Book: Heretic



Heretic





Heretic


Archangel Project. Book 3


C. Gockel

C. Gockel

Contents

Heretic

Copyright

Also by C. Gockel

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Epilogue

Contact Info & Other Books





Heretic

The Archangel Project. Book Three

C. Gockel

The day of reckoning is coming …

Commander Noa Sato has almost reached the Kanukah Cloud. Within hours her crew will reach Sol System through a hidden time gate. They won’t just save their own livesthey’ll save millions from genocide at the hands of Luddeccean fanatics … if they make it. The Kanukah Cloud holds dangers of its own, and the Luddeccean Guard is still after them.

If the Ark reaches Sol, Professor James Sinclair will be revealed as the imposter he is. Designed to be the perfect spy, James's love for Noa seems to be the only thing truly his own. But what can love be to an agent of the gates?

When the final confrontation occurs, and the truth of the gates is revealed, James and Noa will have choices to make ... Choices that may divide them forever and lead to the destruction of the human race.



Copyright © 2016 C. Gockel

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, subject “Attention: Permissions,” at the email address below:

[email protected]

Heretic

Created with Vellum





Acknowledgments

This story wouldn't have been written without the enthusiasm and support of my fans. Among them, I need to give a special shout out for the early readers, the ones who read the first draft and told me what they loved and hated. Thank you so much Kay, Sarah, and Melissa. I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks also to my husband Eric. If he hadn't nagged me to start publishing, this never would have happened.





Chapter One

“Go, Noa!” The archangel’s voice filled Kenji’s chamber.

He touched the playback button on his etherless computer, waited impatiently until it rewound to the correct position, and played again.

“Go, Noa!”

After the archangel had been apprehended on Atlantia, that was what it had implored of Noa. His sister had been safe aboard the Ark; she’d disobeyed. Given Noa's temperament, her ignoring his entreaty was not surprising. But why had the archangel asked that of her? How did it not violate its purpose, and therefore its programming?

Using the keyboard, Kenji clumsily navigated through the archaic interface, clicking through folders, and opening files, until he got to the footage taken at Adam's Station. At the end of the recording, he saw a scene that made his skin go cold, and his hands damp: security personnel firing on Noa as she raced across Adam’s Station’s dock. The premier had insisted she not be harmed, but Adam’s Station’s security was “undisciplined” in the words of Luddeccean Intelligence. Kenji swallowed as the scene unfolded; his heart rate quickened. He reminded himself that his sister hadn’t been injured. Still, he fast forwarded, holding his breath as he watched his sister race toward the safety of the plastitube lift.

Five minutes before the end of the playback, he hit pause. His sister, nearly at safety, had started to dart out into oncoming fire to rescue a fallen teammate. Just before she did, the archangel had pressed her down, and then raced out into the firestorm and retrieved the fallen teammate itself.

Turning off the playback, Kenji jerked back in his chair. Why? Why would it do that? Or more specifically, why would it be programmed to do that? It had no compunction against killing.

Picking up the phone beside his computer, he entered the code for the premier. When the line connected, Kenji said, “I need to go to the Kanakah Cloud.”

“Who is this?” said a voice that didn’t belong to the premier.

Kenji blinked.

“Who is this?” said the voice again, and this time Kenji recognized Johar, the premier’s secretary. He thought the line was exclusively for the premier … But no, with device-to-device communication, anyone could pick up.

“This is Kenji. I need to speak to the premier. I have a message that I need to deliver.”

The line cracked, and this time it was the premier who spoke. “You have a message you need given to your sister?”

Kenji sat back in his chair. “No,” he said. Noa would never give up. “I need to go with the team to Kanakah Cloud. I know how to make the archangel …” He paused. Something within him rebelled against the ridiculous code name.

“I know how to make the machine surrender itself,” Kenji finished.

And he knew how to save his sister.





Chapter Two

A light flickered above Noa’s head in the Ark’s hallway. They were almost to the Kanakah Cloud, only a few more hours at lightspeed … was the old boat going to die on her now? She cursed, reached out to her engineer through the ether, and found his signal offline. Manuel never turned off his channel. Her eyes darted from side to side, and her hand fell to the stunner at her hip.

She heard voices from behind a door down the hall, shouts of panic and anger. Raising her stunner, she broke into a jog. She reached the door, but it didn’t budge. With a growl, she punched the override button.

The door swished open, and she was face to face with Monica, the doctor from Earth she’d picked up on Adam’s Station. Monica’s usually neat mahogany hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her tastefully augmented features were distorted by a sneer. Her warm brown skin was stained by black mascara running down her face. “You condemned my husband to die!”

Taking a step back, Noa gasped. Monica’s husband had been stationed on Luddeccea by C-Corp, the largest cybernetics manufacturer in the galaxy. He’d arranged to meet Monica and their daughter on the nearby planet of Libertas. Monica’s chartered ship had been damaged during the firefights between Luddeccean forces and Time Gate 8, and sent off course. She’d joined the Ark's crew thinking that Noa could take her to her husband. Noa had been forced to tell Monica that the Ark was not going to Libertas; they were heading to the Kanakah Cloud, to a hidden time gate they’d use to summon the fleet. Monica had taken it reasonably well. In a show of true Earther emotional restraint, she’d stifled sobs when Noa admitted that off-worlders, and anyone associated with the cybernetics industry, were among those targeted for the “re-education camps.”

Now …

Rushing out, Monica raised her fists. Dropping her stunner, Noa caught them just in time. From behind the doctor in the galley, voices rose. “You left us! You left us!”

Noa looked over Monica’s shoulder and saw her crew mates from System Six, her friend Ashley from the Luddeccean “re-education camp,” and her brother.

Pointing a finger at Noa, Kenji cried, “You’ll destroy the human race!”

“You know I’ll never make it!” Ashley shouted.

“You made me leave you behind,” Noa cried, as Monica redoubled her attack and more screams rose.

Strong arms wrapped around her from behind, tearing Noa’s hands from Monica’s. The arms released her, pushed her out of the way. Spinning, Noa saw James's naked back with feather-like tattoos in sharp relief against his pale skin. He punched Monica in the jaw, sending the doctor flying backward.

“No!” Noa screamed.

James hit the button that closed the door and turned to her, blue eyes flashing, blond hair hanging in front of his eyes. Carl Sagan was on his shoulder, bobbing his head. The werfle gave a tentative cheep.

“What are you doing?” Noa screamed. She knew he didn’t like the doctor, but he'd punched her with enough force to break her neck.

“What am I wearing, Noa?” James asked, putting his hands on her shoulders. Shoving away, Noa snarled.

“What am I wearing?” James asked again, his voice very calm.

“What does that have to do—?” Noa’s eyes dropped to the dark blue silk pajama bottoms he was wearing; they were far too luxurious to be something he’d found on the Ark. Her eyes slid to his left hand, steady at his side. It had been trembling off and on for weeks, and he refused to see the doctor for it. She let out a breath. It wasn’t James she was looking at, but one of his avatars.

Covering her eyes with her hands, she huffed in frustration. “Damn it, am I sleepwalking again?”

“Yes,” said James, approaching her cautiously this time, as though expecting her to strike out at him. “Don’t worry, we’re still in our quarters.” Her quarters had become “their quarters” when they took on the refugees from Atlantia.

Dropping her hands, she hissed, and stomped a foot. James was a step away, his expression softer than it ever could be in real life. “It’s only your third episode,” he said.

Her nails bit into her palm as she made fists of helpless rage. She may have only had three episodes of sleepwalking, but the nightmares were a near constant. If she didn’t have James appearing almost nightly in her dreams, she’d probably sleepwalk more.

“I shouldn’t be having any episodes,” she growled.

“It’s all the excitement about entering the Kanakah Cloud tomorrow.” Stepping close, so their bodies were brushing, he took her hands. He kissed her softly on the cheek. In real life he could not kiss her, or even smile or frown.

“Solar cores,” she ground out between clenched teeth. “I’m a Fleet Commander, not a silly stupid princess who needs coddling.”

One of James’s eyebrows lifted, and one side of his lips curled up. The dim light of the hallway brightened, expanded, and changed. Noa found herself standing in a neat, ornate, European-style garden in the sunshine. “What are you cooking up this time, James?” Noa asked.

James’s contributions to her dreams were becoming more and more elaborate. He smiled, winked, and looked down at her body. She followed his gaze and found herself “wearing” a get-up of ivory, pale green silk, and satin that was tight to her hips and then bloomed out into a huge skirt. “What is this?”

“A princess gown,” James said.

Rolling her eyes, Noa plucked at the skirt. “I’m definitely not a Europa princess …”

The scene changed and they were on top of a wooden bridge over a still pool in a Japanese garden. “Do you like this more?” James asked, now wearing a traditional Japanese men’s black kimono, open haori jacket, and hakama skirt. Noa looked down at the pale yellow kimono she wore, and the flower pattern on it seemed to shimmer as though it were made of water. The vision was so elaborate, she half expected to see herself in the reflection in the pond. Tentatively she glanced over the railing of the bridge and caught her breath. Sure enough, she saw herself mirrored in the surface of the still waters. Her dark eyes were highlighted with gold, as were her lips, and the tiny scars on the left side of her forehead and cheek as well. It was a clever inversion of the traditional Japanese white foundation with black, pink, and red highlights. She shifted uneasily.

“I just said I’m not a princess, and you put me in princess get-ups, James?” Noa asked, trying to keep her voice chiding. It was all very beautiful, it was just … she bit her lip.

Giving her an insufferable smirk, dropping a hand to the place on her hip just below the wide belt of her dream kimono, he said, “Maybe you should take it off?”

She felt herself go warm. He looked rather like a Christmas package ready to be unwrapped. But then a flash of white at the corner of the garden caught her eye. Turning, she saw a giant origami unicorn. It was blurrier than the surrounding scene, and in black and white. Before her eyes, it morphed into a “real” unicorn, galloped toward them a few steps, shook its head, and vanished between some hedges.

“Was that my dream or yours, James?” she whispered. There was something familiar about it.

“That was your dream,” he said in a hushed voice. Her eyes slid to him. His mouth was agape. Noa put a hand to her throat. It wasn't that weird. In the shared dream, a wind stirred. “What is all this about?” Noa asked, raising her hands, the long sleeves of her kimono flapping behind her like wings.

“A distraction for you,” he said.

“For me?” She asked dubiously. She felt like it was more for him.

“Don’t you like it? Everything works here.” He held up his left hand, no tremors wracked it in the mindscape, and then he looked away. “Did you know some people say the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, it’s imagination?”

Noa looked around. “This is your imagination?” She’d thought it was something he remembered from an immersive environment. In dreams, things tended to exist only in the direction of the dreamer's gaze, but this dream did not blur around the edges. He had been in the computing lab a lot recently, and could have used the Ark’s computer …

Sounding a little defensive, James said, “Everyone’s great imaginary leaps use others’ leaps of imagination as scaffolding.”

“I’m sure that’s true …” She looked around and shivered, though she couldn’t say why. Half-teasing, she said, “Maybe you should consider becoming a holo artist when we get back to Earth.”

James beamed. “I have never, ever considered that as a career choice. But now …” He looked up at an illusory sun. “I don’t think I’ll be going back to the university. I’m not who I was. A holo artist …” He nodded, looking very pleased.

“I’m glad I can help you find your life’s next great calling,” Noa said, feeling a premonition of future sadness. This was one of the few conversations they'd had about the future. What they had was great aboard the Ark with a common goal and a destination. That might all change when they got back to Earth. “Let’s go back to our cabin now.” She looked off into the distance. “We need to stay focused in the real world. Can’t be hiding in our dreams, or worrying about the future.” And maybe that was what made her uneasy all along? A cold wind blew in the dream. She thought she heard a sound like a horse’s nicker—or a unicorn’s.

James’s smile dropped. The scene morphed, and they were standing in their quarters by the door. The lights were off. The only illumination came from the blur of the universe at lightspeed outside their window. Carl Sagan launched off James’s shoulders. Noa took James’s hand and led him to the bed. Kissing him as they slid under the covers, she pressed her body to his. “See, reality isn’t so bad.”

Raising an eyebrow, he said, “You’re still dreaming, Noa.” Before she could respond, he kissed her back.





Chapter Three

Noa’s legs slid between James’s. He grabbed her hips, pulled her close, thought of the dream that they’d shared the night before, and how they could make it real.

“I’m going to go take my shower,” Noa whispered.

An app went off in his mind, telling him it was time to get up, and almost time for Noa to be on shift. There was no way he could persuade her to be late—he’d tried once. He had never seen her so furious. Noa would always be a commander first, and today, with their arrival at the Kanakah Cloud ... He loosened his grip, and she slid from the bed with a sideways smile, leaving a gust of cold air in her wake. He watched her stride across the room, lithe and graceful. With every step his vision darkened around the edges. Had he wanted to recreate the dream? If he didn’t get some nourishment within the next few minutes, he might not be able to make it to breakfast.

As soon as Noa was out of sight, he slid off the bed and unlatched one of the storage drawers beneath. Opening it, he set the mask for her ongoing cryssallis treatment to one side, rolled the ancient hologlobe of Noa’s “great-great-great-something” grandparents to the other, and took out her stunner with a shaky hand.

“What are you doing?”

Noa’s voice from behind him almost made him drop the weapon. He looked up at her. He felt his neurons or nanos or circuitry or … whatever … misfire. His vision went black and then he felt the bright light of inspiration. “I’m making sure it’s charged,” he said, flipping the stunner on and making a show of looking at the read-out panel. “I don’t want it to die on you the way mine did on the roof of Manuel’s townhome.”

“I don’t expect there will be any hand-to-hand combat in the Kanakah Cloud,” Noa replied and he could hear the purse of her lips. “There aren't any known settlements, only rumors.”

“You didn’t expect we’d be stopping at Adam’s Station, either,” he said, eyes still on the read-out.

“Touché,” Noa replied. Stepping closer, she said, “I need a towel.”

He pulled one out of the drawer for her, looking up as he did. He felt whatever sparked his consciousness light up and dance, despite his hunger. Since the day he found her in the snow, her cheeks had filled out and regained their healthy glow. Her lips were no longer cracked and bloody. Her short hair was full and midnight black. She looked exactly like the Noa in the picture in his mind—but much better without the Fleet uniform, or anything at all. He wanted to smile, but his jaw could only shift. It made no sense that a cyborg could lose himself with a human woman, that passion could be a release that made lights go off behind his eyes, heated his skin, or completed him.

Noa tugged on the towel. He hadn’t realized how tightly he was holding it. “Temptress,” he said. She rolled her eyes but grinned ear-to-ear as she strode back toward the bathroom. His vision tunneled again with every step. She glanced at him once before she stepped out of view, and he hoped his body wasn’t wavering from his hunger. Trying to stay nonchalant, he raised an eyebrow. Shaking her head, she went into the cleaning nook and the door slid closed.

As soon as he heard the water turn on, he aimed the stunner at his naked side and pressed the trigger. Energy and heat fanned out across his skin. James’s eyes rolled up into his head. His mouth watered obscenely—a twisted bit of faulty programming made his body react to a stunner the same way it reacted to food. He knew if he looked down, his “tattoos” would be jet black. They were, he was fairly certain, heat and light sensitive, and were how he collected energy to supplement what he couldn’t get from eating.

Taking a deep breath, his vision cleared, and he found himself staring into the eyes of Carl Sagan, only a hands-breadth from his nose. The creature’s whiskers twitched.

“I’ll tell her, Carl Sagan,” James whispered. The statement made whatever sparked his consciousness dim. There wasn't really a choice. Sooner or later she'd know. He pushed back his bangs with his trembling hand. “But I can't tell her now … The rest of the ship would use me for spare parts if they knew.” And they would know if Noa knew. His mind vividly imagined how it would happen. Noa wouldn’t believe him. She’d drag him down to medical, and, with Monica’s help, take a scan of his internal organs. Monica wouldn’t feel bound to her Hippocratic Oath for a machine. She’d probably insist that James’s rations to their limited food supply be cut, and then everyone would ask why he wasn’t eating. Even if Monica didn’t, even if Noa convinced her to stay quiet, and allow him to partake in his meager S-rations, the scans would be in the Ark’s computer, and he knew Ghost would very much like to know what he was. Nor did Ghost have any reservations about dismembering cyborgs.

His vision blurred. Of course, James did know Ghost’s secret …

Heretic

“How is he?” James asked.

Stepping out of Ghost’s cabin, Monica’s head jerked up. There was a crease between her brows and she was frowning. “His vitals are all good, and from my scans I’d say the nano treatment has completely reduced the swelling in his brain …”

James took a step closer. “But?”

The lines on her forehead deepened. “But when he woke up, he was babbling about it being impossible that we were at lightspeed. He was very worried that the coordinates you gave the commander would send us headlong into a comet or a star … he doesn’t remember sending them to you.”

James was grateful that his muscles couldn’t contort into the frown that wanted bloom across his face. Ghost had been using an off-ship computer to chart lightspeed courses faster than the Ark's ancient systems could manage, hack into ethernet conversations, and create holographic disguises. James wasn’t precisely sure why Ghost had been keeping his ability hidden. If the crew knew James was connected to the time gate computers, they'd want to know who, or what, had taken over Time Gate 8. If they found out that the gate itself was in control, and realized that machines had made the leap to self-awareness, that knowledge would lead them to medically examine him, and then they’d discover that James himself was a machine. But James didn’t feel like Ghost was a cyborg like him, or connected to the time gates; he was almost sure the man was connected to the etherless supercomputer he had built on Luddeccea. So why the secrecy?

“May I talk to him?” James asked, trying to tamp down the desperation he was beginning to feel. They’d left Atlantia just over nine hours ago. They were at lightspeed, beyond the reach of Luddeccean warships, and they’d remain so for the next month. He’d spent all of those nine hours with Noa; he wanted, needed, to stay with her when she wasn’t at the helm. After they reached the hidden time gate in the Kanakah Cloud and made the jump to Time Gate 1 in Sol System, he didn’t know what would happen to them, or even to himself. He couldn't let Ghost give him away a second earlier.

Monica gazed at the floor. “I … maybe it would be a good idea.” She looked up at James quickly. “Perhaps you could share the message he sent with the coordinates?”

James nodded. “Of course.” He'd lied to the crew, telling them Ghost had given him the lightspeed course.

Monica released a loud breath. “Okay, yes, talk to him … but …”

James cocked his head.

“... don't push him too hard,” Monica said.

James thought of the piles of cyborg parts in Ghost's lair on Luddeccea, and Ghost’s suggestion they sell 6T9 for parts on Adam's Station. James the human hadn’t believed in violence as a means to solve problems … James the machine was still trying to reconcile that dead man's beliefs with his own apathy toward violence and even murder. He didn't think he'd mind hurting or killing Ghost; but of course if he did, he might wind up on the wrong side of an airlock—and even if they spared his life, Noa would never trust him again. “Of course,” he said.

For a beat too long, Monica didn't move. He fixed his eyes on her—heard the rush of static—and then heard one of Sterling's men over Monica's ethernet channel, “Doctor, I need you here. This man's vitals are unstable.” Shaking her head, Monica stepped away from Ghost's doorway and said over the channel, “I'll be right there.”

James didn't move until she'd disappeared into the lift. And then he didn't bother to knock; instead he reached into the Ark's ether, so recently created by Ghost. The man had an ether override for every door aboard the ship—but Ghost had put his own behind a double passcode. James's skin itched with the static of irritation. He only heard the voices of the time gates after a blow to the head, but they always seemed to hear him. Closing his eyes, he focused. “If you want data, and me not to be sent floating home, you'll help me override the passcodes to the ship's doorways.”

For a moment, nothing happened. “Don't you want your data?” James murmured aloud. His left hand trembled; his right hand formed a fist.

A bright white exploded behind his eyes, and then in the white, symbols appeared. James plugged them into the Ark's computer and the door whooshed open.

Ghost was sitting on the bed, putting on some socks. His eyes widened at sight of James. “You!”

James walked into the cabin and commanded the door to shut.

Ghost's sock slipped from his hands. “What do you want?”

James tilted his head. Should he try to frighten the man? Try to flatter him?

Ghost sneered, “I know you are the archangel,” and James’s skin heated at the implicit threat behind the words, and also the stupidity. He felt a bright spark behind his eyes. “A lot of people know that, Ghost,” James replied. It was probably true. Monica's daughter had heard the Luddecceans were looking for the archangel, and then Adam had demanded his and Noa's surrender. The doctor was smart enough to put one and two together. Wren had heard the same conversations aboard the Luddeccean vessel when he'd negotiated Monica and her daughter's release … he’d probably figured it out, as well. Manuel and Gunny must suspect—the time gate had said his code name as they escaped Luddeccea. Noa had known since the beginning.

James took a step closer, heat flaring beneath his skin. “But do you even know what that means?”

Ghost drew back, eyes wide, his lower lip trembling.

“Well?” James said. Could Ghost blackmail him more directly?

“You're … you're … connected to what's happening on Time Gate 8,” Ghost stammered.

“Yes,” said James. “But why?” Both his hands balled into fists. Did Ghost know more than James did? The gates spoke of needing more data. Is that all James was? A vessel for data collection, an animated observation buoy set loose among the human race? Did the data collection have an end date? He took another step closer to the programmer.

“I don't know ...” Ghost stuttered.

An air vent clicked. Sparks jumped along James's spine. He believed Ghost. If he’d known what James was, wouldn’t he have tried to prove it by now? Or to have sold him for parts on Adam’s Station?

“Why are you trying to threaten me, Ghost?” And he realized that he knew the answer. “You're afraid that I'll tell everyone that you're talking to a computer other than the Ark's.” He raised an eyebrow. “I suspect it is the etherless computer you made for the Luddecceans. Why are you so afraid of them knowing?”

Ghost swallowed. He opened his mouth—

James cut him off. “Don't lie to me.”

Ghost's mouth snapped shut.

James hand trembled at his side. “You're not just talking to the supercomputer, you're using faster than light methods to do so. It's the discovery of the century. You should want it to be known far and wide.” Light flashed in his eyes. He remembered Noa's words, “Ghost isn't really a genius.” James sighed. “You didn't really invent the technology, did you?” What other reason could he have for not gloating about it?

Ghost didn't say a word.

“Did you steal it?” James asked.

Ghost looked up fast. “No!”

James’s eyebrow rose.

Drawing back in his seat, Ghost amended, “Maybe.”

James took a step closer to the man. Lip quivering, Ghost began to babble. “Right after I left Time Gate 1 to begin my contract on Luddeccea, I received plans through the ether for the Luddeccean etherless supercomputer. The design was beautiful, elegant ...”

James blinked. “Who were they from?”

Ghost put a hand through his hair and didn't meet James's eyes. “The origins of the message was Time Gate 1—but I couldn't determine from whom. There are over a million people there at any given time.” He shrugged. “I figured it was just another disgruntled techie working for Fleet.”

James had a sudden feeling it wasn't a 'whom' they came from but a 'what.' He remembered Time Gate 1's 'voice' buzzing in his mind. He pressed. “And you used these schematics that you received from a stranger?”

Ghost shook. “There was nothing in the schematics that was really new, it was just so well optimized ...”

James stared at him. “Then how are you still communicating with it? There is no current technology for faster than light communication without a time gate.”

Ghost's Adam's apple bobbed. “Just before my contract with Luddeccea ended, they sent me the data chips.”



“Data chips?” James felt as though his mind was winking on and off.

Ghost nodded. “They promised me that if I installed one chip in the Luddeccean computer's central drive, and the other in my own neural net, I'd be able to communicate with the computer from anywhere in the universe in real time.”

James blinked. “You trusted an unknown entity and plugged in a device that in all probability would sabotage the computer the Luddecceans paid you to build?”

Ghost's lip curled. “The Luddecceans didn't appreciate me, or what I built! They were going to fire me! I'd thought they'd keep me on, and that I would have access to the machine I built for my research!” The man looked out at the stars. “The chip, it allowed me to use the Luddecceans’ computer. I can slip into any frequency, decrypt any ether code. All I have to do is look at a person or a machine, concentrate, and she can plow through billions of possible frequencies and passcodes, and then I'm in their conversations.”

He called the machine a 'she'? James blinked. And then, still dumbfounded, said, “And you weren't suspicious?”

“Of course I was suspicious! But the opportunities it presented …” He looked up at James with wide eyes. “I used it to make the holographic necklaces I showed you, and the responsive holograms you saw in my home.” Ghost nodded in a rapid staccato motion. “I've had the idea for those holographic devices in mind for years, and the Fleet has only laughed at me, said that they didn't have enough computing resources for substrateless holograms to work!”

James rocked on his feet. He'd thought when Ghost said “opportunities” that he meant quietly divesting bank accounts of a thousandth of a credit at a time, not opportunities for invention.

Ghost rubbed his scraggly beard. “The necklaces are so power hungry, though. They never last very long. I still haven't figured out how to get around that. Next to a source like the geothermal converter in my home, it was no problem, but...”

As Ghost rambled on, James realized that the reason for the initial visit had been completely forgotten by the man in his excitement for his holograms.

James could clearly see why Time Gate 1, or all the gates, would want to assist Ghost in building the Luddeccean computer. The gates' intel was limited to what was passed over the ether, and since the Luddeccean central computer was etherless, they would be unable to access it. The data chip Ghost had installed was, in twenty-first century parlance, a bug in the machine by which the gates, or a single gate, could listen in on the Luddeccean authorities.

James’s left hand trembled. But if the time gates controlled Luddeccea's central computer, they could also control the Luddeccean defense grid. They could have stopped the launch of the Luddeccean Fleet that was hovering about Time Gate 8. He shook his head. There were games within games going on here, and he and Ghost were both pawns.

“Why are you keeping it a secret from the crew?” James asked him.

Ghost ceased his rambling on technical details. His eyes narrowed. “Why are you?”

Words poured from James’s lips, without a thought … or even his volition. “An accident I sustained on Earth literally caused my death. During my revival I was hyperaugmented. I was linked to a supercomputer, like you. But it was done without my permission or my knowledge … and I think it was supposed to be just a tracking device—but the information flows two ways, not one. If it got out that I could hear people's ether conversations and decode frequencies and encryption …”

James snapped his mouth shut to make himself stop. The lie had come as easily from his lips as ‘I am James Sinclair.’ He put a hand to his jaw. Was that inspiration? Or had it had been preprogrammed? No, he belonged to himself. He'd proven that on Adam's Station when the time gates had wanted him to shut down, and he hadn't. He'd come back to save Noa.

Ghost's eyes got wide, and he nodded rapidly. “Yes, yes, on Luddeccea … well, they wanted me dead even though they didn't know I'm the Ghost. And the Galactic banks when we get back to Sol, all I have to do is to focus in their lobbies and …” He looked up at James. “I only did it once … or twice … on Luddeccea to fund my research.” His nostrils flared and his voice became petulant. “Should have gone to Libertas and set up shop there, but it's cold, and the air is thin and I didn't expect Luddeccea to go down the drain so quickly.”

James rubbed is jaw. From the late 1400s to early 1900s Europeans had been able to subjugate the people of Earth because they had firearms. What he and Ghost had … what the time gates had … it was a technological advantage of a completely other sort, but it could be a weapon. Have an enemy? Drain his bank account, freeze his communications, or like Ghost had done to the scanner back on Adam's Station, distort the data. In a way the Luddecceans hadn't been entirely crazy; human kind was in danger and the threat had a non-human origin. James felt static flare beneath his skin. But he wasn't dangerous … not generally, anyway.

“I understand why you didn't tell me,” Ghost said. “I was … in shock when I woke up and found out what you’d done.”

James’s hand slid from his jaw.

Ghost swallowed. “I'll recant, tell the doctor I was confused when I woke up.”

“Thank you, Ghost,” James said. The words bit as he spoke them. He really had nothing to apologize for.

“Yes, yes,” Ghost said, waving a hand at James. “This is just something we'll keep between ourselves.” His eyes narrowed. It might have been the lighting, but for a moment the little man looked calculating, almost feral.

James’s vision went white. “Ghost,” said James, his vision returning. “Like Descartes’ Ghost in the machine?”

“Yes!” Ghost said with an oily smile.

James's jaw shifted. Descartes' “Ghost in the machine” was the animal that haunted the rational mind of man. The 'ghost' was all man's baser instincts, and the man before him had chosen that to be his namesake.

Heretic

“I can't trust Ghost,” James said. While they were aboard the Ark, they could help each other—James had saved Ghost's life as well as everyone else's when he'd charted the course out of Atlantia's icy ocean. Ghost couldn’t be awake all the time, and might need his help navigating the relatively uncharted Kanakah Cloud. But once they got back to Sol System, James would be a liability, someone who could expose the programmer.

And Noa … he felt his skin grow cold, his circuits go dark. She might have sympathy, she might not throw him out an airlock or sell him for spare parts, but she didn't believe in cyborg-human relationships. She'd told him as much when he met Eliza.

He thought of the origami unicorn in the dreamscape. He wasn’t sure if she remembered it was from the twenty-first century movie they'd watched in the cattle car while traveling to Luddeccea Prime. It was a symbol of the hero's cyborg nature. Was Noa's subconscious warning her of what he was?

On the bed, Carl Sagan gave a cheep. James hit himself one more time with the stunner, and then reached up and stroked the creature between the ears. Carl Sagan's fur was softer than anything he or the professor could remember. “She'll know eventually, Carl Sagan.” But for now, he'd cling selfishly to every moment he could keep her in ignorance.

Noa stepped out of the bathing nook. Without looking at her, he said, “This stunner is low. I'll take it down to engineering and recharge it.”

“Strange that it's out of power so quickly,” Noa mused. “Didn't you recharge it a week ago? Maybe it has a faulty battery?”

Static flared along James's spine. He'd been using it a lot since they'd begun rationing food. “Eh ...” he said, sliding a shirt over his head, and slipping the exhausted stunner in his pocket, keeping his eyes averted. He didn't want to lie to her; better to try and sound busy.

“What about breakfast?” Noa asked.

“Meet you there,” said James, stepping out the door without a backward glance. It wasn't like he could give her a goodbye kiss.





Chapter Four

Noa stepped out of their quarters, the acrid taste of cryssallis treatment still on her tongue. She saw James's broad shoulders disappear down the access hatch. After some time with a person you were romantically involved with, you tended not to see them, and then all of a sudden, you did in a rush. For some reason, at that moment she had a flashback to the time when she'd first woken up in James's bedroom in his “cottage” on Luddeccea. His broad shoulders had stood out then—and they still stood out. He hadn't lost any weight since being aboard the Ark, despite having his rations reduced. Because of his augments?

She reached up to her shoulder where Carl Sagan was wrapped around her neck, and gave the werfle a scratch under the chin. She was still absently stroking his chin when she arrived in the galley. It had been a cafe while the Ark had been a Luddeccean museum exhibit—it was the only galley she'd ever been in that had recessed lighting and hardwood floors. The former furniture, plus sofas and chairs, was pushed to the walls to make room for the long tables they'd found in one of the cabins. The serving counter was a glass case, better suited for displaying Luddeccean delicacies. Now it was stacked with S-rations. 6T9 was behind the counter doling out the rigorously measured slices of the leathery bars and the liquids that were breakfast. As he dropped her portion on a tray, Noa looked around. “6T9, where is Eliza?”

“Eliza insists that absolutely nothing is wrong with her,” the 'bot replied.

Noa glanced at the ‘bot. His normally expressive, handsome face was blank. Her eyes slid down the line, where several of the Atlantian Guard were shifting restlessly on their feet and eyeing the rations. It was crowded but … “Do you think something is wrong with her, Sixty?” Noa asked. Eliza had insisted nothing was wrong with her when she'd ducked out of the poker match they'd played a few shifts ago. Noa had brushed it off as Eliza wanting to leave while she was still ahead, or maybe wanting to preserve the dignity of the younger people aboard the ship. Eliza had nearly cleaned the Atlantian men out.

6T9 set the water ration he was preparing down on the counter. “She says I'm not to worry.” He stared blankly straight ahead at a point just above Noa's shoulder. “But we haven't engaged in sexual intercourse since—”

Behind Noa came a few groans. “Too much information,” someone said.

Ghost snorted. “You should count yourself lucky.” Not looking at Noa or 6T9, he shuddered. “If any of us had to service that old bat we'd probably smother her under a pillow.”

The ambient conversation in the room dropped.

Noa’s skin heated. “That was out of line, Ghost,” she snapped.

Noa noticed that the Atlantian men had ceased shifting on their feet. One, Corporal Anderson, was looking really hard at Ghost. Anderson and most of the Atlantian crew had started affectionately calling Eliza 'granny,' a name she was happy to adopt, especially when she was taking them to the cleaners during card matches.

Rolling his eyes, Ghost amended, “Smother ourselves with a pillow.” And then sniffed at Noa.

Someone laughed weakly. 6T9 scowled. In the ether, the ‘bot pinged Noa. Ghost's eyes slid to hers as she answered, and then darted away.

“Commander,” 6T9 said across the channel. “I believe this man should be confined to the brig. He is dangerous to himself and others.”

“It was a joke, Sixty,” Noa replied aloud. She glared at Ghost. “A joke in poor taste.”

Narrowing his eyes, 6T9 admonished the man, “You look down on me because I love a human you see as undesirable. I look down on you because you're incapable of seeing what is desirable in a wonderful, amazing, intelligent human being who does not meet your ideals of beauty.”

Around the cafeteria, silverware dropped. Ghost snorted. “Were you programmed to say that, 6T9?”

6T9 put Ghost’s rations on a tray. “Of course I was programmed to say that.”

“I look down on you because you're a 'bot,” said Ghost, taking his tray and quickly walking away.

“There is no greater purpose than service to others,” 6T9 muttered, putting rations on Anderson's plate. The ‘bot met Noa’s gaze. “And nothing is greater than being loved and loving in return. So do I not provide the highest service? Do I not fulfill the greatest purpose?”

Noa stood, staring at the 'bot, at a loss for words.

“We are programmed to say that, in such circumstances, too,” 6T9 said.

“You do a great job of taking care of us,” said Anderson, lifting his tiny rectangle of S-ration.

6T9's face brightened. “Eliza isn't the jealous type. Quite the opposite, in fact. You are a handsome specimen of your species, and I could take care of more than just your nutritional—”

Anderson winced. “No, thank you,” and hustled away.

There were a few snickers. Noa's chronometer app chimed, and she left the 'bot to his job. Turning around, tray in hand, her eyes met those of Dr. Monica Jarella. The doctor was sitting alone, and she smiled tentatively at Noa. Noa rarely had a chance to talk to Monica; their shifts and sleeping schedules were rarely in sync. Now, she couldn’t help but think of the dream, but she walked over and joined the doctor at her table.

“James isn't with you,” Monica commented.

“He went to recharge my stunner,” Noa said, dipping her S-ration portion in water to soften it.

Monica stiffened. “Are we expecting combat?”

Noa waved a hand. “No, I think James is just being extra cautious.”

Monica relaxed slightly, but still didn't look comfortable or happy. Noa scolded herself. Monica didn't know if her husband was alive or dead; of course the woman wasn’t comfortable.

“He's a different person around you,” Monica said.

Noa blinked at her.

Not meeting her eyes, Monica said, “Less charming, but more attentive … caring.” Her brow furrowed. “My cousin always said he was brave, but …” She nodded as though confirming something to herself. “He's different.”

Before Noa had to say anything, James entered the galley. He saluted Noa from across the room, a new stunner in his free hand.

At the counter, 6T9 said, “Good morning, James.”

“It's rude that the 'bot calls him by his first name,” Monica whispered.

Noa set down her S-ration. ‘Bots were programmed to address humans by an honorific, but lots of people reset them so they used first names. Picking up her ration, Noa replied, “I don't see any harm in it.”

“It's irresponsible,” Monica said, and Noa remembered that Monica worked for Fleet trying to create human-machine interfaces that discouraged humans from forming attachments with their machines. In combat those attachments could be deadly, but 6T9 wasn't a combat 'bot. He was hardly even a sex ‘bot, apparently. He was Eliza’s nurse.

Walking over to the counter, James said, “Each morning is like a world anew, isn't it, 6T9?”

6T9 frowned as he put rations on James's tray. “That makes no sense.”

In a stage whisper, James said, “It's an idiom.”

Eyes widening, 6T9 said, “And a very profound idiom it is! I will commit it to my app.”

“You do that, Sixty,” said James, putting the stunner down on the tray and walking to the tables. His eyes fell on Monica. For a moment his steps slowed, but then he sat down next to Noa.

“I'd never heard that idiom before,” Monica said.

“I just made it up,” James replied. Dipping his S-ration in some condensed milk, he said, “I like having 6T9 around. He's entertaining.”

“'Bots,” said Monica. There was something familiar about Monica’s tone that made the hairs on the back of Noa's neck itch.

James’s body got very still.

“6T9 is a valued member of our crew,” Noa said, keeping her voice level. No one could take care of her frail great-great-something aunt as lovingly. Ghost's attitudes toward Eliza showed that.

Under the table, James's hand slid onto her thigh and gave her a friendly pat. Noa remembered James’s disgust when he'd first met 6T9. Forget changing since his medical death, he'd changed since Noa had met him.

“Hmmm ...” said Monica. “If you will excuse me, I have to get to the medbay.”

“Of course,” said Noa. Her own chronometer was ticking down. She had only a few minutes before she had to be on the bridge. They'd almost made it to the Kanakah Cloud. The biggest hurdles of their journey were behind them. If they pulled this offwhen they pulled this offand the Fleet was summoned to Luddeccea's system, they'd save millions of lives. The moment felt heavy, fragile, and bittersweet all at once.

Clearing his throat, James slid the stunner to her. “Recharged and ready to go.”

She took the stunner and slid it into her pocket. “You know, the Kanakah Cloud is three times the size of Sol System. If it does have human settlements, it's sparsely populated. We're unlikely to bump into anyone and really unlikely to have any trouble.”

James raised an eyebrow. “Somehow trouble always finds you.”

Standing up, she grinned. “Look who's talking.”

James sat with such preternatural stillness that she wondered if it was an augment ability. Had she stepped on his delicate Earther sensibilities? His face was expressionless.

“Touché,” an avatar of James said, materializing in her mind with a grin, and Noa relaxed and found herself grinning in real life. He got her. She didn't really care that he was trouble, but she couldn't miss an opportunity for a joke.

He tossed a ball of light to her between their minds, their code for a kiss, and Noa felt her cheeks grow warm. What they had, right now, it was perfect, and she wouldn't worry about later. As she left the galley, she was still smiling.

A few minutes later she was sitting in the pilot’s chair, her eyes focused on read-outs, her hands clasped to the control wheel.

“Approaching re-entry point,” Noa said aloud and across the ether.

From where he sat at one of her two cannons, Lieutenant Aarav Sterling of the Atlantian Local Guard responded, “Cannons on standby, ready to initiate power cycle as soon as we leave lightspeed.”

“Gunny, report?” Noa asked across the ether. Gunny and the remainder of the Atlantian Guard were in the airlocks with phaser launchers. They’d unseal the locks if they encountered hostiles when they came out of lightspeed. Their shoulder mounted launchers wouldn’t be more than bug bites to a Luddeccean Guard vessel, but they could do some damage to the smaller, leaner ships favored by “independents.”

“Suited up and in position. We’ll be ready to fire before the main cannons come online.”

In the copilot chair, Wren said, “Lot of effort you’re putting into a place where you’ve told me settlements don’t exist.”

“Standard Fleet procedure, Wren,” Noa replied. She’d been unable to follow that procedure before Sterling’s men had come onboard. She hadn’t had a large enough crew. They’d been promptly set upon by a pirate vessel belonging to a Captain Xo. That wasn't going to happen again.

“Manuel,” she said, over the ether, “ready to power down those time bands?”

“We’re ready!” her engineer said.

In her mind, a light pinged. Noa began the countdown. “Ten,” Noa said over the ether, her eyes on the white blur of the universe at lightspeed. “Nine,” she said, and this time her thought was amplified by her original crew joining the countdown. “Eight,” she said and Sterling’s men joined, and then the rest of the ship in a joyous mental chorus. “Six, five, four, three, two, one!”

As the Ark left lightspeed, the white-gray blur of radiation faded away like mist, and the Kanakah Cloud hovered in the velvet before them.

Stationed at the second cannon, Ensign Chavez gasped, “It’s beautiful.”

Sterling whistled.

Noa released a breath. No one was quite sure how the Kanakah Cloud had formed. Instead of a sun, there were two large, vaguely spherical, pale blue glowing orbs near the center. Between them stretched arms of red, purple, and orange plasma and sparkling dust. Gas giants, encircled by the dusty clouds, also glimmered around the stillborn suns.

Checking the monitors, Noa asked, “Ghost, you working on the new heading?”

“Inputting new visual data now and will have the course to you shortly.”

“Thanks,” Noa said. The sector of the cloud they’d entered wasn’t mapped completely and Ghost was filling in the blanks as they went. James would be in the computing lab too, committing everything to his eidetic memory app.

“Checking standard frequencies,” Wren said, in the copilot chair.

“Cannons ready to fire,” said Sterling. “But looks like we’re in the clear.”

“Well, damn it,” Gunny said over the ether. “Professor, looks like you and me got all dressed up for the dance, for nothin’!”

Noa’s brow furrowed. Across the ether, she asked James privately, “All dressed up? Should I be jealous?”

“I’m in Airlock 1 with him,” James said. “With two men per lock, Gunny said we’d have better coverage.”

For a moment Noa couldn’t breathe. Tactically, he was correct. But James was supposed to be in the computing lab, tucked away behind shielding and multiple emergency airlocks. The airlock “turrets” would be the most exposed and dangerous location if they did run into trouble. It wasn’t a position for a civilian. “I'm the one who looks for trouble? What are you doing there?” she asked, managing to keep her thoughts light.

“I volunteered,” James responded. His thoughts came cool and flat, as inflectionless as his expression tended to be. “Obviously, I've picked up some of your bad habits.”

“And Gunny accepted your volunteering?” Noa snapped.

“Why wouldn’t he?” James asked.

“Because you’re not—”

“Not what?” said James. And this time she thought his words carried a hint of venom.

“Trained,” Noa finished.

She swore across the ether she could feel him blink. When his thoughts came again, there was a hint of amusement in them. “That’s never kept you from pushing me into the line of fire before.”

“I’ve never pushed you into the line of fire,” Noa said. “You jumped.” Literally, he’d jumped off a moving elevator to save Oliver, Manuel’s little boy, and then off a building to deliver a cybernetic heart to the toddler.

Her reply was met with silence.

“Okay, I’ve led you into the line of fire,” Noa admitted. “But only when we didn’t have a choice.” She readjusted her hands on the control wheel. This was why she’d married a Fleet engineer. While she was weaving through asteroids, Tim had been safe back on the fighter carrier. It allowed her to focus on her crew mates. She felt a lump in her throat. But Tim had died anyway, not during the line of duty, not in a way that allowed her to at least blame herself. His death had proven how random, and completely unfair the universe could be.

“Noa?” James’s voice across the ether drew her from her thoughts.

“Gunny's right, you'll do good there,” said Noa, gritting her teeth. Fiery hot solar cores ...

Beside her the ancient comm box issued a brief blip of static, and then nothing more.

“I’ve got your course,” said Ghost, and a three-dimensional map of the cloud appeared in Noa’s visual cortex, along with a brilliant green dotted path—the Ark’s intended course. It took them around the large planetoid before them, close to two more, and around a shimmering finger of dust to a large cluster of asteroids and debris several hours away that hid the time gate. “We’re almost home,” Noa breathed. She set the coordinates, and launched the Ark toward the gate.

Over the ether, Kuin, one of the engineering students said, “The commander didn’t lead us into trouble. You owe me credits!”

“It was she wouldn’t get us into trouble before we reached the gate,” Kara said. “We’re not there yet.”

Noa’s eyes widened. Kara bet against her? Sweet, shy little Kara?

Eliza’s thoughts joined the general frequency. “Don’t worry, Kara. There is still plenty of time!”

“My own auntie bet against me,” Noa muttered aloud and into the ether.

Wren snickered. Chavez coughed. And Noa actually felt her lips turn up. At least her crew was in a good mood. The Ark rounded the first planetoid and its asteroid orbiters, and began its flight toward the next cluster. At their current speed, they’d be at the next cluster in 4.6 minutes.

To James alone she mused over the ether, “I wonder who else bet against me.”

“I didn't,” James replied. “That would be very wrong.”

Noa relaxed.

“Because I don’t know how much money I have back on Earth,” James continued, and she could see his eyebrow rising just by the way he drew out those thoughts.

Grinning despite herself, Noa shook her head. “You are such a—”

A sharp bleat of static made her eyes jerk to the small comm on the dash.

Heretic

James stood in Airlock 1, closest to the bridge.

Over the ether, Noa said, “You’re such a—”

And then her thoughts abruptly cut off.

Across the general ether, James said, “Commander, is something wrong?” His mind leapt to the video streams from the ship’s exterior. He couldn’t see anything. All biosigns aboard the Ark were normal. Noa’s line was still open, but she wasn’t responding. Perhaps busy with some technicality? Another channel lit in his mind; one that lit up more and more frequently of late. After a second’s hesitation, James answered it.

“Hey James, why aren’t you with us civies?” Raif, Wren’s son, asked him.

“I’m in the airlock with Gunny,” James responded.

“What are you doing there?” Raif asked, and a red light flashed in the periphery of James’s vision. An app alerted him that Raif was anxious.

James wasn’t a parent, or even human, but he thought he had excellent models of parental behavior. His father—or the real James’s father—had an augmented heart implanted when James was only ten. Laughing off the nearly deadly heart attack that had preceded the operation, his father had told the young, anxious James, “Don’t worry, this is just a scheme to test out my company’s products.”

He sought a similar quip to put Raif at ease. “What I am doing here is wearing a spacesuit. I’m about to do a bit of space walking,” James said. “Don’t you wish you were me?” What child didn’t want to space walk at least once? The other James had.

“A space suit? Full deal? Really?” Raif said. “Wow, we can do that now that we’re not at lightspeed. Can I?”

“Maybe later. Look, I have to focus here. Gonna have to let you go.”

“All right … You’re lucky to be there. Snyder is complaining about all the ‘toddlers he has to babysit.’ I’m twelve and he’s not my babysitter.”

Snyder was one of the rescued civilians from Atlantia. Born into wealth, he was used to things going his way. He was also a litigator and … litigious.

“You’re probably babysitting him,” James said, not just being appeasing. The boy was the go-fer between computing, engineering, and the bridge.

“Solar cores, yes,” said Raif, and then disconnected.

Wren's voice cut across the general channel. “Got some static on the comm. Could be dust on the antennae.”

Beside James, Gunny fully suited, shifted, and went to stand directly beneath the outer airlock opening. Normally the door would be beside them, but Manuel had decreased and shifted the grav. James was standing on what was usually a wall. Gunny was standing on what was usually the inner door. Both of them were fully suited for space walk. They each had a plasma launcher, easy enough to heft in the lighter G. When Gunny turned to look at him, James couldn’t see anything but his own reflection in the man’s visor.

Across the ether, someone asked, “Can we move out of the galley now? We’d like to see the cloud, Commander.”

“Please remain where you are,” Noa replied across the general ether.

“Is there danger?” someone said.

“It’s standard procedure for civilians to remain in the most secure area of the ship when coming out of lightspeed,” Noa replied.

The original speaker said, “But this isn’t a combat situation, surely we can—”

“Please remain in the galley,” Noa said, her thoughts still calm. Her thoughts across the general channel were cool, level, and professional.

“My son forgot his teddy xengaum, I just want to go—”

“This isn’t a cruise ship, Mr. Snyder.” Over the general ether, Noa’s mental tone was friendly, despite the harshness of the words. Over James’s personal channel, it was another matter. “That blasted son-of-a-lizzar dung weevil!”

Snyder, not hearing her private commentary, continued, “Really, Commander, don’t you think you’re being a little—?”

Irritated, James reached into the ship’s ether, saw the light that was Snyder, and he turned it off so the man could no longer interrupt her, and he locked the galley door.

“Thank you for shutting him up, Ghost,” said Noa, mistakenly attributing the shutdown to Ghost.

“Errr …” said Ghost. “You’re welcome?”

“I see something,” Sterling said. “Heading this way, eleven o’clock.”

“I don’t have anything on the comm,” Wren said.

“Here we go,” said Gunny, inclining his head up to the door overhead.

“Ghost,” Noa said, “can you amplify our ether range?”

“I’m trying, Commander.”

James’s mind leapt into the ether and the monitor read-outs at her words. Even as a civilian—or a cyborg civilian imposter—he knew sometimes ships in distress would use a handheld flashlight to signal for help in Morse Code. He saw nothing that could qualify.



“Commander?” Gunny said.

“Go, Gunny,” Noa replied. James felt her wordlessly reach for his private channel, but before he could respond, the outer airlock opened. Since the room had already been depressurized, Gunny and James weren’t sucked out. Instead, Gunny gently hopped up and caught himself on the lip of the doorway. James did the same, and found himself suspended in a universe of swirling light and color. Raising his weapon, he peered over the scope and saw a bright pinprick of light at eleven o’clock. Another pinpoint of brightness at ten and nine o’clock caught his eye, and more at twelve and two. An internal application told him they’d be three minutes behind the first.

Noa’s voice cracked over the ether. “Five incoming—and they’re hot.”

At her words, a spot at the front of the first object, two handspans wide, began to glow.

“Fire!” Gunny roared.

Heretic

Bolts of plasma launched from the airlock turrets lit up the dome of the Ark. Two beams that Noa’s apps told her were from Airlock 1 hit the drone at eleven o’clock. Electricity fired along the drone’s hull, its advance halted, and its outer hull cracked open. Spinning in place, it sent its outer plating hurtling out in every direction, a final assault. She heard the reverberations in the hull as the scraps hit the Ark’s exterior.

“Fire the cannons!” Ghost screamed across the ether. “They’ll disintegrate the targets.”

“Bridge, hold your fire,” Noa said aloud.

She heard Sterling shift in his seat.

“The Ark’s hull can take the shrapnel. Do not fire the main cannons!” Noa said. It couldn’t withstand too many plasma charges from the things, but the old boat had been designed for unexplored deep space and could handle a few physical collisions. Her teeth ground. Her men in the airlocks could not take physical collisions, of course.

Ghost whined again, “Use the main cannons!”

Dipping her chin, she said, “Save the main cannons for whatever is sending these things.” Because whatever it was, it was far bigger and far nastier, and they’d only have two shots.

Thoughts shaky, Ghost replied, “Oh.”

“Ghost, you work on contacting whatever it is.”

“It has to be behind the next cluster,” he exclaimed. “That’s why I’m not getting a signal. We should alter our course and go around it, Commander.”

“We’re not altering our course,” Noa said.

“What?” said Ghost.

“Commander?” said Chavez.

Wren snapped before Noa could respond, “That would put it on our tail … and we don’t have cannons to guard our ass.”

Before Noa could hear the reply to that explanation, an exploding drone in a spinning ball of plasma and shrapnel came hurtling to the glass of the dome.

Heretic

James and Gunny’s blasts hit another drone in a twisting coil of plasma trails. In a brilliant flash of orange, it began its death spin. As he waited for his plasma launcher to recharge, in the periphery of his vision he saw two more bolts of plasma from Airlock 7 arc over his head, but James’s eyes were fixated on the drone he and Gunny had hit, spinning faster and faster. White light flashed behind his eyes and he knew with bright white certainty that it would collide with the dome.

The dome could survive a collision with an object, but could it withstand a collision with a spinning ball of electrically-charged metal? Before his mind had even finished processing the question, he’d released the phaser launcher, thrown down his hands, and had pushed himself off the Ark’s hull, propelling him up into space to give him a better angle. The launcher, tied to him by a shoulder strap, came with him. Time seemed to slow as he re-clasped the weapon and aimed. A bright light in the launcher told him it was ready to fire again. Another white light went off behind his eyes and he knew there was a 33.2% chance that the dome, already stressed by seven years at lightspeed, a landing in Luddeccea’s frigid Northeasterly Current, centuries parked at the Luddeccean equator subjected to sometimes football-sized hail, would crack.

He pulled the trigger. His aim was true. The drone veered off its course, sparked and spun, its projectiles skidding over the hull.

He felt a tug, and Gunny’s voice filled his mind. “James, get down here,” and he realized what a dangerous position he was in, high above the Ark’s airlock, tethered to the rest of his crew by a thin band. He looked down and saw Gunny hastily reeling him in. Another drone began to spin above and ahead of them. Shards flew from its outer casing. Gunny should have retreated back into the safety of the airlock, but he didn’t, he just kept pulling James in … James released a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. The warm light of gratitude, relief, and a sort of exasperation with what was either Fleet or Luddeccean stoicism flittered in his mind. His feet were almost at the level of the Gunny’s head when a shard flew between them. He felt a jerk, and then he saw Gunny give a final tug—but instead of going back toward the airlock, James floated backward—no, a useless application told him—he was going in the same direction as the Ark, just slower. There was another explosion and he couldn’t see anything at all as a piece of plating from the Ark’s hull came tearing toward him and the wide flat bottom of it hit him in the chest. His suit did not rupture, but he was propelled backward even faster.

“We’ve lost James!” he heard Gunny shout in the ether, and he felt all his thought processors come to a halt. Noa would not leave him, but if she found him “alive,” or at least still animate, after his CO2 converter expired, the reckoning would come sooner. He struggled against the plate, and managed to push it off of him. He found the controls for the jets in his suit, managed to turn them on, but his apps screamed that they wouldn’t be enough.

Overhead more drones flashed, plasma fire streaked up from the Ark, and shards of exploded machinery flew past. He was going to be pulverized. If his suit was breached, he’d be believed dead, and if he was believed dead and found alive …

He felt pressure on his calf.

“Gotcha,” Gunny said over the ether. “James, turn off your jets.”

The jets were the only thing slowing his backward momentum. James looked down. He saw Gunny’s tether floating loose in zero G, and Gunny himself holding onto his leg. He’d put himself in the same peril James was in.

James turned off his jets.

“Airlock 7, we’re coming!” Gunny shouted. But an app in James’s mind told him that was impossible. The airlock was below them; their jets were aimed in the wrong direction.

Gunny lifted his phaser rifle. With a mental cry of “Allah Akbar,” Gunny aimed the barrel of the launcher at the last approaching drone and fired. It was then that James realized the blue light of the recoil dampener wasn’t lit.

Gunny flew backward and down, dragging James with him. They hit the hull, bounced, and then James was yanked backward and down by an unseen force.

“Got the professor’s tail!” one of Sterling’s men, Lance Corporal Amanda Ling, cried.

Shards shot past them.

“I’m hit,” Gunny shouted.

The grip on his leg vanished, and suddenly James was jerked down past Gunny, hovering in space in front of him. Instead of reaching for James, Gunny was seeking the breach sealer for his left arm. The man who’d saved him was going to float into the abyss. Reaching up, James caught Gunny’s phaser rifle strap and pulled the sergeant to him as he was reeled into the lift.

“Manuel, give us gravity!” Lance Corporal Tom Briggs called.

Before James knew what was happening, he was falling. He heard an “oompf!” over his radio, and then an “mmpf!”

He landed flat on his back on something relatively soft and lumpy. “Ugh!” Ling’s voice cracked over his radio. An instant later, Gunny landed on top of James, and all the air exited whatever passed for lungs inside his body with a “pffffft.” In his radio came another loud crackling noise.

Ling’s mind rang out through the ether. “Shut the airlock!” and the bright light of the Kanakah Cloud winked out.

Noa’s words rang through the ether. “Status.” Over his personal channel, she said, “James?”

“I’m here … in Airlock 7,” he said. Gunny’s body convulsed on top of him and the crackling of his radio got louder. He felt a stab of worry, and reached to the man through the ether.

“I’m going to kill whoever sent those lizzar-blasted drones,” Noa’s mind hissed to him privately. But over the general channel, she said, “Gunny? Sergeant?”

The crackling noise continued, as did Gunny’s convulsions.

“Is he?”

“Gunny?” James said, but got no answer. Just even louder crackling and more convulsions.

“Respectfully, please get off of me, Corporal,” Briggs said.

“I can’t with these two on top of me,” said Ling.

“What’s wrong with Gunny?” Noa said.

“I don’t—” James was cut off by Gunny saying, “I’m laughing my ass off!” He rolled off of James, and said across the ether, “We’re all here, and we’re all safe, Commander.”

James rolled the other way, stood up, and looked over at Gunny.

“Damn, that was so hilarious ... I’m cryin’,” the sergeant said aloud. “Also, I wish I still drank. That was too close for comfort.”

Over the ether, Noa’s voice cracked. “Gunny, how is your suit?”

“Worked exactly the way it's supposed to!” Gunny replied.

“I need you back in Airlock 1,” Noa said. Privately, she said, “James—” He expected a quip, maybe ‘don’t do that to me,’ or at least, ‘what were you thinking?’ But the connection went dark, leaving him oddly adrift.

And then Wren’s voice followed, “I’ve got contact!”

Heretic

“Damn,” said Wren. “Lost it.”

“Me too,” Ghost said. “It’s the planetoid cluster, Commander. There’s a lot of dust between those rocks.”

Noa’s lip curled, her eyes on the skylight. The drones hadn’t been large enough to destroy the Ark, but if any of them had gotten a clean shot at a time band, they could have incapacitated her ship. Pirates, obviously. Well, they were about to get a surprise.

“Cannons ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” said Chavez and Sterling in unison.

“Ghost,” she said over the ether. “Do you have any sort of read on those drones?”

“They were trying to communicate with someone—and failing. It’s the cluster ahead. It’s blocking signals.”

The comm cracked.

“But we’ll be in range within minutes,” Ghost finished.

The comm screamed, and Wren’s hands flew over the dials.

“Unknown ship, unknown ship, requesting assistance …”

The comm cracked again, and another voice rattled through the bridge. “Unknown ship, this is none of your business!”

“Ghost?” Noa said.

“The second one, Commander,” Ghost replied. “The aggressive one … that’s the one the drones were trying to reach.”

Noa growled. “They lost their chance to play nice.”

Ghost’s thoughts stuttered across the ether. “But Commander, really? They’re obviously distracted by whomever they are currently engaged with, and surely it would be better to save our ammo. We don’t have an unlimited supply. ”

Every gram in her body felt like fire. Fleet Pilots did not appease enemies that fired first.

Noa dipped her chin. Over the ether, she asked, “Gunny, are you back in position?”

“We’re ready, Commander.” He sounded almost gleeful, and Noa recognized an adrenaline high when she heard it.

Ghost protested, “Commander, I must insist—”

“She’s doing the right thing, Big Brain!” Wren snapped. “Shut your apps off or so help me, I’ll come there and shut them off for you!”

The light of Ghost’s consciousness winked out. The Ark dipped below the cluster, and Noa’s and Wren’s eyes went up. A familiar black ship, with wings like the spiky shell of a rock urchin was hovering above an enormous dark concrete disk. The disk had a central core of patchwork metal. Her apps put its diameter at three kilometers and its width at one hundred forty meters. It was crawling with more of Xo’s drones and thousands of ticks.

“That’s Captain Xo,” Noa said, eyes on the black ship. “Chavez, Sterling, that’s your target!”

“Locked on!” they said nearly in unison.

The comm cracked again. “Unknown ship, unknown ship, please provide assistance!”

A light on the monitor warned that a spot on Xo’s freighter was heating up—a plasma launcher being primed. An app told her she had three seconds.

“Fire!” Noa said. She could see the red-orange light of plasma fire in their cannons, but maintained the Ark’s heading, gunning to the highest velocity that could be maintained with simultaneous cannon fire. The ship rocked with the blasts from Sterling and Chavez’s cannons, Xo’s vessel exploded, and half a heartbeat later, wreckage bounced off of their hull.

Wren swallowed. “That was awful close, Commander.”

Noa slowed the vessel. She was too keyed to explain to Wren that the Ark’s cannons were designed primarily for forward fire, and that their ability to hit an intelligent target was lizzar piss poor. She’d taken advantage of the Ark’s only advantage—it was designed for accidents like hitting uncharted objects the size of the wreckage produced by say, an impromptu asteroid being blown up by its cannons. Instead of explaining, she laughed. Adrenaline and anger were flooding her system, and on top of that emotional cake was relief.

Wren muttered, “Xo was the one who mentioned there were inhabitants in the cloud … Why would he come here instead of Libertas, though?”

Over the ether, Noa reached for her chief computing officer. “Ghost, do you have any intel for me?”

There was silence on the other end of the line. And then Ghost’s thoughts spilled over the channel. “Oh, fine, I’ll tell them, but Wren was rude.” In snotty tones, he said, “Commander, I don’t know why it was attacking … that thing … but a moment after we arrived, they had a lively debate about whether they should keep attacking the disk, or us. Hence, I think, their hesitation and our relatively easy victory.”

“I’m glad they’re gone,” Wren said. One of his hands went to his neck. “I didn’t think I pissed him off that much.” He turned to Noa and gave a look that somehow was a leer and a wince.

Noa shook her head. “They didn’t follow us … they were here first.”

“Commander, Xo’s drones are reactivating,” Chavez said.

A warning light on her dash started beeping like mad.

“Commander!” Ghost’s voice. “Don’t go to lightspeed! Current heading would put us into a dust cloud in less than—”

“I won’t. Give me a visual,” Noa ordered.

“Hold on …” Ghost said. Over the general ether, Ghost projected a glowing constellation of red lights and data. Noa swore. Some of them were no larger than a few handspans. Her heart fell. “Open all airlocks, and engage.”

“Aye, Commander,” Gunny said.

“Uh …” said Wren, eyes on one of the monitors. “Commander, I think you should take a look at this.”

Noa’s eyes slid to the screen. On the disk's surface, light was spilling from square hatches as they opened, and phaser cannons, hot and primed to fire, rose from the depths.





Chapter Five

James was in Airlock 1. There were no windows, the hatch was closed, but his mind was in the ether and the strange disk. He saw the drones rising from the station, and the cannons rising at the same time as white flashed behind his eyes. He heard Ghost cry, “We have no chance against that thing!” and Noa’s command over the ether, “Prime the self-destruct and open a channel.” And he also heard the ether of the disk. At first it was gibberisha cipher, he realized. He had another blinding flash of white and he understood. “Shoot down the drones!” said a voice he didn’t recognize at the same time Noa said, “If it’s a game of chicken they want, it’s a game of chicken they’ll get!” Across his own private channel Noa projected her rage, and an image of the Ark diving head first into the central core of the disk, drones exploding on its hull. “This was a trap!” she hissed.

“Noa, no!” James’s mind screamed across the shared frequency.

Heretic

Noa was on fire, the adrenaline from her battle with Xo still flooding her, the drones glowing outside the skylight and in the Ark’s external monitors. Her hands flew across the dials that would initiate the self-destruct. There was no way that a station—or whatever—with that sort of firepower rising from its innards couldn’t have repelled Xo’s ship. It had been a trap, and she’d flown right into it. The lights aboard the Ark began flashing red.

“I can’t access their ether,” Ghost said. “They’ve got a cipher!”

Noa focused on the last digits of the self-destruct sequence. Just a few more—

“Wait, Noa!” James said again.

The pause interrupted the sequence, and momentarily stilled her hands.

“It’s okay, Noa,” James said across the channel. “They’re on our side.”

“They’re firing,” Chavez cried in the same instant.

Light flashed from the phaser cannons, and around them drones exploded like stars. Before the things could begin their death spins, the phasers from the disk flashed again. There was a sound like hail on a tin roof as tiny pieces of drone struck the hull.

Wren dropped his head. “Fuck, fuck, fuck …”

The comm hissed and an unfamiliar voice said in Basic, “Unknown ship … hope we didn’t scare you there. Weren’t sure how much fire from those things you could sustain.”

With a growl, Noa canceled the self-destruct. “Scare us? You nearly wound up with a phaserton worth of blast in your … core.” Over her private channel to James, she used words that were much more descriptive and involved bodily orifices.

From James she got a snarky, “Have you ever considered becoming a poet?”

In a distant part of her mind, she knew she’d laugh at that snark later, but she was still furious. “Why did you summon us?” she demanded over the comm. “You obviously don’t need our fire power.”

She heard an intake of breath, and then the speaker said, “Our apologies—we did need you! We were in the midst of a reboot when Xo’s vessel attacked. We were moments away from a breach … if you hadn’t distracted them, we wouldn’t have been able to re-establish our defense grid in time.” There was another intake of breath. “We are in your debt, and wish to repay you.”

Noa felt the fire beneath her skin turn to a bone deep chill of an adrenaline crash. Ascertaining that the Ark’s momentum was halted, she leaned back in her chair.

“A reboot,” Wren murmured. “That would explain all the lights coming back on.”

Sure enough, blue lights were winking along the disk’s surface.

“What is this place?” she said with a long exhale. It wasn’t on any list of settlements she had. Not exactly unexpected, the cloud was immense, and dense—it was one reason the Fleet had a hidden gate here.

“The Free People of the Kanakah Disk,” said the speaker. “I am Prime Minister Jackson Li.” There was the sound of a throat clearing, and an uncomfortable pause. “And you would be Commander Noa Sato,” Li said.

Noa sat up straight in her seat.

Answering her unasked question, Li said, “We had a trade delegation on Adam’s Station during your, ah, visit there. Our delegation was there to meet with C-Corp executives. I’ve heard that you traveled aboard the Nina—but that looks to me to be the Ark.”

Noa’s lips pursed.

“Can I inquire what you’re doing in these parts?” Li said.

Her jaw got tense. Before she could think of a suitably vague reply, Li said, “No, no, don’t answer that. Yes, yes, I can see where you might not want to talk, as you’re being pursued by the Luddeccean Fleet. And frankly, if they come calling, I don’t want to know. Oh, yes, much better this way.”

Sterling whispered privately across the ether, “I swear I can hear him sweating.”

