to have, it was important to these people. I’d half thought Hatch was playing it up a bit, trying to make me seem special so I wouldn’t concentrate on being 400 years out of date. But now I realized he’d actually been protecting me, in part, from the true reality of my situation. If the significance of my new found ability was to be judged by the stares I was receiving, then yes, it was important.

Which was a lot of pressure for a girl.

When I reached the conference room, or whatever it was, the Diplomat was seated there. She had a gold and purple robe on, and her arms were clasped gracefully in her lap. She looked so serene, like she’d just stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

I immediately felt ungainly and awkward. I tried to tuck my arms behind myself in a mirror of Hatch’s usual stance and bowed my head with deference.

The Diplomat smiled slowly. “Please sit down, human.” She indicated to the chair directly beside her. “I apologize that this setting is so impersonal. I realize it may prohibit you from finding comfort.”

I shook my head nervously. “No, no, no. It’s fine.” I sat down.

Up close she was amazing. Her skin had this slight moist texture to it, like she was wearing a thick layer of wet-look makeup. It made the lights glint off her, gave her this gem-like look. And her eyes were by far the most expressive things I’d ever seen. They rounded or elongated with her words and seemed to shimmer like oil on the surface of water.

“I have been informed of what happened to you.” She bowed her head. “Please accept my apologies that such a thing occurred to you in our time.”

She was apologizing for Stephen shooting me? It was hardly her fault. “It’s okay.”

“Indeed it is not. But you show great magnanimity which I am thankful for.”

I clasped my hands firmly in my lap and nodded. “I….”

“Please do not be apprehensive. This process is not unpleasant or invasive. In fact, if you allow yourself to release to it, you will find out more about your life than perhaps you knew. Memories too distant or vague to recall can be resurfaced and hidden again if you chose. I will guide you not as a leader but as a companion to your story.”

My smile kind of wavered. Resurfacing old memories? Guide me? I thought we were going to have a chat? I thought this was going to be more of an interview-style where I could tick off the shopping list of my life with a touch of self-deprecation, cynicism, and nostalgia. What she was suggesting… sounded more alien. “How… what exactly is going to happen?”

She nodded her head in a slow but large move. That little motion showed more respect and esteem than I had ever seen. “We will begin a process of transmission.”

Cables and plugs came to mind. She wasn’t going to hook me up to a machine and suck out my memories with a big slurp, was she?

“It is not invasive. By placing my hands either side of your face, I will be able to set up a direct link to your mind. It will then be up to you to share those memories you wish with me. There will be no pressure or impetus from myself, I will simply witness what you choose to recall. Should you come across a memory you require my help to unlock, I will give it. My race utilizes telepathic communication in this fashion. It is how we converse. Please do not be afraid of it.”

That sounded… alien. But then again, she was an alien. If anyone should be suggesting or doing alien activities, then it was probably good that it was the aliens. It was stupid of me to think she’d just sit there with a pad and scribble as I lay on a couch and moaned about my lost life. No, of course she was going to set up a “direct telepathic link” between our minds.

I started to get nervous. My back became a little damp as it always does when I’m confronted with something I don’t want to do. All these alarmist thoughts started popping off in my mind like machine-gun fire. She was going to have access to my mind, my mind, what happens if she saw something… horrible? What happens if she saw exactly what was there, exactly who I was, and decided it was monstrous?

I didn’t know, but I really didn’t think anyone else could understand me. I get by perfectly well within my head because I’ve had a lifetime to deal with my quirks, fears, and fantasies. Someone else… well… they just wouldn’t get me.

I drew my arms up around myself and smiled stiffly. I did not want to do this.

“You have become nervous. Please do not be afraid. I am not here to judge. I am not here to read your mind. I am not here to understand your thoughts or to unlock your hopes and fears. Remember that your mind is essentially alien to me. I will not understand it in the way I understand those of my own people. Your memories too will not have the context and emotional meaning that they have for you. I cannot convert how you understand and cherish them, simply record what they hold. Nor do I ask you to share personal information, many choose not to. But the details, the experiences, the reality of living in your world – this is all I ask for. The culture, the history, the knowledge.”

I coughed lightly into my hand. “You won’t be able to see my personal memories?” I asked hopefully.

“No. I will not remember anything you do not want me to. As I said before, you will lead, but I will guide.”

I didn’t understand that, but I had to admit all of the signals I was getting off the Diplomat seemed to suggest that she was a trustworthy person. “I don’t know….”

“I will not force you; the decision will ultimately be yours. But I must tell you that there is another reason for our meeting. The captain has requested that I assist you in unlocking a specific memory.”

“He has?” my chin shot up, pressing my bottom lip up and dimpling the skin. “I… what memory?”

“The circumstances as to how you became frozen in the pod of another human.”

Oh. That.

Now I was really nervous. The past several weeks had taught me to treat any mention of my appropriation of Major Frank’s pod with the greatest of unease. My pulse shot up, and I could hear it thumping away in my ears. I didn’t want to go there….

“Using the same method I spoke of before, I can help you to find any memories associated with this situation.”

I put a hand up to my neck and let it run along the tense muscles. Ha, I immediately thought. Exactly what Hatch always did.

“It is integral, for you especially, that we find out how this occurred. I repeat this will not be painful. It will also conclusively clear your name if your assertions are true.”

I breathed in through my teeth. So this was it. This was me finding out exactly what had transpired to bring me 400 years into the future. I’d thought about it, nearly every freaking second of the week before I was shot. What had happened, what had I done, why me?

I’d tried so hard to bring up a memory, anything that could help me understand. But nothing seemed to be there. I could hardly remember the week before the 21st of December at all, let alone the specifics.

But this was it; I was being offered a way to find out at last. But… what if I didn’t like what I saw… what if I had done something, only to forget afterward? And that, that right there, is one of the single scariest thoughts a person can have. Not being able to trust their own memories. It erases the base of who you are until you feel like you are being eaten by the quicksands of time.

I didn’t have a choice, though, did I? The Diplomat was being polite, but the captain was doing his job. They needed to know how this happened, and this was how they were going to do it.

“But, hold on…. If you could do this – if you can go into my mind and access this information… why didn’t you do that before? Why didn’t you do that a week ago? Couldn’t that have cleared this whole mess up?”

She nodded slowly again. “A good question. But the abilities of my race are enshrined and protected by our laws and those of the Galactic Federation. I cannot be forced to access the memories of another, nor, in fact, would it work. Unless you were complicit, I would not have been able to assist you in unlocking this memory.”

I stared at her a moment, trying to keep the frustration from my face. “Why didn’t you just ask? If you’d said this could have cleared things up… why didn’t you just ask?”

“It is not usual for my skills to be sought in this manner. Nor is it official to utilize them in an investigation. The laws I spoke of before prohibit such a thing. It was thought that I would be used as a last measure. Analysis of the computer core was the first and foremost source of information in this case. As that has shown nothing, I have now been asked as part of my process with you, to assist you, if you are willing, to unlock this memory.”

I blinked quickly like a cat watching something unexpected snap in its face. “I don’t know if I follow. But if you could do this, if you could have accessed these memories and cleared my name faster… well, I would have appreciated knowing about it sooner. I would have been willing.”

“Indeed. I apologize. But the customs of my people and the rules of this galaxy cannot be understood outside of their context. There were reasons this was put off until now.”

My little burst of frustration had dissipated, but it had left me less meek than before. “Okay, I’ll do it. God knows I’m the first person who wants to know what really happened. But… what if you can’t find anything?”

“Don’t worry, there will be something.”

And with that, she stretched out both long, bony hands and placed them gently on my temples.

Now, I’ve only been on a roller-coaster once, but I remember the feeling in my gut as it wound up and down, up and down. It’s like the feeling you get when you are descending in an elevator – it collects in the pit of your stomach like an energy that’s just waiting to be discharged. When you are on a roller coaster, you can laugh and scream with all the other thrill seekers, not so much when you are in an elevator, though. But in my own mind, I couldn’t use my voice. I couldn’t stretch my arms out above me in excitement and kinetic release – all I could do was watch.

Snippets, snatches of my life flew past me like they were on screens attached to planes. I saw the face of my grandparents as they handed me my graduation present. I saw the fat orange ruff of Scrubs, my cat, as he tucked himself into a ball on my lap. I saw my desk at work with all the sticky notes of reminders tabbed up around my computer screen. I saw my street. I saw my city. I saw it all flicker like pages of a book fluttering in a gale.

Where the Diplomat was, I couldn’t tell, but I could feel a presence beside me. I couldn’t move my head, because I didn’t have one. But I felt that she was there.

Then the images started to slow down, like a film reaching the end of its reel. I could concentrate on the pictures better, even start to remember from which memories they were glimpses of. In fact, judging by the sequence, it seemed we were winding down to the last of my memories before the 21st of December, 2012. I even saw that veggie burger that gave me indigestion.

I felt the presence beside me grow stronger, lap at my nonexistent face as if I’d rested my head at the shoreline of an ocean.

I didn’t remember these pictures… I had no memory of this memory.

And the pictures themselves morphed out of their static state. It was just like watching TV. Except I was inside the TV, somehow impossibly viewing myself in my own memory. Was this the skill of the Diplomat?

I was sitting in my apartment reading a book. I watched as my eyes flicked across the page I was reading, and my face opened with the excitement of the story. But then there was a knock on the door. I rose to open it, sliding the little metal lock to the side without even checking through the keyhole to see who was there.

It’s late at night, I found myself trying to shout at my memory, are you insane? You’re in the apartment late at night, all on your own – you need to be more careful! But of course, my memory couldn’t hear me. I felt like a kid at movie or a play, you know, one of the ones where they encourage audience participation.

Except this was making my amorphous form sick.

I watched as two huge guys pushed themselves into my apartment. Watched as one of them had me with one arm clamped around my neck as the other checked the coast was clear. I watched as they injected something into the soft tissue under my chin. I watched as my eyes rolled back into my head. I watched as some guy said this was, “too easy.”

Then the memory went black. Soon another one took its place. It was like I’d changed scenes in a badly cut film. This one had a picture of me staring up at the ceiling of some sort of facility. I’d obviously just awoken, and my eyes were darting around nervously, my face pale. I didn’t recognize it at all. It looked technical, expensive, and cold as hell. Like those labs you might expect to see in biological-disaster films.

I tried to scream out at my memory to get up and do something, force yourself up and run. But she still couldn’t hear me.

Once again this memory went black to be replaced by another. This time I was being loaded into some kind of pod. It was shiny, sleek, and looked like the hollowed-out remains of a silver bullet. The memory abruptly ended as the lid to the pod slid closed and everything went black. This time for good.

I was crying, I think, I couldn’t tell. I was still in my mind.

And then I was sitting there in the conference room of the GFS Barracks. I felt monumentally sad and afraid all at the same time. But then it dissipated, the memories slipped away from me like water through a loosely cupped hand until I was sitting there blinking in confusion.

The Diplomat returned her hands to her lap, a strange look on her face.

“What happened?” my face was all cramped with confusion. I couldn’t remember a thing now. “Is it over?”

She nodded silently.

“And?” I was suddenly nervous that I couldn’t remember anything, though the aftermath of the process had left my mind foggy. “What did you find?”

“It was just as you said: you had nothing to do with this.”

Sweet relief engulfed me, and I forced a smile. “But what really happened?”

“It is my belief, and it was the theory of Pinkari which I can now confirm, that the governments of your world had rudimentary knowledge of the interaction of the gene sequence with Atlantian technology. In the last days of 2012 they perhaps realized that for their pods to work, or to boost the effectiveness of their technology, they required somebody with the correct DNA. Perhaps you were the only one they could find in time. But it seems you were appropriated for that purpose. They would also have wished to preserve the purity of your DNA for when the Foundation Force would return to Earth and be tasked with the operation of rebuilding it.”

