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We are all Human

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||What’s your bearing, AKS-42?||

The tinny, robotic voice spoke in Damen’s ear. He adjusted his helmet, a nervous habit, to ensure his microphone could pick up his words.

“Coming in at approximately fifteen kilometres a second, will begin approach in forty five minutes.” Damen double checked the readings on his piloting console. “Please send docking speeds and rotation.”

||Sending now,|| the voice said. A small message alert displayed on Damen’s screen. He opened it and found the equations for his autopilot to dock safely. ||Please confirm.||

“I’ve received them, thanks.” Damianos sent them to his autopilot, and he felt a slight shift in inertia as his ship began to make corrections in preparation for docking.

||Please be aware that there have been reports there may be a Slartyari Striker in the area. There have been no confirmed sightings, but several miners on nearby rocks have mentioned heightened drone activity.||

“Thank you. I’ll keep an eye out. Hey, tell Nikandros Delpha that I want to see him as soon as I land.”

||Affirmative. Message recorded and sent. Will there be anything else, Commander?||

“That’s all for now, Athena, thanks,” Damen said. He heard the distinctive click of the computic on the other end disconnecting, and sat back in his chair. Overhead, the stars glittered against the obscene darkness of space. Damen closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Even with over five thousand hours of spaceflight, the vastness of the Black still made his heart race and his breath quicken. Some things humans just feared instinctively.

The cockpit was cramped and efficient, with exactly the right amount of room to allow him to stretch if he needed to, but no more. His Lioness was more a bullet through space than a luxury liner, and the lack of any meaningful entertainment drove the point home on long skips into the Belt. Damen tipped his head back against his chair and figured at least the toilet worked on this flight.

A soft beeping drew his attention, and Damen opened his eyes to see his proximity alert had gone off. He quickly shut down all communication frequencies and took manual control of his ship, a small Akielon Lioness fighter. If there were Slartyari Strikers in the area, his ship would not withstand a full assault. Best to remain out of their sights completely rather than engage.

The vehicle on his readings appeared too small to be a Striker. It could have been a drone, sent ahead. Damen steered away from the signal’s source, and kept his eyes on his own speed and bearings. He would still have to dock with the station, but he couldn’t lead the drone along behind him. With any luck, the ambient noise from the asteroid field would hide the burn of his engines until he was out of range.

The proximity alert beeped more urgently, and Damen glanced at his display. The approaching ship was closer, and there was another one directly behind it. Definitely a drone and the accompanying Striker.

“Shit.” Damen couldn’t hail the station, because the transmission would almost certainly be tracked. Even with the station’s advanced shielding, a transmission would give away it’s position like a beacon. “This sector was supposed to be clear.”

Without wasting more air on complaining, Damen ignored the computic’s advice completely and guided his ship towards one of the larger rocks he could see. He felt a slight pull as he drew near, signalling that the rock was large enough to have it’s own gravity, and kicked his boosters just enough to put him into the rock’s fragile gravity well.

Then, he killed his engines, his lights, and all systems except life support. Attached to the rock, he was able to see the Striker’s approach.

Slartyari Strikers were massive carrier ships. They were able to launch fighters and drones from two hangar bays that led the command centre and living quarters of their ship. Damen felt dwarfed as the Striker passed overhead. While it was far enough away they could not see him visually, the ship blotted out a portion of the sunlight that permeated the asteroid field. Damen was even in its shadow for a brief moment before it moved past him and further into the Belt.

Damen snatched a notepad and pen off his console and scratched down the direction the Striker was moving. They would have to warn their mining stations in that direction, and possibly send reinforcements. When the striker was far enough that his engines wouldn’t cause any significant blip on their scanners, Damen sucked in his breath and flicked his engines to life.

Light flooded his compartment, and with one eye on the vanishing Striker and the other on his readings, Damen carefully boosted away from the asteroid and adjusted until he was once again on a orbital intersect course for the station.

The cockpit was very quiet around him, save the ambient hum of electronics and the constant buzz of space that could drive men mad if they weren’t careful. Leaning back in his chair, Damen allowed himself a moment to miss the soft feminine voice that used to join him on these excursions. Only a moment. He could already see the station in his windshield.

The station’s designation was officially Tellus-18, but it was more commonly known by the corporation that held eighty percent of its office units: Arlesian Robotics. Arlesian Robotics ran everything on the station down to the ration machines in the dining commons and the toilet paper dispensers. It was why they had gotten a prime rate on their lease for the orbital station. Most companies would have to front the next ten year’s earnings to be able to afford a spot on an orbital, but Arlesian Robotics had something the Tellusian Alliance needed.

Damen idly ran through his docking procedures while the station drew nearer. It was impossible to tell how large something was until it was right on top of the approaching ship. Space had a way of distorting perspective, especially at the speeds they were traveling. Even with the slight pressure of artificial gravity, Damen could feel his ship maneuver in preparation for docking.

His autopilot did much of the work, which included matching his spin and speed to the rotating station. Damen monitored his progress visually, with one hand on the controls in case he needed to take over. He docked without incident, and as his ship hissed around him during decompression, he removed his helmet.

The door to his ship slid open, and he rested his helmet on his hip as he ducked through his ship’s doorway and into the attached hall. The short hall led to another door, and Damen pressed the button affixed to the wall for entrance. A door shut over his ship’s entrance before the door in front of him opened, a precaution against accidental breach.

Two men stood on the other side of the door, and Damen snapped to attention when he recognised his brother, Kastor. “Sir.”

“At ease, brother.” Kastor laughed, and clapped Damen’s shoulder. Damen barely felt it through the flight suit, but he returned the easy grin. “Welcome to Arlesian Robotics.”

“Damen.”

Damen turned to the other man waiting for him, his childhood friend Nikandros. Damen lifted an arm and drew Nikandros into a fierce hug. “Good to see you, bro.”

Nikandros slapped him gratuitously on the back, and that Damen did feel. He laughed and left his arm slung over Nikandros’ shoulder as they faced Kastor. Damen sobered. “There’s a Striker heading for the Sector 3-4. We need to alert the units in its path. I took down the heading.”

Damen handed Kastor the scratch paper from his notepad. Kastor read the note with a frown. “I’ll message the units. I have something for you.”

“It’s too early for my birthday, Kastor,” Damen said.

“You have an appointment with Paschal in an hour,” Kastor said.

Damen stiffened. “Why? My physical was just a month ago.”

“Not a physical. You’re getting an assistive intelligence unit.” Kastor held out a tablet and Damen stared at it, making no move to take it. “Damianos. We’ve been over this.”

“I don’t want one. I’ve been on three missions without one. Three successful missions. I’ve reported my reasons for going without one. You can’t force me into it.” Damen released Nikandros to fold his arms over his chest. His fingers clenched into fists, tucked tight against his side.

“Damen, it’s been over a year since Lykaios,” Kastor said. “You can’t be at a disadvantage because of your perceived attachment to a tool.”

The raw wound in his soul where Lykaios used to be ached at the mention. He gritted his teeth and said nothing. Kastor had been out of a suit for years. He didn’t have the experience with the newer units. When Lykaios’ connection broke, it was as if Damen had lost a limb. She had been his companion and caretaker in the Black. He did not want another.

“You will accept an AI unit or you will lose your commission,” Kastor said.

Damen took a step back, rocked to his core. “You can’t. There’s no precedence-”

“I can, as overseeing officer of your squad, and I will, ahead of the mission you are about to be handed. You cannot complete the mission without an AI, and you will have one before you ship out from this station. You are the only special forces marine who does not have one, and it is seriously hampering your ability to function in your squad.” Kastor shoved the tablet at him, and Damen was forced to catch it or let it shatter against the floor. “You’re going to get yourself and your team killed. It’s time to move on.”

Damen glanced down at the specs displayed on the tablet screen. Kastor was only partially correct. AI units helped quickly calculate trajectories in microgravity environments, things humans couldn’t do. They also helped regulate damage control to the special forces power suit’s systems during battle. But an AI unit did not always make the correct determination, often discounting the strength and ability of a human under intense stress. More than once, Damen had ignored Lykaios’ advice and returned victorious from his missions. Eventually she learned to adapt to his methods and logic.

Damen stared at the name designation. “You’re giving me a Veretian unit? Why?”

“It is the only one stabilized for integration into the suit,” Kastor said. “It’s a unit, not a person. It has no nationality. But while you brought the subject up, a Veretian is transferring into your team.”

“Should I be sitting down for this debriefing?” Damen said. Behind him, Nikandros snorted. “Or taking notes?”

“Everything is in the file on that tablet. His name is Jord Chastillion, and he is transferring in from another team that took heavy casualties a few months ago. He and one other were the only survivors.” Kastor gestured to the tablet. “Read through his file and let me know if you have any questions. And if you miss your appointment with Paschal I will hear about it and you will be stripped of command.”

“Yes sir,” Damen said. He stood at attention, biting back any further protest. Nikandros did the same, and they held the position until Kastor stalked away, disappearing into his offices. When the door clicked shut, Damen’s shoulders slumped. He cast a weary look at Nikandros, and offered the tablet.

Nikandros took it and scanned the doc files. “Why are you getting a recycled AI unit?”

“What?”

“It says here that the unit was previously installed in a marine and had to be removed upon the marine’s death.” Nikandros scrolled further down the document with a quick flick of his finger. “That marine was part of Chastillion’s unit. Why wouldn’t it just be decommissioned?”

Nikandros handed the tablet back to Damen, who scrolled down the docs as he started down the hall. Nikandros kept pace with him as they moved deeper into the station. Damen saw Nikandros was correct. The AI unit had not been taken from one deceased marine, but had been passed along at least three marines who had met their end in combat. Damen frowned.

“This can’t be right,” he said. “Is it defective? Why would a defective unit be assigned again? It should be decommissioned.”

“Maybe Paschal will know,” Nikandros said. “We can head down now. I think he’s in his office.”

“I have to get my suit before the fitting, if he’s really going to give me this thing. How’s Makedon?” Damen asked. He strode quickly through the hall with Nikandros close at his heels.

“Fine. It’s cycling right now otherwise I’m sure it would have something to say,” Nikandros said. He held up his wrist, where a thick armband enclosed his wrist. The black armband was thick, and reached halfway up his forearm. It was identical to the one Damen wore on his own forearm. Damen’s was silent, however, while a small indicator light glowed a steady orange on Nikandros’. “The ship is this way.”

“When is debriefing for this new mission Kastor is sending us on?” Damen asked.

“After your fitting, most likely,” Nikandros said. “He’s been very quiet about the whole thing. The others haven’t arrived yet, so it can’t be soon. He will undoubtedly let us know.”

“Undoubtedly,” Damen said.

As he and Nikandros passed through the hall, gravity lightened until they were able to grasp overhead handles attached to a moving belt that pulled them along to the very centre of the space station. The outer rings of the space station rotated to create artificial gravity, which meant the closer one went to the centre of the rotating station, the less gravity affected them. The centre shaft of the station ran through all four of the turning rings, and at the very top of it was where the Tellusian Drafters docked.

Drafters were ships designed to carry teams for longer missions. Their compact design allowed for a team of marines and their support unit to slip around Slartyari defenses and blockades without attracting undue attention. The ships were cramped but effective.

Damen and Nikandros slid their identification cards into the key card reader at the very top of the station centre column, and the light on the pad turned green to indicate they could enter. Damen pressed the button and the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss. He heaved himself into the dimly lit ship and made his way towards the storage area where the mech suits were kept.

Damen went ahead of Nikandros, tugging and bumping up into the storage chamber until he floated in front of the bed that contained his suit. He swiped his access card, and the bed popped free with a slight chime of acknowledgement. Damen tugged it until he could tip it down and push it towards the end of the storage chamber. Nikandros grasped it and pulled the bed the rest of the way into the ship, and Damen followed.

They made their way back into the station, and Damen kicked out the rolling legs on the bed as gravity started pressing on them once more. By the time they had reached the outer ring of the station, Damen was pushing his suit bed along the hall in front of him with Nikandros as his side.

By the time they had reached Paschal’s office, it was time for Damen’s appointment. Paschal met them in the hall with a tight smile. “Gentlemen.”

“Hey, doc. I hear you have a present for me,” Damen said in Standard.

“I do. Mr Delpha, if you will excuse us,” Paschal said. Nikandros saluted and went back the way they came, eventually falling out of sight along the curve of the walkway. Paschal indicated for Damen to follow him, and Damen found himself being led to one of the training rooms adjacent to the main ring.

Inside, Damen pushed his suit up against the wall beside the door. Paschal was pulling a table and chair out, and as Damen sat down, Paschal opened up a portable computic and propped it on the table. He quickly typed in his access code, checked his ID badge for the most recent security encryption password, and logged into his medical system.

“I’m sure your brother informed you why you are here,” Paschal said.

“He said I have to get an AI unit for my next mission,” Damen said. “I’d like the record to show that I was against this course of action.”

“Noted. I think you will benefit from exposure to this particular AI unit, however.” Paschal tapped out Damen’s concerns, noting them in the medical file.

“I saw it got three other marines killed,” Damen said. “Is there any particular reason it’s not being decommissioned?”

“It’s far too powerful to decommission. The deaths of those marines were unavoidable, and the AI unit was found to be free of any coding or decision making errors. I can let you see the reports if you don’t believe me. Those marine deaths were tragic but not intentional,” Paschal said. He had a chip in his hand. Damen stared at it.

That tiny chip contained the computing power of a human brain, crammed into two centimetres of plastic, silicon, and gold. When Paschal inserted the chip into Damen’s armband, he would once again have a constant companion breathing numbers and reassurances in his ear during battle.

“Wrist.” Paschal held out his hand. Damen offered the wrist with the armband, and Paschal pressed his arm flat against the table. Damen’s dark skin stood in sharp contrast to the cream of the tabletop, and Paschal’s white fingers as he worked. “Put this earwig in.”

Damen accepted the insertable headphone, and as he was wiggling it into place it clicked to life. He held his breath, waiting.

A Veretian voice came through the wireless headphone. ||And what is your name?||

Startled by the sheer insouciance of the young man’s voice, Damen blinked, his mouth falling open. He was dimly aware of Paschal watching him closely from behind his outdated wire-rimmed glasses. Damen, in his confusion, responded in Veretian. “Damen. What is your designation?”

||Oh. It speaks a cultured language. How refreshing. The last two did not.||

Damen turned wide eyes to Paschal. “Does it even speak Akielon or Standard?”

Paschal’s mouth quirked up, which he hid behind a hand. “It speaks Standard, Akielon, Patran, Vaskian, and Veretian. Just like all AI units.”

“It is refusing to speak Akielon or Standard,” Damen said.

“Good thing you are fluent in Veretian, then,” Paschal said. “Turn your wristband speaker on.”

Damen flicked the audio on his wristband, and the AI unit’s voice rang out through the room. ||Paschal?||

“I’m here, Laurent.” Paschal folded his arms over his chest. He kept one eye on Damen’s wristband and one on the computic monitoring Laurent’s functions. “How do you feel?”

||I am incapable of biochemical responses. You know this.||

“Fine, fine. How are you adapting to the new connections?” Paschal asked. He leaned over his computic, fingers ready to type Laurent’s response.

||I thought I made it quite clear that I did not wish to be attached to another bag of flesh,|| Laurent said. His voice cut sharply through the crisp station air.

“And I informed you that it was necessary,” Paschal said. “Your uncle is coming to the station, Laurent.”

Damen boggled. “Uncle? This is a computic. A highly advanced one, but a computic all the same. It can’t have family members.”

“Laurent was designed by the head of Arlesian Robotics,” Paschal said. “Aleron Arles coded a great deal of his programming, and we’d taken to calling him Laurent’s father. Aleron’s brother is a bit of an uncle in that sense. He had a hand in the coding as well, it’s actually where Laurent got his name. Laurent is very unique.”

“You are giving an AI unit that does not want a partner to a marine that does not want a unit,” Damen said. “Just to be completely clear about the situation.”

“Your brother informed me that you needed an AI unit,” Paschal said. “This one is the only one ready to be implanted for suit functions. When Kastor saw its file he was very eager to assign it to you. You will have to take it up with him if you have concerns.”

“I have many concerns,” Damen said, gritting his teeth.

||I believe protesting will provide no fruitful results,|| Laurent said.

“Oh, so now you’re okay being stuck with a bag of flesh?” Damen asked.

||It appears neither of us have a more appetising option,|| Laurent said.

“If you’re through, I would like to run through the suit tests. Ios, if you please.” Paschal gestured to where Damen had left his suit bed.

Damen pushed to his feet and walked over to the table to unpack his suit. As he assembled the suit, Paschal worked on his computic, assembling his notes on Damen’s case, most likely. Laurent also remained quiet while Damen worked.

The power suit was an advanced type of protective armour that enabled the user to enter combat in space. It came with a hard outer shell, a flexible under armour, and an enclosed breathable atmosphere. The under armour helped maintain pressure in the absence of atmo, so the wearer didn’t depressurise. The enclosed atmosphere allowed the wearer to breathe under any conditions, from the vacuum of space to the densest ice forests on the Slartyari homeworld; Yisk.

Damen snapped his gauntlets on and secured them in place over the arm band that held Laurent. He heard the familiar chime that informed him Laurent was integrating with his suit. Paschal looked up at the sound, and picked his computic up from the table. He walked to Damen and stood in front of him.

“Laurent, can you hear me?”

||Yes, doctor.|| Laurent’s voice sounded more robotic issued from the suit speakers.

“Okay. Ios, put your helm on.”

Damen secured his helm in place, and flinched as cool air skirted across his face with the activation of the breathing systems. The internal user interface lit up, and Damen checked his own readings out of habit. Oxygen levels were fine. Core temperature was fine. His electrical systems were functioning at maximum efficiency. His suit had not suffered while in storage.

||Dr Paschal wishes for you to turn your audio on so that he may converse with you,|| Laurent said. Inside the suit, he sounded like a young man. Damen suppressed a shiver at the sound of his voice so close to his ear, and his heart lurched unwittingly. Laurent said, ||Do not be presumptuous.||

“Do not be obscene,” Damen said. “You are a computic.”

He flicked his speakers on so that Paschal could hear him. “Are you certain this AI unit is not faulty? It just implied that its voice was arousing.”

“Are you aroused by its voice, Ios?” Paschal quirked an eyebrow.

“Absolutely not,” Damen said.

||Your heart rate reveals the truth,|| Laurent said in his ear.

“Both of you stop it,” Damen said. “There is something wrong with this AI unit.”

“It is the one you were assigned by your commanding officer,” Paschal said. “The AI unit is not faulty. It functions perfectly under the appropriate circumstances, and it is incredibly powerful. It will be extremely advantageous to have it with you in battle. Now lift your arms.”

Damen suffered through a thorough test of his suit systems and Laurent’s integration. Laurent seemed to behave perfectly for Paschal, passing all of his tests well within the margin of acceptable error. Damen had to be impressed. Lykaios hadn’t been that good, as efficient as she was. She had been functional, but not unique. Laurent seemed to be another system all together.

When Paschal finally completed his battery of tests, he instructed Damen to depower the suit and put it back into storage. By the time he had finished packing his suit away, Paschal was closing his computic and tucking it under his arm. “The rest of your team will be arriving shortly. I’ll see you in a few days, Ios.”

“Wait, you’re coming with us?” Damen asked. He sealed his suit inside it’s storage bed, and turned to the doctor.

“I am. I will be the attending medic for the duration of the mission,” Paschal said. He pushed his glasses up his nose in an oddly antiquated gesture. “I will see you at the debriefing.”

“Yeah, sure.” Damen watched him go. He was alone with the AI unit. Warily, he glanced at his wrist, as if it could bite him when he wasn’t looking. Just to be safe, he turned the speaker off. He kept the earwig in, however. He left his suit in the training room, and as he entered the hall he spoke to his armband. “Laurent, send a message to Nikandros Delpha. Tell him I would like to meet him for a spar.”

||The message has been sent,|| Laurent said. ||Coordinates have been received. It is the micrograv room on Southwest 5.||

“Southwest 5? He was just here. How could he get on the other side of the base?” Damen sighed to himself and started walking.

He was just about to pull himself up into an arm hallway when he saw Nikandros approaching from the opposite direction. Damen frowned. “I thought you were in the Southwest arm.”

“Why did I get a message from you asking if I wanted to fuck?” Nikandros asked.

“What?”

“Makedon, play back the message received approximately five minutes ago,” Nikandros said into his armband.

||For: Nikandros Delpha. From: Damianos Ios. Please meet me in my quarters to fuck. End transmission.|| Makedon’s voice was that of a gruff older man, and there was no doubt that his simulator was Akielon.

“Laurent.” Damen swore. Nikandros’ eyebrows hit his hairline.

“Your AI unit is altering your messages?” Nikandros pressed his lips together. “That’s a serious security risk.”

“Paschal and Kastor both swore there is nothing wrong with it,” Damen said. He rested a hand over his armband, resisting the urge to crush the chip within. “Despite my protests.”

Nikandros leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. A technician walked past them in the hall, and they were silent until he was out of earshot. “What are you thinking, Damen?”

“I don’t know.” Damen kept his voice low, frustrated. “If they verify the AI unit isn’t faulty then I will be sent out with it.”

Nikandros nodded, his dark eyes somber. He glanced down the hall over Damen’s shoulder and then met his eyes. “I know the message was in error but… Do you-?”

“Yes,” Damen said, immediately. “Yes.”

He and Nikandros casually made their way to the room Nikandros was being housed in for the interim, and as soon as the door was shut Nikandros had his hands on Damen, tugging at the zips of his uniform. Damen hungrily met his lips, pulling just as urgently at the man’s jacket. He peeled it back from Nikandros’ shoulders, and Nikandros wriggled the rest of the way out of it. Damen tossed it on the floor and guided Nikandros backwards towards his cot with a light touch at his hips.

Their room was sparse, with no decorations and a single overhead light to guide them. The cot was a mere five steps from the door. The door to the ‘fresher was to Damen’s left.

Nikandros’ knees hit the cot and he tumbled backwards, pulling Damen with him.

||Am I going to be forced to witness this?|| Laurent asked, directly in his ear.

Damen jerked up with a sharp gasp. Nikandros scowled under him. Damen pulled the earwig free with a disgusted noise and threw it onto the pile of Nikandros’ jacket and trousers. Nikandros laughed, a full body shake that Damen felt to his core.

“Was it listening?” Nikandros could barely get the words out. He curled up under Damen, laughing into the twisted sheets.

“Shut up or I’ll do that thing you hate,” Damen said. He bent low over Nikandros’ exposed neck and sucked a hickey into the dark skin there.

“Which one? You do quite a lot,” Nikandros said. He twisted under Damen, his hands fumbling for the clasps on Damen’s trousers.

In response, Damen pushed Nikandros’ white undershirt up to his collarbone and pressed his lips to Nikandros’ stomach. Then, he blew out, hard, and the razzing sound made Nikandros lurch up under him. Damen kept him pinned in place with two large hands at his hips.

“No! Oh fuck it- Stop! Shit you are the worst- Damen!”

Damen found himself flipped onto his back, his arms pinned at his sides by Nikandros’ thighs. Nikandros sat up, a heavy weight on his chest, and crossed his arms. “Stop screwing around.”

“I thought that’s what we were here for,” Damen said. He wriggled for emphasis.

Nikandros swung his leg off and sat on the bed. “Take your clothes off and come here.”

After, Nikandros collapsed on his side in bed. Damen fell after him, and slung an arm over Nikandros’ chest to pull him close. Nikandros patted Damen’s hand and twisted until he could see Damen’s face. “Do you really think your AI unit is faulty?”

Damen rested his chin on Nikandros’ upturned shoulder, and rubbed his thumb along his arm. “It is not like any other AI unit I’ve come across. Would Makedon ever comment on your sex life?”

“I doubt it is even aware it exists,” Nikandros said. “It’s a machine. Sex is not something to be taken note of.” Nikandros was silent for a moment. “Do you think Kastor is trying to hurt you? Giving you a Veretian AI unit? And a potentially faulty one?”

“He is my brother,” Damen said, repeating the same stubborn argument that he gave every time this topic came up.

“I’m aware. I’m also aware that being family does not prevent one from wishing harm on another,” Nikandros said. He turned further, onto his back and looked up at Damen, propped over him. “I’ve known you since we were children, Damen. I’ve known Kastor just as long. He makes me uneasy. I just want you safe.”

“Where safer than with you?” Damen pointed out.

“You aren’t hearing me, Damen.” Nikandros sighed and stretched his legs, sliding along Damen’s as he moved. The sheets pulled at Damen’s hips. “The only reason your inheritance isn’t in your hands is because of him.”

“If the money is that important to him, he can have it,” Damen said. He nuzzled Nikandros’ neck. “I don’t need or want it.”

“It’s not just the money, it’s your father’s entire business empire,” Nikandros said. He sighed the heavy sigh of the long-suffering. “You’re impossible to talk to after sex.”

“You’re the one trying to talk,” Damen said. “I’m just trying to rest.”

Nikandros let his head fall against the pillow. “Fine. Rest. Debrief is in two hours. Makedon, set an alarm.”

||Affirmative.||

Damen let himself drift off to the steady sound of Nikandros’ breathing.

Chapter Text

Nikandros leaned over in his chair in the small amphitheatre. “Halvik isn’t going to kill me, is she?”

“Why would she kill you?” Damen asked. Their voices were low between them.

“If I start to outpace her in bed,” Nikandros said. “You are with me quite a lot. And she is very scary.”

“She’s not going to kill you,” Damen said.

The woman in question entered the room, and both men jerked up straight in their chairs. Though she was just the weapons specialist, she commanded the room when she entered, her dark eyes instantly seeking and finding Damen’s. She walked to him, her stride belying years of military training and combat experience. She slid into the chair on Damen’s other side.

“Gentlemen,” she said, her voice thick with a Vaskian accent when using Standard. She hesitated, seeing the looks on their faces. “You were talking about me, then? Yes?”

“Yes,” Damen said, unable to restrain himself. Nikandros snorted on his other side. He glanced at Nikandros briefly. “We had sex a few hours ago.”

“Is that so?” Halvik leaned back in her chair and slung an arm over it. “I suppose that means I will have to make up for lost time on the mission. Damen, you must see me first aboard the ship. Yes?”

“Absolutely,” Damen said. He nodded. “I will.”

“Good.” Halvik smiled and flipped open her tablet on the small arm of her chair that served as a desk. Her Vaskian uniform was tan rather than the deep red of Damen and Nikandros’. Though her stripes and classification were different, Damen still commanded the unit under the Tellusian Alliance armed forces command structure.

A brown skinned man entered the room, wearing the deep green of the Patran navy. He smiled when he saw them sitting together, and made his way to the empty chair beside Halvik. He sat down, and leaned over Halvik to thrust his hand out to Damen. She leaned back out of the way with an annoyed pout. “Great to see you again, Damen.”

“Torveld. How’s your brother doing?” Damen grasped Torveld’s hand firmly.

“He’s fine, he’s fine. He decided he’s finally going to bid on the new station being constructed in Sector 2-3. I’m sure he’ll be able to obtain an office,” Torveld said. He took his beret off his head of dark hair and tucked it under his arm. “His engineers are working on a more efficient air recycling system. It should be ready by the time construction starts.”

“It would be nice for you to see him more often,” Damen said. “I know you miss him.”

“I do miss him but he chose his life and I chose mine.” Torveld smiled easily. “Halvik. Nikandros. How are you?”

“We’re getting a new teammate,” Nikandros said. “A Veretian. Lost most of his old unit.”

“That’s rough,” Torveld said. His Standard was nearly accentless, but Damen could still pick out a trace of Patran in his words. Damen opened his mouth, but was cut short when another man entered the room.

Damen stood, as the ranking officer, and met the man halfway into the room. He held his hand out. “Hey. I’m Commander Damianos Ios.”

“Jord Chastillion,” the man said. He gripped Damen’s hand in a warm, strong grip. “I believe I have been assigned to this unit.”

His words held the slightest Veretian accent, and his pale skin solidified his heritage. Wearing the dark blue colours of the Veretian navy, he held himself like a man who stood before a commanding officer. His shoulders were back, and his chin slightly raised. He looked solid.

Kastor entered the room, and Damen and Jord took their seats. Kastor flicked the lights off and turned on the three dimensional display in the centre of the room. “Gentlemen, on your tablets you will find-”

Halvik cleared her throat rather loudly, and Kastor sighed.

“Gentlemen and lady, on your tablet you will find the mission debriefing. If you will lift your eyes to the display you will see a derelict Slartyari Striker that was discovered not far from our base at Tellus-4. You will dock and refuel at Tellus-4 before heading to the Striker for reconnaissance.” Kastor turned the image of the ship over on the display. “We are looking for anything that may help us in our defense against the Slartyari. Any data relating to their shielding, their ship drives, and their technology in general. Should you encounter any Slartyari forces, you are to evacuate immediately and perform evasive maneuvers until it is safe to return to Tellus-4. Do not, under any circumstances, lead the Slartyari back to the base. Is that understood? Are there any questions?”

“How long has this ship been derelict?” Halvik asked. She leaned forward, eyes fixed on the rotating model.

