Navigator P-72 squinted in the flood lamps of Triumph Aegis Intersystem’s freight hangar, trying not to sneeze. Engine-stink didn’t normally bother her but there was different smell to this formula–something sharp and acrid, heavy around her like greased rain. Even the transport hunkering at the far end of the hold was an unfamiliar make. Swamp-mud brown with ugly black scoring on the ship’s bow, starboard.
She could not see its designation.
All passengers had disembarked an hour ago and still she waited, zipped up in a rumpled hangar crew jumpsuit with her weapons kit hidden out of sight, squatting behind a cargo-lift.
Hooray for last-minute Priority-Red ops.
A fizzing pop echoed above P-72 as auto-timed ceiling lamps powered down and the red safety lights running along the metal walkways flickered to life. The abrupt darkness was unsettling. The silence was worse.
Triumph’s only Aegis-maintained civilian spaceport was always busy–at least, any day but today. P-72 sat higher, shifting her weight from foot to foot, and peered around for the hundredth time into the patch of shadow straight ahead. The freighter’s cargo bay doors yawned wide, the mouth of a mechanoid leviathan.
A search of the ship and the entire blasted hangar had given her nothing. Now–
P-72 stilled. A blot of something even darker than the shadowed doorway shot under the struts of the ship. Senses on high alert, she crept from her hiding spot and stepped into a puddle of red from the nearest safety lights.
“Do not move.” A voice, low and muted, sounded from behind her.
Navigator P-72 ignored the command and spun to face a figure standing two meters away, of course aiming a weapon at her.
“Hey, where did you–” P-72 started.
“Shut it now, please.” the stranger ended his rude/polite command with an almost reptilian hiss. “Hands in the air and do not try anything.”
P-72 flattened her expression to something almost neutral and raised her arms, gloved fingers pointing toward the ceiling. She knew that there wasn’t time to draw, and her primary directive was to negotiate first, shoot only if needed.
The figure padded closer, face hidden behind the unmarked black body armor of a Kraah Supremacy Operator. The Kraah, normally her mortal enemy and hopefully, her newest mission partner.
Emphasis on hope.
The Operator was lithe, tall and pointing a gun at P-72, a compact sidearm of a mark she had never seen.
A lot of unknowns today, she thought, a huff of grim laughter escaping into the awful quiet.
“You are laughing?” The Operator paused as if surprised.
She didn’t answer. Of course a Kraah Operator would be taken aback by laughter. It’s not like they knew how to do it themselves.
“You should try it sometime.”
The agent’s only answer was to circle P-72, weapon steady in one hand, the other raised slightly, palm open. P-72 knew she was being scanned. She decided to cooperate and stood motionless, barely daring to draw breath until the other figure moved back into view.
“You are Navigator P-72. My Aegis contact.”
“Yyyyyep, could have told you that if you’d not crept over and threatened to shoot me.” P-72 let her feigned calm drop, scowling at the other agent’s shiny face-mask.
“Caution is warranted. It is fortunate you are alive. That means they haven’t made it here yet.”
“They?” P-72 echoed, unsettled by the urgency in the Operator’s tone.
“You now must prepare to fight your way to safety,” the Operator replied, his accent suddenly thicker, the words faster than before.
Navigator P-72 hesitated. The stranger was not acting like a normal Operator–at least, any she had worked with. She stood, arms at her side, watching the agent in black for any change in mood or motive. Navigator P-72 knew she was at a disadvantage–Kraah Supremacy agents were notoriously skilled in combat. Also, he clearly had information P-72 did not. She needed to wrest back some control over her part of the mission, and soon.
Not that she was entirely sure what her part was…
“Okay. I first need for you to identify yourself properly. If you are S-4, show me the code as you were instructed. Caution is warranted, after all,” she said, bouncing S-4’s words back at him.
The stranger holstered his weapon, slowly, and dragged one finger over his left forearm. Shivering green radiance projected from his open palm. Navigator P-72 tried not to look impressed.
So he’s Kraah AND a biotech…this must be one hell of a special mission. The good news keeps coming.
P-72 watched as Kraah script flashed in the air, tiny and quivering, spelling out the pass phrase, WE ARE NUMEROUS AS THE LUMINOUS STARS, WE ARE LEGION followed by the numeric code reserved for this mission.
The characters faded away, leaving behind only the oppressive shadows of the cargo bay.
“Is it sufficient enough for us to proceed?” Operator S-4 asked, a hint of impatience in his voice, his S’s hissier.
“Mmm. For now.” P-72 focused on the other agent’s posture. Her handler had informed her that S-4, the Operator she would be assigned to for the next spate of missions, was at the top of his tier in combat drills and measurable ability in the field. No wonder–biotechs were rare. If Aegis Prime knew she was working so closely with one of their enemy’s most powerful operatives…
Navigator P-72 repressed a shudder.
And why Operator S-4 was so wary–highly abnormal for an Operator–was something she wanted very much to know. She concentrated, casting deep into S-4’s energy. A nifty trick courtesy of her Legacy, the power that had landed her in this mess to begin with.
What P-72 found in the Operator’s heart, mind, and body surprised her. Taut-strung tension, signs of pain and high levels of adrenaline. Elevated heart rate.
Legacied Navigators like P-72 were trained to identify even the faintest undercurrents of emotion and intention in those around them. There was nothing faint about Operator S-4’s state of being.
She shook away a chill of misgiving, standing taller, reassuring herself not all was lost. Not yet.
“Lead the way, and give me any intel I need,” P-72 said.
S-4 nodded, then turned on his heel and cut toward the opposite corner of the hangar, toward the shadowed freighter.
“I was told only that our target would register abnormally large amounts of residual psionic energies as well as residue of a chemical decontaminant found on transports originating from the Border Wastes. I found no such energies and as further annoyance, the entire hold is filled with that same decontaminant .”
“What I smelled,” P-72 sighed. “I was given different parameters–told to watch for psionic energy, yes, but also traces of an aerosol sedative used in livestock transport. Whoever our target is, they were not on this freighter. I disembarked with the passengers, scanned them all. I’ve been here for an hour. There’s not a soul around, not even maintenance crews. And if there are any other agents shadowing us, well, they’re running silent, too.” She jogged to keep up with the Operator, who was stalking faster than before.
“The workers were paid off, told to take a break till the next arrival on the schedule. Still…” Operator S-4 made a rumbling noise in his chest, stopping abruptly enough P-72 nearly crashed into his back.
She could sense his frustration and confusion, loud as any shout.
“Operator, who are the ‘they’ you were talking about? The ones coming for us?”
“I do not know. I…I felt them, in my sensors, crawling like vermin. Many, not few. Synth, perhaps. Near, but not here. Do you need a weapon?” Operator S-4 padded closer, offering an Aegis standard-issue sidearm drawn from his second holster.
“Seriously? That wouldn’t take out a sandfly. You should know better,” P-72 scoffed and tore through the lining of her suit, digging into a hidden pocket. State of the art deflectives shielded her kit from both civvie and military scanners–apparently, even from an Operator’s tech.
Good to know.
“Impressive,” S-4 said, helmeted head inclining in respect.
“Hey, thanks. Now what’s the plan?” P-72 powered on her Ravager–a weapon of combined Kraah and Aegis tech not even available on the black market–and followed as S-4 started again towards far side of the hangar.
“Get out of here. Survive. Re-evaluate the situation,” S-4 answered with no hesitation. “Neither of us knows what we are looking for, and I have never encountered whatever…they are. Something is not right. Follow me to our escape-ship.”
