This is a prologue set before Episode One.
She sat in the transport, keeping to herself, her hood pulled over her eyes, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle.
Another day in paradise, she thought sarcastically as the transport filled with the scum of the universe. She looked up to see various interstellar criminals and deadbeats file in. She shuffled further into the corner of the wall, her hooded shoulders brushing up against the pulsing relay beside her. This transport was so old, and had been battered and rebuilt so many times, obviously the owners no longer bothered with basic things like metal housings for their key engine infrastructure.
Still, she had it lucky. The passengers on the other long metal seat that sat opposite her had to put up with a crackling fuel relay. If a single droplet of super-heated fuel were to spill from the badly repaired relay, it would singe through biological flesh in an instant.
As for Alice’s flesh?
Who frigging knew.
Alice was an Old One, and this universe had once belonged to her kind. Now she was the last of her race and her life was nothing more than an attempt to stay hidden.
Which was precisely why she stuck with transports like these on crappy backwater planets just like this one.
There was a ping that ran through the echoing transport room. It signaled that the last passenger had come aboard and it was time to take off.
Nobody around her spoke. They knew the rules. You didn’t come on a transport like this to make friends, because the only kinds of friends you would make were the ones who would skin you, bleed you dry, and leave you for dead in a heartbeat.
Just as the hatch at the back of the transport began to close with a violent shudder that reminded Alice of a shaking hand, it stopped. The groan of gears holding the massive, six-ton metal door in place filled the room.
As one, everyone turned to see what the trouble was. Though they all inherently understood the risk in booking a transport as cheap and badly repaired as this, none of them could afford to be any choosier. Still, it wouldn’t be a good sign if the hatch door couldn’t close. Not a great thing to fly through space with a big open hole out into the vacuum.
But then the groan of gears changing direction filled the transport bay as the hatch door reopened.
A couple of the other passengers broke the rules as they muttered to each other, trying to figure out what was going on.
Once the hatch door had opened fully, the drum of heavy footfall reached their ears as somebody walked up the long metal platform with heavy boots.
The transport was parked directed toward the setting sun, and now the penetrating light of a double star pushed in through the open hatch, making it almost impossible to discern people against the glare. Or at least, for an ordinary, soft-fleshed race it would be impossible.
For Alice, she had no trouble. She may not have fed on her preferred energy – omidium radiation – for a while now. But neither had she fought. So she had more than enough power for her senses to pierce through the glare.
A man wearing Union Forces’ armor walked up the ramp until he stopped inside the transport bay. The symbol of the Union Forces glinted on his arm for everyone to see.
Every single person in the transport bay stiffened, all of them fearing that the security guard was here for them.
Alice shrugged further back into the protection of her hood, staring at her clenched hands in her lap while at the same time staring through her hood at the security guard.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, and was wearing sophisticated armor you wouldn’t give to any ordinary grunt.
His helmet was on, sealing his anonymity in place, not that he would have any fear of reprisals from the scum on this transport. It would be a cold day in Hell before the ordinary scum of the universe thought it was a good idea to take on a Union Forces’ security guard. Do that, and it would be a ticket to the grave. Or worse – a prison planet.
The guy kept standing there, slowly swiveling his head from left to right. Alice could tell with little effort on her part that he was accessing incoming information on his visor.
A pulse of fear threatened to slam through her chest, and she had to stop herself in time before she rounded her hands into fists.
He’s not here for me. He’s not here for me. Nobody knows I exist. Goddammit, nobody knows I exist, she thought to herself over and over again in a desperate prayer. The desperate prayer was designed to do one thing and one thing only – keep Alice sane. For if she lost her sanity, and most importantly, the grain of self-control that kept hold of her Old One power, she would lose it. White channels of light would appear over her skin, and her secret would be revealed in an instant.
She shrugged further back against the exposed relay behind her, making eye contact with no one and instead staring through her hood.
All muttering had ceased. Everyone watched in collective horror to see which poor bastard would turn out to be the security guard’s target.
Alice picked up an almost indiscernible buzz and realized the guy was receiving some kind of communication to his helmet.
The security guard finally took a step forward, his heavy boots ringing out, sounding like a hammer thundering against a door as someone demanded to be let in.
He stopped, obviously looking at some information coming onto his visor, then he took another step forward.
The passengers sitting at the beginning of each row relaxed visibly as they obviously concluded the guy wasn’t here for them.
But he couldn’t be here for Alice, either – right? Right? She had lived her life so carefully, never revealing anything, never trusting anyone.
