Book: Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Corruption Precious Galaxy Book One

Sarah Noffke Michael Anderle Craig Martelle

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Corruption (this book) is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.

Copyright © 2018 Sarah Noffke and Michael Anderle

Cover by Andrew Dobell,

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, June 2018

The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2015-2018 by Michael T. Anderle and LMBPN Publishing.


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Author Notes - Sarah Noffke

About Sarah Noffke


Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Books By Sarah Noffke

Books By Michael Anderle

Connect with The Authors

Corruption Team

Thanks to the JIT Readers

James Caplan

John Ashmore

Mary Morris

Kelly O'Donnell

Peter Manis

Paul Westman

Micky Cocker

If I’ve missed anyone, please let me know!


Jen McDonnell

To Suzie for encouraging me.

To Diane for reminding me.

To Pavi for celebrating every win with me.

I owe many a success to the support of my friends.


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live the Life We Are



Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Chapter One

Underwood Ranch on Outskirts of Prairieville, Planet Ronin, Behemoth System

The music of the wind blowing through the wheat fields was interrupted by a car engine, thundering down the dirt road. Lewis Harlowe leaned on his shovel, giving himself a much needed break from shoveling horse shit.

“Damn city folk,” Raymond Underwood mumbled, shaking his head at the passing car. He led Gatsby into a fenced area. Gatsby was a beautiful palomino who understood everything Lewis said and agreed with him immensely, or so the farmhand liked to think.

“How can you tell that person is from the city?” Lewis asked, amused. Raymond was ancient, but had more fire than anyone he’d met.

“Besides the fact that their shiny car didn’t have a lick of mud on the tires?” the old rancher challenged.

“Maybe they just washed the car,” Lewis said, suppressing a grin. He lived for aggravating Raymond.

“The folks out here don’t wash their vehicles,” the old man argued. “We’ve got work to do. Who cares if our trucks are clean?”

“Now I know what to do for you for your birthday.” Lewis chuckled as he dug the blade of the shovel into the heap of warm manure, and slung it into the wheelbarrow.

He was so much stronger since taking this job at Underwood Ranch. He had always been of average build, which worked since he was of average height, but now there was definition to his arms and torso. His brown hair was longer on top now, too, rising up in an arc, but shaved on the sides. When he’d been a detective, he’d kept his hair short and his chin shaved… but the animals were hairy on the farm, so why couldn’t he have a bit of stubble too?

“Don’t get me anything for my birthday,” Raymond grumbled, trotting for the farmhouse in the distance. He turned, giving Lewis a questioning look. “Actually, if you figure out when my birthday is, let me know. I’ve lost track.”

“Didn’t you say you were born in the summer?” Lewis asked.

Raymond scratched his head, looking perplexed. “Did I say that? Hmmm…makes sense.”

The farmhand laughed to himself as the rancher continued on to the house, no doubt to wash up before his afternoon lager. There were few things that Lewis could count on these days, but Raymond’s consistency was one. Up at the same time, breaks in the early afternoon, and off to supper by sunset. The animals could be relied on, too. Lewis had never met a dishonest animal, which wasn’t something he could say for most of the humans he knew.

Lewis pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “What’s the old man going to say when I tell him they’re widening the road to make room for more traffic? There will be a ton of city folk coming through here then,” he said to Gatsby.

The horse whinnied and shook his head, his blond hair spraying out around him.

“Yeah, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news,” Lewis joked. “Why don’t you tell him? He likes you more.”

The horse snorted, and Lewis watched as Gatsby trotted to the center of the pen where the dirt was the softest, not having been packed down by the daily runs, and threw himself to the ground, rolling in the mud.

It was something the animals did to shed their winter coats, but Lewis thought they also enjoyed the opportunity to frolic.

He gazed up at the gray sky and smiled. Winter was going to bed, and soon Spring would be on its way; a good opportunity to put in some extra time at the farm. It was hard work on his body, but it didn’t bother him if he didn’t have to use his mind so much. Lewis’s brain was free to roam, without the responsibility of having to catalogue every detail.

Out in Prairieville, no one knew his name, or really cared about what he used to do. It had been a relief, the first time he’d shaken Raymond’s hand and introduced himself. All the rancher had grumbled about was that Lewis’s palms were smooth and lacking calluses.

“I’m not afraid of that, sir,” Lewis had stated. “I can do the work. I’ll toughen up, if you give me a job.”

“You’ll have to,” Raymond had said before thrusting a shovel into his hands.

Lewis looked down at the dirty shovel in his hands now and smiled. It was nice to be in a place where no one had heard of Lewis Harlowe.

A squeal echoed from the barn at his back, gaining his attention. He rolled his eyes, perfectly aware of what was happening inside the red and white shed.

“Everything at Underwood happens like clockwork,” he remarked to Gatsby, who had rolled onto his stomach and looked up curiously.

Langdon, the goat, had no doubt broken into the pig’s stall, and was probably stealing slop. No matter what Lewis did, he couldn’t figure out how to keep that damn goat out of there. Langdon didn’t want to eat his own slop; he preferred to steal it.

Some aren’t happy unless they have what doesn’t belong to them, Lewis thought bitterly, as he leaned the shovel up against the fence. He gave Gatsby a commiserate look before setting off for the barn.

“Damn, Langdon,” he muttered, pulling back the large door to the barn. The cold, musky smell of the hay-strewn area made Lewis’s nose twitch with a sneeze.

The goat was, as usual, standing on top of the trough and looking down at the squealing pigs with mischief in his eyes.

“You live to piss them off, don’t you?” Lewis strode in the direction of the pen on the far side of the barn. On his third step, his foot stuck to the ground, like he’d stepped in thick mud.

Perplexed, he yanked up with his foot, fearing he’d pull a muscle from the effort. His shoe was cemented to the ground. He pivoted, looking awkwardly down at his other foot, which also wouldn’t move. Lewis was about to reach down to check his feet, when he realized his hands and arms were frozen.

He opened his mouth to exclaim, “What the…?” but nothing came out.

He stared at the barn full of animals, like he was stuck behind a plastic sheet. None of them seemed to understand his distress as they blinked back at him.

The black crept in from the corners of Lewis’s vision, filling his head with panic.

What in the hell is going on?

Before him, his hands and arms disappeared like he was made of sand and eroding away. Fear rolled around in his stomach, but he remained paralyzed.

The black was all encompassing, offering only a few pinholes of light.

The last thing Lewis saw was the serene scene of the animals, unchanged by witnessing his plight. And then his vision went black and he fell into oblivion.

Chapter Two

Pilot Training Center, Onyx Station, Paladin System

Bailey Tennant strode out of the pilot training room with her head held high. She knew the rest of the squadron was grumbling because she’d outscored them yet again, earning herself the afternoon off, whereas they all had cleanup duty. It was only the first part of hell week though, so flight training would have a lot more opportunities to kick her ass. Flying simulations are one thing, but what about when I get out into space?

“Lieutenant Tennant,” the captain called at her back, that familiar irritation in his gravelly voice.

Bailey froze. Swallowed. Quelled the frustration. She kept her eyes even as she turned to face Captain Santrock. “Yes, sir?”

He gave her a stare that spoke of his disapproval. Maybe it was her long, blonde ponytail or her easy smile, but for some reason, he hadn’t liked her from the beginning. The team said it was because she didn’t look rough enough.

Such bullshit. Somebody works their ass off and then doesn’t get respected because they don’t look the part?

Bailey didn’t let any of her anger show as he studied her.

“There was a disturbance down on Deck 47, by the incinerators,” the captain said, his gray eyes narrowed on her.

She nodded. “I’m free to go and check it out.”

A sadistic expression lacking any joy spread across his mouth. “Yes, I see that. A couple of Trids are getting out of hand. They may have brought illegal weapons onto the station.”

Bailey didn’t argue, though protocol dictated she’d need a partner for this type of call. Santrock wanted her to argue. He wanted her to ask for backup, to show her weakness.

Instead she smiled—something that always seemed to annoy him. Soldiers apparently didn’t smile, according to the captain.

“I’ll take care of it, sir,” Bailey stated confidently.

“Good. Be quick about it,” the captain said, turning and putting his back to her in dismissal.

She spun around and hurried for the lower deck.

She knew that Santrock had her pegged for a desk job; he had his favorites, and most of them had dicks and hairy chests. But even he couldn’t argue with the exams. Bailey had scored at the top of the class, and continued to do so.

However, Santrock had somehow found a way to close entry to the pilot program when it had come time for her to enroll, and claimed it had ‘unexpectedly filled up’.

That would have been that, but fate—or whatever it was that ran the universe—intervened.

Bailey had been off-duty when a threat broke out on deck 35. Panic had turned into chaos, quickly overwhelming the patrols on duty. It was Bailey who had taken control of the situation—if she hadn’t been there, things would have turned out a lot differently; as it was, many were traumatized by the event.

Even though the pilot program had supposedly been capped, when word got out about the role Bailey had played in the outcome of the incident, a curt order from the General had changed everything.

If Santrock hadn’t hated her before, he despised her now.

The bay where the incinerators were located was humid and dark. Usually this area was closed off, even when the machines were in hibernation mode. Bailey looked up at the roll-up door hanging loosely from the ceiling, the padlocks clipped.

So, they brought illegal weapons and clippers onto the station, Bailey thought. Someone in security wasn’t doing their job.

“What do you mean it was supposed to be working?” a deep voice whispered, followed by a loud clunk, like he’d kicked the wall.

“I didn’t know they turned the incinerators off,” came the gruff reply.

“If we don’t get rid of this, they’re going to keep following us.”

Bailey pulled her gun up to her chest, and inched closer, her back up against the wall.

“You think I don’t know that,” the other voice growled. “Try pushing down on that lever. I think I’ve got the doors almost open.”

The commotion around the corner intensified.

Bailey pulled in a breath and spun out, her gun held high. “Freeze where you are,” she ordered, staring at the backs of two giant Trids that were easily double her size.

The aliens had shark heads, and gills on the sides of their thick necks. They had evolved from their ancestors, developing legs and arms, although the appendages still resembled fins. They relied on a device worn on their hip to keep them from drying out when on land.

The Trids did not, in fact, freeze, as she had ordered. One looked over his shoulder and let out an annoyed sound of protest; the other didn’t even give her a slight glance before continuing his efforts to slide open the door to the incinerator. At their feet was a large, round rock, chipped in some places while completely black and shiny in others.

“Would you take care of that?” the Trid trying to open the door requested between breaths, really working double-time to pry the incinerator open.

“Oh look at who's come to join us. Why don't you put that gun down little lady. Wouldn't want you to get hurt now, would we?” The other asked in false geniality as he ambled over, holding a baton in one hand and slapping it into the palm of his other.

An electric shot rattled out the top of the baton. He’d closed the distance between them enough that it made Bailey’s gun less effective, and his close proximity weapon much more problematic.

Bailey placed her gun back in her holster, keeping her eyes on both Trids.

“That’s it, princess,” the closest one said. “Now that you’ve found us, looks like you’re sticking by our side until we’re done here. Can’t have you running home and telling your papa what you found.”

The incinerator doors popped open, a blast of heat spilling forward. Bailey blinked back from the rush of hot air, keeping her eyes on the Trid in front of her.

“Yay, I got it open,” the other Trid said, kneeling down to pick up the large rock, seeming to struggle with its weight.

“What’s that?” Bailey asked, indicating the stone.

“Don’t you worry about that,” the first Trid said.

“Would you shut her up?” the other snapped. “I’m tired of hearing her talk, and the more she sees, the worse it’ll be for us.”

The Trid in front of Bailey stared down at her with cold, black eyes. “Sorry, little girl, looks like it’s time to sleep.”

He reached out for her, but Bailey lifted her boot and brought it down hard on the Trid’s exposed foot. He doubled over in pain, and she grabbed his arm, using his own momentum to yank him over her back. The surprise of being tossed around by a small human registered on the Trid’s face as he looked up from the ground.

“I’m not a freaking ‘little girl’,” Bailey stated, turning to face the other Trid, who looked dumbstruck, and was burdened by carrying the rock in both hands. Bailey tried to open her mouth to say something else, but her lips suddenly felt cemented together.

She tried to move, to no effect. The Trid before her seemed perplexed by her sudden frozen state, and made no move.

“What’s happening?” he asked, astonished.

Bailey didn’t know exactly what he meant until her eyes fell to her body, the only movement she could make.

She was disappearing bit by bit…yet she felt nothing.

Chapter Three

Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Lewis’s vision cleared as he awoke in a darkened corridor. The only thing was he hadn’t been asleep.

Or had I? Was I drugged? Did I blackout…again?

He tested his legs and found they were working again. Rotating in a complete circle, he took in the long hallway streaked with pipes overhead, a dim red light illuminating the grated floor under his feet. A low hum vibrated beneath him.

I’m on a ship!

But that made no sense; the last thing he remembered was Underwood ranch.

Staring down at his hands, he flexed his fingers. His ability to move had come back, but he didn’t think he should take off running yet. Using all his senses, he took in everything he could about his current location.

The ship wasn’t moving. Based on the emergency lighting and smoke, he figured that it was in repair mode.

A series of loud thumps echoed under his feet.

The ship may be still, but something was moving below. Something else was on the ship.

He drew in a deep breath, his mind scanning his options. There was only one person who could be behind this.

“Melanie!” he yelled, his voice echoing down the long corridor. “I know you’re there!”

Lewis took off, shoulders forward and chin tucked into his chest. He had no idea how she’d managed such a thing, or what scientist she’d slept with to accomplish something so outrageous—drugging him and leaving him here, using a hallucinator on him, yet again…Whatever game she was playing at this time, she was going to lose.

“Melanie!” Lewis yelled, his voice making his insides vibrate with anger. “What the hell do you want?”

Maybe things hadn’t gone as planned for her. Maybe she’d lost it all. He’d hoped all this time that had been her fate.

But why would she drag me back into her mess? She has to know I want to kill her.

Lewis urged his body faster, winding his way around a bend. The long corridor stretched out in front of him, smoke and blinking lights clouding the area ahead.

This ship is huge.

“Hello?” someone’s voice rang from the far side of the hallway.

Lewis halted.

“Melanie?” he yelled. I’m gonna kill her…well, after I make her pay.

He took off running again, looking forward to seeing the person he’d been dreading all these years.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The voice drew closer. Bailey’s fingers twitched by her side. She was no longer paralyzed. Eyes scanning the smoke-filled corridor, Bailey remained still, observing. She had no clue what was going on or where she was. Well, she knew she was on a state-of-the-art ship in disrepair, but other than that, she was clueless. To her, there was no worse feeling.

The running footsteps were quickly approaching.

Bailey pulled out her gun, aiming it at the connecting corridor.

A moment later, a guy jostled around the corner, halting at the sight of her. He had brown hair, a long slender nose and a five o‘clock shadow. His hands flew straight into the air as he raised an eyebrow at her.

Good, he’s not stupid, she noted to herself. “Who are you? What am I doing here?” Bailey demanded.

The guy narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Where’s…? Wait. I was about to ask the same thing.”

Bailey lifted her gun for emphasis. “Who are you?” she repeated.

He was wearing stained blue jeans and a worn, button-up shirt. He looked around, lowering his hands. “I, Lieutenant Tennant, am Lewis Harlowe. And I also have no clue how I got here.”

“How do you know who I am?” Bailey asked, her eyes intently studying him. He was at ease, but that only put her more on edge.

Lewis pointed. “It’s on your uniform. You’re a soldier for the Federation.”

Bailey looked down and sighed. Very clever. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in the mood for clever right then. “Well who are you, Lewis Harlowe?”

He threw his hands down at his jeans as if in answer. “I’m a guy. A farmhand who was minding my own business before I got transported here somehow.”

Bailey tilted her head to the side, looking at the man from a different angle. “Yeah, that’s what happened to me too.”

“Except that you were beating up some Trid,” Lewis stated, taking his eyes off her and turning away.

Bailey kept her gun aimed at him. “How do you know that?”

Unhurried he looked at her, an astute grin on his face. “Besides the fact that you smell like fish?”

She sniffed. Tossing that Trid over her back had been a messy job. “Yeah, besides that, detective,” Bailey said, condescension heavy on the last word.

He cut his eyes at her, a sudden disapproval flaring on his face before he pointed to her hip. “Looks like you snagged the Trid’s lubricant device. Hopefully he had a backup, or he’s dead.”

Bailey looked down to find what he meant. The device appeared to have gotten snagged on the back of her holster. She tugged it off and threw it to the ground. “Yeah, hopefully he didn’t.”

Taking his eyes off her again, Lewis squatted down, running his hands over the grated floor. “So you don’t remember how you got here? A blackout sort of experience, right? Preceded by total paralysis?”

Bailey nodded, deciding to lower her gun. Nothing about this man was setting off any of her alarms. “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened.”

Lewis pressed his hand to the grate, closing his eyes and appearing to listen.

“So we’ve been abducted,” Bailey stated, catching a hint of a floral scent in the air, as well as the strong odor of shit coming from Lewis’s clothes.

He shook his head before opening his eyes. “I don’t think so. Not exactly. I’d call it more of a recruitment.”

“What? Why would you say that?”

He pointed at her. “You’re a Federation pilot, aren’t you?”

“Pilot in training,” she confirmed.

“And a damn good soldier, to qualify for the program so young,” he said, rising.

“How do you know how old I am? I could be enhanced with nanocytes.”

Lewis strode over to her, pressing his hands into his dirty jeans. “Oh, you absolutely have been enhanced, but only with the minimal upgrades. Even so, I wouldn’t put your real age at anything over early twenties.”

“How do you know that?” she asked.

He pointed at his eyes. “Real age is written here.”

“Well why do you think we’ve been recruited?”

He pursed his lips. “Because I’m the best, and it sounds like you might be, too.”

“The best at what?” Bailey asked.

The stranger only shook his head, staring around at the corridor filled with smoke.

She looked around. “This ship. There’s something wrong with it.”

Lewis nodded. “Yep. And there’s a big, fat mystery wrapped up in here.”

She was trying to solve a mystery of her own. “What are you the best at? Ship repair?” she asked, looking at his dirty clothes.

This guy was no usual farmhand. For one, he had a discerning expression in his eyes that made her feel like he was studying everything around them in a way unique to him.

“Do you want me to keep calling you ‘Lieutenant Tennant’? It’s kind of a mouthful. Maybe you got a first name?” Lewis asked.

Noting he hadn’t answered her question, she shook her head. “I don’t think we’ve graduated to first names yet, Mr. Harlowe.”

He tossed his head to the side, blowing out a breath like he’d just been scorned. “Damn, you get recruited for a mission with a girl, and she won’t even tell you her name.”

“Abducted,” Bailey corrected.

“You haven’t been hurt, and you still have your gun. Recruited,” he teased.

She narrowed her eyes at him, secretly suppressing a grin.

Overhead, static filled the air. “Hello. Welcome aboard Ricky Bobby,” a male’s voice said.

Bailey tensed, looking up at the ceiling. “Ricky Bobby, where are we?” she asked.

“You are aboard Ricky Bobby. I’m the ship’s AI, Ricky Bobby.”

Bailey rolled her eyes. “Yes, but where are we? And how did we get here?”

“I’m not permitted to answer those questions at this point,” Ricky Bobby stated. “I was simply asked to direct you to the office of the person who recruited you.”

Lewis turned, giving her a smug grin. ‘Recruited,’ he mouthed.

She let out a frustrated breath. “You’re going to be impossible now, aren’t you?”

“Always, Lieutenant Tennant.”

Chapter Four

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Jack rolled his shoulders back. He’d had a constant ache in his neck ever since it had happened. Every time he looked down, a spasm shot up his spine; his body’s way of saying, ‘Look alive. You could be next.’

Was it fate that he’d not been aboard Ricky Bobby when the incident occurred? He didn’t believe in fate, but Liesel insisted that some sort of cosmic force had to be at play. All Jack knew was that he wasn’t quitting until he recovered the crew of Ricky Bobby. Every last one of them.

He heard the approaching footsteps a moment before Lewis appeared in the doorway, Bailey Tennant behind him. She had a curious look on her face, which he assumed was an ever-present trait. Smart people were always curious, and, according to Bailey’s file, she was the brightest soldier to complete Federation training in a century. Almost as important, she was hungry for a challenge, and often described as ‘restless’ by her commanding officers.

“Well, well, well,” Lewis stated, shaking his head and lowering his shoulders as he strode into the office. “I should have known you were behind this.”

Jack pushed out from behind his desk and walked around to greet the two them, an easy smile on his face.

Bailey looked between the two men, confusion in her eyes. “Wait. You two know each other?”

Jack never noticed the resemblance between him and Lewis, although everyone swore it was uncanny. He was slightly taller, and his hair darker and parted on one side and slicked back.

Lewis turned to her, a smile in his eyes. “Yes, it appears we’ve been recruited by my dear old uncle.”

A laugh popped out of Jack’s mouth. Of course Lewis figured it out. Whereas Bailey was still uncertain, her hand hovering close to her holstered weapon.

Jack extended a hand to her. “Bailey Tennant, I’m Jack Renfro, the Chief Strategist for Ghost Squadron.”

“‘Bailey,’” Lewis said triumphantly, looking at her. “Good to know. With an ‘i’ or an ‘e’?”

“Both,” she said, not looking impressed. Still, she took Jack’s hand, wringing it in a firm grip.

“And, Lewis, you’re looking…” Jack searched him over, debating whether to open his arms to his nephew and deciding against it.

“Yeah, I look like shit,” Lewis answered.

“Smell like it, too,” Bailey stated.

“We’ll hug later,” Jack stated, winking at his nephew.

Lewis set off inspecting the oversized office, decorated with the finest furnishings. Jack had taken over the space used by the ship’s original owner: a vindictive man who sought to bring the Federation down. Despite his evil agenda, he had exquisite taste; when the Federation repurposed the ship, Jack didn’t want it to go to waste.

“How did you get us here?” Bailey asked, standing tall.

Jack nodded, completely understanding the tension in her eyes. “I’m sorry about the surprise abduction. We’re working on a strict timeline, and thought it would accelerate the whole process.”

“See, he said ‘abduction’,” Bailey said, looking at Lewis as he studied the various instruments on a far shelf.

“He meant ‘recruitment’, didn’t you, Uncle Jack?” Lewis said playfully.

Jack had missed his nephew’s spirit, but he had understood Lewis’s need to get away—well, up until Jack desperately needed him.

“Sure,” he conceded, earning a satisfied grin from Lewis as he continued strolling the office. “I brought you both here through special means, knowing that transporting you in the traditional way would take too much time.”

“Not to mention that I would have said no,” Lewis stated casually.

Jack held up his hands in surrender. “Just hear me out, Lew.”

“Mr. Renfro,” Bailey said, her voice anxious. “My captain will wonder what’s happened to me. I have training in the morning, and—”

“He’s already taken care of that for you,” Lewis said, placing his hand on the wall of the ship and closing his eyes, listening.

“How do you know that, Harlowe?” Bailey asked him, paranoia flaring in her eyes.

Jack answered, “Lewis has a way of picking up on things. I’m fairly certain he’s figured out a lot of what’s going on here. As for your captain, yes, he’s already been informed about your absence. As I said before, I apologize for our methods. We called in a favor to get you here quickly.”

Lewis pulled his hand off the wall, his eyes popping open. “Then we’d better get down to business. I’ll take a whiskey neat.”

Jack smiled. “We both know you don’t drink when you’re on a case.”

Lewis pointed his pinky in Jack’s direction, one of the many gestures unique to his nephew that he’d missed in his absence. “And we both know I’m not working a case.” He strode for the decanters sitting on the marble table in the corner.

Jack looked at Bailey and extended a hand to the leather seats sitting in front of his desk. She was as pretty as she was smart, but he knew from reading her file that being noticed for her looks was a sore spot for her. Maybe this was her chance to get the break she wanted, one where her intellect was appreciated, and the options were limitless. Ghost Squadron didn’t judge. Crew members made their own future. “Please, have a seat,” he requested.

She hesitated before sitting in a chair.

“Lieutenant, can I get you something?” Lewis asked. “I’m having a double, since I can see the future and know I’m going to need it.”

Bailey shook her head and perched on the edge of the chair. “No, thanks. I just want to know why I’m here.”

Jack nodded, strolling around his large and ornately carved desk to take a seat. “Yes, and you deserve answers.” He pointed at the desk. “This ship was the headquarters for Ghost Squadron, a rogue outfit that fought for the Federation on the fringe.”

“Interesting,” Lewis said, drawing out the word as he took a seat next to Bailey, a drink in his hand.

“Why would the Federation have a rogue squadron?” Bailey asked.

Jack nodded. Knowledge of Ghost Squadron was classified, so not many knew they even existed. “There’s a lot of politics that causes the Federation to behave a bit cautiously. Problems brewing on the frontier aren’t considered the Federation’s domain, however, if we ignore them, they inevitably become our problem.”

“So Ghost Squadron takes care of problems on the frontier for the Federation, but in disguise?” Bailey clarified.

Did. Ghost Squadron did take care of these things,” Lewis corrected, taking a sip.

Jack nodded to both of them. Lewis loved his semantics, which served him well. “Yes, which is where you two come in. Yesterday, this ship passed through a storm of sorts. It set off the alarms, but even more disconcerting, it took down Ricky Bobby’s shields. The crew thought they’d pass completely through the storm and be free of it, but…”

“It wasn’t a storm,” Lewis guessed, setting his ankle over his other leg.

“Exactly, although we’re having trouble classifying it,” Jack explained.

“What did this storm-slash-not-storm do?” Bailey asked.

“I don’t know exactly. I wasn’t on the ship at the time, which is why I’m here to ask for your help,” Jack stated.

A deep thumping echoed under their feet. Jack closed his eyes, letting out a weighty breath. “Whatever attacked Ricky Bobby made almost every single member on this ship disappear.”

Bailey sat forward. “They disappeared? Like how you got us here?”

Jack shook his head. “We had you teleported using a reliable method. Whatever took the crew… well, it’s a complete mystery. We have no idea where they went. Which is where you two come in.”

Lewis drained his glass and set it on the desk. “Unfortunately, I no longer solve mysteries.”

Jack sighed. “I know, but I need your help. You’re the best.”

“There has to be other detectives out there,” Lewis argued.

Jack ran his hand over his stubbled cheeks. “Yes, but Lew, this is my crew. I realize what I’m asking you to do. But—”

Lewis stood suddenly, pushing out the chair behind him. “You’re asking me to get back into the game when you know I can’t.”

“I know you don’t want to, but this is different,” Jack pressed. “It’s not connected to any of your old contacts. You’re starting over fresh. All I’m asking is for your help on this one case. That’s all.”

Lewis dropped his chin, looking at him with hooded eyes.

How long had Lewis been escaping from his old life? Jack had lost track. He knew what the guy’s last case had done to him, ruining him in a way that most men don’t come back from. But Lewis was better than that, and hopefully this would redeem him.

“I’m not a detective anymore,” Lewis stated through clenched teeth.

“No, you’re a farmhand; yet you already have ten different ideas regarding what’s going on here.” Jack leaned forward, his eyes brimming with intensity. “Do this one case for me, Lew. I need your help. The entire crew of this vessel simply disappeared without a trace. Wouldn’t you want the best looking for you, if you vanished?”

Lewis shook his head, but resigned a bit of his tension. “I tried to vanish, but what good is that when my uncle can teleport me?”

Jack couldn’t help but laugh. “I might have a bit more influence than most.”

“That’s an understatement,” his nephew mumbled.

Jack diverted his attention to Bailey, who was politely watching the exchange. “I understand this is a lot, but we need sharp, fresh eyes. You were handpicked specifically because of your well-rounded experience, combat abilities and pilot skills. Are you willing to look at this case and see what you can find?”

Bailey slid back in her seat, considering the offer.

Before she could respond, Jack said, “I have no idea what the scope of this case is. It could be quite complex. Honestly, we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with right now.”

“Even though you have it trapped in the bottom of the ship?” Lewis cut in, gaining their attention.

“What?” Bailey asked, standing suddenly.

Jack drew in a breath, smiling inside. “Yes, we trapped what we originally thought was the cosmic storm. A monster of sorts. I’m not the right person to tell you about that, though.”

“Who would be?” Bailey asked.

“Well, you did say that ‘almost everyone’ disappeared when this thing attacked the ship,” Lewis stated. “So I’m guessing you’re referring to them.”

“You’re correct. That would be our project mechanic, the only one who remained after the attack,” Jack stated.

“This person was on the ship when it was attacked and the crew disappeared?” Bailey asked.

Jack nodded. “Yes, and Dr. A’Din Hatcherik is the best one to explain how he escaped being caught by this thing.”

“I’ll do it,” Bailey said adamantly, abruptly accepting his initial offer.

“Thank you,” Jack stated graciously, then he looked to Lewis. “And you?”

His nephew’s gaze fell to the carpet as he considered. The floor shook under their feet, the movement followed again by thumping. Ricky Bobby couldn’t hold the monster much longer; when Lewis looked up at Jack, he seemed to know it.

“Fine, I’ll take the case. But only this one.”

Chapter Five

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Bailey’s eyes jerked to the side, studying Lewis. He was a detective. A damn good one, by the sounds of it…yet, something had pulled him out of the profession. He’d resorted to shoveling shit, or whatever he did on this farm. She supposed he wasn’t going to open right up and reveal his dark secret, but if she was going to be expected to work with him, she’d have to get to the bottom of his story.

First she had to wrap her mind around what was going on. She’d been recruited for a mission concerning a black ops squadron on the frontier. None of this made sense but she wasn’t about to run from the challenge. She was strangely enlivened by it.

A woman with short blonde hair and a grease streaked face materialized in the doorway to the office. She was wearing flowy bohemian pants and a tank top which greatly confused the fact that she was holding a greasy tool box. She let out a sigh, leaning on the doorframe, seemingly exhausted.

“The shields are resisting my attempts to bring them back online,” the woman stated, her voice cheerful though coated with fatigue. She blinked her eyes open and looked up, seeing Bailey and Lewis for the first time. A smile sprang to her mouth. “Oh, I thought I felt new energies on the ship.”

Jack held his arm out to the woman. “Lieutenant Tennant and Detective Lewis Harlowe, this is Liesel Magner, the ship’s chief engineer.”

Bailey stood offering a hand to the woman. Liesel held it a bit loosely, her hands covered in black grease.

“Pleased to meet you,” Bailey said politely.

This woman didn’t look like any engineer she had ever met. Usually they wore overalls and tight expressions, but Liesel’s chin-length hair was pinned back in places with frayed wire, and around her neck she wore a large purple crystal. She also had unmistakably cheerful eyes as she waved at Lewis, who hadn’t made a move to greet her.

“You weren’t on the ship when it was ‘attacked,’ ” Bailey guessed, using finger quotes for the last word, since they didn’t know yet what had happened.

Liesel cut her eyes at Jack, and shook her head. “No, I was off the ship.”

“Because you two were together,” Lewis said.

Jack’s mouth popped open before he said, “Yes, we had business off the ship, and only returned this morning.”

Bailey was about to ask Lewis how he’d guessed this, but was interrupted when a furry head popped out of the toolbox, its beady eyes looking up at them.

A rat? she thought. The last time Bailey had seen one was in a rundown alley that was swarming with hungry rodents.

“Uhhh…I think the ship might have an infestation,” Bailey stated, pointing at the toolbox.

Casually, Liesel glanced down, a smile brightening her mouth. She set down the toolbox and pulled the animal from it. Its body was much longer than that of a rat, and its face was more like that of a cat. “Oh, this is Sebastian. He’s my assistant,” she said, nuzzling the rodent close to her cheek.

Okay, shit just got weird…well, weirder, Bailey thought.

“Liesel, I was hoping you could escort these two to see Hatch,” Jack stated and looked at Bailey. “Our project mechanic will fill you in on more details of the case.”

Bailey nodded. The ship’s engineer might be a bit strange, but she assumed this Hatch guy had to be normal. Not that weird was a problem—it was just a lot to assimilate at once. She’d been transported to a broken ship on the frontier and enlisted to help find a missing crew, while a monster lurked on the lower decks. A hippie engineers with a ferret for an assistant was the glaze on the donut.

“Absolutely. I need to see if Hatch has a solution for the shields,” Liesel said, putting the animal back in the toolbox.

Jack nodded, a heavy expression on his face. He clapped Lewis on the shoulder. “Thanks for doing this.”

Lewis returned a look of affection. “You know I wasn’t going to say no. Not to you.”

“I know. I promise never to take advantage of that loyalty.” He looked at Bailey, his face taking on a more professional veneer. “Hatch will get you up to speed, and then we need to start following leads. Every hour the crew is gone, the farther I fear we are from finding them.”

Bailey agreed with a nod. Investigations went downhill after twenty-four hours. At the forty-eight hour mark, the chances of finding missing persons plummeted.

They followed Liesel out into the darkened corridor, which was punctuated every so often with clouds of smoke. The rattling under their feet made Bailey tense, now that she knew it wasn’t just engine-related.

“The shields are down?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, they were knocked out at the time of the attack,” Liesel said, hurrying in front of them. “The cloaks are also down, but they take second priority.”

“This ship has cloaking technology?” Bailey asked, impressed.

“Yes, it’s Federation-grade, but has a few off-market enhancements, thanks to Dr. A’Din Hatcherik’s patented technology. He is certainly one of the most prolific inventors of our time,” Liesel explained.

Wow, that’s incredibly impressive, considering the Federation’s stock of scientists is mind-blowing.

“And the engines, how are they?” she inquired.

Liesel shook her head. “We aren’t going anywhere for a little while.”

Bailey swallowed. “And weapons?”

Shrugging, Liesel said, “They’re doing what they should, sitting still and being quiet.”

“So, intact, then?” Lewis clarified, giving Bailey a curious look.


Liesel pointed to a door up ahead. They entered a large lab that was both chaotic in its organization and pleasing to the eye. Pieces of single fliers lay scattered at the front of the space; in the back were several workstations littered with equipment, some of them glowing with neon colors. There were also rows of classic cars, but many of them partially obscured by rolling carts full of tools.

A giant computer station sat in the back corner and from it, Bailey could hear the clacking of keys.

“Hatch, I brought your visitors, but you probably already know that,” Liesel said.

“He’s been expecting us?” Lewis questioned.

She shook her head. “I was referring to intuition. We all have it, and can know what to expect if we’re attuned.”

“Riiiiight,” Lewis said quietly.

“Hold on, I’m in the middle of something,” a deep voice said from behind the computer station. “All right, let’s give it one more try. Can you connect to her now?”

Overhead, there was a loud sigh. “No, there’s nothing,” a voice said, its tone remorseful. The voice echoed the same way as the ship’s AI, Ricky Bobby, but this one sounded different. More nasally.

“Dammit!” Hatch yelled.

There was a clattering sound, like he’d pounded his computer station in frustration. A purple tentacle reached around the large monitor blocking him from view and swung it to the side.

To Bailey’s surprise, a giant, purple, octopus-like alien stood behind the workstation, a frustrated look on his face. Hatch’s tentacles were busy doing other things, like typing on the keyboard or reaching for something at his back as he stared straight out at them. If Bailey remembered correctly, Hatch was a Londil, a race of aliens from the planet of Ronin.

His bulbous eyes swiveled up to look at them. “Oh, there you two are. It’s about time.”

Liesel smiled serenely at Bailey and Lewis. “Hatch arranged for your transport.”

Lewis scratched the back of his neck. “It was a unique form of transportation.”

“What it was was efficient,” Hatch said, bustling out from behind the workstation, a sour look on his face.

“How exactly did you get us here?” Bailey asked. “I didn’t think teleportation was possible quite yet.”

Hatch puffed out his cheeks. “Well, if you ask most dimwitted scientists, it isn’t, but a hologram named Kyra owed me a favor. I called it in, and she pulled you two here.”

“And that was safe?” Lewis asked, sounding mostly amused.

“You’re here aren’t you?” Hatch said in reply. “Kyra is the only entity I’m aware of who can teleport without tearing a hole in the galaxy—which, by the way, is ugly business. I had to upgrade her programming and bend a few rules, but your heads are on right, so it appeared to have worked.”

Hatch had moved off to another workstation where engine parts were scattered, looking like he was trying to locate something. He turned around suddenly, wiping a tentacle across his forehead. “I’m sorry. I’d say ‘where are my manners,’ but I’m smart enough to know I don’t have any. With everything going on, I’m maybe a little frazzled. I’m Dr. A’Din Hatcherik, but you’re to call me ‘Hatch’.”

“And I’m Pip,” the nasally voice called overhead.

Bailey’s eyes drifted to the side as she tried to understand where the bodiless voice was coming from. Usually a ship had only one EI, and rarely an AI, like this one had.

“Hi, Pip, how are you doing?” Liesel asked sensitively.

“I’m wallowing in the depths of despair,” Pip said, his voice heavy with grief.

“He’s being overly dramatic is what he’s doing,” Hatch stated. Reading the confusion on Bailey’s face, he waved a tentacle through the air. “Pip is an AI who was paired with the commander of this ship, Julianna Fregin. I had also established a solid connection for him to my lab, because he often helps me with projects. When the incident happened, his link with Julie was severed, and the only outlet that remained was his access to my lab. With the ship-wide system issues, he doesn’t have the same access to other areas as he did before.”

“When a host dies, they lose their connection to their AI, isn’t that right?” Lewis asked.

“Although that’s true, we have reason to believe that the link has only been interrupted due to whatever force stole the crew. An interference of sorts,” Hatch amended, but he didn’t look convinced.

“Jules isn’t dead,” Pip said in a hush.

Bailey gave Lewis a punishing look. “No, of course she isn’t. Similar to how you abducted us, the crew of this ship have obviously been taken. We have to figure out where they were sent.”

Hatch pointed at her. “That’s exactly why I picked you, Lieutenant Tennant, besides your pristine record and credentials.”

You picked me?” Bailey asked, surprised. This was, according to Liesel, one of the top scientists in the galaxy. Why would he choose her for this case?

“I did,” Hatch said. “And Jack handpicked you, Lewis. You’re apparently good at what you do, but I’ve found that detectives rely too heavily on their cynicism.”

“I call it ‘using realistic, evidence-based data’,” Lewis said, a teasing quality in his voice.

“Regardless of your semantics, I want someone with a quality of optimism who hasn’t been overly trained,” Hatch stated.

“A good ole tabula rasa,” Lewis said, giving Bailey a confident smile.

“So you recruited me because I’m a blank slate?” Bailey dared to ask.

“Precisely,” Hatch chirped, like that was a sufficient answer.

“You’re similar to the doc’s apprentice, Knox Gunnerson,” Pip said overhead. “He had the right potential without all the bad habits. Hatch wants someone who hasn’t spent so long in the system that they’ll overlook obvious clues.”

Has,” Hatch corrected, his voice gruff. “Gunner has the right potential, and you two are going to help find him, as well as the rest of the crew.”

“That brings us to the question of how you, Hatch, were not affected by the incident?” Lewis asked.

“I absolutely was, but I also happened to be at the right place and time, unlike everyone else on the ship,” Hatch explained. He waddled off like he’d finished giving all the important details, and disappeared behind the bow of a ship that was sawed in half.

Liesel gave them a commiserate expression. She was obviously used to dealing with the scientist giving short answers, and putting everyone on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. “Hatch was in the place where the creature is now being imprisoned.”

