Chapter Fifteen

Do you see anything?” Ghost asked James. A nearly 360 degree view of the Ark’s surroundings played on screens encircling the small space. Right now, they showed the dark blue water of the opening in the ice that the Ark was floating in and the sky. James focused on the sky.

“No,” he said. No telltale blink of a lightbeam. Nor did he “hear” anything incriminating over the ether. He watched a tiny speck of black leave the atmosphere. Its ether was wild with jubilant cries and someone saying, “Food for months and enough augment parts to buy us citizenship on Libertas!”

Ghost shook his head. “We still shouldn’t be here.” James’s eyes slid to the man. He was eyeing a monitor with the same tiny retreating ship James had just been eavesdropping on. Was Ghost listening to their ether as well? James glanced down at a CPU usage read-out. There was nothing to indicate that the Ark’s ancient system had taken on the awesome task of decrypting ethernet channels. His jaw shifted, and he felt a cold prickle along his skin. Was Ghost like him? His left hand trembled … he didn’t feel like that was true.

Ghost abruptly bolted out of his seat and went to the farthest point in the tiny room. “I can’t find anything,” Ghost mumbled. “You’re not connected to the ethernet. They shouldn’t fear encoding their secret missions onto you!”

James sat up with a start. “Ghost?”

The little man spun around, his eyes wide, his lower lip trembling.

James's mind replayed Ghost's words moments before, and his apps indicated that they were uttered too softly to have been heard by normal human hearing. He'd just “thought aloud.” The question was to whom? James’s remembered Ghost's cries over the ether on Adam's Station. “They can't get me.” Ghost was terrified of being caught by the Guard; he wasn't the enemy. Not now.

“You seem … agitated,” James said, to not give away that he'd heard Ghost's words moments ago. He'd find out who Ghost was talking too, or what, but now wasn't the time.

“Of course I'm agitated!” Ghost sputtered. “The Commander is going to get us killed!”

Ghost sat down heavily at another console. “And I don't like sharing my private workspace.”

James felt a spark of insight in his mind … Ghost didn't like giving himself away. James didn't respond, just moved over to another computer screen. Half of this screen showed the water of the sea they floated in. The other half showed the city they were approaching. Atlantia Prime, the single city on Atlantia’s surface, was packed with buildings that nearly touched its biodome. Once the city had rested on a thick sheet of ice—a sort of inverse snow globe—but then an earthquake had cracked the ice beneath it. As the ice split, the city had fallen into an icy new sea. The following tidal wave had cracked the already stressed structure. The breach was wide at the base, but thinner at the rooftop level. The Ark was too large to fly in; so they were floating in. His eyes shifted from the sky to the water.

“Are there fish?” James asked curiously. He didn’t see any.

Ghost responded, “I’ve heard there is some sea-life.”

Before he could inquire more, the door to the computer room swooshed open. Noa stood in the frame. She hadn’t contacted him in the ether. There was a tenseness in her jaw and shoulders.

“Who is at the helm?” cried Ghost.

“Chavez,” Noa said, stepping in, her hands locked behind her back. “Her father was a small freighter boat captain on Luddeccea’s North Sea. The woman’s more qualified to ride waves than I am.” Her eyes went to James and she nodded. “I need you and your eidetic memory topside.”

“Take him!” Ghost grumbled.

James was already heading to the door. “What do you need my memory for?”

Noa's shoulders fell a fraction. “There has been a lot of new construction in the biodome. A substantial number of buildings and skywalks aren’t on the map. I need to record all of them as we float in. I’ll have my memory app on, but I can only record what I see, and I don’t want to miss anything. If we have to leave in a hurry, a side street, or boulevard I might overlook could mean life or death.”

“Understood,” said James, barely refraining from mentioning again how bad an idea this was.

Spinning on her heels, she said, “We’ve got environ suits in the airlock.” Everything about her carriage and demeanor still radiated tension, but he couldn’t think of anything witty to lift the mood.