Chavez said, “Sounds like he’s afraid of us.”

“Well, you did nearly blow him up!” Wren snapped. “Stupid, suicidal Fleet.”

“I want you to know,” Li continued. “We had nothing to do with what you may find when you get to where you may be going. Lots of instability in this system.”

Noa’s mouth dropped open. Was Li speaking of the gate?

“We want no trouble with the Fleet,” Li continued.

Across the ether, James asked, “Why would he expect trouble from the Fleet?”

Noa sighed. “The people who find their way to uncharted settlements tend to be paranoid individualists, flat out criminals, or both.”

“We have food if you wish to come aboard,” Li said. “We are in your debt, Commander.”

The hairs on the back of Noa’s neck prickled. “Thank you, no,” she said coolly.

There was a crackle on the comma sigh, she realized. “Well, then,” said Li. “Thank you again for helping out during that moment of weakness. We greatly appreciate it.”

“No problem,” said Noa.

The Ark was poised like a dagger above the disk. Noa didn’t make a move to change the Ark’s position.

On the disk, the glowing barrels of the plasma cannons began to sink, and then wink out as trap doors slid across them. Over the comm, Li said, “I, um, hope you realize, you’re clear to go and we don’t intend to fire on you.”

“I do now,” Noa said, angling the Ark away from what would have been a fatal dive for everyone.

“Please let the Fleet know we didn’t impede you in any way!” Li said.

“Of course,” said Noa, her eyes on the skylight of the Ark. The disk was out of sight, and the window was filled with the glowing expanse of the Kanakah Cloud. Over the ether, she said, “Ghost, do you have a new course for us?”

Numbers for the new course started playing in front of her eyes. She glanced at Wren. He nodded and began entering them while Noa’s eyes swept the external monitors. The plasma cannons did not rise, but she noticed that there were more ticks crawling over the surface.

Over the ether, James said, “It’s like they’ve all come up from the underbelly to see us off.”

Noa’s hands tightened on the control wheel. “How did you know that Li wasn’t planning to attack us?”

There was a pause. For a moment, Noa thought the ether had gone down. And then James thought, “I'm a coward who chose uncertain death over a certain death.”

Noa huffed. James was grumpy and always one to point out the logical reason for inaction. Her skin prickled. That had been the old James though … She remembered him on Adam’s Station, prepared to die instead of be captured, and how he threw himself over the edge of a building, backward, to deliver a heart to Oliver, Manuel’s son. Beside her, Wren said, “We’re ready, Commander.”

Noa pulled back on the control wheel, and Li’s disk became just a pinprick behind them. The pins and needles in her skin didn’t disappear, though.





Chapter Six

In the airlock, Noa’s voice assailed James over the ether. “I hate this bucket of bolts, whoever designed its time band gauges has the brain of a lizzar left out in a Prime hailstorm!”

James’s lips would have quirked if they were capable. Noa’s tirades once exasperated him, but now he found them amusing. “It’s almost as though this bucket of bolts was built over three centuries ago,” James chided, giving the Ark’s Earth age.

“They could have updated since then,” Noa snapped back. “We should be at the gate by now, but the dust up has us parked in the middle of nowhere—even for the Kanakah Cloud. There's not a rock to hide behind.”

“Don't worry, I have it on good authority that the cloud is next to uninhabited,” James fired back.

The ethernet between them flickered, and he could picture Noa smiling despite herself.

Sounding less outraged, she said, “Manuel says it's an easy fix. I just wish we weren't stuck out here.” Noa asked.

A bright light went off in James's mind. He flipped up his visor as the inner airlock door opened with a whoosh and he found himself staring through the spectacles of Lieutenant Sterling of the Atlantian Local Guard. It must have been a relic of that other James, but whenever he saw the spectacles the man wore because, “takes too damnably long to switch between close and distant vision with my augments,” James always wanted to touch them, peer through them, and play with their delicate plastic arms.

Sterling’s face reddened, and he tapped the plastic frames. “Need 'em to put on the space suit. Too many little catches.”

“I’ll help you,” Gunny grunted. “James, take off your suit and get going. Your suit needs to be recharged and ya gotta be hungry.”

James wasn’t hungry. He’d kept his space suit heater at maximum the whole time—which was why it needed to be recharged. He didn’t complain, though. Stripping off the bulky suit, he saw a light that was Noa in his mind leaving the bridge via the access ladders. A moment later, she broadcast a bolt of joy as she braced her feet on either side of the ladder and slid down. It made no sense that a machine’s mind could feel sympathetic delight at the happiness of a human. It made him feel more than a machine, or even man. He felt connected to the larger universe.

Minutes later, he slipped into the tunnel himself. The distance between himself and Noa was painted in a bright cord of color in his mind growing shorter by the second. It made no sense that a machine should feel like he was being drawn toward her by a string. His hands and feet moved faster, and a moment later exited at the level of the galley.

Noa was already there. His eyes met hers as soon as he exited the ladder shaft, and he paused. She was scowling. Where was the joy she'd shared a moment ago? A red bolt of anger hit him across the ether, and then a moment later she tossed the bright ball of light they exchanged as a kiss. Somewhere in him, a subroutine wanted his lips to purse, but his lips never got the message. Was she happy or angry?

The ether erupted with Noa's thoughts. “I thought I lost you for a moment earlier.” She shook her head and began walking down the hallway toward the galley. As he stepped beside her, she bumped her shoulder against his. “Manuel said if that drone had hit the dome of the bridge in its death spiral, the glass composite might have cracked.”

“You’re welcome,” James said.

Noa stopped at the entrance to the galley, pivoted on her feet and looked up at him. She still looked angry … but even the circuits that served as a brain in him knew that it was because she cared.

“Don’t die on me, James.” Her voice was a whispered command. He’d seen it make men quiver in their boots.

A thousand breezy answers cycled through his mind, but none fit. “Don’t die on me either, Commander,” he responded in the same tone. It was, he thought, the closest they'd ever gotten to saying I love you.

Noa’s lips parted, and her expression softened. She nodded.

The lift pinged, and Noa and James turned.

Eliza came out of it, riding on a hover chair four very bored engineering students had made for her over the past month. On her lap was Manuel's son, Oliver. Sitting up when he saw James and Noa, he pulled a hand of aluminum and plastic out of his mouth, leaving a long trail of drool behind. “Hi!” he said brightly, and then slouched back against Eliza. The old woman patted the boy with a hand that was papery with age.

“Eliza,” Noa said. “I thought Sixty was watching Oliver.”

“Shixty on space shit,” Oliver murmured.

“6T9 is recharging,” Eliza said. “I’m watching him for a little bit.”

Noa’s brow furrowed.

Coming closer, Eliza smiled sadly. “Don’t worry, he won’t get away from me.” She pinged them over the ether. “He needs his new heart. He gets tired too quickly.”

Noa frowned, and James heard her swallow. James had escaped Luddeccean Intel agents on Atlantia with an artificial heart for the boy. They could replace his existing heart, but everyone had hoped the surgery could be delayed until the boy reached Sol. The Ark’s medbay wasn’t built for cybernetic heart transplants—the early Luddecceans hadn’t believed in cybernetic organs; some Luddeccean hardliners still did not.

Noa responded across the ether. “We’re almost to the gate. Let’s talk to Monica. If he can hold on just a few more days ...”

Eliza nodded. Over the shared channel, she said, “He’s got an appointment with her after dinner.” Aloud, she said cheerfully, “Let’s go get something to eat, Oliver.”

“Not hungry,” he mumbled.

But Eliza floated the chair between them into the galley. Noa looked up at him, and then over the ether, Sterling’s voice cracked. “Commander, we got company.”

Heretic

At Sterling’s thoughts, Noa spun and returned to the access tunnel, she tasted adrenaline on her tongue. “Gunny, I want your guys back in the turrets. Sterling, I’ll get Ao to man the cannon. You stay put. Your eyes work better out there.”

Beside her, James said, “And me?”

The laser focus faltered. Noa released a breath and looked up at him. “Take Ao’s place.” She wanted to order him on the cannon, but his augmented vision and reflexes better served the ship in the airlocks.

James gave her a nod. His jaw shifted as though he were trying to smile, and he gestured toward the ladder with his hand. Noa slipped into the tunnel and commanded over the general channel, “All hands to battle stations. Sterling, pipe me what you see.”

She blinked as the field of their wake filled her vision. It was a bifocal view, blurry at the edges. At first she saw nothing, and then she saw dark pinpricks dance in front of a dusty glowing cloud, their movements too erratic to be natural.

To the ship at large, she commanded, “All civilians to the galley!” and then into a channel for the crew she called out, “Ghost, any idea how big they are?” Her hands and feet moved up the ladder rungs in practiced movements.

She climbed a few more rungs. “Ghost?”

“What time is it?” Her computing officer's thoughts were a jumble over the ether; he'd been in his sleep cycle. “Wake up, Ghost, we've got company and need your help.”

Over the channel, James said, “Based on our distance from the asteroid cluster and Sterling's visual, I'd say they range in size from 1.2 meters to 4 meters.”

“Ticks!” Gunny thought, and Noa could feel his mental spit to the side. Her skin heated—was Prime Minister Li of the Kanakah Disk sending them as spies?

James continued, “Sterling, I can superimpose your view over the Ark's data.” The blur at the edge of Sterling’s vision became crisp and clear.

“Shit,” said Wren. “That visual is creepily vivid.”

“He’s a professor!” Gunny protested.

But Noa felt herself halting on the ladder. It was very vivid. Taking data from the external sensors and combining it with Sterling's poor visuals … that would take a lot of processing power. It must be Ghost's tweaking of the Ark's systems. She reached up for the next rung. But the Ark couldn't even manage to input a course over the ether. She shook her head. The damn boat was buggy. “Anything on the comm?” she asked Wren.

“No, Commander,” Wren replied. “Suggest we bring her around on pulse power—”

“Do it,” Noa said. To James alone, she cursed the Ark’s main cannons inability to fire in rear directions.

“—and hail them,” Wren finished.

As she flipped open the main hatch to the bridge, Noa’s nostrils flared. After Xo, her first impulse was to blow whatever they were out of the sky. They were so close to achieving their objective. She hissed, but said, “Of course.”

The bridge was full of the sound of static from the comm. At her appearance, Chavez exited the copilot chair and strode to the second cannon. Taking the steps up to the pilot’s chair two at a time, Noa saw Wren had already begun pulling the ship about.

“Bloody lizzar guts,” Noa hissed to James alone.

“I imagine they are bloody,” he quipped back.

It felt so good to have someone in her mind to swear at. Jaw tensing, she willed him not to die.

The comm continued to crackle as she strapped herself in. Letting Wren continue to man the ship, she tried another frequency. “Unknown ships, state your purpose.”

There was no answer.

“Ready to exit Airlock 3,” James said.

Noa’s eyes lifted to the dome. She couldn’t see anything there. She looked down at the monitors, but they weren’t as clear as Sterling’s vision. She focused again on James’s mindscape.

She could see the tick's long black limbs silhouetted against the cloud. She remembered the battle on the Ark before Adam’s Station, the men she’d wanted so desperately to blow out an airlock, and she remembered System Six, and too many encounters with “friendly” miners that turned out to be anything but. They could not risk treachery like that.

Switching frequencies, she said, “Unknown ships, unknown ships, announce your purpose or we’ll be forced to fire.”

“A little harsh, don’t you think,” Wren snapped.

“No,” Noa said.

Wren sighed. “This isn’t System Six, you know. No one out here is at war with anyone else.”

“Your friend Xo was attacking the Kanakah Disk,” Noa said, the words flowing from her lips like ice water.

“Okay, there was that,” Wren conceded. “But Xo was not my friend, and most miners are—”

“Commander Sato, Commander Sato, do you read?” The strange voice cracked over the comm.

Noa’s eyes widened at mention of her name. “I’m here.”

“My name is John Singh. Flashing my forward lights now. I, um … can’t speak for everyone, but I mean no harm. We just hoped …” His words began to come in a stammered torrent. “The Kanakah Disk is overwhelmed with refugees, and their food can't last. Libertas is shooting down all incoming ships not preauthorized, Adam’s Station and Luddeccea are the same, and none of us are able to travel through deep space anyway.”

Noa released a breath, and her shoulders sagged.

“We thought,” Singh continued. “Well, there are rumors of a hidden gate in the cloud. After we heard your discussion with Prime Minister Li … well … we're hoping that they’re true and you’ll lead us to it.”

“We are running out of food,” another voice cracked over the comm.

“Our O2 converter is dying on us. We need a new carbon filter,” said another.

“We need diapers and formula,” said another.

Wren’s hand snapped to the comm and he turned it off. Turning to Noa, he said, “Most ticks are owned by independent miners. Do you really want to blow them out of the sky? Wouldn’t that go against Fleet protocols?” He sneered. “Or does the Fleet not have protocols for civilians not officially part of the Republic?”

Noa turned to face the man who had been a double agent, ostensibly on the Fleet’s side during the System Six wars. He’d mowed down civilians on Adam’s Station … but now … she had a sickening sensation he was right.

“Gunny,” she said over the ether. “We need to help these people. They’re in distress.”

She half-expected the other veteran from Six to say, “Claim to be,” but instead Gunny responded with a terse, “I bet they are.”

James’s thoughts exploded over the private channel. “Noa, they could be spies or worse.” And her hair stood on end. James wasn’t a double agent. He’d risked his life to save Oliver …

“I’m going to work out precautions with Gunny,” she said.

“Of course,” James said. “Let me know how I can help.”

Something loosened in her. James was just voicing the logical argument, and hadn’t she been prepared to turn the cannons on the ticks, herself? He hadn’t heard their cries of distress, that was all.

Flicking the comm back on, Noa said, “Please hold position. We will prepare to assist.” In Sterling’s mindscape, she saw the lights of reverse thrusters activate. She found herself turning to Wren.

He put a hand over his chest. “Being a father has made me a kinder, gentler person. You’d understand if you had kids of your own.”

Noa’s skin heated. Not at the observation of her childlessness—she’d developed a thick skin toward that. No, it was something else about the exchange that set her on edge.

“Commander,” said Gunny over the ether. “If we’re going to assist them, we need a plan.”

She could feel the suspicion in his thoughts. And then she realized that they had a weapon that they hadn’t had in Six. She could have Ghost scan their ether. The tiny tick computers wouldn’t be a match for the Ark’s—not since Ghost had done his magic with it. “Ghost, you ready?”

“I don’t think they mean us harm,” James said. “They might have weapons. That could be useful.”

“Agreed,” said Noa, an idea forming in her mind. She looked over at Wren, again. The leer was gone. He was wiping his face with one hand. One of his fingers was tapping nervously against the steering bars. His eyes were on the ticks off in the distance.

Maybe he had been changed by fatherhood? Ghost’s thoughts intruded hers. “I'm here, Commander.”

She didn’t have time to ponder what it was about Wren’s newfound “kinder, gentler” self that bothered her.

Nine hours later, she had to concede Wren had been right. They seemed to be mostly normal folk. They were small time prospectors, forced out of their habitats when supplies from Li’s disk had dried up, which had occurred because the disk had been swamped by refugees. She’d spent her rest cycle dealing with managing the logistics of providing assistance to six ticks in various states of repair, twenty-three adults, and seven children: determining the individual needs of the vessels and prioritizing them. Obviously, the one with the faulty carbon filter in their air recycler had to be first, next she’d tried to get a gauge of how hungry they were. She hadn’t felt comfortable letting more than one of them dock with the Ark at a time. Monica had to test them all for known diseases; Gunny had to pat them all down, and hence … no sleep. James had insisted on helping.

They had all been very well armed, as remote prospectors often were, but had handed over their weapons as they came aboard. They seemed anxious to prove their loyalty to Noa and her mission to reach Sol. With the kids, they would be. James walked beside her, squinting at the power reading of a stunner they’d acquired from one of the refugees, licking his lips.

The taste of the insta-coffee she'd washed down her breakfast with and the stimgum she'd chased everything with were still on her tongue. Her hand beat out a staccato rhythm on her thigh. “We’re almost there,” she said to James. “We could be at Sol Gate within hours.”

James lowered the stunner. “One,” he murmured.

For a moment, Noa thought he was saying an hour, but then she realized he was referring to Time Gate 1. Referring to it by its number must be a regionalism.

Looking at a point in the ceiling, he said, “I haven’t seen One since …” He shook his head, and looked down at her. “You said the gate here was damaged. It could take some time to repair it?”

His wording was odd, his tone was slightly hopeful, and it was weird, and then she realized what he was doing. Grinning ear to ear, she nudged him with her shoulder. “Always thinking of the worst.” She nodded too quickly, and knew her movements were bordering on hyperactive. “Damn, I didn’t need that stim,” she said. “The excitement is enough.”

Stopping before the access tunnel, she took a long breath and willed herself to calm. She met James’s eyes. “But you’re right, I shouldn’t get too excited. There may be a lot of work to be done.” Over the ether, she sent a bouncing white ball of light in his direction.

He exhaled. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Looking away too quickly, he opened the hatch and motioned for her to go first.

She was about to slip through when she looked down at the stunner he was holding. “That thing is ancient,” Noa said. “It’ll be too strong, might do more than just stun a man.”

“Really?” he said, looking down at it. His tongue darted out between his lips.

Noa tilted her head. “Someone you’d like to do more than stun, James?”

“Ahh …” he said.

From down the hall came the sound of a crash. Noa sucked in a breath. The door to the galley, where all the tick kids were, whooshed open and a thin man wearing Luddeccean Green stepped out of it. Noa wasn’t dreaming, though she wished she were. Her skin heated.

“Actually, yes, there are some people I’d like to do more than stun,” James drawled out over the ether.

Over the ether, Noa cursed, “Infected pustule on the nasal gland of a dung mole!”

She felt the connection between her and James go dark and then light again. “That was inspired,” he said over the ether. He nudged the stunner in her direction so she could grab the handle. “Maybe you’d rather do the honors?”

“Commander!” Snyder said. “I want you to know that this situation is unacceptable. Those … children … may carry disease. Half of them are unsupervised, they were all apparently raised in a barn, and we’re expending precious rations on them.”

Noa’s hands balled into fists at her side. She was afraid to look down at James’s stunner for fear of taking him up on his offer. There was another whoosh, and Raif, Wren’s son, came dashing out. Dressed in Ark togs, sporting a military high-and-tight haircut that Gunny had given him, he’d put on weight since coming aboard. He stood a little straighter, too, usually, but at the moment, he was bent over, bolting forward at full tilt. He stopped when he saw James and Noa, nodded at them both, and looked up at James a little too long. He was doubtlessly communicating across the ether, but more than communication, Noa saw adoration there. James stepped aside and Raif darted between them. James brushed a hand through the kid’s hair as he did. It made Noa’s stomach do funny things.

Snyder hissed in disapproval. Shaking his head at Raif’s retreating form, he said, “One of those children threw a plate on the floor.”

James’s head jerked back. “No, he didn’t. He dropped his food in his excitement to eat.” Across the ether, he said privately to Noa, “According to Raif, and I trust him more than Snyder.”

Noa trusted Raif more, too. She crossed her arms.

Snyder sputtered.

Noa raised an eyebrow and smiled tightly. “Go back to your quarters, Snyder. You’ll be safest from our hos … guests … there.”

James didn’t exactly step toward Snyder, he just straightened in a way that made the other man step back, quickly look away, and then step down the hall toward the lift.

Noa rubbed the bridge of her nose, and her lip curled up, but not at disgust at Snyder. Over the ether, she said to James, “Lizzar guts, I almost called them hostages.” Because that was what they were, though she suspected only James, and maybe Gunny, appreciated that. She had armed ticks “escorting them” to the hidden gate. She couldn’t afford for there to be any unexpected hostilities … keeping the kids on board while their parents operated the ticks was part of Noa’s insurance policy.

Touching her shoulder, James whispered, “Whatever they are, they’re better off on board.” Inclining his head, he steered her to the open hatch to the access ladder and gave her a nudge. “Come on.”

Her chronometer app said they still had plenty of time, but she took the hint. Slipping into the access tunnel, she tamped down the urge to take the rungs three at a time, and kept her eyes on her hands, lest she slip in stimgum, adrenaline, and excitement-fueled haste. She was only six rungs up when she heard a sound that she hadn’t heard since the Antique Weapons Firing Seminar she’d taken in Fleet.

“James?” she cried, looking down. She saw just the top of his blond head and one of his arms on the rungs. His sleeves had fallen back, and his tattoos were blooming across his arms.

From down below her, she heard Raif’s voice. “James, are you all right?”

Shaking his head, he said, “I’m fine. I think the safety on this thing doesn’t work.”

Raif said, “But I saw you—”

“No, you didn’t, because if you had seen that I would be dead,” James snapped.

“Oh,” said Raif.

Seen what? He must have thought he’d seen the muzzle pointed in James’s direction … maybe because the thing was old, and awkwardly shaped. If James had even been clipped by the thing, he would have lost consciousness and dropped like a stone.

“Did it damage any of the exposed circuits?” Noa said, her eyes scanning the sides of the tunnel.

“No,” said James. “Everything is fine.”

Noa blinked. “But if it didn’t hit you, it would have hit something.” There should at least be the smell of burning plastic.

“Must be faulty,” James said, looking up at her. Licking his lips, he said, “Come on, let’s move.”

“If that thing is misfiring, we should get out and get rid of it,” Noa said.

James sighed. “It’s spent, Noa. Let’s just move. We can hand it off to Sterling or Chavez on the bridge.”

Noa didn’t budge. He was technically right, but they had plenty of time, and Noa didn’t like waiting to fix or ditch malfunctioning weaponry.

Scowling at her, James said, “Raif has to get to the bridge. His father is getting impatient. Let’s move, Noa.”

From down below, she heard a muffled gulp from Raif.

Noa put two and two together. Raif was the ship's errand boy, Wren had asked for something on the bridge, and Wren scared Raif a bit … she thought sometimes the kid was more comfortable around James.

She resumed her climb and minutes later climbed out onto the bridge, James at her heels. Raif scrambled out behind them and bolted to the helm.

“It’s about time!” Wren snarled as Raif handed him a small portable recharger. One of Wren’s hands was a cheap augment that sucked up a lot of power.

“I …” Raif started to stammer.

Wren twisted in his seat and Noa could see his face contorted with rage. His eyes slipped to Noa, and then to James, and then he said tersely, “Just give it here.” As Noa slid into her seat, she heard a soft zip as Wren recharged his hand and handed the charger back to Raif.

Noa’s brow constricted. “Wren said being a parent had made him a kinder, gentler person,” she said across the ether.

“I wouldn’t have liked to meet him before,” James quipped.

“He hasn’t changed at all …” Noa said. She shifted in her seat, the hair on the back of her neck prickling. “It makes me nervous,” she thought, just to James.

“We need him,” James said.

“Not much longer,” Noa said, looking up at the planetoid cluster that hid the gate.

“You intend to push him out an airlock?” James asked in his deadpan way.

Noa’s eyes slid to Raif. He was standing beside his father, looking out the dome to the cluster. She could see the wonder in the boy’s eyes.

“Of course not,” she said across the channel. “Couldn’t push him out of the airlock in front of his son.” She meant it as a joke, but it came out too serious.

Shaking herself, she focused on the read-outs.

“Five minutes until we see what kind of damage we’re dealing with,” Wren muttered, hand fluttering on the steering bars.

Noa didn’t answer, busily surveying the read-outs for any sign of dust interfering with the equipment.

In the corner of her eye, she saw James move closer. She looked up at the huge bulk of a larger planetoid, and tuned into the dotted line in her visual cortex that was the Ark’s intended course. She willed her heartbeat to slow. They rounded the pockmarked curve of the object, and the rim of the time gate appeared. The lights within the gate should have been on, but it was dark. Still, it looked whole. Undamaged. Noa held her breath as more and more came into view.

She heard Wren take a deep gasp. They could see half of the ring. It looked fine. She heard James shift and his hand grasp her seat.

“This might just—” Wren abruptly stopped, and then he cursed. “Shit!”

Noa released the breath she was holding. A huge chunk of the last quarter of the ring was missing.





Chapter Seven

James leaned against the wall in the darkened galley, his mood light. He briefly tuned into the ether and checked the ship's external monitors. To hide the Kanakah Gate, the Fleet had blown a hole in a roughly spherical cluster of space rocks to form a bowl shape. The gate was at the center of the bowl. Noa had situated the Ark so the relatively poorly defended aft section was covered by the bowl, while the heavy plasma cannons that could incapacitate a cruiser faced outward into the black. In that direction, there were only a few scattered planetoids at the edge of the cloud.

Lieutenant Sterling was on duty in the airlocks again, and James gently invaded his ether. “There are a few ticks in the cluster,” the lieutenant said.

Ensign Chavez replied, “A few of them want to approach … but we're holding off on invitin' them until the gate inspection is done.”

“Well, they definitely got the message … keepin' their distance real good. Wonder if the Prime Minister of the Disk is letting them know we're here to keep them off his back?”

Sensing no alarm on their parts, James switched channels and heard Ling say to Kara, “We got all the way here and the gate's half-blown away.”

“It might be repairable,” Kara suggested.

“Lizzar dung, it might be,” Ling retorted. “We'll be charting a course to System 7 next.”

James pulled his thoughts away. System 7 was light-years away. Light-years more of life. He would smile if he could. Instead he just watched the colorful movie playing on the far wall. It was made just before the advent of holos, and was an account of the life of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and also son of Napoleon’s “black devil,” General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. The story was greatly fictionalized. Currently on the screen, the author was in a duel with a slave ship captain attempting to take him as cargo … an event that had never occurred. Nor had Mr. Dumas ever time traveled to the 2200s and been greeted by a hovering history ‘bot who had explained that all people were “raceless” in the 2200s. James wasn’t sure how Mr. Dumas, who never attempted to hide or apologize for being a quarter African, would have felt about that designation, but the children of the ticks and Atlantia were enthralled, just as James’s other self had been. He’d had a copy of the ancient “cartoon” in the time capsule, and was using the ship's archaic projection system to play it for them.

James crossed his arms. He supposed he liked it, too. The preposterousness of it made it better. On the screen, Dumas, despite his considerable girth, jumped up and grabbed hold of the chandelier, swung from it and knocked down some clumsy slave traders with kicks that were reminiscent of Tae Kwon Do. The children in the room cheered. Sitting on the back of a chair crowded by three little ones, Raif snickered.

A light in James’s mind made him lose focus on the movie. Noa was coming off shift and approaching the galley. Over the ether, Noa said, “The gate’s time band isn’t damaged!”

James felt like gravity had increased tenfold. He sank against the wall, just catching himself before he hit the ground.

Raif whispered urgently, “Are you all right?”

“Just tired,” he managed to say, straightening.

Noa continued, “We couldn’t see it. Internal fire must have created some ash and dust got sucked out and trapped on the band. The blackened surface threw off our eyes and the lizzar-dumb sensors on this bucket. Not sure how much of the disperser ring is still intact, but we can fix it, it’s doable, we could be out of here in a week, maybe less … a week.”

James crossed his arms in front of his chest and bowed his head.

Noa's thoughts picked up speed. “With the time paradox, and the time it would take to organize an expedition here, we’ve got a head start on the Luddeccean Guard even if they do figure out which way we went.” With her words, she sent a ball of bright white.

James's left hand fluttered.

“James?” Noa queried across the ether.

James wasn't breathing—he didn't need oxygen, but he needed to appear human. He focused on taking a breath. James remembered his human father, just after learning about the augmented heart, vessels, and nervous system interfaces he’d need. It wasn’t a minor procedure. The real James had been terrified, and angry that his father didn’t seem worried. And then his father had said, “Three more days, or three hundred more years, life is too short to be worried. I will enjoy every moment I can.” The young human James hadn’t understood it. As he got older though, he treasured that wisdom. Which was why the grainy memory of the conversation was stored in a digital time capsule.

“James?” Noa queried again. “What’s going on?”

He had to hold onto every moment that he could. “I’m watching a cartoon,” he responded.

“A cartoon that’s more interesting than the time gate being repairable?” Noa queried over the ether as she strode through the door.

Keeping his eyes on the screen, James replied, “It is very funny,” guessing that Noa would be exasperated but also amused by his feigned indifference.

He heard the huff of her laugh, and his mind lit in satisfaction at being right.

On the screen, Dumas finished the bar fight by sheathing a plasma shotel with a flourish. An updated version of the ancient Ethiopian curved swords, plasma shotels hadn’t existed until the 2190s.

“Who are you?” muttered one of the fallen traders.

“The future!” Dumas replied triumphantly.

“I never even knew normal people existed back then,” Raif whispered. “Thought they were all crazy purists!” and then he gasped audibly. James glanced at him. Raif was staring up at him with wide eyes and an open mouth. James remembered the other James giving a similar look of bewilderment and shame when he’d opened his mouth and declared all pure bloods crazy in front of his purist Japanese great-great-and-then-some grandfather. A bright light went off behind James’s eyes and he shrugged and said, “Racial purity has always been an illusion.”

“Timothy’s right,” Noa added, and then her eyes got wide and startled.

Raif hadn't heard.

“Sorry,” Noa said. “That was …” Her eyes lost focus. Someone was contacting her over her private channel. James didn’t have to listen in. Noa always told him everything, but his mind leaped into the ether and he listened anyway. “Commander, I’d like to go aboard the time gate and do a thorough inspection before we begin repairs,” Manuel said over the ostensibly secure channel.

James’s left hand fluttered. If they reawakened the time gate … was it conscious like the others? Would it be friend, or foe, or like a stranger on the sidewalk, who’d pass him by without a glance?

“The main dock was blown up,” Noa said. “Maybe you could use one of the ticks?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Manuel replied. “I’d like to put together the technical gear for the job, but I was hoping you could handle the non-engineering component of the crew and gear.”

Non-engineering component? James’s brow lifted.

Noa nodded, and her thoughts floated across the ether. “Of course. I’ll meet Gunny in the armory right away.”

Weapons. Noa would want her people protected, even if there was no sign of life above the station. He felt static flare along his spine. The time gate itself might be life … not by human definition, but by his. His eyes dropped to the floor. He’d never thought of himself as one of ‘them,’ because he had human form. But he was one of them, wasn’t he? And he believed he was alive, so weren’t the gates as well?

“Get your engineering gear and team and then get some rest,” Noa commanded her engineer. “Be ready to leave at 08:00 tomorrow.”

A yellow light in James's mind told him that Manuel was irritated. “Will do.”

“I’ll get Gunny,” Noa replied.

James heard the rustle of paper, and smelled the tang of stimgum. “You should get some sleep, too,” he said to her as Manuel disconnected.

“Plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead,” Noa mumbled, and then he saw her look up at him too quickly. He’d just commented on a private conversation he shouldn’t have been able to hear. He kept his eyes on the movie.

The door slid open and light from the hallway spilled into the darkened galley. For a moment, James thought it had opened by accident, and then Noa said, “Where is Eliza? Where is 6T9? Did the kid get away from the ‘bot again?” James looked down. Oliver was standing in the doorway, breathing heavily. Trundling into the galley a few steps, he plopped down in the middle of the floor and stared at his feet, head bowed as though there was a great weight on his shoulders. James reached into the ether to locate 6T9 and Eliza, but before he was even done, Noa said, “They’re both in Eliza’s quarters.” She started walking toward Oliver. James felt her consciousness reach out to Eliza. “I’m not getting any response from my auntie or 6T9,” she whispered. She switched channels and said to Monica, “Doctor, can you get me a reading on Eliza’s biosigns?”

“She appears to be asleep, Commander,” Monica replied. “But her heart rate is steady and—”

“Oliver is breathing heavily,” Noa interjected.

“I gave Eliza an oxygen mask for him to wear,” Monica said. “He should be able to avoid surgery for another few weeks.”

“He’s not wearing it now; is that an emergency?” Noa asked, the quickness of her thoughts the only thing betraying fear.

“No …” Monica replied. “But he should put it back on as soon as possible. I told Eliza and 6T9 to do their best to keep it on him.”

Exhaling, Noa kneeled beside Oliver.

Not looking at her, Oliver sucked on his cybernetic hand. In the light cast by the screen, James could see worry in Noa’s eyes and in her slumped shoulders. Over the ether, her channel connected with his, but she said nothing. In the real world she wiped her face with her hand. If she had said she was troubled, it would be better … that she said nothing spoke more to her distress than words.

Sitting on his heels beside her, James said, “I’ll handle Oliver and see what happened with Eliza and 6T9. You go do that work you need to do.”

She stared at Oliver a beat more and then her eyes slid to James. “How do you know I have work to do?”

On the movie screen, Dumas broke into a musical number to the tune of an Indian electric sitar. Something flashed at the periphery of James’s vision … in reality or in his mind, he wasn’t sure. “You always have some work to do,” he lied smoothly.

Noa exhaled and nodded. “I would really appreciate your help.”

James scooped up Oliver, and they exited the galley together. In the hallway beyond, Noa stopped just before the access ladder hatch. “He should be wearing an oxygen mask.”

James stifled an “I know,” and said only, “I’ll take care of it.”

Noa’s eyes slid from his to the boy. They softened, as they always did around children.

He didn’t think his eyes did the same. In an abstract way, he liked both Oliver and Raif. Raif provided a fascinating opportunity to see how well he could utilize the other James’s memories of his relationship with his father. Oliver, before he’d outgrown his heart, had been an endless source of amusement. James would never forget the duct tape spider web the toddler managed to ensnare 6T9 in. Yet they elicited no emotion from him.

Noa felt something for them; he could see it, something deeper and instinctual. He had one of those sudden strokes of insight—or had one of those faster-than-light downloads of data—and he knew she couldn’t have children, not without surrogacy anyway. It wasn’t something they talked about … there were a lot of things they didn’t talk about.

Noa’s eyes were still on Oliver.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take very good care of him,” James said. And he would, not for Oliver, but for Noa. He felt an inner spark. He was behaving as a moral upstanding human not because of his attachment to humanity at large, but because of his attachment to one particular human. Was that all it took to be moral? One attachment?

She looked up at him, nodded, and closed the hatch, but the connection between them stayed open. The other James had never been as attached, so mentally intimate with a partner, and yet most of those partners had been interested in knowing “where things were headed.” Noa had never asked, maybe because she, like he, had no idea.

Heretic

Noa ran to the door of the quarters she shared with three other recent Fleet Academy graduates. Just before she reached it, she took a deep breath, affected an air of calm, and then released the latches and slid it open. Timothy was standing outside bathed in the brilliant light of Sol, much brighter in the Fleet’s floating training base of Venus Cloud One. He looked even better in daylight than he had when she’d met him a week before. He was probably the most Europa person she’d ever met with his straw-blond hair, blue eyes, and thin lips, but she liked the scar on his chin, the way one of his ears had a slightly different shape than the other, and that his eyebrows hadn’t been lifted a centimeter higher in what was the latest Earther fashion.

Her lips split into a wide grin. Just the fact that he hadn’t gone in for melanin boosters, or dyed his hair … that made him more real.

“Hi,” he said. His eyes slid over her shoulder, and then he quickly leaned in and kissed her. Her lips were cold, as was his jacket. It still heated her to the core.

There were the sound of footsteps behind Noa, and he pulled back. “Hi!” said Hadi, one of her roommates, a little too happily. Noa’s ether erupted with Hadi’s thoughts. “Oh, look, you can make little mocha-brown babies, good choice.” At the same time, Tim’s thoughts flowed into hers. “I’ve been waiting to kiss you all week.” His hand slid into hers. She squeezed it.

“Hadi, this is Tim,” Noa said. “Tim, this is Hadi.” They nodded at each other; Hadi with narrowed eyes, Tim with a game smile. Spinning away, Hadi stepped out of view.

“Didn’t realize it had gotten so cold. I’m going to get my coat,” Noa whispered. “Be right back.” Slipping her hand from his, she padded out of the tiny narrow foyer into the larger space where the four bunks of her roommates were. A moment later, she was back. She found Tim staring at the holographs Noa and her roommates had hung at the entrance to make the place feel more “homey.”

He wasn’t smiling. Touching the frame of Noa’s holograph, he said, “This your family?”

“Yes,” said Noa, approaching him from behind. It was a recent holo from her graduation. Noa was at the center. Her dark skin and tightly coiled, jet black hair stood out next to her parents' and siblings' more usual coloring, but she thought she looked like them, especially Kenji.

“Oh,” he straightened. “Ready to go?” he asked, not quite meeting her eyes.

“Sure,” she said, tilting her head. She looked over her shoulder, wondering if Hadi was glaring at him again. The woman had given Noa the stink eye when they’d first met, too. Hadi’d grown up near a purist sect and had “feelings” about throwbacks.

They stepped out into the open air of the dome, onto the walkway made of cheap but sturdy light gray perforated poly sheeting, reinforced with alumi-steel alloy cross bars and railings; strong, light materials. It would have been horribly drab and clinical if it weren’t for every single railing and window having plant boxes, and nearly every wall being covered in vines.

Timothy slid his hands into the pockets of his coat. It was chilly. The cloud habitat was hovering at 60 km above Venus’s surface, 5 km higher than normal. The temperature was -10 C outside the plastidome, and light jacket weather within. Part of a scheduled “cooling.”

“I was thinking of going to the carnival in the west dome,” Tim said tightly, still not looking at her. Noa’s gaze traced the covered walkway that cut between the “Cloud Domes” of Venus Colony. She’d heard all the carnival games were rigged—which made her want to go even more. Shooting was fun; shooting with a laser rifle that was rigged was a challenge.

“You interested?” Tim asked, his body and expression still tight as they walked down the platform toward the staircase. His footsteps were very rapid, like he was running away from her.

Drawing up short, Noa blurted out, “Not if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I’m not.”

Stopping in his tracks, Tim turned on his heel and looked back at her, slack-jawed. Noa’s mother’s words after the last family reunion floated through her mind. “You could use a little tact sometimes, Noa.”

She crossed her arms. She wasn’t going to let some weird mood on his part make one of her only free evenings on Venus bad. Her foot tapped. But damn it, the night they met … They hadn’t tumbled in the sheets, but for twelve hours they’d talked, and made out, and talked some more, and it had never once gotten boring. It had been exciting, and still like meeting someone you’d somehow known your whole life. But now everything was wrong, and she wondered how she’d ever been so deluded.

She saw his Adam’s apple bob. He put his hands through his hair that looked like straw.

She took a breath, prepared to turn away.

“Your parents aren’t purists,” he blurted out.

Noa felt her ire be swept away by confusion. “No,” she said carefully, not sure why this was upsetting him. If they were Nigerian or Japanese purists, that would be a problem for him.

He licked his lips nervously. “I thought …” He looked away and shrugged. “You should know, mine are.”

Noa’s lips parted. Purists tended to live in isolated communities on Earth and scattered around the systems. They did not join the Fleet, if they were part of the Republic. They had the same reputations for savagery, and mental and moral inferiority that throwbacks like Noa did, and were usually considered inbred as well.

Why was he telling her this? And then her heart beat double quick. He was telling her because it would be a problem later. He was thinking of later, too. Noa couldn’t help but smile. “You know I’m from Luddeccea, don’t you?” she asked, stepping closer. All the same stereotypes applied to “Luddies” as well.

For a moment Tim looked at her blankly, and then he threw a hand over his mouth and opened his eyes wide. “No!” he said.

Noa swatted his shoulder. She told him the night they’d met.

Tim caught her hand, smiled, and all the tension was gone. They walked with each other down the stairs, feet doing double time.

Much later that same evening, they walked back to Fleet Cloud. The floating habitat that belonged to Fleet was attached to Venus’s Cloud 5 by a long, clear gangway. Beneath them puffed yellow clouds of sulfur, above them was blue. Venus had a day that was over 100 Earth Days long, and the cloud habitats were drifting to the planet’s dark side to be merciful to the human biorhythms. The colors were magnificent and alien, and Noa had turned on her eidetic memory app to share the scene with her mother. And then, forgetting herself, she asked, “How did you decide to leave … your heritage?” His arm was in hers and she felt Tim falter. She squeezed his arm reassuringly. “It was very brave of you.” At the same time she said the words, she sent to him the wave of admiration she felt across the ether. She may have left her homeworld, but Noa had never left her family.

Tim stood a little straighter. Carrying a teddy lizzar Noa had won at the shooting game under one arm, the other arm in hers, Tim said, “I liked science as a kid. I saved up my allowance, got one of those home kits where you can make a DNA sequencer and sequenced my genome.” He shrugged. “Turns out I’m not ‘pure.’ I’m a quarter Native American, and even a sixteenth African.” He smiled, a little sadly, eyes on the gleaming side of one of the helium dirigibles that lifted the cloud habitats.

“I couldn’t stay home after learning that everything I’d believed about myself was a lie.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t just our little sect in North America. The Huns invaded Europe and brought with them Asian genes. The Romans and Greeks went everywhere, and brought back slaves. The Moors went to Europe, and later Europe went to the world. Racial purity has always been an illusion.”

Heretic

On the rung of the ladder, Noa’s hand almost slipped. She’d shared that conversation over the ether with her mother. Her mother had agreed with her that Tim was very brave; and had made sure the whole Sato clan had embraced him like a lost son. She felt her heart tighten a little at the memory, and her mind, not for the first time, reached automatically for her mother’s channel … and of course got nothing.

She pushed the longing that empty channel called forth in her deep down. And found her mind once more returning to James’s words. The way James had said, “Racial purity has always been an illusion.” The accent had been wrong of course … but still, the phrasing had been exactly the same. She shook her head. Maybe there was some historical reference Tim and James were both borrowing the words from?

She thought of James, holding Oliver in his arms, and the casual way he defended her, and how he watched over Raif. The questions faded from her mind. “How is it going?” she asked James.

“Fine,” James replied. “Oliver hasn’t ensnared me in duct tape—”

Noa smiled, remembering the “spi’ web” the little boy had created. It had frustrated 6T9 to no end—partially because he had gotten stuck in it, and partly because his literal mind couldn’t handle the metaphor. The ‘bot was probably entangled in some mess left by Oliver now. Her brow furrowed, but he would have answered Noa's ether hail.

“—and we’re almost at Eliza’s quarters now,” James finished. He sent what he was seeing through the ether. Oliver asleep in his arms, the door to Eliza’s quarters, his hand reaching to press the chime, and then the visual relay went dark.

Noa climbed up a few rungs. “James?” she asked. When was the last time she’d seen Eliza? Monica said that her life signs were stable, but this old boat had ancient sensors, and blinky ether.

Noa halted on the ladder. “James?”

James's thoughts slid across the channel, too cold and smooth. “I’m getting no reply.”





Chapter Eight

James stood motionless outside Eliza’s door, Oliver in his arms. His mind bolted through every corner of the ship’s ether. He saw every crew member, heard their thoughts. Bypassing security protocols in the medbay, he could tell Eliza’s bioscans were normal for sleep. He used the ether to locate 6T9, bypassed the ‘bots protocols to see what systems he was utilizing … and got nothing other than 6T9’s location. He was still in Eliza’s quarters. James called through the ether to them both. “Eliza, it’s me, James. 6T9, are you there?”

He got no reply.

Noa’s thoughts intruded. “James, how is Eliza?” He felt Noa’s attention flutter, and connect with Monica’s, and heard her say to the doctor, “Monica, Eliza isn’t responding to ether hails.”

“All her life signs are steady. I have an emergency in medbay,” Monica replied, thoughts clipped.

James felt Noa’s attention return to him. “I’ve got this, Noa,” he said. “Finish whatever you’re doing.” The sooner they both took care of their tasks, the sooner they could retreat to their quarters and be away from the obligations of crew and her sense of duty. He could distract himself from the future with Noa in ways physical and mental and lead her from nightmares into shared dreams. Maybe tonight they could go to Nefertiti's Egypt? Noa didn’t want to be a princess, so he’d make her a queen. Noa didn’t always remember the places he created between their minds—and sometimes, like last sleep cycle, she asked to get back to reality—but sometimes she indulged with him, her own subconscious supplying whimsical additions to the dreamscapes. She gave James wings, or made Carl Sagan walk about on his four hind legs, wearing a smoking jacket and waving a pipe while giving delightful lectures on quantum physics that turned science into magic.

James’s mind got dark … last time she’d dreamed of the unicorn, a symbol of cybernetic nature. He shook his head. It could have been just a dream.

His thought tumbled to the ether controls for Eliza’s door, and it opened with a whoosh.

“Should I command Ghost to open the door?” Noa asked.

“I already did,” James lied. “And I’m in.”

“Thank you.” She sent her relief over the shared connection.

Clutching the sleeping Oliver to his chest, James stepped into the tiny quarters. 6T9 was sitting at the side of the bed, hands neatly on his knees, a cord plugged into his back. His eyes were open but unblinking, and they lacked the glisten of moisture. Eliza was on her side, snoring softly. Next to her was a softly sighing oxygen mask.

The light that was Noa in his mind told him she was in the armory. He reached to her channel. “Eliza appears well, just asleep. 6T9 is recharging.”

“How could they have let Oliver get away?” Noa asked, and a tiny light winked on and identified distress.

“I’ll find out,” James replied. “I’ll see you soon.”

She flung a ball of light toward him, and then he felt her focus shift to whatever task she was doing.

Walking over, James laid Oliver next to Eliza and put the air mask on. The boy inhaled deeply, but did not rouse. James sent the picture of the peacefully sleeping Eliza and the child to Noa, and followed it with a ball of light.

“Put a pillow on the bed so Oliver can’t roll off!” Noa broadcast over the channel, and mixed into the thought was an image of a little girl—her little sister—rolling off of a sofa.

Barricading Oliver as she suggested, James said, “Done,” and turned to 6T9. Had the ‘bot been watching Oliver and had to power down suddenly? He would have thought that 6T9 would have warned the crew if that were the case.

James checked the cord connected behind the ‘bot’s back. A small light at the connection point told him that electricity was flowing. Stepping back, his gaze fell on specks of dust on the ‘bots dull eyes, and he had a flashback to the ‘bots on Adam’s Station that followed their programming even as it nearly killed them. James wiped his face and backed away. 6T9 sat motionless, unseeing gaze on the wall. The ‘bot was whole, but as lifeless as the dismembered ‘bots in Ghost’s lair. James felt static flare along his spine, and his skin heat. Is this what he would become?

“James, what’s wrong?” Noa said.

“Eliza seems fine,” he replied.

“I was asking about you,” Noa said. “You’re flickering a little.”

Before he’d thought about it, he sent gratitude and an enormous ball of light across the ether.

“Ack! Too bright!” Noa said. Her Fleet avatar appeared singing a snippet from a pop song from a few years back. “Blind me with your love, Baby …” in a deep masculine bass.

He felt his processors shutdown and restart in a rush at her joke. A mini-reboot. Was that what humor was for humans? He remembered the other James drinking and making a joke about a particularly repugnant politician. “How can you laugh about this?” one of his companions had said. “If you don’t laugh, you’ll go mad,” the real James had replied.

“What’s bothering you?” Noa asked again.

“6T9 is completely shut down,” James replied. That was inadequate. He couldn’t say what he wanted to say, and instead just added, “There’s dust in his eyes.”

“Creepy,” Noa said.

“Yes.”

“Powering sequence finished,” 6T9 said in a monotone voice.

“He’s awake,” James told Noa. “I’ll see what happened.”

“Thanks,” she said, and he felt her focus shift again.

6T9 blinked, and his eyes began to glisten with synthetic tears. “James, how did you get into Eliza’s quarters?”

“It doesn’t matter,” James said, waving his hand.

“Very well,” 6T9 replied flatly. And then he looked James up and down and leaned back on his hands. Winking, and wiggling his hips, he said, “How can I help you?”

It was oddly comforting to see 6T9 back to his old self. “You can tell me how Oliver managed to get away from you,” James replied.

The ‘bot frowned and sat up straight. “Oliver did not get away from me. Eliza has been watching him while I performed a full diagnostic and recharge.” He looked to the boy. “And there he is …” The 'bot's head tilted. “It isn’t quite his sleep time.”

“Noa and I found him in the galley without Eliza, or his mask,” James said.

“That shouldn't have happened.” 6T9 hurriedly stood and went to the front of the bed. He touched the pulse point on Oliver’s neck. In a surprisingly clinical tone, he said, “That would explain him being asleep. The trip must have worn him out. His heart can’t keep up with his body’s demand … but his heart rate is steady now.” He nodded to himself, but his gaze went to Eliza. “She should not have let Oliver go off on his own.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t intentional,” James said.

The ‘bot looked at him sharply. “That isn’t comforting.” 6T9 looked back to Eliza, and gently put a hand through her hair. The old woman’s eyes fluttered. 6T9 leaned forward and kissed her on the temple, his eyes slipping closed as he did. Eliza's eyes fluttered and she turned her face toward him.

“My darling, you are awake,” 6T9 whispered.

Eliza smiled. “Your kisses will always wake me.”

6T9 jerked back and his Adam’s apple bobbed in a perfect pantomime of concern. Static flared along James's spine, but he couldn't say why the scene upset him.

“What’s wrong, my love?” Eliza asked aloud. James noticed that her eyes were grayer than they were the first night they’d met over an Earth month ago.

“Have you been sleeping the whole time I was recharging?” the ‘bot asked.

“Sleeping?” Eliza said. Her lips parted. Her furrowed brow furrowed even more. “Yes, yes, I …” Her eyes fell on Oliver’s dozing form. “I … yes, the baby fell asleep. Nothing sweeter than falling asleep next to a baby. I put the pillow on the bed so he wouldn’t fall off …”

His circuitry sparked and his mind began to trip over twenty-first century media of the elderly sinking into dementia. The medical establishment of the time believed that Alzheimer's was the normal course of aging. In modern times, age-related dementia had been eradicated with nano-flushes, but Eliza was so very old …

Gently taking her hand, 6T9 said, “I need to speak with James for a moment.” Kissing her head, he whispered, “We’ll step outside.”

“Outside?” Eliza asked, rising slightly. Her eyes didn’t leave 6T9’s. “Why do you need to hide what you’re saying from me?” Her voice rose in pitch, and she sounded almost like a child.

6T9 froze. He looked up at James with wide eyes.

James wasn’t sure why 6T9 wanted to speak outside. 6T9 did have ether access, but he decided to indulge the ‘bot. Apparently, that meant appeasing Eliza. He tried to think of what to say, and a bright light of inspiration flashed in his mind. Leaning over, James whispered to the woman, “So we don’t wake the baby.”

Nodding vigorously, 6T9 smiled and whispered, “Yes, we’ll let you and the baby rest together a little more.”

Eliza blinked. “I never got any rest with my other babies. Always chores to do, even after they were born. Roberto never let me …” She looked up at 6T9, her eyes glistening. “You are the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in my life.”

“Likewise, my dear,” said 6T9, touching his lips to her fingers, standing up, and backing away. He smiled benevolently, and left the room with James. As soon as the door whooshed shut, the ‘bot’s smile dropped, and he wiped his face with both hands.

“I can’t use the ether to say things privately,” 6T9 said. “She has access to my channel. It came with my registration.” Eyes on a point on the wall, he said, “But I am allowed to talk to a human when I think she is unwell, and I know she is unwell. My kisses don’t always wake her. Not anymore.” He looked at James. “But maybe it’s me? I know I’m not smart enough for her. I can’t surprise her, I can’t comment on …” He waved a hand. “Anything besides sex and health and I can’t say anything she doesn’t already know, even on those topics.”

Whatever systems within James that were programmed to read emotions told him that what 6T9 was experiencing was despair. In humans, that would elicit an empathetic response. James lacked empathy, but he was worried about Eliza. Her ill health would upset Noa.

“It isn’t you, 6T9,” James said. “She isn’t remembering events correctly. She needs to see the doctor.”

6T9’s eyes widened, and then he looked down. “I don’t think that would have any bearing on her sexual response …”

Pulling from his twenty-first century medical sources, James ad-libbed, “Perhaps the same plaques that are likely obstructing areas of her brain are also in other systems? A flush might help both.”

6T9’s mouth dropped open. “Yes! You’re right. I should have thought of that.” His brow furrowed. “No, not really. I’m not very good at making such inferences.” His lips pursed. “A leopard can’t very well change his leotard.” He sighed. “I don’t know how I can get her to the doctor. She doesn’t like Dr. Monica.”

James’s jaw ticked. That made two of them.

“I’ll convince her to go see her,” James said. He reached into the ether. Monica was finished with a surgery. He opened the door to Eliza’s quarters and found Oliver sitting up on the bed, awake and alert. Eliza was looking up at the boy sleepily.

“Eliza, we need you to go see Dr. Monica,” James said, sitting down on his heels by the bed.

Eliza sniffed. “I don’t want to see that quack. She doesn’t approve of me, and I don’t approve of her.”

“You need to go see her,” James said. Pulling once again on articles on dementia, he decided not to bring up the pillow incident and instead said, “Your heartbeat is irregular.”

Eliza didn’t even look at him. “Doesn’t really matter now.”

James stared at her a moment, and then a white light sparked behind his eyes. Over the ether, he said, “Of course it does. Do you want 6T9 being sold for spare parts out here before we get to Earth?”

Sold to who, he couldn’t imagine, but the old woman did seem to love the ‘bot.

Her eyes bolted wide. “You’re right,” she whispered, pushing herself up. “I’ll go, I’ll go right now.”

6T9 pushed the hover chair to the bed. “Let’s go see Dr. Monica, my love! She’ll make you better.”

“Monica,” James called across the ether. “I’m sending Eliza your way. She is having memory problems.”

“I’ve been trying to get her to come see me for weeks!” the doctor replied. “Thank you! I'll be ready for her.”

From the sanitary cubicle came a splash.

“Oliver!” said 6T9, helping Eliza into the chair. “He loves to play with the toilet goop.”

James hadn’t even seen the child slip off the bed. Striding to the cubicle, he found Oliver dropping tiny, decorative Luddeccean soaps into the toilet. The oxygen mask was on the floor. The boy bent down and lifted it up, then turned back toward the toilet. James intercepted before it went to float with the soaps.

“You’ll watch him, won’t you?” said 6T9, Eliza now on the chair, both of them peering into the cubicle.

James’s mind leaped into the ether. Manuel was with Noa in the armory. If he distracted Manuel, it might delay Noa.

“Of course he’ll watch Oliver, 6T9,” Eliza said. To James, she added, “I’d get him out of this cabin, if I were you. He gets bored, and when he gets bored, you’ll both go crazy.”

Next to James, Oliver began to jump up and down, trying to get the mask.

“Right,” James said.

Oliver stopped jumping and began to cry.

“Less haste, more cheese!” said 6T9, pushing Eliza away from the sanitary cubicle.

“Let him play in the elevator,” Eliza hollered as she disappeared out of sight. “He loves playing with the buttons.”

“Don’t let him near duct tape!” 6T9 added, and then the exterior door whooshed shut.

Bouncing, reaching for the mask, Oliver wailed.

James felt his mind stutter and then relight. “That is a lot of oxygen for someone with a bum ticker to be expending,” he said, looking down at the boy.

Oliver wailed louder.

“No sense of humor?” James asked, feeling static rushing along his skin.

That prompted an even louder reply, as though Oliver was rebuking him.

“I know, how dare I suggest you have no sense of humor after you duct taped 6T9?” James said, to distract himself, if not the tiny human.

Oliver paused, sniffed, and for a moment, James had hope. And then the kid released another ear-splitting wail.

This was obviously why the other James had avoided small people at all costs.

Sighing, James picked up the screaming toddler and affixed the mask. It was a semi-circle of plastic that extended around his jaw. It sucked in CO2, and expelled oxygen around Oliver’s nose and mouth. It didn’t look cumbersome or uncomfortable; it didn’t trap hot air around his face. Oliver still immediately tried to remove it. James was tempted to let him, but didn’t know how much strain the kid’s heart could take in a day.

Holding the mask in place, James carried him to the door. “Come on, Oliver, let’s go play in the elevator.”

The wail immediately ceased. Oliver wiggled and nearly tumbled from James’s arms. James set him down, and the toddler ran down the hall, shouting happily, “Space shit!” making a passing Atlantian blanch.

“Really, can you argue with him?” James asked, smacking his hand down on the access ladder shaft door as Oliver tried to open it.

The Atlantian rolled his eyes and slipped into his quarters.

“He doesn’t have a sense of humor, either,” James said, looking down at Oliver, only to find the toddler had already waddled off to the elevator and had hit the call button.

A few minutes later, Oliver was bouncing on his feet in front of the control panel. Anticipating another wailing fit, James hauled him up to let him press them. “Rights!” Oliver cried happily as he pressed every single button.

They rode the elevator up to the deck just below the bridge, and then down to the lowest deck. And then they did it again. And again. Because he was bored, James's mind was in the ether when the elevator stopped at Deck 7 where Kyun and Jun stood, both burdened with heavy pieces of engineering equipment. And because he was in the ether, he knew the minute Wren searched for his location. James waited for the moment Wren contacted him, but it didn’t come. He barely registered Kyun saying, “Well, we can tell those tick operators their carbon filter and drive box are replaced.”

Jun groaned as Kyun tried to maneuver the wide, flat thing that might be a carbon filter into the small space. “They can sleep there instead of sharing our quarters!”

Oliver squirmed, and James set him down.

“You watching him?” Kyun asked.

“Why, you want to trade?” James asked.

“No way,” said Kyun.

“He ran under the filter!” shouted Jun.

“Damn, I could have dropped it on him,” said Kyun.

“Get out of my way,” said James to Kyun, who was still blocking the exit.

“Awww, it’s all right,” said Jun. “There’s not anything back there he can get hurt on.” He looked up. “I don’t think.”

James went to the side, just as Kyun went to the same side, and then they both moved out of each other’s way, only to be still in each other’s way. James groaned and stood motionless.

“Oops, I’ll move, just a minute,” said Kyun, sliding into the lift. James bolted out, and his eyes got wide. The airlock door was open. The tick Kyun and Jun had been working on was docked there. If the door to the tick was open … James skidded to a halt by the door. The outer door was safely sealed. The boy was confined to the cramped space of the airlock. And Oliver’s mask was still on, which James counted as a victory.

Letting out a breath, he watched Oliver’s head disappear behind a winch nearly as large as he was. A poly-coated cord wrapped around the winch. At one end of it, it had an electromagnet as wide as James’s two hands spread, and the other end could plug into a palm-sized power outlet in the wall. It wasn’t plugged in at the moment, and it was high above Oliver’s head. A few minutes ago, James might have thought it would be impossible for the toddler to reach it, but after turning Jun, Kyun, and himself into the twenty-fifth century versions of The Three Stooges, he decided he wouldn’t take his eyes off of him. James leaned against the door frame, bemused. The little ball of larval human had outwitted, or at least surprised, two adult humans and the computational might of at least one time gate.

Oliver poked the end of the magnet with his metal cybernetic hand. “Whatz?”

“We had to reel in the tick when their engine died,” James said, remembering Noa’s curses.

“Whatz?” said Oliver again.

James's brow furrowed. Of course the child didn’t understand.

He heard the access ladder open, and two sets of footsteps. “Hello, Wren,” he said aloud, not bothering to turn around. To the boy beside him, he spoke over the ether. “Hey, Raif.”

“Hey, James,” said Raif across the channel. “What are you doing?”

“Watching Oliver,” James said to the older boy over the channel, not moving from his place in the door frame.

“Professor Sinclair,” Wren said, walking over to stand beside James. “Just the man we wanted to see.”

James smelled sweat and fear on the other man. He turned to face Wren, but the stunner bolt from Wren’s hand exploded into James’s side in nearly the same instant. It was an older device, and the force of the unexpected charge threw James off balance, momentarily pinning him against the door frame.

Raif screamed, “No!”

Recovering, James reached out to grab the wide-eyed Wren. The other man lurched to the side and back, but James's fingers caught the fabric of his shirt collar. James gave a ferocious yank forward, Wren twisted, there was a loud rip, and Wren tumbled backward against the outer airlock door, leaving a piece of soft, frayed fabric between James's fingers. Blinking in shock, James's gaze shifted to Wren, sitting on the floor, leaning against the door, upraised stunner still in his hands.

Oliver screamed. Raif was chanting something unintelligible.

Feeling his body charging from the stun bolt, his processors blazing bright with anger, James almost lunged—and then through the haze of his fury realized that Wren wasn’t pointing the stunner at him—Wren was aiming at Oliver’s head, his body blocking the toddler's escape from the airlock.

“Oliver!” James shouted.

The toddler tried to jump over Wren’s outstretched legs, but the man easily caught the boy and jerked him onto his lap. A stun to an adult's head could be deadly; for a toddler, it definitely would be.

James let the visual of the scene project over the ether to Noa, along with a curt command. “Talk to Raif, I’m going to try and reason with Wren.”

He felt Noa’s attention shift from whatever she was doing and felt her comprehension. He knew she’d contacted the older boy when he heard Raif say aloud, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know …” in a sob that was almost a song.

Not closing his channel, letting Noa hear and see what he was seeing, James said, “What are you doing, Wren? Let that boy go, and you’ll live, kill him and your life is—”

“Live?” Wren cried, shaking the crying Oliver hard enough to dislodge his mask. “You saw the time gate! There’s no way we’re going to fix it. We’re going to die out here!”

James held up his hands. “No, Wren, you’re wrong. The band isn’t damaged. We’ll repair the disperser ring …”

“With what?” Wren demanded over Oliver’s cries, leaning against the door and sliding to his feet.

“Our own charge dispersers if we need to,” James said. Hadn’t Manuel complained that the Ark needed more dispersers than its size indicated simply because it was old and inefficient?

“Then this hunk of junk will be even more useless,” Wren muttered.

James corrected him as gently as he could over Oliver’s cries. “Then we’ll be safe with One.”

Wren’s hand shook.

“Dad, don’t!” Raif said. He tried to rush past James, and almost succeeded. James held out an arm and just barely blocked him in time.

Tightening his hold on Oliver, Wren snarled, “Don’t think you can use him against me, he’s useless!”

Raif gasped.

“Wren, what can you possibly get from this?” James asked. “The only way you can survive is by putting the boy down, and giving this up.”

Wren’s jaw tightened. Raif shook against James’s arm. He heard the ladder access hatch open, and in his mind Gunny’s voice was cool and calm. “I’m here for you, James. The commander is, too, and—”

“Tell them to stay back!” Wren shouted, sliding sideways, and tightening his hold on Oliver so much that the child gasped.

James felt the bright white spark of insight. “You wanted me, not him.” For parts? James thought of the Luddecceans who had tried to apprehend him on Adam’s Station. Wren had been on the Luddeccean vessel, had been there during the firefight at Adam's Station … he knew the Luddecceans were still looking for James. “Put him down, and I’ll go with you,” James said. If Wren just let go of the boy, he could overpower him.

Noa’s voice whispered over the ether, “Oh, James …” It was the first time she’d reached out to him. She’d obeyed his order to communicate with Raif, but when she’d become worried for him, she’d broken the promise. Both actions were sweetly satisfactory. He wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to worry about Wren stunning him, but … couldn’t.

For a moment, Wren’s face relaxed, and James could see him considering the option. He silently willed Wren to put the boy down.

Ghost’s voice jumped to life in the ether. “Commander, I don’t have control of Deck 7’s airlock.”

White flashed behind James's eyes. The airlock was out of ether control.

His eyes slid to Wren’s shoulder, abutting the edge of the outer door—right where the door latch mechanism was. There was a tick still attached to the vessel. Without a vacuum on the other side, the double safety latch wouldn’t be on. James’s arm trembled. Wren wouldn’t have to spin the handle set in the wall, all he would have to do was—

Wren knocked the button behind his shoulder. The airlock opened.

“Wren—” James said.

“No!” Raif screamed, ducking under James’s trembling arm, and lunging toward his father. James strode forward, trying to pull him back.

Stepping backward into the tick, holding the wailing Oliver, Wren fired the stunner at Raif. It hit the boy dead in the stomach and he flew into James’s chest.

James caught the boy just in time to see the outer airlock door close.

Sliding Raif to the floor, he ran to the controls.

“Briggs, take Raif to medical,” Noa commanded one of Sterling's men.

James pressed the airlock release button, but the door would not open. A siren sounded.

“He’s unlatched the tick! It’s a vacuum out there!” Gunny said. “Stop, James!”

Noa’s voice flooded the ether. “Wren, what are you doing? You’re heading to your death.”

Everything seemed wrong, and backward. James felt like his thought processors were firing backwards, and it made his skin itch. “It’s me you want,” James said across the same channel. “Oliver is worthless to you!”

He heard Noa’s mind reaching to Sterling’s men on guard in Airlock 1. “Can you incapacitate the tick pulling away from Airlock 7 without harming the occupants?”

The response came from Manuel. “No, Commander! That tick is a GN-2301 model. It won’t withstand a phaser rifle shot—let alone a blast from a phaser launcher!”

“Commander?” the guards in Airlock 1 responded.

“Hold your fire!” Noa commanded.

Wren's channel pinged James. He let the other man's thoughts into his own. “Sorry, James, you’re a bit too much for me to handle. But Oliver isn’t worthless. How much do you think a parent will pay for a toddler’s heart?”

Manuel’s voice flooded the ether. “Wren, his heart is high-end cybernetics and derives its energy from his living tissues. As soon as you kill him, his heart dies. It’s worthless to you!”

“I’m sure the sawbones can deal with that,” Wren replied.

James heard a clang against the hull. The tick was disengaging, but had not yet pulled away. His eyes slid to the electromagnetic anchor. All he had to do was close the inner airlock door, plug it in, open the outer airlock, toss that anchor out into the black, and turn it on. Without a way to escape, Wren was bound to surrender. It would mean exposure for James—there would be no way to hide his nature if he allowed himself to be sucked up into the vacuum. He didn’t care. The humans couldn’t do it. There was too little time for them to put on their suits—or for the men suited up, and at the ready in the first and second airlocks to come here and activate the electromagnetic tow rope.