“There will be hell to pay for this if we’ve botched everything,” P-72 muttered, not bothering to hide her displeasure. The operation was a disaster. Nothing to show for their time, no real knowledge of what they were facing.
The two agents skirted the freighter, moving towards a service door that led to an adjacent hangar. With a hydraulic swoosh, the doors closed behind them and Navigator P-72 found herself bathed in industrial lights, inches away from Operator S-4. The other soldier’s head inclined close to hers, his visor retracted enough that P-72 looked up into clear, silvery eyes.
P-72 drew a sharp breath.
A Xereth? Here?
The Operator held her gaze, daring her to say something. She could not look away from him–from those luminous eyes intense in his gray-green face, from the face of an operative of the most feared races in the galaxy–feared for their prowess in battle, their self-control, their almost mythical resistance to many types of Legacies. Navigator P-72 fought away a frisson of discomfort as S-4 spoke quietly.
“I am loyally on your side, please remember.”
“I know,” P-72 replied a little too quickly. S-4 made that same rumbling sound in his chest, and P-72 sensed something like resignation.
“Someone–something, and more than a little hostile–knows we are here. I neutralized two known mercenaries on my freighter flight in and Aegis Command reported a threat alert earlier in the day. And–” He paused, standing so close that Navigator P-72 could sense the heat from the Operator’s body. “I believe we of the Legion–our handlers even–are infiltrated.”
He backed away, peering around them.
“How? How is this possible?” P-72 stared at the Operator’s back in shock, finally understanding his earlier panic.
“I know not. I was fortunate to make it here alive. While you were waiting did you notice anything anomalous?”
“Other than the completely empty hangar, lack of a target, absence of any clear mission parameters?” Navigator P-72 remembered then…the shadow. “Oh. Something was moving–right before you found me. It disappeared under the freighter and I thought it might be a rat but now, now I’m not so sure.”
“Precisely what did you see?” The Operator pressed.
“Just a shadow, less than half a meter tall. I’ve cased the hangar thoroughly. My scans did not find any extra surveillance, any heat signatures…anything that could explain this. I don’t like it. Where is our ride out of here, Operator?”
“Next hangar.” Operator S-4 moved away and resumed his long-stride march to the bay doors.
The Navigator breathed easier with a little space between them. She sensed no threat from the Xereth. Their handler would not have assigned someone who was not loyal to the mission. Period.
Xereth or not, the Operator was safe. Had to be. Unless, of course, they were compromised, as S-4 had hinted.
Nothing I can do about this all now.
She followed Operator S-4 as he ducked through a narrow hatch, around a U-bend hallway past a code secured entry-gate that he disabled with a wave of one hand. Lurking in the cavernous emptiness of this hangar was a banged up, second-generation starskipper–something their handlers would have requisitioned in hopes of them keeping a low profile. It was emblazoned with Triumph’s logo and spectacularly ugly but skippers were fast and could take a beating.
“I assume you can pilot us?” Operator S-4 turned to P-72, those disquieting silver eyes narrowed and waiting.
“Of course, in theory. Strap in.”
“Theory is insufficient.” He stood stubbornly in place.
“I am a Navigator. Have some faith.”
Operator S-4 bobbed his head in a gesture that seemed like a shrug, then grabbed P-72’s hand, pressing something into her palm. She looked down to find a civilian data chip, inconspicuous and mundane.
“Coordinates, Navigator. Aegis will not be safe. We must deviate from the plan. Please do get us out alive.”
“Where?” she asked, her earlier shock deepening.
“Neutral space. Before the Wastes, beyond Glory’s Stand.”
Navigator P-72 nodded, not sure what else to say, and climbed the drop-ladder into the cockpit, looking down for a moment at Operator S-4. She smiled grimly.
“If you want to live, Operator, be ready with the guns. I’ll make the jump as soon as I can but till then it’s up to both of us to make it to wherever we’re going in one piece.”
Operator S-4 offered another of those head bobs then engaged his visor, again a faceless and black-clad weapon. P-72 heard the tap of the man’s feet on the rear ladder as S-4 made his way to the turret pod.
The high-pitched whine of ship defenses powering up sang in P-72’s ears. The sound of safety and efficiency. She checked the displays. Everything was optimal. Life support, weapons–the old ship was in amazing condition.
Navigator P-72 engaged the ship’s comm system. Her voice rang out, tinny and delayed. “Life support is fully functioning, and I’m entering the nav code now. You ready?”
“Affirmative. Activating weapons in 3…2…1.”
The starskipper’s security protocol buzzed an alarm, twice, then powered down.
Nothing happened for a long moment. The two agents sat buckled in and waiting, the only noises the hum of secondary systems and their own breathing.
“What just happened?” P-72 struggled out of her safety restraints. She looked down in time to see the command console display fade to dead black. She flicked the exit release but the pod’s ladder wouldn’t drop so P-72 kicked open the emergency door and made the leap from the cockpit, landing hard on her boots.
All around the starskipper, cargo hold lights flickered, increasing in erratic surges till white sparks spilled from the ceiling.
“Eject,” P-72 yelled, her voice ricocheting from the walls. Metal screeched on metal, the hiccupping chunk of gears crashing from all sides.
Operator S-4 landed lightly in a crouch beside her, cocooned in the green light of tech-shielding, his weapon ready.
“We must get out of the hangar now,” Operator S-4 ordered and P-72 did not wait, sprinting towards the hatch. S-4 was hard on her heels.
Subsonic rumbling shook the floor under their feet as another huge pulse of power arced through the circuits above them. All of the hangar bay’s lamps went nova, then faded to nothing but feeble safety lighting. Navigator P-72 looked back over her shoulder in time to see the starboard wall of the cargo hold slide open. A small ship of unfamiliar make, matte black and marked only with blinking red lights, hovered just beyond the safety barrier between the hangar and the frozen void of space.
She drew up short at the bay’s entryway. The hatch was somehow stuck, less than half-open.
“Go!” P-72 heard Operator S-4’s voice low and urgent right behind her. The other agent shoved P-72 to her knees, nudging her through the narrow space between the hatch door and the cargo bay floor. P-72 emerged on the other side and crawled to a stop.
Something loomed at the end of the hall.
It waited, just before the bend, darker than the shadow around it. S-4 slammed into P-72 from behind just as she tried to stand.
“Wait, there’s–” P-72’s voice broke off.
Pins and needles.
Navigator P-72 in this moment understood the old-fashioned phrase, her skin crawling with a thousand stabs of terror. Her Legacy lurched to painful awakening, every alarm in her mind and body screaming at once. It–whatever it was–intended to kill them, but wanted even more for them first to suffer. P-72 knew this in her sinew and bone, felt the malice freezing her blood.
Today she was going to die. Horribly.
Operator S-4 dodged from behind P-72, already aiming his weapon.
“Get the hatch closed. I’ll see to that.” S-4 sounded remarkably calm as he advanced, measured and focused and directing a steady pulse of blaster fire at whatever it was before them in the freighter corridor. P-72 shook herself out of her fear and scrambled back to the hatch. The emergency release was hidden behind a metal door off to the side. She struggled with the lever and tried to ignore the noises.
Keening. Thuds, a shuddering roar against evenly-timed bursts of fire. The throaty cry of pain from S-4.
P-72 threw her weight onto the lever and the hatch door clanged shut and sealed. She dug frantically through the inside vest-pocket of her flight-suit, tugging a tight-radius pulse grenade out of its hiding place. Readying herself to yank the safety, P-72 turned and gazed ahead. Operator S-4 was on his knees. The thing–strangely indistinct and taller than before–stood some meters away, suddenly silent.
The Operator clamped his hands to his helmet, rocking back and forth on his heels like a child.