“ ‘Monster’!” Hatch corrected, his voice muffled. “It’s a monster, for a lack of a better term.”

Liesel toggled her head back and forth. “Yes, according to your experience, it’s a monster, but we don’t understand everything about it yet.”

“You show too much understanding,” Pip stated bitterly.

Bailey read the impatient look on Lewis’s face. He wanted answers, but these crew members had been through a major trauma, and it leaked into their every interaction.

“This monster is in the bottom of the ship, right?” Bailey asked Hatch, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “That’s where you were located.”

He turned his head over his shoulder absentmindedly and nodded. “That’s correct. I was updating the drivers for the gate engines since Liesel was gone. Usually ship business is her responsibility. That area is where the backup servers are located, and therefore, it’s one of the most reinforced parts of the ship.”

“Good place to keep a monster,” Lewis noted, kneeling down and placing his hand to the ground to feel the vibrations.

“Yeah, it’s about like keeping a burglar in your bedroom. You know where he is, but you’re not going to get a lick of sleep,” Hatch grumbled.

Bailey thought for a moment. “Because if the monster is locked in the backup server room, then—”

“We’re screwed,” Hatch completed her sentence.

“I’m certain I can still get the shields up without having access to those mainframes. And the engines will only take a bit more time, once I find a workaround.” Liesel pulled the ferret from her toolbox and held him up in front of her face. “Keep searching,” she said to the animal before setting him down on the ground. He took off, disappearing through the organized mess.

“Searching for what?” Lewis asked as he stood.

“For those not taken by the upload,” Liesel explained. “Hatch was protected based on his position, so there could be others on the ship that Ricky Bobby hasn’t found.”

“Upload?” Bailey asked. “That’s what took the crew?”

Hatch let out a loud sigh. “Yes. I noticed an encrypted code taking over the ship’s systems when Ricky Bobby passed through what we thought was a storm. Once the monster had the shields down, it began infecting the ship.”

“So is it a monster or a computer program?” Lewis asked.

“It’s both,” Hatch stated. “The monster is a bio-synthetic entity that, once it makes contact with a consciousness, begins to upload it to a remote server.”

“Wait!” Bailey said, suddenly breathless. “You’re saying this monster used a program to abduct the crew? It’s imprisoning them in a computer database?”

Hatch shrugged, appearing slightly defeated. “We know from AI technology that consciousnesses can be uploaded, so it’s not unfathomable to steal it through these means. I caught on to the disturbance based on my proximity to the backup servers at the time of the incident. Sensing the attack, I reversed the code and implanted a virus into the organism, and then shut off the backup server area, reinforcing it using Ricky Bobby’s help.”

“So you have the monster trapped and disabled?” Lewis asked.

“I have a secure enough hold on it that I could blast through all its firewalls and destroy it,” Hatch said angrily.

“But then we wouldn’t be able to track down the crew,” Liesel reminded him.

“And you’re sure that the crew is off the ship?” Bailey asked. “What about their bodies? What did this monster do with them?”

“And how can you be sure that the monster uploads the consciousness, instead of destroying it?” Lewis asked.

Bailey cut her eyes at him. First lesson for Lewis: sensitivity.

“I know what happened because the monster was close to completing the process on me. I was highly aware of the attempted takeover the whole time, being hooked directly into the backup servers. From what I’ve been able to deduce, the monster deconstructs the body to fuel the transport of the consciousness to the remote database. It was an icky feeling—you would have felt it when you were teleported,” Hatch related. “I was able to pull the plug, though, so to speak, and insert a virus based on the connection the monster had forged with our ship’s neural networks.”

“Hatch used the monster’s tactics against itself,” Pip said, sounding proud.

“So you have a monster in the bottom of the ship that steals consciousnesses and uploads them to a system. The question is where did it put them, and who is behind this?” Bailey asked, mostly musing to herself.

Lewis combed his hand over his chin. “We’ll also need to think on how the crew’s bodies can be restored, once we locate their consciousnesses.”

“There has to be a way,” Hatch reasoned. “If there isn’t, I’ll make one. What I do know is whoever is behind this wants the crew’s minds intact.”

“I’m guessing that interrogating the monster about the who and why is not a good idea,” Lewis said.

“I believe, son, that you’re already aware of how brittle our hold is on the monster,” Hatch said.

“Yes, it does seem like its strength is increasing,” Lewis said, pointing to the ground, in the direction of where the monster was located.

“Which means I must continue to monitor the monster, and keep it subdued without completely taking it out,” Hatch stated.

Bailey gave Lewis a determined expression. “Which means, we need to track down leads to determine who sent this monster and where they are storing the crew.”

Chapter Six

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The bridge was cast in an eerie blue glow.

“Ricky Bobby, lights please,” Lewis asked, squinting in the dark. He had inherited his nanocytes, which meant he was about as normal as they came in the Federation, and therefore without significantly enhanced eyesight.

The overhead lights flickered on and then grew in intensity. “To conserve energy, eighty percent is the maximum,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead.

“That’s fine,” Lewis stated, striding over to the main area and being careful where he stepped as he took in the crime scene.

The entire ship was actually the crime scene, but it almost didn’t matter since there weren’t any traces left behind. This case is going to present some new challenges. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

He stooped down at the sight of a spot of blood next to the strategy table. The large table where the commander and the captain strategized was dark at the moment, but Lewis could picture it glowing brightly with scenes of battle. It helped to picture how the ship looked before the upload, to gain an understanding of the importance of this crew and, subsequently, who would want them gone.

Lewis removed a forensic vial from his jacket pocket. “Who cut themselves?”

“I don’t know; I must have been offline when that happened. I can have the blood tested and match it with the correct crew member,” Ricky Bobby offered.

Lewis nodded. It made sense that the ship’s AI had been taken offline at the time of the incident; that way there would be no witnesses. It also appeared that the AIs were immune to whatever this monster could do. It probably had to do with a qualification in the monster’s physiological scans.

“So, you exchanged the shitty clothes for something clean, I see,” Bailey said, strolling onto the bridge, her eyes low as she studied the area. She too had changed out of her uniform and now wore a solid black suit.

Lewis stood and nodded. “Yes, although using the showers are going to take some getting used to.”

“Yeah, I miss soap and water, but sonic vibrations are supposed to be more efficient,” Bailey told him.

“Well, it beats the pail of water I usually wash up with before supper,” Lewis said, striding around the strategy console.

“Did you say ‘supper’?” Bailey asked, suppressing a laugh.

Lewis’s eyes cut to the side with a slight grin. “I believe I did. Pretend you didn’t hear that; farm life has encroached on my vernacular.”

Bailey sat at a comm station and began pulling up files, drifting her finger across the screen as she swiped through different boxes. “And why do you, a trained and apparently credible detective, work on a farm?”

Lewis scratched his head, tucking his chin. He feigned a look of nervousness. Appeared to hesitate. Let out a breath. “Alright, I’ll tell you. I was actually on a case. Top secret. There was this prized pig named Wilbur, and he was mercilessly slaughtered. My best lead was on a villain prowling around the farm named Charlotte.” Lewis shrugged his shoulders. “But now I’m here, so I may never crack that case.”

Bailey, looking unimpressed, blew out a breath that tossed her hair off her forehead. “That’s fine. You don’t have to tell me the truth, but maybe you’ll indulge me with why you’re wearing that jacket.”

Lewis peered down at the dark tweed coat he’d pulled on over his sweater. “The short answer is that I’m cold.”

“And the long answer?” Bailey asked while swiping through several different files, her eyes intently focused on the screen.

“It’s what my uncle loaned me while I wait for my boots and jeans to be cleaned,” he answered.

The truth was that Jack had loaned it to him, but it was because he knew that when Lewis worked cases, he often wore a long coat. This one wasn’t exactly like his favorite jacket—that one had died in the fire, along with a lot of his old life.

Bailey didn’t appear to have heard him. She leaned forward, her brow scrunching as she peered at the image on the screen. “I found the ship schedule for the last twenty-four hours. Jack and Liesel did return this morning from Noircun, a planet way on the fringe.”

“A little vacation,” Lewis said, strolling around the bridge, running his finger along the workstations.

“How do you know that?” Bailey asked, then she shook her head. “Actually, how did you know that they’d been off the ship together in the first place?”

“There was a suitcase in Jack’s office. It had his initials on the front, but there was grease on the side of it: a trademark of the chief engineer,” Lewis explained.

“You’re making a lot of assumptions there,” Bailey said.

“So what does the itinerary there say?” Lewis challenged.

Bailey pursed her lips. “It was a leisure trip. They returned upon receiving word of the incident from Ricky Bobby.”

Lewis nodded. “Noircun is a common destination for ‘getaways’.”

“It will be of interest to you that Phoenix Tech, a mining corporation, was docking with this ship at the time of the upload,” Ricky Bobby interjected. “I’ve been waiting for the right moment to inform you of this.”

Bailey’s head flipped up as she looked at Lewis with alarm. “What happened to the crew on that ship?”

“From everything I can gather, the same thing that happened here. I have shut down the area where they’re docked, but no one has been available to investigate the ship,” Ricky Bobby answered.

Lewis lifted an eyebrow, a sudden rush of adrenaline pulsing through his body. It was that old feeling, the one that had hooked him originally. It scared him now, that he could still be affected by the pull of mystery. “Should we go check on it?”

Bailey nodded. “Yes, but first, we need more information.” She pinched the screen and tossed it up, making the image materialize between her and Lewis. “This was the correspondence between Ghost Squadron and Phoenix Tech.”

A series of lines, along with a 3D diagram of the mining colony, rotated in front of them.

“The meeting was to discuss a treaty between the two parties to protect a mining facility that had been undergoing an attack for some time,” Ricky Bobby stated. “The corporation reached out to Commander Fregin recently, stating that they were under constant threat and needed help.”

“And before this there had been no communication between Phoenix Tech and Ghost Squadron?” Lewis asked, studying the image.

“No, but many organizations similar to Phoenix Tech reach out to Ghost Squadron,” Ricky Bobby explained. “We have quite the reputation for protecting those on the fringe.”

“Which means that the timing of the assault could be coincidence,” Bailey stated, pushing up from the workstation.

Lewis shook his head. “Coincidences are rare, and the timing of MonstreTech is a little too uncanny.”

Bailey pulled her gun from her holster, tilting her head to the side. “Then I say we need to be prepared when we board this rogue vessel.”

Lewis waved her forward. “After you.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The connector to the Phoenix Tech ship was cloaked in black. A loud thump rocked the floor under their feet, and Bailey halted, checking the area. The ship was docked on the level right above where the monster was trapped.

It was too close for comfort.

“Hopefully Hatch still has a strong hold on that thing,” Bailey stated, sliding her back up against the wall that was adjacent to the door to the ship.

Lewis set his hand on the wall and closed his eyes for a moment. “I think his hold depends on whether the monster is hibernating or not.”

Bailey blinked back at him, a question on her face.

“The monster, I suspect, goes through different rest states.” He indicated to the wall where his hand was resting and she copied the action. Multiple sporadic vibrations that rocked straight into her bones pulsed through the wall.

“That’s how the monster feels when it's awake,” Lewis explained. “But earlier, it was causing consistent vibrations, almost like the beating of a pulse.”

“Or snores,” Bailey suggested.

Lewis nodded.

“Your observations are correct,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead. His voice was low in the darkened corridor, like he was trying not to wake the beast. “We’ve recorded different resting and active states from the monster. We think the variation is due to alternating attempts to combat the virus, and to continue uploading the consciousnesses of the crew.”

“Can you get into the area with the monster?” Bailey asked.

“I can and have,” Ricky Bobby stated, his tone haunted.

“What does it look like?” Lewis inquired.

“It’s dark,” the AI answered. “I can give you a better description later, but for now I’d advise that you check the docked ship. You’re only one level above the monster.”

Lewis pulled his hand away and nodded. “And it’s growing more restless.”

“It can no doubt sense your presence, your physical composition,” Ricky Bobby pointed out.

“I don’t want to be uploaded to some virtual prison,” Lewis stated.

Bailey agreed with a nod. “Ricky Bobby, can you override the system controls for the Phoenix Tech ship and open the doors?”

The rush of air from a hydraulic door echoed in front of them as the entrance slid back.

“I think that was a ‘yes’,” Lewis said.

Bailey slid around the corner, her gun and lit flashlight leading the way. The stern of the shuttle was cluttered with crates that blocked the path. She kneeled down to push one out of the way, but paused when she caught sight of a sudden movement in the main ship area.

She pointed her gun, narrowing her eyes. “Who is that? Announce yourself,” she ordered.

Two glowing lights flashed in the darkened area. “I’m Mariah Riley with Phoenix Tech.”

Bailey shot Lewis a confused look. A human survived the upload? How is that possible?

He shook his head in answer, lowering his eyes to study the crates.

“Mariah, are you all right?” Bailey asked.

“I’m afraid I’m not,” Mariah stated, her voice mechanical.

Bailey started to push the large crate out of the way, throwing her shoulder into the task, but Lewis reached for her, making her pause. He had a skeptically cautious look on his face.

“She’s hurt,” she argued.

“But she shouldn’t be here. Why wasn’t she uploaded?” he asked in a whisper.

“I don’t know, but if we stay here, we’re not going to find out,” Bailey countered, holding up her gun. “Stay behind me. I’ll protect you and your coat.”

He laughed humorlessly. “Thanks.”

With one more shove, the crate moved out of the way, clearing the path to the rest of the ship.

Smaller crates—most of them broken, some open wide, their contents strewn on the ground—littered the area in front of them.

A figure stepped out of the cockpit, its movements stiff. Two glowing blue lights stared back at them.

Bailey realized why Mariah had escaped the upload. She was a robot.

Chapter Seven

Phoenix Tech Shuttle, Docked at Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The robot was of high quality, made of titanium and steel with a sleek design. She resembled a human in shape and features, but pen lights radiated from between the fine metal workings of her body.

“We’re with Ghost Squadron,” Bailey said, lowering her weapon but keeping it at the ready.

A robot of this caliber could take all her rounds and have her and Lewis broken into pieces in one minute flat. Usually these robots are reserved for combat; if Phoenix Tech has access to robots like this, why do they need Ghost Squadron to defend them?

“Who else was on this ship with you?” Lewis asked, his eyes scanning over the broken crates.

“I was the only one on board,” Mariah stated, something scanning behind her blue, glowing eyes.

“Wait, Ghost Squadron had a meeting with a robot from Phoenix Tech?” Bailey asked Lewis.

He shook his head but didn’t answer. Instead, he trudged back through the crates, his voice growing muffled. “Ricky Bobby, can you confirm the attendants for the meeting?”

Bailey returned her attention to the robot. “What was on your agenda for your meeting with Ghost Squadron?”

A strange recoiling sound resonated inside the robot. She jerked her head up, as if surprised. “Agenda?”

“Yes, what were you supposed to discuss when you boarded Ricky Bobby?” Bailey asked.

The robot shook her head. “I was not permitted to board Ghost Squadron’s ship.”

Bailey narrowed her eyes at the robot. Something is majorly wrong. She leaned backward. “What does that mean?”

“My orders were to stay on the ship at all times,” Mariah answered.

“Who did your orders come from? Phoenix Tech?” Bailey asked.

Mariah shook her head. “I’m not permitted to say.”

“If you weren’t supposed to leave the ship, then what was your purpose in meeting with Ghost Squadron?” Bailey asked, trying to also make out Lewis’s muffled voice on the ship, talking to Ricky Bobby. She edged back a few inches.

“I was simply supposed to meet Ghost Squadron at these coordinates,” Mariah said, making a strange zipping sound.

“But why?” Bailey brought her gun back up, aiming it at the robot, although she knew it would be a shitty defense if the machine launched itself at her.

“I’m not permitted to say,” Mariah said stubbornly.

“What do you know about the…storm the ship encountered?” Bailey asked, pausing on the word.

“I’m not permitted to say,” Mariah repeated.

Bailey ground her teeth together. “Then what are you permitted to say?”

“Bailey!” Lewis yelled, his voice frantic. “Bailey!”

“It was nice meeting you, Ghost Squadron,” Mariah said, her voice pausing on each word. “Goodbye.”

Bailey backed up quickly, nearly tripping over the crates behind her. The robot’s eyes brightened and then shifted to red. There was a series of clicks, but Bailey didn’t stay to see what they meant. She spun around, leaping over the crates.

Lewis met her at the back of the ship, his eyes frantic. He grabbed her arm, pulling her with him, but she broke away at once.

“Come on. We need to get as far from this ship as possible!” she yelled.

He didn’t seem to need the encouragement, every one of his movements was rushed.

When they’d hurdled onto the other side of the connector, Bailey yelled, “Disconnect that shuttle! Disconnect, Ricky Bobby.”

“Disconnecting Phoenix Tech ship now,” Ricky Bobby confirmed overhead.

Bailey didn’t stop, pounding up the stairs to the next level, Lewis on her heels. A moment later, an explosion rocked them to the ground. Bailey caught herself with her hands, the cold metal biting into her palms. The explosion from the shuttle rocked the ship again, throwing her into the wall. She reached out and clenched onto a railing, securing her balance as the aftershocks vibrated under her feet. The lights in the corridor dimmed until she could only make out the whites of Lewis’s eyes in front of her, as he also held onto the railing.

“Restoring lights to maximum of fifty percent. Reserves have been hit,” Ricky Bobby reported.

Bailey dropped her chin and let out a hot breath before bringing her head up. “So… turns out that the Phoenix Tech ship was rigged to explode.”

Lewis nodded, also gasping for breath. He pushed his back against the wall and slid down. “Thing is, that wasn’t a Phoenix Tech ship.”

Chapter Eight

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose as he leaned back in his chair. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I saw ‘Starboards Corp’ on the side of one of the crates, so I had Ricky Bobby hack into the shuttle’s network,” Lewis explained, his long coat whipping out behind him slightly as he paced back and forth.

“And, Ricky Bobby, you’re certain that it was a Starboards Corporation ship?” Jack asked.

“When the ship was approaching to dock, it had the tags to resemble that of Phoenix Tech,” Ricky Bobby began. “But when I dove into the network, I found that there was nothing to connect it to Phoenix Tech.”

Jack pulled his hand away from his head. “Why didn’t we see this coming?”

“I don’t understand,” Bailey said. “Why would a Starboards Corp ship impersonate Phoenix Tech?”

Jack cleared his throat. “Because Phoenix Tech is a small mining company with interests in resources for small colonies.”

“And Starboards Corp is the big bad wolf,” Lewis guessed.

“So you’ve read this chapter, I see,” Jack said, tapping his fingers nervously on the desk.

“What’s the significance of Starboards Corp?” Bailey asked.

“Ghost Squadron recently found a lead tied to the corporation,” Jack explained. “We weren’t after them for any other reason than they had dealings with a man by the name of Solomon Vance. His company acquires assets like Starboards, then uses them up and tosses them to the side. Ghost Squadron was trying to track him down.”

“And Ghost Squadron was getting close?” Lewis asked.

Jack shook his head. “I didn’t think so.”

“What’s his background?” Bailey asked.

Jack stood, pinning his hands behind his back, seeming to suddenly vibrate with anxiety. “He was a Federation scientist who stole a piece of bio-synthetic material his team had created.”

“Biotech?” Lewis asked, his tone heavy.

His uncle nodded darkly. “We knew whatever he was up to with the technology was dangerous, but we never—”

“The monster, that was the material he stole,” Bailey realized.

“It would have been the early beginnings of it,” Jack qualified. “This was a long time ago and, honestly, we were really after Vance because, before leaving the Federation, he took out his entire team, leaving no evidence of what the experiment included.”

“That’s repulsive,” Bailey exclaimed.

Jack agreed with a nod. “We’ve been cleaning up Vance’s messes on the frontier for a while, but we’re always too far behind him. That is, until we got a lead that directed us straight to Starboards Corp. That was the best clue we’ve had in…well, ever.”

“So Ghost Squadron starts snooping into Starboards Corp, and then randomly gets a distress call from Phoenix Tech,” Lewis summated.

“And as usual, you answered it,” Bailey said, completing his thoughts.

Jack nodded, bitterness written on his face.

“What if Ghost Squadron was getting too close?” she asked.

“Too close to what, though?” Lewis countered.

“That’s what we have to find out,” Jack said decidedly.

“I’ve found something of interest, after scanning through the records in the shuttle—though most were encrypted and destroyed upon access,” Ricky Bobby reported.

“Go ahead,” Jack urged.

“Phoenix Tech had recently been a subsidiary of Starboards Corp,” Ricky Bobby explained. “However, it appears that the mining company hasn’t been operational for a while.”

“I wonder if this could be another instance of Vance’s main corporation using someone up and tossing them aside,” Jack mused.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Lewis stated. “Can we travel to Phoenix Tech? If we can determine what took them out, then we might know what we’re dealing with.”

“And more importantly, we might learn what Starboards Corp is trying to hide,” Bailey added.

“That corporation is only one of the many faces of Vance’s main operation,” Jack admitted.

“What’s Vance’s company called?” Lewis asked.

Jack laughed, but it lacked any humor. “Seems ridiculous now. A sick joke. Solomon Vance’s elusive organization is called ‘Monstre Corp’.”

Chapter Nine

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Bailey tried to keep the apprehension off her face as she followed Hatch around the Q-Ship. The transport ship was larger than anything she had ever flown in any of the simulations, and was designed to intimidate. Hatch had perfected the patented design over time, and there was nothing quite like it, inside or outside Federation territory.

“The armor of the Q-Ship can take quite a beating, but I don’t think that will matter for this mission,” Hatch stated, halting beside the bow of the ship. “Although the ship has incredible handling and speed in its current form, it can lose its armor in a pinch for enhanced maneuverability.”

“Wow, that’s impressive,” Bailey said, trying to swallow past the tension in her throat.

“It’s practical is what it is.” Hatch shrugged modestly. “The ship also has cloaking technology, reinforced shields, and a gate drive.”

“Wait, this transport ship can jump?” Bailey asked, her head spinning. “I thought only battlecruisers like Ricky Bobby could do that.”

“Forget what you know about most ships,” Hatch said. “I don’t work inside the parameters of what most can do or even expect. I have a simple rule I apply to every one of my projects.”

“What’s that?” she asked, intrigued.

“There are no limits,” Hatch stated. “Belief is the key to everything, Lieutenant.”

Bailey nodded, filing away his sage words. They resonated with her.

She remembered the first time she took her combat training exams, how she took down every single target within one minute: all twenty-seven of them. Her technical sergeant was shocked, telling her most only knock out a few. The point of the setup was to have as many enemies as possible to test the soldier’s reaction. Bailey remembered blinking back at him, confused. She said, “No one told me I couldn’t take them all out, so I did.”

“The controls are similar to the Black Eagle, but the Q-Ship is much smoother to fly,” Hatch continued. “Hell, after you fly this, those single flyers will seem like a beat-up Volkswagen bug.”

Bailey tried to nod again, but choked on her breath. A cough sputtered out of her mouth. “I’m still in flight training,” she began, her voice shaky. “I’m not sure I’m ready to fly this.”

Hatch dismissed her with a wave of one of his tentacles. “That’s nonsense. I saw your tests scores. You’re ready to fly.”

“But I haven’t technically flown! Simulations don’t really count,” Bailey argued.

Hatch didn’t look deterred. “Simulations are a whole lot different than the real thing, but the only way to learn is by doing. Besides, I got the chance to interface Pip with this Q-Ship. He can copilot for you.”

That made Bailey feel marginally better. “Right,” she said, trying to inject confidence into her voice.

“The Q-Ship is fully stocked with cannons, missiles, and rail guns—not that you’ll need them for this mission,” Hatch stated, continuing to waddle around the spacecraft. “It’s always good to be prepared, though, and you’re headed straight into an asteroid belt.”

Asteroid belt, of course, Bailey thought. The look on her face betrayed the confidence she was pretending to have.

“Look, kid,” Hatch began, looking around. “Do you see anyone else, besides me, who can fly this ship?”

“Well, no, but—”

“That’s right, because the crew of this battlecruiser has disappeared. All three hundred of them,” Hatch said, his voice growing dark. He turned around and looked at Bailey, a flicker of emotion behind his eyes. “I’ve got more important things to attend to than to fly around on missions. You can do this. And you’re going to do this, because you’ve never quit anything. Yes, I’m throwing you into the deep end, but my instinct tells me you are going to swim.”

Bailey smiled, and not just because of the vote of confidence. It was amusing to her that Hatch, a Londil, was making swimming references.

She inherently liked Hatch. He was real; what you saw was what you got. It was rare to meet someone not hiding behind pretenses.

“Okay, I’ll do my best,” Bailey promised, holding her chin up high.

“I have no doubt that you will.”

Hatch continued walking around the ship, seeming to inspect it. He stopped suddenly and spun back around to face Bailey. “You know, I could have picked an experienced pilot for this mission, but I chose you; yes, because you’re smart, and bad habits aren’t ingrained in you, but also because you remind me of someone. The commander of this ship is one of the very best I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. She has a work ethic that blows most out of the water. When I was looking for the right candidate for this investigation, I told myself, ‘I need someone like Julianna in order to find Julianna’. You remind me of her, and that gives me hope. If Julie was on this case, it would get solved without a doubt. I have similar confidence in you.”

Bailey didn’t know what to say.

She’d spent the night studying the crew’s files; Commander Fregin was incredibly accomplished, a soldier for the Federation for almost two centuries. Her file read like a fictional novel about a superhero.

Hatch cleared his throat. “Anyway, as I mentioned, Pip is there to assist you. I apologize in advance for his bad jokes.”

“Hey, now! My jokes are fantastic!” Pip’s voice echoed from the open hatch door of the ship.

Hatch sort of smiled. “I hope he does try to unload some material on you. It will be good for him to get out and get his mind off things. Morale is everything, and right now, it’s at an all-time low.”

Bailey agreed with a nod. It was hard to keep things light when so much tragedy had happened, but she knew it was important not to give into despair.

“Speaking of morale, here comes our cruise director,” Hatch grumbled.

Liesel was approaching, the ferret a short distance behind her.

“Cruise director?” Bailey asked, confused.

“Liesel, or ‘Liesel Diesel’, as the crew called her, runs yoga retreats in the evening, and lame craft projects in between missions,” Hatch said, his voice low.

Bailey suppressed her laughter. Sounds like the chief engineer is already trying to boost morale.

“Good morning to you both,” Liesel said, holding out a device for Hatch.

He took it, pulling it to his face for inspection.

“Morning, Liesel,” Bailey said.

“Did you have any good dreams last night?” Liesel asked her. She was wearing yoga pants and a light sweater covered in black grease marks.

“Ummm…I don’t really remember,” Bailey asked, taken aback by the strange questions.

Liesel gave her a look of disbelief. “That’s too bad.”

“How about you?” Bailey asked, trying to be polite.

“Oh yes,” Liesel said, pausing to watch Sebastian trail off to the other side of the loading bay. “I dreamed that I was at a beach. Some dolphins came up and invited me to swim with them. I was going to take a picture, but decided to live in the moment. We swam, and it was wonderful.”

“Wow, that’s a nice dream,” Bailey said.

“Yes, I looked up the meaning, and it says that I’m in touch with my mind and also my other mind,” Liesel said, touching the top of her head and then the back of it.

“That makes zero sense,” Hatch grumbled, handing the device back. “We need to make modifications on this before they leave for the asteroid belt. Less sleeping and more engineering, okay?”

Liesel smiled and took the device back. “Okey dokey.” She half skipped over to where Sebastian had disappeared, earning a contemptuous glance from Hatch.

“That one has a brilliant mind with solutions to impress, but she’s also as nutty as a fruitcake,” he said, shaking his head.

“The best tend to be a little eccentric.” Bailey snickered.

“Yes, this crew is more of a circus,” Hatch stated.

Bailey recalled the different files she’d reviewed the night before. There were multiple aliens on the crew, including a Saverus who could shapeshift into any person or animal.

“Anyway, the device I have Liesel working on should help you take different readings when in the asteroid belt,” Hatch explained. “The monster has a certain chemical makeup that I haven’t been able to deduce. I want you to take samples from Phoenix Tech—maybe something there will give us insight into this thing.”

Lewis strode into the loading bay wearing the same long maroon coat as before. Bailey suspected that he wouldn’t be putting the jeans and boots back on. The coat did make him look like a flasher.

“Wow, that’s one beautiful ship,” he commented, looking the Q-Ship over.

“The AI on the ship is even more handsome,” Pip’s voice echoed from inside the spacecraft.

Lewis laughed, his green eyes brightening.

Hatch’s cheeks puffed up. “See, that’s the humor you’ll have to endure.”

“I think you meant ‘enjoy’,” Pip said.

“When do we take off?” Lewis asked.

“As soon as Liesel makes some device modifications,” Hatch said, his eyes flicking to the back where the chief engineer had disappeared. “Where is that hippie, anyway? Liesel?”

“I’m over here,” she sang. “I think I found something.”

“Over where?” Hatch asked, waddling in the direction of Liesel’s voice.

Bailey and Lewis followed.

A row of Black Eagles sat regally at the back, and Liesel was peering through the viewing window of one, trying to look into the cockpit.

“What are you doing? I asked you to make modifications,” Hatch mumbled.

“I know, but Sebastian might have found something,” Liesel said, indicating the ferret, who was scurrying over the top of one of the other Black Eagles to peer inside.

“What do you mean he’s found something?” the Londil asked.

The ferret let out a series of squeaky noises, his dark eyes centered on the ship under him.

Liesel hurried over. “In there?” she asked.

Sebastian excitedly ran in a circle on the top of the ship and lifted up on his hind legs.

Liesel eyed the ship. “I think the shields are still up on this one, for some reason.”

“Why would the shields be up on a stationary Black Eagle?” Hatch asked.

“That’s what I’m wondering,” she said. A sharp hissing sound reverberated from the ship when she lifted the hatch.

Sebastian scurried straight into the cockpit, disappearing from view.

Liesel let out a startled gasp of surprise, followed by a delighted laugh. “Oh, this is wonderful!” she exclaimed.

“What’s wonderful?” Hatched asked, hurrying over.

The ferret’s head materialized, peeking up over the side of the single flyer, followed by a second head.

This one was larger and belonged to a beautiful dog.

“Harley!” Hatch exclaimed, his face brightening.

Chapter Ten

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

“That dog is pretty damn lucky,” Lewis said, strapping himself into the copilot’s seat.

“Well, I think you mean pretty damn smart,” Bailey said, running her preflight checks, her mind buzzing with adrenaline.

“Well, yes,” Lewis said, watching her. “A sentient dog who understands ship controls and was practicing at the time of the upload. That’s absolutely impressive.”

“And yes, he was pretty lucky to have been checking the ship’s shields when everything happened. That definitely saved him,” Bailey said.

Harley had hopped down out of the cockpit, his brown eyes shining, upon being found. Apparently, he’d passed out from whatever happened during the upload and had awoken when Sebastian found him. Lewis had never spoken to a dog before, but that was on the long lists of new experiences since taking on this case. He’d also never seen a ferret with such good investigating skills. Maybe he needed an animal sidekick, like a fox or a parrot.

“Harley was Julianna’s dog. Well, he was the ship’s dog, but mostly endeared to the commander,” Pip informed them overhead.

“Wow, a dog and an AI. The woman who has it all,” Lewis said, watching Bailey. She’d already run the system’s checks but appeared to be stalling, rechecking her instruments.

“Well, and she also has the captain, but I don’t like to gossip so you didn’t hear that from me,” Pip said.

“I’m sure you miss her very much,” Bailey said, her eyes intently studying the various gauges.

“I really do, but we’re going to find her and everyone else,” Pip said, his voice hopeful. “I’m an optimist at heart…and an old soul.”

Bailey gave Lewis an amused look. “Pip, I like that you describe yourself as an old soul.”

“You don’t think it makes me sound pretentious?” Pip asked.

Bailey flipped a series of switches on the console, making them light up. “No, I think as an old soul you’re allowed to describe yourself however you like.”

“Then it’s settled, I’m putting that on my dating profile,” Pip said.

An abrupt laugh popped out of Lewis’s mouth. “You have a dating profile?”

“I’m going to, once Hatch makes me a body,” Pip informed them.

“You’re an interesting AI,” Lewis stated, thoroughly amused.

“You have no idea, but you will,” Pip said, a warning in his tone.

Lewis watched Bailey still studying the controls. “So it’s your first time flying this ship,” he stated, rather than asked.

She ignited the boosters, gradually pressing on the control. The Q-Ship started to pick up speed. Lewis felt his body weight push back into the seat.

“It’s actually her first time flying any ship,” Pip informed overhead.

Lewis spun to face Bailey, suddenly frantic. “What? You’ve never flown before?”

The ship hurtled through the tube and shot out into the blackness soaring through space. Bailey pushed back into her seat, a relaxed look on her face as she flipped levers overhead. “There has to be a first time for everything, right?” She said confidently.

Lewis gripped the arm of his seat, the pressure of acceleration mixed with anxiety doing something strange to his pulse. He had to admit that Bailey appeared relaxed; her shoulders were down, and her breathing steady.

“You’re watching me,” she said with a laugh in her voice.

“You’ve kind of got my life in your hands,” he quipped back, relaxing but only slightly.

“There’s no ‘kind of’ about it.” Bailey pushed forward, checking a few gauges before flipping a single switch. The craft steadied, having found its course. She leaned back, pinning her hands behind the back of her head, with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Well, how does it feel to fly for the first time?” Lewis asked.

Bailey thought for a moment. “It’s a dream come true.”

“Don’t go frolicking through rainbows yet,” Pip said overhead.

Lewis’s eyes screwed up with confusion. “Uhhh…did you say—”

“Yes, frolicking,” Pip interrupted. “And rainbows.”

“Hatch did warn me that Pip has a colorful sense of humor,” Bailey laughed.

“Not your typical AI, then,” Lewis stated.

“Yes I’m special, and no I won’t share a place inside your head,” Pip said. “I’m a one-human kind of guy. Well, that is, until I start dating. I heard there’s a rule of five with online dating.”

“Rule of five?” Bailey asked, giving Lewis a questioning look.

Pip sighed indignantly. “Yes, you have one person you’re serious about, three you could be serious about, and one that you’re just—”

“Whoa, now,” Bailey cut him off. “I think we better scale back the rules of disclosure a bit.”

“I’m an open book,” Pip said.

Lewis chuckled. “We’re learning that.”

“With pages ripped out,” Pip continued.

“Right,” Bailey said, taking back over the controls.

“Pressed and dried between the folds of time,” the AI went on.

“Are you seriously reciting poetry right now?” Bailey asked. Multiple objects had come onto the radar.

“Right, right. Poetry later,” Pip said flatly. “As I was saying, launching and flying the ship is one thing. Landing it is the tricky part.”

“Landing, right,” Bailey said, sounding like she was trying to silently encourage herself. “I can totally land this thing.”

“But what about those large rocks spiraling at us?” Lewis asked, his voice cautious.

“Asteroids,” Bailey corrected.

“Right, you know what to do with those, right?” he asked.

“In the simulations, I usually blow them up, depending on their size,” Bailey said with a hint of humor.

“And how does that usually work out?” Lewis asked.

Bailey yanked back on the controls, rolling the ship out of the trajectory of three giant asteroids. “Results have varied. I can’t always account for the trajectory of the debris when the obstacle has been broken apart. I won’t lie, I’ve had more ‘game overs’ with asteroids than anything else in flight training.”

Lewis edged down in his seat. “No kidding. That’s a fun fact I wish I knew an hour ago.”

“Asteroid headed for port side,” Pip informed them.

“What’s the size?” Bailey asked, darting between two asteroids rotating toward the bow.

“Diameter is roughly three meters,” Pip stated.

“That doesn’t sound so big.” Lewis straightened in his seat, smoothing out his harness.

“The smaller the asteroid, the faster they rotate.” Bailey pulled the ship into a dive, sending it through a storm of dust and debris.

“Asteroid just passed the stern of the ship,” Pip informed them.

“Maybe we should hightail it out of this asteroid belt,” Lewis suggested.

Bailey’s eyes fell on the radar screen, and she changed direction. “I’d love to, but Phoenix Tech is located at the heart of it.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Lewis asked with a laugh.

“They are a mining colony; it makes sense for them to be located on a dwarf planet,” Bailey said.

“Right,” Lewis said, having to talk louder now to be heard over the pelting of the small bits of rock that flung off the nearby asteroids.

“Soooo…” Pip chimed in, a hint of trouble in his voice.

“ ‘Soooo’, what?” Lewis asked.

“A large debris field appears to be blocking the path to Tangki-124-24/A,” Pip stated.

“If that’s the dwarf planet we’re headed toward, how can it be blocked?” Lewis asked. “Phoenix Tech would have regular transport ships headed to this location.”

“The activity appears to be recent, when I compare long range radar shots to the current view,” Pip said.

Lewis drummed three fingers against his lips, an absentminded habit he often did when thinking. He thought back to what Bailey had said about blowing up asteroids, and how it changed trajectory.

“Pip, do you have aerial footage of the area around this dwarf planet?”

“I do, in fact,” Pip answered.

“Can you scan for heat sources?” Lewis asked.

Bailey chanced him a curious look as she steered the ship through the obstacle course of asteroids. “Are you thinking that a nearby explosion caused the blockage?”

“Perhaps.” Lewis lowered his hand, entranced by the increased number of asteroids swimming past them.

“It could have caused an excess of asteroids to build up in the area,” Bailey agreed, sliding the Q-Ship around an oblong-shaped asteroid.

“I’ve found that planetoid Tangki-124-24/B appears to have been destroyed,” Pip explained.

Lewis leaned forward, tapping the screen in front of him to bring up the report on Phoenix Tech. A moment later, he said, “That was one of the mining sites.”

“It might have been an accident,” Bailey mused.

“Perhaps…” he said again, unconvinced.

“What?” Bailey questioned.

“That’s an optimistic possibility.” Lewis continued to scroll through the information they had on Phoenix Tech.

“Well then, tell me what your cynical instinct says,” Bailey said with a laugh.

He stared at the screen, not really seeing it. “Not cynical instinct—'evidence based data approach’,” he corrected.

“Right, your EBD approach,” Bailey joked. She seemed to be more comfortable with the controls than moments before.

“I don’t know yet,” Lewis answered, “but something tells me it wasn’t an accident. Phoenix Tech asked for help, but a Starboards Corp ship arrives in its place at Ghost Squadron, and then the upload occurs. If a mining facility has been blown to bits, I’m thinking it’s a part of whatever is going on here.”

“But Phoenix Tech did report that they were under threat,” Bailey pondered. “What if they were attacked by Starboards Corp, and then they took over and sent the ship?”

“Perhaps…” Lewis mused for the third time before trailing away.

“You use that word a lot,” Bailey observed.

“It’s one of my favorites. It’s the opposite of ‘definite’, which would undoubtedly close all doors for inspection.” Lewis gave her a small smile and realized he’d slipped right back into his old ways of thinking.

“Right now, what I need is an open door that leads to the dwarf planet, around these asteroid leftovers,” Bailey said, chewing on her lip.

“The course you’re on is the one with the least density,” Pip informed her.

Ahead of the ship was a thick band of asteroids rotating around a larger rock. It was sort of round and cratered; it resembled a planet, although a very small one.

Bailey hovered her finger over the button for the thruster, and let out a slow breath.