My lip dropped until my bottom teeth were on full display. I was… appropriated? “Kidnapped?” I asked quickly, “I was kidnapped? But how did they know I even had this sequence?”

“Had you ever undergone genetic testing of any kind?”

I was ready to shake my head…. but that was wrong. “Yeah, I have. My mom and both her sisters died of breast cancer. They wanted to know if I had the gene. I didn’t.”

“Well, it appears you had something else of interest.”

“Yeah….”

Yes, it did….

Chapter 7

That afternoon, after my strange meeting with the Diplomat, I was reminded clear as hell that I was in space on a military vessel. It had been a fairly academic fact for me up to that point. Sure, Hatch always walked around with his armor on and a fancy-looking gun strapped to his back, and I had been shot. But that hadn’t really hammered home for me the reality of my situation.

It took a sudden and unexpected change in mission objectives for me to fully understand. It was when I was walking back to my quarters that the computer sounded a loud continuous beep that saw all crew members in the corridor ground to a quick halt. Over the PA, or whatever fancy futuristic com-system the Barracks was equipped with, a human voice informed us that the ship had received an urgent mission from the Galactic Federation Council. The person continued, in the kind of clipped but calm tones you might hear during a countdown for a rocket launch, that yellow alert had been raised and that all crew members were to report to their stations while non-essential personnel were to proceed to their quarters immediately.

I figured I fit into the non-essential-personnel category, and with a nervous trot followed the voice’s order and went straight back to my room. All thoughts of my odd experience with the Diplomat had been pushed from my mind. I’d never been in a situation like this. The closest I had come were my foggy memories of the growing unrest preceding the 21st of December, 2012. But they were little clouds of feelings and static images flickering in my mind like a candle in the fog. Nothing tangible, nothing I could draw experience from.

So I was out of my depth. Again. It felt like I just went from the unexpected to the impossible on this ship.

I sat on the edge of my bed for I don’t know how long. The low continuous klaxon that accompanied the yellow alert ran out after a while. The dimmed lights didn’t lift, though. I figured we were still on yellow alert, but that by now the annoying alarm had been ditched in favor of silence. You would have to be a pretty stupid soldier, after all, to just forget halfway through some mission that the ship was under attack or something.

It felt like almost two hours had passed by the time a buzz came from my door. I hadn’t been expecting it. I’d finally settled into reading some of the data pads I’d been given covering all sorts of information about the 25th century. I looked up suddenly from the pad I had been reading on the political system of the Galactic Federation (dry as the middle of a desert dune, that one) and kind of moved my head about like a disturbed meerkat. It took me a moment to realize both where the buzz was coming from and what to do about it. But eventually, I walked over to the door and pressed the open button.

Hatch was standing there, and he looked tired. His armor, which was usually as clean as the bathtub of an obsessive old woman, was charred in patches and there was something sprayed across one arm that looked a lot like blood. “Oh my god, are you okay?”

He followed my eyes to the blood stain. “Not mine,” his voice was curt, eyes dead. “I… need you to do something.”

My eyes contracted with fear and confusion. What could I do? Get a Chux and some baking soda and scrub his armor clean? “I… guess. What do you want?”

When he wasn’t talking, his lips would settle into a stiff thin line. “We have a situation that we cannot resolve by… ordinary methods.”

My eyes narrowed further. That sounded like the lead-in to a superhero film, or maybe the by-line to a fancy cleaning product: a cloth for those extraordinary stains. Why was he telling me all of this? “Okay, well anyway that I can help.”

“We have an operational situation which we are not equipped for, but which you may be able to assist us with.” Not surprisingly, the commander was massaging his neck again.

I felt like screaming at him. What? Get it out already, just go ahead and tell me! All this pussyfooting around was making me nervous and annoyed all at once. But then there was this little kick in my stomach. Hatch was covered with blood and blast stains. Did I really want to know what he wanted? “Oh, okay. Look, if you just tell me what it is….”

“We don’t have a lot of time. I’ll have to brief you on the way.”

For some reason, the only thing that came into my head was would I need my jacket? But I walked out the door nonetheless and tried to keep my eyes off the stains that covered Hatch’s armor. “So what’s this about?”

He didn’t turn around. “At 1300 hours we received word that a government official had been taken hostage by SORs—”

“Saws?” I said immediately. All I could think of was a large group of different kinds of saws, maybe a jigsaw and a circular saw and a chainsaw, even, all ganging up around this poor quivering human. Strange mental image, I know.

“Special Operations Rogues. They are ex-members of the Galactic Federation Army that went rogue. They don’t like the way the war has been dealt with. They favor a more cutthroat approach. They are heavily into the illegal-arms trade and research banned by the Council.”

I nodded my head. My mental image had now been updated to include heavily armed, incredibly trained and vicious soldiers. There was nothing faintly amusing there.

“The group doesn’t usually operate in this area, but for some reason, they received word of Councilor Melcor’s flight plan and boarded her vessel at approximately 0800 hours Standard Galactic Time. Councilor Melcor is a high-level official in the Atlantian Control Unit. It’s our belief that they will hold Melcor, or ransom her off until they get what information they want.”

My lip twitched to the side. Christ, this sounded serious. Hostages and rogue agents? Ah, could someone turn off the TV now and wake me up to the real world? “What information do they want?”

Hatch hesitated for a second. He obviously wasn’t sure if it was okay to tell me. I mean really, I didn’t blame him; it’s not like I had security clearance or anything. But then again, whatever he told me I was unlikely to understand anyway. “Melcor has many upgrade codes.”

“Huh?”

“Not all Atlantian weapons just need someone with the DNA to interact with them. A lot of the more heavy-duty weaponry is locked by the Council, or at least the ones we produce ourselves.”

“So you need the codes and someone with the DNA to make them evolve? Like a security precaution so not just anybody passing by can mess with your weapons?”

He nodded his head sharply. “That’s it.”

We walked and talked. Or, rather, Hatch did while I jogged and huffed behind him trying to keep up.

“SOR has been becoming more brazen in their attacks, but this is a new turn from them. We didn’t expect them in this section of space.” He seemed to look off into the distance.

What must it be like, I suddenly wondered, to be constantly living a life like his? All that pressure, all that stress. There but for the grace of god go I – that phrase was just popping into my head all the time these days. I’d never really conceived of the reality that comes along with signing up to physically protect people from war and violence. I certainly couldn’t do it. “Does it have something to do with the pirates?”

“I doubt it. But that’s not the issue. The issue is Melcor was equipped with an advanced personal shield that is supposed to operate in precisely this situation.” He must have caught me looking at him, because he slowed down and took a breath. “The shield is a thick magnetized barrier that will prevent anyone from getting within a half-meter distance of Melcor. It will also protect her from light-to-medium arms fire. They’d probably have to blow up the whole ship before they could breach it.”

“So she’s okay then?”

“Not exactly. The pirates who seized her ship have been dealt with—”

I flinched at that. I didn’t want to imagine anything along the lines of “dealt with.” My eyes kept on being drawn toward the stains all over Hatch’s armor. My stomach was starting to lurch with nausea. This was real, wasn’t it?

“But Melcor’s shield is malfunctioning – she can’t shut it off, and the engines for her cruiser are offline.”

“So… isn’t that good? I mean, the shield has protected her thus far, and now we’re here so….”

He shook his head, and it was quick like the slice of a sword. “No. We can’t move her out of the vessel, and there’s a good chance SOR will send reinforcements. Also, it could be days, possibly a week before someone from the Council with the necessary skill level in Atlantian tech can come out this far.”

My face was all crumpled with confusion. I was really trying to understand why this was an issue, but it just wasn’t clicking. “Well, can’t the Barracks stay here and guard her vessel until they arrive? Or couldn’t we tow her or something?”

“Nothing can pass through the shield, Ariel, save the air she needs to breathe. If we don’t get Melcor down, she’ll die of dehydration and exhaustion.”

I receded, the pit of my belly lurching. “Oh god. But… then… isn’t there some other way to shut down that shield?”

He stopped now, wiped his gloved hands on his armor-covered legs. “Maybe.” He nodded at me. “Maybe you could give it a try.”

“Me?”

“It wouldn’t make sense to leave her there without trying everything we’ve got. I know you are untrained,” he put up a hand and patted it in the air like he was telling a crazy dog “whoa.” “But you still have a remarkably pure gene sequence, far purer than anyone else on this ship. All I’m asking is that you give it a go.”

My shock was starting to abate. What he was suggesting was reasonable, after all. He was right; they should try everything they could to get this Melcor down. To leave her up there in some kind of force field for a whole week would be torture. I just… well, I’m not used to being called on. What if I couldn’t do it? Well, of course, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Who was I kidding? I managed to evolve a gun when it was pointed at my head out of pure aching fear. But this would be different.

He bent his head down to me, trying to catch my gaze. “All I’m asking is that you give it a try. No one is expecting anything of you. If you can’t do it, we’ll think of something else. Just give it a try.”

I sniffed softly. “Okay, I’ll give it a go.”

“Good.”

I followed the commander and his team into the Councilor’s vessel. The ship itself was docked onto the side of the Barracks, kind of like my transport had been. As I watched the commander’s team shift out around him and walk through the tunnel and down into the awaiting cruiser, I kept on thinking of things I’d seen that reminded me of this situation. Instead of floundering at the strangeness and overwhelming foreignness of it all, I started to cross reference it with some of the more bizarre movies I’d seen or games I’d played.

The other soldiers, or the commander’s team, were all dressed in chunky body armor that reminded me of those futuristic punk rockers from the ‘80s. Of course, they weren’t wearing platforms or enough piercings to attract lightning on a clear day, but it was just the memory that came to mind. It was because the armor was chunky but sleek and metallic.

Once we’d entered the cruiser, it felt like I’d walked into the palace of some rock star, the eccentric, technology-loving kind. Everything was white, and it sparkled. It was so clean, so clear. It was kind of like I’d imagined the future – you know, a reality in which the clean-loving minimalists have won over all other kinds of interior design. Most of the rooms we walked through were dedicated to one piece of equipment only with just a couple of deadly-fancy-looking chairs around them.

But then we reached the main room, and it opened up before me with a domed ceiling that made the light steps of Hatch’s team echo as if they were yodeling across a valley. Melcor was in this room, I could figure that without anyone else having to tell me.

Almost in the center, close to a table that had been turned over and shot right through the middle, was a giant orange rippling ball. In the middle, floated a woman who looked like the same species as the Diplomat, but with red skin and a pronounced splattering of black dots across her face and chin that moved with the same flickering quality as the Diplomat’s own light spots. Perhaps black, in this instance, indicated that Melcor wasn’t that happy about being trapped in a force field with the prospect of starvation to look forward to.

She was suspended directly in the center of the sphere like a hamster in a ball. Except she wasn’t running around, her head was just lolled to one side, her limbs limp. Her body, now that I saw it up close, was also encased in a further green light – as if she were trapped within a shield within a shield.

There was a zapping energy shifting from the Councilor’s inner green shield to the outer orange ball, and at that moment I realized the green stuff was the only thing stopping her from being fried. Which made sense even to my technologically-infantile mind. If she were just suspended in the force field – the exact same flickering energy that was meant to keep everything out – surely she’d just pop like an egg. The extra green casing around her own form was obviously the only thing stopping the massive energy of the field from exploding through her nervous system as if she’d chosen to stuff a bunch of live wires in her mouth. It kind of hammered home to me just how much electricity this orange monstrosity was producing….

