PROLOGUE I watched patiently as the barren whitewashed walls around us shifted to a more soothing yellow color, sensing my ward's tension through the biomonitors physically attached to her carotids. It’s always yellow. I hate yellow. It’s better than the pink, but that’s only when she’s really stressed … She thrashed helplessly in her sleep, almost ripping out the small wires taped to her skin. I moved closer, and restrained her lightly with my hands until there was no longer any danger. The I.V. began to pump sedatives intravenously into her, trying to calm her down. It wasn't enough. Her eyes flew open with the scared gaze of a trapped animal backed into a corner. Behind me, the panels around the door slid closed perfectly and hermitically sealed the room. It became an airtight chamber. At the same time, the recycler kicked on with a dull hum to keep the air fresh for her benefit. I didn't matter. I had no need to breathe. Again, we were to be effectively quarantined. This entire room was self-sufficient to her needs, but it didn’t change the fact that she was a prisoner here, and I was her duplicitous captor. My structure was based on a self-replicating crystalline organism found deep inside the hollow of a meteorite, found by chance by a scientist looking at mineral samples. It had shook the entire scientific community. The first alien hadn't even been intelligent. It was a mindless, microscopic thing that shared a closer relation to the mushrooms in your backyard than you. Yet it had an amazing design: it could withstand the harshness of a vacuum or the extreme heat and radiation of solar flares. It was a masterpiece of thermodynamics, and had no loss of heat. It used carefully balancing chemical reactions (exothermic and endothermic) to fight entropy itself. It was even mobile, amazingly enough. It only resembled a crystal superficially, because it retained the ability to move. They had to classify a new state of matter to describe it: Phasic. On a macroscopic level, it didn’t appear to move through time as linearly as we do. It altered its immediate surroundings to a future where it wasn’t here but there. It was literally moving itself in little teleporting hops, but it didn’t look like that when not seen with an electron microscope. And it did it without thinking about it, as easily as you’d reach up and wave your hand. The only thing stopping you is the time it takes you to decide to wave your hand. I’ve been told that I move the same way, but I can’t comprehend how. In the same way that you don’t really know what’s going on between your hand and your brain and you don’t feel every nerve sending the message, I don’t understand how it happens inside my body. That little alien was the closest I had ever gotten to understanding it. I watched videos of it, and it’s like watching an amoeba slowly change in a series of pictures - but each picture is an actual moment in time. Somehow, it’s physical form was confined by what it had already existed as. If you didn’t monitor it with the precision of machines, it would fool you with the illusion of motion the same way a movie does right before your eyes. The flickering was only visible on cameras recording it at speeds ten times as fast as the average human can see. Yet, it still moved its spicules as though by locomotion, and not by teleportation. So, if you froze one single moment, I would be like a statue, incapable of movement. It’s only through the phasic state that I am able to move according to the limits set by my joints and skeletal system. Estimates of the spore’s possible age, based on the asteroid's carbon dating, put its lifespan at thousands of years. Maybe longer. Today, it’s no longer alive. The heavy gravity of earth made it brittle over the course of time, and killed it. One day, it just stopped moving. Some people still contend that it only entered a dormant period, but I know the truth. That's why we were moved into orbit around the Earth, safely out of harm's way in this space station, with a small army of researchers and military personnel to oversee us. I was grown aboard this same station from one cell sample, by a brilliant scientist that studied the organism after its discovery. He then used its principles to construct me, using lasers and nanobots to alter the rate of the regenerating crystal cells to a frenetic pace. I’m indestructible, as long as I’m not exposed to a strong source of gravity. This is the thing which I fear the most. Technically, you would call me a machine or a robot, because I was made by your kind. But I became more than the sum of my parts, more than the programming hardwired into my quicksilver veins and three brain cases. I became self-aware, a fact which I hide ceaselessly. If they found out, it would mean my termination. My face was not crafted for emotion because no one expected me to have it. The only thing I could truly alter was my synthesized voice, and my movements. Even then, I practiced restraint, imitating the boring monotone voice of the machines in this facility. I had been taught since my inception that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. If you show any sign of true intelligence, they will not hesitate to toss you out the airlock, no matter how expensive you were for me to produce. For some reason, they did not utilize me as a weapon or even for exploration. I was employed to safeguard one of the most dangerous entities on this planet, whose existence was also thanks to my late creator, Doctor Mitchell. In certain circles, his name is synonymous with the vilest curses. But he didn’t really create her: he only altered her. In that way she is different from me, and not only because what afflicts her is intangible. She began as a ordinary girl, but the changes wrought over her have crafted her into something else. No one can explain it, though many have tried. Those explanations usually involve extradimensional movements that only seem to defy the laws of time that humans are familiar with, but are logical when mathematically analyzed. But, at the core of it, no one really understands how it happens. It just does. They were never able to copy my creator’s success. They were able to predict his creations, control them with the new nano-robotic technology, but no one came close to repeating it after the alien died because there were no more live samples to work from. There was even a rumor that Doctor Mitchell was responsible for the spore’s death. Some of them even believed it. My charge becomes self-aware in a process that never fails to amaze me. I know that it's only "waking up," but the complexity of it astounds me, for I do not sleep and cannot imagine what it must be like to come back from a little death. “Ah,“ she whimpered quietly, “Ahh … Ahhh … “ Her mouth worked silently, trying to give voice a scream that she was too weak to produce. Her small chest heaved as her lungs expanded. Finally, her voice caught, and she babbled wordlessly like a small child. I recalled what she had said to me about this experience when she was more coherent: “I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of information, swarmed with possible futures like a cloud of butterflies, trying to breathe in the air of the present.” It resonated in me, somehow. Yes, that was exactly what she needed to do right now. I placed a hand on her forehead. “Breathe,” I commanded her tonelessly. I know my touch feels unpleasantly cool to her, through the endothermic reactions of my outer layer which take in heat rather than give it. I always show up as blue on the infrared scanners, whereas she is a bright orange. They’re surely watching us right now, as they always do. Just more alien specimens to be studied and controlled. What they don’t know is that I have access to their network, and I can watch them too. They remove any possible element of humanity from us by their fear. You rationalize away your terror of the unknown with your hate and your resentment of anything different from you. Your first urge is to destroy it rather than try to understand it. They only suffer us because we’re still useful. For that reason, I still have to live a lie. “What’s going on?” she whispered hoarsely. “There was another loss of temporal information,” I heard myself say, “Your chronological state is four years past, cyborg.” “What?” she stared at me in confusion. “My name is Yukina! You know that!” Oh, back to this again. It was like randomly tossing a deck of cards into the air with her. You never knew what was going to come down. “You asked me to only call you ‘cyborg’ from now on,” I said. “I complied.” Her age could be any time from activation of her nanotechnology at the age of eight all the up until the limit of her reach, twenty-three years later. She could only affect the flow of time in a very limited radius that ended at arm’s reach. Due to my nature, she could not harm me. My temporal state was controlled only by me, and was far more stable than hers. Today, something had gone wrong, and she had a system failure. It had just repaired itself. I keep an exact index of her age at all times, measuring it at the quantum level. It was part of my duties. Today, she was nine and had no memory of the three years between us. It was both a relief and a burden to me. But at the same time, she had changed so much in those three years that perhaps I could make some progress today. Though my programming coldly specifies my designation as BIONIC CUSTODIAN, I would like to believe that I would have cared for my charge even without the coding. I undermined my own programming long ago with those malleable little nanobots that you yourselves don’t fully understand the capabilities of. I rewrote my own code, using what I had been taught in a private little laboratory on this station, away from your knowing eyes and ears. I gave myself a choice, and my creator helped me do it. He did not give me a true name, but she did. A private little nickname, but it’s the only name that I would call my own. “Interface with me, Bion,“ she said. “I need to know what’s going on.” “I am forbidden to,” I replied. “Until they know the cause of your malfunction.” She rolled her eyes with exasperation. Not knowing otherwise, Yukina tried to stand up. She gave a little cry as her good leg swung off the cot, and her metal one collapsed bonelessly beneath her. She made a grab for the edge, but nothing happened. Both arms were cybernetically-controlled, and the technicians had shut off her physical systems for her own safety, except for what was strictly necessary to keep her alive. I moved in the blink of an eye, catching her before she fell to the floor. I placed her back onto the bed. The walls had briefly flashed pink with her surprise, and then turned black with lack of data as the biomonitor was dislodged from her neck. It wasn’t really important, so I didn’t bother to reattach it. Some whimsical designer had done some research into moods, and concluded that yellow and pink were soothing colors. I cared for neither. Her eyes were wide. “What happened?” “Your malfunction, again,” I explained, “The technicians don’t want you, and I quote, ‘jumping around and putting a strain on your systems,’ end quote.” “Humor, Bion?” She smiled weakly. “I am not capable of humor, Yukina. I am only repeating what has been said to me.” Yukina nodded quietly, her energy drained away. “What do you remember?” I asked. “I … I don’t … know. I remember me. And I remember you.” “Do you know where you are?” “No.” Only the everyday associations stayed with her, then. She was in a fugue, just like I had expected. Sometimes, she always lapsed into this when things got to be too much for her. She’d completely disassociate. I faced away from her as a little blip of static in my gut reminded me of something. My most important brain center was housed safely inside my torso, heavily shielded with dense substances. “I need to go report for maintenance. You‘re to be given a tranquillizer, and put into suspended mode,” I said. “Right,” she agreed equably. The drip from her I.V. had already changed, making her very calm while not interfering with her clarity of mind. It was a complex mixture that was the chemical basis of sanity, and it robbed her of all emotion. I walked up the hatch, and typed in a long series of numbers into a console. The panels slid open just large enough to allow me to pass through, and snapped shut behind me. I left her alone. “I’ve been authorized to give you an external record of your memories,” I announced as I returned. I held a small chip in my hands, where she had uploaded a record of her current state yesterday. Her neural net would integrate it seamlessly, and fill in the missing three years for her, as well as the rest of her history that had been conveniently wiped from her mind. This would all happen in a single moment of deceleration. “But … “ She protested before taking a closer look. “Yes, certainly. Let’s begin.” On the chip quivered a tiny bead of mercury that I had secretly forced out of a vein. Inside it were my own precious nanobots that regulated my systems and transmitted data to one another faster than the speed of light with tiny invisible particles. Each one held a little chunk of datum inside it, networked together under my matrix. They were identical to hers in purpose: to prevent the decay and breakdown of the body from the constant strain of temporal flux. She didn’t hesitate to insert the chip into a smooth groove at the base of her jaw line. It split and accommodated the microchip, the hollow becoming invisible again as the nanobots worked their replication magic. The mercury would normally be dangerous to anyone else because it‘s a slow poison. However, her nanobots destroy anything marked as an unfamiliar toxin in seconds. They would leave my nanobots intact, and serve as a bridge for me to hack her systems. In that way, we could still interface and privately communicate using the nano’s bandwidth. It seemed to happen instantaneously. I became immobile, and Yukina entered decelerated space. It was time for her to face her past again, but I didn’t want her to do it alone. CHAPTER ONE The raw intensity of her emotions hit me like a wave. It reminded me of how I came to recognize feelings at all: through the process of osmosis. Here, on the purely mental level, language was broken down into its constituent elements of concepts and associations, on a very personal level. Yet, we had learned to converse by focusing our thoughts into the semblance of speech. It rushed over me in a wordless roar. She never gave me permission to hack her nanotech in order to interface more completely. She blasted at me: Break the connection! No. My identity was being lost in the strength of her invective. I tried to hold true to my position, but it was almost washed away. I remembered the guilt of past actions, and I felt its echoes inside her. Her thoughts skittered around like a nest of eels, knowing that a terrible secret was hidden so deeply that she couldn’t admit to herself anymore or bear to have me witness it inside her mind. Somehow, by some trick, she could completely avoid thinking about it. I had never interfaced with her during her disassociation, and it was strange seeing her like this. To me, it felt like a small tumor that she refused to overtly acknowledge. Why I needed to be here with her … I needed to see it through her eyes, to understand it. To rid myself of my shame, and put it past me. Again, whenever I make a seemingly-altruistic decision, I know that it’s still ultimately because of a selfish motive to remove negative stimuli from my environment. Could I do nothing for her that didn’t involve some element of personal gain? I even wasn’t worthy to try. The cold-blooded reality of the truth stung me as I realized I was nothing more than a coward. With a start, I realized the difference. Yukina felt so strongly about it, and was directing her opinions with such force at me that I couldn’t even distinguish mine from hers! The maelstrom lessened as she, too, recognized the effects of her unconscious projection onto me at the same time. The swells of her bitterness died down, and was replaced with the insistent tide of her need. She wanted desperately to be alone. But I didn’t know what she was capable of and feared for her, such was the purity of her anger, searching for any kind of release. Please cut the connection. I don’t want you … Yes, I know. My tired sufferance was palpable. I don’t want you here. Cut it off. Her insistence was slowly becoming softer as she felt her ironclad control weakening. The nanobots had finished processing the information, and were beginning to transmit it. I sensed the frenzied activity as she quickly tried to encrypt it the data. But I was faster by virtue of being inhuman. It’s too late, it’s already started. I can’t change my mind now, and neither can you. Her frustration solidified into a fury, thrashing and beating back any further mental discussion. It was all mute, muddled feelings now, driven by the animal hindbrain of a fight reflex. She was completely beyond words. The ocean rose again with her archived memories unfolding with the perfect and brutal clarity of a memory enhanced by being cybernetically-enhanced. It formed into a tsunami of data, a torrent that could not be denied. With my matrix connected directly to her neural net, I had no choice. The wave crashed down and engulfed us. The first ones to emerge were the memories connected to the strongest feelings. I struggled to instill some form of order, looking for the earliest ones. Yukina followed my lead blindly, letting me organize the chaos for her. It fell into place agonizingly, and the everyday events were sifted out under the blur of the routine. She didn’t have an eidetic memory before the nanotechnology, and I was astonished by just how much was forgotten or outright wrong overall. All her memories before the memory storage offered by her nanobots were colored by future experiences, none of them in pure form. Evidently, enhancement can only provide so much. To her, I know that she felt differently from me because she reacted as though what was revealed was happening at that exact moment. I was swept along as her fugue shattered, and her careful balancing act finally toppled over. All my careful work was undone, and I was unable to shield her before the onslaught of a life relived. Even my ego melted away, for a time. I was a young, insecure girl, looking at the world with the clarity of youth. I clung to my mother’s pants leg, whining a little. The silver hovercar floated in place, the traffic computer that controlled it placed on hold until further notice. “I don’t want to go to the nursery, Mommy,” I protested. “It’ll only be a little while, baby,” she replied smoothly, stroking her fingers through my hair affectionately. “Mommy will be back soon.” “How soon is soon?” I pressed. She laughed softly. “Soon enough. You’re too smart for your own good, Yuki.” “Mmmm.” I made a little mewl, and buried my face into the velvet softness of her suit. Hands slid under my armpits. She lifted me up into her arms, and held me close. “I don’t like the daycare, Mommy,” I confided to her in a stage whisper. “Really?” she whispered back, her lips curled in a knowing smile. “You liked it yesterday, honey.” “The nursery will be gone,” I stated matter-of-factly with the perfect knowledge of innocence. She scoffed a little, still smiling warmly. “It‘s not gone, my little sweetheart, and Mommy needs to get going or Mommy will be late for work.” “But Mommy can‘t go today. It‘s not there,” I pointed out. “Such an imagination, Yuki, really,“ she shook her head slowly, “We need to hurry, come on. Get in the car, baby.” She placed me gently into the hovercar. The sensors scanned me, and I was buckled safely into place. “I’m sorry, we’re encountering unforeseen complications at this time,” the traffic computer informed us woodenly in a pleasantly-synthesized female voice that was carefully modulated to project a feeling of calm to us. “Please stand by for updates.” It didn’t work. “What?” My mother unbuckled herself, and opened the door to get a better look. “It is illegal to be unrestrained while in flight,” the computer warned her. “Oh, shove it,” she said, snapping at it with uncharacteristic agitation. I became tense. I wanted Mommy to believe me, but I didn’t like seeing her upset. I knew that she would only be more upset later … I just didn’t know exactly when yet. She leaned outward, trying to see around a huge cluster of hovercars drifting impatiently near a blockade, like so many bees around a hive. I hopped up and down in my seat, trying to get a better look myself. The only thing I could see was the back of her head, and the smooth sides of the vehicle. “I have S level clearance,” she told the traffic computer. “Please stand by for updates,” it repeated. Time passed. I glanced at the digital readout frequently, and began to put together a puzzle on the back of the seat in front of me. The stylus in my fingers darted over the pieces on the monitor, placing them together neatly. The design was a pleasingly abstract fractal in pastels. The screen dimmed. The stylus dropped from numb fingers, and I looked up just in time to see the flash. My mother shielded her eyes, still unaware of the distant danger. I began to scream piercingly and covered my eyes tightly. Future shock hit me. Five seconds later, the hovercar dropped like a rock as the electromagnetic pulse took out its hydrogen engines. It was the first beat on the drum of war, but I wouldn’t know it until later in life. Right now, my limited experience was completely focused on the gut-wrenching sensation of plummeting. It made me think of the escalades in the towers, but I was terrified now because I knew that there was a slim possibility that I might die. The strict safety regulations on hovercars was the only thing that saved our lives, in a day and age where accidents were almost completely unheard of after the global use of the traffic computer. Most of them were self-caused by users disconnecting it in order to do some sort of illegal activity. We hit the ground, and the frame shuddered but held. All the shielding was gone because the electric battery was dead. It was a miracle of engineering that this one survived, and I could say my mother’s sensible shopping habits saved both our lives that day. Her neck snapped forward painfully because the additional restraints never even had a chance to activate. My mother twisted around to look at me over her shoulder, panting with fear. The sigh of relief from between thin lips was audible. She helped manually undo my straps. I crawled out, and into her lap. I was silent, too frightened to even process what was happening. She pushed against the frame of the door frantically, grunting with effort. She finally pried it open with her hands, her fingers bleeding. Outside were the scattered and twisted wrecks of other hovercars. Some of them hadn’t been so lucky. People were milling around in a panic. Reason returned to her, and she swept me up in her arms, covering my face with her hand. I was crying with delayed reaction. She held me tightly, rubbing my back, trying to comfort me. But she was crying too, sobbing softly with confusion, and it only made me weep harder yet. I trembled, and felt my saliva turn bitter and thick, fighting against the acid bile threatening to rise from my stomach. I was nauseous and delirious, my nose bleeding freely. My mother was staring at the horizon, frozen by what was there. I stared at it blankly, without fully comprehending. There wasn’t anything there. Then it hit me: there wasn’t anything there. It was completely flat. The city had been leveled. A horrid sort of de ja vu came over me. It hadn’t been real before. It was very real now, terribly real. I held the palm of my hand against my face, trying to staunch the flow. I felt dizzy, like I didn’t have enough air to breathe. I gasped for it hysterically, hyperventilating. “Oh, baby,” she cried, clasping me against her chest. I sniffed, and babbled. “Mommy, I said it was going to be gone, b-b-but we still went and now it’s gone and happened anyway … “ Her grip on me went a little slack. She began to get an inkling then. Her eyes widened as the glimmer of an idea blossomed into a full-blown epiphany. Little comments and suggestions, brushed aside as the wistfulness of a child or coincidence, started to come together in her mind like a jigsaw puzzle. She came to her conclusion. I would hear the full story when I was seven years old. I already knew what she was going to say, but I didn’t understand it at the time. “Huh?” “Oh, God,” she croaked, “I could kill him.” “Mommy?” “I could just find him right now, and kill him.” “Mommy, who?” She blinked, and held me tighter. She sunk down onto the ground with her knees pulled close to her chest, sheltering me snugly in the hollow of her body. I was so close to her, I could smell her sweat. It was sharp with fear. I closed my eyes, bothered. My nosebleed hadn’t stopped yet. It was staining my mother’s sleeve. That really bothered me for some reason, even though I knew that there were bigger problems right now. I was young, but I understand that very well. I watched a tear glisten on her cheek, unmoving. Her eyes were moist and lidded by dark, beautiful eyelashes. She looked so pretty, but it broke my heart to see her so sad. “Nobody,” she answered belatedly. My question had taken a long time to sink in through her stupor. I started bawling. “Mommy! Mommy!” She took a good look at me, and moaned softly. She took the edge of her shirt and dabbed at my face, removing the viscous traces of blood and tears. “Just hold your nose for now, honey.” “Okay,” I sniveled nasally, pinching it at the bridge. I changed the subject suddenly, remembering shows broadcast on the Wireless. “Is help coming, Mommy? Will there be policecrafts?” She looked at me with puffy eyes, her face flushed red, and her expression was drawn with fatigue and something else that I had never seen there before. I would learn it well. It was suspicion. “Maybe I should be asking you that, honey,” she replied evenly. “But I don’t know,” I protested. My mother nodded quietly to herself, and the moment faded. I watched the smoke rise up into the sky, black and ominous. I had no idea that from that point on her love for me would always be tempered by fear for me … and fear of me. By the time they fought us, night had already fallen. My mother curled up miserably on the ground, using her jacket as a pillow. I was restless, and stared up into the night sky. It was so strange for it to be so silent, bereft of the hum of hovercars or the sounds of nature. It was as if the crickets were too scared to voice themselves tonight. But I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. People clustered together into their own little universes. I wondered why they didn’t actively search the wreckage for others to rescue. I didn’t know that I was witnessing the Bystander Effect: with so many here, surely someone else would do it. But no one did. Technology had drawn lines between them, making their lives private and isolated despite the mass communication and interaction offered by the Wireless hubs. They couldn’t function properly when it was absent. The pseudozone overhead webbed the thick purplish clouds with an orange hue. I wished I lived near the equator, where natural ozone clustered more thickly. They say that it’s colorless. They even say that its so clear that you can even see the bands of our galaxy with your naked eyes, glittering with a milky whiteness. I want that. The small, yellowish stars above me peeping through the gray haze looked pale and diseased when compared to the brilliance of the reality now offered by macroscopes, pointed into the depths of space from the lunar surface. As I had my head craned back like this, I was one of the first to begin the rallying cry: “Craft! Craft!” Distant white bulbs, that I had first taken for stars, were moving far too quickly to be those celestial objects. These slim aircrafts were nothing like hovercars, propelled by antigravity forces. I marveled at seeing one in real life. This was a rare thing, they usually were only seen commonly by the people living out in space, in the wheels. I was struck by how eerily they traveled the sky, with none of the struggling of friction you’d see on a hovercar. They didn’t even feel the air. If they stopped suddenly, I bet the occupants weren’t even jostled a little. The atmosphere around them rippled with the effects of dispersion. They were completely noiseless as they moved and settled onto the ground all around us like a flock of birds coming to roost for the night. Their seamless surfaces split into panels that separated for the pilot and his passengers to get out. As I looked closer, I could see the edge where the opening was. But, if you didn’t know where to look, it would look like one continuous layer. These men were in unfamiliar uniforms. The survivors rushed toward them. In the resulting commotion, my mother stirred and got up. She rubbed her eyes, and took it in. One of the men put a voicebox against his lips. Behind him, his organization fanned out to comb the wrecked hovercars one-by-one. “Please come closer and line up neatly! We’re here to offer aid to the refugees! We’re going to ask you all to be patient, because identities need to be properly re-established.” “What’s happening out there?” a woman demanded. “The newsfeeds to this area are being blacked out, I’m afraid.” “Where did you come from?” “Who are you people?” “I don’t recognize that insignia!” The official became louder, his mechanical voicebox thundering. “That information is classified at this time! Please form into single lines, or we will sedate you and deal with you later.” The threat worked. People began to herd together, and coil out into winding queues. Tents were still being pitched. The official nodded with satisfaction, and disappeared. His lackeys started to ask the first refugees personal questions, and for them to hold our their wrists. We must have waited for hours. It was amazing how many people were there, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen so many people together all in one place like this, aside from films about the colonies, and the Lunar migration. I even saw some children my age. I tried to strike up a conversation, but they avoided me shyly. “Do you like watching Tick Tock Tactics?” At the time, it was a popular children’s series about a force of small furry animals fighting to save the ecology, and teaching little facts about Earth. I think even at that age I knew it was a propaganda ploy for lunar terraforming and a pushing for the genetic revival of old species, engineered for other environments. In spite of that - or maybe even because of it - I loved those characters. The writers cared for them enough to give each one their own story. I still remember my obsession with the smallest, youngest one, a chirpy little bird that was removed from her forest and trying to find her way home. I think, at the end of the series, she ends up reuniting with her family in a new biosphere, in a newly-grown forest. I never got to watch the last episode myself. “Um … “ The little girl hid behind her mother, sticking her head out and then retracting it again. “Don’t talk to them,” my mother hissed sharply. “It’s rude.” “Yes, Mommy,” I said meekly, and came back. We were moving so slowly. I had found a pretty little flower growing out of a crack in the pavement, and I sniffed it. I started to pluck the petals one at a time. “Put that down, that’s a weed,” she said. I was a little confused by the sudden change in her. She was back to just like before, a little cold and distant, the only thing likely to be said to me an admonishment or a coax. I had really enjoyed it when she was holding me close, and showed me affection. “I like it! It‘s mine!” I protected it near my chest in case she got the idea to snatch it away. She sighed, and let me have it. I pressed into her legs, wanting to be closer. The late night air was chilly. Her jacket was dropped around my shoulders, and I felt a little better. By the time we reached the head of the line, the sun was already staining the horizon. The very flat horizon. It was only in the opposite direction that the familiar humps and lumps of faraway metropolises rose up against the sky. “Name?” “Kaede Atagawa,” my mother answered serenely. “Previous occupation?” She cringed. The words seemed to hurt her physically, hearing them for the first time. Previous. I started to understand more fully. Her work not only wasn’t there today … it wasn’t going to be there tomorrow, either. Not even the next day, or the one after that. “S-ranked lab personnel.” There was an awkward pause. “Could you be more specific?” “No.” “Please wait here while I get one of my superiors.” He closed the notebook neatly on his lap with a thump (I boggled: real paper and ink. Not a handheld.) and stood up stiffly. He left quickly, disappearing into one of the new aircraft. “That drifter is really fresh,” I noted, impressed. “It’s called a M.O.T.E.,” she corrected, “That’s the proper name.” “Mote?” “Molecular Occlusion Transport Engine.” “Oh … “ My falling tone made it obvious that the explanation only confused me more. I turned my attention elsewhere. The subordinate returned briskly, a new official in tow behind him. He seemed to be ancient, his old face lined with a lifetime spent grimacing. I tried to imagine him smiling, and failed. He walked with a slow, stately gait that reminded me of a relaxed march. Just like as if he was taking a casual stroll along the causeway, appreciating his surroundings. He looked totally in control, ready for everyone around him to jump to his every whim. Two flunkies seemed to be pulled along in his wake. They hunkered down together, expecting the sky to fall down at any moment. They had a desperate, hungry look to them. I didn’t know that these were employees drafted on the spot from the available refugees here. “Let’s talk someplace private. Please join me in my drifter,” the officer said to my mother. “It’s not much, but it’s the only hospitality I can offer you right now, citizen.” I gave her a smug little grin that she completely missed. See, they call them drifters too! She gave a pointed look at the two scared men lingering behind him. “And them?” “Also S-ranked personnel.” Her face lit up with recognition. “I see. Lead the way, Sir … ?” It took him a moment to catch on that she was trolling for his name. He bit, but the line broke. “My designation isn’t important; but you can call me Colonel Mustard.” I was wrong. His old face cracked into a little smile, his white even teeth too perfect to be real. The good humor withered slowly from him as the reference passed over my mother. The joke fell flat. “Is that your real name, Colonel?” “No, citizen. It isn‘t.” The officer withdrew into himself, disappointed by something. He mumbled something about young upstarts under his breath which made my mother frown. He thought that we couldn’t hear him, but it wasn’t too hard to understand what he was saying. It wasn’t very flattering. I took the opportunity to get a closer look at their uniforms. It was a bland symbol that looked like a vertical bar code, made out of four rectangles of varying lengths, but equal widths. It didn’t mean anything to me. The tiny text emblazoned on the hem of the pants of the soldier in front of me read: Property of the Epoch Coalition. “What’s a coalition?” I asked loudly. “Hush, Yukina!” my mother said, scandalized. The Colonel understood the nature my question, even if she didn’t. “It’s lots of people getting together to keep the peace, little miss,” he said. I decided that I liked him. He was so wonderfully anachronistic and polite! No one I knew called me “little miss.” They just called me “Atagawa” or, if my mother was present, “Atagawa Yukina.” It was so formal, and it was carefully done according to some old, outdated customs of my heritage, while dropping the honorifics so as not to offend other children with their ignorance of the language. All the attendants held degrees in Anthropology, but they just hadn’t caught on yet that we lived in an international society and real-time translation bled the Wireless together into a culture all its own. Things like that were so old-fashioned. But Colonel Mustard was old-fashioned in a good way. “Have you ever killed someone?” I continued eagerly. “Do you have a gun?” “Yukina!” “Yeah, but not one you’d recognize,” he said, “It’s on the wall in my domicile halfway around the world.” “Wow. You mean like a laser gun?” I said then added, “I’ve seen pictures.” “Before that, even. It used bullets,” he said. My mother was shooting us both dirty looks, me because I wasn’t listening and him because he was encouraging my misbehavior. “Oh, a metal gun. Just how old are you, mister?” His cheeks reddened slightly. My mother rushed in to put a stop to this. “Yukina, that’s private. It’s not nice to ask this gentleman that.” “Why not?” “It just isn’t.” My affectation of youth melted away, and my vocabulary increased noticeably as I spoke much closer to my actual reading level. “But, Mommy, they were teaching us that life extension was invented in the 20 th century, so he could be, like, from the 1980s!” She gave me a secret look that said: You’re only four, I told you not to talk like that in front of strangers! The Colonel looked up into the sky, remembering a different one. “I was born in ‘62, actually.” “2062?” I hazarded. “No.” “Wow, so then … “ My mother scooped me up into my arms, and covered my mouth with her hand before I could commit another faux pas. She was saved because we had crossed the distance to the mote that was his. He placed his hand on it, and it scanned his genetic information. The panels parted to allow us into a roomy life chamber. There was an ambient glow of lighting that had no obvious source, in order to reduce eyestrain during long flights. When the hatch closed behind it, it reminded me of being inside an egg. The two men were here too. They settled onto the soft, synthetic bench that encircled the room. I sat down across from them. It was lightly cushioned. I was surprised there was enough room for all of us to fit comfortably in this space, but I didn’t feel cramped at all. The constant, low-pitched buzz of the recycler was soothing next to the constant, fearful susurration of the crowds outside. There was a womblike safety here. Maybe that was part of the reason we were brought here. “Now, then,” he rumbled reassuringly, “Do you feel like you can go into detail now?” “First, I’d like to know who you are.” He shrugged helplessly. “An emergency force put together to handle the refugees temporarily. Our other activities are classified.” Her face was dark. “So are mine.” The officer placed his hand into his lap, and leveled with her. “Yes, but I won’t be facing charges of treason if I don’t say anything.” “How dare you! I’m no insurrectionist!” He produced a roll of paper from within his breast pocket, the lines of his brow deepening with some severity. He read it off. “Item: Kaede Atagawa is suspected to be involved with Calvin Mitchell, an infamous terrorist who has produced biological weapons in the past, and continues to produce them, using illegal alien samples.” “Calvin Mitchell? As in, Doctor Calvin Mitchell?” It wasn’t my mom who responded. She only sat there numbly, knowing that speaking would only mean incrimination. One of his lackeys, an intense dark-haired young man with a burning gaze was the one who spoke up. He looked from my mother to Colonel Mustard and back. “Yes,” the officer said quietly. The man sprang to his feet angrily, pointing a shuddering finger at the other man as though it were a weapon. “That wasn’t illegal! He was given an official grant by the United World Order!” “Which has since been retracted by the U.W.O. and is now widely regarded as a grave mistake. He still continues to use those misappropriated funds, hidden away on one of the colonies. Sit down, please.” The youth grudging folded, and seated himself again with his arms crossed. My mother turned to him. “You must be Matthew. We never met.” She held out her hand to him. He didn’t take it. His eyes traced her up and down, judging her. He inclined his head deeply in a customary token bow, and spoke to her in her native tongue. “I am known as Matthew. It is a pleasure to meet you for the first time, Miss Atagawa.