“Does it make you nervous that on your first flight, you have to steer your way through an asteroid belt?” Lewis asked.

Bailey cut her eyes at him, a light expression in her gaze. “I think the more interesting question is, does it make you nervous?”

Lewis gripped the arms of his seat and nodded. “Yeah, I’m man enough to admit that I’m incredibly terrified.”

“Then close your eyes, because this is going to be a bumpy-ass ride,” Bailey said, igniting the thrusters. Although inexperienced, she knew that she was going to need speed and precision to maneuver around the fast moving asteroids. Well, mostly precision.

“I can take over if you prefer,” Pip offered. “However, I think you should do this one on your own.”

“And you’re there if I need you, right?” Bailey said, taking in a deep breath.

“I’m not too distracted by my mahjong game,” Pip joked.

The Q-Ship lurched forward, streaking by the asteroids, turning them to blurs. Several assaults attempted to take them off course, but Bailey kept the controls steady, swerving around the larger obstacles. They slipped between two rotating asteroids, the ship grazing the side of one, and making a horrible screeching noise.

“Shields have been damaged and are momentarily down,” Pip reported.

Bailey nodded. “Yeah, I felt that.”

The path to the dwarf planet cleared as they quickly approached, and Bailey sped the ship toward the asteroid’s surface, coming in too fast.

Lewis pushed back in his seat, gritting his teeth. He pressed his weight against the ground, realizing that his tense position was doing him no good as they rocketed toward the dusty surface of the planet.

Bailey leveled out the ship upon approach, but the bow still hit the ground hard, nearly tipping the craft forward. She slammed her hand on a button, and the Q-Ship halted, making the stern fall back hard. A cloud of gray dust exploded from the ground and covered the ship, which rocked back and forth several times before coming to a stop with a creaking groan.

Bailey looked at Lewis, an expression of tethered excitement on her face. “I did it. I landed my first ship.”

He nearly coughed on his breath of relief. “Yeah, we’re alive.” He looked out, trying to decipher the area around them as the dust settled. “But I don’t think anything else on this planet can say the same thing.”

Chapter Eleven

Q-Ship, Dwarf Planet Tangki-124-24/A, Tangki System

Bailey waited until Pip had confirmed that the air quality was acceptable before lowering the hatch. The dwarf planet was best described as…gray. A factory of six buildings sat under the giant dome where they’d docked the ship. It was clouded in the same gray ash that coated everything; the sky was also gray and matched the ground that stretched out in all directions.

Bailey covered her mouth and nose from the spiraling swarms of dust as she took a step forward, peering up at the dome overhead.

“So…Hatch is going to have your ass,” Pip said overhead.

She halted, giving Lewis a questioning look as he sidled up next to her pulling his jacket collar up to block the dust storm they were about to enter.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“There are several dents and scratches on the ship, not to mention that one of the internal systems needs repair,” Pip stated matter-of-factly.

“By ‘internal systems’, do you mean engines?” Lewis asked.

“The engines are fine,” Pip said. “I was referring to a cooling unit that serves as a backup to the emergency systems.”

Bailey pursed her lips and shook her head at Lewis. “It’s nothing big. A backup to the backup.”

“He’s going to be mad, though,” Pip said, a quality of teasing to his voice.

“Why?” Bailey asked, doubling back and pulling a case out of the hull, then searching its contents.

“Because you damaged his ship,” Pip explained.

“He’s the one who told me to fly it knowing I had no practical experience,” Bailey said, pulling a high explosive clip from the case.

“Which, can we take a moment to be grateful we all survived your debut flight?” Lewis asked with a chuckle.

“You’re not off this planet yet,” Pip reminded them.

Bailey shook her head. “Hatch has bigger problems than getting upset that I scratched up his ship a little bit.”

“You’d think so, but he thrives off his emotional outbursts,” Pip said.

“Somehow I think you’re exaggerating.” Bailey pulled a pistol from the case and handed it to Lewis.

“You think this is necessary?” he asked, pulling a rapid-fire clip from the box and inspecting it.

She plucked the clip from his hands. “I think the pistol could be necessary, but that clip probably isn’t.”

He shrugged, sliding the gun into place behind his coat.

“Do you know how to use that thing?” Bailey asked, winking at him.

“Aim and shoot, right?”

“Something like that,” she said, pulling the device Hatch had given her from her back pocket.

Lewis pointed. “Explain how that thing works.”

“It is calibrated with the chemical properties of the monster—”

“Properties that we’ve yet to classify,” Pip interrupted Bailey.

She nodded, offering the device to Lewis. “If we encounter anything similar, the device will the chemical composition. It’s our best bet for finding a correlation between the monster and Phoenix Tech.”

A wide grin spread on the detective’s face as he plucked the device from her hands. “Technology. My job just got ten percent easier.”

Phoenix Tech Mining Facility, Dwarf Planet Tangki-124-24/A, Tangki System

Bailey slammed her boot into the door beside the roll up, knocking it back. They’d strode across the gray wasteland, listening to the constant beeping of the device.

“That means it’s picking up on something,” Bailey assured Lewis, pointing to the small black box he held.

Once they entered the deserted mining facility, the device beeped with urgent consistency. Bailey held her gun at the ready as they edged down the long corridor. “Is there a way to quiet that thing?”

Lewis knocked it against his palm. “I think Hatch forgot to install a volume control button.”

Bailey noticed the various tools strewn across the ground. They were covered in the soot-like dirt that was everywhere on the asteroid. “What do you suppose happened here?”

Lewis’s eyes ran up the wall, eyeing the ceiling overhead. “I don’t want you to be alarmed by this, but I have absolutely no clue.”

Bailey stopped and looked back at him with a measured glare. “Why would that alarm me?”

He tapped the front of the device and continued past her, speaking over his shoulder. “Because I’m absolutely appalled.”

She almost laughed. “We still have a lot of area to explore.”

“What we have to do is figure out what they were mining here,” Lewis stated. He held up the device. “Whatever it was, the remnants are showing a strong correlation to the monster.”

Bailey edged down the path, noticing a darkened cave ahead. “I think that’s one of the mining shafts.”

The beeping on the device increased, making a seemingly continuous tone. Lewis lifted an eyebrow and sighed. “Let’s hope the monster’s identical twin brother isn’t in there.”

Bailey started forward and cast a skeptical look back at him. “How do you know that the monster isn’t a girl?”

He acquiesced with a shrug. “You’re right. Let’s have Ricky Bobby sex the monster upon returning.”

“Keywords there are ‘upon returning’,” Bailey said, sliding up against the wall.

She halted at the bend, giving Lewis a cautious glance. He gave her a confident nod, and she spun around, holding her gun at the ready, unprepared for the darkness before her. The long tunnel was so black that she felt like she’d lost her vision for a moment.

The device hummed a low, continuous tone. Lewis pocketed the box and pulled a flashlight from his coat; the light that filtered through the warehouse hardly reached into the black of the tunnel. When he switched on the light, the sight made them both pause.

The tunnel walls and ceiling were a shiny black, like it had been covered in oil. Lewis took a step forward and ran his hands over the wall.

“It’s a stone of some sort,” Lewis stated.

Bailey tensed. “I’ve seen a similar type of rock.”

Lewis gave her a curious expression that said, ‘do tell’.

“I was on Onyx Station when Hatch teleported me. The Trids I was in the process of apprehending were trying to throw a rock like this into the incinerator.”

“I hope I don’t have to remind you that it’s probably not a coincidence?” Lewis asked, stooping down and running his fingers over the black dust on the ground.

“Perhaps,” Bailey teased.

Lewis continued walking until he was almost swallowed by the blackness of the tunnel. Bailey kept her gun trained on the other side of the cave, listening for noise.

When Lewis returned, he was shaking his head. “No monster. I think we should start with what we know.”

Bailey liked this approach. It focused on the facts. “Well, we know that whatever was here has a similar makeup as the monster.”

He agreed with a curt nod. “And we know whatever mineral Phoenix Tech mined here is absolutely depleted.”

“So what we need to determine now is what happened to Phoenix Tech.”

Lewis extended a hand toward the cave’s exit. “Looks like we need to find the Human Resources department.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

They cleared three warehouses, not finding anything except for abandoned drill bits and the black dust. They stood in the only remaining large building they had not searched, staring at a dusty floor and a cavernous blackness.

“What happened to everyone?” Bailey asked, mostly to herself. She took a step and was surprised to find Lewis throwing out a hand to stop her.

He turned with a startling look. “The exact same thing that happened to the crew of Ghost Squadron.”

Bailey lowered her gun, her brow wrinkling. “How do you know that?”

He pointed his flashlight at the stone ground, which was covered in a thick layer of gray dirt and black bits from the stone they’d been excavating.

“The footprints,” he said.

Bailey squinted, seeing the various footprints in the dirt. The fine crystal quality of the dirt captured the details of the shoes. She squatted down, studying the closest footprint.

It was a men’s size nine and obviously a work boot of some sort. The person had been standing with his left foot slightly in front of the right, shoulder-width apart.

She peered around and then swiveled her head to look at Lewis. “The footprints don’t go anywhere.”

He nodded. “It’s like they all disappeared where they were standing.”

Bailey stood up, pushing her hair out of her face. She looked over her shoulder as a cold chill ran down her spine. “So the monster was here.”

“Let’s hope the operative word is ‘was’,” Lewis stated, peering down at the device. “According to this, a monster like the one on Ricky Bobby could very well still be here.”

“Hmmm, well, if that’s the case, we need to find some more information and get the hell out of here,” she decided, taking off for a set of offices to the side of the warehouse. “I’m not ready to give up my body and live in a database.”

The door to the first office was locked when Bailey tested it, but one swift kick released the door to reveal a long hallway and a series of cramped offices.

A half-eaten sandwich sat next to the keyboard on the first desk they investigated.

“Finally,” Lewis said, picking up the sandwich and smelling it.

“ ‘Finally’? Like you’ve been looking for a bite to eat all this time?” Bailey joked.

He rolled his eyes but smiled. “ ‘Finally’, as in, a clue that isn’t covered in dust and that also gives us a timeline.” He peeled back the crusty bread, eyeing the sandwich.

“So this guy was eating his sandwich when the monster came in here and uploaded everyone in this office,” Bailey said, turning around and scanning the other office areas.

“It makes sense—the door was locked from the inside,” Lewis said, sniffing the sandwich and then pulling back with a look of repulsion.

“Yeah, wouldn’t want to have the miners storming in here with union demands, right?”

Bailey thought bitterly of her father, who had worked for Trafalgar Mining as a laborer and then later as an administrator. As an admin, he was never behind his desk, though—mostly because he couldn’t stay still after years of hard labor. But also because he saw his position as serving the miners, not the other way around. How was he supposed to make sound company decisions unless he was on the ground floor?

Lewis was watching her when she turned back around. He shook off the observation he’d just made about her, and tossed the sandwich back on the plate. “It’s at least five days old…maybe seven if the bread was incredibly fresh when the sandwich was made.”

“So the monster has had a busy week.” Bailey trotted around the desk and pulled out the seat, turning on the computer. It started up with a ding.

“Or monsters,” Lewis said, strolling out of the office.

The computer prompted Bailey for a password. She thought for a moment before pulling the desk drawer open. Scrambling through various office supplies and loose papers, she ran her hands over the underside of the desk.

“Bingo,” she said, pulling out a sticky note out and peering at it in the light of the monitor.

“Bingo?” Lewis asked, stepping backwards and ducking around the corner. “We’re investigating, not playing parlor games.”

Bailey typed a series of numbers and hit enter. “And I’m about to download all the internal records from Phoenix Tech for our investigative purposes.”

Lewis’s mouth popped open as he stared between her and the computer screen. “How did you get access to that?”

Her eyes swiveled to the name plate at the front of the desk that was facing toward Lewis. “I found Mr. Christopher Ronnie’s password.”

“How did you know he’d have it written down?” he asked.

She pointed to the picture on the desk. “He’s got five kids. Obviously he can’t remember his password. And he’s overworked, which is why he eats at his desk.”

Nodding at her with a look of approval, Lewis smiled. “You, Lieutenant, are a freaking detective.”

Bailey shook her head, placing a proximity drive next to the computer. The truth was that she’d still been thinking of her father. He inherently trusted people, and therefore saw no issue with keeping his passwords in his desk drawer. Her father used to say, “If someone wants them so bad, let them have them. Maybe they’ll log in and do my work for me.”

Her eyes settled on the photo of Mr. Ronnie with his wife and five children. “Lewis, this guy’s kids are out there somewhere, along with everyone else that was left behind when these people were uploaded.”

Lewis pressed his lips together, a solemn look in his eyes. “I know. Whoever is behind this, whether it’s Starboards Corps or Monstre or Solomon Vance, has to be stopped.”

The computer pinged when the upload completed, and Bailey took the drive from the computer and stood. “And we have to find all of the people who have been taken and return them to their lives.”

Lewis drew in a breath and nodded. “We will. We won’t stop until they’re found.”

Chapter Twelve

Phoenix Tech Mining Facility, Dwarf Planet Tangki-124-24/A, Tangki System

“So Phoenix Tech must have been innocent in this,” Bailey mused. “Maybe they really made that distress call to Ghost Squadron.”

“They were used by Starboards Corp, that’s for sure.” Lewis stalked for the door to the offices, but halted halfway there, raising a hand in warning to Bailey behind him.

She approached on his side, her head tilted as she listened. In the main warehouse where they’d come from, voices could be heard.

“Survivors?” she mouthed.

His pulled his mouth to the side, thinking, but didn’t respond.

“How can it all be gone?” a voice yelled.

“I don’t know,” a scratchy voice answered. “The last time we were here, the mines were full.”

“Phoenix Tech was also operating,” the first voice pointed out. “Where is everyone? You said that it would be easy enough to sneak in here and skim some off the top.”

“It was the last time we were here.”

Bailey pulled her gun from her holster and motioned to Lewis to do the same.

He reached out, grabbing her bicep. “What are you doing?” he asked, careful to keep his voice down so as not to be heard through the busted door.

“I’m going to get answers,” Bailey stated. “They obviously know something.”

“We don’t know who they are,” Lewis argued. “They sound like thieving pirates.”

“Well, then we’ll kill two birds with one stone: get answers and kill a pirate. Sounds like my birthday.”

Lewis smiled at her fire. “Shall I escort you on this special day, then?”

She shook her head. “I’d like to open this present myself.”

Bailey pulled the door open in a swift movement, holding up her gun.

“Freeze!” she yelled.

Two ugly-ass Trids stood in the middle of the warehouse. They startled at the interruption, but didn’t freeze. Trids never listened, it seemed. Instead they took off, sprinting for the closest door.

Bailey aimed her gun and fired at the ground, the stunning shots echoing loudly in the metal building.

Apparently not as stupid as they looked, the goons froze, hands reaching up into the air.

“Alright, alright!” the closest yelled.

“Stay where you are,” Bailey commanded, marching over with her gun pointed at their back. She looked at Lewis, indicating with her head. “Frisk that one. I’ll take the other one.”

He nodded, striding around the first Trid, who was easily a foot taller than him. The alien’s beady shark eyes narrowed at the sight of him.

“Hey there. How about you keep your hands up and legs apart,” Lewis said, patting down the Trid and finding a gun on his hip and another on his leg.

He backed up several feet and pulled his gun up, aiming at the Trid.

“What did you come to steal?” Bailey asked.

“Nothing,” the one she’d frisked mumbled, obviously not willing to cooperate.

She gave him a wicked glare. “Would you like to keep your lubricating device? Because the last Trid I met lost his.”

The Trid laughed. “You, little girl, are going to take my life support from me? Yeah, right.”

Lewis shook his head. “Don’t underestimate her. I can attest that she relieved that Trid of his.”

The Trid laughed, showing several rows of sharp teeth. “Why don’t you let us go, and we’ll be easy on you?”

Bailey let out a sound of frustration. “Sorry. Can’t do that. What you were planning on stealing? Was it the shiny black mineral they mine here?”

The Trid that Lewis was trained on laughed. “Noy, they don’t even know what the stuff is called, and they dare question us.”

“Shut up,” the other Trid commanded, looking back at Bailey. “We were here to look for work. That’s all.”

“You were here to steal stones,” Bailey insisted. “Who are you selling them to?”

“Look, sweetheart,” the Trid, Noy, began. “I’d like to help you, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Bailey aimed at the Trid’s leg, nodding to her gun. “Oh, would you look at that, my dumb gun is on stun mode. I’m such a freaking ditz.” In a swift movement, she pulled a clip from her holster and locked it into the cartridge. “Now it’s equipped with bullets. If I stunned you, you wouldn’t be able to talk, but with a bullet in your legs, I think you’ll be a Chatty-Cathy.”

Both Trids’ mouths dropped open.

Lewis had to suppress the urge to laugh. Bailey didn’t look the least bit flustered as she stared at the Trid, waiting for him to start talking.

“There’s a man on the Black Market who—”

“No!” the other Trid yelled, launching himself at his blabbing companion. He pushed him in the back, knocking him to the ground.

Bailey kept her gun trained on the fallen Trid, but the other one wheeled around, slamming his fist into Lewis’s face. The detective reacted too slowly, and the Trid knocked his gun out of his hands before giving him a shove.

Lewis flew back, his hands shielding his face. From the ground, he watched as Bailey launched her foot into the abdomen of the Trid who was now lying on his back. She backed up several feet, keeping her weapon aimed at the first Trid while pulling a second gun from her other holster, and aiming it at the Trid in front of Lewis.

The angry brute was about to launch another attack, when Bailey released the safety with a loud, echoing click.

The Trid froze, sensing the gun behind him, aimed at his head.

Lewis watched, motionless, as comprehension dawned on the Trid’s face.

He narrowed his eyes. Let out a hot breath that Lewis felt on his face, inches away. And then took off, sprinting for the exit.

Bailey shot once, hitting the fleeing Trid in the back, and he fell to the ground with a loud clatter.

The other Trid took this opportunity to roll to his feet and start off in the opposite direction.

Barely taking a second to reset, Bailey spun around and shot that one down too.

She turned, giving Lewis an annoyed look. “I really freaking hate it when they run.”

He reached for the gun he’d lost and took a moment to catch his breath. “Well, thanks for covering my ass there.”

Bailey nodded. “That’s what a partner does.”

Chapter Thirteen

Q-Ship, Dwarf Planet Davida-124-24/A, Davida System

Bailey didn’t take a proper breath until she’d slipped into the pilot’s seat of the Q-Ship. She threw her head back, closing her eyes for a moment.

“Not to interrupt your moment of respite, but…” Pip began overhead.

The lieutenant peeled open an eye and looked sideways at Lewis, who gave her a worried expression. “But what?”

“Thing is, you are probably about to get some company from some Trid ships,” Pip stated. “I picked up a few Stingrays on the other side of Phoenix Tech.”

Bailey closed her eyes again and shook her head. “We already took care of them. They ate mysterious mineral dust when I shot them in the back.”

“Oh, good,” Pip said, sounding relieved. “It’s pretty impressive that you were able to take out half a dozen Trids.”

Bailey cracked open an eye again, staring at Lewis. “Please tell me he didn’t say half a dozen.”

Lewis shook his head. “He absolutely did.”

“As in six?” she asked.

“Yes, I believe that’s the correct conversion, unless we’re talking about a baker’s dozen, but then I don’t know what half a Trid would look like,” Pip said with a laugh. “But you’re good, because you took them all out.”

Bailey pushed up out of her slouched position. “Two actually. We took out two.”

“Oh, well, then that would explain why four Stingrays are powering up for takeoff,” Pip said matter-of-factly.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Bailey asked, scanning the radar.

“I am not kidding you,” Pip stated. “They must have been alerted to the disturbance. Well, that, and you didn’t cloak the ship, so I fear you’ve been spotted. I would have done it, but then you wouldn’t have been able to find the ship upon your return. These are growing pains we’ll need to work out over time.”

“Having a comm connection to you would be helpful,” Lewis suggested.

“I’ll put it on the wish list for Hatch,” Pip stated.

Bailey bolted forward, rushing through her flight checks. They had to make it through an asteroid belt, which was going to be enough of a challenge—although she thought she’d played it off well enough the first time.

If prayers were pennies, we’d be standing in an overflowing vault right now.

“The Stingrays have lifted off and are headed in this direction,” Pip informed them.

Bailey gave Lewis a sturdy expression, doing her best to fake some confidence until she felt it. “Stay and fight, or run like hell?”

Lewis seemed to think for a moment. “Four Stingrays. One Q-Ship. You’re brand new to flying, and they are probably—”

“Got it,” Bailey cut him off. “Run like hell.”

“Oh, I see,” Lewis said, pretending to look offended. “No time for my logical analysis presently.”

Bailey found herself smiling as she ignited the boosters.

Flying had always been the path she’d wanted with the Federation. However, it wasn’t until that moment, with the controls in her hands and so much riding on her, that she knew there had never been another option. She was born to fly.

Many described it as freeing, but that’s not the word she would use for how it felt to fly the Q-Ship off the dwarf planet and toward the outer rim of the asteroid belt. It was empowering. Anyone could flee or stay and fight, but a pilot always had one more option. They could spread their wings and fly.

“Enemy fire heading for stern,” Pip reported.

Bailey rolled the Q-Ship, careful to avoid an asteroid charging in the opposite direction. An assault sent her forward anyway.

“What was that? I thought that would get us out of harm’s way,” she demanded.

“Oh, it did, but it put you in the path of other enemy fire,” Pip stated. “All four ships are on your tail.”

“Can we cloak and escape?” she asked, maneuvering quickly to dodge oncoming asteroids.

“The Stingrays already have you in their sights; if you cloak now, they’ll use their heat radar to track you,” Pip explained.

“Then we’ll stay and fight. Pip, I need you on guns,” she decided, darting around another asteroid that was easily twice the size of the ship.

“What if we use the asteroids to our advantage?” Lewis mused, pointing at one in the distance.

Bailey considered this for a moment. “You mean as shields?”

“I do,” Lewis stated. “A little hide ‘n’ seek action.”

It was a smart approach; the asteroids didn’t run as hot as the ship, but they would be enough to confuse the radar while they were in the belt.

“Okay, but I’m going to have to do some fancy flying to make that work. As you’ve noticed, asteroids don’t stay still.”

“Nor do they move like a ship,” Lewis agreed.

“Which means I hope you don’t get spacesick.”

She slid the ship around and behind an asteroid that was only slightly bigger than they were. She slowed the engines in order to keep speed with the rotating rock, then she tumbled the bow of the ship forward, sending it into stationary orbit and copying the movement of the asteroid, keeping perfect time.

“It’s working,” Pip exclaimed. “All four Stingrays have halted.”

Bailey peered down at the radar, watching the blinking red lights on the screen. The Stingrays had stilled, but that wouldn’t last for long; they were simply trying to figure out where she’d disappeared to.

Keeping the Q-Ship rotating, Bailey said, “Pip, launch four missiles at those fishbrains.”

“Launching missiles,” Pips confirmed.

She smiled outwardly and looked at Lewis, hoping he’d share in the proud moment. However, he had a green tinge to his appearance, and was staring straight ahead like he was trying to melt the controls with his gaze.

“You hanging in there, Detective?” Bailey asked him.

His fingers were white, gripping the arm of his seat. “I’m okay. Just been a little while since I was on a ship that was tumbling like a yo-yo.”

“Oh, yeah? How long?” she asked, her hands steady on the controls.

“Forever,” Lewis admitted, then gulped. “It’s been roughly forever since I took such a ride.”

“You’ll get used to it,” she assured him, catching something on the radar.

“I believe the Stingrays have found our position,” Pip stated.

“Why do you suspect that?” Bailey asked. Controlling the ship’s precise movements was taking most of her attention.

A moment later, there was a loud detonation. The asteroid beside them exploded, sending large chunks of rock in all directions, many of the pieces colliding with the ship.

“Oh…” she realized, steering the ship away from the blast.

She sped in the direction of the four Stingrays. The gray ships were unlike anything she’d seen. The nose was black with gills on the side and wings that represented fins. In the back, around the booster, were spikes. They were strange, and their shape made her wonder if humans made their ships resembling themselves, what they would look like.

The missiles Pip had fired could be seen streaking after the Stingrays, making the ships dance around the asteroids. A bright explosion took over Bailey’s vision momentarily.

“One Stingray has been hit,” Pip relayed.

“Okay, so three to go,” she said, trying to follow behind the closest one.

It had impressive handling, curving around the asteroids with an agility that the Q-Ship didn’t possess. But what the Q-Ship lacked in nimbleness, it made up for with fire power.

Bailey released a barrage of shots after the nearest Stingray, catching its wing with the end of the stream.

“Second Stingray has been disabled and is retreating,” Pip stated.

“And those other missiles you fired?” Lewis asked.

“Two were caught by asteroids, and one—”

The Stingray up ahead ignited like a firework, sending bits of itself raining in all directions.

“Let me guess,” Lewis interrupted Pip. “The last missile found its target.”

“Correct you are,” Pip said victorious.

“Which means…” Bailey inferred to herself, as she angled the ship around to find the last remaining Stingray.

The adrenaline rose in her veins, making her suddenly feel invincible. She swerved after the Stingray, keeping up with the ship easily.

“A communication is coming in,” Pip noted.

“Patch it through,” Bailey said.

“Ghost Squadron,” a deep voice crackled over the comm. “This is Geo with the Disbandits. We have you surrounded and demand you surrender.”

Bailey wanted to laugh. “What does he mean ‘surrounded’?”

Lewis pointed at the radar. “I think he means that reinforcements have arrived.”

Bailey glanced at the radar, and the adrenaline in her blood plummeted, sending a shiver down her arms.

A fleet of Stingrays were approaching the asteroid belt on their port side.


She pulled the trigger, firing on the Stingray in front of them. It dove, nearly colliding with an asteroid as it disappeared. “We can’t fight all of those.”

“I fear you’re correct,” Pip admitted. “Even an experienced pilot would struggle to take out all of those Stingrays.”

“We have to know when to admit defeat,” Lewis said, leaning forward in his seat.

“We’re not surrendering to those damn pirates,” Bailey said bitterly. “How do they even know we’re associated with Ghost Squadron?”

“The Disbandits have had dealings with Ghost Squadron,” Pip said. “It appears you’ve inherited them as enemies.”

The Disbandits were a sniveling, poor excuse for an organization of Trids who often skimmed off the top of mining corporations. They were also known for gambling, looting, and generally being shitty pirates.

“Looks like our best option is to continue the way we’re headed, through the asteroid belt,” Lewis said, pointing straight ahead.

They were already almost to the midway point, and fleeing was now the best option.

“They might still catch us, though,” Bailey said, having to slow the ship amid denser asteroid clusters.

“What if you throw on the cloak?” Lewis offered. “While we’re in the asteroid belt, it will be harder for them to find us, and hopefully we make fast enough time that we outrun them by the time we’re through it.”

Bailey thought for a moment, but it was Pip who replied first. “I think that’s the best plan we could hope for. It gives you enough time to get away. They’re far enough back that they don’t have a lock on you yet.”

“What about that Stingray we were just firing at?” Bailey asked.

“It appears to have joined the others,” Pip replied.

Bailey nodded. “Okay. We’ve stayed to fight, and now it’s time to flee.”

Lewis actually smiled, looking much more relaxed than when the fight had started. “All in a good day’s work, am I right?”

“Activate the cloak,” Bailey said to Pip.

“Cloak is activated,” Pip confirmed.

The ship outside the viewing window disappeared. It was a bizarre experience, but only one on the long list from the day.

Bailey grinned at Lewis as she sped the ship out of the asteroid belt. “All in a good day’s work.”

Chapter Fourteen

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

The port side wing of the Q-Ship tipped and skidded across the floor of the landing bay as Bailey slowed the craft. The smile on her face betrayed any nervousness she had.

Actually, Lewis had to give it to her. She was shockingly calm after flying her first mission—which included an asteroid belt and a surprise ambush by alien pirates. Bailey’s eyes appeared intense, bright, yet her shoulders remained relaxed. It was impressive; Lewis was grateful that she’d been the newbie pilot for this mission, and not some other soldier in training.

“Get ready for it,” Pip warned as Bailey opened the hatch, shaking out her arms.

“Get ready for what?” she asked.

“Nothiiiiiiing…” he said.

She shrugged off his warning and trudged out of the ship, blinking at the bright lights overhead. Hatch was already waddling over, Jack and Liesel beside him.

“You two all right?” Jack asked, scanning both Lewis and Bailey with his discriminating eyes.

Lewis nodded. “We’re fine, although we met some Trid pirates that thought we were Ghost Squadron. They seemed to want to settle a long-standing dispute with us.”

“I’m fine too, in case any of you are wondering,” Pip’s voice echoed from inside the ship.

Jack smiled goodhumoredly. “Glad to hear it, Pip,” he said in the direction of the ship before looking back at Lewis. “I can’t say I’m surprised. The Q-Ships have a unique design, and Ghost Squadron had quite the reputation for stomping out evil.” He paused. “I realize that you signed on only to find the crew, but—”

“If we need to pick up Ghost Squadron’s fight, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” Bailey cut in.

Jack looked speechless for a moment before he recovered. “I’m glad to hear you say that. Trouble seems to find us, and I can’t guarantee a smooth path to saving our people.”

Hatch didn’t appear to be listening as he hurried around the ship, inspecting it. Liesel and her ferret had disappeared around the other side, doing their own evaluations of the damages.

“The ship…” Hatch said, his voice a deep growl.

“Here it comes,” Pip sang.

“I’m sorry,” Bailey began. “The asteroid belt was an obstacle I struggled with, and the landing—”

Hatch spun around, an expression on his face like he’d swallowed a rock. “Sorry? You brought the ship back in one piece. And on your first mission! I expected way worse after an asteroid belt.”

“You what?” Pip asked, his voice rising three octaves.

“Thanks,” Bailey said, a nervous smile on her face. “The Trids got off a few rounds, and I took calculated hits from some asteroids in order to put the ship in a more strategic position.”

Hatch nodded, seeming to understand immediately. “Good call. And not to worry; ships can be repaired. It really takes no effort at all.”

“Since when?” Pip demanded. “How are you not yelling like you usually do when someone totals one of your ships?”

Liesel surfaced from the other side of the Q-Ships. “It’s not totaled, Pip. A few scratches and a leak, but it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to repair.”

“I’m really sorry,” Bailey said again. “I was trying to be careful.”

Hatch waved a tentacle at her. “Obviously. The evidence is that the ship is in one piece. I really thought you’d return the Q-Ship broken in half.”

Lewis lowered his chin and gave his uncle a mock look of offense. “Which brings me to my next concern. You all put me on a ship with an inexperienced pilot, and Hatch expected it to come back in bits.”

Jack laughed. “Hatch is exaggerating.”

“I am not,” the mechanic chirped, sliding under the ship as his form deflated to fit.

“Anyway, you two returned safely, and that’s where our focus should stay,” Jack stated.

“Three,” Pip corrected. “You meant ‘you three have returned safely’.”

Jack coughed discreetly. “Of course I did. Thanks for your assistance on this mission, Pip.”

“So now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” Hatch said from under the ship, his voice muffled. “What did you all learn while at Phoenix Tech?”

Lewis pulled Hatch’s device from his jacket pocket and held it up. “We took a series of readings, and found that there was a strong correlation between the material and the monster.”

Hatch wheeled out from under the ship, scratching his head with one tentacle. “I’m not surprised. Did you take a sample of the mineral?”

Lewis shook his head. “We would have, but the mine had been entirely excavated. There was only dust.”

“That’s curious,” Liesel said, looking between Hatch and Jack.

“It gets worse,” Bailey stated. “The monster appears to have uploaded those at Phoenix Tech.”

The group fell silent, a foreboding slipping around them. “So Starboards Corp is behind this, then,” Jack concluded after a long silent moment.

“Yes. I believe they excavated everything and blew up one of the main mining sites to cover up traces of their involvement,” Lewis said.

“The device should give us some information on the mineral, although without a proper sample, I won’t be able to classify it,” Hatch said, his voice dropping with frustrated disappointment.

Bailey pulled the thumb drive from her pocket and held it up. “I was able to access an executive’s computer at Phoenix Tech and copy his entire hard drive. Maybe that will offer something more concrete.”

Hatch’s mouth dropped open. Liesel and Jack followed suit, looking at her blankly.

“That’s exactly what we need to find another lead—especially one that points back to Starboards Corp,” Jack said finally, reaching out and taking the drive she offered him. “If they were directing Phoenix Tech, there will be a paper trail.”

“It’s important to note that, whatever they were excavating, someone wanted it,” Bailey said.

“That’s right.” Lewis wagged his finger, remembering the Trids. “They said that someone was paying for the mineral.”

“Good work, you two,” Jack said, only to be immediately interrupted by a loud coughing sound from inside the ship. “I mean, good work, you three. This is the most progress we’ve made on this case. I’ll get to work reviewing these files.”

“And I’ll investigate the readings you brought back,” Hatch stated.

“What can we do in the meantime?” Bailey asked, already anxious for another assignment.

Jack smiled. “Rest up. This mission is going to move fast, and we’re going to need you two…three, ready to go.”

“Fine, fine,” Pip’s voice echoed from inside the ship. “I’ll take a nap. Wake me when you’re ready.”

Chapter Fifteen

Officer’s Lounge, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

The can of beans made an awful screeching sound when Bailey turned it to face forward. The picture on the front of the can did little to appeal to her: brown beans swimming in brown liquid.

“Yum,” she said dully.

She ran her fingers over a can of green beans, a jar of beets, and tub of ranch dressing. “Anemic, disgusting without goat cheese, and I’d need something to dip in that,” she said, referring to each item she’d touched.

“Are you talking to yourself?” Lewis asked, popping his head into the doorway of the pantry.

Bailey looked back at the rows of food and gave him a look of confusion. “No, I’m obviously talking to this shelved food.”

“Silly me,” he said with a laugh, strolling inside to join her. “Did you find anything good?”

She shook her head. “We are without a chef, so we’re kind of on our own as far as eating goes. Although I’m creative, I’m at a loss for what to do with a bunch of canned items.”

“I’m guessing most of the fresh foods are spoiled?” Lewis asked.


“And the frozen food is going to be a little past my own chef skills,” he admitted, plucking a jar of green olives from the shelf. “But grab a bag of chips, a jar of peanuts, and some fruit. I can fix us something.”

“What are you planning?” Bailey asked.

“We’re going to call it a smorgasbord,” he told her as he bounced the jar of olives in his hand.

Bailey grabbed a bag of potato chips under one arm, and the peanuts and a jar of peaches with the other, and followed Lewis to the bar in the middle of the Officer’s Lounge. The large room was barely lit, but she could almost picture the various crew members playing pool or darts, and relaxing between missions.

“Does it feel like we’re living in a ghost town to you?” she asked, dropping the food on the bar.

“Ha-ha,” Lewis said humorlessly, setting the olives down and going to work behind the bar. “Who would have thought that Ghost Squadron would become a ghost town? Sick irony.”

Bailey opened the bag of chips, the smell of grease hitting her in the nose. She was starving, but suddenly didn’t feel much like eating, thinking of the three hundred consciousnesses that were taken from the ship—not to mention those at Phoenix Tech.

“Yeah, there’s something about this place,” she said, forcing a potato chip into her mouth. “I know it seems strange, but I can imagine the crew walking around…like I can see them as if they were here.”

Lewis looked up suddenly, a startling look in his eyes. “That doesn’t sound strange at all.”

Bailey forced herself to swallow dry, the crumbs raking down her throat, scratching it. “You filling in the missing parts too, huh?”

He nodded, pulling two glasses from behind the counter. “It’s how my brain works. How I process something so horrific. I’ve had to solve bad cases before, but nothing where I was responsible for finding so many lost people.”

“We,” Bailey corrected with a slight smile.

“We,” Lewis agreed.

“What are the peanuts and peaches for?” she asked, pointing to the containers.

Lewis shrugged. “I’m not really good at putting stuff together, but I know my food groups.” He indicated the peanuts. “That’s our protein. The peaches are the fruit. The chips, our carbs.”

“And the olives?” she asked. “Are those our vegetables?”

Lewis offered a sideways smile. “Sure, but honestly, I can’t make a good martini without them.”

Bailey laughed. “You’re a detective, but you’re not good at putting things together?”

Lewis lifted his chin, like he suddenly remembered something. “Ricky Bobby, will you play some music, please?”

“What would you like to hear?” the AI asked.

“Excuse me for putting it this way,” he said lightly, “But something that makes it less depressing in here.”

A second later, the lights over the pool tables kicked on, followed by a low jazz melody. The other lights slowly flickered to life, making the bar appear more as it would after hours than deserted.

“Good thinking,” Bailey approved, taking another handful of chips.

Lewis poured half a shaker of vodka into a glass, and the other half in another. “I can put together clues, but I’m lousy with things like ingredients. I guess we all have a certain capacity; mine ends beyond detecting.”

“Or ranching,” she teased, taking the drink he slid across the bar.

He shook his head. “I wasn’t any good at ranching. Just ask my boss, Raymond.”

Harley trotted into the bar, gaining their attention. The dog’s eyes were low as he inspected the area around him, and sniffed the ground as he made his way closer to the pair.

Bailey clicked her tongue, and Harley strode over, putting his head on her leg, an unmistakable melancholy in his brown eyes.

“I know, buddy,” she cooed, scratching his head. “I know you miss your people.”

Harley seemed to want to say something, but didn’t, his gaze dropping down to the ground.

After a moment, Bailey asked Lewis, “So, why again were you a ranch hand?”

Lewis took a sip, puckering his mouth from the alcohol. “Sorry about the drink. Apparently I’m no good as a bartender either.”

“You’re all we got, so I’m not complaining,” she said, taking a drink too.

After he recovered, he said, “To answer your question, I got burned out on being a detective.” He took a handful of peanuts.

“Burned out?” she asked, pressing her lips out at the notion. “But isn’t it your passion?”

“Sure, but even those things we love can wear us out,” Lewis said, hunting around behind the counter.

“I’d say that especially the things we love can wear us out.” Bailey scratched Harley under his chin, enjoying the way he pressed into her hand. “I bet you’ve been starving for attention, little buddy,” she said to the dog.

Again he looked close to saying something, a gift his upgrades did allow him. Instead, he buried his nose into her knee.

“There you are,” Lewis said to something behind the counter. He plucked two forks from down low, holding them victoriously in the air.

Bailey took the cue and opened the jar of peaches. The smell of sweet syrup when the lid released was a stark contrast to the salt of the peanuts and chips.

Lewis handed her a fork with a wink. “Dinner of champions, am I right?”

“I’ve gone on less,” she said with a laugh, thinking of basic training.

“Yeah, me too,” he agreed, sticking his fork into the jar of floating spears, harpooning one. He pulled it out, cupping his hand underneath to catch the drips as he took a bite.

The two chewed in silence for a long minute, listening to the low music overhead.

Finally, Bailey said, “So, who is Melanie?”

Lewis stopped midchew, his fork faltering in his fingers. He caught it before it hit the bar. “Where did you come up with that name?”

She shrugged, pulling the jar of peaches closer to her and looking down into the floating mess. “I thought I heard you yelling it right before we met.”

“Oh,” Lewis said, wiping his mouth. “Yeah, maybe you did.”

“So why did you think she was here when you teleported?” Bailey dared to ask.