A few minutes later, they were packed in a narrow airlock with Gunny and Wren. They all wore drab gray environ suits. The suits were fairly light, except for the helmets with their oxygen filtration masks. The masks could be set to filter oxygen from the nitrogen-laden air of Atlantia, or they could refilter exhaled air, splitting carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon. The suits had a quilted appearance; one part of a suit could be damaged and sealed at a seam without requiring a trip back in the airlock. They also had basic heating and cooling controls. Almost unconsciously, James turned up his heating unit to maximum.

Over the main channel, Noa said, “Manuel, could you switch off the gravity in here … slowly.”

“On it, Commander,” he said.

James’s eyes went heavenward, and then he realized that “heavenward” was not skyward. The Ark’s gravity was on, so it felt like the nose of the vessel was “up.” The ship could be operated on its side—but it took time to convert the spaces, and the galley, retrofitted to be a cafe, could not be converted at all. It had been decided to leave the grav on. But the crew going topside would need to reorient themselves to the planet’s natural pull.

“Don’t throw up,” Wren said.

Gunny grunted and put his fingers over his face. “I always close my eyes.”

James didn’t close his eyes. He’d only read and seen grav reorientations on holovids. He wanted to experience it, all of it, even motion sickness. He glanced at Noa. She didn’t close her eyes either, but her gaze was focused on the “wall” that was about to become the floor.

There was a soft sigh beneath James’s feet and he felt like the ship was rolling over. Noa held out a foot, like she was about to take a step, and James did likewise. A moment later, he felt the foot inextricably drawn to the “wall” and stepped down a little unsteadily. Gunny hopped to the wall a lot more gracefully than James thought possible with his eyes closed. Wren did the same, but he looked green.

“The grav under the dome must be activated,” Noa said, scowling at the floor. “I’m getting a reading of 8.5 meters per second.”

“Yep,” said Gunny, giving a little bounce.

On a whim, James did likewise.

“Don’t hit your head,” Gunny chuckled.

James blinked. His internal apps had accommodated the new gravity quite well and he hadn’t come close to hitting the ceiling—low that it was.

“You have enough sproinginess already,” the sergeant said with a grin. He was teasing, James realized, good naturedly, and James wanted so badly to smile even though he didn't find it funny. “I’ve already re-calibrated the springs in my toes,” James said, in a lame attempt to match his wit.

Gunny actually guffawed at the not particularly funny joke.

The sound of a metal door scraping on old hinges made James look toward Noa. She was standing beneath a utility cubby that in ship’s gravity would be above the door but now was beside it. The narrowness of the airlock suddenly made sense. Standing on the former “wall,” Noa was still able to reach the utility cabinet with her hands above her head. She opened it, and a light, plexiflame staircase unfolded.

Gunny grunted and lifted a small “surface-to-air plasma cannon” they’d stolen from the tick. It was light enough to haul over one’s shoulder, but had considerably more power than a normal phaser rifle. Wren hefted his own cannon; Noa and James were outfitted with phaser rifles. James’s eyes went suspiciously to Wren, and he felt Noa reach out to his mind and answer his unspoken question. “We can’t totally trust him. But we can trust him to want to get out of here. And he’s the only person with advanced weapons experience who isn’t needed on the ship right now.”

By some prearrangement, Gunny went up the steps first. The outside door whooshed. For a moment the sergeant scanned outside from the stairwell, but then his voice broke through the ether. “All is clear,” and he climbed up onto the deck.

Noa followed in his wake, and James followed her, with Wren bringing up the rear.

“Don’t ever say I don’t take you places,” Noa said. Her voice was crystal clear in James’s mind. The scene around them was not. Mist was billowing up from the street turned canal they now floated on, and wrapped around them as they stepped out onto the deck.

“You have to admit, it’s pretty,” Noa said through the ether. Her helmeted head was looking about, methodically canting upward, then down, turning a degree, and repeating the motion, scanning again in a motion that was nearly robotic.