As I tore my eyes from that strange sight and glanced across the room, I realized that this must have been where the battle had occurred. There weren’t bodies, thankfully, but there were blast marks and red and blue stains everywhere.

I swallowed, trying to do it privately so no one could see my fear, disgust, and sorrow.

Hatch walked right up to the shimmering edge of the sphere. “Councilor,” he shouted.

The suspended woman suddenly raised her head. She put both her hands up, and I thought she was going to beat against the shield like a cat slamming itself at the door when it wants to come in. But she just tightened her hands in nervous fright and let them drop to her sides again, the green light around her flickering all the more. I was momentarily taken by how beautiful her race was. I just couldn’t get over it – those eyes, that skin, the long graceful bodies.

Hatch’s back was stiff, his face strong with concentration. “We’re going to try and get you out. I’ve brought the girl I told you about.”

I gave a startled blink. There were two things wrong with that sentence. Firstly, I’m not a girl. I’m a full-grown woman! It didn’t bode well if Hatch thought I was some kind of kid. Secondly, he’d gone and told the Councilor about me? Now her expectations would be raised, and completely lowered when I failed.

Great.

I swallowed again.

I had no idea what I was actually meant to do. Would I wave my hands around and shout “Atlantian Magic Time!” Or would I turn sharply and give the shield a deathly, cocked-eyebrow look of cool.

My hands were starting to itch, and I wiped them on my pants. I was still wearing the clothes I’d been unfrozen in. Though they’d offered me other ones, these were comfortable. They reminded me of home.

I realized Melcor was looking at me. Her eyes were wide, her face open with hope. “I am thankful for your assistance.”

I winced. Oh lord, this was going to be horrible.

Hatch turned to me and nodded. That was it, just a nod. Was I expected to know what to do with that simple movement? Did he expect I’d nod back, crack my fingers, and have that alien out of there in a sweet jiffy?

I shrugged my shoulders. “Ummm… I don’t know what to do.”

“Of course you don’t. The Councilor will talk you through it.”

I shook my head in exasperation. “Yeah okay,” I added quickly in case he thought I was backing out.

“On my wrist here is the device,” Melcor had a sweet voice like the Diplomat. “I do not have your Atlantian genes, I cannot turn it off myself, and it seems to have malfunctioned. It is meant to close down once the correct Galactic Federation code is entered and no further threats are detected. But as you can see, it has failed to do this.”

I nodded. I could understand all of that, but I still had no idea what they wanted me to do.

“I need you to remotely connect to the device. I need you to reach your mind out, to search until you can feel this device with your whole being but without touching it.”

G-r-e-a-t. If I was looking for blow-by-blow instructions, “reaching out with my mind” didn’t cut the mustard.

“Close your eyes and concentrate. Please try.”

I closed my eyes. Christ, I must have looked like an idiot, though. Closing my eyes and pressing my face up with concentration like a kid who was pretending to do magic. Blergh, this was embarrassing.

“Just feel out with your mind,” Melcor encouraged in her sweet tones, though they did waver with anxiety. It must be horrible for her to be stuck up there like that.

How do you feel out with your mind? It’s not like your mind has limbs or sensations of its own. All I was doing was screwing my eyes shut and crinkling my nose and brow. Nothing was happening.

“Just concentrate, Ariel. You can do it,” Hatch said in a voice much softer than he usually used.

That really didn’t help. In fact, it just made me bite down on my lip. I could just imagine all their eyes on me, staring at my back like I was the major attraction at the museum of oddities. Hatch’s team especially, they’d all be laughing on the inside, amazed that they’d even bothered to take me along.

Ahh! Nothing was going to happen here, why was I even doing this? God, I mustn’t even have this stupid gene.

“Ariel—”

I felt a heavy sinking feeling in my gut. It was remarkable, so clear. It was like a clarion ringing all the way through me – blaring out that there was a problem. I took a sharp breath and snapped my eyes open.

“What?” Hatch shifted toward me.

Now my eyes were opened, and the light had flooded into the darkness, the feeling was trickling away. It felt like… I’d made it up or something. “I… look… I don’t think it wants to be turned off.” Once the words were out, I realized that that was the feeling I’d received. Somehow I’d gotten this message clear as day that the shield had no intention of shutting off now.

Dead silence met that statement. And I watched with a growing sick feeling as Melcor’s eyes rounded with disappointment.

“What do you mean, Ariel?” Hatch’s voice had become hard. I didn’t blame him. He had brought me here to fix this. Not to shrug my shoulders and say “meh, I think the shield is happy where it is.”

I didn’t catch his gaze, though it was hard – he was staring directly at me.

I cleared my throat. “Look, I can try again, but honestly… oh, I don’t know. It just, it felt like it didn’t want to turn off for a reason.”

He sighed, and that was worse than him turning around and telling me I was a useless waste of space. It stung like a wet slap across the cheek.

“This shield is clearly malfunctioning, human,” Melcor said patiently, “perhaps what you are receiving is this problem. If you try to push past it—”

Suddenly, the floor pitched like a Spanish bull bucking for the matador. It threw me to the side like I’d been loaded into a catapult. I didn’t have time to scream, just hit the floor with a thud.

Before I could ask what the hell was going on, the floor pitched again, this time far more violently. I skidded toward the orange flickering shield, but a hand clamped around my leg and pulled me back. It was Hatch.

Barracks, report.” He snapped, hand still on my leg, pinning me to the ground so I couldn’t fall toward the force field.

“We are under fire from three pirate raiders. They have damaged the docking tunnel; we’ve had to disengage it. Your airlock sealed. The raiders are using the cruiser as cover, looks like one of them is trying to board, Hatch,” a quick but strangely informal voice blared through the cuff of Hatch’s suit.

“Received.” Hatch mouthed something that I assume was some kind of alien swearword.

“The raiders have stealth tech, that’s why we didn’t detect them. Looks like they were hiding behind one of the system’s moons. We’ve engaged the targets, but as long as they hug your hull, we can’t risk destroying them.”

Hatch whispered that word again, and it was bitter. “What the hell is a raider doing with that kind of tech in this system?”

“Don’t know, sir, could be more SORs, could be pirates, could be anyone. We’ll try to get them away from you so we can get a clear shot, but be prepared to be boarded. Good luck, Commander.”

“Out.”

The floor had stopped pitching, but I wasn’t about to get up, Hatch’s hand was still clamped across my calf. The row of lights along the ceiling was flickering like those bad fluoro lights in libraries. There was a strange smell in the air too, and a noise like someone was sawing through the hull with a kitchen knife.

I turned just as Hatch rose, collected an arm around my middle and pulled me to my feet. His face was plastered with pressure and anger. “You need to go and hide,” he pressed a hand into my arm, “go to the back of the ship, find something to hide behind, and don’t move.” He turned me around and pushed me squarely in the middle of the back.

My mind had stopped: too shocked, too overloaded. I just ran with the momentum he’d given me, but turned my head to look at him.

“Go!” he shouted at me.

I stumbled but made it through the door at the back of the room just as I heard Hatch grab his gun and shout to his team to be ready and cover the entrance.

It was like I’d been hit in the face with a bat – that same strange tingling you get in your nose and up your cheeks.

My heartbeat was so clear in my ears that I could count it if I’d wanted, and this cold was spreading across my chest like I’d shoved snow down my top.

Was I breathing? I didn’t know… oh god.

There was the metallic groan of metal fatigue, and the floor lurched again. I pitched against a wall but managed to steady myself. In another few seconds, I heard the shots.

It was like listening to a bunch of children playing laser tag, except it was real.

I sank to the ground right where I was. The impetus to get away was swallowed up and frozen into a clump somewhere near the bottom of my throat.

Hatch was out there fighting. His team, Melcor – they were all out there…. And I was leaning against a wall just outside the room in total shock.

I….

Chapter 8

As I sat crunched into a ball of fear, my eyes so tightly closed I thought they would pop, I could only think of one thing – I’m a coward.

You ever seen a movie with a coward in it? For some reason, you usually have a scene just before said coward shakes like a leaf in a twister setting them up to be an ass. You know what I’m talking about. Just before the balding, vicious middle-manager runs screaming from the T-rex, you get a close up of him kicking puppies. Or maybe a couple of minutes before the arrogant, over-the-top jock whimpers like a newborn baby at the prospect of being shot, you see him giving the nerd hero an atomic wedgie.

The lesson is, cowards aren’t just bad because they don’t have the chutzpah to hold it together when the building is being taken by a horde of apocalyptic zombies. No, cowards are mean, arrogant blights on humanity who deserve their shameful fate.

So if this is the lesson of 21st-century pop culture, then where does that leave me? Pressed up against a wall listening to a wild gun battle, breath a shallow gasp that rakes up and down my parched throat. Shaking with every single pounding blast that slammed around the room behind me with the surprised intensity of someone who is grabbed from behind on a cold dark night.

That makes me a coward, right? And if I’m a coward, then according to the popular stories of my own time, I’m a bad person too. The lowest of the low, the bane of humanity – the person who can’t come to the aid of others when they are in trouble.

I did have another option, though. I didn’t have to look back too far until the perfect picture of the weak woman in distress came to mind. You know, the ‘50s screamer in those horror films who keeps on spraining her ankles when the hero is trying to get her the hell away from the 50ft shrimp monster. Or the milk maid who faints at the sight of the dragon, when all her white knight wants is to run the damn thing through without having to accommodate collateral damage into his attack plan. Basically, the damsel.

I’m a coward or a damsel. When aliens or rogues or pirates or what the hell ever raided this cruiser, I ceased to be Ariel De Winter. I was now a quivering ball of stifling fright. I used to think I was fairly brave, capable of looking after myself, and not the kind of girl who would allow herself to be pushed around. But that was circumstantial. And I had now entered a situation in which I couldn’t even lift a finger in my own defense.

I didn’t know how long the battle had been raging for – there was no way to tell. I couldn’t see a thing, and the door I had raced through to make it into the corridor had promptly closed behind me. If I was suicidal, I could walk up to it, wait for it to open and try to take a peek. But I was far from suicidal. Still, all of me needed to know who was winning, whether Hatch and his team were okay, or whether a horde of cold-blooded aliens would scuttle through the door and blast me to bits like lightning striking a watermelon.

My mind was occupied by nothing but cold dread. All I could do was listen to the zips, bangs, blasts, and muffled shouts.

What would I do if the wrong people won?

Time passed in ragged stages like it had turned into a slot machine flipping around the same still images of me staring at the inside of my arms, over and over again. But then the shots subsided. There were no more screams. It was silent.

Slowly, I let my arms unfurl from around me, untucked my head from between my knees, and looked around.

I could hear muffled voices. They weren’t loud – they weren’t screams or anything. No, they were just low and muted through the door.

Should I go check, or wait for someone to come and get me? Could I really just pop my head around the door, see if Hatch was the winner, and if not apologize quickly and duck back?

I didn’t have long to consider that option, as the door beside me swooshed open. Someone in full-body armor walked through. It was black and shone, not like polished steel, but more like the matte finish of carbon. It looked like the kind of thing you might see in a really expensive blockbuster movie – it looked deadly, cool, and dangerously modern all at once.

I guessed whoever was in it was human, even though their helmet obscured their face. The armor looked similar to the stuff Hatch wore, just a different color. Hope surged within me, tickling all the way up my middle until I felt like laughing. They must have sent reinforcements from the Barracks.

The person in their suit kind of cocked their head to one side, like they’d seen a neon cockroach scuttle across the floor. They obviously hadn’t expected to see me.

They had a large-looking gun held in one hand. It was pointed at the ground for the moment. In one casual move, they toted it and aimed straight for me.

I choked, like I’d just swallowed my hand whole, and pressed myself up against the wall.

“What are you doing here?” a cold, dead calm male voice asked.