Lewis didn’t look at all receptive to this conversation, but she’d already decided that she needed to know everything, if they were going to work together. It might take a little effort to uncover his story, but she knew from experience that good partners trusted each other, and that came with revelations.

“I was disoriented,” Lewis lied. “I wasn’t sure where I was or who was here. You remember.”

“I do,” Bailey said, giving up on the hunt for a floating peach. She pulled the peanuts closer. She could live off nuts if necessary; well, she had, actually. “The thing is,” she continued, “that you seemed to think that she was behind your teleportation, if I remember correctly.”

“Why would you think that?” he asked.

“Because I heard someone, who I later realized was you, yell, ‘What the hell do you want?’ ”

Lewis dropped his gaze. He swallowed. Picked up his drink and drained it. “I thought…Melanie used to mess with me. That’s all. I assumed she was behind whatever had happened to me. I was confused.”

“Is she the reason you quit being a detective?” Bailey asked.

Lewis shook his head, a sobering look in his eyes. “I quit because I wanted to.”

Chapter Sixteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

“What good is a correlation if we don’t know what the connecting factor is?” Hatch nearly yelled, pacing back and forth in front on the giant screen at the back of his lab. Displayed on the screen was the report from the device Bailey and Lewis had taken at Phoenix Tech.

“We can deduce that the mineral they excavated is probably the commonality between the monster and Phoenix Tech,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Hatch sighed loudly and looked around his lab like he was searching for something he’d misplaced. “Or maybe there’s remnants of the monster left behind after it uploaded everyone at Phoenix Tech.”

“I have an idea regarding the monster,” Ricky Bobby said, his tone calm.

The ground shook and the lights flickered. Hatch’s cheeks puffed out with frustration. “It doesn’t look like we have much time, so cut the preamble and get to it.”

“What we need is a sample from the monster that we can compare and analyze,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“Oh, well, I’d pop down there and take a sample, except that it will upload my consciousness,” Hatch said bitterly.

“If I had a body, I could take on the job, since AIs are immune,” Pip said smugly.

Hatch shook his head, still searching his lab. “Yes, you with a body would fix a few different problems. For one, you could help me find my Trifield meter.”

“Another thing that Knox used to help you with,” Pip said thoughtfully.

Hatch blinked, looking up. “Another thing? You say that like it’s a continuation of a discussion we were just having.”

“I would think that the things we’re lacking because the crew is gone would be an ongoing conversation,” Pip explained. “For me, I know not having Julianna’s thoughts continuously pouring through my consciousness…well, it makes for a lot of silence.”

Hatch opened his mouth to make a rude retort, but stopped himself, realizing he was acting out. In truth, Pip was right. There had been a hole in all of them since the crew had disappeared. The silence was deafening at times.

It was hard for Hatch to believe that he used to yell at most of his crewmates to leave him alone, and now he found himself looking up when he caught something in his periphery. His disappointment was palpable when he realized the vision was a trick of his imagination.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he finally said, his voice tired. “Knox would know where the Trifield meter is.”

“Ironically, you wouldn’t need it if he was here, because you wouldn’t be trying to evaluate a strange monster,” Ricky Bobby said.

“I could do with fewer of your ironic insights,” Hatch mumbled, his voice nearly drowned out by a loud thumping under him.

The monster is awake...

“Then I’ll offer you something of a bit more value,” Ricky Bobby began. “I’ve been running experiments on the monster, as well as recording its resting states. With the information I’ve gathered, I can predict with seventy-eight percent accuracy when it will go to sleep and when it will wake.”

Pip laughed humorlessly. “You’re like a nanny that knows when your little tyke needs a nap, and when he’ll be up to have a bottle—or pillage and upload innocent consciousnesses, as it were.”

Hatch almost chuckled. This was truthfully one of the reasons he preferred Pip to other AIs; even during tragedies, his sense of humor was undeterred.

“Yes, we have the rest states well recorded,” he confirmed. “But what are these experiments you’ve been running?”

“They are related to temperature,” Ricky Bobby replied. “Decreased temperature results in a more wakeful state, and—”

“And like a machine, the monster’s functions slow when its temperature increases,” Hatch cut the AI off, his voice suddenly full of excitement.

“Wait, do you think the monster is a machine? Like a giant, floating computer monster?” Pip asked.

Hatch shook his head. “We don’t know enough. It seems impossible that a machine could do everything that the monster can, permeating the ship and making bodies disappear.”

“But that’s what Kyra, the hologram, can do; the one who teleported Bailey and Lewis,” Pip argued.

“But Kyra isn’t purely machine,” Hatch said, his mind suddenly racing with possibilities. “She’s something else, a blend of sorts. That might be what the monster is, but there’s only one way to test that.”

“You’re going to need a sample,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“Exactly.” Hatch hurried to the other side of his lab.

“Are you going to work on creating a body for me?” Pip asked.

“Not yet,” Hatch yelled back, tossing different pieces of equipment out of a disorganized pile.

“Oh. Then what are you doing?” Pip asked, his voice a bit deflated.

“I’m looking for a way to take a sample,” Hatch replied. “Ricky Bobby, go page the detective and lieutenant. I have a job for them, but they aren’t going to like it.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Bailey turned a corner, nearly running into Lewis. “Oh, man, you look like shit,” she said, taking a sudden step backward.

He made to smile, but grimaced from the attempt. A greenish-blue bruise across his cheek was obviously causing him major discomfort.

“Thanks. I forgot until I woke up that I’d gotten in a fight with a Trid. Feels like I got slammed in the face with an anvil.”

“If I remember correctly, it was the Trid’s fist,” Bailey said, continuing down the corridor toward Hatch’s lab.

Lewis followed beside her. “Yes, you did have a front row seat for the fight.”

“That’s the second time you’ve called that a fight, but how I remember it, the Trid was in the process of handing you your ass,” Bailey joked.

Lewis narrowed his eyes, but sort of half-smiled, as much as the bruises would allow him. “Excuse me. I’m a little out of practice and not entirely used to fighting giant sharks, like some people.”

“Combat is a muscle that if you don’t use, you will lose,” Bailey said sympathetically.

“Yeah, I could use a refresher.” Lewis gave her a sideways expression of curiosity, marked by a bit of doubt. “I don’t suppose you’d offer me some lessons? I really don’t want to wake up and feel like I was mauled by a bull again.”

Bailey patted him on the shoulder. “I’ve got you covered, partner.”

He grimaced, slipping out from under her hand.

“What?” she asked, confused.

“The jacket covers my bruises,” he said.

She shook her head. “You and that jacket.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Harley was dutifully waiting at the entrance to Hatch’s lab when Bailey and Lewis approached. He stood, wagging his tail at them, but a somber look was on his face, despite the welcoming gesture.

You probably don’t want to go in there, the dog warned.

Bailey’s face scrunched up in confusion. “But Hatch asked for our help.”

Yes, but I don’t have a good feeling about this project.

Lewis leaned down and patted the dog on the head as they passed the entrance into the lab. “Thanks, buddy. We’ll keep that in mind, but we’ve got to at least hear the mechanic out. Otherwise, he might have us teleported to a molten planet.”

You might be better off with that future, Harley said.

Bailey gave Lewis a tentative look. “This is sounding foreboding.”

“What could be worse than flying with a brand new pilot through an asteroid belt to a dangerous dwarf planet?” he joked.

“There you two are—” Hatch’s face puffed up with shock at the sight of Lewis. “What happened to you, detective?”

“A couple of Trids at Phoenix Tech,” he grumbled.

“There was only one, actually,” Bailey corrected.

Lewis shot her a scathing look.

She held up her hands. “What? I’m only being honest. I had the other one at gunpoint.”

“I hope you showed that Trid a thing or two,” Hatch said, waddling over, carrying a cylinder device.

Bailey suppressed a grin, but when Lewis shot her a punishing look, she slipped her fingers across her mouth. A gesture that said, ‘my lips are sealed’.

“You have a project for us?” Lewis asked, casting a glance over his shoulder. Harley had joined them in the lab, and was lying with his paws in front of him, his chin down on top of them.

“A project that Harley seems to have reservations about,” Bailey added, noticing the dog’s nervous demeanor.

“Oh, that dog is overly protective,” Hatch said, waving a tentacle at the animal. “We need to get a physical sample from the monster in order to compare it to the readings from Phoenix Tech and understand exactly what we’re up against.”

“Okaaaay,” Bailey said tentatively. “Where do we come in?”

“I need you two to go down to the lower deck and get that sample.” Hatch said all this quickly, with zero inflection in his voice.

Harley whimpered and covered his head with one of his paws.

“You’re a smart dog,” Lewis said, throwing a thumb back in Harley’s direction.

“Oh, he’s only heard half of the plan, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Hatch dismissed.

Bailey crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Okay, I’m up for listening to the whole plan. Go ahead.”

“Well, it’s pretty straightforward,” Hatch began. “Ricky Bobby will bring the temperature up in the lower deck, which will slow down the monster, causing it to materialize. If you go while it’s in its most restful state, you will have the best opportunity to collect a sample.”

He fell silent, and Lewis looked between him and Bailey, like he was expecting Hatch to keep talking. “And what else?” he pressed.

The mechanic shrugged. “That’s it. I told you it was pretty straightforward.”

“But where is the big gun, or some thing you give us to fight the monster in case it wakes up?” Lewis asked.

Hatch sighed loudly. “I don’t have a weapon because I have no idea what the monster is made of. I could upload another round of viruses to its network, but as we’ve discussed, that could kill the monster, and then we would lose any leads back to the crew.”

“Not to mention that if the monster is connected to the database where the crew is located, it could corrupt them,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“But I came up with the idea of sending you two in together because you can protect each other,” Hatch boasted.

Bailey ran her eyes over Lewis’s bruised face, doubt heavy in her expression. “How’s that?”

Hatch’s tentacle reached across the lab grabbing up a box-like device. “Well, I can’t upload another virus, but I think that lowering the frequency of the monster could cause slight paralysis.” He handed the device to Bailey. “I’ve taken some generous guesses regarding the monster’s frequency. With this device, you should be able to lower its resting frequency in the case that it wakes up. That would buy you roughly ten to twenty seconds.”

“Wow,” she deadpanned.

“I know, I know,” Hatch said, three of his tentacles waggling in the air. “But it’s the best I can do.”

“But you think that increasing the temperature and going in during a resting state will help, right?” Bailey asked.

“Yes. Think of it like trying to sneak up on a hibernating bear,” he suggested, handing the cylinder he held in one of his tentacles to Lewis.

The detective took it, eyeing the strange object. “And this is?”

“What you’ll use to get the sample,” Hatch stated matter-of-factly.

“And how am I supposed to obtain that, exactly?” Lewis asked.

“You only have to get close enough.” Hatch turned, hurrying off in the other direction.

He almost appeared to be covering his expression as he buried his head behind a workstation, pretending to look for something.

“Close enough to…what, cut off the monster’s finger?” Lewis asked.

“Oh, no.” Hatch sort of laughed. “It should be as easy as plucking a feather from a bird, or taking a hair sample from an animal.”

“Is this when you tell us what the monster looks like?” Lewis asked.

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Hatch mused. “The monster is hard to see, like a dust storm. When Ricky Bobby raises the temperature, though, that defense should be hindered, making the monster more visible.”

Lewis spun to face Bailey, a wide smile on his face. “You ready to go tiptoe around a sleeping bear?”

Unintimidated by the challenge, she pursed her lips and nodded. “Sure thing.”

Hatch held up one tentacle to pause them. “I’m glad you’re onboard. We need to wait until the monster is at its deepest resting point, and Ricky Bobby has adjusted the temperature fully.”

“What do you mean by ‘fully’?” Lewis dared to ask.

“We have to make it hot as hell,” Hatch answered.

Chapter Seventeen

Lower Deck, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Bailey peeled off her long-sleeved armor on the way down the stairs. The heat made it hard to breathe, but she tried to pretend they were headed to a tropical beach, and not the holding place of a lethal monster.

“Wish I’d brought a hand-fan,” she said mostly to herself.

Lewis halted at the bottom of the stairs and looked back at her. “I don’t think it’s that hot.”

He’d peeled off his wool jacket and vest, and rolled up the sleeves of his button-up shirt. They were both sweating profusely, despite their light garments.

“How can the monster sleep in this heat?” Bailey asked, pulling her long hair into a high ponytail, off her neck.

Lewis kneeled down, placing his hand to the ground. “I think the heat is supposed to slow down the monster’s processing abilities.”

“And? What’s the verdict, detective?”

He stood, nodding, his eyes on the vibrating ground. “It feels as though it’s in a rest state.”

Bailey pulled the frequency changer from her pocket. “Then I’m armed and ready to slightly change the monster’s frequency if you get into trouble.”

He eyed the small device in her hand with a look of disappointment. “It’s not an automatic weapon, but I guess it will have to do.”

“Hatch says that it takes the monster roughly two minutes to upload, so that should give us plenty of time, if we get in and out of there fast,” Bailey said, her tone bolstered with confidence.

“That seems like more than enough time.”

Lewis set off for the door at the end of the corridor, the one that should be marked with a huge ‘X’, warning of the beast behind it, but instead looked like all the rest. He halted, giving Bailey a look over his shoulder.

“Not that I mind, but how did we get picked for this task, instead of Liesel or Jack?”

“Obviously we’re the only ones dumb enough to say ‘yes,’” she joked.

“Or why couldn’t Hatch have created a robot to extract the sample?” he probed further, his mind reeling with questions all of a sudden.

“That wouldn’t have worked,” Ricky Bobby’s voice chimed overhead.

“Do tell,” Lewis invited, his hands on his hips.

“It’s a bit easier to observe than it is to explain,” the AI said.

Lewis didn’t look at all impressed by this answer, and his silence seemed to encourage Ricky Bobby to keep talking.

“It’s the same reason that Pip couldn’t have extracted the sample, and why I’ve had problems with it. You see, the monster has a different composition when it doesn’t sense a consciousness nearby. I’ve observed this as you’ve moved closer to the monster when on the upper decks.”

“Different composition?” Bailey asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s seemingly invisible,” Ricky Bobby answered.

Lewis threw his hands up. “Invisible. Of course. Why didn’t I guess that one?”

“I did say ‘seemingly’,” Ricky Bobby pointed out. “The monster has a transparent quality, which resembles the storm that we passed through before the upload.”

“And how is that different from when it encounters a physical body paired with a consciousness?” Bailey asked.

“The form of the monster becomes more solid, which is the form that we need the sample from. It must have to do with the process of disintegrating a body to fuel the upload,” Ricky Bobby answered. “I think that’s when the element that Phoenix Tech mined becomes activated.”

“But we won’t know anything until new and newbie go and get a sample,” Lewis finished for him, pointing to himself and Bailey.

“But if it changes form when it picks up on our presence, how do we know it will stay in hibernation?” Bailey asked.

“That’s the reason for the high temperatures and the frequency disturbance,” Ricky Bobby reminded her.

Lewis gave Bailey a look of encouragement. “We need to be fast. That’s the key.”

“If it makes you feel better, the monster is in a deep sleep,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Lewis hugged himself, lightly swinging his body from side to side. “Makes me feel warm and fuzzy. How about you, lieutenant?”

She pointed to the door, not looking at all impressed. “You owe me a couple of martinis after this.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Lewis stepped up close to the door to the backup server room, an anxious look on his face. The lights flickered overhead, making both he and Bailey pause.

“I thought you said the monster was asleep?” he said, his chin directed upward.

“Yes, the monster is still at rest,” Ricky Bobby confirmed. “However, the increased temperature in the server room is starting to compromise our computer systems.”

“So no more stalling, Detective Harlowe,” Bailey said, pointing at the door.

“Fine, I’m on it.”

Lewis opened the door to reveal the large server room beyond. Darkness overwhelmed most of the space, but lights of neon blues and crimson reds glowed from floor to ceiling on many of the large servers.

Lewis and Bailey stepped through together, both scanning the long room for the monster. The door shut behind them, making the pair swivel around.

I guess that’s a safety measure, Lewis thought, shaking his head.

Bailey took the lead, her shoulders hunched as she peered forward.

Steam rose off many of the servers. The blue and red lights were dimming. Neither were good signs; the servers would soon be fried.

Lewis swiped sweat off his brow before it could drip into his eyes. He felt like he was in a pressure cooker, his skin seeming to swell under his shirt, making his collar feel tight.

A sound like a helicopter starting up arose in the center of the room. Bailey tossed a cautious look at Lewis before shooting her gaze back at the drumming noise. Through the dark glowing with blue and reds, Lewis noticed a haze.

The soles of his shoes seemed to melt into the metal floor on his next step, sticking slightly in the heat. He peered forward at the strange mist in the middle of the room, trying to make out the shape. It was much larger than he would have expected. He had trouble determining where the monster began and where it ended.

The drumming intensified, and Lewis wanted to clap his hands to his ears. He resisted and, against his better judgement, took another step forward.

Overhead, the lights brightened, covering the long room in a soft glow. That has to be Ricky Bobby’s handiwork. The AI probably sensed that they couldn’t see shit between the steam and strange mist.

Lewis heard a gasp from behind him. He didn’t turn back, but rather pulled his chin up to see what had gotten Bailey’s attention. The top of the monster was starting to turn a gaseous black. Long tendrils billowed up from the top and sides of the organic mass as the color overtook the mist.

For a split second, Lewis thought he saw gears and motorized mechanisms inside the mist, but then it was covered in black.

He blinked, trying to focus. Taking a cautious step forward, he extended the cylinder that Hatch had given him. Now he understood—they needed a sample of this black gas, which probably contained the minerals mined by Phoenix Tech. But looking up at the strange cloud, with its beautifully formed tendrils that curved and unfurled in a rhythmic fashion, was the stuff of nightmares.

Lewis hesitated in his attempt to open the cylinder. How do I know that the monster is still at rest? How will I know if it’s trying to upload me?

The lights flickered overhead, momentarily casting them in total blackness. Lewis froze. Sucked in a breath. Braced himself to run.

When the lights were restored, they were only partial, and the monster was much closer than before. It had been roughly ten feet away, but now Lewis was staring into the stirring blackness. It resembled a massive storm cloud, but strange faces were taking shape in it and then quickly disappearing.

Lewis extended a shaking hand and inched forward. All he had to do was get a little closer, and he’d have the sample. Then we can get the hell out of here.

This monster wasn’t like any alien or pirate or psycho he’d ever encountered. This was a storm that erased lives, ate them up and spit them out in the land of the unknown.

Lewis was suddenly aware of the silence. The monster had stopped making the loud drumming sound.

His hand holding the cylinder shot back to his waist, shaking. A flash of bright lights shot through the inside of the monster like lightning in a stormcloud. A warning. An awakening.

“Lewis,” Bailey said in a hush at his back.

“Yeah, I know,” he whispered, his voice coarse. “It’s awake.”

“Two minutes,” she warned.

He nodded, but suddenly felt the strangest sensation, like he was floating without feet…or legs. He chanced a glance down to find his legs were caught in the mist.

“Less than two minutes,” Lewis amended as he reached out with the cylinder.

All he had to do was get a sample of the black gas. That was it. How hard can that be?

He reached out, and a black tendril wrapped around his forearm, snaking its way up to his bicep.

Bailey stepped up next to him, holding up the frequency disturber. The thing seemed to vibrate in her hands, like it was being sucked in by the monster. Her face was drenched in sweat, but she kept her hands wrapped around the device.

The lightning inside the monster dimmed, and the tendril unwrapped from around Lewis’s arm.

Lewis felt his mind come back to him, and only then did he remember the feeling of being teleported.

“Oh damn!” he yelled, and lunged forward, finding feet that he didn’t even remember having.

All at once, he took control of his body, scooping into the monster. When his hand made contact, he felt like he was plunging it into a pit of tar. For a moment, he was stuck and thought he’d never come out. Then the monster sucked him toward itself, and he lost his footing.

Again he felt lost. Where am I? What is this? Where am I going?

Lewis threw his weight backward like he was going to do a backflip, and a sharp pain screamed across his back as he landed hard on something. He scrambled, trying to remember where he was. As he turned around, he realized what he’d hit.


She lay motionless on the ground; he’d knocked her out when he’d fallen. Beside her hand, pieces of the frequency disturber lay in ruin.

Lewis turned back to see the monster swirling, the movement of the gas speaking of its intensity. Its tendrils reached out for them. The monster’s progress was slow, thanks to the heat, but still it kept moving forward.

Lewis spun around and grabbed Bailey’s form under her shoulders and legs, hoisting her up. He didn’t dare turn to check on the monster, though he could feel the cold, gaseous tendril nearing, trying to wrap around his neck.

He ran, his feet sticking to the floor, and the exit feeling too far away. He leaned forward, grunting as he sprinted.

It was only as he neared the exit that he turned back. The black monster was hovering in the center of the room, its tendrils reaching out, but not moving quite as quickly as the detective.

Ricky Bobby opened the door as Lewis approached, carrying Bailey, and Lewis didn’t stop until he had reached the next level. There, he lay her down and clutched the sample from the monster to his chest.

Chapter Eighteen

Medical Center, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The blue laser scanned over Bailey’s body yet again, emitting the strange buzzing sound that made her jawbone vibrate.

“I’m done with the scan,” Ricky Bobby informed her.

Bailey sat up, blinking to focus her vision after staring up at the lights. She swung her legs over the side of the exam table and waited for the report.

“Again, your scan has come back normal,” Ricky Bobby reported. “All levels in your blood are within range, and there is no trauma to your bones or muscles.”

She pushed her hair off her shoulder. That doesn’t make sense. “What about my neural activity?”

“It’s completely normal,” Ricky Bobby said at once.

Biting her lip, Bailey searched the empty medical area, like the answer to her conundrum was written on the walls. “I don’t understand why I passed out, though.”

“You did suffer a blunt force to the head when the detective fell on you,” Ricky Bobby said. “Is your concussion still bothering you? Your pain receptors don’t seem to be picking up on anything.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I appreciate you patching me up, I just don’t get why I got hurt.”

“May I offer an answer that, although obvious, I think you’ve overlooked?” Ricky Bobby asked.

Bailey looked up, hope in her eyes. “Yes, please.”

“You, Lieutenant Tennant, are human.”

Bailey deflated a bit. “Yeah, I know that.”

“When humans fall and hit their head, there are many outcomes; one being that they sometimes pass out from the force,” Ricky Bobby explained. “Coupled with heat exhaustion, having the wind knocked out of you—along with whatever else you were suffering while fighting the upload—is a completely reasonable cause of your loss of consciousness.”

Bailey slid off the examination table and trudged over to the medical cabinet that held various antidotes. “Yeah, well, I don’t like being so vulnerable.”

“Are you saying you want to be enhanced,” Ricky Bobby inferred.

Bailey sighed. “Of course I want a full enhancement. The stakes are higher, I should have it.”

“May I offer a suggestion?” Ricky Bobby asked.

He knew that she was going to say ‘yes,’ so asking her permission was sort of cute.

“Go ahead,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“Accepting one’s limitations is important,” Ricky Bobby began. “Even soldiers who are fully enhanced, such as is the case with the captain and commander of this ship, have limitations. When they reach the end of their abilities, they are expected to rely on each other. So are you upset that you passed out, or that you had to be rescued?”

“I’m not a princess,” Bailey said in answer.

“I don’t believe that your lineage was in question,” the AI stated, a hint of humor in his voice.

Bailey picked through the drugs in the cabinet, which did everything from get rid of hangovers, to encourage bone growth. “I’ve never needed to be rescued,” she admitted. “Usually it’s me doing the rescuing.”

“You’ve never been on a mission of this caliber,” Ricky Bobby qualified in a sage tone. “It’s possible that your current assignment will challenge you in ways you’ve yet to experience.”

Bailey nodded stubbornly. Of course I’m not good at accepting help. When have I ever had to?

“When we realize our limitations,” Ricky Bobby continued, “we begin building new resources.”

“I think I know what you mean,” she said, hoping the AI wasn’t going to be more specific. It was fine with her if they had a conversation full of insinuations.

“I thought you might,” he said. “I think that in the future, you could benefit from a full enhancement. Until then, it would do you good to come to terms with your current status.”

“You mean ‘embrace it’,” Bailey said with a laugh.

“None of us are perfect. When we accept that, we begin to recognize our true gifts. You are quite the extraordinary soldier, I will admit. However, I suspect your pride might be inhibiting you from overcoming bigger challenges.”

Bailey turned around, resigning a little. “Yeah, I get it. ‘No man is an island’,” she said mostly to herself.

Lewis stood in the doorway, a curious look on his face. “ ‘And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.”

Bailey blinked in surprise, having thought she was alone with Ricky Bobby. “Oh, hey. Have you been there long?”

The detective was holding a sleeve of crackers in one hand and a buttery, round wafer in the other. Shaking his head, he said, “No, just stepped into the room to hear you quoting John Donne. What’s up next? Hemingway?”

Bailey laughed. “Hell no. None of us need an acute case of depression at the moment.”

“Good call,” Lewis said lightly, holding out the sleeve of crackers. “Are you hungry?”

Bailey was actually starving, not having eaten since…well, since they’d made a meal of peanuts and potato chips. “Thanks,” she said, taking the crackers.

“You’re welcome.” Lewis popped the whole cracker into his mouth, crumbs flecking off his lips. “I don’t miss real food yet, but I might soon.”

Bailey took a bite, savoring the rich, buttery taste. “Not me. I could survive on crackers and chips for eternity. Give me salt and crunch, or give me death.”

“And now we’ve graduated to Patrick Henry,” Lewis said, appearing amused. “I like that you took liberties with the poem.”

“Ha. Liberties.” Bailey stuffed two more crackers in her mouth.

“How did everything check out?” he asked, indicating the examination area.

“I’m fine,” she replied. “Apparently only a mild concussion, which is now gone, thanks to Ricky Bobby.”

Lewis had brought her straight to the medical center, and waited until she woke up before leaving her in Ricky Bobby’s care. He’d then hurried off to give Hatch the prized monster sample. The one he and Bailey had risked their lives to obtain.

Watching him casually stroll back into the infirmary, eating a cracker, amused Bailey. She would have been irritated if he’d rushed back, thinking she needed help.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that. Sorry for falling on you and knocking you out.” Lewis nodded to the exit. “You ready to keep up the hunt for information?”

“Yeah, sitting around here is no good for me. And don’t worry about the injury,” Bailey said dismissively. She held up the crackers as they made their way out of the medical center. “Where did you find these? I didn’t see them in the pantry.”

Lewis pointed down the hallway. “Hatch had me retrieve some computer hardware from the Intelligence Center. I found the crackers sitting on a desk.”

“And you stole them,” Bailey teased.

“Yes, I stole them. Sue me. I figured they were going to go stale if I didn’t rescue them,” he said.

The two strode down the darkened corridor. Bailey ignored the low thumping noise coming from below, the image of the monster etched into her mind.

Never before had she seen something so ominous, but she didn’t think she could describe it accurately it if she had to. Its borders were undefined.

When she saw the monster, she’d felt an instant urge to walk toward it, yet as she got closer, the beast had disappeared. She realized, looking back, that it was because she was inside the storm. The monster was a tornado, spiraling with fragments of everything it had picked up, which flashed as the creature moved. The lightning was both alarming and beautiful. The creature was unlike anything she’d seen in the universe, and that made her simultaneously want to destroy it and preserve it forever.

“In here is where I found the crackers.” Lewis pointed to a large room Bailey had yet to inspect. “The Intelligence Center.”

“Great place to look for answers,” she said, taking another cracker and heading into the room filled with computers and large screens.

“I’m curious about why Starboards Corp wanted Ghost Squadron taken out,” Lewis mused, picking over the contents of a desk.

“Yeah. They obviously uploaded Phoenix Tech because they’d stolen the contents of the corporation’s mines. But there’s not an obvious answer for why they came after Ghost Squadron.”

Bailey took a seat behind the main workstation, which was covered in sticky notes. She ran her eyes over the compact handwriting on the papers, but she didn’t understand the complex code.

“Ricky Bobby,” she asked. “Whose desk was this?”

“That particular workstation belonged to Chester Wilkerson, considered by many to be the ‘master’ of the Dark Web,” Ricky Bobby answered.

“So a hacker, eh?” Lewis said, sorting through papers on the workstation behind Chester’s.

“Not just any hacker; one of the best, from the sound of it,” Bailey said, trying to piece together the significance of the notes around her. She spun around in the swivel chair, taking it all in.

“He was apparently a fan of sticky notes,” Lewis observed.

“Yes, Chester was a fan of the ‘old-school’ method of keeping notes,” Ricky Bobby said. “He often said that a modern mind needs old ways.”

“Interesting,” Bailey said, continuing to spin around in the chair, hoping it would clear her head.

“He also used to swivel in his chair for stress release purposes,” Ricky Bobby offered.

Bailey halted, catching Lewis’s eyes. They both wore haunted expressions. Bailey pushed up out of the seat, looking back at it with hesitation.

“Why don’t you come sit here and channel this person,” Lewis suggested, pointing at the workstation nearest him.

“That particular workstation belongs to Chester Wilkerson, considered by many to be the “master” of the Dark Web,” Ricky Bobby answered.

“So a hacker, eh?” Lewis said, sorting through papers on the workstation behind Chester’s.

“Not just any hacker; one of the best, from the sound of it,” Bailey said, trying to piece together the significance of the notes around her. She spun around in the swivel chair, taking it all in.

“He was apparently a fan of sticky notes,” Lewis observed.

“Yes, Chester is a fan of the “old-school” method of keeping notes,” Ricky Bobby said. “He often says that a modern mind needs old ways.”

Lewis drummed his fingers against his lip, thinking. “So two great minds.”

Bailey shook her head. “Not just great minds.”

“No, the supreme sources in their fields,” Lewis agreed.

“Maybe that’s what Solomon Vance is after,” Bailey considered. “He wants the greatest minds for his database.”

“I can confirm that some of the brightest minds could be found here on Ricky Bobby,” Jack said from the doorway.

“Then is it possible that Vance is farming intelligence and expertise?” Bailey asked.

Jack teetered his head back and forth. “Honestly, anything is possible. We know that Ghost Squadron was getting close to Starboards Corp, although I don’t think we realized how close we were, or how dangerous the stakes. Vance might have been trying to blot out a potential problem.”

“Who knows how many others he’s blotted out—like those at Phoenix Tech,” Bailey said.

“Maybe that’s something we can learn from the monster,” Lewis mused.

“Maybe, but Hatch says he’ll need some time to study the sample,” Jack related. “Usually when Hatch says that, though, he means thirty to forty-five minutes.”

Lewis laughed. “The old ‘underpromise and overdeliver’ method.”

Jack nodded with a smile that reached his eyes. “Yeah, Hatch isn’t like any other scientist out there. We should be grateful that he wasn’t uploaded; then, I’m afraid, we’d be doomed.”

“Maybe capturing his consciousness was part of Starboards’ plan,” Lewis stated. “Having a mind like Hatch’s in the database might be crucial to whatever Vance is planning.”

“But he wasn’t uploaded,” Bailey stated adamantly. “Jack, did you learn anything from the files we brought back from Phoenix Tech?”

Jack pointed at Bailey with a wink. “That’s why Hatch likes you. You cut right to business.” He brought his chin up, directing his voice to the ceiling. “Ricky Bobby, will you please bring up the image of Starboards Corp?”

“Yes, of course, Jack,” the AI said. A moment later, an image of a large skyscraper sitting on manicured grounds flickered onto the screen.

Jack cleared his throat. “They were pretty thorough at Phoenix Tech, probably per Starboards’ direction. The mineral and its properties aren’t listed anywhere in any of the files. When referenced, the stone is referred to as ‘D-Factor’, which tells us nothing.”

“The files were probably cleaned before the upload,” Lewis reasoned.

Jack nodded. “My thoughts exactly. They were too thorough to allow anything like that to slip by them. However, I was able to find something. Although my hacking skills are nothing compared to Chester Wilkerson’s,” Jack pointed to the main workstation where the hacker used to sit, “I do have some old tricks. Chester probably would have been able to extract the old files, telling us what this mineral is and what Starboards Corp wanted it for. Alas, all I was able to find was a connecting IP address from a correspondence they missed.”

“Someone at Starboards Corp?” Lewis guessed.

“That’s correct,” Jack fired a finger at his nephew. “But the location didn’t make sense. It wasn’t on a planet or space station, like I suspected.”

“A spacecraft, then,” Bailey offered.

Jack shook his head. “That was my third guess, but that’s not what we found when we investigated.” The image on the screen changed to a planet that was mostly covered in water. “Thanks, Ricky Bobby, you read my mind,” he said, noticing the new image. “This is the planet of Kai, home to the Trids.”

“There’s an underwater research facility on that planet,” Bailey stated.

“Yes, as well as an entire network of underwater cities,” Jack confirmed. “But that isn’t where the IP address originated from.” He strode over and pointed to an area above the planet on the northeastern side. “The IP address came from a computer somewhere near here.”

“That would be a spacecraft in Kai’s atmosphere,” the lieutenant observed.

“You’d think so, which means it would be impossible to find the source if the ship has moved,” Jack said, hiding an excited grin. “I had Ricky Bobby do some investigating, and he found something incredibly interesting.”

The image on the screen changed back to that of the tall skyscraper. “We are fairly certain that the correspondence came from this building.”

Bailey looked between Jack and the image of the building, remembering the picture of the planet mostly covered in water. “How, though? There is no land on that part of Kai.”

“Starboards Corp isn’t located on land,” Lewis guessed, combing his fingers over his chin.

“That’s right, Lew,” Jack said triumphantly. “It took us much longer to arrive at that conclusion. I sent Pip out in a transport ship to investigate, and, at first, he couldn’t find anything in this location. That’s when I remembered the cloaking technology that we have here on Ricky Bobby and our Q-Ships. That is something unique to Ghost Squadron, though, so I doubted that Starboards Corp’s headquarters were cloaked. I had Pip do several passes; each one, he captured thousands of images at different angles. What he brought back was puzzle pieces to the building you see before you now.”

“You mean each photo contained a small part of the image here?” Bailey asked.

Jack nodded. “Yes, which didn’t make sense until Ricky Bobby considered optical dispersion.”

“Plainly, Starboards Corp headquarters is camouflaged using a mirage technique,” the AI supplied. “Look at the building straight on and you won’t see it at all. Look at it from an angle or from the corner of your vision, and you might catch a patch—or puzzle piece, as it were.”

Jack rubbed his hands together, an eagerness in his eyes. “It took over one thousand, two hundred and sixty photos for the AIs to piece this structure together.”

“Well, that explains how this building has gone unnoticed by the Trids and the Federation, but how is it suspended above the surface of the water?” Bailey asked.

“For that, we’ll need to zoom out,” Jack said, a slight apologetic smile on his face.

The image of Starboards Corp headquarters zoomed out until the entire building was shown floating high above the sparkling waters of Kai, the sky surrounding it on all sides.

“Holy hell!” Lewis said.

Chapter Nineteen

Intelligence Center, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

“Is that a hydrogen balloon holding up a twenty-five story building?” Bailey asked, gawking at the impossible image on the screen.

The large building hung in the air, suspended by a silver balloon. The top of the concrete platform where the building sat was decorated with a manicured lawn and shrubs.

Jack laughed, delighted to reveal this bizarre secret. “We don’t believe it’s helium or hydrogen, since there’s no way they could support the weight of such a structure, let alone hold it ten thousand feet above the surface of the water.”

“So Starboards Corp has developed something similar to helium, but much more efficient.” Lewis strode over to the image, hands behind his back. He leaned in close, inspecting the details.

“Yes, but we have no idea what it could be,” Jack explained. “We know it’s patented technology and that it’s one of the many scientific projects that the company has championed—under Vance’s command, of course.”

“The D-factor being another one of them,” Bailey guessed.

“That’s correct. And now we know where their headquarters are,” Jack said, angling his head around to watch Lewis, who was nose to nose with the screen.

“What’s in the platform at the bottom?” Lewis asked, whipping around.

“We believe that is actually Federation technology,” Jack began. “Vance would have had access to the blueprints for the gravity engines before he fled the Federation R & D. From a few of the other images, we caught a glimpse of something resembling those gravity engines.”

“So is that how they move the building?” Bailey asked.

Jack nodded. “I think so, although I’m sure it stays mostly stationary.”

“I would love to know what’s in that balloon that keeps a one hundred thousand ton building suspended in the air,” Lewis said.

Bailey blinked at him in surprise. “How do you know how much that building weighs?”

He held up a finger. “It’s only a rough guess, and I’m betting they didn’t use the reinforced concrete—not if they have a special form of hydrogen. That makes me think they have a replacement for concrete as well. However, I didn’t factor in the platform or the foundation, so it should all shake out about the same.”

Jack looked approvingly at his nephew. “It’s a good estimate. We’ve put the building and base, with the engines, at roughly one hundred seven thousand tons. I’d love to know what goes on in that facility.”

Lewis rubbed his hands together eagerly and gave Bailey a hungry expression. “Looks like we’d better suit up for another mission, lieutenant.”

Jack held up his hand. “I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I must caution you; you two went into Phoenix Tech when we were already fairly certain that it was abandoned. I know you both risked your lives to get the sample of the monster, which was well done; however, infiltrating Starboards Corp headquarters is a totally different situation.”

Lewis slid his hands into his pockets, nodding at the ground, his eyes distant in concentration. “We don’t know what’s in there, or how to prepare for it, unlike with Phoenix Tech and the monster,” he summated.

“That’s exactly right,” Jack said, his voice heavy.

“Even though we now know we’re looking for intel on the D-factor, the building is a large area for the two of us to cover.” Bailey threw her hand toward the image of the skyscraper.

“Also true,” Jack confirmed.

“And this mission will have to be done in stealth so Starboards Corp doesn’t figure out that we’ve found their headquarters,” Lewis stated.

“Again you’ve got it right,” Jack said, seeming to be suppressing a laugh.

Lewis looked at Bailey, evaluating her. “Are you deterred, lieutenant?”

She shook her head. “Quite the opposite, Detective Harlowe.”

“Yeah, same here,” he agreed with a wink.

Jack let out a loud sigh. “Although I’m grateful you two are still onboard, this isn’t the scope of the missions we had in mind when we recruited you. Honestly, we didn’t know what we were up against, but with your help, we’ve already made huge progress.”

“I don’t think there was any way to know what the missions would have included, so that’s really not relevant, Jack,” Lewis said, scratching the back of his neck. “Maybe you’re allowing your emotions to get in the way here.”

“Yes, that’s true.” The chief strategist hesitated, his gaze full of uncertainty. “Lew, I know you’re good, but this is exactly the kind of mission I would have sent Ghost Squadron on, because that’s what they were trained for. But you—”

“Jack, I might be out of practice, but I was trained for this stuff, too, just differently,” Lewis argued.

Jack swallowed. His gaze fell to the ground. A moment later, he came back to himself, looking at Lewis and Bailey. “This is a big mission, and we have no idea exactly what we’ll gain. But if you two are willing to sneak into Starboards Corp, it could be incredibly beneficial to us.”

Lewis’s green eyes sparkled as he smiled wide. “If you’re done with all that, we should start planning this mission. I don’t think it was a question for either of us if we were going to do this, isn’t that right, Tennant?”

Bailey nodded, her pulse buzzing with anticipation. Sneaking into a hidden building floating in the clouds over a water planet… Her life had quickly gone from slightly abnormal to incredibly strange and awesome.