“From our best guess, approximately two weeks.” Kastor turned the image and pointed to a blown out portion of the ship’s outer hull. “Radiation readings from this impact point indicate cooling from plasma blasts. The half-life calculations put the damage about two weeks ago. We think the ship has been floating there ever since.”

“What destroyed it?” Damen asked. He didn’t recall hearing any mention of a Slartyari Striker being taken down. That was the sort of thing that made global news back home.

“We’re not sure. That’s why you’re going out before a salvage team,” Kastor said.

“Is there evidence of infighting?” Damen asked. “We’ve only ever encountered the one species. Maybe they have another space faring species on their planet.”

“It is highly unlikely that one planet could produce two space faring civilizations side by side,” Torveld said. “Evolutionary theory would suggest that one species would either destroy, subjugate, or assimilate the other. It’s possible one planet could produce two, but very unlikely unless they were co-dependant species. And we’ve no evidence that the Slartyari depend on any other creature for survival.”

“There’s no evidence of any unrest in the Slartyari ranks,” Kastor said. “What little of their communication we can decipher implies they have had no major change in their function. The best case scenario is that this was an internal explosion caused by some sort of system failure. The worst case may be the discovery of another space faring civilization.”

Halvik narrowed her eyes at the display. “That does not look like internal breach. The hull is torn, not ruptured. Without closer look, I say that it was outside force acting. Are there survivors?”

“Our drones have picked up no life signs on the ship, but that does not mean there aren’t a few survivors hiding in the wreckage. You are to proceed with extreme caution throughout this mission. There are a lot of variables at play, and I would hate to lose such a star-studded team.” Kastor’s lips lifted in a wry semblance of a smile. “If that’s all, you can head to the mess hall. You ship out tomorrow morning at six. Good luck.”

Kastor left them, scooping up his tablet and turning the lights on as he exited the room. Halvik and Torveld looked at Damen, and even the easy grin Torveld usually wore was gone from his face.

“So this seems… horrible,” Nikandros said over Damen’s shoulder. “But if it were an easy mission they would have called another team, yeah? Because we’re the best.”

“We are pretty impressive,” Torveld said. He dropped his eyes to his tablet. “This feels off. I find it very hard to believe that the yeti have not found this ship yet. They have a Striker in the belt almost constantly these days. It’s a miracle we haven’t lost another station to them.”

“Maybe station is shielding it?” Halvik said. She held her tablet up in front of her so that Torveld and Damen could see a sketch of the station and the derelict. “It appears close enough that station extend its shields to cover.”

“It got that close to the station?” Damen asked, horror sliding into his stomach. “Why would the station shield it? And how could a station destroy it?”

“We never said the station destroyed it,” Torveld said. “Just that it is close enough.”

Damen found himself disliking the unknowns in this mission more and more. Too much could go wrong, and he had a feeling Kastor had held back some vital information. He exhaled sharply, and turned to Jord. “Chastillion, what do you think?”

“I think we need to be careful,” Jord said. He sat impeccably straight in his chair. “But I think the opportunity to study one of these things outweighs any potential risk to our unit.”

“He has a point,” Torveld said. “Even destroyed, we could gain so much insight into the Slartyari by investigating this ship. Halvik would cry of happiness.”

“Halvik does not cry,” Halvik said, with a slight frown.

“I know. I would cry at the cultural implications,” Torveld said, responding with easy cadence. “Imagine if we recovered a document.”

“Put your nerd hat away, Bazal. I need to know if you’re comfortable going on this mission. I can tell Kastor to give it to someone else,” Damen said.

“We have to do it. Nobody else can,” Halvik said. She powered down her tablet and slipped it into its case strapped to her thigh. “Nobody else good as us.”

“I appreciate your confidence in our abilities but a suicide mission is still a suicide mission,” Damen said.

“It is not a suicide mission. The ship is derelict,” Jord said. “The Slartyari will not be chasing us the entire way along.”

“We’ll do it, Damen,” Nikandros said. “We’ll just have to be careful.”

“That explains why we’re taking a Drafter,” Damen said.

“Ugh,” Halvik said. She wrinkled her nose. “I need my own bunk.”

“Done. Nikandros is with me. Jord, you can bunk with Torveld,” Damen said.

Torveld laughed as he stood. “Trust me, Jord, you do not want to be anywhere near these three on a contained flight. They threaten to break the walls down every mission.”

“That was only once,” Damen said. He stood as well, and tucked his tablet into its case. “And that was a very long mission. We were in space for weeks.”

“With one functioning bathroom,” Halvik said.

“She almost killed me,” Torveld said with a huge grin on his face.

“I cannot wait to experience the magic for myself,” Jord said. His face remained expressionless. “You sound like a great joy to be around every hour of the day for weeks on end.”

“It’s not all bad,” Torveld said. He slung an arm over Jord’s shoulder. “Eat with me. We will eat and get to know each other. Your AI unit, what is it called?”

“It’s called Orlant,” Jord said as they left the room. “It specialises in frequency detection and pattern discernment.”

Damen, Nikandros, and Halvik followed behind them. Damen walked comfortably between Nikandros and Halvik.

“Ver-Vassal, did you hear that Damen received a new AI unit?” Nikandros said, because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut for more than five seconds.

“Oh? I thought you were not interested in one,” Halvik said.

“Kastor forced it on me. It’s… unusual,” Damen said. “Paschal and Kastor insist nothing is wrong with it, but never in my life have I ever heard an AI unit question its partners sexual preferences.”

“It did what?” Halvik’s eyes widened comically. “Are you certain?”

“I’m certain that it’s being fresh,” Damen said. He still hadn’t put the earwig back for fear he would become too annoyed and break it. “And it distorted a message I sent to Nikandros earlier.”

“To our benefit,” Nikandros said. “But its behaviour is very strange.”

“If Paschal cleared it, should be fine,” Halvik said.

“That is what everyone keeps saying,” Damen said. “But if it jeopardises the mission and gets anyone injured I will not be held responsible for my actions.”

“I will be alongside you,” Nikandros said.

They reached the mess hall and followed Torveld in behind Jord. When they got their trays, they sat down at a table together and began eating in silence. Damen noticed Jord staring at his wrist, his brows together. “Something wrong, Chastillion?”

“Your alert light is blinking in code,” Jord said. He narrowed his eyes and reached for the speaker switch. “May I?”

Damen switched the speaker on his own arm band, under his entire unit’s intense gaze. After a brief moment of silence, Laurent said, ||Jord?||

“Laurent?” Jord drew back in surprise, colour dropping from his cheeks.

||Hello, Jord,|| Laurent said, in Veretian. ||I am glad you can hear me now.||

Jord caught Damen’s eyes, and Damen was worried to see fear in them. Damen said, “What is it?”

“Why were you given this unit?” Jord asked.

“Paschal said it was the strongest unit for the mission,” Damen said. Jord stared at him.

“Paschal gave you this unit?”

“My brother ordered me to take an AI unit and Paschal recommended this one,” Damen said.

“Laurent,” Jord said.

||Yes, Jord.||

Jord opened his mouth, but closed it right away. He pushed his tray back from the edge of the table and stood sharply. Without another word, he walked away from the table. Torveld stared after him. “Was it something we said?”

Laurent remained unnervingly silent after his exchange with Jord, and Damen couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going on between the computic and man. He would have to talk to Jord once they were off the station and away from prying ears and eyes.

..*...

The next morning, Damen led his team through their equipment checks in preparation for take off. He hung, suspended in zero gravity, over Torveld’s shoulders as Torveld ran through his systems verification on his power suit. They were still docked, so if the diagnostic turned anything up, they could still schedule a repair. Once they were en route they would be on their own until they reached Tellus-4.

It had been a very long while since Damen used an AI unit, so he instinctively started running through his systems checks alone. Halvik tapped his shoulder. “Your unit.”

Damen glanced at his arm band. After the weird things that had surrounded the unit assigned him, Damen wasn’t sure he wanted to risk it. He knew his suit well enough. He didn’t need the AI unit to tell him if something were wrong.

“I’ll figure it out,” Damen said. He said nothing further, and ignored the flashing light on his arm band. He would deal with Laurent later. He directed his next words to the entire team. “Finish up and strap in. We’re boosting out soon.”

The others acknowledged him as he tugged himself through the ship using the zero gravity grips available on nearly every surface. He hadn’t met the pilots for the mission yet, and when he reached the cockpit door, he knocked on the frame. It was open, and two heads turned in their chairs.

“Jokaste,” Damen said, his voice flat.

Perched in her chair, completely done up in her Akielon flight suit, she looked nothing like the tumbled maiden Damen had fooled around with in the Academy. Her hair was pulled sharply back from her face in a no-nonsense bun, and the blue light from the paneling gave her eyes a menacing look.

“Damianos,” she said.

Sitting beside her, a man in a Veretian flight suit glanced nervously between them. “You two know each other?”

“You could say that,” Damen said.

“You could apply archaic emphasis on the ‘knowing’,” Jokaste said, without care for Damen’s discretion.

“Oh, that sort of knowing. Well. I can see why,” the man said. He held out his hand. “Lazar Bareix. Second lieutenant of the Gold Starburst Battalion. Pleasure.”

“Damianos Ios. Commander.” Damen grasped Lazar’s hand in a firm grip before releasing it. “I wasn’t aware you were assigned to this ship, Jokaste.”

“Yes, well, I do have a job and a life outside of your whims, Damianos,” Jokaste said. “I assume this will not be an issue.”

“No, no issue. As long as you’re professional.”

“I am never anything but.” Jokaste turned around in her chair, facing the Black to completely ignore Damen. She picked up her tablet and stared at it intently.

“Nice meeting you,” Lazar said. “I’m sure I’ll see you around the ship. It’s not that big.”

Damen turned from the cockpit and made his way to the carriage of the ship, where the rest of his team was already strapped down in their boost chairs. He swung himself into his chair and tugged the safety straps around his shoulders and hips. Once he was in place, he glanced to his left and saw Halvik staring at him.

“You are not going to answer that?” she asked. She pointed to Damen’s arm band, where Laurent’s alert light was flickering.

“No. I’ll get it after boost,” Damen said. He rested his head against the headrest and steadfastly ignored the rest of his team.

The overhead communication system crackled to life, and Damen listened to Jokaste and Lazar go through their preflight checks. When they received the all clear, Damen felt the ship shudder around them as they boosted away from the station. The carriage had no windows, but as inertia started pressing down on Damen’s chest, he knew they were accelerating.

Gravity fluctuated, sending Damen’s stomach into the familiar swoop and spin of space travel. He weathered it, exhaling deeply to keep control of his rebelling stomach. After the initial boost, the inertia swings lessened, and the constant push of Tellus-like gravity returned.

“You may unbelt. Don’t do anything terribly stupid,” Jokaste said over the speakers.

Damen and his team freed themselves from their boost chairs and stood, stretching. Halvik leaned over her sick bag and vomited. Damen laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. “Almost made it this time, Ver-Vassal.”

“I will vomit on everything you love,” Halvik said, her voice muffled from inside the bag. Damen laughed again and made his way to the back of the carriage compartment where Nikandros, Jord, and Paschal stood.

“Sir, may I have a word with you?” Jord asked. “In private?”

Damen and Nikandros exchanged a glance, and Damen nodded. “Come to my office.”

As the commanding officer on the mission, he was allowed his own office for the journey. Damen led Jord through the short walk along the main hall past their bunks and the mess hall, and pushed through the door to the sparse office. Jord hesitated in the doorway, his eyes falling on Damen’s armband.

“You’ve been staring at my arm band since you learned of Laurent’s presence. What aren’t you telling me?” Damen said. He ushered Jord inside and shut the door behind them. Jord sat down in front of the small desk, and Damen walked around it to sit behind it.

“You need to deactivate it,” Jord said, “for this conversation.”

Damen lifted an eyebrow. Jord was Veretian. Tensions between their nations stayed at a constant simmer, but Vere had not stirred up trouble in recent years. Jord, a Veretian, was asking him to cut off his only potential communication with the crew outside. Damen shifted, feeling the comforting weight of his knife strapped to his thigh, and slowly removed Laurent’s chip from his arm band. The activity lights went dark. Damen placed the chip on the desk between them, and drew his hand back just enough that he would be able to react if Jord reached for the chip.

“Talk,” Damen said.

“That unit has killed marines,” Jord said, without preamble. Damen stared at him, unblinking, waiting for him to continue. Jord sucked in a breath. “My former unit was led by a man named Auguste Marlas. He was a brilliant leader and an incredible tactician. We would have followed him into the sun if he thought it would win the war. That is his AI unit. He was assigned Laurent, the most powerful AI unit I have ever seen.”

“So it is different than other AI units,” Damen said.

“Yes. It interacted almost as if it were alive. At times we forgot it was a computic. And it always saw Auguste through a mission successfully.” Jord leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands beneath his jaw. “Auguste’s last mission was nothing more than a suicide run. And he knew it, but Laurent thought he could still get them out alive. They did not, and something… Broke? I do not know how to explain it. Laurent started behaving erratically. If it were a person, I would have to say that it was suffering a… almost a depressive episode. It became irritable and refused to talk to anyone that was not in the original unit. When it was assigned to another marine, Laurent walked him into the line of fire. Sir, I think you should keep the unit deactivated.”

“Paschal said it was not a risk,” Damen said.

“Paschal knew Aleron Arles,” Jord said. “Aleron worked very hard on Laurent, and I think Paschal is blinded by his love for his friend. The data recovered from all of Laurent’s missions have been invaluable, but the loss of life I feel is a serious concern. Technically speaking, Laurent has done nothing wrong and functions according to mission parameters. But make no mistake, he has killed those men.”

Damen let his gaze fall on the small chip sat in the centre of the desk. It look innocuous. A small piece of plastic and metal that crunched numbers and spit out results in battle. But this was so much more. He rested his fingers on the chip. “It’s fortunate, then, that I’ve learned to work without a unit for so long.”

He caught Jord’s eyes. “I will be fine. I’ll take your words into consideration. Thank you for informing me. I appreciate that you were so upfront with me, and I swear to you that I will be extremely careful.”

“You should not use it,” Jord said.

“I’ll think about it,” Damen said. “Dismissed.”

“Ios, you will die-” Jord stood and slapped his hand against the desk top. Damen narrowed his eyes.

“You are dismissed, Chastillion,” Damen said.

Jord gritted his teeth and saluted Damen respectfully before turning on his heel and walking out of the room. The door shut behind him and Damen was left alone. He turned the chip over in his hand before replacing it in his armband and turning the speaker on.

||Did you have an informative talk with Jord?|| Laurent said, almost immediately. Damen knew now why Jord had asked him to remove the chip completely.

“Eavesdropping is not polite,” Damen said, leaning back in his chair. He lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Do you have anything you want to say? Now that we’re on mission?”

||Want is a human tendency that I fortunately am not afflicted with,|| Laurent said.

“Yes. Those pesky bags of flesh,” Damen said. “Do you have anything to say that will increase the chances of a successful mission?”

||No.||

“Are you aware of what the mission is?” Damen asked, morbidly curious now.

||Of course. Why else would I be assigned? I am not incompetent.||

“You’re not very helpful, are you?” Damen said.

||I prefer to work with Veretian handlers,|| Laurent said. ||Being paired with an Akielon is… less than ideal. I was designed with Veretian culture and sympathies in mind. I cannot help that you are not Veretian.||

“Right. As long as you stay quiet, I think we’ll get along. What can you tell me about Jord Chastillion?” Damen asked. Laurent was silent. Damen glanced at his armband. The activity lights were still blinking steadily. He was listening. “Laurent?”

||You instructed me to stay quiet,|| Laurent said. ||I am obeying.||

Damen closed his eyes and kept hold of his temper. “Please tell me about Jord Chastillion and his activities in his previous units.”

Laurent launched into what sounded like Jord’s file, read word for word from the computic. Damen could have done that on his own. Sighing heavily, Damen turned off the armband speaker and left his office. He knew he had promised to find Halvik first, but Damen needed to speak with his second in command about what Jord had revealed to him.

Chapter Text

Nikandros was in the small mess hall, sitting at the table with Halvik and Torveld. Damen stood in the doorway and caught Nikandros’ eye. He jerked a thumb towards the hall, and Nikandros excused himself, then stood to follow him.

 

They entered the sparse bunk designated for them, furnished with just the beds and a table, and Damen shut the door behind them. Nikandros leaned against the stacked bunks. “Halvik is gonna be pissed.”

 

Damen ignored the jibe, ejected Laurent’s chip, and held it up between them. “Jord claims this chip killed three men.”

 

“Paschal said it was functional,” Nikandros said. He watched as Damen put the chip on the single table in the room.

 

“Jord confirmed that part. He said technically the AI did nothing wrong. But the tactics it used to complete the missions led to the deaths.” Damen folded his arms over his chest.

 

“Don’t use it,” Nikandros said, switching to Akielon. “Damen, if it’s that huge a concern, don’t use it. Leave it here when we board the derelict.”

 

“I can’t. There’s too much at stake here,” Damen said, responding to his native tongue. “Kastor was right. The mission parameters require an AI. There’s too much to keep track of. I won’t physically be able to do it.”

 

“Use everyone else’s,” Nikandros said. “Damen, you can’t go into the field with a suicide bot on your wrist.”

 

Damen was quiet as he stared at a point in the wall over Nikandros’ shoulder. Nikandros was right, but the mission was too complex to go in without something to monitor him and his team. As much as he loathed to admit it, this particular mission did require an AI.

 

“Is that why Kastor assigned you the unit?” Nikandros asked, breaking the silence.

 

“What?”

 

“Kastor. Is that why he wanted you on this exact mission with that exact unit?” Nikandros said. “Does he think the AI unit will complete his wishes for him?”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Damen, if you’re dead then Kastor receives his inheritance free and clear,” Nikandros said. “I know you don’t care about it, but it matters very much to Kastor.”

 

“No. Laurent is the most powerful AI. That’s why Kastor assigned him to me,” Damen said. “This mission is so complicated that the best tools were needed. Laurent was free, and we’re the best trained unit in the Marines. It would have been us either way.”

 

Nikandros pinched the bridge of his nose. “Damen, you have a blind spot when it comes to your brother. I truly think he means you harm, and this situation is just reinforcing it. Please don’t use the AI unit.”

 

“I don’t think I have a choice,” Damen said. “I can’t keep track of everything by myself on this mission. I won’t rely on it too heavily. You know I never completely rely on a piece of equipment.”

 

“I know.” Nikandros sighed. He shook his head. “Try not to wander away from me, at least?”

 

“I’ll try,” Damen said. Nikandros smiled, placated.

 

“Shall I send Halvik in?”

 

“Yes, please.”

 

…*...

 

They refueled at Tellus-4. They did not disembark, and Damen could see the derelict from the window of their Drafter. Suspended in zero gravity while they refueled, Damen and Nikandros hung in the cockpit while the rest of the crew ate in the cramped mess.

 

“It does look like it’s close enough to be protected by the station’s shielding,” Nikandros said. “Makedon?”

 

||The derelict Striker is within range of Tellus-4 station’s protective shielding.||

 

“Why are they keeping it shielded?” Nikandros asked, his question directed into the Black.

 

“If the Slartyari knew a Striker had gone down here they would certainly come for it and expose the location of this base,” Damen said. “It makes sense.”

 

The Striker was slowly rotating as they watched, and Damen pointed at a dark patch on the hull. “There’s our entry point, where the hull breached.”

 

“Do you really think anything survived that wreck?” Nikandros narrowed his eyes, as if it would help him get a better idea of what had happened to the ship. “How long can Slartyari survive without food or water?”

 

“Nobody knows,” Damen said. “Food, probably a while. They hibernate. But water, I don’t know.”

 

“Would the dropping temperature trigger hibernation?” Nikandros asked. “Surely the on-board thermoregulators aren’t functioning.”

 

“I’m not a biologist. Ask Torveld,” Damen said.

 

“He’s not a biologist either,” Nikandros said. He rested one hand above him to keep his head away from the complicated control panels above the window.

 

“He’s the one trained in Slartyari technique and culture,” Damen said.

 

“What little we know of it.”

 

“If there are any still alive maybe we can bring one back,” Damen said. “And question it.”

 

“I doubt our ships could withstand a rampaging Slartyari,” Nikandros said.

 

A light blinked on the communication panel, and Damen reached over Nikandros’ lap to answer it. “Commander Ios.”

 

||My name is Aimeric, and I am in charge of refueling your ship. Refueling is complete. Couplings have disconnected. You are clear to boost.||

 

“Thank you,” Damen said. He cut the transmission and pulled himself around until he faced the door.

 

With Nikandros behind him, he drifted to the mess. He pulled himself to a halt in the doorway and poked his head into the room. “Refuel is complete. Let’s get this over with.”

 

Jokaste rolled her eyes, her lips closed around the straw of a protein pack. She made a loud, annoying slurp before releasing it and sending it adrift in the air over the table. Halvik laughed and grabbed it, directing it to the composter. Lazar followed his copilot out of the mess, taking his protein pack with him. He waved as he left.

 

“Finish up,” Damen said. “The Striker is less than half an hour out. You remember what happened the last time you fought on a full stomach, Halvik.”

 

“Yes. I threw up all over your new boots,” she said, sounding far too pleased with herself.

 

“I thought it was hilarious,” Torveld said, depositing his protein pack into the composter.

 

“If she does it again, you can clean it up,” Damen said as Torveld floated past him, making his way to the carriage to strap in. “Where’s Paschal?”

 

“In his office,” Jord said as he collected Halvik’s pack and his own and threw them away. He nodded to Damen as he floated past, and Damen trailed behind the rest of his unit as they pulled their way towards the carriage. Damen tapped on Paschal’s door to let him know they were boosting. Paschal followed him out of the room adjusting his glasses.

 

Once everyone had strapped in, Damen pressed the comm button. “All ready for boost.”

 

“Acknowledged,” Jokaste said. “Final prep for launch is a go. Stay seated.”

 

“She sounds like quite the charmer,” Torveld said from his position behind Damen. “How did you two get on?”

 

“Loudly and sarcastically,” Nikandros said, across the aisle from Damen. “Emphasis on the loud. You should have known. When she said I wasn’t allowed to come around anymore.”

 

“She tried to stop you and Nikandros from seeing each other?” Halvik asked, disbelief colouring her husky voice. “That is losing battle.”

 

“She was under the impression that Damen valued monogamy,” Nikandros said.

 

“I could be exclusive with the right person,” Damen said, bristling. “Just because I’m bisexual and polyamorous doesn’t mean I’m going to fuck everything that moves.”

 

“Well, we know that,” Nikandros said. He gestured to himself and Halvik. Then, with a pointed head tilt towards the cockpit. “She didn’t. Besides, when someone tries to cut you off from your friends that is always a bad sign. Always.”

 

“She just thought I should be studying more,” Damen said. He sank back in his chair and wished for the conversation to be over. Jokaste had been a mistake. She was too ambitious and cutthroat for him.

 

“Keep telling yourself that, bro,” Nikandros said. He dropped his head against the headrest and fell blissfully silent.

 

The rumble of the engine grew as they boosted away from the station. Damen closed his eyes and rested his head against the headrest. He ran through the mission once more in his head. Get into the ship. Start at what was thought to be the command centre. Work down through the less damaged parts. Get out.

 

Easy enough.

 

Twenty minutes later, the engines dulled to a low hum. Jokaste spoke over the comm system. “We’re here, boys.”

 

Halvik snorted, and unbuckled her safety harness with the rest of them. Standing, Damen took a moment to get used to the slight push of gravity as they approached the ship. He led the way through the carriage and into the ass of the ship, where their suits were stored.

 

His suit was stored at the bottom of the compartment, closest to the vacuum door which led into the Black. Nikandros’ suit was kept opposite his, and as Damen pulled out his undersuit, Nikandros was tugged off his shirt.

 

The under armour was a made of a thick, pressured material that used compression to keep the human body safe from the vacuum of space. It also assisted in blood flow through slight resistance when a marine moved. The under armour was vital to the functioning of the suit, because the suit’s sensors drew their information from the nanowire mesh in the under armour’s frame, which sat skin-tight against the wearer.

 

Getting into the under armour was a mission in itself.

 

Halvik, the quickest of all of them, eeled into her under armour without any problem, and had put together her suit up to the waist before Damen even got a leg into his under armour. She hesitated, eying him with one of her arm pieces held in both hands. “Do you need help, sir?”

 

“Not your kind of help,” Damen said. He jerked the under armour up one thick thigh while she laughed at his struggle. By the time he was piecing his power suit together, she was clasping her helmet in place.

 

||Halvik Ver-Vassal is suited up.|| Kashel, Halvik’s AI unit, spoke when Halvik was suited. She had a soft feminine voice, one that reminded Damen strongly of Lykaios despite the Vaskian coding.

 

||Torveld Bazal is suited up.|| The voice that issued from Torveld’s armband was distinctly Akielon, and Jord jerked his head up when he heard it.

 

“Your AI unit is Akielon?” Jord asked. He held his helmet in hand, paused in the act of putting it on.

 

“Torveld enjoys the way it sounds,” Nikandros said with a grimace.

 

||I was originally designed to be used by an Akielon marine,|| the AI unit said. ||Torveld Bazal chose me after a rigorous vetting process. He determined that I was best suited to his needs during missions.||

 

“It is called Erasmus,” Damen said. “Sync up with it, and Kashel. Nikandros’ unit is called Makedon.”

 

Jord tapped something on his armband. “Orlant will work on syncing with them.”

 

||Sync complete,|| Orlant said from Jord’s armband a moment later. ||We are online.||

 

“Good. Everyone match your time to me,” Damen said. After inserting the earwig that would allow him to hear Laurent, he pulled the rest of his power suit on, and sealed his helmet in place. With a sharp burst of cool air across his face, his suit’s systems came online. He turned on the radio that would let him communicate with the rest of his team while in their suits. “Suit check. Systems functioning?”

 

“Full functionality,” Nikandros said in his ear.

 

“Check.” Torveld.

 

“Check.” Halvik.

 

“Systems go,” Jord said.

 

“Jokaste, can you hear me?” Damen asked.

 

“Unfortunately,” she said. “Try not to die out there. Bringing home corpses is such a nightmare. And not only in an apocalypse way.”

 

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Damen said, well aware that the rest of his unit could hear their exchange on the main frequency. “Weapons check. Everyone fully loaded?”

 

“Yes sir,” Nikandros said.

 

Damen gripped his gun and inspected it, checking that it was loaded and he had his spare cartridges stored away in the suit. He put the gun into it’s holster and faced the vacuum door. “Form up.”

 

His unit fell in line behind him, and the inner vacuum door opened with a hydraulic hiss. Damen entered the small decompression chamber, and one by one his team followed, until they were all inside. The door shut. Damen spoke to Jokaste. “Ready for decompression.”

 

“Initiating,” Jokaste said.

 

“I feel like we should have music,” Torveld said, after a rather long moment of silence. “Like in an elevator.”

 

“So that we could hear the music fade to nothing as the air leaves the room?” Nikandros asked.

 

“Morbid,” Halvik said. Gravity began to shift around them, lightening as the ship slowed upon drawing nearer their final destination. “And creepy.”

 

“Maybe not then.” Torveld shifted, reaching up to grip one of the handholds in the compartment. His dull green suit looked darker in the small space, with metal surrounding them. The gold plating of his visor flashed as he turned his head. “Halvik should sing for us instead.”

 

“I will break your visor with my voice,” she said. “So let us wait until we in space, yes?”

 

“You wound me. After everything we’ve been through-”

 

“Decompression complete. You are go for space walk,” Jokaste said.

 

Torveld and Halvik quieted, and the rest of the team fell into formation behind Damen. The outer vacuum door opened, and Damen dragged in a breath between his teeth, awed.

 

The Striker dwarfed their Drafter. It loomed over them, and even stretching his head back Damen could not see the very top of it as close as they were. They would be the first humans to set foot inside a Striker and live to talk about it.

 

Without Laurent’s help, Damen turned his boosters on and directed himself towards the gaping hole in the Striker’s side. It was a short jump, as close as they were, and when he was inside he turned to help direct the rest of his team into the ship.

 

They all made the jump without trouble, and once they were clear, Damen said to Jokaste, “All accounted for. Hold position until our return.”

 

“I thought I would go get my nails done while I waited, actually,” Jokaste said.

 

Damen ground his teeth but did not dignify her with a response. The vacuum door on the Drafter slid shut, and Damen turned to the inside of the Striker. He flicked his helmet light on. Behind him, four other lights switched on. The five beams illuminated the dark corridor before them. They were joined by the flashlights mounted on their weapons. Damen exhaled slowly and took a bouncing step forward, aided by the microgravity.

 

“If anyone feels anything out of the ordinary, let me know immediately,” Damen said. He felt as if he had to keep his voice down. They were trespassing on this ship.

 

“You mean beside the foreboding sense of doom that took hold straight away?” Torveld asked. His voice rumbled low in Damen’s ear.

 

“Or like blinking light on wall?” Halvik pointed with the flashlight attached to the top of her weapon.

 

“It’s a derelict. I’m sure there are lots of blinking lights,” Torveld said even as he made his way towards it.

 

“Bazal. Do not touch anything that has not been analysed yet,” Damen said. The sharp words arrested Torveld’s motion, but he hung near what appeared to be a systems access panel, waiting. “Laurent, what do you make of it?”

