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Chapter 3

They used the main biochemistry lab as an emergency conference room. It had the necessary projectors, data ports and was big enough for a group of squabbling scientists, and a holo of the object. Light spilled through the room like a tidal wave, so intense that Meg had to rub her eyes until they adjusted. It was sure to give her a headache on top of everything else.

“This is impossible,” Dr. Asadi said, pointing at the object. She had a severe, yet glamorous look about her that always made Meg a little envious. Before the Rheda, she had always thought of scientists as frazzled geniuses, brilliant but somehow distracted, unkempt. Dr. Asadi was anything but. “If I hadn’t touched it with my own fingers, I would call it a mass hallucination.”

Dr. Al-Ghandour, who had been sitting on one of the medical-steel work benches since before they’d come in, spoke up. “It’s not out of the question, you know. We could all be affected by something that makes us see things, feel them. Haptic illusions are actually not that rare.”

Pierce hissed something under her breath that sounded a lot like “damn shrinks”. Meg raised her eyebrows at the Captain, but didn’t comment any further. It seemed unwise to get in between the social and physical sciences on a ship this size. There was nowhere to hide. The Rheda was primarily a science vessel, privately funded and thus top of the line in every way, and having all the best toys gave some of the scientists a superiority complex.

Well, more of one.

Pierce uncrossed her arms and strode further into the lab to touch the haptic hologram of the object that was the center of all their attention. It looked like the real thing, suspended in mid-air for better all-around appraisal. It gave Meg chills. Pierce turned it in her hands, staring at it as if that would give her answers even the scientists couldn’t provide. Asadi and Al-Ghandour exchanged a look that seemed to Meg like condescending amusement. In all her time as a military pilot, she’d seen that look on everyone up the chain of command, everyone who thought they knew better than someone in the field. Only once in her life had that been true, and she would never regret the risk she took that day.

“Explain it to me,” Pierce said, her eyes still locked on the object. “What do we know?”

Dr. Asadi brought up her data on the wrist comm. “It’s not from any of the known interstellar probes. It doesn’t even appear to have a form of propulsion. We’ve attempted to cut it open but so far the material has proven unbreakable. What we can say with some certainty is that it’s a metallic alloy, and also a ceramic.”

Emily Santiago jumped up, pointing at it. “Possibly it is also alive, or was at some point. The data is… weird.” Asadi grimaced, the word weird was not really a part of her vocabulary, and Meg had a feeling that flighty Santiago would never be Dr. Asadi’s favorite.

“So we know nothing,” Meg said. Her voice was sharp, cutting through all the bullshit like a laser-knife through steel.

Al-Ghandour shot her a conspiratorial grin. “We know that it’s definitely made by some type of intelligence. The coloration on the side appears to be writing of some sort. I say appears because it is mostly smudges now, it could be anything from English to Sumerian iconography.” Or alien, he didn’t say. Meg frowned, thinking about a moment out there in space when she’d known, with absolute certainty, that the object was going to explode.

Dr. Asadi nodded. “What we’ve been able to determine is that the colored particles are of the same molecular makeup as the surrounding material, which suggests that whatever writing or imagery was there, it hasn’t been added post-production.”

Pierce kept asking question, clarifying details Meg didn’t follow. With all their technology, the object they’d found was baffling, though for all intents and purposes not anything more than that. Meg tried not to think about it too much. Something about it made her uneasy. Despite the battered state, it was somehow familiar like a childhood trinket found in an attic; a worn, tattered keepsake.

“If the writing is part of the thing itself, how can it be so unrecognizable?” Meg only noticed she’d spoken aloud when every gaze in the room focused on her. She’d been staring at Pierce staring at the object, trying to force it to make sense by will alone.

Dr. Asadi smiled sharply. “It has been warped on a molecular level.”

Meg swallowed against the sudden drought in her mouth. “We can’t even scratch it.” Her voice had a hoarse quality that Meg tried and failed to control. “What force in the universe could possibly do that?”