Jack let out a breath of relief. “Thank you. You’ll want to pay a visit to Hatch; he’s working on personal cloaking belts for you, which will help with your stealth.”

“Personal cloaking belts,” Bailey echoed with excitement. “That sounds badass.”

Jack nodded. “It is a unique technology that should help you stroll into the headquarters and move around without being detected.”

Lewis pursed his lips, giving his uncle a playful look of disdain. “And here you were, warning us that we shouldn’t do this, all the while having Hatch work on these belts.”

Jack shrugged, looking unapologetic. “I knew I was going to give you the choice, but I also know you, Lew. There’s no way you were going to say ‘no’ to a chance to covertly investigate a secret organization.”

“Be careful,” Lewis said with a laugh. “One day, I might surprise you.”

Chapter Twenty

Q-Ship, En Route to Starboards Corp Headquarters, Tangki System

Bailey flew the Q-Ship into Kai’s atmosphere, a new confidence on her face that had not been present on her first flight through the asteroid belt. The cloaked ship swam through a thick layer of clouds. When it came out on the other side, the glistening seas of Kai stretched out below them.

For as far as Lewis could see, there was water. He knew there were small areas of land, but for the most part, the islands on the planet of Kai had disappeared. Under the surface of the blue ocean water, a city with technology unique to the Trid race could be found.

Lewis stared straight ahead as the ship leveled out. Maybe one day, he’d have the unique honor, as a human, to explore the Trid nation, but today his mission was to investigate a specific secret location.

“Even though the ship is cloaked, a rough landing would still gain us unnecessary attention,” he warned while suppressing a grin, knowing his comment would get under Bailey’s skin.

She shot him a scathing look. “I’ll land this baby so smoothly, even the bugs in the grass won’t know we’ve arrived.”

Lewis whistled and looked at her, impressed. “I’m ready to see this fancy work.”

Bailey checked the radar, her eyes looking worried suddenly. “Pip, do you have the coordinates for the headquarters? I don’t see them here.”

“Nah,” the AI sang overhead. “I’ve been there before, so I was going to take over the controls here in a minute. I’m currently working on my Minecraft game, but I’ll be free momentarily.”

“I don’t need you to fly the ship,” Bailey argued.

“Reeeeally?” Lewis asked. “That’s your concern right now, and not that the AI’s playing video games?”

She shook her head. “He’s always looking for attention. It’s part of his act.”

A gasp echoed overhead. “I don’t act out for attention like some toddler,” Pip insisted. “And, as the detective mentioned, the landing has to be pristine, or your cover is blown. I’ll take care of it.”

Lewis watched as Bailey’s hands tightened on the controls. “Please put in the coordinates so I can land the ship,” she said, carefully enunciating each word.

“But I really think—”

“I can land this ship,” Bailey urged, cutting the AI off. She looked at Lewis with pure conviction. “I can do this.”

“Coordinates have been inputted,” Pip said resignedly. “The ship is all yours to run into the ground. I’m going back to crafting my stone axe, otherwise that mob is going to have my cheeks the next time they return.”

Bailey gave Lewis an amused look. “He’s a very strange AI.”

“I. Can. Hear. You.” Pip stressed each word.

“Strange is a good thing,” she assured him.

“According to The Doors, that’s not necessarily correct,” he stated.

“I’m not sure that a twentieth century band from Earth really supports your case,” Lewis argued.

“Well, I’d prefer for people to remember my name,” Pip said.

“I believe you had a game you needed to get back to.” A tension rose in Bailey’s voice as she prepared for landing.

The sky in front of them was clear open blue with a few puffy clouds. Lewis didn’t even see a piece of the headquarters, but Jack said they wouldn’t until they landed on the platform. That meant Bailey was blind, needing to rely solely on the instruments for landing. He pushed back in his seat, momentarily wishing she would have allowed the AI to land the ship.

“I’m better flying blind,” Bailey assured him, as if she’d heard his thoughts.

“Say what?” Lewis muttered, blinking as the clouds skipped over the front of the Q-Ship. The craft ripped through them, slowing as it soared through the blue skies.

“When we rely on visuals, we can miscalculate based on what we perceive; using the instruments is much more precise,” Bailey said, her attention honed on the gauges and dials in front of her.

“I’m not worried, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Lewis lied.

“Pip, what is the detective’s current heart rate?” Bailey asked.

A loud sigh skipped overhead. “I’m kind of busy, but it’s elevated,” he answered, sounding distracted.

Bailey gave Lewis a knowing smile. “Not worried, eh?”

“I might be a little concerned, but that’s more to do with the mission,” the detective qualified, as Bailey pulled back on the controls, the Q-Ship nearly halting.

The Q-Ship set down smoothly on a cloud, cloaked and seemingly floating in the middle of the air. It inched forward a bit before finding its final resting place. Lewis blinked out at the blue sky, filled with large white clouds that reflected the sunlight.

“This is it?” he asked, squinting in the brightness.

“According to Pip, so I don’t know,” Bailey said, her tone dripping with mock condescension.

“This is it!” Pip insisted.

“I thought that the building was supposed to materialize when we got here,” Lewis said, unfastening his seat belt and staring out at the blue waters.

“Maybe we have to get a little closer,” Bailey suggested, straightening out of her seat and retrieving the cloaking belts that Hatch had given them, as well as some other equipment.

“So, what? Are we supposed to step off the ship with blind faith that there is ground underneath us?” Lewis asked, taking the belt she handed him and fastening it around his waist.

It used the same crystal technology as the ship, but was a little less reliable, since the cloak for the ship was built right into the armor, and the belt had to cloak a whole human body from only a fixed point. Still, Hatch assured them that it was a good tool and probably their only hope for successfully sneaking into the headquarters, which was still invisible.

“It’s a mirage,” Bailey reasoned. “If we can’t see it, that means our vantage point is off.”

“So then what’s your plan?” Lewis asked her as she headed for the back of the ship.

She turned back to face him, and slammed her hand down on the lever for the hatch door. “Get a different perspective.”

The hatch opened with a series of clicking noises, which were thankfully not too loud. Lewis stepped forward, and to his surprise, a skyscraper towered in the distance, a giant balloon attached to the top of it. Around the ship was a manicured lawn featuring a few shrubs and topiaries. It was incredible—they were standing on a floating platform.

“Well, there you go. A different vantage point changes everything.” Bailey extended a hand in the direction of the building.

Lewis gave her a long, dull look. “You’re going to be impossible now, aren’t you?”

“Like a unicorn at a rainbow museum,” she agreed, sticking her tongue out at him.

“Well, since we can see where we’re going now, I say we turn the tables and go incognito,” Lewis proposed, anxious to try the cloaking belt. Hatch had wanted them to conserve the crystals, so this would be their first time activating the cloaks.

He clicked the button on the side of the belt, but nothing happened.

“I don’t think it’s working,” he said, looking at his arms.

“Three, two, one,” Pip counted, and on cue, Lewis disappeared completely.

“Oh, wow,” he said. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you, Pip?”

“Old soul, like I said,” the AI said coolly.

Bailey pressed the button on her own cloaking device. “Make sure you have your comm on, or we’re totally going to lose each other.”

“Roger that,” Lewis said, checking his comm.

A moment later, Bailey disappeared before him. “Looks like we’re ready to go exploring,” he heard her disembodied voice say.

“I’ll lead the way,” he decided, taking a step down the ramp onto the artificial grass of the lawn.

“Oh, and, lieutenant,” Pip said as they were disembarking the ship.

The sound of Bailey’s footsteps halted. “Yeah?”

“Nice landing. I never doubted you.” Pip sounded proud.

Chapter Twenty-One

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Tangki System

The fake grass doesn’t crushed underfoot like the real stuff. Nostalgia suddenly coursed through Lewis’s bones. It felt strange to miss the smell of manure, but that scent, as well as the smell of hay and dirt, were part of the simple ranch life. Easier in a way.

He moved to peer down at his fingers, but remembered he was cloaked. Still, he knew that his fingernails were clean, unlike when he was a ranch hand.

Going back to being a detective had been too easy, and Lewis was having to constantly remind himself why he quit. Detectives exist because people lie, cheat, steal…kill.

That wasn’t the life he wanted for himself, and the last case he’d worked had ruined him, both his reputation and his bank account. Only his uncle, Jack Renfro, would employ him at this point.

No, after this case was solved, Lewis would be done and back on Underwood Farm with Gatsby, his favorite horse, and Langdon, his least favorite goat. He smiled to himself, thinking of the animals that were a lot less complex than people.

He stared out to the distant waters of the sea, a strange thought occurring to him.

“The commute to work here must be a pain,” he whispered to Bailey. He heard a small laugh fall out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I’m guessing the aircraft are on the roof.”

“You’ll probably get a gold star from Hatch if we find out what sort of gas they use in that balloon.”

“Then we aren’t leaving until we find it. I freaking love gold stars,” she said, laughing.

“I kind of knew that about you.” Lewis tried to picture Bailey’s childhood room in his head. “Did you have shelves of trophies growing up?”

They were nearly to the building when she said, “So many that I started giving them to my younger sisters.”

He had already pegged her as the oldest, probably of a large family. He suspected she came from blue collar parents who worked odd hours so that someone was always with the kids. He also sensed that Bailey had wanted something better for her life. Less ordinary. She wasn’t the type that could settle for second place; what was good enough for her family never quite cut it for her.

Lewis had figured all this out about the soldier without her having said a word about it…yet. He knew he could get her to talk. The question was, did he want to.

There was something about having a partner again that felt so right, but this wasn’t a feeling business. The truth was that depending on another person was only going to get him in trouble…again.

The entrance doors opened automatically when they approached the front of the building. Lewis stopped on the threshold, catching the curious look of the security guard stationed at the entrance. He and Bailey might be cloaked, but they couldn’t fool the sensors.

The security guard, dressed all in white, left his post and stepped forward, coming to a stop directly in front of Lewis. He peered out the door, looking left and right. After a moment, he shook his head, seeming to dismiss the occurrence as a fluke. When he’d resumed his place at the side of the entrance, Lewis chanced a step forward. He might be cloaked, but he could still attract attention if he made too much noise or misplaced something in the environment.

He took another careful step, eyeing the security guard, who was still staring at the open doors. Lewis wished he’d said something to Bailey; she was carrying more weapons than he was, which meant she risked making more noise when she moved. Taking another step, he let out a careful breath. Just a couple more feet and he’d be in the clear.

“Holmes, where are you?” Bailey asked over the comm in a whisper. Her voice was echoing.

Is she already in the stairwell, Lewis wondered. That would put her on the far side of the building, across the long atrium.

He picked up his pace, moving away from a group of scientists that was headed for the elevators. The awe-inspiring aspects of the building were strictly its placement and the balloon suspending it; inside the headquarters were white walls surrounding stark white floors. There was absolutely nothing interesting to look at. Not even a painting or a sculpture.

A little feng shui would go a long way, he thought.

The door to the stairwell was propped open, but thankfully there was no one on this side of the building to see Lewis open it all the way and slip through.

“I’m here,” he whispered into the comm.

“It’s about time,” Bailey said, her voice right in front of him. “What, did you stop to make friends?”

“I was going slow, trying to be quiet,” he argued.

“I was quiet,” she stated.

“Yeah, and apparently you move like a freaking cheetah,” Lewis said, giving Bailey a smile she couldn’t see. “Why’d you call me ‘Holmes’?”

“It’s your handle. I picked it on a whim,” she told him, a laugh in her voice.

He puckered his mouth and nodded. “I like it. Can I call you ‘Cheetah’?”

“You can, but I won’t answer to it.” Bailey’s voice was moving farther away. “Mine was given to me by my first sergeant. It’s ‘Ladybug’.”

“Cute. You’re heading up?” he asked, following the sound of her voice.

“Did you want to stick around in the stairwell, or do what we came here to do?”

“Someone gets sassy on missions,” he observed.

“Sassier,” she corrected.

“What’s with the name ‘Ladybug’?” Lewis asked after a minute, as he rounded the corner and advanced to the next floor.

They had no idea where they were going, but higher floors usually housed the more valuable assets, so that’s where they were headed.

“You’re the detective, Holmes. I’ll leave you to figure it out,” Bailey said, her voice even farther away.

How is she moving that fast? he wondered. “Oh, she’s an enigma,” he panted aloud, a little out of breath.

On the twentieth floor, he stopped, bending over with his hands on his knees, and taking in deep breaths.

“When you’ve recuperated, I’ll check to see if the coast is clear,” Bailey said, her voice steady.

“How do you know I need time to recover?” Lewis asked.

“You’re wheezing like a fat kid playing dodgeball,” Bailey said.

“Hey, maybe I was a fat kid,” he retorted.

“Were you?” she asked.

“Nah, I’ve always been dashingly handsome,” he said between sips of air.

“And overly modest, I see,” Bailey teased. The door to the stairwell slipped back a couple of inches and held there.

“I’m very modest,” Lewis stated smugly.

“All clear,” she reported, opening the door a couple more feet.

He slipped through after her, into a hallway that was unsurprisingly white on white.

“Here, this office is empty,” Bailey said. “Keep an eye out for me.”

Lewis parked by the open door to a room that was minimalistic to say the least. There wasn’t a single personal effect on the metal desk, only a computer. From his place in the hallway, he heard a few small clicks as Bailey went to work trying to access its data.

Hatch had given them a Quick Key, which would open up most computers and let them access its records. It was apparently something that the mechanic and Pip had created together.

“Dammit,” Bailey cursed in a hush.

“What?” Lewis asked, peering around the corner.

“It’s not working,” Bailey complained. “There’s an error.”

“We could try taking the computer. Some files will be on there,” he suggested.

“We’ll use that as a last-ditch effort,” she decided.

Lewis heard footsteps approaching, growing closer. He looked in their direction and caught sight of a man in a white coat strolling around the corner. Behind him were four children wearing white tunics and loose pants. They marched behind the man like they were following a drill sergeant.

“Hey, someone is coming,” he warned Bailey.

“I know, I heard them,” she said, her voice on the other side of him, in the hallway.

“How did you get past me?” Lewis asked, looking at the narrow opening between him and the doorframe.

“Magic. Now let’s go,” she urged. “We’ll try another office.”

They hurried down the corridor, putting as much space as they could between them and the scientist with his strange lemming children. From the quick glimpse, Lewis could discern that the children were in good health, walked in a regimented fashion, and had no personal effects. The two boys had short, cropped hair and the two girls wore theirs chin-length.

What is Starboards Corp doing with children?

“Group twelve is returning,” a voice said from directly in front of them. “Prepare group thirteen.” The man, another scientist in a white lab coat, was holding a door open, his eyes directed down the hallway, looking at the approaching children behind Lewis and Bailey.

Something grabbed Lewis’s arm and tugged him forward. He peered down and saw nothing holding his cloaked arm, and knew at once that Bailey was directing him. She pulled him through the open door and into a large room, which was filled with horseshoe-shaped tables. Gathered around each of the tables were children wearing the same uniform as the ones in the hallway, and in the center of each grouping of tables was a scientist.

At the first table they passed, a scientist was holding a flashcard up in front of the children, its content facing toward him. A girl with red hair held up her hand.

“Yes, Anne?” the scientist called on her.

“9.5,” the girl answered in a monotone.

The man shook his head as he revealed the card to the kids. “It was 9.54,” he corrected her.

They are creating children with precognition, Lewis observed.

He allowed Bailey to tug him to the next table, where the children were all staring intently at yellow pencils which stood out brightly in the all-white room. One of the pencils budged an inch, halted, and then rolled off the table. The kid who the pencil had been sitting in front of looked up, a flitter of excitement in his eyes.

“Good, Daniel,” the scientist praised, his voice flat. He kneeled down to retrieve the pencil and laid it back in front of the boy. “Now do it again.”

The boy let out a breath, and nodded obediently.

Bailey yanked harder on Lewis’s arm. His belt made a rustling sound from the sudden movement, and he looked up, his breath hitching in his throat. He scanned the area, worried that someone would have heard the noise, but it didn’t seem anyone had.

At the back of the large room was a hallway that led to a dormitory containing beds and restrooms. Lewis feared they were trapped until he noticed a set of double doors on the far side of the corridor.

A custodial worker dressed in white overalls pulled the doors open, a heavy look on his face. The smell of roasted meats and vegetables wafted from the large space.

A cafeteria, Lewis observed.

“It’s almost lunchtime,” the worker called over his shoulder. “Why don’t we have all of the places set?”

“I’m working on it,” a voice called from somewhere behind him. “Why don’t you come and help me in the kitchen?”

“Fine, fine,” the man growled.

Bailey still had her fingers wrapped around Lewis’s arm and she pulled him into the cafeteria. The large meal area was empty when they entered, and a door at the back was swinging where the custodial worker had disappeared. The space was filled with round, white tables, and at each seat was a clear glass of water and trays with dividers for the food.

Lewis imagined they fed the children white potatoes and pale, sliced chicken breast to go with the rest of the décor.

He was busy studying the starched cafeteria when a flash of color caught his attention from the corner of his vision. He halted, watching as Bailey’s form flickered in front of him.

“Oh shit,” she said.

“Something must be wrong with your belt,” Lewis murmured, pulling her toward the corner next to the kitchen, where he recognized the doors of a service elevator. “We’ve got to get that fixed before someone sees.”

She agreed with nod, speeding for the elevator while pulling Hatch’s all-access keycard from her pocket.

Bailey scanned the card over the reader and it flashed green. The button to the elevator made no noise when she pressed it. She stepped onto the elevator, distinctly feeling like she was being followed.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Tangki System

Dejoure blinked at the pencil. She’d nearly given herself an aneurism trying to move the object. Daniel always got his to roll off the table during the session. Cindy usually made hers shoot across the room several times; even Terrill had gotten his pencil to move, and he was never good at any of the tasks.

Dejoure’s pencil hadn’t ever moved. Not once. She reasoned it was because the bright yellow was so enchanting to look at, a rare bit of color at Starboards—or ‘SB’ as she called it. ‘Suck butt.’’

“I need you to concentrate, Dejoure,” the instructor said, mispronouncing her name, making the “j” sound hard instead of soft.

She was tired of correcting him. What does it matter? Everyone messed up her name.

“Yes, sir,” she said, working to keep the irritated look off her face. She’d made that mistake too many times and had been punished for it. Solitary confinement would be a welcome break from the daily trainings, except they gave her extra sessions while being punished.

Dejoure had only been at SB for six months, and she’d already been in solitary confinement six times. Her warden, Dr. Lukas—or ‘Dr. Ass’ for short—said that he would soon polish out her bad habits.

Living in various orphanages had engrained a lot of bad habits, apparently.

In the beginning, Dejoure was excited to hear that she’d been accepted to SB’s Protégé program. They sold it using a shiny brochure and a toothy grin. The reality, discovered only after the papers were signed, and Dejoure’s bags were packed, was very different from the images on the brochure of happy children learning advanced calculus.

They were learning alright, learning how to use super powers. But it wasn’t at all like the X-Men comics that Dejoure had stashed under her bed. Dr. Ass was nothing like Professor X, and the ward where they were kept was so not the X-Mansion.

Daniel’s pencil lurched forward an inch before rolling off the table again.

“Good, Daniel,” the instructor said, kneeling down to retrieve the pencil once more. He laid it back in front of the boy. “Now do it again.”

Yep, that’s as much praise as we get for giving ourselves migraines. ‘Good, now do it again,’ was all they ever heard for their success. A little positive encouragement would go a long way, Dejoure often thought.

She did so now, and then pushed her black hair out of her face. It used to flow down her back, but apparently having long hair interfered with potential psychic abilities, or something. Dejoure wasn’t really sure why they’d chopped her hair off when she entered the school, or why they’d thrown out her combat boots and favorite sweatshirt.

A little individuality never hurt anyone, she groused to herself.

A rustling sound on her left caught her attention. She kept her head down, but flicked her eyes up. There was nothing there, but she could have sworn she’d heard a noise. Dejoure looked down at the floor, and noticed slight indentions on the carpet in the shape of footprints. They disappeared almost immediately, but led to the door to the dormitory, aka ‘Boringville’.

At the orphanages, the dormitories were where the kids stayed up late telling secrets or having pillow fights, but not these kids. Everyone went to bed as soon as the lights went out, and they all did everything they were told, the first time.

It was so boring.

“I need to use the restroom,” she said to the instructor, grabbing her stomach in an exaggerated manner.

“It’s not time for a restroom break,” the instructor said, not looking away from his clipboard.

“Pleeeease?” Dejoure drew out the word, knowing her tone got on the boring scientist’s nerves. “I have to go really bad. I can’t hold it.”

He pursed his lips and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Fine, Dejoure, but make it fast.”

“Dejoure,” she whispered to herself.

Once in the hallway, she rushed past the bathrooms, toward the dormitory. If Whatshisface could be bothered to remember anything about her, he’d know that she had a bladder of steel—a product of having to share a bathroom with fifteen other girls most of her life.

She halted in the hallway, peering into the bedrooms. The cafeteria doors at the end of the hall had been opened. She walked toward them and stood in the entryway, scanning the large room that smelled of food.

That had been the one nice thing about SB: the food was good, and the meals regular.

I guess hungry children can’t predict the future as well.

Dejoure could hear the kitchen staff working in the back, and the sounds drowned out any other noises she might pick up. She was about to admit defeat when something flickered in the distance.

It’s a…

Dejoure squinted. She couldn’t believe it. The figure came in and out of focus, but she knew exactly what it was, and watched as it sped for the service elevator on the far side of the room.

That intruder is going to get a rude awakening.

It had happened to Dejoure the first time…and the second, and the third.

Although the woman was still flickering in and out of focus, Dejoure saw her pull a keycard from her pocket. The woman passed it over the reader, and a light glowed green. The doors to the elevators parted a moment later, and she stepped into the compartment.

Dejoure sped up, sliding along the wall. She reached the doors of the elevator as they were about to bounce closed.

Taking a quick breath, she sidled into the elevator and stared up into the face of the flickering woman.

“Hi,” Dejoure squeaked, a big smile on her face.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Tangki System

Bailey froze, looking down at the smiling girl. She was roughly twelve years old and had short, black, wavy hair. One of her eyes was green and the other brown.

“Uhhhh…” she said in response to the girl’s greeting.

If the new addition had been the custodial worker, he’d be facedown on the floor of the elevator. She would even gag and restrain one of the puny scientists in the white lab coats. However, she didn’t know how to subdue a child pursuer.

“What are you doing here? Is this a covert operation? Are you a spy?” the girl asked, her voice a rush of excitement.

“I’m from the twenty-fifth floor, and we’re conducting an experiment,” Bailey lied. “I need you to get off this elevator and not tell anyone that you’ve seen anything.”

The girl reached out and pressed the top button, labeled ‘25’. “I’ve never seen the twenty-fifth floor. I’ll accompany you there,” she said.

Bailey hit the stop button. “I must insist that you get off the elevator. You’re not authorized for that level.”

The girl ran her eyes over Bailey, who was completely solid now. The belt was definitely having problems. It had probably run out of crystal juice.

“You’re not authorized for the twenty-fifth floor either, or any of the floors in SB,” Dejoure said.

“Yes, I am, and unless you disembark from this elevator, I’m going to have to report you,” Bailey threatened.

The girl crossed her arms in front of her chest, challenging the lieutenant. “Report me to who? If you’re with SB, then you know who is in charge of my department. Everyone knows that.”

Oh shit, Bailey thought. Maybe it wasn’t too late to put the girl in a chokehold… “Look, kid, I don’t have time for your games. I’ve got to—”

“You don’t know his name, because you’re not from SB. You’re a secret agent spy,” the girl said, her multi-colored eyes wide with excitement.

“I am with Starboards Corp, and I’m tired of arguing—”

“No, you’re not,” the girl insisted. “For one, you’re wearing black. No one here wears anything like that. It’s part of the dumb dress code.”

Bailey wanted to laugh. It was dumb. Even the security guard had a white suit on, which was a huge mistake.

“It’s a special protocol for my department,” she fibbed.

“Another reason I know you’re a secret agent is that you’ve got weapons,” the girl said, pointing at Bailey’s gun. “The security people only have tasers. And your security badge totally doesn’t look like the other ones.”

The button for level twenty-five clicked and glowed.

Bailey’s eyes widened with disbelief. “What are you doing?” she demanded of Lewis, who was still cloaked.

“She obviously has us figured out,” his disembodied voice reasoned. “We’ll have to take her along until we’re done.”

The girl’s mouth dropped open. “Whoa, there’s another one of you?”

“What are we going to do with her?” Bailey asked, looking at the blank space where she knew Lewis was standing, probably wearing a smug grin.

“We’ll lock her in a broom closet,” Lewis said, a laugh in his voice.

The girl rubbed her hands together, glee written on her face. “Oh my gosh! I get to go on a super-secret mission with invisible agents.”

Bailey knocked the side of her cloaking belt, trying to get it to work again. “Not all of us are invisible.”

“I think I can help you fix it, if I take some of the crystals from my belt,” Lewis said as the doors opened.

Bailey peered out into the empty white hallway. “Okay, well, let’s do that in a minute. Right now we’re clear. Let’s find the nearest workstation.”

“If you were truly from SB, you’d call those ‘source terminals’,” the girl informed them, further deconstructing their story.

Bailey ignored this as she glided out of the elevator, her back against the wall as she cleared most of the hallway. She noticed through a floor-to-ceiling window that the first office she came to was occupied. The scientist was busy working at his source terminal, and didn’t notice when she slipped by.

She slowed at the next office and peeked through the window. Also occupied.

At the third office, she finally caught a break and slipped the door to the empty office open. She sped over to the computer, inserting Hatch’s Quick Key into the drive.

A message, “Error 1458658,” ran across the screen.

“Dammit, it’s the same error as before,” Bailey said.

Lewis’s form flickered, and he materialized in front of her, messing with the box on the side of his cloaking belt. “Then we resort to plan B, and take the computer and the files it holds.”

The girl came around the corner into the office and looked up at Lewis. “Well, hey there. You’re cute, but way too old for me.”

He blinked in surprise at her. “Uhhh…thanks, I think.”

“And you don’t have the right authorization to get into the source terminal,” the girl said, pointing to the computer.

“I have an all-access key,” Bailey argued, her voice a hush.

The girl shook her head. “The only ‘key’ is being a real SB prisoner.” She held up her wrist.

Her meaning dawned on Bailey. “You have an access chip.”

“Which is why I’m so incredibly valuable to your super-secret mission,” the girl said, striding over and waving her wrist in front of the computer. The button on the front flashed green, and the error message was replaced.

Hello, Starboards Corp User.”

Bailey went right to work, using Hatch’s Quick Key to access the network. “This should only take another minute to copy.”

“Which gives us another minute to fix your belt,” Lewis said. He came over carrying a purple crystal he’d extracted from his own belt. “Here, stand up and I’ll put this in.”

Bailey cooperated, keeping her eyes on the computer and the transfer in progress while he worked on her belt.

“You know they are going to find out that I came up here and accessed this source terminal,” the girl said.

Bailey gave her an irritated look. “So?”

“So I’ll be in loads of trouble,” the girl answered.

“We told you to stay behind,” the lieutenant reminded her.

She was trying to think if she’d seen a broom closet anywhere. Maybe we can tie her to this chair and close the door. That would buy us enough time to get away, although I would have preferred to have no witnesses…Now Starboards Corp will know we’ve been here, and they’ll react. Maybe send another robot to blow us up.

“Okay, your belt should work now,” Lewis said, standing back.

“Thanks. Just another couple seconds, and then we can jet,” Bailey said, gathering up wires from the back of the computer. They would work to bind the girl’s hands.

“Take me with you,” the girl said, her voice urgent.

Bailey paused, giving the kid a look of repulsion. “Are you insane? You don’t even know who we are.”

“You’re cool, super-secret agents who want to bring SB down,” the girl stated.

Bailey shook her head. “No, and you need to quit watching so many movies.”

“Pleeeeeease,” the girl said, drawing out the word into multiple syllables.

The transfer was complete. Bailey pulled the Quick Key out of the computer, and then ripped out the power cable.

The girl backed up. “Look, you can’t leave me here. They beat me. It’s awful.”

Lewis cast a cynical look at the girl. “Where are the bruises?”

She looked down at her pasty arms. “They are mostly on the inside, but still, it’s horrible here.”

“What do they do to you?” Bailey asked, curious.

She hadn’t liked watching the children in the large room. Her own curiosity had brought her into the space, but once she’d seen what went on there, she didn’t want to see anymore. Kids should be playing and making messes, not confined to stark, white rooms, and forced to do seemingly impossible tasks.

“They make me train for ten hours every day. It’s the worst ever,” the girl said, her tone matter-of-fact.

“But they don’t hurt you?” Lewis asked.

The girl shook her head, her black hair knocking into her chin. “No, but it’s boring, and there’s no one to play with. Everyone is a freaking robot.”

“There were over a dozen kids in that room with you,” he pointed out.

“Those kids won’t play,” the girl said. “Please. I’m a lot of fun; I promise I won’t be any trouble at all. I clean up after myself, I’m good with math, and I have psychic abilities.”

Now you’re talking, Bailey thought. “What’s your psychic ability?”

The girl’s eyes drifted to the side with uncertainty. “Well, mine hasn’t really surfaced quite yet, but Dr. Ass says it takes time.”

‘Dr. Ass’? Bailey let out a sigh, winding up the wire. “Sorry, kid. We really can’t bring you along. It’s not safe.”

“Seriously, please,” the girl said urgently. “I know so much about SB, and I have the chip! Who knows how that could help you in the future? And I cook and tell jokes, and I’ve been told that I have a good singing voice.”

“Wait, did you say you can cook?” Lewis asked.

Bailey shot him a punishing glare. “Seriously?”

“Come on, we both admitted that we don’t know how,” Lewis argued. “I can’t even boil water.”

“We don’t need a child on the ship,” the lieutenant insisted.

The girl clasped her hands to her chest. “Oh my gosh. You have a ship. Seriously, I’ll do whatever you ask. Just. Take. Me. With. You.”

Bailey gave her a long, cold stare. The girl sort of reminded her of Lola, her youngest sister. She missed her—she hadn’t had a chance to go home in so long.

“What if we’re bad guys who kill and pillage and plan on blowing up this floating building?” Bailey asked the girl.

She shrugged. “This place is evil. They do all sorts of strange things here, not to mention that they make us train every single day. Seriously, we don’t even get Saturday mornings to sleep in.”

“But what if we’re murderers?” Lewis asked.

The girl shook her head. “You’re not. I would see it in your eyes. You’re a soldier,” she said, pointing to Bailey. “I can tell by the way you move. And you.” She looked at Lewis and blushed. “Well, you’re not as tough, but you have the looks to make up for it.”

“Why thank you,” Lewis said, sliding his hand along the side of his head.

“Seriously, his ego is big enough,” Bailey said.

“I say we take her,” Lewis said.

“You’re saying that because she called you cute,” she shot back.

“Well, we should reward good judgment,” he replied. “Also, she could come in handy. She knows inside information on Starboards…not to mention that she has the chip. And we really can’t leave a young mind to waste away in boredom, can we?”

“Try me,” Bailey said, eyeing the door. They needed to get to the stairs.

“Will you please take me,” the girl begged, stepping into Bailey’s line of sight, blocking her view of the door. “I promise you won’t regret it.”

Bailey heard a noise, and motioned for them to slide behind the door. The girl complied at once, and Lewis activated his cloaking belt, disappearing.

A person strode past the door and continued on down the hallway. Bailey let out a breath. The girl was good at following directions, and there was something in her odd green and brown eyes that was endearing.

She considered her for a moment, then finally said, “Okay, we’ll take her with us—”

The girl threw her arms around Bailey’s neck. “Thank you. You won’t regret this.”

Cinched tightly in the girl’s grasp, Bailey said, “I think I already do.”

The girl let her go and stepped back, collecting herself.

“How are we going to get her out of here?” Lewis asked.

“Good question,” Bailey said, not having considered that yet. “Oh well, we tried. Sorry, kid, you have to stay here.”

“No, no, no,” the girl said. “I know! I’m already at the twenty-fifth floor, so I’ll go up to the roof, and you can pick me up there.”

Lewis looked at Bailey, only marginally hiding his impressed expression.

“How do you know that the stairs lead to the roof?” Bailey asked her.

The girl rolled her eyes. “Because I’ve tried to run away a dozen times. They always catch me, as you can see. But the time I got closest to getting away, I went up to the roof. If I had known how to fly a ship—and had access to one—I would have been gone.”

Bailey had to admit that putting the building on a floating platform had benefits. Like being damn difficult to escape from.

“How do you know that our ship can get up to the roof to get you without being noticed?” Bailey asked.

“Because it’s probably got the same technology as your belts,” the girl said.

Lewis gave Bailey a look that seemed to say, ‘See, she’s quick.’

Bailey shook her head. “Okay, fine. We will come and pick you up if you can get up there undetected. But if there’s anyone else up there, the deal is off.”

“Don’t worry, there wasn’t last time,” the girl said. “I actually got freezing cold and ended up coming back down on my own and turning myself in.”

Yeah, Bailey thought, the top of the building was probably incredibly uncomfortable, especially with the balloon. “Fine,” Bailey said, activating her cloaking belt. Thankfully it worked. “Let’s go to the stairs. If you get caught, it’s on you.”

“I won’t,” the girl said. “Just please come and pick me up.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

Q-Ship, Starboards Corp Headquarters, Tangki System

“It’s a good idea,” Lewis reasoned, half trying to convince himself that his spontaneous decision to take the girl had been a smart one.

Bailey’s focus was on her preflight checks. “I can see some logical reasons for taking the girl, but I think she really played to our emotions.”

Lewis scoffed. “Impossible. I always operate based on logic, especially when I’m on a case.”

“So you’re not hoping that she’ll whip you up a hot meal?” she challenged.

He smiled, “Oh, now that was just a smart business decision. I think best when I’m well fed.”

“Well, she might not even get up to the top of the building, and then all of this will be irrelevant,” Bailey said, lifting the cloaked ship off of the ground.

“Let’s also hope that the building doesn’t disappear again…then she’s out of luck,” Lewis stated.

“I actually figured out the optical dispersion that Starboards Corp is using, and hacked the front window to counter its effects,” Pip stated overhead as a digital spark ran across the window’s surface.

“Damn, and here I thought you were going to sit on your ass and play video games while we were gone,” Lewis said.

“I wish I had an ass to sit on.” Pip sighed longingly.

“I’m sure Hatch will make that happen,” Bailey encouraged, flying the ship higher and closer to the building.

“But I want one that you can bounce a quarter off of.”

Lewis shook his head. “I never understood that expression.”

“What amazes me is the conversations we have while on missions,” Bailey said, amused.

“Speaking of missions,” Pip ventured, “What exactly are you doing, flying up to the top of Starboards Corp headquarters?”

“Rescuing an orphan who may or may not have special powers,” Lewis explained.

“Oh, cool,” Pip chirped.

On top of the building was a helicopter and a small transport ship. They must keep their ships somewhere else. The balloon was high above and anchored by four thick cables. Besides the aircraft, the top of the building was empty.

“Well, that’s that,” Bailey said, scanning the roof. “Looks like the kid didn’t make it.”

“Question,” Pip began. “If the ship is cloaked, how is this orphan supposed to see us?”

Lewis turned to Bailey. “Yeah, maybe she’s hiding.”

“I can’t turn off the cloak,” she argued.

Lewis thought for a moment. “Ships probably pass by Starboards Corp all the time, but the bad guys don’t worry about them because they think they are invisible. Just pass over, like a regular ship out for a stroll. You don’t need to be cloaked.”

Bailey rolled her eyes. “Ships don’t stroll.”

“But you get the idea,” Lewis stated.

“Curious tidbit,” Pip said. “Starboards Corp does monitor for ships, and moves to avoid them if they are in their trajectory.”

“To avoid collisions?” Lewis guessed.

“Exactly,” the AI confirmed.

“Which means that when we turn off the cloak, Starboards can spot us, and the building will start moving in an attempt to avoid us,” Bailey deduced, her tone calculated.

“One hundred points for the lieutenant,” Pip said.

Lewis looked out the view finder, scanning the roof. “Okay, then we’d better make this look as unsuspicious as possible.”

“If they are monitoring for spaceships, won’t they see us picking up one of the kids?” Bailey asked.

“Probably. And then you’ll be in trouble,” Pip stated.

Bailey gave Lewis a cold stare. “All so you can have a hot meal.”

He laughed. “You may be able to sustain yourself on crackers and chips, but this guy needs some meat and potatoes.”

Bailey shook her head. “Uncloak the ship, Pip,” she instructed, turning the ship around to make another pass over the building.

“Ship is uncloaked,” Pip reported.

“Okay, now we casually fly by,” Lewis said, craning his neck to check the area next to the stairwell exit.

The ship violently tipped to the side and shook, then leaned dramatically to the other side.

Bailey’s eyes widened as she tightened her hands on the controls. “The turbulence from that balloon is crazy.”

“I think it’s a defense mechanism to keep ships away from the building,” Pip related.

Struggling to keep the craft steady, Bailey nodded fervently. “Yeah, I would totally take a different route if given the choice.”

The top of the building was still empty save for the aircrafts, and the vibrating cords tied to the balloon.

Bailey dipped the Q-Ship lower, only feet above the surface of the building. Several warning lights flashed red on the console. “I can’t keep the ship here much longer. This isn’t safe.”

“Not to mention that you’re attracting all sorts of attention,” Pip added.

“Yeah, that too,” she said, pulling the ship up as they neared the edge of the skyscraper. She gave Lewis a sympathetic shrug. “We tried. That’s what we said we’d do.”

He nodded, though he suddenly felt heavy with disappointment.

The look in the kid’s eyes when she thought she was getting away from that oppressive place was like magic. He thought that they could use a little magic on Ricky Bobby.

“Yeah, we tried. Nothing else we can do,” he agreed quietly.

“Please recloak the ship,” Bailey requested. She looked disappointed.

“Done,” Pip confirmed. “I like that you say ‘please’. That’s something you should teach Julianna when we rescue her.”

“I don’t think I should be teaching manners to a commander,” Bailey said with a forced laugh.

“Probably not. Ready to head home?” Lewis asked, staring out at the blue waters of Kai, which reflected the clouds in the sky.

“Yeah. Pip, please set us on a course for Ricky Bobby,” Bailey requested.

“Sure,” he acquiesced. “But in case you’re wondering, there’s a small human standing on the edge of the building, waving in our direction.”

Lewis bolted forward, trying to see behind the Q-Ship. “What? We have to go back.”

Bailey looked at him with a cautious stare.

“The ship is cloaked,” he argued against her silence. “Come on. She showed up. We have to go back.”

She blinked at the controls, seeming to consider her options.

“Bailey, she’s just a kid. And she’s smart. And—”

“Shush it, Harlowe,” she snapped. “I’m turning back. I’m just trying to figure out the best way to do it. We can’t risk Starboards seeing us.”

Lewis pressed back in his seat, letting out a hot breath of relief. “Open the hatch and get us as close as possible.”

Bailey looked at him in disbelief. “Are you sure? The turbulence is something else.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I can totally do it.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The wind felt like hands, slapping at Dejoure’s face. Being on top of SB was the most uncomfortable experience. The freezing temperatures weren’t even the worst part; it was standing on the building and feeling like, at any moment, the wind was going to pick her up and throw her over the side.

