The Eye of the Gods Episode One

The Eye of the Gods Episode One

Prologue

Special Commander Jake Trace

“No, Vivian, hold on, please.” Jake crumpled over the sparking controls of the cruiser. Though he had to lock his attention on their ship’s chaotic flight path as they flew right through the heart of a light storm, he could see her out of the corner of his eye.

Her white-knuckled hand clutched her chest. Her fingers pulled in so tightly, one of her nails perforated the fabric of her medical gown.

Her eyes were starting to become sightless.

“No, Vivian, dammit—” he went to pull away from the controls to get to her.

The ship jerked. It lurched to the side, and he only just managed to hold onto the controls. A damage report flashed on the screen, and it told him that if they sustained another hit like that, they would die.

Vivian looked like she was dying anyway.

“Viv, just hold on. Please. We’re almost through the light field. Just hold on.”

“I don’t think I can, Jake.”

Horror filled him. His eyes opened wide, his brow slicked with sweat, and as shock dragged his cheeks down, his brows rose to meet his hairline. “You can’t. You can’t—”

Something struck the ship again. He was forced to tighten his hands around the piloting controls.

He was down on his knees. The command seat had come off its runners and smashed into the wall long ago.

“Come on, computer,” he spluttered with heart-destroying desperation. “Dammit, how long until auto navigation is fixed?”

“Automatic navigation has been disabled. Manual piloting is the only way to ensure the ship safely traverses this unknown light field.”

Tears started to mix with the sweat draining down his face. He went to jerk his head over his shoulder to stare at her again, but those flashes of light continued to assault the ship from every angle.

The whole vessel shuddered like a hand holding some impossible weight that was getting ready to break.

“Dammit,” he spat with all his vocal force.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vivian smiled. It was distant.

It was like she was smiling at something he couldn’t see.

Terror pulsed through him. “Vivian.” He yanked one of his hands off the piloting controls and reached out to her.

She was slumped against the wall, but thankfully the ship was small enough that she could reach over. She rested her deathly cold grip in his.

There was no life left in her hand. There was none left in her eyes, either, as she laboriously pulled them up and locked them on him. “Just take my body back to Coalition space. Promise me that.”

“Vivian, no.” His voice became hoarse as he screamed with all his might.

Something struck the ship, and he was forced to yank his hand off hers. He got control of the vessel again, dodging more blasts from that light field. When he reached out to her, her hand wasn’t there.

She slumped against the deck.

As horror sliced through his heart, it told him she was dead.

“No. Vivian. Vivian?” he screamed louder and louder.

He pulled himself away from the controls.

He couldn’t take it anymore. If this was it and she was dead, screw this ship and him with it.

He got down to his knees just as something smashed into the ship. He wrapped his arms around Vivian’s cold, dead shoulders.

The ship lurched one last time.

He closed his eyes as he waited for them to be torn apart.

There was an eerie beep followed by silence.

Though his head was buried alongside her cold, lifeless face, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the view on the main screens change. It no longer showed a chaotic light field. No. It showed….

He pulled his head away from her pale face. He tilted his terrified gaze up.

There in front of him was another galaxy. He could no longer be in the Coalition anymore. Before him stretched the empty hulls of massive ships that could swallow whole planets. And within them, glowing cities and civilizations grew.

It was the most fantastic sight he’d ever seen. It looked as if someone had taken the belly of a whale, thrown it down to the ocean floor, and waited for a multitude of sea life to settle in its bones, building something new from something old.

“Where the hell am I?” His voice shook.

“Based on analysis of the stable visible stars, you have entered the Scarax Galaxy,” the computer informed him.

He shook his head.

He stared at Vivian. He was a long way from home, and he was all alone.

He crumpled forward, burying his head against her cold face. He cried. It’d been the first time in years. Once upon a time, his life had been founded on loss. Then he’d joined the Coalition and rebuilt it. Now everything he knew – and once had – would be taken from him.

Chapter 1

Two days ago, Earth

Vivian Bond

Vivian crossed her arms and took a step back from the gallery wall. Clucking her tongue, she rocked back and forth on her heels.

“So, do you like it?” the squat Fenc alien asked. He clapped his hands together, sliding his two thumbs back and forth until the sound of his ragged, lizardlike skin grating filled the silent gallery.

“Not sure. Then again, it’s not up to me. The question is, will the son of Francis Walters like it?” She chuckled to herself. “He likes nothing. And his father is even harder to please.”

“Bribe, then?” The Fenc smiled knowingly.

Vivian bristled. “Sorry, bribe? It’s padding for a deal,” she snarled. She tapped her heel hard against the polished stone floor. If she was an expert – and to be frank, she was – the stone wasn’t from Earth. It looked and felt as if it’d come from one of the Fendi Belt asteroids. They contained rare minerals not seen anywhere else in the Milky Way – well, unless you were fond of mining in Barbarian space. They were luxurious, and importantly, they stored up the light like glistening gems.

They were what you had if you were ostentatious, and this gallery on the outskirts of the capital of Earth was as ostentatious as they came.

“You call it padding,” the alien spoke in his broken tongue, “we call it a bribe.”

“You give bribes to corrupt officials.” She flattened a hand on her chest. “I butter up the heads of corporations to gain funding for philanthropic activities.”

“Phil-atrophic?” the alien tried, mangling the word. His three eyebrows peaked together, looking as if someone had grabbed his head and scrunched it.

“Charity,” she explained with a polite smile. Well, technically it went through all the required movements to be classed as a smile, but there was no warmth and generosity there.

Vivian just had to get this done.

Mark Walters, Francis’ son, wanted this painting. She’d found that out through a contact.

If she showed up at their function tonight with it, she would guarantee that they would respond with the appropriate amount of cash.

“How much is it?” She cut straight to the bone.

“3,500 Galactic Credits,” the alien said, a calculating smile spreading his perpetually open lips, a few slicks of saliva collecting at the edges.

Others would stare. Vivian didn’t.

She’d never cared what people looked like.

Others said that, but it often wasn’t true. Humans had select beauty standards ingrained in their biology, and it took someone of character to supplant them.

Though a lot of people didn’t choose to believe Vivian Bond had character, she did.

She smiled. “Deal.”

The Fenc looked surprised. The price he’d just asked was way too high. She’d looked up the going rate on this artist this morning, and it should be half that. Obviously this alien had taken her to be a mug.

That was just a matter of perspective.

This painting could be worth 18 times that to Vivian and her business.

She reached out a hand.

The alien accepted it warmly.

He had a good deal, and she had a good deal. To Vivian, that was a good day.

Once the deal was done, she brought up her wrist device and tapped several things on it. Unlike most wrist devices, hers was sleek and top of the range.

When it wasn’t in use, it was nothing more than an attractive silver cuff around her left wrist. When she wanted to interact with it, all she had to do was run her thumb over the inner middle section of the device, and a holographic panel as large as her hand would appear. “I’m transferring the credits now. Please check that you have received them.”

The Fenc wasted no time. He tapped his ear device, and a grin spread over his open mouth. He bowed. “Will you be taking it with you today?”

“Yes. And I’ll require a certificate of full ownership.”

“It has already been sent to you.”

Vivian’s wrist device flashed. “A pleasure doing business with you.” She waved and turned to walk off. “Please have it delivered to my cruiser on your helipad.”

“It will take 10 minutes.”

Vivian walked away. She stopped just before she left the main section of the gallery. She turned, and she stared at the painting one last time.

She hadn’t looked at it before – not really. She’d ascertained it was the piece Mark Walters was after, and that had ticked her every box. Now, and especially from this distance, she saw it in its true light. Maybe it was something about the way the sun streaming in through the 20-meter-high windows behind her hit it – perhaps it was something else.

She found herself drawn into it.

It was a black medium painted on a special type of holographic gauze. It meant that you saw something different from every angle.

Up close, it had been this odd, shimmering, chaotic collection of colors and shapes. From here, she swore she saw something aligning. She tilted her head to the side until her black trestle locks slid over her shoulders and her expensive suit.

… It looked like a path. Like an endless journey through space. For a fleeting moment, she swore she saw stars flashing past her, then nothing but the vast empty tracts of emptiness that separated the galaxies. And finally, a blast of light.

The moment ended, and she lost the specific angle she’d been staring at. She tried to re-create it, but she couldn’t find it again.

Frowning, she brought up her wrist device and checked the painting’s name.

“The Eye of the Gods,” she muttered out loud. One last time, she tried to catch a glimpse again.

She couldn’t.

So she walked away.

As she made it through the long, art-lined corridor beyond the main gallery, she saw another patron approaching.

The guy came marching up the engineered, sophisticated floating steps that led to the gallery. The gallery itself was cut right into the side of a hill. Sorry, she meant cliff. It had a stunning view through plateglass windows down into a ravine and the capital city beyond.

To get to it, you either flew your private cruiser to the helipad on top, or you used the directional floating stairs that led from the top of the ravine above.

As Vivian got ready to walk up to the helipad, she frowned at the man.

There was something about the way he held himself.

He might have been in civilian clothing – a relatively common tunic, pants, and shoes that were trying to look more expensive than they were – but that didn’t hide his underlying musculature, nor the way he held himself. It took precisely no time at all for Vivian to conclude one thing.

“Coalition soldier,” she muttered under her breath as she tore her gaze off him and continued to walk down the hall.

She tried not to let the sight of him affect her. More than anything – that one little word.

If you could believe it, once upon a time, Vivian Bond had been a recruit of the Coalition Academy. In fact, she’d almost finished her training. She’d been two years away from graduating. Then her father’s business had run into trouble after his sudden death, and Vivian had been forced to quit.

In doing so, she’d seen a side of the Academy she hadn’t known. Not a single one of her friends had supported her. She’d had no choice – but to them, she was running away. To them, you never quit the Coalition. You pushed through every one of your problems and stayed loyal to the cause.

The world didn’t work like that.

As soon as she’d pulled her head back out of the clouds and left the Academy for the real world, she’d seen how insular it was.

All that chest-thumping star-spangled loyalty was nothing more than a myth fed to every recruit to keep them in line.

She didn’t have a single friend from her days at the Academy. They’d ditched her as fast as a dead weight from a cruiser.

Vivian tried to put it out of her mind as she climbed to the top floor of the building. She approached the airlock door that led out to the helipad and her private cruiser. She itched to get inside.

Now this deal was done, she just had to attend the dinner tonight, butter up Mark Walters, and see how much money she could get out of him.

It would have to be a lot.

Her father was long dead, and the business he’d lovingly created had long changed. Back in the day, it had been a medical robot, prosthesis, and apparatus supplier. Her father had poured his heart and soul into it. A doctor himself, he’d understood the importance of democratizing medical help. While Coalition soldiers might always be assured of appropriate medical attention, many of the workers and battlers in the outer colonies weren’t. Doctors were few and far between. Adequate supplies and medical robots were often the only thing standing between them and injury or death.

The business had changed. It had been forced to. It wasn’t, by nature, profitable. To run it, she needed funds. To do that, she had to procure them from somewhere. While there were genuine philanthropic institutions throughout the Coalition, if there’s one thing Vivian had learned about the inner workings of the Coalition, it was that nothing came for free.

For the first two years after her father’s death, she’d tried to keep his business alive based on grants. It hadn’t worked.

Facing the end of his dream, she’d called on a different skill set.

Some called it hustling, others called it bribing – she always chose to call it buttering up her clients.

Vivian sold dreams. She courted the rich and famous, told them of her plight, and waited for them to cough up charity. When they inevitably didn’t, she found out what they wanted, and she procured it for them.

That was the real side of this business.

Back in the Academy, Vivian had never been that appreciated. Her skill set hadn’t fit with the one desired by her peers. She’d been passing, but that was it.

According to the report she’d illegally procured after her departure, she’d lacked the get-up and go to be a true Academy asset. She’d never understood real loyalty, and it had been better off that she’d quit when she had.

She curled a hand into a fist just thinking about it.

“Open,” she commanded the airlock.

Her gaze flicked to the side and locked on the electronic panel beside the airlock. A circle of diodes illuminated once, then twice, then the airlock wheel disengaged.

“Weather shields are in place,” a sophisticated electronic tone told her.

“Thank you,” Vivian bothered to say.

She had a different approach when it came to robots of any shape or size. Growing up with her father who’d been obsessed with creating the perfect medical bots capable of not just saving their patients, but doing so in a compassionate way, she’d never had pets; she’d had prototypes.

Hell, to this day, her best friend was her pacemaker. It was a quaint thing to call it. Ancient humans called medical devices that assisted in the beating of one’s heart pacemakers. The technology had come a long way. The fact remained, one was beating in Vivian’s chest.

It had a neural link with her and could communicate whenever needed to relay information about her physiological status.

It couldn’t read her mind, but it could read her emotions based on her heart rate.

It was no surprise, as she walked out onto the calm, warm deck, that it vibrated to get her attention. “Miss Bond, you are bothered by something.”

She chuckled.

Long ago, she’d learned the subtle art of communicating with Paci – her chosen name for her heart assistance implant – without a soul picking it up.

It would’ve been a real asset at the Academy – and very much illegal. All neural assistance units had to be registered – hers wasn’t. She hadn’t had Paci back then, anyway. She’d acquired him when she’d almost died six months after leaving the Academy.

Now Paci was her constant friend.

“Correct, Paci – there’s not much that can be kept from you,” she chuckled as she brought her hand up and waved dismissively at her personal cruiser.

It wasn’t top-of-the-line. It was middle-of-the-line. Could she afford the top? Technically yes. She kept most money for her father’s business, though. What she didn’t need for her ever-growing funds to butter up her clients – that was.

“Are you feeling guilty?” Paci asked.

Her nose scrunched up so much, she could’ve pushed it into her hairline. “Guilty? About what? I acquired a painting for a client. That in turn will ensure a significant grant from Walters Corporation which will keep my father’s dream alive.”

“Your tone is fluctuating. Critically, your heartbeat has just increased by a factor of four percent.”

She snorted. “You control my heartbeat, Paci.”

“Incorrect. I assist to modulate it based on information coming from your nervous system.”

She groaned. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d been in conversations like this with Paci. Sure, he was technically her best friend, but he was a heck of a lot more perceptive than your average buddy. Wired right into her nervous system, he knew exactly what she was thinking.

She scratched her arm distractedly as her private cruiser opened, a hatch appearing in the side. She walked up it, sure to balance on her heels until she could grab a handy railing. She paused and turned to the side.

The view from up here was stunning. Right down below her she could see the ravine. It made sense for a gallery like this to perch itself on the side of a cavernous ledge. It added to the mystique. It also, presumably, allowed the art gallery to ship things in unseen.

Two years ago when Vivian had been forced to drastically alter her business model in order to keep Bond Robotics alive, she’d taught herself about the real Coalition. It might be shiny on the top, but it was just a veneer. Even here on Earth, right under the noses of the primary Coalition Academy, illegal actions were still being undertaken. She might like to think she’d never crossed that line, but you needed to know exactly where the line was in order not to cross it.

This gallery was clearly using jamming technology of some description. And based on its unique position, it would be able to use the natural topography of the ravine and the iron-rich mountain behind it to hide what it did not want to show.

If she were a good little Academy cadet, she’d run off and tell them the gallery owner was doing something dodgy.

Instead, she waited there as she let her gaze sweep back around until it locked on her ship.

She pushed up and into it.

“I am still sensing guilt,” Paci insisted.

She groaned. “I’m really not in the mood.” As soon as she walked in and the doors started to close behind her, she kicked off her heels. She was a little too enthusiastic, and one lodged itself under the command console.

This was only meant to be an Earth cruiser – though you could technically take it into space. It was as small as she could get away with. The bridge was her sleeping quarters, her mess hall, her engineering bay, and life-support. It was only one open room.

While there were storage cupboards and compartments, she rarely used them.

Though she technically had an apartment in the capital, she rarely used that, either.

She worked. All day every day. So she lived in here.

You could tell.

Clothes were everywhere.

This wasn’t the first time she’d effortlessly kicked off her heels after a deal, and there was one lodged between the navigational console and the view screen.

It was gathering dust.

She snorted as she planted her hands on her hips and stretched her back. “I should probably clean up in here one day.”

“Unlikely to ever occur, Mistress. But I must go back to the fact that your nervous system—”

“Just give it a rest, Paci. It’s not guilt. Trust me.” She patted her chest. She dug her fingers in as she massaged her sternum in large, firm sweeps.

Paci kept her alive, and she was thankful for that, but she was also chronically aware of the fact that without him, she would die.

“You are thinking of your near-fatal heart attack, aren’t you?” Paci asked perceptively.

She snorted. “How do you know?”

“Because you are rubbing your chest. I assure you, I will never let your heart stop again, Mistress.”

His sincerity warmed her.

Others wouldn’t call it sincerity – they would call it preprogrammed emotion. A robot could not be compassionate – just as the sunshine warming your back was not an act of generosity. Both were the emotionless creations of inanimate systems.

She chose to believe what she wanted as a smile spread her lips. “Thank you, Paci.”

She closed her eyes.

“I recommend you open them,” Paci said quickly.

“Why is that?” She stretched her back as she stood there and planted her feet against the messy, dust-covered deck plating. She’d vacuumed approximately zero times since buying this cruiser two years ago.

“Because you are likely to remember your incident.”

Incident. Yeah.

She’d had a fatal heart attack at home in her father’s lab. There had been no one around.

She’d died. Died right there on his laboratory bench.

But she hadn’t stayed dead.

Her father had always programmed the robots in his office to respond to medical emergencies. Unlike a lot of the Coalition assisted medical devices – they didn’t need masters. When they saw somebody down, they helped.

As her heart had failed and she’d lain there on the cold bench, doom filling her as she choked through her last breath, Paci had emerged from the side of the room.

He wasn’t just a pacemaker. He was the distributed AI her father had built. He inhabited most of her father’s personal devices.

Paci had saved her life, diagnosed her problem, and selected a prototype pacemaker her father had been working on before he’d died.

By the time she’d woken up, she’d been a different person.

Until then, she’d been ready to do what she could to save her father’s business. After then? She hadn’t stopped. She’d understood what her father had always proclaimed: it was a right of everyone to obtain medical assistance when required.

“You’re thinking of it,” Paci warned in a patient tone. “Your physiological conditions—”

She sighed, opened her eyes, and flopped down in the command seat. She had to push off her nightgown. It was old and covered in holes. It was also Academy issue. Well, it was Academy paraphernalia. She’d bought it with her own money in first year. Fortunately, it didn’t have the Coalition insignia on its breast. It was comfortable. And it was hers.

“How long until the painting is delivered?” She scratched her fingers under her tight, formfitting collar.

“I have made contact with the gallery administrative staff, and it is being delivered as we speak.”

She clapped her hands together, arched her shoulders, and fidgeted back in her seat. “I’m hungry.”

“Then I suggest you eat. I will accept the painting when it arrives.” Paci’s voice suddenly reverberated out loud, no longer coming from her mind but coming from the robot crumpled neatly in the corner beneath the navigational console. He unwrapped himself to his full height, which was two meters tall.

He had a sleek, silver body. Unlike a lot of the medical devices you got these days, he wasn’t modular and didn’t look like a stack of floating balls.

He resembled old Earth impressions of what the future would be like. Her father had been obsessed with old Earth movies, and he’d styled Paci on them.

“Thank you,” Vivian muttered as she leaned over to the side and accessed the food modulator built into the base of her command seat. When Paci had suggested that modification, she’d hooted. How good was it to have a food synthesizer right in your favorite chair?

Scratching her neck again, she started to unbutton her uncomfortable blouse as, from touch alone, she programmed a snack.

She got halfway through before there was an unwanted beep that echoed through the ship.

“What’s that?” A frown marched across her lips as she planted a hand on the seat, turned around, and faced Paci as he opened the hatch.

“It is a communication from the gallery.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” She jumped to her feet. “What do they want?”

“They have informed us there is a higher bidder for the painting.”

“Like hell,” she spat.

She shot out of the cramped bridge and rocketed up to Paci.

“You are not wearing shoes,” he pointed out.

“Don’t need them.” She jumped down out of the hatch, easily absorbing the force of the meter fall as she threw herself forward.

“Do you require my assistance?” Paci called after her.

“Your legal recommendations, sure. Throw everything we have at them. We have the full certificate of ownership, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s give them hell.”

She stalked up to the airlock.

It opened, and that sweet electronic voice said, “Welcome to the gallery.”

If Vivian were a lesser character, this is either where she would ignore the simplistic AI, or spit at it.

She did neither. “Thank you,” she said in all honesty.

The honesty – and politeness – ended when she hit the corridor.

She ran down it.

She only came to a stop when she reached the main gallery.

“Mistress, your hair is messy, and the first two buttons of your dress suit are undone,” Paci warned her.

“I’m done with looking nice. Do you have the legal defense ready?”

“The petition is already filed,” Paci said.

Vivian walked in.

There, standing beside the fawning gallery owner was the man she’d seen from before.

The Coalition soldier.

He didn’t turn to her as she walked in. He was clearly aware of her, though. She could read it in the way his neck muscles tightened, and he inclined his head a centimeter to the side, obviously picking up her footfall. She might not be in heels, and she might walk lightly, but to a soldier like him, that wouldn’t matter.

The gallery owner’s face stiffened at the sight of her. She’d gone from looking like the second coming as a chump willing to pay 3,500 credits for something worth half that, to looking like trash that didn’t belong.

“I see you got my message,” the alien said. He brought his hands up, but he didn’t lock his thumbs together. They were open, almost as if he was physically asking for more money. It was clear by bringing her here that he wanted to start a bidding war.

Like hell.

She came to a stop beside the soldier, though just a step behind him. She planted a fist against her hip and started to tap her other fingers on her thigh. She looked right at her painting. “Yes, I got your message. Perhaps you’d like to explain?”

“We have another bidder. Perhaps,” the alien used her exact tone, “you would like to increase your bid.”

She laughed. “Bid? On what? It’s my painting.”

The alien’s face stiffened. “The painting has not been released—”

“The certificate of ownership has.” She stared at her nails and pushed down her cuticles. “I’m going to let you know that I have just filed a legal complaint against you. If you don’t release this painting to me within the next five minutes, the police will be called. I have an excellent legal defense,” she added as she stopped looking at her nails, let her hand drop, and slid her gaze slowly over to the alien. “You would be violating,” she paused and waited for Paci to tell her, “approximately five federal statutes for failing to release this painting to me. You would be violating a whopping 15 for lying about the fact it’s still for sale, trying to initiate a bidding war, and attempting to rescind the deal.”

Though Vivian could have played this differently, she wasn’t in the mood.

She needed the Walters’ grant to fund a new shipment of medical bots out to the Casi colony worlds. They were without medical assistance. The last doctor who’d been servicing three planets had been killed by a Barbarian raid. With job prospects like that, no one had put their hand up to replace him.

The alien went from looking all soft and gooey like the lizard version of a teddy bear, to being all teeth. Literally. He spread his open lips. Unlike a human, he could pull them all the way back until she could see that teeth took up half of his face.

She was unmoved. “Paci,” she thought to him. “Contact the gallery with our legal defense.”

“Human is aggressive,” the alien spat. “She is also—”

She put up a finger. “I wouldn’t say that I’m lying,” she warned. “Don’t make this worse for yourself.”

The alien somehow opened his lips even wider. According to what she’d heard, his species could be vicious when they wanted to be.

This was probably where Vivian should back off. Instead, she took a step forward. That brought her in line with the Coalition soldier boy.

She hadn’t seen his face properly as he’d marched down the light steps to the gallery – just his clothes and body. Now, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it all.

He was handsome. That meant nothing.