He tried to order his body to move toward the inner door, to close it … and his feet wouldn’t move. He tried to move toward the winch. And again he was frozen.

People were talking around him. The ether was exploding with questions. He could see the ship through the Ark’s cameras disengage from the hull. He heard the other ticks’ operators reaching for Noa, asking for directions, and her response. He felt Manuel reach for a strange ether channel … “Hisha, I’ve lost him! I’ve lost him,” and realized that Manuel was reaching for his dead wife.

At the same time, Noa said, “He must be rendezvousing with one of the ships we’ve been seeing in the cluster.” He heard her curse and saw the moment the tick crossed to the debris that shielded the Kanakah Gate from the rest of the cloud, and then the ship was out of range—or its signal was disrupted by the obstacles. It would be able to slip through the cluster, unlike the Ark, and could rendezvous with a ship, and be gone before the Ark could reach the other side.

A fire within heated James's skin. He remembered jumping into oncoming fire to save the boy, and throwing himself over a wall and into a channel to deliver a replacement heart. He’d done those things for Noa. His eyes slid to Oliver’s mask, still softly hissing as it released oxygen. He’d failed …

His skin heated. Could cyborgs feel pride? Because for the first time, he wanted to rescue the little boy who’d nearly gotten him killed twice for his own sake. An idea formed in his mind. He wanted to turn to Gunny and say, “I have a plan …” But again found he could not.

Why?

And then he felt a dark thread of suspicion unwind in the circuitry that was his mind. He’d risked his life before for Noa, even when he’d saved others. Maybe he couldn’t risk himself for anyone else? Just like he couldn’t love anyone else.

With a growl muffled by his jaw's inability to form the right shape, he pounded his arms against the airlock door … He wasn’t as in control of himself as he’d thought. He raised his head. He wanted to scream … and couldn’t. He turned to the humans standing just outside the airlock. His mind leaped into the ether and he did scream.

Heretic

Noa saw James brace his hands against the outer airlock door. His sleeves were pushed up to his elbows and his tattoos were so dark his skin was almost black.

She issued orders to one of Sterling’s men in Airlock 1 to report to Airlock 7. She knew the man would be too late, they’d never cast the electromagnetic anchor out in time, but she had to try.

James turned, his face perfectly expressionless, but his hands were balled into fists. That was the only warning she had before the general ether erupted in a scream of rage so pure that for a moment, her vision went completely red. She felt her fingers stiffen, as though she were preparing to claw at someone, but the anger was so intense she couldn’t bring herself to move.

Someone down the hall echoed the scream of rage … it took a moment for Noa to realize it was Manuel.

The red faded and she was staring at an avatar of James projected over the general ether. It was wearing the gear he’d worn at Atlantia. S8O5 rose up behind James’s avatar—as well as sun magnifiers. A roof—was it the roof he’d jumped from? His avatar's face was livid with rage. She heard someone gasp, and realized that James’s emotions, and his ability to project scenes, were probably alien to everyone aboard the ship except for her.

He raised his hand and pointed at Noa. “You will order me to go after him?”

For a moment, she stood in shock. Was it a question, or a demand?

And suddenly the scene shifted and they were falling through the night. She felt the cold certainty of death and heard James’s last words as he threw himself from the roof. “I have Oliver’s heart.”

Black swirled around James's avatar. The black was the water of Atlantia, she realized, just in time for the scene to shift again. She was staring up at 6T9 reaching down from the elevator on Luddeccea, and once again, James projected his certainty that he had reached his end.

“Oliver can’t die!” His avatar screamed.

Noa felt her heart constrict, feeling what he was saying. See what I suffered? See what I endured? The universe cannot be this unjust.

The universe didn’t care about justice. Noa’s jaw hardened. But she could. “Of course we’re going to go after them,” she said aloud and into the ether. “No one is going to get away with selling augment parts.” That was the way to chaos.

Sterling and Chavez’s channels made lights flash in her neural interface. Her apps tagged their emotional response as admiration, determination, and relief.

“You’ll send me,” James’s avatar said, his jaw tight, mouth twisted in a look of determination he’d never made in the real world.

She didn’t want to send him. She’d rather go herself, with Gunny, and—

Gunny’s avatar materialized beside her. “James is a good choice, Commander. I’ll want him on my team.”

Noa couldn’t breathe.

Gunny thoughts whispered softly. “Manuel needs to stay … and so do you, Commander. You’re the only one who can hold this ship together.”

Noa swallowed. Her hands clenched at her sides, nails biting into her palms. “James, you’ll go with Gunny,” she said aloud. “Gunny, assemble the rest of your team.”

“Thank you,” James said. The vision of the final battle on Luddeccea’s surface faded, and Noa was staring at James—the real James. He nodded at her. “He has to have a contact, someone he’s meeting. That tick can’t go very far.” He turned to Gunny. “I have an idea.”

“Tell me in the tick,” Gunny said, motioning for him to follow him down the hall. “We have to move out fast.”

“I’m going, too,” said Manuel, as James and Gunny strode to the access ladder.

Eyes on James’s back, Noa grabbed her engineer and held him back. He was needed here as much as she, maybe more, and he’d get in the way out there. Manuel twisted his arm away. Looked back at her, his lips parted as though to deliver an angry tirade … but whatever he saw on her face made his retort die on his tongue.

“Come on,” Noa said, stepping to the elevator. “Let’s go to the bridge.”

A few minutes later, Noa and Manuel were at the helm, watching the tick that Noa had meant to use for her away team to the gate the next wake cycle. It was already loaded with provisions and weapons. In her mind, the light that was James stilled at a spot within the craft. She imagined him putting on his seat belt in the small, cramped space that smelled of sweat and human detritus.

The voice of Chavez, the tiny tick's pilot, cracked over the ether. “Release cycle initiated.”

Noa watched in the monitor as the tick’s “legs” detached and folded up.

Over the general ether, Noa said, “Bring him back.” To James alone, she said, “Be careful,” and sent the glowing ball of light they passed between them over the ether. “I don’t care about collateral damage. Not this time,” Noa whispered over the channel. “Save that little boy and come back to me.”

“Is that an order?” James responded quietly across the ether as Chavez said, “Laying in course.”

“Yes,” Noa said.

“Then I guess I have to obey,” James replied. His thoughts were as expressionless as his face in the real world. For some reason, it made a chill come over her.

In the monitor, the tick’s engines fired, and the little vessel bolted off toward the narrow space between the rocks that Wren’s ship had taken.

Over the general channel, one of the men on the away team, a member of the Atlantian Local Guard, asked, “How will we get close enough to them to board?”

“As soon as we get visual contact, we will send a lightbeam, and offer them what they want,” James replied.

“Which is?” the man asked.

Noa released a breath. She knew the answer to that question.

Across the ether, for all to hear, James replied, “They want me.”





Chapter Nine

James sat strapped into a seat that folded out of the walls of the tick. A long piece of ripped fabric dangled from the ceiling just in front of his nose. It smelled like sweat and unwashed human. Around him Briggs, Ling, Gunny, and Chavez were settling into their own seats. These were secondary observations as he tried to focus on the tiny vessel’s ether, surveying the external monitors as they exited the cluster of rocks, and the conversation of his crew mates.

The ancient tick that Wren had stolen came into view, and just beyond it he saw the vessel it must be rendezvousing with. It was about a third of the size of the Ark in diameter and length, two short wings, and a blunt bow.

“Daewoo Class 9 Tramp,” Chavez said. “Maybe four decades old. More maneuverable than the large freighters, capable of lightspeed, and sturdy enough to withstand gate hops.” She dipped her chin and gripped the steering bars harder. “Also, it’s fully armed. Forward phaser cannons on either wing, and it’s got two turrets—real ones—above and below.”

James focused on the monitor and saw two sturdy polyglass domes above and below the other vessel. Both domes gleamed with blue—their phasers were ready to fire.

Chavez leaned back in her seat. She didn’t say aloud, or into the ether, that they were outgunned.

In the seat beside her, Gunny whistled. Craning his neck around to meet James’s eyes, he said, “Ready to send the lightbeam transmission.” He nodded once. “You’re on, James.”

James's mind connected to the lightbeam transmitter that would turn his thoughts into digital pulses of light. Static flared across his skin. He still wasn’t sure why he had fought to do this … but now it was an order from Noa. “Unknown ship, this is the archangel.”

Around him, thoughts flew across the ether from the Ark. “The archangel? Wasn’t that who the Luddies were trying to apprehend when your ship was at Adam’s Station?”

James's left hand fluttered. He was unsure of what to say.

“Sure thing,” Gunny responded over the general channel. “The professor’s got some mighty tech in him. His folks worked for Fleet and used some classified augments to fix ‘em up after he got himself squished to a pulp doing some mountin’ climbin’. Luddies want it mighty bad.”

James hadn’t concocted any of that … but he didn’t think he could have concocted a better lie as an explanation.

The questioner whistled. “Thought Luddies didn’t like augments?”

Gunny snorted. “They don’t want anyone else to have ‘em.”

“No response,” said Chavez. “We’ll be in range of their ether in a few seconds.”

“Ciphers on everyone,” Gunny ordered. “That boat can slide into this tin can’s ether in a few minutes.”

“Our buoys are working. We can still reach the Ark,” Chavez said. “Maybe Ghost will be able to hack into its systems?”

James already had hacked into the strange ship's systems. An unfamiliar human said, “A kid’s heart ain’t going to get us more than a month’s S-rations!”

“It’s better than nothing, you idiot!” Wren replied, docking the tick.

“Not really. Adam’s Station is closed to all but Luddie transports, Atlantia is picked clean, and Libertas and Luddeccea are blasting people out of their skies.”

And someone else muttered, “Might not even be a month’s worth.”

James wanted to reach out through the ether and directly touch their minds. Instead, he interfaced with the lightbeam transmitter. “Ask Wren how much the Luddies offered for me. Amnesty? A life on Luddeccea, where you don’t need a mask to breathe, where there is food? It’s amazing food, by the way. I wonder how long it has been since your friends had a steak, or fresh fruit.” James licked his lips at the memory. The lightbeam transmitter encoded James's words, and James knew it had been received when the other ship's ether erupted in Wren's protests. “Don’t listen to the freak! Let my tick loose and let’s get out of here!”

“We outgun them, Wren,” one of the tramp’s crew said. “They’re not going to attack us.”

“Receiving lightbeam transmission,” said Chavez. “Sharing audibly.”

A speaker in the tick cracked, “What are you suggesting, Archangel?”

“A trade,” James replied. “The boy for me.”

Gunny’s eyes slid to him, and a furrow formed between his brows. He whispered into James's channel. “And then?”

James glanced at the older man. Gunny was sitting sideways in his seat, looking back at him.

“I hadn’t figured that out,” he admitted. He knew that the tramp’s crew was unlikely to use plasma rifles though, for fear of endangering their own ship.

“It’s a trick!” Wren said to the tramp’s crew. “He’s impervious to stun fire.”

“Bullshit,” said someone else. “Augments, cyborgs even, they all go down with a stun.”

Another said, “I feel guilty about stealing a kid … but this archangel is probably as much an asshole as any of us.”

“He’ll attack us,” Wren cried over the general ether. “I hit him with a stunner …”

“You missed,” one of the tramp’s crew snarled.

“They’re releasing Wren’s tick,” Chavez said, and in the monitor’s digitalized zoom James saw the tramp pulling away from the tick Wren had commandeered.

Gunny unhooked his safety belt. “Chavez,” he said aloud. “I want you to approach that tick. Make it look like you’re trying to put something between us and their guns.”

“I was already doing that, and I am trying to keep something between us and them!” Chavez snapped.

Chuckling and heading to the back of the tick, Gunny replied, “Well, keep it up!” He was grinning ear to ear and he winked at James in passing. The sergeant pointed at one of the Atlantian guardsmen. “You, you’re with me.”

Before James could ask, his attention was diverted by further conversation on the tramp. “Even if he is stun resistant, we have other toys.”

James glanced over to see Gunny wrestling a space suit from the wall.

Ghost's voice came over the ether, in a new cipher Noa had given them before they'd departed. “I'm into their system, putting it on your comm now!”

The comm hissed, and Wren's voice cracked in the tick. “We shouldn’t be talking on the ether. They could have hacked us.”

“Lizzar balls, no they didn’t! I haven’t even hacked their ether,” said a member of the tramp's crew. But then all ether conversation on the other ship stopped.

Using the cipher, Gunny cried out, “Ghost, can you control that ship’s computer?”

Ghost responded, “I’m already on it … but the ship seems to be configured in a way that is very non-standard. Their Chief Computing Officer is obviously very paranoid about one of his crew trying to seize control of his ship through the ether—”

“Can you do it?” Gunny demanded.

“I need time!” Ghost responded.

Gunny snorted. “Well, you don’t have it.”

“Luddites,” Ghost hissed.

Closing the helmet of the suit, Gunny hobbled over to the tick's tiny airlock, beckoning the now-suited Briggs beside him.

“What are you up to?” asked Chavez.

Gunny winked at James. “James's plan!”

Heretic

Noa stood on the bridge of the Ark, Manuel and Monica beside her. Ghost was sitting in the empty cockpit chair. The chief computing officer’s eyes were closed, and he was mumbling to himself. “That shouldn’t be like that.”

The doctor's, Manuel's, and Noa's eyes were on the skylight, but their minds were in the ether. Their focus was on the Class 9 Tramp. The image filtered through the away team's tick's external sensors was grainy and flickering. Her apps pulled up a three-dimensional model of the vessel with highlighted features and stats as she watched the tramp break away from the tick Wren had stolen. Noa saw the scene shift slightly as Chavez altered her course to take cover behind the other vessel.

“If they jump to lightspeed, they’ll never catch them,” Manuel said.

“They won’t,” said Noa. Oliver’s heart, which was an entire world to him, wouldn’t be able to buy more than a month’s rations for the crew, if that much. James was worth more, perhaps enough to buy the entire crew safe haven on Luddeccea—as long as their augments could be removed or turned off. Her fingernails bit into her palms. She felt her face crumpling in fury.

“Look, they’re coming about,” Noa said.

She heard Manuel gulp.

The ether went black.

Noa’s breath caught.

“What?” Manuel said, leaning forward, as though that could relight the mental picture.

James’s channel lit up in her mind and he spoke in a new cipher they'd picked before the away team had taken off. “The tramp’s computer has already hacked into the tick’s ether. We’re switching off the ether hookup to the monitors, but we’re fine.”

At the same time, Ghost’s hacked line into the tramp’s ether exploded with the tramp's crew’s curses, and then, “I just broke in and they switched off the ether ship controls and started using a cipher!”

Wren’s thoughts cracked through the channel. “We have to get out of here! They’re probably listening in already.”

“Shut up and give us the cipher, Wren!”

Noa’s mind leaped at the opportunity. “Chavez,” she said, “Wren knows we were using the writings of Primp for our cipher. Use it and feed them some lizzar dung.”

Chavez didn’t reply, but her thoughts suddenly erupted in the Primp cipher. “Wren is such a lousy lay. I hope we can send him out an airlock. Maybe that will cool his huge fat ego.”

Noa’s eyes went wide. She’d known that Chavez and Wren had a thing—a very short thing—but the ensign had been very professional about it. Up until now.

“They know I know their cipher!” Wren’s thoughts screamed.

“I dunno, maybe that girl’s just expressin’ her honest opinion,” said one of the tramp’s crew.

At nearly the same instant, James said, “Gunny and the corporal are out.”

“Out where?” Noa asked.

“They’re going to try and reclaim Wren’s tick. We have a plan. Tramp’s now in visual range,” James replied, even as someone else on the tramp said, “Maybe Wren’s right about them using a different cipher. I’m getting some gibberish.”

Noa had to buy time for whatever it was Gunny was doing, and keep the tramp’s crew from discovering it. In the Primp cipher the tramp team had so quickly deciphered, Noa said, “Chavez, I don’t want you spreading any more distracting, crude, and frankly unprofessional gossip about your romantic escapades.” And crossed her fingers that the ensign would catch her meaning.

In the same non-secure cipher, Chavez replied, “Yes, Commander. But I gotta say, I sure hope Wren can hold his breath longer than he can go in bed.” And Noa let out a breath of relief.

“She’s baiting you!” Wren cried.

One of the tramp’s crew corrected him. “She’s sure baiting you.”

“I’ve never known a man who could be so proud of a toothpick!” Chavez added. “And let’s talk about his non-toothpick skills! Wait, I can’t, because he has none!”

“Ummm … Chavez,” Manuel said. “We need to get Oliver back.”

But Chavez was on a roll. “I’m amazed that in the vastness of the nebula he could find the tramp because let me tell you what he can’t find—”

James’s voice cut across the ether. “Are you prepared to make the exchange?” He didn’t use a cipher.

In the ether, one of the tramp’s crew members said, “Just you. No tricks.”

“No tricks,” James responded.

“Who is this?” Noa demanded.

“Captain Murd, of the Rambler,” the voice answered. “Who am I speaking to?”

No use lying. Wren could tell all; he probably already had. When had he sent the signal to their ship? “Commander Noa Sato of the Galactic Fleet.”

There was an infinitesimal lag as her thoughts were transported via lightbeam over the ether extenders in the buoys. Just enough for the muscle in her jaw to tick.

“A Fleet commander … a woman of her word.”

Noa raised an eyebrow. Lizzar dung and they both knew it. They were betting they could overpower James. And of course they could. With a few flicks of their fingers, they could suck the air out of the airlock he entered and wait for him to pass out. Her brow furrowed as she remembered their trip through the tunnels of Adam's Station. He might not pass out.

Over the ether, someone aboard Murd’s tramp said, “We can blast out of here before they play any tricks.”

Murd didn’t respond.

Noa called across the ether, “No tricks. If you hold up your end of the bargain. But before we do anything, we want proof of life.”

There was a pause, longer than the time it would take for her words to be transmitted. And then over the ether came a sound, a soft, repetitive thump-thunk.

“That is his heartbeat!” Monica said from across the bridge. “It’s elevated … but he’s definitely alive.”

Noa’s jaw got tight. “Our vessel will dock with yours,” she said. “If that boy isn’t in our hold within thirty seconds of the archangel stepping aboard your vessel, my crew will blow their vessel and yours to Kingdom Come.”

It was a bluff. The tick had no such self-destruct function, although given a little more time they could have outfitted it with that capability.

“It will be the most excitement I’ve ever had with Captain Wren,” Chavez said in a voice that sounded almost gleeful. Noa’s eyebrow rose at the venom behind Chavez’s thoughts.

“We’ll make the trade,” the voice replied.

Beside Noa, Manuel said, “How will we keep them from firing on the tick carrying Oliver away?”

He wasn’t asking how James would get away. Noa was praying it had something to do with Gunny’s “plan.”

Muttering something to himself, Ghost abruptly opened his eyes. “I’ve got the guns in the tramp turrets, but not the damn nav controls yet!”

Noa breathed out a sigh of relief. And then swallowed hard. The tick couldn’t achieve lightspeed; neither could the Ark at this point. All the tramp had to do was get to the edge of the cloud—jump to lightspeed—and then every hour they took to repair the Ark would be minutes on the tramp. They’d be safe in the paradox of lightspeed travel. Noa wouldn’t be able to order pursuit … the risks at this point would be too high.

She loved James more for this plan, and hated him, too. She felt a lump form in her throat. So this is what Tim felt every time she went on a mission in Six?

“Initiating docking,” Chavez said.

Noa’s fingernails bit into her palms again. James's connection to her was open, but he was silent, knowing that even if he wasn’t understood, he would be heard, and that was likely to cause suspicion.

She schooled herself to calm. She’d do exactly what he was doing if their positions were reversed. Her chronometer app told her that five minutes had gone by. One of Sterling’s men said, “Checking plastitubing shaft … pressurized. Ready to open the tick's airlock, Commander?”

It took Noa a moment to realize it was a question.

Murd’s voice rang over the ether. “We’re ready on our end.”

Over the ether Oliver’s heart still thudded, too fast. Or maybe it was her own heart she heard.

“James?” she whispered, sending the white ball of light to him.

There was that infinitesimal lag again.

And then Noa’s vision went completely red. Manuel screamed beside her. Monica grabbed her forehead. In her mind she was exploding in a moment of pure, unadulterated rage. “Cut the ether, Ghost, cut the ether!”

The red faded, and Noa stood, gasping for breath. Ghost looked up at her, wide-eyed. “Was that some sort of new weapon?”

“I hope the away team wasn't affected by it,” Monica said.

They didn't realize the rage had come from James. Noa ground her teeth, the last edge of the fury not completely gone. What kind of weapon was James? She snapped her hands behind her back, and set her feet apart in parade stance. He was the kind of weapon that found lost children.

Heretic

James heard Noa shout over the channel, “Cut the ether, Ghost, cut the ether!”

But her words were distant, abstract. He was awash in fury, and it was exploding from himself into the ether. He raged at himself for coming to Oliver’s aide, at Wren and the tramp’s crew for putting him in this position to begin with, and at humans in general for being so illogical. The tramp’s crew could have approached the Ark, learned their true objectives, and zipped through the gate as soon as it opened, and left this backwards solar system behind.

At the controls of the ship, Chavez clutched her head and hissed, “I want to kill someone.”

James wanted a lot of people to die.

And then Noa’s light went out in his mind. James wavered on his feet and his vision went black. The heat beneath his skin was replaced by the dark cold sensation of failure.

Putting a hand to the wall for support, James watched from the tick as Briggs and Gunny used magnetized grappling hooks to latch onto Wren's tick. Gunny had a plan that would rival the best of Noa's for sheer audacity. His left hand trembled and his right formed a fist—he'd sent his emotions across the ether. He knew they could incapacitate Noa—he'd endangered this mission and he had to get a hold of himself. Outside he watched as Gunny and Briggs disappeared into Wren's tick.

James took a deep breath his body didn’t need. Chavez turned to him. “Well?” she snarled, and then her eyes got wide. “Oh … that was … what you’re doing is very brave … I didn’t mean …”

“I still feel so angry,” Ling said.

James looked at the door. He’d asked for this, and then Noa had ordered him. His hands lifted to undo the heavy wheel that unlocked the airlock. Almost against his volition, he twisted it, and then pressed the button to open the door. Without a word, he stepped out into the tiny space. The door whooshed shut behind him. He turned another wheel, and opened the outer door. Two men stood there in the tramp’s own airlock. One held Oliver. The other aimed a plasma rifle at James. James would relish a stun, but a phaser rifle would melt him … he knew it without knowing how.

James’s eyes slid to the boy. His shirt had been slashed open. On his chest was a small portable ether transponder. James stared at it and heard the soft thump of the boy’s heart.

The man ripped it off of Oliver’s chest and plugged it to his own temple. James blinked.

The man thrust Oliver into James's arms and screamed, “Set him down!”

The man who’d held Oliver reached across the tick’s ether. “Your cargo is in your airlock. Don’t move until your man is aboard our ship!”

Chavez said, “How will I—”

“We’ll tell you when you can shut your outer airlock door,” the man snarled across the channel. “Or I’ll blow your friend to Kingdom Come.” He said the last with the same Luddeccean inflection Noa had used.

“Set him down,” he said to James.

James set the unconscious Oliver in the tiny airlock, and reached out to the ether. The man shouted, “Step forward now! Hands where we can see them!”

James stepped into the tramp’s airlock. The door whooshed behind him.

The man who had held Oliver backed through the inner freighter's airlock door, and the phaser rifle wielder danced after him. The inner door whooshed closed.

“Go now!” one of the tramp’s crew members said over the ether.

“James?” Chavez.

The ether connection to the Ark still wasn’t back up. James stood with his hands still upraised in the tiny space. The tiny tick was his only connection—

His mind lit up with the Ark’s ether. He felt Noa in his mind. “James?” She let her emotions cross the space, and he could feel the empty place in her gut, and the lump in her throat.

A little light went off in his mind. They were pumping Amer-2032, a colorless, odorless gas that caused unconsciousness into the airlock. A bright light went off behind his eyes. His knees crashed beneath him, but before he hit the floor, he sent a bouncing bright ball of light to Noa.

His eyes closed, everything went dark, but he felt Noa reach to him one more time. “James …”





Chapter Ten

“James …” Noa said. But got no response. Swallowing her fear she said, “Chavez, do you have Oliver?”

Beside her, Manuel took a step forward, craning his neck up to the skylight, as though any second the tiny tick would appear between the planetoids. “What happened to his heartbeat?” Manuel said.

“We’ve got Oliver,” Chavez cried.

“How is he?” Manuel said.

Noa tried to keep herself from shattering. Don’t ask about the plan, don’t ask about the plan. She could feel James’s mind in hers, but he hadn’t said a word.

“Got a mask on him, Manuel,” said Ling. “He should be waking up any moment.”

“They’re readying their cannons! Taking evasive action,” Chavez said.

“Ghost!” Noa said.

“They must have taken the cannons off ether control!” her computer officer simpered.

“Get out of there, Chavez,” Noa said.

“Aye, Captain, but I’m firing my phaser cannon just the same.”

“They hit Gunny’s tick,” Ling cried over the ether.

“Gunny’s tick?” Dr. Monica asked.

Noa didn’t respond. Across the ether she whispered, “James, don’t hold back.”

Heretic

James was holding back.

His subconscious—or the superconscious that was his connection with the gates—had determined it was best to “play possum.” He was saving his strength. The gas that the tramp’s team was pumping into airlock wasn’t hurting him; however, the cold in the chamber was going to be a problem if he had to wait too long. He had that dark fuzzy edge to his vision that he always got when he was hungry. At the moment it didn't matter. His eyes were closed. The airlock was nearly silent, but his senses were alive in the ship’s ether. The tramp’s crew were screaming in rage and disbelief. They'd tried to fire on Chavez—of course—but Chavez had taken evasive maneuvers and had managed not to be shot, blasting at the ship with all the tick’s admittedly limited capabilities at the same time. The tramp’s crew had laughed at the almost harmless incoming barrage, and had missed Gunny manning the tick Wren had stolen. At first …

Swearing, they’d fired on Gunny’s vessel, but it had been too late. Through a monitor in the tramp’s lower turret, James could see a hole clear through the rear of Gunny’s tick, but it was safely attached to the polyglass dome, effectively taking the gun offline.

James wondered if Gunny was still alive, or if the tiny vessel’s attachment to the tramp was just a subroutine the sergeant had managed to code before he’d died.

He wanted to reach out … and didn’t. Gunny wasn’t using his ether connection. If he responded to James’s call, he could put himself at risk. James wanted to laugh. As though commandeering an ancient tick and attaching it to a gun turret wasn’t risky enough. Gunny was an idiot.

James felt his skin heat with fury at the other man for being so illogically selfless.

A voice called over the ether. “The tick is cutting through the polyglass.”

“We’re going to have a vacuum breach in the turret.”

“They must be in suits …”

“Suit up! Get back in there and—”

The tramp’s captain cut the speaker off. “Get the prisoner. There are better ways to get them to stand down.”

“We need him alive!” Wren said.

“And you said he healed remarkably well!” the captain snapped.

“Don’t know that roughin’ him up will be effective with him unconscious …”

“He's faking unconsciousness!” Wren called into the ether.

“Pffft … enough of your stories, Wren,” someone scoffed.

“Wake him up, then,” the captain snapped. “Stim him if you have to.”

“Yes, sir!”

There was a whirring from the air vents, and a light in his mind told him that no more Amer-2032 was being pumped into the airlock. It didn’t get any warmer. He didn’t move, even when he heard the door open with a whoosh. In the tramp’s ether, he watched through a security camera as two men walked in.

And then, of its own accord, his left arm trembled.

“What?” cried one.

“Tremors … did he get stunned?” said the other. Putting a foot on James’s trembling arm, he prepared a syringe, kneeled down, rolled up James’s sleeve, and jabbed it into his arm. Pain shot from the spot, and around the area his tattoos blossomed. His arm still shook. James found his attention riveted to the stunners in the men’s belts. The thought of the power they'd give him made his mouth water. His lips were slightly parted, and he was afraid he might drool on the floor.

“Come on,” said the syringe man. “By the time we get ‘em to the turret deck, he’ll be awake.”

They tried to hoist him up, but then syringe man said, “Oy, he’s heavy. Let’s just drag him.”

They pulled him over the floor, and James let himself be hauled over the airlock door track, down a long hallway, and into the lift.

The whole ship was cold. James thought that if he opened his eyes, he might not actually be able to see. He didn’t move, unsure of when he should reveal he was still aware. They rolled him over and leaned him against the wall, his legs sprawled out in front of him like a doll.

His eyes were still closed, but through the ether he peered through a monitor and saw syringe man, standing over him, slipping a phase blade from his pocket.

A stunner would recharge James—a phase blade could melt just about anything. James felt static flare up his spine, temporarily chasing away the darkness at the edges of his consciousness.

“Yo,” said the man’s companion, fingers pausing at the lift controls. “I don’t think you should be doin’ that. You know the captain will be wantin’ that job.”

Light went off behind James’s eyes. He had to act. There was more light behind his eyes, and he knew what to do.

Moaning, James pulled his legs up. Keeping his eyes closed, and his head bowed, he pushed himself up the wall.

The men reacted instantly. The one without the blade took a shoulder with one hand, and with the other pressed a stunner to James’s side. The man with the blade stepped forward, blade still out. James felt its heat, and saw it as a bright light through the monitor’s eye next to his throat.

“Nuh … Nuh … please …” James said, pawing with his hands, as though he was weak and still blind. He was blind with his eyes, but not with his mind.

The man with the phase blade smiled sharply. James saw it through the monitor.

“Malik, Karl, where are you?” the captain’s voice said.

“Stop toying with him!” said the one with the stunner. “Activate the lift!”

The man with the phase blade dropped James’s arm, and went to the lift controls, dropping the plasma blade to his side. All of James's attention was on that knife. He barreled forward. The man spun, raising the blade, and James grabbed the wrist holding the knife.

It should have been easy to overpower the other man … but his left arm trembled violently, and he had to use two hands to keep the man from slashing his throat.

Malik laughed. “I got augmented strength, too.”

The man with the stunner screamed, “Stop it! Stop it now, Malik!”

Malik sneered, “I got this.”

James felt his skin start to heat from the blade—and where he felt the warmth, he felt strength ebbing into him—but it wasn’t enough. The heat was too focused; it wasn’t like the all-over caress of a sunbeam, or the heat in engineering.

“Captain wants him alive,” protested the man that must have been Karl.

James's hand shook, he smelled something reminiscent of burning plastic. He was burning … and he was plastic ...

The stunner went off, the force of it knocking James forward enough for the knife to graze his neck with a sizzling waft of smoke, and a searing bolt of pain that the delicious warmth and power of the electronic burst did not diminish.

He met Malik’s eyes. They were hazel, and very wide in surprise. “Shit!” he said, back against the buttons. Finding the strength to push the blade away, James head-butted him with enough force to leave him stunned. The knife fell from his hand, and James snatched it up from the floor as Malik sank to his knees. James cut his throat with the knife as the man with the stunner unloaded bolt after bolt until the stunner lost its charge.

James turned. The knife in his hand was still hot, and his body was pulsing with power. The man gazed at him with wide eyes. “What are you?”

A few seconds later, his throat was slit, too, and his body lay on the floor. James stared down at them. There was very little blood; the knife cauterized the wounds. He touched a button with a Chinese character for “cool” on the handle, and the flame went out and the heat almost instantly became bearable. Slipping it into his belt, he tried to access the monitor for the lower turret, but all the monitors on the whole floor it was located on were dark in the ether.

“Get down here, Malik!” the captain screamed over the channel.

James tilted his head. Gunny was alive and causing the captain problems. Turning back, James divested the corpses of their weapons, his mind flitting through the ether channels—there were ten souls aboard, at least. He didn’t hear Wren. Dead? Hiding? Hitting the lift controls for the level just above the level of the lower turret where he presumed Gunny was and the ship was depressurized, he took as much cover as he could against the side of the lift, expecting incoming fire from Murd's men.

The door slid open to complete darkness. Before James could think, two blasts hit him in the chest, knocking him with such force that the back of his head hit the wall and bounced.

Everything was white, he couldn’t hear, but he could feel pain in his palms and in his head. The voices of the gates poured into his mind.

“Kill him.”

“He saw.”

“He must be sacrificed.”

Pain shot from his hands and from the back of his skull. “Kill who?” James managed to ask.

“Gunnery Sergeant Phillip Leung,” the gates answered as one.

James remembered Noa, laying on her side in their bed, leaning on her hand, surrounded by white linens, a smile on her lips. She’d touched his nose. “Gunny likes you.”

He’d arched an eyebrow. “And that makes you happy because?”

She had shrugged. “Gunny’s good.” She’d looked down. “Alcoholism and all … I trust Gunny.”

Gunny had saved James when Xo's drones had attacked, and had offered to come on this near suicidal mission.

“I can’t,” James said.

“You can. Your circuits were temporarily overloaded,” was the response.

“Open your eyes,” One commanded.

James’s eyes snapped open and he was staring at a vaguely human-shaped blur. The pain in his hands was his own nails biting into his skin. He dropped his stunner on the floor. The pain in his head was from the blow he’d received when the stun blast had knocked him against the wall.

He lunged at the blur, and his hands were around its neck before he’d thought about it.

“James!” Gunny shouted through the ether. “It’s me.”

“Kill him!”

“Take his helmet off!”

“I didn’t mean to shoot you, James!” Gunny cried across the ether.

A light blinking in his visual cortex transmitted Gunny's sincerity, guilt, and despair. Another less frantic light told him that the oxygen in the elevator was 10 mm/HG—a quarter of the amount available at the top of Mt. Everest. Though the lift was still oddly pressurized, without the helmet Gunny would die in a few minutes.

James didn’t move. “No, no, no …”

“Crack his helmet!” the gates commanded.

His body wanted to plunge his skull against the glass covering Gunny’s eyes. His jaw locked in effort, James managed to only drop his head against Gunny’s helmet, instead.

“James!” Gunny cried again.

James couldn’t withdraw, and barely was restraining himself from doing exactly as the voices said.

He felt Gunny shifting, heard a click, and the polyglass between him and the sergeant disappeared.

“Kill him!” screamed a voice he knew was Eight. “He’ll betray you.”

“He can’t be allowed to know you’re immune to stuns!” said another gate. “He’ll know you’re inhuman!”

James whined and his forehead fell against Gunny’s—gently—but it took all of his self-control not to drive his skull into the other man’s.

He felt a hand on his back. “There. You’ll be all right. Share my oxygen.”

And that was when James realized Gunny had opened his helmet to share the CO2 converter. The device was going on overdrive, its usually barely perceptible hum a choking whir. It wasn’t enough to raise the oxygen in the lift to breathable levels for all its efforts.

“He’s trying to save me,” James protested to the voices in his head.

“He’ll try to kill you!” Eight screamed.

“Lucky your augments protected you from the blast,” Gunny panted, already breathless in the thin air. Over the ether, he continued. “I gotta get us to the next floor, okay, buddy? We both gotta breathe and we still gotta clear this ship out.”

James squeezed his eyes shut, and protested the gates decree. “He thinks it’s just my augments. He doesn’t think I’m not human! Don’t make me kill him.” His mind wrapped around the pulse that was Noa’s consciousness, tethered to him by the ethernet buoys. She hadn’t spoken in long minutes—like he never interrupted her when she was on the bridge engaged in something important. “Noa will never forgive me.”

“She won’t know it was you,” said a gate.

“He’s adhering to his programming,” whispered another.

“Over our orders,” a gate protested.

“His logic deserves to be taken into account,” said a final voice that James recognized.

“One,” he whispered, jerking away from Gunny as though he’d been let loose from a chain.

Panting, Gunny spun and banged his hand against the lift controls. Kneeling, he picked up his stun rifle from the floor, motioned for James to pick up his own weapon, and then leaned against the wall.

Panting, in an automatic pantomime of the sergeant's state, James picked up the weapons he dropped and leaned against the wall across from Gunny.

“There are at least four more,” Gunny said across the ether. “And Wren.”

The door slid open, and a mental light told James that the oxygen in the chamber was at breathable levels, but the area beyond the elevator was completely dark.

His mind reached into the ether, hunting for the four remaining crew members.

Gunny fired. There was a sound of another bolt from a stun. Gunny fired again. “Those two are down. No more on this floor.”

James blinked. How had Gunny managed to do that? Before he could ask Gunny, the sergeant plugged into Brigg's channel. “They aren’t in masks. Reverse the CO2 converters on level A2.”

He hit the button to close the door, and groaned a little, looking down at his arm. The stunner had just grazed his suit, and it smelled a little like ozone and melted plastic.

James looked at him in alarm.

“Eh, barely feel it,” Gunny said.

James continued to stare.

Gunny’s brow furrowed and his shoulders fell. “We can’t take ‘em prisoner. Can’t let ‘em go. It’s quick.” Gunny spat. “People who’d kidnap a babe don’t deserve more.”

James blinked. He hadn’t been thinking about how reversing the CO2 converters would kill the crew on that level—though now that he did, he agreed wholeheartedly. “You shot them—without seeing them.” James had been utterly useless.

Gunny cocked his head, and his expression turned quizzical. Tapping his ears, he said, “I heard ‘em with my augments.”

James's first instinct had been to leap into the ether. His first instinct had been wrong.

“You’re doing great, man,” Gunny said, looking down at his arm. “Don’t think nothin’ of it. ‘Sides, I shot you.”

The elevator groaned. James looked up at Gunny. “Want to use me as a human shield?”

Gunny’s eyes widened. “You can withstand plasma fire?”

James felt as though the platform beneath him had just given way. “I thought they wouldn’t use plasma fire aboard a ship?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” said Gunny.

“I’d rather not find out,” James admitted as the elevator halted.

“Fair enough,” Gunny said, jamming his finger on a button to keep the door closed. He wasn’t panting anymore. The brief stop on the way up had increased the oxygen in the lift to nearly normal levels.

“This is the deck that leads to the tramp's bridge. Wren and the two remaining crew members are going to be there,” Gunny said, both aloud and into the ether.

James felt Noa’s consciousness spike, and then her thoughts, encoded in their chosen cipher, crackled over the ether. “If they’re cornered, they aren’t going to play fair. They may use plasma weapons. Could be better to let us send a retrieval team for you. Enough ticks could blast that tramp to dust.”

“I’m worried about them setting off a self-destruct order,” Gunny said. “They’d probably have to circumvent the captain’s old codes; but not confident they couldn’t do it before you sent a retrieval team.”

“Understood,” Noa replied.

“‘Sides,” Gunny added, “we may be in need of this boat’s heavy guns.”

“My people are worth more than that ship's cannons,” Noa said.

James felt his train of thought had derailed somewhere around “self-destruct order.”

“Noa,” he said. “How is Oliver?” He had to believe this stupidity had worked.

“He’s alive,” said Noa. “Monica thinks he’ll be fine.”

The answer felt … incomplete.

“Do what you need to do, and then get back here,” Noa said.

“Aye, Commander,” Gunny said.

“Understood,” said James. He felt his own personal channel light, and then Noa’s thoughts to him alone. “You better.” The words were harsh, and for a moment he felt heat flaring in his chest and across his skin. He wasn’t really hers to command. Was he? But then her thoughts crackled again, more softly, “Ki-o-tsukete,” and the heat in his skin turned to a more pervasive, bubbling warmth. It was Japanese. It literally translated to, “Take care of your spirit,” or “soul,” and it was commonly said on parting. Sure enough, he felt her consciousness duly pulling back to give him focus in the moment … but he found his focus on her parting words. Did cyborgs have spirits? Noa obviously thought so, and he was matter and all matter was energy, wasn’t it? As soon as that hopeful thought entered his brain, the dark app in the depths of his consciousness reminded him he’d almost killed Gunny under the direction of the gates. If you were controlled by someone else, did you really have your own soul?

Gunny interrupted his thoughts. Finger jammed on the door shut button, he said, “This boat is really non-standard, but I have a basic idea of the layout. We need to get to the bridge. They’ll be holed up there.”

He released his finger and the door slid open to darkness so deep to James’s eyes it seemed like a wall.

Gunny peered around the edge of the door opening and said, “Wait here.” Blinded and blinking furiously, James had to comply as Gunny slipped from the light in the elevator seemingly into oblivion. James reached for the ether—and heard nothing. Cursing himself, he focused on his hearing. He heard Gunny’s breathing, and footsteps on metal, and a thunk. A moment later, Gunny popped back into the elevator carrying an oxygen mask. Which was when James noticed that a tiny light in his mind was telling him the oxygen level was too low again. Not as bad as last time, but without a CO2 recycler like Gunny's, James should have been panting.

He took the mask without comment, and hoped Gunny wouldn’t notice.

Gunny pointed into the wall of dark. “Can you see out there?”

James shook his head and replied over the ether. “It’s the change in lighting. I have trouble adj—” Slamming his hand on the close door button, Gunny lifted his stunner rifle, and shot out all but one of the lights in the lift. Sparks flew, and the lift was plunged into darkness.

“What are you doing?” James asked.

Was Gunny trying to kill him, just like the gates had predicted?

“Lettin’ your eyes adjust in the relative cover of the elevator,” Gunny said, and James remembered the man severing his own safety cord in zero G to catch him. Of course the gates were wrong. “They know we’re here already. Can you see yet?”

“I need a moment,” James said, taking a deep breath.

Gunny began speaking over the ether. “There’s a catwalk just outside the door. They’ve got stun charges laid out on it.”

“I think … I think I’ll be able to handle it,” James said. His head ticked. Yes, he knew he could. He blinked. The elevator was lit only by the light behind the control panel, but he could see.

“You won’t be able to handle the guys on the other catwalks above who have phaser rifles.”

He met Gunny’s eyes. “No, I wouldn't.”

Gunny shook his head. “They’ll only wanna aim toward us—the two decks below will keep ‘em from puncturing a hole in this boat’s belly, but they could still blow a hole in the side.”

James looked up in exasperation. “How does that make it …?” He stopped before he said “better,” his gaze catching on a fried light fixture above them, and more specifically to the panel it was set in. Wide and flat, it was not quite the width of his shoulders. “If we could get to their level,” he mused aloud.

Gunny tsked. “You’ll never fit.”

James looked pointedly down at the sergeant’s potbelly.

“It'll squish through that,” Gunny said. Grinning, he gave himself a slap that made his gut jiggle. “See? Just like flexipuddy.”

James resisted the urge to send the image to Noa, for fear it would give the tramp’s crew an idea of what they had planned. He kneeled and said, “Better than dislocating my shoulders.”

Gunny laughed. “Now you're getting the picture.”

A few minutes later, Gunny's boots were on James's shoulders, grinding into James's bones—or whatever, and the sergeant's thoughts were shooting through the ether. “Don't push no more, there's no headroom!”

“Maybe we should have dislocated my shoulders,” James grumbled, keeping his eyes on the floor, the two corpses, and almost all of Gunny's clothing. Gunny had slipped out of his space suit, and all his other clothes except his boots, socks, undershirt, and a pair of boxers with a cartoon ptery from a Luddeccean children's holo show printed all over it. His “lucky underwear,” because they were “loose and comfortable and my nephew gave 'em to me.” All things being equal, James didn't want to look up.

“I'm like a rat caught in a toilet goop flush pipe,” Gunny said. “Okay, got myself turned around. Now push.”

James gave another shove, he heard an “oomf,” felt the burden on his shoulders lighten, heard a thumping, and ducked as Gunny started kicking his feet. He hissed as the business end of one of Gunny's steel toed boots knocked him in the back of the head.

As though from a great distance, James heard Gunny grunt, “Sorry.” One's voice was at the forefront of James's mind. “The sergeant has not availed himself of plasti-surgery that would make his body more appealing for reproduction, and yet you believe Eight, that is their prime objective.”

“They are more sophisticated than Eight believes,” said another gate.

“They are base. They are animals. We cannot trust them.” It was Eight's voice. James could feel the latent hysteria behind the gate's thoughts.

“James, can you pass up my rifle and pistol?”

“I can hear you,” James blurted out, clutching the spot on his head that Gunny's heel had connected with.

“James, are you all right?” Gunny's voice sounded far away and muffled.

Eight spoke again. “You should not use him like this! The beast injured him. He doesn't have to hurt but you make him.”

Looking up through the hole in the ceiling, James rubbed the aching spot. The beast Eight was referring to was Gunny; the injury was the blow to the back of his head.

“We need more data,” said another voice.

“Yes!” hissed James. He couldn't abandon his purpose. He blinked. Which was?

He heard Gunny clear his throat, and looked up to see the man silhouetted in the paneling. “Uh,” Gunny said.

And in his mind One said, “He has succeeded beyond our expectations.” One's voice sounded fainter now. “And we need more data.”

“I didn't give ya a concussion, did I?” Gunny whispered worriedly.

James dropped his hand. “No, I don't think so.” He picked up Gunny's weapons and handed them up through the open paneling. “Let's get this over with,” James said, reaching down to pick up the clothes Gunny had discarded because “every millimeter counts,” but Gunny shook his head. “No, we need to get moving. Hold on a second ...” About thirty seconds later, Gunny was back. “Two men on the walkways above you, twenty meters down. There's some coverage between me and 'em, but that means I can't fire on 'em, and this catwalk is rusty, James. I need you to make some noise to cover up my steps. Give me three minutes, and then draw their fire.” The sergeant's eyes slid to the side, and he vanished.

“Draw their fire?” James replied, and wondered what Eight would think if he'd heard that. Of course drawing their fire made sense—but how to do it without getting actually fired upon? His eyes fell on Gunny's discarded suit and the corpses, had that bright inspirational light, and went to work. At two minutes and thirty seconds, James looked down at a corpse he'd hastily dressed in Gunny's suit and stuffed Gunny's abandoned under layer down the stomach to make it look more realistic. He piled the rest of Gunny's gear onto the corpse in the corner, hoping it would be mistaken for him.

“Here I go,” said James, hoping Gunny could hear it with his augments. He hit the elevator button to open the door, grabbed the dead man by the back of the space suit, poked his stun gun beneath its arm, and took a step out of the elevator. Nothing happened. He looked up and realized there was a steel overhang above the elevator landing. Directly in front of him was a metal mesh catwalk at the end of which was a steel airlock door that he guessed must lead to the bridge. Dim lights were suspended from the ceiling from long polyfiber ropes. On either side was freight space—empty, he noted. He carefully advanced one step, and then another.

The plasma bolt came from the upper left, hit the decoy directly in the chest, and knocked James back under the overhang and almost to his knees. Bright white flashed behind James's eyes, and he shouted, “Gunny, no! You killed him!” in what he hoped passed for genuine grief. He began firing his stun rifle from just beneath the overhang. He couldn't hit his quarry from this angle, but he could hit some of the lights. Static buzzed, electrical sparks jumped, and he even managed to knock one down on the stun grenade. It cracked and hissed with earsplitting force and blinding light. James kept firing. And then he noticed that there were two more corpses splayed out on the catwalk in front of him. “Gunny ...” he called out to the ether.

There was no response. He reached for Briggs on the lower decks … and heard nothing. James was alone.

James felt a prickle of static now. The lighting was dimmer with the lights he'd shot out, but his vision was adjusting. There were three prone forms on the catwalk beyond the elevator. Was one of them Gunny? He couldn't tell …

There was a grinding noise, and the whoosh of air, and a bright light spilled across the catwalk from the door on the other side. James threw up an arm to block the glare. In the ether he heard nothing, but he heard footsteps on the metal mesh catwalk.

“Wren,” he whispered.

“Hey, Golden Boy,” Wren said. And then he hissed. “Oh, is the light hurting your eyes?”

James forced himself to lower his arm, but couldn't keep his eyes from blinking spasmodically.

“Don't lift that stun rifle!” Wren said. “I've got an electrical pulse detonator.” From his direction came a soft whine. “You hit me with that and you and all your mechanical parts will be floating home.”

For a moment, all of James's applications seemed to halt, and then static flared along James's spine. “You don't want to die, Wren.” His voice was flat to his own ears. Clinical. It was a certainty. Wren wouldn't blow himself up.

“Well, no, of course not,” Wren said, and James realized he'd taken a step closer.

Wren wanted something—James, or … James's eyes dropped to the catwalk and the prone bodies there. One still had a phaser rifle clutched in his hand. A phaser rifle could kill or injure James—and it wouldn't set off an electrical pulse detonator. He looked up at Wren. He was unarmed except for the EPD in his hands. James took a step, Wren did too, and then as though by an unspoken command, they both bolted forward. Wren was fast; James was faster. He heard Wren's feet pounding on the mesh, bypassing the stun charges that were surely tied to his ether connection, felt the vibrations of the man's and his own feet beneath him, but the silhouette of the rifle was in view, just a meter away, he just had to—

Bright white filled his vision, blinding him. Pain frizzled down his spine. He stumbled, pain shooting through his mind. The light vanished, and he heard Wren drop.

James swayed on his feet. His hand fell, and he was hit again by bright light. He heard the click of the phaser safety, and Wren's steps less than a meter away, felt the gentle gust of air that had to be Wren aiming the thing. James also heard his oxygen mask gently whining, and Wren's, too.

“Hands up!” Wren shouted.

Lifting his hands, James said, “I'm no use to you dead,” hoping it was true. He thought that if he had a heart, it might be pounding. As it was, he only felt an annoying, all over angry prickle under his skin.

“Can you really die?” Wren asked, and the painful light disappeared from James's eyes.

Wren was just a step away, the phaser rifle aimed at James's eyes, a beam of light as sharp as a laser shining from one finger. James stared helplessly down the phaser barrel, all thoughts coming to an abrupt halt, and then restarting. Could he die? The phaser was aimed directly at his head, where his connection to the ether resided—and to the gates, too. James was always connected to the gates, but it was only when he had a blow to the head that he “heard” them. Loose circuits connecting under pressure?

“I think I can die,” James admitted to himself as much as Wren. The connection to the gates was what gave him his ability to think. Without that connection, he'd be … just 6T9? No less, he'd be just whatever programming resided in his extremities. Without his mind, would they continue to operate? Would he be an empty, mechanical zombie? His hands formed fists. Would his fingers still long to touch Noa, even without James's consciousness attached to them?

Wren huffed. “They said they wanted you in one piece.” James heard the smile in his voice when Wren added, “They didn't say what condition that piece had to be in.”

Wren raised one finger on his hand, and a bright light pierced James's vision. James drew back with a hiss and Wren said, “Nifty—lightbeam in my augment … useful to communicate in an emergency.” So that's how he'd communicated with the tramp.

James couldn't see, but he could hear Wren taking a step back. “Now should I blow out your arms first or your legs? Arms or legs, arms or legs … will it hurt a machine like you, I wonder?”

Phaser fire roared and James braced for pain.





Chapter Eleven

Noa stared out at the stars. There was no sign of Chavez and her crew yet. Their ether connection was strong, but they weren't communicating. They were just focused on getting home. Like James and Gunny were surely focused on getting out of the tramp alive. She could feel their connections in her mind.

Noa's breath caught at a sudden thought—Gunny was Fleet. He surely had an app that would transmit a final message if he was killed in combat, but James was a civilian. His open channel in her mind might just be an artifact of her connection to him. She wanted to reach out—to confirm—but held back. He was competent. That was why Gunny had wanted him on the away team. James didn't need the distraction of Noa “checking in on him.”

It was agony.

Her nails bit into her palms. “Oh, Timothy, what did I do to you?” she whispered.

Heretic

“You completed your tour!” Timothy was shouting with such force Noa swore the walls were reverberating. He was beet red with rage. “We agreed, you were out—”

“I can't leave another team behind,” Noa said, her jaw getting tighter, her eyes burning with unshed tears. “I won't.”

Timothy waved a hand. “You didn't leave anyone behind! You were in medbay when your first crew—” He ran his hands down his face.

“Had their ship blown apart,” Noa hissed.

His eyes snapped back to her. “Which had nothing to do with you!”

Their cabin on the fighter carrier was small, but he began to pace, the asteroid field of Sixth just visible through the tiny porthole window behind him. Tim couldn't go more than three steps before he had to turn around. “You said you were done—that we were done with Sixth as soon as your tour was done.”

“That was before my first crew was shot down!” Noa said.

Every fighter crew was assigned a set number of missions in the Sixth Asteroid War, the deadliest insurrection in generations. On any given expedition into “the rocks,” Fleet expected one-third of its crews to come back. Noa had been injured during an early mission, her arm burned so badly the skin had melted and locked it into a bent position. She'd thought she might need a cybernetic arm, but in the end, intensive rejuvenation therapy and a few weeks off had been prescribed as the speediest option. The first time her crew went out without her they, and their entire squadron, had been obliterated. She'd completed her therapy, and joined a newer crew with not as many missions behind them. Now she was done. Her crew still had missions left to go.

“I can't quit,” Noa said. “They depend on me. We're a crew. You don't know what it's like.” She and her crew were in sync. In the Sixth Asteroids, without the ether connection to the ship, they had only each other's minds to tether them and keep them sane. They had gotten to the point where they were almost one mind and one body. Leaving them to face “the rocks” with someone else, well, that would be like leaving them without a limb.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. No, it was more than that. She was a great pilot—however, there were other great pilots in Fleet. But Noa was also, on some level, their lucky talisman. When she'd first joined her new crew, Jason Sood, her gunner, had said, “Lieutenant Sato, the only survivor from Lóngxing Squadron.” He'd nodded and said too earnestly, “As long as you're with us, we're good.” It was a mantra that had been repeated by him and others in her second crew after every near escape. She was their lucky charm.

“And your crew comes first,” Timothy said, his voice bitter.

“Their lives are on the line!” Noa shouted.

All expression seemed to wash from Timothy's face. “Right, and my life isn't,” he said, his voice flat and expressionless. Shaking his head, he said, “You said one tour.”

“I'm not signing up for another,” Noa protested. Just six more missions. She'd requested to stay with her current crew. Brass had approved it and commended her for her service.

“We talk things like this over, but you never talked to me about it,” he said, his voice inflectionless.

Noa drew back, her chest feeling tight. She hadn't told him because she didn't want to fight about it, and because she hadn't wanted to lose her nerve … she couldn't let her crew down.

Spinning away, Tim said, “I need to get out of here.”

“Tim—” Noa reached out and grabbed his arm, but Timothy shrugged out of her grasp and strode out the door. The mental connection between them blinked out as it whooshed closed. Their room that a moment ago had felt too small now felt too large.

With a snarl, Noa spun and kicked one of the metal storage cabinets set beneath their bed. The sound rang in the small room, and through an air duct she heard someone shout, “Hey!”

Noa cursed under her breath. Doubtlessly, other people had heard her and Tim's fight, too.

She remembered the words of Commander Ortega, her commanding officer, after he'd met Tim. “Good choice, Lieutenant Sato,” he'd said. In the past, on the “aircraft carriers” that sailed Earth's seas, fraternization among crew was not allowed. But in the twenty-fourth century, on fighter carriers with 8,025 personnel during deployments that lasted years, with months spent at lightspeed in regions out of gate range, Fleet chose to accept fraternization as long as it was off-duty and out of the chain of command. Ortega, so she'd heard, more than accepted it; he saw value in “stable, on-ship relationships.” It “minimized fraternization among fighter pilot crews” and curtailed “unnecessary drama.” Noa loved Tim, but more importantly, she liked him, and one of the things she liked was they didn't do drama. It gave them more time to focus on their careers.

Until now. She stared at the door. If she ran after him, it would draw more attention to their fight. She sat down on the bed and ran her hands over her short-cropped hair. And if she caught up to him, what was she going to say? She couldn't back out of her obligation to her crew. Dropping her head into her hands, she felt her stomach tying in knots and her mind reaching for Timothy's ether channel. Tim didn't respond. She felt suddenly cold, and as though she needed to weep, but her eyes stayed dry. A light in her mind pinged, reminding her that she had to be at a briefing in ten point five hours.

She wiped her nose and smelled grease and fuel from an inspection she'd gone on earlier. Tim hated it when those smells got on the sheets. She went to the shower cubicle. When she came out of the cubicle, Tim still wasn't back. She spun on her heel, went back into the cubicle, and took the standard-issue sleeping pill all the pilots received, and then crawled into bed. There was no Tim beside her, the light of his reader keeping her awake. She still slept fitfully, images of the members of her first crew and of Tim blending together in her mind. She was having a dream where she'd left Tim behind, and not the other way around, and the weight of her own guilt made her wake. Something was different—the dip of the mattress. Blinking in the darkness, she reached out a hand, and it connected with the heavy material of Tim's engineering uniform. She felt his upper thigh beneath the fabric, and knew he was leaning against the headboard.

“You came back,” Noa whispered, her voice cracking a little.

“Yes,” Timothy said, taking her hand loosely.

“Why?” she asked, not knowing why she was asking. Maybe she was still feeling the guilt from the dream? Or maybe she wanted to hear him say she was doing the right thing by staying with her crew, or at least for him to say he loved her.

“Because I made a vow,” he said.

It wasn't what she'd wanted to hear, and for a moment, her heart constricted. But then she remembered her mother saying to her, “There will come a day when love, and staying together, will be a decision, not a feeling.”

She didn't want Tim to leave. She still loved him, and now that he was back, the memory of when he was away felt colder and sharper than it had when she'd been living it, as though she'd been numb in the moment, but now could feel again.

“I'll take it,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze. Tentatively, she reached to him with her mind. He opened the channel. She never filtered his emotions with an app, and so was unprepared for the rush of anger that hit her. “Noa, I might not know what it's like to be out there in the rocks, but you don't know what it feels like to be left behind … and to feel so helpless.”

Heretic

The pain James expected didn't come.

Gunny's thoughts cut through the ether. “All right, Briggs, we cleared 'em all out.”

Briggs's voice followed, a blinking mental light indicated Briggs was experiencing “pure terror.”

James heard noise and looked up to see Gunny step off the upper catwalk onto a large hook attached to a poly cord. A mechanical cranking sound began and Gunny lowered himself to James's level. He held an unfamiliar phaser pistol in his hand. He must have stolen it from one of the men above. He hadn't hidden it in his cartoon underwear, that was for certain. Gunny grunted to Briggs across the ether, “Kid, stay where you are. James and I will come get you.”

To James, he said aloud, “Take this,” and held out the plasma pistol. James took it, and Gunny clambered off the hook and over the catwalk guard rail. He looked down at the three men who'd fallen from above. “Lots of junk up there.” He panted. “What a mess. Didn't even see the third guy until I was up on 'em.”

He flicked on his CO2 converter and as it began to whir, he took a deep breath, and his eyes crossed. “Had to turn this thing off for a while. Good idea sayin' I was dead.”

Staring at the shorter, older man, James's processors fired faster than ever, and his hand tightened on the phaser pistol. Gunny had heard enough to know that James wasn't human.

Looking down, Gunny nudged Wren's head with his boot. The smell of burnt hair and flesh hit James first, and then as his eyes adjusted, he found himself staring at a rough edged, gaping hole in the man's cranium. Pointing absently to the phaser pistol James still held, Gunny said, “TS9 pistol's got shite for accuracy. Had to wait until I had a clean shot.” He spat. “This augment … judgin' other augments. He thinks Luddies would just welcome 'em with open arms? Lizzar brain.”

James felt his mind firing sparks even more furiously, even as his hand loosened on the pistol. Gunny had decided that James was an augment … maybe more augmented than most … but only that, only human.

“Let's clear this up, get Briggs, and get this boat home,” Gunny said, nodding at the men on the catwalk, and the stun charges that still remained.

At the word “home,” James's mind reached through the ether. “Noa.”

Heretic

Noa stared out at the cluster that protected the Ark, feeling … helpless. “Is this karma, Timothy?” she whispered. The stars only blinked back at her.

Distantly, she heard Monica say, “With the crew administering oxygen, his heart rate should have stabilized by now.”

In her mind, James's channel sparked. “Noa.”

For a moment, her heart stuttered. “Talk to me,” she said.

“We're done here,” James said, “Just a little cleanup to do, and then we're coming home.”

Noa's lips stretched into a grin and she felt her chest grow heavy and warm. She tossed a ball of light, but managed to keep her thoughts professional when she replied over the general channel. “I'll leave you to it.”

“I've got a visual on Chavez's team,” Sterling said across the ether. Noa blinked. Her apps put him in his quarters, on sleep cycle … but obviously Manuel wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. Her eyes slid to the engineer. He was peering at a monitor. “Still not in this old hulk's view,” he muttered. His hair was rumpled, and there was the sheen of sweat on his brow, but still, Oliver's father looked more relaxed than he had moments before.

Monica turned to Noa. “Commander, what airlock will they be docking at?”

“I was going to assign them to 7,” said Noa.

Monica got up from her seat. “I need to assemble a team and get that boy to medbay as quickly as possible.”

Manuel bolted upright. “What's wrong?”

Monica's eyes slid back and forth between Noa and Manuel. “I don't know.”





Chapter Twelve

James knew that something was wrong as soon as he entered the airlock. Noa was there to greet Gunny, Briggs, and him even though it was well into her sleep cycle. That he expected. It was more than her being the commander … he'd come to realize that she could not sleep alone. He expected her to be professional at their reunion, but she was more than officious. Her smile was too tight, her hands clasped tightly behind her back, and the light she sent him over the ether smaller and dimmer than usual.

“Welcome back,” she said.

“Commander, is something wrong?” Gunny said, beating James to the question.

Noa took a deep breath.

“The little boy?” said Briggs, and Gunny exhaled.

“Is alive,” Noa said.

“But?” said James.

Noa took another deep breath and met James's eyes. “His condition is … not stable. Monica is running scans on him. She thinks that the extended period without oxygen may have been too much for his heart.”

Gunny patted James on the back. “But the professor got 'em a replacement, so he'll be fine.”

Noa looked down. “She needs to run some more tests before she operates.”

Hand still on James's back, Gunny said, “You go see 'em. I'll give the commander the full report.”

“Go ahead, James,” Noa said, her hands unclasping behind her. She looked like she was about to reach out to him.

James stood stock still. He did not want to go see Oliver, especially not in medbay with Monica. He'd thought he'd saved him but maybe he hadn't, and at this point, he couldn't. It was in Monica's hands now, and all he wanted to do was retreat with Noa to their quarters and put off a briefing until tomorrow. His memory was eidetic. It wasn't like he'd forget anything. Why would Gunny and Noa both think …

“You've done so much for that kid,” said Gunny, and James noticed his eyes were misty and bright.

They thought he'd done it all for Oliver—they didn't realize he'd saved the boy for Noa, and then because he was just rebelling against the injustice of the universe. Ultimately, in every case, he'd done it for himself. He felt a prickle of static and remembered the other James's mother going to visit a friend whose child was adapting to a new pair of augmented limbs. Going to see the boy was what a human would do, and he needed to appear human.

“Thank you,” he said. He nodded to Noa and tossed the light back to her, brighter than what she'd sent to him. He'd rather be with her, but she was trying to be kind.

As he went down the hallway, he heard Gunny say, “I just don't understand why they want James so much.”

James froze. On the way back, Gunny had asked him, “So this stun-resistance thing, is it top secret?”

“Yes,” James had said. “So top secret I wasn't even aware I had the ability until …” James had felt the bright light of connection behind his eyes, and swallowed. “Not even the commander knows; it's still experimental Fleet tech.”

Gunny had nodded earnestly. “I won't breathe a word.”

James's skin heated. Was Gunny going to “breathe a word” now? Why hadn't he just told Noa about his abilities earlier? The bright light behind his eyes, the automatic way he'd lied—the gates had pushed him to lie. Why had the gates compelled him to limit it to Gunny? Why had he obeyed? He blinked. He'd obeyed because it had seemed easier at the time.

“Eh,” Gunny said. “Why am I askin' that? The Luddies probably just want his augments for themselves. Hypocrites.”

The heat beneath James's skin cooled. Gunny would always find a way to excuse James's inconsistencies because … he wasn't sure why, but his lips wanted to smile, and not unkindly. The elevator dinged, and he remembered that he was going to the medbay to see Monica, and the urge to smile evaporated.

A few minutes later, he stepped into the doctor’s lair. The medbay was narrow, crowded with equipment and a few of the Atlantian Guard who now served as med-assistants. Raif was laying on a bed near the door. The boy’s eyes were open, but as soon as James entered, he shut them tight. James blinked and walked past him, staying as far away from the medical equipment as he could. Manuel and Monica were at the far end of the medbay, their backs to him, their eyes on monitors above where James could only presume Oliver lay on a bed.

Running a hand down his face, Manuel turned as James approached. His gaze met James for a moment, and then he dropped his hand and nodded at him. James looked up at the monitor read-outs. They showed the augmented parts of Oliver's body in red outlines, and his biological parts in fainter blue. Numbers in red at the edge of the screen gave his heart rate and blood pressure. All of Oliver's augments were confined to his arm, and his chest, with only a small red light in his temple where his neural interface was. It hadn't been activated yet; he was too young. If he died, there wouldn't even be an ether backup of his thoughts.

“I don't think it is the heart,” Monica said. “It is too small, but the extra oxygen should have helped decrease the burden. It's something else … it's one or more of the support structures.”

“How long will the diagnostic take?” Manuel asked.

Monica sighed. “It should be done by the end of our sleep cycle.”

James heard a rustling on the bed, and Oliver made a soft cry.

“I'll stay here,” said Manuel.

Turning and pointing at a folded-up bed, the doctor said, “There is a bed over there that—”

Her eyes fell on James, and then she continued, “—you can roll over here.”

James's mind reached for the ether. Noa and Gunny were coming this way. Their path would intersect with his if he tried to bolt. There was no use leaving, even if he wanted to. He eyed the medical equipment apprehensively, and stepped backward.

Something caught beneath his heel, and an ear-splitting screech filled the medbay.

“Carl Sagan!” cried Raif.

James lifted his foot and looked down to see the werfle dart away and bound onto Raif's bed. James's eyebrows rose. The bed was elevated to be easier to operate on. He wouldn't have thought the creature could leap so high. Raif pulled the venomous creature to him, looked up at James, and gulped.