It sounded like I’d just broken into his personal corridor, and he was defending his territory. Or rather, like he wasn’t a reinforcement from the Barracks at all, but from the pirate party that had just raided this ship….

The fear leached out of me as something else welled in its place. What if Hatch was dead?

The guy bent down and reached for me. I shrugged out of the way and pushed myself to my feet, backing up across the corridor.

“Don’t be stupid, human.” He kept the gun pointed at me. “Now, who are you?”

Hatch could be lying on the floor in the other room bleeding to death or already gone.

“Human?”

I couldn’t do anything about it. The commander, all his team, Melcor…. I kept on backing away.

“I told you not to move.” He pulled his gun up until it was positioned tightly against his shoulder blade.

Nothing at all I could do. I couldn’t even hope to save myself….

“Stop moving, human.”

There was nothing I could do, but there was one thing I could try. I realized it with a shiver that spread across my back as if I’d been struck close range with a water balloon. I locked eyes on the man’s gun, stared straight at the barrel like it was some kind of eye test.

Nothing. Nothing at all.

“Don’t make me shoot you, human. Stop moving.”

I don’t know why I continued to back slowly down the corridor. I couldn’t control my limbs; it was like I was under voodoo or something. But I didn’t care. I just kept on trying to concentrate on that gun. Like had happened with Stephen – could I make the gun change in his hands? Could I make him drop it? Could I do something worse?

“Alright, that’s it.” He swung the gun down and walked casually after me. “You think I need a gun to deal with you?”

Something flickered at the edge of my consciousness. It was like watching a trickle of rain cut an errant path down a muddy windscreen. After the sensation passed, I could feel something clearer, almost see something hang over the gun….

The guy was only a meter away when the gun gave a wet click like a kid letting their tongue slap from their pallet onto the bottom of their mouth. Then its metal sides buckled and bulged – shifting up and down and to each side as they separated into fine slivers.

“What the—” The man didn’t drop his gun, but he held it out at arm’s length and stared at it for a moment.

I concentrated so hard. I didn’t know to what end – didn’t know what I could turn the gun into, just knew I had to keep my focus on it. It was my only hope.

That’s when the guy turned the twisting chunk of metal around, and pistol whipped me with the butt of the gun.

It slammed straight into my face like I’d head butted a metal post. I blacked out.

When I came around, I could feel a slick of crusted but still warm blood over my nose and bottom lip. My hair was stuck in the blood and covered my face in little groups so all I could see where slices of the world outside. I groaned, couldn’t help it, my face felt like I’d smashed a semi into it. I put a hand up to it and tried to pull the hair away.

“Awake.” It wasn’t a question – it was barely a statement.

I tried to sit up, tugging harder on my hair until it all came free and slapped against my neck, still clogged with my own dark-red blood.

I could see the orange of Melcor’s shield flickering away in the background, even caught a glimpse of her face all wide with fright. It wasn’t taking my mind long to fill in the gaps of lost memory. The corridor, the man, the gun.

I saw them standing there, all in the same colored black, carbon-textured armor. They had those same guns. A couple of them were looking at me. I couldn’t see through their helmets, but somehow I could tell they were smiling.

It came to me in a flash. Hatch! I whipped my head around, ignoring the blinding searing pain in my neck. He was sitting a couple of meters away, hands behind his back, head tipped but eyes looking straight at me. Blood was smeared across his face. This time I could tell it was his. A couple of his team members were seated with him. One was missing, though. Lieutenant Balthar or something. I couldn’t quite remember his name. A descending sickness grabbed my stomach. He must be dead or something….

I felt like heaving my guts out, but every move I made sent spikes of pain spinning into my face, neck, and arms. Hatch was still looking straight at me. Those eyes were like army searchlights locking on a plane. His expression was controlled, not revealing the pain from the gash above his brow. He was trying to tell me something, I felt that, but what I couldn’t tell. I still held his gaze for as long as I could before a man walked straight up to me.

He looked down at me, his helmet still on. “You’re kidding?”

Despite the pain, I screwed up my brow in confusion. I hadn’t said anything, and I sure wasn’t in a joking mood right now.

He leaned down, got onto his haunches, resting his arms on his knees only 30cm from my face. “What are the chances?”

I sucked in a breath and leaned backward as far as I could.

“This is kinda fortunate, kinda lucky. What’s your name, kid?” the voice came out of his armor without any distortion. It was disconcerting, it felt like we were talking face-to-face, but we weren’t – it was face-to-rock-hard-helmet.

My eyes were wide balls of shock. I didn’t know what this guy was talking about, couldn’t follow a word he was saying. Luck? Why did he need to know my name? Why hadn’t they just shot me in the corridor?

“Name,” he said slower.

I still didn’t answer.

The guy sighed, and it was long, like a hot air balloon deflating. “Balthar, what’s her name?”

“Ariel something.”

I looked at Balthar. He wasn’t dead; no, he was standing with the bad guys. Not a good sign.

“Well, Ariel Something, you should be more cooperative,” he pointed a chunky gloved finger at me.

That was about the creepiest threat I’d ever received.

“You do speak, don’t you?”

I stared resolutely at the ground between us.

“Tell me, is this you cooperating? Do you need an incentive?”

“No.” I had to say something. The insistence in his voice was winding up like a helicopter getting ready to take off.

“Good girl. Now you’re quite a find, Ariel. Not every day you come across a proper User.” He shrugged his shoulder at the force field and Melcor. “They tend to keep your kind under lock and key. But you, you’re not even registered, and you sure did play a fancy trick with my gun.”

I was biting hard on the inside of my bottom lip, trying not to splutter or choke or burst into tears. I just stared at that one patch of ground like it held the meaning to life.

“They haven’t laced your blood with their fancy tracing agent yet, haven’t molded your mind to their bullshit cause, haven’t even seen your face. You,” he pointed that same finger at me, “hardly exist to them. In fact, I don’t think they’d mind too much if they never even met you.”

I tried not to gasp, but it just came out. Then I closed my eyes real slow. Oh god, what kind of a threat was that? What were they going to do?

“You’ll be helping the galaxy. Don’t worry, you won’t go to waste.” He stood up. “This mission is turning out to be more profitable than I’d thought. Codes and a User.”

My lip was wobbling. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t cry.

“Don’t worry, human, we won’t hurt you – we’ll just use you.”

I burst into tears. But through the wracking sobs, I caught a glimpse of his gun.

He saw me looking and patted it. “You can’t play that game again. We locked all our weapons with codes – weren’t expecting your kind around here. It was a surprise, but don’t think that talent of yours can get you out of here.”

“Now, Hatch.” The man turned. “The offer is still on the table, oh champion of propriety. You know nothing will be fixed if we keep following the Council’s orders. You want this war to stretch on for another century? You can do that to the colony worlds, can you? Weren’t your parents colonists? Or do you finally want to do something about it, fight back in the only way those Unity bastards will understand? Don’t you finally want some revenge?”

“You bastard.” It was the first time I’d heard Hatch speak since I’d come around, and the first time I’d heard him use a voice like that. It was cold and twisted, bitter and full.

The guy kind of chuckled. “That’s insubordination, Commander. You forgotten your training, boy?”

“When you mutinied, went rogue, you lost the respect of the army. And no, there’s no chance in fucking hell I’ll join you.”

“The offer will remain on the table. We need soldiers like you. Orphan, career soldiers who will follow whatever order they’re given with total devotion. You’ve got no ties, no one to miss you after you disappear into Non-District Space. And I know you want to see this war change. You think I can’t see that in your eyes?”

Hatch didn’t say anything. Just kept his face directed at the floor. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, not while the tears streaked down my ruddy, swollen face. But my sobs were becoming slower, the reality of the situation just pulling them out into a general mist of dread.

“Lieutenant Balthar made the right choice, and look at him, he’s not covered in blood. He picked the winners. But I can see you need to think about it.” He turned back to me and just stood there for a real long time. “You need to get cleaned up there, can’t have you bleeding all over our tech when you evolve it.”

I stopped crying, I even managed to stifle my sniffs. What a jerk. Flickers of anger and shame were pressing up from within. I was angry at myself, sure, but mostly I was angry at the faceless guy with the gun.

“Now we’ve got some hostages, it won’t take much to get your fancy ship to back off. Wouldn’t want a couple of soldiers to have a fatal accident in the airlock.” He turned back to me. “Balthar said you are from the past, you were frozen in a pod, that’s why you’ve got those pure fancy genes.” He cocked his head to the side again. “So tell me, honey, how do you like the future?”

“Fuck you.” The words were on my lips and out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“Ha! Original. And I was just chalking you up as pathetic. Try anything, though, and I’ll break the other side of your nose. No, it’s gonna be a long trip, and I shouldn’t have to keep on reminding you to be helpful.”

“Leave her alone,” Hatch’s voice was a touch above a whisper. But that didn’t make it quiet: it hissed through the room like a snake that’s had its tail hacked off.

“Always the dutiful soldier, Hatch. I’m sure your Captain would be proud. But right now I need to get Councilor Melcor here out of that goddamn shield, so if you’ll excuse me. Let’s see what Ariel Something can do.” He stowed his gun and walked straight up to me. He latched an arm onto my shoulder and pulled me roughly to my feet.

I groaned in pain – he was pulling my shoulder at a vicious angle. I caught a glimpse of Hatch’s face as I was yanked past him. He looked at me like he’d run over my cat, and the only thing in the world he wanted was my forgiveness. It flickered in his eyes, played across his mouth, dragging it down toward his tucked-in chin. He was powerless, just like me.

The man pulled me right up to Melcor’s shield until the flickering wave of energy was just a couple of centimeters from my arm. I tried to pull away from it; it felt like getting too close to an electric fence.

“Please, you are hurting her, please stop,” Melcor struggled as she floated, face so plastered with shocked compassion that I had to look away.

“Stow it, wet skin,” the man rolled off those last words with a vehement flick of his lip. I could tell it was a racist slur, or speciest, or whatever. “Now get her down from there, Ariel.”

There was a pause in which the sound of my labored, jerky breathing felt like it stretched out to fill the whole room.

“Or we shoot all your friends.”

All 7 of the SORs, including Balthar, raised their guns and pointed them behind me.

I started to shiver.

“You cold? We’ll get you a shower right after you get her down.” He pointed that very same finger up at Melcor. “I told you, you want to start being helpful to me. Now – get – her – down.”

My eyes strayed toward the flickering force field. If I turned off the shield, then they’d get their hands on Melcor, maybe even torture her to get the information they wanted. But if I didn’t, then Hatch and the others….

“But what about the codes…” I stalled for time.

“What?”

“Won’t she just lock me out like you locked me out of your guns?”

“She does that, and the rest of them die. I think she understands that.”

Melcor nodded vehemently.

“Don’t do it, Ariel—” Hatch started.

While the man held me with one arm, my shoulder raised too high and too close to my neck, he pulled out a pistol from his side and pointed it behind him. “Do it, Ariel,” he matched Hatch’s tone.

I didn’t have a choice….

Or did I?

A wild plan formulated in my mind. I turned to the shield, ignored Melcor’s expressive eyes, and tried to focus as hard as I could.

The other SORs were all standing close to the shield as well – its girth took up a fair amount of the room.

“Ariel—”

“Shut up, Commander.”

I concentrated until the pain in my temples reached a burning intensity like someone was holding hot coals to the skin. I didn’t have to turn the shield off… all I had to do was make it bigger.

“Don’t,” Hatch shouted.

The orange field shifted and buzzed as if a swarm of electric bees had zoomed over one side.

“That’s it, keep going,” the man shook my arm.

Then the field burst outward – its girth leaping toward us like the snap of a clamped up spring.