From her previous attempts, Dejoure knew that SB didn’t monitor the top of the building heavily—no one would be stupid enough to come up here. Still, she didn’t want to risk getting caught, and decided to hide in the dark of the stairwell until she saw the ship.

She’d been searching for it when it materialized at the edge of the building. The bulky ship was plated in sleek chrome, and looked like a super-secret agent’s getaway craft. It was moving too fast, and dropped several feet, seeming to have trouble flying near the building.

Dejoure bolted out from her hiding place, fighting the wind that barreled against her. A strong gust knocked her down, the sharp asphalt of the roof biting into her hands, and her chin knocking hard into the ground. She peeled herself up to see the ship passing over the edge of the building.

“No!” she yelled, her voice hoarse in her throat and barely audible over the wind.

Struggling to a standing position, she tried to run, but her feet felt like they were moving through quicksand. This is like in my dream last night!

She had been running after a ship, but the harder she tried to reach it, the slower she felt she moved. She’d woken in an especially good mood, though. She wasn’t sure why, and didn’t remember any more of the dream than that.

“Come back!” Dejoure yelled, continuing forward, keeping her eyes on the ship as it trailed away.

They’ll turn around. They have to. The guy and girl seemed so great.

Not ‘nice’. Nice was boring. They were real and badass and super-secret agents.

But the ship continued to speed away, and then it vanished. Just like how the guy and girl had disappeared, the ship was simply gone from view.

“No!” Dejoure yelled, waving her hands above her head. “Come back!”

She stopped when she was almost to the edge of the building, feeling the wind whip at her back, threatening to push her over.

“Come back!” she yelled again.

She stared over the top of the building at the vast blue waters, a tear prickling at the corner of her eyes. They’re gone.

That was the worst part, but also on the list of horrible things was that she was going to be in major trouble for trying to escape again. She would be in solitary confinement for the rest of her life.

Teeth chattering, Dejoure turned for the stairwell. Heading that direction was easier, because the wind was pushing her, almost like it was encouraging her back to the oppressive hell of SB.

Dr. Ass would probably lecture her for the umpteenth time about taking their services for granted. He’d assign her extra telekinesis lessons; those were the worst. Even worse than the sensory deprivation tank, or the random number generators.

Holding her arms close to her chest, Dejoure turned back one last time. She didn’t see the ship returning, like she’d hoped…only the open prison of blue skies and an endless sea.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she comforted herself, turning for the stairwell.

The handle to the door was freezing, and resisted when she tried to open it. Last time, it had jammed and that’s why Dejoure nearly froze to death. Thankfully, this time the handle released with a bit of encouragement.

“Hey, kid!” she heard from behind her, like the wind was taunting her.

She turned around, about to curse at the skies.

Hovering in midair was the guy, the super-secret agent. He was holding onto something inside the cloaked ship, but his other hand was extended.

Dejoure blinked several times, trying to ensure the vision was real.

“Are you coming?” the guy asked. He lurched to the side, obviously having trouble keeping his balance in the wind.

“Hell yes!” Dejoure sang, a giant grin spreading across her face.

She bolted forward, the wind unable to hold her back. When she neared the ship, the guy leaned farther out and grabbed her hand, yanking her hard into the spacecraft. Her feet remained steady under her as she looked around. The girl, who was flying, smiled from the front, a look of relief on her face.

Dejoure turned back to the open door, watching SB grow smaller as they flew away.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Q-Ship, Tangki System

Lewis had been quick to get the girl buckled in before taking his seat beside Bailey. She offered him a tamed expression, hoping her excitement was well hidden.

“Well, that was fun,” he said with a laugh.

“You like hanging out of flying ships, do you?” Bailey asked.

His eyes full of laughter, he replied, “Would you believe me if I said ‘yes’?”

“That obviously wasn’t your first time, either,” she observed.

Overhead, Pip made a sound like he was clearing his throat. “Introductions?”

“Oh, right.” Lewis let out a long breath, turning around to face the girl. “Hey there, stranger. Do you want to tell us anything about yourself?”

The girl with short, black hair was looking all around, studying the ship with curious eyes. “Hi. Thanks for rescuing me. I realize that you didn’t have to. And I know that you’ve got super-secret stuff going on, but I promise I can help. I’m really good at stuff. Like, Billy lost his notebook, and I totally found it for him right away. I somehow knew exactly where to find it…although I don’t know why he wanted to find a dumb book full of lesson notes.”

Lewis gave Bailey an amused look. “She’s a good finder. What a great skill.”

“Why don’t we start with a name,” Bailey suggested.

“Oh, right,” the girl said. “I’m Dejoure.”

“De-what?” Lewis asked.

“Dejoure,” the girl repeated. “I don’t know why. It’s the name my mom gave me.” She appeared rather detached at the mention of her mother.

“Hey, Dejoure,” the detective greeted her, butchering the name of French origin. “I’m Lewis, and this is Bailey.”

“And I’m Pip,” the AI chimed in.

Dejoure’s eyes slipped to the side. “Where is Pip?”

Bailey steered the ship out of Kai’s atmosphere, on course for Ricky Bobby. “He’s in the ship. He’s one of our AIs.”

“ ‘One of’ indicates that there’s more than one,” Dejoure said, leaning forward.

Lewis seemed proud when he looked at Bailey. “See, she is smart.”

Bailey ignored him. They’d both acted on their emotions, and now he was trying to pretend it was a logic-based decision. At least she was owning it. “Yes,” she replied to Dejoure. “Pip is one of two AIs. The other is on our battlecruiser, Ricky Bobby.”

It feels weird to call it ‘our battlecruiser’, Bailey mused.

But at the moment, it was theirs. They were the crew. Hell, they were all the ship had.

“Nice to meet you Lewis, Bailey, and Pip.” A sour expression crossed the girl’s face when she finished speaking.

“What is it?” Lewis asked.

“Ummm…no offense, but those don’t really sound like super-secret agent names,” Dejoure said. “Shouldn’t you be called something…”

“More badass?” Lewis finished her sentence.

“Yeah, like Blink, Rogue and Storm,” Dejoure offered.

Bailey laughed. “Well, for starters, we’re not X-Men.”

Dejoure was still studying every part of the Q-Ship with her gaze. “But you are secret agents. I can’t wait to find out what mission you’re working on, and how I can help.”

Bailey gave Lewis a hesitant look. “We’re going to have to hold off on giving you any details just yet. You have to meet someone else first…”

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Dejoure had screamed with delight when they entered Ricky Bobby. Lewis thought she might pass out from excitement, which is why he had her put her head between her legs and take several deep breaths. He couldn’t even remember what excitement felt like as a child, and he certainly didn’t understand the feelings of an orphan, although he thought he could kind of relate to them.

Bailey landed the Q-Ship with a bit more force than she had before. Her gaze darted to Lewis, and she shook her head. “It’s the kid’s squealing. It sort of got to me.”

Dejoure slapped her hand to her mouth. “Sorry. I won’t do it again. I’ve never been on a real battlecruiser. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She peered out the front window at the other ships sitting in a row. In the distance, Jack, Hatch, and Liesel were approaching to welcome them back and see how the mission had gone.

Lewis stood, straightening his suit. “What do you think they are going to say when they find out you kidnapped a member of Starboards Corp?”

Bailey rolled her eyes at him. “Very funny. We’re in this mess together, Harlowe.”

He winked at her. “Good answer.”

Turning to Dejoure, Bailey waved her toward the exit. “Come and meet the crew of the ship. You’re going to love them. Well, I think you will. To be honest, I don’t know them all that well myself. I hardly even know that guy,” she said, pointing at Lewis.

Dejoure’s eyes grew wide. “You what?”

Lewis laughed, clapping a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Hey, you wanted an adventure.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

“You what?!” Hatch yelled, his face flushing pink.

“Well, she’d already spotted us, so we had to keep her with us, and then she made a good case for herself,” Bailey explained, bracing herself for another explosion from the Londil. He’d taken the news of Dejoure’s presence a little worse than the others. Jack still appeared to be contemplating the idea, and Liesel looked like she wanted to start braiding the girl’s hair.

Hatch’s cheeks puffed out. “Did you even consider the implications of adding another person to this ship? There’s a reason that we only brought you two in for this investigation. The less involved, the better.”

“We realize that,” Lewis stated. “But we thought, as an asset of Starboards Corp, she might be able to offer us special intel.”

“Did you get the files?” Hatch demanded, one of his tentacles scratching furiously at the top of his head.

“Yes,” Bailey said, pulling the Quick Key from her pocket.

The mechanic crossed two of his tentacles in front of his chest, softening a bit. “And what about the balloon, did you find out any information on that?”

“We didn’t, unless there’s something in the files,” Bailey admitted. “But Dejoure has a chip that gives her special access to Starboards. It might come in handy.”

“And she can cook,” Lewis argued.

Hatch’s face seemed to swell with his growing frustration. “I eat raw fish.”

“But I don’t,” the detective joked in reply.

Dejoure took a step forward, curtsying in front of the three. “I promise I’m not going to be a problem. I’ll help however I can.”

“And what about the monster?” Hatch asked. “You’ve put this child in major danger by bringing her this close to it.”

The girl’s mouth fell open, her eyes also going wide. “What is that?”

“De-jar, we can explain,” Lewis began, again mispronouncing her name. “In the bottom of the ship—”

“No, what is that?” Dejoure pointed at the entrance where a creature stood with his ears perked up.

“Oh, that?” Lewis asked, confused. “That’s Harley.”

“It’s a dog!” she exclaimed, running for the animal who was panting, an excited look on his face.

She halted beside Harley and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him unabashedly. The child’s glee was infectious, and had almost everyone smiling.

Everyone but Hatch.

He turned to Lewis and Bailey, a pinched look on his face. “She’s your responsibility. Don’t let her get in our way.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Engine Room, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

Liesel squatted down low, squinting at the ignition charge of one of the ship’s engines. She shook her head, her necklace of sparkplugs making a clattering sound. “I don’t get it. There must be an internal combustion stability issue. That’s the only thing I haven’t crossed off the list.”

Mechanics weren’t Bailey’s strong suit, which is exactly why she’d offered to help the chief engineer. Liesel did have the biggest job, getting Ricky Bobby operating. The longer they hovered in space, uncloaked and with their shields down, the higher the risks.

“How do you check for that?” she asked.

“Luckily, I don’t have to.” Liesel smiled triumphantly, rubbing her first two fingers against her thumb. From the far corner of the large space, the ferret materialized, running straight for his owner.

“Was that your signal to Sebastian?” Bailey asked, curious.

Liesel nodded. “Yes, ferrets have great ears.” When Sebastian arrived in front of her, he sat back on his hind legs, looking up at Liesel with expectant eyes. “I need a full check on sections Four B through Six D. Got it?”

The ferret didn’t respond, but turned, scurrying back the way he’d come. Bailey guessed that he’d be checking the combustion stability issue using his ferret skills. She shook her head at the strangeness of it.

“What about the shields?” she asked.

Liesel lifted her hair off the back of her neck; it was hot in the engine room. The cooling system had definitely taken a beating during the upload. “I think that Hatch and I have figured out the issue. I need a solid few hours to patch things up. But the hoses in the engines are all clogged as well, so I’m going to have to flush them.”

“I’ll take care of the hoses,” Bailey offered.

Liesel wiped her hand across her forehead, leaving a grease mark as she did. “But you’ve got other concerns.”

Bailey looked up, catching Lewis in her periphery. He was chewing on a stick of dehydrated meat.

“I can’t do anything until we know more about the intel that Hatch and Jack are studying.” She shrugged. “I can clear the hoses while you work on the shields.”

“Clearing the hoses is kind of a two-person job, though,” Liesel argued.

“Perfect, I have a helper.” Bailey extended a hand to Lewis, who was in the shadows.

“Help? Yeah, I can help,” he agreed, striding over. “What do you need me for?”

Liesel ran her eyes over Lewis’s pressed white shirt and slacks, and then looked back at Bailey. “Are you sure? We can flush the hoses together and then I can work on the shields.”

The lieutenant wanted to laugh. Lewis didn’t at all look prepared for a mechanical job, but he was at least wearing a willing smile. “Lewis can help me get the engines operating. It’s the chief priority.”

“Okay,” Liesel chirped. “Hopefully Sebastian will find the other combustion issues, and I’ll be able to fix those right away. Though Hatch has offered to help, if we need extra hands.”

“Or eight extra tentacles,” Lewis said with a laugh.

Liesel offered him a genuine smile, and picked up her toolbox. The feathers she’d stuck in her hair waved in the wind as she took off.

The detective turned to Bailey with a bemused expression. “Is it strange to you that we’re relying on a ferret to help fix the engines?”

“Welcome to Oz, Harlowe. You aren’t in Ronin anymore,” Bailey said fondly. She often thought of herself as Dorothy when a big challenge arose. She’d remind herself that she had the power, but just had to learn it for herself.

There were many other lessons for her to take from that book, but they were connected to the people she’d left behind.

“So what exactly did you sign me up for?” Lewis was eyeing the large engine beside them.

“We’re going to clear the hoses,” Bailey explained.

“That shouldn’t take long,” Lewis said, looking the engine over.

His partner lifted her hand and gestured at the row of machines. “In all the engines.”

Detective Harlowe nodded, rolling up the sleeves of his button-up shirt. “Challenge accepted.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Holding tight to the gasket around the hose, Lewis waited until Bailey gave him the all clear.

She held up her thumb, grease streaked down both her cheeks. Lewis could only imagine that his face and hair was as messy as hers. “It should be secure,” she told him.

He let go, looking down at his once white shirt, which was now covered in various colored fluids that had splashed from the hoses as they cleared them. He felt like he was back on the ranch, except that the animals were the engines of the ship, and the smell of manure was more chemical.

“Last one,” Bailey announced, tapping one of the hoses and listening.

“Good teamwork. That only took…” Lewis looked at his watch, and his eyes grew wide. “Wow, that took us three hours, but it felt like no time.”

Bailey smiled. “Yeah, it feels good to get our hands dirty. And now we’re that much closer to making Ricky Bobby operational.”

A low rumbling stole their attention, wiping the smile off Bailey’s face. It was easy to forget that the monster was lurking in the bottom of the ship, threatening to break loose and upload them all. If they were the rescue team for Ghost Squadron, who would rescue them?

“I almost didn’t recognize you guys,” Dejoure said, poking her head out from the shadows. Harley was by her side, happily panting.

“Yeah, we could use a bucket to wash up with,” Lewis agreed.

Bailey shook her head. “I’ll take a clean-shower.”

“Well, I can’t help you there,” Dejoure said, leaning down and scratching Harley behind the ears. “But I did make you some roast beef, garlic mashed potatoes, and steamed green beans. Hungry?”

Lewis’s mouth dropped open, and he stumbled forward a couple of steps. He pressed his hands in front of his chest like he was praying. “Please don’t be lying.”

The girl laughed. “I’m not. I told you I would cook and pull my own weight if you took me in. I wasn’t telling stories, I promise.”

Lewis gave Bailey a tentative look. “Are we done here? Can we take a break to—”

She strode past him, cutting him off. “Ladies first.”

Cafeteria, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The roast beef seemed to melt in Bailey’s mouth. She hadn’t even poured the brown gravy onto the slab of meat, which was cooked medium rare—also known as ‘cooked to perfection’.

Lewis was busy soaking up the gravy with one of the fresh baked rolls that Dejoure had forgotten to mention when describing the meal. If Bailey had known there was bread being served, she probably would have sprinted to the cafeteria; crackers and chips were her fuel, but bread was her life support.

“Dejoure,” Bailey began, and to her horror, she mispronounced the “j”. “Um. You can really cook. These green beans are perfectly done.”

Lewis picked up one of the green beans and popped it into his mouth, chewing. “Yep, slightly al dente, but not too much.”

“In my last home, I had to do all the cooking,” the girl explained, untying the apron from her waist. “There were ten children, and most were picky eaters so I learned how to make a little of everything.”

“She can even bake,” Lewis exclaimed, grabbing another roll from the basket.

“You found all the ingredients for this meal in the kitchen?” Bailey asked incredulously. She had stared at the contents of the freezer and pantry, at a loss, for way too long.

“Oh yeah,” Dejoure said. “There’s enough food in there to feed an army or…well, I guess the past population of this ship.” A haunted expression jumped to the girl’s face.

She’d taken the news of the monster and the missing crew fairly well, and had acclimated to the ship immediately. She hadn’t been any trouble at all; actually, based on the meal Bailey saw before her, the girl’s contributions were already proving to be beneficial. However, she still worried they’d made a mistake by bringing this child onto the ship, endangering her and their goals.

“How old are you?” Bailey asked her.

Dejoure pushed her black hair behind her ear. “I think I’m twelve, but no one knows for sure.”

“You don’t have any birth records?” Lewis asked.

She shook her head and stooped down to rub Harley’s chest. To Bailey’s surprise, the girl was wearing a sort of smile. “No, I was dropped off at an orphanage with a note pinned to my blanket that said, ‘Dejoure’.”

When the girl said her name, it had a melodic tone, sounding much different than when Lewis or Bailey said it.

“That’s it?” Bailey asked. “No middle or last name? No explanation?”

Dejoure looked up, her arm around Harley. She shrugged nonchalantly. “No. Sometimes people can’t take care of the kids they have. You don’t worry about it. Just move forward.”

The girl sounded like she was reciting words said to her by someone else, most likely a caretaker from one of the orphanages.

“And you weren’t ever adopted?” Lewis asked, dabbing the sides of his mouth with a napkin. The conversation seemed to have slowed his eating. Or maybe after two servings, he was finally getting full.

Dejoure shook her head as the ship shook underfoot. Her eyes dropped hesitantly to the floor. The monster was awake. “No, but I was moved around a lot. I’m good at things, so if one of the facilities needed someone to help out, they’d transfer me.”

The girl was the perfect definition of an ‘old soul,’ with her strange green and brown eyes. She seemed to know more than a twelve-year-old should. And yet, as she combed her hands through Harley’s fur, she looked like an ordinary child.

“Well, we’re glad you’re here, and not just because you can cook,” Bailey stated, spooning the last of the fluffy mashed potatoes into her mouth. “This ship and what’s happened here may not be the super-secret agent stuff you signed on for, but you’ll be safe. We promise. And I’m sure there are many ways you can be helpful.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dejoure asked, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “This ship is the coolest place ever. Before, I was so bored, but now I have a dog and special agents to look after. This is a dream come true! The monster doesn’t scare me.” After a moment, she asked, “You think it’s linked to Starboards Corp?”

“We’re certain of it,” Bailey said. “Do you know of anything that could help us?”

Dejoure shook her head. “I wish I did. But I’ll keep thinking; I’ll find a way to help. I promise.”

Lewis pushed his plate away, a satisfied look on his face. “I have no doubt that you will.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The glowing green text scrolled through the air in front of Lewis. He’d been sifting through the files they brought back from Starboards Corp, looking for something that connected it to Monstre. So far, he’d found nothing. The organization was despicable; he’d concluded as much after reading files on nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and cyborg testing. However, there was nothing to suggest that they were the ones behind the monster.

Lewis swiped his finger through the air, and the text disappeared, replaced with another report.

“I thought I’d find you here,” Jack said, striding onto the bridge. The lights were still low, even though Ricky Bobby had recently informed them that the generators were once again up to full capacity. Currently, all the energy was being diverted for other repairs.

“You could have asked me where the detective was located,” Ricky Bobby cut in. “I’m aware of where all members are on the ship.”

Jack waved a dismissive hand through the air. “I needed to stretch my legs, anyway.”

“I’ve been reviewing these files you gave me access to.” Lewis shook his head, scanning the words scrolling in front of him. “Tell me again why you think that Solomon Vance and his corporation, Monstre, are behind this?”

“He’s a known criminal who stole biotech from the Federation,” Jack reminded him. “He’s been rumored to be working with Starboards Corp, which really means he’s using them to create technology while he stays hidden.”

Lewis tapped his fingers against his lips. “I hear you, Uncle, but just because Colonel Mustard was at the dinner party doesn’t mean he killed Mrs. Peacock. Are you sure you’re not allowing your bias to interfere?”

Jack unbuttoned his suit jacket and took a seat next to Lewis. “Vance is a man I’ve been hunting for a long time, but this isn’t about a personal vendetta. We know for a fact that he stole advanced biotech that was both dangerous and ingenious. Reason tells me that it was the basis for the monster.”

“Reason might tell you that, but the facts are unclear.” Lewis pinched the air where the file sat and tossed it away, making it disappear. “From everything I can see, Starboards is our guilty party.”

“That’s what Vance wants the discerning mind to believe,” Jack insisted.

Lewis gave the other man a long, calculated stare.

After an extended moment of silence, Jack sighed. “I know you think my time with the Federation has colored me, and maybe it has, but I’m telling you that Vance is behind this. He’s covering his tracks. That’s why the Starboards ship was used to try and blow up Ricky Bobby. That’s why Phoenix Tech had dealings with Starboards and not Monstre. Vance is sitting somewhere right now, plotting all of this and pitting us against the wrong enemy.”

“Well, Starboards is evil, that’s for sure,” Lewis said, thinking of the case files he’d read.

Jack nodded. “Yes, but they aren’t the big dog, and if we’re going to find everyone who was uploaded, we have to take down the leader of the pack.”

“Well, what did you learn from the files you studied?” Lewis asked.

Jack lifted an eyebrow, a clever look on his face. “D-factor is the element doromantinium.”

Lewis whistled through his teeth. “I see why they call it ‘D-factor’. That’s a mouthful.”

“Well, it’s also a smart name because the rock is half metal and half etheric energy,” Jack explained.

“Which means if it was used in the composition of something, it would be a major component—or factor,” Lewis said, his eyes searching without seeing.

Jack crossed his ankle over his knee and leaned back. “Exactly my thoughts. One would have to get the D-factor just right.”

“So, do we know if this mineral is part of the composition of the monster?” Lewis asked.

Jack shook his head. “Not yet. Hatch is still evaluating the sample you and Bailey obtained.”

“And we wouldn’t want to assume,” the detective said, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“But we did learn that Starboards has been buying up all the D-factor they could get their hands on,” Jack related. “There are no records of what they were doing with it, only that they have been acquiring it.”

Lewis was suddenly assaulted with the surrealness of the situation. He was sitting across from his uncle and discussing a case they were both working. He’d never worked with his uncle before; actually, most of the cases he’d handled had been outside the Federation, for private clients. When everything had gone to shit, including Lewis’s reputation, Jack had tried to help, but since he was operating outside the Federation, it was outside his uncle’s control.

Jack leaned forward now, catching the serious stare Lewis was giving him. “When you look at me, do you see him?”

That’s not at all where Lewis’s head had been, and he blinked in surprise. He didn’t need to ask who his uncle was referring to; Jack was the mirror image of Lewis’s father. How could he not be? They were identical twins. But Lewis would never mistake Jack for his father. They might have looked the same, but they were very different people.

Lewis cleared his throat. “Not really.”

Jack nodded. “I miss him every goddamn day.”

“Me too,” Lewis said, rubbing his hand over his chin and mouth.

“He’d be proud of you,” Jack said, a tenderness in his eyes that he rarely showed.

Lewis shook his head. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“You found his murderer and justice was served,” his uncle argued.

Stefan Russell.

The name still burned in Lewis’s throat. Finding his father’s murderer had been his first case. Out of a tragedy, he found a passion for investigating, and after successfully bringing down Stefan Russell, he had gone on to take other cases, becoming the most sought-after detective in the galaxy.

But like his father’s life, all good things had to come to an end.

Lewis was never good at talking about his father, so he was grateful when the screen flickered at the front of the bridge, interrupting the discussion. After a couple of seconds, Hatch stared back at them, a sour expression on his face. He was standing in his lab, three of his tentacles stretching offscreen, occupied.

“There you are, Jack. I’ve been looking for you,” the mechanic grumbled.

“You are all aware that, as the AI for the ship, I know where everyone is located, right?” Ricky Bobby’s voice echoed overhead and through the speaker of the telecom.

“It’s more fun to see if my inclinations are correct,” Hatch answered. “I tried your office, then the gym…this was my third guess.”

Liesel’s head popped into the frame, grease streaked down her nose. “I told him to try the bridge first.”

Jack smiled. “You should listen to Liesel. She knows me better than I know myself.”

“That’s a ridiculous notion that I won’t even pretend to entertain,” Hatch said, with a growl, sneering a bit at Liesel, who was obviously too close to him. She took the hint and disappeared after waving at them.

“You have an update for us?” Jack asked.

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t call you up to read your zodiac,” Hatch said, throwing a scathing glare in Liesel’s direction offscreen.

“I thought it might help,” she sang, her voice light and full of warmth.

Lewis leaned down, covering his mouth, looking at Jack. “Is she a real engineer?” he whispered.

His uncle laughed. “Indeed, she is. Liesel Diesel is one of the best, second only to the Londil, here.”

“We have the gate drives back online,” Hatch interjected, gaining their attention.

Jack looked up toward the ceiling, relief plain on his face. “Thank the gods.”

“You can do a ceremonial dance with Liesel later. I have more updates,” Hatch said. “We have the shields reinstated, but the cloaks still have an unknown problem.”

Jack nodded. “That’s progress, though. I’m sure you’ll get the cloaking technology restored.”

Hatch rolled his bulbous eyes. “No, Optimist, we won’t. Something about the monster is preventing us from fixing it. And I have little faith that the shields are up permanently. I’m going to study the sample of the monster; there’s something in its makeup that is disabling our technologies.”

“Oh. So as long as the monster is aboard the ship—”

“We’re screwed,” Hatch said, cutting Jack off.

Jack swept his hand over his long forehead, a new stress marking his features. “Okay, is there anything else?”

“I don’t give reports when minors are around,” Hatch said, and the telecom went black.

“What? What is he talking about?” Jack said, scrunching his brow.

Lewis turned as he heard soft steps, and found Dejoure standing in the entrance to the bridge.

“I think he was referring to our newest addition,” he said, throwing a finger in the young girl’s direction.

Jack spun to face Dejoure, his face shifting into a smile. “Hey there, Dure.” His pronunciation of her name completely off yet again.

She smiled, her eyes flicking over the bridge, taking in all the details. “Hi. You can call me ‘DJ’,” she squeaked. “Um, Bailey lost her jacket and asked me to look for it.”

“You think her jacket is here?” Lewis asked her.

Dejoure pointed to a jacket hanging over a chair at one of the consoles. “It’s right there.”

“Have you already been looking all over the place for it?” he teased.

She shook her head.

“Of course no one thought to ask me where the jacket was,” Ricky Bobby noted flatly.

Lewis suppressed a smile. “DJ, did you know to look here?”

She nodded, her face flushing pink.

Lewis drummed his fingers over his lips. He thought it unlikely that Bailey had misplaced her jacket—or anything else at any point in her life. She’s testing the girl.

“You told us you’re good at finding things. Has that always been true?” He asked DJ.

Dejoure’s eyes shot to the jacket nervously. “Sort of. I got better at it when I started at SB.”

Lewis stood, leaned over, and grabbed the jacket, handing it to Dejoure. “Please return this to the lieutenant and tell her that I think she’s right.”

The girl took the jacket, a question on her face. “Right about what?”

He only smiled. “Don’t worry. She’ll know.”

“Okay,” DJ said shyly, smiling at Jack before leaving.

Lewis turned to his uncle. “I daresay she will come in handy.”

“Finding three hundred people isn’t going to be as easy,” Jack mused. “We need to determine how her skill works.”

Lewis gave his uncle a cunning grin. “I think Lieutenant Tennant is already working on that.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

There was a sulfuric smell wafting out of Hatch’s lab. Bailey scrunched up her nose as she strode into the work area.

“Blame Liesel for the bad smell,” Hatch said, catching the pinched expression on the lieutenant’s face.

“It’s totally my fault,” the engineer agreed, her head popping up from behind a workstation.

“I told you the metabolic rate of the sample was too unstable for such a test,” Hatch grumbled as he hunched over a table, goggles covering his eyes.

“And you, Dr. A’Din Hatcherik, were absolutely correct,” Liesel said cheerfully.

That woman has zero ego. Bailey marveled at how good-natured the hippie engineer was. Maybe I should take up yoga or meditation to chill out…She peered down at her black combat suit and leather jacket. On second thought, I’d rather kick someone’s ass.

“Are you making any progress with the sample?” she asked aloud.

Hatch shook his head, his attention on the microscope slides in front of him. “Not yet, but I’ll crack it. We’ve classified the mineral, so that at least narrows things down, but the monster’s composition is complex and highly unstable. I’ve already lost half of the sample you and Lewis collected.”

As if it had heard them discussing it, the monster rumbled in the belly of the ship, the walls making a chiming sound as they vibrated.

“Well, hopefully you find enough information with what you have left, because I’d prefer not to tiptoe around the sleeping bear again,” Bailey told him.

“At least we don’t have to worry about ruining the servers, if you do visit the monster again; they’re already fried,” Hatch said, placing one of the slides under the microscope.

“It was a known risk going into the mission,” Ricky Bobby calmly reminded him.

The mechanic rolled his head with frustration. “The loss of our backup servers is one of the reasons the cloaks are still offline.”

“And once the monster is out of that area, I can work on repairs.” Liesel’s voice echoed from the back of the lab, a hopeful smile in her voice.

“Whatever,” Hatch grumbled. “I’m not ready to set that monster free, which means we’re presently screwed.”

Bailey found the mechanic’s grumpiness endearing. He was a strange and wonderful character, and she was excited to share her newest discovery with him.

Before she could bring it up, Pip cut in overhead. “Speaking of being screwed, if I had a body, I could be of a lot more help.”

Bailey’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “What does that have to do with being screwed?”

Hatch looked up, shaking his head. “Don’t ask.”

“You see, Lieutenant, when a boy matches with a girl—”

“OK, I get it,” she interrupted. “That’s quite enough.”

A slight smile formed on Hatch’s lips, making his face look strange beneath the goggles. “I told you not to ask.”

She laughed. Pip was anything but polite, and yet he had a totally different effect on Hatch than Liesel or Ricky Bobby, who were both so even-tempered. Maybe the mechanic had more respect for people who didn’t bow to him.

She considered that notion and, bolstered by some confidence, cleared her throat. “I’ve made an interesting observation regarding DJ,” she ventured.

Hatch growled. “You mean the liability that you and the detective brought on this ship?”

“I realize that you think bringing DJ aboard was a mistake, but I stand by the decision. Especially now,” Bailey said.

Hatch looked over her shoulder. “Oh, look, here’s the other bad decision-maker.”

Bailey turned to find Lewis strolling up behind her. He offered her a smile. “I suspect you’ve made a discovery?”

She nodded, turning back around. “Hatch, I think DJ will prove to be a valuable asset.”

Hatch pulled the goggles off his head and peered into the microscope, which he’d set up with the sample of the monster. “Because she can roast some meat,” he sneered.

Bailey stuck her hands on her hips and shook her head. “Because she has some sort of psychic ability that allows her to find things that are missing.”

Hatch’s head swiveled up, a look of disbelief on his face. “What?”

“I’ve had her find a number of things that I supposedly lost,” Bailey explained. “She’s better at finding things that actually belong to me; I tried to have her find Liesel’s ferret, but she was unable to.”

Liesel strode from the back of the lab, Sebastian trailing after her. “I have trouble finding the little guy myself half the time.”

Hatch shook his head. “So she found an item you misplaced. Big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” Bailey insisted. “They were training the children at Starboards Corp. DJ said that they gave her a series of injections when she arrived. What if they did something to enhance their psychic abilities, and were training them to use these skills?”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Hatch asked, his tone growing with irritation.

“I want you to test her,” Bailey demanded.

Hatch sighed. “I’m sort of busy at the moment. Monster, remember?”

“But we have three hundred missing people and a potential locator,” Lewis argued.

“The last time I checked, none of those people belonged to you or me or anyone else left on this ship. People aren’t owned like a lost item of clothing. Sorry, kid, you’re out of luck,” Hatch muttered, again lowering his head to look into the microscope.

“Pip belonged to Julianna,” Bailey countered flatly.

The Londil looked up suddenly, a startling realization on his face. Liesel froze, too, her eyes brightening.

“I’m not owned,” Pip argued. “I’m no one’s pet.”

Ignoring the AI, Bailey continued. “Look, I don’t know how DJ’s skill works, or if it was a fluke, but it’s worth checking out. We have to rely on what we have when we’re working against such major odds.”

Hatch’s gaze fell to the floor. “Maybe there is something to your observations. There’s a connection that forms between a person and the things they own. It’s possible that the girl can tap into this energy.”

“The theory of entanglement. Is that what you mean?” Lewis asked.

Hatch nodded. “Yes, but Pip is right.”

“I recorded that,” Pip said victoriously.

Hatch groaned. “Please tell me you didn’t.”

“I totally did.” Overhead, a recording played. ‘Yes, but Pip is right.’

The mechanic puffed out his cheeks, irritation heavy in his expression.

“Hatch, you mean that Pip is right in that he isn’t owned anymore?” Lewis clarified.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. At the time that Julianna was uploaded, she and Pip were connected. However, since she’s disappeared, he’s free—which makes me wonder how reliable their connection will be. However, a Locator might be able to track Julianna to the place she went at the time the pairing was still solid.”

“I don’t understand,” Bailey said. “Why aren’t they still connected?”

“Because the link was severed,” Hatch stated. “Pip wasn’t her pet, he was more of a partner, so it’s like they’ve gotten divorced.”

“It sounds like we need to test this,” Lewis stated. He looked up to the ceiling. “Ricky Bobby, will you please track DJ down and send her here?”

“I can’t,” Ricky Bobby stated at once.

“Wait, haven’t you been telling us that you can find anyone on the ship?” the detective asked, scratching the side of his head.

“I have, but DJ appears to be an anomaly,” the AI said. “I can’t seem to find her.”

“Is it possible that the girl is in a vent shaft or back compartment?” Hatch asked.

“I wouldn’t know that,” Ricky Bobby answered. “I’m doing an individual scan of each of the rooms right now.”

“That’ll take too long and be a waste of your energy,” Hatch said dismissively.

“So DJ is a finder who can’t be found,” Lewis summated, a mystified look on his face.

“What a dumb conundrum,” Hatch grumbled.

“It makes perfect sense to me, actually,” Liesel stated.

“Of course it does.” Hatch shook his head, going back to his microscope.

Sirens burst out overhead, emitting a sharp wailing sound. Red lights strobed from the corner of the lab.

Hatch’s tentacles wrapped protectively around the microscope. “What’s going on?”

“There’s a security breach,” Ricky Bobby reported.

“Is it the monster?” Lewis asked. “Has it escaped?”

“No, it’s not the monster,” Ricky Bobby stated. “Starboards Corp has launched a missile at us.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Tangki System

The ship lurched forward as the missile blasted into the stern. Bailey caught her balance against a workstation as she sprinted onto the bridge, Lewis on her heels.

Dejoure and Jack stood by a console in the middle of the bridge looking at each other apprehensively.

“There you are,” Bailey said, surprised to find Dejoure in such an obvious place. I can’t believe she didn’t register immediately for Ricky Bobby.

The girl looked up with horror in her eyes. “SB is coming after me.”

Bailey shook her head, holding onto nearby stations as she made her way over to the console. “They are trying, but to hell with those guys. We still have weapons. We’ll fight.”

Jack was watching the radar, a calculated expression on his face. “Twelve fighters jumped in to surround us. This was definitely a planned attack.”

Bailey cast a quick look at Dejoure. “Damn, they want you bad.”

The girl was visibly shaking now. “I don’t know why. I’m not a big deal.”

Lewis stepped up beside them, holding onto the console to steady himself. “You are, but you’re our big deal now.”

“Ricky Bobby, can you ready the mains?” Jack asked, his eyes fixed on the radar, the ground shaking under his feet.

“I can’t without taking power away from the shields, and they’re only at thirty percent,” Ricky Bobby said.

Hence the ground shaking, Bailey thought. “And the engines? What’s their status?”

“I’m working on restarting them after the repairs,” Ricky Bobby said.

“So we’re sitting ducks,” Lewis stated.

“At the moment. Another missile has been deployed and is headed for port side,” Ricky Bobby reported. “Minimal damage expected.”

Lewis’s eyes widened with a sudden realization. “They aren’t trying to take us out; they need what we have on board.”

“Ten seconds until detonation,” Ricky Bobby informed them.

“Dammit, we were just getting the ship up and running,” Bailey groused, holding onto the console to brace herself.

The blast knocked her forward, sending her nearly on top of the console. Dejoure flew back, landing against the rail, and Lewis ran to help her up as the lights flashed overhead.

“Is the monster still contained?” Jack asked.

“Yes, the monster is secure. Though a hit to that area of the ship could change that,” Ricky Bobby qualified.

“Well, the shields are going to be down soon, so we need to figure something out,” Bailey said.

“Starboards Corp is trying to establish a link,” Ricky Bobby announced.

“Put them through,” Jack replied.

“Ghost Squadron, this is Mariah Riley with Starboards Corp,” a woman’s voice sounded over the comm.

“Mariah Riley?” Lewis said with a disbelief. “The robot that nearly blew up Ricky Bobby?”

“All the robots at SB are called that,” Dejoure said in a rush. “They’re all the MR06 model.”

“There are probably robots flying every single one of those ships, then,” Bailey guessed.

Lewis agreed with a nod. “That makes them incredibly dangerous.”

Jack pressed the button for the comm. “Mariah, this is Ghost Squadron.”

“You have something that belongs to us. We are requesting permission to dock,” Mariah said.

“DJ isn’t a thing,” Lewis barked, his face flushing red.

“If we allow those ships to dock, they’ll detonate like the last one did,” Bailey pointed out.

DJ rubbed her head, having bumped it during the last assault. “They aren’t going to go away, and this ship isn’t in any position to fight.”

Jack considered the girl and nodded, pressing the button for the comm. “We don’t have anything that belongs you. Stand down. You don’t want to make an enemy of us.” He let out a breath as he released the button, and looked at the others. “Our systems may be down, but we’re bigger.”

“They are calling your bluff,” Ricky Bobby said. “Three missiles have been deployed.”

“Dammit,” Jack said, his eyes firmly shut as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Damn! If they don’t want to risk hurting DJ, why are they trying to blow us up?” Bailey asked, her eyes frantic, watching the approaching missiles on the radar.

Mariah came over the comm again. “You have twenty seconds to release what belongs to us. Comply, and we will redirect the missiles.”

Bailey and Lewis exchanged worried looks.

“Ricky Bobby, do we have enough power to use the gate drives?” Bailey asked.

“If I divert power from other systems, then yes,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Bailey looked to Jack. This was his decision, but she hoped the look on her face made it clear what they should do.

“Ricky Bobby, jump us to a secure location,” he decided. “Something that won’t stress the drives, but will get us the hell out of here.”

“Confirmed,” Ricky Bobby said. “Ship will gate in three, two, one.”

Bailey had never been on a ship when it jumped, so she wasn’t fully prepared for the sudden sensation of being stretched. She felt like a piece of putty being lengthened. Her vision blurred. Her ears rang. She felt a weight on the top of her head. She blinked several times, encouraging her eyes to focus. The lights had dimmed so low that she could only make out the outlines of her teammates.

“Roll call,” Jack said, leaning forward. The light from the console spilled onto his face, making his cheeks look sunken.

“Here,” Lewis said, his voice raspy.