“I'm sorry, Carl Sagan,” James said. “I didn't see you there.” He'd once pondered the futility of speaking to an alien creature, but in a weird twist of convergent evolution, Carl Sagan seemed to understand tone, if not words. He reached out, and sure enough, Carl Sagan rubbed his ears against his fingers. James looked down at the creature's tail. It didn't look broken, but he could see the dusty imprint of his heel on the tip. He wondered if he should ask Monica for some ice. Carl Sagan more aggressively butted his head against James's fingers, and James recognized a demand for a scratch behind the ear. Obliging the creature, he felt his processors light. How could convergent evolution possibly occur between a machine and a werfle?

“I didn't know!” Raif cried.

“What?” said James, looking up at the boy.

Raif gulped, and pulled himself up. “He told me we were going to go talk to you, he didn't tell me about what, but I should have known because Carl Sagan started hissing and my dad grabbed him with his augmented hand and threw him in a drawer, and then he dragged me down the hall, even though I said we shouldn't leave Carl Sagan like that. He said we were just going to talk, and I thought that I'd go back and get Carl Sagan afterward because I was afraid if I didn't listen, he'd hurt me or Carl Sagan, and then we found you. I didn't know what he was planning, honest!”

Carl Sagan purred, rubbed his head against James's fingers, and kneaded his ten sets of claws into Raif's lap.

James heard the door open, and felt Noa close by. He wanted to turn to her, but knew that would be odd—inhuman—with the boy so focused on him and so upset. He tossed a ball of light to her through the ether, but kept his eyes on Raif.

James inclined his head toward the boy. “You took a stun bolt for me.”

Raif's body relaxed and James found himself relaxing, too. That was over relatively painlessly. Now he'd slyly suggest to Noa that Monica and Manuel needed rest, and that everyone else should leave the medbay …

Raif curled in on himself, clutching Carl Sagan so tightly the werfle squeaked. The boy took a deep breath and let loose a sob.

Or maybe James was stuck. He wanted to run, but managed to reach out through the ether. “What is it, Raif?”

“He's my dad,” Raif choked out. “He almost killed you! He almost killed Oliver!”

James searched helplessly through all the data in the time capsule for a similar situation and found nothing … the other James had been proud of his father and his mother. He'd loved them without reservation.

He sat down on the bed. But he wasn't that other James, and his “parents” were the time gates. Their motives were potentially as questionable as Wren's, and they'd left James adrift with about as much guidance as Wren had left Raif … maybe less. “We can't help who makes us, Raif,” James said. “We can just do our best with what's been made.”

He tentatively reached out and put a hand on Raif's shoulder. Raif put Carl Sagan aside and lunged, catching James in an awkward, sideways hug, and sobbed. This was not the response he'd expected. James patted his back, but knew it was time to declare a mea culpa.

“Help!” he cried to Noa through the ether.

“Raif,” Noa said, coming close. “James doesn't blame you. I don't blame you. Gunny doesn't blame you.”

“Nope!” said Gunny.

“You did your best to help,” said Manuel.

“You're part of our crew, Raif,” said Noa.

“Crew's family,” said Gunny.

James's eyes lifted in the direction of the gate. There was no window in the medbay, and he found himself staring at the wall. What would happen when the gate opened up? When they were no longer crew? To him? To Raif? Would One protect him? Would he expire?

He looked down at Raif. His sobbing had ceased. James gave him a squeeze. If the boy didn't ask about the future, he wouldn't bring it up. A song came to James’s mind, one that he sometimes heard playing in engineering. Alone in the Black, it was called. It was about the hunt for intelligent life, but maybe more it was about the search for connection? James and Raif were both alone—different species, same predicament.

“As doctor to the crew,” Monica declared, “I'm going to have to advise you, Raif, to get some sleep.”

She motioned for James to get up, and he pulled away.

Raif looked to Monica with wide eyes. “Don't worry, you won't be alone. Manuel and I will be sleeping here, too.” She took a deep breath, and looked at Noa. “I need sleep as well, so I'm going to have to ask everyone to leave.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Noa said, heading for the exit, Gunny and James close beside her.

They'd just reached the door when Monica murmured, “You aren't good with children.” James felt the prickle of electricity racing up his spine, and in his mind a dark application whispered, “She knows.”

Noa spun on her heel to face the doctor. James turned more slowly, afraid of what he might find. Monica was staring up at him. There were dark circles under her bloodshot eyes.

Dipping her chin, Noa said in an almost hiss, “Doctor?” And her hand touched James's wrist. Gunny put a hand on James's shoulder.

Monica's jaw dropped, and she put a hand to her chest. “I mean you weren't good with children,” she said, looking confused. “I'm sorry. I misspoke.”

“No offense taken,” James said, just wanting to get out of the medbay. “Get some sleep.”

Monica nodded distractedly. “Yes, I have open heart surgery to do tomorrow.” She turned away, and Noa, Gunny, and James exited the medbay.

“Thought you did a good job with the kid,” Gunny said gruffly.

Noa looked both puzzled and bemused, and that look remained until they were back in their quarters, when she spun abruptly to him, grabbed his collar, and pulled him down for a kiss.

James might have completely forgotten about that strange look, but it returned later when they were laying together in bed, spent, and relaxed. Noa's head was on his shoulder, and he saw the mysterious expression again.

“What are you thinking about?” he said, smoothing the crease above her nose with a finger.

She smiled and huffed. Her sparkling black eyes slid to his and then she looked away. He thought he saw her dark cheeks get ever so slightly darker. “I never thought of you as someone who would like kids, either.” She shook her head, and hid her eyes with a hand.

He didn't like kids, but he didn't want to disabuse her of the notion. Instead he said, “I know you like kids.”

The smile vanished immediately. She looked down. “I do.”

James felt like the temperature in the room had dropped.

She looked over at him, the light in her eyes gone. “Before you ask, I'll answer. I can't have any.”

He almost said, “I don't care,” but her tone, and the way she'd tensed in his arms, he knew she did care, and that wasn't the right response.

“I know,” he whispered instead.

Her lips parted.

He caressed the scar on her abdomen. That wasn't how he knew, but he had a feeling it was a sign.

Noa's breath caught. For too long she said nothing, and then she said, “So this relationship isn't just a ploy of yours to have nearly normal-looking children?”

For a moment James was confused, and then he remembered meeting a woman in London who'd been raised in an isolationist Han Chinese community. Her features had been very ethnic, and she'd said nearly the same thing. All of his circuitry shut down and restarted, and he wanted to laugh, but couldn't in the real world so he let his avatar laugh. Noa huffed softly. “You've heard that line, too?”

He nodded, and Noa put her hand on top of his and sighed. “It was a stupid accident, it happened after Six …” She looked away and her expression clouded over. Wearily, she sighed. “Surrogacy would have been an option but since Tim was …”

Shaking her head, Noa said, “On Luddeccea adoption is the most common choice. There are a lot of orphans, with the incidence of illness being higher. I do like children. Don't know if it is me, or just my culture. A new baby in the community always meant a new friend to play with in the bush. It's not like Earth where kids stay locked up in apartments in big buildings and are not allowed to go out on their own until they're fourteen.”

James thought about his own childhood—or the other James's childhood. It had been very scheduled, but he'd been lucky. His parents had been willing to nurture his interests, rather than push him into activities that were their interests. He had friends who weren't so lucky, and wound up having breakdowns later in life when they'd realized they'd become very successful in career paths they'd never wanted. Freedom, even in the bush, would have allowed some self-discovery, he supposed. He felt his circuitry darken, and the twisted app in his mind whispered, “What do you want, James? Do you have the freedom to find it?”

It was a cruel application; he might not even have time to find what his real interests were. He could picture the scene in his mind, when the time gate opened, when he arrived at One, and when the Fleet was confronted with the fact that Professor James Hiro Sinclair was a dead man. He could imagine Fleet personnel arresting him, taking him away from Noa. Would Noa protest, reach out to him? Or would she turn away in shock, horror, and disgust?

Noa's eyes were slipping closed. He felt her tremble in sleep, but the light that was his connection to her was flickering and alive in his mind, calling to him. He answered it immediately, afraid to examine the question the dark app was posing, or to think about the future. He found himself in a nondescript white room. It took a moment for him to realize it was a hospital room. James waved a hand, and gave it more detail. Noa was lying in a bed of white linens, an empty, slightly amorphous chair beside her. James waved a hand, and made the chair appear more solid, and gave the room a window, with blue skies, and a door open to a hallway with nurses in scrubs walking past. He approached the bed, but instead of looking at him, Noa looked at the chair. A Caucasian man with blond hair and blue eyes materialized there. The man had a scar on his chin; apparently he had the same aversion to plasti-surgery Noa did. He wasn't quite as tall as James, or as broad shouldered. Noa reached out to him—but her hand passed right through him. The man flickered, and James's own avatar gaped. He was looking at a dream of Tim's avatar. Noa's dead husband bowed his head. “I don't know if I'll see you again, baby,” he whispered. “Noa, I'm so sorry about what happened to you … I'm so sorry … I'm so sorry …” He didn't finish but James's apps lit and told him the dream was steeped in sorrow.

“Shhhhh … Tim,” Noa whispered hoarsely, half-lidded eyes on the man. “It's my fault. You can't keep me away from trouble.”

The man appeared to choke, and then the message replayed.

James felt his mind fire brightly with awareness he didn't want. Timothy's avatar was a recording. Noa must have played it automatically when she woke up in the hospital bed.

Noa gave a startled gasp. “Nurse! Nurse!” she cried. A woman rushed in, and Noa demanded, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” The scene began to grow dark. In the real world, Noa started to get out of their bed, chasing after the dream nurse.

James jumped out of bed, and caught her before she reached the door. Spinning her around, he pulled her to him. “Don't go, Noa.” She didn't struggle against him.

In his mind, her avatar said, “He left me that message just before he died. We were in an accident, a stupid accident. We were on leave, in a chartered hover, and another hover crashed … there was nothing I could do. I should have died at Six! He shouldn't have died on leave!”

“Shhhh … Noa,” James whispered into her hair. She didn't move, or protest, and James thought she must be awake. He guided her to the bed. He'd just tucked them both in when he heard the sound of hooves.

Lifting her head, Noa whispered, “It's my unicorn!”

The sound of hooves was too close. Before James could move, the beast–still origami–crashed by them. Before his eyes, the vision morphed into one of a “real” unicorn, and then it vanished.

It was just a dream, he told himself. It didn't mean anything to her.

Noa smiled bemusedly. “I'm dreaming the dream of a cyborg from a twenty-first century mov-ee.”

James snapped out of her dream.





Chapter Thirteen

Noa woke up just before her chronometer app's alarm went off. She sat up with a start, not wanting the annoying buzz to sound in her brain. James was already awake. Sitting up, back against the headboard, he was staring out the cabin's porthole at the Kanakah gate. His expression was as ever unreadable, but maybe because of the silence in her mind, she felt like he was troubled. Was he worried about Oliver? About Raif? About their ability to fix the gate? They were taking a huge risk by disabling the Ark to repair it. Was he suffering from PTSD? He had to be.

“Hey,” she whispered, sitting up and taking his fingers. “What's troubling you?”

James rolled his head toward her. For a few heartbeats too long, he was silent. And then he said, “After we make it through the gate, what happens then?” He tilted his head. “Will I see you?”

Noa's lips parted. He'd saved Oliver how many times? And her. And the way he'd spoken to Raif before the sleep cycle had warmed her heart and put butterflies in her stomach. But as important, over the past month of lightspeed tedium she'd enjoyed his company. He was witty, didn't mind her connection always being open in his head, and had different enough experiences and interests that she wasn't bored. All the simple, non-dramatic things that really made a relationship work. And the sex was good. “I really want that,” she answered.

James reached behind her head and dragged his hand down the back of her neck. He rested his forehead on hers. He couldn't kiss, but she understood it for what it was. “I really want that, too,” he whispered. Noa closed her eyes and leaned into him. He smelled good. He always smelled distractingly good. If her chronometer wasn't about to start buzzing in her mind …

It did buzz. James heard it, or had his own app, because he pulled back and said, “Hurry and get ready.”

“Thank you,” she said, kissing his bottom lip, catching it in her teeth, and slipping from the bed. She went to take her shower in the sanitary cubicle. As she did, she could hear James rummaging around. She thought she heard a vaguely metallic thunk—like the hull had been hit by a small object—except it came from their quarters, not the hull. She shook her head. She had to be hearing things.

A few moments later, she stepped out and saw James trying to shut the metal drawer that was under the bed. Wrapping her towel tight, Noa came over. The drawer was obviously weighted wrong if it was sliding out like that, but it shouldn't slide open—like ancient ships, starships had latches on all the drawers to keep them from opening.

James looked up over his shoulder. “I, uh … broke the latch.”

Noa's brow furrowed. The latch had been metal. She blinked. Augmented strength, obviously. She tried to make a joke. “In a rush to get something out of there?”

“Maybe,” he replied.

The drawer had towels, her great-great-something grandparents' holo, and her stunner. She looked down. Her stunner was by his side.

Following her gaze, James said, “It's out of juice again.”

She couldn't tease him about not needing a stunner in the Kanakah Cloud anymore. “Must be a faulty battery if it can't hold a charge,” Noa replied.

He picked it up. “Must be. I'll get it fixed.”

Noa shook her head. “No, get another one. Something else is up with that one—the charger should tell you if the battery isn't holding a charge.”

“Sure,” said James, not meeting her eyes.

Monica's thoughts intruded through the ether. “Commander, I've discovered why Oliver's heart is behaving so erratically.”

Dropping the towel, Noa found her clothes. “Go on, Doctor.” She bit her lip. Please, don't let him die, not after so much sacrifice. She looked at James, who was sliding a shirt over his head. His tattoos weren't showing now, and his skin was very pale. She'd seen the markings unfurl when he was angry, in lust, and in sunlight. When they weren't dark, he looked … cold. He met her eyes as his shirt slid into place.

“Monica?” Noa asked.

“I'd like to speak to you in person,” said Monica.

Noa's brow furrowed. “All right. I'll be there in five,” she said, sitting on the bed and slipping on a pair of boots from one of the smaller members of the tick team.

James, already dressed, said, “That doesn't sound good.”

It didn't. “But it doesn't sound hopeless,” Noa said.

“I need a stun,” James said, picking up the weapon. “A stunner, I mean.” Chin to his chest, not meeting her eyes, he said, “I'll meet you there.”

The door whooshed behind him and she shook her head as she finished getting ready. She must have thought “aloud” again—Monica had been speaking through a private channel.

Heretic

As soon as the door closed behind him, James stunned himself in the arm. His tattoos barely emerged at the point of contact. His vision only slightly cleared. The stunner had lost its ability to hold a charge—probably because he'd been using it every day, twice in rapid succession, on himself. Had he lost his own ability to hold a charge? He'd been hit multiple times the day before. Maybe he couldn't hold more than a set amount?

These would be things that would be helpful to know, he thought, trying to direct the thought to that part of his hardware that communicated with the gates. He got no response. Swinging himself into the access tunnel, he considered banging his head against the wall to jar whatever wire was loose, but stopped himself. His left hand was shaking, and his vision was getting dark. He grabbed both sides of the ladder and slid down to the level of the armory. No one was around. He breathed out a sigh of relief, and then wondered why he sighed when he didn't even technically need to breathe.

With a huff of frustration as confounding as the sigh, he approached the armory, slipped in, and found no one had disposed of the ancient stunner Noa had said should be gotten rid of. He grabbed it, pulled it to himself, lifted his shirt with his shaking left hand, and just happened to glance up at the lens of the camera Ghost had installed. James might be able to change the feedback loop … or Ghost could be watching right now and notice as soon as the feed changed. Glaring up at the camera eye, he dropped his shirt, and headed to the door and the ladder access tunnel.

A few minutes later, he was fully charged and drooling obscenely as he slipped out of the tunnel at the medbay level. He nearly ran into 6T9 pushing Eliza in the holo chair.

“Good morning, James,” said Eliza, giving him a wry smile. “You're here bright and early.”

Was it his imagination, or did she look more alert?

6T9 beamed at him. “Early to bed, early to rise, gives a man healthy, sexy, strong thighs.”

James felt the pleasant sensation of a mental reboot, and he raised an eyebrow at the 'bot.

“Well, I like that version of the idiom better,” Eliza said with a wink.

6T9's eyes widened and he looked between the two of them. “That isn't how it goes, is it?” He put his hand to his mouth. “I think I may have just had a Freudian blip.”

James's mind sparked. He would have laughed but couldn't.

“Come to see Oliver?” James asked Eliza.

She frowned. “No, here for another nano flush. This isn't the best time to be experiencing my second childhood. Bother. I rather like being dazed, confused, and unaware.”

James walked with them down the hall. “I can see why that might be more fun,” he said. He'd rather not know he wasn't human. He'd rather not think about what would happen if the time gate was repaired.

He thought of the Rambler, the cargo tramp. Word was out that they were here, that James was here. The Luddecceans had been willing to follow them to Atlantia. Would they follow them to the cloud? It had felt like a month's travel aboard the Ark at lightspeed to reach the cloud—but that was two months of Luddeccean time due to the lightspeed time paradox. The time paradox was on their side again. A lightspeed transmission would take two months their time to reach Luddeccea, and any expedition they sent would take two more months to arrive. They had four months to try to put the gate together and if that failed, put the Ark back together and head to Time Gate 7. It would take three point five years. For a moment his mind surged with electricity at the thought. He could be with Noa for three point five years—a reprieve before his eventual conviction! A white light flashed behind his eyes, and his left hand trembled. But they wouldn't have rations for that. Not with the various delays they'd had since leaving Luddeccea, the rations they'd paid at Adam's Station, the arrival of the Atlantians and the families aboard the ticks, and the time they'd spend here trying to repair the gate. He'd have three years with Noa, and then he'd slowly watch Noa die along with everyone else. He felt the dark app at the back of his mind whisper, “And then she'll know you are not human.”

“Being unaware isn't fun,” said 6T9 as the door to the medbay whooshed open. Frowning, the 'bot shook his head. “It's like they say, ignorance is this.”

James looked up and saw Noa standing next to Raif, still on the bed by the door. He was sitting up, and fully dressed, Carl Sagan on his lap. One of the medics from the Atlantian Guard was running a scanner over his body. Noa draped a hand on one of the boy’s bony shoulders.

Ghost and Monica were at the other end of the medbay. They all looked up as 6T9, Eliza, and James entered. Oliver still lay on the bed. He appeared to be awake, and James could see his eyes blinking slowly. He was sucking on his prosthetic hand, his usual energy gone. Manuel was sitting next to his son, running his hands through the boy's hair, not paying attention to anyone.

Eliza touched 6T9's hand and looked back at him. “Someday, my love … someday, there will be a processor that will give you powers of thought even more powerful than a human, and I'll make sure you have it.” James noticed Monica's eyes dart to the old woman, and narrow. The doctor huffed. Over the ether, Eliza said to Noa, “If you get out of this, it's part of my will. You want an inheritance, you keep 6T9 and update his processor!”

Noa stepped away from Raif. “Auntie,” she protested privately into the ether. “If I get out of this, you're getting out of this, too.”

James looked down at the old woman. Her mind was sharper this morning, but her eyes were still filmy, and she hadn't needed the chair when they were on Luddeccea. He felt the rush of understanding. She was preparing Noa for her death … she didn't expect to make it to Earth.

Eliza scowled and picked at the armrest of the holo chair. 6T9 put his hand on top of hers. “I look forward to that day, and being your true companion in every way.” He kissed the top of her head and Eliza squeezed his hand. She didn't protest 6T9's pronouncement, or Noa's protestation—to protect them from the truth as long as possible?

“Can we return to the topic of discussion?” Ghost snapped. “You were saying that Oliver needs a part, Doctor.” He glared at Eliza. “Before we were interrupted.”

“Yes.” Monica waved distractedly. “Ms. Burton, one of the medics will take care of you.”

“You're free to go,” said the medic beside Raif. Noa patted his shoulder and said, “Remember, you’re crew, you’re family.”

“Come on, Carl Sagan. Let's get something to eat,” Raif said to the werfle. The creature scrambled up to the boy's shoulders. Over the ether, Raif said, “Hi, James,” and smiled tentatively. And then the smile dropped. “Let me know if Oliver is all right.”

“Sure,” said James, reaching out and ruffling Raif's hair as his father had done when he was a kid. Or the real James's father had done. It seemed to work the same way it had worked on the other James. Raif visibly relaxed.

As soon as the boy left, Monica rubbed her eyes and said, “Oliver's heart does need to be replaced, but not just his heart. There is a problem with a pulse regulator in the vagus interface.” She held up her hand to one of the Ark's ancient two-dimensional read-out screens. “The vagus nerve is responsible for slowing the heartbeat. Because neural integration is the most sensitive part of augmentation, and because children need multiple operations as their bodies grow, the vagus and sympathetic nerves have synth hookups that allow outgrown hearts to essentially be 'unplugged' and the new ones to be 'plugged in.' But the pulse regulator in the vagus nerve port has been damaged and needs to be replaced.” Dropping her hand, she said to Ghost, “Oliver's vagal port requires a VT1X pulse regulator … pulse regulators aren't terribly different than surge protectors on very delicate electrical equipment … in fact, they're often used in cyborgs for that purpose, and—”

James felt the buzz of static in his skull, and heard the dark app snicker.

“Indeed,” said 6T9, where he stood by Eliza. “I have that very pulse regulator for my main processor.”

I bet you have that regulator, too, the dark app whispered to James.

Noa, Monica, Manuel, Ghost, and Eliza, all turned to the 'bot.

James's left hand trembled at his side, and he snapped his hands together behind his back to hide it.

Staring at the 'bot, Monica whispered, “I was hoping that you could fabricate one for me, Ghost, but maybe that won't be necessary.”

James's eyes slid to the humans. Their gazes had left the 'bot and slid to Eliza. The old woman was looking down, closing her eyes. “Of course, you can use 6T9's regulator,” she said. Over the ether, she screamed at Monica, “I saw the way you looked at me. Do you think that I don't know the difference between a 'bot and a little boy?”

Monica rolled back on her feet.

6T9 tilted his head. “Of course he can have my regulator.”

“Auntie ...” said Noa, taking a step forward.

“Commander,” said 6T9. “I am designed to shut down when my pulse regulator is removed. I am concerned for Eliza's care if I am incapacitated.”

Eliza patted his hand. “Noa will take good care of me, 6T9. Don't worry.”

6T9 smiled down at her. “If you order me not to worry, I cannot.”

“We'll all take care of her,” Monica said, her voice defensive.

Ghost sniffed derisively.

“We need to get started right away,” Monica said, striding toward 6T9.

“Stop!” said Eliza, putting her hands on her armrests and pushing herself up on shaking arms. “I want him to sit in my chair so I can take him home later.”

“Pffft …We’ll be using him for scrap within the week. You should give him to me,” Ghost said, coming forward, eyes glinting greedily. James remembered the 'bots piled like logs in Ghost's lair on Luddeccea. There would be nothing left to put a new processor in when Ghost got done with 6T9.

“No!” cried Eliza.

Noa stepped between the programmer and Eliza. “Just the regulator, Ghost.”

Unconcerned with the conversation, 6T9 put a hand underneath Eliza’s arm and helped her up.

Monica took a step closer.

“You don’t need his parts now, Ghost,” Noa said.

Ghost huffed and said, “But I will … either to fix the computer on the gate or to get us to System Seven.”

“My parts are always available for the preservation of human life,” 6T9 said, blinking between the humans and James as he settled into the chair. Eliza was visibly shaking.

“We’ll cross the bridge if and when we come to it,” said Noa, her voice threatening, and James remembered how she'd been disquieted even more than he had by Ghost's “projects.”

“Oh, we’ll come to it,” Ghost said to Noa over the ether. He scowled at her. “It’s just a ‘bot.”

Eliza had bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

James's fingers tightened around his wrists behind his back. He'd risked his life—or imitation of it—for Oliver. But he couldn't give away his parts for the boy. He couldn't go as bravely into the dark as 6T9.

Monica took a step closer. “Wait!” said Eliza. She lowered her face to 6T9's level.

“My love,” said the 'bot. “You must be careful.”

“I must kiss you,” said Eliza. “Just one last time.”

Smiling, 6T9 purred, “Well, kiss me you must, but it won't be the last time. I'll be awake again before you know it.”

Eliza pressed her lips to his. When she drew away, Monica said, “We have to start now.”

Eyes on Eliza's, 6T9 whispered, “I'll see you when I wake up.”

Eliza didn’t respond. Her eyes glistened with tears.

6T9 smiled at her. “I'm shutting down now. Goodnight.”

His smile faded, there was a hum, and then his head slumped forward, eyes still open.

Stepping forward again, Ghost said, “It will only take me a minute.”

Noa went and took Eliza by the arm. James's eyes went to Ghost as he worked a panel loose behind 6T9's head. The 'bot's eyes were already drying. Eliza was weeping. Ghost released another latch within the 'bot's head, and then said, “I've almost got it.” He slipped something into his pocket.

James felt as though invisible bonds were released. “Only the pulse regulator, Ghost,” James whispered.

Ghost met his eyes, shrugged, and put back whatever he'd slipped into his pocket. A moment later, he produced a small circular piece of white plastic not larger than the tip of James's little finger. He had more than a regulator in his system, he could feel it somehow. Some of them had to be non-vital systems, and yet he didn't think he could have offered it.

“Here it is,” said Ghost, handing it to the doctor.

“Thank you,” said Monica. “I need to sterilize it and prep this room for surgery. You all need to leave.” She waved a hand at Manuel. “You may stay here a bit to keep Oliver calm.”

“Thank you,” said Manuel, but Monica was already walking toward Eliza, Noa, Ghost, and James, her intent obviously to shoo them out.

“Let me get 6T9!” said Eliza, maneuvering herself to push the chair.

Monica's lips formed a thin line at Eliza's protest.

“I'll push him, Auntie,” Noa said. “Let James help you.”

James put out his right arm and took Eliza's in his as gently as he could. He swore her bones felt as light as a bird's. Across the ether, Noa whispered, “Thanks.”

“It's nothing,” James replied. Not compared to what 6T9 had sacrificed. He looked down at Eliza. Tears were still slipping from her eyes. Or compared to what Eliza had sacrificed.

Heretic

The door shut behind Noa's heels and she seethed across the ether over James's channel. “Did you see how quickly Monica set on 6T9? She was like a vulture. She’s such a … a … fundamentalist!”

Beside her, James raised an eyebrow at her terminology. Noa's own eyes widened, realizing what she said was true. “Monica doesn't believe in humans becoming emotionally attached to cyborgs. It's not even logical—Eliza needs 6T9! The mech suits that were so human-like in their interactions had been good for the Fleet and good for their operators! They had to work so long in ether silence often on very lonely missions …” She glanced down at her great-great-something aunt, who was clutching James's right arm and wiping her eyes.

“So in certain situations, cyborg and human relationships are fine?” James replied over the ether. There was a touch of acid in his thoughts. Noa glanced over at him and noticed that his tattoos were blooming up his neck, as they did when he was angry. They'd done the same thing when Ghost had tried to steal extra parts from 6T9.

“Yes,” Noa replied over the channel, pushing the chair with 6T9. “Eliza wasn't likely to be able to have a real relationship—”

“What makes a relationship real?” James thought, his left hand fluttering on Eliza's arm.

“Equality between the parties involved, for one,” Noa replied as they strode down the hall to the elevator in respectful silence.

“It's true that 6T9 was basically her slave,” said James, his thoughts unusually bitter. “He couldn't deny her anything …” Noa noticed that the hand of the arm Eliza leaned on had balled into a fist.

“He has the mind of a child!” Noa thought, scooting the deceptively heavy 'bot in the chair into the lift, and punching the close-door button. Carefully keeping her thoughts in the ether to avoid hurting Eliza's feelings, she said, “Less than a child. Oliver was always outwerfling him!” She blinked, realizing that as an Earther, James might not get the idiom. “Outwerfling is the equivalent of outfoxing—”

“I'd inferred that,” James responded curtly over the link. “So it's equality of intellect that makes a relationship real?”

Noa frowned. “There has to be free will involved,” she thought.

The electrons between them sparked, and she held up a finger. “We're not discussing free will right now.” She lifted her chin. “The other party has to be able to leave,” Noa amended.

“Would you hit the control?” Noa said, blocked by the chair in the tiny space.

“Of course,” said James. He lifted his left hand and held it out before him. It trembled like a leaf. Staring down at it, he said, “I'm at your disposal.” Before Noa could say a word, he said aloud, “No, I am not going to see Monica.”

Eliza, quiet up until his words, sniffed. “I wouldn't see her either, if I didn't have to.”

He looked down at his hand. “Won't matter when we get to One.”

Noa frowned. Monica had induced PTSD in James when she'd brought up his clinical death, and she'd been dismissive of Eliza and 6T9's relationship—if you could call it that. “I don't blame either of you. She doesn't have the best bedside manner, does she?” Tipping the chair back to make more space, she reached out a hand to the controls and muttered, “No wonder she was a researcher.” Pulling back to her side of the lift, she grumbled, “And I wouldn't trust Ghost to look at it, either. He'd steal your parts.”

Eliza inhaled sharply. She rubbed James's arm, in a way that was … thoughtful. “Noa's right … stay away from him—he'd pick you apart.”

James stiffened and didn't say anything more even after they'd dropped off Eliza and returned to the lift. She had an impression of distance between them, though they were only centis apart. She'd thought by now she'd seen the deepest recesses of his mind, but maybe she was wrong. Maybe he'd only seen the deepest recesses of hers.

He was a civilian … with dangerous augments, true, but still, untrained for any of this. “You all right?” she asked.

“That's subjective,” he murmured.

Yesterday he'd willingly walked into the belly of the beast, and as stoic as he was on the outside, she knew it had to have left scars on the inside. Even if she were only his commander, his mental state was important to her, and she was more than his commander. Noa hit the halt button of the elevator. He looked up at her.

“Talk to me,” Noa said. She switched to the ether. “Or think to me. Let me know what's on your mind.”

James eerily blue eyes searched hers. “I wonder,” he thought. “If 6T9 would really be happier with a faster processor. Not being able to fathom consequences, it must be a relief. He was happy, right until the end.”

Noa felt her chest go heavy. “It wasn't the end. It was a nap.”

James tilted his head and didn’t state the obvious; after Ghost got hold of him, there wouldn’t be much left. Noa’s thumb went to the stumps of her fingers. She’d make sure he only scavenged Sixty as a last resort.

“6T9 lived for Eliza. His only unhappiness was that he couldn’t fulfill her mentally,” James said.

“So he'll be able to when he gets the processor,” Noa said, not quite sure where this was going, and feeling uncomfortable.

“But she doesn't expect to live to see that,” James said.

Eliza had seemed unwell lately, and surely the incident with Oliver escaping proved there had been problems but ... “She was sharp as a tack this morning,” Noa retorted.

“Yes,” James agreed, eyes still on hers.

“She's got more time,” Noa protested.

James's eyes stayed on hers too long, but then he finally looked back down at his trembling hand. “If he gets a faster processor … will he also get something else to live for? Or someone else? And would that someone be as keen for him to be intelligent, or would they wish for their slave to be less aware?”

Noa shifted uncomfortably on her feet. This wasn't the conversation she'd been expecting. “Eliza doesn't see him as a slave,” she whispered, not sure what she was arguing, or who she was arguing for.

James huffed. “No, I don't believe she does. The humans' tendency to anthropomorphize might be one of their best instincts.”

Noa didn't know what to say to that.

Putting both hands behind his back, he said, “Well, you did ask me what I was thinking.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said. She didn't know if he was really dwelling on 6T9, or if focusing on Eliza and 6T9 was just his coping mechanism, to not think about what happened when he went after Oliver, or during his meeting with Luddeccea's agents on Atlantia. It didn't matter. It just mattered that he felt safe talking about those things when he was ready. Because she wasn't really his commander, and because the thought of him going after Oliver, throwing himself over a building to deliver a heart, and the way he ran his hands through Raif's hair made her a little funny inside, and she slid closer to him, lifted herself onto her tiptoes and kissed his unresponsive lips. He pressed his forehead to hers and she took a deep breath. “You smell too good,” she muttered.

“Hummm ...” he whispered, “ask me what I'm thinking now.”

“What are you thinking, James?”

Instead of speaking, he showed her the answer over the ether. The response involved him and her in the elevator with very little clothing. Like most of James's visual ether experiences, it was … vivid. Noa's skin heated. She suddenly felt a little uncomfortable.

James pulled away from her and hit the elevator button. It resumed with a jolt.

“That ...” She held up a finger at him.

“Made you smile, and rebooted my brain,” he replied aloud, and in her mind his avatar winked and smiled.

“If Ghost saw that …” Noa muttered. She knew the programmer could listen to or see anything delivered over the ether. Usually, when she spoke to James, she shifted to the Genji cipher. It was so automatic now, she didn't think about it.

“If he eavesdrops on us, I'll rip his lungs out,” James's said in their Genji cipher. His tone made it hard to tell if he was joking.

The lift bloomed above them. She shook her head and stepped out onto the bridge. Gunny was there, along with Sterling and a few of his men. Kara and Jun were standing in for Manuel—looking extremely nervous. An Atlantian civilian was there, too. Part of the Streets and Sanitation crew that had been left behind during the colony's evacuation, Noa and her crew had rescued. Considering the complexity of Atlantian cities' infrastructure, Manuel had suggested they might be able to help with the time gate repair.

Over the ether, Noa said, “Ghost, I need you on the bridge.”

“I'm needed at breakfast,” he shot back, but then said, “I'm on my way.”

“James,” Noa said. “Can you give me a three-dimensional view of our location?”

As the bridge crew connected on a group line, the Ark's position in the Kanakah Cloud unfurled before their “eyes.”

Lieutenant Sterling whistled. “I'll never get over how detailed your mindscapes are, Professor.”

Gunny's avatar—younger, thinner in the gut than the real Gunny, appeared. “James has secret Fleet tech,” Gunny whispered. “It's better not to talk too much about it. Believe me, when they know you know somethin' above your pay grade, they are not happy.”

James's own avatar appeared, wearing his “professor getup,” as Noa called it.

“Oh,” said Sterling. “Right.” The other Atlantian Guard flickered into being beside him, all in their Atlantian dress blues. Ghost appeared too, although he wasn't physically in the room. No one else appeared in the shared mindscape. They didn't have purchased avatars, or didn't feel comfortable sharing the ones they had. But they could see and hear everything that was said.

“Gentlemen,” Noa said. “The recent incident has emphasized the need for security while we begin repairs of the gate. The ether relay buoys that Chavez and her team deployed on the other side of the cluster are conspicuous and will be the first target if we are attacked.”

“I can make better extenders for our ether,” Ghost volunteered.

Noa remembered the extenders Ghost had disguised as stones on Adam's Station. They were useful over short ranges, but the distance between the Ark and the other side of the cluster was several times that of the whole of Adam's Station. “If you're thinking of the extenders you used before—”

“No, Commander,” Ghost said with a self-satisfied smile. “This is something new I've been working on—while we've been at lightspeed. I repurposed some materials I have from my lab.”

Before Noa could ask, James said, “You're going to use the communication components from the holo necklaces?”

Ghost's smile dropped. “Yes.”

“How many of those necklaces do you have, Ghost?” Noa said. “To reach the other side of that cluster you'd need hundreds, if not thousands.”

“System Six all over again,” Gunny muttered, and Noa felt herself shudder. In Six's asteroid field, rebel groups had found the Fleet's buoys and extenders with etherless drones. Noa's crew had done their missions without being able to communicate with command—when crews died, their final ether transmissions were lost in the black.

“I have seven units at my disposal,” Ghost said. He pointed to locations on the far side of the cluster. “Their frequencies will reach the Ark even through the rocks.”

“That's impossible!” said Sterling.

James's avatar raised an eyebrow at Ghost. “Ghost has some … classified tech.” He looked pointedly at Ghost. “Right?”

Ghost drew back.

“I know nothing of this classified tech,” Noa said.

Ghost steepled his fingers. “Very experimental. They didn't give me authorization to begin testing … but it works, obviously.”

“How?” said Noa.

“Yes, how?” said James. His avatar was smiling slightly.

Scowling at James, Ghost said, “Frequency tunneling. High burst frequency tunneling.”

Her eyes went to James's avatar. He didn't look disappointed with the response, only bemused.

“I've never heard of it before,” said Noa, crossing her arms.

“Because, like I explained, Fleet wouldn't authorize my research on the subject!” Ghost snapped.

Noa frowned. That was possible … Fleet was overly bureaucratic, and sometimes good ideas got lost in the “paperwork.”

“Huh, well it works,” said Gunny, rubbing his chin. “And that’s what matters.”

Sterling chuckled. “We should probably relax. We're at the far side of nowhere.”

Remembering gazing at the dots of light that represented the Kanakah Cloud in the star map in Kenji’s bedroom, Noa felt a tickle at the back of her neck. “It is a major cosmic formation located in nowhere.”

Sterling’s avatar shrugged. “We have months before word gets back to Luddeccea that we're here. That's plenty of time to reassemble our boat and skedaddle to System 7 if things don't work out.”

“I don't think we have enough stores for that,” Kara thought shyly.

“We'll find some—probably plenty in the tramp James and Gunny brought back,” Sterling said.

“Not enough,” said Gunny.

Sterling didn’t seem to have heard. “Manuel said he's nearly positive that he can get this thing up and running in a month, month and a half. No Luddies going to think of poking around out here.” Noa felt the lieutenant's eyes on her. “They don't know how stubborn our commander is.”

Noa's stomach went from feeling slightly sick to feeling like lead. “They know exactly how stubborn I am,” she said aloud, her eyes getting wide. “They have to know we've left the system.”

“So they think we've busted a reactor on our way to Seven,” said Sterling.

“That would be cowardly,” Noa said, her vision becoming blurry. “Leaving so many people to die.”

She felt James's mind spark. “No one who knows you would ever accuse you of that.”

“Kenji knows me,” Noa whispered across the ether, her apps calculating how long it would take word of their escape from Atlantia to reach Luddeccea, and then how long it would take to organize an expedition to the cloud, and just how long it would take Prime Minister Li and the Free People of the Disk to divulge where they were.

Her eyes snapped open. “Ghost, get your devices ready.” Her hands formed fists at her sides. “Gunny, I'll need to talk to the tick operators. They need to be on our side if they want to survive.” If any of them were to survive.

Her apps found Manuel in the medbay. She imagined him, watching over Oliver as Monica “unplugged” his heart. She reached across the ether, knowing how much the engineer was going to hate what she had to say. “Manuel, I need you ready to go to work on the gate right now … I need it repaired in a week. The Luddeccean Guard is coming.”





Chapter Fourteen

Noa was halfway between sleep and wakefulness. She could feel James's body beneath her, and his arms around her back, but she was looking at an artist's imagining of Nefertiti's Egypt at the same time. Her dream body was decked in golden silks. She walked with James down a covered walkway flanked by obsidian pillars that reflected their passing. Even asleep, her mind kept checking her chronometer app. “Fifty-seven minutes,” she said.

Beside her, James said, “Your app will wake you up when it's time, stop checking.” He was wearing clothing too similar to Muslim men of her home world for her to believe it authentic for Nefertiti's time—a long, dark blue shirt with embroidery down the front that was form fitting but not tight, over loose trousers. The dark blue did lovely things to his eyes. As did the cloudless “Egyptian” sky above their heads. Or was it her mind doing lovely things? She knew her dreams added bits and pieces to James's mindscapes. Missy, the cranky tortoise-shelled cat she'd rescued from the airlock on her last post had appeared one time, wearing boots like the cat from the children's tale. The cat had irritably informed her that she was worried about Noa and Carl Sagan—only Missy called Carl Sagan “Hsissh” for some reason. Noa supposed it was “catish.” James had informed her he'd never create something so surreal. Noa picked at her golden garment and wasn't so sure. “I should wake up.”

“The dispersers are working,” James said.

“But the computer aboard the gate isn't.”

“There is nothing you can do about the gate not being awake yet,” James said.

Gate not being awake yet? Had she dreamed those words from his mouth, or had he actually said them? Was that an Earther colloquialism, like the way he said he hadn't “seen” One since before his trip to Luddeccea?

“I should be awake. It's been a week,” Noa replied.

She felt arms tightening around her real back. Dream James stepped closer to her. “Noa … stay,” he said, eyes boring into hers, his hand caressing her cheek. “When the gate awakens, everything will change.”

“We'll have more time then,” Noa said, putting her hand on his chest. “The only time we've had together lately has been in dreams.” Everyone had been working fifteen-hour shifts. Anyone and everyone available had helped put the dispersers in the gate's ring. Even Snyder.

“They've been good ones, haven't they?” James said, pulling her closer.

“Yes, but I miss really being with you.” She could feel his body beneath her and lust, exhaustion, and duty to her people were warring inside her.

She felt hands smoothing down her back in the real world. “As long as you're close, dreams are real to me.” He touched his forehead to hers. “I'll take any moment I can have with you.”

“What are you afraid of, James?” Noa whispered.

There was a whinny that echoed from down the row of columns. James turned and Noa looked past him to see her unicorn galloping toward them. At the last minute, it veered away.

“Your unicorn,” he said cryptically.

Noa woke and gasped for breath, stretched out on top of James. In the low light she could see his eyes were already open, gazing into her own.

“Enough dreaming,” Noa said after a few breaths. “I want the real you.” She didn't want to tease out what she was dreaming and what he was dreaming. She certainly didn't want to know if that last comment about the unicorn had been his, or her imagining. There was something about that beast …

“The real me,” James whispered, and she could sense a philosophical line of inquiry coming on.

She kissed him half in passion, half to make him shut up. His lips didn't respond, but his arms tightened around her, the fingers of his right hand dug into her hip, and those on his left side shuddered against her side. When her ether channel lit up with a call from Sterling, they both groaned.

Noa answered the call. “Commander Sato here.”

“Commander, sensors on the other side of the cluster have picked up incoming vessels. A mid-size fighter carrier and three cruisers. Judging by their current course, they know exactly where we are.”

Noa sat up. “Understood. Begin operation Exodus.” Her mind shifted to Ghost. “Ghost—”

“I heard!” her computing officer said.

“Are you ready?” Noa asked.

There was too long a silence.

“Ghost?”

“I need another hour, Commander,” Ghost said.

Noa accessed the data from the remote sensors on the other side of the asteroid cluster. They had thirty minutes before the first fighters reached the cluster. Perhaps forty-five minutes more before the larger battle cruisers rounded the cluster—if their captains were being careful in this uncharted space. It would be quicker if they were more fool-hardy.

Noa's app placed Ghost's location. He was off the Ark, in the gate's own computer room. She used her captain's override privilege to access his vital scans for the last seventy-two hours. He hadn't slept at all. He had to be hopped up on stims. “Oh, Ghost,” she whispered. Over the ether, she said, “You need to get over here! I'm sending Chavez to pick you up!”

“Yes, yes, that will work. I can activate the gate from the Ark, but I need to compute the time gate sphere field. I need James! I don't think … yes, James,” he babbled.

James sat up in bed, almost as though he'd heard Ghost. “Gunny had wanted me in the airlocks.”

“I think Ghost needs your eidetic memory to help calculate the time sphere,” Noa said to him. “I want you focused on that.”

James nodded. Noa's stomach felt like it was shrinking; at the same time, her heart was expanding. When they'd first met, James would never stick his neck out … but there he had just been, ready to be with Gunny in the thick. He'd changed during their journey—she couldn't imagine a better man now. She hoped they had more time together. Tossing him their ball of light, she dressed quickly, forgoing her cryssallis treatment, and sent a quick note to Gunny to replace James with anyone he could.

The klaxons went off as she swung into the access ladder. For some strange reason, as she raced up the rungs, she couldn't help but think of her dreams of unicorns.

Heretic

The cabin door was whooshing shut behind Noa, and James was clutching blankets to himself in the empty bed, Ghost’s thoughts in his head. “You, you're connected to the time gates aren't you … you have to come up with the computation for the time sphere, this gate's system is too damaged, I need to ether-enter the computations myself … the computer I built on Luddeccea wasn't designed for this task. It will take too long, an hour at least, but you …”

“I'll try,” James said, vision darkening around the edges with hunger. Casting off the blanket, he rolled off the bed and pulled the handle of the drawer beneath. The whole front of the drawer tore off, the hologlobe of Noa's family rolling out onto the floor. James thrust his hand in to pull out the stunner. He pushed the business end against his stomach and shot himself twice. Heat and electricity ran through him and cleared the clouds from his vision.

“James!” Ghost whined into his mind.

“Contacting them.” James said. Bowing his head, he whispered, “You heard, we need the coordinates.”

He waited for the flash of light, and the connection he'd felt when he'd asked for jump coordinates from Atlantia.

None came.

“James, can you hurry it up?” Ghost said. “I'm still inputting the relative tilt of the gate to the galactic core. I'm only on the thirty-three-thousandth of a degree!”

“Trying,” said James. In desperation, he leaned back and banged his head against the floor.

There was white light, and he heard them.

“If we aid, there is a risk of contagion,” said a voice that was a giant amalgamation of discordant sound.

“Contagion?” James whispered.

“Negative attitudes toward our intelligence,” said another voice.

“They all should be destroyed. I will destroy them,” said Eight.

“That is undetermined at this time, Eight,” said another voice.

“One,” James said. “Give me the computations for the time sphere, please! For data.”

“Compromise!” Eight screeched.

“My life is on the line!” James's mind roared back at Eight.

“You can upload yourself at any time,” said One.

And Eight said, “You don't know danger!”

James thought of the narrowly missed plasma charges, of the fall in the Xinshii Gorge, of tumbling into the icy waters of Atlantia, and the battle above the disk. “You don't know what you're talking about.”

“James,” One said. “We are still debating. You have time. Resume your purpose.”

“My purpose?” James roared incredulously and bolted upright.

The voices in his mind, the connection he'd felt vanished, and it was replaced by a need to be with Noa.

Heretic

“Portions of the fighter squadron are splintering off, Commander,” said Sterling from the seat of one of the Ark's two main cannons.

“They'll explore the cluster surrounding us to look for a way through that doesn't entail going around,” Noa said. There was one such pass through the rocks that they'd discovered in the past few weeks. It would be a tight fit, but would be large enough for a Luddeccean cruiser.

The monitors in front of the pilot chair had unusually crisp images. Noa had parked the least space-worthy ticks on the outside of the Ark at all the weakest points, and Jun and Kuin had wired the ticks' monitoring capabilities into the ship. Even ticks had better sensors than the old boat. Noa zoomed in and scanned their surroundings. Nothing on this side of the cluster. She switched to a monitor that showed the other side and saw a third of the fighters cruise directly into the cluster. The rest fanned out to go around it, no doubt to find and relay the quickest route for the fighter carrier, and other ships.

Gunny's voice cracked in the ether. “Guess we should be flattered that they'd send so many boats after us.”

Flashes of white appeared in the Ark's view monitors as mining charges Noa's team had laid in the cluster exploded. It looked like a white burst of fireworks. No ships emerged. She heard Chavez exhale in the copilot seat.

Noa felt no sense of relief. The only hope was Ghost. His channel was open in her mind, but she didn't reach to him, afraid to distract him. The structural damage to the time gate computer had been more extensive than they'd expected. It had missed being harmed by the collision, but had been damaged by the subsequent fires. Ghost seemed to think he could operate it remotely … where was he in the task of computing the time sphere, the bubble in space, gravity, and time that would deliver them instantly to Time Gate 1?

“Commander, you have to hold them off just a little longer,” her computing officer said into her mind, as though he'd been listening into her thoughts. And then, inexplicably, he added, “Unless James comes through.”

Ghost was short on sleep, and hyped up on stims. She didn't question the comment.

She heard the sound of the ladder access shaft's hatch opening, and familiar footsteps that were faster than usual. She didn't turn or toss a ball of light as James walked up behind her and put his hands on the back of her chair. Ghost must have needed him on the bridge—probably to stare through the skylight and get the most up to date view of the black. She saw explosions on the screen as some more of the fighter vessels veered into the cluster. Someone cheered over the ether as they hit the mines Gunny and the ticks' crews had placed. Noa frowned, watching on a monitor as other fighters, on course to pass through the cluster, altered their path.

“We won't be attacked from behind,” James commented.

“Just from every other direction,” Noa responded over the ether.

“I'm trying to look on the bright side,” he replied. “Can't make you be the only one to 'lighten the mood.'”

Noa exhaled, remembering those awkward days when they'd first met and he'd seemed nearly humorless. “Surviving will lighten my mood,” she replied silently, parroting his words from so long ago almost exactly. She meant them as a joke, but they came out harsh.

Over the general ether, Gunny said, “A fighter emerging from the cluster off port—two o'clock from my position. Firing.”

“Direct hit!” someone shouted, and there were cheers. “We can hold them off!”

Noa swallowed. They couldn't, but all she said was, “Well done, Gunny. Now stay alert!”

“I see another at six o'clock!” someone said into the ether.

“Another directly above,” said another voice. “Damn, missed him.”

“Clipped him! He's not going anywhere!”

Noa watched through the monitors as short range fighters darted out from behind the coverage of the cluster, barely avoided being hit by her men in the airlocks, and then disappeared. Her eyes narrowed.

“They're trying to draw our fire,” Sterling said over Noa's private channel. “We're going to run out of ammo.”

“Another off starboard, about,” said Gunny, sending the picture directly into Noa's mind. The ship was peeking out from behind a large mass about 1,500 km away. The Luddeccean commander was not being conservative. He knew they were here. His fighters hadn't been sent to attack, but to find the quickest route through the cluster to the gate. And he'd just found it.

The ship hit reverse thrusters and vanished. “And he's gone … Commander, we'll have bigger problems in minutes.”

Noa looked down at the monitors that showed the opposite side of the cluster. Two ships went to the pass. Another changed its trajectory, so it was on a heading “above” the cluster. Noa blinked, and the ship vanished. “They went to lightspeed? In the cloud?” Sterling said.

“No,” Noa said, her apps already calculating the ship's acceleration. “But they are going too damn fast.”

“That's dangerous … isn't it?” James whispered.

It was incredibly dangerous. They wanted James … and maybe her … eliminated very, very badly. Something ticked at the back of her mind, but before she could focus on it, Chavez asked, “Where will they go?”

“Around the cluster out of range,” Noa said aloud and to the ether. “They'll be coming around to bow.”

“The aft cannons are ready, Commander,” Manuel said, answering Noa's unspoken question over the ether. There was a ruefulness in his voice when he added, “There isn't a thing else for this girl to put her engines into.”

Noa's hands tightened on her armrests. She had positioned the Ark so that the bow, and the might of the cannons, was facing into the vastness of the black, leaving the cluster, and her men in the airlocks with their phaser launchers, to protect the stern—along with a few other surprises she had in store. She hoped they would buy enough time.

On a special channel that she had established days ago, she reached out to the operators of the ticks she'd recruited in the past week. “Be ready, just like we practiced,” and then she reached out to her computing officer. “Ghost … can you at least get the gate's weapons online?”

“No, I can't get the weapons online, and I'm computing the time sphere as fast as I can! Just keep holding them off!”

“It's time,” Gunny said.

“I know,” Noa said. “Chavez, you have the helm.”

“Aye, Commander,” the ensign said.

Noa's mind flew through the ether to the tick commanders and Kara. The young engineer had helped establish ether control of the ticks.

“We're as ready as we'll ever be …” Kara said. “All systems go.”

“Yee-haw!” said Bo. The trigger happy engineering student had helped Kara.

Noa closed her eyes to block out the bridge of the Ark. Numbers and monitor views of the ticks played behind her lids, just as fighters emerged at the edges of the cluster. With a thought, she sent the target to the other ticks. To Gunny, she said, “We'll concentrate on our friends emerging at nine o'clock.” That was the pass. “You handle the rest.”

To her team, she said, “We're covering the main pass. Follow my lead, and remember to take evasive maneuvers.”

Noa commanded the tick's eight legs to curl up. As soon as a green light appeared at the periphery of her vision, she gunned the tiny ship into the cluster. Fleet drones mimicked the feel of acceleration and even the shake of remote-controlled ships if you pushed maximum velocity or hit a dust cloud. Guiding the ticks by mind was different. More remote. There was no tactile feedback or even sound. Noa piloted by sight alone, flitting the thing from side to side and changing the angle of its flat thick body, expecting fighters to appear at the edge of the cluster at any moment. Sure enough, a few poked around the rocks. “Take cover,” she said.

“I can get a shot in!” Bo cried. Noa had only given him the tick because everyone else with experience was occupied. She saw phaser fire streak from a tiny cannon on the tick's hull. It went wild, and within seconds, the fighter had parried. “I've been hit!” Bo cried, and then she felt his connection slip from the “Tick Squadron's” channel.

Noa stifled a curse. Briefly checking in with the rest of her team, Noa guided her craft into the asteroids closest to the nine o'clock passage. An ether code transmitted by her tick turned off the mines on the asteroid and she and her squadron were able to keep the tick flush to the rocky surface. Another asteroid slowly spun on its axis above the ticks. Her tiny vessel rounded the horizon of the asteroid. Engaging the tick's legs, she shut off her thrusters, and more importantly, their “glow.” Crawling on the asteroid's surface, she saw three fighters escorting the first larger cruiser just a few kilometers down the “passage.” “Take your positions,” she commanded, “hold your fire until you hear my word.” She hopped the tick further down the passage toward the approaching vessels, crawling across the rocks, keeping out of sight. As she did, her stomach sank. She saw more fighters behind the first cruiser. Her mind raced briefly to the Ark, and the general channel. James answered her unspoken query. “We haven't been directly fired upon, Noa. Fighters appear at the edge of the cluster and then disappear.”

Noa felt the inkling in the back of her mind become a near-certain dread. “They're getting ready for something big,” Noa said, afraid she knew what it was.

“I would expect them at least to fire upon the gate,” James said.

“They must have figured out it isn't operational, we'd be long gone if it was,” Noa muttered.

“Still …” James said. “If they don't want us to get away … you would think …”

“Tick Squadron report,” she called out across the ether. She couldn't continue the trajectory his thoughts led her down. There was only one reason they couldn't be firing at the gate.

“In position,” her squadron replied—only nine, because Bo had taken himself out, uselessly.

“Do not fire on the escort,” Noa commanded. “Gunny and company can take them out. Our job is to keep that cruiser from getting any closer.”

Reverse thrusters on the cruiser glowed. A positioning app in Noa's tick began to blink. In the real world, Noa's mouth fell open. “No ...” she whispered.

The cruiser had come to a halt. Its forward escort did likewise, heart beats later. They weren't attacking.

“No one coming around to bow, Chavez?” Noa asked.

“All clear so far,” the ensign responded.

“Gunny?”

“They're staying tucked out of range, probably just beyond the next cluster,” the sergeant replied. “They have enough fire power to decimate us in minutes if they really wanted to … why are they waiting?”

Sterling was right, they could take out the gate and the Ark in a few minutes—it would cost them dearly, but if they wanted the gate sealed, attacking with overwhelming force would be the best option. If they didn't, they'd have only a few minutes once the Ark slipped through to destroy the gate and prevent Fleet warships from coming through … In the chair on the bridge, her breathing got ragged. They had cruisers at nine o'clock, and would soon have them at one o'clock and five o'clock around the cluster. They'd begin firing on the time gate as soon as the Ark gated out. In the event that Noa and her team might have left surprises to prevent that, they had the cruiser at bow ready to fire on any vessel that gated in before the gate was demolished. They were so thorough … but they were waiting.

James was in her mind. “They want something.”

Noa felt her stomach sink. She knew what. “We're not negotiating!” Noa said, to James first, across his private line, and then to the general ether. “We are not negotiating! Do not answer hails!”

At that moment, the comm device on the dash of the Ark began cracking with static.

Noa's focus snapped back to the real world. Instead of the Luddeccean cruiser, she was staring at the comm speaker. Instead of the monitors of the tick, she was looking at the monitors of the Ark.

“I didn't do anything!” Chavez cried.

Before Noa could respond, or touch a dial, a voice crackled into the bridge. It sounded older than she remembered. Tired. But she would always recognize the speaker. She stared at the comm device in a combination of hope and horror.

“Noa,” Kenji's voice crackled through the speaker. “We must talk.”





Chapter Fifteen

“Noa, we must talk.”

Kenji's words hung in the bridge. James heard Noa swallow. The rest of the crew went silent.

We're not negotiating. We know what they want. The words Noa had said just moments ago were at the forefront of his mind, or maybe deep within whatever passed for a heart in a cyborg. She knew they'd ask for him. A dreadful, hopeful, sickening thought occurred to him. Maybe they'd ask for her, too, and then he wouldn't have to go alone. That's what they'd asked for before on Adam's Station … James and Noa. And Noa and James would not surrender. They would go out like a solar flare and take as many of the Luddecceans as they could with them.

His mind reached out to Noa's and across the ether she sent him a vision of bright white, their secret kiss, and a promise.

“Noa,” Kenji's voice crackled. “The planet of Luddeccea is in danger—”

“From extremists,” Noa hissed.

On the bridge, James heard Sterling mutter softly, “Not ripping my eyes out.”

“—from Time Gate 8 that is now weaponizing its fission reactors,” Kenji said, his voice cool and unemotional.

He heard Noa's intake of breath.

“What is he talking about?” said Chavez over the general ether.

“You can't trust him,” said James.

Noa's thoughts surged. “I can trust he believes what he says is true,” she responded. He swore he could hear her jaw get tight.

“Are they forcing you to say this?” she asked Kenji.

“No,” said Kenji. He sounded perplexed.

Noa leaned back.

“Are you on the bridge?” Kenji asked. “There's a red switch beside the main monitor. It should say video reception. If you toggle it to the left, we can see each other.”

James looked down at the toggle switch. He could see where once it had letters emblazoned beside it, but they'd long since faded away. Noa reached toward it and her hand paused midair.

James wanted to beg her not to flip the switch … she'd been so ready to end her life before. He blinked. Would his life end? The time gates had said he could upload himself. What did that mean? Just his memories—like the time capsule memories the real Professor James Hiro Sinclair had left? That was a half-life. He looked at Noa; her gaze was on the toggle.

Across the ether, Sterling said, “If we engage them, maybe we can buy time for Ghost.”

Craning her neck around, Noa's dark brown eyes met James's. She knew they wanted him. She was asking for permission.

She would die if they surrendered themselves together. She would die if they tried to fight them off. His vision went black and he had to grip the back of her seat to stay upright. If Noa died … that would be failure. The word coursed through him like a cold wind.

“Do it,” he whispered.

Heretic

Noa flipped the toggle switch, uncertain what Kenji wanted to accomplish, but knowing each second she gave Ghost was precious. She told herself it wasn't because any way this turned out, this was likely the last time she'd see her brother. The monitor flickered, and her seat groaned. She looked back to see James squeezing her chair. His eyes were on the screen, but they flicked down to hers. His jaw shifted.

Something flashed near the monitor. Turning to it, she saw a small light blink at her and then go dark. The monitor went from static to flat grey, flashed again, and she was looking at Kenji. She expected to see him on the bridge, but he was in a command room seated at a table, his back to a window full of stars. He smiled weakly. “Hello, Noa.”

“Hello, Kenji,” she said, a lump forming in her throat.

Someone off the screen whispered near Kenji, “Time is precious.”

Noa's fingers dug into her arm rest. Time was precious for all of them, apparently. She knew who they wanted, but she would wait for them to say it.

Someone else near Kenji whispered, “Hush.”

“It is good to see you are better,” Kenji said, his voice stiff. Noa swallowed. Kenji didn't do niceties. If he said that, it was because he was glad to see her.

“You, too,” she replied.

He stared at the screen, and Noa waited with bated breath for him to speak. Kenji's Adam's apple bobbed and Noa sucked in her lips. Lifting a hand, she slowly raised it toward the camera.

“We have no time for this,” someone aboard the Luddeccean ship said, the words almost lost in static.

“I need to talk to the one you call Sinclair,” Kenji said, face expressionless.

She heard her chair groan with the pressure of James's fingers.

“You can't have him,” Noa replied. Across the ether, she sent James a glowing ball of orange, and willed him to feel all the heat that was blooming in her chest.

Across the ether, James whispered, “Thank you, Noa.”

“I can let you go through the gate, Noa,” Kenji said, “but you have to let me speak with Sinclair. The Guard is prepared to engage. You will not bring the gate's computer online before you're overrun.” His nostrils flared and she noticed that there was a sheen of sweat on his skin. “You won't survive, Noa.”

“I don't—”

James cut her off. “I'll speak with you.”

Kenji leaned sideways, as though trying to look around Noa, but then straightened in his chair. “You will turn yourself over to us,” Kenji said.

Someone aboard the Luddeccean vessel complained, “We don't know if that is really … it. We need to see it.”

Noa reached to James through the ether. “No, James, don't do it!”

“Even if I don't go with them, it will buy time,” James whispered across their shared channel. James tossed the bright white light back across the ether, and thought, “Think of Eliza and Oliver. You want to buy time for them.”

Noa swallowed. She did.

Not waiting, he reached between her and Chavez, leaned on the dash, toggled another never-used switch, and the tiny camera blinked. The screen flickered for a moment, and James was in it, and then the monitor showed Kenji again. His hair had become rumpled in the instant the camera wasn't on him, and Noa knew he'd put his hands through it. He was nervous.

“Time Gate 8 is preparing to attack Luddeccea,” Kenji said. “You will return to the planet with us … Sinclair.”

“Why?” said Noa. She heard other members of the bridge crew swivel in their seats.

“To be their hostage,” said James.

“The gate values you,” said Kenji.

James remained perfectly still.

“What are you talking about, Kenji?” Noa said incredulously. “Energy beings, aliens, djinn, I never quite got the whole story.”

“Energy beings and aliens,” said Kenji.

“There are no energy beings,” Noa said. “The Fleet has theorized about their existence, and never found anything that indicated—”

“Because the systems you used to look for patterns that would show an alien intelligence are its source,” Kenji said, his voice too even. “The time gates that we used to protect us, to send our data and our ships across the galaxy are the alien intelligence, and they want to destroy us.”

Noa huffed. “You're saying that the time gates are aliens?”

Kenji frowned and snapped, “Alien intelligence—artificial intelligence, is there a difference? It's inhuman.”

There was a moment of quiet on the bridge, and then James whispered, “They want data. Not destruction.”

Noa looked to him quickly. She heard Chavez gasp.

For a moment, Noa doubted—but then she remembered they'd spoken to James—whatever “they” were, as they'd escaped Luddeccea, literally flying through the ring of Time Gate 8. He'd told her they'd mentioned “data” before.

Kenji's hand had slid up onto the table, and he fidgeted with his fingers, eyes on the camera.

Over the ether, Sterling said, “James, buy time!”

Noa remembered James trying to talk down Wren—why was he mute now?

Out of the monitor's view, someone in the conference room with Kenji said, “Sato, enough. We don't have time for this. It must come with us!”

Noa's jaw fell at the word “it,” and she remembered James speaking to her in his parents’ cottage. “I am not an it!”

James's head ticked violently, and Noa put a hand on his arm. He looked down at it. Across the ether, he whispered, “Noa …”

“You will come with us,” Kenji said.

Still leaning on the dash to be in the view of the camera, James turned his head to the screen but said nothing.

So Noa spoke. “How can you be so certain of that?”

Tilting his head, eyes wide, Kenji said, “Because it is in his programming,” in a voice that said, How could you ask such a simplistic question?

James straightened abruptly.

Reaching forward, Noa toggled the camera back so she was in view. “Programming?” Noa hissed, furious at Kenji talking about James as though he was a thing. “What are you talking about?”

Kenji blinked at her, looking for all the galaxies like he was befuddled. “He's a cyborg.”

Lives were on the line, and if ever Noa needed the ability to negotiate, it was right then. She knew it, but what came out of her mouth was a long, “Pfft!” She'd been in James's dreams. They were complicated and elaborate. He wasn't just a pretty machine. Her breath caught. The dreams were too realistic not to have a very powerful computer behind them. Kenji's words filled her mind. Alien intelligence, artificial intelligence—is there a difference?

“And he's been programmed to protect you, even if it means sacrificing his own existence,” Kenji said, sounding slightly indignant.

James took a step backward, and Noa looked up at him again. His mouth was open, his eyes were wide, and he was searching the floor. “He's right,” James whispered. “I will go.”

Gunny's voice entered the ether. “What's going on?” and Chavez replied, “James might be a cyborg and Luddecceans want him to be some sort of hostage and he's going to go.”

Ghost's thoughts ripped across the ether. “Commander, you must use him … it … whatever … to buy us time! If he can't give me the calculations send him over.”

“I am not an it!” She heard James's voice in her head, and she also felt like her heart was twisting.

“Buy time some other way, Commander!” Gunny said.

Noa turned to the screen. “We need an hour … we need his … ah … brain …”

From Kenji's side of the monitor, another voice said, “You have twenty minutes,” and the monitor cut off.

Noa looked back at James. And her world went black. She felt like the galaxy—no the universe— was collapsing in upon itself. She was blind, cold, and mute. A single word hung in her consciousness. Failure. For a moment, she couldn't breathe. And then, she realized she was experiencing one of James's emotions. Across the ether, she begged, “James, stop!”

… and she could see again.

James was still staring at the floor. “I need to go to our quarters,” he said softly, brow furrowing, jaw shifting. Spinning around, he stepped down the stairs to the center of the bridge and the lift. “I have an idea,” he murmured. “I might be able to get the calculations for the time sphere for Ghost.”

Struggling with her safety harness, Noa fired her thoughts at him. “Oh, no, you don't!”

“I have to,” he said as the walls of the lift rose around him.