It slammed into me, knocking me backward like I’d body slammed a giant rubber ball. It didn’t electrocute me as I’d feared but did fill my body with a sudden and complete stiffness. I hit the ground, motionless but conscious.

I could see the SORs, see the main guy, their armor was all giving these spasmodic twitches as if the electrics had been damaged and they were now little more than malfunctioning robots. The jolts appeared to abate after a while, and the man in charge, who’d pulled me around like a ragdoll, tried to get to his feet.

Hatch came out of nowhere, arms still restrained behind his back, and slammed a shoulder right into the man’s chest, knocking him back into the shield.

There was a splutter of sparks that leaped from the force field and fed right into the man’s armor. Hatch seemed to hold him there, pinning him with his shoulder for what seemed like forever, until he finally stepped away.

The guy fell motionless to the ground.

None of the other SORs seemed ready to get up; obviously, the shield discharge had really fried their suits. But I didn’t imagine it would floor them forever – the leader had managed to push past it. No, soon they’d be on their feet again, and that would spell quick defeat for Hatch and his team. They all had their hands cuffed behind their backs with these fancy-looking metal restraints. And there wasn’t much you could do against armed men without any arms of your own.

They needed to get their cuffs off, my dizzy mind told me. They needed to get them off now if there was going to be any hope.

I pushed against the stillness in my limbs, managed to secure a palm flat on the floor and pushed myself up. Stars broke in my vision like popping candy might fizz in your mouth. I made some kind of terrible noise – halfway between a moan and pathetic cry. But it got me up.

Hatch turned, shoulders still hunched forward as his hands were tucked so firmly behind him. “Ariel. Fuck, are you alright?”

I didn’t answer. Just pushed my legs into the ground until my back met the wall behind me. I used it as leverage and somehow managed to walk myself up until I stood, propped heavily against it.

“Don’t move. God, just lie back down.”

“Your cuffshh,” for some reason my tongue didn’t work, so I nodded toward him instead. That was worse, it sent prickly sparks up my neck and into my face. “Before… the othersh get up.”

He only looked at me for a brief second. But I think he managed to get a lot out of the glimpse. He leaned down and kicked one of the SORs guns to me that was lying on the ground. It came to a rest just at my feet. I didn’t have the energy to look at it.

“There’s a datapad on my lower arm,” he turned to me, showing his cuffed hands, “press the button on the side.”

I blinked slowly at his hands. Now I was this close I could see that they were actually inside cuffs, not just looped over each other like the restraints of my time. No, they were completely covered by this chunky metal device. Obviously, things had evolved since the days of loosely tying people up with rope they could easily rub through, or slapping them with metal cuffs that still left their hands free for guns. No, with that metal box there would be no chance of Hatch accidentally getting free.

I reached out a shaking hand and let it kind of flop onto Hatch’s arm.

“You can do this. Come on.”

My searching fingers found the button, and I sucked in a shocked breath as a metal cover pulled back to reveal a complicated-looking data pad. There were different buttons and some kind of screen that probably showed the vitals of the armor. I just stared at it like you do the brake lights of other cars when you are the passenger on a long trip.

“Press the blue button all the way to the right.”

One of the SORs seemed to be stirring. All of Hatch’s team were around him. But what could they really do? Jump on top of him like guys at a rugby match? That would only last so long. None of Hatch’s men had helmets on, and the SORs were still completely armored.

I found the button. I dug my finger into it like I was a kid stealing ice cream from the tub.

Hatch’s helmet hissed into place. It gave me a fright, but I was way past jumping at things like that.

“Lean down and pick up the gun if you can. Just be careful. Grab my arm if you need support.”

I did, I hooked it under his, and he guided me to the ground. One useless, hardly working hand managed to grab the gun he’d kicked me.

“Now you have to prop yourself up. I have to walk away from you.”

I unhooked my arm and tried to fix myself into place against the wall.

“You alright? Okay.” He took several steps. “I need you to shoot the cuffs.”

“Sh-shoot? You… sure?”

“My armor is going to protect me. Just raise the gun and shoot.”

Raise the gun and shoot, just raise the gun and shoot. He wanted me to shoot at him.

Another one of the SORs stirred.

I hefted the gun. In my present state, it felt like I was pulling up a dungbell. I groaned accordingly. And then I fired it. The shot missed the cuffs and zinged into the floor. I was surprised to find that there was little recoil. Weren’t powerful guns meant to knock the wind out of you?

“Just try again. Hurry.”

I did. I missed again. But the third time I managed to collect the side of the metal restraint.

“Yes, just once more.”

Now a third SOR was getting up, and the first was almost on his knees.

I fired. This time the shot slammed directly into the metal box that held Hatch’s hands. It charred it into a chunk of singed and melting metal. Hatch immediately pulled his arms against the remains of the restraint and broke free with the help of his super-strength high-tech suit.

In one quick move, he grabbed the gun from me, pointed it at the SORs and used his other arm to keep me from collapsing into a heap on the floor.

From then on everything became hazy. I remember Hatch breaking the rest of his team from their restraints and radioing into the Barracks. Eventually, he walked over to where I’d slumped against a wall and leaned down on his haunches.

“You are lucky,” I think he said. Then he smiled. I remember that… it was a nice smile.

Chapter 9

I don’t know how long passed until we finally made it back to the GFS Barracks. 20 minutes, a couple of hours? I had no way of telling. But I eventually found myself being patched up by the doc, again. This time I was conscious, though, which wasn’t really an improvement. The painkillers sure were, though.

After my brief stay in the Med Bay, I didn’t have long to wait until I was called to the captain’s ready room, of all places. This time it wasn’t Hatch who came buzzing at my door to escort me to the bridge. No, it was a straight-faced, stiffly dressed man in a uniform I hadn’t seen yet. It was a black and blue jumpsuit. I guessed it had something to do with command. In my several weeks on this ship, I still hadn’t really met any of the other crew except for Hatch and the people in the Med Bay.

The man nodded at me curtly. “Your attendance is requested at a briefing.”

I smiled in that vague fashion you do when someone important says something you don’t understand. “Oh, okay.”

“Please accompany me, Miss De Winter.”

I couldn’t help but think, as I followed him through a whole new set of corridors and rooms, that I was somehow in trouble. Maybe he was the equivalent of the 25th-century hangman. They’d updated the leather hood for a snappy jumpsuit, but the cold dread was still there.

Eventually, we took a lift of some kind up to a room that basically blew my mind. Now this was sci-fi. I may not have been a fan of all that spaceship, sentient puddles, and ray guns stuff. But I’d still caught glimpses of it when I used to flick through the TV channels to find a documentary.

It was the lights mainly; all the little bright, different-colored lights that winked out from different panels, stations, and screens. They glinted off the various smooth metal surfaces like a city lamp reflected in a puddle of rain. And all the people, all the aliens too, all wore the same fancy black and blue jumpsuits. They all stared at their panels, hands and paws darting across them, or up at the huge view screen that took up one length of the semicircular wall.

There must have been almost 50 people in the room, all working at stations divided by thin walkways, whose edges were lit up by soft blue lights.

I caught little snippets of conversation, as I followed the man who had collected me as we walked between the terminals.

“Engine room status report is available. Recommended action—”

“Space debris detected in sector alpha quadrant of the system. Suggest alternate route.”

“Long range telemetry picking up two vessels entering the Gamma Pi system.”

I didn’t understand a word of it, but I didn’t have to. Obviously, they all knew what they were doing. All that was left was for me to be awed by the sheer reality of it.

My guide walked me all the way to the opposite end of the room where there was a large door guarded by two burly-looking soldiers in full-body armor. Both gave me a cursory glance before directing their gaze back into the middle distance.

The doors swished open to reveal a large circular room that could easily fit 40 or so people with enough space to wave their arms about, if that was an accurate way to measure the size of a space. There were fancy-looking chairs, the kind you might see in a jet fighter or something, all seated in a circle around a low table. It reminded me of a conference room, except different in a couple of key ways. This felt… well like the kind of room you might have in the bottom of the White House or something. You know, the place the US President might go to order a nuclear strike or coordinate a secret war. It felt military.

The lights were dim – not the full illumination the rest of the ship seemed to enjoy. There were also panels all around the walls, and they showed close-ups of various things. Some I had no hope of guessing what they showed, but some I could tell. Several appeared to show 3D star maps, others the placements of various ships.

It took me a while to pull my gaze from the room itself and onto the people that were in it. Hatch was there, sitting off to one side watching me like a cat who has seen something suddenly move out of the corner of one closed eye. I gave him a brief smile.

Councilor Melcor was there also. She was seated close to Hatch, having a conversation with a man I didn’t know. The Diplomat was even there too.

Then there was a man sitting right at what looked like the head of the table. His jumpsuit was completely blue and tailored with a stiffness that made it look more like the bulky cut of a dress uniform. He was obviously the captain.

He looked to be in his early fifties with silver touches that pulled up the side of black hair and shone stark against his dark skin. His face was free from lines, but the age shone through somehow. Maybe it was the way his features seemed so set, like he was a plaster cast that knew only one expression – tight-lipped severity.

I didn’t blame him. If I had to be the captain of a military vessel in a galaxy that had been at war for over 100 years, I’d have that exact same look on my face, or worse.

“Take a seat.” He nodded at me.

As introductions went, it was brief.

Chewing my lip, I took a seat by myself at the other side of the table. The man who escorted me left with a nod at the captain.

“You have been asked to this meeting because its conclusions will affect you.” The captain looked directly at me. “At 0800 hours, Councilor Melcor’s cruiser was boarded by a party of 6 SORs led by their leader Scorpio.”

My lip twitched a little, but I managed not to break into a foolish smile. Scorpio? That sounded like the bad guy out of a comic book. You know the ones with all the Lycra, capes, and action scenes that culminate in bams and booms? But then I reminded myself, with a sobering thought, that Scorpio was anything but some goofy comic villain. If I hadn’t been stupid enough to try and overload that force field, who knows what he would have done to me.

“When our team boarded the cruiser, no other enemy units were detected in the area. We successfully dispatched the group holding Melcor captive, but her personal shield malfunctioned, and we were not able to remove the Councilor from the ship. After the use of De Winter, we were still not able to shut down the shield—”

My lips squeezed together. “After the use of De Winter?” I sounded like some kind of spray or fancy broom. And what was he doing using my last name like that? It wasn’t as if I was a Brazilian soccer player. But that wasn’t what made me bristle like a cat that had seen its neighborhood enemy trot past the glass doors – I could have shut down that shield. I didn’t because it didn’t want to be shut down. And for a good reason, apparently. If I had just gone and flicked the proverbial off switch, then the SORs would have got Melcor, and things would have ended a lot differently.

But I held my tongue. Being insubordinate in your mind was one thing. Telling the captain of a spaceship that he’d got it wrong, was another thing entirely.

“Shortly afterward, three enemy raiders were detected entering the system. Long range sensors had been unable to pick them up, and it is our belief that they had been hiding behind one of the moons nearby. They used a combination of stealth technology and phasic sensor disruptors to come within attack range of both the cruiser and Barracks.” The captain continued to roll on. I wasn’t sure who this debrief was directed at. Surely Hatch, Melcor, and I already knew all this stuff; we had been there. Was it purely for the Diplomat and the other man in the room? Surely they could have been brought up to speed earlier. This seemed like a waste of time.

The other man cleared his throat. “Folks, there are several things that should worry us here,” the man’s voice was easy and personably informal. I realized it was the same voice that had been speaking to Hatch on the cruiser. “And I’m not talking about those SORs having Stealth Tech. This was obviously a trap. We need to know how they got Melcor’s flight plan, how they ensured the Barracks would be the one to respond to the distress call, and how the hell they got their hands on a phasic shield disruptor.”