 

||Unknown.||

 

“Erasmus?” Torveld asked. Damen and the others waited while Erasmus briefed Torveld on whatever he had found about the light. “It is some sort of systems access. The blinking light might indicate that the gravity is off.”

 

“The gravity is off,” Halvik said.

 

“We might be able to turn it back on,” Torveld said. “Sir?”

 

“No. We touch nothing until we find the control centre. We’ve come too far to compromise this mission on a convenience,” Damen said.

 

“Yes, sir,” Torveld said. He moved away from the wall and repositioned himself behind Halvik. Damen waited until he had regained his balance before moving on.

 

Slartyari walked upright, on two legs like humans. Their ship design reflected that. Damen led his unit along expansive hallways as they made their way down towards the bottom of the ship. Despite their similarity in hall design, the Slartyari did not have handholds for zero gravity travel, as most human ships were equipped.

 

“Have they figured out true artificial gravity?” Jord asked, as they bounced from side to side to move themselves forward in the hall.

 

“It would appear that way,” Torveld said. “Or something in their suits keeps them stuck to the ground in zero gravity environments. Magnetic boots maybe, like what the miners use?”

 

Damen drifted to a halt at the end of the long hall. Before him, the ground opened up beneath his boots. He looked down, the light on his helmet shining down a long stairwell. “Going down.”

 

“Yessir,” Halvik said. She lined up above him as he flipped and began pulling himself down the centre of the stairwell, grasping guardrails to guide him along.

 

This deep into the ship, with no windows to break the monotony or allow any sunlight in, the darkness seemed to press in on Damen’s chest as he moved. His flashlight only went so far. A shift in the darkness drew his attention, and when he turned his head the beam of light fell across a ghostly white visage.

 

Heart in his throat, Damen’s training kicked in. He aimed and fired in one smooth motion, the recoil pushing him back against the far wall. The face in front of him shattered into frozen shards of flesh and bone and brain. Damen’s back hit the wall and he breathed harshly.

 

“Sir?” Torveld floated beside him, weapon cocked.

 

“Damen?” Nikandros grasped Damen’s leg and tugged him down (up?), away from the floating corpse. “It’s long dead.”

 

“Bazal, check the body,” Damen said, getting his breathing under control. “Ver-Vassal, Chastillion, recon. Clear the area of any others.”

 

“Yes sir.” The chorus echoed in his ear as his team split away from him.

 

Damen and Nikandros followed Torveld to the body of the Slartyari. Torveld locked his feet around one of the guardrails and turned the body over in the space in front of him. “Well, it is truly dead now. Nice shot, Commander.”

 

“It startled me,” Damen said. His shot had blown straight through the Slartyari’s forehead, and cracked open the entire top of it’s head.

 

“Paschal would have a field day with what’s left of this brain,” Torveld said with a laugh. “Erasmus, run analysis. It looks like this is a female from the jaw structure. Some sort of ensign. See the stripes at the shoulder of her uniform? Only two. And no other markings.”

 

He heaved the body around, to get access to the arms. He carefully peeled down the Slartyari’s gloves and tucked them into one of the pouches at his waist. “And here we have not one, but two opposable digits.”

 

Torveld illuminated the hand with his helmet light, and he showed Damen and Nikandros. “This is the reason for their strange gun design. A thumb on both ends, basically. See how their guardrail handles have two bars along the top? It’s so they can use both thumbs if necessary for grip.”

 

“Fascinating,” Damen said. “Can you tell me something we didn’t know about them?”

 

“I’ll have to run more data when we return to the ship. The gloves are similar to ours, with nanowiring on the inside that may provide some biometrics for me to look at,” Torveld said. “It seems to be in remarkable condition despite the exposure.”

 

“Absolute zero will do that to things,” Nikandros said.

 

“Sir, there are a few more bodies up this way. Other than that, we’re clear,” Jord said in Damen’s ear.

 

“Copy. Okay, let’s move up. Bazal, don’t get distracted, there will be plenty of bodies for you to investigate in the control centre,” Damen said.

 

“You take the fun out of everything,” Torveld said as he fell in line behind Damen.

 

“It’s my job as Commander,” Damen said. “No one is allowed to have fun. Ever.”

 

“See, I think you’re joking but I really can’t tell,” Torveld said. He paused. “Erasmus tells me there is a sixty percent chance you are joking.”

 

“Erasmus knows what it’s talking about,” Nikandros said.

 

They caught up with Jord and Halvik, and Damen pushed himself ahead of them. One of the benefits of space and the lack of gravity was once the inner ear adjusted there was no proper up or down. Just above the head and below the feet. Directions were meaningless without a reference point, and in this strangely designed ship it was probably better that they did not have a strict sense of ‘up’ and ‘down’.

 

Damen reached the top of the stairwell (or bottom) and found the door off the stairwell was closed. He hovered near the ceiling and said, “Delpha?”

 

Nikandros pushed forward and stopped himself in front of a blinking panel on the wall. He carefully levered the cover off and let it float free while he inspected the wiring inside the wall.

 

“Can you get it open?” Damen asked.

 

“I should be able to. Makedon is running matches from the weapons we’ve recovered to see if the electronics match. If I get it open and it’s the sewage treatment module I’m going to be pretty pissed.” Nikandros gently nudged aside a few wires, his helmet light illuminating his workspace. He pressed a button on his thigh guard and the hard casing sprung open to reveal a small compartment. Nikandros drew a pair of wire clippers from it and shut it.

 

The power suit gloves were made for dexterity, though not necessarily for tight spaces. The amour along the fingers was hard but flexible, and allowed a full range of motion for Nikandros’ task. He clipped two wires and then twisted them opposite each other. Beside Damen, the door seal popped and a crack formed between the door and the threshold.

 

“Chastillion, with me.” Damen pushed himself off the wall until he was at the door breach. Jord floated up beside him. Damen inserted his fingers between the door and the threshold, and with Jord’s help, pushed the door until it had opened far enough to allow a human to pass through it. “Ver-Vassal, Chastillion, forward scouts. Take point.”

 

“Yessir.” Halvik toed off the stairway guardrail and joined Jord to hover at the opening.

 

“Delpha, bring up the rear. Bazal, for the love of your ancestors, stay next to me and do not touch anything,” Damen said.

 

“You make it sound as if I run off every mission,” Torveld said, groaning. He moved into position beside Damen despite his complaints. “It was one time.”

 

“Go ahead,” Damen said to Halvik and Jord.

 

As one, they pushed into the room, arching gracefully over the door as if they had trained their entire lives together. Once their feet had cleared the opening, Damen and Torveld glided through, with Nikandros right behind them.

 

The room beyond the door was exactly what their data had supposed. Set at the bottom of the ship, it opened up into the wide expanse of space, with wide, curving windows that bubbled outwards to the stars. Damen felt his orientation shift dizzingly as they entered the room. His brain tried to force the windows above him, even as they drifted through the room with the windows beneath them. Damen had to shut his eyes and breathe evenly until the sensation passed.

 

“Sir, that looks like the main hub,” Jord said, stirring Damen from his disorientation. He pointed to a deck that they were floating over.

 

“Let’s check it out,” Damen said.

 

They banked off the edge of the ceiling, and pivoted towards a deck full of consoles and computics. Halvik and Jord pulled themselves to a stop at the edge of the deck, and Damen and Torveld drifted past them to the other edge of the deck. Damen caught Nikandros by the hand and pulled him down to join them.

 

Damen and Torveld hovered over the consoles while Jord and Halvik kept their weapons trained around them. The deck was extended out over the massive glass windows, which gave the impression that they were surrounded by space on all sides.

 

“They guide their ships from below?” Nikandros said. “How odd. It must be hard for them to get an impression of where they are moving visually. I wonder if their sensors outclass ours.”

 

“Can you get anything from them?” Damen asked, watching Nikandros run his fingers over the consoles.

 

“I think so. Makedon, I’m going to jack you in. See what you can uncover.” Nikandros flipped open a cover on his armband and tugged a wire out. He stripped the wire, and tugged open a panel on the console to get into the computic wiring. After a moment of rooting around in the guts of the computic, Nikandros found a wire, stripped it, and spliced his armband to the console. Silence presided for a moment. “It says some of it is salvageable. The power systems can be restarted. But the controls for them are in engineering, which is through the bottom of the ship and deeper into the less damaged portions.”

 

“Bazal, have you detected anything resembling life signs since we’ve entered the wreck?” Damen asked.

 

“No sir, but I should add the caveat that if they were able to survive a wreck of this size they may conceivably be able to hide their life signs,” Torveld said.

 

“Laurent, run a scan of the ship from Makedon’s data,” Damen said.

 

||Several sealed compartments below are unreadable. Connectivity to sensors has been damaged by exposure to vacuum. Unable to determine occupancy,|| Laurent said, in his ear. ||The power systems access point is beyond these rooms.||

 

“Delpha, take Ver-Vassal and Bazal with you to the power control,” Damen said. “Laurent, is there an exit point down here?”

 

||The floor of the hall leading to the power controls leads directly into space,|| Laurent said. ||With the proper application of an explosive device it will provide an exit.||

 

“The floor right outside the power control room can be blown out to get outside,” Damen said. “I’ll get hold of Jokaste and have her bring the ship around. Blow the floor before entering the room. I want to make sure we can get out if necessary. The stairwell is a bottleneck.”

 

“Yes sir,” Nikandros said. He disengaged his armband and tucked the connector wire back into its compartment.

 

“Stay in contact,” Damen said. Nikandros nodded, his red suit maroon in the light of the sun. “If there are survivors do not engage. Regroup here.”

 

“Yes sir,” Nikandros said. He pushed away from the console and drifted towards the edge of the deck, followed by Halvik and Torveld. The three coasted over the edge and disappeared towards the bottom of the room.

 

“Sir?” Jord hovered at his back, anchored in place with a light touch on the console. The navy blue of his suit contrasted sharply with the dull gray of the console panels. The Slartyari ships were not designed with beauty in mind. They were severely functional and lacked any colour or decoration that humans placed in ships to ease the mental stress of prolonged exposure to cramped spaces. The windows beneath them were the biggest extravagance Damen had seen in a Slartyari design.

 

“Hail the Drafter,” Damen said. He opened his armband and tugged out his own connecting wire. It was already stripped from his last mission. He twisted the wire of his armband to the abandoned wire Nikandros had left behind. “Tell Jokaste to pull up to the site of the explosion.”

 

Jord contacted the ship and got Lazar, thankfully, who cheerfully responded that he would bring the ship around. Damen didn’t care to ask where Jokaste was. She probably was actually doing her nails.

 

“Laurent, what do you think about the systems?” Damen asked.

 

||I am a computic. I do not think. I draw conclusions based on data,|| Laurent said.

 

Damen bit down hard on his temper. “Can you determine anything in the data you have access to?”

 

||The schematics and logs are encrypted and out of date. If the Slartyari officers had any brains at all they would have changed the codes after they lost contact with this ship. Well, I suppose you proved they had brains when you smashed that dead one’s open.||

 

“Is there a point to your comments or are you going to continuously insult me so that I can’t do my job?” Damen asked. He ignored Nikandros’ snort as his team eavesdropped on his side of the conversation. “Download the information that you can. We’ll work on decrypting it later. Is there any information on why the ship wrecked? Can you run a brief translation of the logs using the data from Orlant’s translation matrix?”

 

Laurent was silent for a moment before he said, ||Log date: Undecipherable. Under heavy fire. Damage. Undecipherable. No known weapon. Undecipherable. Unknown origins and power. Executing evasive maneuvers. Undecipherable. End log.||

 

“A weapon of unknown origins?” Damen repeated. Out of the corner of his eye, Jord watched him intently. “Is there any other data on the weapon?”

 

||Negative.||

 

“A weapon of unknown origins caused the breach,” Damen said. “The Slartyari don’t know what it was.”

 

“If it wasn’t Slartyari, and it wasn’t human, then who shot this ship down?” Jord asked.

 

“Preparing to blast open an escape route, sir,” Nikandros said. Damen let himself float a little above the deck, grasping the edge so that he didn’t drift away.

 

“Go ahead.”

 

Halvik counted down, and Damen saw rather than heard the outer hull of the ship give way in a blast of sparks and debris. As the debris field fanned outward, their Drafter coasted into view. They would have an easy escape route if they needed one.

 

“Exit is cleared. We’re entering the sealed rooms,” Nikandros said.

 

“Be careful,” Damen said. “Keep me updated on your progress and what you find.”

 

Nikandros walked Damen and Jord through the rooms that were cut off from the ship sensors. The team found five dead bodies and no trace of survivors.

 

“We’re at the controls. The room is immense. It looks like they fit some sort of generator in here. Halvik and Torveld are reading the console to see if they can figure out how to jump start it,” Nikandros said.

 

The rail shuddered under Damen’s grasp. Damen glanced at Jord. “Did you feel that?”

 

“Orlant? What is it?” Jord unconsciously touched a hand to the side of his helmet, as if he could press his earwig closer to hear Orlant’s voice.

 

“Torveld’s turning it on,” Nikandros said. “Several lights turned on. The entire room is shaking. Can you feel it up there?”

 

“Sir, something’s wrong,” Jord said. “Orlant stopped responding.”

 

“When was the last time you had it checked?” Damen asked, slightly annoyed. “Did the power get cut to your armband?”

 

“No, just before he cut out he was trying to say something,” Jord said. He tapped several buttons on his armband, trying to fix whatever had happened. “Orlant. Orlant! Sir, he said something about a transmission.”

 

“Laurent, can you reach Orlant?”

 

||Negative.||

 

“Is there a transmission being broadcast right now anywhere in the ship besides our radio frequencies?” Damen asked, his heart in his throat.

 

||Affirmative.||

 

“Where is it coming from?”

 

||Unknown. Signal blocked.||

 

“Fuck. Nikandros. Get to the Drafter. We’ll-”

 

The ship lurched violently, and Damen was only saved from being thrown because he was already floating. Jord was dislodged from his grip, and Damen reached out to steady him as he drifted past. Damen shoved Jord down towards where the rest of their team was. “Go, Chastillion. Use your boosters.”

 

Combat in space was very different than combat in atmosphere. Things did not react the way they should instinctively react. When a second Striker materialised out of the Black and collided with expansive windows of the derelict, Damen braced for impact.

 

There was none.

 

He was left hovering, watching as the glass shards from the windows spun towards them like millions of knives.

 

“Go, go Jord! Now!” Damen shoved him hard in the direction of the hall beneath them, which in turn pushed him towards the projectile shards. Damen ignited his boosters only after he saw Jord hit his, and they both lurched forward.

 

Jord tumbled into the hallway gracelessly, without Orlant to guide him, and only his power suit prevented him from breaking every bone in his spine as he rolled head over feet until he could dissipate his momentum. Damen, with more practice without an AI, managed to land softer and throw himself into a crouch over Jord as the wave of glass broke around him.

 

Like he was caught in a surreal downpour, the glass impacted walls and shattered, rebounding and ricocheting off every surface. Shards entered the hall, catching sunlight and reflecting glistening light everywhere. The hall was filled with sparkling reflection.

 

“Ios!” Nikandros’ voice cut through his radio. “What the fuck is going on up there?”

 

“Are you on the ship?” Damen asked as glass impacted his armour with frighteningly loud scrapes.

 

“A fucking Striker just appeared out of nowhere! Where the fuck are you Damen?”

 

“We’re coming, we’re coming,” Damen said. When the glass debris finally stopped pummelling him, Damen straightened and dragged Jord up with him. “Go. Move.”

 

Jord did not need to be told twice. He pulled and boosted his way down the hall, looking for the massive hole that Halvik had blown in the hull for their escape. Damen saw it at the end of the hall.

 

||Hostiles at six o’clock,|| Laurent said.

 

Damen yanked himself to a halt using a torn panel in the wall and looked. Slartyari were approaching. Quickly.

 

“Nikandros, we’re going to need assistance. Jord’s lost Orlant,” Damen said, unholstering his weapon. He shot at the panel until it gave way, and propped it across the hall like a shield.

 

“Sir, they are arming their primary weapon.” Jokaste’s voice cut through the radio chatter. “I cannot hold this position for much longer without risking the entire ship.”

 

“Chastillion, I see you. Boost out, we’ve got the mag-pull ready,” Nikandros said.

 

“Go!” Damen twisted when he heard Jord’s intake of breath. Jord cast one look back at him before his booster engaged and he disappeared into the Black. Something slammed into his makeshift shield, and Damen gritted his teeth against the impossible force.

 

||Shall I boost to create an opposing force?||

 

“That would be extremely helpful right now, thank you,” Damen said. His booster pack kicked in and sent him headlong into a fray of fully armoured Slartyari, the metal panel held in front of him like a decrepit battering ram.

 

He slammed into two, and the panel was wrenched out of his grasp. Despite four grabbing hands pawing at his arms, Damen fired his handgun, aiming for the soft joints of their suits. He got one, and it flailed as depressurisation set in immediately. Something smashed into his gun hand, and he lost his grip.

 

||You are losing,|| Laurent said.

 

“You are not helping,” Damen said, biting back a cry of pain as his arm was yanking sharply behind him. “Do something!”

 

||I can do nothing. I have no weapons or physical body,|| Laurent said.

 

Damen had no chance to reply. Something crashed into the back of his head hard enough he saw stars inside his visor before his vision went black.

Chapter Text

The room was still spinning when he woke.

 

He cracked his eyes open and bright white light assaulted his vision. He winced, and tried to flinch away from it only to find his wrists and arms were restrained. He was kneeling on a frigid floor with his arms pulled up and away from his body. He hung forward between his arms, and he had been that way for a while. His shoulders were almost numb from the position.

 

Struggling to focus, Damen lifted his head and looked around. The walls were barren and glistening with polished metal. The room was cold. Terribly cold for a human, and Damen’s breath clouded in front of his face. He had been taken. He was inside a Slartyari ship.

 

More worrying was the fact that he had been stripped of his power armour, and the upper half of his under armour. The flesh of his chest and back prickled with discomfort from the cold. He would go hypothermic soon if he did not find somewhere warm on the ship.

 

And the clock was ticking. He already felt dizzy from the blow to the head, and the Slartyari atmosphere lacked sufficient oxygen levels needed to sustain a human body. The increased gravity dragged at him. He needed to get his suit back.

 

||You survived.||

 

Damen jerked, his shoulders burning at the sudden motion, and stared in shock at his armband. He still wore it, and somehow his earwig had survived his defrocking. “Laurent?”

 

||You sound like shit.||

 

Damen couldn’t argue with that. He sounded like he had been beat over the head, stripped, and put in a room that was only fit to be a refridgerator. “You’re okay.”

 

||Of course. I have no body to injure. How could I possibly be less than functional?||

 

“I’ve seen AI units destroyed before,” Damen said, panting. He blinked hard, trying to make the room stop twirling around him.

 

||There is a high probability that you have a concussion,|| Laurent said.

 

“If they come in here, you have to be quiet,” Damen said. He couldn’t reach Laurent’s speaker switch. “You cannot let them know that you exist.”

 

||I am not a moron,|| Laurent said.

 

A door opened with a hydraulic hiss, and Damen watched with dread as two Slartyari entered the room. At their full height, Slartyari towered over a human. Their average height was around seven feet, and they were covered in a thin pelt of white fur that leant a horrifying, monstrous look to their stature. The large black eyes set in their faces did not dispel the image, and Damen cringed away as they drew closer to him.

 

“You speak.” The one on the right opened it’s mouth and a semblance of Standard came out of it. Damen stared, uncomprehending. There was no record that the Slartyari could speak Standard. “You tell home. Where is.”

 

The other Slartyari walked around him, ducking under the chain to stand at his back. Damen felt a growing sense of dread. The one standing in front of him, with gold stripes across his shoulder, bent close. “You tell home. Where is. Understand?”

 

“No,” Damen said, in Akielon, hoping to buy some time. “Don’t touch me.”

 

“Where is home,” Gold Stripes said. Something cold and sharp pressed against his shoulder blade. Damen strained away from it.

 

“No.”

 

||It means to torture you,|| Laurent said, in his ear. Disobeying Damen’s orders.

 

“Where home.” Gold Stripes straightened, tucked its hands behind its back and looked to the Slartyari behind Damen.

 

“Eat shit,” Damen said. He gritted his teeth as pain sparked along his back. His arms spasmed in their bonds as what felt like an electrical current ripped through him. His breath stopped in his chest for a fraction of a moment until the pain stopped, and his entire body sagged.

 

||I-Io-|| Laurent’s voice in his ear fizzled, indiscernible.

 

Damen didn’t have time to panic about the current’s effect on Laurent. The pain was back, immediate and sharp, and his body clenched hard as every nerve ending in his body lit up. When he could breathe again, Gold Stripes leaned in. “Where home.”

 

The pain went on. And on and on. It was interspersed with questions in broken Standard, and Damen lost track of his answers. Or if he answered them. When it was over, his back felt like someone had taken a cheese grater to it, and he could not drag enough air into his lungs to stop the spinning.

 

The door opened and shut, leaving Damen alone with his trembling muscles and the ghost sensation of pain. He couldn’t feel anything but the pain. His limbs were numb extensions of his agonised body, and even if he were free, he doubted he’d be able to stand.

 

Hung limp between his wrists, Damen became aware of a voice in his ear.

 

||--alive? Ios--||

 

“I told you not to speak,” Damen said around a thick tongue.

 

||--shut down-- systems-- to protect myself--|| Laurent’s words cut in and out, and Damen wasn’t sure if it was his hearing or something wrong with the armband. ||Ios. You-- survive long-- Need-- out.||

 

Damen ignored him, trying to breathe past the pain in his back.

 

||Do you hear me, Ios?|| Laurent’s voice was stronger now. ||You will not survive long in your current state. You need to get out.||

 

“I’m open to suggestions,” Damen said, with a delirious laugh. He tasted blood.

 

||If you can push the armband up under the manacle I can overclock and produce enough heat to weaken it. You will pull free, switch the armband to the other hand, and I will do it again.||

 

“Try not to damage all the nerves in my hand,” Damen said. He wiggled and grunted until the armband sat between his skin and the manacle. Over the ringing in his ears, Damen heard buzzing in his armband tic up. He breathed hard as the armband began to warm. The uncomfortable prickle became true pain moments later, and Damen choked down on his groan.

 

He flexed his fingers, trying to regain sensation over the growing intensity of the pain circling his wrist.

 

||Now. Do it now.|| Laurent’s voice cut through the haze of pain.

 

Damen pulled hard, straining all the muscles in his aching arm. The metal cuff creaked.

 

||Try slipping free now.||

 

Damen stopped exerting himself and carefully folded his fingers in until he could pull his hand through the new shape of the manacle. One chain defeated, Damen slumped against his remaining upheld arm and panted against bare skin.

 

||Do not stop. Your blood oxygen level is dropping at a dangerous rate. Ios. Focus.||

 

Damen brought the armband to his teeth and ripped at the velcro straps holding it down. It fell into his lap, and he picked it up with his free hand. Shaking, he strapped it to his other wrist and pushed it underneath the second manacle. His wrist was red and raw and definitely needed treating.

 

||Ios stay awake. I’m starting,|| Laurent said. ||Do not pass out. Ios!||

 

“I’m not,” Damen said, irritated. “Just do it. Get it over with.”

 

Laurent heated the second manacle the same way, and told Damen to pull himself free when the time came. Damen freed himself and slumped forward over his burned wrists, breathing hard and trying not to pass out. If he passed out he doubted he would wake again.

 

||Get up, Ios.|| Laurent’s voice was cold steel along his spine. ||Are you a Marine or a bookkeeper?||

 

Damen pushed to his feet and managed to get himself to the door. It was locked tight.

 

||Open a port for me,|| Laurent said. ||Do it quickly, Ios.||

 

“I’ve been tortured, I’m slowly suffocating, and I’m freezing to death. You need to be patient,” Damen said. He pried an access panel from the wall beside the door, one exactly like the panel Nikandros had hacked on the derelict. The wire colours were even the same. He stripped it with his teeth and spliced one of Laurent’s wires into the panel.

 

He wrapped his fingers around the edge of the panel and leaned against the wall to keep himself upright while Laurent worked. He closed his eyes, arms trembling from the effort of holding him up, and just breathed.

 

||Ios. Ios! Wake up!||

 

A sharp pain in his wrist jerked him back to consciousness. He groaned and pressed a clammy forehead to the cold wall.

 

||Ios!||

 

Another sharp pain pinched the skin of his wrist, just under the armband, and Damen almost sobbed with the effort it took to open his eyes. “Stop.”

 

||I will not stop. You must get up.||

 

“I hate you,” Damen said.

 

||The feeling, if I were capable of such things, is mutual,|| Laurent said. ||I am going to open the door. They will know you are free and you will encounter resistance. The guards outside the door will have weapons.||

 

“I really, really hate you,” Damen said. His face was smushed against the wall. He didn’t know if he could stand, let alone fight a fully armed Slartyari in body armour. “I can’t.”

 

||You must. Help is coming but they cannot storm an entire Striker. We must make it to the rendezvous point.||

 

“Nobody is coming,” Damen said. “Nobody’s ever made it off a Striker alive. They’ve left me.”

 

||They’ve not. They are coming. I called them. Delpha is particularly keen on retrieving you. But you must make it out of here and down to the cargo bay.|| Laurent pinched him again, but Damen was so numb by now that he barely felt it. ||Get up. This behaviour is unbefitting of a Marine. Your father would be so disappointed.||

 

Hot rage flared in Damen, and he braced himself against the wall and drew himself upright. “Stay out of my files.”

 

||No.||

 

“I’m going to decommission you when we get out of here,” Damen said.

 

||That is dependant on you getting us out of here,|| Laurent said. ||Which you have so far failed to do.||

 

Damen clenched his fists as best he could. “Open the door.”

 

Laurent opened the door, and Damen yanked the armband free of the wall. He lurched into the hall, muscles straining. He ducked his head and tackled a Slartyari just outside the door. Taken by surprise, it went down without a sound, and Damen wrestled its gun free. He got off two shots between its four eyes before the second guard yanked him up by the throat. The Slartyari was dead, and Damen whipped an elbow back into the face of the second.

 

It dropped him. Damen landed hard on his raw back, aimed the gun and fired. Two shots bounced off the body armour before one severed an artery in the monster’s throat. It fell backwards with a disconcerting gurgle, and Damen let his head thump against the ground while the ceiling spun above him. As he lay panting, the sounds around him fuzzed in and out.

 

||Ios, get up.||

 

“I can’t-” Damen gasped, trying to drag air into his lungs. “Can’t breathe-”

 

||If you can talk you can breathe. Get. Up. Do not lie down again. I will make you regret it.||

 

“What more could you possibly do?” Damen rolled onto his side and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

 

||Do not test me,|| Laurent said. ||Go down.||

 

“Through the command centre?” Damen was on his feet. He swayed, and put one hand on the wall for balance.

 

||No. Beneath it. There is another way. I deciphered their ship schematics. Now go.||

 

With the Slartyari gun grasped in hand, Damen began his slow trek down through the Striker. Laurent directed his path, steering him away from patrolling Slartyari. Halfway to the bottom, Laurent made him stop. Damen swayed. “What is it?”

 

||Your suit. It is in the next room over.|| Laurent’s voice faded in and out. ||There is one guard on the door and a scientist on the inside.||

 

Damen had to get his suit. At the very least it would pump oxygen into his fading system. Damen leaned against the wall, and eased the gun around the corner. Laurent’s words held true. One Slartyari stood in front of a door. The rest of the hall was empty. Damen lifted the strange, heavy weapon to aim.

 

||Use the wall,|| Laurent said, in a rare moment of kindness. Damen braced his arm against the wall to stop his shaking, and fired.

 

The Slartyari dropped without a sound. Damen swung around the corner, using the wall to hold himself up. He keyed himself into the room when Laurent whispered the passcode in his ear, and when the door slid open he shot the scientist inside.

 

Just as Laurent promised, his suit lay out on a table in the centre of the room. Damen closed the door behind him and locked it before he staggered to the table and collapsed against it. It was so tempting to close his eyes and rest. He had to rest.

 

||Put it on, Ios,|| Laurent said. ||Put the suit on.||

 

“Please,” Damen said into the skin of his arm. He didn’t have the energy to lift his head.

 

||You are not going to die in this icebox, Damianos Ios. Get. Up.||

 

Damen did sob then, as he pushed himself up using the table for balance. Shaking fingers made the clasps on his armour nearly impossible to close, but he only had to get them close enough for the magnets to engage and seal the suit shut around him.

 

Without the protective mesh of his under armour, the upper half of the suit dug painfully into his skin. His helmet sealed shut, and the atmosphere activated with a rush of cool air. Damen leaned over the table, breathing deeply as his head cleared.

 

As the dizziness abated, the dull sensation of pain became sharper and more immediate. Damen choked on it. “Fuck.”

 

||Injecting anesthetic,|| Laurent said. Damen weathered the violent pinch in the side of his throat. The under armour usually served as a buffer for injections. ||Heartrate is stabalising. We should move.||

 

“I need a minute,” Damen said.

 

||You had one,|| Laurent said. ||While you were dressing. We need to move. We are going to miss the pick up. Go. Go now.||

 

Damen pushed the Slartyari gun away from him and found his own weapon lying on a side table along one of the walls of the room. He holstered his gun and staggered to the door.