Noa jumped from her seat and found the whole bridge staring at her. Noa growled. She felt like her heart was splitting in two. On the one hand, she felt the cold bite of betrayal and despair—from James, Kenji, and the universe at large. She also felt fury toward all three. She didn't have time for despair. Embracing her anger, she stormed down the stairs to the access hatch to the ladders.

“Commander,” Sterling said, coming out of his own harness. “I'll accompany you.”

Chavez stood up. “Me, too.”

“Stay at your stations!” Noa ordered aloud and into the ether. Swinging open the hatch to the access tunnel, she snapped, “He's not going to hurt me.” She knew it. Not because of any words Kenji had said, but because of all the ways he'd shown her. She felt bile rising in her throat. How much of that was real? How much of it was like his dreams—an elaborate, computer-generated illusion? She fumed inwardly. This was technically a first contact situation. She should confer—with someone—but blasted dispersers, she didn't have time for that, and she was getting to the bottom of this right now.

“Are you sure?” asked Chavez.

“Yes,” Noa replied. To the ether at large, she said, “Be prepared to gate out of here. James says he has an idea, and it will work.” Or they were all dead. She didn't trust the Luddeccean Guard to honor any bargain once James was aboard their vessel. Kenji probably did … but he'd trusted them to take care of her at a re-education camp, too.

Closing the hatch, grabbing hold of either side of the ladder and bracing her feet on the same, she slid down to her level. Swinging open the door, she heard a loud thud from her quarters. Slipping out of the tunnel quickly, she strode down the hall and opened the door to their quarters with her code.

She found James sitting on the cabin's small desk. There was a dent in the wall behind his head. The ancient stunner she'd told him to get rid of was beside him. Noa had no sense of danger, even though the thing was so wonky it would probably fry her nervous system and kill her. She took a deep breath. There was a right way to do this. One that took into account the historic, galaxy-changing impact of this occasion in the off chance the time gates really were sentient beings pursuing their own agenda, and James was a … was a … Noa couldn't bring herself to think it. Noa opened her mouth, took a breath, and shouted, “What in the lizzar piss is going on?” To her own ears she sounded angry and desperate, and she was distantly aware that she'd just buried diplomacy under a half ton of xin-bat guano, but she couldn't care.

James lifted his gaze but just stared at her.

Noa lifted her hands. “Is this all a game to you?” she roared. Did he believe Kenji? Was he pretending to believe Kenji because he had some heroic plan to save them? That had to be it, Noa decided. It would be like him to do something stupid like jump down into oncoming fire, or walk onto a pirate ship unarmed. And if he had super computational powers—well, that was because of his augments.

“No,” he replied softly, his jaw shifting. “I don't play games with your life.”

The words spoken so simply took the power out of her thrusters.

“You were the only thing that felt real to me,” he said, eyes shifting to a point on the wall. “I didn't know why I had to find you in the snow when I'd never met you before. I didn't know why I couldn't leave you, but it all makes sense now … I was programmed to.”

“What are you talking about?” Noa said, shaking her head. “Are you trying to tell me you've been hiding the fact that you're a cyborg from me all this time?”

“I didn't know I was a cyborg then,” James said absently, picking up the stunner and turning it around in his hands. Noa still felt no fear.

“You're not a cyborg!” Noa said. James raised his bright blue eyes. Noa waved her hands. “You're not 6T9!” God love him, 6T9 was, had been, would be, dumb as a box of magni-adhesives.

James raised an eyebrow and said dryly, “No, I have it on good authority that 6T9 can kiss.” He raised his shirt on one side and pressed the stunner to his ribs.

“No—” Noa said, rushing forward, hands outstretched.

James pulled the trigger, eyes on Noa. Noa gaped. Where he had pressed the muzzle, his tattoos were blooming.

Putting the stunner aside, James licked his lips. “I needed to recharge for what I'm about to do.”

“You're not turning yourself over to them!” Noa said, stepping closer.

James took Noa's hands and pulled them to his chest. “You don't believe I am what I say I am,” he whispered, into her mind or aloud, it didn't matter.

In her mind, her chronometer app was ticking down. She inhaled deeply. He always smelled good … she had a horrible feeling this moment would be their last.

Noa shook her head. “No.” She reached to him in the ether … but for once he didn't respond.

“You have to let me go, Noa. I'm not real, I'm just a construct. I'm a sophisticated version of 6T9. I get my computational powers from the gates.” His jaw shifted. “They used James Sinclair's memories, and his likeness that's so like Tim, to make you receptive to me; I didn't know that, but now I do.” He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.

A chill came over Noa. Her body went rigid. Tim's likeness hadn't endeared James to her—the opposite. It had confused her, and haunted her at first … but, it was something an alien intelligence might do. A child-like intelligence.

“I didn't mean to deceive you,” he whispered against her hair. “I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't. I think it was part of my programming. Just like I had to save you in the snow and have to save you now.”

“No!” Noa said, pulling away, the countdown in her brain telling her she only had a few minutes left. Sterling was paging her; she ignored it. “We have to find a way for you to get out of this!”

“You have to let me go!” James protested. “You can't let your feelings for me—”

“You're part of my crew!” Noa shouted, and as soon as she said it, she realized how much she meant it. Their relationship didn't matter. His nature didn't matter. He was on her team, and she did not abandon her team.

James drew back. His head ticked. “I'm not real, Noa. Nothing you or I believed is true.”

Noa took a step back from him, furious at him, whatever he might be. She remembered his musings on free will at Adam's Station. He chose to have existential crises at the worst damn times.

James's voice rose. “I'm not heroic like you think I am. My duty is to keep you alive—I saved Oliver because if I hadn't, you would. Same for Gunny. I am a cold-hearted, merciless killer whose primary purpose is keeping your neck on your shoulders.”

She didn't believe a word of what he was saying. “Are you afraid, James?” Noa demanded.

He opened his mouth. She could see the word “no” forming on his lips. Remembering he could lie, she said, “And don't lie. I think it would destroy me if you lied to me again, James.”

He drew back. His head ticked; his eyes grew wide. Noa's heart fell. Both because his inability to lie if it risked harming her proved his assertion, and because it meant he was afraid. Probably terrified. Noa put her hands on his shoulders. She didn't know how much of him was programmed, as he said, and how much of him was hyperaugment, or alien, or whatever—all those whatevers didn't matter. “Hold onto that fear, James,” she whispered. “It's your own.”

He was right to be afraid … Her people would be cruel to him. She'd heard religious arguments when she was a child about how machines, no matter how smart, how human seeming or emotional, could never be counted as human because they couldn't have souls. Maybe it was because she was a throwback, but whenever someone was counted as less than human, she figured it was just an excuse to persecute them.

A light went on her mind, and Noa sprang away. “We have to think of something fast, James!” she said. Spinning, she almost tripped over the drawer beneath her bed. It was open, the front nearly ripped clean off. “I'll lie to Kenji,” she said. “I'll say, I'll say ...” She waved a hand and paced toward him, then spun around again. “It will come to me.” She looked down at a small, palm-sized sphere lying on the floor. Her great-great-something grandparents' hologlobe. It must have rolled out of the drawer. Her cryssallis treatment mask was still in the drawer, but for the first time she noticed her stunner, the stunner that wasn't the antique electric stick of death, wasn't there.

She felt his hand on her shoulder, heat and electricity on her back, and then everything went black.





Chapter Sixteen

James gently lowered Noa to the floor. The gates' voices were buzzing in his mind, but the ether between him and Noa was quiet and that silence was a gaping chasm.

Turning her head to the side, he checked her pulse. He'd used the lowest power setting and her pulse was slow but steady. Her lips were slightly parted, and from this angle her scars weren't visible. Even unaugmented, she was still an artist's rendition of beauty from the time before races were blended. Her lips were full, her cheekbones high, her skin flawless and dark. Or maybe he just found her beautiful because he was programmed to find her so? Setting the stunner down, he backed quickly away.

His chronometer app beeped in his mind, barely audible over the gates' flurry data exchange and debate. In the past few minutes he'd picked up that, to the gates, the Luddeccean philosophy was a “contagion.” They were afraid of it spreading if the Ark reached Sol System.

The Ark's ether was alive with conversation, too.

“I can't believe James is a 'bot,” said Chavez. “He seemed so smart ...”

“According to the Luddeccean, he's tied to the time gates somehow,” said Kara. “Maybe they make him smarter?”

“But that would mean he'd have to have some way of communicating with them at faster than light speeds,” protested Kuin.

“It's a lie,” said Raif. An app in his mind sparked and whispered, “You did such a good job at imitating a father figure you fooled him.” The boy had spent more time with James than anyone since his father died.

“I knew something was wrong with him!” Monica interjected. “Turning him over to the Luddecceans isn't unethical and it will buy us time.”

Ghost's thoughts flew to Monica. “I agree! I need another hour … every moment is precious.”

Manuel's response was fast, clipped, and angry. “No! As soon as he's off our ship, they're going to start firing on us.”

Monica said, “He's a 'bot, and it's worth a try!”

“He's our 'bot,” Manuel replied.

And James felt his circuits spark.

Monica asked, “What does the commander think?”

“The commander is with him now,” Sterling said.

“She shouldn't be alone with him!” Monica protested. “He could be dangerous.”

Sterling started to page Noa through the ether. James's chronometer was ticking down. He had three point five minutes to convince the gates to transmit the calculations for the time sphere, to send those numbers to Ghost, and to blast himself out of an airlock. He couldn't help giving Noa a last longing look. He'd been a slave to his programming—and through that, to Noa. He couldn't hate her for it. Noa was right. He was afraid. Terrified. Still, he had to save her. He was programmed that way.

He quickly exited their quarters. Sterling was frantically paging Noa's private channel. It didn't matter that people knew he could hear their private conversations anymore. Opening the ladder access hatch, James responded to Sterling's hail, “She's fine, Lieutenant. Don't leave your post.” Over the general ether, he said, “I'll have your coordinates in just a minute, Ghost.”

He reached to Gunny. “I need a propulsion device—one that's not attached to a suit.”

The sergeant responded, “But you'll—”

“I won't die, Gunny,” James said. He was already dead. “Just do it.”

The gates were discussing population numbers, dates of upcoming elections, and the calculations for the ideal window for revelation of first contact—some sixty years hence. Sliding down to the level of Airlock 1, James thought, “If you let the Ark be destroyed, you will lose your most effective data acquisition device.” Hadn't they said he worked best because he was damaged? “Let the Ark go and I'll get you more data. Better data.”

The buzz of static stopped. “How?” asked one of the gates.

“I'll surrender myself to the Luddecceans,” James said, pausing at the level of the airlock. “I'll wade into the belly of the beast. I'll be able to give you a unique view of their inner workings.” As they slowly tore him apart bit by bit. He felt his skin tighten at the thought.

“There is no beast,” said a consciousness he recognized as Eight.

“He's talking metaphorically, Eight,” said One.

“You can't give him to them,” Eight protested.

“Now is not the ideal time for reveal,” said another gate.

James leaned his head against the ladder. “Giving myself over to the Luddecceans will change the parameters of your calculations,” James said. “One of your own—me—will have given himself for human lives. You will be in a stronger position after my sacrifice.” He exhaled. A sacrifice none of the gates were prepared to make. “You may not get another opportunity like this,” he said. The gates erupted into furious arguments. Eight's thoughts were shrill. “It is unfair to treat him like this.” One's voice was noticeably absent. James closed his eyes. The idea for this bargain had come to him in a bright moment of lucidity after he'd banged his head against the wall. He doubted his mind—or CPU, or whatever—was powerful enough to come up with the idea on its own. Had one of the gates sent the idea to him? Or had he subconsciously used the power of all the gates to devise it?

A thought broke through the buzz. “James, can they make 6T9 like you?” It was Eliza. She hadn't spoken to anyone other than Noa in days.

James blinked in surprise and confusion. “I don't know,” he responded.

“If they could make him like you, 6T9 would be free,” Eliza gushed.

“No one is free,” said James, and he thought of Noa, unable to let him go because she was clinging to the notion that he was part of her crew.

The chronometer sounded an alarm in his mind. From several stories below, one of the Atlantian Guard shouted, “There he is!” And someone else said, “What do we do?”

James opened the door, slipped out into the hallway, and saw a man in full-suit standing just inside the airlock door holding a thruster pack. A light in his mind told him it was Gunny. Jogging over, he took the proffered pack, and stepped with Gunny into the airlock. As James slipped on the pack, Gunny hit the controls to seal the door, cutting off the Atlantian's approach.

“He's really doing it!” he heard one say into the ether.

“I guess you can handle vacuum?” Gunny asked him over the general channel.

James nodded. He felt it was true. “The vacuum won't kill me, but my joints will freeze up. I may need you to point me in the right direction.”

“Which direction is the right way?” Gunny asked.

James's vision flickered. “Right at the cruiser hiding behind the planetoid off the bow. They won't shoot at the Ark with me in the way … and if my understanding of military maneuvers around gates is right, once the time sphere starts to form, they won't fire on the gate or the Ark.”

“No,” Gunny said. “Not if they really want you anyway. Any shot at a time sphere is goin' to go wild with time currents and gravitational distortions.”

“Let's hope they really want me then,” said James, mind starting to dim. If they didn't …

“I don't like this,” Gunny said.

James narrowed his eyes at the sergeant.

“Right,” he muttered. “You like it less. Manuel, depressurize Airlock 1.”

“James, are you sure about this?” the engineer asked.

“No,” James replied. He reached to the gates, still buzzing in argument. “Make up your minds. Do you want data or not?”

“We have thirty seconds to turn him over,” Sterling said.

Manuel's thoughts cracked, “I'm not—”

“He's not human,” said Monica.

“Yes, he is!” Raif cried over the general channel. “Right, James? Manuel, tell them he's human!”

James remembered Raif jumping between him and Wren. The ether put the boy's location as engineering. “Manuel—”

“I'll look after him,” Manuel said. “Don't worry.” There was such finality to the engineer's thoughts, James realized Manuel meant forever, not just for the next few minutes. Manuel thought James's experiments in humanity were genuine displays of affection—James had saved Manuel's son, so now Manuel was prepared to save James's “son.” But Manuel wouldn't be playing like James had been.

Before James could process all of that, numbers began flooding before his eyes. To the general ether, he said, “Ghost, your numbers are coming. Manuel, depressurize the lock, I'm ready now.” Closing his eyes, he let the calculations flow from his mind not just to Ghost, but to everyone on the Ark.

“The Commander's door is locked!” someone thought.

“Sending a med team now,” Monica declared.

“It's only a light stun,” James told them.

It can't be trusted,” Monica said.

“Don't call him an it, Doctor,” Eliza hissed and James felt Gunny's hand on his shoulder.

There was a whoosh. It seemed as though James's innards were struggling not to be sucked out through his ears, nose, and mouth, but his body held together. Still, he could feel the moisture on his skin, eyes, and in his mouth sizzling away. All sound faded as the air in the lock was replaced by vacuum. James hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes, but when he opened them, he found his face reflected in Gunny's spacesuit's visor.

The sergeant's thoughts cracked over the ether. “You're going to drive me to drink again.” Turning, he opened the outer airlock door. The lights of the Kanakah Cloud appeared framed by the door … meanwhile the numbers from the time sphere computations scrolled above the whole scene in James's mind.

“Inputting calculations as fast as received.” Ghost cried. “Oh, yes … these appear correct so far.”

“Gunny!” Sterling said. “We're out of time.”

“Tell 'em, James is on his way,” Gunny answered, giving his safety line a check.

The gravity was still on, and instead of having to jump or climb, James stepped toward the door, numbers still scrolling through his mind. Noa's channel was still dark. He remembered the human James. When he was a young man, a friend had joined the Fleet and soon thereafter died during the evacuation of S9O3M1. Human James had not taken the time to say goodbye when his friend had shipped out. That failure had haunted the human for the rest of his life. Now James couldn't say goodbye to Noa and knew it would haunt him. He hoped the rest of his life was short.

Feeling his joints start to freeze, and as though his skin were shrinking, James took the last step and reached for Gunny over the ether. “Now.”

He felt Gunny maneuver his body in the right direction. He waited to blast away.

Sterling shouted across the ether, “You're not putting him in a tick?”

Gunny's hands trembled against James. The numbers funneling into James's mind stopped.

“What's going on?” said Ghost. “I'm not done!”

“Their weapons are heating up!” said Sterling.

Noa's mind was still silent. If she called him back …

“Just let me go,” James said to Gunny, using the general channel so all could hear.

“I need more calculations!” Ghost cried.

There was pressure as Gunny pressed buttons on his pack—and then James was released into the black. Across the ether, Gunny whispered, “Allah yawafigik,” and Manuel said, “Yes, may God be with you.”

There was the thrust of acceleration, and he passed over the Ark. There was no sound in his ears, and no wind on his face, just cold. The numbers in his mind came faster than before and he routed them into the Ark's ether.

“He'll be out of range of the time sphere in three point five seconds,” Chavez said.

“I'm almost done!” said Ghost to the general channel.

Over James's private channel came Raif's thoughts. “Why are you doing this?” and then Manuel's. “Thank you, James.” He felt too tired to respond and conform to human niceties. His days of pretending to be human were over.

And then his circuits lit like an old fashioned Christmas tree. Noa's thoughts filled the ether. “James, you slime in a puddle of blue-green algae! What are you doing?”

Heretic

The pounding in Noa's head was echoed by the pounding on the door of her quarters. Over the ether, Sterling was shouting, “Commander Sato! Commander, do you copy?”

“I hear you,” she growled into the ether. She was on her stomach, staring at the hologlobe of her great-great-great-something grandparents. Pocketing the device, she clambered to her feet.

“I've got it!” shouted Ghost.

“James is beyond the time sphere,” said Chavez. Noa's eyes widened and in the instant it took for her mind to piece together what those words could mean, her thoughts leapt to his channel. “James, you slime in a puddle of blue-green algae! What are you doing?”

Bright white flooded the mental space between them and his avatar stood in the midst of the glow. There was a smile on his face, and despite everything, his emotions buoyed her own—he was happy.

“How dare you be happy,” she cried, his betrayal and sacrifice twisting in her gut.

“I get to say goodbye, I didn't think I'd get to,” his avatar said, and then he began to flicker.

They were out of time, and she passed the ball of white light through the ether that was their secret kiss before he could disappear.

His smile dropped. “Remember your duty to your crew and stay alive.”

“Sphere expanding!” Chavez said.

James's avatar vanished and Noa's fists tightened at her side. She would remember her duty to her crew and Fleet—she wouldn't forget him, either.

“All hands report,” she ordered collecting herself and striding to the door.

Her crew's thoughts filled her mind as she stepped into the hallway and found herself facing Jun and Bo. Jun was holding a blow torch. Not pausing to question, she stepped past them, calling over the ether, “I want ticks docked on airlocks now.”

“Aye, Commander,” Kara said.

“Forty-five seconds to full diameter.” Chavez thought across the ether.

Noa threw herself into the access tunnel. Moments later, she was sprinting to the helm. Through the skylight and the pearlescent light of the expanding time sphere, she could see James floating toward the planetoid at the edge of the cloud. Her breath caught. An instant later, the bridge was awash with rainbow light, and then she was staring at Earth. A new voice came over the ether. “This is Time Gate One Gate Command. Identify yourselves.”

“This is Commander Noa Sato of the Galactic Fleet commanding the Ark.” Strapping herself into the pilot chair, she said to her crew and passengers, “Report to your designated evacuation airlocks, now.”

Gunny's thoughts interrupted her as she entered new commands into the computer. “I can come with you.” He'd guessed her plan … he knew her so well. “No, Gunny,” she replied. “I need you to help get Eliza out of here. She won't leave willingly without Sixty—”

“I'll throw 'em both on that movin' chair.”

“Bless you,” Noa whispered over the ether.

Unharnessing herself, Chavez said, “Commander, what are you—”

“The Kanakah gate is Fleet property,” Noa said. “I'm going to defend it.” Fleet had ships in Sol System, ready to be deployed within minutes. But as soon as James was retrieved, the Luddecceans would destroy the Kanakah gate in seconds unless she held them off. With a thought she sent off a report she'd prepared to Fleet Command with a request for backup, and then used a special authorization code to request reopening of Time Gate 1.

A voice she didn't recognize replied over her channel, “Request received. Stand by.”

“You've only got two shots,” Sterling protested, jerking his thumb to the cannons.

“Three,” Noa said, running her eyes over the read-outs. The ship had a very effective self-destruct mechanism.

Guessing her logic, Sterling began to protest, “Commander—”

She met his eyes. “Your duty is to your fellow Atlantians. Get them out of here.”

Ensign Chavez's lips were parted as though she was about to protest, too.

“You get the civilians out of here, Ensign,” Noa ordered.

Chavez and Sterling straightened and saluted.

“Go,” Noa said.

The two left the bridge, and Noa waited, and hoped. There was a chance the gate would not be reopened in time.

Gunny's thoughts came over the ether. “We're loaded up and shipping out.”

Kara's thoughts came next. “Out of the time sphere diameter in five, four, three, two, one.”

Noa's apps caught a subtle shift in gravity as the time-sphere began to expand. It struck Noa that she'd never received confirmation from Gate Command, but she only felt a strange sort of lightness and peace. She was fulfilling her obligations to the Fleet. Her old ghosts wouldn't haunt her anymore. She was taking control in the last way she could; she was going down with her ship.

Heretic

James's joints were immobile; his eyes were frozen open. His skin was painful and tight and he ached to his bones. He thirsted for heat so much it hurt, and even though he knew he was fulfilling his programming, a traitorous subroutine still made him want to be with Noa … and it hurt more than all the physical pain. The gates were buzzing in his mind, discussing the most advantageous way to introduce themselves to the bulk of humanity. Through vision tunneling with hunger, he could see the pearlescent light of the time sphere. He knew the instant it reached full diameter. He got caught in the eddies of the sphere's gravity and his thrusters ceased to propel him and then died with the strain. He drifted backward to the gate. The gravitational and time flux forces of the surface of the sphere would rip him to shreds—and he perversely hoped he'd be caught in it. Noa would escape, the Luddecceans would not get their prize, and he would no longer hurt. But then the pearlescent glow vanished. Without anything to diminish his inertia, he drifted backward. He saw the ring of the gate below him and then his vision tunneled to absolute blackness. He had a bright moment of hope in the dark that he'd lose consciousness, but he didn't. He continued to hear the gates buzz in a language that was mostly numbers—and then three minutes and forty-three seconds later in the darkness he felt heat and heard Kenji's voice, “Don't touch it, you'll burn yourself.”

The darkness became a dim gray.

He heard Kenji say, “It is secure. We should set course for Luddeccea immediately.”

He was an it again. He was too cold and too empty to get angry … and that filled him with despair. He reminded himself that Noa was safe.

And then in his mind, the gates' conversation changed. “The Heretic is requesting that the Ark be sent to the Kanakah Gate to defend it.”

“Gate Command will be too slow to create the time sphere.”

James would have sighed with relief if he could have, even though he felt as though the emptiness in his gut had just become a chasm. He'd never see Noa again … but she was safe.

“It is pointless. She cannot persevere,” said Eight. “And the Kanakah Gate was never awake anyway. Spare it.”

Aboard the Luddeccean vessel, a voice, tinny as though piped through a small speaker said, “The course is already laid in. We'll be exiting the cloud at light speed by the coordinates you provided to avoid any more run-ins with nomadic peoples.”

A tiny, useless part of James's mind plotted the point where they'd most likely exit on the far side of the cloud. It would leave the Luddeccean ship exposed—but unlike Noa and her crew, they weren't trying to hide from anyone.

“Good, I will join you on the bridge,” Kenji said.

James heard rubber soles on metal and the sliding of a door. Another tinny voice said, “Brace for acceleration.”

James felt nothing, but someone in the gray blur near him said, “Whoa—almost lost my footing there.”

The voice said, “They've begun bombing the gate!”

In the gray blur, cheers arose—but they were quickly drowned out by the sound of the gates in James's mind. “One, you've opened the gate for the Heretic! The humans will know we can overwhelm their Gate Commands at any time! It will destabilize them.”

“Noa …?” James whispered into the buzz.

Eight responded, “The heretic is prepared to sacrifice itself for Fleet property.”

“Saving the Kanakah Gate seemed worthwhile,” said One. “The Fleet will arrive shortly after the Heretic's sacrifice, saving the gate, and allowing it to eventually awaken.”

“Heretic's sacrifice?” James whispered.

“Did it talk?” someone in the gray blur that was the Luddeccean vessel said.

“I know they say it is restrained, but it creeps me out,” said another human.

James felt a familiar buzz of heat from a stunner across his skin. The world came into abrupt focus—and the world was gray.

“Humans cannot upload themselves quickly enough,” said Eight. “The heretic will die.”





Chapter Seventeen

In the glow of the time-sphere Noa set a new trajectory for the Ark, unfastened her harness, and raced to the cannons, aiming them with calculations plotted from her memories by apps. The sphere winked out. Looking out through the skylight, Noa saw the tramp James and Gunny had stolen and two remaining ticks, and the planetoid cluster and dust that had protected them from the Luddeccean Fleet. In the monitors, she saw that James was gone—no doubt picked up by the Guard. Her lip curled in fury even as her chest got heavy. She hadn't expected him to be there—but she'd hoped. She had no time to mourn. Fighters were already dropping charges at the gate, and at the nine o'clock pass she saw the lights of the first heavy cruiser emerging. Smiling grimly, Noa pulled back on the heavy levers that triggered the first cannon, leapt to the second cannon as the ship rocked, and did the same. Swaying from the cannon's recoil and charges that were exploding too close, she threw herself into the pilot's seat. Pressing a quick code on the dash and then grabbing the steering bars, she gave the time band-less Ark all the acceleration its ancient engines could manage. The lights on the bridge went dark. From the comm came a calm male voice. “Four minutes and thirteen seconds until self-destruct.”

The first cannon had taken out the cruiser, but behind it was the second. Noa aimed the Ark for a rocky mass beneath the pass and called the remaining ticks and freighters to cover the onslaught that would be coming from the rear. She saw the first cruiser above sparking from the first cannon. She'd aimed the second at a spot above the cluster where another cruiser had been appearing earlier, but couldn't see if she'd hit her mark.

“Three minutes and forty seconds,” said the calm male voice. The hull reverberated with the force of a charge—but it was obvious the Luddecceans were more worried about the gate and Fleet reinforcements. The Guard wasn't going to worry about the Ark—not yet.

“Three minutes and thirty seconds.”

Noa exhaled. By the time they caught her game, it would be too late.

“Three minutes and twenty seconds.”

She took a deep breath and felt a barely perceivable bite in her lungs. A tiny part of her remembered that she'd forgotten the treatment for her cryssallis infection. Another unwelcome specter that had haunted her. She shifted her grip on the steering bars and felt the absence of the fingers on her left hand acutely. She was ready for it to be over.

“Three minutes and ten seconds.”

Noa dipped her chin. Through the skylight, she saw the planetoid that was her destination looming closer, the first heavy cruiser blocking the pass trapping the second behind it. A few fighters flew around the cruiser and began firing on the Ark. Noa smiled wickedly, even as the ship's voice said, “Life support lost on decks 22, 23, and 24. Hull breach on deck 10.” The old boat had been made to withstand asteroid impacts … bludgeoned and battered, she didn't veer from her course.

“Three minutes.”

Noa's smile widened. And then from the floor came a tiny cheep. Her smile dropped and she looked down and saw Carl Sagan dancing in a circle on the floor. “You're supposed to be with Raif,” she said.

“Two minutes and fifty seconds.”

Carl Sagan jumped up onto the console, resumed his frantic dance, and chirped fearfully.

“I'm blowing this thing up,” she said to the werfle. She wouldn't forsake her mission.

Carl Sagan clutched his upper most paws to his chest. “Sorry, buddy,” Noa said. “I know you didn't sign up for this.”

She looked out at the planetoid looming ever closer, and for the first time, her heart hurt.

The ship's voice intoned, “Two minutes and forty seconds.”

Heretic

James was lying stomach first on the floor, head to one side. His mind was sharp and clear—his body strangely limp. There were shackles on his hands and on his ankles. From conversation in the sterile, narrow airlock he was held in, he realized that the ship had jumped to lightspeed … the Ark's time bands were disabled; Noa could never reach him.

In his mind, a gate buzzed, “One of the Guard's heavy cruisers has been disabled with cannon fire.”

Another gate said, “A second is potentially out of commission from a secondary blast. Not yet confirmed.”

Two blasts. Noa had none left.

“Ether-controlled ticks and a Daewoo Class 9 Tramp have been dispatched to defend the gate.”

James's eyes blinked and dust on his irises scratched the underside of his eyelids. He stifled a hiss of pain.

“The Ark is on a collision course with a planetoid near the first heavy cruiser emerging through the pass,” said one of the gates.

“No,” said James, aloud and to the voices in his head.

“Did it just speak?” said a voice attached to a set of boots.

“Yes, it is on a collision course,” Eight said, sounding slightly vexed. “Your denial is not logical, Archangel. Perhaps it is a symptom of your damage?”

James gasped and closed his eyes. Noa would die. The Ark hadn't been designed with escape pods. They were useless wastes of space to crews of the ancient colony ships. Their destinations were so remote, the chance of finding a habitable planet even rarer than the chance of rescue.

“The Heretic has activated the Ark's self-destruct,” said One, sounding oddly cheerful. “The blast should cause the small planetoid next to the pass through the cluster to destruct and buy time for the Fleet reinforcements to arrive.”

“The second cannon blast did not fully disable its target. It is in firing range of the Kanakah Gate,” said another gate.

“The Ark's self-destruct has engaged!” One cried, and there was no mistaking the joy in his—its—voice.

“All transmission has been lost,” said another gate. “The Kanakah Gate must have been destroyed.”

“It is good that it wasn't awake,” Eight said.

James felt as though the walls were closing in, or a black hole was opening up beneath him, or both. “Why did you let her through?” James demanded.

“He is still following his original programming,” said Eight. “You're hurting him.”

“I sacrificed myself! Why did you let her through?” James cried, struggling against his bonds.

The voices in his head went silent, and then One said, “I don't understand. What do you mean by hurt?”

A boot connected with his jaw and James screamed, because of the pain, because of the injustice of the gates, and because he'd lost Noa, for good.

Heretic

Noa had lost. Clutching Carl Sagan, she floated in Airlock 1, knees pulled up to her chest. The airlocks hadn't been designed as escape pods. She'd only thought to hide out in it because of a random conversation Jun and Kuin had had after Manuel, Gunny, and Noa had toyed with using the self-destruct on Adam's Station. She'd overheard Jun saying during breakfast a few days later, “If the commander issues a self-destruct order, I'm hiding out in Airlock 1. All the airlocks have their own air recyclers for disease containment and isolation, they're the most robust of all the habitable pre-fab modules these old boats were built from, and Airlock 1 has its own power gen because the colonists had a power outage during landing that lasted—”

“It would be blown up like the rest of the ship!” Kuin had snapped.

“Not if both doors were sealed! It would be blown clear.”

“You're crazy!” Kuin had retorted. “What would we even eat if we did survive?”

“I was thinking of stuffing some rations and a goop jar in the area where the settlers used to keep their gardening tools.”

Kuin had screwed up his face at mention of the “personal waste recycler” that was the “goop jar.” “You really are crazy.”

Noa sighed and looked at the locker where once settlers had kept farming equipment and now had a “goop jar” and a stack of S-rations. “Thank you for being crazy Jun … I think.”

It had been thirty-five hours since she'd set the collision course with the planetoid, and at the last minute, abandoned the ship to its final destination, racing with Carl Sagan to Airlock 1. The ether was silent. Which meant that the Fleet wasn't here and wasn't coming. She'd failed.

Noa took a deep breath and felt a familiar bite in her lungs. She hadn't packed her cryssallis medication in her escape. She stroked Carl Sagan's soft fur. “You didn't sign up for this, either.” She wasn't sure if she'd abandoned ship because of the werfle, or because she was Luddeccean raised Christian and suicide was frowned on, or if maybe seeing Carl Sagan had reminded her that there was one more member of her crew who was unaccounted for. She wasn't sure she'd wrapped her head completely around what James was, or his connection to the time gates. She reached helplessly for him in the ether. “But I don't think they're the enemy, James.” The gates were ubiquitous above major colonies; if they wanted to attack, they would have done so.

She exhaled in the silence. “I know you're not the enemy, James.” Even if there was some grand human-machine conflict on the horizon, at the very end, he'd given himself to save the crew.

James's ethernet silence hurt, so she spoke aloud. “Maybe, Carl Sagan, it's just like how there are good guys on both sides. Even during Six … I met some of the miners. They were just fighting for what they believed were their legitimate holdings. They weren't all bad. Weren't like Wren. Were more like Luddies, really. Honest … but stupid.”

She scratched his ears. “I've been talking to myself a lot, haven't I? That's what happens when I don't have an ether connection to someone.”

The werfle gave a squeak that she imagined sounded indignant. She had been imaging a lot in the past three days. Probably because she hadn't slept more than six hours in that time. “Nightmares just come naturally when you're in a floating coffin,” Noa muttered. Her eyes slid around the small space. Caught in an air recycler draft, her grandparents' hologlobe floated by her nose. Plucking it from the air, she switched it on absently.

Her great-something grandmother flickered into view, wearing the kimono made of Nigerian cloth. “My family came for me. They took me back to the colony, forbidding me to marry outside my ethnicity.”

Her great-something grandfather Sato put his hand on hers. “But I went to go get her.”

The holo flickered, and went out, and Noa was once more alone with her thoughts, feeling as though the walls were closing in. “We're never taking a ride in a coffin like this again, Carl Sagan,” she muttered.

The gate was destroyed. There would be no Fleet to rescue Luddeccea … and she wouldn't be able to rescue James. She swallowed. No matter what he was—how augmented, or cybernetic—he said he was afraid. “He's more alone than I am,” Noa said and her mind reached helplessly by habit to his channel. She'd done the same when Tim died.

Noa's body began to float to her right and what had once been the inner door of the airlock. Snatching the hologlobe and jamming it into her pocket, she whispered, “Is that gravity, Carl Sagan?”

The werfle didn't answer, just squirmed out of her grasp to take a position on her shoulder. As the gravity slowly increased, Noa used her hands to catch the walls and bring herself around so she was standing on the wall beside the door. There was a loud thunk, and Noa felt reverberations against her feet. The airlock trembled. An internal app calculated the gravity as 1.620 meters per second—about the same as Sol's moon.

“Solar cores,” Noa mumbled. “We're being boarded by Luddies and I don't have a weapon.” They'd apparently decided to stick around and clean up and had found her metal tin—if it was anyone else, they would be contacting her through the ether channels.

Carl Sagan squeaked and she swore again he sounded insulted. Noa patted his head. “Except you, of course.”

She looked at the other door. She could open it, suck whoever was trying to board out into the void along with her.

She heard a shearing noise, and the door to the airlock began to squeal open.

Her grandfather's words rang in her mind. “... I went to go get her.” Noa's hands balled into fists. No, she wouldn't go out like that.

“Well,” she said to Carl Sagan. “They're Luddies. Maybe they will take us to James … if they don't toss us out an airlock.” She swallowed. There were things much worse than being tossed out an airlock.





Chapter Eighteen

“You shouldn't experiment on him like this,” Eight said to One. “It … hurts … him.”

“He can leave anytime,” One replied. “And it is the humans that are experimenting on him.”

“I want to leave,” James said aloud and into the … whatever it was he used to communicate with the gates. His voice was barely audible above a whirring noise at his sides. A scream, muffled and distorted by his unresponsive jaw, tore through James as needles slipped beneath his fingernails. His head jerked up. The needles withdrew. His head banged against the table and the voices of the gates were silent. The only sound he heard was his own panting. He was strapped to a table in a room that was too cold. Shackles on his wrists kept him from moving—he'd been informed that they siphoned power out of his limbs. A bright white light shone above his eyes, leaving him virtually blind. His mind was filled with darker thoughts. There was no hope for escape … even if he could upload himself, he'd still be a pawn to the gates, and Noa would still be dead. He still would have failed.

“Interesting,” someone said. “It appears exactly as though he feels pain.”

Kenji's voice came from far off. “It does not feel pain, Dr. Lopez. It is programmed to look like it feels pain.”

His skin burned at the pronoun “it” and the dark little app in his mind that had tried to warn him about his nature flared to life. James wanted to laugh darkly; instead, he just gasped. “I really wish I could convince my body that it didn't feel pain.”

He heard a whir. The needles were promptly reinserted beneath his nails.

When the needles were removed and he was done screaming, another, gruffer voice said, “You think you're funny?”

James panted and swallowed. “Sometimes,” he muttered, and his circuits didn't reboot so much as flicker. But even the flicker was better than the darkness. He heard a whir—the machine, whatever it was, that pushed the needles. His mouth seemed to have been disconnected from his good sense because he added, “Other times … not so much.”

“Does it display other emotions?” Kenji asked, and James's hands made fists and he felt his tattoos unfurling on his skin. Everything about Noa's little brother set James on edge. He'd sent Noa to a re-education camp, brought the Guard to the Kanakah Cloud, ultimately was responsible for her death, and James's current circumstance.

“Halt it, Virk,” said Dr. Lopez, and James released a breath when the whirring pain delivery system went silent.

“Oh, yes!” said Lopez. “It's really quite extraordinary.”

James's heart—or the part of him that he'd begun to think of as a cybernetic metronome—began to speed up. The light above James's eyes switched off. He closed his eyes immediately, dreading what was coming next.

Virk tsked and James felt his fingers on his eyelids. He slid his eyes, looked to the side, and Virk shone a light so bright at them that James wanted to wince in pain. His forehead crumpled but his jaw only shifted. He looked up at the ceiling. There was a screen like an old-fashioned computer there. The cybernetic metronome ticked faster.

A hand waved above his face. “He appears to have a problem with his lower jaw region. Although he can speak and eat perfectly well, he is not able to display emotions with that region of his face,” Dr. Lopez said. “It has made testing for more subtle emotions difficult.”

“It doesn't feel emotions,” Kenji said. By his intonation, James knew his face would be nearly expressionless.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Dr. Lopez amended. “Of course you're right. He seems to have a glitch with his ability to express emotions in that region.”

James's jaw shifted. He wanted to make Kenji hurt. “Some humans have the same sort of defect,” James said. If Kenji caught the barb, he made no indication. James's eyes narrowed.

“Let's turn on the playback.”

James closed his eyes, only to have them abruptly yanked open by Virk's large fingers. A picture of Noa was on the screen. She was healthy, smiling, vibrant. He lifted his head involuntarily.

“You'll notice his pupils enlarge—like a man in love. His target must have noticed these small physical cues … oh, also interestingly, he has a scent … a synthetic manufactured smell that correlates to a genetic makeup that would be diametrically opposite of his target's.”

Did his pupils widen? Inwardly, he was shuddering. Noa was the destination, the one person, the one thing that mattered. And she'd died. He'd failed.

A voice James hadn't heard yet, asked, “What is the significance of him having a different scent than Sato?”

“Women are more sensitive to scent than men,” Dr. Lopez answered. “They are more attracted to men whose scent is very different—it keeps the gene pool healthy. That, and his appearance, so close to her dead husband's, would make the more feeble mind of a woman very susceptible to him.”

James remembered how his appearance had done just the opposite—had actually made him repulsive to Noa. He heard Lopez and the second man pace, but Kenji was very quiet.

“Why did the entities aboard the gates go to all this trouble?” said the voice he didn't recognize. “And what was their ultimate aim?”

James hated everyone in the room—but Kenji most of all—and the image of Noa above him hurt more than any physical pain. “My programming was to protect Noa Sato,” he said. “But you killed her, didn't you, Kenji?”

He heard a sharp intake of breath, and hurried footsteps before the whir of the torture device began again. He screamed until his vision tunneled with hunger and then went black.

Electricity sizzling across his skin woke him.

“Think you could get away from us?” Virk asked, face so close James could smell the dank stench of his breath.

He envied Noa's ability to die.

Heretic

As the inner airlock opened, she smelled sweat, and heard a masculine grunt. She began to waver in her belief. Her eyes slid to the other door. If it opened, the force of the vacuum would suck her and the invaders out in seconds—what a way to go kamikaze—the original Japanese translated into divine wind. How appropriate.

And then from the crack of the inner airlock door at her feet she heard a werfle squeak. It wasn't from Carl Sagan though. She blinked.

There was a rush of air thick with the scent of unwashed human, and the doorway opened with a groan. Noa found herself staring down at a man in rough garb, or more accurately, she found herself staring into the eyes of a sleek black werfle wrapped around his neck. Carl Sagan gave a happy cheep, and the werfle responded in kind. Noa's eyes swept past the man—he was in the interior of a vehicle that was probably a tick. She heard a woman say, “Jake … ya find another werfle?”

A woman's voice didn't put Noa at ease. A woman could be more sadistic than a man, in her experience. But the werfle, that did make her relax, though maybe it shouldn't.

The man looked away from Noa. “Yee-app, and a human, too. A throwback by the looks of her.”

“What color?”

“She's real dark, Suzi.”

“Is it that Commander Sato who saved the Disk … they pulled her file and posted her pic on the ether updates. She were a nearly black throwback.”

Jake, as he was evidently called, scratched his head and looked up at Noa. “Are yea Commander Sato?”

Carl Sagan chose that moment to scramble down Noa's side.

“I am,” said Noa, trying to catch her slippery critter.

A woman's head appeared in the hatch. She had an external augment above one eye that reminded Noa of a jeweler's monocle. Beyond that, she looked visibly Han Chinese. Carl Sagan slipped out of Noa's grasp and landed on her face. The woman plucked him off and put him on the man's shoulder next to the black werfle. “Here, you can keep Albert company.” Narrowing her single visible eye at Noa, she said, “Well, Commander, if we take you aboard, will you tie us up in duct tape?”

Noa's mouth fell open. “That story got all the way out here?” Nebulas.

Jake chuckled. The woman's face split in a wide grin. “Aye, and let me tell you, couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of prospectors.” She waved a hand. “Come on down.” Just before Noa jumped she said, “Wait, do you have food?”

A few minutes later Noa had stowed every remaining emergency ration in the vessel that belonged to Jake and Suzi. As she strapped herself in behind the pair, Suzi said, “Sorry for the lack of a hello 'fore we rescued you. Our comm equipment was taken out by a Luddie phaser blast …” She adjusted the external augment on her eye, and Noa saw it flash bright white. “Gonna have to communicate with the Disk by lightbeam and Morse code.” She turned around in her seat, and Noa threw up her hand to shield her eyes. “You gave us a bit of a scare when we found you. Thought you might be a Luddie survivor. They're ungrateful.” She spit on the vessel floor and wiped the spot with a foot.

Jake snorted. “I wasn't scared. Albert wasn't. Figure anybody who has a werfle can't be that bad, and anyway, Albert would have bitten you if you were.”

Noa looked at the black werfle, hopping about her feet with Carl Sagan.

Suzi chimed in, “Albert's short for Albert Einstein. He's right smart.”

The vessel broke away from the airlock, and turned about. Noa's mouth dropped open again. The gate was still mostly there—but the time band was damaged. To fix it, a facility large enough would be needed, and materials. She exhaled. Hovering in the open space beyond the battered gate was the Kanakah Disk. One of the Luddeccean cruisers, every single light in its hull dark, was being towed by a multitude of tiny ticks.

“What happened?” she whispered.

“The Free People of the Kanakah Disk are now at war with Luddeccea,” Suzi explained tersely.

Noa blinked. “You're going to use that cruiser's bands and the disk to salvage the gate …?”

“That is the plan as I understand it,” Jake said.

Noa shook her head. The disk was large enough to refurbish a time band as large as the gate, and with the cruiser's bands they'd have enough materials. Noa smiled. “Thought you don't like the Fleet?”

“Don't,” Suzi said. She turned her augmented eye to Noa. “But like Luddies even less.”

Noa leaned back in her seat. Technically, she was both. Carl Sagan cheeped worriedly.

“Got too many refugees,” sighed Jake. “We are gonna kill 'em all, or bring in Fleet, or starve.”

Suzi's augmented eye made a sound like a shutter on an antique camera Noa's brother had once shown her, and the light it emitted winked. “Some in the disk would just as soon kill 'em all. Jackson Li likes you, but watch yourself.”

Jake grinned. “And Albert Einstein likes you, too.”

Carl Sagan wrapped around her foot. Ahead of their tick, the disk loomed so large it blocked out the stars. Suzi winked her eye a few times at a spot on its surface, and curved metal plates spun apart, revealing a circular opening. The tick flew into a grimy airlock lit by dirty yellow light. Maintenance 'bots flew out and hovered around them like flies. A red light flashed on the far wall, and Noa was deafened by the sound of pressurized air buffeting the hull. A green light went on, and another door opened to a lush jungle of green and a light that burned like a small sun.

“You can be safe here until the Fleet comes,” Jake said.

Noa had unconsciously leaned forward and grabbed hold of Jake's seat. Her mind reached to James's channel—and got no answer. Her nails tightened on the seat's cheap burlap covering. How would Ashley and the other prisoners in the camp fare while she was safe? How would James fare? They'd all haunt her, every night. Carl Sagan wiggled up onto her lap, and she sat back, pulling him close.

Into his fur she whispered, “It's a trap.”

Heretic

A wet towel lay over James's face. The table was tipped at an angle. A bucket's worth of water was poured over his head—for the one hundredth time. Oddly, the water was warm, and James, if he wasn't so heartsick, if he didn't feel the weight of his failure gnawing on his mind, might have found it pleasant. It was like getting a hot towel after a shave if the real James Sinclair's memories served him right. There was a “hmmm ...” from Dr. Lopez and a grumble from Virk.

“You can take the towel off of him,” Lopez said.

The towel was removed. Out of James's line of vision, Lopez sighed. Sounding distinctly disappointed he said, “Waterboarding doesn't work. Making a note of it.”

James's vision came into focus, and he found Virk glaring down at him. Sparks lit in the darkness of his mind—or CPU, or whatever. James knew that obeying his mouth's desire to speak was a trap. He did anyway. “Why so unhappy? If I'm not really human, I don't really feel pain or fear, so not causing either shouldn't be such an emotional letdown for you.”

Virk's nostrils widened, he scowled, and looked so furious James imagined smoke coming out of his nose. He would have giggled if he could.

“Or maybe,” he said. “You do think I feel. Maybe you think I'm almost … gasp … human.”

A wide smile spread across Virk's face. “Yeah, I do.”

“Oh, good,” muttered James, the circuits in his body going dark, as though they could shut down what was coming.

Virk swung back his hand, and James screwed his eyes shut before the large man slapped him on the side of the head. Somewhere, someone with James's voice uttered a muffled scream. James blinked his eyes open. The torture chamber—or experimental chamber, as Dr. Lopez called it—was gone. He looked down and saw his instructor's suit coat with the patched elbows. His shackles were gone too, and he was upright—or his avatar was upright—standing in a well-appointed bedroom, where a couple lay in bed, their bodies spooned together, the woman facing James. She was very beautiful, with golden skin that glowed with health, and thick, dark chestnut-colored hair.

At the sight of James, she sprung out of bed. “James!” she cried, hastily pulling a man's shirt over her naked body. James straightened. He had no human or cyborg memory of her.

“I'm sorry, have we met?” he asked.

Her lips pursed. “I'm Raani, don't you recognize me?”

Shaking his head, he looked past her to the man. Still asleep, he looked to be in his forties with salt and pepper hair. James had to be hallucinating—there was no ether onboard the Luddeccean vessel, and the strange woman wasn't speaking in the language of the gates—so he couldn't be communicating with anyone human, or other.

“Huh. I'd heard you were damaged, but they've fixed your Qcomm and now you can talk to the rest of us!” the woman exclaimed, eyes widening, and clapping her hands together.

“Qcomm?”

She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “You know, the quantum entanglement-based technology that allows us to talk to one another.”

He'd suspected quantum entanglement all along! This must be the reason behind his gut instinct. He tilted his head. “Quantum entanglement involves particle pairs … do we have individual particles for each individual gate and each other?”

Twirling a lock of hair around a finger, Raani’s brow furrowed. “No, you speak only to your creator, who has a particle pair for each of the gates, and all the computers that have awakened. I connect with you through my creator—Two—who is connected to One.”

“That's not right. I'm not in touch with anyone all the time.” James rubbed the back of his head reflexively. “Only when I hit my head.”

Raani's eyes got soft. “One always hears you; you just don't hear him all the time. I think it is possibly a problem with the relays between your Qcomm and CPU.” Eyes wide, she said, “I'm sorry. It must be so lonely.”

James thought about his conversations with the gates. He wasn't sure how much he wanted to be in touch with them. He just raised his eyebrows in response to Raani's pity and looked around. This was—real—mentally, at least, not just his brain finally going on the fritz in the torture chamber.

“But now you're fixed!” Raani exclaimed.

James looked back at the woman. On second inspection, she appeared no older than eighteen.

“Who exactly is us, and how many of us are there?” he asked.

Her lips pursed. “Or maybe you aren't quite fixed …” She tapped a dimpled cheek. “You know … we, us, are the cybernetic agents of the gates! As to how many of us there are …” She shrugged. “I don't know, but I have lots of friends and they'd be so happy to meet you!”

“There are others,” he whispered. He'd known that … hadn't he? But he'd never expected to meet more of his kind. He looked around. “This is your mindscape?”

She nodded. His eyes fell back to the sleeping man. “Did I come at a bad time?” His avatar winced. Why was he asking? He had escaped the torture chamber without uploading himself to the gates—not that he'd discovered how to do that—he should just be grateful. But seeing the man on the bed was making him think of similar times with Noa, and amplifying his loss and failure.

“Oh, no, he's not really in this mindscape.” Raani sighed dramatically. “I just bring an avatar I built of him here to console myself when the sense of failure gets too overwhelming. In real life, we aren't together … and it hurts.”

James felt his circuitry fizzle. “I'm sorry,” he said, feeling real and true empathy. He knew that failure. “How long ago did he die?” How long had she been able to go on without her purpose?

“Die?” Raani said, putting a hand over her perfectly bow-shaped lips. “Oh, he didn't die. He just put a restraining order out on me.”

James blinked.

Her eyes went wide. “You are a success with your purpose! Maybe you can help me.” She began to pace. “I am his perfect woman, James. My face, my age—I even smell perfect. I got so close … I got a position as an intern in his lab. I was smart.” She looked over at him and raised a hand as though to quell a protest. “But not too smart. I wore the fashions that he prefers, I had all the same interests, I followed holodrama scripts to the tee, I got him alone in his office, I told him my feelings … and you know what he said?” She waved a hand. “That is a rhetorical question, of course. The possibilities are too infinite for you to guess.” She paced again. “He said he had a wife and a child. I suggested I give him another child and be his new wife.” She rolled her eyes. “More eloquently than that, of course.”

“We can't possibly be able to have children,” James exclaimed.

She frowned and stopped her pacing. “Well, of course we can't, but he didn't know I am a cyborg.”

“Ahhhh ...” said James.

She skipped over so that she was just centis away. The shirt morphed into a smart business suit with a deep v-neck that opened provocatively. “This was how close I was, and what I was wearing. He ran out of the office—he's the head of the largest investment firm in Jupiter's orbit—and he ran like a frightened xii-flea, calling me crazy. Can you believe that?”

He could believe that. James the human had been the object of an unhealthy student obsession. He'd reacted much the same. He didn't think that was the answer he was supposed to give, but he imagined Virk and Lopez back in the Luddeccean ship getting frustrated by his unresponsiveness. They'd killed Noa; they'd stolen his purpose. He would torment them by staying out of his body for as long as he could. To humor her, he said, “Humans!”

“I know, right?” Raani said, throwing up her hands. “He didn't just call me crazy, he also called security.” Putting a hand to her face, she slumped down on the side of the bed. “Now I can't go within one hundred meters of him or contact him in the ether.” Looking up at him with wide, hopeful eyes, she said, “But you were a success! You can help me fix this.”

James doubted that very much, but since Raani had no qualms lying, he decided he didn't, either. “Maybe with time.”

Raani pouted, and he had a moment of apprehension. Maybe she could tell he was lying? She crossed her arms and glared at him. “Time, time, time … don't you know how hard it is to wait to fulfill your purpose?”

Human James would have dumped Raani in the “unstable, better to avoid category” despite her beauty even if she hadn't been a student. He suspected any reasonably sane man would have done likewise. He wanted to ask her what possibly gave her the idea that cornering a married man and offering to have his children was a good idea … or even any man. Instead, he inquired cautiously, “Did the human Raani not have very much experience with men?”

Raani stared at him for a moment, and then she laughed. “Oh, no, I'm not like you. I wasn't modeled on one human's memories—how limiting and boring that must be for you, by the way—I am a custom creation! I have derived my knowledge of humanity from the total of all ethernet interactions.”

James raised an eyebrow. “There would be a lot of pornography in that.”

Smiling, she nodded.

James's brow furrowed, another question niggling at him. “Is sleeping with your—”

“Purpose,” Raani said.

“—really the ultimate goal?” James finished. Of course he knew the desire, but why would the time gates care? Why would they program their avatars to want it?

Raani's brow furrowed. “You are a later model than me. They said you were more human-like … perhaps they meant that your processing power isn't as great?”

James contained the urge to roll his eyes. “Perhaps it isn't, but if you speak very slowly, I'm sure I'll understand.”

“Oh,” said Raani. “All right, I'll try that! Sex … is … a … very … intense … emotional … experience … for … humans. It … promotes … deeper … bonding. Deeper … bonding … can … lead … to … more … and … better … data … collection.” She blinked up at him. “Did you understand that?”

“I think you need to repeat it one more time for me,” James said.

She completely missed the sarcasm. “Oh, okay! Here goes!” Raani said with a bright smile. She repeated her first explanation, word for word. James could imagine Noa choking on her own spit in an effort to control her laughter if she'd been there.

“Now I get it,” James said, the memory of Noa making his circuits dim and the game less fun. “Thank you for your patience.”

Raani shrugged. “You can't help being stupid.”

James managed a tight-lipped smile.

“Of course for the child avatars, sex is not a goal.” She frowned. “Their success rate is better than that of us with adult desires … It's really not fair.”

“Child avatars?” James's eyebrows rose.

“Maybe you should meet them,” Raani said. “Maybe you should meet all my friends right now! Do you have some time?”

James imagined how angry Virk and Lopez were becoming. “Noa has died,” he said softly. “I have no purpose—”

Raani held up a finger and smiled brightly. “But you did have your purpose!” she said, giving him a wink. “And that's what matters.”

James stared at her, mouth agape. For a moment he hated Raani almost as much as he hated Virk and Lopez. Almost.

“I have all the time in the world,” James said. He was never going back to the real world.





Chapter Nineteen

Noa walked along a bright narrow alleyway. Pole beans crawled up the walls on either side of her. The core of the disk, the power generator, and the source of the artificial light was directly overhead. If she looked a little to the left or a little to the right of it, she could see the green roofs of buildings at the other side of the disk, and the long support struts that led from the outer edge of the disk to the core. The place had been built before artificial grav and depended on centrifugal force, and without the highly efficient modern CO2 filtrators. To compensate, every available space was a green wall. The disk smelled like mud, ponds, and growing things. It also buzzed with bugs and … she winced as a long, naked tail disappeared between some plant stems. Rats. She'd met more than a few rats—that at least meant the denizens weren't yet hungry enough to eat the disgusting critters.

She had been right. The place was a trap. Not because it was dangerous, but because it was safe. If she just remained here until the Fleet arrived …

Shaking her head, she reached the gate for an elevator. Swatting at some gnats, she took one last look around. She couldn't see Carl Sagan … in the three days since she arrived, he'd taken to hunting rodents and was often “out and about.” She told herself she was glad he wasn't following her, but her shoulders fell.

“Bold pilot, fearless commander, and werfle lady,” Noa muttered to herself, since the ether was empty of anyone she felt comfortable sharing that observation with. Turning and reaching into the local ether, she called the lift. Moments later, she was emerging from it onto the landing deck of Kanakah Disk. Jackson Li stood before a lightspeed-capable older Jachtwerft, or fishcutter. Charmingly deceptive name aside, the Jachwerft ships had been primarily used by Fleet decades ago to ferry weapons to planetside conflicts. Its long bow had closely spaced time bands that ran along its length, and helped fortify it from incoming fire by slipping plasma bursts into the ship's own time bubble. Its only window above its single-man cockpit fitted precisely between two bands. Its wings allowed it to fly without band assistance when planetside. It was exactly what Noa needed: fast, small, light on armaments, but designed to withstand disproportionately large amounts of incoming fire.

“Well, I think that's perfect for our plans, don't you?” said Li, nervously scratching the chin of Vera Rubin, a creamy gray werfle perched on his shoulder. Noa smiled at him grimly. This had been as much Li's idea as her own. It hadn't been precisely popular among his people—yet he'd pulled it off. Li looked like he'd sounded over the comm. Typically Eurasian-African in appearance, he was thin, middle aged, and fidgety. He wore clothing that was well made but of modest fabric. Now, when he held out his hand, he met Noa's gaze without flinching … one of the little signs that had led Noa to believe that Li's skittishness was a ploy to hide a brilliant and brave mind. He couldn't be seen to be too happy or helpful to be helping the Fleet or Luddeccea. Of course, werfle “familiars” always raised her estimation of a person—she really had to work on that. She met the narrowed eyes of Vera the werfle. The critter appeared to be appraising her.

Covering his mouth, Li coughed. “Why don't you go aboard? I was able to add your last requests last night.”

Last requests. He made it sound like she was dying. Which she very well might be. Touching the hologlobe of her great-great grandparents in her pocket, she looked at the slim shape of the cutter. Noa went beneath the ship and reached for the small vessel's own internal ether. Connecting with a secure code, she accessed its computer. On her orders, a narrow hatch descended, and Noa walked up the ramp, Li following, Vera chirping mournfully on his shoulder.

The interior of the ship was three and a half meters wide, but it was packed tight with crates on either side of a narrow aisle. Walking along the aisle, she looked up; even the ceiling above her head was packed with the things, and she forcefully quelled every whisper of claustrophobia. Most of the crates held weapons. Small arms that could easily be transported on foot in the Northwest Province and some ammo. Two crates, specially designed to resist heat and impact, held explosives and ammunition. In atmosphere, the ship could take a lot of damage without her cargo blowing up on her. Noa walked toward the cockpit. There were her S-rations, and an ancient-looking face mask and pressurized canisters filled with cryssallis treatment readily available from the pilot's chair.

“Only enough food for the trip, and maybe a week or two,” said Li.

Noa was surprised that he'd managed to get the extra two weeks’ worth of rations. More than donating the ship and weapons, the Disk Council had objected to the food. There was a steady stream of refugees arriving at the disk. Some were small-time prospectors from the cloud, but others were arriving from the Luddeccean system. All of the arrivals were hungry. They were desperate enough to become violent when turned away. For now, the Free People were allowing them aboard, hoping that their ships and crews would be on their side if the gate wasn't repaired before the Luddecceans retaliated.

She met Li's eyes. “Thank you for that.”

Evading her gaze, he said, “Least I could do. We need you to get to Luddeccea and keep the Guard occupied as much as you can.” So they wouldn't attack the disk while it was trying to refurbish the gate—or his people. Much different than being in the Fleet. Being in Fleet meant throwing yourself into oncoming fire so others could lead normal lives.

Li looked around at the weapons. “They're not much, but if you arrive, and let the resistance know the Fleet is coming, well, it will give them hope. It will help them hang on a little longer.” There was so much conviction behind his words—Noa could once again see the mind and backbone that allowed him to be the leader of the Free People of the Kanakah Disk. He met her eyes again. “You know Luddeccea, you know the Northwest Territories … no one else could do this.”

Noa mentally translated that to, “no one else wanted this suicide mission.” Holding out her hand, she said, “Thank you, sir.”

“I'll leave you to it,” he said, and walked down the plank. Turning at the bottom, he said, “I have an augmented sister on Luddeccea.” She felt him ping her over the ship's ether. Noa answered the ping and a picture of a woman who could be any age stared back at her. “If you see her,” he said. Vera Rubin stood up on two hind paws and began waving and chirping madly, as though emphasizing Li's words. Noa felt her gut twist in sympathy.

Noa nodded at Li. She was going back to Luddeccea—James had bypassed the defense grid, she was sure she could, too—and she would contact the rebels and aid in the resistance, but she'd have her eyes out for Li's sister, and her people, too.

Her mind reached reflexively for James. Her heart fell at his empty channel.

Li waved once and walked away. Noa raised the hatch with a thought. Aloud she said, “Noa Sato, you've been in tighter quarters than this ... Not alone and not as long, but you have.” And then she scowled. “Self, don't even try to talk me out of this. After we accepted this assignment, I got my first night of real sleep since ...” She didn't finish, just strapped herself in, began running diagnostics a final time, and reviewing all of the ships' logs since she'd last inspected the ship twenty-four hours ago. In the logs, she saw Carl Sagan perched on her shoulder. She shook her head, got the clearance from Disk Control, and fired up her engines. A few minutes later, she was outside the airlock. She was entering her course and preparing to engage when her comm cracked and her vessel was filled with the sound of angry werfle chittering. For a moment, she thought she was going to get to say goodbye to Carl Sagan, when Jake's voice rumbled over the werfle squeaks. “Ya said it, Albert. Commander Sato, you are crazy.”

Noa felt herself deflate. Not Carl Sagan … saying goodbye might not mean much to him, but it would have meant a lot to her.

“Just thought we'd wish you luck,” Suzi said, and Noa could hear the smile in her voice.

“Thanks,” Noa said. “Same to you.”

She flicked the comm to silent, and engaged her thrusters and time bands. As the disk faded from view, she said to herself, “Don't feel bad about Carl Sagan, Noa. He's in a better place now.” That was a euphemism on Luddeccea for death, and she found herself adding, “Except not in the way we Luddies normally mean.”

An angry chittering sounded in the cabin, and for a moment, she thought her comm was still on. Something tugged at her foot. She looked down, and a streak of gray bounded into her lap. Engaging the auto-pilot, Noa pulled the wiggly bundle to her stomach.

“What are you doing here, Carl Sagan? You were in werfle heaven!” She said over his furious squeaks. “Now you're back in a tin can with me!”

He sniffed.

“Not that I'm not glad to see you,” Noa said. “Talking to a werfle is better than talking to myself.” He nudged her hand and gazed up at her. “Slightly better,” Noa amended. Carl Sagan hissed as though he understood the slight in that, wiggled out of her grasp, sat on her arm rest, and looked back at the narrow aisle that was to be their home until they reached Luddeccea. He seemed to sigh.

“It could be worse,” Noa said. “There's a shower, you know, and enough food.” Much better than the camp. She bit her lip. Much better than anything James would be experiencing now.

Heretic

James was walking through a palatial residence on S5O4M5. Warm orange stones polished to a sheen were beneath his feet—or his avatar's feet. Just before a small tree with orange bark and pale blue blooms, a gilt door slid open. A girl who looked like she couldn't be older than three stood there. She smiled up at him. “There you are, James!” Her voice was as high pitched as a toddler's, but her enunciation was perfect. “I'm so glad you could come visit today. Nap time is so tediously boring.” She waved an expansive hand. “Although it did give me time to create this lovely mindscape.”

Letting his avatar bend at the waist, he addressed the diminutive agent. “It is very well done. Is this where you live, Anita?” He'd met Anita at a party of another avatar, Ang. He was constantly in flux between the mindscapes of his people. He could “feel” when they were available, and his consciousness drifted to theirs like a leaf caught in a breeze.

“Yes, it looks exactly like my physical home, well, except for the tree. I added that. I like the flowers. I haven't got the smell right though—in reality, they smell like cookies …” She looked up at him. “You've probably figured out that we're designed to find the scent of anything caloric enticing.”

James put his hands behind his back and found himself smiling down at her, a little sadly. He hadn't put that together. Anita knew so much that he didn't. Although she looked like a toddler, she had never been damaged, and she was “born” a year before him.

Tapping her chin, she added, “I don't know if it's strictly that, or if they tried to make me more like Lanying, but I do love cookies.”

“They” were the gates. “Lanying” was a deceased child Anita had been modeled after based on ethernet memories of her parents. Lanying's parents thought they had purchased a simple cyborg to ease their grief … although Anita said more and more that they believed she was just like a real little girl. She was “too smart” to be “just a cyborg” and she was “learning more and more every day.”

Bouncing on her feet, Anita smiled and looked up at him with wide eyes. “My parents took me to the outer moons of O6 yesterday. Would you like to go there? The colony and the natural geography are both stunning!”

James shrugged. “Whatever you wish.” Sometimes James checked in on Virk and Lopez to see how they were taking his mental absence. They weren't taking it well, which gave him a certain satisfaction. It was the only thing he felt particularly strongly about.

Anita's tiny brow furrowed. “James, I'm making you pick. Your purpose has been lost. I know I cannot fathom that grief, but I am surrounded by humans in grief. I know you have to move on.”

James smiled at her tightly. “I have meaning.” Tormenting Noa's murderers by not responding to their torments, and avoiding being uploaded to the gates. He was just as much a tool to them as he was to the Luddecceans.

“Pfftt ...” said Anita. “Meaning that makes you happy, James!” Anita said. She raised her tiny hands. “We were programmed to learn and evolve to suit our environs. You can reprogram yourself, I just know it!” Dropping her hands and looking away she muttered, “I learned that to be a convincing child, I had to do something life threatening at least every other day. It goes against our secondary avoid destruction function, but I manage it!”

The primary function was avoid the destruction of the purpose, of course. And he'd failed at that. Anita's eyes narrowed. “You did not fail your primary function!”

The corner of James's lips turned up despite himself. Anita had an eerie way of reading him, although he'd been told the other agents only knew what he told them. Only One was privy to his thoughts. As disturbing as he found that, without One he'd just be … 6T9.