The scene was more than pretty, and for a moment, James forgot what he was supposed to be doing on the deck. Above them, the shell of the biodome that had wrapped around the Atlantian city was cracked and missing pieces. The cracks were sparkling in the dim light of the noonday sun. The gas giant S8O5 hung in the ultramarine blue sky. Even the blue of Atlantia’s atmosphere barely dulled the planet's brilliant orange glow, and the planet's ice rings sparkled around it. James couldn’t help shuffling through the hazy memories of before the accident and the crystal-sharp memories since, to compare it to all such celestial scenes. It was an impressive sight; if he’d still been recording memories for his time capsule, he would have been sure to add it. He could see why the Atlantians had tried to have it declared one of the seven natural wonders of the galaxy.

Remembering his purpose, he brought his gaze down to the city. On either side of them, spires from the abandoned colony rose up. Limited horizontally, the colony had grown vertically. The height of the spires rose with the height of the dome. In the distance, three particularly large spires rose above the water at the dome's apex: the main hospital, the main government offices, and the chamber of commerce. The scene reminded James of sailing through the sunken buildings of Old Los Angeles on Earth, but Old Los Angeles didn’t have walkways arching between its towers, like an intricate, sparkling, spider web. The slightly lighter gravity made him feel lighter, made the Ark float impossibly high, and made the situation that much more surreal.

“It’s very dramatic,” he replied after too long a pause, beginning his own scan of the buildings.

“Yes, indeed,” said Noa, and he could hear the awe in the tone she let her thoughts form. “Can’t imagine anything more so.”

“Cannons firing on us from above as we try to take off from the water, that would be more dramatic,” James responded dryly.

James heard Noa laugh through the barriers of her helmet and his. But she did turn, a little too quickly, and looked back at Wren and Gunny, both walking along the length of the Ark, cannons balanced easily on their shoulders in the lower gravity. “Wren, Gunny—”

Manuel’s voice cut across the ether. “Incoming on our scopes.”

A sonic boom cracked above them. Gunny dropped to one knee and aimed. Wren hesitated and then did the same. Waves caused by the boom shook the Ark, and fragments of the dome broke off and fell into the partially-submerged city. A small vessel with a patchwork of metal on its hull entered what remained of the dome, swooped low, and for a moment James was sure it would engage. James’s mind leaped into the ether, his vision went bright white, and he heard the chatter from the vessel. “Tuned into the local ether … Those poor sods are holed up into the hospital … maybe we could have some fun? Eh, Boss?” There was a response. “Maybe we could get our asses shot off, Dorf. They’re being watched by an Atlantian Guard unit … is that a boat down there? And are those men on that boat pointing anti-aircraft phasers at us? Jeez, there is enough to share!” The vessel changed course, giving the Ark a wide berth. And then the conversation turned to the state of the engines, food stores, landing gear, and the best place to land and loot.

James squinted, following their path with his eyes as they flew off. He saw a few more small vessels through the mist. They buzzed between buildings like flies.

Lowering his weapon, Wren said over the ether. “Just honest smugglers.” For a moment, his silhouette was framed by the glow of S8O5. James could see inside his helmet. The freighter pilot was scowling, despite his words laced with bravado. Wren’s eyes met James’s and he turned away quickly.

The Ark floated through the misty city streets, the dome sparkling above them in the dim light of the sun and S8O5. The whole team was silent. Even Noa. Which meant she was on edge and not nearly as confident about this operation as she pretended. Her edginess put James on edge, and he struggled for a quip to break the tension … and again came up with nothing.

There was a whoosh from one of the airlocks, and everyone spun. 6T9 strode out onto the deck in the nearly freezing, oxygen-poor air, wearing a tight t-shirt, an even tighter pair of pants, and a type of footwear in the 20th century known as “flip flops.” In one hand he held a platter on which three tea cups were steaming.

“Refreshments?” 6T9 asked. James found his eyes crossing, going to the seal where the visor of his helmet met the oxygenating mask. It was still there. He looked up quickly and saw Gunny similarly cross-eyed.