He had the strong, chiseled kind of jaw you could use to model a Greek statue on. That also meant nothing.

He had piercing sharp eyes – and they were locked on her. That meant everything.

He was clearly her competition for this painting.

Her mind worked on fast forward. She doubted that a Coalition golden boy – even one who looked as competent as him – would be using his hard-earned credits to buy unnecessary artwork.

Which meant he had to be buying it for someone. The mere fact this alien was so excited at initiating a bidding war meant this idiot Coalition boy had obviously offered something stupid.

Which meant he had a financial backer. The only one that made sense was the Coalition itself.

All these thoughts and more tumbled through Vivian’s head. If she were a smart woman, they would tell her to back down.

She just took another step forward and planted a hand on her hip. “I take it you have received my formal legal complaint by now,” she snapped at the Fenc.

He tapped his ear implant, and slowly, his lips drooped over his teeth. It looked like a clenched fist someone had been threatening to punch you with, but had instead pulled back into their sleeve.

“Yes,” the gallery owner spat. There was mild defiance in his tone, but it was more than made up for by the fact his back slumped forward with defeat.

“So you will release the painting to me now?” Vivian demanded.

The alien swiveled his longing gaze over to the Coalition soldier. It wouldn’t be the man specifically the alien was after but his sweet Coalition credits. Ah well. You couldn’t win every day.

Vivian demonstrated that fact as she walked up to the painting. “Release its locks,” she commanded.

The alien sighed. It tapped something on its wrist. “You may damage the painting if you take it off the wall. Unskilled—”

“Believe you me, I know how to look after expensive items,” she shot back. Carefully, only touching the painting lightly from its sides, she pulled it off the wall.

As she did, she caught that glimpse again. It stilled her to the spot.

It made her feel as if she was traveling through the galaxy and far beyond.

She could see stars flitting past her, constellations, vibrant, powerful color and light exploding all around her. Then nothingness – blackness that swamped her until far in the distance, she saw a single speck of light.

“Mistress,” Paci snapped in her mind, “I am registering a strange change in your nervous system. I am increasing your heartbeat.”

As promised, her heart started to pound. Maybe it was the way it thrummed through her neck, or maybe it was the fact she tilted her head hard to the side, but she lost that glimpse. Again, the painting became nothing more than chaotic shapes and colors.

She slowly relaxed her back, took a step away from the wall, cradled the painting carefully, and turned.

The alien wouldn’t stare at her. The Coalition soldier? He was all eyes – and precision attention. The kind of focus that told you he wasn’t your ordinary grunt. One look into his baby-blue irises, and she could easily imagine them hunkering behind a sniper rifle, tracking prey for hours, if not days.

It unsettled her stomach. Or maybe that was just the aftereffects of the strange vision the painting had given her. No – it wasn’t a vision. It was a holographic work. She’d seen enough of them to know that from certain angles, it sometimes looked as if what you were seeing was happening in your head, but that was very much not the case.

She made brief eye contact with the Coalition soldier. “Before you ask, I’m not interested in making a deal.”

With the painting in hand, she strode back to her cruiser.

She was aware of the fact that the Coalition soldier turned and stared at her until she was out of sight.

That impression rang in her mind one last time – he was the kind of soldier that would track his prey until he caught it.

Chapter 2

Vivian Bond

“How do I look, Paci?” Vivian turned the view screen into a recorder that revealed her reflection. She shimmied from side to side as she patted down her dress.

It looked designer.

To be fair, it was based on a design – just not one she’d bought in a shop for a ridiculous sum of credits; one she’d printed with her food calibrator. She hadn’t even bothered to use a proper materials remodulator.

No one would know.

“Fantastic, Mistress. You are ready.”

“The painting’s secure?” She turned and faced the security cupboard she herself had loaded it into.

There was no point in asking if it was secure. She knew the answer.

She still waited, a stupid knot in her stomach until Paci beeped. “Yes, not only does this ship protect it, but I will also ensure that no one can access it save for you. Go out and have fun, Mistress.”

She snorted. It was unattractive and rattled so much, she could have torn her nostrils to shreds.

“Sorry, not fun. You do not enjoy these functions. Go out there and knock them dead,” Paci tried.

She pressed her fingers over her mouth and laughed. She’d never programmed Paci to speak like this. Her father hated giving his devices preprogrammed personalities. Instead, with a mix of machine learning and self-replicating algorithms he’d created himself, Paci grew as he saw fit.

The more they interacted, the more they riffed off each other like true friends.

“Okay,” Vivian said as she made a face at herself in the viewscreen, “I can do this. It’s just another deal. And deals—”

Paci cut in, “Save lives.”

“Yes, they do.” She grabbed a piece of jewelry off her command armrest, threw it in the air, caught it, and crammed it on her wrist. With one last look at her reflection, she neatened her blouse and strode toward the hatch. “How long until we land?”

“We are coming in to land now.”

She frowned. “Paci, do I detect a note of worry in your voice?”

No one else would have noticed it. To them, they wouldn’t bother searching past his regular electronic tone to register what was beneath.

“Yes, Mistress. We are being delayed.”

She made a face – the kind of face that accompanied the sick feeling that suddenly pushed through her stomach. “Delayed?”

“It appears the Walters are reconsidering our invite.”

Her shoulders dropped. It would’ve looked like someone tied rocks to her neck.

“What?” With trembling lips, she turned and threw herself at the command console. She got down on her knees, not even bothering to order her chair to come closer. As her fingers darted across the input controls, dread descended through her. “Somebody’s cut ahead of us in the deal, haven’t they?”

“It appears that way.”

She growled. “Who?”

“I’m gathering freely available footage from the Walters building,” Paci informed her.

The viewscreen stopped showing a reflection of her deflated body as she knelt in front of the command console, her cheeks ashen with regret. It flickered and started to show the Walters building. Or at least, one of them. From her research, they had approximately 300 holdings on Earth alone. That just scratched the surface. As the head of several mining conglomerates, their assets galaxy-wide would make even the Academy blush.

Speaking of the Academy—

As the footage narrowed in on the docking level above the primary Walters building, she saw the sleek, impossible-to-ignore body of a Coalition vessel.

“What the hell?” she spat. “What are they doing here? Are the Walters being investigated?”

“I have another theory, Mistress.” The footage changed again. Using recordings from her own cruiser as it hovered nearby, Paci managed to get the right angle until he could zoom in.

Vivian saw all she needed to clench her teeth and growl.

None other than Mr. Perfect Golden Boy Soldier from this morning was standing next to Mr. Walters himself.

Though it would be illegal to pick up audio feeds, she got what they were talking about solely based on Mr. Walters’ expression. It was harangued. As for Mr. Soldier Boy? He, as always, looked like he was in perfect control.

Vivian balled up a fist and smashed it hard against the console. “That bastard. He’s still after my painting. How the hell did he figure out—” She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and groaned. “I told the gallery owner this was for the Walters. Dammit.”

“The real question is why the Coalition has brought it upon themselves to contact the Walters first. It seems they are desperate to get this painting, Mistress.”

She crossed her arms. As she stared defiantly at Mr. Soldier Boy, she let every feeling she had for him solidify into an immovable clump of rage.

“Bastard,” she spat again. She pulled herself up. She turned around and flopped in her seat. She didn’t even bother to push off a mound of clothes and heels she’d been searching through for the perfect outfit.

“I am turning the ship around. We have been officially disinvited now. Where should we go?”

She locked her head against the headrest and closed her eyes. “Home, I guess.”

“You mean your apartment?”

“Why not. I’m used to sleeping in this seat,” she patted it fondly, “but it might be time for a real shower. That asshole,” she commented again. “Why the hell is he getting involved in my business?”

“Though we could research why the Coalition wishes to obtain this painting, I suggest we don’t.”

She frowned and scratched her wrist before pulling off her bracelet and chucking it at the wall. “Why is that?”

“I can only conclude that if the Coalition have gone to this extent to get the painting that it is of critical value to them. When something is of critical value—”

“The Academy lights every fire it can to smoke it out. I know. Used to study there, remember?” She ground her eyes closed, shoved her palm over them, and pushed until she saw stars.

She’d been so confident this deal would work. She’d put blood, sweat, tears, and critically, Galactic Credits into it. She’d only invested so highly in this painting, because it would have led to a substantial payoff.

Now there’d be nothing.

As dread sunk through her, she slowly opened her eyes. She ignored the tears gathering at their edges. “Is there any other way we can fund the next shipment of medical robots?”

“Do not concern yourself, Mistress. I will look into a way.”

“Wait,” she made a face, “if the Coalition want this painting so much—” She didn’t finish. She snarled at the viewscreen. The footage of Mr. Soldier Boy haranguing the Walters was long gone. It had been replaced by the view of the city as they approached her apartment. “I’m not going to deal with the Coalition.” She crossed her arms firmly until they were like armor that would protect her from even the strongest compassionate thought about the Academy. “If they resort to tactics like this, screw them.” She turned over and nodded at the secure cabinet. “Find a place on the wall for that. Unless the Coalition are going to break and enter,” she snarled, “at least I can be satisfied that they won’t get what they want.”

“That is perhaps not the best approach, Mistress. But let us revisit it in the morning. We are coming in to land.”

She grumbled, pushed out of her command seat, kicked a pile of clothes viciously, and walked over to the hatch.

She was still in the heels she’d selected for the function. They were expensive. Without remorse, she kicked them off.

The hatch opened.

The night air struck her as she jumped off the hatch platform and landed on the cold, reinforced plating of the roof dock.

Though her apartment was in an expensive unit close to the edge of town, when Vivian wasn’t on the clock, she couldn’t afford to waste money. If she chose to put the weather fields on when she docked to hold back the vicious wind and cold, it would cost her. Maybe only a few Galactic Credits – but it would add up.

Her father had always been frugal. Believe it or not, it was a lesson she’d taken to heart.

Vivian found herself distractedly rubbing her chest as she tiptoed across the cold deck plating and reached the airlock door.

She slammed her thumb on it and brought her face close for a biometric scan.

“Just work in one go this time,” she snarled.

As always, the scan did not work in one go.

Though she’d complained multiple times to the apartment owners, Vivian was the only tenant who encountered issues with this scanner.

It wasn’t a full body scan like the ultra-secure systems you got at the Academy. It only used her face. For whatever reason, it had a problem with Vivian’s left eye. No matter how many times she accessed it in any given day, it would only bring up a 99 percent match between her face and the previous scan she’d taken. It was like her left eye was perpetually changing.

Paci had looked into it. Her eye was fine.

Vivian was just unlucky.

“Dammit,” she realized as the door finally opened for her, “I forgot the painting in the cruiser.” She turned in the doorway, the wind still whipping her hair. “Stuff it – it’s too cold. It can stay there. Probably more secure than my apartment, anyway.”

Vivian made her way to the elevator then down to the level where her apartment was.

When she reached her door and Paci accessed it for her, forgoing that stupid facial security scan, she was ready to drop.

She walked in. “Kitchen lights on,” she said. No matter what she had to do, she only ever turned the kitchen lights on. It was one way to save power. She would be saving fractions of Galactic Credits, but then again, every saving was a medical robot for someone in need, right?

The dim lighting suited her mood, anyway.

“Paci,” she said out loud, “can you petition the building owner to change the security scans again? I’m sick of them.”

Paci didn’t answer.

“Paci? Is your neuro connection playing up? Pa—”

Vivian turned and faced her open lounge room.

There was a man sitting on her couch in the dark.

She screamed and ran for the door.

“Don’t bother. I’m Coalition, and you’re under arrest.”

The guy must’ve remotely hacked the building security, because even as she reached the open door, it closed and locked.

Fear bolted through her.

“Paci?” she switched to neural commands. “Who—”

There was no point in finishing her question. The guy claiming to be a Coalition soldier stood and walked into a single beam of light making it in from the kitchen.

Her world came crashing down around her ears.

It was Mr. Soldier Boy.

She fancied her skin became green and her lips cracked open like someone splitting a belly with a knife. “You? How did you get here? Did you transport?”

He crossed his arms, real satisfaction playing in his eyes. She’d assumed they’d been baby-blue back at the gallery. Now as the light hit them at a certain angle, she saw they were more complex than that.

Obviously this guy was more complex than that, too. Not only had he stopped the Walters from seeing her – he’d transported into her apartment before she could get home.

She backed off further into the kitchen. “What do you want?”

“Several things.”

“I don’t get it – why the hell are you in my apartment? You have to have a warrant—”

“I assure you, I have a warrant.”

“But you look like you’re some kind of…” she assessed him with a cautious eye, “commander or something. What on earth are you doing—”

“You could’ve made this easy on yourself by just offering the painting when we expressed interest in it. Now,” he ticked his gaze around her apartment, “you get to go down with it.”

There was so much satisfaction ringing in his voice. It was clear that to him, she’d just played some nefarious game, and he’d won it.

She patted her chest, grinding her palm in.

Paci wasn’t speaking to her. She didn’t know why. He had to still be working – if he weren’t, she’d be dead.

She had to take this matter into her own hands, then. Still grinding her palm against her chest, she bared her teeth. “I demand to know what basis this warrant was issued on.”

“Very well – a secret basis. One you don’t have clearance for.” He locked his gaze on her, and there was something in it that felt like he was used to stripping people down to the bone. No, not just used to – he lived to do just that. “But now I’ve paused to investigate you, we have a basis for a new warrant. What exactly is Paci? Why do you feel that the security of this apartment – and your neighbors – should be watered down?”

She shook her head.

Paci kept her alive. Technically, he wasn’t quite legal. He required a fully integrated neurological connection with her. It’s what allowed him to finely control her heart and her emotions when her stress got too much. However, he wasn’t registered. Anyone who had a continuous, onboard AI assistance program had to be registered. It gave one an unfair advantage.

She clicked her jaw to the side. “I’ve never heard of a warrant based on secret reasons.” She brought her fingers up and made air quotes. “If this is about the painting, I will get a lawyer involved. I can’t comprehend why the Coalition thinks it has the right to come into a private citizen’s house and demand their property.”

“Rights? You mean the legal and moral obligations you have to other people in society? The same obligations you yourself trample?”

“Sorry, trample?”

“I took the liberty of looking up your file, Vivian. Messy. You’re in a very specific business, aren’t you? You use your father’s robotics company as a front. You do favors for the rich and famous in an attempt to line your own pockets. Classy,” he noted with a snarl.

Vivian was used to feeling affronted. It came hand-in-hand with her line of work. When you dealt with rich assholes from morning till night, you had to have a thick skin. But they never did what this bastard just had. Not one other person had ever questioned the legitimacy of her father’s company.

She let her hands drop to her sides, and slowly she pressed each finger in until her knuckles felt like they would pop.

He slid his gaze down to them, then up to her face. “I’m going to ask you one last time – who’s Paci?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer.

He brought up his wrist device. Even from here in the dim light, she could tell it was modified. He tapped something on it.

“Mistress,” Paci finally communicated with her again in her thoughts, “I have been discovered.”

She paled. She hadn’t felt this sickly since the incident two years ago.

She naturally clutched her chest, bending her fingers in until they weren’t just hooked into the fabric of her blouse, but they were trying to meld through it.

The soldier ran his tongue around his teeth. It served to shift his blocklike jaw to the left and right. It looked like a swinging blade. “What you have there is an unregistered,” he emphasized that word, “illegal,” he spat with another blast of air, “fake medical device. Wow, doesn’t take long to scratch the surface of Vivian Bond to find the rot beneath, does it?”

She blinked back her emotion. Whether it was fear, afront, anger, or just plain confusion – she couldn’t tell anymore.

“My medical device is not fake,” she spat. She opened her lips. She couldn’t explain it to him. She’d never admitted to anyone that she had a pacemaker. It was a private thing. More than that, Paci had always told her there was no point. In her line of work, she could easily make enemies, and if they found out she had a critical assistance device, they could try to hack through it.

Though Paci assured her that even top-of-the-range tech wouldn’t be able to hack through him, that didn’t mean there wasn’t real fear that one day, with just a flick of a switch, someone could kill her.

“You’ve gone all gray, Miss Bond. You finally realizing that the law has caught up with you?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I told you – I’m here on behalf of the Coalition to return that painting. As for the rest of this, as an officer in the Coalition, it is my right, privilege, and responsibility to track down criminals on behalf of Earth Security.”

“Not that,” she spat back. “Why are you taking so much pleasure in this?”

He’d been on a roll. Until now. That comment got to him. Not for long – maybe a second or two. It only served to harden his jaw further. “You might be so twisted that you can’t recognize this, but to the rest of the Coalition, keeping the peace is all that matters.”

“And I’m running around starting wars, am I?”

“You’re running around manipulating people out of their money with a fake medical device that serves solely as an excuse for an illegal integrated AI. Do I really have to go over the facts again?”

She let her hand drop. “If you just want the painting—”

“We’re way beyond that now.”

“Paci, what do I do?” she had time to think.

Something flashed on the man’s wrist device. He smiled. “Enough of that. You’re communicating with your AI again, aren’t you? Looking for a way out of here? I’ve got you a way. Let’s turn that off.”

Terrified, she pushed forward and threw a hand out in a stopping motion. “No. You’ll kill—”

At the sign of her throwing herself forward, the guy bristled, readying for an attack.

It didn’t come.

Somehow, he shut off her pacemaker.

And Vivian’s heart stopped.

Pain, terror, and a doom deeper than any the human soul could comprehend flooded her and pulled her down.

Chapter 3

Special Commander Jake Trace

Jake was always lucky. That wasn’t why he was a special commander – you couldn’t rely on fortune as a soldier. You needed training, expertise, good tech, and more than anything, a good heart.

Still, he couldn’t have hoped for a better situation. He did have a warrant from the Coalition to search this woman’s apartment. That painting and everything associated with it was now top-secret.

Now he didn’t just have that – he had an iron-cast reason to throw this woman in jail.

He’d be lying if he said that wasn’t sweet revenge. From the moment she’d stalked into that gallery with no shoes on but her head still held high, Jake had been looking for a reason to get his own back. He usually wasn’t a man who believed in revenge. Proportionality was at the heart of any good soldier.

Vivian needed to be pulled down a peg or two. That had been a conclusion that had only solidified after he’d found out she was a washed-out Academy cadet. With three full years under her belt, she’d quit. Her excuse had been looking after her father’s company. In reality, women like Vivian quit because they didn’t have the guts to fight harder.

When she realized he was about to switch off her AI, she threw a hand forward and launched at him.

He got ready to push her back. She was clearly desperate, but he hadn’t pictured her as stupid. She didn’t have a body built for combat, but she still attacked.

She didn’t reach him.

He shut off her AI.

And Vivian crumpled. It was like someone clicked their fingers and turned off a robot.

She clutched her chest as she fell to her knees.

“Please – don’t fake it. You’re already in enough trouble as it is.” He shifted down and went to scoop an arm through hers to yank her to her feet.

There was no time. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she slumped.

Something caught up with Jake. It was like a cruiser screaming down from the atmosphere at full speed. It hit him just as his wrist device lit up and warned him that the woman at his feet had just died.

For several seconds he couldn’t do anything. He was a soldier, for God’s sake. He was used to breakneck situations and putting disparate data together quickly. But as the dim light from her kitchen struck her ashen face and perfectly still body, he ground to a halt.

It didn’t last. His wrist device vibrated, warning him again that she was dead and she would stay that way if he didn’t do anything.

Shocked, he brought up his device and tapped his fingers on it for several seconds, getting ready to follow its every instruction.

An image of her face struck him. It was the exact expression she’d given him when he’d promised to turn off her pacemaker.

The fear had been real, even if he’d miscategorized it at the time.

Jake didn’t know what he was doing. As sweat slicked his brow, his fingers acted of their own accord. He didn’t call in a medical transport. He didn’t do CPR.

He initiated the exact same protocol he’d used to shut off what he’d believed was a fake medical device – but this time, he turned it on.

The effect was immediate.

Vivian jolted, her lips gaping wide open as she gasped for air.

She stretched a hand out. Not thinking, he went to grab her fingers and hold them tight. She just pushed a hand around him. “Paci,” she gasped. Switch on. Paci.”

She might be breathing, but the fear still owned Jake. Paci had been the name she’d said before. He’d assumed it was the AI. It should’ve switched back on when he’d reinitiated its program. But what if it had multiple units?

As part of his job as a special commander, Jake was an electronics expert. He’d hardly be capable of being the chief engineer of a heavy cruiser, but in a pinch, he could fix – and understand – just about any system.

It was easy enough to have a distributed AI in multiple units. Smart, too – because you’d have a backup.

When Jake had transported into her apartment, he’d automatically set up a suppression field in case she had recording equipment.

Now, acting on autopilot again, he turned it off.

Immediately, there was a clunk from one of the other rooms.

His wrist device warned him that a robot had just activated.

There was the pound of footfall as it threw itself into the room.

Jake caught a glimpse of it, and it was unlike any medical robot he’d ever seen. It was stylized, but before he could conclude that it was just some museum toy, it reached into its chest, pulled out some kind of kit, dropped to its knees, and administered something to the side of Vivian’s neck.

She no longer gasped for air. The color started to return to her cheeks.

Before too long, she sat.

Jake had just met her. Most of the time he’d been in her presence, he’d been planning her demise. Now he settled a hand on her shoulder and stared at her. No words could break his confusion.

It didn’t take her long to shrug out of his grip. “You didn’t need to kill me,” she muttered as she wobbled up. “Paci, I’m going to go administer some fendax.”

Jake bolted to his feet.

She slid her gaze over to him. “I’m not gonna leave the apartment. It’s not like I can. Now get out of my way.”

“You need to go to the hospital.”

She chuckled darkly. “Everything they can do for me, I can do for myself here without taking care from the needier. I’m not a critical case anymore. Now just let me look after myself.”

For whatever reason, he didn’t stop her as she wobbled into the bathroom.

Maybe he should have. Perhaps he should have transported her directly to the hospital, but she certainly didn’t seem to be a critical case anymore; his wrist device had confirmed she was stable.

Jake had absolutely no clue what was going on.

Before too long, he turned and faced the robot. “What are you?”

“A medical assistance robot.”

“And you’re shared with her….” He couldn’t find the words as he waved his hands around.

“The word you’re looking for is pacemaker. It is a critical assistance device that ensures her heart continues to beat. In turning it off, you killed her,” the robot pointed out.

Jake paled. His jaw was usually strong. It was one of his main methods of emotional communication. When it jutted out – which it did most of the time – he was displeased by something – which he was most of the time. Now it just hung there loosely as his lips opened but he couldn’t speak.

The medical bot turned its head to the side.

Jake’s heart skipped several beats. “Is she okay?” He didn’t know why he asked the medical bot. His wrist device still had a lock on her. It was telling her that, while she certainly had just suffered a fatal heart attack, somehow she was okay. Not great, but fine enough that she wasn’t about to drop dead. Again.

“What is your name?” the medical bot asked. “I am Paci.”

Jake didn’t bother to point out that he didn’t care what the bot called itself. It was a robot, for crying out loud. He ticked his jaw to the left. “You can call me Jake.”

“And I’m assuming, Jake, considering you only gave me your first name, that you are no ordinary Coalition officer. Suppression of rank and identity details is only used in special circumstances.”

Jake bristled. If this were an ordinary circumstance, he’d have no shame in turning the medical bot off for that comment.

He didn’t. Just imagining it brought back the image of Vivian’s lifeless face.

As hard as it was to admit, Jake had to take a step back here and remind himself he had no clue what was going on.

He kept ticking his gaze back in the direction of Vivian.

“Do not be concerned, Jake,” the bot said. “She is alive, and with due medical care that I will provide, she will be on her feet quickly.”