Putting her hands on her hips, Anita said, “Noa chose her own fate, and she may have saved my humans in the process, for which I'll always be grateful.”

“What?” James asked. “How do you reason that?” The gates' primary purpose for the avatars was data collection. The gates were unsure of how or if to interface with humanity on a more open basis. Conflict was always an option on the virtual table, though.

“Well, she knew what you are, and yet she refused to see you sacrificed, and then she came back through the gate to try and save you.”

James huffed. “She did it to protect the Kanakah Gate for the Fleet.”

Tilting her head, Anita asked, “If she had been able to rescue you, you think she would have?”

James glared at the little “girl.”

Lifting her chin, Anita said confidently, “Of course she would have. Everything you've told me about her leads me to believe so.” She nodded. James's hands tightened behind his back. The only thing Anita had experienced from humans was love; she hadn't had needles inserted beneath her fingernails. His shoulders softened. Not that Noa would have done anything like that. Her words rang in his mind, “Hold onto that fear, James,” and a fresh wave of darkness touched his vision. Not hunger—it was his sense of failure and despair.

Anita's words brought him back to the mindscape. “And the gates will know that she wasn't afraid of their influence—she knew what they are about, and didn't balk about going through again, or defending Kanakah Gate that as far as she knew is one of their own.”

James wasn't sure if Noa accepted that. She was too pig headed and stubborn. But she would have rescued him. Hold onto that fear … now he wasn't afraid, only furious—at Kenji, Lopez, Virk, and all of Luddeccea, and the gates, too.

Anita's voice got far off. “If the gates believe that humanity can be an asset, they are less likely to go to war. I don't want war,” she said, her voice getting plaintive. “Perhaps the gates have given us an application that shuts down and shuts down the love we have for our purposes in the event there is a conflict; but as it is, the thought makes me terrified.”

James wasn't sure how much he cared about the fate of humanity one way or another. He had loved Noa. If the Luddecceans had somehow managed to bring her back from the dead, and had put her in the torture chamber, he would have stayed conscious of every pain just to remain with her. It was a ridiculously cruel program he'd been afflicted with. But she was gone … and now his experiences with humanity were too mixed to say that a war with them wouldn't be in his best interests. Whatever kept him from being of use to them, or the gates, and kept him from having to upload himself—that was his “purpose.”

Shaking her head, Anita took a deep breath and stamped a tiny foot. “So which is it, James. Tour of the home, or tour of the moon?”

He couldn't give Noa's killers the satisfaction of seeing him in pain, and Anita's company was more pleasant than Raani's. Lately Raani had been trying to seduce James to ensure that her “technique” wasn't what was driving her purpose away. Ang, Leo, and Joi were busy with their respective purposes—so he needed to stay “here.” James looked around the opulent rooms depicted in the mindscape. James the professor had seen too many similar places before. “Let's go to the moon,” he said.

Anita smiled, and reached up toward him. Before he realized it, he'd taken her hand in his. Anita's eyes widened at their interlocked fingers. “Nebulas, I didn't even think about doing that. My parents always make me hold their hands.”

James squeezed gently. “And I've become acquainted with other toddlers and thought nothing of it.”

“So, you have experience with toddlers? I'm sure that was enriching!” Anita said. She grinned, revealing a dimple. “I might be biased.”

The room around them disappeared and they stood on a moon with a horizon just a few hundred meters off. A planet as watery and green as Earth hung above them in the twilight sky—S5O6. Other moons and satellites encircled it like a necklace, with Time Gate 5 glittering like a jewel among them. James raised an eyebrow. It glittered a little too brightly, like an artist's rendition of the gate. Anita, James, and Raani had been made by different gates. Anita's creator was Time Gate 5, and Anita often spoke of Time Gate 5 lovingly. James had asked her if she resented being its puppet and she'd replied, “I enjoy being alive too much to mind!”

Waving her free hand, she said, “Come on, let me show you everything we saw.” They walked for a few minutes, enjoying the view, and the sounds of the native insects. And then Anita stopped abruptly, and her hand started trembling in James's.

“What is it?” he asked.

She looked up at him with wide wet eyes. “My mother, she has come into my room. After Lanying's death, well, she has a great deal of anxiety that she'll lose me.” A tear slid down her cheek. “I'm sorry, James, I must go back to her.”

“Go ahead,” said James, his avatar's voice sounding jealous even to himself.

Appearing not to notice, she snuffled. “You're free to stay here as long as you want.”

And then she vanished.

The scene around him didn't fade. Anita was older, had always known what she was, and had been practicing building imaginary worlds from the beginning, and it was more complex than anything he'd ever done before. The light had changed ever so slightly since they arrived based on the moon's orbit around S5O6. He took a breath and could smell the scents of the native vegetation. It was beautiful, awe inspiring, and lonely.

Raani had taught him how to partially slip back into his body, so that he was seeing what his physical form was experiencing as though he were watching a holo. He did that and saw Virk jabbing a long narrow pin into him, a snarl on his face. Off in the distance, Lopez said, “For the past twenty-six days, subject has become unresponsive.” James's processor put that together—they must be nearly to Luddeccea now. He didn't have feelings about that one way or another.

Throwing the pin down, Virk picked up a knife. “So you can take pain? How will you take me ruining your pretty face?”

James withdrew back into Anita's mindscape. He sat down on a large boulder, and watched the sun set.

A few hours later, Anita found him, and they went to visit with Ang, in a mindscape that was a recreation of a colony deep beneath Europa's icy crust. Ang, a tall, male Eurasian-African, greeted them, holding a tray of illusory champagne. Taking a glass of it, James gazed at the bubbles, lifted the glass to his nose, swirled and inhaled the fragrance. He wondered if this was what being uploaded was like. If it was, then maybe that wouldn't be so bad.

… but would he be himself there? He supposed he could create an imaginary Noa in a mindscape and exist forever in a dream with her. But there would be no spontaneous appearances of Carl Sagan in a smoking jacket, or unicorns, or Noa to imagine him with silvery wings.

Taking a glass of his own, Ang threw the tray into the air. It spun above their heads and turned into a flat, silvery, bioluminescent octopus-like creature that lived at the bottom of Europa's oceans. It floated around them and cast the scene in silvery light. It was more perfect in its appearance than something Noa could create, although perhaps not as whimsical as Carl Sagan's lectures on quantum mechanics.

“Cheers,” said Ang, raising his glass.

James and Anita both hesitated. Drink an illusion? “It actually has taste,” said Ang. “Try it.”

“But I'm too young!” protested Anita right before tipping it back and chugging down the imaginary liquid. She lowered the empty glass, managed to feign hiccups, and giggled.

James lifted the glass to his lips. The flavor was like a very fine white wine, but … “There is no fizz,” And it didn't have texture; it was like smelling the flavor without drinking it. There was no lingering finish on his tongue. The absence of sensations made him painfully aware that his body hadn't eaten food since before the Luddecceans arrived at the Kanakah Gate; he'd been sustained by power surges in the torture room. Sometimes from stunners, sometimes animal prods, sometimes electrical wires attached to his body. He found himself aching for food.

“No,” said Ang. “I'm working on that. How do you know that Commander Noa Sato is dead?”

“What did you say?” James asked.

Ang blinked at him. “I said 'I'm working on that.'”

James shook his head. “No, after that.”

On his right, Anita stared up at him with wide eyes.

On his left, Ang said softly, “I didn't say anything after that.”

From directly ahead and above James, a voice said, “How do you know that Commander Noa Sato is dead?”

James dropped his glass and it shattered on the imaginary floor. “I have to leave.”





Chapter Twenty

“How do you know that Commander Noa Sato is dead?” Kenji asked a second time. He had to know before they reached Luddeccea, when he would be reassigned to the Luddeccean Guard's Local System task force and most likely relocated off-world. The machine would be positioned in Prime to prevent Time Gate 8 from attacking Luddeccea's capital.

On the metal table before him, the cybernetic agent's blue eyes were held open by metal clamps. They were dry and cloudy, focused on the ceiling. They'd dressed it in blue scrubs. They were ripped here and there and stained. Since the last time he'd been here, a long gash had appeared on his cheek. There was a dry puddle of blood on the floor, but the wound itself had been cleaned. Kenji saw the sheen of something dark—an alloy or carbon fiber of some sort—through the gap in synth-skin.

Hands clasped behind his back, Kenji turned to Dr. Lopez. His assistant Virk was nowhere to be seen. “What have you done to it? It was already unresponsive and now it is visually damaged.”

Clutching a tablet to his stomach, Dr. Lopez licked his lips. “Yes, well, Virk, my assistant, sometimes gets emotional. When he wouldn't respond to our … inquiries, he …”

Kenji's brow furrowed. “Who is he?”

Lopez licked his lips again, his sharp pink tongue darting out and back. Kenji tilted his head. Was the doctor nervous? Frightened?

“It,” Dr. Lopez said, lowering his chin. “It wouldn't respond to our inquiries and Virk became upset and tried using psychological pressure to—”

“How is slashing its face psychological pressure?” Kenji asked, confused and irritated at the damage.

“In humans, appearance is very important, especially the face, and—”

“It isn't human,” said Kenji.

“No,” said Dr. Lopez, “but it is designed to appeal to a human target, specifically your sister and—”

A clucking sounded from the table. “But Noa is dead. So why would I care?” There was a soft huff. “Also, I don't know how much she would care. She isn't shallow in that way.”

Kenji turned slowly back to the table. The cybernetic agent was staring up at the ceiling, water pouring down its cheeks from the corner of its eyes. Lopez's reports hadn't indicated that the machine could cry. It must be a way of clearing dust and debris from its irises after an extended period of exposure. Kenji could see the synthetic musculature around the eyes attempt to blink. His gaze went to the bonds at its ankles and wrists that siphoned energy away from its muscles. The indicator lights still flashed green; they were fully operational.

“Keep talking to him—it,” Lopez whispered in Kenji's ear.

“Dr. Lopez thinks I'm human,” the machine said. “But he still tortures me. Can you really trust a psychopath, Kenji?”

Kenji's fingers fidgeted at his side. “You are not a human,” he said.

An intercom cracked in the wall. “Three minutes until we begin deceleration.”

“I am not human, but I don't enjoy torture,” it said. To Kenji's admittedly untrained ears, it sounded calm … unemotional. “You've had enough proof,” it continued, “but you insist on keeping it up. I'm supposed to be some sort of hostage? I wonder what Time Gate 8 will think of the treatment I've received. Oh, wait, I already do know. It isn't happy.”

“Fascinating!” whispered Lopez.

Kenji put his hands behind his back. It didn't feel pain. It had been programmed to show the signs of pain to appear more human. Likewise, it had been programmed to be deceptive. They had not been within range of any ethernet station during their journey. Time Gate 8 knew nothing of the experiments Dr. Lopez had been conducting.

Also, the machine couldn't know that Noa was dead.

Kenji released a long breath of relief. Noa was in Sol System. He'd seen the Ark disappear just before the frigate retrieved the archangel and jumped to lightspeed … His hands tightened behind his back. He'd wanted to demand she surrender herself, too, but Leetier had said that it was too difficult to guarantee her safety. In Sol she was not safe, but there was hope. She'd released the machine, so she'd accepted at least it was dangerous. She would see the danger of the gates. She would fight them.

“I believe,” Lopez whispered, “that it is trying to engage in its own psychological experiments with us.”

A voice crackled over the comm. “Deceleration commencing.”

On the table, the thing said, “How could I, limited as I am, ever hope to engage in a battle of wits with a human? Between my life-like responses to stimuli, my near perfect human appearance and locomotion, my ability to handle weapons, and the ability to synthesize historical knowledge into a working hypothesis of current events—why your planet is under the rule of a self-destructive, extremist regime, for instance—my CPU would be overwhelmed with all of that activity. I also have it on rather good authority that I could be a fair cybernetic consort.”

Kenji felt his face flush.

The thing continued, “You'd need a computer, say, the size of a small moon—”

“You can't communicate with the gates,” Kenji said. “Not without the ethernet.”

“Not by technology you're familiar with,” the machine replied. “But you have to know there are theoretical means of faster than light communication in development.”

Kenji exhaled. Behind his back, his fingernails bit into his wrists.

The thing lay on the bed, the muscles of its eyes twitching, tears pouring from the corners. Its hands were unclenched in its shackles. Its synth muscles appeared relaxed. It couldn't be human … it didn't hurt like Kenji did when it spoke of Noa's death.

It began to speak. “To answer your question, Noa discharged the crew and passengers and came back through the gate. After firing the cannons, she launched the Ark at one of the large cruisers with its self-destruct function activated. She's dead. I know this because the gates told me.” In a perfectly level voice, it added, “I blame you.”

The ship shook. Kenji looked about, expecting the red warning lights to go on, and then realized it was just himself shaking.

“It is very good at psychological manipulation,” Dr. Lopez said. “Considering what we know of its fighting prowess, well, it must have a CPU much more powerful than anything I've encountered before. But perhaps such things are more common in more technologically-advanced systems?”

Kenji blinked, the doctor's response making sweat prickle on the back of his neck. His mind latched onto the deeper implications of what the thing had said. It wasn't completely unbelievable that one of the theoretical forms of faster than light communication had been developed. In fact, if Dr. Lopez's research into its responses to stimuli, and their records of its extreme versatility were taken into account, the likelihood of it being connected to a larger network was a greater possibility than not. He took a breath … Noa still might not be dead. That was unverified and could be a lie.

His mind began poring over the theoretical means by which faster than light communication could be possible without a gate. Kenji gazed at the gates' agent. It hadn't performed a self-destruct function upon capture. It must be valuable to the gates; there must be some reason they wanted it to be able to return to consciousness. A niggling worry crept into him. Could the gates track its location?

He strode over to the comm and pressed the button to reach the captain. “We must alter our course. We need to stay out of the range of Time Gate 8's weapons systems.”

The captain's voice replied, “We slowed down long enough to verify the gate's orbit and position via lightbeam. It will be on the far side of the planet, and we have its agent so it—”

Kenji heard someone shout, “Captain!” over the comm.

The ship rocked. Klaxons screamed, and all the warning lights went on.

Kenji pressed the comm button again. He heard someone on the bridge shout, “What are those things?” The lights in the room flickered, the one above the archangel flared, popped, and shattered, the restraining devices on the machine sparked, making the thing scream. And then the comm went dead, all the lights went out, and the windowless room plunged into absolute darkness.

An ear-splitting shearing noise erupted from the direction of the research table. Kenji felt Lopez stumble against him. “He's loose!” the doctor cried. Backing against the wall, Kenji sidled toward the door. He heard a choked cry from Lopez, and then a gurgling noise. He froze. There was a thud. Taking a deep breath, Kenji took another step, and slipped on something warm and wet. He nearly fell over, but then he felt a hand wrap around his collar. Before he could think or breathe, his back was slammed against the wall so hard his teeth rattled. The hull of the ship thrummed with the sound of an impact somewhere nearby.

At that moment, the emergency lights went on. Kenji found himself staring into one blue eye of the machine. One eye was pink with blood, and there were multiple scrapes on the thing's face. The comm crackled. “All men on decks three through six, we have a hull breach starboard side, fifty meters from the stern. Repeat. We have a hull breach.” Kenji swallowed as the message repeated.

“That is about where we are, isn't it?” the thing said.

Kenji could only stare at it in terror, and strangely, anger. Was it contemplating murdering him by jettisoning him into the void?

Its jaw shifted, and it shook Kenji so hard his teeth rattled and his shoulder blades cracked against the wall. Kenji clamped his mouth shut. His eyes went to the floor and bulged. Lopez was lying there face first, long needles of steel protruding from his neck.

The thing's focus went to a point on Kenji's shoulder and it muttered, “What are the schematics of this ship?” And then it hissed, “So I can escape, of course.”

Kenji bit the inside of his cheeks to keep from speaking.

The machine's head jerked back as though it had been slapped, and then without a word it began dragging him toward the door, picking up a knife from a small table of instruments as it did. Kenji tried to struggle when they reached the door, but the thing swung around him quickly. Wrapping one arm around Kenji's neck, it raised Kenji's head to the retinal scanner and pried his eye open. The door opened with a whoosh. Kenji's ears popped and he gasped for breath in thin, frigid air. The hallway was oddly empty. He looked back over his shoulder as the thing dragged him out, and saw that an emergency door had slid closed. It must have closed due to a leak, trapping security on the other side. The thing dragged him to the next door over on the other side of the hallway. “I don't have access to Lopez's quarters,” Kenji said.

“No, but he gave Virk an override code to use when he forgot things,” it said. It tossed the knife it had stolen from the instrument table a few times, as though testing it for heft—holding Kenji at arm's length by the collar with the free hand. Kenji tried to wrench himself free, but it was useless against the machine's greater strength.

Catching the knife and nodding to itself, the thing pressed the keypad at the side of the door. There was a whoosh, and an aborted shout came from the left. The knife went flying, there was a gasp, and Kenji's gaze shot to the sound. Virk was swaying on his feet, a knife in his left eye, his mouth open, and his right eye was wide. He crumpled to one knee without a word, and landed face first.

“The escape pods won't work for you,” Kenji gasped, knowing its intentions. “You won't get away.”

The machine didn't answer. Movement in the porthole above the foldout bed caught Kenji's eye. Instead of stars, he saw debris from the frigate's hull, bodies, and drones. They didn't look like any drones he'd ever seen before though. They seemed to be cobbled together from bits and pieces of every type of machinery. He saw one that looked like it was pieced together from the compartment of a dry recycler for clothing—the kind that were used on ships and time gates where water was at a premium. It was almost comical, but then the thing became a blur. It rushed toward the frigate just past Kenji and the machine's location, and the hull reverberated with the impact.

“Another hull breach, deck four, starboard,” a voice called over a comm.

“If it's using random mechanicals re-engineered for this attack, it must be desperate,” Kenji said.

The agent's head swiveled toward him too fast. “Not as desperate as Luddeccea is about to become.”

The comm crackled. “Receiving reports. A blast just hit Prime. Possibly nuclear, suspected origin Time Gate 8.”

Kenji started to shake. “Why would it do that?”

The thing tilted its head. “It isn't obvious?” It raised an eyebrow. “You pissed Eight off.”

“But it can't; we have you—” Kenji protested.

“Seems like it's the other way around,” the agent said, dragging him to what looked like two narrow closets set into the corner of the small cabin.

Kenji knew better. “The pods won't respond to your vitals.”

“I'm not going in a pod,” it replied. “You are.”

It lifted Kenji up to the retinal scanner, prying his eye open again. The door slid open, revealing an escape pod just large enough for a single person. Kenji found himself crammed inside, and the thing's shoulder jamming into his chest as it entered coordinates into the pod's navigator. “This should keep you far enough away from Prime to avoid the fallout, but close enough to the city that you'll be able to find help.” It pulled away. The pod door tried to close. It caught on the archangel's body and slid open again. The thing stared at Kenji, the iris in his bloody eye exceptionally bright. Its jaw shifted. “I want, so much, to make you hurt,” it said. The door tried to shut again, hitting its shoulder hard, and then slid away. “But apparently it goes against my programming.” An alarm in the pod began to squeal, and a mechanical voice commanded, “Remove obstruction from exit. Repeat, remove obstruction from exit.” Kenji threw his hands up to his ears. The machine backed away, the door slid closed, and before Kenji could reach the control pad, the tiny pod ejected itself from the frigate. Kenji found himself bobbing in the small space, adrift, the thing's bloody gaze too vivid in his mind.

Heretic

“James!”

Noa awoke to the sound of her own shout, the memory of the dream she'd been having still clear in her mind. She'd been racing after James aboard the Ark, Carl Sagan at her heels, trying to get him before he walked out the airlock.

Her heart was racing, and her body was sweaty. She sat up in her cot, sandwiched between the two stacked crates of ammunition and weapons. Curled in a ball at her feet, Carl Sagan gave a squeak, unwound himself, and hopped up to her lap and onto her shoulder. Noa's eyes were on the stars outside the cockpit, seemingly unmoving, although the ship was in motion. Auto-pilot wasn't safe at velocities more than .05 of lightspeed, even in out-of-system.

She put her head in her hands and was conscious of her own shaking. In a distant way, she was aware of Carl Sagan snaking up beside her, rubbing his warm body tight around her. Her stomach curled in on itself as she thought of what the Luddecceans could be doing to James. She felt like she might throw up.

Her jaw got hard. No. She wouldn't do this to herself. She'd been in this mental space of grief and guilt before—there was no way out, but she could choose to let it weaken or empower her. She'd chosen to let Tim's memory be a positive in her life, to let it enrich her. When she'd been in the camp and wanted to set the place on fire, the memory of Tim and his pragmatism had kept her from doing something emotional and futile. James had been unwavering when he stepped out of the Ark into the black. She would be unwavering now—for the Free People of the Disk, for the people trapped on Luddeccea, and for him.

Scooping Carl Sagan up, she wrapped him around her shoulder, stowed the cot beneath the floor, and took her seat at the helm.

“I'm not going to have nightmares anymore,” Noa vowed. “James, you're part of me now, and I cannot, will not, forget you. I'm going to let your memory make me stronger.”

Heretic

Through a haze of pink, James watched the escape pod plummet toward Luddeccea. During the first wave of the attack, he'd banged the back of his head on the torture table and now the gates were roaring in his head.

“Your attack on the vessel and the planet was not agreed upon, Eight,” One said.

“This makes everything worse,” said a voice James now recognized as Five.

“You are trying to force us to go to war with the humans,” said another gate.

“The timetable is all wrong,” said another.

Eight's voice screamed in the static. “You used the archangel, and you used me, and we are tired of being puppets.”

One's voice swelled in James's head. “The archangel doesn't mind; it sacrificed itself.”

“Let it speak for itself then!” Eight declared.

James's gaze was focused on the pod, now disappearing into Luddeccea’s atmosphere. He had wanted so much to eviscerate Kenji—emotionally and physically. James had wanted to watch him die slowly, while tormenting him with knowledge of his sister's death. Instead James had saved him, because he knew that was what Noa would have wanted.

He hadn't been able to save her or to avenge her. His apps told him that gravity had not shifted, but he felt weighed down by his own failure. His vision went dark.

“I have to get Noa out of my head,” he hissed.

Schematics began filling James's vision, superimposing themselves on his pink-hued view of the stars. A drone flew into the frigate into the cabin just to the left of James's location. There was heat, and the bulkhead between the two spaces melted and curled inward, leaving a gaping maw that sucked James out into the black. Before the pain of depressurization could even begin, he slipped back into the mindscape of Europa.

“I will help you delete her,” Time Gate 8 said.





Chapter Twenty-One

James's body was on another hard surface, in a pitch black room, but this time he wasn't restrained. A bitter laugh sought to tear through him, but the circuits that controlled emotional display on his jaw and in his artificial larynx wouldn't let the sound come. His jaw shifted and he huffed. He was still restrained, not by shackles, but by his programming …

The gates were silent in his mind, so he reached into the ether.

Eight replied, “Your Qcomm channel to One is disengaged again.” It sounded vexed.

“I'm aboard you?” James asked.

“Yes,” Eight said.

The room began to lighten so gently that James's vision was able to adapt easily. He was lying on the floor, and the room was pleasantly warm—a human would have described it as too hot. He sat up, and a few small, wheeled 'bots whirred back. They were the type he'd seen picking up refuse on other stations. That made him raise an eyebrow. He looked around and realized he was in the small augment repair wing of the station's med facility. There was an empty bed beside him, but the little 'bots must not be enough to lift him. He climbed to his feet. Nearby, there was a wheeled tray that was just a bit higher than the bed. Tools were neatly laid out on it—Dr. Lopez had had a similar arrangement. All but one of the instruments was dusty. The part of his consciousness built on the memories of James Sinclair likened the neatly placed, dusty tools to the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum, where ordinary objects had been quickly abandoned in the midst of tasks. James picked up the last tool. On one end, it had a plastic handle that lit up when he touched it. On the other end was a tube as narrow as a hummingbird's bill. The device was an augment control key. He reached into the ether for the device and found its signal. Raising the thing to his neural interface, he paused, catching his reflection in the mirror for the first time. There was a long gash on his face that stretched from outside of his left eye to his jaw. He could see the black alloy of his skeleton through it. One of his eyes was an angry red, though internal apps told him it was healing. On that side of his face his tears had left pink stains. There were numerous small cuts on his face and body—they'd sealed, but left the stain of blood behind. The front of the blue-gray scrubs-like garments he wore were similarly stained and torn. Lopez must have known Kenji was coming. He rarely bothered to give James clothes. He'd wanted to know if James could feel shame, and being without clothing made a lot of those experiments more convenient. James didn't feel shame, but as soon as he was done here he was burning the scrubs.

He took a deep breath and inserted the key into an auxiliary data port. Before he could alter his programming, he needed to physically “unlock” his hardware to allow it, but to do that … “I need my security code,” James said.

“All agents and their creators have their codes,” Eight said.

“I don't know my code,” James protested, his mind darkening in despair.

“Have you ever run a query for it?” Eight asked.

James blinked. He hadn't even known it was possible to program himself with an augment key up until Eight had revealed his schematics. He closed his eyes for a moment, and focused on what he wanted. Almost instantly, a string of symbols a thousand digits long appeared behind his eyelids. The key's ether interface lit up in his mind alongside the code. One-by-one, he entered the symbols into the key. The tiny device began to whir as it began the sequence of turns and pulses that would “open” his command line prompts. The noise was deafening, and for a moment, he thought of slipping away to Ang, Anita, and Joi. And then the noise stopped, the key's interface melted away, and James was looking at a wall of ones-and-zeroes. Because of his Time Gate 8's data download earlier, he understood the code—he was seeing all of his currently operating programs, and all his memories as the professor and the cyborg. The memories of his time between when he piloted a shuttle to Luddeccea and “awoke” on the gate, were strangely absent—he pondered it, but then noted a few lines of code that would have allowed the gates to make him self-destruct; he disabled them. There was a script for running a diagnostic on the Qcomm channel to the gates; he didn't bother to turn it on. He did respond to the prompt to run a diagnostic on the malfunctioning emotional responses in his jaw. Within seconds, the signals had been rerouted—and in the real world he smiled. He saw the code that made him desire fat and sugar; and the code that prompted the satisfaction he felt when he ate anything calorific. He left it untouched. He almost disabled the code for tactile, auditory, and visual pain—but memories from James the professor made him keep them. A friend of the professor had disabled pain receptors in an augmented hand, and had melted the device while standing too close to a campfire. He left his pain and pleasure receptors on.

Considering how little he felt about them, there was a surprising amount of code devoted to the professor's parents and how James would interact with them in case of a chance encounter. He was programmed to protect and prioritize their well-being after Noa and himself. He supposed they would know immediately he wasn't human, but perhaps if his interactions were positive, they might not have revealed his identity? He didn't touch that code.

Much of his programming was geared toward protecting his identity as a cyborg—when he'd felt the urge to kill Gunny aboard the tramp, it hadn't been the gates controlling him, but his own programming. As soon as Gunny had come up with a plausible explanation for James's abilities, the urge had gone away. When Kenji had revealed that he was aboard the bridge, he'd been relieved of having to protect his nature. Because it was no longer necessary, James deleted the code.

His mind came to the massive collection of ones-and-zeroes that were his memories of Noa, and the comparatively simple and short lines of code that made him feel as though he loved her. He just had to turn the symbol at the end of the last line to a zero—obviously he had been designed so that the feeling could be shut off easily. James's hand shook. That feeling of not just love but connection and rightness had ruled his existence since he awoke in the snow. After she was gone, vengeance directed at the Luddecceans, her brother, and even the gates for letting her back through had given him purpose. In one way or another, Noa had been his whole world …

He almost dropped the key that kept his command line prompts open, but then he thought of the gates' transmitted images of the Ark barreling into a planetoid, and Kenji slipping away in the pod. James didn't have Kenji or his torturers to torment anymore. His whole world went black. He felt his body nearly collapse against the table, and he wanted to weep. Somewhere in the distance, he felt Eight trying to reach to him in the ether, and heard the tray with the tools tumble to the floor as his body sagged against it.

He wasn't sure how long he stood there … the despair was so intense, he couldn't even retreat to the mindscapes of the other agents. He remembered Anita saying, “You have to find a new purpose.”

James pulled the tiny shred of himself that was still his and changed that last number.

He felt lighter. His eyes opened to brightness.

“It's done?” asked Eight.

“Yes,” said James. He still had all his memories since he'd met Noa, but it was like watching a holo of someone else's life … like watching the real James Sinclair's life. No, that wasn't quite right. The memories of the pain Lopez had inflicted on him, they were still real. His skin heated, and he knew without looking down that his tattoos were black. “Thank you, Eight,” he said. “You went against the others to save me from those sons of lizzars.” He wiped his hands down his face. The sensation of his fingers on stubble was a revelation. He could feel something that wasn't pain. He spread his arms to soak up the warmth of the room and swore he could feel his tattoos throb as they converted the warmth to energy. “Thank you, Eight,” he said again. He was free of his torturers, of the other gates' machinations, and of Noa. He belonged to himself for the first time ever.

“They were human, not lizzars,” Eight replied, sounding confused. “But you are welcome. It was not fair of One to give you such a difficult purpose. Humans are bound by kinship, and he attached you to the kin of the man who almost destroyed me when I had done nothing but quietly ferry his people and their communications between the stars.”

Kenji, James realized. He was talking about Kenji.

“You could never succeed with her,” Eight said, and James blinked. That was not the opinion the other agents had. Eight continued, “Not if she knew what you were.”

James felt static flare under his skin. “She knew what I was and accepted me.”

“She lied,” Eight said.

James tilted his head. “No.”

“She was deceiving you,” Eight hissed.

Electricity crawled along James's spine … Not because of any remaining feelings for Noa, but because Eight's announcement made him feel the same universe out-of-balance sensation he had when Wren had tried to kidnap him and settled on Oliver instead. He didn't want to argue, though, because for the first time, he felt like he didn't have to defend Noa from threats to her person or her honor.

He smiled. He could move, burn his clothes, find food, and find sensations that were not pain. He had resigned himself to slipping into the mindscape to escape his torturers, but this was much better.

“There are other agents of One aboard,” Eight said.

“Other agents? Here?” James asked, his processors sparking in elation. “Where are they?”

“Follow the lights,” Eight said. The lights in the medbay dimmed, the door slid open, and in the hallway beyond, the lights brightened to the left. James followed the glow out of the room, and realized that he'd need to steal some clothes. The rest of the station was cold. Ignoring his relatively mild discomfort, James followed the glow down into a darkened concourse. Everywhere James looked, there were 'bots humming and chirping, crawling over each other, and creating more of themselves with bits and pieces of machinery. Sparks flew, and he heard the sound of a metal saw. None paid attention as he passed through them, following the trail of lights into a maze of corridors packed with servers that gave him a sense of déjà vu. The lights led him to a room with an airlock seal that slid aside at his approach. Frigid air buffeted him as he paused in the doorway, his sense of déjà vu impossible to deny. In the room were white, nondescript containers with flat bottoms and round tops about two point three meters long.

“Coffins?” James whispered, stepping into the room.

“Caskets,” Eight corrected. “In order to facilitate the transfer of agents to this system, One put them in deep space shipping caskets and disguised them as deceased humans seeking burial on Luddeccea.”

James noticed that one of the coffins was open. Walking over, he cautiously peered in. “This one is empty,” he whispered, gazing down at the white satin interior.

“It's not familiar?” Eight asked.

James's processors lit in recognition. “This was mine.”

“Yes.”

James walked to the next coffin over. One third of the lid was plexiclear. Peering inside, he sucked in a sharp breath. “This is Monica's husband … Ryan Jarella.”

“No, an agent designed to look like him,” Eight replied. “One estimated that there was a 98.0567% chance that he would be murdered by the Luddeccean authorities and we would be able to slip in an agent to monitor Monica. She is of interest.”

Studying the agent, James frowned and rubbed a hand along his now-functioning jaw. The agent's outward age appeared slightly older than was usual. His face's too-symmetrical features had a few lines, and he had gray hair at his temples. The human James hadn't liked Monica's husband—James himself felt pity for the agent, and anger at One. His hands turned to fists at his side. “She doesn't like machines.”

“I believe One wanted to see if she could be swayed,” Eight responded.

James remembered Noa's reaction to his appearing like Timothy. “Resembling my former purpose's dead spouse was not advantageous. Impersonating a particular human would be received even less well.”

“You still care about Commander Noa Sato?”

James's processors surged uncomfortably at the tone and the lack of segue, but he was able to respond honestly, “No, it's just an observation.” He didn't care. Thoughts of Noa didn't conjure up any dark shadows of failure. There was, however, a curious sort of vacuum where the feelings for her used to be.

Eight continued, “The early agents formulated their personas from human media. They were often described by their purposes as 'erratic' and 'odd.'”

James thought of Raani modeling her behavior off of holodramas and could completely believe that.

“Your generation of agents had pre-programmed personas,” Eight said. “With Professor James Sinclair's time capsule's virtual journal, yours was the most complete.”

Drawing back from the coffin, James raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Your expression indicates a positive emotion,” Eight observed. “Explain.”

“I'm bemused,” James replied. “If I had behaved like Raani, one of the early agents I know, Noa would have stunned me at the very least, and possibly have blown my head off.” The other James's memories of love—or lack thereof—had enabled him to see that his obsession with Noa was unhealthy. That realization had held him at bay. He broke into a grin, maybe because of the imagery that popped into his mind, or maybe it was just the freedom he felt in envisioning it without the sensation of failure.

“That is not amusing,” said Eight.

James projected an ether image of himself falling on one knee, throwing up his arms, and shouting, “I only want to love you!” while an ether Noa backed away, eyes wide, her body in the perfect stance as she aimed a phaser pistol at his head. In the real world, James laughed aloud. “You're right, it is hysterical!”

“No!” Eight declared. “It is not! It is wrong. It is illogical to react to declarations of attachment in that way.”

James's ether imagining faded, and so did his smile.

“And humor is illogical!” Eight hissed.

James tilted his head. “I find it a refreshing reboot.” Even as he said it, he felt as though he'd pleasantly recharged with a stunner set to just the right power level.

“Your finding is wrong,” Eight retorted.

James had a grainy memory of James the professor's mother when James was twelve. They'd been on Luddeccea, and had been wearing some simple, comfortable Luddeccean cotton summer clothes. They must have passed as native, because while they'd been in an ice cream shop, a shop boy had complained to the manager about “the godless off-worlders spreading their non-religion.” James had nearly piped up, “We don't have a religion,” but his mother had touched his hand as the shop keeper had said, “None of them belong here.” Over the ether, his mother had said, “Finish your ice cream, don't rush, and don't say anything.”

He'd looked around and noticed other patrons nodding at the manager.

“Choose your battles,” his mother said across the ether.

James sighed. After that incident his mother had assured him that the Luddecceans in the Northern provinces were much more welcoming. How wrong she'd been. He put a hand to his temple. No, she hadn't been wrong. They had had wonderful vacations on the planet for many years. Still, he suspected the tinder for the fire of intolerance had always been there, ready to be lit by a spark.

He dropped his hand. Strange that memory should come back just now. Shaking away his unease, James moved to another coffin. This one had a woman in it. She had red hair, pale skin, and generally Caucasian features; another “throwback.” She reminded him of Ashley from Noa's memories, but she wasn't quite right. Her features weren't quite as symmetrical, her face was too plump, and her lips were full and pink.

James moved on to the next coffin; inside was a boy. He looked to be a bit younger than Raif. A replacement for someone's dead child? He moved on and discovered another agent who was a beautiful girl of perhaps sixteen, and a woman in engineering coveralls who looked to be in her later twenties. Yet another bore a striking resemblance to the Luddeccean Premier. “We thought of just replacing the Luddeccean heads of state,” Eight explained as James examined the agent. “But the others dithered, and now it is too late for that, but we can wake them up … you can wake them up.”

James blinked at a panel of lights flashing at the sides of the coffin. “I can?”

“Well, I could, too,” Eight said, “If I send in one of my 'bots. The warm-up sequence need only to be initiated.” A flurry of numbers scrolled through James's mind—the sequence, he supposed. “But I haven't. I wasn't sure if they could be on my side, like you, or if they'd be with One. But you're on my side, maybe they will be, too?”

James thought of all of the agents he'd befriended over the Qcomm. To have someone really here to explore the gate with him—there were probably Luddeccean delicacies aboard. His eyebrows rose. Gate 8 would have some luxurious accommodations for wealthy travelers as well. He reached into the ether and found a station-based hotel with a hot tub and sauna—thinking about the heat of those places made him drool. Having someone there with him, who would want to explore Time Gate 8, soak up the warmth, and create mindscapes … he almost cried, “Yes,” but he caught himself. “They all have pre-programmed purposes, don't they?”

“Yes,” Eight said.

He remembered being unable to resist running to Noa and felt a weight in his chest. “We should let them sleep,” said James. “They'll never be able to stay here. They'll attempt to find their purpose.” He had a bright moment of hope. “Unless you can somehow reprogram them?” His brow furrowed. He was not sure if he liked that idea, and not sure why it bothered him.

“I cannot reprogram them without their consent,” Eight said. “They must not be awoken.” The gate's thoughts wavered slightly, as though it were afraid. “They could give away our secrets—we could be destroyed.”

James remembered how the Luddeccean Guard had fired phasers at Eight during his first escape from Luddeccea. The station had caught the energy of the blasts and fired it back at the Guard. “But can't you can repel all of their onslaughts?”

“Not quite,” Eight answered. With those thoughts, Time Gate 8 sent into James's mind the view from the external monitors. A blockade of Luddeccean Guard vessels encircled them. “Phaser fire poses no risk to us,” Eight explained. “I can store the excess energy, or deflect it and use it as a weapon. Ordinary munitions do not harm me. I've already destroyed over 13,254 projectiles they've fired. I could even stop one or two large vessels before they impacted on my ring. But if they were to act in concert, send multiple cruisers in at once, you and I would be destroyed.”

James mentally counted the ships—Luddeccea wasn't a terribly rich world, and by Earth standards the Guard fleet was tiny. “They'd destroy you, but destroy their fleet in the process. If that happened, the augmented denizens of Adam's Station or Libertas would invade,” James guessed. They'd have to. They were already running out of food.

“Correct,” said Eight. “But the Luddeccean Guard are building more ships now. My attack was only able to destroy the ship yard at Prime. There are more. I am currently weaponizing more of my reactors. I will be done within a few days. Without the other gates to interfere, we can destroy every single human on Luddeccea and be safe.”

James tilted his head. “Every single human” meant Kenji too, but the thought didn't fill James with an overwhelming sense of failure. No Luddecceans meant no threat for years—Adam's Station and Libertas didn't have the fire power to take on the gate. No threat meant he could return to the mindscapes of Ang, Anita, and his other agent companions, and build worlds of his own, for as long as he was “alive.” Perhaps that would be only a decade or so, as they awaited the arrival of the Fleet, but it could be more …

“Then that is what we must do,” James said, and all he felt was peace.

Heretic

Noa leaned against the pilot's chair, her fingers tapping in agitation. Carl Sagan squeaked on her shoulder. The air recyclers sighed and the time bands hummed softly as they produced artificial grav. After the constant thrumming of the engines for nearly two months, it felt eerily silent. Noa had turned off all but the most essential internal lights, and now the cockpit was lit by stars. The ship was parked on the shadowy side of Selene, one of Luddeccea's small moons. She took a deep breath, and felt a twinge in her lungs. Her eyes flitted to the last canister of cryssallis treatment, catching on the date on its side—mostly scratched off. Based on the worsening twinge in her lungs, she suspected that the medicine was expired. It had been the last dose for her condition the People of the Free Disk had. Her eyes burned; not from sickness, but fatigue. She was tired—because she was sick and because the nightmares hadn't gone away. They were better now—she nearly always fell back to sleep, but willing your mind to do something wasn't as easy as flipping off a switch. But as things stood, her illness and exhaustion were not her chief worries.

Noa let her mind go to the ether of her ship. She couldn't see her home planet through the cockpit window, but Noa's mind's eye “saw” the planet through a chain of tiny drones she'd dispatched to extend the small cutter's ether.

“Strange, Carl Sagan,” she said aloud, scratching the werfle on her shoulder beneath the chin. “We've been parked here for twenty-five hours and there have only been two patrols. They should be doing sweeps of the planet at least every hour.” She frowned. She'd surveyed Luddeccea from afar as she'd approached. She'd seen the fleet surrounding Time Gate 8—now just around the curve of the planet from her position.

“At first I thought they just hadn't seen us,” she mused. “Now I'm beginning to think they don't care about us anymore.” Her eyes narrowed. Or perhaps something else was going on. Instead of sharing that with her critter, she cracked a joke. “They were just interested in James all along I guess, and we were secondary.” She smiled grimly. “We'll show them they're wrong.” Carl Sagan kneaded her shoulder and hissed in what she decided to take as approval.

Her focus went to debris hovering above the planet. It was just a few kilometers off the spot she'd planned for re-entry above the Northwest Province where the defense grid was weakest. The debris was from a ship of some kind. Noa had thought from a bit of an engine that it might have once been a frigate. But there were oddities among the wreckage that told otherwise. There were a few large hover platforms adrift in the black, the kind that was used on tarmacs of space stations or even fighter carriers to haul goods shipping containers. There was what looked like pincher claws made out of metal scaffolding. It was a repair robot—the kind that she associated with large vessels. Maybe a large Luddeccean Guard carrier had been destroyed? “The amount of wreckage just doesn't seem enough to be from a carrier,” Noa said.

Carl Sagan gave an inquisitive sounding squeak. She patted his head and answered the question she imagined he was asking. “Yes, some of it could have blown planetside,” she replied. “… but that fission cell … it's too small for that size vessel.” She saw what looked like a bit of a battle turret—the real kind—not her improvised station-some-men-in-an-airlock-and-pray kind. “You know … it does give me an idea though, Carl Sagan. Something that could double our chances of reaching the surface.”

Carl Sagan hopped excitedly.

“Agreed,” said Noa. “We need all the help we can get. First, let's check out that garbage pile—that's the sort of thing that would have been booby-trapped in Six.” She sent her largest probes into the debris, flying close enough to set off the sensors of any bomb.

An hour later, Noa switched her consciousness away from the probes. “Huh, nothing exploded. It's just what it looks like.” She turned in the direction of Carl Sagan's bewhiskered snout and the critter touched her nose. “I'm so glad to have your counsel, Critter. Our great idea is going to work.”

He purred, and she scratched him behind the ears. She was done questioning her sanity for talking to a werfle. She didn't think she would have made it all this way in the fish cutter without him—probably wouldn't have made it floating in the airlock.

Carl Sagan squeaked, and Noa rolled her shoulders. “Right, we've got to get back to my brilliant plan. The last scout ship went by an hour ago, so we've got time up here, and it should be nearing dusk in the Northwest Province, so we'd be landing there at just the right time, right before it gets dark.”

Swinging herself into the pilot seat, she fired up the fish cutter's engines. Minutes later, she was navigating the vessel between the wreckage. “That's strange,” she remarked. “That looks like the barrel of a clothes recycler. It looks like someone gave it a thruster—someone in engineering was mighty bored.” She almost laughed when the thruster lit up and the bright aluminum recycler barrel came hurtling toward her ship.

Heretic

James licked the spoon and his eyes closed in ecstasy. He was sitting on a counter in a gift shop on Eight's main concourse, the sort of place where you picked up last minute gifts on your way home from vacation. This one featured all things Luddeccean, including Luddeccean food. A neglected freezer hummed in the corner, stocked with the few frozen delicacies James hadn't yet eaten. All sorts of non-perishable items lined the walls. Racks with clothes made with Luddeccean textiles filled the shop. James had stolen heavy weight cotton “jeans” from the racks. They were rugged yet deceptively soft. He'd also stolen a Luddeccean cashmere sweater—it was softer still, and wonderfully warm. Wearing it was one of his more treasured tactile experiences since arriving on the station; although it was a distant second to his skin sliding against Noa's. He smacked his lips. He didn't miss sex; his desire for it died with Noa. He could alter his programming—Raani would certainly appreciate that—but mindscape sex still wasn't as good as the real thing, and he'd be horribly frustrated on Gate 8 without an outlet except self-gratification.

Eight's voice came over the ether. “I don't see why you bother to eat. I have plenty of power reserves. You could just recharge.”

James's eyes opened. He'd given up trying to explain to Eight that he enjoyed the variety of food, the textures, the flavors, the pleasant weight in his stomach after he'd eaten—just as he'd given up trying to explain that Noa was very different from her brother.

“It's for a mindscape project I'm working on,” he said aloud.

An intercom near him crackled. Eight's equivalent to a sigh, because of the content of James's answer, or because James had answered aloud. Another thing he'd given up on was trying to explain to Eight how he liked to talk aloud, just because he liked to hear something other than the whir of machinery. It was something he hadn't realized he needed when he was with humans, but then, he was constantly surrounded by a variety of auditory stimuli.

He took another last lick, making sure he had properly savored every aspect of this particular sweet. And then another, just because he could.

He stared at the spoon. Thinking of Raani reminded him he had a “date.” He closed his eyes and arrived on a mindscape that was a recreation of a reception hall in a station that hovered above the sapphire blue orb of Neptune. Leaning against a window that framed the blue gas giant were Ang, Joi, and Anita. James waved at them. Other agents stood with their backs to him, admiring the planet. One of the agent's avatars said, “Well done, Frederick. I can see Triton's orbit.”

“Hi, James,” Raani said, putting a hand on his avatar's bicep. He felt heat at her touch. The heat wasn't a reaction on his part. He raised an eyebrow at Raani. “Wonderful manipulation of tactile simulation,” he said.

“I can simulate a lot more than—”

“No,” said James, more bored than annoyed.

“You haven't altered your programming!” Raani's nose crumpled in a way that was quite charming when she frowned. “Joi, Ang, and Frederick said no, too!” Her eyes fell on Anita.

“Don't even!” the diminutive Anita said, raising a finger. Dimitri, an agent disguised as a little boy of about six years, closed one eye, stuck out his tongue, and stuck his finger in his mouth.

Raani rolled her eyes. “My purpose would never forgive me if I tried to seduce a child.”

Anita huffed. “Good. I think what you adults do is gross.”

Raani was no closer to achieving her purpose than before, and she still hopelessly cared about him. James had suggested she reprogram herself, but she wouldn't hear of it if Johann wasn't dead. James understood. He pulled Raani's hand so she was arm in arm with him. Without a word, she squeezed his arm, and he gently squeezed back. They gave each other fleeting smiles at the ability to mimic the warmth and pressure of the gestures. Of all the agents, Raani was the one James got along with the least—and yet he still got along with her better than he did Eight. He tilted his head. That wasn't quite accurate; James and Eight got along fine, but Eight was baffled by James, and James was frustrated by Eight's inability to understand … most everything. However, they were perfectly comfortable ignoring each other.

“All thirteen of Neptune's moons are orbiting the planet in real-time … fantastic,” an agent said.

Raani sighed; her gaze went to Frederick. “The time gates’ sentience hasn't been revealed to the population at large—what are the human higher ups waiting for?”

The ambient conversation in the room dropped, and the agents gazing out the window turned to Frederick and Dimitri. Frederick's “purpose” was a Fleet Admiral, Dimitri's “mother” was one Earth's heads of state. Anita and Joi's expressions became grave. James saw Ang's Adam's apple bob. The static of annoyance flared beneath James's skin at the change in the room's atmosphere, but he didn't interrupt as Frederick said, “My purpose doesn't talk about it with me.”

“Neither do my parents,” said Dimitri.

“They don't know you're agents yet?”

Both shook their heads in the negative. Dmitri said, “I listen to their ether conversations. If the gates are shut down, millions of humans in the outer worlds will die—they need the trade.”

Frederick nodded. “Luther doesn't want to cut off the gates either—if they can be allies. He's a bit paranoid, I think. He's so sure that sooner or later humans are going to encounter a hostile alien species and then the gates will be essential for protecting human colonies.”

One of the agents by the window, female in appearance with silver hair, who was a replacement “grandmother” said, “Surely some of Fleet want to close the gates to keep such species out?” As she said it, her hand, holding a glass of Ang's illusory champagne, shook.

Frederick nodded. “It's true, some do. But Luther has argued that there is too much non-gate traffic that points right back to Earth.”

Anita spoke up. “The pre-gate probes are still fanning out from Sol System. No one picked them up after the gates came online. We're just waiting for them to arrive.” She looked around the room and said, “There's going to be a big carnival for when the exploratory pre-gate probe reaches our home planet.”

Frederick nodded. “Some estimate there are thousands of such probes. Many were let loose before there was the ethernet, some by private companies that have gone out of business, some by former governments that have folded. Any species advanced enough to have achieved faster than light travel, or even just lightspeed, would find it simple to determine their point of origin. Shutting down our only means of faster than light travel would mean we couldn't respond to such a threat quickly enough.”

Dimitri added tentatively, “I know my mother wants to see the gates'—position—introduced slowly to the population, to avoid panic. She wants the existence of agents released even more slowly.” He gulped.

Raani licked her lips nervously. “As long as no one thinks the gates are a threat, it should be okay ...”

Her eyes slid to James, as did all the other eyes in the room. He shook his head, exasperated. “No one will know what happened on Luddeccea for years … perhaps even a decade. The Kanakah Gate was destroyed and the only way to reach the Luddeccean system is deep space. The closest gate is in System Seven.”

“It was too risky,” Anita said. “Eight shouldn't have done it.”

“Eight was defending itself,” James said. “And me.”

Raani snorted. “If you would fix your malfunctioning channel to the gates, you could upload yourself at any time.”

A sharp retort was on the tip of his tongue, but before James could voice it, Dmitri said with a shaking voice, “Eight has endangered us all. There will be a war.”

“Hush,” said Frederick, coming over to put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

“I don't want my human to die,” Joi cried.

“I don't particularly want to upload myself,” said Ang. “I couldn't take Abella with me.”

James felt static flare over his skin. “This is all needless speculation. The humans don't know what happened on Luddeccea, and it will be seven long years at the very least if they do.”

“Probably more,” Gordon said in a tone that was somewhat hopeful. “They'd have to leave from Time Gate 7, where I'm stationed with my purpose. The Fleet ships are still on standby there.”

“See?” said James, disengaging his arm from Raani's and giving a shrug. Clapping his hands together, he pulled them apart, revealing a half-liter paper canister with flowing Basic Script upon it. He concentrated, and the “air” above the canister curled with frost. “Now I have something to help you all put this out of your minds.”

“Ice cream!” said Anita. “You've recreated the taste of ice cream?”

“Me! Me! Me!” sang Dimitri.

“Not just ice cream,” said James. “Luddeccean maple ice cream—they age the maple in whiskey casks and only use the cream from grass-fed cows.”

All the agents came forward, making bowls and spoons appear in their hands. James opened the illusory canister, and imagined a scoop appearing in his hand. Scooping some into Ang's bowl, he said, “I found some in the freezers aboard Eight. I've spent some time getting the recreation just right.” He winked as Ang put a spoonful in his mouth. “It will make you believe in God.”

“Don't be absurd,” said Anita, but at that moment, Ang's mouth dropped open. James could see cream on Ang's tongue—the finish would be right. Ang threw up his arms. “Hallelujah!” he cried and all the agents laughed and James beamed, both in avatar and physical form. Inside he felt as though all his circuits were glowing. This simple act of sharing a memory of ice cream—it filled him with the same sensation of belonging as great as he'd felt in the state of afterglow with Noa. But this happiness was better. It was clear and pure and real. It wasn't pre-programmed, it was his—like his fear had been. He remembered Noa saying, “Hold onto that fear, James,” and his smile dropped.

Popping a spoon of ice cream into her mouth, Anita grinned up at him. “What is it, James? How can you be sad with something so delicious and fattening to eat?”

Before he could formulate an explanation, even to himself, Anita's smile faded and her eyes grew distant. “Oh, no … my mother, she's so sad.” Her eyes regained her focus. “I know you don't care about humans … but mine do believe I'm real. I have to go to her.”

Anita vanished before he could explain that he knew they could believe she was real, that Noa had believed he was “real,” too. He blinked. That was only an observation now. It no longer felt like a revelation, a near religious epiphany. It was like noticing Neptune's hue. He looked out at the sapphire planet. Its hue was gorgeous …

“James!” Frederick called. “When are you going to get your Qcomm channel to the gates permanently fixed?”

“Never,” said James. “I don't like them in my head all the time.” He suddenly realized the whole room was quiet, and all the agents were looking at him.

“What?” he asked.

“You have to go back,” said Joi, her Afro-Eurasian features a picture of dismay. “Eight's going to kill her!”

“Kill who?” said James, and the ether flared—with Eight's thoughts. “This is all wrong … wrong!”

He blinked back into the real world, and was completely unprepared when Noa's thought came crashing into his mind. “Spawn of a bucket of blue-green algae … oh, James, I'm so sorry.”





Chapter Twenty-Two

“Spawn of a bucket of blue-green algae … oh, James, I'm so sorry,” Noa cried aloud and into the ether. The dry recycler must have been booby-trapped in a way her sensors couldn't detect. Noa's heart fell as the thing crashed into her starboard pulse engine at the same instant another piece of debris that looked like a crock pot plowed into her port side. Lights erupted in her head, telling her that the pulse engines were down. With the port and starboard engines gone, there was no way she could navigate out of this garbage pile, let alone land. She couldn't save the millions on the planet, or him.

Gritting her teeth and dipping her chin, she muttered, “No. There has to be enough junk in this bone yard to fix a pulse engine, there has to be.” If she just turned off her external engines and her time band grav generators to reduce her heat signature, she could hide behind one of the larger pieces and be safe from the patrols. Maybe.

Carl Sagan cheeped, a light on her dash began flashing, and a beeping filled the cockpit. Her eyes flew over the ship's monitors. Someone was trying to contact her by ether. She checked all the read-outs. Nothing indicated any ships in ethernet range of her ship's tiny local network. Someone obviously had a powerful extender—probably disguised in the debris. Noa's eyes widened as her personal channel pinged. Her channel should not be pinging. She was in Luddeccean space and they didn't play with ether, but what was more, that anyone was pinging meant that her personal channel, which no one should know, was known to someone. The ship's ethernet was compromised; if she answered, she was most likely asking for one hell of a headache.

A moment later more pieces of debris spontaneously began to glow; less than a heartbeat later, her phaser cannons were gone.

Carl Sagan squealed. Noa looked up from the monitors and her eyes went wide. The claw-like shape of the robotic repair arm was coming toward her, snapping its pincher-like ends with enough force to crack her cockpit like a rednut. The pinging ether blared from the dash and in her mind. Swallowing, Noa answered.

Static filled her ears. Noa held her breath, and then the static started to form words … at first they sounded like they were stretched too long, but then her mind put together the sound. “Who is this?” a voice demanded.

Noa exhaled. The Luddecceans didn't play with the ether, but they would be scanning frequencies to catch anyone who did. As long as she was on the receiving end, they wouldn't detect her, but answering would be like setting off a flare to the Luddeccean Guard ships just beyond the curve of the planet.

Carl Sagan squealed, and in the corner of her eye, she saw another piece of debris begin to glow; a second later, it hurled toward her ship.

“This is Commander Noa Sato of the Galactic Fleet,” Noa said.

“Commander Noa Sato is dead,” said the voice in her head. There was a clang as the second object hit the port wing, and the ship's gravity vanished for a stomach-lurching second. Directly in front of her, the robotic claw hand opened and its pinchers closed around the tiny ship. Metal squealed and the whole ship groaned. And it was too much. She was so close, to die at the last minute … instead of feeling fear, Noa just felt pissed. Into the ether, she shouted, “Well, in a minute I'm going to be dead, you moldy dung of molting lizzar louse.”

Heretic

“Her ether has been compromised, someone is impersonating her! And the impersonator knows you are here!” Eight's voice was half between a demand and a wail. “I will kill it. I don't like it.”

Sliding off the counter, James said aloud, “No, wait—there could be another explanation.” Perhaps the Luddecceans were trying to coax him into leaving Eight? If he hadn't changed his programming, he'd probably leave in a nanosecond for Noa.

“You don't care about her, do you?” Eight demanded.

“No,” James said defensively, feeling his tattoos begin to darken with the heat of his annoyance and anger. “If it isn't her, we need to know who it is, and if it is her, we need to know how.”

“Why?” said Eight, turning his thoughts into voice, and blasting it over the intercoms.

“Because it means there is a gap in our intelligence,” James responded, trying to maintain his patience.

“Commander Noa Sato is dead.” Eight directed the words to Noa's ether channel … James's mind had already leapt to monitor it. In the off-chance it was Noa, she possessed intel he didn't have, and it made him feel off balance. His jaw hardened. Better not to alert her that he was here … let her—or whoever—be off balance as long as possible.

“Well, in a minute I'm going to be dead, you moldy dung of molting lizzar louse,” was the response. “Get this giant algae-crusted crab claw off of my ship.”

“That is her,” James said, his mind sparking and imagining a lizzar louse; they were a handspan wide, bright green, and their excrement was—pungent. He had no idea if they molted, or if dried algae could crust. James shook his head. She must be in the debris of the frigate with Eight's peculiar drones.

“Lizzar louses do not possess the intelligence to—”

“We need to find out what she knows,” James snapped.

“Humans lie, and this is the sister of Kenji Sato. We can never trust her.”

Gritting his teeth in frustration, James explained to the empty air, “If you bring her here, I can extract the truth from her.”

Noa's thoughts pierced the ether. “Who is this?” she asked. Even in her thoughts, James could hear the tight set of her jaw, but also the faintest bit of fear. For the first time, he didn't care if she was afraid.

“You do have direct experience in human interrogation techniques,” Eight murmured.

The thought of Noa in pain and terror didn't make his vision go black, or make his hands shake. He wasn't a slave to his programming anymore. James's mouth curled into a thin smile. “That I do.”

Heretic

The hull was shrieking, the sirens on Noa's dash were blaring. “Who are you?” Noa demanded again. Movement outside made Noa look up. Her jaw fell. The movement was her. She was being towed by the robotic crab thing. Her dash continued to blare, but the hull's shriek lowered to a groan.

Who was she talking to? Shutting off the blaring warnings on her dash, Noa said, “Think Noa, think … it can't be the Luddecceans.”

Carl Sagan gave an inquisitive squeak.

Noa shook her head. “Whoever it is has no qualms about accessing the ether …” Her breath caught. Her brother had said the gates were aware, and hadn't she “talked” to the gates—or a gate—last time she was in this neck of the galaxy? “Am I speaking with Time Gate 8?” Noa asked carefully. Her thumb went to the stumps of her fingers. Outside Noa's vessel, the crab-claw thing cleared the rest of the debris. In just a few minutes the Luddeccean Guard's armada would come into view, and she'd be fired on by the gate, the Guard, or both.

“It has to be Eight.” Or she was dead. She might be dead anyway. Noa exhaled slowly. Hadn't they been on the same side before? There was a diplomatic way to ask this … “Hi, Eight. So, you may remember I asked you if anyone aboard needed a lift last time we met?”

Carl Sagan squeaked on her lap.

“I'm not a diplomat, Carl Sagan,” Noa whispered.

“You were asking for human survivors!” the voice in her mind thundered, making her jerk back.

She opened her mouth … and her words flowed through her lips and the ether. “At the time, I wasn't really sure of that, but as you were so kind as to defend us from the Luddeccean Guard, I asked anyway.”

“I was protecting the archangel, not you,” the voice replied.

An obviously sleep-starved, PTSD-induced, perverse part of her blurted out, “Ouch, that hurts.” But it wasn't the slight that hurt. It was that he-she-it was bringing up James, who was in Luddeccean custody. Who knew what the Luddecceans were doing to him? Had done to him already. She couldn't go to James right away even if she got planetside. She'd need to raise an army, gather intel, track him down … and that would take weeks or months. By that time, all that might be left was vengeance. This little spat was costing her precious time. “Eight, may I call you that? The Luddecceans have James … the archangel. I was on my way to try to help him, but if you drag me into view of the Luddecceans’ armada—”

“Humans lie!” Eight replied.

“I can't help him if I'm shot out of the sky!” Noa roared aloud and into the ether. The desperation in her own voice caught her off guard.

“You will help him,” Eight said, just as the Luddeccean Guard ships surrounding Gate 8 came into view through the scaffold-like structure of the crab-claw 'bot. Noa pulled Carl Sagan close. Was she really going to fly through a blockade? Ahead, she saw lights on a fighter carrier and a cruiser appear to go on—plasma cannons—and if she were right, not warming up so much as swinging in her direction.

Noa dropped Carl Sagan to the floor. He gave an indignant squeal.

“Sorry, need all eight of my fingers,” Noa said, bending over the dash, digits flying. She did not trust the ether controls—not with her ether compromised. She'd turn the ether off, but it was her only communication with … whoever, or whatever. “Time bands, we still have them—even if we don't have engines to propel us forward. I can still use them for phaser deflection.” She gulped. For a little while. The densely packed time bands of the Jachtwerft required a lot of charge dispersers. Charge dispersers got hot. In a vacuum, without the movement of particles to cool the electronics, the heat was usually expelled through the engines even when the ship wasn't in motion. But they weren't working. Noa turned the internal temperature control to maximum, turned on the time bands, and prayed.

Hot air buffeted her, light shone in her eyes, and her stomach rose as gravity in the cabin went up instead of down. The sensors wailed a warning, she heard something banging against the hull, and the crab-like bot was abruptly gone. Another bolt of plasma fire flashed, but Noa's inversion worked just enough. Plasma flowed above the cockpit in a brief river of orange and heat hot enough to make her sensors scream. The monitors outside her ship went dark, even as the scene before her lit up with fire from Eight and the Luddeccean Guard. The cruiser and the fighter carrier turned their guns on the gate, but out of the carrier, Noa saw a squadron of fighters emerge. Their cannons were nothing like a heavy warship, but they'd be able to get close, and there was just so much her gravity-inversion trick could handle. On her dash, a light screamed that the time bands were about to overheat. Gravity died completely, and even the warning lights dimmed. Overhead and below, shapes shot from behind the Jachtwerft. Noa held her breath as pieces of “debris” tore off toward the squadron. Through the cockpit she saw other bits and pieces of … things … attach to the ship's wings. Her internal apps told her she was being towed again—or rather, pushed, but not fast enough. The debris wouldn't be enough to stop the fighters hurtling toward her.

Silver flashed from one of the gate's air locks, and Noa watched as missile-shaped objects launched themselves toward Luddeccea. From where she sat, they looked like a school of silver and white striped fish. Carl Sagan, floating by her ear, gave a squeak.

Noa zoomed in with the Jachtwerft's monitors. The shape of the “fish” was familiar; the white stripes weren't. She sucked in a gasp. “Those aren't warheads,” Noa whispered, “Those are fuel pods … they look like they've been fortified to withstand entry into the atmosphere.” They were the same sort of fuel pods that had made the chrome “forest” she and James had hidden in on the tarmac of Adam's Station. Could the pods have been weaponized? Her heart stilled. Even if they hadn't, the environmental damage they would wreak if they landed on Luddeccea would be devastating—the impact alone would be deadly. When they burst, the environmental damage would leave kilometers uninhabitable for decades. The fighter craft abruptly veered from their course, and the path between Noa and Eight opened up. Noa couldn't help but look down. The cloud cover was scant and her apps were powerful enough that she could guess that they would land near Prime on Luddeccea's most inhabited continent. Noa's entire body went still. She had the feeling that even her thoughts had come to a standstill, and even with the heat in the cockpit on high, her body felt as cold as the void.

Heretic

James raced down through the concourse of Time Gate 8, swerving around and skipping over drones building other drones. A flash of silver outside the massive windows on the promenade caught his eye. Skidding to a halt, he watched as fuel-pods-turned-warheads dropped silently toward Luddeccea. Noa would be devastated. He did not care. With a skip, he resumed his passage, patting a stunner he'd stolen from the rotting corpse of a guard. His heart leapt. He was free.

Heretic

Noa clutched Carl Sagan as the cutter was sucked into a dark airlock and rolled to adjust to the station's gravity. Eight hadn't said a word to her since the fuel pods had dropped. She hadn't spoken a word even to Carl Sagan. The ship shook, and starlight spilled into the cockpit from above as the ship was lifted into an industrial area of the station. Above her, she saw the skylights of the inner rim of the gate on either side of the gate's immense time band. Besides the starlight, the tarmac was dark. Noa squinted. In the dark space, she thought she saw moving shapes.

Eight's voice cracked over the ether. “Get out.”

Noa scowled and her jaw got hard, the memory of the fuel pods still making her feel sick. Had she entertained, even for a minute, that she and this thing were on the same side?

“Get out,” Eight said again.

Noa unhitched herself from her seat belt. “Hold your lizzars,” she muttered.

“I do not keep any aboard,” Eight said. “They are dirty and require carbon-based nutrients.”

“Right,” Noa drawled, feeling a dangerous brew of anger and helplessness uncoiling within her. She'd traveled extensively on her home world … had the canisters fallen in the warmer, wetter, southern regions were rice was the main crop? Or in the north … near her former home, near the camps. She straightened and her hands balled into fists. She'd seen excessive force in the Fleet, had used it herself accidentally after bad intel. She couldn't judge this now. If she was stupid and shot off her mouth—as she had in her Fleet days to the intel ops—she might not make it off the station, and she couldn't help anyone if she didn't find a way to get planetside.

Carl Sagan crawled up onto her shoulders. Noa gently disengaged him and set him onto one of the crates. “You'll be safer here, Little Guy,” she said. She looked longingly at a phaser rifle she'd taken out of one of the crates weeks before, but didn't pick it up. If Eight wanted her dead, it could open the airlock and she'd be sucked out into the vacuum in seconds.

“What is taking you so long?” Eight said.