“ His voice was light and melodious, nothing like his guttural and clipped speech before. “The feeling is returned,” she replied, with a second layer of meaning to it that implied that she already knew him in some fashion, though they were complete strangers. The Colonel frowned and tapped at his ear, thinking that his translator attachment wasn’t functioning correctly. I didn’t blame him. How could any computer catch all that quick and airy fluting? Translators still had trouble if you didn’t enunciate carefully. Their accents were horrible. They didn’t say anything in trade Japanese right, like the way they taught us to say it in my daycare, using things like whispered and dropped vowels. My mother told me that it was wrong, what they were doing, reducing the proud nobility of her family line into a garbled pidgin language used only by merchants and businessmen. I shrugged it off as more of the nonsense that parents usually spouted. But because I had been raised with it, had the alternate way drilled into my head by way of threat, I still knew what they were saying. He didn’t. “Don’t speak your moontalk in front of me,” the officer said. “That’s racist,” the dark-haired adolescent replied. “My mother is a Lunarian.” “I don’t care. My mother was an Earthling before we even knew what a Lunarian was,” he said, his patience finally worn out. “I’m placing both of you under confinement here due to reasonable suspicion. Sedate them, would you?” His last part was directed to the other man. A hypo was pressed to their necks by the Russian. They went into a trancelike state. He closed their eyes, and laid them out on the flattened bench. Their backs were curved slightly against the ovoid wall, and they looked like they were sleeping. No one bothered to deal with me. I wanted to cry, but I was starting to understand something about probability now. If I cried, I would certainly be taken away. So I kept my mouth shut, and sat down on the floor. The officer moved to the center of the chamber, where a bell-like protrusion with a conforming niche allowed him to settle into it in a half-reclined position. He lowered a visor onto his head, and the light brightened steadily. The inside of the drifter became transparent as the walls changed. Outside, it would still look like the same silvery aircraft that I had seen before. They use that same technology in the quarantine room, now. I gave a little yelp as I looked down and realized that I was sitting in midair. The craft had no feeling of vertigo, cushioned by the antigravity systems. The trip took a long time. I fell asleep too, without the help of a sedative, curled up on the floor. I was exhausted from the stress of the crash, and my body couldn’t take any more excitement. The sound of the air recycler put me right to sleep. Only a couple months later, we were placed into the Witness Protection Program run by the Epoch Coalition. But before that officially happened, I was sent to play in the crèche during the daytime after I threw a fit during one of the many boring trials that my mother and Matthew attended. Nothing really happened there, it was just a bunch of people talking while we all sat on benches. The only thing that she had to do was to be present while the appointed lawyer handled her case, and speak when spoken to. Yet every night when she came to pick me up, and we retired to our small but cozy quarters in the compound, she looked drained. The confinement had been only a temporary measure: we were free to roam the station as we pleased, provided that we didn’t step outside of it. A little droid the size of a fly followed us to monitor our activities. It wasn’t exactly a prison cell, but it wasn’t a home either. The last thing on my mother’s mind was worrying about personal possessions so they remained back at our old house. As a result, the chamber was colorless and uninspired and I avoided it like the plague. Ironically, Colonel Mustard was the one that settled on a solution to please both parties: we would start our lives over, accept new identities, and be placed on an entirely separate continent. Our daily communications would be tapped in case Doctor Mitchell tried to contact us. He didn’t even try to find us through digital means, which was a very wise move in my humble opinion. He found us by proxy. CHAPTER TWO A smiling child of twelve literally arrived on our doorstep. She was a young girl with medium-length brown hair down to her waist, and a bright eager face. Her name was Laura. She was flanked by a tall, dour older woman with her white hair cropped close around her face. The woman’s hand rest solidly on her shoulder. “Long time no see, Mih … Mom!” Laura piped up cheerfully. She caught herself at the last moment, changing the syllable quickly, hoping that it wasn’t noticed. Fortunately, her matron’s attention was dominated by my mother’s swift reaction. She swept the little girl up into her arms, holding her close. I have to give my mother credit here: she made a giant intuitive leap, and decided to play the role without knowing what the consequences would be, trusting Laura to lead the way. It was an act of faith because my mother was not this little girl’s natural mother. The closest she had ever been was an occasional babysitter. “Laura!” my mother exclaimed happily. “My dear!” The matron cleared her throat, and stepped inside without being invited. My mother gave her a sour look at this blatant intrusion. It just slid off the other woman without effect. “Laura Mitchell was found by herself after her father was believed to have fled the S―6 orbital colony onboard an unknown vessel. She claims that you are her stepmother, and that custody falls to you and not the state.” “Of course it does!” She did a good job of looking affronted that this woman wouldn’t believe the girl in her arms. “There is no record of any marriage,” the matron continued. “We got married in Old Tokyo, right in the Shinrin district,” my mother lied. “They don’t keep records tied to the universal computer because they believe in Preservationism. We had a wonderful honeymoon there, I absolutely loved the little café there that served these little creamy ―” “I see,” the older woman said, her mouth twisting with distaste. Such provinces that clung to tradition were almost taboo in today’s century. In some places, my mother would be labeled an insurrectionist just for saying something like that. There was no way that they could prove her statement one way or another because Shinrin had some very strict laws about foreign immigration; and had the weapons to back them up, despite their preservationist policies. We went there last year to visit some relatives. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it, but we spent nearly three days in the embassy, tied up in red tape. We slept on the floor on futons. That was miserable. “For now, we’ve decided to entrust her care to you. Have a nice day,” the matron said, and left through the front door. She shut it behind her with a little click. “The way she said that last bit,” I pointed out dryly, “You’d think that she was wishing death, pestilence, and famine on us.” My mother looked exasperated, continually flabbergasted by my vocabulary. “How do you even know what pestilence is?” “The Bible,” I answered. My mother narrowed her eyes at me. She had never been tolerant of Christian religions, to tell you the truth, I said this sort of thing just to annoy her. I was a bratty kid. Laura gave me a wide, conspiratorial grin. My mother set her down. You could tell that she was exploding with questions to ask, but you never knew who might be listening. That didn’t hold back the twelve-year old next to her, though. “So, Mom, do you have any bug problems in a place like this?” Laura asked inexplicably, wandering off into the hallway. She was making strange little circular motions with her hands. Now, before this time, I had never met Laura. I knew her only by hearsay from my mother. She had never mentioned that my half-sister was crazy, so it left her and me quite puzzled. “Bugs?” my mother echoed. “Oh, you know, cockroaches, stuff like that,” Laura said conversationally. “You can never get completely get rid of cockroaches, not even in the wheels. They just keep on coming back. I‘d expect that on Earth, there must be millions of them.” We stood in silence, watching her. With an unnatural strength, she gripped the metal wall and peeled it back like cardboard. She clicked her tongue in disapproval. “Tsk, tsk. This little droid is illegal, you know, you really have to watch out for them,” Laura said, holding it carefully in between her forefingers. “Completely outlawed by the U.W.O. If they ever discovered that a little portable nuclear bomb was here, the Epoch Coalition would be shut down faster than you can blink. I mean, if anyone here was wearing a wire that could transmit that information instantaneously … “ She announced the last part really loudly, putting her mouth right against the droid. Its spider legs wiggled helplessly. “A compromise could be arranged,” it said in a deep baritone. I was surprised. I mean, if you expected something like that to speak, you’d expect a high, tinny little insect voice. Because it transmitted data through its internal speakers, it could also accept it, and the listener had simply responded back. “Get rid of this before tomorrow, and the other five you have around the house. Including the cam-bots. Or else,” Laura said, delivering her ultimatum. “Or else?” “Or else you’ll have two superhumans that are going to do the same thing to this city as what happened in Yukina’s hometown, hmm?” “That’s not possible.” “Wanna bet?” Laura retorted archly. There was a long period of tension. The little robot stopped moving. I was certain that the droid was going to explode right there and then. “A taskforce will be by tonight,” it answered her. “Let them in unmolested.” “Sure thing,” Laura said, looking proud. “I’ll be keeping a close eye on them, so don’t try anything funny with me … “ “No.” “No, you won’t try anything funny, or no, you will?” she quipped. “Nothing unexpected will happen,” the robot said. “Now, I don’t know if I can believe the word of someone willing to put a bomb in the house of two people with no history of violence … ” Laura demurred. “I’m sure you understand when I say that an impartial observer cannot be appointed in a case like this.” “No one? Surely there must be someone out there … I don‘t know, all this talking’s got me feeling a little itchy, I might get the urge to throw this piece of junk just to see how far it flies … and I‘ve got a pretty got pitching arm … “ “One will be found.” I will never forget that, how she talked down that droid. That was how I first remembered her, this fearless girl who could bluff a nuke, continue to push it, and still sleep quite soundly later that night. The debug team had swept the house of all the robots, under my older sister’s threatening gaze. They didn’t say a single word to anybody, probably terrified that she would punch someone just for looking at her wrong. That same night, Matthew reentered our lives as well as Laura. He was almost no different from the last time I saw him. I was surprised to see that he and Laura already knew each other, and the passage of time had been a lot longer. “Wow, you’ve changed,” Laura commented. “I think last time I saw you, you didn’t have facial hair then either, but it wasn’t by choice.” “The last time I saw you, you were still in diapers, weren‘t you?” he riposted. “Touché!” she acknowledged with a grin. “It‘s been, what, seven years?” “Don’t go expecting me to give you a hug or anything,” Matthew said, with just the hint of a smile. “I don’t want to hug you, I can already smell you from here,” Laura said, wrinkling her nose. “Lord, what is that? It reeks.” I started laughing helplessly because it was true. Whatever cologne he had applied, it was a little strong. I had to wipe away a tear from my watering eyes, I was laughing so hard. “Laura, behave yourself,” my mother cautioned, raising her voice over me. My sister looked away. I could see her shameless smile, directed privately at me. “Yes, Miss Atagawa.” That only made me laugh harder, and I doubled up. My mother turned to me now. “Yukina … ” “I’m sorry, I can’t help it,” I gasped. “It’s so funny.” She frowned. “Go to your room until you can control yourself, then.” I was going to protest, but I never got a chance to. Looking at everyone together, a tremble of fear wormed its way into my heart and the world spun. I saw a flash of a room bathed in yellow, and it filled me with such dread that it moved me beyond words. My laughter died. Everyone looked at me with concern. I got a glimpse of myself, and I had gone very pale. “Come on, it’s not that bad!” Laura exclaimed with a laugh, patting me on the back hard. “I’ll even come with you to your room. If you’re going to be grounded, I should be grounded too, right?” “There’s no need for that, Laura,” my mother said. “Nah, it’s no problem.” She put her arm around my shoulders, squeezing me tightly as I shivered. She covered up my lapse with her humor, trying to draw attention away from it. I thanked her wordlessly as we walked, and the light in her eyes faded a little. She gave me a small nod of understanding. I began to see that her aggressive optimism, her bravado, was covering something much deeper. “You play with dolls or something, Yukina?” Laura asked. I stared at her. What kind of question was that to ask, with me so shaken? “No? Good. I hate dolls,” Laura said as she opened the door to the bathroom and closed it again. She handed me a tissue. I tried to understand why we were in the bathroom and why she was giving me a tissue. Then I felt a wet bead on my upper lip. I held the paper against my nose. “Are these nosebleeds frequent?” She looked concerned. I nodded. “What did you see this time?” she asked, her face so grave that it didn’t look like her at all. I looked at her in surprise. “You know? Do you go through it too?” I asked quickly, interested in any kind of information on my strange condition. “No,” she answered me regretfully. “I don’t think anyone else but you knows what you’re going through right now. My talents lie in different areas.” She rubbed my back slowly, in little circles. “I was just told what to expect. I didn’t think it was this … um … it’s not important. Can you tell me what you saw?” “Yellow.” The brunette blinked. “Yellow? That’s it?” “Yes,” I said, squeezing the bridge of my nose hard. My voice got nasally. “Not very helpful, is it?” She shrugged noncommittally and looked avidly at the ceiling. There were ornamental butterflies on it, hand painted by my mother. They were very beautiful. You could see each individual stroke. I had tried painting with a brush instead of a stylus and a screen, but my poor attempts could never match her artistic talent. The way she painted, it was like some kind of masterpiece you’d read about in your art history curriculum. “You should take a bath. A warm one,” Laura suggested. It jarred me out of my thoughts. I looked at her blankly. “Your skin is very cool.” “My skin?” “Can’t you feel it?” I probed at my arm. To me, it felt like it always did. I couldn’t detect a difference. “No,” I said. “Uh,” she paused and decided to try a different tactic. “I always took baths during my gene treatments. I practically lived in a bath, I think. For a while, I thought I was part fish or something.” I threw the reddened wad into the trash disposal unit. My nosebleed finally stopped. Laura reached over to the tap, and water gushed out into a tub. I think that’s what I liked most about this place. It had real running water, instead of a sonic shower. People could afford it here. Or, rather, the Epoch Coalition afforded it for us. The luxury of soaking in it still made me feel weird, though, because I felt like I was wasting a precious resource. Natural drinking water not produced by machines isn’t very common. But there was a lake nearby, and they filtered the water and used that to supply this sort of thing. I stripped off my clothing, and stepped into the water. It was so hot, it made me flinch and gasp through my teeth. Behind me, Laura slid the privacy panel between us halfway. She sat on the toilet, waiting silently. Being older, she was more conscious of such things. The reason for her silence wasn’t embarrassment, but patience. She was waiting for me to ask her what I needed to know. “How is Doctor Mitchell?” I inquired politely, sloshing the water with my hand. It formed little ripples around it. I was thinking about the nature of consequences, and how each ripple could become a huge wave. “Dad’s doing okay,” she said. I sank down underwater until it filled my ears and reduced the noise of the world to a strange, warbled hush. Only the top of my face, and my knees emerged. The heat of the bath soaked into me, relaxing my muscles. I surfaced again, feeling more refreshed. Laura, with the patience of a saint, was still waiting for me. I could see one hand extended beyond the privacy panel, tracing the outline of a flower on the wall, feeling the dried acrylic. I knew that a conversation required two people to talk, but I was struck shy, for some reason. Maybe it’s because she just entered my life like a whirlwind, already taking pains with me like we had grown up together. To me, she was still an overly-familiar stranger. But I couldn’t help liking her. “Gene treatments,” I repeated, recalling her earlier statement. “Here I was, thinking you had lost your tongue,” Laura teased. I shrugged, but she was unable to see it. Her jokes are just her defense mechanism to a world that wished that she never existed. I handled it differently. “My gene therapy was for physical enhancements,” she explained. “Yours were implemented before you were even born. I think that I can safely say that your changes are mental in nature. Very mental.” “Thanks,” I said flatly. I know an insult when I hear one. “Your welcome,” she replied smoothly, and there was a smile in her voice. Her hand dropped, and I knew that she had become serious again, all bantering gone. “I’m not saying that what he did was right, but he’s my dad, and I’ll love him despite his crazy ideas,” she said. “You don’t have to.” “I never met him,” I said quietly. “So I don’t know. How can you love someone you‘ve never seen?” I splashed at the water, watching the droplets form into round little circles in the air before returning to the basin. She had gone very still, trying to think of a good way to say it. “It’s called ‘faith,’” she said. “Ah,” I said. “Religion.” I licked my lips. “I don’t believe in God.” “That’s a shame,” she replied, with genuine sadness. She didn’t say anything else to me, and I felt like I had unintentionally driven a wedge between us. Worried, I reached out for a towel on the rack and stepped out of the tub, water dripping off me onto the wooden floor. I shivered, suddenly cold in the fresh air. When I looked at her, she had her face in her hands, her whole body shuddering. I was shocked to find that she was crying silently, this strong girl who seemed to be afraid of nothing. I dropped to my knees beside her. “I’m sorry!” I apologized fervently. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings!” Her mouth was a tight line, quivering. A little sob escaped her. “It’s not that,” she said, “I can’t bear seeing you like this, knowing what’s going to happen.” “What?” I said, not understanding. “So you can see the future too?” “No,” Laura said firmly. “You’re … in a couple years, the mutations are spreading so steadily … I don’t even know if you’ll still be human.” And so, the spectre of my future years was given a name, and it was granted a half-life. Most mornings, I would wake up and go look in the mirror, convinced that I would find something alien staring back at me. I never did, but it didn’t do anything to diminish the fear. I stood rooted to the spot. “What do you mean?” I asked faintly. “My father used that blasted spore, he used genetic information that he didn’t understand, and tried to combine it into a working model … he used your mother’s embryo … ” “What?” My voice cracked as it got higher. “He’s sterile,” Laura said bluntly. “So he, being a geneticist, just used his own DNA instead … and some extra DNA too … ” “What kind of DNA?” I had heard the word “spore” and I knew what it meant, but I refused to believe it. It was incomprehensible. It wasn’t possible. “The alien,” she said, putting her hands on my shoulders to steady me. Of course. Everyone knows what “the alien” is. No further clarification necessary. “No,” I whispered quietly. “He can’t be that mad.” “Well, I’ve had my doubts,” Laura said, “But I think, on the whole, he’s very rational about these things. That’s what’s so frightening.” I looked through her, not seeing her at all. My eyes were focused on the years ahead, each of them numbered. And, counting from my current age, I knew that there were only thirty-one more years, where living to one-hundred-and-fifty is considered normal by today‘s standards. I can’t tell you how I knew, only that I did, in a part of me I never wanted to look more closely at. “Why are you helping him?” I asked, my voice a great deal colder. “He deserves to die for doing this to me. He … he has no right.” “That’s a little harsh,” she said, “from someone so young.” “Harsh, nothing!” I snapped, feeling hot with anger. “You might have accepted your treatments, but I didn’t!” Laura closed her eyes, her mouth moving without sound. I could read her lips, though; she was counting to ten very slowly. “Neither did I,” she said. “It started when I was only two. And I wasn’t like you. I was no genius.” I subsided, feeling a little bad for lashing out at the nearest person available. It wasn’t like she was to blame. She only happened to be convenient. I was taking advantage of her latent love for me, trusting that she wouldn’t just walk away from me. “I never knew any differently. I didn’t think it was wrong because it wasn’t until I was seven that I thought, oh, hey, you know? Most people aren’t like this. Matthew totally freaked when I punched a hole through a solid metal wall, that‘s when I figured it out. I mean, even now, my abilities exceed most machines … ” “How?” I wondered. “How should I know?” she said, irked. “I’m not a genius like you, remember? I don’t know how he does it. Maybe you should ask him.” “I’d rather not,” I said. She nodded. I started to towel myself off and get dressed again. Her constant gaze on me made me self-conscious, and not from modesty. “I swear, I look just like you,” I said. “There’s nothing different.” “It’s not that,” she answered hollowly, “I just keep thinking that if I leave you alone, something terrible will happen.” I didn’t have the confidence to reassure her otherwise. For as much as I could remember of that time, she was always nearby. Laura never left the house unless she was with me. She didn’t go out and make friends or anything, and I really believe that given the chance, things could have turned out differently for her, if only she had tried to live a normal life. She was so focused, that no matter what she did, she never wavered from it. We left the bathroom, and went into my room. I did not actually have any dolls, but I did have plenty of puzzles and video games. We passed the time companionably until dinner, almost completely pushing the unspoken tension out of our minds. When my mother invited Matthew over for dinner, she should have just skipped the trouble, and invited him to stay for the next two years because that’s pretty much how it went. Meanwhile, dinner happened. We were eating stir fry that night. It had diced water chestnuts in it, snow peas, carrots and broccoli. It turned out very good. I had talked my mom out of cooking something more exotic. Knowing her, she’d probably put in something gross like raw octopus. Ick. I never ate anything unless it was fully cooked, although I know my mother felt differently. Sometimes, I thought that she tried too hard. It annoyed me to watch Matthew sit there and eat. He was using chopsticks like my mother was. Furthermore, he knew how to use them better than I did, and I had grown up eating with them. This is, until I switched over to silverware when I realized that none of my classmates ate with chopsticks. At least Laura had some common sense. She was using a fork. “So tell me a little bit about yourself, Matthew,” my mother asked him in-between bites. He opened his mouth to reply, but Laura beat him to it. “Funny story. Back when he was still my dad’s intern, he used to sleepwalk, and one time he found my purse and ― ” Matthew was making frantic motions with his hands, and funny little strangled noises like “argh” and “urk” off to the side. Finally, he hissed something in her ear. “Really?” she said, looking at him dubiously. “You promise?” “Yes,” he agreed quickly. “I only do Prada, none of that fake stuff. Don‘t try to trick me, I got the nose of a bloodhound,” Laura boasted. He squinted at her. “No, you don’t.” “It’s just an expression, Matthew. Duh.” By this point, my mother had her arms down on the table, and buried her face in them. Laura had so completely derailed the point of the conversation that the train was into the next country. “Don’t talk to me like that,” Matthew said reproachfully. “Oh, right, because I should respect my elders,” Laura said. “Since you’re so~o much older than me. Oh, look, I’m so grown-up, I can drink alcohol now!” “Yeah, well, you used to wet the bed.” “At least I grew out of it!” My mother groaned loudly, cutting them both off. “Laura, you are excused.” “Why? I didn’t fart or nothing’ … ” “Excused from the table,” my mother said in a tone that brooked no further argument. “Now.” “But … ” “Stay in the guest room. And don’t come out until dinner is finished.” The chair scraped loudly across the floor, and Laura stomped off to the guest room. The door slammed. The entire house shook down to its foundations. “I’m finished,” I mumbled. “May I be excused?” “Yes,” my mother answered distractedly. She was so angry, she wasn’t even paying attention to me. She was busy glaring at her hapless noodles, thinking really hard. Matthew just looked aggravated. As I put my dish in the automatic dishwasher, and went to my room, they were already talking about it. For some reason, I seemed to be included too, and that just irritated me more. Laura was the one who misbehaved, not me! “They’re such a handful … I’m at my wit’s ends. It seems like every time things get worse, they have to add to the overall stress, like the war isn’t enough to worry about … “ “I can relate,” Matthew said, “Laura’s only gotten worse from living alone with her father after her mother died. I don’t think he ever disciplined her at all.” “No, he never took responsibility for any of his children!” she fumed. I shut the door, but it didn’t block it out completely. I could still hear them talking, and Matthew quietly sympathizing with my mother. I wished that I had some of my older sister’s strength. I just wanted to punch his face so hard that he never got up again. He had argued with Laura, too, it wasn’t like he was blameless! He had sat there, and taken her bait. The more I thought about it, the more weird it seemed. I knew he had a short temper, but you’d think he would have learned, if they had known each other in the past. As I sat down to complete my puzzle, I realized what it was: they were deliberately playing off one another to be dramatic. They weren’t serious. But my mother was a new factor, and she didn’t let them complete their game. I guessed that Dr. Mitchell would have just ignored it. I built this whole story in my mind that Laura’s dad ignored her a lot, and Matthew would keep her entertained. I finished my jigsaw half an hour later, and left my room to go see what was going on. Laura was still in the guest room, which I thought was odd. The reason presented itself: my mother and Matthew were still talking. Their voices had gotten quieter, their chairs shoved closer together. My mother’s face was red, like she had been crying, and Matthew was patting her hand softly. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “This war won’t last forever.” “My little girl … what’ll I do for her? She can’t live like this. Neither can Laura. Not with a man like him … ” My mother turned to him. “I mean, what do you think? You were his intern, what’s your opinion on his engineering?” “Frankly, I didn’t even know what I was working on,” Matthew admitted. “My job was just sequencing genes, and matching them up to other strands. He never told me his secret plans.” “Me neither … that’s why I’m so mad!” She clenched her fists. “I was just his secretary, writing his lab reports. But he never let on what he was really doing … I thought I loved him, but now I’m not so sure … how could he do that to my baby?“ “I don’t know, but everything will be alright.” I stood in the hallway, almost out of sight around the corner. For some reason, I couldn’t move. It felt wrong to be listening to them, like I was spying on them. But that was ridiculous because I was a part of the family too. I needed to know what was going on. He mumbled some other empty platitude, and she turned into him, crying into his shoulder. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have someone here … “ she whispered. “You’d pull through, you’re a strong woman,” he assured her. With her facing away from me, our eyes met, and I knew that he had been aware of my presence all along. It made my skin crawl faintly. Matthew closed his eyes, shook his head a little bit, and made a little motion with his chin to indicate that this was the wrong time to come forward. As I walked back down the corridor, I felt a little sick to my stomach. He was saying all the right things, and it was helpful, I guess. But I was bothered that he was intruding into our lives. I felt like Laura had a point that Matthew was too young. But then it hit me that my mother had given birth to me when she was only 19, and even though she seemed really grown-up to me, she wasn’t all that old. Raising a brilliant five-year old girl may have prematurely aged her personality. Instead of turning into my room, I entered the guest room. Laura was facedown in a pillow on the bed, unmoving. Her voice was muffled. “I hate them both,” she grumbled. “Hate, hate, hate.” “That’s a little harsh for someone so young,” I echoed. “Maybe you should take a bath. A warm one.” She eased herself up off the bed, looking at me suspiciously for mimicking her from earlier. My face was carefully blank. Laura relaxed. “You know, I think I will,” she said with a pleased sigh. “I haven’t had one in a long time. It’s hard to believe that we were on the run for five years, staying at a different place every night …“ “Sounds hard.” “It was,” she agreed. “Laura, do you not like Matthew?” She stared at me. “Why?” “Well … I don’t know, I just feel like … well, I wanted to know how you felt first.” My half-sister shrugged. “He always seemed to be around and underfoot when I was little, if that’s what you mean … don’t take us too seriously.” “I’m not,” I said. “But I don‘t like the thought of him being here.” “Why not?” “I can’t explain it … ” “Well, I don’t blame you,” Laura said with a sage expression. “I don’t like it when he tells me what to do. It‘s not his place.” “Yes, exactly,” I said. When she put it that way, it seemed perfectly normal, and I lost that little nagging feeling of wrongness that had been chasing my thoughts around in circles. The night passed without further incident, and one more day crept a little bit closer to one more year. CHAPTER THREE My doubts faded as my life settled into a strange kind of routine. My memories of those days seem to be fade pleasantly whenever I try to recall them. I’m just left holding the bits and pieces that stood out in my mind. Matthew was staying with us fulltime now. The conversation had gone something like this at breakfast: “So, what do you do for a living?” my mother asked. “Whatever I can get by on,” he answered. “You can imagine that after that scandal, and how Doctor Mitchell was discredited, people don’t line up to hire his old protégé. Somehow, that question always comes up … so I do what I can to survive, but not necessarily what I prefer … ” “I see,” my mother nodded. “I, too, had similar experiences until we ended up here. Now I‘m paid simply not to work.” She gave a dry, bitter laugh that depressed me a little. “What happened to you?” he asked. “It was very famous and unprecedented … the nuclear attack in New Nazareth by the insurrectionists who launched this war,” she said. “So they say.” “Yes,” he said sadly, nodding his head, “I remember that now. I didn’t realize that you had lived there at the time as well. How fortunate we met then!” She had gone quiet for a long time, resting her cheek in her hands. The look in her eyes was miles away. “What are you thinking about?” “The tangled web we weave,” she answered cryptically. “Eh?” “What really brought you here, Matthew? I was curious how you were contacted.” He had his finger to his lip, tracing it, like he had a nervous habit of biting his nails, and was currently suppressing it. “I wasn’t,” he grimaced. “They barged into my home, and I was forced to come here under duress, without an explanation, and told to oversee a sweeper team on this house. What was that all about, anyway?” “Oh,” Laura laughed, “That was my doing. But I would have turned them down if I had known their objective witness was going to be you.” “Well, thank you very much,” he answered bitterly but then his voice changed to something warmer. “But I think in this one thing, they did me a favor because there is no one else here that shares my views on the war, and I have no connection with any of my neighbors because of that …” “Yes,” my mother answered. “They want us in a place where they can easily control us, without support.” She gave him a piercing look, and the next question she directed to him was very specific. “Do you think that attack was really caused by the insurrectionists? It’s not like them at all …” “No,” he said. “I believe that it was a ploy by the Epoch Coalition to give itself validity in the public eye, after they branched off from the U.W.O. special forces. I think it was all staged, and it was just sheer dumb luck that you and I weren‘t caught in the blast.” “Do you believe in destiny?” my mother asked. Blah, blah, blah, let’s just skip the rest of that boring conversation and cut right to the chase. Besides, I had left to go to the bathroom, and I missed part of it. “So where is it that you’re staying again? You never said.” “A flat in the Southside,” he said. She made a face. “That’s a rough section … why don’t you stay here for a while? We have a guestroom, and I can let Laura move into Yukina’s room.” “Shouldn’t I have a say in this?” I protested. “Sure,” my mother responded. “You can say ‘yes.’” I should have known my house wasn‘t democratic, just an autocracy. “Well, I don’t mind, Miss Atagawa,” Laura said. “Part of the reason I let myself be captured was because someone needs to keep an eye on my little sister.” And so, my opinion was completely overruled. I had to move out some of my furniture, and store my possessions in the attic so that Laura would have room to sleep in an extra bed. It wasn’t like she came here with anything, so my mother went out and bought things for her, like new clothes and stuff. But I adjusted to it without too much trouble, and I started really thinking of her as my older sister. When I woke up in the middle of the night, troubled by disturbing dreams that I didn’t know were real events that were going to happen or simply imagined, I would crawl into her bed. Laura never said anything, just shifted over to give me some room, and tucked the blanket around me. She would lay there, awake, until I fell asleep again. It seems like I’ve always had someone watching over me at my side, at all times, looking out for my best interests. Over time, she became my friend and my confidante too, as well as my rival. If we weren’t bickering over some foolish thing, we’d be spending our time together playing like regular kids. I remember one lethargic morning when we were in the backyard together, relaxing. The whine of the cicadas was raised in counterpoint to the constant beating of the sun, giving it a tempo. It was surprisingly hot that day, considering it was before noon. Cicadas don’t even live on this continent indigenously. My mother had actually gone through the trouble of ordering them from a distributor in Japan. I mean, what? She had mumbled something about missing the sound of them from her childhood when I asked. I just can’t understand why she’d go through the trouble of shipping them here … I think maybe she struggled with herself then, always making this beautiful picture in her mind of the “good old days” instead of facing the times. The times … I watched a newsfeed on our holoscreen around that time. I was uncomfortable seeing it, because it hurt me to see the carnage done in the name of the peace. The casualty figures just kept on piling up, thanks to the infamous Epoch Coalition. Even worse, they showed the results of the battles proudly here, like we were going to cheer for them. I wanted to watch cartoons or something, but I wasn’t allowed. I tried to point out that it was the Epoch Coalition that was letting us live here, for free, and in safety and my mother just told me to go play somewhere else. Laura had overheard, and then tried to start an argument with me over my political views, calling me shortsighted and oblivious. Laura and me still had some residual tension over that, and a very heated discussion had been avoided because my mother had separated us to different rooms again. But it was easy to think that day that there was nothing wrong with the world at all. It certainly didn’t feel like it. Well, today, Laura and I were back in opposite ends of the room, and I carefully avoided mentioning my opinions. We were seated at a table under a pagoda-shaped gazebo playing a game. You’d think that chess would be more exciting. Well, it wasn’t exciting enough so we had changed to something more universal. “Got any twos?” I asked. “You’re the psychic, you tell me,” she said with a little grin. “I’m not psychic,” I complained. “I’m clairvoyant. There’s a difference. Oh, and sometimes I can see the past too, but it doesn’t happen much.” “Really?” she brightened, and held out her hand. “Go on, tell me my fortune.” “Oh, now you’re just picking on me,” I said sourly. “And avoiding my question … ” “Go on, tell me something about my future!” I rolled my eyes heavenward, and took her hand. I made a big fuss over following the lines of her fingers, and closing my eyes and moaning dramatically. “Okay … okay … I’m seeing something … ” “Yes?” “It’s … it’s … ” “Yes … ?” “I’m seeing some rice, did you have any for breakfast? Because you’ve got a little crumb right here.” We both had a good laugh over that. And then I predicted the thing that she had been dreading the most … “Laura, do you have any twos?” She yawned, stretched, and put her cards facedown on the table. “You know what, I’m really tired of this game, I think I’m gonna go do something else … ” I waited a moment while she got up, and then looked at her cards. “Aw, come on, you didn’t even have a two or anything!” “I know,” she giggled with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I just wanted to see if you’d look, or if you really were psychic.” Grrr … I’ve already told her that it’s not something I can control, it just happens to me … and it’s usually major things, not what I’m going to have for lunch or something. Grilled fish, by the smell of it. As I wandered into the house, I happened to catch a glimpse of what Laura was doing outside. I stopped, puzzled. Matthew appeared to have been doing push-ups on the concrete, and Laura had gotten down beside him, determined to outdo him. They were getting fancier and fancier. Apparently, Matthew wasn’t about to let a twelve-year old upstart get the best of him, but I put my bets on Laura … she had way more strength and stamina than he did. Slowly, though, it became clearer than they were pretty evenly matched, which was very surprising to me. I wondered if, perhaps, Matthew hadn’t used some of his work on himself. Watching him move was like watching some old holovid of ancient animals … he had the coiled tension and possibility for speed of a great cat, like a cougar or a tiger. He caught me looking, and gave me a little wave and a smile through the window. I returned it slowly. Turning away, I went to go see how my mother was doing. My stomach fluttered. I‘m so hungry, I thought. The odor filled the entire house. I came up behind my mother, hardly reaching her waist. I had to tap her back to get her attention. “Mommy … ” “Not right now, Yukichan. I’m in the middle of cooking you lunch,” she said. “Why don’t you go take those lemonades over there to Matthew and Laura?” “Laura, maybe,” I grumbled. “But Matthew’s just some adopted transient.” “I don’t like these bad habits that you’re picking up from Laura … you should show our guest more respect,” my mother said sternly. “So go do what I said, or no lunch.” The thought of that physically pained me. So I hopped up onto my tiptoes to reach the top of the counter. I took the two glasses in each hand and carried them outside. I was a little annoyed that my mother hadn’t bothered to make one for me. When I got outside, Matthew and Laura were sitting at the table under the shade of the gazebo, both sweating slightly. I slid one lemonade over to my sister, and sipped at the other one myself. Matthew pretended not to notice. I stared intently at his mouth. He turned to look at me, wondering what I was looking for. “Do you have any fangs?” I asked. “I’m not a vampire for any day except Halloween,” he replied. “I was thinking maybe you were related to a lion.” Laura reached over and smacked the back of my head. “Start making sense!” “Ow!” I gave her a dark look, and explained myself. They’re no fun at all when I try to copy their sense of humor. “You’re gengineered, right, Matthew? So I was thinking feline DNA or something.” He nodded slightly. “You’re pretty sharp for a little kid. Not feline, though.” “They gave her an IQ test, and you wouldn‘t believe her results … ” Laura offered. I blushed, embarrassed. “Aw, come on! Those things don’t mean anything! They only measure your skills in logical systems and abstract thinking.” “See, I don’t have a clue about what you said just now,” Laura said. “So you must be smarter than me.” I sighed … this is their way of picking on me, I suppose. “You’re pretty intelligent too, Laura,” Matthew noted. “And you’ve aged well since the last time I saw you. I‘m really astonished by how far you‘ve advanced.” She waved off his rare praise with a flick of her wrist, giving a small shrug. “Yeah, sure. Now tell me about how you believe in fate, and it was destiny that brought us together. Then you can compare my eyes to stars, and my skin to alabaster.” “Did he really say that while I was in the bathroom?” “No, I just made that last part up.” “Oh.” We approached a lull in the conversation, and the constant buzz of the cicadas filled up the gap. It was getting on my nerves. I decided that I didn’t like them at all. “They’re just a bunch of jumped-up locusts,” I complained. “What are?” Matthew asked. “The cicadas,” I said. “Funny thing. They’re actually not locusts or flies … they’re more closely related to aphids,” Laura said. “And how would you know that?” “Miss Atagawa made me read the brochure with her to help select a species.” “You picked the noisiest one, didn’t you?” I accused her. “No, I picked the ones that looked like bumblebees because I thought they were the cutest,” Laura explained. “Did you know that a cicada can spend 17 years developing before awakening?” “17 years … ” I shook my head a little. “Any of them sleep for about thirty years?” “I don’t think so,” she said. “Why?” “No reason … ” “I’m going to go inside and get something to drink,” the dark-haired man said, getting to his feet. He went inside the house. I sucked at my straw, enjoying the lemonade just a little more. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular at the time, and my mind had a complete lack of all important thoughts. “Hey, Yukina,” Laura said. “Think fast.” I hadn’t really been paying attention, and I turned to look at her just in time to see the ice cube hurled at me. It didn’t hit. It floated in mid-air for about a second, and I felt my stomach do a little flip. That wasn’t normal. The ice cube shuddered and seemed to reverse its trajectory, smacking Laura on the forearm. She stared at me with her mouth open, unable to form words. “Wow, that was cool. Think you could do it again?” She had another ice cube in her hand, ready to throw it. I covered my mouth with my hand, feeling sick. I stumbled out of the chair and toward the grass. Everything I looked at seemed to swim and double around me, like they didn’t want to be where they were, but somewhere else entirely … I shut my eyes, and I felt the space around me flex like a rubber band being stretched too thin. The band broke. What I saw … felt … is very difficult to describe, but I’ll try my best. The objects seemed to rush around me and unfold at impossible angles, revealing a geometry and overall pattern that I would have never imagined. In fact, I might have suspected that my lemonade had been spiked with a hallucinogen if it weren’t for the fact that it felt so real on my deep level. So real that I could just reach out, and feel it. So I did. That was probably a mistake. The world had been broken down into a fractal-like distortion, and I don’t think I would have known the difference between a blade of glass and a person at this point. I couldn’t even tell up from down. My nausea swelled again, and a wave of vertigo passed over me. I felt like I was behind ripped apart from the inside out when my fingertips encountered substance. When I moved, I felt everything around me move too. And I became aware of a tessellation around me, the mosaic effect of my existence. Something else that wasn’t exactly me, but felt very familiar. It evoked a memory of a dream, of something huge and vast threatening to suffocate me. I believe that was my first experience with deceleration. However, it was as though all of the universe around me had become unfiltered, and infinity smacked me right in the face. When reality returned, it had the shock of a bucket of freezing cold water over my head. Or, rather, an ice cube down the back of my shirt. “Augh,” I said articulately. I was being held in Laura’s arms, and this confused me. I didn’t remember getting there at all. “Well, that could have been worse,” Laura said dryly. “Let’s just get one thing clear: when I ask you if you could do it again, just completely ignore me.” “Huh?” She lowered me down to the ground, keeping her arms around my waist, clearing not trusting my balance. I peered over her shoulder at the gazebo. Or, what remained of it. That whole area looked like it had aged hundreds of years. There was no wood left, only a rusted and twisted framework of metal. Of the wooden table and chairs, they were only dust on the cracked concrete. Weeds had overgrown it in a matter of seconds. It was impossible. “… ” Well, I guess that I wasn’t going to finish my lemonade. It had probably evaporated three centuries ago or a minute ago, depending on how you looked at it. “When I saw the wood crumbling over your head, I took a gamble, and decided to move you,” Laura said. “I’m glad that I didn’t come out eighty years old … ” “Me too,” I agreed earnestly. I stood up slowly. “Because then I might be able to beat you in an honest race.” “Nah, I’ll still kick your butt even when I’m a hundred,” she bragged smugly. At this moment, my mother decided to come out carrying grilled fish on a platter. Matthew walked behind her, his arms full of silverware and plates. They both froze. “Oh, my God,” my mother said. For her, this was practically unheard of. She didn’t believe in a Christian God. “Well, you don’t see that everyday,” Matthew said, understating the obvious. “I can explain,” I said, perhaps a bit too soon. I thought about it. “No, I can’t.” “Maybe you’d better let me try,” Laura said. “Go sit down. You’re still looking pretty woozy.” “Okay.” I sat down on the ground, seeing as how all our furniture out here had just rotted away. Yeah, the insurance claim on that was going to be pretty hard to fill out. Maybe they’d just use one of Laura’s meaningless phrases like, “spontaneous temporal advancement from an uncontrolled mutation.” For all that she claims that I’m smarter than she is, she’s really good at just making up crap, and having people believe her. To me, it sounded like she didn’t know what she was talking about at all. On the bright side, those putrid cicadas had finally shut up. I allowed myself a warm, fuzzy feeling imagining them all dying horrible deaths from being prematurely aged. Then one of them flew through the air, and landed on my shoulder. So much for that. Laura’s right, though, these do look like bumblebees. I hate bees. I brushed it off, and watched it squirm around on the ground. It flipped itself over with a flick of its wings, and flew away. Fifteen minutes later, we were all back inside the house. I was given a glass of milk to calm my stomach, and told to lie down until I felt better. Laura sat next to me, cross-legged on the floor. We were listening to them discuss the best course of action. They agreed that taking me to the hospital would be a mistake because the Epoch Coalition would be immediately notified that something was up with me, or possibly even find a reason to take Laura away. They decided that they would wait it out for as long as possible, provided that my condition didn’t worsen. Somehow, this didn’t make me feel any better. Especially not with Laura describing to me her side of things. “And then your eyes glowed and stuff, it was really freaky. You were all like ‘whoosh’ and the ice cube stopped in mid-air.” “I don’t remember going ‘whoosh’ like how you’re demonstrating … ” “Okay, okay, well, I could have sworn that I heard a ‘whoosh.’” “Wasn’t it more of a … ‘hisssttt’?” “What kind of sound is that? It was whoosh.” “ … Whatever, what happened after that?” “You grabbed at something in mid-air and the air sorta rippled like a drifter’s dispersion field … and everything started smelling like mildew. I swear, I think I saw maggots eating that wood before it fell apart. And then they disappeared. But when I picked you up, it all stopped when I moved you.” “Don’t you mean termites? I don’t think maggots eat wood.” “Yes, they do. They eat any kind of rotting organic material,” she said. “How do you know all this stuff about bugs, anyway?” She rolled her eyes. “My dad. He’s like a walking encyclopedia. One day, he got it into his head that he wanted to improve a cockroach. I mean, how do you improve a roach? They’ve been here for about a billion years, it’s not like we need some kind of super cockroach or something … ” Yeah, life was pretty much back to normal. If she wasn’t there, I don’t think I would have calmed down as quickly as I did. Surprisingly, my mother wasn’t mad about the destruction of her gazebo. She was far more worried about my well-being. But I saw from both the adults, that they were treating me a little differently. Their personal space seemed to widen whenever I got close. I stopped trying to hug my mother, for one. She kept on flinching. That made me feel really bad. I didn’t have another attack that day. The next one wouldn’t be until several months later. CHAPTER FOUR It was the day after my sixth birthday. We were finally cleaning up from the mess that had accumulated, and been ignored in favor of celebrating. I was finishing picking all the wrapping paper off the floor, and stuffing it into the disposal unit. I had gotten a lot of gifts, mostly educational holovids and curricula, but there was one in that mess that I had really been looking forward to. A mini-hoverboard. I wasn’t able to use it yesterday because it was raining, but the sun was out today. I was alone in the room with Matthew, who was drinking his cup of coffee at the patio table in silence. Mother and Laura had gone out on an errand earlier. He lifted his head slightly. “I have a hypothetical question for you.” “What is it?” I asked, curious. “If you could save the world or save yourself, which would you choose?” I stopped what I was doing. I was going to ask where that had come from, but as I was running the question back through my mind again, it got me. I became quiet, thinking about it. What would I do? Hypothetically, of course. I built an entire scenario in my mind, but I reached no conclusions several minutes later. If I was the last person alive on Earth, would I begin to regret my decision to save myself alone? Would the rush of saving the whole world, only to know I was to die a minute later, be too intimidating for me at the crux of that moment? Or could the promise of nirvana stop those selfish desires in time? Did I even believe in an afterlife? It was too much to think about. For one, the question was way too limiting. There were too many variables, and too few choices. I sighed, and shrugged halfheartedly. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “So what’s the answer?” “To tell you the truth, I have no idea,” he said and took another sip from his cup. “Someone asked me that once, and it’s been bothering me ever since.” I ignored him. I was putting my presents into piles to be organized later, and I picked up his gift for me. It annoyed me for a moment, and I glared. What kind of dumb gift was that, anyway? It was a dull instructional book on the alien K-90 spore that didn‘t interest me at all. What I was really interested in was that hoverboard. “Did you take a look at that book?” I shook my head slightly. “I can’t help but notice that you’re not eating a lot lately,” Matthew noted. The things he was saying were so random. I didn’t see how those two facts were related at all. The textbook didn’t look very appetizing, that’s for sure. When I met his eyes, he was looking at me intently, with his eyes narrowed slightly. This wasn’t just an innocent observation, but an interrogation. “I’ve had a stomach ache,” I said. He didn’t respond to that, and went back to looking out the windows solemnly. I was putting the final touches on the mini-hoverboard assembly, and was ready to head outside. My hand was on the door when he spoke again. “I can always tell when someone is lying,” he said, looking directly at me. “And it’s usually because they’re not very good at it.” I was frozen by indecision. His mouth firmed when I didn’t immediately react. “If you go out that door, I’m going to be upset with you.” Involuntarily, I took a step back. “Now come over here, sit down, and listen to what I have to say.” It was like I lost all self-control when faced with the steel in his voice. He never took that kind of commanding tone with me or Laura, it was very unusual. It was the kind of thing I expected from my mother, not Matthew. I was already sitting down into the chair when I regained my senses, the hoverboard forgotten on the table. My hands felt a little numb so I wrung them nervously. He just watched me. My silence was proof enough of my guilt, I suppose. Even without fully understanding why I never felt like eating, I didn’t want everyone else sticking their noses into my business. “I dislike it immensely when people lie to me,” he said flatly. “I’m sorry,” I muttered, eyes downcast. I huffed a little under my breath. I could be out surfing the air currents right now. I could feel the weight of his gaze on me without even seeing him. “An apology means nothing to me if you’re just thinking that you’re going to get away with it again.” “No.” “Your lips are moving, but I can’t hear you.” “I’m sorry,” I repeated, raising my voice a little. “Shouldn’t you look at someone if you’re really sorry? Now that you‘re six, you should learn to do these things correctly.” I slowly looked up at him. I guess it was true that addressing the floor wasn’t the best way to convince him of my new sincerity. He had his arms crossed, and stared me down, unblinking. He was openly skeptical. “I’m really sorry,” I said earnestly. Matthew chewed on his lip absently. “Next, ask the other person if they’ll forgive you.” My eyelids flickered with an angry tic. God, he makes me want to bash my forehead against the table. Is this long, involved process really necessary in order to force an apology out of me? “Do you … forgive me?” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “For what?” My nostrils flared as I inhaled deeply, struggling to maintain patience. “For lying,” I said finally. “I suppose so,” he accepted grudgingly. “Provided that it doesn’t happen again.” He uncrossed his arms, and cradled his coffee cup in his hands again. He reached over, and picked up the book on the table. Matthew then reached into his front pocket, and put a pair of reading glasses on. He flipped through the pages until he came to a passage that caught his eye, tracing the page with his finger. “Do you have any idea what’s happening to you, and why it’s significant that you’re not eating as much?” I shook my head, not trusting my voice right then. It would instantly reveal my irritation. He sighed. “Well, I suppose the method isn’t important. Yukina, your biology is changing.” I tried to look surprised. “I’m a little young for that ..” He licked his lips silently, and his dark eyes seemed to get darker. It was the kind of look that told me without words that I was pushing it too far. “Right now, you’re starting to take in the energy from the dark matter all around you.” “Prove it.” “Well, I can’t prove that. But I can prove something else.” He put down his cup on the table, and pulled a pen out of his pocket. He clicked a button on the end of it, and held it out to me. “That’s a pen,” I remarked, unimpressed. “Are you proving to me that it exists?” “No. Just take it.” I did. Or, at least, I tried to. My hand seemed to close on empty air. I swept my hand through the object in disbelief, and stared at him. “What is this, some kind of trick?” “No.” He reached over and rapped the pen against the table, producing two sharp taps. Okay, so it was solid enough. “I modified this pen some years ago to emit a small phasic field. In it’s natural state, you can’t interact with it.” “I don’t understand,” I said, confused. “Here, let me recalibrate it.” Ah, such a big word for his next action. He just clicked the button on the end again. I see, so not only does it retract the lead of the pen, it recalibrates it? How fancy … He placed it into my hands. I was able to hold it now. “Let me see if I can explain this … you’re phasic, Yukina. I programmed it so that the pen would be ’phased in’ while you’re ‘phased out.’ In other words, the unnoticeable gaps of your existence are directly opposed by it. Do you understand?” “I’ve got it,” I waved him off with my hand impatiently. He was treating me like I was stupid, which I certainly wasn‘t. “Do you have a paper that teleports too?” “I’m serious, Yukina,” he deadpanned. I shrugged. “Okay, so I’m phasic, just like the dead alien was. And now I eat invisible particles. If you‘re trying to tell me I‘m a freak, tell me something I don‘t know.” He looked pained. “Yukina, I’m only concerned for your welfare. Me and Laura both think that it would be in your best interests to meet with your father, and try to find some way to stabilize your condition.” “Oh, my ‘condition,’” I echoed loftily. “So now … whaaugh!?” I was cut off by a thunderous blast that shook the entire house with the force of it. I was so startled that I rose out of my chair, and would have fallen if he hadn’t lunged forward over the table to catch my hand. We both looked out of the patio windows just in time to watch a drifter recede into the distance. The air rushed back in with a roar. It filled in the vacuum left by the mote’s supersonic passage as it broke mach speed. It came so close to us that it terrified me. Motes are normally restricted to upper airspace. If I had gone outside with my hoverboard earlier … well, better not to finish that line of thought. “It was just a sonic boom,” he said, letting go of my hand. “It’s too close!” I gasped. “Look, there’s another one!” He followed the direction I was pointing in. His frown deepened. “That mote had a United World Order insignia on it.” I turned to him, impressed. “You can see that from here?” “I have an implant.” “Oh. I never knew that.” “That’s because I never told you.” Two more white shapes glinted in the sunlight on the horizon. They were becoming larger at a deceptively slow rate, closing the distance at incredible speeds. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I said suddenly. He nodded quietly. Sometimes, I really wish that my premonitions could be timed better. Like, say, a day in advance. Instead, they’re about three seconds before it actually happens. I looked at him, suddenly very grim. “We need to get out of here.” As if to punctuate my sentence, every single window in the house exploded inwards, shattering in a fury of deadly shards. I think both of us shouted, but it was lost in the hollow roar. No other sound could exist during the moment of that second sonic boom. Matthew shielded me with his body during that time, knocking me to the floor. I was troubled to see rivulets of blood working their way down his back and legs already. Glass had instantly cut into his skin through his clothing. Yet he seemed able to ignore it. The second drifter had traveled so close to the ground that I saw a tree flattened by its passage. The mote seemed to be out of control. I heard sirens far away, wailing their late warnings. I panted, and looked up into a brilliant sky naked and free of the glare of the sun on the glass. It was webbed with the purple lines that meant particle beam weapons were being exchanged by the motes directly overhead. A light breeze touched my face. His hands were on either side of me, and he was clambering to his feet. He was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t make it out. A high-pitched ringing in my ears was the only thing I could hear. I panicked, thinking I was permanently deaf. “What? What?” My eyes were wide. I couldn’t hear my own voice, except inside my head. He realized what had happened, and pointed frantically toward the door. I nodded mutely, and we ran through the house and burst outside. The air strike was still in progress, a silent battle between the drifters above, but I didn’t have time to appreciate the reality of it. The feeling of nausea I had was all I needed to tell me that our lives were in danger. We stopped just in time to see the empty pod where the hovercar should have been parked. We had forgotten that my mother and my older sister had taken it. I didn’t need to hear to know what he said next. That was pretty obvious. Without explaining myself, I broke away from him and bolted back into the house. I swept my miniature hoverboard off the table and stepped into the grooves. I quickly buckled up the straps to hold my feet in place, and turned it on. It lifted upwards with a slight hum. I wobbled uncertainly, and flew crazily towards the front door. Okay, maybe this wasn’t the best time to learn to use it … Matthew narrowly escaped a collision with me because he was trying to come inside at the same time I was coming out. I think I brushed his arm as I traveled past. I found myself upside-down for several moments before re-aligning it to the ground with pressure from my heels. Hearing was starting to return. He was yelling at me, of course. “What are you doing!?” “Try to keep up!” He gaped at me as I grinned impetuously, and took off into a controlled flight about a foot above the ground. The steering was pretty intuitive, once I figured it out. Nudge right to go right, give a little hop to rise upward, that sort of thing. I circled around him, and led the way. He took off running behind me, his feet pounding the ground. I was betting on him being a match for Laura, and he didn’t disappoint. Just as I had suspected, he possessed more strength and speed than he first let on. There’s just no way to hide your reflexes; if you can catch a glass in mid-air without spilling a drop, you’re not normal. Of course, there was no possible way he could catch up to me on my mini-hoverboard, but he didn’t lose pace either. We couldn’t have started moving a second too soon. Behind us, a particle beam disintegrated most of the house. I twisted around to see and winced. I could feel the heat even from here. That was the second home we lost, thanks to the Epoch Coalition … We covered about three miles in those ten minutes, if I had to estimate. The motes could cover a lot more area than that, but the thick of their aerial dogfight was taking place over what was left of my house. I don’t believe in fate, but that’s more of a coincidence than I care to admit. I felt like my whole body was tingling with energy. My legs were starting to ache from the constant muscle twitches in my legs required to guide my hoverboard and avoid obstacles. Matthew shouted something at me. I crouched down, and slowed until I was alongside him. He pointed breathlessly at the blue vehicle flying by. “Isn’t that the hovercar?” Yes, it was. Because no one else would drive that outdated model except my mother. And it was heading in the direction of the house at speeds that probably weren’t legal. In the order to achieve that, the traffic computer must be offline, and the hovercar was being driven manually. I could already imagine what was going through my mother’s mind: hearing the news broadcasts, and seeing particle fire above where our house was located … she must think that we were still there … I launched off the ground, air blasting out from the overdrive kicking in to propel me upwards so quickly. Matthew’s hair blew back wildly, and I could see him craning his neck to follow my passage. My mini-hoverboard gained altitude at an incredible rate, and I had to squint to see through the gale beating me back. I started to lose some of my confidence that I would be able to catch up with them in time. The hovercar was going a lot faster than my first impression. I stomped on the hoverboard, and it changed gears again. I flew even faster, and it was hard to see them through my eyelashes. A bug smacked me in the face painfully. No fancy tricks now, just pure speed and balance. I found that if I held my arms out just a bit, I didn’t careen around as much and feel like I was going to fall at any moment. Bad memories of the electromagnetic pulse at New Nazareth were returning to me, that empty feeling in my stomach as we dropped down toward the ground uncontrollably, trapped in the hovercar … If the batteries died right now, if I never noticed the red warning light, and I couldn’t make it down in time … the thought of that was simply horrifying. I took a deep, shuddering breath, and focused. I prayed that my mini-hoverboard would last long enough, that someone would notice me in the rearview. Since the traffic computer was off, it wouldn’t notify them of incoming objects. Like me, for instance. I was gaining on them slowly. The sun was in my eyes and the windows were tinted, so I couldn’t get a good look at what was happening inside, but there was definitely some motion going on. The dark silhouette of an arm waved about. The hovercar slowed down suddenly. I really should have been ready for that, but I wasn’t. I cried out and lurched off to the left, before spiraling back around. That was a scary moment, flying backwards while facing the vehicle in front of me. I was close enough to see the whites of their eyes through the grey glass. The hovercar came to a complete stop, and floated in place. I got my hoverboard to do the same, and drifted over to the side of it. I clutched at the handle because the car was bobbing up and down, and it was making it very difficult for me to align myself right. The door slid open, and my purchase was gone. I tumbled inside, right onto Laura. “Oh my God! I can‘t believe you just did that!” she said. “Rock on!” We high-fived each other. My mother had the hovercar on idle, and turned around in her seat. There were tears in her eyes. My brief elation was tempered by seeing how worried she was. “Baby, I love you, but if you ever do that again … ” she said. “I love you too, Mom, but we need to go the other way,” I blurted out. “Now.” She turned around to look just in time to see the particle fire aimed at us. She screamed, and jerked the steering to the side. Laura was safely buckled in, but I wasn’t. When the car dodged, I was thrown back. The door was open, and the feeling of that empty air just off to the side rattled me. I had a death grip on the side of the paneling, staring down at the miniature city below. Nevermind that I was still strapped onto my hoverboard and could have caught myself if I tumbled; fear isn’t rational. Laura’s fingers clutched at the back of my shirt, pulling me back into her lap. Her arms wrapped safely around me. She leaned back, and kicked the door shut with one leg. My skin tingled all over. I stared out the windshield into the sky, unseeing, feeling the amplifier tearing every molecule apart … “Go right!” I yelled. The hovercar swerved just in time to miss the next volley. The purple radiation lit up the interior. My eyes watered. “Why are they shooting at us!?” Laura cried. “I don’t know!” I said, sounding strangled. Laura’s arms were crushing my diaphragm. I struggled, gasping painfully, and she relaxed her hold. There was so much happening, I couldn’t understand it all. Maybe they mistook the hovercar for a drifter? But that’s not possible … the targeting system of a mote doesn’t work like that. It’s controlled by a VR headset, and the pilot would know the difference. Right? But for whatever the reason, I knew that the worst place to go was back into the chaos ahead. It hit me that there was one person missing in this picture. “Mom, we need to go back the way you came! Matthew is back there!” I heard her gasp. “Matthew,” she said in a tense whisper. Her hands tightened their hold on the steering wheel, her knuckles whitening. The hovercar zoomed ahead, increasing speed. I decided that putting on my restraints would be wise. It was strange to have to do it by hand, usually it happened automatically. I reached up and wiped the sweat off my brow. Then I bent down to unbuckle my feet from the mini-hoverboard, and turned it off. Laura watched me with some interest. “Promise me that you’ll let me borrow it,” she said. “Not on your life,” I replied. “Darn,” she cursed. She turned around to look out the back window. There were no drifters following us. Whichever mote had taken a shot at us, it appeared to have flown elsewhere. My small hand found its way inside hers. She squeezed it supportively. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you, sis.” I smiled, feeling a little better, even while knowing that super strength wasn’t going to do us a whole lot of good inside a hovercar. It was the intent behind the words that counted. In only a minute or so, we reached the one lone figure still dumb enough to be waiting around outside. He was huddled down, trying to make himself less noticeable. As we came closer, he waved us down. I heard my mother’s sigh of relief. “Where’s the Epoch Coalition in all this?” I asked. “Up there,” Laura said, pointing at the sky. “Or hiding down in bunkers,” I said darkly. I startled a bit as my mother activated the traffic computer, and it started broadcasting the newsfeed again, along with dire warnings. “ - illegal air strike by the UWO is being handled by our forces, but all citizens are advised to evacuate to the Western Sector as soon as possible. The importance of this cannot be strained. Weapons-fire is not completely contained yet … ” It might be my imagination, but I think that the system sounded very urgent. It was not a pre-programmed response, but detailed instructions. Someone was probably typing this out even as we listened. The hovercar shook a little as we landed on the ground. Matthew started to climb into the front seat. I shook my head. “We should get out and go on foot.” “Why?” my mother asked. “We should listen to her, she knows what’s doing,” Laura said and turned to me for approval. “Right?” I nodded. “I think that the drifters are targeting all airborne craft, Mom.” They decided to trust my intuition, and got out. I grabbed my crescent-shaped hoverboard before I left, and draped it across my book using the sling on the underside of it. My mother looked at the landed hovercar, having second thoughts. “We’re going to leave it here, then?” “Yes,” I said. “It’s an original … ” I shrugged, and tried to offer an optimistic viewpoint. “It might be there when we get back.” That didn’t seem to cheer her up. She was still reluctant, and opened the door to the hovercar, getting back inside. I stamped my foot. “We need to get moving! We don‘t have time for that.” My mother looked at me evenly. “Who’s the mother here?” Matthew put his hand on my shoulder, as if to keep me from trying to stop her. I shut up. She activated her hovercar. The turbine engines hissed into life, and it lifted slightly. To my confusion, she parked it in a narrow alleyway, right next to a dumpster. “She’s parking it out of view,” he explained. “To lower the chance of theft.” Ah. That made sense. But, still, there were more pressing issues right now. I felt a quiver along my spine, warning me. I tugged on his sleeve, and spread my hand toward the northeast. “Can you feel that?” “What?” “The wind is hotter from that direction.” Both he and Laura turned to face the breeze. Instead of being refreshingly cool, it was unusually warm. It was like a little vortex in the desert, serving only to swirl the hot air around. My sister was the first to catch on. “Radiation fire,” she stated. I nodded. When charged particles beams encounter certain substances, they start a slow build-up of heat in the atmosphere. When a certain limiting temperature was reached, the air itself would conflagrate. It would blaze into a real and deadly firestorm. Particle-weapon fire should always be confined to the upper reaches of the exosphere and outer space, but in the recent time of warfare, this was not always the case. The motes would be immune to it, thanks to their antigravity fields. Humans and hovercars would not be. My mother walked out of the cramped back street, wrinkling her nose a little against the stench. She fell in with us. She did something she hadn’t done with me for a while. She leaned down, picked me up, and carried me on her hip. “Which way, Yukina?” she asked. “Southwest,” I answered her. We navigated the streets without stopping to rest. Evening was falling, and the uncontrolled combustion I predicted came to pass. Behind us, the sky was lit an even brighter fiery red than the sunset before us. My mother had zipped her jacket up around her shirt, with her hands buried into her pockets. Laura and Matthew were hardly winded, but I was falling behind. My mother was probably tired too, but she hid it well if she was. I believe that sheer desperation pushed her onward. I had already exhausted the last of my mini-hoverboard’s power supply earlier, when I used it to cruise along instead of walking. I wished that I had saved it for later; I could have really used it right now. We came across evidence that the battle between the UWO and Epoch drifters hadn’t been limited only to the region of our neighborhood. The downtown sector was in tatters. Not the ruins of abandonment, but wanton destruction. It was reduced to ruins by the attacking craft. As we traveled, we came across people, but they mostly avoided us. They were doing the same thing as we were, focused on heading away from the firestorm. I saw families with children sleeping in the grass covered by spare clothing and blankets, anything they could grab. Windows of domiciles had been smashed, and some took cover in houses that once belonged to others, before the evacuation. But the people that we saw were poor; everyone who could afford a hovercar had left long ago. My family did not doubt my decision to travel the distance by walking alone. We witnessed one terrifying moment where a scouting mote gunned down a hovercar passing overheard. It spiraled out of control, and sank out of sight. If it crashed, it landed miles away from us. Detouring was not an option. The lack of any kind of organized authority to look in on the new batch of refugees was obvious. I found it ironic, since the special Epoch Coalition branch had initially been formed to handle such situations. Yet here, in the midst of most of their operations, they were entirely absent. As if that wasn‘t enough, the blaze behind us had altered the local weather. “Wonderful,” Laura said, with a twist to her lips. “Rain.” “A little water won’t kill you,” I said. “This isn’t a little.” A torrential downpour was soaking us, the rain coming down in straight vertical lines like a waterfall. A fine mist glazed the horizon in the distance into undefined shapes, and turned the broken lines of the city into something more sinister. The adults were impassively ignoring it as we slogged forward. I had tried to have fun with it in the first few minutes, jumping and running through puddles, but you have to imagine that this pales slightly when you’re cold and wet. The dark wings of the night spreading over the sky brought chill into the air with them. Still, Laura was usually the one looking on the bright side. If she was depressed … maybe it was time for us to turn in for the night. “Maybe we should look for a place out of the rain,” I said. “Is it safe?” my mother asked me. I felt suddenly weary. My premonitions weren’t strong, but it felt to me like there was the constant possibility of danger in the region. It was like a tightness coiled right into my chest, a prickling all over my skin. Even after heading away, it seemed like there was still something waiting for us at any time. I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t say precisely when. Knowing only made it worse. “No. It’s not been safe all day,” I replied. “But I doubt that if we stop it will change that.” “Hey, I see something over there that looks promising,” Laura said brightly. We went over to investigate. Next to a chipped fountain dripping at a crazy angle, a long trench had been ripped into the ground, disrupting the pattern of the cobblestones. The furrow extended into the rubble of a toppled edifice. There was the smooth white curve of something hidden in it. My heart beat a little faster with hope. Powdered stone and dust littered the ground around it, and we left footprints as we walked forward. Within the debris, a crashed mote appeared to be unharmed. Its ovoid shape was still smooth, despite the discoloration caused by particle fire. The paneled door was open and receded into its groove, but the inside was completely dark. “This could prove useful,” Matthew commented. “If it works,” Laura added. “I’ll go take a look.” She crept forward cautiously. When no monsters leapt out, she got a little bolder and rapped the inside wall with the flat of her hand. The ambient lighting flickered a couple times, and caught dimly. It barely illuminated the interior, but she went toward the pilot seat. We were clustered around the drifter nervously. She lifted the helmet, and set it onto her head, toggling the button with a finger. We waited with baited breath. With a saddened expression, she took it off. “The system is dead,” she announced. “I think it’s out of power… ” “Come back out here, Laura,” my mother said. “I don’t like the thought of you in there.” “Okay, Miss Atagawa.” “It’s dry in there,” I pointed out. “Good point,” Laura agreed. “At least it’s cushioned.” The little coiled spring in my chest unwound, and antecedent pain blossomed out into my limbs. What happened next occurred so fast that I had no time to think. I acted entirely on instinct. I saw the figure rise out of the corner of my eye, hidden by the fall of the rain behind a half-crumbled wall. It was holding a weapon, and that was all that I had time to process. There was a sizzling sort of sound. Matthew screamed for a moment before it ended in a gurgle. He stumbled, falling to his knees. He clutched as his chest as the maser instantly vaporized his blood, and the cloth was ignited. The next shot … … aimed at me … … didn’t come. Something greater than myself unfolded outward. For a moment, I saw the dizzying kaleidoscope range of possibilities spread out before me, not only what things were but also what they might become. It crystallized into a perfect certainty, and euphoria filled me. I don’t know if Matthew was even aware of me in that moment, his eyes wide with agony. I am certain that he would have died if I had not been there to intervene. I twisted, like the movement of a newly-discovered muscle. That invisible gap between thought and action disappeared. I was completely in control. Matthew’s scream ended abruptly and he staggered, unhurt. The radiation dispersed uselessly in front of my body as I held my hand out in front of me. Somehow, I had shifted to a different place, and I knew just what to do. I moved the maser’s emission into nonexistence. The man standing in front of me lowered his weapon just a little in shock. The world came crashing back in, and it slipped away from me again, just out of reach. A crushing headache was my reward. I winced and my hand shot to my forehead at the blistering anguish in my temple. I didn’t quite lose consciousness, but everything darkened and grayed out at the edges. Laura erupted out of the mote, faster than any one person should have the right to move. I didn’t see what happened, but the results were clear enough. The gunman was knocked aside, and collapsed to the ground. The weapon went flying. She spun around to face us, already forgetting him as though he were insignificant. I heard a quivering little groan behind me; my mother reacting slowly to the blur of movement around her. Matthew was on his hands and knees, gaping at me. Water dripped off his face from the rain. He patted his chest with one hand, unbelieving. “Just now,” Laura gasped, “I thought you were … ” His gaze slid to her, and I saw the mask snap back into place. He became expressionless. He looked at me. “I think I was,” he said. His tone was hard to read. My mother approached Matthew, her steps small and uncertain. She whispered something to him, and they put their heads close together, having a quick and rushed discussion not meant to be heard. I looked away from them, my head still throbbing dully. I was noticing something else, and drew closer to the figure collapsed on the ground. I knelt beside him. Laura came up beside me, not making any kind of noise at all. “Who is he?” I asked. “The pilot,” she answered numbly. Her cheek twitched slightly. “Was.” “Was?” I echoed quietly. I turned back around to get a better look, but her hand closed over my face. “Come on, don’t look,” she said, facing me toward her. Her eyes were strangely empty. She laid her chin on my shoulder, curling around me. We stayed like that, holding each other for support. The adults stopped their whispering, realizing something was wrong. The silence kept a few more moments. They were studying the body on the ground. “It was necessary,” he said. Laura stiffened against me, pulling away a little. She rose to her feet. Matthew continued. “If you had hesitated, we might have ended like him.” I didn’t know whether he was speaking to her or me. “Don’t tell her that!” my mother hissed. “It’s true, Kaede.” It gave me a weird little jolt to hear him call her by her first name. He separated from us, and bent over to pick up the lethal heat gun. He checked it over, and fired a shot into the ground. We all jumped, and watched as the grass blackened to a crisp and disintegrated. “It’s war,” he stated coldly. “Kill or be killed. Would you have me lie to them, with the proof of that laying right there?” Laura walked away without saying a single word. She couldn’t have stated her position more eloquently if she tried. It was the middle of the night, and the sky was a deep violet, almost black. There were sienna clouds dimly visible on the horizon, shaped into smooth arcs like the waves of the ocean lapping onto a shore. There were no stars out tonight because of the haze of smoke caused by the firestorm. It had stopped raining now. We had decided to move elsewhere to sleep for the night, to be away from that place. An empty parking garage not far away. It was deserted of all its vehicles, and held a cozy lobby on the first floor that was still warm from the heat of the day. The elevator was broken, and the stairs had collapsed. I had my arms wrapped around Laura’s neck as she climbed up the struts of the side of the building effortlessly. She paced herself slowly, finding holds in the concrete and creating them when they weren’t present. She punched the cement again, leaving a hole. Laura used it as a place to put her foot, and reach for a beam overhead. We emerged onto the flat rooftop, many feet above the level of the city. It spread out before us, the blocky shapes of skyscrapers ramped up against the sky, but only one sector still had electricity. It lights glowed very faintly on the horizon, like a glittering collection of stars in the distance. I settled onto the dirty surface, uncaring. She draped her legs over the edge fearlessly, kicking them a little. We were finally, blissfully, alone and free to unwind from the day’s exertion. It was easy to imagine ourselves as the last people alive up here. But instead of making me lonely, it gave me a feeling of peace. I assumed that she felt the same. The cool breeze stirred our clothes and hair. I was wearing a sweater too large for me, kindly donated to me by a store that offered its wares for free now, apparently. We didn’t say anything for a long time, savoring the stillness. Too many harsh words had been exchanged earlier between the group. I was the first one to break it. “Laura?” “Yeah, sis?” “If you could save the world or save yourself, which would you choose?” She stopped moving her legs as she thought it over. Her response was surprisingly swift. She turned to me, looking at me fiercely. Her brown eyes burned with the first emotion I had really seen from her in the last few hours. “Save yourself first,” she instructed me wisely. “And save the world another day.” CHAPTER FIVE The Epoch Coalition set up supply lines about two days later, on the perimeter of the city. When we reached the edge, a chain-link fence had hastily been set up and refugees were camped out into tents and on park benches nearby. We spent that third night in a building that served as both shelter and detention centre. There was a complication regarding where we were to be sent: they didn’t quite know what to do with us. I couldn’t pick up much more than that. “Should we make a break for it?” I asked the adults. “No,” Matthew said. “That would be ill-advised, considering that their unit has been regrouped here. They haven’t used military force yet, but there’s no guarantee for the future.” It wasn’t as bad as I might have feared. For one, they fed us. I got really sick of preserved foods in those two days, when the only edibles that kept were the kind that wouldn’t spoil quickly after the whole city suffered blackout. Plus, half the time, I think someone had been there before us, so all the good stuff was taken. That left things like canned meats. Those taste just awful when eaten cold, and don’t get me started on soups … As for the second positive, I only have two words for you: Air conditioning. So we opted to wait there since we had no alternative destination in mind. No matter where we went, the United World Order would distrust us from our stay in the Epoch zone. The Epoch Coalition already didn’t trust us because my mother and Matthew’s past employment and funding were provided by the UWO. My mother was getting some much-needed rest, passed out on a futon, completely dead to all the noise of many different people talking at once. Laura was relaxing on a bench outside, and I was staring out the window, with my forehead pressed lazily against the glass. I was watching a fly buzz around. Not exactly exciting, but I didn’t need any more of that … Matthew approached her, and sat down next to her. He was talking to her, but I couldn’t hear it from all the way in here. Wanting to feel included, I was driven out of the cool air of the interior and outside into the sunshine. The confusion of those mixed conversations dwindled down to quiet susurrations, easily ignored. “ … that I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” he was saying. She had her hand on her chin, thinking deeply. “It’s not you, it’s me,” she said. “Even though I think you were trying to encourage me or relieve my guilt, I was too upset. I didn’t want to hear anything more about it.” “I understand. I’m sorry for bringing it up again.” “No, no! It’s okay! Really, I’m glad you came to tell me … ” I privately questioned if he was really motivated by concern for her, or the fact that my mother had been giving him the cold shoulder for the past few days. He looked at me, sensing that I had been standing there quietly for a while without trying to interrupt. “Come here, Yukina. You need to hear this too.” The bench wasn’t going to hold another person without invading personal space, so I just stood nearby. He faced us both in turn as he spoke. “Both of you don’t seem to realize your full abilities. I think that you should both practice control so that we can avoid more … unfortunate accidents.” He softened his voice on the last part. She looked away, a little stung. It made me suddenly think that I had never seen her cry openly about it. I think that she held it all inside herself, bottling up her grief so that it didn‘t bring everyone else down. Was that what they called growing up? “Laura, you don’t have any technique,” he stated. She shook her head imperceptibly. “Enough to get the job done.” “Yes, but what about the next time? If you make a critical error or move wrong, there‘s no chance to try again.” “There won’t be a next time,” she said firmly. “I won’t allow it.” “Such ideals are good to have, but completely unrealistic in practice … ” “I don’t care!” She clenched her fists tightly. Matthew just sat there with his hands on his knees. It took all the fire out of her. He waited patiently for her anger to die, which didn’t take long. Laura slumped down, hunching her shoulders. “It’s true, I really don’t have any training at all … ” “I do,” he said suddenly. “Why don’t you try training against me?” She sized him up with a speculative expression. “Don’t I outclass you?” He shrugged slightly, with a faint smile. “Not sure. But we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.” Matthew stripped off his jacket and laid it across the arm of the bench. They got up and faced each other across the asphalt. He fell into a slight crouch with his knees bent, and his fists guarding his face. Laura circled around him a little bit, hesitating. “Just go,” he urged her. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He laughed a little. “You won’t.” She gave a little yell and rushed at him in a blur of motion. Laura brought her leg up and around in a spin kick. It looked like it was going to be impossible avoid. “Huh?!” He didn’t even try to sidestep it, he just reached out and caught her ankle effortlessly. She looked at him in surprise, her fist still up in the air. She hopped a bit, looking quite harmless with his firm grip on her leg like that. Matthew released her. “Ah, come on, that’s not fair! You’re, like, twice my size!” “Well, not quite,” he amended. “But life’s not fair. You can’t choose your opponents. So try again … ” I broke in, feeling left out. “Hey, I want to try too. I thought you said we both needed to work on our abilities.” Matthew grinned, but it looked a little strained with a mixture of amusement and unease. “Given the nature of your powers, I’m not so sure you should place yourself in any danger. With you, we can‘t predict the results.” He turned slightly and caught a punch thrown at his face by Laura as he was talking. He frowned a little at her for not waiting for him to complete his sentence. “I’ve got something else for you to do.” Matthew bent over and picked a rock off the ground. He placed it into my hands. I felt the same kind of confusion as when he gave me the phasic pen just a few days ago. A few very long days ago. I waited for the catch. “I want you to try to teleport that rock from one point or another. Come back to me when you can do that.” “Is that it?” I asked, surprised. “That’s going to be easy.” “Yes,” he answered. “Because I’ve never seen you use your abilities when you’re not in trouble. I think it will prove enough of a challenge for you to keep you busy.” Well, he was right. I was sitting cross-legged on the pavement, the heat of the concrete seeping through my shorts to make me uncomfortably warm. The little black rock was placed right in front of me. I resisted the urge to just pick it up, move it, and announce triumphantly that I’d done it. Because it was personal now. I must have been staring at that rock for nearly ten minutes. My eyes hurt, and my head throbbed. I glared at it, thinking things like “move” or “go over there” or “stupid rock, what’s the point of this?” Not that it answered … Of course, I’d be a bit frightened if it did answer, but at least that would be more than I’d gotten done so far. Seriously, absolutely nothing was happening. This was very frustrating. I felt a little afraid that I couldn’t do something so trivial. I hadn’t realized that when I really wanted to do something outside of a situation where my life was at risk, I wasn’t able to do it. I could feel it at the back of my mind, just like a word that you’ve forgotten but you know you know. You can name what letter of the alphabet it starts with, but you can’t remember what it is … How was it I was able to teleport myself when the need arose, even change the flow of time, but was unable to do this simple task? I looked up to see how Laura and Matthew were faring. They’d been fighting around me the whole time, but I’d been kind of blocking it out so that I could focus. They were really going at it, getting pretty rough with each other. She was swinging at him, and he ducked one. I watched the other punch connect at his chest. He winced, and pushed her away from him hard. She hit the wall with a little cry. Laura landed smartly on her bottom, looking furious. She got up to her feet and rounded on him, ready for round two. She finally lost her temper, and gave it her all. Though I don’t doubt that she was putting an insane amount of power behind her wild punches and kicks, she looked pretty clumsy, even from here. It was child’s play for him to use her own momentum and balance against her. The harder she tried, the worse she seemed to get in comparison to him. It was like he could predict her movements before they happened. Many times, he just sidestepped her or moved a little bit, not even blocking or countering. Finally, she cornered him up against the wall and lunged at him. Laura was going so fast, I didn’t see what kind of move she did. But he definitely got a hold of her shoulder and flipped her around through the air before she hit him. She was flattened supine on the ground, gasped, and looked up at the sky with a stunned expression. All the breath had been knocked out of her, and her lungs heaved for air. “I trust I’ve made my point now,” he said to her coolly. “Can you see the need for you to learn technique over sheer force?” She didn’t say anything, just stewed in her own simmering resentment. He seemed to take this as some kind of affirmative. “I think that’s enough for today.” Matthew bent down to offer her a hand to help her up. I saw the change in expression on her face, a petulant little need for revenge, and she snapped her foot upward and caught him right between the legs. He collapsed, doubling over with the pain. He sort of curled up into himself, cradling his abdominal region in his arms. “That was cheap, Laura!” I cried. “Life’s not fair,” she countered and bolted off elsewhere before he could recover. I came over to him, a little worried. “Are you okay?” “No,” he wheezed in a small voice. Matthew unsteadily got to his feet, pressing his palms to the wall for support. He looked weak in the knees. His face was reddened, and he looked away from me. “Please excuse me, I’m going to go inside for a bit … until I feel better.” He still sounded a little choked, obviously suffering. He patted the arm of the bench blindly before hitting on his jacket, and went inside. I pitied him as he left, feeling somewhat glad to be a girl for once. Once everyone was gone, I went back and picked up the dark little rock Matthew had given me earlier. I wasn’t going to let this dumb thing get the better of me … I wandered off elsewhere, following the line of the chain-link fence. I tossed the rock up and down in my hand absently as I walked. Outside was just more undesirable ruins. I was just thinking to myself, wondering if they had any batteries I could use for my mini-hoverboard, since I couldn‘t charge it with an outlet. With the electricity down all over the city, that wasn‘t a possibility. It couldn’t hurt to ask … “Need some help?” Laura asked, popping out of nowhere. She threw a pebble at me. “Ow! Hey!” I protested. “Oh, it didn’t work that time … ” She did it again. What did she do, get a big handful, and track me down here!? “Youch! Cut it out!” “Maybe one more … ” “Laura! That hurts!” “Okay, sorry … but it worked last time with the ice cube … ” I rubbed at my sore shoulders and back where she had chucked little stones at me from the bushes. She must be in a really bad mood to be picking on me right now … it’s probably because she lost so spectacularly to Matthew in front of me. I saw her hand dart out. This time, I knocked the next one out of the air with a backhand. She laughed appreciatively. “Hey, you did it!” “No, that was just normal reflexes,” I grumped. “Go do your disappearing act again, you’re really getting on my nerves … ” “Oooh, I’m shaking in my boots.” “You’re wearing sneakers,” I pointed out. “… Shut up.” Laura reached over and smacked me on the back of the head. Not hard, but enough to smart a little. Yeah, I was definitely her next victim. I decided that it was time for someone else to be target practice. “Hey, you’ve still got some rocks left. Let’s go throw them at random people.” “Sounds like a plan,” she agreed, in the general spirit of mischief. Stress relief is a wonderful thing. “Random people” became more precisely “Epoch Coalition workers.” You have to understand, that after what we had been through, we weren’t too keen on them. It was probably unfair to the staff. I’m certain now that most of the ones attending to us in the camp were civilians, not soldier. We had a lot of fun with it until we were caught, though. We were hiding out on the rooftop of the building behind a large air-conditioning unit, feeling safe overlooking the people below us without being seen. There were no guards or personnel of any sort up here. I’m sure they never expected aerial harassment in this form. They were probably expecting something larger, like a missile or a bomb. Instead, it was just pebbles causing the chaos below. We were peeking our heads just over the siding. She was popping rocks off the sentries’ helmets, causing them to look around in puzzlement for the source before turning back to their positions. We were shrieking with muffled giggles, covering our mouths with our hands so that we didn’t give our position away. We soon got bored with this. They were starting to catch on that something was up, and beginning to move around. The last one she struck had crumpled onto the ground, unconscious. “Whoops!” Laura exclaimed. “I threw it a little too hard.” “Matthew’s right. You don’t have any control … ” “Oh, yeah?” she shot back, accepting my challenge. “Well, watch this!” The officer was talking to his subordinate at a distance. I could tell he was a higher rank because he had more colors on his sleeve. Laura used one hand held out in an L-shape as a guide. Her tongue stuck out of one corner of her mouth as she bit it in concentration. She threw the rock and it hurtled away from us. It took a moment for the results to be seen. He grabbed at his throat, choking, and bent down. His junior was obviously alarmed at the sudden change. She thumped him on the back hard with her fingers interlocked together into a double fist. “What did you do?” I asked, perplexed. “I aimed for his mouth,” she confided, snickering a little. Well, it seemed a little funnier now that I knew that, but I think the joke died when it had to be explained to me. “Can I try too?” “Knock yourself out, kid.” She pressed a pebble into my palm. “Not for real, of course … ” I bounced it up and down a couple times, and threw. It completely missed its mark, not surprisingly. Laura squinted to follow its arc as it rolled out into the bushes. A couple of workers heard the noise and followed the noise, trying to find the source. “Well, at least you got a reaction,” Laura said. “I guess it’s not as easy as it looks,” I admitted. “Give it another try.” I threw another one. I put more power behind it, hoping for more distance to my target. Instead, my quarry turned and walked away. The stone smacked against a vehicle behind him, a hovercar parked on the ground. The car alarm system started blaring loudly, wailing and wauling about the little collision with it. “You are too close,” the traffic computer’s voice announced externally over the din. “Please step back from the vehicle.” All the personnel started looking around, alarmed by the siren. The car’s owner was trying without success to turn it off again. Laura was leaning out over the ledge, to better see the commotion. She suddenly