“I’m not—” he didn’t finish his sentence. He’d been about to say that he wasn’t concerned. It was a lie. Worse – it would look bad. He should be concerned; he’d done this – even if he hadn’t a clue why.

His wrist device hadn’t warned him that her pacemaker was a critical medical assistance unit. All the scans he’d received had suggested it was a front.

So something was going on here, wasn’t it?

That thought alone swept away his guilt.

He crossed his arms and looked at the bot that called itself Paci. “What exactly is in her chest?”

“A pacemaker. I have already told you—”

“It clearly possesses an intricate neurological connection and an onboard AI.”

“Both are required to keep her alive.”

“Then they should be registered.”

“It is a prototype.”

“It’s still unregistered,” Jake insisted. “And it utilizes neurological communication. It’s a crime not to have that registered. Gives her an unfair advantage in any circumstance.”

“It is not intended as an advantage. Neurological communication allows me to keep her alive.”

Jake twitched.

The robot – because he was not going to do it the false dignity of calling it Paci, considering it wasn’t alive – took Jake’s pause the wrong way. It angled its body to the side, the lights of the city beyond glistening over its metal frame. It looked like a caricature – some artifact from old Earth when space travel had all been about imagination and not practicality. The robot’s arms were long, its fingers too slender to grip with much strength. Its head was elongated. It didn’t have a mouth so much as a glowing slit around its face.

“Her pacemaker only gives her the advantage of continuing to stay alive,” Paci tried.

Jake would give it full points for being capable of emotional manipulation, but he still didn’t back down. He hardened his jaw and made his stance more rigid. The same glittering city lights that played over the robot’s gunmetal gray and silver body only served to darken the shadows under Jake’s chin, lips, and eyes. He would’ve looked grim – he was.

It was time to put this in perspective. Vivian was fine.

But she was still in hot water.

Granted, that pacemaker appeared to keep her alive, but countless medical devices existed that could make up for any cardiovascular problem. Vivian would have chosen this prototype pacemaker precisely because of its sophisticated neurological connection and AI. Considering her line of work, it would be considered an illegal modification.

“I am sensing that you have hardened your stance,” Paci concluded.

Jake snorted. “So you possess predictive empathetic modeling, too, ha? Further evidence that you’re not just some simple pacemaker.”

“You misunderstand.”

“So you don’t possess predictive empathetic modeling?”

There was a pause. “No, I do.”

Jake smiled. It was all teeth and no lip. “Understand that I’ve recorded that. In fact, I’ve recorded this whole messy incident. Your owner will have no legal defense.”

Speaking of the owner, Vivian finally pulled herself out of the bathroom. “I’m not his owner. He’s… a friend,” she added.

It took Jake precisely no time to snort. It died in his throat – or half died – as his gaze locked on Vivian’s face.

She was gray. Her skin, which had been vibrant and full of life before her heart attack, now looked as if someone had pulled it off a corpse.

That was nothing to mention her left eye. As she walked into a shaft of light making it in from the kitchen, he saw it was bloodshot. Fully bloodshot. She looked as if someone had spent the last five minutes punching her in the face.

She receded at his look, dropping her gaze as she walked over to the couch. Steadying a hand on the armrest, she sat. Her muscles were weak. Though it would have been tempting to assume it was a lie, considering she was a consummate manipulator, her skin and bloodshot eye was evidence against that conclusion.

Hell, if he stopped hating her for half a second, he had to remind himself she’d just suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

She clearly hadn’t forgotten. As she distractedly cast her gaze over the city, worry flaring in her speckled hazel eyes, she rubbed her sternum. It was a deliberate, almost trained move. Her palm pushed the fabric of her already creased blouse. “I heard everything you said, Commander.”

“That’s the first time you’ve acknowledged that I’m a Coalition officer. Finally appreciating how serious this is?”

She didn’t let her hand drop. She didn’t look at him, either. “No. I’m trying to remind myself I’m still alive. I’m sorry if I’m not as sharp as usual.”

He snorted. “Not one for appropriate deference, are you? I read your file. Doesn’t surprise me.”

She let her hand drop. She pushed forward. Her torso shook, and she had to pull her elbows up and rest them on her knees. Even then, her back bowed forward.

He really wanted to believe it was an act, but to do that, he’d have to ignore what he was trying to forget.

He might be acting tough now, but when she’d crumpled, gasping for air at his feet, he’d feared the worst.

“Let’s cut to the chase. You just want the painting, right?”

“No. I want justice. You’ve broken the law – on multiple counts. And you will pay for that. And yes, we’ll get the painting. But only because we will seize it. Don’t think that you have any advantage here, Miss,” he said, taking pleasure in that word. He might have a title – and the power that came along with it – she didn’t. She’d eschewed that for a broken life of crime.

Still propping herself up with one elbow, she dragged the other hand down her face. As her fingers disturbed her skin, whitening it from pressure, her complexion didn’t recover.

She looked ashen.

Jake rolled his tongue around his teeth. While he could guarantee that her so-called pacemaker was there for nefarious purposes, it also had a medical use.

You couldn’t fake how sick she looked right now. As tempting as it was to continue this conversation – though it was one-sided – he couldn’t let her die.

Unlike Vivian Bond, Jake had a code of ethics.

“First things first, you’re heading to the Academy main hospital. We will scan that pacemaker, remove it, and replace it or repair the damage. Exactly what you should have done before you—”

Vivian pushed to her feet. She wobbled. She might have moved quickly earlier when she’d found him in her apartment, but now she looked like a shadow of herself. “You remove this pacemaker, I’ll die. You turn it off, I’ll die,” she said, emotion rising in her as she spat each word. “I would’ve assumed you learned that lesson considering you’ve already killed me once today.”

For a moment her bluster got to him. Maybe it was the deadened stare from her bloodshot eye.

It brought back the wave of fear that had struck his body as she’d crumpled.

For a man like Jake, it wasn’t long until he pushed it back. He squared off in front of her and jutted his chin out.

She closed her eyes. “You’re not a man who learns from his mistakes, then? Fine. If you insist on killing me again to make a point,” her voice shook with trauma on the phrase killing me again, “just promise to turn Paci back on quickly next time. The longer you wait, the more damage it does.”

He stared at her. The light making it in from those stunning windows and the stunning vista beyond played around her body, illuminating one side while keeping the other in shadow.

It made her seem larger-than-life. The truth was, Vivian Bond was anything but. She was a washed-out cadet who’d never had the chops – or morals – to survive in the Academy. She might have taken her questionable ethics and run with them, but now he’d caught her and she wasn’t going to escape.

“Paci, keep an eye on the place,” she muttered as she staggered toward the door.

“Mistress, it’s not recommended that you move. You have suffered considerable hypoxia. While I have administered medication to counteract its effects, you must reduce movement.”

Vivian wasted the energy to turn and smile at her medical robot. That smile – the way it curled her lips, brightened her eyes, and made her face seem alive for the first time since she’d died – was wasted on artificial life.

Not many people had nice smiles. Vivian did. She’d either been born with it, or she’d trained herself to use it as yet another tool of manipulation.

He didn’t fall for it. “Can you walk? Or do you need me to carry you?” he growled.

“I can walk.” She demonstrated as she made it to the door.

“As for you,” Jake said as he turned to the medical robot, “I’m shutting you down.”

He expected the bot to resist. Instead, it voluntarily shut itself down. With one last lingering, almost compassionate look toward its master, it condensed down, packing itself until it resembled nothing more than a shiny box.

Jake wasn’t satisfied to leave it there. He swiped his wrist device over it, using the exact same protocol he had when he’d shut down Vivian’s pacemaker.

Though it was stupid, and he knew the range of this jamming lock, he still kept an eye on Vivian.

Not out of choice – his eyes acted of their own accord, jerking toward her and watching her as she stood by the door, one hand planted beside it for support.

When shutting down the robot didn’t kill her again, Jake marched up behind her.

“You’re coming with me,” he repeated uselessly.

When she didn’t open the door, he reached beside her, his arm brushing down hers as he slammed his thumb onto the open button. At the same time, he locked a hand on her shoulder so she didn’t get any ideas to run.

Running was the last thing on her mind – it was the last thing her body could do. As his fingers locked hard against her flimsy blouse, he registered only the faintest trace of warmth pushing back.

She felt colder than the depths of frozen space.

And something in her was frozen, he concluded before a spark of compassion could ignite in his chest. To be precise, her heart. He didn’t just mean the fact she had a pacemaker – he meant her morals and character.

There was no point in shedding a tear for Vivian Bond – her past had just caught up with her.

As Jake led her from her apartment, he had no idea how true that statement was.

Chapter 4

Special Commander Jake Trace

“So you know what you’re looking at, right?” Jake crossed his arms as he stood next to Chief Medical Officer Mahmood Benz.

Benz chuckled. “I am the Chief Medical Officer, Trace. And I’m questioning why you had to take my time for this case. To answer your question, I’m staring at scans of a prototype pacemaker. While it’s not in the database, its general make is recognizable. It has all the hallmarks of a Bond device,” he added with a slightly awed tone.

“Enough of that,” Jake growled. “That woman is a criminal.”

“That might be the case, but her father was a visionary. If he were still alive, the galaxy would be a better place.”

“That’s great. I just need you to gather the evidence that that pacemaker has illegal neurological connections.” He didn’t soften his tone. He’d had a chance to think since bringing Vivian here, and he’d hardened his stance. Not only was she engaging in nefarious activity, but she was also putting herself at risk. While that pacemaker might technically keep her alive, she could have kept herself alive far better by seeking medical attention to resolve her cardiac problem. Instead, she’d used it as an advantage to justify her pacemaker.

That made him sick.

If he’d had the chance to think, he would have realized that wasn’t the reason he felt sick about this. Guilt could manifest in funny ways.

“I heard you the first time, Special Commander,” Benz said, his voice dropping low.

There was no point. There was no one else in the lab with them. Benz was just affording Jake the secrecy his title required.

There was a handful of other special commanders currently serving in the Coalition. It was a coveted title only given to the best of the best.

“How long until we can remove it?” Jake crossed his arms tighter. He was separated from Vivian by a flexi glass screen. Usually, you used this lab for unknown specimens that you wanted to quarantine. The reality was, it was over the top for this procedure. Vivian was not unknown – she was as easy to read as any crime novel. She didn’t have any special, potentially dangerous powers, either. She was just a great example of when you took a human and you broke its heart.

It might be quaint to think that someone’s moral worth came from the organ pumping blood around their bodies – but Jake had always thought it was an appropriate connection to make.

Your heart gave you feedback. When you were in danger, it beat to help get you out of there. When you were calm and in the genuine embrace of a loved one, it beat slower. It was a constant accompaniment to your emotional life.

Women like Vivian didn’t listen to their hearts.

“Not long,” Benz answered. “I’m just doing one last scan. I’ve initiated a medical stasis field around Vivian. We’ll turn off the pacemaker, and it will keep her heart pumping.”

“Good.”

Benz chuckled. “She’s really done a number on you, then? You haven’t been this passionate for a long time.”

“I wouldn’t call what I’m experiencing passion – just justifiable anger. She gave me the runaround today, and she had the temerity to think she was the one who was right.”

Benz laughed knowingly. “Unforgivable. No one knows better than our Jake Trace.”

“That’s enough. Can you turn off that pacemaker yet?” Though Jake spoke with authority and confidence, just under the surface was a note of worry.

Images of Vivian crumpling before him struck him and played havoc with his nervous system.

It didn’t take long to call his training to thrust back that memory.

This would help Vivian. And heck, maybe some of his anger was coming from that fact. If her pacemaker was this critical, then she needed it removed and the damage fixed. It would mean no more ‘Paci’ and all the illegal assistance he’d provided her, but it would mean no one would be able to kill her with the flick of a switch.

“Ready.” With his fingers poised over his medical control console, Benz shot Jake a meaningful look.

Jake took the time to stare at Vivian. The flexi glass separating her from them was only one way. That meant her defiant gaze wasn’t locked on Jake.

It wasn’t locked on anything. She was sitting at the edge of the bed, despite the fact she’d been told multiple times to lie down.

Her feet dangled off the tall bed – which wasn’t hard, considering her petite form. Her head was lowered down, her messy hair covering her features. It didn’t cover her eyes. When he’d brought her to the hospital, the first thing Benz had done was treat her hypoxia and repair her bloodshot eye.

Now both of those dull but somehow still confusing hazel eyes were locked on the floor. Well, they were directed at the floor, but there was nothing behind her stare. He got the impression that if he marched in there and waved a hand in front of her face, she wouldn’t notice.

Jake had seen people act like this. It was cold surrender. It’s exactly what you did when you realized there was nothing more you could do.

He would’ve picked Vivian for someone who kept fighting – who never appreciated that she’d been caught.

Obviously, he’d been wrong.

He turned to Benz and shrugged. “Turn it off.”

“Right you are—” Benz said as his fingers flew across the console quicker than his mouth could move.

There was a beep.

And Vivian clutched her chest.

It was the kind of rigid, constricted muscular movement someone makes, not because they choose to, but because their body forces them to.

That single grain of fear Jake had been pushing away since Vivian had died at his feet engulfed him. It was like a drop of water expanding until it was an ocean. He jolted, a sweaty palm locking on the console in front of him. “What—”

“She’s having a heart attack,” Benz snapped as alarms blared through the room.

Until that point, Jake had been holding onto the possibility that Vivian was just faking it.

As those alarms got louder and more insistent, Vivian fell off the bed.

She crumpled onto the floor. As the computers reacted to a medical emergency, they fed audio from the lab, and he heard as something snapped, her body hitting the unyielding smart concrete as gracefully as a sack of potatoes thrown from a cruiser.

“What’s happening?” Jake spluttered.

Benz didn’t answer. His fingers flew across the console. “I don’t understand. The medical stasis field’s in place. It’s not working.”

Vivian wasn’t moving. The live feed of her physiological condition showed that her heart had flatlined.

Fear raced through Jake. It was that quick, adrenaline-fueled rush you get when someone shoots at you or an enemy appears right in front of your face from nowhere.

It was also the exact same sensation you got when a situation you had previously been in control of went to hell.

“What do we do? Turn on the pacemaker?” Jake answered his own question. “Turn it back on. Turn it on,” he snapped again when it didn’t happen quickly enough.

“I’m trying. Dammit.” Benz reached under the medical console, grabbed out a med pack, and threw himself at the lab door. He barreled through it long before the doors could open fully. He smashed his shoulder against the side of the receding metal, but he just used it to push off.

He skidded down to Vivian.

Jake was right by his side.

He was shaking. He’d been in worse situations, but that didn’t change that fact.

Benz rolled Vivian over. It wasn’t gentle. He wrenched her to the side as quickly as he could.

Her head lolled, lifeless. Benz knelt on her long, trestle hair as he wrenched open the medical kit.

He grabbed a compressed syringe.

He stabbed it into her neck until the syringe beeped.

He waited there, poised, obviously thinking that would be enough to bring her back to life.

It wasn’t.

“Dammit,” he spat. “Doesn’t make any sense—”

“We need to get that pacemaker working,” Jake spat back. He very much was not a doctor. The only thing he was an expert on was being a soldier.

Right now it felt like he was fighting a war. Win, and Vivian might live. Lose, and the last breath she’d ever taken would be one he’d stolen from her.

Jake didn’t wait for Benz to agree. He threw himself up and out of the lab.

As he’d already said, he wasn’t a doctor, but he was an electronics expert. Even as he approached the primary medical console, he used his neural implant to override its security protocols – a privilege and a right of a special commander.

He accessed the process Benz had used to turn on the pacemaker.

When Jake had reinitiated the pacemaker back in Vivian’s apartment, he’d used his wrist device. Specifically modulated to allow him to hack into sophisticated systems, it had protocols even this medical console didn’t possess.

Out of the corner of Jake’s eye, he could see that Benz was bent over Vivian, trying every trick in his medical kit to restart her heart.

Jake snapped up his wrist device. With sweaty fingers sliding along the glistening metal, he repeated the exact same protocol he’d used back in her apartment.

And Vivian jolted.

The medical alarms, which had been blaring so loudly you would’ve thought the whole Academy was at red alert, stopped. In front of Jake’s eyes, he could see Vivian’s life signs coming back from the dead.

He pushed forward. No, he all but fell. He clamped his hands on the edge of the med console, bent his fingers in tightly, and let his back bow. He breathed hard like he’d just been in a marathon.

“Get in here,” Benz snapped.

Jake took no more time. He rushed in.

Benz made a single movement with his neck, gesturing toward the door.

It didn’t take Jake long to read what the CMO meant. They’d been friends for years.

Jake bent down and picked Vivian up.

She barely weighed anything – especially to someone with muscles like his.

In picking her up, he felt her heat – or lack thereof. She was even colder than when he’d forced her out of her apartment.

It reminded him viscerally of fighting in space. Not many special commanders were trained to undertake spacewalks like him. In nothing more than modified armor, he could be transported silently to an enemy vessel. He could then proceed to move over said vessel’s hull, sabotaging it.

When you operated in space, with nothing but the thin layer of your armor between you and the void, you knew true coldness.

He met it again as he carried the slumped but thankfully breathing Vivian behind Benz as he raced out of the room.

“Why don’t you just order a medical transport?” Jake spat.

“Because I now understand I have no clue what that pacemaker does or what her real condition is. I can’t afford introducing any instabilities into its program matrix. So hurry the hell up.” Benz threw himself out of the lab. He smashed his shoulder against the wall, and just like before, used his momentum to launch off it.

He hit the corridor outside, Jake right behind him.

Several surprised doctors stared at Benz, but the surprise ended as they saw the comatose, gray-skinned woman in Jake’s arms.

“Where do you need us?” one of the female doctors snapped.

“Critical cases unit. No,” Benz changed his mind quickly. “Robotics.”

“This is a cybernetics case?” The female doctor frowned as she looked at Vivian.

“Who knows.” Benz shook his head.

Together, they ran the short distance down the corridor to the robotics unit.

As soon as Jake walked in, a large doctor took Vivian off him.

The rest blurred.

It wouldn’t for long.

Jake had just walked into something he didn’t understand, and try as he might, he’d never be allowed to leave Vivian’s side again.

Chapter 5

Special Commander Jake Trace

She was put on a stasis bed, and every doctor Benz could find assisted him in keeping her alive.

Jake?

He was told to leave. He didn’t. He stood at the edges of the room.

He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He might’ve been crossing them all day in front of Vivian – now they hung loosely by his sides. He was aware that they were cold and clammy – yet nowhere near as cold and clammy as she’d been.

An hour passed.

Finally Benz walked up to him, the doctor’s hands firmly rooted in his pockets. They were so slack and weary with fatigue, it was like his pockets were docking stations and he was trying to use them to recoup some energy.

Benz didn’t say a word until he stopped a meter in front of Jake.

Slowly, Jake let his gaze unlock from the floor. He didn’t push his back off the wall. “What—”

“Are we dealing with?” Benz chuckled. “Frank Bond at his finest.”

Jake frowned. “Sorry?”

“He was renowned in the robotics field for creating devices no one else could.”

“And that means what, exactly?”

“That we should never have turned off that pacemaker,” Benz said. His voice dropped. It felt as if the man himself kept dropping as the doctor’s shoulders hunched. “I should’ve done more research – more in-depth scans.”

“… You shouldn’t blame yourself,” Jake forced himself to say. Though his words were correct, he hesitated about saying that, because it made one thing apparent: if there was anyone to blame here, it was Jake.

The only thing he’d been thinking of for the past hour was Vivian’s request before they’d left her apartment. She’d asked that he didn’t wait too long to turn her pacemaker on the next time he killed her.

He’d killed her….

He started to crack the knuckles of his hands. First the left, then the right.

“If I shouldn’t blame myself, then you certainly shouldn’t blame yourself. You’re not the expert here, Jake.”

Jake pressed his mouth into a smile. It might have curled his lips, but it was the furthest thing away from an affable gesture. “I don’t get it, though—”

Benz chuckled. He was always a friendly, laughing man. That led to his legendary bedside manner. He had a way of making his patients calm, because he was always calm. He always gave you the impression that he was in control, too.

Jake didn’t need to note the way Benz cautiously slid his gaze back to Vivian’s bedside to realize he wasn’t in control now.

“If you’re about to ask me why that medical stasis field didn’t work – I don’t know. If you’re about to ask me what exactly that pacemaker does – I still don’t know. And if you’re about to ask me what her underlying condition is….” Benz shook his head.

Jake’s lips dropped open. He made the mistake of staring back at Vivian.

Even from this angle, he could see as one of the junior doctors checked her eyes. Her left eye was bloodshot. Again. Not the right, just the left.

It sent fear tingling over his back. He straightened as he pushed off the wall. “What do you need me to find out—” he stopped himself. He was about to use his privileges to demand whatever Benz needed. As a special commander, if Jake wanted to stop all traffic coming to Earth, he could. He didn’t even need to ask an admiral. So if Benz needed any medical equipment anywhere in the sector, Jake could get it here in the click of his fingers.

Jake didn’t finish his sentence. This was not an issue of Coalition-wide importance. Sure, he’d been dragged into Vivian’s troubles, but ultimately, she was just a means to the painting.

“I think we need to wait until she wakes up. With nothing else to go on, I’m going to have to ask her.”

“And how long until she wakes up?”

“I’m going to have to keep her in a medically induced coma for several days.”

Jake’s cheek twitched. He didn’t have several days. As soon as he secured the painting, he had to head off to a mission in the Andori System.

It took him too long to remind himself that that wasn’t an issue. Once he handed on his complaints about Vivian to the Earth Security Forces and took the painting, he’d never have anything to do with Vivian again.

“To be honest, I’m not sure she’ll wake,” Benz added softly.

All thoughts of leaving for the Andori System were washed out of Jake as quickly as someone throwing an ocean at you. “Sorry?” A wave of tension rose up his back, collapsed against his shoulders, and dragged his hands open until his fingers stuck out like dead twigs at his side.

“I told you, Jake – I don’t know what I’m doing. With nothing else to go on, I’m going to have to keep her in a coma. And considering she’s the only person who likely knows what her condition is, I—”

“Paci,” Jake spat.

Benz frowned. “Who?”

Jake shook his head. “Not who. The medical robot. It’s her pacemaker.”

“I understand that it possesses a neurological connection and an integrated AI. I’m not sure what happened, but when we shut it down, we must have done something to its circuits. It will no longer accept external input.”

“It’s a distributed AI. It exists in a medical assistance robot. It’s at her house. I shut it down before I left. I’ll go get it.” He turned, ready to throw himself out the door. He stopped. He brought up his wristwatch. He made a privileged call. That was to say, one he had the authority to make but not necessarily the reason.

He contacted the closest Earth Security division to Vivian’s apartment. Within two minutes, he had someone at her apartment. A minute later, he organized an immediate transport of Paci.

Ordinarily, unless you were engaged in a security situation, you didn’t waste unnecessary energy to use directional transport beams. Instead, you set up transport between stations.

Not today. Jake was on a roll now. He ordered Paci to be transported right into the medical bay two meters to his left.

The medical robot appeared, still in its off state.

Jake strode up to it, waved his hand over his wrist device, and waited for the medical bot to awaken.

The process wasn’t instantaneous, and for a single second, dread descended on Jake as he wondered if he’d broken Paci – and Vivian’s last chance with him.

He needn’t have worried. The medical bot pulled itself out of its compacted state.

A curious smile spread Benz’s lips. “You really are a Bond robot, aren’t you? Frank always had a flair for the architecturally different.”

Paci said nothing. He tilted his head to the side, instantly shifting his robotic gaze over to Vivian.