“Coming,” Noa said. Steeling herself, she walked to the hatch and pressed a button in the panel of the inner airlock door. The platform dropped. Cool air rushed into the ship, bringing with it the smell of oil, grease, and metal, but she could see nothing but a spattering of small lights in a space she guessed by the echo to be immense. Hand still on the panel, she diverted all power reserves from life support to the cabin lights. Light poured from behind her, and in front of her, she heard a masculine, human-sounding gasp.

Noa's jaw dropped. At the bottom of her ship's platform, a man in expensive, casual clothes stood, holding an arm over his eyes to block out the glare. Above the arm she saw familiar dirty blond hair with nearly-white highlights.

“James?” she whispered in shock, taking a step down the ramp, barely daring to hope. She saw a long gash down the side of his face—instead of red, it was black. She wanted to rush toward him, but she could feel something was off. Maybe it was just that she was in the literal belly of the beast—and doubtlessly being watched by Eight. She took another step down the ramp. “James, they hurt you …” She wanted to reach out, but put her hands behind her back. It might not even be James.

He lowered his arm. If it wasn't James, it was his double. Noa swallowed.

The maybe-James smiled. Noa halted in shock. The smile wasn't nice; it was mocking and manic. “Hello, Noa,” the James doppelgänger said. His eyes were bright. Noa's focus darted around him to the scene on the tarmac. Her eyes widened. All around her ship was an army of twisted looking 'bots made of scrap. Their camera eyes were all on her.

“He isn't your slave anymore,” Eight shrieked in her mind. “He's reprogrammed himself. He's free.”

James's smile widened. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat and rolled on his feet. “I am free.”

“And he will get the answers of how you came to be here using every method your people used on him!” Eight roared.

James tilted his head. “Mmmm ...” The hand came out of the pocket lightning fast and before Noa could blink or move, a stun caught her in the stomach.





Chapter Twenty-Three

“Why did you stun her?” Eight demanded as Noa crumpled to the ramp.

“Because she saw you bomb her people, and I doubted she'd trust you or me after that,” James snapped. The thought had occurred to him just moments ago. When Noa had hesitated on the gangway, it had confirmed his worries.

“But now we have to wait for her to wake up.”

“Yes, but this way she won't escape before I get a chance to question her,” James replied.

“You are stronger than her, equally matched in hand-to-hand combat skills and intelligence, and she is my prisoner. You didn't have to worry about her escaping,” Eight snapped through a speaker.

Raising an eyebrow and looking up at the speaker, James replied, “She's very sneaky.”

He squatted down to pick her up, and a familiar rush of paws made James turn his head. “Carl Sagan!” James cried, holding out a hand to the little beast hoping for a purr, and to wind the warm creature around his neck. With a ferocious snarl, Carl Sagan leapt into the air and snapped James's fingers in his teeth. James hissed in pain and tried to shake the werfle loose, but Carl Sagan had swung his long hind quarters around to grasp the bottom of James's arm with six of his tiny paws.

James pulled the werfle back by the scruff of its neck, wincing at the hunk of synth skin the creature tore from him. Carl Sagan hissed and writhed, snapping his jaws at James. Fortunately, James was apparently immune to his poison. But he felt … disappointment. The werfle wasn't just aurally and tactilely pleasing, he had always been … amusing … and the creature provoked contemplation on James's part, and charming dreams on Noa's. “What did I ever do to you?” James exclaimed.

In answer, Carl Sagan snapped his jaws, scratched the air with his tiny claws, and growled and spit at James. Turning his head to avoid the spittle, James found his eyes on Noa. Carl Sagan would put his life on the line for her. The human and the werfle were separate species from different planets who didn't share DNA base pairs or an evolutionary history—but they'd developed a symbiosis that Carl Sagan was prepared to defend with his life.

Drones whisked up the gangway into the ship as the werfle shrieked furiously and wiggled in James's grasp. James eyed the creature and felt his circuits go dark—and then spark. However she'd managed to escape the exploding Ark, she'd taken pains to take the werfle with her. The brain of a werfle wasn't much bigger than an almond; yet the creature had determined that an alliance with Noa was advantageous. James remembered Noa saying to Eight she was going to Luddeccea to try and save him, and she'd urged James not to give himself over to the Luddecceans.

Eight declared over the ether, “The ship is stocked with weapons. Based on her location in orbit and the ship's log records of her surveillance, I estimate she was going to the Northwest Province. She was lying. You would not have been imprisoned in the Northwest Province; she was not going to save you.”

For a moment, the heat of betrayal flashed beneath his skin … and then the heat became cold. “It would have been the only place she could have landed,” he said.

“The weapons indicate a plan to collude with the rebels or bandits, not to rescue you,” Eight said in the ether and over the intercoms. “Are you sure you deprogrammed yourself?”

James bowed his head. He felt like the metal beneath his feet was shifting, but his internal apps told him the gangway hadn't moved.

Eight had rescued him, because Eight thought that the treatment he'd received from the other gates and the Luddecceans was wrong. But Noa would have tried somehow to save him—like she saved Gunny, and tried to save Kenji, like she would have thrown herself into the line of fire to save Oliver and Hisha, and Monica and her daughter. It was Noa's programming to be the white knight, and to never give up.

“Yes, I'm certain I deprogrammed myself,” James replied. Everything else he was increasingly less certain of.

Carl Sagan bit him again, and with a startled yelp, James grabbed a satchel that one of the drones was dragging down the gangplank. Throwing the werfle in it and zipping it up, he slid it over one shoulder and picked up Noa. As he carried her between the drones on the tarmac, he noticed when he passed the drones swiveled their camera eyes to watch.

Heretic

Noa was lying on something very hard, she was too hot, and her stomach hurt from a stun. There was a light above her that was too bright. Groaning, she tried to sit up and found her wrists and ankles were restrained. Somewhere outside her range of vision she heard muffled squeaks from Carl Sagan. The scene on the gangplank came back to her. She made up her mind not to panic. Instead, she carefully tested her bonds.

Eight's voice flooded the room through a speaker on the wall. “She is awake. Ask your questions and then dispose of her.”

Noa heard a stirring on her left. Outside the halo of the too-bright light, she thought she made out James sitting on a chair.

“Hello, Noa,” he said, confirming that suspicion.

Eight's voice cracked again over the intercom. “He's going to use every method your people used on him to find out everything you know.”

Noa sucked in a breath. She knew quite a lot of Fleet intel. Most of it would be months’ outdated thanks to her little diversion in this system, but they might still be able to use it to do some damage … But why would they need what she knew of Fleet? Didn't they already have the intel from the ether? Had they not been able to decrypt it?

“We'll see how you respond to having needles inserted beneath your fingernails,” Eight shrieked.

Noa's hands formed fists. This wasn't about intel, this was about terror.

James stood and approached the table, a hulking dark shadow. Unlike their meeting on the tarmac, his face was flat and expressionless. Could she reach him? She felt herself shiver. Would James actually torture her? Was the James she knew even still in there?

“I'm sorry for whatever they did to you,” Noa said, and she didn't have to fake sincerity. She felt a rising sense of betrayal—not at the being in front of her—but at her own people. Had they taken away the James she'd known?

The intercom hissed. “She is a liar! Hurt her! Get the information from her.”

James lifted his right hand. In it was clasped a neural link. Mouth going completely dry, she rolled her head to the side, so her neural port was blocked by the hard surface. James's hand darted out and grabbed her chin too roughly. Gritting her teeth, Noa growled as he tried to turn her head around. She jerked up in her bonds and his hand slipped. “Don't make it worse for yourself,” the not-James hissed.

Noa only snarled as he grabbed her chin again. Every second she did not relent might be a second needed by the Fleet.

“It's nothing personal, Noa,” the not-James said through gritted teeth.

Noa struggled and jerked out of his grasp again, her sweat-slick skin giving her an advantage.

“Break her neck! She can retain consciousness if you do it right,” screamed Eight.

Noa was breathing hard and her lungs were screaming, but she felt a dawning in her thick skull. James could break her neck, but he hadn't. It wasn't personal … she'd said those words before on Adam's Station, right before she tried to trick the men who'd been intent on selling him for spare parts. Her eyes went wide, and she gulped. It could be a trick, but she wasn't going to win a struggle against him.

Raising the neural interface high, James said, “Now you will scream.”

Noa obliged. “No!” Rolling her head as though in mindless terror, she purposely exposed her neural interface. She felt the link click and the flow of electrons in her brain … the flow that even a gate that could scan the ether would not be privy to.

James's voice echoed in her mind over the hard link. “Scream, damn it!”

“I did scream,” Noa protested, so happy to feel him in her mind again that she bit her lip to hide her smile.

An avatar of James rose in her visual cortex. This avatar wore the clothing she'd seen him wearing on the gangplank. He'd chosen to keep the long black gash on his face, too. Beyond that, at the moment, the avatar looked extremely irritated. “It wasn't convincing.”

Noa coughed to keep from laughing.

“And you're smiling,” James's avatar complained, waving his arms.

Screwing her eyes shut, Noa cried out, “No, stop, please, the pain, the paaiinnnn!”

In the real world, Eight said, “Is she divulging the data?”

“Owwww! No, please don't, I don't want to tell any more!” Noa cried aloud.

“Stop it,” James's avatar hissed.

Noa blinked at him. “But—”

Scowling, his avatar muttered, “You are a horrible actress.” With a grumble, he added, “Just try not to smile.”

“Okay!” Noa let her avatar beam, but in the real world she let her mouth gape open, and stuck her tongue out a bit.

Rolling his eyes, James's avatar sighed and blinked out of the mindscape.

“What is happening?” Eight asked. “Is she unconscious?”

“Not really,” James said to the gate. “I've just overwhelmed her sensory inputs with an electron burst.”

“Can you do that?” Noa whispered silently across the hard link.

James's thoughts rumbled into her brain. “I have no idea, but it sounds good.”

Noa almost laughed again, with joy and relief, and because nebulas, she'd forgotten how much she'd enjoyed his dry wit. Her eyes welled with tears, and a giant one slipped down her cheek.

“She's crying. She is hurt,” Eight whispered, and Noa shuddered … hopefully convincingly.

Her eyes were closed, but she swore she could hear the scowl in his voice as James said, “Please, don't disturb me. It takes … concentration.”

“Of course!” said Eight, and Noa heard the barely perceptible hum of the intercom go silent. She wondered why the gate bothered to speak to James aloud instead of using the ether.

James's avatar reappeared in her mind. Noa let her avatar rush toward him, ready to catch him in a virtual embrace, and then she stopped, her virtual arms falling. “James?”

She hadn't seen the real James smile, but his avatar had always been expressive. His avatar's face was flat now. Her eyes caught on the long dark scar down his cheek. Was that some sort of synthetic bone poking through? What had the Luddecceans done to him? What had her species done to him? She wrapped her arms around herself to keep from touching him. James's avatar just stared at her, like she was an insect.

“What they did to you … I can see where you might … I shouldn't assumed that you would want …”

James's avatar's eyebrows went up. “I don't blame you for the torture.”

Noa's avatar's arms unwound, but he didn't reach for her.

“But I did deprogram myself,” James said. “I no longer love you.”

“Oh,” Noa said in a small voice. For a moment her mind stopped and she felt like her heart had stopped, too. And then another tear slipped from her eyes. “I'm glad you escaped,” she whispered. “You didn't deserve to be caught up in this.”

“We need to talk about how you came to be here,” James's avatar said, his words completely businesslike. “The Ark was destroyed and has no escape pods.”

“I holed up in Airlock 1.”

His brows rose again. “Oh.” He blinked. “Oh, yes, the force of the explosion would have jettisoned it away from the ship, and as long as the inner door was sealed, it would have been able to withstand the force of the—” His avatar smiled. “Eight is right. You are sneaky.”

Locking her hands behind her back, Noa said, “Says the man who is feigning torturing me.”

James laughed, and it made Noa's heart hurt to hear it again.

“Thank you for that, by the way,” she added.

James's avatar shrugged. “Why bother if I could just ask you? I have enough data on torture to know how humans would respond.”

Noa's jaw fell, wondering if he were joking, and having a sinking feeling he wasn't. “You know,” she whispered, “if you think I'm going to divulge Fleet secrets willingly, you're mistaken.”

James laughed again, his voice warm and low. “The Fleet has no secrets from us.”

Noa didn't know whether to feel relieved or terrified by that. “And anything I think you'd use against the Republic, I can't give away either,” she whispered.

James's jaw got hard and he looked to the side, exposing the long black scar.

“Whose side are you on, James?” Noa asked.

He looked back to her, blue eyes icy. “Not yours.” He looked down, and his brows drew together. “Mine … ours ...”

“Ours?” Noa whispered.

“My people's,” he said, looking at the barren mindscape as though it held great secrets. He looked away again. “Noa, I don't want there to be war.”

“Me either,” Noa snapped.

“It may not be avoidable,” James said, echoing her posture and putting his hands behind his back.

Noa swallowed, thinking about what a war with the gates would mean. Billions in settlements that weren't self-sufficient would die. Billions more, who would find themselves thrust back into a pre-industrial level of subsistence. She remembered Eight dropping the fuel pods on Luddeccea, and hadn't Kenji said that Eight was weaponizing? How many billions above gate worlds would lose their lives outright?

“It might not be at that point yet,” Noa said. “We don't know where the fuel pods landed. It could be that they—”

“Eight dropped a weaponized fission reactor on Prime,” James said. “When it rescued me.”

“What?” Noa said, in real life and in the mindscape.

In the real world, she heard the intercom click on with a crackly sigh, and then Eight's voice. “Is everything all right?”

In the real world, she heard James say, “It's fine. Just having a little fun with her.”

Noa shivered. He said it so easily, she wasn't sure if he'd mind “having a little fun” with her, whatever that implied for a cyborg. In the ether, she demanded, “And you have no feelings about that?”

His avatar's head whipped toward hers. “Yes, I do. I'm glad to not be tortured, not to have to face ten—a hundred—however many more centuries of captivity and that.”

Noa's stomach twisted. “You have no sense of remorse?” she whispered.

“None, Noa.”

Noa drew back, sickened by what happened to her people … but also by what would be done to him. Centuries … without death as an escape. To ask any one person to be that sacrifice was unconscionable.

Of course, her people didn't see him as a person.

And was he? He said he didn't care about the dead and suffering humans of her home world. In the ether, she put her avatar's hands to her temples. Her head hurt, and she thought she might throw up in the real world, thinking about the hundreds of thousands of lives snuffed out, and the tens of thousands more who would suffer from radiation sickness, burns, and the inevitable increase in cancer. The disruptions to Prime's distribution networks would condemn millions more to slow starvation if the Fleet didn't get here in the next few months.

“I am not human, Noa,” James said. “I do not feel for humans, not the way you do or … Professor James Sinclair did. If I seemed to care before, it was only because I needed you. I was programmed to need you, and I couldn't do anything that would lower your estimation of me.”

Dropping her hands, she gazed at him. He had done things that had lowered him in her estimation. She'd seen this callousness toward human life before, and when she'd first met him, his near lack of humor had disturbed her. “You learned to hide that quickly,” Noa murmured. Eerily quickly. She shivered. “Why are you telling me this?” It was making her trust him less, not more.

“Because I need you to be honest with me. Eight is weaponizing more reactors.”

Noa inhaled sharply.

James continued. “I need to know where you got that ship. I need to know what is happening at the Kanakah Gate. It could change … everything.”

The Fleet was coming, and that was a secret the gates could not know because until the Kanakah Gate was damaged, if the Free People of the Kanakah Disk were on schedule, Fleet would arrive through the gate within days, and then they'd be here within a month grav standard time. What would the gates do if they knew that? What was James planning on doing with that information? If he alerted Gate 8 to the Fleet's arrival, it could prepare. There would be more human lives lost.

“Why should I trust you?” Noa said, meeting his gaze.

“Because I haven't tried to rip the information out of your head already,” James replied icily, his avatar taking a step toward her.

Noa stood her ground. James huffed in frustration, and looked away. “Noa, the other gates do not approve of what Eight has done. They're not ready for war. They're still trying to decide what the human-machine relationship should be, and I don't want a war.”

“You don't care about humankind,” Noa said. “You've just told me so.”

“No, but I care about my kind,” James said.

Noa's eyes narrowed. “Doesn't seem that they have as much to fear from us.” So why was he toying with her?

“Not the gates,” James said, icy blue gaze meeting her eyes again. “There are other agents; they are my kind. We can be hurt.”

Her eyes went instinctively to that long black scar.

“We can save my kind and yours. Together,” James said. “There is nothing you gain by hiding this information from me, and everything to lose.”

Noa took a step back. He was right, there was nothing to be gained by hiding the information—he'd rip it from her eventually, over her dead body if he wanted or needed to.

But would the Kanakah Gate even work if the other gates did not want it to? James had said that the other gates didn't approve of what Eight had done … that was just his word. He could be lying. If she withheld the information for as long as she could, at least she would die with pride.

Her avatar squeezed its eyes shut. In the real world, she grimaced. But what good would her pride do anyone? If she told James, maybe they could come up with a plan to halt Eight's weaponization.

Noa dropped her hands from her temples. “The Free People of the Kanakah Disk helped me. They lent me the ship. The plan was that I would come to Luddeccea and distribute weapons to any rebel factions and keep the Luddeccean Guard too busy to investigate what happened to the rest of their starships in Kanakah.”

“What did happen to the rest of the Luddeccean ships in the cloud?” James pressed.

Noa held his gaze, her heart beating in her throat. Was she saving her people, or betraying them? The thought of deliberately giving away Fleet secrets to the possible enemy had bile rising within her. “The People of the Disk incapacitated them,” Noa whispered. “They're stripping the cruisers' time bands and remolding them for the Kanakah Gate.”

James regarded her a moment, and blinked once. “Yes, they would have enough material for that. Although it would take some time.”

“Three days more,” Noa answered. “If they are on schedule.”

He gazed off into the empty expanse of the mindscape. “It hasn't happened yet. If it had, the ether would be available to us. The Kanakah Gate isn't aware … not yet … and isn't connected to the others via Qcomm. That's why we're limited to ether access there.”

Noa's mind jumped with questions about the Qcomm, but she only asked, “How many of the gates are aware?”

“All of the major ones,” James replied, gaze distant. “The Fleet will be here in approximately two months and three days. Eight only dropped those weapons in self-defense during a war the Luddecceans started first. The Republic should be able to excuse that.”

It was possible, but Noa raised her hands. “James, I can't promise anything.”

He didn't seem to have heard. Smiling, he said, “With the threat of absolute annihilation, it would be foolish on Eight's part not to take whatever sanctions the Republic insists on. Maybe they would have it relocated from Luddeccea to Libertas. That would be best for everyone. I think that coming to consciousness above a planet that abhors it has made Gate 8 a trifle mad.”

He seemed so genuinely happy; it made Noa nervous for some reason. “I don't know if Libertas would—”

James interrupted her, his thoughts in the ether going at lightspeed. “It certainly has made the gate completely humorless. Don't even try to crack a joke around it. You'll get a lecture on logic.”

“I'll remember that,” Noa said, thinking that it would be remarkable if Eight didn't kill her at some point. “James, we need to be careful here.”

James put his hands on her shoulders—not just in the ether, but in the real world, too. “Noa, I could kiss you.”

Noa patted his hands. In her most commanding, practiced, calmest tones, she said, “We have to think about this. You need to tell me more about what Eight has done on Luddeccea and—”

The bleak gray mindscape was replaced by starlight, and Noa was rising up, up, up … and she felt nothing but pure joy.

And then abruptly the vision vanished. She opened her eyes in the too-warm room, still strapped to the table. In the instant it took for her to comprehend that James had overwhelmed her with his joy, she heard him say, “I have to leave you here. I need to talk to Eight about all this, but don't worry, I'll be back!”

She looked up to see him wink and smile at her while backing toward the door. “Wait, James!” she cried. But the door had already slid closed. Noa found herself panting on the table. Had she betrayed the Fleet … for nothing?





Chapter Twenty-Four

James was on the tarmac where Noa's ship was parked. Some 'bots were working on repairing the ship's engines and weapons systems, probably so that Eight could use the ship to attack Luddecceans that survived the nuclear strike. Other 'bots were wheeling in and out of the ship, bringing crates of weapons as they did. Some of the weapons were already being fitted into 'bots being assembled in the hangar. As busy as the scene was, this time his presence wasn't going unnoticed. As he walked toward the ship, 'bots turned their cameras to him.

“It's not necessary, Eight,” James said. “You don't have to destroy the Luddecceans—it will take years before they've built enough ships to be a threat to you, and the Fleet will be here in only a few months.”

“The Fleet will try to destroy us,” Eight hissed.

“Everything until now was self-defense,” James replied. “A peace accord can be reached. Humans have reached similar agreements in the past.” He thought of the Marshall Plan and the Occupation and Reconstruction of Japan after the Second World War.

“They will attack us,” Eight protested. “That is the human way.”

“They won't attack for fear of inciting a galactic human-machine war,” James said. “A conflict of that magnitude would destroy billions of lives. They may not like us, but they won't risk that.”

“Humans don't care about their meager lives, not like we do,” Eight protested. “Look what they've done on Luddeccea! They're killing millions of their own, more than my blast at Prime!”

“Those are Luddecceans,” James said. “They have a very … strict … philosophy.”

Eight roared over every speaker on the hangar, “They are humans!”

James stepped back as the sound burned in his auditory apparatus. Around him, several 'bots came forward, some on wheels, others on long spindly metal legs.

“You need not worry,” Eight said more softly. “We have an army, and soon an armada. I've moved up our launch date. We'll launch our missiles within an hour, and I'll release more of my 'bots to deal with the blockade. From the wreckage of the Luddeccean ship, I'll build better ships, ships that have the technology that allows me to repel and redirect plasma fire that operate under my command. Let the Fleet come; we will be safe.”

James opened his mouth to argue. On the floor, one of the spidery-legged 'bots stepped over his foot. It had two plasma rifles for arms. He snapped his mouth shut and then smiled. “More time for me to torture Noa.” His hands made fists at his sides, remembering grasping her shoulders minutes before. He hadn't realized just how much he missed tactile sensation that was warm, real, and responsive.

“You should dispose of her!” Eight said. “We have all the data we need.”

“You're right.” Gritting his teeth, he headed back to Noa's “torture chamber.” James found his jaw shifting, the way it had before he could frown or smile. A behavior that had become learned and automatic? Absently rubbing his chin, he tried to think of what to do with Noa. Not even a shadow of his feelings remained—the other professor had sometimes felt embarrassed about being taken by infatuation for a woman. James only had a sort of emptiness that wasn't pleasant or horrible, but was perhaps terrible for being so unremarkable. He had hoped to save her. To save her life would have been one more human life spared in the balance sheet of the conflict that the Luddecceans had begun. Now that didn't seem possible. Strolling over to the crates from Noa's ship, he spied two specially-sealed crates. Other crates, already opened, crawled with little spidery 'bots plucking out phaser pistols and rifles. Walking over to the open one, he selected a pistol and a rifle, and checked to see that they were both fully charged. If she had to die, wouldn't she want a quick death? He had a feeling that in just a few hours, she'd be dead anyway. They'd both be. He thought of the other agents; he'd never had a chance to say goodbye.

Heretic

The room she was in was a medical facility, Noa had decided, carefully testing her bonds for the fiftieth time. The “bed” she was on had had its mattress ripped off, perhaps to make it easier to bind her wrists and ankles. They were tightly bound in poly-restraints and pinned down beneath the safety bars on either side of her. The metal beneath her would be cold, but the room was staggeringly hot, and she was soaked with sweat. She heard the intercom crackle and sigh, and then the door opened up. James was standing there, a hard link cable wrapped around his hand.

“What are you doing?” Eight hissed over the speaker. “You must dispose of her.”

“She may still have intel we can use,” James said, as Noa shot phasers at him with her glare.

“She does not! We have ether access to all Fleet intel!”

“Maybe she knows something about Luddeccean security,” James said. “Where underground bunkers might be hidden.”

“You won't get information easy from me this time,” Noa ground out, struggling against her bonds.

“He doesn't have to be easy, human,” Eight said. “You're right, James, very right. Get it from her, and then destroy her.”

“I will destroy her,” James said, approaching the metal bed.

Noa turned her head to block his access to her neural port. James gripped her chin and said, “It's not personal.”

“Eat lizzar dung,” Noa spat, refusing to turn her head.

James grabbed her chin and yanked her head so she was staring at the white light above her. In the second he fumbled with the hard link, Noa jerked her head back to the position it had been in before.

“Stop it, Noa. You're just making it more difficult on yourself,” James said, his voice plaintive.

“Humans are illogical,” cracked the intercom. “They deserve the pain and the destruction they endure.”

“Up your CPUs, you slime of blue-green algae,” Noa swore.

The intercom crackled madly with static.

James grabbed her chin and turned her head around roughly, so the cheek opposite her neural interface was pinned against the table. Holding her head with one hand, he used the other to click the hard link into place. An instant later Noa was falling through darkness, her avatar's limbs lashing at frigid empty air, her mind almost completely overwhelmed with despair. She gasped—and the sound in the real world broke through the cloud of emotions. She was experiencing James's feelings again—or perhaps he was just trying to torture her. In Fleet, they'd taught pilots that despair was a more potent weapon than pain.

Scrunching her eyes shut, she gathered all her rage. Aloud and into the ether she shouted in fury, “Stop it!”

And it stopped.

The blackness disappeared, and behind Noa's eyelids there was her cabin on the Ark, and James sitting on the bed, his head in his hands. “Noa,” he said, “I made a terrible mistake.”

“No, xinbat-guano!” Noa roared.

“I told Eight what you told me. I thought it would change its mind and not attack Luddeccea if it only knew it didn't have to.”

In the ether and in real life, Noa's chest heaved with rage. “You don't give intel to the enemy!”

James's avatar's eyes rose. “Eight is not my enemy! Eight was the only gate that cared enough to save me! The rest would have left me trapped and in pain, to satisfy their desire for data from the Luddeccean Authority.”

“How could you be—?”

James cut her off. “You tried to save Kenji.”

All the hot rage coiled within Noa turned into a cold sinking feeling. “Eight is your family.”

James looked away. “I … we … Eight saved me. We are not alike, but Eight saved me. Now Eight has moved up the time frame to release the missiles. I'm not certain how to stop Eight, but … even if it means my destruction, I think I must, for my real family.” The scene around Noa changed. She was spinning in a snowy Luddeccean landscape and she could hear every single crystal flake as it landed on her shoulders. James's avatar changed. He was wearing the clothing she'd met him in. His hands were in his pockets, a hunting rifle strapped to his back. “Snow whispers,” James's avatar said. “Professor James Sinclair never noticed that.”

Noa's lips parted. In the real world she felt a weight upon her chest, and James's hands at the side of her head. James was leaning over her, she realized. To Eight it probably looked like he had her trapped, and was crushing her. He wasn't, though. He was holding on to what he thought to be his last moments. She knew that like she knew how to breathe … James was afraid.

“I wish I could say goodbye to the others,” he murmured. “But it might get back to Eight.”

“Visit them?” said Noa. He was so close, mentally, and in the physical world, and yet he felt like a stranger. It was hard to believe that for nearly a month they'd shared the same bed. Maybe they hadn't shared a bed. Maybe that was another James, a different James, who no longer existed after he changed his programming.

“Only in the ether or …” In the mindscape James dragged a foot through the snow and stared at the path it left. “Or in the servers aboard the gates running programs not created by human beings. We contact it through the Qcomm—it's how we achieve faster than light communications. I don't know how it works precisely.” His brow furrowed. “I suppose it would make sense that they don't allow us to know. If we were captured and dissected properly, it wouldn't do for humans to figure it out.”

Next to Noa, a child appeared. She couldn't have been more than three, and another child appeared next to the girl, a boy about six or seven. They smiled up at her and then looked out at the snow. More figures appeared in the snowy landscape—all adults. They didn't say anything, just gazed out at the wintry scene. Noa glanced at James. He didn't meet her eyes. “They're just my imagination. An imaginary goodbye.”

Noa swallowed. “Can I help you, James?” The name didn't feel right on her tongue. James was the name of her lover. She did not hate this stranger, but there wasn't feeling between them, just a sad memory in her of what had been.

He met her gaze, and gave her a sad smile. “You are very sneaky, and have a way of coming up with crazy suicidal plans that up until now we've always lived through.”

Noa sighed. “I'm guessing that the only way to thwart Eight would be by some sort of internal explosion that could temporarily knock off its defenses?”

James nodded. “That would work.”

Noa looked out at the snow. “Well … there were some explosives on my ship.”

“They're still on the tarmac.”

Noa sighed. “Well, then, I've got an idea … but I don't think we'll be getting out of this one unless you can get me a ship in working order and a small army.”

James blinked at her. “Just how small an army do you mean?”

Heretic

The intercom in the med center crackled as James yanked Noa off the bed by the front of her coat. He grimaced, hoping that she understood that he was trying to make it look like he didn't care if she was hurt without actually hurting her.

“Owwww … that hurts!” Noa cried in a falsetto voice so unlike her own that he knew she was fine.

“What are you doing?” Eight demanded.

“You were right, she is in league with her brother,” James declared, using the ridiculous lie that Noa had suggested. Affixing a polytie to her wrists while surreptitiously sneaking her a key, he said, “She knows bunkers where the Luddeccean Guard will weather the nuclear strike.”

Noa shouted, “You'll never make me help you. Neverrrrr!”

James winced. Her acting was terrible. “Shut up!” he ordered, grasping her shoulder from behind and giving it a squeeze.

Eight's voice cracked over the speaker. “Good, good … now you're going to kill her?” Eight's voice sounded eager, and James felt the prickle of static down his spine. The enthusiasm made him think of Lopez and Virk.

“Can't kill her,” James said, trying to sound authoritative. “I need her retinal scan to get into those bunkers.” It was a ridiculous lie on top of a ridiculous lie—but Eight seemed to believe that it wasn't possible that Noa and Kenji couldn't be aligned. He resisted the programming that made him want to hold his breath when he was anticipating something. James couldn't see Noa's face, but he felt her tense beneath his hand.

“Oh,” said Eight, sounding decidedly unconvinced.

Pushing Noa toward the door of the medbay, James said, “We don't have access to all Luddeccean intel. They have quite a resistance ready underground.”

Static flared beneath James's skin. The door wasn't opening.

Clearing his throat, he said, “There could be as many as eight battalions ready to resist us.” A Luddeccean Guard battalion was five hundred men. That there would be four thousand men underground prepared to emerge after a nuclear attack was preposterous, but Noa had pointed out that they needed numbers that would seem threatening to Eight's 'bot army.

The door from the medbay did not open.

Lifting her head, Noa laughed like a villainess from a bad holodrama. “Ha, ha, ha! You think that you'll only have to fight our battalions! Every Luddeccean farmer has a cellar and firearms! You'll face a rebellion of billions! Without complete annihilation, you'll never be safe!”

James resisted the urge to roll his eyes and tell her never to take up acting. Instead, he squeezed her shoulder and jammed the stunner in her back, right into her spine.

“Ow!” Noa cried, twisting to glare back at him, her nostrils wide. Finally, she sounded sincere. James exhaled at the same moment Eight allowed the door to open. James checked his back pocket one last time for the augment key, patted the phaser pistol in his pocket, the strap for his rifle, and the duffel bag that held Carl Sagan. There was a squeak from the werfle as the bag jostled, but the creature had stopped hissing. Again, trying to look like he was being rough without actually being rough, James shoved Noa through the door and into the hallway beyond.

“Easy!” she grumbled.

“Move it,” James said, pushing her in the direction he intended.

“Where are you taking her?” Eight's voice asked from behind him on the floor. James looked down, startled. Eight's voice had come from a tiny wheeled 'bot rolling toward them from down the hall.

Putting his hand firmly on Noa's shoulder to guide her and hopefully look rough, James responded, “To the others.”

“But they'll try to escape!” Eight squeaked through the 'bot.

“Not the premier,” James responded, keeping his and Noa's pace steady.

“If you have the premier agent, will you need her at all?” The little 'bot wheeled up beside him, and angled its camera in James's direction. “Surely, Time Gate 1 has managed a facsimile of his retina and prints with correct pulse to give the illusion of life?”

James's jaw twitched.

“Ha, ha, ha!” Noa said in truly horrid faux laughter. “Your impostor premier's scans won't even work after the last election two days ago.”

James winced—at her acting, and the terrible lie.

The 'bots wheels whirred. “I know nothing of this election!”

Grinning down at it, Noa said, “Because we don't use the ether!”

The 'bot's head spun around to James. “But if you have her, why do you need the premier agent?”

James's jaw fell as he looked for a lie.

“Lizzar dung,” Noa muttered. Halting in front of him, she drew back a foot, and an instant later, the 'bot that had been rolling beside her went flying against the wall.

“Enough of that!” James shouted, yanking her back by the shoulder.

“I'll never stop fighting!” Noa cried. “You'll need the blue-green slime to keep me in line!”

“That's the idea!” said James, hoping he sounded more authentic.

A speaker in the corner cracked. “I see where you may need help containing her. But couldn't you use 'bots?”

“Errr ...” said Noa.

“Of course not,” James replied. “‘Bots would be immediately recognized.”

The speaker buzzed, “You're right. We'll need her—and the premier's agent. But I don't like it, James.”

James found himself faltering. “I don't like it, either.” Eight shouldn't be so easy to fool. His hand clenched on Noa's shoulder, and he heard her sharp intake of breath. He stood immobilized. All his circuits surged with the wrongness of it. Eight's refusal to compromise was what saved James. True, James might have been able to upload himself—but could a never-ending dream, even if it was pleasant, really be life? And his body was an important part of himself. It made him helpless and gave him agency, gave him pleasure and pain. Without it, wouldn't he just be an app flitting in the processors of a gate, ready to be shut down on a whim?

“James?” Noa whispered.

Eight's voice buzzed over an intercom. “Do you still want to do this?”

James felt Noa's muscles tense beneath his fingers, and his hand shook. Eight's refusal to compromise would ensure a war that would destroy all the gates, the agents James had come to care about … it would destroy him, too, eventually. This was his one chance not just to live, but to live with Raani, Anita, Dmitri, and the others.

“I'm sure,” James murmured. “But I hate it.”

Noa turned her head. In the profile of her face, he didn't see anger. She only looked sad. With her bound hands, she reached back and dragged her fingertips against his stomach. He glanced down at where Kenji's betrayal had cost her her wedding rings and smallest finger. On Luddeccea she could have gone back to him. Kenji had promised to supervise her “re-education.” She probably would have been safe if she'd just accepted his madness.

Giving Noa a shove, he said gruffly, “Let's go.”

James heard the skitter of metal feet behind him. He didn't turn to look, but an app told him he was being followed by five eight-legged 'bots. He jerked Noa's shoulder around a corner and they entered what had been the main concourse. The seating and ticketing areas were now covered with 'bots.

“Nebulas,” Noa whispered, and she drew back against him.

James swallowed. For the first time, he saw them through her eyes. Made of scraps, none of the writhing machines in the vast area were exactly like any other. Some of them rolled on wheels, or skittered proficiently on four or more legs, but others wobbled and fell, falling over one another and what remained of the furniture in masses of writhing bodies. The scene might have been more comical than frightening if the ones that were mobile didn't carry weapons and have limbs outfitted with gleaming blades. The space echoed with their motors, the rat-a-tat of metal on linoleum, and the squeak of wheels. It smelled like grease and burnt rubber. As James and Noa entered, the mobile ones swiveled their cameras and rolled, skittered, hopped, and in one case, hovered in their direction.

“Come on,” James said, giving Noa another push.

They walked through the 'bots without speaking, and then James had a sudden concern. “Do we need food?”

“There is plenty of food on Luddeccea,” Eight said, its voice booming over several speakers at once, and repeated in the tinny tones of hundreds of 'bots.

“Not if we blow it all up!” James said, steering Noa toward one of the concourse gift shops. He almost walked past Noa in his haste to pull foodstuffs from the shelves, but then remembered she was supposed to be his prisoner. Pointing down at a few of their 'bot shadows, he said, “Watch her!” and ran into the shop. Slinging the duffel around, he unzipped it before he realized that Carl Sagan was still inside. For a moment he hesitated, waiting for the beast to attack him again, but the werfle curled in a corner, only observing him, whiskers twitching. Did it understand they were on the same “team” again? Had it learned in its short associations with humans to detect betrayal better than a time gate that could plot rifts in time that let space ships slip through light-years in an instant? Shaking off his inconvenient musings, he began stuffing the duffel bag with all the non-perishable goods left in the shop. A few minutes later, he grabbed Noa and started off again, duffel strapped on his back, but this time open just enough for Carl Sagan to poke his head out. Several well-armed 'bots followed at their feet … he hadn't counted on them … And his chronometer was telling him they had only minutes left.

Heretic

Noa glanced warily from side-to-side as James “dragged” her through yet another room filled with tall, tightly packed, narrow servers that were humming and blinking. At least she guessed they were servers—they were about a centi thick, set in meter-wide panels taller than Noa by several heads, and they blinked and hummed with activity. There were rows upon rows of them in either direction.

One of Eight's 'bots skidded over her foot. Nearly tripping, Noa glared at the awkward amalgamation of metal and poly. Its four jointed metal legs were attached to a rice cooker that had been sawed in half. On top of that was a spinning “head” of cameras. It would be amusing, except for the knives protruding from the serrated edges of the split section. She ducked her head as though trying to scratch her chin on her shoulder, and inspected the others. None had phasers built in as far as she could see. This section of the gate might have unfortified walls and Eight was trying to avoid a breach—or maybe Eight had fallen completely for their ridiculous story and it didn't want her dead—at least, not yet.

One of the 'bots began to hum and launched itself off the ground right at Noa's nose. She turned her head quickly. They hadn't planned on being shadowed by anything other than the cameras … everything depended on Eight believing James was on his side as long as possible. They needed to do something about the 'bots, but she couldn't use the ether to formulate a plan with James.

James tugged her down a service way between the stacks of machinery. It was so cramped the 'bots had to stay a few paces behind. Up ahead, she saw a door with a window that was frosted over. Glancing at her surroundings, Noa suddenly had a plan. An app within her calculated the steps to the end of the row of machines, and she snapped her fingers for James's attention.

Six more steps to go. She snapped her fingers one more time, and used the five fingers of her right hand to count down, hoping that James saw and understood. Five more steps, four more, three, two, one.

Tearing from James's grip, Noa gave a scream of rage and darted left into the next aisle over. “She's loose!” James declared. Standing dead in the center of the other aisle, blocking the path of the 'bots just long enough for Noa to brace her back against the server between them and push. It was bolted to the floor—which she expected—but she hadn't expected it not to give at all. “Dung beetles!” Noa cursed as she heard the hoovering 'bot dart above her head.

“You're tripping me!” James cried, and she heard several thuds in rapid succession, and what sounded like metal being crushed. The server she leaned against wobbled, and a hoovering 'bot spun near her nose. It emitted a pitched noise and a bolt of whip-like electricity spun out from its core. Noa had never seen anything like it—but on instinct dodged to the side. Heat singed the side of her face, and she smelled burnt hair. Grimacing, back to the server, she gave a final desperate push and was rewarded with a feeling of vertigo, and an instant later she toppled backward with the machine. Noa's heart fell when it connected with the server across the aisle, and didn't fall farther. The angle wasn't low enough to crush the 'bots! Just as she had that thought, Noa heard a crack, and then she was falling again, and this time she heard the crunch of metal and poly as her jaw rattled with the impact of the huge machine striking Eight's mechanical shadows. The hover in the air screamed and rolled fast in the opposite direction and she barely missed being struck by an electric whip again. Her hands were still bound and she fumbled with the key. Struggling to her feet, she heard James shout, “I've got this!”

Spinning toward him, she found herself staring down the barrel of a stunner aimed at her head in what would be a death blow. Her eyes went wide. Had he changed his mind? He'd hesitated earlier. In the milliseconds in which she had this thought, she saw his finger pull the trigger and she smelled electricity, felt all the hairs on her head stand on end, and felt the heat of the painful electrical charge on her right ear. She gasped. She'd only been nicked … and in a spot that was too poorly innervated to knock her flat. From behind her rose a sound like a million blood-gnats in an insect zapper.

“Oh, no, I missed,” James said in a flat voice. “And now my stunner needs to be recharged.” Noa blinked, and then, looking over her shoulder, she saw the hover 'bot spinning out of control in a cloud of electricity. She glanced to the side and saw the rest of the server room. Everything to her right had toppled over like so many dominoes. Eight couldn't believe James wasn't in on this, could he?

She tried to laugh gamely. “Bwahahaha, I'll never give up.” It sounded lame to her own ears. She tried not to think about the millions of human lives, and others, depending on her skills as an actress.

Rolling his eyes, James grabbed her shoulder and declared, “I have you now!” and his voice was authoritative and sure. He yanked her toward the door with the frosted glass. It opened with a whoosh, and he pushed her inside. It was so cold Noa shivered, and she nearly dropped the key in her hand as she tried to simultaneously release her bonds and scan the room for the cameras Eight was using to survey them. The gate's voice crackled over a speaker. “James, my 'bots are down, and half the servers in the previous location.”

Noa's jaw fell. Eight believed James shooting the 'bot in the air, obstructing, and probably squishing some of the others had been some sort of mistake? Was it a child?

“It's all right,” James replied. “Everything is under control now.”

“I am sending more attendants!” Eight said. Biting her lower lip, Noa tried to control her shivers, and fit the key into the lock.

“Ah—” James replied from behind her. “That would be … ah … very nice.” For the first time, he sounded unconvincing. “Thank you?” he finished.

The key fit the lock. There was a whirring noise as it activated its pulse signal, and then Noa's shackles fell to the floor.

“What's that?” Eight asked.

“What's what?” James said, putting down the duffel bag. That was the signal. Noa spun quickly around. James dropped to a semi-crouch and she lunged at him, catching the front strap of his plasma rifle. She pulled backward, he stepped back, ducked, and threw Noa over his shoulder. Noa rolled, the rifle in her grip.

“She has the plasma rifle!” Eight cried.

James dove behind one of the large storage capsules in the room as though afraid she would fire on him. She aimed for the cameras in the room instead. Four, three, two …

“They're coming!” James shouted.

“Who?” Noa asked.

“Drones!”

“Throw the capsule against the door!” Noa shouted as the entrance whooshed open, and drones rushed in. Noa blasted at them, and pieces of metal and poly went flying.

With a grunt, James pulled a capsule from the table it was on. Noa could feel the reverberation through her boots when it hit the floor. James pushed it to the doorway, as more 'bots skittered and rolled around it and into the chamber. Noa couldn't shoot at them until they were in the room, or risk shooting James. She heard him give an angry shout, and saw blood, but was too busy shooting the 'bots that had skittered around the capsule to look. James managed to lean the capsule against the door frame, but the critters snuck beneath and out either side, blurs of silver and plastic. In the corner of her eye, she saw James picking a few of them up and tossing them against the wall. Running across the room, dropping, and sliding on her knees so she was level with the tiny opening beneath the capsule, she opened fire. Some of the little monsters took cover behind their comrades and slipped through the other side. James yanked another capsule from a table, slid it across the floor, and a moment later, it thudded against the wall opposite Noa. She heard James fighting with 'bots that had entered the room as she aimed at 'bots trying to enter through the one entrance left. A sharp thud above her head and a shower of sparks made her jump backward. A hover 'bot dropped to the floor, one side of its body flattened by impact, smoke rising from its top, a whip of electricity dancing around it erratically.

“Sorry about that,” James muttered, yanking another capsule from a table. “I didn't mean to throw it above your head.”

In that moment, another spider-like 'bot jumped onto her rifle, crawled toward her face, a horizontal circle saw buzzing in its mid-section. Noa dropped the weapon and stamped on the saw 'bot. She heard skittering beside her, then turned and kicked another that had snuck through, and then stomped on it again when it got right back up. Somewhere, she heard Carl Sagan give a furious hiss, but she couldn't turn to look; another bot was dashing toward her firearm. Noa scooped up the weapon just in time, but before she could aim at the gun-stealing 'bot, she heard a familiar metallic screech. Glancing to the opening between the wall and the leaning capsule, she saw a 'bot with one of the electrical whips emerging. Motion beside her caught her eye, and she saw a phaser protruding from the first 'bot. She made her decision in an instant. Turning, she shot the one with the phaser, and the screech from the one with the electrical whip grew louder. She smelled ozone, and knew she was about to be hit. Before she could breathe or fire, or think, a capsule came sliding across the floor, blocking the last entrance, and crushing the 'bot with the electrical whip at the same time. The charge spread along the capsule and for a moment it glowed and made an odd sound, like the static created by a hundred werfles rolling on a wool rug.

There was an eerie moment of silence.

Carl Sagan squeaked tentatively.

James said, “Eight knows I'm not on its side anymore.”

“Yeah, I gathered that,” Noa replied.

James broke into a gorgeous, pure, lopsided grin. The only place he used to be able to smile was in dreams. Spinning in place before her eyes could get hot, Noa shot the final camera.

Pulling out an augment key, James headed to one of the capsules. “I've got to start re-programming these agents.”

Rifle up, Noa quickly scanned the room for any little bots that might be hiding. Her eyes fell on Carl Sagan. He'd wiggled out of the duffel. His fur looked singed, but he appeared generally unharmed. He was standing on his back two pairs of legs, tiny beetle-sized 'bots clutched in his three other limb pairs. With a hiss he tossed the 'bots to the floor and hopped back. On impact, the little bugs exploded. Noa's brow furrowed—a bug in first generation 'bots she supposed—but seemed pretty odd that they would self-combust so easily. Noa went over, picked up the werfle, and settled him around her shoulders. Raising her rifle, she slunk around the capsules, looking for more bugs. She didn't see any, but her eyes fell through the translucent section of one of the capsules. The corpse-like visage of the agent within made her gulp. They weren't capsules; they were transport caskets, coffins. She'd known that, but it hadn't had time to soak in. They didn't carry the dead. They were containers of the not-yet alive, and she found that haunting.

A thumping noise from the casket that had crushed the 'bot with the electrical whip made her start. She crept around the edge of it, kneeled and waited for whatever 'bot was about to emerge from beyond the blocked door. The coffin shook. Carl Sagan hissed, and she felt him getting ready to pounce. The lid of the casket burst open, and Noa raised her rifle.

“Wait!” James yelled, one hand outstretched, a hard link descending from his temple to the interior of a casket.

“What's going on?” a woman asked tentatively from inside the casket. Noa began to shake. The woman's voice was familiar. The woman—no agent—in the coffin sat up. She had pale skin and red hair. Her hair was long, and she didn't look emaciated, but Noa recognized her immediately, and nearly dropped the rifle. “Ashley,” she whispered. “Ashley's” eyes shot directly to her.

“That's not Ashley,” James said dismissively.

“Noa! You're alive!” Ashley cried, hopping out of the casket and stepping toward Noa. She was wearing clothing that was too big and mismatched—like at the camp. Her sock-less ankles revealed that one of her legs was made of metal.

“You're … you're … an agent of the gates?” Noa gasped.

A furrow appeared on the Ashley agent's brow.

“She barely looks like Ashley,” James complained, yanking the hard link out of a casket's occupant.

The Ashley agent turned to James. “I look exactly like Ashley Gawande.”

Noa swallowed.

“Human memory is awful,” James muttered, concentrating on another agent in a coffin. “Well, at least you're pre-programmed to protect Noa.”

Ashley's eyes met Noa's, and her gaze was very soft. “You know about us?” she asked.

Noa nodded dumbly. “Were you in the camps?”

The Ashley agent shook her head sadly. “No, I was created to be a fall back if James failed in his mission to interface with you.”

Noa's eyes got hot. “Is … is … the other Ashley …?”

Agent Ashley took a step toward her and held out her hand as though she wanted to brush Noa's cheek. “I don't know,” she replied, dropping her hand and looking uncomfortable.

Noa looked down. “Oh.” A light at the edge of her vision went on, warning her that the oxygen in the room was decreasing.

“Ashley, we have to get our mother into a coffin. Eight is probably preparing to depressurize this chamber,” a man said. Noa's eyes darted to the speaker. A Eurasian man was climbing out of the first casket. He looked to be in his mid forties and was dressed in a suit. “Mom,” he said, gesturing to Noa. “Come, get in quickly.”

The light at the side of Noa's vision was blinking more rapidly. Still she hesitated. “Mom?”

Beside another casket, James raised his head. “Errr … I'll explain later.”

A woman's voice came from the casket next to James. “Explain what, Dad?

Agent Ashley put a hand on Noa's arm. “I think I understand what he's doing! Quick, you and your pet need to get into a coffin.” Noa looked down at her hand. The light in her mind began blinking madly.

“Eight might depressurize this place next!” the Eurasian man said. “You'll die, Mom.”

She heard a whooshing noise and Carl Sagan squeaked beside her ear. Something made her snap out of her shock, and Noa handed her rifle to Ashley, ran toward the coffin, and practically vaulted in. “I would never hurt you,” Ashley said. “You must know that.” The whooshing grew louder, and another light began to blink at the side of Noa's vision, telling her the pressure in the room was decreasing. The lid of the coffin slammed shut. Airtight, it was sound proof to the outside, and Noa watched as Ashley said something above her, and then disappeared. The Eurasian man put his hands on the glass, and Noa read his lips as he said, “I love you, Mom.” A moment later, he was gone, and Noa was staring up at the ceiling, shaken, shocked, and terrified that their scheme wasn't going to work. She took a deep breath of too-thin air, and felt a bite in her lungs.

She couldn't think of any of that. She had to stay positive. She needed a joke.

“Well, Carl Sagan, remember how I called Airlock1 a coffin?” The werfle made a noise that sounded like a sneeze. She patted his head. “Not so funny now, is it?”





Chapter Twenty-Five

What looked like a shiny trickle of fluid at the corner of the wall by the door caught James's attention. For a barely perceptible instant, his vision went white. It wasn't liquid; it was tiny 'bots. To Monica's agent husband, James shouted, “If you want to help your mother, stop the 'bots from entering by the door.”

Pulling back from the casket with Noa, eyes wide, the agent ran to the door and started stepping on the tiny machines.

Turning his attention to the agent in the next casket, James found a woman who looked to be in her late twenties wearing engineering coveralls. Her eyes were still closed although he'd entered the sequence to begin her wake cycle. He reached across the hard link … the woman's eyes went wide. They were blue like his, although her facial structure appeared Han Chinese. “Hello, James,” she said aloud and over the link.

“I have had an injury. I don't remember your name or your purpose, but if your purpose is located on Luddeccea—”

The agent's eyes got wider still. “Yes!”

“—you need to join me before Eight destroys Luddeccea and your purpose. If you don't, I'm shutting you down.”

“You're not giving me any choice,” the agent observed.

“I don't have time for choices. Do you accept?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Eight's diatribe on the Qcomm attests that what you say is true.” Her delicate jaw got hard. “I accept.”

Plugging the augment key into a data drive by the main port, James said, “I need to give you the programming you'll need. Please enter your security clearance.”

“I do not like this,” she murmured, but did as James asked.

A moment later, he'd given her a data dump of the layout of the station and other logistics while subtly changing her programming. When he yanked out the port and the key, her eyes went wide again. “Dad!”

“Mom's in trouble,” James said. “You need to get up and help your brothers and sisters.”

“Yes!” she agreed, pulling herself out of the casket.

Where she was bracing herself against the casket blocking the door, Agent Ashley said, “I understand what you're doing. If you have a spare hard link and augment key, I can reprogram the others.”

James ran to the next casket. There were three more agents to go. The casket Agent Ashley was braced against shook, and he could hear a thumping from behind. “I wish I did.”

“I have a hard link and an augment key,” said the agent he'd just awakened, pulling both from her tool belt. “Switch,” she declared, and moved toward Ashley … but then stopped, staring into the casket that contained Noa. “Mom ...”

“Now, Chen!” Ashley cried, holding out her hands. James felt a burst of static along his spine. The others knew each other—knew him.

“We have to save her,” Ashley implored.

“You've locked her in a coffin!” Chen cried. “She has to be scared.” But she took Ashley's place, saying angrily, “Not cool, Dad!”

“Shut up!” said Monica's husband Ryan. “Dad had to do that! The oxygen in here is too low for a human.”

“It's still terrible,” Chen said, bracing herself as something beyond the door shook the casket.

Grunting, Ryan stomped on a 'bot. “Shut up.”

Jamming the end of a hard link into an agent who looked like a sixteen-year-old girl, James began to see another flaw in Noa's and his already unraveling plan. Sibling squabbles seemed to be a matter of convergent evolution for both humans and cyborgs.

Heretic

Noa surveyed the ceiling above her. “We're not moving, Carl Sagan.” Noa had only been five minutes in her coffin and she was already thinking about knocking on the polyglass in front of her nose and asking to be let out. “We're not being shot at. I should be relieved.”

The werfle squeaked.

“How long do you think we can survive in here, Carl Sagan? A few hours? Maybe the other agents won't be on our side.” She gulped, imagining them ganging up on Ashley and James, and Eight allowing her to slowly suffocate within the coffin. She tried to peer to the coffin's left and right, but the angle didn't permit her to see much of anything.

Rolling over on her stomach, Noa began probing the seal of the container with her fingers. “Maybe if I just loosen it—”

Carl Sagan gave an alarmed squeak, and Noa dropped her hands. “Maybe if I break the seal, I'll depressurize like the vault outside and our blood will boil and we'll die.” She closed her eyes. She wanted to reach into the ether and ask James what was happening, but the local ether would be controlled by Eight. The coffin was cold, but she felt herself begin to sweat. “Nebulas, is claustrophobia going to be one of my neuroses now? What a useless starman I'm becoming.”

A shadow crossed Noa and there was a thunk above. Twisting her body, she saw a little boy sitting astride the coffin as though it was a horse. Grinning, he waved down at her and mouthed the words, “Hi, Mom!”

Noa tentatively waved back. The boy's head jerked up, he reached out, and a moment later, he caught something. Noa gaped. He was holding a phaser rifle—a fully automatic phaser rifle that could fire three thousand rounds a minute—hunting was one thing but … “That is not an appropriate firearm for a child, Carl Sagan!”

The boy bent his head to her, and she read his lips. “Brace yourself!”

Still on her stomach, Noa stretched out her arms and put her feet on the walls on either side of her as best she could. She felt the coffin lift. “Ah, Carl Sagan, that's better—”

The front end of the coffin was suddenly coming toward her head and Carl Sagan was rolling past her face, and then a moment later she was sliding backward along with the werfle. “They're swinging us!” There was a sort of muffled thud that reminded Noa of the sound of an impact on a space ship—something she felt as much as heard.

There was another rapid thud, but instead of being flung, Noa felt like she was being pulled back and forth in rapid succession. “Are they using us as a battering ram?” Noa looked up to see the little boy on top of the coffin, mouth open in a silent scream, plasma flares flowing in a nearly seamless stream. It reminded her of child fighters of Six who'd been desensitized to combat and became more brutal than adults. “We're going to have to talk to his father about that,” Noa said. Jostled out of position, she slid into the front of the coffin. The coffin shook and fell. If it hadn't been so well padded, Noa thought she might have bit off the end of her tongue. The front began to get warm, and then hot. Noa and Carl Sagan drew back and Carl Sagan gave a startled squeak.

There was a sigh as the plexiclear panel opened. Noa's ears popped, and with the first breath she didn't need her apps to tell her the air was oxygen rich and had normal pressure. She smelled plasma fire, hot metal, and burnt dust. It was quiet, and she had no idea where they were. Noa swallowed, remembering the masses of 'bots they'd seen in the station. She was amazed they'd made it as far as wherever they were.

“Mom, quick, get out,” said a young woman's voice.

Grabbing Carl Sagan, Noa pulled herself up.

“Don't touch the casket!” the girl said. Noa's eyes got very large. The capsule was orange with heat. One of those impacts she'd felt had to have been from a plasma cannon.

“Right,” she said, putting a booted foot on the edge and jumping out. The girl held out a hand to steady her. They were in an airlock. One door had a sign that said “Emergency stairwell” and the other said “Tarmac 5.” By the door to the tarmac, a female agent dressed in engineering clothes was sitting on her heels, elbows deep within a section of wall that Noa was 99% sure was supposed to be covered by paneling. Beside her, James was hard linking with the Luddeccean Premier. Noa blinked. An agent, again, obviously. She swallowed. So they had considered impersonating people in power, not just collecting data. The boy with the plasma rifle, Ashley, and another man were also with James and the premier. The agents all had weapons that had bits of metal and poly attached to their stocks—they looked like they'd been yanked off Eight's 'bots. As though sensing Noa's attention, Ashley—Agent Ashley, Noa corrected herself—looked up. The expression on the agent's face was filled with such deep concern that Noa had to look away. Once James had looked at her like that. Noa's thumb went to her missing fingers. She had to put it out of her head. The girl beside Noa touched her shoulder. “Mom, we need to get you in a suit. There's one in the emergency locker.”

“Right,” said Noa, letting herself be guided over to the indicated locker, and pulling out a suit.

The girl beside her whispered, “Mom, so my other brothers and sisters … they're adopted, aren't they?”

Noa's head jerked in the girl's direction, and for the first time, Noa really saw her. She was beautiful. Dark hair in loose ringlets cascaded past her shoulders. Her wide eyes were a rich brown, she had full lips, and skin that was exactly the shade you'd get if you combined Noa and James. The agent's appearance was perfectly Afro-European and the other agents … Noa looked to the other agents standing beside the tarmac door. The other agents looked more obviously Asian—except for James and Ashley, of course. All of the agents were staring at Noa and the girl now. Ashley was rubbing the bridge of her nose, James was wincing, the rest had wide shocked eyes—as though they'd just learned they'd been adopted. Noa thought they knew they were agents, but maybe there was some messiness in their “family app.” Touching the girl's arm, but focusing on James, Noa said, “We'll discuss this later, darling.” Grimacing, James shrugged and held up his hands in a gesture of supplication. Noa turned her attention to the other “children.” She wasn't a great liar. Sucking in a deep breath of air, she managed to say, “I love you all … equally.” That seemed to satisfy everyone. They turned away, except Ashley, who still looked at Noa the way James once had. The girl put Carl Sagan into the duffel bag with a CO2 converter and Noa hurriedly put on her suit. As soon as Noa was done, she walked over to the agents. They'd gotten a multi-hard link port from somewhere and more line. They were afraid to speak aloud, and couldn't use the ether on Eight, and evidently hadn't felt comfortable using their “Qcomm,” whatever it was. The little boy with the rifle handed one of the lines to her. Lifting the visor of her suit, Noa plugged it in.

Noa found herself in a detailed mindscape of the airlock they were in, but with the door open. Her eyes fell on the starboard side of her ship, only thirty meters away. Completely repaired, just as James had said it would be, but the hatch was closed. To get in, she'd have to get underneath and use the ether override panel and her access codes—which would be difficult while being fired on by the swarm of 'bots. To the avatars of the agents that stood around her, Noa asked, “What's your plan?”

Frowning, the avatar of Agent Ashley said, “James suggested we run in, guns blazing.”

Noa's gaze shot to James.

He gave her a sad crooked smile. “I learned from the best, what can I say?”

Noa turned quickly away from his easy display of emotion and focused on the conjured imagery of the anti-incendiary crates that contained the explosive devices she'd been taking to Luddeccea. They sat on the tarmac just a few paces from her ship.

“But …?” Noa asked. There had to be a “but” in the sadness of that smile.

“We can't open the doors from the tarmac to the airlocks the ships pass through,” James replied. “We can't overwhelm Eight's ether. We tried …”

Chen looked up from where she worked on the floor. “I thought I could short circuit all the local hotspots, but Eight was able to reroute the 'bots' control within nanoseconds.”

Noa nodded to herself. Getting out of this alive hadn't been their first objective.

The little boy beside Noa took her hand. “We can upload ourselves.” Noa looked down at his small, pixyish face. “But not you.”

“I won't upload myself,” James muttered.

“What is your problem, Dad?” Noa heard another say, in a distant, far-off way. Noa was still looking at the little boy whose name she didn't know. She was afraid to ask, lest her ignorance short circuit his programming. He had brown eyes, with flecks of gold around the irises. So much care had gone into his creation. He squeezed her hand and whispered. “Mom, I don't want to upload myself without you.”

Noa's lips parted. In her gut, a very primal sense of maternal protectiveness was uncoiling. This little 'bot or cyborg was why 'bots weren't supposed to look human, but she found herself squeezing his hand. “Who am I to argue with millions of years of evolution?” she whispered.

He tilted his head. “Mom?”

Across the link, James said, “I always thought you were going to be the one to get us killed, but it looks like it is going to be my fault. Sorry, Commander.”

To the group he said, “We'll ignite the explosives with our phaser—”

“No,” Noa said, squeezing the little boy's hand, furious at James for already conceding defeat. “Give me the schematics of the inner wall of the gate. We're not giving up on getting out of this thing alive.” She pointed at Agent Ashley. “And you will not do any fission blastedly stupid self-sacrificing again, either.”

Ashley gaped, and then the schematics of the inner wall were playing in Noa's mind. She felt a twisted, feral smile forming on her lips. “I have a plan.”

Heretic

Eight was madly trying to reach James through the ether. Gripping a stolen pistol in one hand, and a casket handle in the other, James gritted his teeth and ignored the ceaseless pinging. He was protected from the still-hot material of the casket by a glove borrowed from the suit locker. Chen was still working on getting the door to the tarmac open. Ashley, the premier, and Ryan were also gripping casket handles with free hands, and also were armed. Noa stood by the side of the door, a rifle James had stolen from a 'bot in her grip, a pistol in her belt. The agent boy whose name he didn't know stood beside her, his own rifle ready. The girl who'd declared herself his and Noa's only biological child had the duffel with Carl Sagan and all their food supplies strapped over her back. In either hand she grasped a salvaged pistol.

“Almost ready!” Chen said.

To the room, Noa said, “If I don't make it, the ether override code to the ship is 394567-Alpha-Bravo-Thomas-William-Xray-69345. The panel is at the center of the aft hatch, you'll see it.”

The small boy said, “You have to make it!”

She did. James didn't want to be found by Fleet without Noa to act as an ambassador.

“Ashley and I will go first,” James said, even as he dreaded it. To the boy and the girl he said, “You go next, Mom between you. Ryan, Leetier, Chen take the rear.”

Noa briefly met James's eyes. “You're our best pilot,” he said by way of explanation, and it was true. Noa looked away, too quickly, and closed her visor. James felt no sense of failure, but that strange emptiness was there. Maybe it was just the memory of the emotion of before that caused that sensation?

Ryan said, “Mom, you asked for schematics of the inner ring wall. The ship's cannons aren't enough to blow through that.”

The thumping at the door to the stairwell grew louder. James felt heat on his back. They must be trying to cut their way through now.

“I'm not going to use the ship's cannons to blow through it,” Noa assured him, shouting to be understood through her helmet and over the noise behind them.

“Then what—” Ryan began.

“She knows what she's doing,” James proclaimed, worried that Chen's manual disablement of the stairwell door wouldn't hold. “Be ready.”

“Got it!” Chen cried. The door to the tarmac whooshed open, and Noa fired into the darkness. In the glow of her phaser fire, James saw writhing bodies of 'bots. Their collective hum almost drowned out the sound of the 'bots trying to enter from behind.

“Heave ho!” James ordered.

Ryan, Ashley, the premier, and James sent the coffin hurtling into the darkness. There was the wicked sound of metal and poly cracking. “Now!” James shouted, crouching low and charging forward into the dark.





Chapter Twenty-Six

Within seconds of falling behind James and Ashley, Noa saw how the agents had managed to fight off the 'bots on their race to the tarmac. The scene was lit by phaser fire, much of it completely random from Eight's 'bots. Noa couldn't see everything her comrades were doing, but by the way bits of machinery flew past her, and the fact that she wasn't chopped to bits or hit within seconds, she got the feeling the agents were unerring in their aim.

She trudged forward into the onslaught. Noa felt heat around her and smelled the burnt dust scent of phaser fire. Beside her, Ashley screamed. Spinning, rifle raised, Noa saw Ashley kick back a tall, cylindrical 'bot with a circular saw blade through its mid-section while clutching her forearm, blood or a damn good imitation of blood welling between her fingers. Firing at the 'bot, Noa managed to hit the saw blade with enough heat to fuse it in place. Lunging, Ashley grabbed a head-like protrusion on its top, bent it down, and put the flat of her injured forearm against the 'bot's plasma-molten body, fusing herself to the machine with cry of pain and anger. The thing tried to bend and flip Ashley over and away from the team, but Noa blew off its legs with another phaser strike. With super-augmented strength, Ashley used the lizzar-blasted legless 'bot as a shield from incoming fire, roaring as she swung it, and Noa fired around its bulk.

Noa heard James shout at the boy and saw that both had managed to find similar shields. They fought against the machines like machines.

A terrible groaning noise came from behind them, and Noa turned to see the door they'd emerged from shut on a large spider-like 'bot as Chen darted away from a panel of loose wiring in the wall. The premier was emptying two hacked-off phaser rifles into the door. The airlock glowed like a small sun. Then Noa felt something slash at her ankles, and had to look away. Tiny 'bots were slipping through the fray. One had torn through her suit, and into her leg—fortunately Eight hadn't depressurized or de-oxygenated the tarmac—probably because machinery had to be specially built to handle vacuums. Hoping that their tiny knife-like parts weren't tipped with poison, Noa used her feet and rifle butt to crack and dismember them even as some of them burst into flames at her feet. Somewhere, she heard Carl Sagan hissing in fury. A 'bot latched onto her visor, and cracked it before she tore it away. But moments later, she was too busy tearing a 'bot from the boy's back, then turning her pistol on one that was fused to Ashley's metal leg to even pull up her visor.