“You cannot. I will not…I will not be your tool,” he muttered and rocked faster.
Navigator P-72 froze in place. The thing made no noise. It didn’t come any closer. What looked vaguely like arms stretched towards Operator S-4, beckoning, slow as underwater plants in a gentle current.
P-72’s hands shook as she looked on, unable to move. The thing was doing something to the other agent, something terrifying.
Operator S-4 moaned low in his throat, rocking faster, his gun lifted. Pointed at his own neck. P-72 stared in horror, sickness pooling in her stomach.
I can’t take a shot till I know what it’s doing. Till I know if it’s got his mind…
Operator S-4 screamed, his hiss thicker than ever. “Sssssstop thissss now. I promisssse I will kill you–”
Navigator P-72 pulled the pin on her grenade.
“Fall back, Operator–pulse incoming!”
Nothing happened at first.
“To me, now! That is an order from one who serves the Legion!”
S-4’s head snapped up–the trigger word had worked. Navigator P-72 sagged in relief as Operator S-4 lowered his weapon and shook out of his trance, scrabbling weakly towards her.
“Shield us,” P-72 said and shoved the other agent behind her. Operator S-4 threw out a shimmering green shield a second after P-72 lobbed the grenade toward the shadow.
The blast slammed them both into the metal of the hatch door. Navigator P-72’s eyes watered and her breath came in sharp, short gasps. She could smell the rusty tang of blood. P-72 rubbed her eyes, retinas still burning from the blast’s light.
The Thing, whatever it was, was gone. No gore, no body parts. Nothing left but a scorch mark in a perfect five-meter radius.
Even a MK-3 pulse should not have done that…
“I hurt. Something internal,” S-4 bit out tightly, his breath ragged. “It compromised me, Navigator. In my mind, made me see such things–” He coughed, clutching his ribs.
“I saw some stuff too. Hey. Stay with me, Operator.” P-72 didn’t care that her voice shook.
“You need to escape now, get back into the port proper,” Operator S-4 said and slumped against the wall. A pool of blood shone in the stuttering emergency lights on the floor beneath him.
What in all the worlds could get that deep into the mind of someone as highly trained as the Operator? Nothing, no tech P-72 knew of, could force an agent like S-4 to act against his will. The Navigator shuddered then cast her gaze around.
The corridor was empty but that might not last.
“Negative on the leaving without you. I need what you know to get out of here alive. We will stay together.” P-72 turned away from S-4, pressing her ear to the hatch.
Something was moving inside the adjacent hangar. Echoing, a-rhythmic tapping.
P-72 staggered to standing, Operator S-4’s arm draped over her shoulder. She started forward as quickly as she could in an awkward drag-and-shuffle progression of steps and pauses.
Navigator P-72 could sense the Operator going into shock. He’d die without help.
“Leave me, pleassse,” S-4’s voice slurred at her ear. P-72 felt his pain like a bruise against her own energy and mind as the Operator’s helmed head clunked onto her shoulder.
“Be quiet and focus.” P-72 stopped at the bend in the hall and fished in her kit. Her fingers closed over the cool, plastic tube in its blister pack–the last resort.
“I have one. One unit of Afterlife serum. I am using it on you now, if it is safe for Xereth biology.”
S-4 stilled. “I–sssafe, yes. But do not. Sssave sssself.”
“Open your visor. Now.”
The opaque black shielding whirred away and S-4’s gaze met hers, eyes wide with pain, the golden light dimmed to something sickly yellow. His face was blotched and his lips drawn in pain. P-72 slid her hand under the body armor beneath the Operator’s chin. She followed the line of the man’s jaw, searching for S-4’s pulse. It was weak and erratic, thudding against skin that was far cooler than it should be.
“Are you ready?” P-72 held the hypo in a free hand and tore open the wrapping with her teeth.
S-4 took an unsteady breath. “Do it.”
Navigator P-72 jabbed the needle deep into S-4’s flesh.
Operator S-4 froze then every muscle in his body spasmed and he crashed away from P-72, collapsing onto his hands and knees. He groaned then retched and gagged until there was nothing left to throw up. The vomiting subsided into harsh panting. The spasms faded.
P-72 waited. Only two things could happen now. Death, or not death.
S-4 lurched into the wall and tried to drag himself to standing. P-72 grabbed his arms and did her best to bear the man’s weight. The Operator’s eyes were a brighter silver, his face splotched a darker green as blood surged through capillaries.
“Are you better, Operator?” P-72 asked, velveting her voice, trying not to show her fear for the Operator’s sake.
“A-affirmative.” S-4 shoved away his helm, the armor folding down around the collar of his bodysuit. A tiny stream of blood–red, like hers–trickled from the needle-mark on his neck. He stared at P-72, shoving his hand through short, sweat-soaked black hair so that it stood on end. His expression was wild, his jaw working.
No wonder–he’s pumped full of more adrenaline and stims than any sentient was meant to ingest then still remain standing.
“Good. Then shall we move, Operator?” P-72 ballasted him one arm until S-4 steadied himself. Without thinking, P-72 paused to trail the back of her free hand gently over Operator S-4’s damp hair in an instinctual, soothing gesture. Her Legacy was in full-drive now–the one thing going for them.
Operator S-4 closed his eyes, leaning in to P-72’s touch. He reached up to place his hand over hers before backing away.
“Go now. Y-yes. This way.” His voice shook. “There’s another ship if we can m-make it.”
P-72 shivered again, the same kind of shudder of off-ness, wrongness as before. What was happening? How was any of this possible?
“Let’s go.” P-72 shook out of her sudden strangeness and cast a glance around the hall. She didn’t hear any sign of pursuit but the quiet was almost worse.
S-4 limped quickly around the bend, P-72 close behind him. They both stopped.
The entrance to the hangar was gone. Annihilated. Dried puddles of what had once been metal and circuitry were all that remained of the huge sliding doors. The Operator stood taller, holding his weapon close to him.
“A two-front attack. We are trapped.”
“Perhaps you are right…” P-72’s voice cracked. All around them, scuttling, teeming, and writhing. Cutting them off from the port proper.
Shadows. The scritching of hundreds of claws on steel. Behind them–deafening and sudden–the rhythmic soldierly stomp of…something else.
S-4 moved next to P-72. They stood side to side, the shadowed expanse of the hangar before them. P-72 felt the Operator trembling and leaned in even closer. S-4 spoke quietly, so near that his lips brushed her ear. Warm, real. Maybe the last voice she would ever hear.
“I’m shielding us both and then I’ll tell you a sssecret.” There was a note of pride, even defiance in the Operator’s voice. He engaged his shields and turned so they now stood back to back. “Since we die together, I want you to know my name–forbidden for one not of Xereth.” A staccato flurry of gunfire cut off the Operator’s words. He grunted, lurching hard into the Navigator as a blast tore through him and into the meat of P-72’s left arm. Navigator P-72 cried out, pain hot on her nerves, in her mind.
Volleys arced from behind them. If Operator S-4 would go out firing then she would, too. P-72 faced the freighter door, heart in her throat and blood chilling against her skin. She fired.
Marching. One-two, one-two–
Searing light, white and complete and final.
“THEY CANNOT DIE. WE NEED THEM.”
P-72 heard the words outside of the firefight, outside of the pain and fear and blood. Words coming from somewhere immediate or very far away, who could even tell? Every breath, every bone and heartbeat and every nerve was a conflagration of pain.
I am afraid. I am so afraid.
Someone screamed. Was that the Operator’s voice or her own?
He was going to tell me his name. . .