For whatever reason, Jake stood stiff and tall. It was the stance he used when he was about to get told off by an admiral.

A, this wasn’t an admiral. B, even if Paci told Jake off, Jake shouldn’t have to care. It was just a medical bot.

He still stood tall, though.

“Are you a distributed artificial intelligence? Are you shared with the pacemaker in Vivian Bond’s chest?” Benz asked quickly.

“Correct. She has had a heart attack. You waited,” Paci turned the red lighting strip along his face to Jake, “too long before you saved her life this time.”

Jake couldn’t tell, but it sounded as if the medical bot was being sarcastic on the word saved.

If it was more than a robot, it would be justified. You couldn’t really save someone you’d almost killed. Jake had created his own problem when he’d turned off her pacemaker.

“We need all available information on her condition,” Benz stated flatly.

“Wake her up,” Paci said.

Benz snorted. “I would’ve expected more from a Bond device. She’s in a medically induced coma to control hypoxia-related—”

“She’s fine. This is not the first time she’s died.”

Jake felt sick.

“She’s not fine—” Benz began.

Paci turned and faced Vivian.

Vivian woke.

It was easy enough to tell – because not only did the doctors beside her jolt back as if a zombie had risen from a grave – but the medical scanners went haywire.

“What have you just done?” Benz growled as he threw himself toward Vivian, obviously expecting the worst. “Jake, turn off that bot.”

Paci turned his emotionless – but somehow still judgmental – gaze on Jake.

It was enough that Jake’s hand stilled before it could snap toward his modified wrist device.

“I request you wait two seconds,” Paci asked. “Considering you have killed my mistress twice today,” his voice vibrated on the word twice, “you owe me that.”

So much about that was wrong. Jake hadn’t killed Vivian. He’d made some mistakes, but he hadn’t been given the full evidence. No court would charge him. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Paci was just a robot. You couldn’t owe a robot anything.

So why did Jake’s fingers freeze, giving Paci the two seconds he needed?

Jake turned his head back to Vivian in time to see her push up off the bed. She let her legs fall over the side of it as she crumpled her hands over her face.

Benz was by her side, a supportive hand on her shoulder, surprise flickering in his deep gaze. He turned back to Jake, and it was clear the CMO didn’t understand what he was seeing.

Paci did. “Administer two milliliters of isolated denq particles,” he announced to the room.

“I thought I told you to shut that medical bot off?” Benz snapped. Though the man’s voice was hard, there was a note of confusion.

It was just enough that Jake let his hand continue to hover over his wrist device. “Do you know what’s wrong with her?”

“You killed her by shutting off her pacemaker. You already know what’s wrong with her,” Paci replied snidely.

Jake’s jaw hardened. His finger descended toward his wrist device.

“Do not kill her a third time,” Paci warned. “And administer two milliliters of isolated denq particles before she slips into a permanent coma.”

Jake remained frozen at Paci’s comments.

Don’t kill her a third time?

Dammit, he hadn’t killed her at all….

Benz didn’t snap at Jake to turn Paci off. After a few seconds of staring confusedly at a medical device in his hand, he appeared to reluctantly snap, “Administer the drug.”

They must have had it on hand, because one of the junior doctors loaded it into a medical deployment unit – considering it wasn’t a standard, liquidized drug – and administered it into the side of her hip.

Vivian didn’t stop them. She might have been sitting up, but it was clear that she was only barely conscious.

Benz waited impatiently by her side. He kept cutting his gaze back to Paci, obviously questioning why Jake hadn’t turned him off – yet not requesting he be shut down again.

It didn’t take long for the drug to take effect.

Even from here, Jake could see the color returning to her flesh. Which was great – she’d looked like a corpse until seconds before.

The beeping medical alarms started to quiet down as her condition stabilized.

Jake tore his gaze off her and back onto Paci.

He didn’t know what questions to ask. Benz did. The CMO came marching back. This time, he demanded nothing of Paci. He looked the robot up and down. “What am I dealing with?”

“A complicated medical condition,” Paci summarized.

Benz laughed. There was no humor there. His face – and his natural calm – had been overshadowed by almost losing a patient. “Granted. What condition?”

“You would never have faced it before.”

“Try me.”

“Vivian’s heart is trying to kill her,” Paci finally revealed.

It was such a buildup, that when the medical bot didn’t deliver a genuine diagnosis, but something fanciful and poetic, Benz rolled his eyes. “If you’re not going to help, I will shut you off. Your earlier recommendation might have stabilized her condition, but I will not put up with you making a mockery of this situation.” He spoke as if he were chastising some green-eared med student.

He wasn’t. He was talking to a robot. There was no point in negotiating. If Paci was misbehaving, it was due to a programming or hardware issue.

“I told you you would not have encountered an issue like this,” Paci said, his tone neutral and unaffected by Benz’s anger.

“People’s hearts don’t try to kill them,” Benz spat.

“Ordinarily, I agree. Vivian’s is. I can inform you of her condition and download her medical history,” he tilted his metal head over to Jake, “as I assume you will take it by force if I do not willingly offer it. I suggest you refrain from making judgments – both moral and treatment-wise – until you go over the material.”

Benz didn’t look happy at being condescended to by a medical robot. He didn’t snap at Jake to turn Paci off, though. The CMO brought up his wrist device, clearly indicating he was ready to receive the download.

A second later, his wrist device beeped. Benz arched an eyebrow. “For an apparently simple medical bot, you have a worryingly fast data download speed.”

“Who said I was simple?” Paci shot back.

Benz became distracted staring at the data. He processed it quickly, flipping through medical scans one after another. Every one he looked at crumpled the doctor’s face until it looked as if it had been kicked in. “Says here she suffered a fatal heart attack two years ago alone at home. There’s no evidence in her Earth-wide medical file. Who treated her?”

“I did.”

“And you implanted the pacemaker?” Benz asked.

Paci nodded.

“Who designed it, though? It seems to have been made for her specific condition – whatever that is. How did you keep her alive long enough to synthesize the device?”

“Her father made it before he died,” Paci answered.

A truly deep frown marked Benz’s lips now. “So he was aware of her condition?”

“He suspected it,” Paci answered.

Jake was lost. Even if he did have a medical degree, he fancied he’d be lost anyway.

“So why wasn’t she taken to a real doctor?” Benz snapped, his professional responsibility coming to the fore.

“Her father was a real doctor.”

“If you’re claiming she had a fatal heart condition, why wouldn’t her Academy medical reports have picked it up?” Jake asked.

It was just a question. Paci turned to him, and though the medical bot shouldn’t be capable of disgust, Jake swore Paci despised him for pointing that out. “You have killed her twice today,” he defaulted to saying. “I would remove the note of accusation from your voice lest someone point the finger at you for your heartless actions.”

Damn.

On every level – damn. Firstly, that wasn’t justified. Jake had just asked a logical question. Secondly, Paci was just a robot.

Benz didn’t rise to Jake’s defense this time. The doctor had become absorbed by flicking through Vivian’s medical file. A pronounced frown pulled his lips down with all the strength of an inertia beam. He looked up sharply. “Says here she suffered a near-fatal heart attack when she was three.”

Paci stood straighter. “Yes. Though I ask you do not inform her of that.”

“Why?” Jake crossed his arms. They’d been loose and useless at his sides. Now he had something to move for again – because there was no good reason to hide a patient’s condition from them.

“Yes, why?” Benz repeated with more authority.

“She has had approximately ten heart attacks over the course of her life – she is only aware of one. Though,” Paci glared at Jake, even though he didn’t have the kind of facial muscles you needed to glare, “now she has had 13 heart attacks, and she will be aware of 3.”

“What’s going on here?” Benz demanded. “How could she not be aware?”

“They occurred when she was asleep,” Paci revealed.

Benz seemed to reach the data that detailed those attacks, and his frown started to take over his whole face.

Jake wanted to tell himself there was every chance Paci was making all this up. Clearly Benz didn’t believe that. He became so distracted by the data, he started to shake his head unconsciously.

“Doctor?” Jake asked through a swallow.

“These scans don’t look fake. There are detailed atomic scans – and they match what we’ve already taken from Vivian. You need to tell me what’s going on, medical bot. Why doesn’t she know about her condition?”

“Stress can induce it.”

“What exactly is her condition?” Jake tried.

His voice shook with a little more desperation than he was comfortable with.

It didn’t matter – he was ignored.

“So you lie to her about her condition to manage her stress? Clearly doesn’t work if she’s almost died 14 times,” Benz snapped.

“You will find that the majority,” Paci spat that word, “of those deaths occurred before her new pacemaker was installed. Prior to her current model, I was not involved in her care.”

“Current model?” Benz frowned. He flicked through the data. “According to this, she’s had pacemakers all her life,” he realized.

“Yes.”

“So why wasn’t that on her file?” Jake tried.

Paci shot him another deadly look that told Jake the medical device had concluded he was an asshole.

Maybe Paci wasn’t that far off the mark. Here Benz was, trying to track down her condition, and here Jake was, trying to solidify a case against her.

Except that wasn’t what he was doing. Not this time, anyway. He just didn’t understand.

For whatever reason, as he stared back at Vivian, he realized he needed to understand.

“The device was hidden from detection,” Paci revealed.

Right there was everything Jake needed to throw the proverbial book at Vivian. Possessing an unregistered AI device capable of neural connection was one thing – possessing one whilst at the Academy would get her a decade in jail.

Benz didn’t immediately call the police. “Why? If his daughter had this condition, why not own up to it?”

Paci looked right at Jake. There was no mistaking it now – the med bot was pissed. “Because anyone capable of a relatively sophisticated remote hack would have been able to switch off her heart with no remorse.”

Benz looked confused. “Why would they do that? I get it, her heart is 100% reliant on the pacemaker, but plenty of people have critical assistance devices. Why assume the worst and keep it – and her condition – hidden?”

“To keep her alive.” Paci had been giving detailed answers – until now.

Jake might have spent the past hour beating himself up. Now his training kicked into gear. He found himself crossing his arms so hard, he could have squeezed his head off. “I’m taking it by that answer that Vivian here has some enemies?”

“Before you mock her and claim that you are not surprised based on your flimsy, self-assured assessment of her personality, don’t,” Paci warned.

Jake couldn’t take it anymore – he let out a frustrated laugh that rang through the room. “You’re a hell of a lot mouthier than your average med bot.”

Before Paci could again point out that he wasn’t your average med bot, Jake put up a hand.

“I wasn’t going to say that, anyway,” Jake continued honestly. “It wouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination to assume the head of a robotics company – or any company, for that matter – had enemies. I did a stint for the Coalition as a hostage negotiator. I can’t count the number of heirs I’ve tracked down because some punk abducted them to get at their parents and their money. Not my point, though.”

“What is your point?” Paci asked.

“Hacking into a pacemaker is one thing – a hard thing. Why not just kill her? If you genuinely thought she was at risk – in my experience, she’d be dead by now. I’ve looked at her Academy file, though not pretty, there was never a hint of someone going after her.”

Paci looked imperious. Don’t ask Jake how – maybe it was the way the robot elongated its spine and tugged its chin back. It told Jake everything he needed to know, and that was he didn’t know anything.

Benz had become distracted by his wrist device. He was shaking his head unconsciously again. He strode away and muttered at a doctor to do a certain scan, then wandered back. He faced Paci. “If what I’m looking at is correct, then you’re right – and I’ve never seen a condition like this,” he admitted.

Jake paled. He’d been hoping this had all been a game Paci was playing. One look at Benz told him that wasn’t the case.

“Doctor?” Jake tried.

Again, Benz ignored him. He waited, his gaze locked on his wrist device until he received the results of the quick scan.

He paled three shades.

“… Benz?” Jake tried again.

“According to this,” Benz finally faced him, his cheeks sallow, “she’s suffered some kind of directed subspace damage to her heart. It appears,” he looked at Paci uncomfortably, “that the medical bot is right. Her heart may be trying to kill her.”

Jake had the kind of job where you had to be ready to face the impossible – you also had to be ready to believe it.

That didn’t prepare him for this. He actually laughed. “Directed subspace damage? Her heart’s trying to kill her? Come on, Benz – you’re a doctor.”

He bristled, clearly proving he wasn’t playing around. “I know I am. And I don’t like it when I encounter conditions I can’t cure.”

Two words became stuck in Jake’s head.

Can’t cure.

They’d haunt him for longer than he’d know.

Chapter 6

Vivian Bond

She was back at the Academy. Out of everything that had happened to her today – including dying twice – that’s what she fixated on as she stared at the drab ceiling above.

She was still in the robotics unit. It had been several hours now.

No one spoke to her. They were too busy fussing – or marveling – over her condition.

It was hard to tell. Especially with the chief medical officer, Doctor Benz. Now it had become abundantly clear that she was fine again, and rapidly healing, his curiosity had come to the fore.

Vivian was well aware of the fact that Paci’s external form had been transported here.

He’d since disappeared. She itched to know what the Coalition was doing to him. With Special Commander Jake Trace hot on Paci’s heels, she could only predict that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be nice.

She wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d been right, and Mr. Soldier Boy was a commander – not that she knew what a special commander was.

It fit him down to the bone. As it did his acerbic personality.

Just thinking about him – and the fact he’d presided over her death twice in one day – made her curl her hands into fists.

Benz had wandered off to a console on the far side of the room. He jerked his head up, as if the mere fact of her utilizing her muscles was a warning sign of her impending doom. “You should try to relax.”

“Should I?” she asked in a long-suffering tone. “The reality is, Doctor, I’m fine. Thank you,” she rolled her tongue around her teeth, “for assisting me.” She couldn’t bring herself to say saving – not considering her condition had been caused.

Benz had been largely ignoring her as a person. He’d asked her several questions, but all the while his attention had been on her answers – and her continuous medical scans – and not on her.

He looked up. He didn’t jump to Jake’s go-to righteous anger. He pressed his lips into a half frown, half smile, and he placed the datapad down on the console he was working on. He walked over to her. He shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned back. “You’ve got every reason to be angry. I apologize. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Vivian wanted to hold onto her anger. It started to give way.

Benz looked like a compassionate man underneath – albeit one that had been controlled by his curiosity for the past several hours.

“I should also apologize for the fact that no one has been attending to your psychological care.”

She chuckled. “Did Special Commander Trace tell you I was mad?”

Benz’s cheeks twitched. “How do you know he’s a special commander?”

She shrugged. “I don’t even know what that is. I overheard two of the doctors speaking.”

He pressed his lips together. “Try to forget that. And no, he did not tell us that you’re mad. What I’m trying to say ineloquently is that for the past several hours we’ve treated you as a patient, not a person. I apologize.”

Her brow scrunched up, and she ran her teeth over the inside of her lip. “Thank you,” she managed.

She had a soft spot for doctors and everything they went through. She’d seen it firsthand.

Her gaze ticked around the room. It locked on several unfinished medical bots. It appeared that this unit didn’t just deal with cybernetic implants – it created them.

Benz chuckled. “You’re appraising them with a skilled eye. I have to say, I was a fan of your father. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” She went to rub her left eye.

Benz frowned. “Don’t rub it. Is it bothering you? It was bloodshot, but we dealt with it.”

“It always itches.”

He frowned. “We’ll assess you for allergies.”

“Thanks, but Paci already has. There’s nothing there. It’s probably psychological,” she managed through a placid smile.

“That’s quite some medical robot you’ve got there.” Benz turned, and she could only guess that he was inclining his head in the direction of where Paci had been taken.

She’d been told to lie down. She was sick of it to be honest. She pushed up.

Benz didn’t look happy, but he didn’t snap over and push her back down again. “Though I must admit you have made a remarkable recovery, you should still—”

“I feel fine. I am fine,” she distractedly let her hand drag down the center of her chest, “as long as this thing isn’t turned off again.”

“You have my word it won’t be. We made a note on your file. That is a critical assistance device, and it shall be afforded all the protection any such patient carrying one would have under the law.”

She twitched.

“Though I cannot predict what will happen, I can only assume that due to the fact you did not register Paci,” Benz said kindly, without the affront and righteousness Jake had used in her apartment, “that there will be some kind of legal consequence.”

“That’s not why I was twitching.”

“Then what is it?”

A stiff smile spread her lips. “It’s registered now.”

“Yes. Though I appreciate that the assisted AI and complex neurological connections required for your specific condition are necessary, it is illegal—”

She shook her head. “I know it’s illegal. But it’s still registered now…” she said, getting distracted as she stared at the wall.

She’d always had it drummed into her not to register this thing. That would be another step. A step in what direction, she couldn’t tell. But she could feel – and this gathering sense of doom enshrouded her shoulders. It was one that told her that while she’d been brought back to life again, now she’d been registered, the prospect of death was all too close to ignore.

She became quiet.

Benz, clearly having more emotional skills than Jake Trace, didn’t take that as a sign of her guilt. “I believe you were recommended,” he chose his words carefully, “not to register it. This may not be my place to ask, but, Miss Bond, are you in any danger?”

She chuckled. The answer was no. She just couldn’t bring herself to say it.

She didn’t know why Paci had always suggested she never register him. Hell, it hadn’t been a suggestion; he’d put the fear of death into her.

“Now is the time to open up. If the Coalition hears your full story, they will be lenient,” he said with all confidence.

She’d faced that kind of confidence before. The rest of her classmates had brimmed with it. It was the kind of chest-thumping, saluting self-assurance that assumed the Coalition was always right – and importantly, always did the right thing.

She just dropped her gaze.

Benz sighed. “Though we’ve been finding out a lot from Paci about your pacemakers—”

She looked up sharply. “There’s only one of them.”

Benz froze. He didn’t do it in the kind of way you did when you’d just misspoken. His cheeks were too stiff for that. “My mistake. It’s been a long day.”

It hadn’t been that long for Benz. And, though it would’ve been a shock dealing with her heart attack, the critical stage hadn’t lasted particularly long. Paci had seen to most of her urgent medical attention anyway.

“Perhaps it’s better if someone else questions you,” Benz said diplomatically as he turned to walk away.

“Why? There’s no one else around. You want to know about this pacemaker?” She thumped her chest. “It’s the whole reason I do what I do.”

“As I have said, I will make a permanent entry in your medical record to ensure that everyone understands it’s a critical—”

She hooked her legs over the edge of the bed. Pressing her elbows into her knees, she stared at the floor, then stretched her back and faced him. “I’m not sure what Mr. Trace,” she settled for not using his title as special commander, “has told you, but my father’s business is not a front.” Her voice cracked with emotion. She’d held it together until now. “Perhaps Trace is too brick-headed to understand, but when you’re dying alone with no one to save you, and a medical bot comes to your assistance, you remember that. It doesn’t take long to wonder how many people out there have had experiences like yours but no one has come to their aid. I got to live because of Paci. So whether you choose to believe it or not, I dedicated my life to ensuring other people got to do the same.”

Benz didn’t respond.

She stared at her hands, her gaze tracing the deep lines in her palms. She massaged her thumb over them, and she was gladdened to see that as the pressure subsided, the color always returned. “I might have to procure favors to ensure my company gets grants,” she looked straight up at him, “but without those grants, it can’t run. You can check my shipping manifests. Bond Robotics is one of the biggest names when it comes to supplying sophisticated medical robots to the colony worlds.”

“We have checked,” someone said.

She whipped her head around to see that Jake had somehow appeared from the side of the room. She was in a relatively direct line of sight with the main door. She hadn’t seen him come in. Either she’d been distracted, or he was a special commander, alright – one who knew how to move when you weren’t looking.

She bristled. You try not getting angry at the sight of a man who’d flagrantly killed you twice.

“Jake,” Benz said. Even a brick would be able to register the warning in his tone. “Please don’t emotionally disturb my patient. She may still be fragile.”

Though Vivian hated being called fragile, she didn’t care this time. Jake didn’t look like he was going to cut her any slack. He stood tall, and, characteristically for the man, his arms were crossed.

“She’s fine,” Jake said definitively.

She clenched her hands tighter around the edge of the medical bed. “You a doctor? Pretty sure you’re not. Doctors know how to heal and keep people alive. You,” she let her gaze drop down him, “seem to only know how to kill.”

It didn’t come out right. Don’t get her wrong – she wanted maximal emotional impact – but it was a little too harsh.

Maybe Jake was expecting harsh, because he didn’t react. He tilted his head to the side, his arms still crossed. “You don’t know me. We, however,” it was his turn to look her up and down, “are getting to know you.”

He didn’t add anything. He didn’t say what he’d been looking into and what he’d found out. Nope. He just left that hanging.

Her breathing rate increased.

For one reason and another, Vivian had a lot to hide.

“Jake,” Benz warned louder. “Please do not disrupt my patient’s equilibrium. If you have come here specifically—”

“I’ve come here to tell her – no, order her,” his tone hardened, “to unlock her medical robot.”

Her nose scrunched. “What are you talking about? You clearly already have access to Paci.”

Jake cracked one of his knuckles. “I’d say you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re correct – we managed to get your medical robot,” he seemed to take pleasure in not using Paci’s name, “to share some of its data. The rest of it is locked. You will release its security codes now. We may take that into account when charges are pressed against you later.”

“Jake,” Benz said. “It’s too early to be talking about charges. This is clearly a complicated situation.”

Vivian’s impression of Benz went up a thousandfold.

When Jake didn’t change track and just looked nonplussed, her hope diminished. Her nose scrunched higher. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You managed to turn him off, and though my pacemaker is back on, I can’t hear him,” she snarled again. “Which tells me you can completely control him.”

“Nice try. You know, I was starting to feel sorry for you. Now we’ve dug further into Paci, I’ve got absolutely no compassion. If you’ve got an unhackable robot – you’re a risk.”

Benz looked confused. “What have you found?”

Jake chuckled. “He’s not just a distributed AI, is he, Miss Bond?” There was a certain kind of smile on Jake’s face – the kind that was all teeth and righteous anger wrapped up in pleasure at catching a criminal.

She planted a hand on her head and let her fingers drag over her face.

How could this be happening? Today, she’d been on the brink of making a deal that would fund another shipment to the colonies.

Now she was here, putting up with this.

“Come back to discuss this later,” Benz said.

“I told you, Doctor, she’s fine. My wrist device confirms what your medical scanners also confirm. Vivian is back on her feet – or she will be if she insists on not answering. You weren’t quite bad enough to be put in the brig during your stint at the Academy, Vivian, but I assure you, you won’t love it.”

Vivian settled a hand by her leg and pushed her nails in until they started to cut through her medical robe. “You are an asshole. You know that, right?” She became breathy as she pointed that out.

He opened his lips, nothing but righteous anger burning within. Sorry, it wasn’t righteous – it was pleasurable. She now knew everything she needed to know about Jake – he liked putting people in a position where he could control them with his rage. And men like that were repugnant to her.

He chuckled. “Like I said, you don’t know me. You’re also not in control of the situation. You—”

“You killed me twice in half an hour,” she screamed. “I told you not to turn off my pacemaker – you did it anyway. You think I don’t know what kind of man you are?” Her voice slowly lost its volume. “You’re the kind of man who acts without thinking, and critically, without listening. You had no right or reason to turn off Paci. You did it to get to me. And congratulations, you did.”

Jake stopped. You couldn’t tell it, but that comment got to him. It was in the way his cheeks stiffened and pulled inward as if he’d just clenched his teeth so tightly, they’d created a vacuum.

“Calm down, Miss Bond,” Benz tried, his tone professional and a million miles away from the special commander’s.

“Why? I’m clearly trapped. I have no capacity to stop you from doing whatever you want,” she stared right at Jake unflinchingly. “And you have no capacity to listen. So we’re in a bit of a quandary, aren’t we, Special Commander?” she said that without thinking.