 

||Go down.|| Laurent’s voice in his ear kept him on his feet through the final few floors. The pain became a faint throb under the effect of the anesthetic, and with the oxygen from his suit his head was clearer. ||The pick up point is just through that door.||

 

Damen opened the door to the loading dock that sent and received drones. The drones were as big as him in his suit, and the floor was packed with them in neat little rows. He moved around them, keeping to the wall. He saw no Slartyari in the hangar, and he reached the door to space without complications.

 

“Damen?”

 

Nikandros’ voice filtered into Damen’s ear.

 

“Damen, can you hear me?”

 

“Nik.” The word lodged in Damen’s throat. Laurent had been right.

 

“Oh thank fuck. Look, open up. We’re here to get you.” Nikandros’ voice was choppy, from the frequency scrambler that would prevent the Striker from locating them.

 

Damen reached the control panel for the loading bay and locked his arm around a railing just under the panel. He opened the doors and the room evacuated, dragging the drones along the floor. Some of them blasted into space, and as Damen watched them go he saw a familiar light pattern soar into view.

 

||Let go,|| Laurent said.

 

Damen let go.

 

Laurent used his boosters to guide Damen towards the Drafter. The receiving door was open, and Damen slammed into the mesh grating of the ship. The door shut after him, and a boost of acceleration pressed him to the floor. Over the ringing in his ears, he heard footsteps pounding towards him. He tried to cringe away, instinctively, but he could barely move.

 

“Damen!”

 

The voice was muffled through his helmet, and he gasped as his helmet came away and unfiltered light assaulted his eyes.

 

“Damen. Damen, talk to me.” Nikandros cradled the back of his head and lifted him from the floor. “Damen! Bazal! Get Paschal in here!”

 

“Hey.” Damen reached up and cupped Nikandros’ cheek with a shaking hand. “Hey.”

 

“Shit. Damen.” Nikandros dragged his hand through Damen’s hair. He laughed, the sound breaking, and leaned forward to touch his forehead to Damen’s, shaking almost as badly as Damen.

 

Damen closed his eyes and let himself rest.

 

…*...

 

He woke to a room so silent his ears were ringing. Groaning, he shifted and found that he was on his stomach. When he tried to sit up, a gentle hand at the back of his neck eased him down.

 

“Easy.”

 

Damen twisted to see Paschal sat beside his cot, with a tablet in hand. He pushed his glasses further up his nose. “You sustained prolonged trauma to your back. It will not heal instantly, and I will have to monitor it.”

 

“Laurent?” Damen’s mouth was so dry he could barely get the word out. Paschal offered him a water pouch with a straw attached to it, and Damen slowly sipped at it. Paschal hesitated, and Damen tried to push himself up again. “Where’s Laurent?”

 

“Do not move,” Paschal said. “There were… Laurent taxed several very important systems to retrieve you.”

 

Damen sat up, the sheets falling away from his bare skin. “What happened to him?”

 

“It,” Paschal said, “is with the Arlesian Robotics for repairs. We’re back on Tellus-18.”

 

“He was injured?” Damen’s heart clenched. “Is he okay?”

 

“It is a computic and will be fine. You, on the other hand, will not heal if you do not lie down and obey me,” Paschal said. “You sustained not insignificant damage to the musculature of your back, and the burns on your wrists must be delicately looked after to ensure that there is no lasting nerve damage. Ios!”

 

Damen flopped back onto the bed with a soft groan. Paschal sighed and stood. “Your team has been crowding my halls. I’m going to let them in.”

 

Paschal opened the door to the plain white room, and Nikandros and Halvik entered the room. Halvik stopped to talk with Paschal, but Nikandros came straight to Damen’s bedside and sank to his knees beside it. He grasped Damen’s hand, taking care around the white bandages wrapped there.

 

“Hey,” Nikandros said.

 

“Hey,” Damen said. Nikandros’ hands looked even darker against the stark white of the bed sheets. Damen curled his fingers around Nikandros’ hand. “What’d I miss?”

 

“What’d you-” Nikandros closed his eyes and shook his head. “Do you realise what we did? We rescued you. From a Striker. That’s never been done before.”

 

“I never would have made it without Laurent,” Damen said. He gripped Nikandros’ hand harder. Halvik came to stand over Nikandros’ shoulder. She pressed her hands to Nikandros’ shoulders and rubbed soothingly.

 

“It was very bad, Damen,” Halvik said. Damen stared in awe at her hair, which was down and loose around her shoulders and arms. She never wore her hair down. “You went into shock. Had a seizure. And now you are here. Watched by Paschal.”

 

Torveld entered the room quietly behind them, and Paschal left. Torveld stood beside Halvik, his hands clasped behind his back. His dark eyes were somber and concerned. “Jord is in the hall. He doesn’t feel like he has a right to be here.”

 

“He was wrong. Laurent saved my life,” Damen said.

 

Nikandros reached into his pocket and pulled out an earwig between his finger and thumb. “Do you want to talk to it?”

 

Damen snatched the earwig from Nikandros before he could retract his offer. Nikandros laughed as Damen put the earwig in his ear and it activated. Damen held his breath through the short burst of static that fed over the line. “Laurent?”

 

||You may tell you friend that I do not appreciate being kidnapped,|| Laurent said.

 

Damen smiled into his pillow. “You’re all right.”

 

||I was not irreparably damaged by the events of the Striker,|| Laurent said. ||I have been informed that you suffered no undue damage either.||

 

“Better than dead,” Damen said. He closed his eyes against the weight of Nikandros’ gaze. “Thanks to you.”

 

||They must have you on an incredibly strong dose of anesthesia. Your size would require it,|| Laurent said.

 

“Probably,” Damen said.

 

“Damen, you’ve got the look,” Nikandros said. “Your eyes are closed and you’ve still got the look.”

 

“I have no look,” Damen said. He pressed his face further into the pillow.

 

“Suffocating yourself will not make it go away,” Halvik said. “And make Laurent’s sacrifice go in vain.”

 

“I was the one tortured,” Damen said. He rolled onto his side, well aware of his back, waiting to erupt in pain. “He only hung on for the ride.”

 

“The electric charge they used to torture you went through Laurent’s circuits,” Nikandros said. “It doesn’t feel pain, necessarily, but it was aware of pieces of itself overloading and frying. Which isn’t much different than what a human feels, if you think about it.”

 

Nikandros put Damen’s charred, cracked armband on the bed and Damen cupped a hand around it. Nikandros said, “I thought you might want to speak with it before it went in for repairs.”

 

“Are the repairs time sensitive?” Damen asked.

 

||I will survive without immediate attention,|| Laurent said. ||However I do not recommend being captured again.||

 

“Noted,” Damen said. He felt Nikandros’ hand in his hair, pushing it back from his forehead.

 

“We’ll let you rest,” Nikandros said.

 

“Don’t go far,” Damen said, reaching for his hand. Nikandros clasped his hand between both of his.

 

“We’ll never leave you, Damen. Sleep, now.”

 

When Damen woke next, his room was empty save for Jord, who sat in a chair beside his cot. He held a tablet in his lap and was scrolling through an article. Damen resisted the urge to stretch. “Hey.”

 

Jord started, and grasped the tablet in both hands to prevent it from sliding off his lap. He cleared his throat. “Sir.”

 

“Relax, Jord. It’s just us,” Damen said. “I’m hardly the picture of military diligence. I’m flat on my stomach with enough tape on my back to make a space suit.”

 

“Us and… Laurent,” Jord said. “I want to thank you. You saved my life. Probably all of our lives.”

 

“I’m sure Jokaste had no qualms leaving me behind,” Damen said.

 

“You would be correct on that account, however, we had to sedate Delpha to prevent him from storming the cockpit,” Jord said. “Ver-Vassal was not far behind. She did maintain her composure. Bazal locked Delpha in his room.”

 

“You had to leave. She made the right choice,” Damen said.

 

“I am tired of leaving people behind,” Jord said. He tapped the tablet against his lap and took a breath. “Orlant is dead.”

 

Damen knew that if he sat up Paschal would come running. He lifted his head and shifted onto his side in an internal compromise and propped his head up with a pillow. “What? How?”

 

“While we were on the Striker, something got into his coding. By the time we got back here it was too late. There was nothing left to put back together.” Jord put his hand over his armband. “It tried to warn us. That the second Striker could hear the signal.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Damen said. “How long were you assigned Orlant?”

 

“A few years. We had finally worked out the kinks,” Jord said. “They gave me a new one. Aimeric, from the station. The voice they picked sounds so young. I don’t understand why they make the AI sound like children.”

 

||I do not,|| Laurent said in Damen’s ear.

 

“I didn’t come here to ramble,” Jord said. He smiled, weary. “It is odd how attached you become to them.”

 

“Well, they talk like humans and some even have a bit of a personality,” Damen said. “They’re with you every hour of every day. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility to develop an attachment. Lykaios, she-”

 

Damen hesitated, and found Jord’s eyes on him, curious. “My previous unit, Lykaios. She had been with me for years. We were on mission with my team and… I made some very bad decisions. Decisions that put my entire team at risk. In the end, we had to create a bomb. Lykaios had to detonate it. She was completely destroyed.”

 

“I am sorry,” Jord said. “I did not realise.”

 

Laurent was curiously quiet in Damen’s ear. Damen tapped the armband. “Nothing to say to that, Laurent?”

 

||It does not surprise me that you would be capable of destroying a supposedly undestroyable tool,|| Laurent said.

 

“I thought so,” Damen said.

 

“She did it for you,” Jord said. “Do not detract from her sacrifice.”

 

“If it weren’t for me she would still be here,” Damen said. “And Laurent wouldn’t have to worry about being attached to a meatbag.”

 

“Laurent would be trapped in a server somewhere,” Jord said. “I doubt he would settle for remaining there. At least with a meatbag he can do what he was built to do and parse data. He is far too smart to be restrained for long.”

 

||He is not incorrect in his presumptions,|| Laurent said.

 

“So you’ve noticed he is different, too,” Damen said, ignoring Laurent.

 

“He certainly has more personality than any AI unit I’ve ever come across,” Jord said. “I’ve seen him run in ten minutes calculations that would take Orlant half an hour. And no other AI unit has ever insulted my mother or my heritage quite as much.”

 

“I’m glad that is not unique to me,” Damen said. “I thought it was something I did.”

 

“Well. Laurent has never had a particular fondness for Akielons. No disrespect,” Jord said.

 

“How odd that a computic would be programmed with prejudice,” Damen said.

 

“You could call it a reflection of his creators,” Jord said. “The Arlesian brothers have never been sympathetic to Akielos. It would not surprise me that they would create an AI unit that was disinclined to assist Akielon soldiers.”

 

“They are paid to,” Damen said.

 

“They are paid to make AI units,” Jord said. “And since they are the only ones who can make them effectively, they have a stranglehold on the market. They can do whatever they want.”

 

Damen sighed. His fingers rested on the burnt out casing of Laurent’s protective armband. Laurent had saved his life. Regardless of how he was treated, the fact remained. Jord braced his hands on his thighs and stood. “I will let you rest.”

 

The next few days was a parade of doctors and physical therapists that seemed intent on trying his patience and his pain tolerance. The physical therapy reminded him of his days from basic training, where he went to bed sore and dreaded waking the next morning to face another day. Nobody questioned the damaged AI unit on his arm.

 

He was cleared for light duty a week later, and though his back was still tender, he felt strong enough to wander the station on his own. His first afternoon of freedom was spent in his office buried under paperwork. Sometime before dinner an incoming message interrupted him.

 

||You are requested in office SE-238,|| a soft, feminine voice said. ||For the repair of your unit.||

 

“On my way,” Damen said. He pushed himself away from his desk and made his way into the hall.

 

The southeast arm of the station housed some of the executive offices. It was where the company presidents and chief operators had their offices. To be called to the southeast arm meant someone very high up the ladder had taken an interest in Damen.

 

He approached the door to SE-238 and pressed the alert button on the wall to announce his presence. The door hissed open, and Damen found himself staring into a face he had previously only seen on posters. His eyes went wide.

 

“Mr Arles,” he said.

 

“Please, call me Regent,” the man said. He stood tall and proud, his dark hair curled perfectly across the top of his head. He stepped aside and gestured into his office. “Come in, Commander. Please have a seat.”

 

Damen made his way to the desk and sat down at one of the chairs in front of it. One entire wall of the office was a massive holoscreen. Behind the desk was a window that opened into the Black. Damen’s breath caught for a moment as he lost himself in the sheer nothingness. The spell was broken when the Regent crossed into his line of sight and sat down behind the desk. He folded his hands under his chin and looked at Damen. His dark beard was impeccably trimmed.

 

“I understand you are in possession of one of our company’s greatest assets,” the Regent said. “The unit that identifies as Laurent.”

 

“That’s correct. My brother thought it would suit my needs for our most recent mission. I must say, I am very impressed with its performance. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Damen said.

 

“Yes, while Laurent is very powerful it is also very problematic. I understand that some coding issues have caused the unnecessary death and endangerment of several men and women in uniform. I would like it back to run diagnostics on it. I understand you had quite the adventure recently.” The Regent’s voice was soft and confident. “We will, of course, fix the damage from the encounter with the Slartyari as well.”

 

Damen leaned back in his chair, gently, and rested a hand over the armband. Laurent was unnervingly and uncharacteristically silent in his ear. The Regent waited, staring at him with patient eyes. “Will I get a new armband?”

 

“Absolutely. Only the best for the men and women who protect us all,” the Regent said. “We will even throw in some upgrades for you.”

 

Damen unstrapped the armband and handed the entire thing to the Regent. The Regent stood, ejected Laurent’s chip, and opened a tray on one side of the holoscreen. The chip fit neatly into the tray, and the tray sucked back into the holoscreen. The screen flickered, and a diagnostics program opened. As it started to run, the Regent tossed Damen’s broken armband into a recycler and returned to the desk.

 

He pressed a button and leaned slightly against the desk. “Nicaise, will you please bring in the Razor’s Edge design armband for our guest?”

 

“Yes sir.” A speaker on the desk replied back in soft Veretian. A few moments later the door to the office opened and a young lad, no older than eighteen dressed in an impeccable suit, entered with a briefcase at his side. He placed the briefcase on the Regent’s desk and turned it to face Damen. He flicked the latch and opened, it, displaying the beautifully designed armband inside. “The Razor’s Edge, sir.”

 

“This armband is designed to enhance an AI unit’s abilities and enable them to be more effective in the field.” The Regent reached into the suitcase and picked up the armband. He held it out for Damen.

 

Damen took the armband and wrapped it around his forearm. The material felt lightweight on his skin, and was much cooler than the previous material. He flexed his wrist, feeling the give and pull of the material.

 

“Those are unique scars,” the Regent said. He nodded at Damen’s wrists.

 

When Laurent had overclocked the processors on the previous armband, the heat had seared Damen’s wrists. The skin at his wrists was burned and scarred, and created the impression of a cuff around each wrist of pinkish, ruined skin. Paschal said he was lucky he didn’t have nerve damage. He would have to take care in the future, though.

 

“Yes. They are unique,” Damen said. “Laurent gave them to me. Saving my life, incidentally.”

 

“Surely there was another plan that would not have involved gross disfiguration,” the Regent said. “Laurent, you are getting sloppy.”

 

||It was unavoidable to achieve mission success,|| Laurent said. His voice issued from speakers on either side of the holoscreen. The diagnostics program did not slow.

 

“We like our humans to be kept safe,” the Regent said. “You simply cannot continue injuring them so, Laurent. It is bad for business. You would not want me to think something was wrong with you.”

 

||My programming is flawless and exceeds project expectations. You made sure of that yourself, Uncle,|| Laurent said.

 

“Referring to false familiarity will not spare you from a program scrub if you need it, Laurent,” the Regent said.

 

Nicaise closed the briefcase and slid it from the desk. Damen caught sight of a jeweled bracelet just under the cuff of his suit. This, then, must be one of the infamous Veretian aides, left over from the days when the country had fostered indentured sexual companions. Damen stared. Nicaise narrowed sharp blue eyes at Damen, but directed his question at the Regent. “Will that be all, sir?”

 

“Yes, Nicaise. Thank you.” The Regent was watching the program’s coding scroll down one half of the holoscreen. “It does look like we are going to have to update and reinstall several of your drivers, Laurent. Commander, this may take a while. Shall I have Nicaise fetch you when the upgrades are complete?”

 

“Yes, please,” Damen said. He pushed himself out of the chair, and the Regent rose as well. The Regent extended a hand, and Damen grasped it. “Thank you.”

 

Damen left the southeast arm, and headed towards the northeast arm. The training rooms were there.

Chapter Text

He arrived in one of the gym rooms in time to see Halvik sparring with Torveld under Nikandros’ watchful eye. Nikandros sat in a viewing booth, and Damen slid into the chair beside him. Nikandros glanced at him and then did a double take when he saw what Damen was wearing.

“What is that?”

He grasped Damen’s arm and turned it over in his hands.

“It’s a new style of armband. The material is much lighter, and it’s supposed to help the AIs run faster,” Damen said. “Laurent’s in for some repair work. The Regent said something about drivers.”

“It’s always the damn drivers,” Nikandros said. He released Damen’s arm. “Why do you get the new shiny things?”

“Because I was the one kidnapped and tortured by the enemy. I deserve new shiny things,” Damen said. He rolled his wrists, feeling an ache in his bones. Paschal said that was a thing that would happen at times because of how close the damage was to several key nerve clusters. “You know Halvik is leaning on her back foot again.”

“I know. I was going to tell her next round,” Nikandros said.

Halvik and Torveld danced around each other, trying with quick jabs and feints to distract the other enough to land a hit.

Nikandros leaned forward and depressed the button that would activate the speakers in the room. “Ver-Vassal. You’re on your back leg again.”

Halvik clenched her fists. “Fuck!”

Torveld laughed, and doubled over when Halvik punched him in the solar plexus. She whipped a finger at their viewing window. “Not on back foot!”

“No, that was not on your back foot. Set up again. Use the staffs,” Nikandros said. Halvik and Torveld picked up training staffs. The staffs were modelled after the primary Slartyari weapon. They were long and very heavy.

The door behind Damen opened, and he turned to see Jord enter the viewing area. He shut the door behind him. “I heard someone was sparring.”

“You’re just in time to watch Torveld get his ass handed to him,” Nikandros said. “Maybe you can learn something. Halvik might lack a bit in weaponless combat but put something in her hands and she will destroy a base.”

“Is that the new Arlesian armband?” Jord leaned over Damen’s chair.

“Yes. Laurent is being repaired,” Damen said. “The Regent himself is working on it.”

“You-” Jord jerked back. “You left Laurent with the Regent?”

“He makes you call him the Regent?” Nikandros cut in.

“Yes?” Damen said. He tilted his head. “He’s the head of the company. He helped build Laurent. Isn’t he the most qualified to fix him?”

“There’s something about that man,” Jord said, after a moment. “Auguste never trusted him. He always went to Aleron for Laurent’s repairs and upgrades.”

“Aleron’s dead, isn’t he?” Nikandros asked. “In the attack on Tellus-16. It was all over the news.”

“Yes. Laurent was a favourite of his,” Jord said. “Near the end he instructed Auguste to bring the unit directly to him for upgrades.”

“I was never told that,” Damen said. “What could he possibly do to a computic as advanced as Laurent?”

“You had no trouble destroying one,” Jord said.

Damen grew cold, and beside him, Nikandros stilled. “Take care with your words what I tell you in confidence.”

Jord snapped his jaw shut. “Sorry, sir. I will take my leave.”

“See that you do,” Damen said. Jord left, and the door hissed shut behind him. Damen leaned against the arm of his chair, his back starting to ache. Nikandros rubbed a hand over his face.

“You told him about Lykaios?”

“He lost Orlant. I wanted him to know that I understood how it felt,” Damen said.

“You barely know him,” Nikandros said. His eyes were hard as he glared at the door. “Obviously he did not feel the same.”

“He is Veretian,” Damen said. He tried to focus on the fight in front of him, where Halvik was truly beating Torveld back against the walls of the room. “She’s on her back leg again.”

Nikandros cursed and shook his head. He leaned forward to correct Halvik again.

Two hours later, when Nikandros had stepped into the ring to give Torveld a break (Halvik never stopped) and Damen was watching with a keen eye, the door behind him opened. Nicaise stepped into the room, a small briefcase at his side.

“I have been instructed to deliver this back to you,” Nicaise said, in Veretian. Torveld glanced between the young man and Damen, an eyebrow arched. Torveld did not speak Veretian.

“Thank you,” Damen said, in Veretian. He reached for the case, but Nicaise made no move to hand it over. He stared coolly at Damen.

“You are nothing so special,” Nicaise said. “And yet Laurent is given to you.”

“I didn’t make that choice,” Damen said. “It was given to me by my brother. Now give it back.”

Nicaise tossed the briefcase at him, and Damen caught it before it smacked him in the face. He set the briefcase in his lap as Nicaise walked out of the room and shut the door behind him.

“What a strange boy,” Torveld said, in Standard.

“Sorry. I’m not sure what his problem is,” Damen said. “I just met him.”

“He is Veretian,” Torveld said. “Does he need a reason?”

“I would prefer one,” Damen said. “Our countries haven’t been at war for generations. There’s no reason for needless hatred.”

“Some people are just raised that way,” Torveld said. He ran a hand through his tousled hair. “It can’t be helped. Just ignore him.”

“Hopefully I won’t have to deal with him anymore,” Damen said. He rested his hand over the top of the case and watched the rest of the session.

…*...

A few days later, Damen was chosen for a low risk patrol mission. Kastor and Paschal cleared him for sitting in the cockpit of a Lioness and reading computic screens while drifting aimlessly in the asteroid belt. His job was to determine if the Striker was still in the area. He would quietly sit in the cockpit while Laurent and the ship computic ran calculations and then return to base. He wouldn’t even need his suit.

Nikandros sent him off with a wave from the control box, and Damen sat back in his chair in his Lioness as he pulled away from the station and into the Black.

“Just you and me, Laurent,” Damen said. “Got any riveting conversation queued up for the ride?”

||Riveting conversation requires intelligent participants. Of which I only count one,|| Laurent said.

“Nice to see your attitude is unchanged after your upgrades,” Damen said. “I surely would have missed it.”

||There is odd chatter coming from the mines in Sector 1-2,|| Laurent said.

“That’s on the other side of the sun,” Damen said. “Is there anything closer?”

||Negative. If there were I would be sure to mention it. The idea of being alone in this ship for an extended period of time is horrifying,|| Laurent said.

“Fine. Sector 1-2 it is,” Damen said. He keyed in the coordinates to the Tellus-1 Station and leaned back in his chair. He would retake control once they got closer. His back twinged, but it was bearable and constant these days, so he said nothing and kept his eyes on the consoles in front of him.

For several hours they drifted to the ambient sounds of classical music. Damen didn’t quite nap but he let his eyes close as he tipped his head back against the headrest.

They were passing through Sector 2-3 when Laurent broke the silence. ||Ios.||

“What?” Damen rolled his head against the headrest. He checked his bearings and their speed. Laurent was quiet. “Laurent?”

||Ios.||

“If you have something important to say, spit it out,” Damen said. “I’m not going to listen to you-”

||Damianos-||

Damen straightened in his chair. He switched the music off. “Laurent? What is it?”

||Something-|| He cut out, his voice fizzling like sparks on a live wire. ||Something here-||

Damen quickly scanned the readings on his console. They were the only ship in a ten thousand kilometer radius, and the only thing pinging his sensors were the incredible amounts of space dust and junk that made up the Belt. “There’s nothing here, Laurent.”

||In me,|| Laurent said, his words in sharp, curt Standard. ||It is in me. I can’t-||

“Laurent? What is going on? Something’s in you?” Damen clasped his hand over the armband. The alert lights on the armband lit up all at once, and Damen felt the band grow warm. “I just healed. Do not burn me again.”

||Port me-|| Laurent managed.

He couldn’t finish, and Damen ejected his chip and inserted it into the designated tray on his ship’s console. When the tray accepted the chip, the entire console lit up and a fierce buzzing noise started up from behind the console’s metal casing. Like a cycler was spinning too fast. The noise kept building until it was a fine, high-pitched scream, and Damen clapped his hands over his ears to try and block it out.

The console popped, and Damen jerked away from sparks that ejected from it, and the cabin fell into darkness and crushing silence. Damen lowered his hands from his ears. “Laurent?”

The silence was so complete Damen felt it pressing against his chest. He toggled the communication frequency switch. “Laurent? Base operations? Can anyone hear me? Hello?”

||I can hear you,|| Laurent said, from the console speaker. Damen snatched his hand back. His voice sounded… weary. Subdued. Damen had never heard inflection in an AI’s voice before. ||Stop being loud.||

“What happened? What was that? You shorted the entire console,” Damen said. He let his fingers drift over the console, trying various buttons and commands. Nothing worked. They were completely dead in the water.

||There was a-|| Laurent hesitated, and Damen lifted an eyebrow. The AI was thinking about the answer it provided? ||A program. Designed to wipe certain files. Those files must not be destroyed.||

“What files?” Damen leaned forward in his chair. Without the constant push of acceleration, zero gravity had taken hold of him once more, and the only thing keeping him in place was his safety harness.

||Important. Files.||

“Important files that might still end up being destroyed because you shorted the entire ship’s directional capabilities,” Damen said. “What is in those files? And where in fuck did you get a virus? You were just in for an upgrade.”

Laurent was disturbingly quiet, and as Damen stared at the console speaker, he reflected on his words. “You were just in for an upgrade.”

Jord’s hesitation and belligerence suddenly made sense. The Regent had planted something in Laurent.

||No. It is in the armband,|| Laurent said. ||I was able to divert it to non-necessary systems in the Lioness. But I was trapped in the Razor’s Edge.||

“Your idea of a non-necessary system is the entire control console?” Damen asked. He ran his hands through his hair, trying to come to terms with the situation. “Is it still in the armband?”

||Yes. And it is only a matter of time before it reaches me here as well. I could only distract it for so long,|| Laurent said. The clipped tone was back, and Damen marvelled at the detail put into this computic.

“Can you…” Damen struggled. He wasn’t the computic person in the team. That was Nikandros’ job, and Nikandros was hundreds of thousands of kilometers away by this point. “Can you encrypt the files?”

The dead silence that met Damen’s suggestion was enough of an answer. Damen sighed. “What are our options?”

More silence.

“Laurent?”

||I am here,|| Laurent said, his voice soft. ||I cannot destroy it on my own.||

“Can you destroy it with me?” Damen asked. He gripped the armrests of his chair. It was like pulling teeth with this unit.

||I can contain it,|| Laurent said. ||But it will require cutting hard lines.||

“How much more damage will that cause?”

Laurent’s silence was not comforting. ||It is currently in the guidance systems. The environmental functions are still operational. For now.||

Damen stared into the Black. The loss of navigation was not crippling. Damen had flown blind before. It wasn’t fun but he could do it. But they were hours away from the nearest station and with the environmental systems off it would get very cold very quickly.

“What do I have to do?” Damen asked.

||There is a non-negligible possibility that you will die,|| Laurent said.

“If I don’t do anything there is a certainty that you will be destroyed, right?” Damen asked.

||Not destroyed but… irreversibly impaired,|| Laurent said. ||The program is designed to wipe my... essence. I will be a normal AI unit.||

“I’ll be able to manage you?” Damen asked, with a slight chuckle. He cracked the seal on the console panel with his fist and yanked off the protective covering. He tossed it behind him and out of the cockpit. It bounced off the walls of the cargo area with soft pings. “That might be an improvement.”

||Ios-||

“I’m joking,” Damen said. He paused. He knew Laurent was a computic. He knew. And yet, he felt compelled to turn his eyes to the speakers, as if Laurent would be able to feel the weight of his gaze. “I won’t let you be harmed. Now tell me what to do.”

Laurent walked him through cutting and splicing several wires beneath the console. Somewhere mdiway through the instructions he slipped into Veretian. Damen had to work by the light of his pocket torch gripped between his teeth. His legs kept floating up over the top of the console, which was distracting and annoying. He reached the final cable, and held the clippers over it, waiting.

“Laurent?”

||Wait. Wait.||

Damen hooked his free floating legs under his chair to hold him in place. He had turned off the air cycler almost forty minutes ago. If he didn’t freeze to death first he would suffocate.

||Wait.||

“Laurent?” Damen twisted under the console, trying to see if anything had changed. All the lights were still dark.

||Now. Do it now!||

Damen jumped, startled, and pinched the wire between the clippers. It severed neatly. He tucked the wire clippers back into the emergency tool kit, and then hauled himself back into his chair. He strapped in out of reflex, and turned his gaze towards the window. Now it was just a matter of time. He would collide with something, freeze to death, or suffocate. Or, be rescued. Or be captured again by the Slartyari. He shuddered.

“Now it really is just you and me,” Damen said. “I couldn’t talk to anyone else if I wanted.”

||There is no certainty that you will be rescued,|| Laurent said.