The captain nodded. “Isherwood is right. This indicates a change in direction for the SORs, a worrying one. Either they have come across an arms cache previously unreported as stolen, or they’ve opened up a new avenue of corruption within the Council. From the analysis of the readings we obtained during the battle, it is clear the tech they were using was Galactic Federation issue. Now if they managed to get their hands on highly sensitive, regulated technology, then what else have they obtained?”

“That’s not the real question, though, is it?” Hatch interrupted. He didn’t look happy. I couldn’t point to one particular thing, but just the general tone of his voice and the rigidity of his features told me the commander was not in a good mood. “How the hell did they get to Balthar?”

The captain momentarily shared Hatch’s bitter look. “We are investigating. I agree that the issue of Balthar’s mutiny is one that is essential to understanding the details of this SOR attack.” The captain took a moment to sigh. “But there are a lot of things wrong with this that all require equal parts of our attention. But analysis of this operation is not why I called this meeting. Isherwood?” The captain nodded to him.

Isherwood cracked a grin. It wasn’t a happy grin, just the kind of cheeky look of exasperation his personality seemed to perfectly fit with. “Yeah. Just before the commander managed to overcome the incursion force, we received a message. It seems like Scorpio sent out a non-encrypted file on all frequencies. The file contained operational information and biometric scans from an individual.”

I wasn’t really paying attention by now. I mean, I was looking at people while they spoke out of sheer politeness. But it was like listening to a match of ping pong, a match which I couldn’t hope to join in with.

“Scorpio managed to use his suit’s radio to hook up to the cruiser’s coms and just blasted the damn message out for anyone to hear. Data files included our exact location, files uploaded from Melcor’s cruiser, and bioscans of De Winter.”

I blinked slowly, like my eyelids were operated by a rusty crank. Someone had just used my name.

Hatch made a noise halfway between a groan and a sigh. He put a hand up to his neck and really let it press into the muscles as he slid it down. “You’re kidding.”

“No, Commander. I think Scorpio knew that, in the end, the Barracks would overcome the raiders, and we sure as hell wouldn’t let him fly the cruiser out of the system. And we don’t have a history of negotiating with terrorists all that politely. So I think he did something desperate and sent out the message with enough hooks in it to draw any half-decent crim with a flight engine and a gun to his aid. Melcor’s data, bioscans of De Winter – a non-registered high-level User – no crim is going to pass that up.”

He kept on using my name, kept on saying my bioscans had been sent out in an open message. For some reason, the only way I could think of responding to that was by blushing. Were bioscans like your vital statistics? Would half the galaxy know my dress size?

“As you can see, this introduces yet another unstable element to an already critical situation. Not only has Melcor’s security been compromised, but we now have a serious issue with De Winter and this ship. As long as she stays onboard, we won’t have to root out the scum of the galaxy, they’ll just come to us.”

Oh no. This was bad, wasn’t it? I pulled my arms in closer to myself and tried to seem unaffected by the news. But how could I? Was the captain suggesting I was now a liability? And what did they do with those in this time, turf them out the airlock without so much as a wave goodbye?

“Please,” Melcor spoke up, “I do not believe the human understands. To clarify – the captain is now suggesting, as per my wishes, that the ship is diverted to escort you to Council Site Alpha immediately.”

I ran my teeth over my top lip. I made brief darting eye contact with Melcor. As per her suggestions? Council Site Alpha?

“It’s not as if we weren’t operating under existing orders,” the captain sighed again, this time far briefer. “But I agree with the Councilor’s suggestion. For the interests of Galactic security, this ship will be diverted on an emergency mission.”

My eyebrows had kind of settled halfway up my brow all of their own accord. I was to be escorted to some kind of special place… by an entire ship? Did that mean I would trudge ahead through space while they kinda flew beside me straining their necks around to ensure no nasty pirates were about to try it on?

I was still keeping my gaze mostly fixed on the table. I was way out of my depth here. My first week aboard my first spaceship had seen me dealing with exclusion I had never felt, and now an entire ship was convinced I was an asset valuable enough to shepherd all the way to the Council.

Seesaws always did make me feel sick, and I put a hand tactfully across my belly.

“Once at the Council you will be registered and fall under their protection. The reason you were asked to join this meeting is I regret to inform you the options available to you no longer exist. Because of your encounter with Scorpio, you will no longer be able to refuse active service with the Council. You will require permanent escort and protection, which you will not receive if you choose to refrain from service. I apologize that this choice has been taken from you. But as of yesterday, you became an asset and a liability of the Galactic Federation.”

My head bobbed down on its own to indicate that, hell yes, I had understood what he’d just said. I had been deciding to join the Council on my own, especially after the incident with Scorpio. The fact that I was such a coward in the corridor had really rammed home that I wasn’t the person I had always assumed myself to be. Plus, could I really just refuse to help?

But having my options taken away from me like that was still disheartening. It was like I could feel the shockwave as one of my doors of possibility was slammed shut with lightning speed. That left only one avenue… joining the Council, whatever that meant.

“The ship’s course has been altered. At maximum speed, we should arrive at Council Site Alpha in 3 days, 4 hours, and 45 minutes,” Isherwood rolled off as he leaned back in his chair.

The captain rose. “Dismissed.” He marched away from his table, tugging down on the top of his blue jumpsuit, and headed for a different door from the one I had entered through.

I sat there for a moment, pretending I was really interested in the view the screens provided on the back wall.

Isherwood pushed himself up, and he had such lanky limbs that he reminded me of a guy on stilts. He shot me a grin as he walked past.

Then the Diplomat and Melcor rose, both giving me the politest of nods. Melcor paused by my chair. “There are things I would like to discuss with you. If you find the time, please be kind to share it with me.”

“Sure.” I nodded a bit too quickly. Despite all the fancy treatments the doc had given me, my muscles were still as compacted as pressed chipboard.

That just left Hatch and me. He looked at me from across the table, his hands rested comfortably along the smooth edge of the metal. He opened his mouth but closed it, then pushed himself up quickly.

I blinked again, this time as quickly as a sparrow fluttering its wings on a cold morning. “Commander, I….” I didn’t want him to just walk off and leave me all alone in this strange room. Surely there were things we needed to discuss? Surely there were things we needed to debrief on from the intense experience we had both shared?

“You know your way back?” He paused halfway toward the door.

I thought for a second, my mouth contorting into a strange shape. I don’t know why, but suddenly my lips were just all tingly and weird, and I couldn’t help but fold them around like a rolling pin over dough. “I… probably not.”

“Follow me then.” He nodded toward his side.

He didn’t really say a word to me until we were safely tucked away in the elevator, or whatever they called them in this time, that led back to the ordinary level of the ship.

“I’m sorry… about what happened.”

I rolled my lips again. What was he talking about? Which thing was he sorry for? The incident on the cruiser, the fact my options had been whittled down to one certainty? Did it matter? “It’s okay. There’s nothing to apologize about.”

“Balthar,” he sucked in a sharp breath, and I could tell this was hard for him to discuss, “we had no indication he would go rogue, hadn’t picked up anything to suggest he had been contacted by the SORs. He had planned the trap with Scorpio, switched sides just at the wrong time during the battle….”

I realized what he was trying to apologize about, and it brought this soft, hot feeling to my cheeks and eyes. He was a guy after all. He wasn’t upset that I was now being forced to join a strange organization I didn’t know anything about, though perhaps he was on some level. No, what was eating the usually capable and in control Commander up inside was the fact he hadn’t been able to protect me. I smiled and really tried to make it sincere. “It doesn’t matter. What happened… just happened. But nothing bad happened… I’m okay.” I silently rebuked myself for saying happened like a million times. I did know other words, honestly.

He smiled stiffly. I realized it wasn’t really a smile, though. It was just an exasperated curl of the lips. “Despite Balthar’s mutiny, we shouldn’t have lost that battle.”

“I thought SORs stood for Special Operations Rogue?” I asked quickly, wanting to take his mind off the defeat. “Weren’t those guys just as trained, or maybe more, than you?”

He nodded. “They come from the most elite attack units.”

“Then it was seven versus five, and they had you in a trap. I don’t think you should blame yourself. Plus, nothing happened in the end.”

His smile became slightly more real; his eyes at least flickered with a different kind of life. “Your bioscans were sent out on open coms.”

I shrugged. “Embarrassing, but I’ll deal with it.” I didn’t know where the energy was coming from. But I sounded strong all of a sudden. Maybe even capable. But that usually happens, doesn’t it? If you are confronted with comforting another person, suddenly you get this energy to tell them that everything is going to be okay.

He gave a short chuckle. “Embarrassing? How is it embarrassing?”

I shrugged my shoulders and made the kind of face that said “I was really hoping you wouldn’t pick up on that.” “I don’t know… I just kind of said it.” I descended into an awkward laugh. Thankfully he joined in.

“You know, I’m not sure I understand you, Ariel, but maybe I don’t need to.”

What… did that mean? Oh no, I was going to blush again! I had to think of something to say quickly. “Ahhh… what happens when we get to Council Site Alpha?” my words were so quick they melded together.

“We dock, probably go to a meeting with the Chief Council Representatives.”

I nodded very quickly. “O-kay. what’s Council Site Alpha like?”

“It’s a network of space stations orbiting a planet. It’s right in the middle of Central Space. It’s the chief hub of government and commerce for the Galactic Federation. It’s huge, it’s,” he suddenly got a far off look in his eye, “amazing.”

Or overwhelming, I quickly thought to myself. If this city had the power to send the boot-polish Commander lyrical, then it must be truly amazing. “Umm, what happens then? I mean, after we talk to the Council.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Just as the captain said, we turn you over to them.”

I swallowed. I felt like lost property someone was handing into reception. “What does that mean… I mean what will really happen?”

“You will be registered and undergo Council training to become a proper User. Then, when they deem you operationally ready, they’ll send you out on missions.”

I made a face.

“Don’t worry, that won’t be for a couple of years yet.”

My face became more twisted. “Years?”

“You didn’t expect it to take a couple of hours, did you?”

I just looked at him. “Well no, but… I’ll be… old when I come out. I just… never thought I’d spend… I mean… signing up for something you have no idea what it actually entails, for years… it’s kind of a big deal. I had plans for my life… I think. I wanted to travel or something, settle down… not lock myself away in some kind of facility for the rest of my youth.” The more I mumbled, the more I realized I was talking trash. I didn’t really have a plan at all, and I didn’t even like traveling that much. Back in 2012, I was happy to just pluck away at my non-career job and watch my youth travel past me with a brief wave. And as for settling down… well, I knew it was one of those things I should do, but I was just too lazy and unlucky to find the right guy for me.

“You won’t be old,” he said evenly. “And there will be plenty of travel. As for settling down….” He shrugged. “That’s up to you.”

Oh, I was blushing again. Goddamn it. This wasn’t some kind of romance novel – why did I have to respond to every single potentially tender comment of Hatch’s with a full face of vibrant red? “Ah… I guess. But… the war, what will it be like?”

He looked off into the distance and made a face I couldn’t really read. “It’s… protracted.”

I was starting to get a sense of something and realized that there was one important question that had been bobbing around my mind since the incident on the cruiser. “Oh… ummm,” I wasn’t sure how to ask it. “What did… that Scorpio guy mean about the offer…?”

Hatch looked at me, and I could tell his expression was very careful and restrained. “I have been approached on several occasions to join SOR.”

I swallowed. “Oh.”

“They think just because I used to live on a colony world I’ll jump to their call,” he was flexing his hand back and forth.

“You lived on a colony?”