Jake reacted as if she’d just revealed one of his deepest secrets. “Did Paci—”

“She overheard it,” Benz cut in. “Two of the doctors were indiscreet.”

“Well, we won’t add that to your list of crimes, then. Doesn’t matter – list’s already long enough.” Jake stood like he was waging a battle.

She laughed dismissively and turned her head to the side. “You’re still doing it.”

“And what’s that? Being right? It’s a talent of mine. You should try it sometime – but you’d have to try to rebuild your broken moral character—”

“You’re not listening,” she said. Her voice was far away from the scream she’d used on him earlier. “I told you we’re in a quandary, Commander,” she dropped the special. “You want to ask me questions, but you can’t ask – you threaten. Doesn’t matter, anyway – because you won’t listen.”

This got to him again. “So you’re now going to comply? What are Paci’s security codes?” He uncharacteristically used Paci’s name.

She let her hands drop as she tilted her head back. She felt like bursting into tears, but there was no way she would do that in front of this bastard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. If you can turn my pacemaker off, surely you can access Paci completely?”

“And here I thought you were going to comply—” Jake began.

“Jake,” Benz said in the kind of tone that would get anyone’s attention. “You need to stop this. Have you considered the possibility that she isn’t lying?”

Fat chance. Jake was exactly the kind of self-righteous git who’d make a conclusion about someone, then spend the rest of his life cherry picking facts to justify it.

Jake still slid his gaze over to Benz.

Why?

Jake was only just getting started. She could easily predict that a man as brutal as he would have a whole host of tools at his service to bully someone into submission.

“It’s clear a lot has been hidden from her. Why would this be any different? She didn’t create these devices, either. Just step back and think.”

Though Benz was speaking quietly, Vivian still picked up his words.

“What do you mean a lot has been hidden from me? What are you talking about?” she stammered.

Benz paled at the fact he’d been overheard. “Nothing. I was simply imploring the commander to remember that you did not create these devices. Now, please rest back. No one will disturb you again,” Benz said with the kind of authority that suggested that if he had to kick everybody out, he would. He also shot Jake a look that would emphasize he was the CMO and Jake would follow.

Jake turned – not before staring at her for a few fleeting seconds.

He had an expression. If you had a face, you tended to have an expression. The problem was, she had no idea what that expression was. She thought it would be cold and vicious – but it was too muddled for that. It was confused. And maybe right there in the furthest depths of his gaze, it was guilty.

She doubted that. Men like Jake Trace wouldn’t feel guilty. They’d push it away to keep barreling onward. To them, it was an inconvenience. To the rest of the world, guilt was what kept you from making mistakes and doing the unforgivable.

Right now Jake Trace was making mistakes – unforgivable mistakes – and he had no damn clue….

Chapter 7

Special Commander Jake Trace

“I’m not here to get an ear-full,” Jake said the second Benz pulled him into the secure office of the robotics unit.

Benz chuckled darkly. “I will decide whether I give you an ear-full for assaulting my patients or not.”

Jake snorted. “I hardly assaulted her.”

“She’s woken up from a heart attack, Jake. You stood there for an hour, looking sorry for yourself in a way I’ve never seen before. Now you’re running around brandishing the law at her. What’s going on?”

“That medical bot,” he shifted forward and locked his hands on Benz’s desk, “has a level of security protection even I can’t hack through.”

That wasn’t a statement of arrogance; it was a statement of fact.

And it was a fact that clearly got to Benz. He strode behind his desk. “Really?”

With his hands still on the desk and his shoulders pushed out to the side, Jake nodded grimly. “That tells me all I need to know about Vivian.”

Benz snorted. He very rarely chuckled like that. “No, Jake – it tells you everything you need to know about Fred Bond.”

“I don’t buy the bullshit about her not knowing that her medical bot has hidden levels of security that make Academy systems look like a cakewalk. She’s smart. Maybe her Academy record doesn’t reflect that, but her career does. She has the dubious ability to secure goods for anyone – if they have money, that is.”

“Try not to be so harsh,” Benz suggested.

Jake pushed off the desk. He opened his hands as he stared at Benz, nonplussed. “Seriously? You’re taking sides with her? What has she told you?”

“A very believable story about the need to keep her father’s business alive. I have already checked with my contacts in the colony worlds. Bond Robotics is still renowned for providing the most sophisticated medical assistance devices at the most affordable price.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “So she tries to make money out of her business, too. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Jake, stop transferring.”

His lips stiffened. “Transferring?”

“Your guilt over what happened today. I already told you, you’re only peripherally associated with it. There was no reason for you to know that by turning off her pacemaker, she would die – your wrist device told you it was fake. The second time it happened, it was on my shoulders, not yours. Now stop transferring that guilt and anger,” he spat the word transferring again, “onto Vivian. It isn’t fair either to her or you. She is in an emotionally fragile state, and you should know better.”

Ouch.

In every way – ouch.

Jake had known Benz for some time. The guy never pulled rank – though it was questionable to say that he was above Jake. It would depend on the kind of situation.

That wasn’t Jake’s point. This was the first time Benz had reprimanded him like this.

It was Benz’s turn to lock his hands on his desk. He looked right at Jake. “She’s gotten to you, I get that. And for whatever reason, you feel that you can’t apologize or show compassion. I’ll let you in on a secret you learn as a doctor. You will make mistakes. They are inevitable. Some will haunt you. Some you will feel were caused by your patient, but they will still be your mistakes.”

“And what does this have to do with me?”

“You might pretend to be obtuse sometimes, Jake, but you’re not. You know what that has to do with you.”

Jake felt cold.

He wasn’t reprimanded that often. He never usually had reason to be. Then again, the missions he was sent on as a special commander required a lot less emotional tact and a lot more shooting at the right target.

He’d assumed Vivian was a target, and he’d gone in hard.

As his mouth dried and he ticked his gaze back through the unidirectional glass panel toward Vivian on the edge of her bed, his stomach churned.

He’d honestly been terrified and remorseful at what he’d done – until he’d started hacking into Paci with the help of the Academy’s chief science officer.

What he’d found had convinced him of his previous conclusion regarding Miss Bond.

Though it was churlish, he crossed his arms and turned his back to Benz.

Benz sighed. “This is complicated, Jake. We need to take a step back and look at the facts.”

He turned back to Benz. As he did, he controlled his anger. He let his arms drop.

As uncomfortable as it was to admit, Benz was right. He was taking this badly.

“And what are the facts, Doctor? Because from where I’m standing, nothing makes sense. If we are right, and Vivian’s heart is trying to kill her,” his voice did all the wrong things on the word kill, and it wasn’t completely out of disbelief at this impossible story, “then why wasn’t this detected? Why didn’t her Academy scans pick it up?”

“I believe you can answer that yourself. They wouldn’t have been looking for it. It’s clear that Paci has the capacity to protect himself. You managed to pick him up because you possess sophisticated prototype scanning devices that your average Joe in the Academy would not.”

“Fine. Why hide Paci?”

Benz ticked his gaze over to the unidirectional window. Jake didn’t like the frown that tugged over the doctor’s lips. It spoke of concern for Vivian that Jake should have had from the start. “I asked her, and she was noncommittal,” Benz said. “You said it yourself – she’s the daughter of a company CEO. It makes sense to believe that people would be after her.”

Jake shook his head. “Bond Robotics isn’t worth that much. As far as I can tell, there are no employees. Just her. That’s not gonna be a particularly inviting package for your average kidnapper.”

“Please do not call her a package,” Benz reprimanded.

This time Jake didn’t bristle. “I didn’t. It’s a term used in the kidnap industry. The sum you can get from a company and the damage you can do to them equal the worth of the kidnap package. So I can’t see any conceivable reason why Vivian would have the kind of enemies who’d remotely hack into her pacemaker and kill her. They wouldn’t benefit enough. And if they plain wanted her head, it would be easier to do it with less tech.”

“Well add that to the list of things we don’t know, Jake. And it can go right down the bottom, as far as I’m concerned.” Benz leaned back and crossed his arms.

“Doctor?”

“While you have been interrogating Paci, I’ve been going over the medical data he provided us.”

“You should be suspicious of that,” Jake warned. “There’s no reason to assume—”

“It looks perfectly accurate,” Benz cut in. “Every atomic scan matches the ones we’ve done. About 99 percent, anyway.”

“99 percent?” Jake snatched hold of that detail.

“There are some statistical irregularities in the region of her left eye. It’s not that uncommon. To be honest, it’s probably an artifact. It’s not my point, anyway.”

“What is your point?”

Benz took the time to settle his gaze on Jake. It was a hard move. “As far as I can tell, Vivian has sustained unheard-of subspace damage to her heart. For whatever reason, it hasn’t ripped it out of her chest or made it implode – or done anything else you would think a persistent subspace rip would cause.”

Jake didn’t want to admit he wasn’t following. He wasn’t sure he had to keep up, anyway. The exact medical diagnosis was down to Benz and his team. All Jake cared about was what it meant for Vivian.

“I’ve searched the annals of Coalition history, and I have found nothing that bears any resemblance to this case. I can’t tell you what caused the damage, and nor can I tell you when it occurred. I can only confirm,” Benz really stared at Jake now, “that her pacemaker is literally the only thing keeping her alive. Fred Bond was a genius. I would not have been able to create what he did.”

“You said you don’t know when the damage occurred.” Jake’s brow scrunched. “And that medical bot told us she had her first heart attack in her sleep at three years old. Is there any data on how her father managed to save her life? I’m assuming, if that’s the first time the problem asserted itself, he didn’t have a handy custom-made pacemaker on-hand.”

“Now you’re thinking. I’ve already thought that, though,” Benz added. “According to the files, her father had something on-hand. That’s the only thing I can conclude, because without a custom-made pacemaker, he wouldn’t have been able to bring her back to life. Drugs wouldn’t have done it. A medical stasis chamber would’ve been useless. Nothing in this robotics unit, no matter how well it’s stocked, would do it, either.”

Jake’s mouth became dry. “So what exactly is it that this pacemaker does?”

“Suffice to say, if Bond Robotics had brought this design to the market, they would be the leading robotics company in the entire galaxy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jake’s stomach really did kick now. “What does that mean?”

“Before another note of suspicion can infiltrate your voice—”

“I’m not suspicious.” Jake snapped his hands up in a rare act of surrender. “Believe it or not, I just want to know what’s going on.” There was a real need in his voice.

Now he’d calmed down long enough, and now Benz had talked some sense into him, Jake was right back to not liking a word of what he heard.

Maybe on some level Vivian Bond was still a corrupt criminal. It sounded as though she’d been lied to her whole life, though.

“It creates a unique kind of subspace field that directly interferes with the damage to her heart.”

“If she has permanent subspace damage, it would’ve been picked up by any number—” Jake began.

“The pacemaker also hides that damage.”

“Why? Why would someone go to this much effort—”

“To keep their daughter alive?” Benz jumped in, his voice matter-of-fact. “You’re not a doctor, Jake, but I hope you understand that when you are and when you have children of your own who are sick, you will do everything in your power to save them. If you don’t, it is not just a mark against you as a professional, but a mark against you as a parent. One that will never wash away.”

Jake hadn’t expected Benz’s emotional fury.

“Okay then. We’re back to square one. It looks as if her father had always known about her problem, and he’d developed a pacemaker in secret and had somehow implanted it without her knowing. How is that possible?”

“To a man like Fred Bond? Easy as pie. In fact, I’m not surprised by any of this.”

Jake snorted. It had an exasperated edge.

“Let me clarify – I’m not surprised about the fact that Fred Bond was behind this device. When he disappeared from the medical community to create his company, we were all expecting great things from him. And though he created sturdy, reliable, autonomous medical robots, people were somewhat disappointed that his true brilliance never shone brightly enough.” Benz nodded at Vivian. “Now it does.”

“What do I do?” Jake asked flatly. Like he’d said – it was questionable whether Benz outranked him. But right now Jake didn’t care about looking helpless. He had no damn clue where to go from here. “That medical bot has sophisticated security we can’t hack through. Presumably, we’re going to need to access it to find out what’s going on here. To do that, we either find its security codes, or we pull it apart, piece by piece. That could take years, and it’s not even guaranteed that we’d be able to hack into its data anyway.”

“True. But we’re going to come up against a moral conundrum. If you start messing with that medical robot, you may interrupt the distributed AI shared with the pacemaker. As far as I can tell, it is critical to the use of that pacemaker.”

Jake was aware of the fact his shoulders fell. His heart fell with them. “And if we mess around with that, it could kill her. Fine.”

“Fine?”

Jake took a breath. “I guess I’ll stick around.”

Benz arched an eyebrow.

“I was due for a trip to the Andori Sector.”

Benz frowned. “Well, you should complete it, then. The situation is in my hands. And I assure you, I will not let the ball drop. I will keep in contact with Frez, the chief science officer, and we will negotiate a reasonable plan of attack.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna stay. That’s my privilege as a special commander. If I encounter a situation I think is more critical, I can change my mission at my prerogative.”

Benz shot him a knowing look. The problem was, Jake had no clue what it was Benz thought he knew.

“All right, I’m going to sort this out.” Jake walked to the door.

“I take it you’re not about to harass my patient again?” Benz asked quickly.

“Yes and no. I have an existing mission. She has a painting the Coalition requires.”

Benz was more than professional enough not to ask about the painting. But he was also more than professional enough to accompany Jake as he walked out to Vivian.

She didn’t look great. If he’d paused long enough before he’d verbally assaulted her before, he would’ve seen that.

The color was back to her skin, sure, but she had a deeply distracted, saddened look that almost tugged at his heartstrings.

As he approached, she tilted her head back and sighed. “What now? Have you cooked up some new threat to get me to unlock Paci’s security protocols? Just don’t bother. I don’t know—”

“That may be the case,” he said almost dispassionately. It was a far cry from the tone he’d been using on her earlier. “But we require the painting now, Miss Bond.”

She stared at him, confused, her brow rumpled, anger still flaring in her eyes.

“This is me asking nicely,” Jake tried.

He didn’t need to use that tone. She hadn’t done anything but look justifiably pissed off at him. And if he took a step back from his anger long enough, he could appreciate that she had every right to be enraged. She also had every right to expect the worst – until now, he’d spent every second with her serving her the worst his personality could provide.

Jake sighed. Long before Benz had to step in, he tried to control himself. “That painting is of critical importance to the Coalition, Miss Bond. Your situation is ongoing. But we still need that painting.”

She wouldn’t look at him. “It’s in my cruiser. I’m assuming you’ve already compounded it.”

“No, we have not. I ask that you let me transport aboard it now.”

“Fine.” She pushed up.

He angled toward her to give her a hand.

She didn’t need a hand. She stood easily.

“You can assist Jake while still being seated, Miss Bond,” Benz said pointedly.

“No way. It’s my right to be there when authorities board my cruiser. It’s my stuff. And I’m fine. Paci,” she said. She quickly shook her head. “You blocked off his neurological functions, right? That’s why he won’t talk to me.”

“Just while we are investigating,” Jake said. He didn’t know why he added just. While he was now all too keenly aware of the fact that she required that pacemaker, and that the distributed AI within had a legitimate medical purpose, he was within his legal rights to restrict that AI’s capacity to communicate with her mentally.

Yet he still added just.

“Whatever. Hand me your wrist device.”

Jake didn’t hand her his wrist device. One look, and she would know he was not your average officer. Though she’d overheard he was a special commander, her expression had made it clear she had no clue what that was. It was better to leave it that way.

She kept her hand reached out. “It’s not like I’m going to steal it. You need me to punch in the coordinates of my cruiser, right?”

“Just relay them to me,” Jake said.

“You’ve always gotta make everything harder, ha?” she commented truculently.

For the first time in his life, Jake didn’t rise to that bait. He brought up his device and waited patiently until she relayed the long list of coordinates.

When she was done, he nodded. “I’ll transport aboard. Once there, I will keep in contact with you, and you can remotely turn off the ship’s security.”

“Like hell. I told you – I’m coming with you.”

“It would be unwise to transport you,” Benz jumped in.

“I transport all the time. Not that I can afford it,” she added quickly. “The point is, I’ve transported plenty. It doesn’t do anything to the pacemaker.”

“I would still prefer—” Benz began.

Jake looked right at Vivian. He usually didn’t stare people down this often. That wasn’t to say that he was a coward – just that he didn’t get the same visceral need to face them continually as he got with Vivian. It wasn’t like she was a predator he needed to keep an eye on – or maybe it was exactly like that. The point was, he didn’t know, and that, on some level, terrified him.

It didn’t stop him from shaking his head. “She’s made up her mind, Benz. I can only assume that she’s right about transporting. She also does have the right to be there when I inspect her property.”

Really? Why had he just said that? It would be a thousand times easier if she wasn’t there. Then again, he might’ve only just met this woman, but one look in her steely gaze told him that she would not back down and she would kick up a fuss until she got her way.

Benz didn’t look happy. He also looked confused – the kind of confusing look only a perceptive friend can shoot another.

Jake didn’t have the time to figure out what it meant. “I’ll transport right there. There’s no point heading to a transport bay. I’m assuming your ship is large enough to allow a two-person direct transport? Of course it is,” he answered his own question. He also didn’t waste any more time. He instructed his wrist device to communicate with the Academy-wide transport net, and a second later, he and Vivian were spirited away.

He appeared in a cruiser. That was his first reaction. He could see all the correct equipment, the viewscreen, and the reinforced metal walls. His second reaction was that he appeared in a small prison cell for clothes.

The cruiser was a single-man transport. It was nothing more than one room. It had a chair that clearly was used as a bed, the required navigational and control equipment, and clothes. Everywhere.

It also looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since it had been manufactured.

He was trying to be professional. That went out the window. His lips cracked open. “What the hell? You sure this is your cruiser? Looks like a dump.”

“Unless you plan to let me into your bedroom and allow me to comment on your clothes, drawing attention to my mess is unfair.”

“Ship’s tiny,” he became fixated on that.

If he opened his arms, he could almost touch both sides.

“I make do. Not that you would ever believe this, as you’ve already made your mind up about me, but the money I don’t use to secure grants is put into my father’s business. Now, do you want your painting or not?”

He settled for keeping his mouth shut as he walked up to her.

She waved her hand over a secure panel in the wall. It opened, and there Jake finally saw what he was after.

Four days ago, he’d been given the task by Admiral Forest to track down this painting. The eponymous Eye of the Gods, Admiral Forest didn’t want it on her wall. Oh hell no. If the myths about it were true, then it was less of a painting, and more of a treasure map. It didn’t lead to gold, suffice to say – it led to something a heck of a lot more valuable than that.

Your average Coalition citizen wouldn’t know anything about them, but there was something out there called Hendari crystals. Hell, your average admiral wouldn’t know anything about them. The Hendari crystals were the greatest secret in the Coalition. An incredible alien technology, they were thought to come from another galaxy.

The Milky Way might be thoroughly investigated, but, to the Coalition’s knowledge, no single race had ever developed the technology required to span galaxies.

The Hendaris, whoever they are – and wherever they came from – had. And the crystals they’d left in the Milky Way… let’s put it this way, there was nothing like them. You couldn’t imagine anything like them.

They had the singular capacity to integrate with any technology, no matter where it came from and no matter what it was. It didn’t require time to integrate, either – they seemed purpose-built to do that task on their own.

Two years ago, according to the story at least, the Milky Way had been brought to its knees. It had been plunged into a temporal war with an enemy called the Force. The Force had been defeated, but it had cost the Coalition seven of its eight Hendari crystals. Several had been discovered since the war. It was Admiral Forest’s enduring purpose to discover the rest.

This painting was meant to lead to one.

As Vivian reached in to pull it out of the secure compartment, Jake got there first. His eagerness got the better of him. He gripped it securely, but gently, and pulled it out.

The problem was, Vivian had been about to do the same. He whacked her on the face with it.

“You should be more careful,” he snapped.

She clutched her face. She’d been affable – sorry, polite-ish – until now. She let her hand drop, and it was clear she was getting ready to offer him another serve.

He blanched. He almost dropped the painting. “Your eye.”

“What about my eye?” She continued to rub her face. “You are the one who smashed that painting against me. You were the one who should have been careful—”

He put the painting down – the very same painting that could lead to one of the greatest treasures in the Milky Way. Before he knew what he was doing, he clutched Vivian’s face. His fingers didn’t press in hard – they rested gently against her chin as he angled her face up.

“Special Commander—” she said tersely.

“You’re really going to need to forget the fact that you heard that. Your eye’s bloodshot,” he added. “It wasn’t bloodshot before.”

“You did hit me in the head with a painting.” She pulled out of his grip. She walked over to the main command console.

He didn’t have a chance to stiffen and worry that she could be doing something untoward. She pressed a single button, and the viewscreen turned on. It allowed her to check her reflection.

Her shoulders dropped. “Stupid eye,” she muttered. “Never damn works. Frigging thing stops me from getting into my apartment.”

“Sorry?”

“Not that you care, Commander,” she said, thankfully dropping the special, “but when you caught me earlier in my apartment and I was complaining about the face scanners, I wasn’t asking Paci to get rid of them. They just need to be upgraded. Those scanners don’t work with me.”

“Face scanners work with everyone. Even races with highly changeable physiologies can use them.”

“Thanks for the lesson. They still don’t work with me.”

It was clear she was just grumbling. The more he questioned, the more it would feed her anger. But for whatever reason, he just couldn’t let it drop. “Face scanning technology is based—”

“I know. Okay, whatever you’re going to say, I know. But it still doesn’t work. Whenever my left eye is involved,” she got closer to the screen and checked it more carefully, “scanners always go haywire. Just another medical problem to add to the mix.” Though her voice was terse and clearly meant to be brusque, it was emotional. He heard that twisted note of despair buried beneath it.

It didn’t distract him from the fact that only earlier, he’d heard Benz say that the atomic scan done of her body had been unable to match her left eye.

That right there made no sense. If it was isolated and it had only happened once, then yeah, it would just be a statistical issue.

When he got back, he’d get Benz to look at her eye.

He moved toward Vivian.

She backed off, a specific look on her face. “I was just badmouthing face scanners. Don’t think you need to manhandle me back into custody again.”

“I’m not manhandling you. I never manhandled you,” he tried.

She just settled for snorting darkly. “What do you want, then?”

“Your eye looks worse. It’s completely bloodshot now. We should get you back.”

She turned, stared at her reflection, then nodded at the painting. “You’re not gonna forget what you came for, are you?”

Weirdly, he almost had. This was his mission, yet at the prospect of her wonky eye, he was forgetting his orders.

Realizing he’d been about to make an embarrassing mistake, silently, he picked up the painting.

He was holding it with the back facing his chest.

The front faced Vivian.

She tilted her head to the side, and her gaze suddenly became lost.

It wasn’t as if she was drawn into the artistic merit of the painting – it looked as if someone cut her out of this world and put her into another.

“Vivian?” His voice became uncertain.

She still stared at the painting, in a world of her own.

He moved. “Vivian?”

She shook her head. She looked pissed off again. “Why did you have to do that? I found the angle again.”

“Angle?”

“I might’ve just bought that painting – not that it’s mine anymore – but I’ve already figured out that you can only access it from one specific angle.”

“Access what?”

“I get that you were only called in to find the painting, but surely you know how holographic paintings work. It looks different from every angle. This work,” she nodded at it, a strange frown dragging down her cheeks, “looks the same from every single angle but one.”

Jake had spent some time staring at it in the gallery. He’d assessed it from every angle – or so he’d thought. It had been nothing more than a chaotic jumble of shapes.

His gut reaction wanted to tell him that Vivian was lying. Because his gut reaction around Vivian was always mean, apparently. Thankfully the competent special commander in him rose to the fore. “What did you see?”