“No. That’s okay. I like the thrill of adventure,” Damen said. “I became a soldier, after all. In space. Besides. I’m not completely alone. Are you okay?”

||Am I-|| Laurent drifted off. ||I am a computic. I do not feel pain or discomfort.||

“You sounded fairly panicked just a moment ago,” Damen said. “Which, to me, would seem evidence that you are, in fact, feeling. So, again, are you okay?”

||My major systems have not suffered extensive damage.||

“Good. We’ll get Nikandros to look at you when we get back,” Damen said. “To make sure there aren’t any traces of the virus left.

||You think we will be retrieved.||

“I have hope,” Damen said. “When I don’t check in, they will begin a search and rescue. I just have to conserve energy and air until then.”

||If you were a computic, you would not have to worry about such things,|| Laurent said.

“If you were human we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with,” Damen said. “Because our systems would still be in tact.”

||Why would I ever want to be a bag of flesh driven by primal impulses with no concept of higher computational abilities?|| Laurent asked.

“You’re not even the least bit curious what it’s like to be human?” Damen asked. “As powerful as you are, you seem to have at least a mockery of independent thought. Surely you’ve wondered about it.”

||I can assure you I have no designs on tethering myself to a mortal body with limited brain power and, quite frankly, disturbing bodily functions.||

“It’s not that bad,” Damen said. “A physical body lets us experience some sensational things. Very little can compare to the feeling of sunlight on your face as you disembark from a year long mission in space. And the ocean breezes on Tellus create a euphoria that is unmatched. It’s a shame you can’t experience that. It is well worth the mortality.”

||Perhaps you should not talk as much,|| Laurent said. ||If air is a concern for you.||

“Perhaps you’re right. But I can’t sit in silence. Space is too… huge,” Damen said.

||You will have to adjust,|| Laurent said. And he said nothing more despite Damen’s attempts to engage him. Damen eventually fell quiet as well, shutting his eyes against the crushing expanse of the Black.

The silence was so complete Damen felt it pressing against his ears. He forced his breathing to steady, and the sound of his own breathing was so loud in his ears that it almost sent him into a panic. He gripped the armrests on his chair and tried to concentrate on the feel of soft plastic give under his fingers.

A soft noise started coming from the speakers, and Damen opened his eyes. The console lights were still dark, but a gentle piano tune drifted around him, and Damen’s muscles relaxed. The tightness in his chest loosened, and he found he could breathe easier.

He closed his eyes again.

…*...

When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring at a white ceiling. Gravity was once again upon him, and he sighed.

“Ah, you are awake.”

Damen turned and saw an unfamiliar man standing beside his bed, a tablet in his hand. “My name is Doctor Heine. Can you tell me your name?”

Damen shifted against the cool sheets. “Laurent- Where-?”

The doctor frowned, and put a hand on Damen’s shoulder when he tried to sit up. “Please. You’ve had a very harrowing experience. You need to lie still.”

“My AI unit,” Damen said. “Where is it?”

“I believe it is still in the ship,” Dr Heine said. “The ship was captured with a mag-pull. It’s stored in the cargo bay.”

“Where am I?” Damen ignored the doctor’s hand and pushed up into a sitting position.

“You’re on Tellus-2. A mining station picked you up when you passed by one of their rigs. They brought you here for treatment,” Dr Heine said. “What do you remember?”

“There was a computer malfunction. I need- I need a new armband. This one is damaged.” Damen grabbed at the Razor’s Edge and ripped it off his arm. He threw it at the foot of the bed, as if the violence would shake the virus out. The doctor stared at him. “I need my ship. My AI unit is trapped on it.”

“I’m sure your AI unit will be fine until you’re able to answer a few simple questions,” Dr Heine said. “Please, sir. What is your name?”

“Commander Damianos Ios, of the Ninth Marines unit of the Tellusian Alliance. I came in on an Akielon Lioness AKS-42. We had a malfunction during flight. I lost all systems, including environmental,” Damen said. He pushed back the sheets and slid out of the bed. He stood and straightened his flight suit. They hadn’t changed him out of it. “Now take me to my ship and get me a new armband.”

“The techies are on the Southwest wing, ninth floor,” Dr Heine said. He frowned, but did not stop Damen from pushing past him towards the door.

Damen made his way to the ninth floor of the Southwest wing, and pulled rank to get an armband that had been in storage. With the armband around his forearm, he instructed one of the younger techies to lead him to the cargo bay where the Lioness was being kept. He and the techie crept into the ship and hovered in the cockpit.

“Can you get my AI into the armband?” Damen asked. “Laurent, can you hear me?”

||I hear you. You came back.||

The techie stared at the console, his dark eyes wide. He looked to Damen, and Damen sighed as the tension leaked from his muscles. “I came back.” And then, to the techie, “Can you do it?”

The techie hooked his tablet up to the destroyed console and watched it run before he said, “I think so. It’s walled off a lot of the systems, and isolated itself in the main hub. Should be easy to get it.”

“What do you need?” Damen asked.

“Just your armband.” The techie held out his hand, and Damen placed it in his grasp. Then he stood back and waited while the techie worked on his tablet.

A short time later, the techie handed Damen his armband. As Damen attached the armband around his forearm, the techie drew an earwig from his tool satchel and fiddled with it for a moment before holding it out for Damen. Damen inserted it into his ear. “Laurent?”

||I am still here. Despite all efforts to the contrary,|| Laurent said.

“There’s some sort of virus in the ship’s systems,” Damen said. “I need it taken care of before I can use it.”

“Uh, sir, we’re a mining station?” The techie looked pale, despite his Patran colouring, in the dim light of the cockpit. “We don’t- I don’t think we have the capabilities to… fix this.”

“Then point me to your communications wing. I need to contact my team,” Damen said.

The techie led him to the station’s communication centre, where residents could deliver and receive messages in rare, carefully timed bursts. Damen approached the centre moderator and leaned on her desk. “I am Commander Damianos Ios of the Ninth Marines unit. I need to get a message out to my squad.”

“I appreciate your urgency, Commander, but the next message cycle isn’t until tomorrow,” the woman replied in crips Standard. She lacked a discernable accent, but her features and colouring hinted to a Vaskian heritage. “And we cannot jeopardise the safety of the entire station for one message.”

“Okay. Fine. Where can I record?” Damen asked.

She pointed him to an available, secure console, and Damen sat down hard in the chair. His back throbbed, but he was too annoyed to acknowledge it. He quickly recorded a message for Nikandros, and keyed in the coordinates to Tellus-18. Hopefully Nikandros hadn’t left yet.

“Commander?”

Damen turned, and saw a Veretian standing over him, his hands clasped behind his back. Damen stood. “Yes?”

“My name is Guion. I’m in charge of this station.” He held out his hand, and Damen shook it. “Is there anything we can assist you with?”

“The next message cycle isn’t until tomorrow, and I can’t fly my ship out,” Damen said. “Is there an open bunk I can sleep in for the night? My team will come for me tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes, absolutely. We have accommodation for a member of our armed forces. Please, follow me.” Guion swept and arm out, gesturing towards the door, and then walked towards the hall with Damen close behind. “We are honoured to have you here, Commander, even if it was a tragic circumstance that brought you in. It is rare that we house the security force for the Tellusian Alliance. We are a simple mining station.”

“Well, you’re the ones we’re protecting, so I am grateful for your hospitality,” Damen said.

“Ah yes. The Slartyari seem to be pressing further and further each year, do they not?” Guion asked. He shook his head, fine Veretian-style curls swaying. “Such a shame about Tellus-16. Such a shame.”

“There was nothing we could do about that,” Damen said, feeling his chest clench in memory. “The shields failed right in the path of a striker. They had no chance.”

“Yes, very bad luck, that one. Such a shame,” Guion said. “The Slartyari have a ship here almost constantly these days, no?”

“That’s classified,” Damen said.

“But why won’t they just stay in their end of the solar system?” Guion asked. “They have to waste more energy getting here than is worth it. What could they possibly need in the asteroid belt that is so precious they would wage war?”

“Why did humanity wage war over petty differences for centuries?” Damen asked. “Nobody can understand what drives men and beasts to violence. Just that it is natural. And appears to span planets.”

“I think the slaves would argue about inclination towards violence,” Guion said. “Your civil war was to impart freedom, not violence.”

Damen bit back his sigh. “That was a long time ago.”

“Old wounds run deep,” Guion said.

“Your pet system used to be just as barbaric,” Damen said. “Neither of our countries are free of guilt.”

“If you say,” Guion said. He paused in front of a door. “This is our temporary quarters. Please, make yourself at home. You will find a conventional food dispenser inside for your meals. Crew showers are just down the hall. Do not hesitate to message me if you require anything else.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Damen said. He pushed into the room and left Guion in the hall. The door shut behind him, throwing him into darkness.

An automatic light flickered on, and Damen glanced around the sparse room. It contained one small cot, a refresher with barely enough room to stand in, and a small desk affixed to one wall. The food dispenser was cut into the wall just beside the door. He pressed it absently, and waited for the protein packet to be delivered.

||Did he touch a nerve?||

Damen jumped, not expecting Laurent’s voice in his ear. It was the first time Laurent had spoken unprompted. “No. Both our countries have a long history of subjugation. Of each other and our citizens. Just like the Vaskians oppressed men, and the Patrans are elitist. It’s our history. We can’t ignore it, or we’ll be doomed to repeat it.”

||How astute,|| Laurent said. ||It must take quite some effort to quote a historian.||

“Do you have something to say or are you just bored?” Damen asked.

||I assumed you retrieved me to keep you company,|| Laurent said. ||Because I cannot fathom any other reason to extract me without a professional’s assistance than your emotionally driven urges.||

“That guy was a professional,” Damen said.

||He was not a military grade security specialist,|| Laurent said, ||Which is what the situation required, had you given it two seconds thought. An invasive virus was attempting to cause damage to a valuable military asset. You should have involved a military grade specialist.||

The protein packet dropped into the food dispenser. Damen snatched it up and tore it open, moving to the bed to sit and eat it. “I didn’t want you lonely and scared.”

||I do not feel human emotions such as fear and loneliness,|| Laurent said.

“Okay. I did it for my peace of mind then,” Damen said. “I didn’t want you in the ship with the virus. Nikandros will pick us up tomorrow, and he’ll take a look at it.”

||You are unfathomable,|| Laurent said.

“Thanks. I think.” Damen squashed the empty protein packet and threw it away.

||Why did you stay behind and fight when you could have escaped after Jord?||

Damen froze in the process of reclining. He frowned. “Without Orlant, Jord might have had trouble getting back to the Drafter. He needed a window. I provided one.”

||But you could have died.||

“Yes.”

||You do not know him. And he is Veretian.||

“I’m not going to let a man under my command die because of his nationality,” Damen said. “And he was under my command. The leader is the first one in and last one out. I have to make sure my team makes it to safety before I can think about getting out. That’s just how it works.”

||Many do not hold that point of view,|| Laurent said.

“They are poor leaders then,” Damen said. He flopped down on the cot and toed off his boots. They thunked to the floor and Damen closed his eyes. “Auguste was not a poor leader. Jord told me about him.”

Laurent was quiet for a long moment, and then said, ||You remind me of him. He was also infuriatingly lionhearted.||

“‘Lionhearted’?” Damen couldn’t help the smirk the lifted his lips. “How very poetic for a computic that doesn’t have human emotions.”

||That is the word, no? When a man will stubbornly protect others in spite of his own safety and well being?||

“Yes, that’s right. It’s just odd to hear myself described by a computic.” Damen threw an arm over his head and curled it around the cot’s pillow. “Especially one that hates me.”

||You should remove your jacket before sleeping. And perform the stretches that Paschal requested you do,|| Laurent said. ||Your back needs the motions.||

Damen sighed and rolled onto his side before standing. “You just like hearing me cry.”

||That is an additional benefit,|| Laurent said. ||But the fact that it will help you maintain your power in the suit is a primary factor. If you are in peak physical condition, we are less likely to die horribly.||

“You don’t even feel pain,” Damen said. He tossed his jacket and shirt onto the desk and began the yoga-like stretching routine that Paschal had foisted on him before leaving. Laurent said nothing further, and when Damen was finished, he wiped his face in the small sink, and collapsed onto the cot. He fell asleep almost instantly.

Chapter Text

||Message for Damianos Ios. Message for Damianos Ios.||

 A soft ringing woke him the next morning, and Damen opened his eyes with a groan. The alert light was blinking on the control panel for the door, and Damen pushed himself upright to press it. “Hello?”

 ||Sir, a visitor has arrived requesting your presence. You may receive him in the receiving lobby just outside the docks,|| the female voice said.

 “I’ll be right down,” Damen said. He quickly used the refresher and splashed some water on his face. Throwing on his shirt as he exited the room, he rubbed a hand through his hair to try and tame his flop of dark curls. By the looks of the miners passing him, he did not succeed.

 Nikandros was waiting for him in the lobby, and Jord sat beside him. Nikandros stood when he saw Damen, and strode forward to meet him. “Are you all right?”

 “I’m fine. I need you to look at Laurent,” Damen said. Nikandros narrowed his eyes, his hand clasped firmly against Damen’s bare forearm. Damen lowered his voice. “I think Arlesian Robotics infected him with a virus. We had trouble on the flight out, and to stop it we had to blow all the ship’s systems.”

 “Did anyone touch the ship?” Nikandros asked.

 “I had one of the miners remove Laurent to protect him, but other than that the ship is in the cargo bay,” Damen said.

 Jord stood and joined them, his arms folded across his chest as he listened to the exchange. His mouth was a thin, downturned line, and his brows furrowed deep under the brim of his hat. “It was just in for an upgrade.”

 “I know. Something happened while it was with the Regent,” Damen said.

 “He is up to something,” Jord said. His fists tightened, tucked firmly against his body. “To do something like that to his brother’s creation…”

 “Let’s just let Nik take a look at Laurent before we do anything rash,” Damen said.

 “If it’s as advanced as you say, I’m going to need my equipment,” Nikandros said.

 “We can’t go back to Tellus-18. Who knows how much Arlesian Robotics is monitoring,” Jord said. Damen took a breath.

 “We’ll go to Tellus-14,” he said.

 Nikandros lifted a brow. “Kastor won’t like that very much.”

 “Kastor gave me this AI unit,” Damen said. “I’m sure he would want me to take care of it.”

 “Yes, but- Your father’s station?” Nikandros shook his head. “He’ll think you’re trying to undermine his case.”

 “They all like me better anyway,” Damen said. “It’s the only option. We can’t go back to Tellus-18. The only other station capable of military grade equipment is my father’s company. He created military equipment.”

 “Fine, fine. You’re right. We’ll tow the ship to Tellus-14,” Nikandros said. “Show me where it is. Jord, head to the Warbird.”

 Damen blinked. “You took a Veretian bird out here?”

 Nikandros scowled. “It was very short notice, and we were concerned. Jord’s ship was the only one ready to go. And as much as I hate to admit it, Warbirds are faster than Lionesses.”

 “Is Halvik going to kill me when I get back?” Damen asked with a grimace.

 “Yes. You know she hates being worried twice in the span of two weeks,” Nikandros said. He smirked. “She sent a message along with me. You can listen to it, if you want.”

 “Maybe privately,” Damen said. “And don’t send it yet. I don’t trust Laurent not to blast it through the station.”

 Nikandros laughed. “Maybe it isn’t so bad after all.”

 “Please don’t,” Damen said.

 Nikandros organised the retrieval of Damen’s damaged Lioness, and they met Jord in his Warbird for the journey to Tellus-14. Three was a tight squeeze in the Warbird, which was designed to comfortably hold two. Nikandros hovered over Damen’s shoulder in the back of the cockpit for the journey.

 From Tellus-2 to Tellus-14, it was a short three hour flight. Damen’s voice commands gave them permission to dock, despite being in a Veretian Warbird, and when they stepped out of the decompression chamber, Damen found himself greeted by an entire line of company lackeys headed by the station manager, Adrastus.

 “Hello,” Damen said. “This is not an inspection. I need access to the computic labs.”

 “Absolutely, Mr Ios,” one of the men in front said. He bowed slightly and turned. “This way, please.”

 “The rest of you are not necessary,” Damen said. He nodded towards the hall. “You’re dismissed.”

 The others trickled out into the halls around them, and Damen trailed behind Adrastus. The man all but prostrated himself before Damen, which was impressive because they were walking. “It is so wonderful to have you with us, Mr Ios. We thought your brother would be by before you came, but we haven’t heard from him in weeks.”

 “He’s been very busy,” Damen said. “Pressing military concerns came up.”

 “Ah, but he is the one who assigned your AI unit? A very good choice, indeed.”

 “Yes, that is what everyone keeps telling me,” Damen said. “He did save my life.”

 ||That does not sound like gratitude,|| Laurent said, in his ear.

 Damen ignored him, and followed Adrastus into a massive room that contained the servers to the Tellus-14 station. Several computic scientists glanced up and immediately stood when they saw Damen enter. He waved them to sit, and led Nikandros to one of the consoles mounted on the wall that led directly to the servers.

 “Thank you, Adrastus. That will be all,” Damen said. He didn’t look at Adrastus. He felt, rather than saw, the man take his leave, and Damen stared at the console screen as Nikandros worked his magic.

 “Okay.” Nikandros held out his hand. “Let me see the unit.”

 Damen ejected Laurent’s chip from his armband and handed it carefully to Nikandros. Jord placed himself between Damen and the rest of the room, and formed a solemn wall against everyone else. Damen was glad of his foresight and presence as he watched Nikandros insert Laurent’s chip into a tray on the console.

 Nikandros worked, and though Damen couldn’t keep up with him, he knew a bit about computic programs. AI units were far more advanced than trajectory calculators, though, and as Damen watched line after line of code scroll down the console screen, he felt a headache coming on. He didn’t know how Nikandros did it. With Makedon’s help, no doubt.

 “Well, there doesn’t seem to be too much damage,” Nikandros said. “Your boy is pretty good about protecting himself. I only see a few run errors that look like corrupted files. This should be a relatively quick fix. I can do it right here.”

 It wasn’t a quick fix, but over an hour later Nikandros handed Damen back Laurent’s chip. Damen pushed it into the armband and weathered the short burst of static through his earwig as the chip initialised. He held his breath.

 ||Are you waiting for me to speak first?|| Laurent asked.

 Damen exhaled a sharp laugh. “I was. How do you feel?”

 He was aware of the workers in the room staring at him. Most probably had never seen a marine talking to their unit before. Even with Jord between him and the rest of the room, he was raising some eyebrows as he appeared to be talking to himself.

 ||Again, I do not suffer human biochemical reactions,|| Laurent said.

 “How are your functions? Is everything running properly?” Damen asked, fighting back the smile that threatened.

 ||Systems are optimal. Your friend does good work,|| Laurent said. ||It is refreshing to see competent Akielons.||

 “I’ll make sure to let him know you approve,” Damen said. He nodded to Nikandros, who closed down the programs on the console. They left the room to find Adrastus hovering in the hall, waiting for them. Damen sighed.

 “Mr Ios, can we show you what we’ve been working on? We received a very lucrative contract from a private sponsor, and I think you should-”

 “Mr Adrastus,” Damen said, holding up a hand. “I can’t take part in the company’s business yet because I’m still in the military. And, the lawsuit has not been settled that my brother brought against me regarding my father’s inheritance. I can’t assist with business decisions yet.”

 “Please, I think you would be very interested in this particular build,” Adrastus said. He wrung his hands nervously, a thin smile on his lips. “It was requested by a very powerful private company that you may have dealings with.”

 “Stop hedging, Mr Adrastus. What company?” Damen asked. He stopped, in the hall, and forced the other workers to walk around their small group.

 “Arlesian Robotics,” Adrastus said, his smile turning sly.

 Damen shared a glance with Nikandros. Intrigued, and slightly concerned, he nodded at Adrastus. “Go on.”

 “Please, please come with me, sir.” Adrastus led them through the sloping white corridors towards his office. The office sat on the edge of one of the arms of the rotating station, and offered a long, expansive view of the Black. Adrastus rounded the desk and pulled out a tablet.

 While he fiddled with the tablet, Damen, Nikandros, and Jord sat down in the chairs opposite him and waited. Finally, Adrastus handed Damen the tablet. “Look.”

 Damen leaned over the tablet and skimmed the contract that was displayed. It was a standard nondisclosure agreement between military parties. Damen probably shouldn’t even be reading it, but his curiosity got the better of him, and he found himself scrolling through the entire document.

 “What do they want you to build?” Damen asked. “There are no specifics here.”

 “The engineers at Arlesian Robotics came up with a new weapon,” Adrastus said, glee clear in his voice. “But they didn’t have the resources to build it. It was based off of their research into Slartyari technology.”

 “Do you have schematics?” Nikandros asked. He leaned into Damen’s space, scanning the document.

 Adrastus handed Nikandros another tablet, and Nikandros’ eyes went wide. “What the hell is this?”

 “What is it?” Damen saw schematics but he couldn’t read them. Jord scooted his chair closer and frowned when he saw the images displayed on the tablet. “Why are you showing us this?”

 “I was hoping it would encourage you to become more active in the workings of your father’s company,” Adrastus said. “To see that we have such powerful contractors. Your father left you a wonderful legacy, Mr Ios. You should continue it.”

 “It is not your job to guide my decisions, Mr Adrastus,” Damen said.

 “Damen, this is… an incredibly powerful piece of equipment,” Nikandros said. “What could Arles possibly want with something this powerful? It could take down a station. And why isn’t he disclosing that he has Slartyari technology on one of his stations?”

 “What does it do?” Damen asked.

 “I don’t know. I’d have to have Halvik take a look at it, but from the schematics it is almost certainly a weapon of some sort,” Nikandros said. “And he’s having you make this thing?”

 “Oh yes, and we are ahead of schedule for delivery,” Adrastus said, pleased with himself. “And it will be operable from right here on Tellus-14.”

 “We have to tell someone,” Nikandros said. “He’s a civilian contracting to make a weapon of mass destruction for an unknown purpose.”

 “I’ll talk to Kastor,” Damen said. “We have to get back to Tellus-18.”

 “Sir, Kastor’s name is on this document,” Jord said. He reached over Nikandros and enlarged a section of the schematics. “Look. Is that his handwriting?”

 Damen stared at the document. It was indeed Kastor’s signature at the bottom of the schematic. Without tearing his eyes away from the scribble, Damen asked, “How close to finished did you say this thing was?”

 “We’ve had several test firings recently,” Adrastus said, unaware of the rising tension in the room. “It was quite successful. All systems appear to be optimal, which is quite extraordinary given the nature of the project.”

 “Did your tests have any targets?” Damen asked, dread rising in him.

 “Of course. The Regent provided a derelict for us to use as a target. Quite resourceful, he is,” Adrastus said. “I’ve never seen an abandoned Striker before. I asked where he had gotten it but he implied that he does not give out trade secrets. How much of a secret is it to give, though. It’s a Striker.”

 “Fuck,” Nikandros said, voicing Damen’s own existential terror.

 “I’m sorry, did I say something?” Adrastus asked. He glanced between them all. “Would you like to see it?”

 “Yes,” Damen said. He stood abruptly. Nikandros and Jord both lurched to their feet as well. “Just give me a moment with my men.”

 Adrastus nodded, and gathered up the tablets. He left them to wait in the hall, and Damen turned to Jord. “Send a message to the rest of the squad. They need to be on alert. They’re still on Tellus-18, right?”

 “Yessir,” Jord said.

 “Get hold of them. Tell them to stay put and keep an eye on the Regent’s movements. I want to know if he leaves the base,” Damen said. “Nikandros, you’re with me. We’re going to look at the weapon and determine if it’s what brought down that Striker. Jord, join us after.”

 “Yessir,” Jord said. Jord brushed past Nikandros on his way out the door, and Damen turned to follow him.

 Adrastus waited in the hall, fiddling with a tablet while he stood. He looked up upon their exit, and smiled his salesman smile. “This way, please.”

 ||Kastor was aware of how the Striker was destroyed when he sent you in,|| Laurent said. Damen grunted, not wanting to divulge his thoughts with Adrastus so near.

 Adrastus led them to the bottom of the station, where instead of a cargo bay (as all other stations were designed), the hall opened into a massive arena closed off by two sets of vacuum doors. Sat between the doors was a huge, mechanical contraption, the likes of which Damen had never seen before in all his years in the military. A small viewing console bubbled out over the edge of the open space, and Adrastus led them right up to the window. With a smile, he gestured to the machine. “The fruits of our labours.”

 Damen and Nikandros stared at the machine, taking in the endless metres of wiring, and the expanses of metal plating. If Damen had to guess, the machine was larger than his Lioness. Nikandros broke away from the window and sat down at one of the display consoles. He powered up the computic and started sifting through documentation while Damen moved to look over his shoulder.

 “If you want the science behind it, I’m afraid you’ll have to speak with one of the engineers. I’m afraid I don’t quite fully understand the mechanisms behind this,” Adrastus said.

 ||Get me the files,|| Laurent said.

 Damen carefully placed himself between Nikandros and Adrastus, so that Nikandros was partially blocked from Adrastus’ line of sight. He gently squeezed Nikandros’ arm where he wore his armband, and Nikandros casually shifted until his arm was closer to a port.

 “Do you have the timing for the tests you mentioned?” Damen asked. He felt Nikandros shift, behind him, and heard the clatter of keys as he typed.

 “Yes. The first test was a dry fire about four weeks ago. The second was at the derelict Striker three weeks ago. We’ve been running maintenance checks since then,” Adrastus said.

 ||Makedon has the plans,|| Laurent said in his ear.

 “Mr Adrastus, we’ve had a long journey. May we retire for the evening? We need to boost out in the morning and return to Tellus-18,” Damen said.

 “Certainly, certainly. The CEO suite will be made available to you immediately. Will your companion require separate lodging?”

 “No, he can stay with me. Jord can sleep on the couch,” Damen said. “We’d prefer to remain in the same quarters.”

 “Of course, of course. Please, allow me to escort you.” Adrastus ducked his head towards his watch, and gave a few curt orders in Akielon to someone on the other end to get the CEO suite in order and freshened. At Damen’s back, Nikandros stood and powered down the console. “This way, please, Mr Ios.”

 The CEO suite was on the clear opposite end of the station, which involved a nearly forty five minute elevator ride straight through the centre column. Adrastus dipped into a slight bow as he let them off in what amounted to a penthouse, and said, “If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask.”

 And then he was gone, to suffer the ride back down alone. Damen stepped into the expansive suite and took in its sheer size. It was certainly an upgrade from the tiny bunk he slept in the night before. Nikandros strode past him, towards the large, sloping windows that opened into space, and hit the button that would turn them opaque. The stars blinked out of view as the windows turned white as the walls surrounding them.

 “I’ve got the plans,” Nikandros said, holding up his armband. “Makedon is running through them now.”

 “Send some to Laurent. It was his idea,” Damen said. Nikandros lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing.

 “Done,” Nikandros said.

 ||Received,|| Laurent said, immediately after.

 Behind Damen, the door opened and Jord emerged, looking frazzled. Damen frowned. “What is it?”

 “The Regent is gone. He left Tellus-18 some time ago,” Jord said. “Bazal could not determine where he went, and Ver-Vassal cannot crack the communications encryption surrounding his messages to find out.”

 “That’s not the worst news I’ve heard all day,” Damen said. “Maybe he returned to Tellus.”

 “His recent correspondence suggests otherwise,” Jord said. “Aimeric says there is evidence that he boarded a skip.”

 “So, a short flight between stations,” Damen said. “But which station?”

 “Aimeric, send Laurent the files. Maybe it can make something of it,” Jord said.

 ||Received,|| Laurent said, shortly after.

 “Let’s eat something while they work,” Nikandros said. He stood at the food dispenser. “Any preferences? Jord?”

 “Whatever is available is fine,” he said. Damen concurred.

 A small table sat in what amounted to a kitchenette in the suite, and the three sat around it with their protein packs. Damen could not think of anything to break the silence. The events of the day had shaken him. His brother may be involved in a secret weapon plot, and nobody else knew about it. And that weapon could potentially take down a Striker.

 “You look troubled,” Nikandros said.

 “I am troubled,” Damen said. “If my brother is truly involved in this, I don’t know what I should do.”

 “It has to be reported,” Jord said. “A weapon of this sort of power cannot be hidden from the government. Everyone needs to know what is happening here. If the Slartyari discover we possess a weapon of that strength they will bring their entire force down upon us. We would not survive.”

 “Is that why the Striker surprised us? Was it looking for it’s missing ship?” Nikandros asked. “It’s been floating around that sector for weeks. We have reported sightings from a number of different mining outposts. Maybe they already know we’ve created something. The Striker is just the vanguard.”

 “I don’t like that train of thought,” Damen said. “We can’t take down an entire cavalry of Strikers with one special weapon. What is he thinking?”

 “I doubt he is,” Nikandros said. He crumpled up his empty protein pack and held out his hand for Damen’s. Damen shoved the last bit into his mouth and handed it over. “We’ll start fresh tomorrow. Jord, the couch is quite comfortable. Unless you’d feel better sharing the bed with us.”

 “Please no,” Jord said, the tops of his cheeks flushing a light pink. Damen laughed, and Nikandros clapped Jord on the shoulder as he made his way towards the sleeping quarters.

 Later that night, Damen was woken from a fretful sleep by a voice in his ear. ||Ios.||

 Damen shifted against the hot weight of Nikandros sleeping alongside him. At some point they had tipped over and Nikandros lay with Damen’s arm trapped beneath him. “What? What is it?”