“What are you doing?” said Wren, not bothering to use the ether, his incredulity clear in his voice even through the muffling of the helmet.

Striding over to them, beaming with what looked like pride, 6T9 said, “I am a multi-functional ‘bot. Eliza told me you must be tired, so I took the initiative to bring you some tea and cookies as refreshments.”

James looked down at the tray. There were some cookies on the plate. A haze of blackness appeared at the edge of his vision and he knew like he knew the gravity of the planet, that he could open the visor of his suit if he wanted. He found his hand convulsively squeezing the internal heat control located in the glove of his suit instead until an internal warning light went on. His vision cleared. Could it be that his augments had trouble maintaining his internal temperature? Was that the reason he was always so hungry? He blinked. He still wanted a cookie. He had to look away for fear of losing control and snatching one.

“You didn’t notice we were in environmental suits?” Wren snapped.

“I notice you are in environ suits,” said 6T9, very slowly, as though he suspected it might be a trick question.

James found himself taking pity on the ‘bot. “Ease up,” he said to Wren. “Don’t bang his head into Moore’s Wall, he’s perfectly capable of doing that himself.”

He heard Noa’s bright huff of laughter, and his nanos danced. From Gunny’s helmet came a slower “Heh. Heh, heh, heh …”

Noa’s thoughts entered the ether, clipped and focused. “Get below deck, 6T9.”

Wren growled. “Don’t waste good tea and cookies out here, you dumb 'bot!”

As 6T9 headed toward the airlock, Noa said, “Ghost, let’s open the channel to the hospital. We’ll be within firing range in another five minutes and—”

There was a whistling overhead, and Gunny knocked Wren down, shouting, “Hit the deck!”

James and Noa ducked in unison. 6T9 looked down at the deck, befuddled. There was a splash in the water in the direction they were heading, orange light flared, and the ship rocked. James spun to see a wall of flame.

* * *

Crouched on the deck, Noa looked over her shoulder. Flames leaped from the water as the ship rocked, but they were dying fast in the oxygen-poor air.

Gunny’s thoughts cracked through the ether. “That was a plasma grenade launched from a DX4 launcher. Those are restricted Fleet tech!”

“A what?” said Wren.

“Where did it come from?” Noa shouted.

“The hospital,” James said.

Gunny protested. “I didn’t see where it came from, and my apps—”

Noa didn't ask how James knew—he probably had a triangulation app. Her mind leapt into the ether. As soon as she sent a message back to the refugees, every scavenger ship in the vicinity would know who they were. She’d wanted to wait a little longer, but if they were being shot at by DX4 plasma charges, she couldn't waste a second more. “Ghost,” she said, “Get me connected to the Atlantian ether via the Ark—same frequency they contacted us on.” She didn't need the headaches that connecting directly to the local insecure ether could cause.

The response was grumbly, but Ghost said, “You're in, Commander. This planet's computer was only slightly less infested than Adam's Station’s.”

Noa reached out to the survivors. “This is Captain Noa Sato of the Galactic Fleet. We are here to relieve you, Atlantian Local Guard Team 329.”

“Halt your advance or we’ll fire,” said a voice her internal apps translated as belonging to Lieutenant Aarav Sterling.

“Ensign Chavez, forward thrusters full-stop,” Noa said. She nervously scanned the skies, and her eyes fell on a scavenger ship clinging to a wall just beneath a skywalk like a black spider. Was it coming closer out of nefarious intent, or just “honestly smuggling”? She bit back her worry.

“You’ll understand me if I say we will be needing more proof,” Sterling said. “That isn’t a Fleet vessel.”

“That is correct, Lieutenant, but it has been requisitioned by the Fleet under the terms of Colonial Evacuation Law 2389 by myself, Commander Noa Sato, most recently of the Sugihara under command of …” Noa went on. She gave a listing of her assignments, and when she got to her stint in System Six there was a snort, and a, “Lots of people like to say they served in Six.”