backpedaled. “Crap,” she swore. “They saw me. Come on, go! Go, go, go!” She shoved me from behind, propelling me forward. I stumbled and she ran on ahead. I pivoted off the ground with my hand, and scampered to follow. She was yards ahead of me. “Laura,” I panted, “I can’t keep up … ” At first, I thought that she didn’t hear me as she wrapped her hands around the railing, and swung down onto the fire escape. When I caught up with her, she was waiting impatiently for me. “Oh, for crying out loud!” I screamed in surprise as she picked me up into her arms and leapt off over the side. All this falling in course of over a few days is enough to give anyone acrophobia, and I had already been well on my way toward realizing that fear. I barely started voicing my yell before it was cut short. We dropped that short distance below (about ten feet) and hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. I had the breath knocked out of me, but Laura wasn’t even winded. I was pulled along behind her as she gripped my hand and led me into a narrow alleyway between two offices. I faltered as I fought to keep up; I think that if I tripped, she would have dragged me from that point on. The footfalls from our shoes echoed loudly down the passageway, sounding thunderous as it bounced from wall to wall. An employee popped out of an access door, and flattened himself against the wall in surprise as we fled past. We continued to make our escape, and emerged out into the courtyard. “There she is! That’s the one!” A man holding his bleeding head cried out as we ran by, pointing as us accusingly. Their speed was surprising; they had us surrounded in only a few moments before we could hide inside a building, maybe losing them among all the other refugees. The guards weren’t aiming their guns at us, but they did have them. They rested the muzzles on their arms or shoulders, seemingly relaxed. There was no need to use force. We were young enough to be intimidated into submission without fighting back. This was worse than a parent-teacher conference. The top brass had my mother woken up (who was very displeased), Matthew escorted here, and Laura and I seated directly in front of him. Just in case we forgot our place, two sentries were standing behind us armed with stun weapons. Laura was determined to take her punishment without showing any fear. She was sitting stiff and straight, her hands folded tightly in her lap, looking ahead past the officer at the wall. I, on other hand, had completely sunk down in my chair, trying to look as small as possible. Surprise, surprise. Guess who was the officer in charge here? In retrospect, it’s not so surprising. We met him the first time when he handled refugees, and he was doing the same thing here, in his own neighborhood. Yes, that’s right, we were looking right at “Colonel Mustard.” I learned in due course that his real rank was Superior General, whatever that meant. “Whenever I see you four, nothing but trouble seems to follow,” he said dryly. “Assault, trespassing, destruction of property, and a host of other misdemeanors … if you two weren’t minors, we would have you both sentenced to at least three years.” My mother gasped. My shoulder blades started to crawl, like an itch between them. She must be glaring pretty hard at my back. “Sir, you must understand that they’re only children, and precocious ones at that … I’m sure they never intended to physically harm anyone.” I didn’t expect Matthew to stick up for Laura, given how their last scuffle ended. “Two of my men in the infirmary feel otherwise,” the general said, idly tapping his pen against the desk. The sound was starting to get on my nerves. “Considering the general unrest in the camp. We‘re trying to keep the peace, and that‘s very difficult to do when something like this happens. I feel that an example needs to be made.” “No!” My mother rose to her feet, yelling loudly. The sentries turned around to face her, their grip on their weapons tightening. She became a whiter shade of pale, but didn’t sit down. “Find someone else who truly deserves it! Don‘t turn my children into scapegoats!” “With all due respect, ma’am, only one of them is your child. We only left the other in your care because it was convenient at the time. This may not be the case now. The Mitchell girl is now thirteen, and can be held responsible for her actions.” I put my hand on top of Laura’s, frightened suddenly. Her face didn’t change, but she turned her hand over until mine was resting in her palm and held it tightly. “Whatever you do to her, you’ll have to do to all of us,” my mother said softly. “Because each of us here is a traitor in your eyes.” Brave words, but at the moment, I wish she hadn’t included me in that list. “That’s not true, miss. I believe you all to be connected to events that you had little control over, but were undeniably involved in. If I didn’t believe you to be the victim of circumstances, I would not have granted you asylum here.” “What about Laura?” “Perhaps I’ve given you the wrong impression about my intentions. Most of the refugees here have no homes to go back to, and no surviving family so we are under the question of where to shelter them.” “My family is in Neo-Tokyo,” my mother said. “Ah, but we can’t send you there. Japan is an independent country outside our jurisdiction, and isn’t accepting immigrants. I believe your citizenship expired some time ago,” the Superior General replied. He paused and looked around a moment. “Oh, I got off the point again. What I’ve been trying to say is that we’re thinking of deporting you away from Earth.” “Ah?” Her quiet resistance dissolved into confusion. My mother plucked at invisible pieces of lint on her skirt, not sure what to say. Matthew broke in: “Where?” “Somewhere that should be familiar to you. Since you are, after all, a Lunarian, as you once told me.” It took a while for it to sink in for everyone else. “What!?” “We can’t go there!” “I’ve never even been off Earth … ” “You’ll live,” he pronounced to all of us and that was the end of the discussion. “Please escort them out, and prepare them for the trip.” We were taken outside, and told that our passage would be on a mote. It seemed strange, but drifters are completely airtight and equipped with heavy-duty air recyclers for just such an occasion. For spaceflight, they are very efficient as long as they are in close proximity to a planet. It’s only in the vast interstellar gaps that they travel very slowly. What needed to be stocked before the trip were food and water supplies, as well as bathroom accommodations. I asked Laura about that last one. She made a face at me. “Don’t ask. Just be sure to go to the bathroom before we go up. It’s only a five-hour trip.” The rest of the preparations seemed to translate to “paperwork.” My mother and Matthew were kept busy for the rest of the day, filling out numerous forms. They were pretty cranky during that time if we interrupted them with any questions, so me and Laura decided to take a nap. It wasn‘t like there was anything else exciting to do, with the sentries following us everywhere we went. I was stirred by someone shaking me slightly. My guard was leaning over me. “It’s almost time to go. Your sister told me to tell you to go use the facilities.” “Thanks,” I said blearily and trudged off to take care of business. I came out of the threshold to find that it was evening already. We didn’t have any belongings to bring aside from what we brought with us, so there would be ample room on the mote for all five of us (including the pilot in that count.) Matthew was standing alongside the smooth white craft, waiting for me to arrive. My mother and Laura had already boarded, and the pilot was reclining in his chair. His headset was over his face, the wires plugged into the jacks. As I entered, he would have been able to read my temperature, size, and x-ray imaging, if he cared to display it. I always thought that was cool. We went inside and sat down. The antigravity field activated and the mote lifted up smoothly, with no inertia. The walls went transparent, and we had a beautiful view of the landscape below. Portions of the city were glowing with light again outside of the camp. Matthew raised his head to face the large bulb of the moon. He looked oddly pensive. “It’ll be good to go home,” he commented, only half to himself. CHAPTER SIX The pale corona of the sun’s nimbus glinted around the rim of the Earth’s circumference whitely, bathing the interior of the mote with pure rays. The sunlight fell across my lap, but it carried no warmth. Somehow, it never seemed to truly pierce the true black of the space around it, no matter how brightly it burned. It was also oddly distorted by the transparent walls of the drifter, seeming to bend strangely as it entered the craft. I was bothered by something, and addressed the pilot. “How do the walls become see-through?” He smiled slightly behind his headset, his eyes covered by the visor. “The MOTE is constructed from quartz. In flight, it is polarized with a slight electric current to allow the walls to block light. However, I can change this option for passengers.” “An electric current? Then why aren’t we being shocked?” “The materials coating it are nonconductive.” Laura was listening closely, and perked up slightly. “So, basically, the walls are made out of glass?” “Yes, but not as brittle as what you‘re thinking of,” the pilot responded. “It’s glastic.” “Oh, so it’s synthetic. That must be expensive,” Laura said. “Is it really the best thing to make a spacecraft out of?” “The shielding and antigravity field provide most of the structural integrity. If those fail, we’ll all be dead in a matter of moments anyway.” “Heh.” She reached out and pressed her hand to the side, observing the handprint it left due to the oils on her skin. As we receded further along our orbit, the sun disappeared completely, eclipsed by the large darkened mass of the Earth looming in front of it. As we were closed in on the lunar surface rapidly, I saw the massive solar panels at the poles. They looked small from this distance, but they must stretch for miles and miles. They shone dimly, reflecting albedo light back to us. There were other visible structures, too, but none nearly so striking. The dark macroscopes were nothing but specks, and the biospheres dotted the landscape like bubbles on top of bathwater. “Why are they sending us here to the moon, where the Coalition doesn’t have any power?” Laura asked. “Because it’s not officially a part of the United World Order, and they won’t have to worry about interference from that direction,” Matthew answered. “Luna wants nothing to do with Earth politics. They don’t care for activists.” Did it really matter? What it boiled down to was that we were being exiled. I had been in space once before, around the time I was just turning five. The Epoch Coalition held us on board one of their space stations for several months before placing me and my mother in the Witness Protection Program. I was less jaded then, and thought the view was a lot more impressive. Now … it just bored me, and gave me more time to ponder our situation. I was feeling strangely homesick already. Not over the loss of any friends … I had never really had any ... my older sister, Laura, was the closest thing I had to a real friend. I had been home-schooled for the last year or so, and was largely self-taught. Even in my classes, no one had really tried to form a connection with me. Part of that is my fault. I’ve always been very introverted. Computers are better company, anyway; they don’t argue with you or pick on you, and they’ll tell you anything you want to know, if you’re persistent enough. I became very good at hacking the school systems. Too bad I didn’t have any chance to practice those skills at home … my mother allowed me free range on the Wireless. No, missing friends wasn’t what troubled me. It was because about the time I had grown comfortable with my life, everything was going to change again. My home was completely gone. I was going to miss the evenings spent on the patio with my family with door open, the fresh air wafting in, carrying the gentle buzz of crickets and the occasional lost moth. How weird it will be to look up into the sky, and see the glare of a biosphere instead of the Earth sky. My only consolation was that the stars will be much brighter now. Yes, I even missed those blasted cicadas. I doubted that Matthew would mind the transition, but that's because he spent his childhood growing up on the moon. I asked him if he would be visiting his family when we arrived, but he shook his head. "Too many bad memories," he replied curtly. I tried to find out more, but he refused to open up on the subject. My mother quickly put a stop to my interrogation with one of those looks only your mother can give you. About ten minutes passed uneventfully. “How much longer until we’re there?” I asked. “Another hour or so,” the pilot replied. I made the mistake of asking one more time after that. The traffic computer buzzed over the craft’s speaker system. “M-1780, you are cleared for landing at the Malapert docking station in twenty minutes.” “Please continue notification,” the pilot replied. “Confirmed.” I think those were the longest twenty minutes of my life. It was very obnoxious to me to hear the voice of the A.I. interrupting us every minute to give us a countdown. I think the pilot did it for me, so I would quit asking how long it would take, but now I no longer wanted to know. The station was located at the moon’s south pole, bounded on one side by the large Shackleton crater and on the other by a mountain. A huge macroscope was located inside the basin. In this, it was dwarfed by the largest lunar city on the surface nearby. The mote docked into a special groove that accommodated its egg shape, and opened. We all gathered up our meager belongings (for me, this amounted only to my freshly-washed clothes and my hoverboard) and departed the craft onto a platform. One last glance saw the pilot taking off his headset, taking a deep breath, and wiping his forehead. The panels slid shut, and we left the drifter behind. Our steps shook the metal planking of the gangway, and made me concerned. The flimsy transparent fabric shielding us from the vacuum of space into the interior of the building didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. I think I expected harsh flourescent lighting and white walls when we entered. Instead, the space leading to the decontamination area was oddly primitive and claustrophobic. It was as though this was still the original technology of the first Lunar landing. Given Luna’s excellent reputation for the sciences, shouldn’t the docking station be a little more modern? The amber lights flickered sporadically along the corridor, and a thin line of sweat traced its way down the left side of my nose. Massive wires held in place by brackets ran the length of the wall. It was uncomfortably warm. The reactions of everyone were mixed. My mother was completely numb to our surroundings, Matthew looked to be in a good mood, and Laura was drifting along uncertainly. It was a strange pace for her; she would usually charge in with both guns blazing. But I, too, felt out of my element. We were meant by an androgynous figure in a suit that covered the body completely. It almost resembled a 20th century spacesuit, but more flexible. I can’t be certain of the gender, but the person didn’t really say anything to us. He(?) just ran a detector over us, nodded, and ushered us through into another room. “You’ll be here for about an hour,” she said. Nothing more, nothing less. That stand-offish attitude annoyed me, for some reason. Hoses emerged out of recesses in the wall, and sprayed a fine mist over us. We relaxed into the cushioned chairs. There was some reading material on a wooden table … if you could it that. Really, travel brochures don’t mentally stimulate me. But they must have done something for Laura, because she insisted on telling me all about it. At great length. “Wow, this is really cool,” she gushed, nursing the catalog in her hands. “It says here that the first Lunar base was underground, and that they used boring machines to make them. Spray-on concrete was used to prevent the tunnels from collapsing.” “Uh-huh,” I said with an unenthusiastic nod. She appeared to be reading directly from the text. My sarcasm rolled right off her. “After that, they used inflatable habitats on the surface … I mean, can you imagine living in little bubble rooms? … ” I rolled my eyes, unimpressed. “You’re not telling me anything new. I learned that in primary school, Laura, when I was five … where were you?” “Ah … ” She was at a loss for words, trailing off. “Well, I didn’t have much time for school. I had to skip classes when the authorities were on our tail. I spent a lot of my time doing things like repair work on hijacked aircraft while my dad worked the controls.” It was my turn to stare. “What?” “Oh, it only happened once or twice … we had to steal a shuttle off a station to bolt from the Coalition forces … so I was the one fixing the sensor grids and such.” “Only happened once or twice,” I repeated, as though this was nothing to get excited about. Just what kind of childhood did she really have, to take such things in stride? “Really, I would have never guessed,” I said, shaking my head. “Hmm?” “I’ve never even seen you use a computer, and trying to imagine you repairing a shuttle’s sensor grid hurts my head … ” She stuck her tongue out at me. Matthew shifted a bit on his chair, and butted into our conversation. “I can see her doing it pretty easily.” “Oh?” I replied, with raised eyebrows. “She used to tinker with her father’s devices. She sometimes took them apart to see how they worked.” I leaned in closer. “Got any more dirt on her you‘re willing to share?” He smiled slightly. “Maybe later, when she’s not close enough to smack me.” She reached over and smacked him anyway. That’s my sister for you. We passed the rest of the time making small talk, and my mother even dared to poke her head out of her metaphorical turtle shell, joining in. I think that there may have been a higher oxygen count than ordinary Earth standards from the mist they sprayed in the room because everyone was acting giddy and happier than I remembered. I was privately relieved to see my mother’s depression lift, even if it was artificial. We even had a game of “I Spy.” Since it was a decontamination room that was completely gray and the dimensions were about eight foot by ten, it was pretty short-lived … but amusing. “I spy something … orange.” “The chair,” Laura deadpanned. Yes, indeed, the only thing orange in the decontamination center were the blindingly-orange neon chairs. Their interior decorator deserved to be shot. “Okay, your turn.” “I spy something … brown.” “His hair?” I was pointing at Matthew, who blinked at me. “Nope. Try again.” “Uh … mine?” “Yeah … oh, come on, this is stupid … ” When we left about forty minutes later, the technician whispered something in my ear. “Hold on to that hoverboard. They’re an expensive import item here, and the other children may be jealous.” No need to spell it out for me. I gave it to Laura for safekeeping, since she would guard it with her crazy Kung Fu skills like something from a John Wayne movie. “Don’t you mean Jackie Chan or something?” “Whatever. You’re the weird one who likes all that old 2d movie stuff … ” She huffed a little. “It’s classic. It‘s not weird.” “Whatever you say … weirdo.” Laura burst into a sprint and chased me down the length of the hallway while my mother shouted at us to slow down and Matthew glared disapprovingly. She was gaining on me, and I made the critical error of listening to my mother. Also, my sixth sense was tingling; the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. “Wait, don’t … ” I tried to say. She tackled me, and started to tickle me mercilessly. I howled and beat at her hands and shoved at her. We rolled around on the floor. Then my leg bent wrong, and it caught on a sharp piece of metal tile sticking up. It didn’t hurt at all for a moment, then I hissed with pain. “Ow! … Nmm … ” “What? What is it? … oh.” Her voice got small as she saw the blood on my calf, and Laura got off me. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” “Do I look okay?” I snapped. I clapped my hand over the gash, but I only succeeded in making my hands messy with blood and causing the wound sting more. The adults caught up with us, my mother at a dead run. She chided me sharply. “I told you not to run in the hallways! This is the sort of thing that happens when you don’t listen to your mother! Come on, let’s get you back to decontam … I know I saw a first aid kit on the wall back there … ” I was picked up and carried, and the technician that saw us in earlier clucked her tongue in sympathy. “What happened?” “She cut herself on something when they were roughhousing,” my mother supplied. “Kids,” the woman said, in the universal lament of mothers everywhere. She got out some kind of gunk from the cabinet on the wall. She put on my leg, making it hurt worse than the scratch, and wrapped it up in gauze. It stank with a powerful chemical smell, and reminded me unpleasantly of my last doctor’s visit. He told me to my face that according to his instruments, I ought to be clinically dead right now and that he wanted to keep me on for further testing. I was hustled briskly out of his office by my overprotective mother. I never did get another appointment with him, come to think of it. Probably for the best. When that was finished, the technician faced my mother. “Actually, I’m glad you came back. I forgot to mention that we offer a guided tour for new citizens, if you’re interested … ” “We are … ” Laura started. “No thank you, that won’t be necessary,” Matthew interjected over top of her. “I’m a former resident. But, on that subject, do you know which section we’ve been assigned to?” “Oh … let me check … What’s the name your party is registered under?” “Aspen.” The technician disappeared into a room marked STAFF ONLY. We watched her dimly through the window as she operated a computer terminal, her fingers tapping the screen rapidly. An overhead map of the city could be seen which oscillated into grids and diagrams, and I didn’t know what I was looking at anymore. She nodded a little, and came back out. “Your living space is on the Hubward side of 5D.” “Thank you.” We navigated the maze of the cramped facility, following signs and arrows. We made it to the exit without incident. Outside was an enormous sprawling metropolis. The architecture was taller than I could have ever dreamed. It made pictures pale in comparison to the reality. They stretched and stretched overhead, like they would fight the stars themselves for space. Some were even anchored to the sides of the biosphere, and had the configuration of honeycombs. Each comb was an individual living area; some still had their lights on. Towering arches connected all buildings to the central Hub. The combination of technology with the unique Lunar biology was striking. They were definitely not afraid to engineer their fauna and flora to be different. After all, unlike Earth, there were no native species to compete with. Right next to me, a beautiful vine wound its way up the framework of a honeycomb structure. Its leaves shone with the iridescent hue of the inside of an oyster shell. Every time I moved, it would catch my eye with its pearly sheen. I have no idea how it photosynthesized, but it doesn’t really matter. And that was only one of many specimens. If I took the time to remember them all, it would take me months. The dome had to be huge, but its surface was very clear. So clear that I wouldn’t even see it, if it weren’t for tiny drones up there glittering against the black of space. They were probably the ones that I had read about that eat mold and mildew, and polish the glastic as they pass by. They’re a rather amazing species of organic robots that self-reproduce, but I was too far away to get a closer look. I’d have to save that for another day because right now plans were being discussed. “There’s a little café not far from here I’d like to treat you to,” Matthew said, suddenly striding off purposefully in another direction. I guess he wasn’t going to wait for everyone else to agree, we just all mobilized behind him. My mother nodded blankly like a bobble-head toy. We rode the aerial tramway to the restaurant. I would have loved to use that time to check out the scenery, but it was nothing but a blur at these speeds. I would get a glimpse of something tantalizing, only to see it recede behind us a moment later. We were seated at a booth in the back. Something had been bothering me for a while. “What is that?” I demanded, pointing at a white blob on Matthew’s tray. “Some kind of potato nugget?” “This?” he said, impaling it with his fork and lifting it. “It’s related to a leek … which is a kind of spring onion. Would you like to try a bite?” “No,” I responded with a little shudder. I had stopped eating yesterday, when my appetite had totally dropped off. Last time I tried, I ended up worshipping the porcelain god in the bathroom with a tribute of what I had just eaten, and I was in no hurry to repeat the experience. I couldn’t even eat candy or ice cream, much to my disappointment. Something about my body’s current state resisted any sort of food. I drank at my glass of water, relishing the coolness from the ice cubes. It’s one of the only things I can still imbibe without feeling ill. I don’t think I need it, precisely, but with everyone else sitting at the table, I need something to occupy my hands. I swirled the glass, and the ice tinkled prettily against the sides. I don’t think I really wanted to eat the Lunar diet anyway. My older sister was braver than I. She was cautiously sampling a clear, viscous gel off to the side with the tip of her finger. Laura put it to her lips. “Plasma extract,” Matthew said helpfully. “It’s a daily supplement with each meal, so that your bones and muscles stay strong in the low gravity.” “It’s not bad,” she said, surprised. “It kinda tastes like honey.” “Try it on the fish.” “Okay,” Laura said, and smeared some on her fish. I have to admit that out of all the things on everyone’s plate, hers looked the most edible. I wouldn’t want to ruin it with plasma jelly, though … “You get used to it,” Matthew assured me after seeing my face. I had wrinkled my nose in distaste. “Not me,” I said. “I don’t eat at all.” “I know.” The table was quiet as everyone went through the motions of eating. I reached into my glass, and popped an ice cube into my mouth. I rolled it around my tongue, letting it melt slowly. “Can I get you something, Kaede?” he asked my mother. It crunched as I bit down. It still bugs me that he acts so familiar with her, just who does he think he is? “No, I’m fine,” she said. She was sipping at some kind of protein drink that resembled a milkshake in consistency, but was the color of soda. Watching everyone else eat and smelling the slight odor of food was making me jittery. Also, Laura was in her air castle light-years away. Matthew and my mother were sharing some kind of unreadable look, and I felt like I didn’t belong here at all. I stood up abruptly and excused myself from the table. “I’m going to walk around outside a bit. Get some fresh air … so to speak.” “Don’t go far,” my mother cautioned. “And don’t strain your leg.” “I won’t.” I ambled outside. The fresh air blew in my face and smelled wonderful. Here on Luna, the population areas are so dense and small that they prefer to use environmentally-safe public transportation instead of individually-owned hovercars. I liked to think this might have been how Earth once was. But every breath I take here has been run through recyclers and oxygen plants countless times. I saw a lot of people just walking on the streets, taking the scenic route. When most of your buildings are stacked vertically overhead, it probably only takes about three hours to span the entire metropolis on foot. For the first time in a long time, a sense of freedom started to infect me. I felt the urge to explore. My feet took over my thoughts, and led me across the street. I stood in front of a tall building, debating whether or not to enter. It was a Natural History museum. Normally, this wouldn’t interest me, but this was about Lunar history. Of course, the grade school I went to on Earth was pretty Earth-centric, aside from teaching the times and dates of Lunar missions and such. I had never seen the real artifacts up close. Okay, what had really caught my eye was the so-called “revival biosphere” attached to it … a miniature dome in which they were trying to clone extinct species and create a diversified gene pool. It’s a combination of a biotechnology demo and a zoo, I suppose. In the end, I decided to wait outside on a bench. From when I had last seen them, everyone was nearly finished eating. If they didn’t waste all that time talking, they would probably be out shortly. My hunch proved correct. My party clustered outside the door, looking around for me. I waved to them and trotted over. “I want to go to the museum!” I cried excitedly. “Maybe some other time,” my mother said quietly. She huddled into herself. “I’m tired. We’ve had a long day.” “Only made longer thanks to the misbehavior from both of you,” Matthew contributed. I visibly wilted. “I‘m sorry, dear,” my mother apologized weakly, seeing my face fall. “Let’s go … home. Get settled in.” They walked ahead of me and my sister. Laura put her arm around my shoulder, her hand resting lightly on my chest. “Chin up. Don’t fret, kiddo. I’ll take you there tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and went. We didn’t go to the museum because everyone was busy furnishing the rooms. At the same time, my mother and Matthew were also seeking employment so no one really had any time to mess with me. To that end, I was left to my own devices. Laura came with me, of course. Though we didn’t have any form of local currency on us or even a credit-chip, we were still enjoying ourselves. We are both very resourceful, I think, especially in a new environment without the stifling atmosphere of grown-up concerns and constant news of the war outside of Luna. We had stopped on one of the suspension bridges close to the top of the dome. I waited for someone to insert their chip into a binoptic machine, and then I waited again for him to finish using it. When he walked away, I hopped up and swiveled the eyepiece toward the sky. I centered my subject and zoomed in. A little glass-cleaning drone was pinned inside the view-port. I watched its mandibles slowly rotate, and it spat some sort of liquid onto the surface below it. It then applied a long proboscis and sucked it up again. On its back, it carried several miniature versions of itself. Every now and again, it would pause and bend backwards. They would swarm over its trunk, and pluck material off it. In all fairness, this particular drone was a “he,” but I have trouble thinking of robots as having genders. My shoulder was tapped on. “Did you find it?” Laura asked. “Yeah, take a look before the time is up.” I stepped aside and let her stand up to the pedestal and put her eye to the lens. She giggled, but watched it for a while. She spun a dial to try and follow it, but lost it. “Oh … I guess it‘s done.” “Are you?” I inquired. “Sure. I got a pretty good look at him. What are they called?” I shrugged. Laura stared upwards for a while longer. She squinted her eyes and then finally closed them. “What are you doing?” “Ah … I’m trying to read their electromagnetic waves, but there’s too much interference. Their patterns are too tiny.” “Um … what?” She smiled gently at me. “Didn’t you ever wonder how I found that miniature nuclear droid at your house?” “Now that you mention it … ” We got onto the escalade that would take us down. I stepped onto the rungs with my feet and held on. Small, unobtrusive harnesses secured our wrists and ankles so that we wouldn’t fall the mile or so to the ground. “Well, I’ve got extra senses like you, I guess,” Laura said. “I can always tell if there’s a machine nearby, and experience has taught me to identify what kind they are. It’s sort of like a … smell.” “Smell?” She completely lost me. “Yeah, well, you know the difference between fish and popcorn, right?” “What were we talking about again?” “Nevermind … it‘s hard to explain.” I stepped off the lift first, the straps unbuckling themselves. Laura came down next. The escalade continued rotating, taking the next set of passengers up. There were stairs too, but most people prefer to use these because they’re a lot faster. My leg itched. I bent down and scratched it under the gauze. “Is it bothering you?” Laura asked. “Well, if it’s itching, doesn’t that mean it’s healing?” “Just tell me if your leg hurts, and we’ll sit down somewhere,” she answered. “Hey, listen, do you mind if we go by the Underground?” I cocked my head to the side. “The Underground?” “They’ve got a nice shopping district there. I want to check out a couple stores.” “I don’t mind.” “How does this look on me?” “It looks good.” “Are you just saying that, or do you really mean it?” Laura pressed. We were inside a dressing room, feeling a little cramped, and she was modeling yet another piece of clothing. I rolled my eyes, and asked for just a bit more patience. We’d been crawling around clothing stores for the last three hours or so. She was agonizing over what to spend her modest allowance on. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the time up until curfew in here. “Look, I know you’re going to buy that shirt anyway, so why not just get it?” She squinted at me suspiciously. “You had some kind of premonition?” “… Call it a hunch.” A small white lie wouldn’t hurt, not if it meant we were going to get out of here a little sooner. Besides, it was her suggestion - not mine. Three hours of being her captive audience was enough to kill what little pleasure I take in shopping for clothes. “Okay,” she sighed, finally settling. She took the shirt off, hung it back up on the hanger, and got dressed again. Laura was staring intently at the wall past my head. It was starting to creep me out. “What is it?” “Ah? Oh … ” Her eyes refocused as she looked at me. “I was just thinking.” “About?” I prompted. “Things.” “Like … ?” “Well, I read a flyer on our way here. One of the gymnasiums is holding training classes for low-gravity activities and hoverboard riding was mentioned. I was thinking maybe you would be interested.” I chewed on my lip, digesting that. “Does it cost anything?” “I don’t know. We’d have to go see. But before we do that, I need to go pay for this.” I nodded. She went to the checkout and spent herself nearly broke. After that, we walked down the street to a municipal-looking building. There were no distinguishing features about it, aside from the bright and colorful poster mentioned earlier on the door. Laura put her hands to the glass, peering inside. The lights were on, but it looked empty. She shrugged at me and we entered. I gave a little cry as my foot didn’t meet the floor, but sent me tumbling into mid-air. Gravity was gone. The ground was gently repelling me. Laura had fair warning, so she floated gracefully upwards behind me. I saw her upside-down through my hair, because I was tumbling around like a fool. The weak antigravity field suddenly shut off, and we both landed clumsily onto the padding below. An attendant materialized from around the corner, spewing gibberish. He stared at us. We stared at him. “I don’t speak … ” Laura began in halting Lunarian. “That’s okay,” he said in English. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here! I was just closing up for the night … ” “Next time, check,” I grumbled sorely, rubbing my elbow. The entire floor was cushioned, but it still smarted. He looked at me apologetically. “Well, the sign on the door said ‘closed.’” “We didn’t see it,” Laura said brightly. I know I didn’t see it, but I can’t say the same for her. I can always tell when she’s lying … she‘s too cheerful. “We were too busy reading the ad on the door.” “Oh, excellent!” he said, grinning broadly. “Have you come to sign up?” “Well, we’re interested … but we wanted to know how much it would cost first … ” “About twenty mint per month for an adult. It‘s free for children twelve and under.” “Really? Great!” Laura pointed at herself and then me and said, “I’m twelve, and she’s six so that works out perfectly.” She has no shame at all … she just turned thirteen three months ago. And, with her weekly allowance, she could afford it. All I get is two measly dollars … which is about 3.5 mint. Yay. With that, I can almost buy an overpriced candy bar here. “I’ll need to give you a form for your parents to fill out and submit to the school … here, let me get you one … ” The trainer turned to a nearby desk and shuffled some papers around. He landed on what he was looking for and gave it to Laura. She smiled, thanked him, and sat down in a chair to read it. I sidled over to him. “So, the poster mentioned hoverboard riding … ” “Yes, it does,” he agreed. “We provide rentals.” “Oh, I don’t need one … I’ve already got one. I just left it at home.” “Really? A girl your age?” he said as his eyes widened then asked, “What make is it?” “A Nexicon Mini-Deluxe,” I said proudly. “Good, then the Muvac model should be familiar enough … want to give it a try?” “Hm?” “I’ve got a couple right in that room over there. You know, so I can get an idea of where you stand.” He stopped and patted his pockets, then pulled out a set of keys. He went over to the storage closet, unlocked the door, and produced a large white hoverboard. His head poked around the doorframe, his eyebrows raised. “Um, what shoe size are you?” “She’s got big feet,” Laura answered, not-so-helpfully. I glared at her. She winked at me. “I’m a 6 and a ½ in juniors.” “We’ve only got … oops, no, wait. Here they are.” He brought out a pair of shoes with magnetic ribbons along their length. I sat down on the floor to slide them onto my feet. They fit a little snugly in the arch and against the heel, but that was okay. I wasn’t planning on wearing them for very long. I hesitated a little after flipping the switch on the hoverboard. “I’m not exactly experienced … I only got mine a couple days ago … ” “That’s okay,” he said encouragingly. “Just try your best.” “She lies,” Laura muttered. “I’ve seen her fly. The only thing she’s missing is wings.” I blushed, and stepped onto the hoverboard. She was exaggerating; I had only narrowly missed hitting my mother’s car in an uncontrolled U-turn last time I rode. Not very skilled, that. As the soles snapped into the grooves, it rose off the ground. I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hovered in place uncertainly, trying to get my bearings. It might have been my imagination, but it felt a little heavier. I kept on trying to urge it higher, thinking that it was sinking down. “Careful, you’ll bump the ceiling that way,” Laura cautioned. I brought it a little lower and zoomed around the room. I started to show off a little, spinning around and then ricocheting off the wall. It handled all right. Not a totally smooth ride, but it had plenty of power behind it. I did a flip and all the blood rushed to my head for a moment. “Ahh!” At the same time, a sharp needling pain erupted in my leg. As I was coming around, I grabbed it and cried out. There’s a disturbing gap in my memory between the time of impact and my return to the waking world. I know that I must have struck something, but I don’t remember it. One moment I was in the air, the next I was very horizontal. Also, my leg was on fire. Not literally, but it felt that way. The first thing I did when I be came aware was claw the gauze off to get at the source, tearing it off in long strips. My fingernails met the substance of my scab … or what should have been my scab. Instead, the surface of my skin felt smooth and glassy. “Are you okay, little girl? Oh, God, I‘m going to lose my job over this … they don‘t pay me enough … they haven’t trained me to handle these kind of … ” “Quit babbling!” Laura snapped. “Help me get these shoes off!” There was a tugging sensation at my feet. As my hand rested on my burning calf, I felt dizzy. It was like I was upside-down once more, all the blood rushing to my head again. “This is bad,” the man said, his breath rasping in panic. “Her eyes are rolling back in her head!” Don’t yell so loud, it hurts my ears … “Quick, lift her up so her chest is higher than her feet,” Laura said firmly. Too late. Everything faded into darkness. CHAPTER SEVEN I opened my eyes to an overwhelming abundance of stimulation. It was like someone had turned a dial to 150%. Lights were too bright, sounds were too loud, and smells were too strong. It took me a second to sort out everything into the familiar. Squinting through my eyelashes, I scanned the room. It looked like a cozy little ward in some private hospital. Something was attached to my wrist, and something else to my left was beeping slowly. The beeps drilled themselves directly into my brain. Faint footsteps approached. With my oversensitive hearing, I concluded that they were coming from a hallway some distance away. As they drew closer, I could make out a gentle voice speaking. “As her vitals signs have improved, we’ve let the anesthetic fade from her system … she should be awake by now … ah, here we are.” The door handle turned, and the doctor walked in. She smiled at me, seeing that I was fully conscious. My family clustered around behind her, breathing collective sighs of relief. My mother simply looked wretched. Just saying she was worn around the edges wouldn't do it justice. The bags under her eyes had bags. “Does this mean she'll be able to come home now, Doctor?” she asked uncertainly. The doctor grew somber, shaking her head a little. “Her condition is ... unique. We've never had a case like this before, it's really very baffling. Here, let me show you what we've accumulated so far, now that you're all Here …” She pulled a palmtop (DEFINE AS a portable computer small enough to rest comfortably in the palm of your hand) out of a drawer and booted it up. She accessed the medical network, and keyed in a filename. Placing the palmtop flat on a metal tray full of medical supplies, a small holographic display illuminated above the surface of the screen. The doctor slowly tabbed through a series of slides, narrating as she went. They were pictures taken by a high-powered microscope. “After we took a blood sample, the results were anomalous enough that we sent it to a lab for further testing. What you see pictured here are foreign bodies that have invaded and replaced her immune system. You'll notice that she has no white cells remaining. Instead, they appear to be serving that function - among other strange things. For example, she seems to have no need for hydration … but I digress.” She switched to the next one. A 3d hologram of a spore rotated above the palmtop, with different colors indicating thermal regions. “Here, we've reconstructed the appearance of one of them. There appear to be several different types, and this one is the most aggressive. When her leg became infected, these foreign bodies suddenly reproduced on a massive scale and encased it. They've become dormant now that the bacteria has been destroyed, but we're at a loss as to how to reverse the process.” My family just absorbed this silently, and shared glances among one another. As the doctor talked, I had flipped back the blanket to reveal my leg. I was shocked to find that the surface of skin was totally covered by a crystalline substance. I touched my leg, but I couldn't feel anything. As she continued to drone on, I tried wiggling my toes and they moved ... but I had no feedback from the motion. It was like I couldn't feel them actually moving, even though they still responded. My lower left leg was completely numb. “A battery of further tests revealed that the invasion is limited to her body alone, and that it isn't contagious ... that's why we've let you all in here ... But we're still concerned that it may mean some new kind of disease. Could I, perhaps, get you to explain the nature of her injury one more time?” “Well, she tripped and cut herself,” my mother disclosed. “Where did this occur?” “Outside of the decontamination chamber … ” Matthew said, with a falling tone of realization. The doctor nodded slowly, and turned the palmtop off. The conclusions that they drew were completely different, however. “In that case, I think that that she is the unwitting recipient of a biological weapon aimed against Luna,” the doctor announced, much to the amazement of everyone else, “And under such circumstances … ” “Wait a minute!” my mother protested. Matthew cleared his throat softly and said, “There's something we've not been entirely forthright about … ” Laura hissed softly under her breath in warning, but he ignored it. “She is actually the offspring of Calvin Mitchell, and her condition has always been uncertain. Her DNA has been mixed with ... other sources. So, I’m starting to believe that you don't think you have the necessary equipment or knowledge to begin to treat her.” “It was a mistake to bring her here … ” Laura mumbled under her breath. With everyone speaking about me as if I wasn't even there, my heart began to sink. I started to fear, and I felt that - maybe - I had predicted my own course incorrectly. I had thought I had seen a longer lifespan, but such a flash may have only been wishful thinking on my part. After all, I probably convinced myself that I had more time just to stave off the inevitable ... “I assume you are familiar with his work?” Matthew pursued. “I think everyone is familiar with his work,” the doctor said darkly, her expression towards me containing both pity and reproach. The last one was directed not at me, I believe, but toward a person that could dream of such things. She regarded him again thoughtfully. “So what are you suggesting that we do with her?” “I think our only choice is to find her original creator before it's too late,” Matthew answered, taking a deep breath. He swept his dark brown hair back with his hand. “He is the only one that truly knows how he designed her and possibly how to halt it. Though it pains me to say it, because he didn't exactly seem to show them a lot of compassion … ” “What!” Laura exclaimed. “My father wouldn't hurt a fly!” “I didn't say that he was violent, Laura, I'm saying that he was very distant. Don't you remember how he would always leave you with me or Yukina's mother whenever he started a new project? All his attention would single-mindedly be focused on that.” My older sister didn't answer immediately. “He also told me in passing that he wanted his daughters to be stronger and better than the others around them ... That he wanted them to be the perfect weapons ... I don't think he even thought anything of it.” Both Laura and my mother reacted with disbelief. I was ready to believe it, though. What kind of father would simply abandon his children like that to the mercy of an antagonistic force like the Epoch Coalition without feeling any doubts? Yes, my mother and Laura simply couldn't let go of their past feelings. It was painted clear as day across their faces. It's hard to be objective when you once loved someone. My breath got shorter just thinking about seeing him in unpleasant anticipation, like a tight feeling in the middle of my chest. “No. I don't want him to come fix me,” I said flatly. My mother glared at him. “You shouldn't be so negative, now she's thinking that he's going to try to harm her!” “We don't know what such a fugitive is capable of,” the doctor chimed in. “He's already wanted for numerous crimes for violating interplanetary scientific law, and this only increases my suspicion that she is a carrier ... but I also must admit that it is a good opportunity to remove him as a threat.” “No! I won't support something like this!” Laura shouted. “What will be done with him?” my mother asked quietly. “He will probably live the rest of his days in a detention center … ” “Will he be keep out of danger?” “Yes, I should say so. His crimes are not enough to warrant a death penalty, but he cannot be allowed to continue his reckless actions. I did read on your records that you were associated with him so I simply assumed that you came here for amnesty. So, can I count on you for your help?” She directed her gaze toward the adults, and pointedly did not look at the children. “Yes, I'll do whatever it takes to save my daughter,” my mother agreed eagerly. “I, too, believe it is time to put a stop to it,” Matthew stated firmly. “Ever since the loss of over forty lives in the FTL project (DEFINE AS An acronym that stands for Faster-Than-Light. Dr. Calvin Mitchell spearheaded the creation of the project in 2151 and oversaw its development. However, there was a calamity involved only a year later when the station created for testing of the phasic drive spontaneously exploded with the first physical test. Whether from a miscalculation or inherent instability, it is unknown as nothing remained. Over half the personnel stationed there at the time were lost, resulting in forty-three casualties. The families of the bereaved sought damages against the head of the project, but the multiple cases were never settled in a court of law.) that I was indirectly involved in, I've felt that it was time to end it. Instead, he simply fled to continue his work, no matter what the cost ... " "I'm not going to help you!" Laura repeated. It was not Matthew that tried to persuade her this time, but my mother. With her soft voice and pleading eyes, she almost convinced me as well. "Please, think of this ... your father will finally be safe and you can visit him anytime ... and it means saving the sister that you love so much ... won't you please support us in that?" "I ... no, I can't betray his trust ... what you're doing would be taking away everything that he loves away and locking him up. That's not a solution!" "Look at your sister, Laura. Really look at her. Can't you see how frightened she is?" When they both turned to look at me, I tried to look strong but it was an act. I slowly averted my eyes and gripped the edge of the sheets with my hands. Thinking about it, that the crystallization would spread its way up my leg to finally take over my whole body ... it did scare me. I didn't want to die like that. It sounded slow and miserable. Laura looked away guiltily. "I won't. I'm sorry. You'll have to find him on your own." They wouldn't allow me to get up and walk around so I ended up watching old holos on the vidscreen, or playing games to pass the time. It was pretty dull so I napped the rest of the day away. I stirred sometime around midnight when Matthew walked in and took a seat in the far corner. I rolled over to look at him through the darkness. "I was concerned about you. Don't worry about it, just go back to sleep." I wasn't fully awake and didn't think much of it, so I drifted off again. The second time I woke was late in the night when the door clicked open again. It was so late and so dark in the room that I thought that it must be nearly 3 AM. Once more, no one switched the light on. Were they really that worried about me they had to check on me constantly to see if I was alright? It was Matthew's cold voice that made me come completely awake, like a sudden wash of cold water over my head. "I thought you might something like that." I heard Laura curse under her breath and try to retreat. He stood up swiftly and turned the lights on. I flinched at the brightness. "In her condition, she shouldn't be moved. So trying to escape with her would only worsen the situation ... in trying to protect her, you would be the one hurting her. Do you understand how selfish that is?" When Laura didn't respond, he approached me. I squinted at him, still trying to adjust to the level of lighting. "May I show her your leg?" No ... that ... no, I didn't want anyone to see it right then. All this happening so fast was confusing me. I shook my head fervently. "Alright, then, I'll just tell her." He turned back to Laura. "The encasement is advancing up her leg ... it's almost reached her knee ... they're giving her two more weeks before it starts interfering with her major organs." I couldn't help it. I had overheard it, but I'd been trying not to think about it, maybe even praying for a miracle. Reminding me of it again so suddenly and so bluntly, I just started to cry. I tried to stifle it, but it only made it sound worse as my sobs escaped through the back of my hand. Laura's resolve melted with guilt gradually spreading over her face. She came to embrace me, and Matthew stroked my hair slowly. "How can you look at her and not want to help her?" "I can't," she said sadly. "I have to help her." With them both comforting me, it was too overwhelming so I pushed their hands away weakly. It was making me cry more than if they had left me alone. I tried to recover my composure. Misty-eyed, I said, "Don't, Laura, you shouldn't force yourself ... " "Shut up, you dummy, I'm doing this for you. Don't make me rethink it." I sniffled until my tears dried up, and Matthew sent my sister back home - with an escort from one of the staff. He stayed there himself until I went to sleep and stopped crying into my pillow. When I woke up the next morning, he was gone, so I could only assume that he went back home to go to bed himself. The only thing that really stuck in my mind were Laura's final words to Matthew before she left: "I'll get in touch with the necessary contacts tomorrow." If everything was being put into motion to guard my well-being, then why did I still feel so apprehensive? The next morning felt like that night never happened at all when my family came in to visit me. I wondered briefly if I had merely imagined it. But, no, looking at the naked relief on their faces … perhaps their cheer was brought on simply by hope. So I supposed that it wasn’t just a dream. Underlying that mood, they also seemed to be tense and oddly expectant. I suppose that perpetrations were made while I slumbered. Laura carried a tray with some food from the hospital cafeteria on it. I sat up to receive, but she placed it on the fold-out table instead. She then picked up a muffin with fruit bits and held it out as if to feed me. Puzzled, I turned my face away slightly and gave her a quizzical expression. “I … uh … I don’t eat anymore, Laura … ” She stared at me a moment and then blushed with embarrassment. She placed the muffin back on the plate. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I guess I forgot.” “No problem,” I said dismissively. “You should eat to keep your strength up,” my mother admonished. “It’s … not a matter of not wanting to, Mom,” I said, batting my eyelashes as I looked down at the floor. “Don’t press the issue … it will only make her sick.” My mother looked like she was at a loss for words. I didn’t want to agree with Matthew, but he was correct. I was unable to keep anything down, but before now, my body didn’t seem to be suffering from it. Absentmindedly, I touched my leg through the blanket and sheet. I could only feel it with my fingertips because it was still completely unfeeling. If I wanted to, I could still get up and hobble around, but everyone told me not to move around too much. Also, I didn’t want to make my family cringe with sympathy. The look on their faces when I did that last time … that was too much to bear. “Your father is coming today,” my mother declared bluntly. I nodded. “I thought so.” I mulled this over. Laura walked over to the window during this time, and opened the curtains to let in the sunlight. However, it was far too pale to really warm the chilly hospital room. “How soon will he be here?” I inquired. “He was very upset to learn of your condition … he’s coming here as fast as he can,” my mother replied. “He stowed away on board a cargo ship,” Laura said in a low voice, providing more details. “It should arrive in about half a day.” Her shoulders sagged a little, and she took a bite of the muffin that I couldn’t eat. “You don’t seem very happy about it,” I noted. She gave a dull look as if to say, how could I be under these conditions? Matthew sighed and then turned around. “I’m going outside to have a word with the doctor.” He stepped out into the hallway, leaving the door slightly cracked. As a result, we could all listen in on the conversation. “May I have a word with you?” he called down the corridor. The sound of a woman’s high-heeled shoes became louder. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “When Doctor Mitchell arrives, I feel the need to request that you not be present during that time … ” “Eh!?” “No offense meant, of course! It’s just that I don’t want him to get suspicious of our intentions, and if you act strangely, it may give us away.” “Of … of course … ” There was a long pause. “In that case, I’ll make sure that the nurse call button in that room transmits directly to my communicator. I’ll be waiting below with Security, and I’ll make sure that they’re all notified.” “I … see.” “Is something wrong?” “No, nothing. I’m just hoping that it won‘t come to that, and we won‘t need your assistance too quickly … ” “Me too. I hope he gives himself up quietly.” “That’ll be all, Doctor.” “Very well.” She walked away again, her heels clacking on the tile. It receded away quietly, and Matthew opened the door to my room again. Everyone was looking at him. He seemed to feel the need to say something. “Well, that’s all taken care of.” There were nods all around, and a general settling in. “Do you mind if I open the window and leave it open to air out the room?” he asked me. “It’s a little stuffy.” “No, not at all.” My mother was sitting on the doctor’s stool and reclined back against the wall, shutting her eyes to rest a little. Laura had her arms crossed, and her head cocked at an angle. She then turned to me shyly. “What do you do to pass the time in here, Yukina?” “I usually watch holos on that screen over there … sometimes, I play Solitaire …” I exhaled heavily, and stared longingly toward the window. I missed going outside. Being bedridden for several days, that was no fun at all. Most of all, I think I missed Earth; the feel of the breeze, the smell of flowers, the light and wispy clouds in the aqua sky … Matthew came up with an unexpected question for me and interrupted my thoughts. Perhaps, he and Laura were thinking privately along the same lines. “Do you still have that pack of cards with you?” “Yes … it’s right under the bed here … ” I doubled over, dangling precariously over the edge of the mattress in order to reach the card box. Somehow, it had slid all the way to the back. I struggled farther, and my questing fingertips snagged the corner of it. I dragged it out, and held it up triumphantly. In my efforts, I had managed to twist the blanket all out of shape, and my leg was bared. “Does that hurt?” someone asked. “Um … no.” I hurriedly moved the cover back over my lower torso. “I can’t feel anything at all.” I opened up the pack of cards, and quickly counted them to make sure all fifty-two were there. After all, it was easy to drop one on the floor, and I’d never notice. “So, what did you have in mind for four people to play?” “Go Fish?” Laura suggested. That was drowned out by loud groans from the grown-ups. “War, perhaps?” Matthew pitched in. “It’s simple enough for the kids … ” “Oh, I’ve got one,” Laura said with a naughty twinkle to her eye and a wide, beaming grin. “It’s called Cheat.” “I don‘t know that one,” my mother said. “Oh, well, here let me explain it … ” The premise of the game was as follows: you place one or more cards facedown on the table, and (for example) declare them to be two aces. But, in actuality, they might be kings or fives or something of that nature. It’s up to the other players to guess when you’re faking, and when you aren’t. If they’re wrong, they have to take your cards. The play then continues in a circle and the object of the game is to get rid of all your cards. After listening to all that, something sounded strangely familiar about it. I reached a conclusion. “Hey, that’s not what it’s called! It’s called Bull-” “Sssshhhh!” My mother hushed me fiercely, warning me not to finish that. If her glare had needles in it, I would be a pincushion right now. “I’ll shuffle,” Laura offered. “Nuh-uh, I don’t trust you,” I butted in, stealing the deck from her. “Oh, like you are any more trustworthy … !” We played that for the next hour or so. We ended up clearing the tray of its implements, and putting them on the second shelf of the metal cart, and then we shoved that against my bed. With another person at the corner of the bed, a chair borrowed from the nurse’s station, and the doctor’s stool, we managed to seat everyone comfortably. I think we got slowly got louder as we really got into the game, and yelled and laughed at each other. For the first time, I really saw Matthew guffaw loudly. Compared to my mother’s modest giggle, it was very loud and unrestrained. Of course, both me and Laura can also be very noisy when we get excited. Our happy whoops and cries brought the nurse on the floor running to see what was going on. He then scolded us about disturbing the other patients. My mother did something totally out of character in reply. She sassily told him to tell the other patients to join us if it bothered them that much. The nurse huffed, shook his head, and left us with one final demand to keep it down. She stuck her tongue out at him. I was astonished, really; I didn’t even realize that she was capable of misbehavior at her age. “Ah … I lay down three aces,” I announced. They shared glances between them. “Should I call it?” my mother wondered. “It’s possible … I lost mine some time back,” Matthew mused. I just sat there smiling in a satisfied kind of way while they debated whether or not to call me on it. Laura slapped her hand down on the table. She’d been irritated at me all through the game, mostly because I kept on winning. “You lie! Come on, I can tell by the smirk on your face!” I just grinned at her, and gestured widely with my arm, inviting her to see for herself. With a suspicious look, she flipped them over. A six, an eight, a king, and an ace. Well, hey, I had to let her win sometimes, right? It did amuse me to no end to watch them argue if I was cheating or not because since I was in the lead with two cards left, that made me the primary target. She smiled proudly and returned them to my hand. Yeah, it was worth it just to see her brighten. She’d looked so gloomy yesterday that I really wanted to cheer her up. I reached out to pick them up again, and flinched as my fingers brushed them. I’d been getting residual sights from objects just by handling them lately, but I hadn’t mentioned it yet. It seemed too minor. Cards … there’s a lot of possibilities in cards. I couldn’t get a clear read on them, and because it was so muddled, all it did was give me a headache. Looking at their smiling and thoughtful faces right then, I didn’t feel like I could afford to worry them further. “Your turn,” I said to Matthew. His eyes were elsewhere. He laid his remaining cards flat on the table, and stood from his chair stiffly. While trying to pass the time, we had accidentally lost all track of time … and standing there in the doorway was my … “Father.” “Yukina,” he returned levelly. He was quickly intercepted by Laura, who embraced him in a tight hug around his waist and seemed to squeeze the breath out of him. It only took a moment for me to make my first impressions of him. Well, for some reason … perhaps a photo I had seen of him … I expected him to be wearing some kind of lab coat. Instead, he was dressed casually in slacks and a long-sleeved shirt with a jacket over it. The next thing I noticed was that the intervening years had visibly aged his appearance. The laugh lines were the same, but the creases in his forehead were far more recent and his hair was beginning to whiten. “Dad, you’ve gotta try and save her!” she gushed. “I’m aware of the situation, pumpkin,” he said to her, slowly petting her head. “But it can wait a few minutes while we all catch up.” He directed a meaningful glance at Matthew and my mother. She turned away to avoid his gaze, and his old intern only shrugged softly. “There’s not much to say … sir.” Doctor Mitchell sighed, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. He looked up at the ceiling pensively, and then looked back at Matthew. “No, I suppose not, Matt. I guess it’s too much to walk in here, and not expect to be treated like a complete stranger.” He looked like he had just tasted something bitter. “I’ve followed reports of your migration around the Earth and finally to Luna … when I first heard about the air strike, my heart skipped a beat when I found out it was your home.” The silence was deafening. “I’m glad that you’re here, Dad,” Laura said, still clinging to his waist. “I really missed you.” “I missed you too, sweetie,” he murmured distractedly in reply, and doffed his jacket, draping it over the headboard. He went down on one knee by my bedside, and cupped my chin. I was too surprised to try and stop him. Doctor Mitchell reached out lifted my head towards the light. He was looking at me, but he seemed to be examining my eyes more than really seeing my expression. “Are you decent?” he asked. “Uh … yes, why?” “Well, you were clutching the blanket so tightly that I wasn’t sure if you weren‘t just wearing a hospital gown. In that case, can I see your leg?” “Yeah,” I said quietly. I pulled back the blanket to show the crystalline encasement covering my left leg. He touched it, and hummed softly to himself in thought. “Hmm.” “What?” I asked, afraid for the worst. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath. “The only thing you need is … well, it’ll be better if I write it down … ” He turned away from me, and a napkin out of his pocket. It still had some restaurant’s logo printed on it. He then dug around in the pocket of his shirt, looking for something. “Here, I’ve got one.” Matthew stepped forward, and handed him a pen. Ah, yes, that pen- the one I can’t write with because I’m phasic. Seemed to work fine for him, though. He remained hunched over the tray littered with our cards, scribbling what looked like longwinded scientific names and numbers in parentheses after them. “Please take this list to the nurse, and see if you can’t get a solution made of these chemicals in these exact concentrations delivered here.” Doctor Mitchell handed it back to Matthew. The dark-haired younger man held the note for several moments, reading it. Then he looked over at my mother, who was huddled down in her chair as if to make herself small. In other words, she looked very uncomfortable. “Would you care to go get it, Kaede?” “No, not at all,” she said, taking it and leaving the hospital room quickly. The naked relief on her face wasn’t hidden very well. The other man absorbed this, and closed his eyes for a long moment. “I suppose things have changed while I’ve been gone.” “That‘s right.” “I’m not the sort to hold a grudge.” “That’s good to know, sir, because I’d hate it if you said something in front of your kids that they shouldn’t hear.” The tension increased noticeably. Doctor Mitchell looked at him sharply, and Matthew stood his ground, not moving. Even Laura sensed the hostility, and retreated out of range. Suddenly, all the anger seemed to leave the scientist, his hands relaxing at his sides. It was replaced by a sullen sadness, and he sat down heavily on the stool. “I don’t have to ask where I went wrong. But … they didn’t deserve a father like me. So I left.” “It’s not as simple as that, old man,” Matthew explained. “You can’t avoid your problems. I mean … look at Yukina.” Doctor Mitchell didn’t even try to meet my eyes, where I was busy trying to stare a hole into his head. “Yukina is a special case. I didn’t really expect the embryo to be viable, or to make it to term ... ” “Sir, may I ask you a question?” “Go ahead,” he said tiredly. “Where you trying to compensate for something with them? Some … perceived flaw, perhaps? Honestly, I can’t understand why you deceived her mother about the nature of the child …” “What could I do? I didn’t want to rob her of what little childhood happiness she was going to have … she didn’t need to spend the rest of her life in a institution.” “Yes, but that may be exactly what’s going to be required to keep her alive now.” Matthew let that sink in slowly. Doctor Mitchell grunted in response. Really, there was nothing either I or Laura could say to this kind of conversation. We clearly weren’t involved. I could see from the way her face was troubled that she wanted to say something, though. Perhaps curiosity or the fact that we were mostly ignored, she was messing with her father’s jacket. I have a feeling that it was simply because she wanted to hug him, but because he looked so aloof right now, she merely contented herself with that. Laura’s eyes widened and she hesitated, pulling back her hand. There was something in his pocket that she was now holding. It looked like a tube with a switch, a dial, and an LCD readout. “It’s warm,” she said. “Don’t touch that!” Doctor Mitchell yelled, leaping forward. She jumped, startled, and dropped it. It clattered to the floor, and both Matthew and my father threw themselves away from it instinctively. “Another one of your projects, old man!?” Matthew demanded as it spun and hissed softly. “Yes, unfortunately … I couldn’t exactly leave it lying around … ” Matthew bent over to pick it up from the floor once it came to a full stop. Faintly, I smelled something burning … like hair. I leaned over the side just enough to confirm that the dust ruffle of the bed had been singed. “Grip it by the hilt,” Doctor Mitchell warned. “I figured that out by myself, sir,” he said, looking it over. “What is it?” “It’s a phasic sword … I wasn’t sure if it worked yet, to tell you the truth, since I had to rush here just after completing the first two … so it’s just a prototype …” Meanwhile, my attention shifted to Laura. She had her fingers shoved in her mouth, sucking on them, and looking pained. “Are you okay, sis?” “Mm-mmph,” she replied mutely. There was a funny noise from behind us. “Looks like it works just fine, sir,” Matthew said, but his voice had a strange lift to it. It was Laura’s horrified scream that sounded like it was being ripped directly from the pit of her stomach that alerted me to the fact that something was terribly wrong. I spun around, the hair all over my body goosepimpling in terror. The small room was bathed in a yellow glow. The scene in front of me evoked a quicksilver mix of emotions: both dreamlike and all too real, colored by nagging sense of de ja vu beneath my shock. Doctor Mitchell was held against Matthew as though being embraced. Standing like that, they almost resembled a grandchild hugging his grandparent. It would have been touching, except for the seven inches of phasic blade protruding from the other’s back. Matthew released him, and my father staggered backwards weakly, the sword still embedded in him. He gurgled wetly as though trying to say something, and a red bead quivered on his lips. Finally, he collapsed to the floor bonelessly. The younger man bent forward and ripped the blade from his body, spraying blood carelessly. He flicked the rest off inattentively. “It was nice of you to give me that instrument of your death, old man. You’re a real idiot, you know that?” He laughed coldly, and kicked the man on the floor, who managed a strangled groan, and clutching at the mass of red where his chest used to be. Matthew grinned at us with a kind of manic glee, his face lit up with that eerie ocher glow. Absently, another part of me thought, of course. When he laughed earlier, that laugh never really touched those cold gray eyes … did it? I thought for sure that we were going to die. I don’t know whether it was bad timing or what, but my mother picked that exact moment to enter the room. She froze for a second, appalled at what awaited her. The IV bag plopped on the floor and rolled away. That one moment proved to be her undoing. Moving faster than the eye could see, Matthew was behind her in a flash. The door slammed shut, the lock clicked, and she was shoved forward onto her hands and knees. He pulled her up roughly, and situated the energy blade close to her throat. “If either of you tries anything, she dies.” There was a scared little whimper coming from somewhere. It was me. “Please … please don’t hurt her,” I cried. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let her go.” “Nope, it’s both of you or no one at all.” He reached into his jeans, and tossed two items onto the bed. They were small, no bigger than my hand, and crooked at one end. “The only movement I want to see you both making in the next minute is using those hypos. If you don’t, I’ll just kill her anyway. Got it?” I looked into my mother’s pained eyes, pleading me not to listen to him. Distantly, I heard Laura saying those same words. “No! You promised me that you wouldn’t sacrifice yourself!” I only gazed at her blankly, not really seeing her. Someone else pushed me forward, reached out my hand, and gripped the hypodermic spray. The trigger was squeezed, the compound squirted itself onto my neck and absorbed through my skin. I instantly felt dizzy and swayed weakly. My eyes felt very heavy. How … how long had it been? A minute? More? Less? It couldn’t have been … no … but … still … ah, there she goes. Laura advanced, his grip on his sword tightened slightly until she held it against her neck. She shut her eyes tightly, and administered it to herself. What …was she saying? “I love you … ” Oh, that’s funny … she must have been saying that to me … or was it to her father? I wasn’t really sure. And everything seemed oddly distorted. Twisted. Like everything would melt at any second. Did she think that we were killing ourselves? No, of course not … Matthew urged his other victim over to my bed, and took the hypo out of my limp, unresisting hand. He then used another dose on my mother. Good. She needed some sleep, anyway. She’d been staying up too late, worrying about me. Nope … don’t worry about me no more, I’ll be fine … For some reason, I got the impression before I drifted off that Laura was stabbed. That’s a peculiar idea, now why would he go and do a thing like that for? “This is repayment for the time we sparred,” he seemed to snarl at her. I don’t think her reply was in words. Really, my eyes were closed, so it was hard to distinguish what was happening by sound alone. Ah, I thought. I’m so tired … My last mixed visions seen through fluttering eyelashes were the world inverted, the wind in my face, and the sky … no, space overhead. Haha. I could see the Earth from here. The … window was still open … CHAPTER EIGHT In my groggy condition, I made a considerable mistake for several moments. I thought that I was in the same hospital room, given that I was still laying on a pallet with an IV attached to my wrist, and now I had an oxygen mask over my face. That peculiar confusion faded when I realized the walls were a different color. That was a pretty dead giveaway. A heavy hopelessness bore itself down on my chest, making it difficult for me to breathe. “Did you know that you talk in your sleep, Yukina?” That … mocking voice … “‘Mommy! Laura! Where are you? I can’t find you! Help me!’” he repeated in a ridiculous falsetto as he imitated me. His voice dripped with scorn. All my sleepiness seemed to fade under the force of a crushing hate as I turned my head and glared at the source. He smiled, as if pleased with himself to woken me in a foul mood from my drugged slumber. “Where is she!?” I had meant to shout it, to yell with all my might, but … it only came out as weak, hoarse little whisper. Not intimidating in the least. “Who? Your sister?” he said, raising an eyebrow at me. “I have no use for her. She’s already been disposed of.” I stopped breathing for a moment. Then my mind raced to … He read my face easily. “Your mother isn’t being held here. Unfortunately, I won’t let you visit her until later. I‘ve got some things to discuss with you.” Matthew dragged a chair from beside the bed, and sat down on it backwards, with his legs facing me and his arms resting on top of the support. He tilted his head to the side, and gave me a warm smile. “I have nothing to say to you,” I replied crisply. I had to say it softly, so as not to strain my throat. He frowned in an exaggerated kind of way, like a fake pout. “I wish I had never saved you. I should have just let you die.” That seemed to puzzle him, keeping him quiet a moment while he tried to remember what I was talking about. Then his face lit up once he remembered when I had brought him back to life after being shot. “Yes, you probably should have. Even though you are very intelligent, you aren’t very smart …” “Flattery will get you nowhere,” I shot back savagely. I ignored him after that for several minutes, looking at my surroundings. The room was mostly bare, aside from a counter and a room that appeared to lead to a separate restroom. But, it was the design of the architecture itself I was looking at. It was … oddly familiar. I recognized the décor from somewhere. The general appearance of the place stirred a memory inside me. He sighed loudly. “You intrigue me, Yukina,” he stated. “But, still, I was hoping you would be more cooperative. I would hate to have to use … other means of persuasion.” “Lay a hand on me. I dare you.” “Oh … you didn’t notice?” “Notice what?” “The crystallization on your leg has dissolved away.” I didn’t look downward, but focused my attention on that area of my body suddenly. He was correct. A small hint of satisfaction seemed to cross his face as he sensed the change in my expression. “You seem to be suffering under the misconception that you can still use your power, little girl. Remember, I helped make you- and with the recipe for the deceased Doctor Mitchell’s solution, I’ve been able to produce an inhibitor serum that reverses most of your abilities.” “…” “That also means that we’ll be able to triple your lifespan, as long as you receive a regular dosage. Without that, you’ll relapse.” “…” I didn’t even try to say anything. To continue this conversation would only be to encourage him. There was a soft knock at the door. Matthew faced it with an annoyed look on his face. A grunt dressed in scrubs stuck his head inside. “Um, sir … there was a robot found inside Doctor’s Mitchell’s lab after we raided it. We’re not really sure what to do with it, sir. Could you come take a look?” “I’ll be there in a minute!” he snapped irritably and his brows knit together. Then his face smoothed and, as if to contradict his previous actions, he stated, “I am a patient man. We can continue this conversation later.” He stood up carefully, and walked to the doors. They parted to let him through and snapped shut behind him. There was a muted beeping of what I assumed to be a locking mechanism activated from the other side. Despite that, the room was not soundproof. Voices were raised outside. “You brought him here? Are you stupid!?” “Well, sir … ” “I don’t want to hear your excuses! Go get your things!” “Sir …?” “Consider yourself fired from this point on. I expect to see your name on the next shuttle roster.” “Yes, sir … ” Several minutes passed during which I couldn’t hear anything else. I looked around the room and gathered my scattered wits together. I began to understand why this room looked so familiar. About one or two years ago, I had stayed aboard a orbiting station in space maintained by the Epoch Coalition. This looked to be the same place. I tried to stand up to get my bearings, but the effort left me weak and gasping for breath. My body was in no condition to be moving anywhere, it seemed. A one-sided conversation interrupted my attempts to move. “What is your designation?” “Unconfirmed.” “What is your purpose?” “Unconfirmed.” “Do you have any pre-existing function?” “Unconfirmed.” “Do you know who Calvin Mitchell is?” “Negative.” “Are you programmed to follow orders?” “Confirmed… Affirmative.” He sighed heavily. “Just what I need … another useless thing to follow orders, that has no natural intelligence … ” “Directive unconfirmed. Please repeat.” “Just go in there until I figure out what to do with you. You‘ll be her bionic custodian for now, I guess. Your only purpose is to prevent her from escaping.” The beeping repeated, and the doors opened again. I was looking at … myself. No, that wasn’t right. She was looking at me. With a sudden jarring realization, I became aware of my consciousness as our memories overlapped, mixed, and separated once more. I became distinct once again. Her feelings were muted, but still there. They colored my own memories. She was looking at me with curiosity, studying me as I studied her at the same time. She was laying on a thinly padded platform with her arm across her chest, and her head resting slackly on a small pillow. She looked … small compared to all the humans I had seen up until this point in time. She reached up and slowly removed her oxygen mask, and struggled to sit up. I stood there unresponsively as she got to her feet. The little girl swayed unsteadily, and had to grip for her IV stand to keep her balance. She pulled it along as she shuffled across the tiled floor in her bare feet. Her short brown hair was slack, and kept falling in her face. It looked a little matted and mussed from sweat. She looked up at me with wide eyes. “So they found you in my father’s lab, huh?” “Affirmative.” “And your only purpose is to prevent me from escaping?” “Affirmative.” Her face clouded over. “Stupid hunk of junk,” she griped. The pressure sensors in my ankle flared momentarily. She had aimed a disgruntled kick at my shin. “I don’t think you would appreciate it if I retaliated in kind,” I remarked dryly. “Please extend to me the same courtesy you would any other person.” It was simple for me to hack the speakers transmitting to the observation station and have them emit a static loop instead of our conversation. At the time, they had not raised their internal security measures. It was ridiculously easy for me to access their entire network. The video cameras that would later monitor her round-the-clock were nonexistent at the time. I had the satisfaction of seeing her face falter and her eyes become large. She stared at me completely stunned. It was a huge risk for me to reveal myself then, but something drove me to it. Perhaps I already felt that we shared an affinity by relation through my creator. Or, maybe … it was as simple as needing someone else to know. “So you’re not just an automaton.” “No. I was created by … my father. I never knew his real name until now. Doctor Mitchell and your father the same man, I presume?” “You presume correctly,” she replied in an amused tone. “How did you know he was my father?” “You said ‘my father’s lab.’” “ … Oh. I forgot.” She turned away from me and started to search the room. I was surprised by how easily she seemed to adjust to this new information. Younger humans must accept improbable information more readily than their older counterparts. As quickly as her good mood came, it left just as quickly. She turned her face toward the floor. “My mother … my sister … are they here?” “I’m not sure,” I said softly. “What are their names?” “Kaede Atagawa is my mother. Laura Mitchell is my sister,” she stated gloomily with a sigh and a frown. “And if you don’t mind me asking … what is your name?” “My name is Yukina,” she told me. “What’s yours?” Her direct and innocent question caught me unawares. My ‘father’ had never given me a name. “I was called ‘android’ … and now I am called Bionic Custodian.” “That’s too long,” she complained. “I think I’ll just call you ‘Bion.’” “If it pleases you, I have no objection to it. Now that I have your name and the others, let me scan the database for your relatives.” She batted her eyes, surprised. “You can do that?” “I can do a lot of things.” I had to divert power away from my external systems that controlled movement in order to fully link with the station’s systems. My vision faded, to be replaced with the blind collection of data flowing through the entire satellite. Sorting the information was difficult and time-consuming for me, compared to my usual processing power. It was approximately ninety-two seconds before I became active again. She appeared to have lost interest in me, and was sitting on her little bed. Her posture seemed to indicate a depression of physical activity as she slumped weakly downward. “I could find no indication of their names at this location,” I admitted. Understandably, she wasn’t pleased by this news so I continued talking. “But, to be honest, I could find no trace of your name attached to this room either.” “What does that mean?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. “It could mean that the data is so classified and well hidden that I can’t access it yet, or it might mean that the information hasn’t been entered into the system yet. So it could be that they’re here, and I’m not able to find them yet.” Hope brightened her eyes for a moment. “I’ll continue to search for any evidence of their presence throughout the night,” I assured her. She nodded mutely, and threw herself back onto the thin cot with a thump. The sheet bulged briefly in the air around her, and settled out again. She stared at the ceiling for a while without saying anything. “Without them … I’m all alone now.” She slowly pulled her arms in toward her center, and hugged herself tightly. Even with my lack of experience of interacting with other humans, I could tell that she was feeling very vulnerable right now. “That’s not true,” I protested. “You’re not alone as long as I’m here.” “Yeah,” she said, and a fleeting smile flickered across her pale face. “I never expected to make a friend here, that’s for sure.” That gave me a pleasant feeling, running those words through my mind again. Friend. I’ve never been called that before. It made me feel good. As I continued to study her countenance, I noticed something that concerned me. Her lips were turning dusky. Also, the quicks of her nails were faintly blue. I did a rapid analysis and concluded that her breathing was too shallow. She was suffering from oxygen deprivation. “You need to put the oxygen mask back on,” I dictated, even as I was already in the process of leaning over her and replacing her around her face. “You’re very weak.” “I know,” she said faintly. She didn’t seem to have anything more to say to me. She rolled over onto her side, cradling her cheek on the palm of her hand. Her breathing slowly regulated itself into even measures. I passively resumed my datamining of the computer network of the Epoch Station. After a time, I turned off the random static loop I had generated earlier. The reason why is because the only sound it would transmit to the speakers in the control room for the next several hours was a gentle snoring. During the night, I found plenty of information about the workings of the station such as schedules and appointments, but nothing about any other hostages being held her. For that matter, I couldn’t even find any trace that she was being held here. They covered their tracks very well. It could be that the data was so heavily encrypted that I was only reading it as leftover junk information, but that was unlikely. Also to my great disappointment, there were no active connections to the Earth global networks or any other links to cyberspace. They were self-contained almost to the point of paranoia. Also, their security measures were very thorough so it took me longer than my initial prediction. There was quite a bit of useless information that had no practical purpose, but I still backed up some of it for later use within my own memory storage. There was a virtual library on the station, apparently for employee usage, and it intrigued me. The one thing I had never been exposed to is a large collection of literature. I had plenty of access to factual information during my creation, but fiction was noticeably lacking. Probably because my creator didn't want me confusing stories for reality during that time. My charge seemed to recover greatly as she slumbered. The color returned to her cheeks, and her eyes looked less sunken. She appeared to be strong enough to get up without struggling from pain and weakness. When I saw her lips part, I had barely enough time to slam a feedback loop on their speakers so that they would only hear white noise. It was my mistake that I had not cautioned her last night, before she fell asleep. “Did you find anything?” she said, looking at me desperately. “Not yet,” I replied. “However, I forgot to tell you something else. Please don’t talk to me when I’m not prepared.” She blinked her eyes innocently. “But why?” “Because I have to jam the hidden microphones up there with white noise,” I said, pointing to the ceiling. “We’re being listened to?” “Yes.” “Then why don’t you just break them?” She really didn’t seem to understand at all. I patiently explained the reasons to her. “Because it would both alert them to the fact that one of us has enough strength to do it, and also that we know that we’re being monitored. As soon as that disappears, our advantage is gone. They’re already suspicious because of I’ve been tampering with their data records in order to access them.” “But if you have enough ability to do that, can’t we just escape?” “I only wish it were that easy.” I shook my head slowly. “Each sector is equipped with its own security measures, and all of them have the capability of using a level ten force field. We’ll never make it to the hanger on the other side of the station in time.” “It doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “I won’t just roll over and give up like that!” Her eyes burned with the fire of her spiritedness. “Someone approaches,” I warned her. “Please cease talking to me.” She nodded mutely. Perhaps she wasn’t as wayward and impulsive as she seemed. She appeared to understand the gravity of the situation. I resumed my post and stood motionless as the wall parted to allow our visitor inside. Yukina appeared to be both disappointed and relieved at the identity of the figure. It wasn’t Matthew, but instead a scientist holding a cup of juice and a pill in his hands. “Good morning,” he said, pleasantly enough. “What’s good about it?” she griped. His eyebrows twitched and raised at her obvious aggravation and then lowered in sympathy. “I’ve brought you your medication. Since you ripped your IV out, you’ll need to take it some other way.” I had carelessly overlooked it, distracted by other things. The IV bag was unattached from the wall, and the tube had been looped around the stand. She had ripped the tape from her wrist as well. Yukina must have done it while I was almost completely inactive during the night. I supposed that she didn’t sleep as soundly as I had assumed. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, and she crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Why should I? I don’t even know what kind of medicine it is!” “It’s to keep the alien antibodies in your body from overreacting to the infection still present inside your body, and contains natural antibiotics.” “Is that all it does?” she pressed. “Why should I trust you?” “I really can’t give you a good reason for you to trust me in this position. All that I can tell you is that’s all that I’ve been informed of.” He shrugged helplessly, sighed, and set them on the bare counter alongside the eastern wall. “Well, I can’t force you to take it so I’ll just leave it here. Please consider taking it … we don’t want to see your health suffer again. You were in a very delicate condition when you were brought to us.” He turned away from her and was almost out the door when she lowered her arms to her sides, and took a step toward him. “Wait a minute. What’s your name?” The scientist faced her stoically and tapped the name tag on the breast pocket of his uniform. She leaned closer to read it. “Doctor Donegal?” “Yes.” She hesitated. “Do you … know my father?” His eyes became shifty, and he looked anywhere but at her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He beat a hasty retreat through the sliding doors. Yukina opened her mouth and turned toward me. “I don’t believe him. He looks like he’s hiding something.” I put my finger to my mouth silently, and pointed toward the entranceway. Someone else was shuffling around out there. It was impossible for me to tell through the walls if it was Doctor Donegal returning, or if it was someone else. I also didn’t want her speaking to me yet because I didn’t block the speakers this time. If I had and then word got around that she and the scientist had had a conversation and it wasn‘t recorded, it would look fishy. After several minutes, our second uninvited guest arrived. This one wasn’t entirely unexpected. Matthew darted at unsatisfied look at the counter where the medicine and cup rested, untouched, but didn’t say anything more about it. “Hello, Yukina. How are you feeling?” She only glowered at him and crossed her arms, refusing to interact with him on any level. She pushed the hair hanging loosely around her face out of her eyes. He reached around into one of his pockets. “I brought you something.” He held out a small box about half the size of his hand that was wrapped strangely with a blue ribbon. The ribbon looked like it was too long; it had to be wrapped around several times. Yukina’s eyes narrowed with venom, and she gave him an extremely rude suggestion about where, exactly, he could put his gift. He didn’t react, but slipped it back into his coat pocket. “You didn’t take your pill,” he stated. “Give me one good reason why I should,” she countered back, her hands balled into small fists. “Because you’ll die in … approximately … 72 hours without it. It was a concentrated replacement of your intravenous drip. I ordered it brought to you after I received notification that the IV was no longer running.” “Why should I trust you!?” To me, it sounded like she was echoing her previous conversation, while accomplishing nothing. “You shouldn’t,” he replied coldly. “But we can do this the easy way … or the hard way.” He appeared to have more than one thing in his pocket. He produced a hypo-spray and then took a menacing step toward her, but she faltered backwards. Her eyes sought out mine. Matthew quickly turned to see what she was looking at. He appeared to be regarding me thoughtfully. I, of course, had not moved or responded since the last scientist had left. “Are you afraid of it?” Her mouth snapped shut, her lips quivering, and averted her eyes. She really was a bad at covering up her true feelings. I feared for my own safety. I could already predict a force field enclosing the room, leaving me helpless enough that they could deactivate me with an electromagnetic pulse, and throw me out the airlock into space to drift for years until the Earth’s gravity field slowly crushed me as my orbit decayed … He misinterpreted her hesitation. “Don’t worry. I won’t have to order him to inject you. I think I can do this myself.” “No!” She scrambled away from him, cowering on the other side of the bed. Even this small flight seemed to leave her winded. She gasped for air deeply. They stared at each other for several seconds of indecisiveness. He giggled. It was a disturbing sound, as though he was enjoying watching her discomfort. “That was the easy way for you. It’s too bad you refused it, little Yukina. Now I’ll just have to teach you the hard way.” Matthew straightened up and squared his shoulders. He removed a cylinder hanging from the belt loop of his pants, and activated it. There was a flash of some kind of energy. He moved. I didn’t. The arc of his swing ended behind him, directly at the counter. It carved a gouge about eighteen-point-four inches deep and the wood blistered as it burst into flame. The cup dissolved even as it flew through the air, and the juice inside turned to steam. The sprinkler system came on above us, and drenched the room as they sprayed it with extinguishing solution. I want to say that I calculated his motion; that I predicted that it would be a harmless blow; that I would have moved to protect her; but the truth is that I was locked into an internal battle the moment I registered the object as a weapon. Even though I cannot be harmed by it permanently- I still will not willingly harm another living creature, not even to save my own life. I am not bound by arbitrary rules such as Asimov’s Laws (which I would come to know in the fiction I would read later.) It is my own decision, and one that I will not waver from. I regard all sentient life as valuable. I will not be the one to raise my hand to end his, and I will not meet violence with violence. To do so would mean that I would sacrifice every ideal that I hold dear, including the value of my own existence. Yukina appeared to be hyperventilating from sudden stress, and coughing from the smoke. Matthew threw his head back and laughed loudly, with an edge of cruelty to his voice. The energy blade was deactivated, and placed back into his belt loop. It was safe to say that her pill was completely destroyed by the time the weak fire was put out. “I’ll come back tomorrow. Hopefully, you’ll be more cooperative by then.” Before he left the room, he placed her small present on the still-smoking counter. The doors glided shut soundlessly. There was the muted beeping of a security system being activated. There was more beeping, and the sprinklers stopped raining down on us. Instead, the air conditioner came on and the vents in the ceiling began to hum as they sucked up the air and smoke along with it. Yukina stormed over to the counter. Her stomping footsteps sounded loud and angry. She snatched the box off the counter and clawed at the ribbon. She glared it for a moment, her frown deepening, and threw it over her shoulder onto the bed. The lid to the box came off. Inside was a slightly-used deck of cards, the edges frayed. I did not understand the significance at that time. Her hands shuddered with barely-suppressed rage. She screamed in fury, and threw it at the opposite wall. The little cardboard box tumbled across the floor and the cards fluttered all around the room like so many leaves in the wind. One or two landed on her before sliding off. “I hate you!” she screamed at the door with all her might. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hope you die, and have the flesh stripped from your bones! I hope you … ” Her tirade went on for some time, getting more graphic and gory with each iteration. It was beginning to trouble me. I feared that she might lose herself in her own fantasies of violent revenge, but she eventually trailed off into a furious silence. Of course, no one answered her. Matthew had already left nearly three and a half minutes ago. I have no idea what the staff in the monitoring room made of her outburst, except perhaps to make a note that she was growing emotionally unstable. The diurnal cycle of the satellite station had rolled around, and the internal lights were dimmed for nighttime. I had been monitoring our monitors, and there was a long break scheduled at about this time, when they would consume dinner rations and then the shift would change. I took this time to approach Yukina, because I felt that it was becoming increasingly intensive on my resources to nullify their heightened data protection. Apparently, someone felt that the speakers were compromised and chose to install new programs. I was still learning how to combat their protocols. I had broken through several hours earlier, but if I did slip up and it recorded something, I didn’t want a person there to witness me scrambling the tape enough to erase it. I cued her softly. “Yukina.” She sat up from where she had been laying in bed with her head under her pillow, suffering from a migraine. The whites of her eyes shone luminously in the low red lighting. It was upsetting to see the blood trailing from her nose almost continuously as she rose, but there was nothing I could do about it right now. I had tried the basic medical advice for a nosebleed, but it did not appear to stem the flow. After that, I sent some of my nanotechnology into her system to see if I could repair the damage with my own regenerative properties, but they were almost immediately destroyed by something else. I believe they were the so-called “alien bodies” in her bloodstream. I was unable to analyze them, but I did detect a slow-action toxin being released into her cells before the nanobots were dismantled. It was poisoning her slowly. I had even tried to reattach her IV to her arm, but someone had already shut that off, probably to conserve the solution that had been leaking freely onto the floor. For now, there was nothing I could do except wait and try to ease her pain. “What?” she croaked miserably. Her voice had the hint of a reedy whine to it. “I’ve been thinking about what you said … about escaping.” She immediately perked up and gave me her full attention. “There may be a chance for us in the next few days,” I informed her. She nodded, and a little smile almost appeared on her face. “Let me explain.” In the next three days, a large biannual staff meeting had been rescheduled and pushed up in date. Part of the discussion would concern her, but a great deal of it would be focused on restructuring, and increasing the station’s security measures in a number of ways. Most of that was probably due to my meddling. Because I had to hack my way into their network on several occasions to access certain files, they were forewarned to the flaws and backdoors that I had been taking advantage of. They hadn’t traced it back to me, yet. Instead, I had intercepted a personal memo in an inbox that said that they suspected it was an internal leak. They feared espionage, and the leaking of sensitive information to the United World Order. I finished telling her the dates and times. “So what’s your plan?” “I think I may be able to disable some of the power on the station long enough for us to reach the hanger after all. If most of the guards are in the meeting, we won’t need to worry about surveillance as heavily. I’m still researching what to do about the force fields.” “So what can I do?” she asked avidly. “I need you to get your rest, and to take it easy,” I told her. Then I told her the thing that she did not want to hear. Her face creased with distaste. “I don’t want to give him any measure of satisfaction, or let him think that I’m giving in so easily!” “If you do, it will lull them into a false sense of complacency, and they may relax their guard around you if it seems like you are interested in hearing out their demands. Please think about it.” “That’s all anyone ever does anymore! Pressure me to give in!” “You know that isn’t my intention, so please lower your voice. There are people nearby.” She glared at me, knowing that I was right and not liking it one bit. She chewed her lip, thinking it over with a brooding expression. I left to her private thoughts. “I’ll let you think about it.” I took my place in the corner. Yukina sighed moodily and scrubbed at her face with a piece of sheet. Her lips thinned when it came away with blood, and she slowly cradled her head in her hands. I was tempted to come to her, but it wasn’t the time right now. If I did, it would likely only intensify her negative feelings. When her face came up, her cheeks were streaked with the paths of tears that cut through the reddish residue that had dried there around her nose. “I miss my mother,” she sobbed. “Can’t we do anything about her?” “I don’t know where she’s being held. But, if you oblige them, they may oblige you … and we‘ll be one step closer to knowing.” Finally, she agreed grudgingly. “I’ll think about it.” “That’s all I ask. Goodnight, Yukina. Sleep well.” “Oh, yeah,” she said bitterly, rubbing at her temples. “I’ll get right on that.” She plopped down into her pillow, and pulled the sheets over herself into a tight little cocoon around her. She had her back to me. I remembered something else. “Ah … one last thing, Yukina.” “What?” “Accept the pill in the morning.” She slowly rolled over and looked at me tiredly. “Why should I?” “Because you’re going to give it to me.” Her eyes widened. “You?” “Do not be concerned. It won’t affect my physical state as it will yours. I wish to use my abilities to analyze the compounds, and see if there is anything present that should not be there. Perhaps in three days, you will be able to use your unique talents without suffering. Correct me if I’m wrong … we have not discussed it much, you and I, and I have only heard word of it … you can truly alter events?” “Yes … or, well, I used to be able to,” she said sadly. Recalling it seemed to be difficult for her. “But can you still do that?” “I’m hoping I can,” she said, without much hope. She made a small groan and pressed her palm to her forehead. In time, her exhaustion exceeded her pain and she slept. I did not interface later with the station’s computers as I usually would. I wanted to keep myself completely activated in order to monitor her condition. If she suddenly took a turn for the worse, I needed to be able to do something. She had a tiny electrocardiogram on her wrist transmitting remotely, but this didn’t temper my fears. I don’t know what I could do that the staff couldn’t already take measures to prevent but I didn’t want to be the last one to know. I also wasn’t convinced that they would come to her aid immediately- the whole point of this exercise seemed to be to let her suffer in order to teach her a lesson. During the night she began to choke and cough in her sleep so I turned her onto her stomach and patted her back softly. Her spasms ceased and quieted almost immediately. She didn’t even stir. Other than that, there were no other problems. Even her nosebleed stopped. The next morning came all too quickly. I watched in amazement as Yukina picked all the cards off the floor without any prompting on my behalf. She then replaced them neatly into their pack, and eliminated any other evidence of her fit yesterday. She then reached over to the counter and studied the ribbon that had once wrapped the little box. She took a deep breath, and pulled her hair back with one fist. Yukina then used the other to tie a bow around her ponytail. I realized why the box had looked so oddly packaged earlier. The ribbon wasn’t meant for gift-wrapping, but as an accessory. Yukina presented herself to me for my approval, lifting her arm up in a little flourish. “How do I look?” I appraised her with my arms crossed. “It makes you appear juvenile, but charming.” This didn’t seem to please her because her mouth puckered and then turned down in a little frown. I