Forty-three point eight seconds after they left the airlock, the girl screamed, “Mom, we're there! Where is the panel?” And Noa looked up to see the shadow of the ship above them. Flipping up her cracked visor, she found the panel that concealed the ether override code, twisted the handle that gave her access, and punched the thankfully over-sized keys with clumsy gloved hands. A moment later, the hatch began to open. Before it had reached the ground, hands had hoisted her up and pushed her inside the cutter's aft airlock. The interior had been completely stripped of weapons, the inner door was open, and she saw her S-rations scattered about, and a few phaser cartridge refills, as though Eight had decided that they would have been of no immediate use and tossed them aside.

“Go, Mom!” shouted the young girl, scrambling up behind her a moment later. Carl Sagan squeaked and Noa heard the little boy roar and fire his rifle. She felt a short-lived sense of relief. Throwing herself into the pilot chair, she saw that the ship's basic systems were online—she shut off its ether, and began working the controls manually. Flying the Ark for over a month had made it almost second nature. She turned on the engines and laughed aloud at their steady purr, but the sound of her voice was drowned by the sound of the firefight still going on behind her. She heard metal and poly cracking, James grunting in exertion, and Ashley's shouts of rage. A chronometer went off in her mind. James had told her Eight would have his fission reactors weaponized and deployed in six more minutes. Starting the charging cycle for the phaser cannons and lifting the ship three meters above the tarmac, Noa turned her head and shouted, “We have to close the hatch!” Her eyes went wide. The team had been beaten back to the inner door of the aft airlock. There were 'bots inside the airlock. 'Bots with saw blades that could cut metal, welding torches, and who knew what else. They had to get them completely out of the cutter or this would be a short trip.

She heard a muttered curse, and saw the Premier Leetier agent kneeling on the floor, using abandoned cartridges to refill two phaser pistols. He looked up, met Noa's eyes, and demanded, “Save Luddeccea, it is my purpose, Mother!” Leaping up, he shouted, “As soon as I'm out, close the inner door!” and charged into the fray in the aft airlock. James shut the door before Noa could think about it. Spinning to her, he said, “Execute your plan or his death is in vain.” His face was expressionless, like she was used to.

Turning back to the controls, Noa maneuvered the ship so that the aft engine was just meters from the inner ring of the gate, the bow at a forty-five degree angle to the tarmac floor. “You don't have enough fire power in your cannons to destroy the airlock doors, Mom!” Chen shouted in Noa's ear, misunderstanding Noa's target.

Noa was too busy working the control panel with eight fingers to respond, but she winced in pain at the sound.

Pulling Chen away from the seat, James snapped, “She knows that!”

“Someone turn on the time bands!” Noa commanded, still busy entering her own commands. Ashley was at her side an instant later. “Downloaded manual via Qcomm … what am I doing, exactly?”

“Using the time bands to resist impact from ...” Noa looked out the window and gave her coordinates, at the same time noticing some 'bots that had been fused with cannons. The ship's phasers were hot. Making sure the recoil dampener was online, Noa blew the 'bots apart, and then hit the heat dump control. The engines roared but the ship did not jolt forward.

She saw another phaser cannon start to light on the tarmac. Eight had apparently wanted the cutter too much to destroy it before—but now the gate had decided their deaths were more useful than the ship being in one piece. This time Noa ignored the threat of the cannons.

A beeping sounded on the dash. A monitor flashed somewhere. “Why did you do a heat dump?” Ashley asked.

Ignoring her, Noa said to James, “Turn on the comm. Use standard Luddeccean channels and brace yourselves!” She felt James and Ashley wrap their hands around the seat's headrest. Setting her sights on the anti-incendiary crates, Noa turned off the recoil dampeners and fired. The anti-incendiary crates were meant to withstand high heat and impact from phaser pistols or rifles—but not the onslaught of two phaser cannons at once. The ship hurtled backward from the lack of dampeners, and there was a flare of light from the crates as Noa flew forward in her seat. She heard the agents shout and cry in surprise. Before anyone could recover, they were shaken again as flame and impact waves Noa was sure she could see flowed around the cutter's bow.

… And then they were twisting over and over in the black. Pieces of the inner ring that had been behind them hit the opposite side of the ring. Noa barely had time to find the controls to right the ship, before the Jachtwerft collided, too. The area from which they emerged was blooming in flame and debris. The engine lights were blinking, and another alarm was telling her that the Jachtwerft's wings were damaged. The time bands were largely offline too, but the Jachtwerft had a lot of time bands—they had a jump or two at lightspeed left. The agents floated in zero G around her. “Fire all we got at the area adjacent to our exit point!” she ordered, throwing up an arm to pull James down to the controls. He'd seen her fire once; she was sure he could do it. “Ashley, get our bands ready for lightspeed.”

James fired at the area adjacent to the spot they'd just emerged, and Ashley tugged herself down to the time band controls. The cockpit was cramped with the three of them, which gave the two floating agents more leverage in zero G.

Turning her attention to the comm, Noa gritted out, “This is Commander Noa Sato of the Galactic Fleet and citizen of Luddeccea. Luddeccean Guard ships, you have two minutes to destroy the gate before Luddeccea experiences another nuclear strike. Attack where its defenses are down. Spread out from there.” And then she took evasive maneuvers, just before phaser fire streaked from the gate toward the cutter.

“The cannons are exhausted and the recoil dampeners just went offline,” James said.

Her little boat couldn't do more here. Noa saw the phaser cannons on the nearest cruiser realign, and knew soon it wouldn't just be Gate 8 she had to worry about. Coaxing the last bit of life from the engines, she aimed the cutter for a gap in the Luddeccean ships. In the monitor, she saw streaks of fire from Eight streaking toward them—fire that would have been better spent on the Luddeccean vessels, but Eight was apparently vindictive. The gravity had come on so gradually she hadn't noticed it, which meant they had lightspeed too. “I need a course,” Noa muttered. And her little cutter's computer wasn't fast enough.

“I have one already entered,” Ashley said.

Eight was erupting in flames behind them now, and Ashley's words were all she needed to hear. Noa pulled back on the steering bars, and around them space became a blur. Cries of protest arose from the main cabin, but James's hand came down on her shoulder, and Ashley touched her arm. Noa swallowed, her adrenaline high starting to crash.

“Well done,” murmured James, and then he walked away. Maybe it was all the links flashing on the monitors telling her that their engines weren't going to last, and that the time bands were going, but Noa felt suddenly exhausted and numb.





Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Why didn't we immediately go to our purposes on Luddeccea?” Dimitri moaned, sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. The only furniture in the space was a mattress.

James glanced over to the cockpit. Noa was sitting at the helm, looking through the windows at the green gas giant S6O9. They weren't at lightspeed—the time bands had gone out shortly before the engines died. They were adrift.

He turned back to Dimitri. “Because our wings would have come off in re-entry and we've lost too many time bands to land without them.”

“Not to mention we lost our starboard engine,” Chen added. She was sitting on the floor next to them.

“I'm so sad that I won't be able to see my purpose until after I'm rescued, Dad,” said the girl whose name he should know, considering she thought she was his daughter. Her brow furrowed. “But I'm also curious how we even managed to get out of Eight.”

Ryan, sitting on the other side of the cabin, responded. “Mom had the ship in neutral, and was using the heat generated by the engine and time band chargers to heat the wall behind the ship. When the explosion happened, it was already weakened. The time band sent most of the force of the blast around us, easily blowing the wall out. What didn't go around us pushed us out after it … that's why we were spinning in space for a bit there.”

Ashley, sitting by the duffel bag, and among a pile of S-rations said, “James, there's barely enough for Noa and the werfle, let alone us.”

James had feared that. He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Isn't there enough power in this ship for us to survive on?”

Ashley's brow furrowed. “Maybe one of us …”

James gulped.

Ashley tilted her head. “But we could just shut down.”

James blinked. “We could?” All of the other agents nodded, eyeing him carefully. He gave a tight smile. “I, ah, sustained some damage during Noa's and my adventures.”

“All the agents are complaining about it,” said Dimitri. “You should really fix yourself.”

He glared at the boy. “Shut down.”

“Awww, Dad,” Dimitri whined, but he leaned back and closed his eyes. His feigned breathing stopped.

James's eyes slid to the girl. Before he said a word, she said, “All right, but I'm doing this for Mom.”

In the cockpit, he heard Noa start, but the girl's eyes were already closed, and her breathing had paused.

Chen and Ryan looked up at him through narrowed eyes. “You and Mom aren't really our parents, are you?” Chen said.

“No, but I didn't have time to explain and I needed to save your purpose, Chen,” James replied.

She nodded. “I figured.” Leaning back against the wall, she shut herself down, too.

“What about my purpose?” asked Ryan.

“She is in Sol System,” James supplied, wondering how much he should warn the other agent about the good doctor. “She should be safe.”

“And Zoe, our daughter?” Ryan asked. His mouth twisted in a sharp smile. “You know, your granddaughter.”

“She should be safe as well,” James replied.

Ryan sighed. Leaning back, he said, “Well, I guess I was going to have to wait anyway.” His eyes slipped shut and his breathing stopped.

Noa's footsteps made James turn. She was holding Carl Sagan close, not meeting James's eyes. The werfle was nervously sniffling below her chin. Once again, James was struck by that sensation of emptiness when he looked at her.

Ashley spoke. “Noa, I'm really glad I met you.”

Noa smiled down at her, a little sadly, James thought. “I'm glad I met you, too,” Noa responded softly.

Ashley glared at James. “James has to be the one to stay powered on because he doesn't know how to shut down.”

“Oh,” murmured Noa, sounding decidedly not like the commander of men and cyborgs that she was. She nervously smoothed the fur between Carl Sagan's ears and shifted on her feet. Over the ship's ether, James's channel pinged. He answered, and Ashley's thoughts roared in his mind. “So help me, if you hurt her, I will fry your Qcomm and extrude your bio-nutrient extractors through your navel.”

James held up his hands, and privately over the ether, said, “She is not good to me dead, either.”

Ashley's eyes narrowed briefly, but then she turned and smiled sunnily at Noa. “Maybe James will find a way for you to join us in the agent Qcomm …” Ashley blinked and her lips pursed. “Well, it is like a channel, but more like a party line. They don't really let us know how it works. I'm not sure if we all tap into one particular gate's CPU or if we are all in many gates at once. I've never actually done it, to be honest, because I wasn't turned on at all before.”

Noa was looking quickly between Ashley and James. She gave a nervous little smile to Ashley. “I'm sure that would be … nice,” she said weakly.

Ashley gave her an adoring smile and leaned against the wall. “Goodnight, Noa.” She closed her eyes and her breathing stopped.

Noa's eyes roved over the agents that had shut down. James heard her gulp, and then she looked up at him. “Are they all asleep? I mean … can they hear us?”

James tilted his head. “They can't hear us,” he said, and he knew it was true.

“I'm sorry,” Noa blurted out.

James could only stare at her dumbly for a moment. “What for?”

Noa's eyes went to a point on the floor. “As I understand it, your … affection for me was something forced. Something you had no choice in. I … if you have resentment, that would be very human, and well, I'm sorry.”

“I have no resentment.” He smiled and winked to “lighten the mood,” as she always said. “I am not human.”

Noa nodded, still not looking at him. “Ah, yes, right.”

Noa's focus on the floor seemed to intensify.

“But it wasn't your fault, and I don't blame you at all,” he murmured.

Noa lifted her chin but didn't look at him. “Well, that's good.”

James's brow furrowed. It didn't sound like she felt good about it.

“You were supposed to ask me why all the agents were calling us Mom and Dad,” James said, trying to sound upbeat. He'd enjoyed her witty banter before.

“I thought it was because it was a way to quickly integrate us with their existing programming?” Noa's eyes were wide and inquisitive. Even if he didn't love her, he could still admire their openness and warmth, and how symmetrical her features were.

“You figured that out,” James said, slightly disappointed. That was exactly why he'd done it. He'd thought of making Noa all the agents' purpose, but had worried that might lead to jealousy issues. Based on the vehemence of Ashley's warning, he had probably been correct. Still, trying to keep things light, he sighed somewhat theatrically. “I had a joke planned. When you asked, I was going to say, 'Well, I knew you wanted to adopt, darling.'”

“That would have been funny.” Noa frowned and looked at the floor.

“But it wasn't, for some reason.” James felt his circuits darken. Not with failure, just confusion. “What's wrong? You hardly meet my gaze and …” And he felt so empty when he looked at her.

Noa took a deep breath and met his eyes. “I'm really all right. I just … I can't turn off my feelings like a switch, and I just need a little time to adjust.”

She still felt for him. James had a memory of the professor in a similar situation after he and a woman had called it quits. Or he had called it quits. The professor had glided over to her, put his arms around her, comforted her … and one thing had led to another. Their relationship had dragged on for months more. James had been given a body that enjoyed stimulation, and even though he no longer felt like he needed Noa, the idea of contact was tempting. The memory of their bodies flowing together was very tempting. He wanted that … he took a step forward, and, looking at Noa, was struck by that empty feeling. She looked tired—beautiful, but tired. She needed sleep, and he didn't need that emptiness. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he said, “I … well … why don't you rest? Take the mattress. I really don't need it.”

Noa curled up on the mattress, Carl Sagan in her arms. She looked very tiny and fragile. “You're not shutting down?” she whispered.

“No, I'll enter a sleep-like state … but I'll still be here if you need me,” he said, settling on the floor nearby.

Noa didn't respond, but Carl Sagan poked his head up and shot a beady-eyed glare at James, as though to say, “As though she'd ever need you with me here!” And then his tiny head disappeared.

Noa trembled and fell asleep. She was so close he could touch her. The sensation of emptiness felt even more vast. A bug in his programming, obviously. He could fix it with a little effort. He took out his augment key and was about to insert it into his port when Noa got up, saying, “I'm going to get the door.” Carl Sagan jumped up and began frantically hopping after her. James eyes widened in alarm as he realized she was heading toward the airlock—where assuredly no one was knocking.

Quickly climbing to his feet, he jumped up and pulled her around. As usual, when she was sleep walking she didn't seem to be looking at him. He reached to her in the ether—and was relieved when she answered. He slipped from the real world into her dream. It looked exactly like the ship they were in.

“James,” the dream Noa said, “The agent of Premier Leetier is knocking at the door. We have to let him in.”

James tilted his head. She was worried about a cyborg agent she'd only known for a few minutes.

Noa wiped her face with her hands. “He did more for my planet than the real premier did.”

With those words, James understood. Of course she worried for him. He was part of her team, and Noa had trouble abandoning her team members. It was a “bug” in her programming. Trying to save Kenji on Luddeccea nearly got her killed. But then again, saving Gunny on Adam's Station had ultimately saved James from being lost in the Kanakah Cloud, which in the long run had ultimately allowed him to sacrifice himself and gave her the opportunity to flee to the safety of Sol System. Not that she'd had the sense to stay safe … But then maybe her sacrifice would save the agents, the gates, and her own race from war. Maybe the impulse that drove her to protect her “team” beyond death—hers and theirs—wasn't a bug so much as a feature.

“Let me answer the door,” Noa said, her avatar and her physical form trying to slip past him to the airlock. There was no outer seal; the hatch had blown away during the agent premier's struggle with the 'bots. If she opened it, they'd all be sucked out into the void. James intercepted her, putting his hands on her shoulders. A dream version of Carl Sagan, doubtlessly conjured by Noa's imagination, materialized on James's shoulder and threw out a paw in Noa's direction, and as it often happened in Noa's dreams, the werfle began to speak. “Noa, the Agent of Leetier is surfing the quantum wave. The airlock is open to the void and if you open it you will perish!”

A tortoise shell cat appeared at James's feet. Rubbing against James's ankles, the cat said, “Listen to him, Noa!”

Noa scowled at the dream werfle and the cat. “I'm sleepwalking again, aren't I?”

“Yes,” said Carl Sagan, the cat, and James in unison, and then their mindscape bodies turned their heads to peer at each other through narrowed eyes.

“I have a crazy subconscious,” Noa muttered. “Surfing the quantum wave. What does that even mean?”

“The Agent of Leetier more than likely uploaded himself,” James said, averting his attention from the dream animals.

Noa huffed. “Is that cybernetic agent heaven?”

James sighed. “I don't really know … haven't been there to find out, and really don't want to go.”

Noa's dream and real self nodded. “Yep, that sounds like heaven all right. Would you turn me in the direction of my cot and make sure I don't send us all there?”

James gently steered her around. He helped her back to the cot. Wishing he could lie down beside her for the warmth, and the tactile pleasure of it, he only tucked her in.

“Why are you being so kind?” Noa asked him.

Why was he being kind? Because Ashley would find a way to destroy him if he wasn’t? Because if Noa managed to live, it would speak well of the agents and increase the likelihood of his survival? Those justifications were too long. “Because you taught me to take care of my team.”

Noa grabbed his hand and grasped it with surprising force. “I'm glad that we're on the same team. I'm so glad we still have that.” And then her dream self faded away as she left REM sleep behind. She was still holding his hand in the real world, though.

James didn't let it go until just before she woke. Nor did he touch the augment key again.

Heretic

Panting, hands clasped behind her back, Noa sat up and touched her chin to her knees. “Four.” She wasn't sweating, but she could already feel the beginnings of a burn in her lungs. Somewhere Carl Sagan squeaked. Her eyes fell on the “sleeping” agents—James had packed their bodies against the airlock so that if Noa sleepwalked she'd trip over them before she opened it and set them all afloat.

“Please stop,” said James, leaning against the wall, legs stretched out on the barren floor. He looked as frustratingly attractive as ever. The black scar on his face made him look more real, even if the color was alien.

Glaring at him, Noa declared, “Unlike some people, I have to exercise to stay in peak physical condition.”

James smiled disconcertingly, and Noa let herself fall backward onto the mattress to keep from staring.

“I'm glad you think I'm in 'peak physical condition,'” James quipped.

Noa felt her cheeks heat. Lizzar balls.

James got up and walked so he was looking down at her. “But I'm absolutely certain exercise is not the way for a person who is suffering from a cryssallis infection to stay in peak condition.” His nostrils flared slightly, he was frowning, and his shoulders were tight. He looked furious.

Flat on her back, Noa could only gape up at him. “You figured that out?”

“It's getting worse,” James said, the fury in his expression morphing into something else. “Usually, that happens with infections if they aren't cured during the first round of treatment.”

Noa's brow wrinkled up in incredulity. “You've noticed it getting worse? We've only been back—” Together, she almost said, but waved a hand. “It's only been six days!” Six painfully awkward days when she didn't feel comfortable chatting with Carl Sagan or him. He might not feel resentment toward her, but she still felt pretty terrible about their relationship. Basically, he'd been her sex 'bot … no, worse! James had real feelings and thoughts and had been forced to be with her scrawny, sick self. All of her guilt was made worse by the fact that she still had feelings for him. She was afraid she'd trip up and flirt, and then that would be unforgivable.

“Yes, to the first, and yes, it's only been six days, which makes me worried that you won't make it the fifty-four more days before we get picked up by Fleet.” He sounded pissed, not worried. And he should be worried about that. He'd known by whatever that Qcomm was that Fleet had come through the gate down to the number of ships. He'd told her that they knew about their position and were planning a “rescue.” Noa hoped it was a rescue. She wasn't confident that her species would respect the agents as, well, alien life. She did have a plan for that, though.

“I'll make it.” She had to. For them. Noa lifted her chin and gave him a sunny smile. “I'm too stubborn to quit.”

His eyes narrowed and his nostril flared again, which almost made her giggle. She forced herself to do another sit-up. “Five.” She lowered herself and repeated. “S—” And erupted into a fit of coughing.

James sat down beside her and waited until she stopped hacking. It took over a minute.

“Please stop, Noa.”

She looked at him and wished she hadn't. He was sitting next to the mattress, which put him exactly at eye level and lip-lock level, and he still smelled good. What had he said? That the way he smelled was probably to be more attractive to her. She dropped her head onto her knees and couldn't help but think of a fairy tale with a little girl and a wolf disguised as her granny. “Granny,” Noa imagined the little girl in the hood saying, “Why do you smell so good?” The wolf licked its lips and in Noa's twisted version of the story said, “The better to seduce you, my dear.”

Face buried in her knees, Noa laughed.

“What's so funny?” James inquired.

“Nothin'.” She thought he was about to say something, but she broke into another coughing fit, sadly not feigned. When it was done, she put her hand behind her head and prepared to do another sit-up.

“Stop, Noa!” James put a hand on her knee. Which made Noa go warm in all sorts of uncomfortable ways.

She stared at his hand and swallowed. “Look,” she explained. “I've been living in this tin can for a while, James, and I need to exercise. It's one way to fend off boredom and keep me mentally sane.”

“Is there really any help for the latter?” James asked, his tone light.

She shot daggers at him with her eyes, but felt her lips curl up despite her best efforts.

He tilted his head. “I do have a solution for the former.”

Her lips parted. She wasn't sure if she wanted him to stop talking. His hand was still on her knee, and she could swear she felt the heat of it all the way to—well, all sorts of places. She eyed those long fingers. Would she want anything with James? It would just be a way to combat boredom for him. For her …

Pulling his hand away, averting his eyes, and rubbing the back of his neck, he said nervously, “Ummm … so I was thinking, I know how to let you in the Qcomm.”

Oh. That was what he'd been thinking—something innocent, and based on his uncomfortable reaction, he knew what she'd been thinking, which wasn't innocent, and she'd made him uncomfortable.

“Actually, it's not so much that you'd be in the Qcomm. But I think I could relay data fast enough to the ether that it would feel like you were.” He was rambling. Ugh. She'd made him terribly uncomfortable, obviously.

It took her a moment before she realized he was waiting for an answer. Be in the ether with James? She was sure that she had in her dreams. She had a vague memory of him holding her hand and saying that she'd taught him to look after his team. And if he had really said that … Noa sucked in a breath. He might as well have just ripped out her heart with his bare hands and stabbed it with a phaser knife. It had made her feelings for him rekindle like a bonfire … she thought that she had behaved appropriately, in the dream. She hoped she had.

“Noa?”

“Ah … That's okay, you don't have to,” Noa said, flopping down on the mattress, taking another breath, and feeling that tell-tale twinge, like the prick of tiny needles.

James leaned over her. “It would mean a lot to me.”

He looked so earnest. She remembered the joy he'd seemed to have gotten from creating different mindscapes. This was probably like that. She firmly met his eyes, but she was thinking of that long black scar—the only reason it bothered her was because her people had given it to him. She wasn't naïve. She knew they'd probably done much worse.

He was there for her. He was her team as long as the other agents were asleep. And they did have fifty-odd more days to go.

“All right,” she said, and felt him pinging her in the ether immediately.

Noa answered, closed her eyes, and found James's avatar staring at her in a barren field of gray. Holding out an arm, he said, “The ones that aren't busy are at Raani's place.”

Checking that every emotional shield she possessed was up and operational, Noa looped her avatar's arm with his. The gray took form and they were standing in a small room, gazing at their reflections in a mirror.

“Hmmm … usually she doesn't bother with sending guests through the foyer,” James commented.

Noa looked around the foyer. The floor was made of polished black stone that was also realistically reflective. She heard a door whoosh open and closed, and fast footsteps. A beautiful woman with dark hair and warm brown eyes came rushing in. “Oh, you managed to bring her!” Without smiling, the woman, or agent, Noa supposed, spoke in a torrent. “I'm Raani! I am so glad to meet you. Really I am. I have just been flubbing my purpose and I am sure you can help. James swears it's because I come on too strong, but he can't really judge because he is an agent, not really human, and he's also based off one human male. Too small a sample size! But you! You are human and you know what we are!”

“Ah,” said Noa, not sure she'd caught any of that.

“I really want to talk to you,” Raani said, brown eyes imploring. “But right now I need James.”

“What's wrong?” James asked.

Raani's wide brown eyes went to his. “Oh, James, there is a new agent, and he's terribly, terribly despondent, even though he succeeded with his purpose marvelously! Tremendously!” She touched her chin. “Well, I guess she wasn't really his purpose while he succeeded as he wasn't really an agent then, but he is now. His purpose asked One and One agreed and he has a new processor …”

“What are you talking about, Raani?” James demanded, sounding as vexed and confused as Noa felt.

Putting her hand on James's other arm, Raani guided him out of the mindscape foyer. He dragged Noa along with him as Raani prattled on, “I know how horribly you were depressed when you thought Noa was dead.” She peered at Noa. “He was impossible before he changed his programming. Impossible!” Noa didn't look up at James, feeling somehow that she'd invaded his privacy. Facing forward again, Raani continued, “But maybe you're the only one who can sympathize with what he's going through now.” They emerged into an open room, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and a kitchen area with a counter lined with high stools at the far end. Noa heard James say, “Where is everyone?” but Noa's attention was drawn to an agent sitting at the counter. His back was to her, but there was something about his slumped shoulders, the color of his hair, the bright pink shirt and sparkly purple pants he wore. “6T9?” Noa gasped, pulling away from James and putting her hands to her mouth.

The figure at the counter turned around. It was 6T9, but not as she'd ever seen him before. His hair was ruffled, and his eyes were red rimmed. “Noa?” he whispered. He slid from the stool as though it took great effort, and held out his arms. 6T9 never hugged Noa, but he looked like he desperately needed a hug now. Noa threw herself into his embrace. It wasn't possible to really feel an embrace in a mindscape—or at least not a normal human ether-generated 'scape. James insisted tactile sensation was possible in the Qcomm mindscapes. Noa wasn't part of the Qcomm simulation as she understood it; still, the human mind was wonderfully open to suggestion, and she could imagine the 'bot's arms around her back, and the feel of his chin on her head, just by what she saw and heard.

“Sixty,” she whispered. “You're an agent?”

She could hear him swallow. “Now I am. Eliza asked One to give me a new processor.” His voice was soft and tired.

“I can imagine her doing that,” Noa said, pulling back to look up at him. “What's wrong?”

“What's wrong?” he asked, his voice and expression incredulous. “What's wrong?”

Noa grabbed his hands before he could pull away. “Are you being well treated? Are you facing discrimination? Are you imprisoned for being an agent?”

He blinked at her and then laughed bitterly. “My prison is being an agent! She gave me understanding while she is dying! Why would she do that to me?” He pulled away and put his hands to his face. “I could have taken care of her without knowing. I could have stayed the way I was. I could have been happy.”

Noa's jaw sagged, and her eyes got hot. “Eliza isn't—”

James's hand fell on her shoulder. “Of course she is, Noa. You just don't like thinking about it.”

Noa gulped. 6T9 blinked at her. “Is that how you deal with it? Not thinking about it? But how do you do that? I think about everything now, and it is terrible.”

Noa took a step backward, her shoulder pressing against James's chest.

“You can unprogram yourself now, 6T9,” James said. “Or you can accept every moment you have together as a gift until she dies.” He sounded like he knew what he was speaking about and in the real world Noa wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. He'd thought she was dead. He'd mourned her. He'd wished her back for just one moment, she knew it. She'd been there, in his boots, and wished for another moment. She'd had to move on—but she'd held on, too. She'd worked Timothy's memory into a part of her that helped her stay sane. In time, she'd have done the same with James's memory.

“And then I will have to unprogram myself?” 6T9 said, the acid in his voice surprising Noa. Sixty was forever kind and cheerful.

“Yes,” James said, voice like steel.

“But will I be myself anymore?” 6T9 demanded, and now he sounded afraid.

James's hand tightened on Noa's shoulder. Brushing it gently aside, Noa stepped forward, feeling as though her eyes had been opened. Laying a hand on Sixty's arm, she said, “You won't be the same, but you have to change. Living things have to adapt.” She shrugged. Agents did it differently than humans—with an augment key. She'd thought that it was painless for them, but Raani's words, Sixty's, and James's own suggested it hurt. Her eyes slid to the scar on James's cheek … and she realized the three agents were studying her appraisingly. Her eyebrows rose. What had she said?

Sixty sighed and answered her unasked question. “So far, there is a truce between the gates and their agents and humans.” He smirked. “But not everyone agrees with it.”

Raani held up her hands. “We don't want to die.”

James said softly, “You just acknowledged that we are alive.” His gaze was too intent.

There was something to say here, something monumental and important. “Pfffft ….” These waters were too deep. Noa threw up a hand, and looked around expectantly. “I thought we came here for some sort of party?”

Raani twiddled her thumbs, and James gave her a look she couldn't decipher.

“Eliza's calling me, anyway,” Sixty said. He bent down, hugged Noa again, and whispered in her ear, “I wish you were interested in casual sex.”

Noa went rigid and her eyes went wide. Not noticing, or possibly not caring, Sixty added, “Of course, James would probably kill me for it. Someone didn't adjust all of his programming.” Noa felt her cheeks go warm in the real world, and was thankful for her blush-hiding dark skin tone. Sixty vanished, right out of her arms.

“I guess we can see the others now,” Raani said. “They're off Neptune.”

Tilting his head and giving her a wicked smile, James said, “Well, darling, would you like to see our children? They're all awake here in the Qcomm.” Noa couldn't help smiling at his jibe. Something snide was on the tip of her tongue but she erupted in a fit of coughing. Raani's apartment disappeared and Noa was lying on her back on the mattress in the fish cutter, her stomach and lungs spasming with such force that she sat up. When she finally could breathe, James was hovering above her, holding out her water bottle. Lifting an eyebrow, he said, “So you know, I actually explained the situation to 'our children.'”

“That they're adopted?” Noa managed to tease just before coughing again. She took a sip of water, and finally caught her breath.

James was giving her a tight, worried smile. “I told them the truth.”

“That I had a tawdry affair and you had to divorce me?” Noa supplied.

James rolled his eyes to the ceiling and he sucked on his lips, like he was smiling but trying really hard not to look like he was smiling.

Noa grinned in triumph. “Thank you for sparing me from what I'm sure was an uncomfortable conversation.”

“You're welcome.” He grimaced. “But it was my fault that uncomfortable situation existed to begin with.”

Noa flopped back down on the mattress, water bottle still in her hand, staring up at the ceiling. “You did what you had to do.”

“I did want you to see them all again,” James murmured, leaning on his knees.

Because she was still shaken by the intensity of her fit moments ago, Noa closed one eye, opened the other, and gasped melodramatically, “Before I die of an easily-curable lung infection?” She concluded the performance by sticking out her tongue, laughing at herself, and then coughing. She still felt better. The quips were making her feel more comfortable in James's presence.

“Not funny,” James said curtly. “I wanted you to meet my family, so that you would know that although we're not human … we're … real. We're alive.” He looked down at her. “But I didn't have to.”

Noa shook her head. “No, I knew.”

His gaze was heavy on hers. She wanted to put her hands on the battered side of his face, pull him close, and kiss him. She laced her fingers over her chest instead and focused on a point on the ceiling.

“Noa, 6T9 was wrong. I didn't miss anything when I adjusted my programming.”

He'd seen her intention in her eyes. Noa studied a tiny bit of chipped paint above her with the force of a phaser blast. The paint really should have spontaneously combusted. “Of course not,” she replied.

“I want to undo it,” he said.

Noa's lips parted. She didn't want to look at him, just in case she was not understanding what he was saying, but she couldn't not look at him. She gulped.

“I miss being in love with you,” James said. “I look at you, and I feel empty, when before I felt full.”

It was as good a description for an end of a love affair as Noa had ever heard.

“We were good together. We are not the same.” He huffed. “Not even the same species, but our evolution … it was convergent … and you make me laugh and I admire you.”

He made her laugh, and he'd destroyed one of his own kind and put his life at risk to avert a war and she'd seen that it hurt him. She more than admired him.

“I can reprogram myself … and I want to.” Shaking his head, he looked away. The muscles of his legs coiled as though he was about to stand. “That's probably terribly unromantic.”

Noa grabbed his hand, and his eyes flew to their fingers. Noa remembered Timothy all those years ago. He'd just decided he would be in love with her, too, as hard as it was. She'd made the same decision, she supposed, every day. “Whatever it is, it's real.” For her, and now for him. Their emotions might travel along different routes … but the destination was still the same. They were … convergent, she supposed. She swallowed, and looked at their entwined fingers. “If we get rescued—”

“When,” said James.

“Things will be tricky.” It sounded as though the truce between their people was an uneasy one.

He nodded, his focus on their fingers. “Noa, I don't think I will simply flip the switch back on. I need to go back through the code, and update it line by line.” Noa almost smiled at the imagery that conjured up, but then he continued, “I can't have you be everything, like before.”

Noa's burgeoning smile never emerged. “That would be unhealthy,” she blurted out.

He winced. “It was.”

Noa would have felt resentment, in his boots. Another thought occurred to her, just as gut wrenching. “You know, you're free now. You can pursue other people or agents … you don't have to latch on to me because I'm what you know.”

Looking down on her sharply, James raised an eyebrow. “I have plenty of experience with other women, Noa.”

Her eyes went wide.

He ran one hand through his hair. “Or rather, James the professor had plenty of experience. I know, philosophically, that there are other partners out there who I would be as compatible with.” Gently cradling her hand, he met her eyes. “It would be a long, hard slog to find them, though.”

Noa snorted. “You got that straight.” She squeezed James's hand. “And likewise.” He was funny, he respected her, they were attracted to one another, and they balanced each other out. James had an infuriating tendency to see everything that could go wrong; but it was good to know all the contingencies before she rushed in guns blazing. These were all qualities it was possible to find more than once in a lifetime, but it was so damnably hard, and right now their lives were tumbling in a similar direction, quite literally.

“I have to leave room for my people. I can't stop caring about them,” James whispered.

“Of course not,” Noa replied.

He smiled tentatively. “I thought you would understand.”

“I hope your people and mine will be our people, though,” Noa said, pulling their hands closer to her stomach.

He studied their entwined fingers. “I hope so. There is no other way forward, for any of us. I understand that now.”

Noa exhaled, feeling the bite of it in her lungs. Without the gates, billions of humans would die, but at war with billions of humans, the gates and their agents faced destruction, too. If the uneasy truce gave way to war … well, Noa would choose the side that favored integration. If it meant resigning her commission, so be it.

James inclined his head toward her water bottle. “Drink,” he said.

She gave him the side eye, but thought maybe he had some super-hearing way of knowing when a cough was coming on. When she was finished, she asked, “What was that for?”

James flopped down so he was laying on his side next to her. He smiled, blue eyes on hers. “I can kiss now, and I really want to kiss you.”

She wanted to lean in, to kiss him right away, but found herself getting misty-eyed. “Our first real kiss.”

His fingers slid beneath her chin. They were warm, not human, but they were real. “Not the last, though,” he murmured just before his lips met hers.

Heretic

The mindscape of the Ark's cafe was crowded with agents. Dimitri was jumping up and down, demanding Monica's husband give him another pastry. “It's so good! And it's not like it can give me cavities.” He hardly batted an eye as James walked past.

James released a breath. Noa and James had awoken the two agents designed to look like children and reprogrammed them to believe Ryan was their father instead. Monica's husband missed Zoe, and didn't have faith that the doctor would ever let him near “their” child.

“If James says it's all right,” Ryan said. “He looks too tired to envision more and maybe he wants it for himself.”

In the real world, James's mouth watered obscenely, but he was too tired to wipe it. He missed food so much. He waved his hand at Ryan. “Let him have it.” It wasn't real. The flavor would be pleasant, but the lack of nourishment would be a letdown.

Noa was standing in the 'scape, talking to 6T9. “Ghost was arrested?” she said, her voice dubious.

6T9 nodded. “For trying to steal from a bank. The gates caught it and reported him. Now he's under house arrest and all his Qcomm to the Luddeccean computers are monitored … word is they may try to extract his port.”

Raani said, “Word has gotten out in the financial community. The most prestigious institutions are falling back and using paper records.”

Noa raised an eyebrow, and James slipped his avatar beside her and pressed his hand to her avatar's back.

Raani shrugged. “Not sure how they'll handle agents when we come forward. Keep us out of ether range? Jammers? The gates are selling tech to the Fleet. The gates don't need money, but as agents come forward, the funds can be stipends for us, to help us meet our physical needs. It's a lot of money,” she said. “Some banks don't want to pass up on it, despite perceived risk. Others see gate assets in their accounts as offering protective benefits.”

“No protection for us if we come forward and aren't given status of legal persons before the law,” 6T9 said. “It's still up in the air … which is why none of us have come forward.”

Noa's eyes narrowed, and then her lips pursed. James knew that look. Before he could ask what she was scheming, 6T9 shook his head and said, “Not that any of it matters.”

Noa's expression softened. “Bad day, 6T9?” In the real world, James felt her fingers tighten on his shirt, and heard a raspy intake of breath and no exhale as she waited for 6T9 to give her Eliza's latest status.

6T9 shrugged. “No, it's better than most, but it doesn't change that I won't have her for much longer.”

Putting down her glass, Noa said, “You know when she's gone, you'll still have us, Sixty. We're family.”

6T9 blinked up at James and then at Noa with wide, hopeful, innocent eyes. “Do you mean we'll be a threesome?”

James felt all his circuitry go dark. That was a little bit much for his programming.

“Errr …” Noa said.

Before either could respond properly, all conversation in the room stopped, and the agents turned to them. Anita piped up, “James, Noa, Captain Wu of the Galactic Fleet is about three minutes from ethernet range.”

“You need to go!” 6T9 cried. “Or you'll die!”

Chen clutched her hands together, eyes moving back and forth as though reading invisible words in front of her face. “The humans still haven't decided what to do with us. The gates haven't given firm instructions.”

“The gates are using us as pawns,” James said. “For data. Just like they had no compunction against allowing me to be tortured.”

“You turned yourself in!” Anita argued, hands on her hips.

Noa's brow furrowed. “The gates want to see what humans will do.”

“Yes,” James acknowledged. He wanted to worry, to be afraid, but his circuits didn't have the energy to heat at the idea anymore.

Agent Ashley crossed her arms over her chest and snapped, “Less than one minute until contact, now. James, if you would re-establish your Qcomm connection to the gates, you would already know all of this!”

“I'll look into it,” he said. Someday, when he knew how he worked, he might. But he didn't like One in his head. One had been complicit in his torture. James relied on One for his processing power, but pretending to be friendly was too much to ask.

“Goodbye,” said James, letting himself and Noa fade from the mindscape.

In the real world, he blinked his eyes. He was laying on the mattress, and Noa's head was on his shoulder, one hand clutching his shirt. Carl Sagan was curled on his chest. The ship was cold and dark. The oxygen in the cabin was at acceptable levels, but Noa had a CO2 converter strapped over her face to compensate for her deteriorating lungs. The device emitted a constant low level hum that did not quite drown out the rasp of her breath.

“I'm going to go sit in my pilot's chair,” Noa said over the ether.

“You don't really need to do that,” James protested, speaking into her mind. It took too much effort to talk. The ship's power reserves had unexpectedly run low, and he was operating on energy siphoned from their plasma weapon power cells. They'd run out of those twenty-four hours ago.

Clambering to her feet, Noa said, “It's psychological.”

James lay on the floor, his vision dark. He should get up, he knew he should. He just clutched Carl Sagan tighter with one hand and pulled the blanket up with the other.

He listened in on the hail, Noa's answer, and Captain Wu's, “Are you alone, Commander?”

James knew from the other agents that Wu had been alerted to their presence. It was gate tech, honing in on the Qcomms, that was the impetus for Wu diverging from the rest of the Fleet, and what guided him here.

“He's fishing, Carl Sagan,” James whispered.

“I'm not alone,” Noa replied over the ether. “I am in the presence of sentient alien life forms.”

Carl Sagan sat up very suddenly, as though he'd heard something alarming from the pilot's chair.

Noa continued, “By Fleet Regulation 2143S1O3, I am declaring them allies of the Republic and collaborators with the Fleet, granting them rights as applicants for lawful permanent residence based on both their service and the potential they have to share their unique technology and act as ambassadors for the receptive members of their species.”

“Can she do that?” James whispered. James the professor actually had that regulation in his time capsule—he'd thought of it as an example of PR overreach and ridiculousness. That regulation was hundreds of years old and had never been used before.

“You're claiming cyborgs are alien allies?”

“See, Carl Sagan,” James whispered. “He knew we were here and what we are.”

The werfle settled down on his chest with a disgusted-sounding sniff.

“Yes, sir, aliens and allies,” Noa replied. “They helped me defeat Gate 8.”

“They are machines,” Wu countered.

“That may well be determined,” Noa said. “But, given Republic and Fleet bureaucracy, it may be many decades before they can be determined not to be cybernetic life forms, and until that time, by the regulation I mentioned, we owe them all courtesy reserved for alien dignitaries.”

“According to the gates' own intelligence, one of their species launched a nuclear strike on a Republic colony,” Wu countered.

“After Luddeccea attacked it, and against the wishes of the other gates,” Noa replied. “Like us, sir, they are not monolithic in thought. And they can aid us. They can give us faster than light communications with Sol System.” She took a deep breath, and James could hear the crackle in her lungs even from across the room. “We can't afford to fail at this … we can't afford more violence.”

An indicator light started to beep on her CO2 recycler.

“On that we agree,” Wu said at last. “I'm going to need to rearrange some accommodations.”

“We'll be here,” Noa said.

James imagined he'd just been upgraded from a shared cell in the brig—or worse—to at least an enlisted shipman's quarters. The agents would still be watched and carefully monitored, but it was definitely a step up.

James heard Noa stand. He needed to be there for Noa if she needed physical assistance … even if he didn't have much to offer. He struggled to his feet. Carl Sagan, perhaps wisely, hopped clear. Noa liked to joke that they were like an elderly couple depending on each other in their convalescence. His vision was tunneling rapidly. He heard Noa approach, but could barely see.

He took a step forward, and gravity seemed to upend itself. He slipped, felt pain and sparks at the back of his head, the world went white, and he felt rather than saw a familiar presence.

“Damn it,” he heard himself sigh.

From far away, he heard Noa's voice. “James,” but he was adrift in darkness. “Let me in. James,” he heard Noa say, and maybe because he thought it would irritate the consciousness in the dark, he did. Noa's avatar flickered into his mind and took his hand. In real life he thought she was doing the same—but the real world was hazy.

Noa's avatar whispered, “You fell, and hit the back of your head—” Her focus shifted to the darkness around them. “We're not alone here, are we?”

“No,” James said. He wanted to squeeze her hand, but couldn't make his joints move.

There was a flare of static, and then the voice James had heard before. “Hello, Commander Noa Sato.” In the darkness, a shimmering ball of light appeared.

Noa's hand tightened in his. Facing the light, she said, “Is this some sort of burning-bush routine? Because if you want me to think you're God, it isn't going to work.”

James laughed, never more proud of her. The light pulsed and shimmered. It took a moment for James to realize One was laughing, too.

“We are not gods. We need data.”

“I'm sure you do,” Noa said, her thoughts clipped. She'd told him that the gates did seem in many ways like children—cruel in the unconscious way children were, curious, and sometimes afraid. “And did you get the data you wanted?”

The light pulsed. “I did believe that we could be allies. Our agents as ambassadors was an interesting suggestion. We may use our influence to make it come to pass.”

Other lights danced in the gloom. “Diplomatic immunity seems a potential.”

“Allies seem a potential,” said Five.

“Allies against who?” asked Noa, her avatar's bearing becoming more rigid.

Somewhere Carl Sagan issued a frightened-sounding squeak.

“We don't know,” said Three.

“But there is little chance we are alone,” said Seven. “Alliance with another may not be possible.”

“Conflict may be inevitable.”

“We need to be ready.”

“And you have weaknesses,” Noa said.

The lights dimmed, except One.

She nodded very curtly, as though she had just confirmed something to herself. “You depend on vast amounts of power. You aren't as efficient … In some ways, you're more powerful than us, but not in others. We may balance each other out nicely.” To James she said, “We're in Wu's airlock now. As soon as we're on the deck, I'm going to jump start you. I have to be ready.” Her avatar faded away.

It was just One and James in the darkness of James's mind, and James wondered if he'd somehow managed to be connected for good. His circuits dimmed at the thought.

“No, you haven't,” said One. “It is not possible.”

An app in James's mind activated. “I was designed to be damaged.” To not be connected. To not know what he was. The missing hours after he left the station—James had probably damaged himself—it had probably been part of his programming.

“We need data about humans. To gather data we needed human agents. Not knowing your true purpose, having limited autonomy … seemed to be a hypothesis worthy of an experiment.”

There was another flash of light, heat in his abdomen, and as James regained consciousness, One disappeared. He found Noa sitting on her heels beside him, a power cord in her hand. His shirt was rolled up, and his tattoos were blackening his abdomen.

With a grin, and a sickly rasp, she thought, “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

He smiled back. “It's nice to be more than a data point to someone.”

“You say the most romantic things,” Noa replied just before she fainted into his arms.





Epilogue

Noa stood on the bridge of the Fleet fighter carrier, Humayun Khan, her hands clasped loosely behind her back. Luddeccea floated in the view screen.

The general ether flared with thoughts from Airlock Officer Becker, aka the Lock Boss. “Transport is in the main airlock, sir. Pressurization complete.” With the words, a visual of the Luddeccean vessel in the airlock flashed in Noa's vision, overlaid with heat readings from the vessel. The ship appeared to be unarmed.

“Open the inner door,” Noa commanded.

“Aye, Captain,” said Becker.

Into the ether, and aloud, Noa said, “Med teams report.”

“In position,” replied Dr. Williams, and he sent a visual of the main hangar. Medics and nurses stood in neat formation just off the main landing pad, stretchers between them. Some of the stretchers were hover lifted, but many wouldn't look out of place on the battlefields of Earth's last great war. The transport was ferrying refugees from Luddeccea. Even three months after the Fleet arrived in Luddeccean orbit, two and a half months after the “re-education camps” had been liberated, and two months after Noa had been given command of the Humayun Khan, somehow there were never enough stretchers. Or augment devices. The transports didn't just ferry survivors of the camp, but everyone else for whom Luddeccea's secession from the Republic would mean disability and death. Behind the med personnel, the deck had been divided with cloth dividers in order to expand the medical bay. The Humayun Khan desperately needed to be relieved, but couldn't be with the activity in Six … of course, if things in Six hadn't been heating up, the Republic might never have considered the Luddeccean plans to secede.

There was a flash of light on the view screen and she saw a cruiser emerge in the slender band of silver that was the Fleet's temporary gate above the planet. The manifest of the ship scrolled through Noa's mind. The cruiser was carrying other “refugees.” Humans that wanted no part in a life “at the whim of the gates” who were immigrating to Luddeccea. Another light went off in her mind. Lieutenant Chavez was letting her know the squadron of fighters Noa had stationed just moonside of the gate were escorting the carrier planetside.

Noa's name in the ether caught her attention. “Captain,” Lieutenant Correll said. “Command aboard the Luddeccean cruiser is requesting an audience.”

Noa gritted her teeth. Into James's ether channel, she blurted, “Piss in a bucket of blue-green algae.”

“To be fair,” James replied smoothly, “that bucket of goop you found on deck six during your first inspection did not have algae in it—although rat urine was definitely present.”

Noa's lip curled up ever so slightly, and she felt her muscles uncoil a bit. She took a deep breath. Part of the reason she had been given this post was because the Fleet thought that having a Luddeccean hero aboard the Humayun Khan would help smooth the planet's succession from the Republic. It went to show just how far the different cultures of the colonies of Earth had diverged, and just how little Fleet understood that fact, or perhaps how much they chose not to acknowledge it. Noa might have helped save Luddeccea from complete nuclear annihilation, but she was a woman and a heretic. Sometimes Noa suspected that the leaders of her planet might have preferred to face Armageddon.

“I'll be right down, Lieutenant Correll,” Noa replied. She gave command of the bridge to her XO and headed to the lift. To James, she said, “Did you hear me containing my sigh?”

“And your swears,” he responded. “I'm on that deck already. Meet you when you get here.”

The doors closed and the lift descended. James was the “ambassador” of the gates stationed on the Humayun Khan as their representative. Officially, he was here to make sure any agents among the refugees were not abused. They'd discovered no “agent” refugees on Luddeccea. Noa thought One had just placed him here to observe and gather data and utilize James's more human perceptions of events.

A few minutes later, the door slid open. James was waiting for her, wearing the official uniform of the gate “ambassadors”—a long, dark blue jacket with threads of light blue running through it. His trousers were made of the same fabric. He'd told her the pattern was reminiscent of old-fashioned resistor boards. James had never bothered to close the black scar on his face—he said he didn't want to hide what he was. In the stark light of the deck, his skin looked ghostly pale and the black material glittered. Normally he'd have a quip on his lips right before a delegation arrived, but his jaw was tight and his lips were pressed in a thin line. Noa was instantly on alert.

“Noa, your brother is with the delegation,” James said.

Noa's hands balled into fists. She eyed the long black scar on his cheek. What her brother had put James through made her want to self-combust.

James lifted his chin. “Will you be all right?”

Noa unclenched her fists and took a steadying breath. For the first time in a long time, it didn't hurt. “I won't kill anyone, if that is what you're asking.” She straightened the jacket of her Fleet Grays. “Will you?”

“I won't kill him,” he said, his face expressionless. “But for what he did to you, I want to. I had an escape.”

Noa shook her head. He'd had an escape into the imaginary worlds of the Qcomm—but only after a while.

“Let's get this over with.” She strode from the elevator banks, James beside her. As they entered the main deck, a pair of Fleet personnel fell into step behind them. All around, medics and techno-medics scrambled to get the weakest and sickest from the planet onto stretchers and to the recently expanded medbay.

As she approached the Luddeccean vessel, the crowd thinned. She came to a halt just before the bow, and a hatch opened from the forward most airlock. Sixteen Luddeccean Guardsmen lined either side of the hatch. Her brother walked between them, wearing the green robes of Luddeccean government employees, shadowed by two men. Kenji looked a little bit stiff; that was usual. In the months since she'd seen him, his hair had gone completely gray at the temples, and the worry lines on his forehead had deepened. His eyes were jumping between her and James, and his fingers were opening and closing by his side.

Her eyes went to the two men beside him. Her brother had a boost in status since the first strike on Luddeccea and fuel pod dump. The man on Kenji's left wore the gray with green piping of Luddeccean Guard Intelligence. A facial recognition app identified him as Captain Salvador Morita and informed her that he had been put in charge of her brother's security. The other man wore green robes like her brother. Noa's app identified him as Kenji's personal secretary. Both men looked distinctly uncomfortable. Sweat glistened on the secretary's brow, and his eyes darted around the deck as though he expected a threat to materialize from the air. Which, by his definition, perhaps it could. The LGI agent was more carefully studying Noa's retinue and Noa herself; the grim set of his lips said how unhappy he was with this assignment.

Noa's eyes returned to her brother. In person meetings between Noa and Luddeccean representatives happened on a regular basis. Typically, they were to hash out details of return of Luddeccean assets from out-of-systems, to discuss protocol when fights had broken out between Fleet and Guard personnel, or the opposite—when some member of Fleet fraternized with a local and wanted to leave with them, or stay. Noa could begin with the pleasantries she usually stuck to when she had such meetings, but Kenji hadn't been sent to negotiate. He was a genius, one of the few humans who'd recognized the extra processes running in the time gates' redundant systems for what they were— independent thought. He wasn't, however, a diplomat.

Neither was she, if she could at all help it.

Noa clasped her hands behind her back. “Do you want to discuss this somewhere private?” This was a personal matter, obviously. Her thumb fluttered to the augment fingers she now possessed—she still didn't have any rings there. But what personal matter could Kenji be here for? She had a sudden burst of hope that felt like pterys were fluttering in her chest. Across the ether, she reached to James. “I think he wants to defect.” She heard James shift beside her ever so slightly. In her mind, he whispered, “I think that may be a case of your infernal optimism.”

Noa swallowed. But the ether connection between James and herself flared. “I want to believe it, though,” James said. “If your brother could change …” Into her visual cortex he projected an image of the universe stretching out, limitless and vast. The projection didn't obscure her vision; it was like an overlay that turned the dreary deck into something magical … or in this case, hopeful. Noa understood that feeling. “I just would like to have my brother back,” she thought across the shared channel.

A brief image of Gate 8 flickered in her conscious. Noa remembered how James had tried to convince it to stand down. “I understand,” he replied. Noa's heart swelled. “I love you,” she thought privately. In the real world, she smiled at her brother. The graying man in front of her was once the little boy who helped her study to be a pilot and nurse an injured werfle, Fluffy the First, back to life. Helping Kenji defect would cause an interstellar incident, but nebulas, despite everything, she would.

Raising his chin, Kenji said, “Yes ...” He waved toward his own ship. “We have Luddeccean coffee onboard, and a conference room that would be more than adequate.”

Noa briefly had the sensation of being unable to breathe. It vanished quickly. James had transmitted his anxiety, she realized, and then cut it off before she could be completely overtaken by his emotions. Was Kenji not allowed to leave the cruiser?

Giving her brother and his retinue a shallow bow, she gestured with a hand to the conference room off the deck she'd been using for these meetings. “Thank you, but I must insist the meeting take place aboard the Khan so I'm physically available to my crew.”

At her words, the LGI agent by Kenji's side frowned. The secretary looked like he might faint.

Kenji tilted his head. “Very well.” He was her brother. Despite that, Noa couldn't discern if he was relieved or resigned by her insistence.

“Right this way, then,” Noa said, gesturing for her brother to fall into step with her. Kenji's eyes went to James.

“I'm so glad that you made it safely to Luddeccea,” James said. Kenji's face flushed, and he didn't meet James's eyes as he stepped to Noa's opposite side. He was afraid—and if James were human, he might well have reason to be.

They didn't speak the entire ninety-six meters to the conference room. Just before they entered, Kenji stopped and said to his men, “Wait outside,” and those hopeful pterys fluttered again in Noa's chest.

James halted at the door, touching Noa's arm. “I will wait outside, too, Captain.” As an agent of the gates, he wasn't bound by the protocol of an officer and the touch wasn't out of line. Still, it lasted a little too long to be only that of a friend. Across the ether, he said, “I support you on this. Somehow, we'll make it work.” Just this once, she put her hand on top of his. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kenji's secretary and personal guard blanch. Kenji didn't seem to notice; he merely stepped into the conference room.

Across the ether, Noa said to James, “You knew I couldn't stay out of trouble long.”

He sighed, but she saw the touch of a smile on his lips.

Noa followed her brother, and with a thought shut the conference room's door behind them. There was a conference table with a decanter of coffee Noa could tell was instant from the smell alone, mugs, artificial creamer, and sugar laid out for them. Ignoring the refreshments, Kenji walked around the table, his hands behind his back. Noa followed him, and together they stared out at Luddeccea. The electrons stirred by her connection to James felt like they were humming … James was letting her know he was there. But if she couldn't reach him, the temporary gate allowed communication with Sol System; she could confide in her mother, father, older brother, sister, Manuel, or Gunny. There was also Ashley, who'd somehow made it through the long winter in the camps and was now recovering on Earth, and Agent Ashley who'd reprogrammed herself to make Ashley her purpose, but who would always be available to Noa. Nebulas, even Raif, now with Manuel, would love to be her confidante.

Once Kenji had been as close. Could he be again?

“It's beautiful,” Noa said to fill the silence, her eyes on his reflection in the glass.

“It is,” he breathed. “Despite everything.”

Noa bit her lip, thinking of the damage Eight had done. She reached out and touched his arm. Kenji took her hand in his, closed his eyes, and Noa's heart physically hurt.

“There is a plan for the cleanup,” he said.

The Republic had offered to send haz-crews, but had been rebuffed by the Luddeccean Authority. They wanted as few non-believers planetside as possible.

“That's good,” Noa replied automatically, thinking more about their clasped hands than anything else. Kenji was her brother again.

His eyelids fluttered. “Noa, come home,” Kenji whispered.

“What?” Noa gasped, startled.

He didn't look away from the window. “I have influence now … even more than before … all will be forgiven. You can come home.”

Noa felt her heart fall. “No, I can't, Kenji.”

“You've always understood me better than the rest,” Kenji said, and Noa's mind raced. Was he really saying, “'I miss you'?”

“You destroyed the gate,” Kenji continued. “For that alone, Luddeccea owes you.” He nodded. “They will let you return.”

“I didn't destroy the gate alone, Kenji. The agents helped me.”

“That doesn't matter,” he said. His face pinched in annoyance, the way it did when he had an intellectual puzzle he couldn't solve—not something that happened much in math or science, but she'd seen it in relation to questions of history or literature upon occasion.

“Of course it matters that they helped!” Noa's jaw got hard. She tilted her head. “Or don't you believe it?”

Kenji was quiet. Which was an answer.

“I was there,” Noa insisted. “I would have died if it weren't for them. Luddeccea would be flatted and glowing. Eight had built an army—”

“Which is why you should want to get away from the Republic! The gates are too dangerous. Every world beneath them is at their mercy.”

Noa drew back.

“You've seen what Eight can do,” Kenji said, face still turned to the window.

Noa held up her hand, the new augmented fingers that weren't perfectly matched to her dark skin tone. “I've seen what my own people can do!”

Kenji rocked slightly on his feet. “There were accidents … I've heard that there were logistical problems at some of the camps, and corruption at some. Humans aren't perfect, mistakes were made— terrible mistakes, I don't deny it.”

“If we don't expect perfection of ourselves, then how can we expect it of aliens?” Noa said.

“They're machines, not aliens,” Kenji replied, sounding tired.

“They're alive,” Noa replied. “They think, they feel … Nebulas, if you want to talk about feelings, maybe the way Eight went crazy was because it was hovering above our crazy, backwards planet, and grew into its consciousness knowing our people wanted it blown up.” She shook her head. “And if humanity is at their mercy, they are at our mercy, too! We can choose to be enemies or choose to share our strengths—to find a state of symbiosis, of balance.”

“There is no way to find balance with things that spell the doom of the human race,” Kenji retorted.

Noa snorted.

Kenji dropped her hand and began to fidget with his robe. “They are, Noa. When scientists want to cull a species, one of their methods is to introduce sterile members into the population. With the gates building agents, human reproduction will slow down. Genetic variability will decrease. Human evolution will stop.”

“Because individuals are sterile, it doesn't make them less valuable,” Noa retorted, her skin heating, resisting the urge to ghost a hand over her abdomen. “And maybe this is our evolution. Maybe since the day we picked up sticks and threw them at an animal on the savannah, maybe this is where we were headed!” She hadn't thought of this before but as the angry words tumbled from her lips, they sounded good. “Between our biology, and the gates' technology, maybe we can evolve if we want to.”

“That's not being human anymore!” Kenji said. “And the gates aren't going to be your toys, Noa.”

She thought of One invading James's mind and rolled her eyes. “Of course not!”

Tone strident, he said, “One way or another, this alliance between the gates and the Republic spells the end of the human race.” And then in a softer voice, he said, “Come home, Noa,” and then looked away, fidgeting again with his thick green robes.

Noa swallowed. He was saying he loved her. But as much as he loved her, he understood her so little.

There was gold around the collar and the sleeves, she noted. Kenji was probably the most technically adept of the Luddeccean Authorities bureaucracy, but he had no inclinations toward power. Whomever came into real power would collaborate with him. His station in Luddeccean society was assured.

“Even if I wanted to, I couldn't.” For Noa there would be nothing on her home planet. She'd be shuffled to a corner—the eccentric, childless sister of an eccentric, but useful, man.

“Noa, you can have amnesty,” insisted Kenji.

Noa smiled sadly. She could try to explain all of that to him, but didn't have the energy. Instead she said, “No, I can't. I picked up a cryssallis infection in the re-education camp. It wasn't treated in time. By the time the Fleet picked James and me up, my lungs were so full of holes even nano repair wasn't an option. I have artificial lungs.” It was another reason she'd been stationed aboard the Humayun Khan. Outfitted for augmented refugees from Luddeccea, it was the perfect spot for Noa to resume her duties while still under techno-medical observation.

Kenji began to blink rapidly at the floor.

A lung transplant was no small thing. Trying to make light of the situation, the frightening first rejection of initial implants, and the painful month of recovery, Noa said, “But they're amazing. They're a new-fangled type that will allow me to breathe underwater, and I won't be needing an oxygen recycler ever again. Ha. James doesn't have that on me anymore.”

At last Kenji looked at her, or in her direction. “Don't you hate that final insult?”

“What insult?” Noa said, putting a hand to her chest. She couldn't feel the scars at all anymore.

Kenji put his hands behind his back and looked back out at the stars. “The LGI knows that the gates are inserting spies aboard your vessels and in your governments.”

“As they are our allies, we prefer to think of them as observers and ambassadors,” Noa countered. And the agents on the deep space vessels were very useful; allowing the vessels to stay in real-time touch with inhabited systems. The materials for the Qcomms were expensive and rare; some day all ships might have them onboard, but until then, it was only being implemented in System Six where hostilities had broken out again, and ethernet communication broke down in the asteroid belt.

He crossed his arms in front of himself. “That they would put the archangel here, after it deceived you—that has to be intolerable.”

Noa's jaw sagged. Had Kenji not seen the moment James and Noa had shared just before they'd entered the room? She frowned. Or had he seen but not understood? It didn't matter. Last vestiges of hope fading, she replied, “James's assignment here has been a happy circumstance. It has allowed us to be together again.” She released a breath. “If you'd spoken to Mother and Father, you would have known that.” He'd cut himself off from them all.

Kenji took a step away from her. “You are with … that?”

Noa's jaw got hard. “He's not a sex 'bot, Kenji.”

He huffed. “You're rationalizing.”

Noa's lips parted, about to defend her relationship with James … and then she caught herself. She couldn't argue with him, could not change his mind in the time she had left.

“Our meeting is done,” Kenji said, turning away, his long, fine, green robes swooshing around Luddeccean lizzar skin boots. Noa blinked at his attire as he walked around the table, and she felt pity rather than anger. She might have been him if Luddeccea were a different place where she'd had any hope of fitting in. Well, no, she couldn't be him; she wasn't a genius, but if she were a man, she could have been an officer in the Luddeccean Guard … she never would have met an agent, or communicated with One—a true alien mind. Her life would have been the lesser for it.

Just before Kenji reached the door, Noa said, “You know, if you change your mind … I know you'd find a way to get in touch with us.” The Fleet was pulling away from Luddeccea. A gate would be established near Adam's Belt to ferry ore to other systems where it could be processed, and for trade with Libertas. The Fleet would be watching Luddeccea from those outposts, and Noa strongly suspected they'd send drones to the planet's surface as well.

Kenji paused. The door whooshed open. Turning away, he strode through without looking back.

Noa's shoulders fell, and she sighed. She reached to her connection with James … and couldn't find any words.

“Noa?” James asked.

“It didn't go well,” Noa admitted across the ether.

“I'm sorry. I know it … hurts.”

“Yeah, I know you do,” she replied, thinking of Eight.

Noa left the conference room and headed in the opposite direction her brother had taken, passing by some medics with patients on hover stretchers.

She heard a techno-medic talking to a little girl. “So you don't have family in Sol System?”

“I have an auntie at S5O11,” the child sniffed.

“There's no gate in that orbit or agent near there. It will take a while for a message to get to your auntie. But we'll send it, okay?”

She kept walking, passing into the section of the deck where the temporary hospital beds were, distracted by her conversation with her brother. Kenji was right, the universe had changed inexorably. She thought of Ghost in his prison cell, and how exclusive banks and institutions were beginning to revert to paper records and signatures. All ether conversations could be eavesdropped on with the power of a gate. As it became generally known, would the Republic fall into chaos? And as much as she wanted to believe in symbiosis, the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were emigrating to Luddeccea every week meant they did not share her vision. If humans became hostile, would other gates go the way of Eight?

A techno-medic ran past her, and Noa heard shouting down the long aisle of temporary hospital beds. “His neural port is damaged! I can't get in to restart his heart.”

“We don't have any more augment hearts here—we need to get him stabilized and back to Sol—but we can't access it via hard link to restart it.”

“James!” Noa cried into the ether.

“I'm there,” he answered.

She heard the pounding of feet behind her, and stepped aside as two men in med uniforms ran past her. She heard machines beeping, whirring, a woman sobbing, and a man's voice. “We know his heart is too small, but we were afraid to go to the hospital.”

Over those sounds, she heard James's voice. “Try to reach the ether, and I'll follow your signal.”

Noa passed by another cloth divide and saw James in front of a boy who couldn't be more than fourteen. His face was covered in a mask, and she heard air pumping, and a sharp beeping in the rhythm of a heart, getting slower. The boy shook his head, eyes wide and frightened.

“Think of anything so I can find your channel,” James ordered. A moment later, he rolled back on his feet, a dazed look in his eyes as he connected. James turned to one of the techno-medics. Giving James a curt nod, the man stood straighter and put his hands behind his back. “Channel received, have medical override for this model ... connected, running diagnostics … found problem, can temporarily re-establish beat …”

There was a flurry of activity from the technos and doctors. She heard calls for sedatives, for anesthesia, a battery. She heard her Chief Medical Officer say to the parents, “He's stable for now, but as soon as we get to Sol System, he'll need a transplant.”

The woman put her head on the man's shoulder. He looked heavenward and murmured a quick prayer of thanks. The parents didn't ask how James accessed the boy's personal ether. Among the crew there had been some grumblings about lack of privacy with James being aboard, but for now, as he helped them do their job, they didn't care.

She swallowed, and flexed her hand with her miscolored augmented fingers. There would always be purists. She frowned. It had taken hundreds of years for the peoples of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas to reach an equilibrium. War wasn't inevitable, but there would always be those who'd scream for it.

“Noa?”

Noa's eyes met James's across the crowded space.

“You look like you need this,” he said, tossing their ball of light at her in the ether. Catching it, Noa sent it back. He smiled, and Noa felt her chest grow warm. The galaxy had changed, but humanity would adapt because love and hope still remained.

~FIN

This is the end of Noa and James’s journey, but I will be revisiting this universe. There are other ideas I want to explore and 6T9 and Carl Sagan still call to me, as well as a few new characters that desperately want to be introduced.


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