An exploding star, shimmering and sudden. The world was swallowed in starlight then, nothing.
Fear, apparently, had taste–acidic, like stomach-sickness.
Controller 1-A sank into a low crouch and hoped with every cell in his body that the precarious stacks of cargo crates hid him from…whatever in all the wastes that was.
This should not be happening.
His biotech, even shielded, was off the charts, warnings about the status of the other agents flashing through his consciousness.
Surely that thing couldn’t sense the data as it pulsed through his nervous system?
The attack dragged on and on until something shifted in the atmosphere around 1-A. Whirring doors, a blast of air. An oddly featureless black ship, unknown tech and design but small and maneuverable, nosed abruptly through the bay doors and into the hangar proper.
1-A watched helplessly. He could hear the screams of S-4, a Xereth operative like him, and from P-72, the Aegis counterpart–he could smell the acrid burn of blaster fire, see…something…attacking his fellow agents.
A whole lot of somethings.
But for whatever reason, 1-A could not focus–could not get a clear sight on the scene unfolding in the adjacent bay. A hazy, almost dreamy off-ness filtered all sensory data that reached his mind. Even his tech was no help. He was bombarded with a sensation of fear, pain, anger and loss. With the sensations of marching feet from the bay beyond, and scrabbling vermin in the hangar before him.
He heard S-4’s pain-rough cry, and P-72’s weapon-fire.
1-A was left to listen, wait, fearing the worst.
Suddenly, the barrage stopped. The black ship’s engines hummed, low and resonate, and the teeming horrors that had filled the area of operation simply ceased to exist. 1-A could no longer hear the other agents, and there was no more gunfire.
A terrible silence blanketed the hangar as the black ship drew away with so little noise that the Controller thought he must be imagining things. 1-A shivered, sweat pooling under his arms, trickling down his back. He never sweated like this.
But he was never afraid like this, either.
He hadn’t known what they were walking into–none of them had. Not even Legion Prime could have imagined what was happening here in Triumph. And protocol dictated that 1-A could not interfere–he must observe, record, wait, and mitigate only if had had the means to safely do so.
That, a nightmare itself.
Get it together. You are a Xereth Hunter, not some untested field agent.
1-A breathed deeply, steadying his body, and keyed a code into the module at his wrist. A code he had been given in a private meeting with Prime during his first mission and which he’d never had to use: alpha-numeric, theoretical, worst-case.
Failed operation, extraction negative–confirmed enemy superweapon.
S-4 and P-72 were gone, at least for now. So was all evidence that any of the last hours’ violence had ever happened. Before him in the hangar stretched an expanse of bland, almost serene nothingness. No ships besides the freighter that had been there from the start, and which both P-72 and S-4 had scanned, and scanned again for good measure. There were no workers, but also no monsters. No blast-marks or damage on the floor, the walls, any of it. The plain black ship that had taken the two agents had of course not registered on any of 1-A’s sensors.
Everything was silent, the screams of terror from his fellow agents a memory-echo looping in 1-A’s mind, recorded by his implants. There was now nothing to see but a shadowed cavern of plastics and metal and equipment common to all Aegis spaceports.
1-A only had theories on how to proceed–his training had not prepared him.
He relaxed his limbs so they would not cramp when he needed to run and hunkered in the shadows outside of the hangar’s safety lights, waiting until he was certain there was no longer any threat. He waited for an hour, slipping beyond the point of any discomfort or pain into that strange, featureless mindscape where there was only breath and the instinct to survive.
The Hunter’s Mind, his people called it. Part of why he was one of the best agents on either side of this stupid conflict, if Prime were to be believed.
A resonant ping–three musical chimes–echoed through the air, noting the port’s shift change. The difference was immediate. Dock workers filtered back into the hangar, and with them noise. The chug of cargo lift engines and a swelling murmur of mundane conversation felt monstrously loud to 1-A’s senses after the stark silence that thing had left behind.
1-A eased to standing and crept along the wall, out of the hangar and safely into the spaceport proper. He let his face mask fall away and shrugged into a dull, slightly-worn hooded cloak. Anonymous, unremarkable. He slouched, matched his gait to those around him.
Overhead lights were painfully bright, the color and rush of sentients milling about almost too much to process. 1-A swallowed away the bile that rose in protest to his body’s movement–a lingering effect of shock. He had done all he could, launching stealthed probes and activating the other agents’ backup homing beacons just before the black ship’s escape. He did not dare contact Control until he knew he was safe.
Until he knew that what he had seen was not just a nightmare or conjurings of a compromised mind.
Controller 1-A made his way to the freight-traffic hangar where his craft thankfully still waited–a nondescript cargo vessel painted in the Unified Traders’ safety-yellow and muddy brown colors, not too old or too new to draw notice. After settling with the dock master, the Controller could not stop the wave of relief coursing through him as the hold-clamps released with a stuttering groan and hissing of hydraulics. 1-A boarded and went through pre-flight checks with automatic precision and no thought. He was little more than a robot at this point, and would be until he could wrap his mind around what had happened.
Clear of Triumph, 1-A plotted the course to a dump of a moon in a nothing of a system and sat in stunned silence for the hours it took to reach this familiar nowhere.
Legion Prime contacted him the moment his ship landed.
“To Medical, then my private office, Controller,” Prime ordered, his silky voice sliding through 1-A’s implants.
Half an hour later, full of supplements, stims, and two hydration packs, 1-A breathed–and walked–easier. He arrived to find Operations Control in chaos. Every analyst in Legion’s employ seemed crammed into the main data center, muttering and pacing and peering tiredly at the streams of text and numbers flickering over 3-D displays and monitors.
Every agent in the room went silent when they saw 1-A.
The sudden hush felt so wrong. How could they understand what had happened, what was at stake? 1-A kept his expression neutral, forced his gait to normalize, his stance to straighten. Nobody stood in his path as he walked straight to Prime’s office. To 1-A’s relief, chatter resumed, a heavy and comforting curtain falling over Control the moment he pressed his palm to Prime’s door sensor.
Inside the darkened office, illuminated only by a wall of databanks similar to the ones outside but more compact, Prime stood, arms behind his back. Light from the monitors splashed over the smooth grayish-green of his face.
After a full minute of contemplative silence, Prime turned to face him. Controller 1-A could only gape at what he saw in the other man’s eyes.
Fear. Just like I felt. And if he is afraid…
“Sit, Ryuok-ishni, and calm yourself.”
1-A did not think his shock could be greater. Prime had used his name. His proper name, which had been burned away upon his entry into Legion. His Xereth name: unknown to any but his own kind and even then, only spoken in situations of heavy emotional import. How many years had it been since anyone had called him that?
When was the last time he had heard it spoken aloud?
“Prime,” he managed, lowering himself far less gracefully than usual into a chair beside a small conference table.
“Not Prime. Today, we are Xereth in solidarity for one of our own who is endangered, for what has been lost, and in the terrible light of what has been found,” Prime said, his tone strange. “You are Ryuok-ishni and I am Threnka-resh. We are as warriors who witness a vision of the end of all things.”
“I do not know that I understand,” he ventured carefully. All of this was off-protocol.
“Two of our most important agents are compromised in an unprecedented manner. A new threat awaits us in the darkness of the Losan system, if your tracking data is correct. I am in this moment Threnkar. You are Yuouki, and we are allied even with our Aegis enemies against the unknown. We must plan for the battle ahead, because you know there will be one. But first, you are tired, I am sure. I can send for food–”
Yuoki shook himself out of the web of unreality Prime’s grand pronouncements had woven. He had to be alert. He had to be sharp.
That is why he is using such familiarity–he wishes to wake me to readiness for what lies ahead.