So she went further back, all the way to her stint at Fort Arena Roja where she’d received her low-G training.

“Then you know about the fleas,” said Sterling.

Noa blinked. “There were no fleas. There were mites.”

“Can you make this go faster?” James ground out.

Sterling said, “You were lucky as an officer you didn’t get mite extermination duty like the grunts.”

“Don't blame him for being twitchy,” said Gunny, kneeling on the deck, following the spider-like vessel with his sites.

Noa frowned. Sterling was obviously former Fleet himself, and obviously still testing her. “Of course I got extermination duty. That red dust smelled like vomit!” Officers and enlisted alike experienced that joy.

The small craft attached to the skywalk slid around the building.

James sidled closer to her. “We’re attracting more attention,” he said, his blue eyes violet in the low light, and then his gaze jerked upwards to a spot in the sky behind her. Noa spun. There were more scavenging ships hovering around like flies.

Turning back toward the hospital, Noa reached across the ether. “What else do I need to say to convince you I am who I say I am? Do you want to know the barracks I was in during basic? The serial number on my first pair of g-boots? A description of my bunkmate?”

A thought that wasn’t from the captain, Noa, or any of her crew, flickered through the ether. “Was she pretty?”

“Is that one of yours, Sterling?” Noa asked.

“No,” said James aloud. His eyes were on a small vessel buzzing near the top of the dome.

“No, Commander,” Sterling replied in what was the first acknowledgement of her rank. “Someone has hacked into this channel.”

“Noa, we need to get out of here,” James said, his left hand tapping a rapid staccato rhythm on the barrel of his rifle. “There are too many of them. I’m having trouble keeping track.”

Noa ground her teeth. Over the ether, she said, “We need to talk in person. The Atlantian ether isn’t secure.” Aloud she grumbled, “Goddamn it, I sound like a Luddeccean.”

Beside her, James said, “Well, technically …” Behind his visor his brow furrowed. He blinked and said softly, “Harmless,” and his eyes went to another vessel.

Across the ether, Sterling said, “You’re free to approach. I’ll meet you at the sixth-story skywalk; it’s now at water level.”

Noa’s eyes went to the hospital situated directly in front of them, where the channel met another in a t-intersection and dead-ended. On the starboard side, a walkway arched over the water to the building across the street. “I see it. Chavez, sending you coordinates,” she said.

“Aye, Commander,” Chavez replied across the channel, and the vessel began to move forward.

They were a few meters from their destination when the sun slipped from its zenith and behind a building. It was only a few minutes past the planet’s noon, but so far from the sun’s light, it looked like twilight. If it weren’t for the reflected light of the enormous S8O5, it would have been as dark as night.

Beside her, James shook his head. A red light she recognized was on inside his helmet.

“James, your suit is overheating,” she whispered.

“No, no,” he said, his voice muffled. “I’m comfortable.” He put a gloved hand to his helmet. “I just can’t see very well when the light changes. If I can’t see them, I can’t listen.”

“Listen?” said Noa. She must have misheard.

James’s hand dropped, and his eyes met hers. His face was a few hands-widths away, they were separated by two thin layers of plastic, and it seemed like they were a million clicks away. For a moment, despite everything, he seemed like a stranger.

“Commander,” a voice shouted, muffled by a breathing apparatus.

She was getting “caught up in her own wheels” as her dad used to say, thoughts and doubts she didn’t have time for. She turned toward the voice. A man was standing in a broken window of the arching skywalk. “Lieutenant Sterling?” Noa shouted back.

The enviro-suited figure nodded.

“We need to talk, privately,” Noa said aloud. Quickly, she wanted to add, but didn’t.

He nodded again. With a thought she sent Chavez an order to give some boost to the antigrav. The Ark rose out of the water, so that the ship was just about a meter below the walkway. The figure said, “Wait, Commander, take off your helmet.”

There was a whistling noise overhead and Noa’s eyes jerked upward, just in time to see a scavenger ship clipped by phaser fire from a roof.