“I’m here,” Dejoure called out.

“Yeah, I’m here,” Bailey confirmed.

“And Liesel and Hatch are still in his lab but they are fine too,” Ricky Bobby informed.

Bailey looked at the radar screen. There were no ships around them any longer, to her relief.

“Ricky Bobby, full report,” Jack demanded.

“I’ve jumped us to the Davida system,” the AI stated. “We sustained damage to the outer decks. The ship needs thirty-six hours to complete repairs and recharge the gate drives. I recommend using minimal power to expedite repairing the engines.”

Jack nodded. “I agree. We need to be ready in case Starboards follows us.”

Dejoure tensed. “Do you think they can? We are in a different system.”

“I don’t know. I think they only knew where we were before because they tracked the upload,” Jack admitted.

Lewis turned to Dejoure, and clapped a hand on her shoulder as he leaned down to look her in the eye. “You don’t have to worry about them. They aren’t coming after you.”

“What? They aren’t?” she asked, hiccupping on the words.

He shook his head, then looked at Jack and Bailey. “Mariah Riley asked us to release what belonged to them; I think they want the monster back.”

“Well, Monstre did put a lot into creating it,” Jack reasoned.

“Or Starboards put a lot into producing it,” Lewis countered.

Jack shook his head. “Monstre created it, and now Vance is putting a lot of pressure on Starboards to get the monster back.”

Bailey looked between Lewis and Jack, trying to understand. “Harlowe, do you not think that Monstre Corp is connected to this?”

Lewis shook his head, pulling his gaze away from his uncle. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’m reserving judgment until we have more information.”

“Well, there are a lot more files to review,” Jack said. “And we have time to investigate.”

“Actually, something in this system has come to my attention,” Ricky Bobby said.

Bailey looked up, her eyes wide with anxious worry. “What is it? Are we in danger?”

“Not as long as we remain stationary,” Ricky Bobby told her. “However, a nearby planet is in trouble and needs our help. It’s dying.”

Chapter Thirty

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

“Upon arriving in this system, I became aware of a distress call from the planet Berosia,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Hatch let out a long groan as he paced back and forth in front of his main workstation.

“Yeah, I know,” Jack agreed.

“What’s the significance of Berosia?” Lewis asked.

“It’s the planet our cloaking crystals come from,” Hatch told the detective, his head down.

Jack gave Lewis a pointed look. “The only planet where the crystals can be found.”

“Okay, so we can’t let that planet die,” Bailey said matter-of-factly.

Lewis nodded. “What’s happening?”

“Berosia has two artificial suns,” Ricky Bobby explained. “Its original sun burned out fifty years ago. One of the artificial suns, Alpha Tari L, has lost its power source and isn’t operating.”

“Why hasn’t anyone fixed it?” Lewis asked.

“That’s a good question,” Jack said.

“According to the distress call, the planet is without means and was hoping to contact a passing ship who might have access to the sun,” Ricky Bobby related.

“And then we popped up, literally,” Bailey said.

Jack nodded. “Good timing. Or horrible timing, depending on how we look at it.”

“Well, we have to help them,” Bailey insisted. She looked at Hatch and Liesel. “I mean, can we?”

“It’s actually a relatively easy fix,” Hatch began, “although a bit dangerous, especially for the untrained. One of the suns heats the planet, while the other provides light. Alpha Tari L is the latter. When it went out, Berosia was cast in darkness, putting everything on the planet in danger.”

“No photosynthesis,” Lewis stated.

Liesel nodded. “That’s correct. In essence, the light bulb went out.”

Hatch scoffed. “You are severely oversimplifying things. The power sources for these types of suns are incredibly unstable. They are prone to langmuir waves and thermal runaway.”

“So, we need to buzz over to this sun and replace the power source?” Bailey asked. “Is that difficult?”

Hatch shook his head. “I have most of the material on hand because the design is based on a xenon arc lamp. That’s not the tricky part.”

“Do tell, the anticipation is killing me,” Lewis said.

“These suns are big orbs. The power supply is inside the orb; getting down there is the hard part,” Hatch explained.

“Usually a droid will access the source during setup,” Liesel added.

Hatch nodded. “The droids are small and can navigate the narrow shafts leading to the power supply.”

“I’ll do it.” Dejoure spoke up for the first time since the jump, gaining everyone’s attention.

“What? Of course you won’t,” Lewis said dismissively, looking at the small girl. “No one was asking you to volunteer.”

She nodded her head insistently. “They say the area is small. You need someone who can get in there easily. That’s me.”

Lewis was shaking his head when Hatch cut him off.

“She’s right,” the Londil said. “You need someone fast and small who can get down there.”

“Why do they have to be fast?” Bailey asked.

“Well, once the power supply is in place, the sun will illuminate again…”

“And blind anyone near it,” Lewis guessed.

Hatch nodded and turned to Dejoure. “You’d have roughly sixty seconds to clear the shafts, get back to the surface, and get away from the sun before it damages your eyes.”

“Can’t you make her special glasses?” Jack asked.

“I could, but I’d need time,” he explained. “I have welding goggles she could use, but they are so bulky that they’d slow you down for how often you’d need to adjust them. And actually, anything I could make would only lessen the damage that would be done if she doesn’t make the sixty-second window.”

Lewis shook his head. “DJ, you don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do,” she insisted. “This is what Ghost Squadron does, and I want to be a part of this team.”

Lewis looked at Jack. “Tell her this is crazy. This isn’t what the team does.”

His uncle looked at him heavily. “I can’t. She’s right. If Julianna and Eddie were here and had heard that distress call, they’d respond.” Jack lowered his chin, his eyes finding the girl’s. “But, DJ, you don’t have to do it. We can find another way.”

“But time is a factor. This is my decision, right?” she asked him, her chin low.

“Of course it is,” he conceded. “We don’t own you. You’re free to leave Ricky Bobby, stay with us, or go back to Starboards.”

She shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere; I want to stay. And if this is my decision, then I’m doing it. I’m the only one who can fit down the shaft, and I want to do something that matters. I want to help a planet and be a part of this team.”

Lewis looked at Bailey, silently urging her to say something to change Dejoure’s mind.

The lieutenant approached the girl, and leaned down a little so she was the same height. “Then we’d better get you suited up."

Lewis looked at her with disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re going to take her to do this?”

Bailey gave him an unapologetic smile. “Yes, I am. And so are you, detective.” She looked at DJ, still smiling. “I’ll fly you to the orb, but you have to do the rest.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Q-Ship,Davida System

A dark orb hung in the blackness, with distant stars and planets sprinkled around it.

“Pip, how much longer does Berosia have?” Bailey asked.

“The planet has been in the dark for approximately sixty-eight hours and forty-three minutes,” the AI stated. “Irreversible damage to the planet, tides, and wildlife will set in after three days of no light.”

“I guess I’d better speed up.” Bailey ignited the thrusters, seemingly at one with the Q-Ship. It hadn’t taken her long to feel like the spacecraft was an extension of her own body. She had so much more to learn as a pilot, but the anxiety during flying was gone. Every flight was a thrill; even though they were on a risky mission, soaring put her at ease.

Lewis turned from the copilot’s seat.

“Don’t you dare ask DJ how’s she’s doing,” Bailey spat before he could say anything.

He cut his eyes at her, a perturbed look on his face. “And why the hell not?”

“Would you ask me how I’m doing before a mission?” she asked.

“No, but you can take care of yourself,” Lewis shot back, and then shrank back a little, shaking his head. “Yeah, fine, point taken. But I’ll remind you that she’s only twelve years old.”

“Don’t underestimate people based on age or appearance. Ever,” Bailey said, tightening her grip on the controls.

Lewis studied her quietly for a moment. “Okay, fair enough,” he said finally and turned to face Dejoure. “So, super-secret agent. You have any questions?”

She shook her head, her black hair pinned out of her face. “Hatch gave me my instructions. He said to replace the power supply, and then hurry the hell out of there.”

Lewis laughed. “Gotta love that guy’s brevity.”

“Pip, please set us on course for the access point on Alpha Tari L,” Bailey stated.

“Done,” he said, keeping his tone businesslike for once.

Bailey had almost been expecting a joke from the never-serious AI. Maybe he’s nervous for Dejoure, too.

“DJ, I’m going to land as close to the access door as I can,” she said, looking back at the girl.

Dejoure nodded, her face pale. “I’ll be fine.”

“Of course you will,” Bailey agreed as they neared the strange artificial sun.

Its surface was slick, unlike the rough, liquid, molten lava exterior of other suns. It was just a giant light. Such a strange thing to hang in space.

She thought it was incredible that Berosia had found a way to reach out for help, to survive, even when it seemed like the end had befallen them. It supported her belief that giving up was usually a choice made by the weak and uninspired.

“We’ll be on comms, so if you need anything…” Lewis told the girl. He looked at Bailey before finishing his sentence, reading the tough look on her face. “Anyway, it’s an easy job. In and out. Nothing to it,” he assured her instead.

Bailey set the ship down six meters from the opening that led down into the internal workings of Alpha Tari L. She stood, grabbing the toolkit that Hatch had put together for Dejoure. It contained the power supply, which was ridiculously small considering how important it was. But she had told Harlowe not to judge based on age or appearance; that went for size, too.

Bailey handed over the toolbox after the girl’s gloves were secured. She looked so small in the space suit, like a doll dressed up as an astronaut.

“Remember to guide the power supply into place gradually,” she instructed her. “You don’t want to risk breaking the fragile filaments.”

Dejoure nodded, looking to be having trouble swallowing.

“And don’t forget that there’s a breakaway piece that falls off when the power supply is put into place,” Bailey added, suddenly feeling out of breath.

“I remember,” the girl assured her.

Of course she does, Bailey thought.

The girl had been paying close attention during Hatch’s instructions, but so had Bailey. She wasn’t narrow enough to fit through the series of shafts, but she wanted to believe she could make herself fit if, for some reason, Dejoure backed out.

Lewis eyed his watch. “Okay, we have less than thirty minutes, but you don’t need that long. Two minutes down there, less than one minute back, okay? Observe all potential hazards on the way to the target, so you’ll have an easier time working around them on your way back.”

Dejoure smiled, a rawness in her eyes like she might cry. “I’ll be back in forty-five seconds or less. I want to give us plenty of time to get away.”

Bailey nodded and walked past the girl to secure the chamber. “Once you’re ready, give me the signal, and I’ll open the airlock.”

Dejoure moved slowly behind her, each of her footsteps weighted. “Okay. No problem.”

Bailey opened the secure chamber, and waited for the girl to lumber through to the other side before closing it. She peered through the viewing window as the child clamped her helmet into place.

Dejoure turned, a forced smile on her face as she looked back at Bailey and Lewis.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

“Seriously, why do the shafts down to the target area have to be so narrow?” Lewis asked, pacing.

“Because they weren’t designed for humans,” Bailey answered steadily as she checked over her controls, readying the ship for flight.

Lewis nodded, but it was still shitty in his mind. Humans were never meant to do upkeep on these artificial suns, yet who steps in when a planet can’t afford a galactic maintenance crew?

“You sure are protective of DJ,” Bailey observed, flicking her eyes up to watch him as he paced. “Do you have a younger sister that she reminds you of?”

He shook his head.

“Cousin?” she pressed.

Lewis paused, eyeing his partner speculatively. “No. I’m an only child. Jack is my only extended family, and he has no children.”

“Yet,” Bailey said with a sneaky grin.

Lewis cut his eyes at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” she sang.

“I’ve got the access door opened,” Dejoure reported through the comm overhead.

Lewis let out a breath. “Good, was it difficult?”

“The locks are a bit tight, but it only took me twenty seconds to open them,” she replied.

“Okay, plan for it to take you half that time to put them back into place,” Lewis said.

“I’m entering the shaft now.” Dejoure’s voice was slightly breathless.

Bailey flipped multiple switches on the dash, her shoulders relaxed. Lewis didn’t know how she could remain calm when they were sitting on a dead sun that was about to be illuminated and potentially blind them all, but he was glad that she was.

“Dog biscuits,” Dejoure exclaimed over the comm. “This shaft is tight.”

“Can you fit?” Lewis asked.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine, but I’m having to carry the tool box between my legs, which makes this pretty awkward,” she related.

“Well, be sure to hold on to the ladder tightly,” he advised.

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere, don’t worry,” Dejoure said lightly. “If I lose my grip, I just have to lean back, and the tunnel will catch me. Seriously, neither of you would have fit in here.”

“Are you calling me fat?” Bailey asked, a laugh in her voice.

“No,” Dejoure said at once. “Not at all. I just meant—”

“Ignore the lieutenant,” Lewis urged, shaking his head.

Bailey was grinning wide, a playful expression dancing in her eyes. “I think she was saying I have a big ass.”

Lewis put his back to Bailey, so as not to burst out with nervous laughter. “How far have you made it?”

“Not far,” Dejoure replied. “It’s going to take me longer than two minutes to get down there.”

“That’s fine,” Lewis stated. “Just take extra care to plan your escape. If there’s a slippery rung on the ladder, make note of it.”

The girl’s breath filled the comm for the next several seconds as she made the journey down to the basement of Alpha Tari L. “I’m almost to the end.”

“Okay, that means you’re coming to the horizontal tunnel,” Bailey said. “Remember that you’re going to have to back into it.”

A loud clattering echoed over the comm.

Bailey whipped her head up, her eyes startled. Lewis spun around, his eyes matching hers.

“DJ? What happened? Are you alright?” he demanded.

A sharp intake of breath reverberated over the comm. “I’m fine. But I dropped the toolbox.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure took the rungs of the ladder faster, hurrying down to where the toolbox had fallen, following the trail of clanging noises it had made as it descended. It had been so difficult to manage it while climbing down in the cramped shaft.

If the power supply was broken, she’d already failed. The team will hate me. They might get rid of me. Worst of all, I’ll kill an entire planet.

Most twelve-year-old’s mistakes didn’t have such big repercussions, but Dejoure had wanted this. She’d asked for it.

With great responsibility, comes great risks.

When she thought she was close to the bottom of the ladder, she dropped. The fall was farther than she expected, and her helmet bumped back and forth between the shaft wall and the ladder. The light attached to her helmet bobbed, making a strange psychedelic show as she descended.

When her feet landed, they hit the toolbox, and she nearly slipped as she kicked it farther back. Great, Dejoure thought.

“What’s going on?” Lewis asked. “Are you all right?”

Breathing hard, she crouched down. This was where the shaft curved and she had to scoot backwards.

“I’m fine,” she responded, “but I can’t check on the power supply yet.”

She didn’t remember ever feeling claustrophobic before, but stuffed inside a space suit and tightly encapsulated in the narrow tunnel, she could feel the world closing in on her. She took a deep breath and backed up, her spine scratching up against the curve in the tunnel. There was no room to negotiate.

She pushed her feet back behind her and moved them around, trying to find the toolbox. Her left foot knocked into it, sending it back an inch.

Dog biscuits. She clenched her eyes closed momentarily.

Shimmying backwards, Dejoure pressed closely to the right side of the tunnel. If she could slide back beside the toolbox, she could grab it.

This part of the shaft was slightly larger than the first, but only because there were no rungs. She hoped that the horizontal tunnel would give her enough room to clear the toolbox.

The corner of the box caught on her suit, dragging back several inches. Dejoure reached down to unhook it, and caught the edge with her hand. She encouraged it up, pulling it in front of her, then pressed back behind it until her feet came out over a clearing.

She was there. At the final drop that led into the source room.

“I’m almost there,” she said into the comm.

She didn’t know if she wanted a response. Bailey had put her at ease with her fat joke earlier, and Lewis’s protective manner made her feel good—and Dejoure couldn’t remember the last time someone really cared about her, and wasn’t just keeping her alive because her death would be a major inconvenience. So she wanted to hear Lewis’s and Bailey’s voices, but she also needed silence to concentrate.

“Good, we’re here,” Lewis said, keeping it brief.

Dejoure angled her legs down, trying to find the rungs. It was supposedly a short ladder, but she still didn’t want to fall. Unlike on the surface, there was gravity inside of Alpha Tari L. Hatch had explained why, but Dejoure didn’t understand half of what he said.

She pulled the toolbox out of the shaft, and its weight pulled her right shoulder down, nearly making her fall. She climbed down the rest of the way, scanning the dark compartment. It was a round room with a high ceiling and smooth walls. On the far side was a series of units, one of which housed the power supply.

She opened the toolbox, pushing various instruments out of her way. The fall had put everything in disarray. She found the power supply and turned it over in her hand.

Letting out a breath, she said, “The power supply appears to be undamaged.”

“That’s good news,” Lewis said over the comm.

“Can you see the unit it goes into?” Bailey asked.

Dejoure was comforted that Bailey had been paying attention to Hatch’s instructions, and that she wasn’t in this alone.

She scanned the far wall, reading the different coding on the front of the boxes. The power supply unit was where Hatch said it would be, in the center of a row of five. “Yes.”

“Good, get that puppy replaced and get out of there,” Bailey ordered, her voice light.

Dejoure lifted up on her tiptoes. “Yeah, about that,” she said, completely bewildered as she tried to hop but found herself hindered by the gravity boots. “I can’t reach the unit.”

“What?” Lewis asked. “You have to be small enough to get in there, but then you’re too short to fix the power supply?”

“Droids are usually fixing them,” Bailey reminded him.

What I wouldn’t give for a droid’s help right now. Dejoure pulled a few implements from the toolbox as she listened to her teammates. Maybe I can still make the fix blind…

She didn’t like using that word, since her eyesight was exactly what was at stake, but blind is exactly what she was at the moment.

She held a flathead over her head, trying to wedge it into the side of the unit to open the case. It reached, but standing on her tiptoes and extending her arms affected her precision. She couldn’t imagine actually installing the power supply without seeing what she was doing.

“Dejoure, try standing on the toolbox,” Lewis suggested.

She dropped her head to look at the box sitting on the floor. It was roughly a foot tall. That might be enough.

“Okay.” She slid it into place and stepped up on the narrow object, nearly losing her balance while holding the power supply in her hand.

“Did it work?” Lewis asked.

She managed to find her footing, and looked up to see that she was eye level with the unit. “Yes, but it’s a bit awkward.”

“Awkward will have to do,” he said. “Let us know when the power supply is in place, and we’ll start the timer.”

Dejoure felt sweat beading above her lip. She wished she could swipe it away, but the helmet prevented that. Her hands were shaking when she pulled out the drawer for the power supply unit. She tried to wrap her gloved hands around the burnt-out piece, but they were too big. Instead, she used the flathead in her right hand to pry the supply out of its spot.

It snapped and broke into pieces.

“No, no, no,” she whispered, a tightness that usually accompanied tears springing to her throat.

“What is it?” Bailey asked.

“I broke the old supply getting it out,” Dejoure admitted feebly.

“That’s okay, just clear out all the pieces,” Bailey instructed, her voice calm. “There’s an instrument you can use in the tool…” Her voice trailed away, as she remembered that the girl was standing precariously on the top of the toolbox. “You know, it should be fine as long as the connections are clean,” she continued. “Just wipe out the tray as best you can.”

Dejoure didn’t respond, but nodded to herself. She almost blew to clear the small, thin pieces of glass before she remembered she was wearing the space helmet. With her gloved hands, she checked the connector parts. They seemed clear.

“I’m about to install the new power supply,” she told them.

“Okay,” Lewis said, a sharp tension in his voice.

The power supply nearly popped out of Dejoure’s hands from nervousness as she lowered it into the case. Hatch said to slide the anterior end in first, to protect the filaments, and then snap it into place. Easy, right?

Maybe if she wasn’t vibrating with fear, and hyperventilating.

“One big breath,” Bailey said over the comm.

“I’m trying,” she sputtered.

“You don’t have to try to breathe, you’ve been doing it automatically all your life,” the lieutenant said, her voice taking the edge from her words. “Even if you hold your breath, you’ll only pass out, and your body will reset and resume breathing again.”

Dejoure didn’t understand what the woman meant. Her breath was ragged, making her pulse beat louder in her head.

“Trust yourself, DJ,” Bailey encouraged. “Your body knows what to do, and so do you. Quit overthinking it, and allow yourself to get the job done.”

Dejoure had been so focused on controlling her breath that she was holding it.

She let out the air in her lungs, and the next breath came automatically, full and deep, sending a warmth to her chest. Her hand suddenly steadied as it held the power supply above the case.

“I’m ready,” she said, and to her surprise, her voice was sturdy.

“And we’re up here, ready to fly you away,” Bailey said gently.

Dejoure closed her eyes and lowered the power supply, feeling for the right alignment. When it seemed correct, she opened her eyes and slid the front of the power supply into the docking station, and then snapped the backside in, breaking off the casing at the bottom, the way Hatch had told her to. A light on the side of the unit blinked red several times, and Dejoure found herself holding her breath again, wondering if she had done it right.

Maybe the power supply is broken.

A loud beep emanated from the unit, and the light flashed twice more before turning a solid green.

“I did it!” Dejoure exclaimed, thrusting the drawer back into the compartment and sliding off the toolbox.

“The timer has started,” Lewis informed her.

She reached down and picked up the toolbox, lumbering forward.

“Leave the toolbox,” the detective ordered.


“No! Leave it. You don’t have a lot of time, and it caused you too much trouble on the way down,” he reasoned.

Dejoure didn’t argue with him. She dropped the toolbox and climbed up the ladder two rungs at a time, making it into the tunnel in only seconds.

“What about the access door?” she asked, shimmying forward, her knees and hands pushing against the side of the tube.

“Someone—something—else can return to close it,” Lewis said, his tone calm, but words adamant.

“I’m almost to the ladder,” she told him.

“You have to pick up the speed,” he urged her. “You’ve only got forty seconds.”

I thought I was making good time! How did it go by so fast?

The ladder was thirty feet long.

I’m never gonna make it!

“Remember that the way you talk to yourself affects you,” Bailey’s voice chimed over the comm. “You always have a choice between ‘I can’ and ‘I can’t’.”

Right. Okay. Dejoure took a breath as she arrived at the ladder. She funneled her way up, using the rungs to help her straighten out her body. She began the climb, but it was so much harder going up than it was coming down, even without the toolbox. The suit was bulky and heavy and brushed against the sides of the shaft, slowing her momentum.

I can. I can. I can, she told herself stubbornly, skipping rungs and pulling her body up using her arms.

She could hear a loud ticking start up below her; Alpha Tari L was activating, getting ready to turn on. Hatch had told her that it would be dim at first, but after sixty seconds, it would be bright enough to blind. After ninety seconds, it would fry the cornea.

I can. I can. I can, she repeated, seeing the light at the top of the access door. Light was no good. Never before had she wished for darkness. Usually she tried to sleep with the light on, but never again if she made it out of this, if her life didn’t plunge into complete darkness.

“I can. I can. I can,” Dejoure said aloud. Only five more feet. So close.

“You have twenty seconds,” Lewis advised over the comm.

Dejoure pulled herself up, reaching for the last rung, skipping three to get there. She threw herself up and over the side, scrambling, kicking, doing everything she could to clear the tunnel. The ship wasn’t far. The hatch door was open, and Lewis was peering through the viewing window next to the airlock.

She set off at a sprint, but in the suit and low gravity, it translated to more of a slow jog. Under her, the sun was starting to glow, the intensity growing insanely fast.

“Ten seconds,” Lewis said, his voice urgent.

Dejoure pushed her shoulders forward, her body weight propelling her onward. The brightness of the sun under her feet was almost too much. She squinted her eyes and sped on, leaping when the ship was only a few feet away.

She worried that the weight of the suit would make her come up short, but she caught the edge of the ship with her foot, and slid forward. She landed hard on her back, but didn’t stop, rolling farther into the ship as it rose off the surface, the hatch door closing behind her, casting her in beautiful darkness. She blinked up at the ceiling, enjoying every single detail her eyes could see.

“Good job, super-secret agent,” Bailey’s voice rang over the comm. “You did it.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

“So she saved a planet, what’s the big deal?” Hatch asked, waddling to a table and picking up a socket wrench before returning to the tracker lying on his main workstation.

I’ve never saved a planet before,” Bailey said. She looked at Lewis. “How about you?”

He shook his head. “Not once.”

“I have,” Pip announced. “Have you heard of Nexus?”

“Oh yeah, that’s supposed to be a really peaceful planet,” Lewis stated.

“Yeah, well, thanks to me, it still exists,” Pip said.

“Okay, besides Pip, most of us can’t say we’ve saved a planet,” Bailey qualified.

Hatch turned, giving her a half-irritated, half-amused look. “That’s exactly what Ghost Squadron does. We recently saved the planet of Savern, after a long-standing revolution went bad. Your orphan isn’t that special.”

Lewis gave Bailey an entertained smile. “I think we’re the only ones who aren’t that big of a deal. Everyone here has saved a planet.”

“I’m putting it on my list of things to accomplish,” she joked.

Hatch angled his tentacle at her. “You were flying the ship, so I think you can take partial credit for saving Berosia.”

“What about me?” Lewis asked.

“What about you?" Hatch looked at him for a long moment. “Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re even doing here in the first place.”

“I’m the brains,” he answered with a laugh.

Hatch shook his head. “Oh, save us all, we’re in trouble.”

Bailey gave Lewis a commiserate expression. “Actually, Lewis thinks he’s finally found the link between Starboards Corp and Monstre.”

Hatch doubled back, grabbing a different socket for his wrench. “Yes, Jack told me you were skeptical about Solomon Vance being behind this.”

“I was, but not so much anymore. It’s all about evidence,” Lewis related. “I don’t make false assumptions based on hunches, or allow gut feelings or grudges to color my impressions.”

Hatch studied the wrench in his hands, not really seeing it. “You know, detective, maybe I’ve misjudged you. You’re not a pure idiot.”

“Thanks,” he said a bit awkwardly. “I found some interesting stuff while studying Starboards Corp’s files, which leads me to believe they have dealings with a secret organization, but the details are unclear, but it’s all speculative.”

“And you think it’s Monstre?” Hatch asked.

“I do,” Lewis confirmed. “There’s definitely something big pulling Starboards’ puppet strings. And it’s an organization farther out than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“What are you saying? It’s far on the frontier?” Hatch asked.

Lewis shook his head. “I’m thinking it’s in another galaxy.”

The Londil looked up, a startled expression on his face. “Are you listening to yourself? Who would have dealings with a corporation in another galaxy? Why would you even want to do that? The cost alone would be astronomical, not to mention the logistics.”

“Right,” Lewis said, combing his hands through his hair. “Which begs the question what’s in this other galaxy that makes it worth the commute, and what is Starboards’ connection to it?”

Hatch laughed. “Another galaxy. You aren’t even hearing yourself, kid.”

The detective shook his head and lowered his eyes with a bit of disappointment. It was far-fetched, but he stood by his theory. The fuel cost. The gating. The strange locations. It was the only plausible conclusion.

“You know, all great truths begin as blasphemy,” Bailey said, looking at Hatch, rebellion written in her eyes.

“Don’t think that quoting George Bernard Shaw will grant you any extra credit from me, lieutenant.” Hatch went back to the sockets, peering down at them like he was trying to figure out which one he needed, although he hadn’t used any of them during the conversation.

“What would get me extra credit?” she joked.

“Being an aficionado of classic cars,” he answered at once.

“Oh, well, I’m limited there,” she admitted. “I’ve only ever worked on a 1967 Thunderbird convertible, my father’s pride and joy. It was aqua blue and white, and in pristine condition. That’s where my knowledge of classic cars begins and ends.”

“A what?” Hatch asked, looking up in awe.

“And now he’s in love,” Pip chimed in.

Liesel bustled into the lab, Dejoure on her heels. The girl looked rested and recovered from her ordeal.

“Per your request, I’ve brought the lovely DJ for your observations,” the engineer said.

DJ shrank back a bit. “Observations?”

Hatch shook his head. “Smooth move, Diesel. How are repairs?”

Liesel reached her hand above her head, stretching like she just got out of bed. “The engines are nearly ready. I’d say another hour before they’re back up. The shields and cloaks are still down, but that’s not really something I can do anything about.”

“The monster?” Bailey guessed.

Liesel nodded. “Some beings have more control over the etheric force than others. Fighting it is futile.”

Hatch shook his head. “Fighting it is science, and I intend to figure out exactly how to do that.”

“Do you have a plan?” Bailey asked.

“I believe it’s sitting right in front of him,” Lewis said, pointing to the device laying on the workstation.

Hatch raised an eyebrow, regarding the man with a curious glare. “Yes, I might have a plan for the monster, but it’s not completely ready yet.”

“Well, do you have the equipment we talked about to test that other thing?” Bailey asked, her tone loaded.

Hatch’s eyes flicked to Dejoure, a sour expression on his face. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“What?” Dejoure said, her eyes widening. “Does this have to do with me?”

Hatch didn’t answer, only turned and waddled for the back of his lab. “I’ll be right back. I have the lobotomy kit back here somewhere.”

Lewis rolled his eyes. “He’s joking…I think.”

Liesel smiled down at Dejoure. “Tell me, how did you sleep last night? Did you have any good dreams?”

The girl looked to the side, taken aback by the strange questioning. “Uhhh…yeah, I guess so.” Her face changed, crunching up. “Actually no. Now that I think about it, I had a dream that SB came back and attacked Ricky Bobby. It was scary, but not as much as the last time.”

Liesel nodded knowingly. “It sounds like your subconscious is trying to work through the traumatic event. That’s perfectly normal.”

Dejoure let out a loud sigh. “I guess so. It was a short dream, thankfully. Ricky Bobby had just been repaired, so the ship jumped right away to avoid any damage.” A vengeful look crossed the young girl’s face. “I can’t stand stupid Suck Butt. That place is pure evil.”

Bailey was still laughing at “Suck Butt”. “That’s a great name for them. Can you tell us more about the training they made you and the others do?”

A dark look crossed the girl’s face. “Sure, but it was pretty boring stuff. There was everything from telekinesis to foresight training. I failed most of it because, well, I’m a kid; I’m not a superhero. I don’t know what they were expecting, trying to get kids to tell them the future.”

“You said you failed most of it,” Lewis replied. “What did you excel at?”

Dejoure shrugged. “I didn’t really. I had some luck a time or two, guessing what was on the tester’s card. It was all chance, though. Sooner or later, I was going to guess their number—that’s just playing the odds.”

“Maybe,” Bailey said, an uncertain look on her face.

“All right,” Hatch grumbled, coming back from the other side of his lab wheeling a piece of equipment. “I found my EEG equipment. Get ready, kid, this is going to hurt.”

Dejoure backed up a step, hiding behind Liesel.

“He’s playing,” Liesel explained.

“I’m not,” Hatch countered.

“An EEG monitors electrical activity in the brain, and is a completely noninvasive reporting technique,” Liesel said, putting her arm around Dejoure’s shoulder.

Hatch puffed out his cheeks, giving the engineer a punishing stare. “Why do you have to ruin everything?”

“Why do you want to run tests on me?” Dejoure asked, fear oozing from her voice as she shrank back against Liesel.

“We think that you’re special, and want to see if we can figure out how,” Bailey assured her.

Dejoure shook her head. “I’m not. I’m a nobody. The other kids were special, but they’d been at SB longer and had more training. I wasn’t any good at the tests.”

“But you think for yourself, DJ,” Lewis stated. “And that’s one way that individuals do better than their peers. Maybe you have some unique ability that SB was trying to uncover.”

“They weren’t uncovering abilities,” Dejoure said, her voice almost frantic now. “They were trying to make us have them. They were forcing them on us, training us every single day. Please tell me you’re not like them?”

Bailey shook her head. “We’re not at all like them, and you know that. But if you have a special ability, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Maybe it could help us.”

“I don’t!” Dejoure yelled, almost in tears now.

Hatch gave Bailey a contemptuous glare. “Well, as I predicted, this is a complete waste of our time.”

She shot him a seething glare. “It’s not. She’s afraid because of what Suck Butt has done to her.”

Hatch nodded and looked at Dejoure. “Your friends here seem to think that you might have a psychic skill, like your ability to find things. I can run a series of tests to prove that they are right or wrong, but I’m going to need you to cooperate with me.”

Dejoure seemed to consider him. She took a cautious step forward, away from Liesel’s protective embrace. “Okay, I’ll let you test me, but you’ll find out what I already know: I’m completely normal.”

Hatch puffed out his cheeks, his patience as thin as tissue. “Good. The sooner we do this, the sooner—”

Sirens wailed overhead, making Dejoure jump. The red lights that were too frequent lately streaked overhead.

“Enemy ships have jumped within range,” Ricky Bobby reported overhead. “Starboards’ fleet has our ship surrounded, and has fired two missiles.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

“Oh, hell!” Hatch bellowed, three of his tentacles reaching up into the air. “We can’t take a hit now, the engines have just been repaired.”

“And without the shields, there will be considerable damage,” Liesel reminded them.

“We need to jump,” Bailey said, her voice adamant.

Hatch nodded. “Yes, no question. We’re not in a position to fight. Ricky Bobby, jump us into the asteroid belt in this system.”

“Ship is jumping in three, two, one,” Ricky Bobby counted down.

The lights dimmed. Lewis felt like his skin was melting off his bones, his mind turning inside out. Jumping was the strangest sensation, even worse than teleporting.

The lights went out completely. A great shuddering rocked the ship. The emergency lights kicked on as a loud, creaking groan echoed from under their feet.

Everyone looked around, uncertainty on their faces.

“Ricky Bobby, report please,” Bailey said at once.

Hatch cleared his throat. “I believe that’s my line.”

Bailey frowned apologetically in the dim light. “Sorry.”

“Ricky Bobby, report,” Hatch repeated.

“The jump was successful,” Ricky Bobby stated. “We are safely cruising in the asteroid belt; however, that last jump appears to have unsettled the monster. It seems to be expanding.”

“What? What does that mean?” Bailey asked.

“I’m not sure,” the AI admitted. “The monster has remained roughly the same mass since boarding the ship, but its energy has shifted. It could be that it has been resting this entire time, and is now fully charged.”

“Which would mean we need to get it out of this ship,” Hatch stated.

“Not to mention that the shields and cloaks don’t work as long as the monster is onboard, and we’ve got Starboards on our asses,” Bailey added.

Two of Hatch’s tentacles reached over to his workstation and began typing, while he looked elsewhere. “I suspect that they might be after us again very soon.”

“They did find us after we jumped,” Bailey said. “But why do you suspect they’ll find us again? How would they?”

“It’s the D-factor,” Hatch explained, moving over to his computer to examine the screen. “I was able to confirm that the mineral is part of the chemical composition of the monster. Not only that, but it’s a highly traceable mineral.”

“And Starboards Corp has been seeking it out and buying it up from all over,” Lewis stated. “They have a way of finding the mineral.”

Hatch nodded. “Yes. Jack found a report of three pirate vessels carrying D-factor getting robbed recently.”

“The Trids I was after on Onyx Station when you teleported me,” Bailey began, “They were trying to get rid of a large, black rock. They seemed afraid to have it for some reason.”

“It’s a trick,” Lewis explained. “Starboards has been posting on the Dark Web, asking for pirates to round up all the doromantinium. Once they do, Starboards finds them, steals the mineral, and disposes of the pirates.”

“They used that tactic to go after a mine inside Federation territory that would have been off-limits to them,” Hatch elaborated. “There are only two doromantinium mines in this galaxy that I’m aware of. One is in a heavily protected colony area in the Behemoth system, and the other is the one that Phoenix Tech was operating.”

“So they had been acquiring this mineral through different channels to create the monster,” Bailey pieced together. “Then once they had enough and the monster was operational, they sent it into Phoenix Tech to wipe out the people and the rest of the supply. But why?”

“I think the monster we’re holding is the first, but it isn’t the last one that they have planned,” Hatch posited.

“And the monster lets Starboards Corp track us, which means they’ll be back,” Bailey said.

Lewis’s eyes shot straight to Dejoure. “Your dream last night. You saw Starboards Corp come after us. You even said we jumped right away to protect the repairs that were just made.”

Dejoure looked to have swallowed a ball of wax. Her eyes toggled to different people, uncertainty written in them. “It was a dream. Just me trying to deal with what had happened, like Liesel said.”

“DJ, do your dreams come true often?” Lewis asked.

The girl looked toward the exit, hesitation heavy in her eyes. “Yeah, maybe. I mean…there’s at least one dream every night that happens the next day.”

“At least one?” Hatch asked, his voice rising.

Dejoure blanched. “It’s usually—well, almost always—something stupid. I see someone trip and fall, or I stub my toe, or I get an answer wrong.”

“You were exposed to less before,” the mechanic reasoned. “Now your scope is much bigger, so these premonitions are going to tell bigger stories.”

“Maybe,” Dejoure said nervously.

“What happened after we jumped in your dream?” Lewis asked her. “Do you remember?”

She shook her head. “I only remember waking up and feeling the need to hide.”

“That’s exactly what we need to do,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead. “Starboards Corp has found us yet again. The asteroid belt is providing some coverage for us, but the ships are entering the area and will soon fire missiles.”

“They want their damn monster back,” Bailey said.

“They can have it.” Hatch’s tentacle reached over and picked up the device he’d been working on. “I wasn’t finished refining this, but it will have to do. It’s a tracker I created, using the sample you acquired, to stick into the monster’s biosynthetic framework.”

“A tracker?” Bailey asked. “Why do we need that if we let it go? Couldn’t we figure out how to find D-factor, the same as Starboards?”

Hatch nodded. “Yes, we could, and that would be helpful for finding Starboards for instance, or finding anyone holding the mineral who might be gearing up to sell it to the corporation. However, my instinct tells me that the monster will lead us to Monstre Corp and to those who were uploaded, since we found no record of them in Starboards’ files.”

“So we stick a tracker on the monster, and then…what?” Lewis asked. “Let it go?”

“Not quite,” Hatch qualified. “It needs to be led off the ship.”

“You mean that it needs to be baited to follow a specific, strategic path,” Bailey inferred, excitement behind her eyes.

“You read my mind, Lieutenant,” Hatch said, and he actually smiled.

“I bet you’re thinking that I look like the perfect worm for the hook, aren’t you?” she asked.

“I was thinking of you as more of a minnow, but yes.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Lower Deck, Hiding behind a distant moon, Ricky Bobby, Davida System

“This is the tracker?” Bailey asked, holding a small, rectangular box up in front of her face, staring at it with one eye open and the other closed. “It’s pretty unassuming.”

“That’s only the container,” Hatch corrected her. “The tracker is highly unstable, so you have to keep it inside that box until you’re ready to place it on the monster. When you pull it out, it should sync automatically, magnetized to the monster.”

“No problem,” Bailey said with an excited tone.

“Yep, no problem,” Lewis echoed sarcastically. “Just like strolling through a field and picking daffodils.”

“Speak for yourself,” she laughed. “I’m highly allergic to those pollen-ridden plants. A stroll like that would close up my throat.”

Lewis gave Hatch a disbelieving look. “She can kick a couple of Trids’ asses, but a handful of flowers will take her out. Does that make any sense to you?”

“Perfectly,” Hatch chirped, settling his attention on Bailey. “Now, let’s review the plan. One false move, and the monster will escape, able to climb through the other levels of the ship.”

“Don’t worry,” Bailey stated confidently. “We’ve got the monster’s path through the haunted house planned, don’t we, Harlowe?”

Lewis nodded. “Oh, yeah. It’s going to be one wild ride for that giant, churning beast.”