Was she lonely? Truth be told, she did not know what it was not to be lonely. She had only ever lived this life and had no frame of reference to understand anything better.
The guy took another step forward. More people relaxed.
Though this transport was packed, it wasn’t large. It wasn’t technically a transport, either. Some ambitious soul had taken what should be a single person transport, whacked a pod on the back, and decided to extricate cash from the poor and desperate.
Still, there were at least 20 passengers in here. The guy took another step forward. He also lifted his head. Though there was only a slight tilt to his chin, Alice could tell he was staring her way. Based on the angle of his head, that meant he was either looking at her or the man beside her.
Fear blasted through her, far more exquisite than any she’d felt for months. It pounded in her chest, hammered up her throat, and sunk into the back of her head. And, more than anything, it screamed at her to run.
For she could not be captured.
Alice was the last of her kind in a universe that had no clue she existed. But the day they found out who she was and what she was capable of, was the day everything would change.
The modern universe might be built on the technology of her forefathers, but in many ways, that same technology had destroyed everything. It had created a vast inequality in society – a divide between those who could scrounge working Old Tech, and those who could not.
More than anything, it led to greed. Greed for more power, for more old technology devices, for more, for more – for more.
Alice couldn’t stop herself anymore, and rounded her hands into soft fists, her fingers digging hard into her palms. There was no way her nails could cut through the flesh – even if they were tipped with diamond ionic drills. But if she lost hold of her energy, then she could become injured.
But she would not lose hold.
The guy took another step forward, and Alice swore that the sound of his footfall doubled, practically shrieking through the small enclosed space. It drilled into her head, sinking into her brain as it screamed even louder that she had to run.
This was a small planet – nothing more than a transport hub. Though there were plenty of ships coming and going, it was also on a common shipping route. If Alice revealed her power here and gambled on the chance that she could steal a ship and flee, there was every chance that the Union would block off the shipping routes.
So she had to stay. Until the last moment, she had to sit on this seat and wait to figure out if the guard was here for her or the guy beside her.
The guard took one final step forward. He reached the end of the bay. He hesitated a single second then turned toward Alice.
All eyes were on her and the guy beside her.
The guy was some mishmash of alien races. He probably had human in him somewhere – that would account for his large, watery eyes. His lips were thin and white, his teeth yellow and jagged. He was wearing old, dirty leather pants and a jacket thrown over a scrappy robe.
He was also trembling.
Alice could taste his fear from here. Every unique biochemical marker that entered the air from his sweat and rapid breath. Every trembling vibration of his chest wall as his heart pounded harder and harder. She could even hear the creak of tendon and bone as he turned his fingers into his palms.
The security guard didn’t say anything. He simply stood there. His head was angled directly between Alice and the passenger beside her. Though she could do a lot as an Old One, her gaze could not pierce through the guard’s helmet, and she had no idea where his eyes were looking.
One second ticked by, and another, then another. This was Hell incarnate.
With every moment, her unique energy threatened to spiral out of control.
“You’re coming with me,” the guard finally spoke, his electronic voice hitting the air, sounding like a sword slicing through all resistance.
Alice had to decide.
It was now or never.
If the guy reached out and caught her, she would have to use her Old One strength to break the grip of his sophisticated armor. But if she pushed up now and ran, there was a chance she could flee without revealing her skills.
She had to decide.
Alice had never known hope. Other than that which she had forced herself to believe in. And right now, she trusted in a single flicker of knowledge that ran through her chest. It told her to stay.
This transport was headed for Orion Minor, and if she got off now, she’d never reach that planet.
So she made the decision to stay. Something beyond her told her it was important to trust in her luck just this once, for if she did, her fortunes would ultimately change.
There were better days ahead, if only she could find the strength to uncover them.
The guy beside her suddenly bolted up, but the security guard was obviously expecting it, and he shifted forward. He rounded his hand into a fist and sunk it into the man’s stomach.
There was the crunch of bone and the sound of soft flesh being impacted with such force, the guy was knocked back as if he was a ball that had been struck with a bat.
He thumped in to the relay behind Alice, the force of his footfall almost tearing it from the wall.
“No. No – I’m not going back. I’m not going back—” the guy began to blubber as blood splattered from his lips.
“The Project requires you. And so does this universe. This is the cost of modernity,” the guard snapped. And with that, he leaned forward, punched the man across the jaw, then grabbed up his unconscious body.
The guard turned on his heavy boots and walked away.
A minute later, the hatch door closed, and the transport took off.
Alice’s gamble had paid off.
She tilted her head up, closed her eyes, and dreamed of better days ahead.
The end of the Ghost of Mind short story.