“You speak my name to hasten me to clarity,” he said quietly, as ever in awe of Prime–of the other man’s studied tactics and understanding of those around him.
“Clarity is needed. Our operation has undergone a critical change. Everything will burn, or will not. We cannot yet know.”
“What are your orders?” Yuoki asked, strength returning to his voice.
“Extraction is out of the question. For now.”
Yuoki nodded his agreement. Whatever that thing had been, nobody in Legion could go up against it without more information. They had to be prepared.
“We require specialists. Independent operators with no clear allegiances who can be shaped to the mission as it stands now. I have a list, and you will initiate contact. The first is the most important and may yet be the instrument to save us all.” Threnkar watched him, eyes narrowed, expression intense.
Yuoki bowed in deference. He would obey Prime–Threnkar–no matter the cost. The other man had earned such loyalty through the years. And to have an easily-accomplished task after the nightmare he had just faced sounded like the Hunter’s Haven itself. He needed to occupy himself. To make himself useful.
“Do not bow. Today, agree as Xereth to Xereth. The Hunter’s Vow.” Threnkar, the only other Xereth besides S-4 and Yuoki himself serving Operation Legion, regarded him with silvery eyes eerily like Yuoki’s own. Eyes blued, greened, and washed scarlet by the flashing monitors.
“I accept, and I serve. But sir?”
“Speak your mind,” Threnkar said, his tone commanding Yuoki to honesty.
“You have told me I am the best that Legion offers.”
“You are the best anyone offers. Sabotage, assassination, infiltration–there is no other close to your level of success.”
Yuoki shook his head, frustration building where before there had been only shock and an oily film of residual fear.
“Sir, none of our analysts predicted anything like what happened to S-4 and P-72. None of our intel gave us the first clue. There was nothing. Nothing but a possible target useful to us for other reasons entirely. And I could do nothing while the world warped around me, then shifted back as if the nightmare had never happened. I could only watch, and fear.”
“There were no signs. We would have found them. Unless, of course, they are signs we cannot yet read.” Threnkar held his gaze.
“Through it all, my control was absolute, as befits our race and my station. That is what I thought, anyhow,” Yuoki added, voice rough. He had never shown such vulnerability to another, not that he could remember. “Now, I do not know.”
“You were correct to be afraid. A terrible weapon, hidden in plain sight, capable of intruding on a perfectly-trained Xereth mind? This cannot be an accident. They wanted us to see. To know their power. They needed to frighten the ones who cannot be frightened. There was no other thing you could have felt in that moment.” Threnkar paused, tilting his face–so very Xereth, angular, pleasing in its symmetry–to the map of the spaceport hovering above the projector.
The Xereth were one of the most secretive and feared peoples in the galaxy, known for their ability to thrive in the most adverse conditions. If 1-A had broken today, what did this mean for the rest of the galaxy?
“I can see your thoughts, and I share your concerns,” Threnkar said, gaze shrewd. “This is why now more than ever I need you to be at your best and to act. To lengthen our reach. This is why we must recover S-4 and P-72 before they can be delivered to Kraah Supremacy Command, or wherever they are being taken.”
“Or hijacked by Aegis,” Yuoki added, voice dark. “We may work with their agents, but we can never trust them beyond those who serve us, and even those we must watch.”
“Precisely. I will send you to the first contact immediately if you are able. They are nearby on Aegis Prime.”
“I am ready.” Yuoki stood taller, chin lifted, face again comfortably neutral.
“Good. All the information you need is here on this data stick which you will destroy after reviewing. Go now, requisition what you need. Full discretion, no resources-cap. And Ryuok-ishni of Xereth, Legion Controller?”
Yuoki held his commander’s gaze.
“…Cade Ecanus Annant…such a mess…makin’ this easy…pay up, you piece of…”
Garbled yelling, warring impulses, pain. Just another fantastic night in Aegis Prime.
Cade raised his head to spit in the face of whatever tiny-brained grawk had him backed up against the damp wall of wherever the stars this was. Unfortunately his body didn’t cooperate.
“…pathetic…so drunk…can’t…piss in a pond…filth…”
His attacker’s words blurred, fading in and out of Cade’s awareness like a bad transmission from a Border Wastes outpost.
But not because he was drunk. At least, not entirely. Drunkenness would be far more pleasant.
A perfect tea-party compared to this.
“…should just break…legs…blackmail…see if…your fancypants family…good for credits…yeah?”
Cade’s family good for credits? Hilarious.
Laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep in his chest. The sound, choking and wheezing through the bite of bruised ribs and stars knew what other injuries, derailed the radio chatter in Cade’s brain–gave him a hint of control over his body.
“Here’s your skellin’ credits, you parasite.” Cade kicked out one leg, foot slamming into the man’s stomach with a sick, soft whump that sent him staggering to his hands and knees. Cade took advantage of the opportunity, digging into his pockets till he found the synth-hide wallet stuffed with credits–credits he’d won in a duel from some idiot with more money than brains (or skill). He dropped the wallet onto his attacker’s meaty face, a face scrunched up in pain, mouth shining with slobber. A human face, marked with the distinctive double chevron tattoo of the Skip Tracers Guild.
“Count it!” Cade shouted as he lurched to standing, the words sharp with anger, no longer slurred.
It was out of his mind, at least for this moment. He should thank the drooling grawk on the ground, shakily counting out credits with one hand, the other (badly, inexpertly) gripping a beat-up blaster pointed generally toward the wall where Cade had slumped.
All the pain, the indignity of the beating–Cade had let it happen. He’d barely fought back, the Tracer pummeling him just enough to shut It up but not knock Cade unconscious or do serious damage. Hopefully, anyway.
A difficult balance to strike but utterly worth it because, he was finally realizing, It did not like pain. At least, not his.
Whatever It was–the worst Legacy in the universe, an alien thought-eater, his own haywire brain–fled when Cade was doubled over in agony.
Flooded with adrenaline now that his mind was his own, Cade unsheathed the twin blades he kept at his side–fired-attuned, made of Xereth alloy. Rare, nearly unbreakable and delightfully deadly.
“Need anything else or are we done for the night?” Cade dragged the tip of one blade over the wall behind him, metal striking sparks into the darkness.
The look of sudden terror on the Tracer’s sweaty face should have been priceless. Cade couldn’t gloat, though. He hated bullies. He refused to be one, even in a situation like this. Not to mention, It liked when he was a jerk.
“N-no. No we’re good, all good. I’ll tell the Guild you’re clear.” The man stuttered, his fear turning Cade’s stomach.
“Get out of there, then. And thanks for the sober-up. I’ll kill you if it happens again.”
The man didn’t look back. Cade sheathed his swords and sank back into a heap against the same wall as before–still damp, still drab. He peered around him, trying to get his bearings. He seemed to be in a narrow alley, the strip of sky above him featureless and muddy, stained yellow by the jaundice-glow of holosigns. The sounds of the city filtered gradually into Cade’s awareness.
A reek of mildew, exhaust and rotted garbage slapped him upside the senses. Odd, how clear he felt, more even than usual, even after a sound beating. As if something was blocking It—
Before he could think to access his scanner, footsteps sounded from the opposite direction of where the tracer had fled. Footsteps loud enough to draw his attention, but careful enough to denote someone who wanted to play it cautious.
Then, dead quiet. The world dropped away. The lingering presence of It in Cade’s mind dwindled to nothing but a memory’s memory.
The silence was dizzying. Cade, untethered from the reality he had known for so many years, could only fall back against that same stupid wall, staring up at the tall, lean figure towering over him, blocking the sickly sky.