She looked up at him. It was a direct enough look that he could see her left eye unencumbered.

It… didn’t look right. It was almost as if he could see an afterimage in it. One of a moving tunnel.

He didn’t need to turn his head over his shoulder to appreciate that the hatch behind him hadn’t suddenly opened and revealed a black hole tumbling away into nothingness.

“Path,” she finally answered. “This… light path that seemed to lead right out of the Milky Way into another galaxy.” It took her a while to chuckle. “I know how mad that sounds. But hey, good art is evocative, right?”

He stilled. It couldn’t be a coincidence that she’d said that of all things. A path to another galaxy was precisely what had brought the Hendari crystals to the Milky Way in the first place.

He’d give her one thing – Vivian was perceptive. When he didn’t control his expression immediately, she frowned. “Why are you looking at me like that? Come to think of it, why does the Coalition—”

He snapped back into gear. “If you’re about to ask me why the Coalition wants this painting, don’t. I’m not going to tell you.”

“Fine. Whatever.” She rubbed her eye.

“You shouldn’t do that,” he snapped almost protectively.

She snorted. “Why not? It’s already screwed. Sorry, not screwed. It has nothing wrong with it, at least according to medical scans. Irritates the hell out of me, though.” She rubbed it hard just to make a point.

She let her hand drop.

It looked a lot better than it had before she’d rubbed it.

Until she tilted her head down and faced the painting again.

She got that same far-off look in her eyes. As he stared into her irises, he swore he saw something far off. He caught just another glimpse of what looked like a path opening up in the middle of her left pupil.

This time he couldn’t dismiss it. This time it sent a bolt of nerves smashing hard into his spine. “Computer, transport us back to the robotics unit,” he snapped. This was where he should split up, deliver the painting to Admiral Forest, and leave Vivian in Benz’s competent care.

Jake wanted to shepherd Vivian back to Benz and get the doctor to look at her eye again. Then, when Jake was good and ready, he’d deliver the painting.

He wouldn’t get the chance.

Chapter 8

Special Commander Jake Trace

He appeared in the robotics unit.

Benz was right there. Vivian was not.

She didn’t reappear with him. And neither did the painting.

His hands were held open and to the side, but they were empty as he felt a lingering sensation as if something had been tugged from them.

He staggered forward.

Benz made a face. “Where’s my patient?”

At first, Jake had no clue what was happening. Though transport accidents could occur, they occurred to the entire transport beam. You didn’t lose half the information – and half the people – from one.

It was unheard of.

“Jake, where is Vivian—”

Jake snapped his wrist device up. “Contact the transport unit. Now.”

Benz stood to attention. “What happened?”

As Jake waited to be put through to the transport unit, he wiped a sweaty hand down his face. “I transported with Vivian and the painting. Now she and the painting are gone. What the hell?”

Suspicion rose through him. It had a fleeting second to tell him Vivian had done this, then he shook his head and pushed it away.

There was no way she could have done this. It was physically impossible to split a transport beam. All the information required to re-create the people on the other end of the transport beam was impossible to separate. If you messed with it, you scrambled it. And that destroyed everything involved.

“Transport team here,” someone announced.

“What the hell—” Jake began.

“You’re the man who just requested the transport from the stationary light cruiser? We don’t know what happened,” the guy’s voice broke.

It struck Jake. Reality stabbed him right through the heart.

If Vivian had been broken down by a transport beam but hadn’t been transported, then she was dead.

He couldn’t move.

“What exactly happened?” Benz snapped.

“We have no idea, sir. At the moment of transport, after dematerializing, there was a massive surge of energy from within the transport field. It doesn’t make sense. Nothing could have caused that energy. We didn’t break anything down that had that energy. But it still came from somewhere.”

“Officer,” Benz said quietly and carefully, “another woman was transported. Are you telling me she’s dead?”

“No,” the officer said, surprise wavering through his tone. “She’s back at the original point of transport.”

In a crash, Jake’s life came back. It felt like he’d been stuck in suspended animation, but now he rocked forward. “Transport me back to that site.”

“It’s not recommended until we figure out—” the officer began.

“I am a special commander, and I am ordering you to transport me back,” Jake growled.

Benz had a chance to look at him, then Jake dematerialized.

He reappeared back on her ship.

He expected the worst. The transport officer might have told him she’d rematerialized but—

Vivian was sitting on the floor, the painting in front of her.

She was just staring at it.

She was fine.

Jake was not.

He collapsed beside her, locking a hand on her shoulder.

Somehow, she either hadn’t noticed him transporting back in, or she’d been so distracted staring at the painting, she’d got lost in it again, because she startled badly.

She tore her gaze off the painting and onto him.

Before he could get a word out, he saw it again – something buried in her pupil. Something that looked like a reflection but couldn’t be.

“Jake? Where did you go? What happened? It’s not my fault,” she added quickly.

Whatever was reflecting in her eyes – no, just her left eye – disappeared. Or, more likely, he stopped seeing things that weren’t there.

“Jake? It wasn’t my fault—”

“Of course it wasn’t your fault. The transporter beam… malfunctioned.”

She got caught up on the fact he’d said it wasn’t her fault. She did a double take that any actor would be proud of. “You usually try to pin anything on me—”

“Yeah, not this. Now, let’s try this again.”

She stood up. “What? Another transport?”

He winced. He had no clue if this was a good idea. “Transport officer,” he tapped his wrist device, “can we assume that whatever the hell happened last time was just some unknown artifact in the system?”

“We can’t assume anything, sir. But if you’re asking whether I believe it will happen again… the answer is I don’t know. The integrated transport system has transported multiple people since. Every single transportation has been fine.”

“Okay.” He looked right at Vivian.

She made a face. “Okay?” She mouthed, obviously not wanting to be picked up on his audio feed.

“Yeah,” Jake spoke to himself. “This time, transport the human a meter to my left. I’ll stay here, and I’ll transport separately with the designated object in my hands.”

The transport officer was obviously too well trained to ask what Jake meant by designated object.

“That should be fine, sir. Begin transport?”

Jake smiled. Right at Vivian. She didn’t deserve it – or maybe she did. Heck, it probably wasn’t a smile for her. It was recognition of the fact that this situation – whatever it was – was about to get sorted. “Yeah, transport now.”

The transport beam locked on Jake and dematerialized him.

He reappeared in Benz’s lab.

This time around, he didn’t have to struggle to figure out what had happened. As Benz stared at him, surprised, and even more surprised at the fact he was alone, Jake slapped his wrist device. “What the hell happened? I told you to transport the human a meter to my side. Vivian—”

“Bond. Yeah. We locked onto her.”

“But you didn’t transport her. You transported me,” Jake snapped. He was starting to lose it. Coalition systems were reliable. That was their hallmark. And transportation? That was one of the most reliable systems of all. It had to be. The things that could go wrong were the stuff of nightmares.

Benz took a quick step up to Jake’s side. “What’s going on? How’s Vivian?”

“Transport me back. No, scratch that, transport Vivian Bond here,” Jake snapped. “Now.”

He stayed exactly where he was, and he held onto the belief that this time, whatever the hell was happening, Coalition competence would prevail.

It didn’t.

Something reappeared, all right, but it was Vivian’s command chair, replete with a pile of dirty clothes.

Jake let his hands drop open.

He didn’t have to contact the transport officer this time. The guy rang in, terror in his voice. “I have no clue what’s happening. This has never happened before.”

“Put me onto your superior,” Jake snapped.

“I am in charge, sir. I’ve been transporting people for 20 years. None of this makes any sense.”

“Try to transport her—”

Benz stepped in quickly. “Don’t try to transport her again.”

Jake made a face. Whatever was happening to the transporters, it was clear it wasn’t dangerous. At least to him, but he had a different risk profile than Benz. Jake was used to pushing things right to the edge, and he needed men like Benz to pull him back.

He still frowned. “Why not?”

Benz reached forward and clamped his hand over Jake’s wrist device. If it had been anyone other than the CMO touching Jake’s prototype gear, the special commander would’ve been forced to throw them off. It was clear Benz was just cutting the audio feed. “What if it’s her pacemaker?”

“I’m not following. She said she transported multiple times.”

“You said that Paci has security protocols that you can’t hack. If that’s the case, why could you hack through her pacemaker twice?”

“I’m really not following now,” Jake defaulted to saying again. “Are you suggesting that Paci had the capacity not to allow himself to be hacked, but he still let Vivian die?” For no reason at all, there was a note of accusation in Jake’s voice. If he’d taken a step back, he would’ve realized there was a far readier target to blame for killing Vivian – him.

“No. I’m suggesting that I know Bond robotics.”

“And?”

“There was no one better at machine learning than Bond.”

“And?” Jake demanded again. Benz was wasting his time. If he couldn’t bring Vivian here, then he wanted to go back to her.

And no, it wasn’t just to get to the painting.

“What if Paci is Fred Bond’s greatest work?” Benz ducked in close and whispered, despite the fact they were alone in the room.

“I’m really not following.”

“Yes, you are. I’m suggesting that Paci has the capacity to learn and learn quickly. Your device managed to shut him down twice. Now, what if he’s been working since to ensure that he cannot be shut down again?”

Jake opened his lips but didn’t know what to say. They remained there, hovering like a hand that didn’t know what to catch. He ground them shut and shook his head. “If that’s the case, it’s even more worrying than what we’ve already discovered, but it doesn’t bear on the situation. Why wouldn’t we be able to transport her? We already transported her to her cruiser.”

“Jake, I can only repeat that I have no clue about the extent of Paci’s capacity. And neither do you. We do know, however, that it is the most sophisticated medical assistance unit we have ever encountered. It controls subspace damage like nothing else I’ve ever seen. What if, in altering itself, Paci has decided not to let Vivian be transported anymore?”

Jake let out a long, hard breath.

Though he didn’t want to believe a word of what Benz was saying, it was uncomfortably possible, considering what Jake had seen Paci do.

He took a step back from Benz. “Transport me back to the cruiser.”

“You sure, sir? I’ve already registered these transport issues. The admiral in charge has suggested shutting down the entire system for a reboot.”

“Do it. But only once you’ve transported me. I will accept the risk,” he added. Fortunately, he didn’t need to add that he was a special commander again.

The transport beam snagged hold of him, and once more, Jake was dematerialized.

He didn’t find Vivian down on her knees as she stared at the painting distractedly.

She was down on her knees, but she’d turned the painting around. She also had a hand clutched over her chest.

Her color had been good when he’d left her. Now it was sickly.

He jolted down to his knees. “You okay?” With a careful eye, he searched her face. Aside from her pasty complexion, sweat glistened along her brow, and the muscles under her eyes – especially her left eye – twitched continuously.

“I’m okay,” she tried.

“You don’t look fine.”

“I thought you wanted to transport me? What happened?” She changed the subject.

“A small issue, that’s all,” he lied. “We’ll get you back—” he paused. He couldn’t transport her now. And considering the transport system would’ve been shut down, he was out here on his own.

“Back to the hospital? Is that what you were going to say? Or prison?” Maybe there was a slightly playful edge to her tone.

He didn’t pick it up. “No one is talking about sending you to prison.”

“You sure? Because you’d sure been suggesting it only half an hour ago.”

He ignored her. It wouldn’t take long to fly this cruiser to the Academy. The question was, did she have long?

No, there was a deeper question. What exactly could the Academy do for her? It had been Paci that had saved her life and dictated her treatment regime.

He pushed up, walked over to the hatch, and opened it.

“What are you doing?” Vivian asked.

He stuck his head out and made a quick calculation. “Come on. I’ll get you to your apartment. I’ll call in some medical help.”

“I’m fine.” She pushed up. She didn’t wobble. Her skin was still sickly, though.

Before he could stop her, she walked up to the hatch, and rather than use the ramp, she just jumped off.

“Hey,” he blustered as he jumped beside her.

She shrugged. “Sorry, old habit.”

She got halfway across the roof. Though he’d switched the weather fields on, she crumpled her arms around herself as if she was deathly cold.

He was right by her side. “Are you okay?”

“I feel fine,” she managed as she started to rub her chest.

“Feel fine or are fine?” he snapped. He couldn’t push the words out fast enough.

She frowned as she kept rubbing her chest. “…I—”

“Screw this.” Jake acted in the only way his body saw fit. He shifted in and scooped her up.

When she didn’t complain, it told him she was weaker than she looked. He started running toward the air dock door that would lead into the rest of the apartment block.

“You don’t have to run – I’m not going to die. Where are you going, anyway?”

“I’m assuming you’ve got another one of those medical bots in your apartment?”

“There’s one on the ship.”

He didn’t snap at her that she should have said that earlier. He did an about-face and threw himself at her ship.

“You really don’t have to run, Commander. I’m just a little bit shaken. It’s probably nothing more than fear.”

“Fear?”

“I’m sure you don’t understand, but Paci has always been a constant accompaniment in my mind. Now he’s off, I’m just adjusting.”

Something struck Jake. Benz had said they ultimately had no clue what Paci did. What if the integrated AI did more than just ensure her heart beat? What if it somehow kept her nervous system controlled, and that in turn pushed back her injuries?

“I shouldn’t do this,” he commented to himself. “Especially without approval from the chief science officer.”

“You shouldn’t do what?”

They reached the ship, and he threw himself through the hatch. He went to place Vivian carefully in her command seat – but he quickly had to remind himself it wasn’t there.

He’d been about to switch Paci back on, but he became distracted. “Dammit.” He sliced his head to the side, looking for somewhere to lay her down.

“I’m really fine.”

“You sure? You feel colder than the depths of space.”

She chuckled. It was twisted and frustrated. “Try the vast tracts between galaxies.”

It might’ve been a playful comment, but it struck a chord.

A lot had just happened, but he hadn’t forgotten what he’d seen reflected in Vivian’s eyes. He’d tried to dismiss it, but that wasn’t what a special commander should do. He needed to remind himself that the painting in question was meant to lead to a Hendari crystal. What if it wasn’t painted on ordinary holographic gauze? What if it actually had the capacity to reflect a path in people’s eyes?

A little outlandish, but considering what he’d experienced today, it was about the least imaginative thing he could come up with.

“Commander,” she said softly, “why are you looking at my eyes like that?”

“I’m just finding a place to put you.” He kicked some junk to the side and decided to just place her exactly where the command seat had been. Fortunately when it had been transported, it had made a clean cut with the deck, and it was smooth enough that it wouldn’t do Vivian any damage to lie on top of it. “Then I’m going to ask you some questions about the painting,” he added distractedly.

“Really? The painting you just kicked out of the way?”

“What?” he spluttered. He jerked his head to the side and realized that yes, he had just unconsciously kicked the painting out of the way when he’d made space in this trashed cruiser.

She chuckled softly. Weirdly, it had a knowing edge to it. There was no reason for that. Vivian had only just met him.

“Don’t worry. It’s a hardy painting. I had Paci analyze it. Both the holographic paint and the gauze have been built to last.”

“I’m glad. Now, where’s Paci number two?”

“Actually, it’s Paci number one. He’s over there.” She pointed to a box he could only just see in the corner of the room. This time it wasn’t covered in clothes – it was covered in engineering tools. Rather than be placed neatly in their respective compartments, they were a jumble as if someone had taken a toolbelt and thrown it in the air.

Despite the situation, he made a face.

She put her hands up. “That wasn’t actually me. That was Paci.”

“Right,” he said disbelievingly. Ensuring she was okay with one last glance, he made it up to Paci. He swiped his wrist device over the box.

Nothing happened. He frowned. He used the exact same protocols he’d use the last time.

Still, nothing happened.

Vivian propped herself up on her elbows. “What’s going on?”

“Dammit. Fine.” He brought up his wrist device. He’d been ready to switch Paci’s neurological communication back on previously. Now he wasted no more time. He really would get roasted for this, though. Yeah, he was a special commander, but the second he’d gotten the chief science officer involved, this had become an Academy-wide issue.

Jake still didn’t have any direct permission to operate here, anyway. The painting was his mission; Vivian and her weird robot were not.

Did that stop him? No.

He gave the specific permission required to remove the blocking field on Paci’s higher-level functions.

Vivian jerked her head to the side.

And Paci the robot opened.

Jake didn’t bother to jerk back, giving Paci room as he unwrapped himself.

Compared to most compactable robotic units Jake had seen, the box Paci emerged from was relatively large. That didn’t mean much, because the way he moved as he opened up was smoother than any set of condensed Coalition armor.

Paci immediately locked his red visual strip – that accounted for his eyes – on Jake.

Jake could feel Paci’s burning anger.

“Paci,” Vivian said aloud. “It’s not like that.”

Jake inclined his head toward her. She was obviously communicating mentally with Paci. There was nothing to stop her now.

“I know, but…” Vivian trailed off.

“Look, I know you’re angry,” Jake tried, for the first time reacting to Paci as if he could be angry and this wasn’t just some trick of an AI, “but Vivian’s not well. We can’t seem to transport her anymore.”

“What?” Vivian’s voice shook. “What do you mean you can’t transport me?”

Jake twitched as he realized he’d made a mistake. Of all the warnings Paci had given that Jake had ignored, one rang clear in his mind. For whatever reason, Vivian needed to be kept safe from her specific condition.

By the sounds of it, the stress could induce an attack. Her condition was one thing. Finding out that, for whatever reason, she could no longer be transported, and – worse – she could split a transport beam – would be another level.

“She’s exhausted,” Paci said. “I will tend to it.”

Paci kept his head tilted toward Jake as he walked over to a cabinet lodged beneath the command console. With quick hands, the robot pulled something out.

The guy might not have ordinary emotional and physical cues, but Jake got the definite impression that Paci wanted him the hell off this cruiser now.

Jake rose slowly. He put his hands up. “Look. I know we got off on the wrong foot—”

“You killed my mistress twice. You do not listen.”

Jake had to twitch at that. It was a repeat of exactly what Vivian had said.

“Yeah… I’m,” Jake couldn’t believe he was going to say this, but he couldn’t stop himself, either, “sorry for that.”

Vivian was still propped up on her elbows. Her lips wobbled open, and she stared at Jake as if he’d just transformed into the strangest being she’d ever seen.

He played with his jaw, clicking it from left to right. “We didn’t know what we were doing. But—”

“You did it anyway,” Paci cut in as he pulled something from a slim medical box.

Jake didn’t know what it was.

That hit him. He had no clue what Paci was about to do. Paci could – and was probably justified – in attacking Jake.

Without the capacity to transport away, Jake was a sitting duck.

“You are becoming suspicious again, Special Commander,” Paci pointed out.

Jake’s lips twitched. “I get that she overheard I was a special commander, but did she tell you—”

“No. I figured it out.”

“How?”

“You seem to have an unparalleled capacity to do as you see fit. You are clearly not an admiral, because all admirals must be registered and their bios available for public dissemination.”

Jake laughed. It wasn’t happy. “Well, aren’t you smart.”

“Incorrect. I have a purpose – one I was built for.”

“Guys,” Vivian said softly, “what—”

“Look, I get that we did the wrong thing,” Jake admitted. It was a cold day in hell when he put his hands up for not doing a good enough job. He liked to think he wasn’t arrogant, but somewhere at the back of his head, he appreciated that in the last couple of years, that’s exactly what he’d become. When you have free reign to do what you want, and when you are constantly praised for doing a job no one else can do, you get used to it.

“I told you not to turn off our neurological connection. I told you that it was required,” Paci continued as he selected something else from the medical box and began to program it.

Jake kept playing with his jaw. It clicked from one side to the other as pain – emotional, not physical – started to crawl through him. “What were we supposed to do? We discovered a medical robot with security protocols even the Academy can’t hack through. We discovered a patient with a condition that makes—” Jake stopped himself.

Vivian’s eyes widened. “Makes what? What are you two talking about?”

“The special commander continues to be indiscreet,” Paci summarized.

“I thought we weren’t allowed to call him special commander?” Vivian frowned, confused.

Jake didn’t say anything. He watched Paci.

This was where Jake needed to phone home. Maybe it had been a mistake to wake Paci. Maybe right now the other version of Paci was wreaking havoc throughout the Academy.

The problem was, if Jake used his wrist device to make a call – even if he did one with his own neurological connection – he wasn’t sure he could keep it from Paci. And critically, he wasn’t sure what Paci would do when he found out.

“I suggest you take your painting,” Paci gestured to it, “and leave.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Jake said quietly.

“I assure you, we will fight any legal action you bring against us,” Paci stated flatly.

If this were any other situation, Jake would laugh. In any other situation, Jake would be holding all the cards. “If you take Vivian, you’ll be hunted,” he said flatly. It wasn’t an emotionless tone, though. It stated the facts but with quiet recognition – not the bombastic righteousness he was used to.

Paci rose. There was a threat painted all over his body. He didn’t need to have ordinary physiology for Jake to recognize Paci was getting ready to punch something. And the only thing ready to punch was Jake.

Jake brought his hands up again.

“Paci,” Vivian’s voice shot up. “What are you talking about? Of course we can’t run. Of course they’ll catch us. What—”

“You will take the painting, and you will leave the ship,” Paci continued, but this time, he accessed Jake’s neurological feed. There was no reason that the medical bot should be able to do that. While Jake did have the capacity to mentally communicate with his wrist device, the security protocols that shielded and protected that comms line were astronomically complicated. There was so much sophisticated Coalition tech behind them that a team of Kore scientists could work at it for centuries, and they’d never be able to crack it.

Yet here Paci was doing it in a matter of seconds.

Jake paled.

“You will take the painting, and you will leave,” Paci continued.

“Vivian’s right – this isn’t the way to do this. You don’t want to be hunted.”

“You will decide if we are hunted. As you decided when and how to kill Vivian. Do not pretend that it will be automatic.”

“Look, she’s better off with us,” Jake said aloud, breaking his mental communication, even though Paci would probably make him pay for it.

“What’s going on, Paci? Why are you talking to him mentally? How can you even do that?” Vivian was getting more and more worked up.

“Mistress, you should relax—”

“Relax? What’s going on? When Jake came to me and asked for your security protocols, I didn’t know what he was talking about. What is he talking about? Do you have functions I don’t even know about? Come to think of it,” she started to rub her chest, “back in the hospital, that doctor misspoke. He said I had pacemakers. What was he talking about? I’ve only ever had one, right?”

Jake stared at Paci stiffly. The assistance robot could – and had reason to – kick Jake out. It was also clear he could knock Vivian out.

The situation had taken an uncomfortable, unpredictable, dangerous turn.

Jake kept his hands up.

“Why are your hands up?” Vivian spluttered. “I don’t know what a special commander is, but I’m assuming you’re not your average grunt. What kind of risk am I to you?”

“None,” Jake said boldly. “Look, we made mistakes. I can’t honestly tell you what will happen in the future, either. But I can tell you that you’re better off with the Academy and the Coalition than you are heading off into space on your own.” He tried to put as much passion into his words as he could until they rang clearly from his throat.

“A matter of perspective,” Paci stated.

“No,” Vivian rose to her feet.

Jake got the impression that she wasn’t steady, but she was using all the strength she could to feign that she was.

She shook her head. “Paci, I don’t know what’s going on here, but Jake’s right – we can’t just leave. If we flee the Coalition, they’ll capture us and throw us in jail.”

“The situation has changed, Mistress,” Paci said evenly.

She threw up her hands. “Look, I’m starting to freak out here. Why do you have security protocols I’m not aware of? Why the hell couldn’t I be transported? What—” Vivian stopped. Her lips drooped, and her arms slackened by her sides.

It looked as if she was about to faint.

Jake jolted over to her.

Paci put up a hand. “Your assistance is not required or welcome.”