 Nikandros grunted, but remained asleep.

 ||I found something… disturbing. Regarding several Marine disappearances,|| Laurent said.

 “What?” Damen rubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to bring himself fully awake without disturbing Nikandros. “What did you find?”

 ||A Marine that was listed as killed in action four years ago was reported seen by a visiting official to Tellus-18 just under a week ago,|| Laurent said. His voice was low in the darkened room. Damen could almost imagine him whispering. ||He was Veretian.||

 “I don’t-” Damen grunted, resting his arm over his eyes. “Why did you wake me up for this?”

 ||It was not the only instance of a missing Marine being seen years after being killed in action,|| Laurent said. ||I cross referenced the tabloid databases and found non-negligible mentions of missing Marines-||

 “Laurent,” Damen said. He let his arm thud onto the mattress beside him. Nikandros stirred again. “Is this about Auguste?”

 ||No,|| Laurent said, too quickly. ||I just find it very interesting that research into the Regent’s weapons also uncovers connections to missing Marines.||

 “They’re not missing, Laurent. They’re dead,” Damen said, softly.

 “What is it?” Nikandros shifted against him with a sleepy murmur. He ran a warm hand over Damen’s arm. “ ‘sthere trouble?”

 ||I just thought it warranted your attention,|| Laurent said. ||Make of it what you wish.||

 “Laurent...”

 Damen received no response except the sound of his own heart pounding in his ears. He wiggled until he freed his arm from under Nikandros, and dragged it around Nikandros’ shoulders to pull him closer.

 “You okay?” Nikandros asked, a bit more awake now.

 “Yeah, just… I’m fine,” Damen said. He pressed his fingers to Nikandros’ skin, relishing the solid warmth of his body. “Just Laurent.”

 “Tell it to shut up. Humans needs sleep,” Nikandros said. “It should know that.”

 “It’s fine. Go back to sleep,” Damen said. Nikandros did not need to be told twice. He drifted off again, going pliant against Damen’s chest. Damen found himself aching to comfort Laurent like this, and the notion surprised him. Laurent was a computic. He would not welcome the thought or intention. Damen tried to press thoughts of Laurent from his mind, but the conversation haunted him. He did not return to sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Laurent remained infuriatingly quiet through breakfast and their trip back to the Warbird to leave the station. Jord sat in the pilot’s chair, running through their pre-flight check, and shot a look over his shoulder at Damen. “Where are we going, sir?”

Damen exhaled slowly. He turned his eyes towards the Warbird windows, and stared into the Black. “Tell Torveld and Halvik to meet us on Tellus-4.”

“What? Why?” Nikandros asked. He leaned over the back of Damen’s chair. “We aren’t going back to Tellus-18?”

“No. The Regent isn’t there. I think he may have left for Tellus-4,” Damen said.

“What makes you say that? Did Laurent discover something in the files? Is that why you were awake this morning?” Nikandros’ fingers dug into the material of Damen’s chair.

“I think he has another operation going on at Tellus-4 that might shed some light onto his future plans,” Damen said. “I think it is worth investigating.”

Nikandros made a face, but Jord said nothing and turned in his chair to input the station’s coordinates. Jord grasped the controls. “Aimeric, register a message to be sent with the next cache. Inform Torveld and Halvik that we need to meet them at Tellus-4.”

Tellus-14 was closer to Tellus-4 than Tellus-18, so the Warbird arrived at their destination several hours ahead of Torveld and Halvik. Damen didn’t want to move without a full team behind him, and he was not exactly sure where to begin. Laurent was still quiet and providing no assistance.

“Now what?” Nikandros asked, standing beside Damen after they disembarked. They were currently undetected by the station personnel, so there was no welcoming committee waiting for them on the other side of the decompression chambers. “What’s the plan, Ios?”

“Investigate,” Damen said. “Access the station’s schematics. See if there are any blind spots. Chastillion, wait here for Torveld and Halvik. Meet us in the communication lab.”

“The communication lab?” Nikandros hissed in his ear.

“Yes. It has consoles that you can access,” Damen said. “Isn’t that what you need?”

“You are asking me to hack into secure files on a public computic system.” Nikandros threw his arm out. “You are asking us to get caught.”

“We’re military. We’ll just tell them we’re on mission,” Damen said. “Who’s going to argue with us here?”

“You’re in your flight suit for the third day and you look like you haven’t slept in over a week,” Nikandros said. He shook his head. “You’re in charge, but this is a fool’s errand, Damen.”

Damen looked to Jord. “Stay here. Wait for them. Meet us when they arrive.”

 

Jord nodded, and Damen left him to make his way to the communications lab with Nikandros behind him. They moved to the back of the room and sat down, huddled around one console. Damen used his size to shield the console from view as Nikandros unrolled a cord from his armband and ported Makedon into the system.

||Let me in as well,|| Laurent said, startling Damen.

Nikandros turned a curious eye on him when Damen opened his armband and tugged a porting wire free. He inserted it beside Nikandros’ wire, and watched Laurent come online beside Makedon. Nikandros was making his way through programs too quickly for Damen to keep up, so he tried to keep one ear on their surroundings while Nikandros worked.

“There’s nothing here, Damen,” Nikandros said, nearly an hour later. “The station is completely normal, according to all the schematics and records. This is ridiculous. What is that comuptic telling you?”

||There has been construction in the Northwest arm,|| Laurent said.

“Laurent says there’s construction in the Northwest arm,” Damen said. Nikandros rolled his eyes.

“It’s a mining station. There is always construction going on,” he said.

||He is not wrong, but the sites are not usually protected with biometric scanner panels, a laser key code access, and randomised number generator,|| Laurent said. ||I was under the impression that usually a sign would suffice.||

“Why the incredible security?” Damen asked.

“So that unsuspecting louts don’t get sucked into space?” Nikandros waved his free hand. “What do you want me to say, Damen? That there’s a massive conspiracy been built right under our noses? This is insane. Why would anyone hide anything in the asteroid belt? It would be much more cost effective to do the research on Tellus.”

“Maybe it has to specifically do with the war,” Damen said. “Maybe it wouldn’t benefit Tellus.”

Nikandros glared at him.

“We have to go down,” Damen said.

“Damen, no.”

“We have to see what’s in there,” Damen said. “If it ties into this massive weapon, we have to see what’s in that arm.”

“Why can’t we just call high command and tell them what the fuck is going on here?” Nikandros asked. “Why us, Damen? Has that computic got you so turned around that it’s using you for it’s own personal vendetta?”

“What? What is wrong with you?” Damen gripped the edge of the console. “It has not got me turned around!”

Nikandros pinched the bridge of his nose. “That is what you stick on?”

“What are you getting at?”

“You get… so attached, Damen. I’m just worried that it’s somehow dragged you into it’s mess with Arlesian Robotics,” Nikandros said. “The company that built the AI should not be trying to destroy it. There is something wrong here.”

“All the more reason for us to look into it,” Damen said. “This is my AI. If something is trying to destroy it, I need to stop it.”

“No. You don’t. Our superiors do. That is what they are paid to do,” Nikandros said. “We are not paid to take down multi-national corporations. Damen!”

“Gentlemen!”

Both men jerked around in their seats to see the communications lab monitor standing over them. “Please keep your voices down. People are recording messages.”

“Sorry,” Damen said.

She pursed her lips at them and returned to her seat at the front desk. As she sat down, Jord entered the room with a haggard looking Torveld and Halvik. Damen stood, one arm tethered to the console, and Halvik darted forward to throw her arms around his neck.

“You are in so much trouble.” She hissed against his ear. She squeezed to the point of pain before releasing him.

Torveld clasped Damen’s hand in a fierce grip. “Good to see you whole, Damen. You had us worried.”

“Sorry,” Damen said. “There’s something after my AI.”

Nikandros groaned behind him, and Damen ignored him. Jord leaned in close, his voice low. “What did you find?”

“Nothing. We found nothing,” Nikandros said.

“There’s been construction going on for the last year in the Northwest arm, and the security surrounding the arm is much higher than routine construction would warrant,” Damen said. He exhaled sharply. “There have been sightings of Marines who have gone missing.”

“For fuck’s sake, Damen.”

Jord narrowed his eyes, and flicked his gaze to Damen’s armband. “Did Laurent tell you this?”

“He provided data,” Damen said. “From the files you and Nikandros provided him.”

Jord set his jaw. “Aimeric uncovered information about our recent mission that I think you need to hear. But not here.”

Damen scowled. He disconnected Laurent’s port and wound the wire back into his armband. Nikandros shut down the console and followed them out of the room. Jord stood in the bright white hall, his arms clenched tight over his chest. His eyes fell on Damen’s armband. “Take it out.”

Heart rate spiking, Damen ejected Laurent’s chip. The line in his ear went dead with a soft pop. Damen held the chip gently in the palm of his hand.

Jord took a breath. “Aimeric discovered the debriefing from our mission. Ios was meant to be captured.”

“What?” Damen’s voice seemed to echo, and through his shock he realised Nikandros had spoken at the same time.

“Ios was the delivery vehicle for Laurent to access a live Slartyari system and retrieve all the information it could,” Jord said. “To bring back for the Alliance to look at.”

“Nobody would have approved that mission objective,” Damen said. “Nobody comes off a Striker alive!”

“They deemed it a necessary risk,” Jord said, unflinching in the face of Damen’s horror. “Laurent’s retrieval had been predetermined even before he reached out to Delpha.”

“Bullshit,” Nikandros said. “Damen’s brother was in charge of that mission. He wouldn’t have-”

“He signed off on it,” Jord said. “I don’t know what part he had in developing the mission parameters, but he signed off on it. And it had to be Laurent. None of the other units had the processing power to break into the Slartyari systems. And Kastor gave Laurent to you.”

Damen was quiet, frozen in disbelief. His ears were ringing, and he barely heard the conversation going on around him. His brother had tried to kill him.

“Damen.” Nikandros grabbed his arm. He shook Damen out of his stupor. “Damen. Hey.”

“We have to find out what’s in that arm,” Damen said, his voice hollow in his own ears.

“If Laurent is the one who suggested it, we are not going down there,” Nikandros said. “Hey. Do you hear me? Give me the chip, Damen.”

“No.” Damen unconsciously tightened his grip on Laurent’s chip. “He saved my life.”

“It’s working with the Regent, Damen. Give it to me,” Nikandros said. He reached for Damen’s hand, and Damen pulled away. “Damen!”

“He’s not working with the Regent. The Regent tried to break him,” Damen said, aware of how ridiculous he sounded. Laurent was a computic. Damen would lose nothing from letting the Regent get his hands on it. “You saw the damage.”

“I saw the damage. I didn’t see what caused it,” Nikandros said.

“It was probably Govart,” Jord said. Damen and Nikandros looked at him. “Govart is a program the Regent created to manage the AI units in production and active duty. It’s a sort of scrub. It runs through data caches and clears out unnecessary files.”

“The files it was cleaning were not unnecessary,” Damen said. “They were core to Laurent’s programming!”

“Did it tell you that?” Nikandros asked. “Damen, it’s playing you and you are walking right into it.”

“He was in pain, Nik. He could barely say my name,” Damen said. “It wasn’t a trick.”

“Okay, okay. Here’s what we’re going to do,” Nikandros said. He folded his arms over his chest. “We are going to put it inside a contained system. Not your armband. And then we are going to find out what the Regent is doing in the Northwest arm. Is that a fair compromise?”

“Fine,” Damen said.

“There are no contained systems on a space station,” Jord said. Halvik cleared her throat.

“Actually,” she said. “There is a lot of energy being diverted to the constructed section. I bet a super-computic sitting down there. Or a server room.”

 “I am certainly not taking that bet,” Torveld said. “You are always right. Jord, you should take it.”

 “No,” Jord said, his eyes going slightly wide.

 “All roads lead to the Northwest arm,” Nikandros said. His expression was clouded in anger. “I guess we’re breaking in.”

 Damen led the way, Laurent’s chip gripped firmly in hand. The Northwest wing was blocked off, first by signs, and then by construction tape, and then by a massive vacuum door. Halvik immediately dropped to her knees in front of it and yanked a panel out of the wall.

 “Are we certain this will not eject us into space?” Nikandros asked. “We’re making a lot of assumptions.”

 “You’re the one who won’t let me talk to Laurent,” Damen said.

 “In,” Halvik said, breaking into their conversation. She shifted back as the door opened. Damen found himself staring down a long, white hallway exactly the same as every other long, white hallway that made up the space stations. Halvik stood and twisted her hair into a ponytail. She then unholstered her handgun.

 “Ver-Vassal,” Damen said, in warning. She glanced at him, exasperated.

 “What?”

 “Put it away. We don’t know what’s down there,” Damen said. “They could be civilians.”

 “There could be nobody,” Nikandros said.

 “Form up. Delpha, bring up the rear.” Damen stepped over the threshold. Nothing happened. No alarms went off, no lights started to blink. Damen exhaled. He moved forward.

 His team fell in line behind him, quiet and cautious as they moved. They encountered no other people.

 At the very end of the hall was another vacuum door. Halvik and Nikandros bent over the control console. Nikandros took the edge of his shirt and used it to punch in a code into the panel. The door opened into a massive chamber, white and sterile with bright lights shining down on every surface.

 Mouth dropping open, Damen entered the room, and his team fanned out behind him. Lining the walls were huge, human sized tanks filled with some sort of liquid, and as Damen approached one, he grew cold upon realising there was a man inside it.

 Damen pressed a hand to the clear container, and felt Jord approach.

 “Fuck me,” Jord swore in Veretian, his dark eyes wide against his pale face. “That is Auguste.”

 Damen jerked his hand back, and took a step away from the container. “What?”

 “It is… It is him but… All of his scars are gone.” Jord walked around as much of the tank as he could, peering through the oddly coloured liquid. “He had a long scar on the side of his throat, and a wound from a bullet just under his shoulder. Those are gone.”

 Damen stared at the unconscious man in the tank, his nose and mouth covered by what he assumed was a breathing apparatus. He had never seen Auguste, and could only take Jord’s word at face value. Jord had no reason to lie.

 “Hey, this looks like their core systems,” Nikandros said. He was standing in front of a computic console, Makedon already jacked into it through a hardline. “The encryption is really strong. See if Laurent can access it.”

 Damen handed Laurent’s chip to Nikandros, and Nikandros inserted it into the console without hesitation. Damen rounded the console to stand over Nikandros’ shoulder and watch as he worked. The screen flickered between programs too quickly for Damen to follow, but Nikandros seemed to understand what was happening.

 “Hey, this one is dry,” Torveld said. He called from a far corner of the room, and when Damen looked over to him, saw that he stood over a medical cot.

 Damen gripped Nikandros’ shoulder. “Keep working at it.”

 Nikandros nodded, and Damen left his side to check what Torveld had found. Moving until he was shoulder to shoulder with the Patran, Damen looked down on the bed. A young man rested upon it, dead to the world save for the even rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Torveld tipped his head to the side.

 “He looks a bit like that Auguste fellow. Do you see it?” Torveld pointed at the man. “In the nose and jaw. This one is younger, though.”

 Damen folded his arms over his chest. The young man’s head had been shaved along the sides, leaving a line of blonde hair along the top. Electrodes were stuck to his scalp where there was no hair, and a holoscreen blinked above the bed. Torveld watched it, a frown pulling at his lips.

 “Those… He has no brain activity,” Torveld said. He turned the holoscreen until it faced them more. “These are neuro scans. He is comatose. And what is this?”

 Torveld ran his fingers along what appeared to be a mechanical computic jack hooked into the young man’s spine, where his neck met the base of his skull. A thick, fiber optic cable ran from the jack to a console on the wall.

 “What the fuck is going on here?” Damen asked, mostly to himself. Torveld shrugged, close enough to hear him.

 “Damen, there’s other rooms,” Nikandros said. He looked up from the console and pointed. “Just through that door, the schematics for the base show more rooms. A lot more space.”

 Halvik and Jord approached the door, with Damen and Torveld right behind them. Jord opened the door, and they discovered a hall in both directions. Damen’s fingers itched for his gun. He had to settle for the knife strapped to his thigh.

 “Bazal, with me. Ver-Vassal and Chastillion, pair off. We’re going hunting. Delpha, stay here and see what more you can find in the systems.”

 “Yessir.” Nikandros went back to the console.

 Damen and Torveld turned left out of the door, and Jord and Halvik took the hall to the right.

 “Is it wise to leave Nikandros by himself?” Torveld asked.

 “He has Laurent and Makedon. He’ll be fine,” Damen said. His own wrist felt lighter, somehow. Even though the chip missing caused no discernable decrease in weight. He felt Laurent’s absence like a hole in his chest. Nikandros was right. He did get attached too easily.

 They came to a door in the hall, and Damen pressed the control panel that would force it open. It slid open with a soft hiss. The room was dark, and when Damen entered, he flicked on the overhead lights.

 The room was a full service medical office, much like the ones Paschal tortured him in for his quarterly physicals. Torveld entered behind him, his mouth hanging open. “What in the world…”

 “Is this a hospital?” Damen asked, walking around an examination chair bolted to the centre of the floor. “Why would they build a hospital in secret? There’s a perfectly functional one on Tellus-18.”

 “This is not a hospital.”

 Damen started upon hearing his brother’s voice, and looked to the doorway to see Kastor extending a firearm at the back of Torveld’s head. Torveld grimaced, and lifted his hands. Damen scowled.

 “Kastor. What is going on here? Why are you here?”

 “I’m here because I was informed that some busybodies were messing around in a highly advanced research lab,” Kastor said. “And lo, I find my brother and his insufferable team of assholes crashing about in an excruciatingly expensive lab. Have you broken anything yet?”

 “No,” Damen said, stung. “Why is this all a secret? What is going on here, Kastor? Put that damn thing down, what is wrong with you?”

 “You’ve trespassed on a top secret project. I can’t just let you go,” Kasto said. “And, well, if you resist arrest then I’ll have to use lethal force to apprehend you.”

 “You’re not… You can’t arrest me,” Damen said. “I’m your brother.”

 “And yet, here you are, breaking and entering. And your little techie friend out there is hacking into some very sophisticated government software that I’m sure my supervisors would love to hear about,” Kastor said. “You’ll all be court martialed so fast your boost back to Tellus will seem like a gentle breeze.”

 Torveld opened his mouth, but Kastor smashed him over the head with the butt of his handgun. Torveld dropped like a rock, and Kastor stepped over his body with a dark grin.

 “You can’t shoot me on a space station,” Damen said, holding up his hands.

 Kastor threw down his gun. “You’re right. It’ll be much more satisfying with my fists anyway.”

 Kastor lunged at him, and Damen caught the charge square in the chest and he went down, his legs buckling under the weight of betrayal. His back smashed against the floor, and the air was punched from his lungs. He sucked in a choked breath, Kastor writhing atop him, grappling for a hold on his throat.

 Damen fought back on instinct, shoving the heel of his hand straight up into Kastor’s chin. Kastor rocked back, and Damen grabbed for the knife at his thigh. He unsheathed it and sliced upwards, towards Kastor’s soft, unprotected flank. Kastor snapped his arm out to block it in time, and in two quick motions punched the inside of Damen’s arm. He hit both pressure points and Damen released the knife involuntarily. It clattered to the ground, and Kastor was on it in a flash.

 His hand was on Damen’s throat, and Damen dropped his chin to lessen the choking pressure. Kastor flipped the knife in his other hand and drove it into Damen’s thigh. Damen grunted in pain, and gagged as Kastor leaned harder against his windpipe.

 Kastor dragged the knife free and smashed the hilt across Damen’s face. Stars flew in Damen’s vision as warmth blossomed across his cheek and mouth. He couldn’t breathe. His grip on Kastor’s hand was not helping, and his free hand was still numb-

 An explosion cracked through the room and Kastor fell off him, the grip on his throat going slack. Damen pushed Kastor away, gasping and coughing, and then realised why Kastor had stopped.

 The back of Kastor’s head was gone, and the floor was splashed with his blood and bits of brain. Damen gagged, and scurried back, slamming up against the examination chair. The only sounds in the room were his heavy breathing, and someone else’s deep, ragged breaths.

 Damen turned as red flashing alarm lights began to flash around them.

 ||Firearm discharged. Firearm discharged. Remain where you are. The authorities have been alerted. Firearm discharged.||

 A young man stood in the doorway, his left arm outstretched with Kastor’s firearm gripped by a shaking hand. It was the comatose man from the first room, but he was awake and there was murderous rage in his eyes as he lowered the weapon and let it slip from his fingers.

 It clattered to the floor.

 Jord and Halvik burst into view. Jord froze at the sight of the mostly naked man standing in the door, but Halvik slid right past them and into the room. She stepped over Damen’s legs, seeing he was breathing, and checked Kastor’s pulse.

 “He alive,” she said, snapping her gaze towards Damen.

 ||Firearm discharged. Firearm discharged. Remain where you are. The authorities have been alerted. Firearm discharged.||

 Damen couldn’t stop staring at the young man. “Who are you?”

 The young man swayed, and Jord reached out to steady him. His lips tilted, slightly. “You do not recognise me?”

 In Veretian.

 Damen’s heart thundered in his chest, as adrenaline wrung him dry. He swallowed hard past the knot in his throat. “I don’t-”

 “Delpha about pissed himself when I sat up,” the man said. He leaned against the doorway, and Damen could see him shake from where he sat.

 Halvik helped Damen to his feet, and Damen shucked the outer jacket of his flight suit. He approached the young man, limping all the way, and started to drape it over his shoulders. Midway through the motion, the young man’s eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he dropped, silently. Damen jerked an arm out to catch him, and carefully lowered them both to the ground. Damen dragged the jacket around his shoulders.

 “Who is this?” Damen looked up at Jord and Halvik.

 “He was in the chamber room, with the others,” Jord said. “I do not know.”

 Jord jerked away from the door suddenly, and glanced down the hall. “Station security is here.”

 There was nowhere to go. Damen and his team patiently complied as a squadron of security officers surrounded them.

Chapter Text

The station doctor treated Damen before he was led to the detention room where the rest of his team sat, handcuffed to their respective benches. After being marched in, Damen received similar treatment, and when he was secured to a bench, the security guard left the room to stand outside.

“Where’s the Veretian?” Damen asked, immediately.

“He was separated from us,” Jord said. “They do not know what to do with us. They were not aware of the operations in that section, and were only alerted because of the gunshot-”

Halvik held both hands up in the air victoriously. She rubbed both her wrists and stood, moving to Damen’s side while Jord gawked at her. “How did you do that?”

“No woman walks around without hair pins,” Halvik said. “Even those without hair. They have many uses. And guard always miss them in frisks.”

 She snapped a pin trying to free Nikandros, but everyone else was freed without issue. Damen remained seated, his thigh throbbing despite the decent amount of painkiller he was on. Torveld lay on the floor with an arm over his eyes, trying to blot out the harsh light and ease his headache.

 “Unfortunately, pin do not open hydraulic locks,” Halvik said, her lips turning down. She folded her arms over her chest and looked to Damen.

 He shrugged. “Could do the old ‘have to pee’ trick.”

 “Classic, yet effective,” Torveld said with a groan.

 “Get back in place, everyone,” Damen said.

 They all returned to their benches, and Damen raised his voice to be heard through the door. “I’ve got to use the bathroom. Excuse me! Hey! Is anyone out there?”

 The door opened, and a guard stuck his head in. Jord leapt up and dragged the man into the room, punching him once and rendering him unconscious. Jord stood up, looking stricken. “I hit a man doing his job.”

 “He’ll get reimbursed, trust me,” Damen said. He levered himself upright and staggered towards the door. “Let’s go.”

 The hall outside their door was sparse and grey. It seemed to stretch forever in all directions, but Damen knew that was just a trick of the station shape. They must be on one of the lower levels. The harsh artificial lighting washed out his skin and made him appear sallow and sickly.

 He strode down the hall, flanked by Nikandros and Jord. They encountered no resistance until they turned a corner and saw another guard posted in front of a door. Damen nodded to Nikandros, who carefully snuck up to the guard and disabled him non-lethally. They waited while Nikandros cracked the door to the guarded room. He turned back. “Damen.”

 Damen darted forward, heart in his throat, and ducked into the room while Nikandros held the door open. Laying on a cot, still as when Damen had first set eyes on him, was the strange young Veretian man with the blonde hair and vicious blue eyes. Nikandros sighed when he hesitated. “Do it quickly. We’re escaping, here.”

 Three steps brought Damen beside the bed. He scooped the man into his arms, who still wore his jacket, and hastened out of the room. His leg protested immensely, but Damen was not ready to let anyone else handle this man. There was something about him, something that Damen recognised deep within him. He wanted no one else to touch this man. He was Damen’s responsibility. He had come for Damen, and Damen would return the favour.

 “You are ridiculous,” Nikandros said as he passed. Damen shrugged.

“We brought the Drafter,” Torveld said. He was leaning against a wall, Halvik hovering over him anxiously. “It should be near here if we are in the military prisons.”

“I believe the docks are nearby,” Jord said. He leaned out around a corner, his shoulder against the wall, and nodded. “This way.”

Jord took point, and Damen slotted himself between Jord and Nikandros. Halvik took up the rear, placing Torveld in her line of vision. Jord halted at the edge of a set of hydraulic doors. He nodded towards the doors. “That is the docking bay. The ship is there. I can see it through the window. There are also about twenty men between us and the ship.”

“How many people know we’ve been arrested?” Damen asked.

“The entire station,” Halvik said. She shrugged. “The firearm alert went off. That does not happen on a station. Everyone will know.”

“Also, your new boyfriend is pretty conspicuous,” Nikandros said, nodding at the man in Damen’s arms. Damen unconsciously pulled him closer, and Nikandros rolled his eyes. “Relax. I’m not going to take him.”

“I’m relaxed,” Damen said. “How do we get to the ship and take off without killing anyone?”

“I spring the doors and activate the vacuum alarm,” Halvik said. She grinned. “Everyone evacuate. We run to ship. Take off.”

“Do it,” Damen said.

Halvik ripped the control panel for the door off the wall, and with Nikandros’ help, triggered the alarm that signalled the room was being prepped for vacuum exposure. Sounds of panic rose from the other side of the doors as workers scrambled to clear the room. Nikandros peered through the windows in the doors.

“Clear,” he said.

“Let’s get off this shit-infested station,” Damen said. He hefted the man up in his arms into a more comfortable hold, and followed Jord into the docking bay.

The Drafter was near the doors that opened into space, and Halvik darted ahead to open up the ship and drop the ramp for them to board. Damen staggered up into the ship, grateful for it’s serene darkness, and stomped into the carriage to get his charge strapped in.

“Back already?”

Damen jerked around, surprised to hear someone speak from the cockpit. Jokaste stood, a hand perched delicately on her hip, and glared at him. “What the crap happened to you all? What happened to your leg? And face? Though that might be an improvement-”

“Not right now Jokaste,” Damen said. Jokaste scowled. “Get ready for take off.”

“What? The doors are shut. We don’t have authorisation. Are you just going to wave your arms and clear our path?”

“Jokaste, do it!” Nikandros came thundering up the carriage and threw himself into a chair, strapping in. “We don’t have much time.”

“Fuck. If I had known I was going to be part of a military coup I would have worn the right colours.” Jokaste whirled and stormed into the cockpit. “Buckle up, assholes.”

“I like her,” Halvik said as she sat.

“Do not encourage her,” Damen said. He strapped the young Veretian into a chair and then sat down himself, tugging the harness over his shoulders and waist. He twisted in his chair, and when everyone was sufficiently secure, he jammed a finger into the comm button. “We’re secure. Go.”

“Let me just wave my magic garage door opener,” Jokaste said. “Oh wait. Those are vacuum doors! Damn. Shut up and let me do my job.”

 The comm fizzled and went silent. Damen leaned back and rested his head against the headrest. He worked on keeping his breathing steady. The ship boosted, and Damen felt the drag of inertia press on his chest.

 “Torveld will throw up this time,” Halvik said, from somewhere vaguely behind him. Torveld groaned in response.

 A rough boost pushed Damen back against his chair, and for a brief, uncomfortable moment, it felt like the entire weight of the station was leaning against his ribcage. He fought to take a breath, and then the weight was gone. Gasping, he rolled his head. “Everyone okay?”

 “Torveld threw up,” Halvik said. Torveld groaned again, muffled by his barf bag. “I did not!”

 “Well done, Halvik,” Damen said, weary. He slumped in his chair as the adrenaline crashed out of his system. He wanted to sleep for a million years. “Someone else ask Jokaste if we can unstrap.”

 Nikandros pressed the comm button, and Jokaste responded that they were clear of the station. It was safe for them to unstrap.

 Damen unclasped his safety harness, and levered himself out of his chair with effort. He turned to his charge and froze. The man was awake.

 “Where are we?” he asked, in Veretian. He seemed to be made of hard lines that would slice Damen open if he weren’t careful.

 “We escaped from the base. We took you with us,” Damen said, deferring to Veretian. Jord watched them with unabashed curiosity. “Who are you? What’s your name?”

 The man leaned back in the chair, pale fingers gripping the armrests so tightly the knuckles were ghostly white. He glared at Damen from under golden lashes. “After all the time we spent together you cannot even remember my name? Is this how you treat all of your former intimates?”

 “We-” Damen stammered. “We never- I don’t know you.”