“In the Ibis system, right on the edge of what we thought was Central Space. But then the Unity opened up another flank and pressed right through the GF barricades that were supposed to keep us safe. The military units in the area were diverted to protect another system, one that was devoid of inhabitants but housed weapons labs. Ibis was taken in several hours.”

I blinked like someone had sprayed water in my eyes. “A couple of hours?” I didn’t know much about war, but I knew a couple of hours wasn’t much time at all, especially to take a whole solar system.

“My parents died in the attack,” Hatch flexed his other hand, “but I survived. I joined the army. And that’s it, that’s my story. That’s what makes Scorpio and the other bastard SORs think they can dangle a carrot in front of my nose and wait until I jump.”

I was overwhelmed by the intensity of his emotions. It was like I was standing on a pier as a wild storm broke around me. I shouldn’t have asked. “I am an orphan too. Well, kind of. My mother died when I was young, and my father was never around. My grandparents brought me up….” I trailed off as a lump pushed up my throat.

He didn’t say anything. Why should he? His loss was greater than mine.

“So, when we get to Council Site Alpha, I guess we’ll be parting ways?”

He massaged his neck. “That’s up to them.”

We had finally reached my door, and it was clear the conversation was just about dead. “I don’t really know anyone else in the galaxy.” I said what was on my mind, even though it was painfully honest, and I’m not usually used to being that open.

“There’s a lot more people out there.” He turned to walk away then stopped. He turned back, changed his mind, nodded and walked off.

I watched him until he’d walked out of sight. I played with my hands as I walked through my own door. Things were so complicated in this time, I was just realizing that. It wasn’t just me, it wasn’t just my twisted tale – it was everything.

The first time I’d met the commander I had been ready to write him off as some stupid career soldier who never thought for himself and never truly understood the difference between right and wrong. But now I was realizing there were more layers to Hatch than a high-rise car park. What I’d once mistaken for blind obedience was quickly morphing into something else. Hatch wanted to protect, that made up so much of his character. The colonies, the Councilor, his ship, even me – Hatch just wanted to secure us all under one wing and block the oncoming storm with the breadth of his back.

Which was humbling. He was everything I wasn’t. I was a coward – he was a hero.

I sat on my bed and fumbled with my necklace. What would I be like if I’d been born in this time, maybe on a colony like Hatch’s? Would I have turned out like him? Or would I have become bitter, twisted like a chunk of blasted metal?

I was starting to realize something. All my life I’d been pretty opinionated. I’d gone to rallies, signed petitions, got up in class and shot other people’s views down for being naïve . But I didn’t know anything, not really. My opinions were circumstantial; I’d hated guys like Hatch because I’d never met anyone like him, hadn’t lived or accurately imagined his kind of life. That’s not to say I was starting to come around to war, militaries, and violence, just that I was realizing my opinions had been based on nothing real.

Part of me would always hate war, always despise those that bay for it, but now I understood that the only thing separating me from them was circumstance. There but for the grace of god go I, there was that saying again. If I had been born on Hatch’s world, seen what he’d seen, I probably would have become a terrible person….

I’d once had a lecturer who had told our class, after a particularly heated discussion in which I had been kinda vocal, that beliefs move mountains while opinions will always melt into sand. Hatch had gone through the types of experiences that forge beliefs, whereas I had never lived anything so intense or demanding.

But that was going to change, wasn’t it? Soon I would be forced to come up against those same walls of humanity, see the same range of life, death, violence, and destruction. I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d be when I came out the other side.

I didn’t want to lose myself. I’m a dove not a hawk, but I was realizing if I wanted to stay that way, I’d have to drop the opinions and build up tested beliefs of my own. I would have to grow up.

This galaxy was teaching me just how much of a kid I really was….

Chapter 10

Council Site Alpha was a set of interconnected space stations, just as Hatch had said. And, just as the commander had pointed out, it was amazing.

It took a while for the GFS Barracks to dock; it was a giant spaceship, after all. But the whole time I found myself staring out the Viewing Platform at the monstrosity of it all. Everything was simply on a scale I had never seen before. The giant clamps, that looked like enormous plungers that locked the ship in place were huge. I just couldn’t think of another word to describe them – they looked like they would take up a small football field, if you took all the footballers out, that was.

The space stations, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the size of a decent city back before 2012. Which was impossible to comprehend. Something that large floating in space, man-made or alien-made, or whatever. How many resources went into making it, how much man/alien power, how much time? Was it the only one of its kind, or was it like a kit home, and there were hundreds of such cookie-cutter similar space stations dotted throughout the galaxy?

No, I couldn’t really imagine that. This must be one of a kind; perhaps across the whole universe no one had ever attempted anything so ambitious. An entire city, an entire federation’s capital as one giant, interconnected creation sitting in the middle of space.

After we had docked, there was a visible change in the crew. I kept on hearing the words shore leave. I couldn’t help but tuck my hair behind an ear and smile as I walked back to my quarters. The energy had changed around here. I could see how happy people were. And that was all it took – docking at some kind of space city to take their minds off the war and their countless missions. Would I be like that in a couple of years? Would I live in between operations just for the chance to glance Council Site Alpha?

When I got back to my quarters, someone was waiting for me. It wasn’t Hatch. No, they didn’t have their hands pressed behind them like an English bobby inspecting a suspicious stain on the pavement. It was Melcor.

“Human De Winter, I am pleased to see you.”

I nodded politely. I mean, how do I answer that? I didn’t even know what her species was called, so if I wanted to reciprocate with an equivalent greeting it would go something like this: red wet-look skinned alien chick Melcor, glad to see you too. And that probably wouldn’t go down too well.

“We are about to go before the Council. They are eager to meet with you.”

Oh Lord, so it was finally happening? I’d put off thinking about it, I mean really imagining it, but now it was here. I was about to leave this ship for good. Leave its crew, leave Hatch… and not come back.

A cold ache spread through my stomach like I’d swallowed the ice at the bottom of a drink all in one gulp. “Oh….”

“Do not be afraid, the Council will take your wishes into account so far as they can. But please, come this way.”

I can’t even recount the path we took to get to the Council Chambers. To be honest, I wasn’t paying a scrap of attention. No, all of me was looking up. As soon as we had docked, I’d seen it – the sky. Except it wasn’t a sky, it was space… except well, I didn’t understand. I thought the stations would be closed off, exactly like this ship – like a sealed little box of atmosphere so everyone could breathe in peace without hemorrhaging in the vacuum of space. But the Council Site Alpha wasn’t like that. It was just like a real city with buildings and walkways and streets between them and the open air above. There was no force field that I could see – no glint of orange that might be holding all the air in place around the station. No, it just looked like I was in a city at night. Except the press of the blackness of space was too deep, to obsidian, with the stars too close and bright.

I think I walked into a couple of people as I stared so resolutely upwards. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Would I be sucked into space at any moment? If I climbed one of the tallest towers and jumped off, would I somehow float upwards, the gravity of these space stations insufficient to hold me in place?

But when we finally entered the largest, most expansive and technological-looking building, my view of open space was cut and replaced with the domed ceiling above. It had smoothed-over rivets and had such a strange color and texture I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of metal or something completely different.

The Council Chambers themselves were sprawling. They had that same white minimalist look I’d seen in Melcor’s cruiser. So pristine, so impossibly clean. It really hammered home that I was in the future.

Many different alien races walked the halls – most of them I’d never seen before. There was the familiar bug-headed race like Ja Karl and the little ETs like Pinkari. But then there were massive blue creatures with long thin tails as if a saber-toothed tiger had learned to walk on two legs and spray-paint itself ocean blue. There were smaller aliens too, several that had the pointed head of a raptor and the lizard skin to match. Other races looked almost human, like the Diplomat and Melcor, but with striking differences that would cause me to shake my head in awe.

It did not take long for Melcor to negotiate passed the packed halls and up into the higher levels of the building. Now the crowds were gone, occasionally I would see someone walk past with armor like Hatch’s, or sporting a dress uniform like the captain’s. This was the political capital of a federation at war.

Melcor led me through an enormous set of doors that were carved with so many different scripts of twisting alien lines, that to take it in all at once was like watching code shift on a broken computer screen. Right down the bottom, as the doors opened silently inwards, I saw one I recognized – English. It said: “This race is bound to the sanctity of the Council.”

Pax Romana, I added in my head.

The room wasn’t large, that’s the first thing I noted. It was little more than 10 or so meters across. It wasn’t personable, though, or cozy – it was intimidating. It was obviously not meant to hear the grievances of a group, or discuss details with an entourage. It was meant to deal with just a few beings at a time.

There was a low platform set up at the end and seated there were six different alien species and one human woman. The backs of their chairs were high and round and resembled little pods or those strange chairs from the ‘60s. Most beings sat with their hands in their laps, or claws, or paws, or whatever. But the human had her head cocked to the side, leaning on one hand. She was looking at me carefully.

A large lizard-like alien stood and nodded toward me. “We await Commander Hatch and Captain Balder.”

Hatch was coming? Well, of course he was. He was the one who had found me and had had the most to do with me over the past several weeks. It brought a tight smile to my lips. I’d been worried that I might never see him again. That by the time the Council had finished deliberating, he would have been called off on some mission, and that would be that.

We didn’t have to wait long. Soon the captain walked in with Hatch in his wake. I had a quick double take when I looked at Hatch. It took me several seconds to recognize him. There was something missing, something I’d never seen him without – his armor. No, the guy standing in front of me was dressed in the same blue dress uniform as the captain, and he almost looked normal. If I half-closed my eyes and didn’t take in the distinctly futuristic look of the room, Hatch could pass for a man from my time.

“This deliberation will begin,” the lizard alien said without a hiss or a raptor click in sight. “We will discuss the future of human De Winter. Please step forward human.”

Oh, this was awkward.

I clamped my hands firmly in front of me like I was getting ready to bow to the Queen and took a hesitant step toward the Council. I strangely felt like they were either all going to cheer or start throwing tomatoes at my head.

“This Council has been informed of your history. The Diplomat has confirmed the circumstances of how you came to be in the stasis pod of another human, and it is our decision that you have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Captain, please note that for the purposes of your inquiry into this matter, we deliberate that this issue is now closed.”

The captain gave a low nod.

So, I didn’t do anything wrong, then? Great, I already knew that. In fact, everyone else already knew that too. This seemed like such a waste of time, like the proverbial dotting of the bureaucratic i. When were we going to get down to discussing… well, me?

“This Council notes human De Winter’s actions in the operation to free Councilor Melcor. This has been noted in her file.”

My eyes widened as if I’d seen a lost episode of a favorite TV show flash up on screen. I have a file. Damn, that’s cool.

“Analysis of human De Winter’s bioscans have confirmed she possess the Atlantian gene in a rarely seen, mostly undamaged form,” the lizard alien continued. Maybe he was the one in charge or something, but I found I couldn’t look him directly in the eye. It wasn’t because he was the leader and I was cowed by his power or anything. No, it was because he reminded me of the raptors out of Jurassic Park. Especially the scene where Sam Neil is trying to scare the kids with the curved raptor claw and slicing it in the air with a pressed-eyed mean look. “Her potential to interact with the technology has been confirmed, and it is the opinion of this Council that she shows significant potential.”

I sucked my lips in and started chewing on them. I didn’t want to hear this… it was embarrassing. It was like having your school report read out in assembly or something.

“Following the unfortunate incident with the SORs, it is evident to us that she now also represents a security threat.”

I flinched but tried to hide it by backing away underneath my fringe and staring at the ground. Why did I have to hear all this again? I’d heard it all before in the captain’s debriefing, why repeat it yet again? Couldn’t we move on to their decision already?

“It is our decision that she must now join the ranks of the Users.”

I sighed in my mind. There we go. I already knew that too.