When Vivian didn’t faint, a deep frown dug hard across Jake’s lips. He stared at Paci, anger billowing through him. “You just did that to her, didn’t you?”

“I cannot allow her to feel undue stress.”

“Stress?” Jake spread his hands to the side. “What do you think kidnapping her without her consent is going to do to her?”

“It is not kidnapping. As I said before, you are completely in control of the Coalition’s response—”

“Listen to yourself. Look, I will admit that you’re not an ordinary robot. And,” he clenched his teeth, “I’d like to think that everything you’re doing is for Vivian. But think. If you take her off Earth after everything we’ve seen about both you and her, there’ll be nowhere you can go. Presumably, you require continuous medical supplies. How are you gonna get those? They’ll be tracked. Think about it, please. If you don’t want her to feel stressed, don’t take her on the run. Believe you me,” he said, an embittered note rising through his voice.

“Have you been on the run before, Special Commander? Then ensure that—”

“Yeah, I’ve been on the run,” he spat. “For two years, I did a stint in the Kore Empire. I know exactly what it is to be hunted. I know exactly what happens, day in, day out as you fight for your life and have to hide amongst your enemy. You think that I can control what the Coalition is going to do? I can’t. It’s out of my hands. You’re right, I’m not an admiral – but I know how they think. So do you want to run? Or do you want to stay here where the Academy will protect you?”

“Are you currently protecting the other version of myself in your science laboratory? Or are you pulling me apart, piece by piece, to find what is within?”

“What would you do? If you were in my position, and you encountered an unknown robot with the kind of skills that made the best cybernetics in the Coalition blush, what the hell would you do? And before you say,” he put up a hand, “you wouldn’t have turned off Vivian’s pacemaker,” his voice vibrated hard on the word Vivian, “then I’ve already admitted that was wrong. Don’t take her on the run. Unless you plan to keep her in that state,” he jammed a shaking thumb toward her, “then she will feel stress unlike anything else.”

Paci paused. Jake liked to think that the medical assistance robot was thinking things through.

It wasn’t.

It took a step toward Jake, and it opened its hands.

Jake’s wrist device started to malfunction. Electricity shot up into his arm and across his chest.

He fell onto his knees, his eyes blasting wide open as his body convulsed.

It didn’t look as if Vivian could do anything, but a tear tumbled down her cheeks and her lips just managed to open. “Stop. Paci, stop.”

Jake couldn’t do anything but convulse, saliva dribbling down his chin as his eyes remained locked on her.

“Paci, please—”

“This is for your own good, Mistress.” Paci opened his hand wider.

Great shaking electric shots blasted through Jake.

Just before they could turn off his consciousness as easily as someone flicking a switch, something shook through the ship.

It did nothing to Jake and Vivian, but it knocked Paci back. He smashed into the command console.

Vivian was still standing there, her arms slack, the only thing working her eyes. They opened wide and rimmed with tears as her lips languidly parted. “Paci.”

Jake’s wrist device stopped malfunctioning. His arm jerked, and he fell hard into his hip.

His eyes only just remained open as somebody remotely accessed the hatch. It receded into the wall and somebody walked up the ramp.

It was the last person he expected to see.

Admiral Lara Forest was carrying something in a box unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. It… was made of metal. That was all that could be said for it.

Though Jake’s wrist device was only barely functioning after the damage it had received, what was left of it told him that box was un-scannable.

Paci started to pull himself up.

Admiral Forest wore some kind of gauntlet. It was slim-fit and looked like nothing more than armor that had been painted on her skin. It was covering the same hand she was using to hold the box. She lifted the box and twisted her wrist slightly. Paci crumpled. Rather than fall face first on the deck plating, he switched off.

Just like that.

Vivian crumpled a second later. Two officers had marched in with Admiral Forest, and one jolted toward Vivian, catching her before she could hit the deck plating.

She didn’t look well, but she was still conscious. “What’s happening?” She didn’t look up at the officer who’d saved her. She tilted her head to the side and stared right at Jake.

He was still drooling all over the deck. He was in no condition to answer. And as he turned his gaze up to Admiral Forest and the strange box in her hand, he didn’t have the knowledge to answer, either.

“Get her back to the Academy’s secure facility, take that bot and place it in Basement Level Beta, and take Jake, clean him up, and deliver him to my office.” Admiral Forest made brief eye contact with Jake.

That gaze didn’t tell him he was about to get in trouble. Hell no. It was a lot more worrying than that. As a specific look glinted in her eyes, it told him the admiral was about to give him a new mission.

Chapter 9

Special Commander Jake Trace

As promised, he’d been taken away, cleaned up, outfitted with a new wrist device, and delivered to Admiral Forest’s office. Now he stood there as she sat behind her desk.

That gauntlet that had allowed her to control that box was still on her hand. He was starting to wonder if it was a permanent feature he’d never noticed before. It could easily have slipped his attention. It seemed to have the capacity to change its color and resemble ordinary skin.

“I didn’t bring you here to stare at my hand, Jake,” Admiral Forest admonished.

“Sorry, sir, but what the hell is that? I’ve never seen technology—”

“Within that box was one of the Coalition’s only Hendari crystals. This gauntlet,” she brought up her hand, and it shifted from her skin tone until he could see the gauntlet again, “allows me to interact with it and control it.”

He whistled. “Now I see why you wanted that painting. Speaking of which—”

“It has been taken to a secure facility.”

“Good.”

Silence descended as they stared at each other. There was a lot going on. Jake had a million questions to ask. You didn’t ask Admiral Forest questions, though – you waited for her to decide what she wanted to tell you.

She stared distractedly at the wall behind Jake for several seconds then ticked her head over to him. “You always had a nose for trouble.”

He rumpled that very nose in confusion. “I do? Is this a reprimand, sir?” He jumped straight to it.

She chuckled. “I can’t say the part you played in this situation was commendable,” she admitted. “It seemed unnecessary to turn off that pacemaker the first time. The second time, it can hardly be described as your fault.”

“I still pushed for it to be turned off the second time, even though I didn’t know what it did.”

“That was your reprimand, Jake,” she relaxed. “I hope it’s taught you something, but,” all relaxing ended as she pushed forward, locked her elbows on her desk, and faced him with all the power of an impending tsunami, “if you had not acted in that specific way, we would not know what we were dealing with.”

He stared at her askance. “Do you actually know what we’re dealing with?” He wasn’t trying to insult his boss. He still had no clue how to piece together the disparate parts of this mystery to make a narrative that even began to make sense.

“We understand aspects.”

“What about Vivian’s injury—”

“That we do not understand. We have taken further scans, and it is clear that the initial medical files the assistance robot called Paci shared with us were accurate. She has received some kind of directed subspace damage to her heart. I cannot tell you what that damage is. I cannot tell you where it came from or when she received it. And no one,” Admiral Forest’s voice vibrated low, “can tell us why she isn’t dead. I have seen subspace injuries,” she revealed. “They are indiscriminate. Unless you have armor capable of buffering their effects, they will tear through flesh as easily as any spatial anomaly.”

“So what the hell are we looking at?”

“Different people are looking at different things. Benz and his team will continue to look at her underlying injury. The medical assistance unit has been handed over to the science team.”

He looked right at her. He could read her mind. “And me?”

“We’ll get to you soon. Suffice to say, you will be given a new mission.”

“I kind of figured.”

Admiral Forest searched her desk for something. She found it, plucked it up, and handed it over.

“What is it?”

“That’s Vivian’s Bond’s medical file.”

“I don’t need to see it – believe you me. I don’t understand it.”

“I don’t want you to understand it. I want you to look at the log of who’s accessed it in the last day.”

He stiffened. He looked at the log. Though there were several entries from the Academy – as you would fully expect – there was one external one. He pointed to it. “Who’s that?”

“Precisely.”

“Precisely?” He didn’t like her tone. “I’m assuming it was a Coalition signature?”

She shrugged.

“We don’t know?” His voice shook.

“We don’t know,” she concluded. “The only reason we know that somebody accessed that file was because we were running a very specific backup analysis on the communication network at the time. If we hadn’t been, it would have slipped through unnoticed.”

“I don’t get it – why did they access her specific file? And why then?”

“They didn’t.”

“They didn’t access her file?” He was beyond confused.

“Oh no, Special Commander – they did something much worse. They accessed every single medical file in the Coalition. They were searching for something. Whatever it was, they found it in her file, because that’s the only one they opened.”

Dread dragged her shoulders down. It was the kind of dread that could cut your heart out and replace it with stone. “What the hell is happening?”

“You have a new mission.”

“Let me guess? My mission is to find that out.”

Admiral Forest pinched her nose. She only did that when she was stressed. In the past two years, he hadn’t seen it much. Now, something had risen to shake the unflappable admiral. She took a few seconds to stare at her crumpled palm, then she let her hand drop. “We have a woman with a never-before-seen medical condition, a medical robot that outstrips anything the Coalition can create, and now, an unknown source who knows she’s here.”

His back straightened. He hadn’t put it like that yet.

Shit. Whoever had accessed that file would know exactly where Vivian currently was. “Have you—”

She put a hand up. “Of course we have increased her security. We’ve also removed her file.”

“I don’t get it. Why would they be looking for her today? If they had any knowledge of this incident, they wouldn’t have to do a data scrape of all of our medical files.”

“You’re assuming something.” The admiral arranged her hands neatly in front of her.

“What?”

“That they have not been doing this on a regular basis.”

He made a face – a suitable face, considering how fundamentally terrifying that claim was. For an outside source to continually breach the Coalition’s secure citizen database would be akin to waking up and finding that everyone around you was a Barbarian spy.

“We don’t know. But it’s a distinct possibility. We don’t run these backup data analyses often. In fact, it’s usually only every five years. We only run them for a two-hour period. Statistically, this person, or group, could’ve been accessing our files for years, and we would never have caught them.”

“I don’t like this, Admiral.”

“I assure you – I like it less.”

“What leads do you have?”

“Vivian Bond and her father.”

Before Jake could think it through, he shook his head. “Vivian’s got nothing to do with this.” He spoke with the kind of authority that suggested this wasn’t an impression – it was the conclusion of a special commander who had gathered sufficient evidence to be reporting so conclusively to his boss.

“I’m inclined to agree with you. But that doesn’t mean she won’t be useful. She would’ve heard things and seen things. Benz has tried to ask her, but she’s reluctant to communicate with him for some reason.” The admiral looked right at Jake.

It took him a moment to realize what she meant. He snorted. “I can do a lot, Admiral – and believe you me, I’m willing to do whatever it takes – but Vivian is not going to talk to me. I… we got off on the wrong foot. No,” he corrected quickly, “it was my fault.”

The admiral stared at him dispassionately. “She’s asked to speak to you.”

“She has?” He couldn’t contain his surprise.

“She has. Though we have attempted to explain that she is no longer going to be prosecuted for harboring an unregistered integrated AI, she doesn’t seem willing to believe us. She wants you to tell her.”

He winced. That made a lot more sense. “And you want me to get as much information as I can out of her, right?”

“While being discreet. We have managed to switch off Paci.”

Jake paled.

Admiral Forest waved away his concern. “Not the actual pacemaker in her chest – just its mental connection to her and its higher-level functions.”

He twitched. “I know Paci tried to kill me, but is that such a good idea? In the time I switched him off, she appeared to get sicker.”

The admiral pressed her lips together. “Her condition has stabilized,” she said cryptically.

Jake’s gut twitched. “Admiral—”

“I can’t read minds, Jake Trace, but I know what you’re about to say. You’re about to question what will happen if Vivian’s condition deteriorates. Will I switch on Paci again, knowing his capacities? The answer is an unfortunate yes.”

He didn’t like the way she said unfortunate. He bristled. “Vivian deserves not to die—”

“Vivian is our priority, but that medical assistance robot seems to have the capacity to alter its programming based on an escalating risk threat.”

“So Benz was right? It has the capacity to grow and change its programs?”

“Correct. Though I do not believe it will ever have the capacity to control the Hendari crystal, to ensure Paci is contained, we would require the Hendari crystal to be close.”

It struck Jake. “And that would be keeping all of our eggs in one basket. The Hendari crystal, Vivian, and Paci. If anyone really is coming for her, that would be an inviting package.”

“Indeed. Now please, go find out as much as you can. I would prefer a clear path forward than one that will take us right through a briar patch.”

He saluted.

He couldn’t promise anything. Once upon a time, he’d had the kind of braggadocio that would allow him to stare an admiral right in the eye and claim that he would get a mission done, no matter what. He couldn’t do that now. The words lined up behind his lips, but his mouth kept them at bay like a cage.

For his mouth seem to know what his bravery didn’t.

This in no way would be easy.

And it was only just getting started.

Chapter 10

Vivian Bond

She was back in the Academy. At least she thought she was. Benz was back, and the other doctors who attended to her were all in Coalition uniforms.

She’d just never seen this place. She’d been carried in unconscious, and if she hadn’t been unconscious, she could’ve guaranteed they would’ve knocked her out anyway.

Only one thing made sense. Vivian had been taken to a secure laboratory. The kind that had no windows. Hell, it didn’t even have a stable door. It used some kind of spatial technology to create one when one was required.

Suffice to say, she was freaking out. She’d been pumped full of every relaxant Benz had, but they weren’t working.

She could tell he was questioning whether to put her into an induced coma again.

That wouldn’t do anything. She didn’t know why – she just knew that for sure.

Paci – at least his mental connection to her – had been switched off.

She was a little hazy about the details of what had happened in her cruiser, but she remembered what he’d done. He’d been threatening to take her on the run. Worse than that – he’d attacked Jake Trace. That right there was enough to take her stress and make it hit the roof.

Benz was working on a panel close by. When her nervous symptoms increased, and sweat slicked her brow, he looked at her quickly. “There’s no reason to be worried. You’re in good hands.”

No reason to be worried? Oh, there were a million.

“Where’s Jake?” she found herself asking.

“Don’t worry,” he repeated, “he’s on his way.”

She worried. She might not be in direct control of her heartbeat, but her emotions hit a crescendo.

Benz frowned quickly as her continuous medical scanner beeped. “I told you—”

“Yeah, Jake’s on his way,” she said, insisting on sitting even though every time she did, someone always dragged her down again. “And that is truly something to be terrified of.”

“But you insisted on seeing him.”

“I know. Because I want to get this sorted.”

“Well I’m here,” Jake said.

His voice came from behind her.

Though she’d seen doors open into this room from most directions, she’d had no clue that one could form in the apparently solid wall behind her.

She shrieked in alarm.

This is where the old Jake would laugh at her. The current Jake brought his hands up quickly and shot a concerned, guilty look at Benz. “Sorry I surprised you. I didn’t mean to.”

He stopped speaking. He started staring, instead. His gaze flicked over her face. It wasn’t long before it locked on her left eye. “How’s that feeling?”

No one else seemed to care about her left eye. The doctors had done some scans and repaired the bloodshot damage again, but that was it.

She went to rub it. Benz snapped at her not to. Jake just smiled as if he knew she’d do it anyway. And she did.

She shrugged. “Irritates me like always.” She let her hand drop, and her senses returned to her in a rush. Crap, this was where Jake would lay down the law and tell her exactly what he was going to do with her and her long list of crimes.

He didn’t. He seemed unsure of himself as if he’d encountered a problem he couldn’t begin to think his way out of. “How are you feeling?” he asked hesitantly.

“Terrified,” she answered. People had been asking her how she felt since she’d gotten here. She’d always muddled through a polite, noncommittal response. For whatever reason, she was honest now.

Jake’s cheeks twitched. “You’ll be fine.”

“I appear to be in some kind of secret laboratory with no permanent doors. For whatever reason, I can’t be transported anymore, and my only friend tried to kill a Coalition officer.” Her voice cracked with fear.

“The situation is complicated,” Jake conceded.

“Complicated as in you want to throw me behind bars for everything Paci did? Complicated as in you’re gonna turn him off because he’s obviously some threat, and when you do shut him down, that’s gonna kill me? Complicated—”

“You’re not going to be charged for anything that’s happened to you,” Jake said.

She searched his tone for any hint of irony or humor. It didn’t seem to be there. But it had to be there. She shook her head. “Of course I am. I didn’t register Paci, and clearly he’s…” she couldn’t bring herself to say he was a threat. He was literally all she’d had for so long.

“Complicated,” Jake defaulted to saying. For whatever reason, he swallowed obviously. He pressed his lips together, and his Adam’s apple moved rhythmically against the top of his collar.

She took a breath. “I’m now in so much trouble that the Coalition aren’t going to risk putting me in a public prison? Is this where I’m going to spend the rest of my life?” She gestured with a nod at the cold lab around her.

“No,” he said.

Benz looked at Jake. It was the kind of gaze that told her everything she needed to know. Jake wasn’t saying that out of a position of authority. He was lying to her. But if it was a lie, why did he seem so confident about it?

“Vivian, we really need your help here.” Jake didn’t once cross his arms.

“If you’re going to ask me how to hack through Paci, I honestly don’t—”

“I now understand that you don’t know. I apologize for my behavior previously,” he added.

Had somebody switched Jake Trace? Because this could not be the guy who’d harangued her only several hours previous.

She frowned at him. It would make it clear that she didn’t believe a word he was saying – nor his apparent personality revamp.

He sighed and looked down at his hand. “I didn’t handle the situation well. Sorry, I didn’t handle the situation at all.” He looked back up at her. “If I had, we wouldn’t be here. But we are,” he conceded quietly, “and we need your help.”

She just stared at him. She couldn’t honestly figure out what kind of help she could be, but there was hope flickering behind his gaze.

She shifted her legs over the side of the table, getting ready to get comfortable so she could face them without putting a crick in her neck.

Jake shoved a hand out. It was such an automatic, protective move – it was like he was mollycoddling a child or a sick loved one.

“I’m fine.” She demonstrated as she kicked her legs back and forth. “I feel a bit ill, but that’s it.”

Jake genuinely looked anguished. As his prying gaze searched her face and locked on her pale cheeks, he looked like a man deeply sorry for what he’d done.

“What do you want to know?”

“Vivian, do you know who is after you?”

Her eyes widened.

“I think what the special commander is trying to say,” Benz corrected, not making any attempt to pretend that Jake wasn’t a special commander anymore, “is whether you know if anyone could be after you,” he emphasized the word could.

What he was doing was not lost on Vivian. For whatever reason, people were trying to keep her in the dark, as if the truth would kill her. It was lies and subterfuge that were slowly killing her instead.

She tapped her chest unconsciously. It wasn’t bothering her – it was just an ingrained move.

Jake looked like he was ready to surrender to court-martial – as if in misspeaking, he’d sealed her fate.

She shrugged. “I’m assuming based on the fact that I’m here – and that Paci lost it and tried to kill a Coalition officer,” she spoke with a tortured tone again, “that someone really is after me.” Of all the things she’d said, that admission was the least emotionally charged.

It was an academic fact currently. Paci not being in her head and her life having crumbled before her feet were very much more real.

Jake appeared to have trouble with his jaw. It was something that seemed to flare up only when he was around her. “Do you know of anyone who could be after you?”

She shrugged. “I’ve worked with a lot of rich assholes throughout the galaxy. I’m assuming someone could have a grudge.”

Jake looked at Benz. It was clear that was not the answer he was after. “Could you think of anyone who might’ve been after you for a longer period of time?”

She frowned. She wasn’t thinking straight. For Jake to be interested in this, it had to be important. “Why are you assuming anyone would be after me? Surely, they’re after Paci.”

Benz frowned. It was almost as if no one else had thought that through.

While the doctor looked as if he could be swayed by her argument, Jake didn’t give up. “Can you think of anyone?”

She sighed. She shook her head. “I didn’t have a very illustrious life before having Paci installed.” She thumped her chest. “And most of that life is already on my Academy file. I didn’t do anything interesting as a teenager or a kid, either. And when I joined the Academy,” she chuckled at herself, “I still didn’t do anything interesting or noteworthy. I’m telling you,” she switched her gaze over to him and looked at him sincerely, “the only thing that makes sense is that someone is after Paci.” There was a slightly pleading edge to her tone.

“Maybe,” he conceded in the kind of voice that told her he was just being polite. “We need all the information we can get. So if you can think of anything at all—”

She got the urge to withdraw.

She also wanted to snap at Jake that he wasn’t listening to her again. But this wasn’t him screaming at her and trying to shut off her pacemaker. This was just him insisting on something she didn’t want to hear.

She crumpled her arms around her middle.

“I’m not trying to stress you out,” Jake said quickly, a note of desperation shaking his voice.

She frowned. “I’m not freaked out.” It was a lie.

“Can you think of anyone who might have had a beef with your father?” Benz tried.

“The entire medical community?” She chuckled. “Sorry, Doctor Benz, no offense, but my father wasn’t exactly well-liked. His theories were fringe.”

“That’s a start.” Jake nodded. “Anything else?”

“No, that must be it. I’m telling you, they must be after Paci. Obviously he’s sophisticated. Maybe one of my father’s old enemies wants the patent on him or something.” There was hope in her voice as she suggested that. She just wanted Jake to concede that she was right.

He still didn’t.

She started to get nervous.

“Maybe we should do this later,” Benz suggested as he looked down at her medical readings.

“I’m fine. And I told you everything you need to know. Now, do you have any other questions?” She went straight into her default business mode. Her voice was polite, and her statements were quick and professional.

If she had hoped it would work on Jake, she was fresh out of luck.

He stood there, not appearing to know what to do with his hands as he looked more awkward than she’d ever seen him. With his strapping build – and importantly, his equally strapping personality – Jake was not built to look unsure of himself. You tell that to his deflated shoulders and pasty cheeks.

“Vivian,” he began.

A general alarm echoed through the room.

Benz looked confused. Jake froze.

He’d clearly been outfitted with a new wrist device. He twisted his wrist around and stared at it. He jerked his head over to Benz. “Prep to move her.”

Vivian shook her head. “Move me? What is that alarm? What does it have to do with me?”

Jake ignored her and stared at his wrist device again. From here, she could see a red light flashing on it.

“Doctor?” she tried, her voice shooting up high. When he didn’t answer, she got off the bed.

She expected Jake to snap at her to lie back down. Instead, he walked right up to her and grabbed her hand. She was so shocked, she just let his fingers slip through and intertwine with hers. “Screw it,” Jake said, “I’ll move her. Have you got the decoy ready?” he asked Benz.

The doctor nodded. His cheeks were pale. “How can we be sure someone’s on their way?”

“Because Admiral Forest doesn’t make mistakes.” Jake pulled Vivian toward the wall. He stopped. “Throw me a medical kit,” he snapped at Benz.

“There’s no point. None of the drugs we administer do anything. Just get her out of here.”

“What’s going on?” Her voice trembled with fear and uncertainty.

Jake said nothing as he swiped his hand over the wall. A patch of it opened, a door appearing as if the entire room was made up of doors, but someone had just painted over them to make them look like grey smart concrete.

“You can walk, can’t you?” Jake stared at her with a terrified gaze. “You’re not about to collapse?”

“Yes. Of course I can walk. I feel sickly, but that’s it. No, that’s not it. What the hell is going on?” As they reached the corridor outside, she saw that no one was around. Worse, that alarm blared louder out here.

It wasn’t shrill enough that she had to shove her fingers in her ears, but it made her skin prickle with fear.

“You’re just being moved,” Jake muttered distractedly as he hit something on his wrist device.

The corridor shimmered in the strangest way.

She was hardly bigger than Jake, but she managed to gather the little strength she had to hold herself to the spot. “Just tell me. It’s so much more stressful not to know what’s going on.” There would’ve been a time when she would never have begged Jake Trace. Now he felt like he was her only hope.