“Please,” Sterling said. “Commander, it will speed things up.”

He lifted a hologlobe in one hand, an old one, nearly as wide as Noa’s forearm. In it flashed a picture of a younger Noa in Fleet Gray, smiling broadly.

“He wants visual verification,” James said.

Sterling lifted his own helmet to show her there was no trick. He was handsome, in the typical Afro-Eurasian way—narrow light brown eyes, a thin nose, full lips. But his looks were marred by the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes.

Noa took off her helmet, oxygen filtration device and all. The cold air was bracing, and although the air was as dense as Earth’s, the nitrogen load was higher, and it almost instantly made her lungs burn with want.

Sterling smiled. “Thank God, it is you … Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted,” Noa said, snapping her helmet back on.

Hastily putting his own mask back on, he leapt lightly down onto the deck and walked over to Noa.

Her mind ticked down the seconds with every step. They’d been planetside for over an hour. She’d announced who she was over the local ether. The Luddecceans didn’t use the ether, but she’d taken off her helmet, too, and anyone who knew the history of the Luddeccean planet would have recognized the Ark. A lightbeam message could already be traveling to Luddeccea. They could be rounding up the Luddeccean Guard Fleet within minutes … her mind raced with everything she had to say to Sterling, to warn him that he wouldn’t be taking his people to Luddeccea. “Before you agree to come with us, you need to know that we’re not going to Libertas, or Luddeccea.”

Sterling, advancing across the deck, came to a sudden stop. “We have to come with you,” he said. Above their heads another scavenger ship buzzed by and was trailed by phaser fire.

Sterling didn’t even look up. “We’re running low on ammo.”

“We’re being pursued by Luddecceans,” James said. “You should know that, too.”

Noa’s shoulders sagged. James was right to bring it up, but she didn’t want to argue with comparative virtues of running with her versus staying here.

Sterling was quiet for a moment, but then he said, “We have some people who are severely injured, attached to medical equipment. You should know that, as well.”

Noa nodded. “They’re welcome to what we have.”

Sterling gave a grim smile. “We better get moving. I don’t suppose you can help supply cover while I move my people off the top floors?”

Noa straightened. He had a whole platoon according to his distress call … she had Gunny, but Chavez and Manuel, her only two other military personnel, were tied up below deck.

He smiled grimly. “I lied about our military might when I made the distress signal.”

Noa held out a hand and introduced Sterling to Gunny. Gunny had been avoiding Noa's gaze since their conversation, but he met Sterling's and nodded smartly. Sterling was suitably impressed by Gunny’s credentials; he was definitely Fleet. Noa was about to assign Wren to help with the evacuation, but before she could, Gunny said, “I’d like to request James come with us.”

Sterling pivoted toward James, and Noa could see he expected an introduction.

“James isn’t Fleet,” Gunny said, “but he’s one cool head in a fight, and an incredible shot. I trust him with my life.” He looked almost shyly toward Noa as he said it. As if afraid she might say no.

“Plus I can lift real heavy things,” James said.

Gunny barked a laugh. “He can!”

Noa felt herself go cold. Somewhere in the distance, a scavenger ship whined. The Luddeccean Guard were after James; he shouldn’t be separated from the team.

As though reading her thoughts, James whispered through the Genji cipher, “The sooner we get out of here, the better.”

He wasn’t supposed to say that. He wasn’t supposed to be so cooperative. He’d been against the mission from the start. But he was right, and she had to put her feelings aside. She nodded and pulled the satchel she was wearing over her head and handed it to him. “It’s filled with the last of Ghost’s ether extenders. You’ll be able to use the ship’s ether to communicate, bypass Atlantia’s buggy system, and not be overheard.” James slung it over his shoulder. The sun slipped from behind the building, shining so brightly on his visor that she couldn’t see within. “Be careful, and fast,” she said.

“I can lift real heavy things.” 6T9’s voice directly behind her made Noa jump.