“But where her training will be undertaken is a matter of contention. I have been informed by the Diplomat Ne’ara that the human De Winter would not react well to the intensive-training program facilitated on Council Site Alpha.”

Diplomat Ne’ara? Were they talking about the Diplomat? Was that her real name? Well, of course, it wasn’t like I’d been meeting up with any other diplomats recently. And of course she had a last name. It wasn’t like she would be the only diplomat in the entire galaxy.

“Due to the psychological transition inherent in waking up 400 years in the future, there is a risk the human will be overcome should her situation continually change. Training should only be undertaken in familiar settings, or transition will be undermined,” the lizard alien continued.

Whoa, this was complex. I had a feeling he was going somewhere with this, and that feeling was slowly building in my chest like it wanted to bubble over and force a laugh out of me. Was he… or it, saying that I should stay in the only place that was familiar to me? The Barracks, Hatch? Would I be able to stay with them?

I tried so hard not to smile.

“It is our decision that human De Winter be assigned to the Barracks and fall under the protection of Captain Balder and his crew.”

Yes! I squeezed both my hands closed so I wouldn’t scream it out loud. This was great news. I wouldn’t be going anywhere, wouldn’t be locked away in some equally gray facility until my hair changed to match the walls.

“The appropriate teacher will be assigned and join the crew of the GFS Barracks. Due to the rank of this soldier, it would be unfitting to assign him a lower duty, so for the duration of his stay on the Barracks, Commander Brisbane will be co-XO with Commander Hatch.”

I wanted to turn around and look at Hatch, see what he thought about that. Now I honestly don’t know much about the military, but I do know more about men, and I’m pretty sure they hate to share positions of power. Two Executive Officers, two commanders on the one ship? Wasn’t that going to get a little cramped?

“In areas of conflict, the captain will be the arbiter of course, but should situational conflict occur, then operational seniority will fall to Commander Hatch as the true XO of the ship. However, on issues of training and the management of the Atlantian technology onboard, Commander Brisbane will be in charge.”

It was so uncomfortable to be talked about like this. Barely mentioned, just implied. It was like I was listening to a bunch of gods discussing my fate. To them, I was little more than a mildly interesting oddity. I wasn’t a person, no, I was a human.

It’s a funny thing going from being an average person with normal skills and no real talents, to someone who is the center of attention. They were called Mary Sues or something, weren’t they? People or characters that could suddenly come along and fix any situation, who were imbued with the kinds of skills and power that just overshot everyone else around? Except there was a problem, I wasn’t a Mary Sue. I had no training, no real control over what I could do. As my issue with Stephen had shown, and the captain had pointed out, I was just as much a liability as I was an asset. There was nothing to suggest that I could actually pull off this training and do anything worthwhile for the Council. No, there was just as much chance that I would fail, the training would break, and I would never adjust to the future.

I wasn’t a Mary Sue; I was a normal person who had been put into an extraordinary situation I couldn’t hope to manage. Mary Sues just know what to do in every single circumstance, have the confidence that their moves will pay off. I had no confidence in myself, and no real idea how to play this game.

“The Council has deliberated this, and this meeting is adjourned. I ask that the captain and Melcor stay on to discuss further matters.”

That was the equivalent of telling me to “rack off” wasn’t it? I pulled my gaze from the ground and quickly looked over the faces of the Council members. I settled on the human. She was still giving me such an odd, careful look.

But then I realized I probably just shouldn’t stand there. That would look really good if I couldn’t even follow a simple order like “walk out of the room.” So I turned on my heel and headed for the door.

Hatch was walking resolutely before me and didn’t bother to turn around until we were outside and the large doors had shut silently behind us. Was that a smile on his face?

“I told you everything was up to the Council. They aren’t that unreasonable.”

I had such a stupid smile on my face, I could feel it. My chin must be dimpled like an egg carton, my lips a wobbly line. “Yeah, I’m just so happy I won’t have to go to some facility.”

He nodded affably. “The food would have been better than the junk we get onboard the Barracks, and you would have been able to stay on CSA.”

Council Site Alpha, I quickly realized in my head. But like I cared about the open sky and the prospect of weird alien cuisine. I didn’t want to leave the Barracks. I didn’t want to leave Hatch. But I sure as hell wasn’t about to tell him that. “So… I’m sorry about what happened in there, with them picking another Commander. I’m sure they could have chosen someone else, a lower rank.”

He shrugged his shoulders, and for the first time, I could actually see them press up against the fabric of his uniform and not hidden under the bulk of his armor. “It happens. Rarely, but occasionally crews undertaking multiple missions with different operational standards are asked to share command positions. It’s a fact of the army that different people are specialized in different things. We have to work together – we all have the same goal.”

“I guess,” I kept my voice as chirpy as possible. But I wasn’t about to believe him, to think sharing command was just as easy as all of that. I don’t know… I could just tell, just feel as a butterfly did laps around my stomach, that this would be an issue. “So I guess I’ll go back to the Barracks then?”

“Not immediately. I could show you around, if you like?”

If I liked? Hold on, let me think. Is there anything else in this entire galaxy that I would want more? Save going back in time and seeing my grandparents maybe, or ending this war, or making it so this stupid Atlantian gene didn’t make me feel like the ammo for a gun instead of a person? Okay, so there were a couple of things I’d like more, but none of those would take my mind off the fact that I was powerless to get out of this mess. So I smiled – this time it felt nice, this time it felt genuine. “I’d like that.”

“You’re technically on shore leave, after all.” He started walking, hands tucked behind his back again, looking my way over his shoulder.

“Shore leave?”

“As of this morning, you officially joined the crew of the GFS Barracks. Shore leave is that little snippet of time we get between missions, that little chunk of shakedown we get when we aren’t onboard.”

“So a vacation?”

“A really short one. The Barracks has already got another mission in the Pria Cluster. We should be restocked and fueled by tonight.”

“Well that sounds like enough time for a guided tour,” I tried to encourage him, “I’ve already seen the Council Chambers. That’s one thing ticked off the list.”

He pressed his lips into a closed-mouth grin. “Optimistic. Are you confused about the size of this place?”

“Hey, I’m in the galactic army now. Surely we do the impossible, right?”

“Good attitude. We’ll make a soldier out of you yet.”

I think I was grinning at everything he said – I must have seemed like the most easily amused person in the universe. But I just stopped myself from adding that, no, he wouldn’t make me into a soldier, some guy called Commander Brisbane would. Which kind of ruined my mood a bit and got me thinking about all sorts of other things. “Commander, there’s one thing I want to know, though. I can’t believe I forgot to ask before.”

He turned, face open. “What?”

“I…” I really didn’t want my voice to shake. I wanted Hatch to think, no, to know, that I was completely over this. “Well, I was wondering… whatever… happened to Scorpio and those other SORs?” Thankfully my voice didn’t pitch up and down, but it did grow fairly loud by the time I’d pushed my words out.

His expression stiffened. “It’s okay,” his voice was low, reassuring. “We handed them all over to the Council Security Force. You’ll never see them again.”

I couldn’t smile at that. I mean, it was good news, right? But, I don’t know…. “Who were they?” On so many levels I was kicking myself right now for ruining the moment. I had been laughing, joking, even flirting with Hatch, and then I had to pull the skeleton out of the closet and throw it at the commander like a jack-in-the-box.

“I don’t know. Not privy to that information. As is SOR style, they locked their body armor with encrypted codes so we couldn’t open it or bypass it with a scan. The Council Security can do it, though; it won’t take their tech guys long. Then whoever those bastards are, they’ll all be spending the rest of their days on a prison planet.”

I pressed my lips together, but the smile still wouldn’t come. I kept trying to tell myself that this was good news. “So we’ll never know who they are… I mean,” I shrugged my shoulders, trying to prove I didn’t really care, “I don’t think the Council will ever tell us, right?”

“Ariel.” He stopped and turned to me until there wasn’t that much space between us. For a second I thought he might even take my chin in his hands old-school-style, but he just settled on staring at me directly. “They’re gone. It doesn’t matter who they were, because you are never going to see them again. They will go to a prison planet, and they will never get off. They’ll pay the rest of their lives for what they did to Melcor, the Galactic Federation, and to you.”

I didn’t answer. Suddenly my eyes were stinging. They shouldn’t be; I was over this. But that look in Hatch’s eyes, the intensity of his presence. “Good – that’s good.”

He looked like a man looking at something he couldn’t quite place then turned to the side again. “So, where do you want to go?”

I pushed everything behind me. I had an afternoon with Hatch to look forward to. “Umm, somewhere fun.”

“Fun?” He appeared to think. “I know just the place.”

My stomach gave a kick like it was ready to travel at light speed. There was a little tinge in his voice.

By the time we’d made it back to the Barracks, I was practically glowing. No, not because anything had happened between us, not at all. The only thing that had happened, apart from a perfectly pleasant afternoon, was I had fallen head over heels for Commander Hatch. Something that had never happened to me in my 24 years of feminism and bad luck with men. Here was a strong-jawed, right-doing army boy that had just plucked my heart from my chest and was holding it high above my head where I couldn’t snatch it back.

I was a mess, but a happy mess. I was tired but exhilarated. And I hoped, with all my stolen heart, that he had no idea of how I felt. To him our afternoon was probably part of some mission, maybe trying to get me to assimilate to their future, trying to get me to forget my past. Well, it was working. If there was one thing likely to get a girl’s mind off her misfortune, it was the perfect guy.

Eeeek, I was turning into a girly girl! Next thing I’d be wearing high heels and painting my lips the color of a stop sign.

As we walked up the docking ramp to the airlock of the Barracks, I was chewing my lips so hard I was sure the blood would seep through my teeth any minute. Hatch was just before me, talking to one of the technicians who was checking the pressure of something, or whatever it is future technicians did.

Somebody walked up beside me. All I saw was their shadow at first. It kind of covered my own, making it into a bigger, more monstrous version of my reflection. Then I looked to the side. There was a man, dressed in body armor, same color as Hatch’s.

I looked at him while trying not to stare. Then he turned my way.

“De Winter.” It wasn’t a question.

His face was broad, thick like compacted clay, and etched with scars running under his chin and through his eyebrows. Maybe he was handsome, I couldn’t tell; he was just so intense. His eyes were a shifting gray; the kinds of eyes that made you feel like it wasn’t pigment giving them color, but some kind of flickering energy like a jet engine.

I think I nodded.

“I’m Commander Brisbane. You will be under my command for the duration of my stay aboard the GFS Barracks,” he talked like a stiff-lipped drill sergeant snapping at his men to feel the pain.

I think my eyebrows cranked so high on my forehead they dropped off and floated into space. Under his command?

“Training will begin immediately. You will refer to me as Commander Brisbane.” With that, he walked away.

By now Hatch had walked back. He shot me a confused what-was-that? look. He briefly nodded at Brisbane as he passed, but the guy barely nodded back.

“Commander Hatch, I believe you have operational seniority, but be advised the Council has given me full charge of De Winter.” Brisbane didn’t stop as he spoke, just kept on walking through the airlock. In another second he was gone.

I stared at Hatch, my face a mirror of my turbulent mind. “What the hell?” I think my voice sounded like a kazoo someone was trying to whistle through.

“You’ll be okay,” Hatch said weakly. His expression didn’t match his words one little iota. “Once he’s settled in….”

“I’m done for,” I finished off the sentence bitterly.

Because it was true. I didn’t need to be a psychologist to read Commander Brisbane, or a clairvoyant to know what would happen next. Brisbane was going to break me like a dry piece of driftwood.

Want to keep reading? You can buy the conclusion of this series, Lucky Star Episode Two, from the following retailers:

iTunes|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo

 



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