He reached down and locked a hand on her elbow and pulled her around. His expression melted like a candle under too much heat. “Someone is after you, Vivian. They accessed your medical file. They figured out you’re at the Academy. I can only assume that Paci told you not to register him because he was hiding you from whoever is after you.”

She felt sick. But, strangely, it lifted a little of her stress. It shouldn’t, but there was something about being hand-in-hand with Jake Trace that made the threat of whatever was after her feel remote.

“Why wasn’t I told?” she managed.

Jake was hurrying down the corridor at a healthy pace – or at least one she could keep up with – but he slowed as he turned to face her. “Because Paci warned us not to share information with you. He said that if we did, it would induce stress, and it could—” He had another problem with his jaw. He didn’t seem to know what to do with it anymore.

“It could what?” she asked in a deadened voice.

“It could induce another attack,” he said quietly. He sounded saddened by that, as if he had any business feeling compassionate toward her personal medical tragedy.

She didn’t bark at him that this was none of his business. Unconsciously, though he’d been doing all the holding of her hand, she started to hold his back. “Paci has been keeping things from me? Have… I had pacemakers longer than I thought? Was that heart attack in my father’s office not the first?”

“No, it wasn’t. The first was when you were three.”

Horror engulfed her. It was enough that she lost her balance.

Jake wouldn’t let her fall. He secured a hand on her shoulder as he looked as if he’d made a terrible mistake. “I shouldn’t have said—”

“No. I’m fine. And you need to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me. Why would Paci keep this from me?” Her voice shook on the word Paci, because something clicked into place. If she’d been outfitted with pacemakers since the age of three, her father had always known she had a condition but he’d kept it from her.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but just try to push it out of your mind.”

“I’m thinking that apparently my life’s been a lie. I don’t understand – why did my father even build Paci? What does he do, anyway? I thought he was just one of my father’s prototype medical devices?”

“He’s not. He was made specifically for your condition.”

“Which is what?”

Jake either didn’t have the time or knowledge to answer. He pulled her down another section of the corridor.

“Where are we going, anyway?” she asked coldly. She wasn’t trying to be rude; she just couldn’t control her tone anymore.

Jake didn’t take it as an insult. “This is a little trick Admiral Forest learned during the Force War.”

“Force War? What’s that?”

Jake chuckled. “Just the latest in a long line of critical incidents the Coalition has solved in order to keep peace in the Milky Way.”

She opened her mouth automatically. Maybe she was about to say the Coalition didn’t keep the peace. They were greedy and self-righteous, and they caused a lot of their own problems.

She couldn’t push that out. Not with Jake holding her hand like this and with those doctors back there in that lab in harm’s way.

She paled as she thought about them. She jerked her head over her shoulder back in their direction. “Is Benz going to be okay?”

Jake chuckled. “Believe you me, he will be fine. He’s faced a lot worse.”

“You don’t know what’s out there,” she muttered quietly.

It was just a guess, but it was correct. Jake stiffened as that comment got to him. It was his turn to jerk his head over his shoulder and stare back in the direction of his abandoned friend.

He forced a breath through his teeth. “Come on. We’re almost there.”

“Where are we going, again?”

“The center of this maze.” He said the word maze with some satisfaction.

She frowned. “Maze? This just looks like a series of corridors.” She turned around and faced them. As her gaze sliced along the walls, she realized something wasn’t right. Every single corridor they’d passed through had looked identical. “Wait, what is this place?”

“Places,” he corrected her, emphasizing the plural.

“What?”

“During the Force War, as far as the story goes, Admiral Forest encountered a spatially distorted maze. It took information from multiple locations and wove them over the top of each other. This is based on that. It distorts and confuses space, and as long as you’re not dealing with an enemy with extraordinary skills, it will make it impossible for them to find you through the maze.”

There was a lot about what he’d just said that should make her jaw drop off. She was stuck on one point. “And what if we are dealing with an enemy with incredible skills?”

Jake didn’t answer.

After one more length of corridor, he arrived at a door.

He approached it, and it opened. He pulled her in.

There was a room. It had a medical bed, some consoles, and a few chairs. It looked unnecessarily spartan.

“Make yourself comfortable on the bed. Are you sure you feel okay? I would’ve taken Benz, too, but we didn’t have the tech to make a perfect holographic clone of him.”

She shook her head. “Perfect holographic clone?”

“Don’t take it the wrong way, but we did an atomic scan of you. We’ve made a perfect holographic clone based off it. We learned a thing or two from that incident years ago – the one that involved the Circle Traders. We’ve since better understood their holographic technology, and we’re relatively certain that we can create almost indistinguishable matches of people. It’ll be enough to throw whoever’s after you off the scent. Then the Academy’s combat team will sweep in and deal with the threat.”

She didn’t walk over to the bed and make herself comfortable. She just stood there in the middle of that room and stared at him.

“Shouldn’t you be in armor?”

He looked at her. “What makes you think I’m not?”

She blinked. She looked him up and down. “The fact you’re not. And,” she sighed uncomfortably, “if you were in some kind of prototype armor, Paci wouldn’t have been able to….” She scratched her arm rather than finish that thought.

“I wasn’t then. I am now.” He balled up a hand and tapped his chest.

She saw something shimmering. “What is that?”

“Holographic armor. I’d tell you to forget that you heard that, but I think we’re way past the secrets act now. How are you feeling?” he asked for what felt like the thousandth time.

He might be keeping on repeating it, but that didn’t bother her. Not one bit.

She scratched her arms. “Weird.”

He paled. “How weird? Do you think it’s stress or something else?”

She shrugged. “I’ve never been this long without Paci in my head.”

“I see.”

She chuckled. “You do? Because I don’t. Paci has never shown behavior like this. He’s always been protective, but—”

“He’s never had that much to protect you from. Of the brief analysis we managed to do, it suggests that he is uniquely capable of reprogramming himself. And we’re assuming,” he looked right at her, “that the impetus to reprogram himself comes from you.”

She went to bring her hands up. What if this was a prelude to Jake Trace becoming the mean asshole she’d been growing so used to?

He looked shocked at her reaction, then he shook his head. “I’m not suggesting you’re making him reprogram himself. I’m suggesting that his primary remit is to keep you safe. As the threats you encounter escalate, he has to alter his programming. We’re relatively certain that we would no longer have the ability to turn off your pacemaker now even if we tried.”

“I don’t get it. If he had the capacity to do that, why didn’t he do it to begin with?”

“He wouldn’t have encountered technology like this.” Jake gestured to his wrist device. “It’s a prototype. It’s top-of-the-line Coalition, and some of its functions were developed directly from the lessons we learned in the Force War. Paci’s incredible, but he wouldn’t be able to account for threats unless he encountered them. Once this was used on him twice,” he gestured with his wrist device again, “it would’ve given him all the information he required to circumvent such attacks in the future.”

She felt so cold. “Why would he need skills like that? What you’re suggesting is insane.”

Jake stared at her, his lips pressed together in a grim frown. “That’s the question we’re trying to answer. There was a time I couldn’t believe that anyone would be hunting you down.” He turned his head back in the direction of the door. “Now the only question is what exactly is hunting you down.”

This would’ve been a good place to snap at him for how mean he’d been. She settled for taking a calming breath. She opened her mouth to ask another question—

A shrill alarm echoed through the room.

Even from here, she could tell that Jake blanched.

“What is that?” She took a worried step toward him.

“I can’t believe this. This shouldn’t be possible,” he stammered.

He squared off in front of the door.

“What shouldn’t be possible?”

“Something has just encountered your holographic clone.”

She jolted toward him. “Benz and the others—”

“Did not engage the enemy. It wasn’t convinced by the clone. It’s on its way. It’s in the maze.”

She had no clue what she should do. She just stood there. “I really don’t know what’s happening here,” she choked through her words.

“That makes two of us. Vivian, I need you to listen to me, though. If your enemy breaches the maze and comes in here, I want you to leave.”

“How? I can’t be transported,” she shook, folding her arms around her middle as a few tears touched her cheeks, “so where the hell do I go?”

“I’ll make you a door. It’ll appear right beneath you. It will take you outside of the maze. Just run. Admiral Forest will find you.”

She had no love lost for Jake Trace. She had a lot of complaints she hadn’t been able to raise with him yet. That didn’t stop her from wasting energy to run up to his side. She shook her head. “I’m not going to leave you.”

His eyes twitched and widened. “What are you doing? Get back to safety. Get behind me.”

She stared at the door.

She… could feel something, couldn’t she?

Suddenly, her heart raced. It was like Paci failed, but instead of her dying, her heart for the first time set its own beat.

She crumpled a hand over her chest.

“Dammit, Vivian? What’s happening?” Jake spat.

She wasn’t dying. She just felt….

She backed off. She fell flat on her ass. She didn't even care that she revealed way too much of her pasty white legs to Jake under her medical robe. “Something’s coming.”

“Nothing’s broken through the maze—” he had time to say.

Something smashed into the door. It buckled.

There hadn’t been a weapon in Jake’s hand. Until now. Something grew out of his wrist device. A chunk of metal just sloughed off it, then the next thing she knew, it tumbled into his hand. It managed to re-modulate itself until it formed a gun.

She had never seen technology like it.

“Vivian, run,” Jake bellowed.

He accessed something on his wrist device, and a door started to open up underneath her.

It wasn’t in time.

The main door was blasted inward. It sailed into Jake. It knocked him off his feet and sent him slamming into Vivian. It pushed her back from the hole in the floor before she could fall through it. They tumbled to the side. Jake instinctively wrapped his arms around Vivian and cradled her head to stop it from smashing against the concrete.

Somehow, he didn’t let go of his gun. Blindly, he fired over his shoulder.

He might not have had a direct line of sight, but she heard as his bullets smashed into something nonetheless.

There was the sound of crackling sizzles as if all Jake had done was throw a few droplets of water on a fire.

Jake grunted. He accessed his wrist device again, this time creating a door right beneath them.

He didn’t get the chance to drop her through it.

Something reached Jake. It locked a hand on his shoulder and pulled him to the side. It wrenched him so easily, it looked as if their enemy was doing nothing more arduous than throwing a leaf out of its path.

Jake sailed through the room and smashed into the medical bed. He crumpled it in half.

A scream was on Vivian’s lips. It died there as she stared up into a faceless warrior. It didn’t look like a man in armor. It was a robot. Something about it almost resembled Paci. It had a long body, long arms, and long fingers to match it. That body was a strange silver white.

The next thing she knew, those fingers locked around her throat and hauled her off her feet.

“You bastard,” Jake screamed as he pulled himself out of the remains of the medical bed. He started firing.

The robot opened its hand wide. Jake’s gun flew into it. The robot crushed it like someone slamming a spoon onto a boiled egg.

The robot’s fingers didn’t tighten around Vivian’s throat and end it all here. Instead, the bot’s head opened. A thin layer of metal smoothly shifted up and over its head, revealing two parallel lines of light. One was blue, one was red.

A scanning beam shot from that red layer and pushed into her left eye.

Vivian couldn’t move. It wasn’t just the robot’s grip on her throat anymore. Fear the likes of which she had never experienced locked her to the spot. It told her on every deep level that her life would never be the same. For she had been discovered.

“Dammit,” Jake roared. With no gun, he bodily threw himself at the robot.

The robot just casually swatted him. Jake was struck so hard, he tumbled into the wall. He hit it at full speed, and chunks were ripped out of the reinforced concrete.

“Jake,” she tried to choke around the robot’s grip.

It continued to scan her eye. At first, it kept its distance from her. A second later, it didn’t. It brought its face right up close to hers.

She couldn’t scream anymore. All she could do was stare right into that glowing red strip. It looked like a path down to hell.

“I said get away from her,” Jake snapped as he pulled himself up.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as he wobbled so badly, it looked as if he had a broken leg.

“Jake, just run,” she managed.

The robot finally pulled its head back. “You have not seen the path yet. We will take you to it.”

They were the first words it had ever said to her, and she would never forget them. They were a strange mix of indifferent and yet viciously cruel as if this robot would do anything it saw fit, no matter how destructive.

Jake reached it again.

Just as he launched up the robot’s back and wrapped his arm around its head, the robot did something. Light encased it. It swept over her and Jake too.

The next thing she knew, she was transported.

She appeared in some long corridor.

She caught a glimpse of the wall beside her. It had the words Basement Beta painted over it.

When the robot had transported, obviously it hadn’t intended to transport Jake with it. Now it brushed him off as dismissively as someone removing a speck of dirt from their clothes. Jake fell onto the ground and cracked it.

“Jake,” she tried. It was almost impossible to speak around the robot’s grip on her throat. It was just enough that it wouldn’t choke her, but it gave her no further leeway.

There was a reinforced door to the robot’s side.

It opened its hand and twisted its fingers in.

There was the groan of reinforced metal complaining under great weight, then something snapped. The door shot forward, and warning alarms cut through the air.

Soldiers barreled out of the door in full armor. They started firing.

They were indiscriminate. A few blasts hit her. But for whatever reason, as the robot kept its hand on her, they didn’t kill her. It was as if a completely invisible shield was protecting her.

The soldiers were less than ineffective. The robot did not give them another chance to try. As it strode in through the door, its tall form just fitting underneath the top of the doorway, it struck the soldiers, batting them away as easily as it had Jake.

Waiting inside the lab were more soldiers. They fired everything they had. Nothing worked.

Vivian’s eyes were starting to roll into the back of her head.

She was only just managing to breathe. And yet, for whatever reason, she could not pass out.

She was barely conscious of the room around her. It was enough that she could see there wasn’t that much in it. There were some consoles, sure, but the main event was something on a shielded plinth in the middle. It might have been turned away from her, but she still recognized it. Her left eye itched as soon as she saw it.

It was the painting. The Eye of the Gods.

Jake hadn’t given up. He’d been knocked down enough times to kill a lesser man, but that didn’t stop him from letting out another bellow as he blasted into the room.

He slowed down just a fraction when he saw what was in the middle of it.

The robot never let go of her throat as it walked up to that plinth.

She dangled there, her hands clutched around its smooth, cold metal fingers like she was nothing more than a doll some child was dragging along on its adventures.

The robot reached the painting.

She had no clue what it would do with it.

Finally, it dumped her. It didn't seem to care about her body. It was tall, and as it released its grip, she fell right on her left ankle. She snapped it.

She screamed.

Jake had somehow managed to grab another gun. He started firing, not at the robot, but at the floor beneath it.

Whatever mysterious invisible shield protected the robot had already spread to the floor. It absorbed every single one of Jake’s blasts.

The robot ignored him as it grabbed up the painting. It turned it around.

Vivian shook there on the floor. “What are you doing?”

“Show us a path home.” It shoved the painting right up against her face.

She tried to jerk away, but instantly, she caught that one single angle that made the artwork shine.

She… started to become distracted. Academically, she knew Jake was still there, trying everything he could do to get through that robot. She heard screams further out in the corridor, too. But they couldn’t penetrate. Nothing could.

She saw that path open up. Light blasted around her, and once more, it felt as if she was being pulled, pulled right through this galaxy into another.

Her breathing stopped. It felt like her heart did, too.

The robot shoved the painting to the side. Once more it wrapped its hand around her throat and pulled her up.

She couldn’t even note her pain anymore.

She felt stretched thin.

The robot brought its face up and pressed it against hers, staring right into her left eye.

She could still see that path – the path right through the stars to—

Something blasted through the room.

It didn’t knock the robot off its feet, but it did jerk its head to the side.

What was happening to Vivian stopped. She could no longer see that path. Instead, she watched as Admiral Forest barreled into the room. She had the same box she’d been carrying back on Vivian’s cruiser.

Vivian was close enough to the robot that she could see its every reaction. It tilted its head far to the side as it stared at that box. “You have a crystal. You will surrender it to its rightful owner.”

“Like hell I’m surrendering anything,” the admiral snapped. She tightened her grip on the box. That strange gauntlet she wore started to glow. Energy pulsed out of the box in every direction.

It struck the robot.

This time, it was dragged back, but it still wasn’t knocked off its feet.

That fact sent shock blasting through the admiral’s expression, but she didn’t stop. She jolted forward, got down on her knee, concentrated, and gripped the box with all her might.

The robot was pushed back several meters. The sound of its metal feet grating over the floor sounded like someone running a knife down a bone.

“You do not know how to release its power. You are not worthy. Return it.” The robot shoved out its free hand and opened its fingers wide.

Admiral Forest was still holding the box, but suddenly it tried to jerk up and out of her grip.

Her shoulder popped as she put all the force she could into holding it in place.

She screamed, but just when it looked as if she would be pulled forward, she locked her knees down. She seemed to redouble her efforts to control the box and the crystal within.

More force pulsed out.

The robot looked surprised – even though Vivian had no way to know that.

It threw its hand out again as it tried to regain control of the box, but couldn’t.

With one last scream, Admiral Forest did it. She accessed some level of power, and it smashed out of the box. It slammed into the robot.

It crumpled.

A portion of its massive arm fell on Vivian’s leg, pinning her as she fell by its side.

She screamed as she swore one of her bones broke.

“Move. Get her out of here,” the admiral spat as she staggered to her feet.

“Admiral, what the hell are we dealing with?” Vivian was gladdened when Jake was the first to speak and respond.

He jerked over to Vivian. With a hell of a shrug, he managed to push the robot off her. He crumpled down and picked her up.

He became pale at the sight of her face. She would’ve looked like a freshly minted corpse.

“What just happened? What just happened?” she spat with all her vocal force. But considering what had just happened to her, all her vocal force was nothing more than a tortured, hoarse whisper.

Jake’s fingers tightened around her. “Where do we take her? What was that thing? What are we going to do with it?”

“Destroy it,” the admiral said coldly.

“Admiral, we’ve never encountered something like that—”

“Which is precisely why we need to destroy it. It almost gained control of this crystal,” she said as she distractedly locked her gaze on the robot then switched it to Jake. “Which tells us it’s a threat unlike any we have ever encountered. Now take Vivian.”

“Where?”

“There’s a secure holding cell down the corridor.”

“Nothing is secure,” Jake spat back. “That thing navigated the maze in a few seconds. It’s also equipped with its own transporters. It has invisible shields. It—”

“Just take her to the holding cell. We will decide what happens next once this thing is destroyed.”

“Admiral, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we should turn Paci back on.”

“I am inclined to agree. Now move.”

Jake moved. He carried Vivian out, down the corridor, and to a secure holding cell. A medical team saw to her, treating her broken leg and ankle. Benz wasn’t among them.

She wanted to ask where he was. She couldn’t. A horror unlike any she had ever felt gripped her.

It wasn’t a fear that assailed her alone. One look at the harried expressions of the staff around her, and she could tell they hadn’t dealt with a threat like this in a long time. That robot had made most of the Coalition tech it had encountered look like toys. If the admiral hadn’t come along, it would have….

Vivian shivered.

Jake was in the room with her. He was seated on a table nearby as someone saw to his broken arm. He jerked his head up and over to her. “What is it? It’s not your heart, is it?”

She shook her head. She placed a hand over her eye. She… could almost see something still there. It was like she was perpetually looking at the painting now.

Jake bolted off the bed and shot toward her. It didn’t matter that several medical staff tried to get in his way. Nothing could. He grabbed her by the shoulders, then gently – in the most tender move anyone had ever made around her – he tilted her chin up and stared at her left eye.

He blanched.

“What is it? What do you see?”

Jake took a step back, secured his hand over his mouth, and let it drop. “Where’s Admiral Forest?”

“Jake, please, what do you see?”

He turned to walk away. She shoved out a hand and grabbed his wrist. Her grip was weak, but she pushed her fingers in with all her might.

She didn’t have to plead with him again. Slowly, he turned. “Vivian, something’s reflecting in your eye.”

“Reflecting in my eye? What?” She placed a hand over her eye again and then removed it.

She could still see that path.

“What the hell was that robot after?” one of the youngest doctors asked.

Jake wasted no time in pointing right at Vivian’s eye. “That.”

She felt cold at the way he’d just objectified her.

It didn’t last. With his finger still pointed at her eye, he added, “Path.”

Path? There was a path in her eye? How could there be a path in anyone’s eye?

She started hyperventilating.

The doctors snapped close around her, but what could they do?

“Screw this,” Jake said. He took a step away from her, not toward her. He closed his eyes. Even though Jake had a confusing mishmash of a personality that made him seem like an asshole half the time and the most caring man she’d ever met the other half, there was no reason for him to be backing off from her.

“Jake?” she managed to speak even through her shallow breaths.

Doctors were trying to administer something to her, but it wasn’t working.

“It’s time to turn Paci back on,” Jake concluded. “I should really have Admiral Forest’s permission to do this. But screw it.” He looked right at her. “If it’s the only thing that can keep you alive, screw it.” Jake did something to his wrist device.

Instantly, a calm unlike any other spread through Vivian. It felt induced. It was. Because Paci was rising again.

“Try to remain calm, Mistress,” he spoke through his mental connection. “I will control the situation from now on. You do not need to fear.”

“No, Paci, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Jake took a step toward her again. “Look, Paci, I know you can hear me. I don’t know what’s going on. I just know this – it’s a threat to the Coalition. I’m sure you’re more than capable of plucking Vivian away from here. But we both need each other right now. We have something called a Hendari crystal. It’s the only thing that managed to stop that robot. I’m assuming that though you weren’t capable of communication, you were still scanning during that incident—”

“Correct,” Paci said. He spoke from Jake’s wrist device.

Jake jerked back. “You’re speaking through my wrist device? Of course you are,” he added quickly. “I’m sure you can hack into whatever you want to. But please, before you try to attack me again, just listen. I don’t know what’s after her. We’ve never encountered it before. The only thing that could shut it down was a Hendari crystal. We have one. You—”

“Don’t?” Paci questioned. “An assumption.”

Everyone in the room stopped. No one paled as much as Jake. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you assume this pacemaker is built on?”

Jake looked right at Vivian. She was lost. It wasn’t just the situation – more than anything, it was the fact that Jake looked lost. It put into refrain everything that was happening to her. Because if the special commander couldn’t deal with this, no one could.

“Vivian’s pacemaker is based on a Hendari crystal?” Jake spluttered.

“Correct,” Paci concluded.

What the hell were they talking about? Vivian couldn’t begin to understand, but again, it was only through Jake’s expression that she understood one thing – whatever was happening, she was screwed.

She couldn’t hyperventilate anymore – Paci seemed to be stopping her.

Jake brought his hands up in a surrender position, then let them drop. “How did Fred Bond find a Hendari crystal? Did he steal one?”

“No. He found one with his daughter.”

Vivian couldn’t move. Her lips dropped open. “What do you mean he found one with me?”

“You were adopted.”

Vivian crumpled a hand over her mouth.

“Whoa. Don’t freak her out,” Jake begged.

“We are way beyond that stage. Your actions led to this, Jake Trace, so you will be responsible for fixing it.”

“I don’t have that kind of power,” Jake tried.

“You will,” Paci said ominously.

“What?” Jake choked.

“You will take Vivian off Earth. Now we have a path, you will return her home.”

“Path?” Jake could barely speak.

At least he could move his lips. Vivian was locked to the spot with fear.

Jake jerked his head to the side and appeared to stare back in the direction of that room. “You mean that painting, right? And,” he pointed at Vivian’s left eye, “that.”

“Yes. I failed to recognize what that painting was. If I had, this would not be happening. Now it is. And now we will return her home.”

“Home?” he said as he stared right at Vivian.

She mouthed one word as she stared back. “Home.”

A place far away. A place she’d only ever accessed in dreams. And a place that had always tried to kill her.

The end of The Eye of the Gods Episode One. The Eye of the Gods Episode Two is currently available.


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