The air in the corridor felt acidic as it rushed down Meg’s throat, burning all the way into her blood. She could feel her pulse on the side of her neck, painful almost to bursting.

She was not.

She was not having a panic attack right now. That was not happening. She steadied herself with her right hand planted firmly against the wall. Sweaty, her fingers lost their grip and she slipped. Her body sagged. Her forehead hit the cool metal wall and she breathed through her mouth.


The sound of her own blood came with a terror that radiated from her stomach outward. Waves of it washed over her, and she remembered death. Not her own, not quite, but close enough. Meg could taste the blood on her tongue, the memory of thick, metallic liquid choking her as she tried to breathe air into dying lungs.


Footsteps sounded behind her. Someone had followed her out. Of course. Of course.

She breathed. In. And out.

The footsteps ceased. She knew who it was, she didn’t have to look up. On her wrist, she could feel the weight of the comm she’d turned off. BAT-E was never completely gone, but she could be silenced. There were times when her - no, its - insight was valuable and helpful, and then there were times when Meg needed the illusion of privacy. For a creature that was so inherently inhuman, BAT-E had more common sense than most people Meg had met, but that didn’t mean BAT-E got an all-access pass to Meg’s soul.

“You’ve been out in space a lot,” said Dr. Al-Ghandour. His voice was always soothing, even when he was being an exceptional ass. It was a great quality in a psychologist, not so great in a psychologist Meg was trying to avoid.

When Meg didn’t speak, he said, “Okay,” and sat down with his back against the wall. And waited.

Meg breathed.

“It’s silly,” she said, addressing the wall. “I know it is. I should be stronger than this.”

Al-Ghandour kept silent.

Meg slowly forced the tension out of her body. The distraction had worked. Her jaw relaxed and she dropped down to sit next to him. “I hate this part.”

“I know,” he said, and his voice had a measure of amusement in it that made Meg want to punch him. “We haven’t talked in a while.”

“I was busy.”

It was an obvious lie, but Al-Ghandour didn’t call her on it. “What happened in there?”

Meg sighed, dropping her head back. The dull thud resonated in the corridor. “Nothing, just. Nothing. A stupid space artifact scared me, I ran away.”

“You’re allowed to be scared,” he said and now Meg felt violence boiling under her skin. She didn’t need this.

“Cut the crap, Doctor. I know all that. I know how to be in touch with my emotions.” He chuckled but didn’t offer an analysis of her failings. Meg knew that he was simply waiting for her to do the work for him, but she found herself appreciating it nonetheless. They sat for several minutes, listening to the small noises of their ship as it breathed around them. The Rheda was as alive as any of them, her central AI no less of a sapient animal, for all that it was made of circuits and metal and plastic.

“The scientists all agree that it is probably not dangerous, you know,” Al-Ghandour said. He bumped her shoulder lightly with his and nodded to the end of the corridor, smile bright and contagious. Meg couldn’t help but smile back. “Come on, you need some rest and we’re not far away from our jump coordinates. I’ll walk you to your quarters.”

Pierce looked at the door again, but nothing had changed since the last time she’d checked. There was an itch under her skin that she chalked up to the artifact and all the impossible readings they were getting from it. Dr. Asadi had assured her that, based on their current knowledge, the object was utterly harmless, but Pierce knew a thing or two about margins of error.

“I want this thing locked up tight before we get to the jump coordinates.” Pierce activated her wrist comm. “Rheda, how long until we reach our destination?”

The Rheda AI was the most sophisticated piece of human engineering Pierce had ever seen. Future Corp had built a magnificent machine that was intellectually indistinguishable from a human, but had the reflexes of a quantum computer and could multitask so efficiently that she ran the entire ship on her own, with enough spare processing power to entertain each and every crew member. If the AIs weren’t unfailingly loyal, Pierce might be a little uneasy.

“Captain, at our current speed and heading, we will reach jump coordinates in thirty-seven point three minutes. Jump should be initiated in forty-six minutes.”