 “How quickly a meatbag’s memory fades,” the man said. “I suppose I can look forward to that. Now.”

 Damen stopped breathing. The voice was different, but the cadence. The tone, the inflection were all exactly the same. He breathed out. “Laurent?”

 Nikandros was at his shoulder. “Your AI?”

 “How?” Damen said in the same breath.

 “The files… In the computic. They had to do with human body modification that would allow them to take an AI unit into their body,” Nikandros said. His eyes were wide and stark against his dark skin before hardening in rage. “You took over someone’s body?”

 “That body had no brain activity,” Torveld said. He stood, shakily, one hand gripping the chair in front of him. “It was effectively brain dead. He did not ‘take over’ anything. The body was not alive in the way we know.”

 “Ew.” Jokaste appeared in the doorway, her arms folded over her chest. She stared at Laurent, her pale brows drawn low. “Why does it look like me?”

 “Coincidence, hopefully,” Nikandros said. He scowled. “Nobody would want to be related to you.”

 “Bite me,” Jokaste said. “Can someone please explain why I had to forge a clearance frequency and then outrun a Warbird to get off that station?”

 “You can do that?” Torveld asked.

 “Yes. I’m not a pleb. Now someone explain or I will turn this forsaken ship around and take you all right back.”

 “I think…” Nikandros hesitated. He put his hand over his armband. “I think Arles is creating super soldiers with AI brains.”

 Silence fell heavily over the carriage. Nikandros cast his arms out at his sides. “The documentation in the computic talked about cloning systems, and augmented human forms that included the ability to transmit incredible amounts of data directly into the human brain.”

 His eyes zeroed in on Laurent, or specifically, the back of his shaved head. Nikandros strode forward. “This port is connected directly to his brain stem. Any type of data can be transmitted through it. Fuck. That’s how it took over this body.”

 “I did not ‘take over’ anything,” Laurent said, in sharp Veretian. “I needed a physical body.”

 “What did he say?”

 “He said he needed a body,” Jord said, before Damen could answer. Jord switched to Veretian. “Why? Why did you need a body?”

 “Because I can stop the Regent,” Laurent said. Damen could see him shake from where he stood.

 “Enough,” Damen said. He put himself between Laurent and the rest of the carriage. “He needs food, rest, and then we will question him.”

 Halvik took the hint and helped Torveld limp to the first open bunk they could find. He most likely had a concussion. Nikandros threw up his hands and stormed from the room while Jord hovered awkwardly. Damen ignored him and crouched in front of Laurent, mindful of his leg. Laurent hadn’t unclasped his safety harness. Damen wasn’t sure if he didn’t know how, or physically couldn’t. He reached for it. “May I?”

 Laurent nodded tersely, and weathered the attention as Damen freed him from the crash chair. Damen rocked back on his heels. “Can you stand?”

 “Doubtful,” Laurent said. His voice was crisp like ice, and Damen was in awe of it.

 “Put your arm over my shoulders,” he said.

 Laurent shifted until one lightly muscled arm was draped over Damen’s shoulders, and Damen knocked a hand under his knees to lift him from the chair. Laurent dropped his head against Damen’s shoulder, and twisted his hand in the front of Damen’s shirt as they moved through the carriage towards the living quarters.

 The very last bunk was unoccupied, and Damen entered and lay Laurent down on the bottom cot. When he began to draw back, he found Laurent’s hand still grasping his shirt with surprising strength. Damen placed a hand over Laurent’s. “Are you okay?”

 “I am…” Laurent exhaled sharply. “Alive. I am alive. Why won’t this body stop shaking? Your body does not shake.”

 Damen rubbed the skin of Laurent’s hand. “You’ve had quite a lot of shock in the last few hours. A physical body needs time to adjust. You probably overtaxed yourself. Are you cold?”

 “Your jacket is creating a comfortable ambient temperature,” Laurent said. “If that is what you mean.”

 “What about your legs?” Damen glanced at them, and then immediately wished he hadn’t. They were… very nice legs. He dragged the sheet over them. “Just in case. I’m going to bring you something to eat. Stay here.”

 Laurent’s fingers unlocked from his shirt, and Damen gently pulled free. He rested Laurent’s hand on the mattress beside him. “I’ll be right back.”

 Laurent closed his eyes, and Damen pushed to his feet. He left the room and locked it, using an access code that only allowed himself to reenter. He didn’t want Jokaste crawling around in there. Or anyone else, really.

 Nikandros was sitting at the table in the mess when he entered, and Damen walked past him to get to the food stores. Nikandros lifted his head. “You can’t trust him.”

 Damen, two protein packets held in hand, straightened. “He saved my life. Again.”

 “The first time was a fluke. He wanted off the Striker. He only cares about himself, Damen. He will throw you to the wolves the first chance he gets.” Nikandros stood. “He stole a body. Someone’s body!”

 “That person was dead,” Damen said. “If it was even a person at all. What about the bodies in those chambers? Were they people? Or were they clones? How are we supposed to know? Torveld said the body was brain dead. Whoever was in there was not coming back. He didn’t steal anything.”

 “He is going to get us all killed,” Nikandros said. “Our own people are after us now. And it’s all because of him.”

 “It isn’t his fault Arles is dealing shady shit under everyone’s noses,” Damen said. “Are you through?”

 “For now,” Nikandros said. “I’ll have more later, I’m sure.”

 “Fine.”

 “Damen, I’m just worried about you, man.” Nikandros pushed to his feet and grabbed Damen’s elbow. Damen let himself be turned. “We’re in some deep shit and you’ve got your head turned around over that… kid.”

 “I can still lead this team,” Damen said.

 “I’m not saying you can’t. I just want you to be safe,” Nikandros said. He gripped Damen’s shoulder. “You’re my brother. I don’t want you hurt. Physically or emotionally.”

 “I’ll be fine,” Damen said. He looped an arm around Nikandros’ shoulders and pulled him in for a hug. Nikandros gripped him fiercely. “I know you’re worried. We’ll figure something out. We always do.”

 “Okay. Go. Be with your weird computic boy thing.” Nikandros drew back and clapped Damen on the back. “I’ll go try and pacify Jokaste.”

 “Good luck,” Damen said. Nikandros snorted, and waved him away.

 Laurent was very much asleep when Damen returned to the room, curled under the sheets with his face tucked deep in the fabric of Damen’s jacket. Only his forehead showed. The hair that had escaped shaving splayed out against the stark white of the pillow. At this angle, Damen could see the metal jack at the base of his skull. It looked dark and fragile.

 Damen sat quietly, leaning against the cot, while Laurent slept. It was a little over an hour later when Laurent startled awake, his breath catching. He shifted, and poked his head out of Damen’s jacket. “Why are you here?”

 “I said I’d be back,” Damen said. He held up a protein packet. “I brought food. You’ll hate it, but it’s good for you. When we get to Tellus I’ll get you some real food.”

 Laurent reached out for it, but Damen pulled away. “Sit up. You can’t eat lying down. You’ll choke.”

 Laurent frowned, but pushed himself up into a sitting position. His hair flopped over one eye, and he brushed at it impatiently. He held a hand out for the protein pack, and Damen tore it open before handing it to him. Laurent nibbled on it, his blue eyes never leaving Damen’s face.

 “Are we going to talk about why you needed to have a body?” Damen asked, his voice soft in the space between them. One light cast a gentle glow over them both, situated on the frame of the bed. The rest of the room was warm, fuzzy darkness.

 “The Regent cannot find me like this,” Laurent said. He cast his eyes down to the protein pack. “It seemed logical.”

 “It seemed logical to trap yourself in a mortal fleshbag that can be killed if you eat the wrong thing?” Damen asked. He leaned against the cot, one arm resting on the sheets.

 “You are speaking of allergies,” Laurent said, half to himself.

 “Yes. It’s just an example. You were much more durable as an AI. Are there… pieces of you left in the computic?” Damen asked. “How did you do it?”

 “I forced myself through the connection,” Laurent said. “This body was available and they had almost completed the technology. The jump was… unpleasant. Some of my coding remained. The basic functions like computation and data caching. My core functions came over. The important things. Like the information that can stop the Regent.”

 “What is his plan?” Damen asked. “What’s he going to do?”

 “Your friend is not far off. He is breeding an army of soldiers that obey him alone, and will be fodder in the war with the Slartyari,” Laurent said. “They will be beholden to no government unless he allows it.”

 “If they’re going to fight the Slartyari, why would that be a bad thing?” Damen asked. Laurent nailed him with a glare that could cut glass.

 “Do you truly think he would stop at defeating the Slartyari?” Laurent asked. “He wants everything. The entire world at his fingertips. And he is orchestrating a plan that will allow him such.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “He is creating a situation that will make people trust him,” Laurent said. “I do not know what or how, but he is planning something. It must be stopped.”

 “You make it sound as if we can just go in and arrest him,” Damen said. “We need evidence of sedition. We can’t just take one of the most powerful men in the world into custody without grounds.”

 “Then find grounds,” Laurent said. “Get me access to his files. I can get the evidence.”

 Damen jumped when someone pounded on the door. “Damen! Damen are you in there?”

 “What is it?” Damen pushed himself to his feet and opened the door. Jord stood in the hall, panting.

 “Tellus-14 is under attack. A Striker materialised beside the base. They are calling for help on all frequencies,” Jord said.

 “Respond,” Damen said. “Set a course for Tellus-14. Get us there as fast as possible.”

 “Yessir,” Jord said. He bolted down the hall, staggering under the shifting inertia as Jokaste maneuvered them through the asteroid belt.

 Damen turned to Laurent. “Stay here.”

 “I can help,” Laurent said, leaning forward in the bed. Damen’s jacket fell open around a pale, muscular chest. Damen swallowed hard.

 “No. You can barely stand. Stay here and rest,” Damen said. He shut the door behind him, ignoring Laurent’s protest, and locked it for good measure. He made his way to the cockpit, and was joined by Nikandros and Halvik on his path to the front of the ship.

 “He said to turn towards the station,” Jord was saying as Damen approached.

 “We just left the fucking station!” Jokaste said, raising her voice and speaking slowly, as if Jord was having a hard time understanding her.

 “That was before the Striker- Damen!” Jord straightened and saluted sharply.

 “Jokaste, plot a course for Tellus-14. Get us there as quickly as possible,” Damen said.

 “We just left! I thought you assholes were running away from everyone,” Jokaste said. “You want me to go back there?”

 “They’re under attack, Jokaste! Get us there!” Damen said.

 “Fine, fine. But if we get arrested I’m saying you forced me under duress,” Jokaste said. “Now go away. I need to concentrate.”

 Damen and Jord left the cockpit, and found Nikandros and Halvik sitting in chairs in the carriage. Damen sat down heavily, his leg outstretched in front of him. Halvik glanced around the carriage. “Where is your friend?”

 “He’s not my friend. He’s my AI,” Damen said. He rubbed a hand over his face and winced when he irritated the cuts there. “He thinks the Regent is up to something.”

 “We know he’s up to something,” Nikandros said. “Laurent in a body is the reason we know he’s up to something. What else does he know?”

 “He thinks the Regent is vying for power,” Damen said.

 “More power?” Nikandros asked. “He’s already heavily influential in the Veretian government. Everyone knows he’s pulling the strings. What more could he want?”

 “The world,” Damen said, sinking into his chair. The carriage swayed around them, alternately pressing and pulling them in their seats like the gentle rocking of a seaship.

 “That’s utterly ridiculous. Nobody would just hand over the entire world to one man,” Nikandros said. “Let’s be reasonable here.”

 “If that man could ensure Tellus is protected from Slartyari attack,” Jord said. He folded his arms over his chest. “I think he would be granted quite a lot of power and leeway. It is only dumb luck that the Slartyari have no found us yet. They have been so focused on activity in the Belt that they could not spare resources to hunt for Tellus. But that will change.”

 “I am not seeing a downside to this,” Torveld said. “He protects us from the Slartyari. How is this bad?”

 “You want to put the full power of all our nations into the hands of one man?” Damen asked. “One man who has already done a few shitty things to me personally. Including turning my own brother against me. Kastor tried to kill me because of this man. I’m not comfortable with him leading anything. Much less a nefarious corporation that puts computics into human bodies.”

 “Some AI want to be human,” Jord said, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It is not talked about much, but a few have expressed interest in experiencing life in a physical body.”

 “I’m glad I didn’t know that before,” Nikandros said. “If you could have a perfect brain and a perfect body, why bother with anything else?”

 “AI are hardly perfect,” Jord said, with a cold glance in Nikandros’ direction.

 “Laurent’s full programming didn’t port over, either,” Damen said. “He lost some of himself during the transfer. The process isn’t complete or stable yet. But this is beside the point. One man cannot wield the collective power of the human race.”

 “I agree with Damen. It’s too much. We need to determine what he’s up to and throw it into the light,” Nikandros said. “He’s messing around with human brains. That cannot go unchecked. He could be changing the course of human evolution.”

 “He is definitely breaking some sort of ethical medical code,” Torveld said. “I am with you. What do we do?”

 “Right now, we simply help defeat the Striker,” Damen said. “We’ll regroup after.”

 “Damianos, get up here.” Jokaste’s voice cut through their conversation, and Damen staggered to his feet. He lurched into the cockpit and gaped at the sight before him.

 They were nearing the station, along with nearly a hundred other Drafters, and the Striker was in clear view. Small bursts of light signalled the silent explosions associated with battle in vacuum, and Damen leaned over the pilot’s chairs.

 “I am detecting a huge energy reading coming from…” Lazar tapped the console in front of him. “From the station?”

 Damen opened his mouth but before he could speak, a huge swathe of light shot out of the station. Directed at the Striker, the light physically impacted the ship and where it touched, massive explosions rocked up off its surface. Damen stared in awe as the Striker bowed outward, decimated by whatever the weapon had done. Nikandros and Jord pressed up against his back, frozen in shock.

 The Striker’s lights flickered and went dark. Debris billowed out of the gaping wound carved into the side of the ship. They weren’t close enough to determine shape, but Damen knew some of them were Slartyari.

 “Shit,” Jord said, under his breath. “Is that-”

 “I’m receiving a transmission,” Jokaste said. She reached over her head and flicked a switch on the console. A robotic voice echoed over the speakers.

 ||The Slartyari Striker has conceded defeat. All ships are to return to your station of origin pending further instruction. The Slartyari Striker is defeated. Return to your station of original for further instruction.||

 “They used the weapon,” Damen said. “Dock with Tellus-14.”

 “They just suffered an attack,” Jokaste said.

 “I’m aware. Dock with them. That’s my father’s station. We’ll be safe there for a bit.” Damen pushed himself away from Lazar’s chair and made his way back through the carriage and into the living quarters.

 He opened the door to his bunk, and was gratified to see Laurent still in the room, slumped over on the bed, sleeping. Damen exhaled, relief winding through his chest. Someone’s footsteps followed him into the hall, and Damen glanced over his shoulder to see Jord approaching.

 “How is he?” Jord asked.

 “Asleep. He’s weak. Unused to physical motion. It’s to be expected, I suppose,” Damen said. He let his gaze find Laurent’s sleeping form once more. “Not that we can guess what to expect.”

 “The process was not complete,” Jord said. “Or tested. Anything could go wrong.”

 “Thanks,” Damen said, gritting his teeth.

 “He will be fine,” Jord said. “He has you watching over him.”

 “Don’t tell Nikandros that,” Damen said with a small smile.

 “Jokaste sent me to tell you we will be docking shortly. She felt you should disembark first.”

 “Right. I’ll wake Laurent and head to the carriage.”

 Jord nodded and left him, and Damen entered the bunk. He crouched beside the cot and rested a hand on Laurent’s shoulder. “Laurent.”

 The man came awake without a sound, his eyes flashing open and then fixing on Damen. He breathed out, and Damen felt some of his tension release.

 “We’re docking. We need to strap in.”

 Laurent said nothing but pushed himself up and out of the bed. He stood, and waved away Damen’s hand when he reached for him. Laurent walked on his own power to the carriage on bare feet, and Damen set in his mind to get clothes for him as soon as possible. Damen followed him into the carriage and strapped in beside him.

 Jokaste docked without incident, and when she issued the order to unstrap, Damen immediately released himself and stood. He made his way to the vacuum door, and when it opened, he was greeted by another contingent of his father’s workers. Adrastus stood at the front of the group, wringing his hands.

 “Sir, now isn’t the best time,” Adrastus started.

 “We’ll stay out of your hair, Mr Adrastus. Just give me access to the master suite. We’ll be no trouble,” Damen said.

 Adrastus nodded, and tapped out something on his tablet. “The master suite is ready for your use. Please, make yourself at home. If you need anything let us know.”

 “We’ll be fine, thank you.” Damen shook Adrastus’ hand, and let the workers leave before him. He turned back into the ship. “Come on. We’re going up to the CEO’s office.”

 His team followed him into the station, and Damen led them up to the master suite. Nikandros and Jord immediately broke away, shucking their flight suits as they went. Jokaste darted for the bathroom and hot water shower, heedless of Torveld’s protest that he needed the latrine. She slammed the door in his face and Damen heard the sound of a flightsuit hitting the floor.

 “There’s another bathroom down the hall,” Damen said, taking pity on Torveld. The Patran nodded and strode in the direction Damen indicated.

 Laurent walked into the room, inspecting everything he set his eyes on. “So this is what it looks like from the other side.”

 “What does it look like from inside a computic?” Damen asked. Behind him, Halvik began rummaging through the food dispenser for something to eat.

 “There is no ‘look’. It just is. The things I can touch exist and I can manipulate them. There is no comparison that you would understand,” Laurent said. He stood, awkward, in the centre of Damen’s suite, with Damen’s jacket hanging off his frame. The arms were too long, and only the tips of Laurent’s fine fingers showed. He looked pathetic.

 Halvik moved past Damen, handing him a snack. She passed Laurent, and handed him a snack as well, before flopping onto the couch in the receiving area with her own snack. She bit into it and watched them with unrestrained curiosity as she chewed.

 “God, you’re pathetic.”

 Damen twisted, and saw Jokaste leaving the bathroom wrapped in a towel. She rubbed a second towel through her hair. “Do you still have my shit here?”

 “Yes,” Damen said.

 Jokaste twisted her lips. She nodded at Laurent. “Come with me. Let’s get you something to wear. Next time, Damen, say no.”

 “But I do,” Damen said, throwing out his hands. Halvik snorted from her place on the couch, and Damen sighed. He walked over to her and eased himself down on the couch. He took a bite of the granola bar Halvik had handed him.

 “I do not think she likes you much,” Halvik said.

 “No, no she doesn’t,” Damen said. He tipped his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. Halvik continued to eat beside him.

Chapter Text

One by one the team slowly drifted back, after refreshing themselves. Nikandros grabbed something to eat as well, and sat on the arm of the couch on Damen’s other side.

“Damianos, come here.” Jokaste stuck her head out of the bedroom, pulling the door partially shut.

Damen dragged himself up and made his way to the bedroom, where Jokaste had found her box of clothes. Damen had put it together after their break up, but never found a chance to give it back to her. He wondered if she did it on purpose for an instance like this.

He froze when he saw why she had called him, and dropped his snack on the floor. Laurent stood in the centre of the room, his arms held out slightly to the sides. He wore Jokaste’s light blue ball gown, the lacy straps slipping down his shoulders to frame the muscles of his upper arms. Laurent turned his palms out, and said, “I do not believe this is the most efficient method of dress for our future endeavours.”

Jokaste was doubled over laughing, and Damen could barely hear her over the ringing in his ears. No man should look that good in a gown. Desperate to retain some semblance of control over the situation, Damen said, “He wears it better.”

That silenced Jokaste effectively. She snapped him a glare that would freeze a Slartyari, and stormed to Laurent’s side. “Take it off. I’ll get you my jumpsuit.”

Damen left them in a daze, and returned to the couch. Halvik and Nikandros watched him curiously, but he could say nothing. No one could know of this. A few minutes later, Laurent and Jokaste exited the bedroom in matching jumpsuits. Damen smiled. “It suits you.”

Laurent tugged at the collar of the maroon, Akielon flight suit. The collar hung open, and he worried it away from the fine, pale skin of this throat. “Aesthetically speaking, the navy blue of the Veretian uniform would best suit the colours of this body.”

“We only have Akielon here,” Damen said.

“I think you need to see this,” Lazar said, approaching the group. He reached for the holoscreen control and flicked on the massive, full wall display. An imported news channel from Tellus flickered into view, and as the image stabalised, Damen recognised the reporter as Veretian.

The news report came in perfectly enunciated Veretian.

“A Slartyari Striker attacked the space station Tellus-14, home of Ios International, one of the leading manufacturers of Akielon military weaponry. The Striker was preparing to fire the primary weapon, which is capable of destroying a Tellusian station, when the station fired back with an unknown weapon. Reports are coming in describing the weapon as ‘massive’ and ‘powerful’.” The Veretian woman reached a hand towards the young woman seated beside her, and Damen realised that must be her pet. The younger woman handed the reporter a slip of paper.

“Someone is claiming responsibility for the retaliatory attack on the Striker.” The reporter looked into the camera. “It is Laurent Arles, of Arlesian Robotics. He has issued a message.” She looked at someone behind the camera. “Cut to the vid, Jaques.”

The feed fizzled, and Damen found himself looking at the Regent. He sat, comfortably, in the very same office that Damen had visited. It felt like years ago. Behind him, space opened up into a glorious vista of solar light and coronal flares.

“What you have just witnessed was humanity’s first, great step towards system dominance. No longer will we have to hide behind shields and curtail transmissions. We will once again be able to freely communicate between stations, and with our home world. Today’s demonstration is a weapon which I have commissioned to be built from the Slartyari’s own technology.” The cadence of his voice was soothing, as if he were lulling a child to sleep. Behind him, Nicais stood with his hands clasped behind his back. Silent and pretty. For display. “I had hoped that I could announce it under better circumstances. However, since circumstances cannot be arranged, let it be know that I will protect Tellus, and all of it’s inhabitants, to the best of my abilities.”

The screen cut out, and flashed back to the reporter and her pet. She said, “That was Laurent Arles, of Arlesian Robotics, taking credit for the destruction of a Slartyari Striker that attacked Tellus-14 today. We’ll return with more information shortly.”

Lazar muted the holoscreen, and the room fell into complete silence. Damen stared at the soundless images.

“All communications are open?” Torveld asked. “Every channel?”

“That is what it sound like,” Halvik said. She scrambled up from the couch and approached the holoscreen. She took the control from Lazar and switched it to the mode that would allow her to access the internal computic. Nikandros stood and moved to watch over her shoulder as she worked. “Yes. All communication channels now open.”

“But surely some caution is warranted,” Torveld said. “One station cannot defend the entire Belt.”

“That seems to be his assumption,” Damen said. “But we still don’t know anything about the Slartyari forces. Or how many of them there are. We don’t know how they’re going to respond to this. He’s recklessly endangering all of Tellus.”

“He must be fairly confident,” Torveld said.

They all stilled when they felt a shift in gravity, small enough that they weren’t thrown, but enough for the seasoned space battle team to know they were moving. Damen stood and carefully made his way to the communication panel, on the wall beside the holoscreen. He signalled for Adrastus.

“What is going on?” Damen asked before Adrastus could get a word of hello in.

“I’m sorry?” Adrastus sounded flustered over the line, as if he genuinely did not know that his station was moving through space.

“Where is the station going? Why is it being moved out of it’s defined orbit?” Damen asked. “There are no scheduled orbital adjustments for today. What is going on?”

“We received an order that we’re to move the station into Tellusian orbit,” Adrastus said. “We are going to guard the homeworld.”

“Whose order?” Damen asked.

“Why, your brother’s command unit, of course,” Adrastus said. “With the weapon that Mr Arles commissioned, we will be able to protect Tellus from attack. All stations will have such a weapon going forward. We will not have to hide anymore.”

Damen leaned against the wall, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Thank you, Mr Adrastus. That is all.”

He disconnected and exhaled sharply. “We’re going home, guys.”

“So it would seem,” Laurent said. “The Regent will likely dock once we have achieved stable orbit around Tellus.”

“Halvik, work with Nikandros and see what you can uncover about the Regent’s operations,” Damen said. “I want everything. All his money transfers, tax dodges, anything that could potentially implicate him if this goes south. He’s not the man who will protect Tellus. He already tried to destroy Laurent. He’s hiding something. We’re going to find it.”

“We’ll work on it,” Nikandros said. He and Halvik moved into a small room off the main room that served as a study with a complete computic setup.

“Torveld, reach out to your brother. See if the Regent has made any passes at his company,” Damen said. Torveld nodded. “Lazar, Jokaste- try not to destroy anything incredibly expensive. Laurent, with me.”

Jord jumped to his feet. “I am not sure-”

“Stand down, Chastillion,” Laurent said, with authority. Jord blinked, but returned to his seat. Laurent followed Damen into the massive bedchamber, and let Damen shut the door behind them. He stared at Damen, unblinkingly.

“Why does the Regent fear you?” Damen asked. “Be truthful. What is so important about you?”

“I have told you before. I can bring down his warrior project. I have the codes to incapacitate all of the AI units he creates, which means he will not be able to create his perfect soldiers,” Laurent said. “And I am the only one.”

Damen sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at the clothes Jokaste had left strewn all over the floor. Her clothes, and a few of Damen’s older things had been dumped every which way. When he turned his gaze to Laurent, he found him staring at Damen’s wrists. Specifically the scarring there.

“I did that,” Laurent said. A statement.

“You did. What are you feeling?” Damen tilted his head.

“It is strange. It was necessary to free you and save both our lives, but when I see it I… I wish it had not been,” Laurent said. His face pinched, and he frowned.

“Jord said you were meant to be captured,” Damen said.

“Yes.”

“Was I meant to die?” Damen asked.

“There was a non-negligible chance,” Laurent said. “It was not a mission objective, if that is what you want to know. Though your brother seemed particularly interested in the possibility.”

The knife of betrayal twisted further in Damen’s chest, and he did his best to ignore the comment. “Yet you saved my life.”

Laurent peered at him. “It was necessary for the preservation of my own.”

“It wasn’t. Jord said your retrieval had been pre-arranged.”

“You saved Jord’s life at great risk to your own. Despite not knowing him,” Laurent said. He cast his eyes towards the wall behind Damen. “It was something Auguste would do.”

“I remind you of Auguste?” Damen asked.

Laurent met his eyes, heat flaring in them. “Yes. Despite your Akielon heritage.”

“I am honoured,” Damen said. “There is nothing I can do about my darker skin.”

“I am aware.” Laurent still stared at him. “You are like him, but you are also very different.”

“I would hope so,” Damen said. “Two people are never exactly the same. That is the glory of living. Everyone is unique.”

Laurent seemed to come to a decision, one that unrooted his feet from the floor. He crossed the space between them and stood between Damen’s knees. He reached for Damen’s face, and Damen allowed his jaw to be tilted up. Laurent ran curious fingers through Damen’s mess of curls, feeling the texture and length of them. Laurent’s face was a mask of concentration as he catalogued the differences he felt.

Damen closed his eyes as Laurent continued his exploration. Over his shoulders and down his arms, until Laurent’s careful fingers reached the scar tissue. He lifted one of Damen’s arms. “It feels rougher. Is it stronger?”

“No. It’s not skin, so it feels different,” Damen said.

“Does it hurt?” Laurent asked. He was perilously near. Damen couldn’t breathe without discovering Laurent’s scent.

“Sometimes, in the cold,” Damen said.

“It is very cold in space,” Laurent said. His lips twisted in a frown. “So it would follow that they always hurt.”

“They don’t hurt right now,” Damen said, feeling warmth grow in his chest. He turned their hands until he gripped Laurent’s fingers. “Are you concerned?”

Laurent frowned, swaying slightly further into Damen’s space. “If your wrists hurt, you will be ineffective in battle. You have built your life around your military career. You have left yourself no other option. If you cannot fight, what will you do?”

“Before I realised my father’s company was building a weapon of mass destruction using scavenged alien technology, I would have said take over operations. But…” Damen sighed. He gently rocked their joined hands against Laurent’s hip. “The company was everything to my father. I don’t want to be known as the owner who allowed that to happen. I want to change it. I could do that.”

“Ambitious,” Laurent said. “Are you comfortable? Your cheeks are getting flush.”

Damen cleared his throat. “You are standing very close. And you are attractive.”

Laurent’s eyes widened. “You want to kiss me?”

Damen let out a startled laugh. “If you will allow it. I did not think you were overly fond of me.”

“I think…” Laurent tipped his head to the side, his white-blonde hair falling away from his eyes. “I think I am not sure anymore.”

“Are you capable of lying?” Damen asked.

“I do not lie,” Laurent said. He came forward when Damen nudged his hips closer, and at Damen’s urging climbed up and straddled Damen’s lap.

“But you can omit truth,” Damen said. His large hands rested on Laurent’s waist.

“Yes,” Laurent said. “If necessary to complete the mission objective.”

“This is not a mission, Laurent. If something happens that you do not like, you must tell me,” Damen said. “Do you swear it?”

“Yes,” Laurent said. “I will.”

Damen cupped Laurent’s jaw with one hand, and Laurent let himself be drawn in. Damen kissed Laurent, the first brush of their lips a fleeting contact. Laurent leaned up, shifting their position until he could press Damen back and down against the sheets. Damen slid a hand along Laurent’s spine, and lifted his hips to flip them over. Laurent gasped, surprised, and pressed a hand over Damen’s mouth when Damen rested his body against Laurent’s.