Sterling rolled back on his feet, Gunny snorted, and Wren made a gagging noise.

“I can lift real heavy things,” 6T9 said again, his expression earnest. He tilted his head. “And I am familiar with medical equipment, and know how to be useful to people who are in pain.” He looked down at the tray in his hands. The tea cups had tipped over, but the cookies were miraculously still there. “Really,” he added, looking up at Noa. “Even if I'm not the sharpest hammer in the toolbox.”

Someone snorted at the botched idiom.

Noa’s mouth dropped open, ashamed though she shouldn’t be. 6T9 couldn’t feel embarrassment.

“It’s a good idea,” James said, thunking 6T9 on the shoulder.

6T9 smiled. “I’m ninety-eight percent charged and ready to go!” He looked down at the cookies. “Well, except I haven't put these away …”

James opened the satchel. “Put them in here.” He looked at Sterling. “There are kids, right?”

Gunny grunted. “Good thinking,” he said and passed his heavy weapon to Noa.

Sterling nodded, and 6T9 put the cookies in the satchel. Over the ether, Manuel said, “Commander, remember, if this hospital is a good one, they may have a replacement heart for Oliver.”

“I remember,” James said. “Monica gave me the model number to look for.”

Noa hoisted the cannon onto her shoulder. When she lifted her eyes, James, already by the skywalk, was peering into the broken window.

Sterling said, “Let me—”

James hopped up into the open space as though he were on springs. Bending down to one knee, he offered Gunny a hand. Gunny accepted, and James hoisted him up. A moment later, Noa watched as her sergeant pulled his phaser rifle around and slunk out of view, his practiced moves oddly out of place on a body with such a prominent beer gut. James dropped a hand to Sterling and hoisted him up, too. “Or I’ll let you go first,” Sterling finished.

6T9 followed them. He waved away James’s hand and hopped up into the skywalk with as much grace as James had.

Noa took a step back, then shook her head and turned around. Hefting her new weapon on her shoulder, she peered through its scopes at two ships whining by. The second ship made her blink. It was blue—or chrome reflecting the sky—in much better shape than the first. Her finger tightened on the trigger.

Wren fired first. The blue ship darted behind a building.

“Shit,” Wren murmured. Noa tried to follow its path with her eyes, but it disappeared in the maze of buildings and walkways.

“You recognize them?” Noa asked. She found herself breathing heavily, though her oxygen filtration mask was working fine.

Wren’s helmet was turned away from her, still canted to the sky. “No.”

“When you fired …” She’d been afraid he knew something she didn’t.

“I’m just trigger happy,” he snapped. He finally turned around. The sun was shining directly on his visor, and she couldn’t see his expression, but she thought she heard a manic smile in his voice when he said, “I don’t like being stuck down here.”

Her suit was perfectly warm, but she shivered anyway.

* * *

It was a mistake for James to have volunteered to go into the hospital. He was walking with 6T9 in between Sterling, on point, and Gunny taking the rear. The hospital was amazingly modern, and amazingly clean. The walls were white and pristine. The power had not gone out—which was one of the reasons Sterling’s team had holed up in the place. As they walked down the hall, tiny cleaning 'bots whooshed out of hidden doors in the baseboards of the walls and wiped away their footsteps. They hadn’t encountered any opposition; the only opposition was in James’s mind. He was having flashbacks of the long white hall the day he died. His left hand tapped his rifle. Not the day he died … the day he had been revived, he reminded himself.

James, Gunny, and Sterling were all wearing their filtration masks, in case they had to smash out a window and take aim at potential intruders, but they’d taken off the top portion of their helmets. The hospital was warm. The only thing that hinted that all was not well was the smell of damp.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking …” Sterling said, peering around a corner, rifle raised. “What is happening on Luddeccea? Why are the Luddeccean authorities after you?” The question brought James’s focus back to the present. He noticed Sterling was peering over the sights of the scope and was cocking his head strangely, as though trying to hear a far-off sound. Nodding almost imperceptibly to himself, Sterling motioned James and Gunny forward. James didn’t hesitate to follow. He trusted Sterling. He could hear him over the ether. Sterling’s team was using a cipher, like the Ark’s crew had when the tick landed. It had taken twenty-eight seconds longer than usual for James to decode, but James had been listening in ever since. At this particular moment, someone was saying, “Why didn’t the first evac ship come back from Luddie-ville?”