“Cade Ecanus Annant?” A man’s voice, silky, heavily accented.
Cade only nodded. Why did he nod? Why was he telling this stranger the truth?
Why was everything so quiet?
Because you can trust him.
Another voice–a new one, lighter, gentler, whispered into his thoughts. Before Cade could understand what was happening, the new voice was gone.
The stranger crouched in front of him, tilting its masked and hooded head like a cat watching a mouse.
“I need your help.”
“Help?” Cade echoed.
Real articulate there, smarty.
The man seemed to hesitate for a moment, then drew back his hood, disengaged his shiny black mask so it folded away into a collar at his neck.
Pale, expressionless eyes regarded Cade. Icy eyes in a gray face. Dark hair that seemed to shimmer, parting to reveal pointed ears…
“Sweet skellin’ stars!” Cade blurted out. A Xereth Hunter, unmasked, showing his true face to a human in a back alley in the heart of Aegis territory. “What the actual hell?”
The man shook his head, just barely. Somehow, Cade could not help the urge to hush.
The stranger was persuading him.
Cade looked up, eyes wide in a flare of anger and shock.
“Calm, please. I only nudged your thoughts to keep us safe. Your mind is your own, I promise you. Hunter’s Honor.”
Cade stifled another sudden wave of hysterical laughter at the man’s unwitting joke.
“My mind my own? Ha. Good one.”
“Focus on me, Cade Ecanus Annant.”
“Stars above, why do you all keep saying that? I HATE my middle name. Just Cade, dammit,” he said, working the words around a final bark of crazed laughter. He clamped his mouth shut, forced himself to breathe.
“I need your help, Cade,” the Xereth repeated, slow and patient. “I need what you can do. What you know.”
Any further urge to speak or laugh or generally act an idiot faded when Cade saw the expression on the stranger’s face.
Was it possible for a Xereth Hunter to look so desperate? Even afraid? Was this some kind of mind-trick?
“Lives are at stake–lives of your people, of mine. Of all in the galaxy.” The Hunter leaned back into an uneasy crouch, expression suddenly intense.
No, this was no mind trick.
“So, nothing urgent,” Cade murmured, unable to stop himself.
“Not at all urgent, no,” the stranger said, for a moment smiling tightly. Cade caught a hint of fang before the man’s expression flattened again.
“Do you know anything of Xereth social protocols? You should, serving in the Border Wastes. You would have been briefed.”
“You have all the dirt on me, don’t you.” Cade said, matter of factly.
“Simply my job. Xereth protocols–you are familiar?”
“With some,” Cade said, voice dark. His stint in the Wastes had brought him dangerously close to an entire detachment of deadly hunters like the one in front of him, paid by the Kraah Supremacy to stomp out all Aegis forces. Those had not been good days.
As if sensing his thoughts, the stranger backed away, offering space.
“I was not one of those who harmed your people. I offer a Life-Vow to prove it.”
“Well, shit.” Cade closed his eyes, massaging his aching temples.
A Life-Vow. The most sacred of all Xereth bonds, more even than family, lovers, one’s own homeland…a promise on one’s life that what is said is true.
When looked at the Hunter he suppressed a shudder. Something about this situation, something about the man’s demeanor–
You can trust him, New Quiet Voice insisted. Go where you are sent.
Cade scrubbed his hands through his short blond hair, trying to clear his head. What was happening here?
The Xereth leaned in closer.
“Your assets are drained. You are disowned by your family who are themselves ruined. You are wanted in every populous system of Aegis and even some neutral territories. And your talents are wasted, utterly, on street duels and whatever happened here. Help me, and I renew you, give you a chance to be something. Help me and you help us all.”
The man bowed deeply where he knelt, his balance perfect, his chin-length dark hair obscuring his face.
Trust him, eh? Cade thought, shaking his head. What the hell. He had nothing to lose.
“Fine. Let’s wait on that Life-Vow, though. I mean, I’d have gone along with whatever you’re up to for a real water shower and a good meal–”
And you gave me silence. I will follow you to the ends of the universe if I have to, just to keep that thing in my head at bay. But you don’t need to know that.
“And, saving the galaxy sounds okay, too.” Cade added and shrugged.
The Xereth Hunter raised his head, fixing his gaze on Cade. Something flashed in those silvery eyes but was gone before he could decipher it.
“I promise you, human, your value and cooperation will not go unrewarded. You shall have your shower, and sooner than later,” he added, what might have been a hint of humor coloring the accented words.
Somehow, stars knew why, Cade could tell this man was being honest. He needed help–the world needed it, just like he had said.
“So. You’ll tell me who you’re working for and all that good stuff?” Cade hauled himself to standing. The other man followed suit. Cade looked up at the Xereth in awe. “Skell, you’re tall.”
“I will tell you all you need to know once we are safely aboard my ship. Follow, comply–I will keep you safe. We do not have much time,” he added, faceplate folding back into place.
“Sure. Not like I was doing anything important.” Whatever was happening here was odd enough on its own but the freedom Cade felt, the clarity of mind…That made getting into some shady business worthwhile. He breathed in the stale night air, feeling drunk again but for a different reason–the lack of It.
“Oh yeah, one more thing–please don’t forget the nice meal,” Cade said.
“I honor my promises,” the Xereth said simply, already on the move.
Cade fell into step behind the Hunter, steps quick and light, his pain and fear for the moment lightyears away.
A-live. A-live. A-live…
The word thudded–ba-dum, ba-dum–in her mind. Blood pounded–alive, alive–in her ears.
Through her body.
Through parts of her that should have been feeling mind-breaking pain–
Noises around her, a pinpoint light–scarlet–in the blanket-thick dark. Darkness different than the Void-thing, oily and full of malice.
No, just everyday darkness. Sleep. Warm and dark.
She could rest now.
She was safe.
Was he safe? The one who was with her then?
She couldn’t remember who he was, who she was. She only knew that her heart kept beating and her body slept.
And that, at the edge of it all, slipping through the blanket-dark warmth, was a tendril of something not her. Someone–something–else. A sliver. Ice and fear.
Hesitant. Burning in its frigidity.
Impossible, fearsome, fearing–
Alone. So, so very alone.
It was dark again, or maybe her eyes just wouldn’t open. But she could still hear–
I think I can hear.
Sporadic hisses of static, humming. Deep and pulsing like waves, like breaths. All around her, blanketing her. Womb noise and comfort.
P-72 mused dreamily that she maybe, possibly heard someone talking nearby.
“Requesting urgent medical event programming.” Shuffling and whirring, a bright clink like glass on metal.
“Emergency Protocol Red-Zero.”
“Request acknowledged. Authorization code required.”
More noises–this time, she was sure they were real–flitted over and around where Navigator P-72 was laying, or floating, or whatever she was doing. Wherever she was doing it.
Clanking and buzzing, the noise of hydraulic lifts activating–sensory data filtered into her awareness in fits and starts.
“Protocol Red-Zero ready and responding. Engaging emergency medical procedures. Which one of them do I repair first?” A flat voice. A voice like steel.
And somewhere, hiding behind the voices, behind her consciousness, the darkness and hovering sense of melancholy from before but…different. Muted. That tendril of loneliness not her own gone, or hidden.
Almost as if it cannot not reach me–
“The larger one is near decommission. It should be obvious which one dirties your hands first.” This voice was also synthetic but and peevish, P-72 decided as her head swam.
Is it not humanoid? It sounds sentient.
I am breathing. So I must be really alive.
Awareness of her own body dawned in her mind. It warmed through her blood and her limbs until she realized that she was in terrible pain. But she didn’t care. There was no fear. No curiosity. Nothing but breath. Inhale and exhale in time with the humming that surrounded her. And the darkness.