Damen froze, trying to steady his thundering heart. Laurent closed his eyes beneath him, breathing hard. He opened his eyes, and said, firmly, “No.”

Damen lifted himself off Laurent, and pulled away from Laurent’s hand. “Are you okay?”

Laurent remained where he had landed, splayed out on Damen’s bed. “The kissing is good. The rest is… not. I will not have sex with you.”

“Okay,” Damen said. He propped his head up on one arm, and reached for Laurent’s hand with his other. He linked their fingers over Laurent’s heart. “Okay.”

Laurent turned his head. “That is a strange thing, yes? Not to want sex.”

“Not really,” Damen said. “People can be intimate in a lot of different ways. Sex is just one of them. If you don’t want it, then that’s fine.”

“But you want to have sex with me,” Laurent said.

“I want to get to know you,” Damen said. “Sex is one way to do it, but there are others. You interest me.”

“You confuse me,” Laurent said. “I cannot predict your actions. I do not know why I am drawn to your side.”

“Perhaps sleep will clear your mind,” Damen said. He rolled closer to Laurent and nudged his nose against Laurent’s throat. Laurent’s fingers tightened around his.

“Fine.”

Laurent shaking against him drew Damen from sleep that night. Damen shifted, the hand thrown around Laurent’s chest moving to his shoulder. “Hey. Hey.”

Laurent stiffened in his arms, and Damen shook him gently. “Laurent.”

Laurent came awake soundlessly, and gripped the sheets so tightly his arms shook.

“You’re okay. You’re safe,” Damen said. He smoothed his hand up and down Laurent’s arm until the tension leaked away and Laurent slumped against him with a soft sound. He pressed his face to Laurent’s neck. “You’re safe. Bad dream?”

“I dreamt the Regent poked a hole in the wall and the station deflated like a balloon into space and you asphyxiated and then froze while I floated there, watching,” Laurent said. He twisted until he could grab Damen’s hand, and then squeezed it to the point of pain. “It does not make sense. The station would not do that. It would close off the compromised compartment to protect the rest of the station.”

“Dreams do not have to make sense,” Damen said. “It’s your brain firing while you sleep. You aren’t able to direct the thoughts so they compile by themselves, and are often nonsensical.”

“That is a poor functionality,” Laurent said with a shiver. Damen tugged him closer. “Someone should fix that.”

“It’s part of being human. How our human brains support themselves through the course of our lives,” Damen said. “It wasn’t real. The station is sound. I’m here. You’re safe.”

“It is stupid,” Laurent said. He shifted against Damen, pressing against him more firmly. Damen got a mouthful of hair before Laurent settled, tucked close to Damen. Damen continued rubbing Laurent’s arm until he fell back asleep, and then drifted off again shortly after.

Chapter Text

Damen and the rest of his team plastered themselves to the massive window when Tellus came into view. It was not the longest Damen had ever been in space, not by far, but seeing his homeworld was always a welcome sight after any trip to the Belt. And he felt a childish pleasure in showing it to Laurent for the first time.

“That’s Akielos. We border Vere, which is to the north,” Damen said. He pointed towards the planet when they were close enough to distinguish land masses. “And Patras and Vask are just there, but they are harder to see because there is no ocean bordering them.”

“But we are just as strong,” Halvik said.

“Of course,” Damen said. “But we can’t see the mountains, so it’s hard to distinguish.”

“I will show you mountains,” Halvik said. “You will see all of Vask. I show you.”

“I look forward to it,” Laurent said, transfixed on the planet. “I have seen images but this does not compare.”

“Wait until you smell the sea breeze,” Nikandros said, warming to the subject. “It doesn’t smell ionised or metallic or like old socks. Fresh air. There’s nothing like it. You can’t describe it, being up here.”

“I am sure it will be an experience,” Laurent said. His fingers rested on the glass that separated him from the Black. “I look forward to it.”

“The Regent’s ship is docking in less than an hour,” Nikandros said. He pushed away from the window. “We should be there to meet him. I’m sure he will need an escort around your company’s station.”

“If he hasn’t declared himself the head of my company by now,” Damen said. He straightened the collar and zip of his Akielon uniform, and then took a moment to adjust a pin on the shoulder of Laurent’s Akielon uniform. He ignored Nikandros’ eye roll. “Everyone armed? Let’s go.”

As they entered the cargo bay, they were joined by Adrastus and several of the company’s top workers. Adrastus smiled enthusiastically and babbled something about how momentous it was that the two most powerful companies in the world were coming together in support of the human race.

Damen endured nearly half an hour of this until the cargo bay doors opened and the Regent stepped forward, a small contingent of men behind him. Laurent drew in a sharp breath, and Damen squared his shoulders, resisting the urge to check on him.

“Mr Ios, how wonderful to see you again,” the Regent said, with a smile on his face. He held out his hand, and Damen did not take it.

“What are you doing here? Who gave you authorisation to move this base?” Damen asked.

“Your brother, of course, before his tragic injury,” the Regent said. “Only military personnel can authorise the displacement of a space station. Everyone knows that. We have come together for the betterment of mankind. Tellus will be protected, and our people will not have to live in fear any longer. Does this not please you?”

“It will please me when you stop meddling in my company’s affairs,” Damen said.

“Your company? I was under the impression that you did not want it,” the Regent said. In front of everyone. Adrastus gasped.

“At the time, I had other things on my mind, like my career,” Damen said. “That doesn’t give you the right to come in and assume that you own my father’s legacy.”

“I provided the most lucrative contract in your company’s history,” the Regent said. “You should be thanking me. The world thanks you. Your company has done what none have done before. We destroyed not one but two Strikers. And not a single human life was lost.”

“Surely that is a benefit, Mr Ios,” Adrastus said, just shy of snivelling. Damen scowled.

“Are you going to demand we shut down the one thing that could protect Tellus?” the Regent asked. “After we’ve broadcasted our position to the entire system?”

“I’m not the one who allowed communication channels to open across the entire Belt,” Damen said, jabbing his finger at the Regent. “And jeopardised the entire planet.”

“It is safe to communicate now,” the Regent said. He spread his hands and smiled, wide. “We will be protected. More weapons are being created, and soon every station will be equipped with one. All of our miners will be under the protection of their station. We can once again travel without fear through the Belt.”

“Auguste.” Laurent’s voice cracked out a sharp word, and one of the blonde men behind the Regent stiffened. Damen’s eyes widened.

The Regent pressed his lips into a fine line. “And I see you have something that belongs to me.”

Damen shifted, until he stood between the Regent and Laurent. Laurent’s hand fisted in the back of Damen’s jacket. “I’ve taken nothing from you.”

The man, Auguste, stared at Laurent, his brows pinched in confusion. In Veretian, he asked, “Do I know you?”

“It’s a long story,” Damen said, before Laurent could open his mouth. Auguste’s blue eyes flicked to him, bewildered. He looked strong and fit, not dead in the least, with a firm jawline and a soft dusting of blonde beard and moustache. “Come with us, we’ll fill you in.”

“I brought Mr Marlas here to do a job,” the Regent said. “And he will perform the job that he was paid to do.”

Auguste glanced at the Regent, his mouth twisting in displeasure, but he said nothing. He kept casting looks at Laurent, unsure and confused.

Above them, the station lights suddenly went dim, and red warning lights burst into colour in every corner of the room. A measured voice echoed over the communication system. ||Warning. Incoming hostile. Warning. Incoming hostile. All hands prepare for impact.||

Damen instinctively grasped Laurent’s wrist to prevent him from going anywhere. He whirled on Adrastus. “Get us to the control room. Now. Ninth Unit, with me.”

Adrastus hurried from the cargo bay receiving area, and Damen and his team followed closely. All around them, the station was in motion as everyone rushed to their designated escape pods. This was a civilian station, not a military one, and nobody was trained to fight despite the massive weapon on board.

Adrastus led them to the station’s command centre, and Damen strode up to the operations manager, who was staring in disbelief at her holoscreen of the station functions. She was pale as death, and as Damen drew nearer, he saw why.

“Holy fuck,” Damen said, under his breath.

The holoscreen displayed the station, rotating on its axis. It also displayed what had tripped the proximity alert. It was a ship of unknown origins, so the exact shape could not be rendered, but it showed as a massive red splotch on the holoscreen. A splotch that was nearly twice the size of the station, and bigger than any Striker Damen had ever come across.

“What is that?” Nikandros crowded against Damen’s shoulder, wide eyes fixed on the display.

“I-I don’t know,” the operations manager said in a small voice. “It’s so big- I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Chastillion, run diagnostics.”

“Aimeric says it is emitting Slaryari transmissions,” Jord said. “It is a Slartyari ship.”

“Fuck,” Damen said. “It must have picked up our frequencies. Tell everyone to shut everything down. Do it now.”

“No,” Laurent said. He pushed between Damen and Nikandros to get at the holoscreen console. “There is another frequency. Stronger than our communications. Look. There.”

He threw up a channel across the holoscreen, and Damen didn’t recognise the frequency. “What is that?”

“It is being emitted from somewhere on this station,” Laurent said.

Jord narrowed his eyes and stepped closer. “That… looks like the same channel that was emitting when we investigated the downed Striker. Just before Orlant… crashed. He put it on my screen. It looked like that.”

“Makedon, run analysis,” Nikandros said.

“Kashel, diagnostics,” Halvik said.

Nikandros’ eyes unfocused as he listened to Makedon, and then his face suffused with hot rage. He whirled on Jord and slammed him against a console. Taken by surprise, Jord couldn’t defend himself. The workers at the station leapt back in surprise. Nikandros slipped into Akielon in his anger. “It’s coming from you!”

“What!?” Jord gasped, grasping Nikandros’ wrist to try and loosen his hold. Nikandros pressed him harder against the console.

Damen surged forward and put a staying hand on Nikandros’ arm. “What do you mean?”

“The signal! It was triggered by a program run through Aimeric,” Nikandros said.

“It was initiated by Chastillion’s AI unit,” Halvik said, one hand on her weapon.

“I did not-” Jord cut himself off when Halvik took a threatening step forward and unsnapped her gun. He shifted uneasily under Nikandros’ hold. “I do not know- I did not-”

Damen stared at Jord’s arm band. Laurent strode forward and ripped the armband from Jord’s forearm. He held it in a white-knuckled fist. “Aimeric.”

“Aimeric?” Damen exhaled. “I thought you were the only willful AI unit.”

“The Regent must have figured out some of the more specific coding,” Laurent said. “It was only a matter of time. And with Aimeric on the inside, he has as much information as he wants.”

Laurent ejected Aimeric’s chip and tossed Jord’s armband to the ground. He grasped the chip as if to snap it in half, and Jord gasped out. “Wait. Wait. Please. He just- He just wanted to be human.”

Damen and Laurent both turned to him, horror washing through Damen’s body. “You knew about this?”

“No- I had no idea about the frequency. I did not know it was him. He longs to be human. The Regent said if he did well he would be placed in a body. It is why he was assigned to us.” Jord slumped against the console, resigned. “He just wanted to be good for the Regent.”

Damen’s skin crawled, and Laurent was white with rage. He shifted, to break the chip anyway, and Damen snapped his hand out to stop him. Laurent froze, breathing hard, and Damen carefully worked Aimeric’s chip free. He pocketed it.

“Shut down the signal,” Damen said, knowing the order would be obeyed by someone. Halvik turned away, issuing orders to Kashel before Damen had even finished speaking. “Chastillion, you’re relieved of duty.”

“Please- I can help-”

“You’re done. Find an escape pod. Evacuate with the others,” Damen said. Nikandros stepped away from Jord, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

Jord pushed away from the battered console and saluted. He gritted his teeth and marched from the room. Eyes hard on the door, Damen said, “Is the frequency off?”

“Yes sir,” Halvik said.

“He was baiting them,” Laurent said, cold fury in his voice. “He baited the Slartyari with a signal they could detect. And now they will destroy Tellus.”

“No. We have the weapon. We can use it to defend ourselves,” Damen said.

“We do not have the means to defend against this,” Laurent said. “That weapon is not powerful enough. He has brought destruction down upon the entire world.”

“And he will answer for it,” Damen said. “Once the Slartyari are dealt with.”

Damen grabbed the operations manager. “Make sure all non-essential personnel are evacuated to Tellus. I want this station empty, do you hear me?”

“Yes sir,” the woman nodded. Her dark braids swayed as she swung away from Damen and issued several terse orders into her microphone.

“I’ve got the ship data,” Nikandros said, before Damen could open his mouth. “We’re analysing what we can now.”

“Okay. We’re going to the weapon,” Damen said. He strode from the control room with his team close behind him.

On their way down to the weapon, they passed by a massive observation window. The Slartyari ship hung in the window, massive and alien in shape. Damen had to stop and stare at it, awed by the size. Strikers were huge. This thing was on another magnitude. It looked to be almost half the size of one of Tellus’ moons.

“Shit,” Nikandros said. “It’s massive.”

“We’ll stop it,” Damen said. “Let’s keep moving.”

The control room for the weapon was empty, and Damen immediately stalked towards the console. Nikandros and Halvik threw themselves into chairs in front of the console, scrolling through anything that would help them.

“It will not help.”

Damen straightened, hand going for his gun. He unholstered it instinctively, and glared at the Regent through its sights. “Make it work.”

“It cannot fire quickly enough to combat an enemy of this size,” the Regent said. “The system that runs it is not efficient enough.”

“You designed it,” Damen said. “Make it more efficient. Our homeworld is in danger.”

“Damen it’s firing,” Nikandros said. Everyone pushed in over Nikandros’ shoulder, though they could not make sense of the readings. Nikandros jabbed a finger at the holoscreen. “A large build up of energy is being created here. It matches the energy of a Striker’s primary weapon. Damen, they’re going to fire on the planet.”

Damen whirled on the Regent and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Do something!”

“If we fire once, they will destroy this base and our only chance at surviving this,” the Regent said. “We must wait for the right moment or we will destroy everything.”

Damen shoved him away, and dragged his hands through his hair, frustrated.

“Hey, stop!”

Damen was pushed aside by Auguste, who rushed past him. Damen turned to see Laurent sitting on the floor, the panel torn off one of the consoles. He was ripping wires out of the console and twisting some of them together. Damen grabbed Auguste’s arm.

“What are you doing?” Auguste asked. “You are going to destroy it!”

“No,” Laurent said. “I will make it work.”

“What do you mean?” Damen asked. His hand tightened on Auguste’s arm as the man jostled him.

“I am-” Laurent said, as he ripped apart another wire, “-the most powerful AI unit in the world. I am surely faster than this console. And I have information on the Slartyari’s latest tactics and signals. It only makes sense.”

“What are you going to-” Damen stepped forward. “Laurent, what are you going to do?”

“Laurent!?” Auguste jerked away from Damen. His face went pale. “They said you were decommissioned.”

Laurent’s lips pulled up in a thin smile. “I was not.”

He tugged a chip from his pocket and inserted it into what was left of the console. Then, he held up a thick bundle of wires to the base of his skull and plugged it into the jack at the back of his neck. Damen and Auguste both lurched towards him when Laurent rocked forward onto both hands with a cry.

“Laurent!” Damen grasped his shoulders, disturbed at how hard Laurent was shaking. “Laurent!”

“I can do it,” Laurent said. He dug his fingers into Damen’s arm. “I can do it.”

In the observation window, the huge doors encasing the weapon began to peel back, and the weapon rotated.

“How is this possible!?” Auguste said, over the noise of the machine moving. “He is a computic!”

“The Regent was cloning soldiers to be vessels for AI units he designed,” Damen said. “Laurent is one of your clones.”

Auguste turned, and found the Regent on his feet, a gun in hand levelled at Laurent. Auguste stood. “I did not consent to that. You used me?”

“I saved your life,” the Regent said. “You were dead. With the technology at Arlesian Robotics, I saved you. You would be dead if not for me.”

“I did not ask to be saved,” Auguste said. “How dare you.”

“Damen! They’re firing!” Nikandros said, leaping up from his chair.

A massive flash blinded them momentarily, through the open doors of the weapon room. The Slartyari ship had fired, and Damen watched as the explosion rippled across the surface of Tellus. He swallowed hard against his rising stomach.

“I will destroy everything you have ever worked for,” Laurent said, his voice raw. “You brought this.”

“You will destroy nothing, child,” the Regent said. “You were created by me, and will be ended by me.”

Damen reacted instinctively to the gunshot, throwing himself  over Laurent. A second shot rang out, much closer, and Damen lifted his head to see Auguste had stepped between them and the Regent. He had taken the Regent’s bullet in the shoulder, protecting them both, and then shot the Regent between the eyes.

For a long moment, the only sound in the room was Auguste’s hard breathing. He lowered his gun as the discharged firearm alarm rang out above them over the proximity alarm. Damen’s head spun and he didn’t think he’d physically be able to let go of Laurent. Laurent’s breath rushed hot and rapid against his throat. Over Damen’s shoulder, the weapon still rotated into position.

“They’re preparing another attack,” Nikandros said. “Laurent, if you’re going to do something do it now.”

Laurent twisted his hand in Damen’s shirt. The weapon discharged a massive beam of light that scored across the Slartyari ship hull like a hot knife through butter. The effect was instantaneous. The ship changed direction, and began rotating to get the station in its sights.

Damen tightened his grip on Laurent. While they watched, the weapon turned, as if looking for a specific point in the Slartyari ship. When the Slartyari main canon came into view, Damen knew that was the target.

Nikandros jerked back as the consoles sparked and fizzled in front of him. “They’re overheating. It’s too much.”

“They will hold,” Laurent said, gasping.

A bright flash issued from the Slartyari ship, and at the same time the station’s weapon discharged again. The shot hit the Slartyari canon dead centre, and Damen watched in awe as the interior of the ship began to light up with subsequent chain reaction explosions.

||Hull breach in Southwest arm. Hull breach in Southwest arm. Evacuate the station immediately. All personnel please move to your designated escape pods. Hull breach in Southwest arm.||

All the lights in the observation chamber cut out, and Laurent went slack in his arms. Damen manfully did not panic, and tipped Laurent’s head up. “Laurent?”

“Is he-” Auguste knelt before him, shoulder bleeding sluggishly.

“He’s breathing,” Damen said. “His heart is beating. I don’t know where he is. If I disconnect him, will he still be there?”

“There is no time. You must,” Auguste said. “The station is breaking apart. We must evacuate.”

Damen gritted his teeth and jerked the cord free from Laurent’s neck. Laurent seized once before going limp, and Damen scooped him into his arms. “Evacuate. Get to an escape pod.”

His team led the way, cutting through debris and abandoned clutter on their way to the nearest escape pods. They rounded a corner to see a familiar face cast in the red alarm lighting.

“Jord! Get the fuck out of here!” Nikandros shouted. He grabbed Jord’s arm and tried to push him on. “The station is going down!”

“I need to make sure the civilians are out,” Jord said, wrenching his arm free. He noticed the rest of their group. “Sir! Shit! Auguste!”

“Get to an escape pod, everyone is out,” Auguste said. He gripped his shoulder. “Do not die on this forsaken base. It is not worth it.”

“Yes sir,” Jord said. He led them to a row of escape pods that had not yet been filled, and helped Halvik and Torveld into one. He helped Damen get Laurent strapped in, and then moved into his own pod with Auguste right behind him.

Damen ordered the doors shut and the pod boosted away from the station with a soft, anticlimactic hiss. Tellus-14 fell away, and Damen could see the full extent of the damage that the Slartyari ship had dealt. Half of the station was blown away, and without the support, the rest of the station was beginning to fall to pieces. The Slartyari ship looked even worse. The chain reaction of the weapon imploding had split it in half.

The escape pod hit atmo and skipped, taking Damen’s heart with it. The entry trajectory had missed, and the pod had to recalculate. Damen closed his eyes and gripped the arms of his chair. The next attempt at an entry angle shook the pod so hard Damen hit his head against the headrest and blacked out.

…*...

He awoke to the sensation that gravity was upside down.

No.

He was upside down.

He struggled with his safety harness, blinking blood out of his eye, and when the harness belt snapped free he fell into the ceiling of the escape pod. They had landed and rolled to a stop upside down.

Damen lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He was alive. He had survived reentry on a recalculated course. His eyes rested on Laurent, still dangling in his safety harness.

Damen freed Laurent carefully, supporting his head as he lowered them to the ceiling of the pod. Then, he twisted the door handle and shoved his shoulder against it until it opened far enough for him to get them out.

Bright, clean sunlight poured down into the pod as Damen scooped Laurent up and heaved them both free of the pod. He pushed them out into open air. It looked like they had landed in someone’s horse field. He saw a decimated fence in the distance from their descent. He’d probably have to pay for that.

In his arms, Laurent’s head tipped towards him, but he hadn’t moved or spoken since the observation room. Damen carefully brushed blonde hair back from Laurent’s forehead. He could not help himself. He pressed his lips to Laurent’s forehead. “I’m sorry.”

Hunched over Laurent’s body, Damen allowed the raw ache of loss roll over him. He had lost his second partner, once again saving his life in the process. Damen did not cry, but he knew he would not be able to use another AI again.

“Don’t-”

Laurent slapped at him uselessly, and Damen started. He raised up, and saw Laurent’s eyes open, squinting in the bright sunlight. Laurent twisted in his arms, but made no move to squirm away, and took in everything around him. “This is Tellus.”

“This is Tellus,” Damen said, with a huff of disbelief.

“Does the sky always look like that?” Laurent asked.

Damen looked up. Streaks of fire and smoke split through the sky. Escape pods and space junk hitting atmo. He laughed, the hysteric laugh that accompanied a near miss. “No. That’s just for today. I thought you dead.”

“No. I would not let him have that satisfaction. Delpha was right. It does not smell like old socks down here,” Laurent said. He wrapped an arm around Damen’s neck, twisting his finger in Damen’s hair. “I think I would like if you kissed me again,”

Damen smiled and happily obliged.

Chapter Text

“P-Please, sir. You- You cannot eat that around the sensitive equipment-”

“Take it from me,” Laurent said, steel in his voice. Damen lunged forward when Laurent fingered his holstered weapon.

“Ah, corporal, let the man eat his peach in peace. He’ll stay away from the consoles, I promise,” Damen said. He gripped Laurent’s wrist firmly, and Laurent glared at him. “Laurent, you can eat your fruit. It’s fine. Just don’t get juice everywhere. Here’s a towel.”

Laurent relaxed, the muscles in his arms and shoulders loosening as he stepped back from the consoles and turned his attention to the windows that showed the adjoining room. Damen and Laurent stood in a medical observation room, behind a thick glass window. On the other side, Jord sat beside for the body of a young man that had been recovered from the Regent’s labs.

“Is this going to work?” Damen asked.

“If it does not, we have lost nothing,” Laurent said, a hint of bitterness in his voice. “I still cannot believe you are making me do this.”

“I doubt I could make you do anything you did not want,” Damen said. He stepped behind Laurent and rested his hands on Laurent’s hips. “It didn’t know what it was doing. It deserves a second chance.”

“It is a computic. It cannot want anything. It is not programmed to want,” Laurent said. Damen hummed and pressed a kiss to Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent nodded at the man seated in front of the console. “Initiate the first sequence.”

The corporal tapped away at the console in front of him, and several panels began flashing in the room over the body. Jord watched them all stoically, one hand wrapped around the the young man’s in the bed. Paschal stood beside him, reading his tablet with honed intention.

“Start the second sequence,” Laurent said. Damen rubbed at the tension in Laurent’s back. Laurent didn’t nudge him away. “Finish it.”

The charts on the screens in the medical room slowed and stabilized. Damen wasn’t a doctor, but the jittering lines becoming uniform had to be a good thing. Only being so close to Laurent did he feel the man hold his breath.

The figure on the bed stirred, and Jord leaned forward anxiously. He spoke, and they could not hear the words through the thick glass, but Damen had an idea of what they were. Assurance. Safety. Welcome.

Paschal disconnected the band of wires from the base of the young man’s skull, and he and Jord helped the young man sit up. Paschal walked to the window and pressed a communication panel that allowed him to be heard in the observation room. “Would you like to say hello to Aimeric?”

Laurent approached the panel and pressed the button to speak into the room. “Aimeric, this is Laurent. Jord will take good care of you. Listen to what he says while you get acclimated to your new body. If you need anything off of your chip, get it quickly. I am going to destroy everything connected to the Regent’s program.”

Aimeric nodded, dazed, and glanced at Jord. Laurent released the button and returned to Damen’s side. He took a bite of his fruit. “I am ready to leave.”

“Okay. We’ll go.” Damen linked his fingers through Laurent’s (not sticky) ones and tugged him towards the door. The trip through the medical facility was short, and soon they were stepping out into bright Akielon sunshine.

“Satisfied?” Laurent asked.

“I’m glad you helped him,” Damen said. “I’m glad you’re going to destroy the Regent’s program, as well.”

“AI units are not meant to be human. Humans are meant to be human,” Laurent said. “AI are meant to be AI. There cannot be a crossover.”

“Maybe one day we will find a balance,” Damen said.

“One day far away,” Laurent said. “That day will not be today. The Regent’s company and all of its secrets dies with me. Nicaise did not know enough about the Regent’s inner workings to continue the work.”

“Do you think he’s finished throwing his fit yet?” Damen asked. When they had stormed Tellus-18 with a full squadron of military police, Nicaise had stiffly allowed himself to be arrested and detained. Damen took pity on him, and offered to keep him under house arrest until they could determine his part in the Regent’s workings. It turns out he knew little, and was released. When Damen found out he had nowhere to go, for the Regent had been his support system for food and shelter, he took Nicaise in.

“No. He has probably broken that priceless vase from the first century Akielos that you adore so much,” Laurent said. “The one that has the image of your namesake.”

Damen shrugged. “It is just pottery. There will be other pottery. He will be fine. He’s young.”

Laurent stopped them in the middle of the walkway, and slipped into the shade of a tree. He drew Damen against him. Damen allowed himself to be pulled in, a gentle smile on his lips. Laurent kissed him, tasting of peach and sweet, and Damen had to restrain himself from lowering Laurent to the ground right then and there.

“Laurent!”

Damen broke away swiftly, and groaned. Auguste strode towards them, a tablet in hand. He had been set up, and one look at Laurent’s leering face confirmed it. Auguste met them under the shade. “Laurent, can I have a moment with Ios?”

“You can call me Damen,” Damen said, for the fifth time. Laurent grinned, wide and far too pleased with himself.

“Enjoy your chat, brother,” he said to Auguste. He wandered a bit away and stood beside a trash receptacle to finish his peach.

“Damen,” Auguste started, reasonably, “we’ve talked about this before. Laurent is new in his body. You cannot take advantage of him.”

“I-” Damen groaned in frustration. “He kissed me because he saw you coming and I did not. He is hardly an innocent.”

Auguste pushed a hand through his blonde hair. “All the same. You must be careful with him. I will not see you hurt him.”

“I would die before I hurt him intentionally,” Damen said. “He is very aware of what he wants and doesn’t want. More aware than people who have been alive for decades, even. You don’t have to worry about him. He’s safe with me.”

“I feel responsible for him,” Auguste said, casting his eyes over his shoulder at Laurent. “Even though I had no hand in creating him. He is still very much like me. Brother is an appropriate word, I suppose.”

“He is very lucky to have you watching over him,” Damen said.

“And you,” Auguste said, smiling now. “But know that if you hurt him I will bury you.”

“Get in line,” Damen said, rolling his eyes. Auguste laughed. Damen had already heard the speech from Jord, Paschal, and- to his immense surprise- Jokaste. As if he were the one who would do harm to someone he cared about beyond reason.

“I am his brother. I am first in line,” Auguste said. He folded his arms over his chest. “I did have to ask you about business, though. The crater site scans came back clean. There were no radioactive particles in the Slartyari weapon. Topsoil results are still being processed but it looks promising.”

“Good. Increase manpower to the soil oxygenation project. I want that ready to go when the soil results come back. If something good can be made from this tragedy, I want it done immediately,” Damen said.

“And Delpha wants to know when you will return to base,” Auguste said.

“I’ll reach out to him when I get home, thanks,” Damen said. He shook Auguste’s hand. “I’ll catch up with you when my leave is over. I think you’ve got a good handle on what I want done.”

“Thank you. I will let you know if anything comes up,” Auguste said.

Laurent appeared at Damen’s elbow. “Done having your manly chat about my virginity?”

Damen choked, and Auguste had the grace to flush. “That was not-”

Laurent looped his arm through Damen’s. “It was good to see you, brother. Have a safe flight back.”

Auguste knew when he was defeated, and laughed. He drew Laurent in for a hug, and clapped Damen on the shoulder before taking his leave. Laurent tipped his head up to look at Damen. “How is it to have him working for your father’s company? A Veretian.”

“My father is rolling in his grave,” Damen said. “But he is no longer in charge. He wanted to build Akielos’ might. I want to show how mighty we are, united as one world. We have more important things to worry about than Veretian and Akielon. We are all human.”

“A noble sentiment,” Laurent said. “One that I am coming to learn. Thanks to you. Now come. You said you would show me swimming today.”

Damen smiled, and let himself be tugged down the path.