Following Sterling down the new hallway, his own rifle raised, James said, “The Luddecceans believe that an alien intelligence—or demons, or djinn, depends on who you ask—have seized control of Time Gate 8 and are controlling augments through the ether.” But they didn’t control James; they only … listened in? Were they trying to reach the larger galaxy through James? Was he infected? A contagion? Static fired along his augmented spine. His fingers fluttered on the rifle barrel. “They’re rounding up augments and exterminating them,” James finished.

“That’s illegal!” 6T9 exclaimed. “… and genocide!”

Sterling stumbled and paused. James had recognized that Sterling had augmented hearing and vision. That was why he was peering over his scope and cocking his head in such a peculiar way at each corner. Sterling hadn’t expressed any hope over the ether to go to Luddeccea, but just in case he harbored any secret desire, James wanted to quash it.

Sterling’s bloodshot eyes widened. “Really?” he asked, his voice baleful. Earlier, Sterling had described Gunny to his team as, “Former Fleet, seems solid.” Of James, Sterling had said to his team, “Upper-crust Earther maybe with his accent, and cosmetic-augments, augmented strength definitely, Caucasian throwback … the team trusts him, but I dunno. You know how Earthers are, especially rich ones, and throwbacks are always odd.” When someone had commented that Noa was a throwback, too, Sterling shot back, “Maybe, but she’s Fleet and a Sixth vet.”

Now his eyes left James, skipped right over 6T9, and went to Gunny.

The sergeant spit. “Really.” Turning to look down the hall, Sterling tilted his head again, listening, and then led them forward.

“They don’t like outsiders either,” James added, fanning the fire. “I’m from Earth, I was on my way to Luddeccea for vacation, when my rented shuttle was shut down.” For just a moment Sterling’s head bowed—thinking of the evac ship? But he said nothing and thought nothing to his team. He just kept going down the hallway.

They reached a door and Sterling came to a halt. “I don’t want to use the lifts. The generator is on but if it goes out …”

“Right,” said Gunny. “We’ll be taking the stairs, then.”

Sterling nodded and opened the door to a set of stairs lit by dirty yellow lights coated with dust. The floors and ceilings were poured concrete. After the austerity of the hallway that was too much like James’s trip down the “final tunnel,” it was relief. He chided himself. It wasn’t the “final tunnel” because he was here, alive …

There was a grinding noise, and James’s internal apps went wild. “The gravity,” he said.

“The artificial grav is finally dying,” Sterling said.

“All the better to run up these stairs,” said Gunny.

“But terrible for your bones and immune systems,” 6T9 said primly. “It would be best to leave as soon as possible.”

Where he stood a few steps above the party, Sterling turned back and looked at the ‘bot, his brow contorted in a look of incredulity and confusion. “That's what we're d—”

“Don’t explain,” James said.

“Don't even try,” added Gunny.

“Explain what?” 6T9 asked.

“Right,” said Sterling, turning and taking the stairs two at a time. Weapons fire echoed down the staircase. Everyone on the staircase ducked—except 6T9—who looked up at the ceiling. “We must help those people,” he declared and started to move.

James dropped a hand on the 'bot's shoulder as Sterling’s thoughts spread across the ether. “What was that?”

“Another ship … flying way too close,” came the response.

For a moment the gray stairwell seemed to contract, as though the grav in the building had increased.

And then he realized the gravity had increased.

“Damn, antigrav is in its death throes,” Sterling said. “It's been increasing and decreasing at random.”

James looked toward the dusty ceiling. This could be the real tunnel of death.