The darkness—why is it hiding? How can it not find me?
P-72 shuddered involuntarily. She did not understand what was happening to her. She moved to thrash, to test her limbs, but her arms and legs were bound and alarms suddenly keened through the air around her. P-72 tried to speak, to call for help. To yell a curse. She couldn’t remember how.
Shuffling and whirring sounds gave way to stomping and rattling, the new noises directly overhead, and the alarms stopped.
“Pod 2 reports that the other one is awake. I thought you sedated it. Are you malfunctioning?”
“I sedated it correctly. My programs do not contain errors. The humanoid must be defective or anomalous.”
“Or our charge is aware again.”
“No. It is in stasis. This new one must be anomalous.”
“Anomalous? That’s the last thing we need. Make yourself useful and go fix the heavy bleeder. I’ll repair this one.”
A soft shush of air into wherever it was P-72 lay. She thought she smelled something fresh and clean, but brisk–mint? Her face relaxed.
It didn’t matter. She didn’t care, not about anything. Minutes or hours faded away and she breathed and she listened to the humming keeping time with her breath.
This time, P-72 didn’t even realize that she fell asleep.
Shadow to blackest void, fizzing static in his mind. Malevolence in his blood. Eating up his brain.
You live to die. You long to feel the hot, demanding and yearning blood drain from your body, trickling to the floor and then you will take my hand and step with me into the Void…
Whispering, cajoling, coaxing.
“Not real. Not–” Was that his own voice, rusty and jagged?
It could not be real. There has been no residual matter where the Navigator’s pulse grenade had blasted that thing away. Nothing but scorch marks and metal.
You want to die. I feel it. Your body sings with it. Your heart beats to die.
It had whispered into his mind until the other operative, Navigator P-72 came from behind S-4 and sent it back to hell. They’d stood, the Navigator and him, back to back, preparing for the end. They had been flanked, outmanned. Outgunned.
How am I still here?
S-4 knew that he was conscious. Was Navigator P-72 still alive?
Operator S-4 searched himself but he felt nothing. Only a vague collection of thoughts and impressions that disintegrated if he examined them for too long. Though, there were voices. Yes, he was sure of it. Voices that he did not recognize. He could not pick out much but he heard chatter, something about malfunctions.
And again and again and again, the thing–at least, a memory of it. Whispering, soft and deadly.
Somehow he knew it could not hear him now. It could not find him.
But she might–the Navigator. Will she come for me?
A deep, resonating hum of machine components enveloped him and without warning, S-4 lapsed inexorably into sleep.
Navigator P-72 woke breathless and cold with sweat. She sat up, eyes wide against the dark and felt for her weapons kit.
It wasn’t there. Her pistol, her grenades and chem-wallet–they were all gone.
As quietly as she could manage, P-72 swung her legs from the soft, spongy surface upon which she’d been resting. Her feet meet the floor with a muted pat. She swayed for a moment, clamped a hand over her mouth, forcing herself not to vomit. Wave after wave of nausea crashed over her while she sat, hands pressed against her thighs.
She counted her breaths, focused on one spot on the floor. P-72 clenched her fingers in the fabric covering her legs. Whatever she was wearing was thin, was warm and liquid-smooth against her skin. Her feet were bare.
Again she counted to fifty, breathing, focusing. The dizziness stopped after the third round of counting.
Navigator P-72 again pulled herself to standing and looked around her.
This was definitely not Triumph, her ship, or HQ. Probably nowhere she had ever been…
She had been sprawled in a large, Aegis-style bed. The covers were mussed, a white and inviting mountain of pillows piled where her head had lain. The room was large and open. Fat cushions circled a clear-topped table that sat in a recession in the floor. She wandered toward the table, examining at a bowl of bright red and yellow irregular spheroids. Fruits–the word bloomed in her mind as she felt herself awakening fully. She bent down and sniffed. The objects were sweetly scented, making her mouth water and her stomach writhe in a spasm of hunger. She reached out one hand and then stopped.
They are poisoned. This is is a trap. You know better, Navigator.
Yes, Navigator. Operative for Legion. Survivor of a horrifically failed mission, somehow.
P-72 backed away, hysteria welling sudden and violent through her chest. Everything was unfamiliar. The bed, her clothing, even the color and saturation of the light. Golden radiance pooled from strange fixtures along the wall instead of the blue-white industrial tubing from the ships, hangars and training facilities she was used to.
This new light looked rich. Warm. Not correct.
She staggered over to the bed and let herself collapse to a heap while she fought to stabilize her panic.
“What is going on here? I should be dead.” The words sounded far away. She remembered with a rush of blood that hammered in her ears, shocking adrenaline through her system: Operator S-4, the blast shattering his tech-shield and full armor, tearing through the other agent’s body into her own shoulder.
She had been injured, badly. Injured by phantasms that had faded to nothing right before her eyes, even as she and S-4 bled onto the hangar floor.
Or had that been imaginary?
P-72 lifted one hand and reached to her back, smoothing it over the place the wound would have been.
Her flesh was tender and sticky with bandaging.
“So that actually happened.” Her voice cracked again into the silence, rough from disuse. She forced her eyes wide in the strange light and examined the rest of her surroundings. There was no door that she could discern, only an oddly-patterned expanse of wall interrupting the unmarked gray of the rest of the room. At the far end of the chamber was what appeared to be a toilet area with a steam-shower, sink, and stacks of white linens.
“Operator S-4? Are you here? Can you hear me?”
Maybe the other agent had not made it. Or maybe she was alone here, and he had made it back to Legion…
The thought sobered P-74 and slowed her heartbeat back to normal. She focused, her years of training taking over.
There had to be a reason for all of this–a reason she already didn’t trust.
She should have died. She was sure of it. Now, she was mended, placed in some disconcertingly luxurious prison, separated from her partner. P-72 forced herself upright and steady and paced the perimeter of the room, running her fingers along the wall. She looked down and noticed that bruises spotted her hands and forearms. Maybe days old, judging from the deep-mottled green and blue.
How long had she been here?
Halfway across the room, to the left of the sleeping area, her left forefinger dipped into a long line in the wall pattern, intersecting with another recessed area forming a circle. She placed her hand against the middle of the pattern and shoved as hard as her body would allow
The wall split to reveal a dimly-lit passageway. P-72 positioned herself halfway inside the room, halfway in the hall.
No alarms sounded.
She backed away again, and the door closed. On the clear tabletop next to the fruits sat an etched-crystal carafe filled with what looked like water. Other than bed sheets and linens, the bowl of fruit and cushions, there was nothing else in the room she could use. The lamps were fastened to the walls. The furniture itself even seemed to be fused to the springy-textured floor.
P-72 grabbed the carafe from the table. She dumped its contents down the sink and rapped it sharply against the fixture’s edge. The vessel was neither crystal nor glass but cracked neatly, two large shards falling away from the rest–one still attached to the handle. She gripped the makeshift weapon in one hand, the sharp tip pointing outward.
It would have to do.
She again placed one hand on the lined circle in the wall-pattern. The doors parted with that same machine-hiss as before, slide away leaving no discernable seams. P-72 reached behind her, grabbing a heavy cushion and placing it on the floor over the threshold. She backed up and the door stayed open this time. Navigator P-72 stepped completely outside the room and kept close to the wall, its non-reflective metal surface lit only by strips of dull red lights. The broken carafe close to her side, she looked for anything to distinguish her quarters from the hall around her–anything besides the open door.
There was nothing.