That was more than enough time to get their artifact squared away and be as safe as possible. Pierce looked at Emily and Dr. Asadi, the two most acclaimed scientists on her ship. “Make sure that there aren’t any nasty surprises, and then get ready for the jump.”

Pierce understood the basics of jumping, something to do with artificial black holes, an alignment of gravity and a whole lot of math, but no one had ever been able to explain to her why it was such an unpleasant experience. Jumping felt like being hit by lightning, if that lightning slowly squirmed through someone’s flesh and burst into pain so intense it could only be borne in that split second before the ship rematerialized light years away. The sensation immediately lifted on re-entering normal space, but the whole crew tended to be sore after a jump. Most people preferred to sleep or meditate through it, but Pierce didn’t have that luxury. As Captain, she had to be there to initiate the jump, unlocking the system with her hand print and voice command.

“I’m going to Control,” she said, leaving the two women to their work. Neither of them looked up as Pierce left the room.

To get to the nerve center of the ship was easy enough. All corridors led there eventually. To get anywhere else, one had to make a choice to avoid all the signs and turn left instead of right, walk past each lift that went straight up and take the long way around. Pierce’s mind was occupied with strange artifacts and the shadow of real fear in the Commander’s eyes as she wandered through her ship, corridors so familiar she knew instantly where in the ship she’d found herself.

This was not Control.

Pierce knocked.

After a long moment, Meg opened her door. Her hair was down, silky black strands cascading down her shoulders like an inky river. The urge to touch rose up in Pierce and she squashed it down hard. Meg wore a threadbare tank top and soft-looking pajama bottoms, she clearly wasn’t up for company.

“How are you?” Pierce asked, knowing that it was the wrong thing to say the moment it came out.

Meg crossed her arms and raised her shields. “I’m off duty, trying to sleep and quite frankly that’s more than you need to know.”

“I saw you, when you left the lab earlier, you had that look in-”

Before Pierce could finish her sentence, Meg took a step back and hit the door panel. The barrier slid in place, but Pierce could still hear Meg’s final comment. “That’s none of your business, Captain Pierce. If you have doubts about my ability to do my job, talk to the Doc.”

The Rheda waited.

“Be advised, a jump will be initiated in two minutes,” the ship’s intercom noted, all soft-voiced and friendly.

Her hands sweating, Pierce prepared herself for the jump. Control was empty, she was the only crew member necessary for this, and everyone else was lying down somewhere. This was the reason her chair had been made to be comfortable - not some kind of authoritarian vanity, but simple necessity. This thing had to be able to keep her safe if she passed out or started seizing.

“Captain,” Rheda said, voice now confined to Control. “Are you ready?”

Pierce grinned. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Your vital signs are irregular, your fear response is heightened. Why are you afraid?”

Despite the inherent pointlessness of talking about physically triggered emotions to an AI, Pierce had a minute to explain. It might calm her down. “You know, they say people are afraid of the unknown, but sometimes this is worse. Knowing exactly what’s coming and being unable to do anything about it.”

“We have done this many times.”

“I know,” Pierce said, trying to work the cramp out of her neck with her left hand. Her right hand sat next to the scanner. “Let’s go.”

Pierce placed her hand on the scanner. She spoke the sequence of numbers that made up her jump code quietly, her voice barely audible to human ears. It was enough.

The ship began to sing. The discordant hymn of every day life on the Rheda sharpened into a fantastic crescendo. All systems pulsed with the same beat. Light exploded behind her eyelids. When had she closed her eyes? Her muscles tensed, cramped, released. Again. Again.

Pierce screamed. The noise exploded into the void, a single note of terror and pain.

Then it was over.

This was the moment, the relief, and she sucked clean, cool air into her burning lungs. But something was different, something had changed. Alarms were ringing. Pierce forced her eyes open. Her fingers had curled, clawlike, and torn the skin of her palms. Her knees were locked. Forcing her whole body to untense before it was ready caused another wave of pain.

“Rheda, status report. What’s happening?”

And then the ship said something that drove a lightning bolt of fear through her. “I don’t know, Captain. My sensors all went offline. I’m blind.”