“I’m not worried,” Hatch stated matter-of-factly. “You’re the one who will be uploaded if things go wrong. I will be with the rest of the crew, far away on a Q-Ship.”

“Well, do us a favor if we don’t return,” Lewis said, a shadow falling across his eyes. “I know you didn’t like us bringing DJ on board, but if something happens to us, please watch after her.”

“Are you kidding me?” Hatch puffed out his cheeks. “I’m not letting a damn thing happen to that one. If she can see the future, she’s a gold mine of potential.”

“So we did good bringing her aboard, didn’t we?” Bailey asked.

“I wouldn’t go that far, Lieutenant.” Hatch turned and waddled away, pausing at the bend in the corridor to look back. “Oh, and one last thing. Be careful. If the monster takes you two, we’ll have to recruit another gullible pair to fight our battles.”

Bailey batted her eyelashes at the Londil. “Aw, and here I thought you didn’t care.”

“I don’t,” he called as he disappeared around the corner. “I just want my damn apprentice back.”

Bailey gave Lewis a sturdy expression, an eager resolve in her eyes. “I don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into, but let’s hope we don’t regret it.”

“Whatever we’ve done, we’re in it together, partner,” he stated, holding out his hand.

She took it, shaking it with a firm grip.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The corridor outside the backup server room was dark, dimly lit overhead. Ricky Bobby had diverted all power to place a specific force field throughout the lower level. It wouldn’t keep the monster from rising up to one of the higher decks, but it would encourage it to take a path of less resistance. Lewis and Bailey were the bait that would hopefully get the monster through the maze of connecting corridors, and to the airlock on the far side of the ship.

The virus that Hatch had been using to subdue the monster had been deleted. The monster wasn’t up to full capacity yet, but it was almost as strong as when it entered the ship.

Bailey sucked in a deep breath, wondering why she felt so happy even though she was about to put her life on the line. It had been like that ever since she started this mission. Gone were the lonely days of feeling like life’s purpose was somehow beyond her reach. Ghost Squadron had recruited her for an impossible mission, and everything had fallen into place. Or maybe it was only that she never had any time now to think about her problems.

“I’m in position,” she said over the comm, her back pressed to the wall.

“I am too,” Lewis confirmed. “Ready when you are.”

Bailey nodded. She felt like she should say something, in case she didn’t get a chance later. But what could she say to the guy on the other end of the comm—the one she hardly knew, and yet who had risked his life beside her multiple times since this all began?

Lewis was a good guy, and an even better detective. He was the type she’d always tried to beat in school, but they’d been paired up in a way that harbored no competition. His strengths were meant to complement hers, and vice versa.

“Okay, well, Harlowe, I just want to say—”

“Save it,” he said, cutting her off.


“Save it for another time,” he said. “I don’t do goodbyes or farewells. I’ll see you in a few minutes, and then we can toast to our amazing success.”

A few minutes.

It was hard for her to believe that a few minutes was all it would take. The final battle with this damn monster would come down to only a few hundred seconds.

“Alright, fair enough,” she agreed. She lifted her chin, directing her voice to the ceiling. “Ricky Bobby, open the door on my mark.”

“Awaiting your command,” he reported overhead.

“Free the monster in three, two, one.” Bailey blinked several times, the tracker tight in her hand. “Now!”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The cold grass slid against Bailey’s calves as she made her way down to the water’s edge. She’d been down to the lake, but never by herself. Usually her mother or her father accompanied her, but on this particular day, they were working.

She’d told her sisters to stay at the house, knowing they’d only slow her down. Their grandmother was there to watch over the smaller ones.

Bailey and her family often spent summers at her grandmother’s cottage, enjoying simpler living. The air was clean in the hills that surrounded the lake, and the lifestyle was enchanting in a way. For one, someone had to come down to the shoreline and pull in the traps every evening. That’s how they ate. That was usually Bailey’s parents’ job, but they had to work, as usual. She wanted to prove she could help, that she could make their life easier. So she’d left while their grandmother was busy bathing the twins, telling her older sisters to cover for her until she returned.

“It will only take me a couple of minutes,” she remembered telling Lola.

As she approached the water’s edge where the net was tied, she heard a rustling in the grass behind her. She turned, hoping her silly sisters hadn’t thought to chase after her. The long grass swayed, but there was no one there.

She turned back, nearing the muddy waters, the bottom of her long dress already caked in the thick clay that was bountiful around the lake. Mom is going to kill me.

Bailey pulled up her dress in one hand, and took another step, her bare feet sinking deep into the mud.

Boots! she thought urgently. Daddy always wears boots to pull in the traps.

She was already there, though. She took another step, her foot making a squelching sound. Something plopped on the surface of the water, creating a giant splash. She looked up, sucking in a quick breath. There was nothing there. She pulled her feet out of the mud, and backed up. Maybe I should have waited for my parents. Didn’t they say that predators live in these waters?

Again something rustled behind her. Closer.

Bailey swung around.

There was nothing there.

She let out an excited breath and turned, panic overwhelming her gut at once. There, standing on the muddy banks of the lake, was the monster she’d only ever seen in books. It’s long top teeth hung over its bottom jaw, and its narrow snout sniffed at the air.

Its leathery green skin glistened where the water slipped off it. Apparently, these creatures had been called ‘alligators’ on Earth. Here, with the mix of strange algae, they were a little smaller—but still deadly. This one was three feet long and had cold, black eyes.

Bailey thought about taking a step back, but she couldn’t remember what her father had told her about them. Do I run? Do I stay still, like with the large cats?

She couldn’t remember, and her blood was beating loudly in her head.

The monster took a step toward her, and she didn’t move. She remained quite frozen. Behind her, she heard the rustling again, even closer.

The monster charged toward her, its eyes hungry and teeth chomping.

Later, all Bailey would remember was being swooped up by her father’s strong arms. He’d kicked at the beast and hurried her back toward the house. When he set her down, he put both hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes.

“Bay, you run. If you ever encounter a monster like that again, you run,” her father had said, his voice harsh with fear. “You don’t stop until you’re safe, you hear me?”

She had nodded, taking in her father’s words and saving them until the day she’d need them again.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

The door to the backup server room slid back, and Bailey took in a full breath, the long ago memory washing away.

It was strange that her father’s words had come back to her right then, but also incredibly right.

She waited, her pulse beating rapidly as her eyes searched the open doorway for the slightest movement of the beast, anything indicative of the monster. The temperature wasn’t hot, so the monster would be mostly translucent, but she knew how to spot it now.

A sound like a helicopter starting up echoed from the backup server room. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.

Bailey stepped away from the wall. She wanted to run right then, but timing was key. If she ran now, the monster wouldn’t follow her. If she stayed too long, she’d be uploaded.

The sound grew in intensity, making her feel like the wind from a helicopter was beating against her ears. Bailey resisted the urge to cover her head. The noise was so loud, it vibrated in her chest, like the bass from a speaker.

Smoke slipped along the ground like a swarm of rodents that was suddenly freed and looking for food. It rolled forward, the gray tendrils wrapping in on itself.

The urge to flee was strong, screaming in Bailey’s mind, urging her to listen. She shook away the pleas. Bailey had to wait until the monster fully materialized.

As if waiting for a silent invitation, the mass of whirling darkness filled the area in front of the door. Bailey could almost see through it, and yet she couldn’t. The more she stared into the dark storm, the more complex it became. Sparks shot through the monster, reminiscent of lightning. For the briefest of moments, the light illuminated gears and mechanical parts and faces. It was so wrong and yet, it was as mesmerizing as standing in front of a storm. She wanted to throw her head back, and allow the wind to tangle her hair.

Instead, she lunged into a fighting stance, although she had no inclination to throw a punch. With her fists in front of her face, she looked straight at the monster and said, “Hey jerk-face, want a piece of this? You’re going to have to catch me first.”

The monster didn’t roll forward, as it had in the backup server room. It began to expand, spreading out in all directions like a gas bomb that had been set off.

Bailey spun on her toes and ran, feeling her hands and feet going numb. She barreled down the hallway, her legs not moving as fast as she wanted them to for some reason.

She looked down to find her legs taking on the same grayish tone as the monster. The upload had started. They had less than two minutes.

Bailey pulled her head up, and something thumped in her chest. The sight of Lewis standing squarely in the hallway, waiting for the relay, was the most welcome sight she’d seen in too long. He stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, his hands by his side, and a proud smile on his face.

“You’re it,” she said, tapping his hand as she veered to the right, taking an alternate hallway.

Lewis spun around upon being tagged, and sprinted forward, his head over his shoulder, looking back at the approaching monster.

Bailey made a quick note that parts of Lewis were turning gray. The monster was quick to accumulate and start the upload; all it needed was a bit of access.

She didn’t stop as she continued down a different corridor, but she did look over her shoulder, watching as the monster rushed on behind her, following after Lewis.

So far, it had worked. The monster was a bunny rabbit, following the carrot dangling in front of its face.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

To Lewis’s surprise, he’d felt the strange paralysis take over before he’d seen Bailey turn around to start running. That meant that the monster had started the upload before it was even in sight, which meant that their two minutes had started earlier than he’d originally guessed.

How long do we have? A minute until we’re uploaded? Less?

When Bailey tagged his hand, he took off running, taking the path they’d mapped out. The key was to keep the monster following them, leading it to its doom. Lewis was almost to the bend in the hallway when he checked over his shoulder. To his surprise, the monster had paused several yards away.

The beast covered the hallway like a wall, making it almost impossible to see what lay on the other side of it. But more surprising was that Lewis thought he could see the heart of the monster, now that it was allowed to expand and show its true form. It was like there was a nucleus inside of it, its head and heart and center. Everything else, its blurry, amorphous edges, was its legs and arms, reaching out, trying to grab ahold of more, leech more.

“Hey, asshole!” Lewis yelled to the monster. “I get that you’re trying to erase me.” He motioned down to this body. “But I’ve got news for you. I’ve got a ship waiting for me. So piss off, you freaking boogie man.”

He didn’t know if insults would work on the monster. Does it think and feel like an AI, or is it purely programmed?

The center of the beast glowed brightly, and several red lights flickered inside it.

That seemed like the cue to start running, so Lewis spun around and sprinted for the far end of the hallway. If the next part of the plan didn’t work, there were no backups. There was no ship waiting to whisk him and Bailey away. They would be uploaded in less than a minute.

Lewis didn’t have to guess if the monster was following him; he could hear it barreling in his direction like a runaway train. He kept his eyes focused on the intersecting corridor in front of him. When he spotted Bailey, his chest lightened, but only slightly. Here was the hard part. He had to be enticing enough to follow, but not more alluring than what stood in the room to the left.

The monster already had its hooks into Lewis, anyway. Why would it want to continue after him when something better was laying in the room ahead? He pushed past Bailey, hardly seeing her. She raised her arm, something black and fuzzy floating in her hand.

Lewis pushed on faster, the drumming of the monster deafening him. When he passed the room on the left, he twisted around the next corner and threw himself against the wall. He peered down at his body, which was gray from the waist down. All he could do was rely on hope now, something he had rarely ever done.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Bailey was surprised when she opened the case for the tracker and found a tiny, black, gaseous monster in her hand. She almost dropped it, but then remembered what Hatch had used to make the tracker: the monster itself. This would absorb into the monster, like a piece of putty being mushed into a larger mound of putty.

The drumming of the monster started up again, growing louder. Bailey had been relieved the moment she’d parted ways from the monster, but it was a false hope. She knew the upload was happening even if the monster wasn’t trailing her. Every second of every moment, she felt herself slipping away. If she tried, she couldn’t remember her parents’ names, or what her favorite subject used to be, or her own shoe size. She was slipping away, and so was Lewis. If this didn’t work, they’d be gone…somewhere else, no longer living the way they always had.

When Lewis rushed by her, Bailey’s eyes connected with him. He was red-faced, and to her horror, half his body was a grayish haze. Behind him, the monster barreled on, rushing forward like a dust storm. It slowed upon nearing the room on the left.

Standing in the center of the room that connected to an airlock was Hatch—or rather, a very real hologram of Hatch, projected with a sliver of his consciousness. It wasn’t a full version of the scientist, but Bailey hoped it was enough to fool the monster. That’s all they needed to do. Fool it a little longer.

The monster slowed, shrank in on itself. Pulsed, almost like it was thinking. Bailey watched, tucked into the far corner. She peered at the small tracker in her graying hands. The upload had reached all the way to her shoulders. We don’t have long.

She watched the monster hesitate and look at the room where Hatch stood. The monster would perceive him as being both in close proximity and also far away. It had to be enough to make the monster want more. To make it want to engulf the scientist, and complete the task it was sent for all along.

The monster lurched forward, its center leading the way into the room adjacent as the rest of it floated in waves. Bailey suppressed the excited yelp waiting to escape. Instead, she pulled her hand back and launched the tracker across the hallway. It hung in midair for a moment, seemingly suspended, before being yanked down in the direction of the monster, where it disappeared amid the graying blackness. The monster spilled into the next room, taking its roaring engines with it.

“Now!” Bailey yelled.

The door to the room shut. Through the window in the center of the door, she watched the figure of Hatch disappear. On the far end of the room, the airlock opened, and the monster was sucked away into the blackness of space, where it mingled with stars and moons as it disappeared.

“Jump us now,” she yelled, throwing her back against the wall, accosted by the rough assault she’d done to herself.

“Jumping now,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead.

Bailey peered down at her closed hand, her pale fingers one of the best sights she’d seen in a long time. Lewis materialized around the corner, a wash of real colors. The upload had stopped.

“Did you place the tracker?” he asked, looking out the window at the airlock as the ship jumped.

Bailey nodded, hardly feeling the jolts and shocks coursing through her body. She simply let out a breath, highly aware of how her lungs expanded and deflated.

Life was a beautiful thing.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Lorialis System

Jack lifted the pen light and flashed it into Lewis’s eyes. “How do you feel?”

“He’s fine,” Hatch croaked, almost all of his tentacles busy typing on various keyboards at his main workstation.

Jack pursed his lips, leaning back. “I’d like for Lewis and Bailey to answer that question for themselves.”

Bailey was beside Lewis, having her vitals checked by Liesel. Dejoure was sitting on a crate, kicking her lanky legs, Harley by her side.

“If they weren’t fine, they wouldn’t be here now,” Hatch pointed out.

Jack looked back at the Londil. “But the upload started. What if there’s long-term damage to their bodies? We know that the physical form is converted to energy for the transfer.”

Hatch beat rapidly on the keyboards, his face nearly pressing into the monitors. “Which didn’t happen, because they interrupted the download when they shot the monster out of the airlock.”

“Is everything all right?” Bailey asked him.

“No, everything isn’t all right,” he snapped. “The tracker doesn’t appear to be working. You placed it, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but maybe it came off after the monster was dislodged,” Bailey reasoned.

Hatch shook his head. “It’s hard for us to know. This is all new territory.”

“Without the tracker, how are we going to find the monster?” Liesel asked.

Hatch shook his head. “We’ll have to resort to the less efficient method. It will take some time, but I can devise a way to detect D-factor. Looks like you two will be exploring every place containing that mineral until it leads us back to the monster.” Hatch looked at Bailey and Lewis, an irritated look on his face.

Jack sighed. “It will be time-consuming, checking out each place with a high concentration of D-factor.”

“But what if we didn’t have to do that to find the crew?” Lewis asked, standing suddenly.

Jack gave him a curious expression. “What do you have in mind, Lew?”

Hatch turned around, shaking his head. “It won’t work.”

“You don’t know that,” Bailey cut in, standing next to Lewis.

“What are they talking about?” Jack asked.

Hatch ignored the chief strategist. “We haven’t had time to test it.”

“Why not test her abilities with the real thing,” Bailey urged.

Lewis looked at Jack. “We think that DJ can find Julianna using Pip, since he was a part of her.”

“Or that we can find where she was at some point,” Bailey explained. “They aren’t linked anymore.”

“It’s worth a try,” Lewis encouraged.

“What if it doesn’t work, and this leads us on a wild goose chase?” Hatch asked.

“But what if it works, and we rescue everyone,” Pip countered from overhead.

Bailey strode over to Hatch. “It’s a viable option. Can we please try it?”

The Londil’s sour expression softened. “It depends.” His eyes darted to Dejoure. “How does it work for you?”

Dejoure slid off the box and walked over to the workstation, Harley following her. “Honestly, in the past, someone just asked me to help them find something they lost. When they do, I see an image in my head. It’s usually only a flash, but it’s enough to help me recognize the location.”

“I’m guessing that Julianna’s not going to be in a location that you recognize,” Hatch stated.

Bailey shook her head, a heavy conviction on her face. “This hurts nothing. We’re trying it. Pip?”

The AI cleared his throat. “Ring, ring.”

Dejoure’s eyes darted side to side with uncertainty.

“Ring, ring,” Pip said again.

Bailey motioned to pick up a phone.

The girl nodded, lifting her hand to the side of her face. “Hello, this is Dejoure.”

“Hi, Door. My name is Pip, and I’m looking for a missing person.”

Dejoure unleashed a nervous smile, her hand still beside her ear. “Yes, I can help you with that. Can you tell me more?”

“Her name is Commander Julianna Fregin, and she was my human. She’s been missing for some time now, and I want her back.”

Dejoure’s eyes closed as her hand drifted back down by her side. After a moment, she nodded, opening her eyes. Like a robot, she walked over to a workstation where a pad had been left out, a few charcoal pencils scattered beside it. One of Liesel’s hobbies. She made thick dots and then sketched out a line that zigzagged between the points. She then made a large spiral around the line and dots several times and looked up.

She held up the picture, a bashful look on her face. “This is where the commander is.”

Hatch shook his head. “Complete. Waste.”

Lewis strode over, his shoulders hunched as he leaned forward, trying to make out the picture. “Wait. I think I know what that is.”

“A hairball?” Hatch asked, unimpressed.

Lewis grabbed the paper. “No, it’s a star system. Actually, it’s a series of star systems.”

“I believe we call that a galaxy,” Hatch said, his tone bored.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is.” Lewis held up the paper, a triumphant look on his face.

Hatch’s tentacle reached across the space, plucking the sketch from Lewis’s grasp. The appendage retracted, and Hatch peered at the drawing.

“No, it can’t be…”

He spun around, continuing to clutch the sketch in one tentacle as the others furiously typed on three different keyboards.

“What is it?” Jack asked, coming to stand at Hatch’s shoulder.

An image of a blue and pink cloud mixed with purplish fog that bled through the center of a giant spiral popped onto the screen. There were five large bright spots in the spiral, which were connected by a faint, zigzagging, green line.

Hatch held the paper that Dejoure had drawn up to the screen, almost overlaying the images that lined up perfectly.

“That’s it,” the girl said, her voice a hush. “That’s where the commander is located.”

“Where is that?” Bailey asked, looking at Hatch.

His mouth was hanging open, a look of disbelief on his face. “That’s the Precious Galaxy.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Lorialis System

Hatch looked away from the files Lewis had shared with him from Starboards Corp.

“Well?” Jack asked, all eyes centered on the mechanic.

Hatch nodded, as if stuck in a daze. “The detective is correct. The reports lead me to believe that Starboards has dealings in another galaxy.”

“The Precious Galaxy,” Bailey said, looking up at the image of the galaxy on the main screen.

“How do we get there?” Lewis asked.

Hatch laughed. “That’s the thing. Traveling to another galaxy isn’t easy or fast. It would take a week to do this safely, though I’d prefer more like three weeks.”

Bailey shook her head. “But Starboards and the monster, and probably Monstre Corp, have been traveling between this galaxy and that one. If they have the tech, we can too.”

“But who knows what methods they are using,” Hatch argued.

“You’re Dr. A’Din Hatcherik,” Liesel encouraged. “You have your own ways.”

“We can’t wait a week to travel to this galaxy to investigate,” Jack stated. “Isn’t there another option?”

Hatch peered down, his bottom lip folding into his mouth as he thought. “There is an anomaly that I could play off, but…” He shook his head. “No, it’s too dangerous.”

“What is it?” Jack asked, his hands on his hips.

Hatch closed his eyes, his gaze darting around under his lids as he muttered to himself. He opened his eyes with a bright expression. “I think I could slingshot us close enough to the galaxy using a nearby blackhole. Once there, Ricky Bobby can open a gate and get us into the galaxy.”

Jack clapped his hands together. “Okay, let’s do it!”

Hatch shook his head. “You don’t understand, this is a huge risk. I don’t know that it will work. And even if it does work, there are other repercussions that we could suffer.”

“Like we could lose everyone in our current crew?” Jack asked, his forehead wrinkling.

Hatch only looked at him. “I just need you to understand the risks,” he stated. “I’m fine with doing it.”

Jack looked to Lewis and Bailey and finally to Liesel. They were all wearing the same brave expressions, one that communicated accurately their determination.

He turned back to Hatch. “How long will it take to get us there?”

Hatch slipped into a seat at the main control area. “We’ll be there before you know it. Which means you better hold on tight. This is going to be the ride of your life.”

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Bailey felt her body slam into the seat. Her skin felt as though it was about to melt off her bones from the velocity. The lights in the bridge blinked several times, and the howling made her think she’d never hear properly again. She tried her best to keep her head up, but the pressure was too much. The violent rocking. The force.

She was trying to fight the trauma caused by the orbital change, but it was too much. Finally she did as everyone else had done, and closed her eyes as her head lulled forward. The howling continued as she was pushed into the land of unconsciousness.

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

“Hello?” Lewis heard someone say. “Hello?”

He tried to open his eyes but he was locked in a sleep so deep he didn’t know how to come out of it.

“Is anyone there?” a voice asked.

It was a familiar voice. Everything was familiar right then. The smell of grease and burning plastic. The rustling noises. The low hum of engines.


Lewis pushed himself up, and the stark awareness that he was sitting brought a brand new realization to his mind. He remembered what they’d been doing last. He remembered the team. Ricky Bobby.

Lewis opened his eyes to find his vision blurry.

“Hello!” Ricky Bobby yelled, and this time there was hope in his voice. “You’re awake!”

Lewis thought he was talking to him, but he turned to find Bailey pushing up out of her seat, and groggily marching forward, seeming almost drunk.

“And there’s the detective too,” Ricky Bobby said. “Oh, and Hatch and the rest.”

“Hi,” Lewis said, turning around to see Hatch looking like he was waking from a long slumber. Jack, Liesel, and Dejoure were unlocking themselves from their seats, bleary looks on their faces.

“Report, Ricky Bobby,” Hatch ordered, waddling over to where Bailey stood only a few feet from the viewing window.

“All engines are online,” Ricky Bobby began. “The cloaks are on, and the shields are at full capacity. We gated several hours ago and have been floating through the edge of the Precious Galaxy, waiting for you to wake up.”

Hatch shook his head. “Well, the good news is that the slingshot worked and we made it.”

“And the bad news?” Jack asked.

“The journey nearly killed us all, if we passed out for most of the trip,” Hatch said with a morbid laugh in his voice.

“And so this is…” Bailey pointed out at the inky blackness.

Lewis stood, afraid his legs might give out on him. He tested his foot and took a steady step forward.

“The Precious Galaxy,” Hatch stated, looking out the viewing window.

The detective strode over, careful with his balance. He thought he was going to stumble as he looked up at the sight before him. A beautiful pinkish glow spiraled all around them, like pixie dust had been sprinkled throughout this area of space. In the distance, bright blue and green planets hung between stars and moons. It was like looking at a painting, although Lewis had never seen anything quite this breathtaking.

He was about to remark on how extraordinary the sight was when a grayish haze passed in front of the viewing screen. It was far enough away that its lightning center could be seen making strange patterns, as the organic mass morphed and spiraled, moving fast in the opposite direction.

“If we had any doubts that this was the right place to find the crew, they are settled now,” Bailey stated, her mouth hanging open.

“Don’t worry,” Hatch stated as he moved in closer to her, almost protectively. “The monster can’t get to us with the cloak and shields up. We’re safe now.”

“I’m interested to know how it got here so quickly,” Lewis mused.

“Me too,” Hatch chirped. “That will definitely be on my priority list.”

“Could it be a different monster?” Bailey asked.

Hatch shrugged. “That’s to be determined, but it’s presence here confirms for me that we’re in the right place.”

Jack, Liesel, and Dejoure joined them in front of the viewing window, the brightness of the galaxy’s lights cascading off everyone’s faces.

“Yes, I think this confirms we’re in the right place,” Jack stated.

Hatch, to Lewis’s astonishment, was still clutching the sketch Dejoure had made. He held it up, looking at the first large point she had drawn. “I’m guessing that this first system will offer us clues. This is uncharted territory for us, and I daresay we will be trespassing. Still, I think we have enough to start searching. Ricky Bobby, follow the monster.”

Lewis turned to Bailey, a proud smile on his face. “I think we’d better get to work, Lieutenant.”

Bailey returned the grin. Her eyes bright with determination. “I agree, detective. We have a crew to find.”


Author Notes - Sarah Noffke Written June 18, 2018

Thank you for reading this first installment! I really hope you enjoyed. Starting a new series is fun and nerve-wracking. It’s setting the foundation for a skyscraper that could be one to twenty-five stories tall. It all depends on how well that foundation is set.

When I started this new series, I didn’t know Bailey or Lewis at all. You’re probably thinking that doesn’t matter because they are made up people, but that’s not true. I like to believe my characters live in a parallel universe and I’m telling their stories. At first the channel is blocked or small but overtime, it opens up and I hear the story more easily. I become more in tuned to these people in the story. I had to get to know these new characters and that takes time. It’s sort of like dating but I don’t have to do my hair or makeup.

Fun fact: Bailey was named after my daughter. Her name is Lydia Baylee. Her’s isn’t the traditional spelling of the name and I really worried about using it. That’s why I polled the readers on Facebook and let them decide. It was interesting to see the suggestions reader gave, but in the end, Bailey won the vote. When I began book two, I misspelled Bailey approximately 56 times (as readers warned me would happen if I changed the spelling). However, I believe in a democracy and the readers voted.

Probably my favorite moment of writing this first book was when I told Michael I planned to kill off the entire crew of Ricky Bobby. I was of course meaning “send them to a remote database” but that didn’t sound as cool. We were on video conference and his face totally went slack. I think he said, “You’re joking, right?” To which I giggled with evil delight. “They aren’t dead…not really.”

This is my third series with LMBPN and I hope to write many more. The collaborations are so much fun and I think the results are even better than if I was on my own. When I was writing the end of this book, I was on the phone with Michael and asked him how could I quickly and efficiently get the ship to another galaxy. He suggested gates that would take a few weeks. I was like, “Nope. I’m thinking like a few hours.” We do have three-hundred crew members hanging out in a database waiting to be rescued. That’s when he suggested the sling shot method. I was thrilled! Great idea and something I might not have come up with on my own.

I get incredibly awesome suggestions from readers for story ideas. As I mention in the acknowledgements, Jurgen Moders was really great at helping me with this series. It was fun discussing different plots and working through ideas.

Also Cynthia MacLeod made suggestions for missions when I was writing Ghost Squadron. I save all suggestions. She’s where I got the inspiration for the artificial sun. Thanks!

And Ron Gailey also had suggested that the AI be paired with the crew through comms. That came in handy in this one since Julianna is dead…I mean in a database.

Anyway, keep the suggestions coming. I always appreciate them and they are fresh and fun.

I’m hard at work on book 2 right now. School is out for my daughter and I’m teaching a summer class at the college. That means I’m going to have to give my students all B’s and forgo sleep, but the book will be done on time.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to share more stories with you.


Check out Sarah Noffke’s Science Friction Werewolf Thriller:

Alpha Wolf, Olento Research Series, Book 1

Corruption: Age Of Expansion

Twelve Men Went Missing

Six months later they awake from drug-induced stupors to find themselves locked in a lab. On the night of a new moon, eleven of those men - possessing new gifts of speed, strength and inhuman powers - break out of their prison and race through the streets of Los Angeles. They disappear one by one into the night.

Werewolves Are On The Loose

Mika Lenna - a powerful dream traveler and head of Olento Research - wants to control the world. To do that, he must create an army of assassins. Capturing the twelve men was easy, as was experimenting on them while keeping them in drug-induced stupors. But now all hell has broken loose - wolf-like men have been spotted across the nation, leaving fatal attacks in their midst. Mike must tear every city apart until his invaluable werewolves are back under his control.

The Race Is On

The Lucidite Institute's main mission is to save the world from injustices. Their best agent, Adelaide Lewis, needs to find these mutated men and protect them and society, and fast. Adelaide realizes that she has to find the Alpha Wolf. Only once she's located him can she stop whoever is behind this experiment to create wild beasts out of human beings.

Alpha Wolf has a taut storyline combined with action-packed scenes. This spellbinding YA supernatural fantasy is a must read for the young and not so young alike.

Get Alpha Wolf here.

About Sarah Noffke

Sarah Noffke, an Amazon Best Seller, writes YA and NA sci-fi fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy. She is the author of the Lucidites, Reverians, Ren, Vagabond Circus, Olento Research and Soul Stone Mage series. Noffke holds a Masters of Management and teaches college business courses. Most of her students have no idea that she toils away her hours crafting fictional characters. Noffke's books are top rated and best-sellers on Kindle. Currently, she has eighteen novels published. Her books are available in paperback, audio and in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.


Thank you to the readers. Since I’ve entered the world of KGU readers, my life has seriously changed. You all are incredibly supportive, loyal, thoughtful and fun! I have the best times interacting with you and listening to your suggestions.

Thank you to Michael Anderle for being a seriously awesome guy. People say that about other people, but I truly mean it. Michael really wants everyone to succeed and I love writing for LMBPN because of that! And many more reasons.

Big thank you to Jurgen Moders for all the help with this series. He’s the guy responsible for the maps and also for helping me figure out ways around road blocks. Also Jurgen was the first reader and made my editor’s job a lot easier. Thanks for all the help!

Thank you to Jen for doing the edits and keeping me sane. I know I’m supposed to know where commas go, but I seriously forget daily. Thank you to Andrew and Jeff for the cover work. You guys are awesome.

Thank you to the JIT team for all the input. Your suggestions are really great. More than anything, you all help me to sleep at night knowing your keen eyes are catching errors. It’s wonderful having your help and expertise.

Thanks to Craig, Steve, Jami and everyone at LMBPN who makes the books happen. It truly is a team effort.

Thank you to my friends and family who put up with my odd hours. I can’t do this without your support and encouragement. My lovely daughter, Lydia, is my muse. I enjoy sharing with her ideas from the book and she always gives me new ideas for stories.

Thank you to everyone for the inspiration, thoughtfulness and love. A book truly is the accumulation of experiences, poured on to the page and there’s been so many who have been a part of that.

Author Notes - Michael Anderle June 27, 2018

Thank you for reading these Author Notes WAY in the back of the book. I appreciate you staying with us!

Right now, I’m flying back from Cabo San Lucas to Los Angeles and then a drive back to Las Vegas for a day before a flight to Dallas Fort Worth. While travel is fun, this much travel is a job.

Cabo was fairly amusing, since it is the focus of a few scenes in the latest War of the Damned book (written by my alter ego, Michael Todd.)

Like any stories that we make up, we always share what we know when we provide you with characters, settings, reactions, etc. For example, Sarah and I were talking about this and another series we are working on a few weeks ago, and the subject of people who seem to be crazy in Los Angeles came up. Now, I’ve lived in Orange County, CA, and I have family and friends in Los Angeles, and I can completely believe the stories that she was telling me about a few people she has run into. I have to say, I was DYING with laughter. She told a few of those stories in this book, but I mentioned I thought she should just write them in their own ‘real romance’ type of title.

(By ‘real romance,’ I mean add enough fiction to hide the identities, and realize that romance can be SUCH a pain in the ass when you are old enough to know what the hell you are doing. Or at least think you are.)

I really don’t know if she did that. (Pull the stories out or stop adding them to this series.) Sarah didn’t believe that a lot of you would think the stories were real if she used them in a space opera.

Although they certainly were.

I use Los Angeles in one of my own series (Brownstone), and it offers so much richness beyond the characters that you don’t have to make up. It provides a lot of history, places to have your characters go, and stories you can share.

Kind of like where we are now with the Precious Galaxy. While this story is Space Opera (because we don’t like to fiddle with all of the knobs and math that are required with Hard Sci-Fi) we will get to know it a bit better as time goes on. As authors, we introduce little snippets of truth that we export from this planet to that galaxy.

Perhaps one day we will all sit down and a reader will ask Sarah, “Was this situation in Precious real or imagined?”

Sarah will probably start with, “So, I was sitting in a coffee shop in LA…” and then leave us all in stitches as she did me just a few weeks ago. I hope you enjoy the ride!


Michael Anderle

Books By Sarah Noffke

Sarah Noffke, an Amazon Best Seller, writes YA and NA sci-fi fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy. She is the author of the Lucidites, Reverians, Ren, Vagabond Circus, Olento Research, Soul Stone Mage, Ghost Squadron and Precious Galaxy series. Noffke holds a Masters of Management and teaches college business courses. Most of her students have no idea that she toils away her hours crafting fictional characters. Noffke's books are top rated and best-sellers on Kindle. Currently, she has thirty-three novels published. Her books are available in paperback, audio and in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Check out other work by this author here.

Ghost Squadron:

Formation #1:

Kill the bad guys. Save the Galaxy. All in a hard day’s work.

After ten years of wandering the outer rim of the galaxy, Eddie Teach is a man without a purpose. He was one of the toughest pilots in the Federation, but now he’s just a regular guy, getting into bar fights and making a difference wherever he can. It’s not the same as flying a ship and saving colonies, but it’ll have to do.

That is, until General Lance Reynolds tracks Eddie down and offers him a job. There are bad people out there, plotting terrible things, killing innocent people, and destroying entire colonies. Someone has to stop them.

Eddie, along with the genetically-enhanced combat pilot Julianna Fregin and her trusty E.I. named Pip, must recruit a diverse team of specialists, both human and alien. They’ll need to master their new Q-Ship, one of the most powerful strike ships ever constructed.  And finally, they’ll have to stop a faceless enemy so powerful, it threatens to destroy the entire Federation.

All in a day’s work, right?

Experience this exciting military sci-fi saga and the latest addition to the expanded Kurtherian Gambit Universe. If you’re a fan of Mass Effect, Firefly, or Star Wars, you’ll love this riveting new space opera.

*NOTE: If cursing is a problem, then this might not be for you.

Check out the entire series here.

The Soul Stone Mage Series:

House of Enchanted #1:

The Kingdom of Virgo has lived in peace for thousands of years…until now.

The humans from Terran have always been real assholes to the witches of Virgo. Now a silent war is brewing, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Princess Azure will soon be crowned queen of the Kingdom of Virgo.

In the Dark Forest a powerful potion-maker has been murdered.

Charmsgood was the only wizard who could stop a deadly virus plaguing Virgo. He also knew about the devastation the people from Terran had done to the forest.

Azure must protect her people. Mend the Dark Forest. Create alliances with savage beasts. No biggie, right?

But on coronation day everything changes. Princess Azure isn’t who she thought she was and that’s a big freaking problem.

Welcome to The Revelations of Oriceran. Check out the entire series here.

The Lucidites Series:

Awoken, #1:

Around the world humans are hallucinating after sleepless nights.

In a sterile, underground institute the forecasters keep reporting the same events.

And in the backwoods of Texas, a sixteen-year-old girl is about to be caught up in a fierce, ethereal battle.

Meet Roya Stark. She drowns every night in her dreams, spends her hours reading classic literature to avoid her family’s ridicule, and is prone to premonitions—which are becoming more frequent. And now her dreams are filled with strangers offering to reveal what she has always wanted to know: Who is she? That’s the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out. But will Roya live to regret learning the truth?

Stunned, #2

Revived, #3

The Reverians Series:

Defects, #1:

In the happy, clean community of Austin Valley, everything appears to be perfect. Seventeen-year-old Em Fuller, however, fears something is askew. Em is one of the new generation of Dream Travelers. For some reason, the gods have not seen fit to gift all of them with their expected special abilities. Em is a Defect—one of the unfortunate Dream Travelers not gifted with a psychic power. Desperate to do whatever it takes to earn her gift, she endures painful daily injections along with commands from her overbearing, loveless father. One of the few bright spots in her life is the return of a friend she had thought dead—but with his return comes the knowledge of a shocking, unforgivable truth. The society Em thought was protecting her has actually been betraying her, but she has no idea how to break away from its authority without hurting everyone she loves.

Rebels, #2

Warriors, #3

Vagabond Circus Series:

Suspended, #1:

When a stranger joins the cast of Vagabond Circus—a circus that is run by Dream Travelers and features real magic—mysterious events start happening. The once orderly grounds of the circus become riddled with hidden threats. And the ringmaster realizes not only are his circus and its magic at risk, but also his very life.

Vagabond Circus caters to the skeptics. Without skeptics, it would close its doors. This is because Vagabond Circus runs for two reasons and only two reasons: first and foremost to provide the lost and lonely Dream Travelers a place to be illustrious. And secondly, to show the nonbelievers that there’s still magic in the world. If they believe, then they care, and if they care, then they don’t destroy. They stop the small abuse that day-by-day breaks down humanity’s spirit. If Vagabond Circus makes one skeptic believe in magic, then they halt the cycle, just a little bit. They allow a little more love into this world. That’s Dr. Dave Raydon’s mission. And that’s why this ringmaster recruits. That’s why he directs. That’s why he puts on a show that makes people question their beliefs. He wants the world to believe in magic once again.

Paralyzed, #2

Released, #3

Ren Series:

Ren: The Man Behind the Monster, #1:

Born with the power to control minds, hypnotize others, and read thoughts, Ren Lewis, is certain of one thing: God made a mistake. No one should be born with so much power. A monster awoke in him the same year he received his gifts. At ten years old. A prepubescent boy with the ability to control others might merely abuse his powers, but Ren allowed it to corrupt him. And since he can have and do anything he wants, Ren should be happy. However, his journey teaches him that harboring so much power doesn’t bring happiness, it steals it. Once this realization sets in, Ren makes up his mind to do the one thing that can bring his tortured soul some peace. He must kill the monster.

*Note* This book is NA and has strong language, violence and sexual references.

Ren: God’s Little Monster, #2

Ren: The Monster Inside the Monster, #3

Ren: The Monster’s Adventure, #3.5

Ren: The Monster’s Death

Olento Research Series:

Alpha Wolf, #1:

Twelve men went missing. Six months later they awake from drug-induced stupors to find themselves locked in a lab. And on the night of a new moon, eleven of those men, possessed by new—and inhuman—powers, break out of their prison and race through the streets of Los Angeles until they disappear one by one into the night. Olento Research wants its experiments back. Its CEO, Mika Lenna, will tear every city apart until he has his werewolves imprisoned once again. He didn’t undertake a huge risk just to lose his would-be assassins. However, the Lucidite Institute’s main mission is to save the world from injustices. Now, it’s Adelaide’s job to find these mutated men and protect them and society, and fast. Already around the nation, wolflike men are being spotted. Attacks on innocent women are happening. And then, Adelaide realizes what her next step must be: She has to find the alpha wolf first. Only once she’s located him can she stop whoever is behind this experiment to create wild beasts out of human beings.

Lone Wolf, #2

Rabid Wolf, #3

Bad Wolf, #4

Books By Michael Anderle

For a complete list of books by Michael Anderle, please visit:

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