She edged forward. She could discern no noise other than a low, constant machine-hum and her own breathing.
Cautiously, she walked. P-72 found no more doors, no markings or lines in the wall. Nothing to shed light on any part of the structure, ship or whatever she was. Every few steps she tried dragging the shattered carafe over the wall or along the floor but the material did not begin to penetrate those surfaces and she gave up. How long she paced, clutching the shiv in her now sweaty hand, P-72 didn’t know. She had lost her sense of time and direction. Frustrated and suddenly exhausted, she leaned into the wall.
Navigator P-72 barely had time to stop herself from careening backward as the wall gave way. She clutched her weapon tighter and righted herself.
Wherever she was now, it was darker than even the hallway. And freezing. She shivered and noticed vaguely that her garment was far too thin for this new environment, white and parted in the middle, held closed only by two ties in the front–a hospital gown. Her bare feet felt numb, and her breath puffed out in white clouds that dissipated the moment they formed. A soft rushing noise whooshed somewhere in front of her.
P-72’s eyes adjusted quickly and she noticed that this new chamber wasn’t entirely dark. A faint, sickly glimmer issued from somewhere far away–the room was, apparently, huge.
“Intruder, you are not permitted to be here. Please stand by for relocation.” A voice hailed her, tinny and inhuman. P-72 froze, her gaze skimming the visible perimeter of the room.
The door she’d fallen through, already closed, now locked behind her, red warning lights blinking on either side.
“Please stand by, Intruder.” The voice repeated its command but in the background, P-72 heard something else. Something that sounded like a moan, broken and low. And humanoid.
She dashed toward the jaundiced yellow lighting at the other end of the chamber and drew short, staring. A man lay face down on a backlit dais, completely encased in a bubble of thick, clear material. His naked back–skin a soft greenish-gray– was scarred, a huge gash on his right side taped closed. Wounds riddled his shoulder and upper thighs, glistening with first-aid gel. His black hair was short, spiky, matted to his head; his ears tapered to a delicate point.
A Xereth male…
“S-4?” Navigator P-72 called out as she circled the platform, looking for a manual release, for anything that would allow her to get to the Operator. She dug at the base of the dome with her fingers, scraped at it with the broken carafe. The material did not yield.
“Operator S-4, can you hear me?” P-72 thudded both fists above where the other agent’s head lay, shadowed, his left cheek pressed against the surface of the platform. The one eye she could see was closed. “S-4?”
Another soft, shuddering moan sounded, muted behind the wall between them. P-72 noticed the Operator’s muscle working as he struggled to breathe, a pull and release that defined his ribs, that stretched his many wounds grotesquely. P-72 could not sense any emotion or awareness from the other agent, her Legacy bumping up against a cool, blank wall.
There was only exhaustion, and a miasma of pain tamped down tightly beneath the Operator’s sleepiness.
“S-4, It’s P-72. I’m here. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you stay safe.”
“You are not permitted to be here, Intruder. This is a quarantine zone. You will be relocated to your quarters.”
The mechanical voice sounded around her, as flat and featureless as before.
“I’m not going anywhere,” P-72 shouted, her own words rough and scratchy, throat parched.
Maybe she should have tried some of whatever was in the carafe…
“You will comply. Refusal to comply will result in disciplinary action.”
“If you didn’t want me to find him, why didn’t you lock me up properly to begin with? Why didn’t you seal this place? You’re messing with me. I know it.”
“Please stand by for relocation.”
A rush of air, chilled and sharp with chemicals blasted through the chamber. Whatever it was worked fast. P-72’s vision blurred within seconds. She fell forward against the dome where S-4 lay in stasis and pain. The Navigator tried to lift her head but could only slump, her face smashed against the cold transparent shield between her and the other agent.
She thought he imagined it. Lights winking in her peripheral vision, her nerves reacting to the chemicals–she could not be sure. It sounded like a word in a non-machine voice. She imagined she saw Shura’s silvery eye snap open, that she felt the other agent reach to her with his own thoughts.
“Operator…” She wasn’t sure if she said the world aloud or only in her mind.
P-72 couldn’t keep her eyes open. Her heart beat sluggishly, blood pounding in her ears as blurry images assaulted her mind.
“I…won’t…” she started, struggling to form words, make sounds.
And just as before–and as would likely happen again and again–Navigator P-72 fell into sleep and oblivion.
[PROBE STATUS: ACTIVE. DATA INCOMING.]
[DATA DELAYED. RESENDING REQUEST]
Threnkar–Legion Prime, Xereth Huntmaster, and frustrated and pissed-off sentient–gazed at the screens in front of him until his eyes felt like rocks in his skull. Data readouts, status reports, blah blah blah…nothing. Nothing new. Nothing useful.
Nothing that would help to retrieve his agents or to understand any part of what had happened.
“Repeat all feeds for the following time-frame,” he said, and entered the parameters manually. Everything was exactly as he remembered from the first twenty reviews. All Triumph Aegis Intersystem shipping schedules and cargo/passenger manifests were normal. Nothing to report in the space near the station, or from any listening posts between Aegis Prime and Triumph. No suspicious chatter. No new deployments, Aegis or Kraah.
No trace of the strange black ship other than a glimpse from Controller 1-A’s–Ryuok-ishni’s, added to himself–biotech captures. Nothing at all from S-4–it was like the Operator’s tech had stopped functioning entirely. One-site cleanup crews reporting from Triumph could not find anything other than the chemicals the three agents had been told to scan for from the start. Chemicals that, Threnkar had noted, were present at the infamous and anomalous Border Wastes battle between Aegis and Xereth forces five years ago–the last official engagement that Aegis ex-soldier Cade Annant, Navigator P-72, and Prime’s own operative, S-4 had participated in.
He was an odd one, S-4, but fiercely loyal and Xereth to his core. Operator S-4’s actual name had been erased from all files, at least any that the Kraah Supremacy possessed. Not even Threnkar himself was sure of S-4’s origins beyond what the other Xereth had shared.
Of course there was a connection between the Border Wastes battle and whatever had gone down in Triumph. Five years ago, the report had been strange tales of enemy ambushes that neither side could account for, or offer proof of. Now…
A squeaky clean hangar, a normal day in a busy port: nothing at all that would indicate what his operative had seen was real, actual, proveable. Ryuok-ishni had seen frenzied combat, even if the details had been fuzzy. The black ship, his fellow agents disappearing–those were the only clear evidence of the mission’s failing.
Was there something out there that could interfere with the minds and the tech of both Xereth Kraah operatives and Aegis navigators? If so, was it a weapon from the Kraah Supremacy, Aegis, independent operators, or something else altogether?
Threnkar scowled at his wavering reflection in the data screen directly in front of him, which had blinked back to [STANDING BY]. There was not much he could do but wait for Ryuok-ishni, who was on his way to Legion HQ with the Aegis ex-soldier.
What Threnkar needed now was a neutral presence in the sector where his probes, and likely the black ship, drifted. A presence native to neutral space and borderlands, to wild and uncharted skies.
Someone like a notorious smuggler, pirate, brawler, cheat and so on–a man of many (dubious) talents who was valuable enough to both Aegis and Kraah contacts that nobody would dare question his activities unless it was something big.
“Curse it all. I thought I would not have to talk to that loudmouthed grawk anytime soon,” Threnkar muttered to nobody, voice thick with disgust. Before he could second-guess himself, he cued up a message window, holo-enabled, highest priority available.
“Anterris Rix, this is Legion Prime. I have a job. Huge piles of scrip, plus hazard pay, plus you owe me. And I promise you, this time I really am calling to collect. You know where to find me–Prime out.”