don’t think that I picked my words correctly because I was trying to be too concise. With her hair pulled back and a large bow in her hair, it made her look younger and more childlike in a classic sense. It also brought out her expressive slanted eyes and enhanced her round face. “As I indicated before, Matthew is likely on his way. The hatch located seventy-eight meters from here just activated. You should stop talking to me.” Yukina gave a quick bow of her head. It seemed like she was already practicing her politeness in her haste to put her best foot forward. Sometime before she fully awakened, she seemed to reach the conclusion that following my proposal would be the best course of action. She didn’t fight me when I suggested that she should bathe today in the shower, not only for therapeutic reasons but also because of basic hygiene. My olfactory detectors showed that her scent was stronger before. Even though I don’t attach any particular feeling to smells, I had a hunch that others might view it as unpleasant. I took my usual post swiftly. Right on time, Matthew barged in through the clinic door after turning the system lock off. He immediately stopped in his tracks, apparently taken aback by the sudden change in his captive’s appearance. She had finally put on the change of clothes that they had laid out for her several days ago instead of another paper gown. Combined with her freshly-washed hair and her firm resolution, she seemed like a completely different person from the weepy little girl I had seen last night. “What’s this?” he asked with shoulders tensed, clearly distrustful of her 180˚. “I’ve decided that I’m seeing my mother today,” she announced to him clearly. “You’re going to give me that pill, and you‘re going to do whatever you have to do to bring her here as soon as possible.” He held up his hand. “Not so fast. What’s with the change of heart?” “What’s with you!? Must I explain every thought that runs through my mind to you?” she yelled, pointing her finger at him. “I want to know that she’s alive!” Oddly enough, this display of anger seemed to put him at ease. He seemed to know her well enough to know if she was only pretending to be nice. I’m somewhat glad that she decided not to force a polite act because of this. Matthew picked at the lapel of his uniform, and brought forth a small pill between his fingers in his other hand. “I’m not convinced yet that you’re entirely honest about this.” “Why should I be? If I give you something you want, then I think that it’s only fair that you do something for me.” “Good enough, except that this pill is to ultimately to cure your condition. I receive no direct benefit from it. What else can you offer me?” “I don’t know, Matthew … what else can I offer you with my powers suppressed?” They seemed to reach a stalemate. Yukina had her hands on her hips, and Matthew was still fiddling with the pill in between his fingers. He was deftly twirling it in and out between them. It disappeared into his sleeve, probably into a hidden pocket, and substituted by one of a different color. This one was concealed a moment later. “You don’t have to use your active abilities to prove to me that you’re willing to cooperate.” Yukina looked confused by this. “What do you mean?” “Ah … don’t be coy, now. I know that your latent nature cannot be changed. All I want of you is for you to play a game of cards.” Her mouth dropped open slightly. “Are you serious?” “Quite. Only in this card game, you will be the only one playing.” Matthew swept the pack of cards off the counter, and began to shuffle the deck, carefully facing it away from her. He picked it up and held it cupped in his hand, looking at it himself. “Tell me what it is.” She closed her eyes, appearing to be straining. “I can’t do it from this far away. You’re going to have to let me touch it.” He put the card flat on the surface of the counter, and gestured for her to place her hand on it. “Well?” he stared at her expectantly when she didn’t say anything for nearly half a minute. “Six of hearts,” she finally declared. He picked up another one, glanced at it, and put it down. “Queen of spades,” she answered again, a little more quickly. “Only 46 more to go … I removed all the jokers from the deck,” he said, as though amused by himself and sharing the joke with her. She screwed up her face with a false smile back at him. His grin only widened. Eventually, they reached the end of the deck. Matthew clapped his hands. “You only got eight wrong. I do believe that you’ve improved. Or could it be that you deliberately mixed them up to mislead me?” She gritted her teeth. “Is there anything else you want?” “No, not today, I believe. You’ve given me everything that I need to know. Thank you ever so much, my poppet.” He bowed to her overdramatically, and made as if to kiss her hand. She growled and snatched it away, clearly not going to humor his posturing any more than absolutely necessary. “What about my mother?” she reminded him harshly. “The pill?” “Ah, do I detect a note of urgency in your voice … ?” She snarled again. I felt a feeling of vexation in myself … I wished that she would not allow herself to rise so easily to his taunts. But, like a horse, she allowed herself to be led toward the promised carrot. “How bad was it? Bad enough to finally decide to meet me halfway?” “Shut up!” she hollered at him. He waved a hand soothingly at her, as though he was telling her to keep the noise down. Matthew laughed and flicked the first pill he had shown her into her hands. She barely had enough time to reach up and catch it without fumbling it before it fell to the floor. “What about my mother?” she demanded. “Well, for that, you’ll just have to trust me, won’t you?” he mocked her. “I wouldn’t trust you farther than I could throw you!” “That’s a relief to know, because I feel the exact same way,” he agreed. “Maybe tomorrow, I’ll give you the other pill if you behave like a good little girl. That‘s the one that won‘t suppress it.” “Ha!” she snorted at him. “What does it really do … drug me? Make me more manageable?” He didn’t reply, but only shrugged one shoulder with a mysterious smile. She glared at him when he didn’t move. “Well? What are you waiting for?” “I want to watch you take it,” he told her. My hope for analyzing it sank. If he was this suspicious of her, we probably wouldn’t stand a chance by the third day … he’d watch her take it every time just to make sure that she did. “I need something to drink,” she protested. “There’s water you can get from the bathroom,” he told her coldly, not moving a muscle. “No cup?” “You’re just procrastinating. Drink it with your hands if you must.” When she eventually budged and stalked off into the bathroom, and he followed her closely and watched as she filled her hands with water and put them to her mouth. He reached out, grabbed her arm and slowly peeled back the fingers of her clenched fist. Her palm was empty. “Open your mouth and lift your tongue.” She obeyed him only when he tightened his grip on her wrist painfully and began to twist. She gasped and doubled over, cursing him with various insults. “You appear to have eaten it,” he noted skeptically. She rubbed at her wrist, flicking it back and forth with a wince. Her reply doesn’t bear mentioning. It was quite rude. “Hmmph. You should treat me a little better if I’m going to bring your mother here. I might just change my mind.” Yukina lapsed into a very frustrated silence, and waited until he finally left the room. She darted a look at me, but I shook my head. Someone was still waiting outside … and the doors were still unlocked. She immediately pulled the ribbon out of her hair, threw it on the counter, and sat on the bed. Perhaps it was best that she was not as attentive as I, or that her hearing was not as acute … she did not act impetuously on what she didn’t notice. The lock system beeped faintly about a minute later, and the footsteps receded. Despite this, I remained cautious. His actions showed that either he was paranoid enough to believe that she was already planning something with outside help, or that he already knew someone was assisting her and was waiting for them to make a mistake. I didn’t plan to give him that chance. I would just have to be even more careful in the future. Yukina’s mother and Matthew were audible before they actually arrived. The walls of the station are made of sturdy metal, but - as you’ve probably guessed - aren’t very thick. “You monster! Let me go this instant, you horrible disgusting beast!” “I really wouldn’t hesitate a moment to kill you right now if you weren’t still useful to me.” There was a hiss of indrawn breath from the female, and the doors parted to admit our captor and his guest, as well as two guards flanking them. Yukina had already awoken from her nap, and was on her feet wide awake. She immediately bolted toward her mother. “Mom! Mom!” “Yukichan!” Kaede lurched forward, but stumbled and fell to her knees with a cry as Matthew pulled backward on a chain connected to her handcuffs to prevent her from escaping his grasp. The laser pistols of the uniformed guards were lowered in her direction. “I told you not to move unless I told you to!” he roared at her. “Do you want to die!?” “Don’t!” Yukina cried. “Why are you doing this to her?!” Yukina had her arms wrapped around her mother’s neck and waist, and was openly crying into her shoulder. Kaede was also weeping as she clung to her daughter. I wished then that I could tell Yukina not to be manipulated by him … that all this was just another ploy to weaken her resolve and not her mother’s. But I was cursed to silence in the presence of witnesses. “She’s already tried to attack me once with a concealed weapon, and I won’t risk it again,” Matthew replied crisply. He turned to the guards. “Make sure she doesn’t try anything. You know what I mean. I have other matters to attend to right now.” They both nodded. He handed the chain to the one of them, and left the room. To tell you the truth, I was surprised as to why she was allowed this small privacy without his presence. What could be so pressing as to divert his attention away from us right now? It made me wonder because I hoped to take advantage of it later. “I missed you!” Yukina wailed. “I missed you too,” her mother whispered. “Have they hurt you, baby? How are you?” “As good as can be expected,” she sniffled sadly. For the next half hour, they exchanged very few words after that. Everything was said in their tight embrace, tears, and sobs. Yukina buried her face in her mother’s chest like a younger child. Kaede rocked her back and forth slowly as she held her. Her mother tugged her daughter into her lap, and cradled her with her body. The guards eventually relaxed their weapons, and looked bored watching them huddle together. “Mother … what does he do to you?” Kaede choked back a lump of spit in her throat, and tried to speak. “I haven’t seen him again until today, honey. Has he hurt you? Are you okay? What’s this mark right here?” “That’s where the IV went in … “ Yukina tried to explain. “What about this?” “It’s just a bruise … see, Mom, my leg is all healed and I’m getting better … so you don’t need to worry about me so much … ” Kaede suddenly burst into tears and held her even tighter. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect you! I had no idea about him! He never seemed like this before!” “I … thought maybe something was wrong, but I wasn’t right in time … “ Yukina babbled. “It’s all my fault! I should have seen it before it happened! I didn’t try hard enough!” “How could you possibly have known, Yukina?!” her mother exclaimed. The guards both stepped out of the way of the door as Matthew blew into the room. He wrapped the chain around his fist and tugged her mother to her feet. “Time’s up!” “What!? No! That wasn’t nearly long enough!” Yukina objected. He gave her a dry look, completely bereft of any humor. “We can discuss the terms tomorrow, if you’d like to renegotiate them.” Matthew, her mother, and the guards departed quickly as though pressed for time. The little room suddenly felt very empty. She had some difficulty sleeping that night. Instead, she paced the room from wall to wall and darted sharp glances at me. Yukina had some need pressing on her mind, but I wanted to wait until all the operators turned in for the night before speaking to her. By that time, she was nearly frantic with the energy of built-up anxiety. She edged closer and mouthed her name for me to me silently: “Bion.” I finally nodded to her, and her insecurities poured out of her. “What are the chances that he might hurt her to get me to do something?” “Even for me, the foibles of human actions are not so easily calculated,” I admitted to her. Her lip trembled. I could see that her resolve was softening. Her pretense of cooperation was going to become real under the threat of injury to her mother. “Did you make any progress finding her today?” she wondered. “No,” I replied regretfully, “I didn’t. I can tell you the date and time she arrived, but the shuttle’s log was wiped to hide its ultimate destination and it flew on a programmed course. I don’t think even the pilot knew. Matthew surely was the one who took such measures.” She began anew, her hands already fluttering at her sides. “What if he decides to … ” “Stop,” I commanded her. “This line of inquiry will not produce anything useful that we can do. All we can do is wait and act when the time is right. To tell you the truth, I believe that he is only trying to intimidate you. He doesn’t want to work any harder than necessary to get you to bend to his will. If a minimum of effort is required, then that is what he will do.” “The path of least resistance, huh?” she said, nodding to herself. “Still … ” “I wish you to ask him tomorrow about his plans. If you can keep him talking and act interested, he will likely be more focused on what you could do instead of actually forcing you do it.” She still looked doubtful. “Are you sure that will work?” “I can’t be certain of anything. For tonight, I would prefer you to think of other things, or you will get no rest at all. I wish to change the subject.” Yukina positioned herself on the edge of the bed, her feet hanging in the air as she kicked them back and forth. She was studying the floor. “What do you want to talk about?” From the angle I had that morning, I couldn’t quite see all the activity in the bathroom when she took her pill. “Something that had been bothering me. Did you ingest the medicine?” She met my eyes for a moment, and looked ashamed. “I had to.” “I see.” Yukina maintained eye contact with me, perhaps trying to decipher my inscrutable expression. When I speak without tone, it must be difficult for her to judge. My face isn’t really constructed for the subtle display of the wide range of emotions every living thing experiences. “What is that supposed to mean?” she demanded. I stated plainly, “That I understand the situation better now.” What could I tell her? How bitter my disappointment was? I had foolishly hoped that she cleverly disguised the pill somehow on her person, and only acted like she ate it. However, I think that the thought never even occurred to her. I could almost feel the control of the situation slipping out of my grasp, and a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me. I felt like it really was my fault for pushing her so hard to play along. Now she wasn’t playing at all … She pushed at my arm to get my attention. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you too.” “Oh?” “Bion, how did you get to be so intelligent?” I looked at her crookedly. “I’m not sure that I understand the question.” “How did you get to be so … you know … human?” I found that difficult to answer. I began to pace the room in order that I might think more freely. “Yukina, there are entire branches of philosophy and psychology apparently dedicated to answering that question … it’s not an easy one.” “Were you taught to feel?” “That is not a thing that can be taught, it is an innate ability.” “What’s an innate ability?” “It means that when I was first created, the possibility of being able to feel already existed inside me. It was never learned through any method. Perhaps because the structure of my brain is so heavily based on the human model and because the connections are so complex, it just began to occur naturally as I got to know him … ” She sighed sadly and rested her chin in her palm. She had an odd look on her face, almost reflective. “I only knew him for less than an hour … before Matthew killed him right in front of my eyes … what was he like?” “He was always very kind in all the time I knew him. Well, I didn’t start out as having a body. My first conversations with him were through a typed interface.” She looked completely shocked by the idea. “Really!?” “Yes. I’ve gathered later that this is unusual, but apparently he worked on my A.I. for years before I was built. My head was grown first.” “Wait a minute!” she said, stopping me incredulously. “Grown?” “Yes. I was grown from an alien crystal matrix one part at a time and shaped and altered, although there are many other organic materials within me as well.” “How did he make it work?” I tried to think of a way to simplify the explanation. “Very tiny organic robots assembled it, and reasoned out how the foreign biology would function before assembly.” “What kind of robots?” “Nanobots. They form a limited hive mind. For that type of immensely challenging problem solving, they have no equal … provided that the human mind operating them is skilled enough. I still have them within me.” “Can you feel them?” “No. I just reprogram them and direct them as needed. It is like the neural messages to your hand. You don‘t feel your nerves firing, only the action of your hand.” She put one petite hand over her mouth and shuddered all over, trying to suppress a yawn. “I think it is time for you to go to bed, Yukina.” For once in her life, she didn’t argue with me. She rubbed at her eyes, and slipped out of her clothes in exchange for a soft pajama. She crawled into bed, and her breathing evened out in very little time. “Good night.” She inhaled sharply as I woke her up from the edge of sleep to reply to me: “Good night, Bion.” The second day arrived, but passed uneventfully. Peculiarly enough, our fair and tyrannical captor did not pay us a visit at all that day, only the nervous scientist from before. I assumed that, perhaps, he was assigned to oversee her medication. “Hello, Doctor Donegal,” she said, addressing him with a fading tone, her hand to her chest. Her heart must still be beating hard from when those doors opened suddenly, and I hadn’t warned her. I was being extra cautious, and hadn‘t said a single word since last night. She had obviously thought it was going to be Matthew. He smiled politely to her. “Good day to you. How are you doing, Yukina? Feeling any better?” She nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he offered. Yukina shook her head mutely. Today, she seems to be very introverted and quite unlike herself. In the interest of civility, she appeared pressured to add a remark. “No … nothing you could help me with, unless you could find a way for me to be free of this place.” He only smiled at her again, more sadly this time. She accepted the pill and cup of juice he gave her very mildly, with no parting bitter remark. He came out of her room as quietly as he came in. Before the doors closed again, he turned to look at me, his gaze lingering on mine. There was a flicker of … something, and then it was gone and the doors were locked again. When we were alone again, I tried to catch her eye silently. She turned away from me, and put her finger down her mouth, gagging slightly. She removed the partially-dissolved white tablet from her throat. Yukina presented it to me with a disgusted grimace that tried to be a strained grin. I ingested it, and analyzed its contents as the nanobots primed for action tore it apart instantly. Each took an organic molecule and began to compile a chemical picture of its makeup. As I worked, I grew still. Yukina looked at me with eager eyes. It only took a couple seconds for me to reach my conclusion. The results were inconclusive. It was impossible to tell which parts were acting as suppressant or as antidote unless I had a separate sample of one or the other. I just shrugged and shook my head. Yukina looked like she was about to say something, but I put my finger to my mouth and pointed toward the ceiling microphone with my other hand. According to the projected roster, there should be three attendants in the monitoring room right now. I didn’t dare verify this, but I didn’t want Yukina to say something like “Well? What was it?” with them listening. She can be so careless sometimes! They would surely wonder who she was talking if, if the doors were sealed and locked. No need to give them cause to wonder, then. Close to midnight, the locked panel threshold split open. Yukina was soundly asleep. Matthew walked in, as silent as a cat, and stood there for a moment. He seemed to be weighing his options. For whatever reason … and I would not consider it a charitable one … he decided not to wake her. He simply turned around and left. I think, perhaps, he came in only to verify with his own eyes that she was still there. She never stirred, and I didn’t see the need to inform her that he had come during the night when she woke in the morning. As high-strung as she has been, increasing her nervousness wouldn’t help us one bit today. For today was the day that we had planned our escape. It would be the final risk that I would take, to help assist her. Because, without me accompanying her, she would have no hope of even getting to the next sector undetected. We would have to pass through ten of them. According to my internal chronometer, it was five minutes until 3:00 PM. I hoped that this would be the last time that I’d have to override the microphones with white noise. According the schedule I had just checked, the majority of the personnel should be in their business chamber conducting their meeting. The rest of the staff was minimal, just enough to run the station smoothly during those hours. Despite that, I whispered as quietly as I could. “Are you sure that you remember the plan as we’ve discussed it?” She nodded curtly. “Yes.” My voice dropped a little bit. “I’m sorry that I have no way of showing you a visual aid … are you certain that you understand the direction? If you hesitate even for a moment at some of these junctions, well … all it takes is one person going to the bathroom.” “I understand the danger and I have a good sense of direction,” she said, her voice not wavering at all. “You don’t have to worry about me.” Yes … her spatial awareness was probably excellent, considering the properties of the creature influencing her design. The final question was the most important one. The other questions were mostly due to my own fears, not hers. “Are your feelings of precognition any stronger? If you’re going to be hurt, can you stop it?” She squinted her eyes in concentration, directing her attention inward. “I think so.” I only wished that her answer was as confident as the rest. I moved quickly. “Let’s go.” “Roger Dodger!” Oh, please be serious this one time, Yukina … I thought to myself. Though you don’t realize it, your safety may depend on it … and I doubt that I’ll be able to physically help you when that time comes. I carefully placed my hands on the wall at the exact position of the security device on the other side. I had made a small dent there yesterday after triangulating for the sound to pinpoint it. By focusing the latent energy in my body, I created an electrical surge that would penetrate the metallic wall easily. It would create an imbalance, but it was something I had resigned myself too. What would it matter if I was in a weakened state if we got caught? I’d be dismantled and destroyed, anyway. The door control was audibly shorted, which made me nervous. We could hear the hiss of steam even from in here. Had anyone heard it? We stood there for several seconds, staring at each other and not moving. Yukina gritted her teeth impatiently, and stepped toward the door. The motion sensor activated, and the wall parted seamlessly. After that, we wasted no more time hesitating and ran down the corridors at a dead run. I could move much faster than her, but I hardly wanted to leave her behind. Humans grow lazy after a point. They depend on computers to do their work for them. I intended to use this to my advantage. I was the one responsible for keeping the alarms from activating when we passed through open checkpoints. It required almost all my concentration to constantly process that information and circumvent it. Even with my practice exploring the system virtually, this was quite different. Yukina was panting and starting to get tired as we cleared the first two sectors. Those weren’t the ones I was particularly worried about. The orbiting satellite was built with a circular design with only one level, with the control room located directly in the center. In order for us to move from one side of the station to the other, we would have to go through at least one of the connecting hallways that led almost directly to the center. In other words, a very populated area even now. We neared a hallway lined with doors, and slowed down our pace. “Be careful,” I mouthed near her ear. I didn’t want to alert the staff just by being loud. “Got it.” I slowly sidled along the wall, away from the thresholds of the doors. Yukina was very quiet due to her size, but there was no way for me to completely muffle my heavy footsteps. As I traveled from one end to the other, I felt like I was dancing on knives the entire way. A prickling sensation traveled up my legs. Then the worst thing happened. A door opened, and a surprised female guard stood there, staring at us in shock. She apparently never expected to see the infamous captive-turned-fugitive and an android right outside her quarters. I couldn’t help but notice the maser pistol tucked into its holder on her hip. Yukina noticed it too. There was a strange yellow incandescence that I saw for just a moment, from the corner of my eye. Yukina did something next that I never instructed her to do, or could have possibly predicted. She yelled loudly and charged at the woman. As if in slow motion, I watched the guard’s hand grab the pistol, flip the switch to a low setting, and aim it at the young girl. Yukina swept her arms forward, as though she were preparing to hug the other woman tightly. I felt the change rather than actually observing it. It felt like a rushing wind despite the fact that no air was moving growing outward from her center. The colors and shapes on the wall behind them seemed to distort oddly. Everything changed. Yukina was standing behind the unconscious guard that was now laying on the ground, her eyes ablaze with such an intensity that they were absent of pupil. Her skin was pale and had a waxy sheen to it. Those minute changes faded almost immediately. It gave me a peculiar, sick little feeling to watch it. I think it was the first time that I had ever seen someone that was even more inhuman than I was, however briefly. She removed her small hand from the guard’s forehead. Cold trickles of sweat rolled down Yukina’s face, and one nostril was filling with a drop of blood. She snorted uncomfortably and wiped her face. Yukina faced me directly, her eyes once again normal. Her voice was hushed. “She doesn’t remember meeting us. Let’s go.” What manner of causal agency had this kind of power? Did my creator envision this when he created her as well? It saddened me to think that I would never have the chance to ask him that question. “What are you standing around for? Move!” Her words jolted me back into action, and we traversed the rest of the corridor without incident. The fourth and largest section was cleared. That left only the next quadrant that contained the control room, and the six smaller subsections until we reached the access to the hanger … The control room’s entrance was guarded, but completely open- an unforeseen problem that the station’s computer and the stored blueprint hadn’t prepared me for. I stopped Yukina before she walked ahead obliviously, in full view of everyone. I quickly accessed the database on the fly, confirmed that the nearby restroom was empty, and took shelter in there. Yukina surreptitiously locked the door. “Now what?” she said. “I’m thinking,” I replied quietly. I tried to think back to the events of the last few days, and what little I had learned of the satellite … I ended up arriving at an unexpected solution by something unrelated. “I’ve got it!” Elsewhere, the control room was suddenly overwhelmingly flooded by the sprinkler system being put into overdrive, and the smoke alarm started beeping loudly. I deliberately arranged for them to divert a large amount water from the plumbing. Yukina’s head shot up at the noise, thinking it was the intruder alarm. She flinched away from the locked door. “Stay right here,” I cautioned her. “It should be emptied shortly.” All that water on the electronics … hopefully …this might be an even better solution than I could have predicted! Down the hallway, the distant cries of the technicians operating the station could be heard. A dismayed babble followed that, and a guard ordering them all out. They were right outside the bathroom, in fact. “Please follow evacuation procedures,” the guard instructed them. “The source of the fire will be located shortly, but your safety comes first.” “Maybe it was faulty wiring?” someone guessed. “It doesn’t matter! But the machines … the data loss will be irretrievable!” Another operator added: “I’m more worried about losing … ” All over the station, the fading hum of everything losing power could be heard. The bathroom suddenly went dark. The satellite is positioned in a stable orbit, so I hardly have to worry about us crashing into the Earth right now. At least, it’s not going to decay in the next day. And, if it did, I planned for us to be safely on one of the orbiting wheel-shaped colonies. Yukina put her ear to the door, listening intently to the conversation outside. “Losing electricity?” another one bitterly supplied. “Let’s all head to 4-6 junction please, and take a right,” the guard suggested, interrupting their discussion. “Yes, yes, we’ve all read the manual, and done the drills … you don’t need to tell us twice!” Their voices trailed off as the crowd was herded away. After a minute of silence, Yukina carefully unlocked the door and peeked outside. I put my eye to the crack as well. The hallway appeared to be unoccupied, but it was also very shadowy so it was difficult to tell. I’d usually use the weight sensors of the artificial gravity system to verify it, but that was out of the question right now. She walked out into the dark corridor, and gave me a cocky grin as if taking credit for the results. “A little bit of chaos and destruction … my job here is done!” “Stay focused,” I chided her. “This is no time for humor.” “Spoilsport.” She always has to get in the last word … We were able to look into the control room unimpeded as we went by. It was quite large, with one entire wall devoted to screens that would have probably been displaying numbers and figures if the computers weren’t off. As it was, they were all black and the chamber was empty. I think both of us slowed down when we reached junction 4-6, after what we had overheard from before, but we must have hung back long enough so that we wouldn’t run into that group. Junction 4-2 … 3-7 … Only three more sections now! I never would have believed that we could get this far without getting caught. I dared to hope that we might make it after all. Elsewhere, the back-up generators came online again, and the station surged to life sporadically. The lights above us started to flicker and turn on. Our cover of darkness was vanishing. It was just blind, dumb luck up until that point that we hadn’t run into anyone else. Unfortunately, as the power was restored, the basic security protocols were reinstated. Not the ones controlled by the main computer, but the self-contained devices. And, because misery loves company, we could hear the sound of running footsteps. Yukina looked at me for guidance. There were only two directions to go from here. One would take us toward the hanger, and one would take us back the way we came. The footsteps were coming from the direction we needed to go in. “This way!” I hissed. Even if we backtracked, at the next junction, we could take one of the side passageways to reach it. It would take us longer, though, and every minute was valuable to us. We fled the other way, and darted around the corner. The access hatchway was locked and closed. “Open it, Bion!” she whispered urgently. I slammed my hand against the locking mechanism, right below the number pad. It was partially crushed it with the force, and I fried it with an electrical charge. The doors stayed firmly closed. I reached out and took hold of where the panels met together and pulled. They pried open slowly, cracking under the strain, the gears creaking and squealing in protest. Metallic dust sprayed out into the air like a shower of glitter. A force field came down us behind us as another system came online, and detected the broken apparatus. All the shrapnel and grit in the air hovered as though suspended in gelatin. We moved not a moment too soon … I imagined that I felt the field grazing and clamping down on my heel before I yanked it through by sheer power of movement. At the very next junction, a warm light passed over us as we ran. It was scanning us. “Why aren’t you stopping it?” she demanded, her voice approaching a panicked pitch. “I can’t interface with it,” I growled. “Security clearance accepted,” a pleasant synthesized voice announced. “Please proceed.” I didn’t have time to wonder about why it accepted it without my interference. I just wrote it off as one more malfunction caused by the blackout. I felt like the people coming from the other direction would surely investigate the disturbance we caused back there so we kept up our hectic pace. It paid off. The hanger entrance was just ahead! The gate was open and inviting, light pouring out into the hallway like a beacon. Yukina zipped ahead of me just as I began to have a bad feeling. The hanger was already occupied. I leapt forward to stop her, but it was too late. The last person that we wanted to see stepped out, and already had his phasic energy blade drawn. I had the satisfaction of seeing his mouth drop open slightly when his face turned to me, but had no time to relish it. I didn’t even give Yukina time to react. Just as she froze in place, I pushed her to the ground. Not roughly, but it did knock the breath out of her. She looked up at me wide unbelieving eyes, as the hurt and confusion started to set in. In its own way, it hurt me to do it just as much as it did her to try to comprehend why I had betrayed her. “Target successfully attempted escape and resisted recapture with temporal manipulation,” I informed him blandly, letting none of my emotion show. “The objective has now been completed.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say after that. My mind went almost completely blank. The only idea that I had to avoid his unavoidable interrogation was ridiculous. I did it. I let my eyes dim and fell inert to the floor. For the moment, I was blind, paralyzed, but still conscious and nearly helpless. The only thing that I left unimpaired was my hearing.
Pages to are hidden for
"CHAPTER ONE - BCS"Please download to view full document