Posted by: lordkyler | April 12, 2016

Priority – Short Story Week 2016

Two Kestrel fighters slipped into the atmosphere, contrails streaming from their wingtips like ribbons. Their descent was controlled and careful, slow enough to avoid setting fire to the air, but quick enough to make it dance. Advanced algorithms in their cockpits compensated for the heat distortion, giving the two fighter pilots a clear view of the planet surface.

It wasn’t much, as planets went, mused Sigma, the pilot of the lead Kestrel. Certainly nothing like the alabaster cities of Cygnus Prime or the rugged majesty of Acheron. This planetoid was designated as C-459 in the Planetary Registry, not worthy of a proper name. It was a dry, dusty place with a barely-breathable atmosphere and no significant forms of life. It wasn’t worth the resources it would take to terraform it, and frankly, it was barely worth the effort it took to extract its resources. The skeletons of abandoned mining facilities littered the planet surface, slowly rusting into decay.

Rocks like this were only good for a few things. Training exercises like this were one of those uses. This was the final test in a long and grueling process. If they were successful in their mission, they would finally become Specters, the most elite covert agents in the Imperium. All they had to do was track down and subdue their former instructor, Agent Alpha, who was hiding somewhere on the planet. Just one of the most dangerous individuals in the entire galaxy.

Any signs? Tau questioned using their psylink. Only a few individuals in the galaxy had the capacity for the neural upgrades to unlock such powers, but that was what made Specters so dangerous. How can you fight against someone that can read your every thought and predict your every action? Only those that had the psylink stood a chance, which was why this test had to involve a former instructor.

I’m not picking up any signals, Sigma thought back. Not on the scanners at any rate. The mental transitions took place at the speed of thought, entire sentences compressed into a single idea, allowing for near-instant communication between partners. That teamwork would be one of their few advantages against a veteran Specter agent.

Well, that’s not terribly surprising. Let’s do a quick sweep of the surface just in case Alpha’s gotten sloppy. Slim chance of that, but it paid to be thorough. Sigma signaled agreement.

The two fighter craft worked in perfect tandem. Sigma ascended to the upper stratosphere, searching for energy emissions at range, and Tau darted between landmarks and neglected industrial centers, performing visual checks and in-depth sweeps.

Neither tactic revealed any signs of their quarry, and the two ships reunited at the equator. Massive canyons and jagged mountains rolled by beneath them. A few rockslides resulted as the vacuums made by the fighter’s cavitation prows collapsed, quaking the air like ungodly thunder, and massive clouds of dust were created in their wake, spinning and swirling madly. Sigma hoped the disturbances might draw out their target. With a whole planet to search, it might be easier to defend themselves than to track the agent down.

Just as Sigma was about to suggest probing the subterranean, an unsolicited thought wormed into their minds like a parasite. It took you long enough to arrive. With the message came a strong sensation of scorn. If not for Sigma’s supreme self-control and enhanced nervous system, the initiate might have shuddered at the sound of that silent voice.

There’s no point in needlessly prolonging the matter, I suppose, the voice that could only be Agent Alpha’s continued. You can meet me at the three-spired refinery near the equator. Be quick. I grow tired of this dreary place.

The voice fell silent, leaving the head feeling empty for its absence. Tau spoke through the psylink, sending more of a feeling than any real words. What now?

Sigma hesitated only a few seconds. On the one hand, it seemed like an obvious trap. For the purposes of the mission, Alpha was the enemy. Why should they trust anything the agent said? On the other hand, it really was too obvious. Was Agent Alpha playing some sort of bluff, trying to confuse them, or merely telling the truth? The real test was unlikely to end with a simple orbital blasting, after all.

On the bionic third hand, it was the only lead they had so far. Assuming this wasn’t some bald-faced trap, they might at least find some clues to Alpha’s location. If it was a trap… it was still a place to start.

We’ll take a look, Sigma sent. A very careful look.

The two Kestrel fighters swung around tightly enough that Sigma could feel the press of it though the inertial compensators. The desert world flew by in a rust-colored blur, and the sun jumped over the horizon, blazing an angry red.

We need to find a safe place to disembark, Tau said. Isolation protocols. According to the parameters of their mission, Agent Alpha was to be considered a fugitive spy on the planet. As such, quantum barriers had been erected around C-459 to prevent any incoming or outgoing communications with the planet. Protocol also dictated certain procedures to ensure that interstellar craft couldn’t be hijacked and used to escape the planet.

Sigma took the lead, dropping low over the desert plains and slowing to a crawl. They shared plans on an intimate level, thoughts without words. Ahead, over a small ridge, they could see the triple spires of the refinery stabbing like bent silver needles into the ochre sky, a few kilometers away. Agent Alpha hopefully wouldn’t be expecting them to give up their air advantage, and they would be able to cover the distance to the refinery using skimmers.

The ships hovered next to the cliff face, hidden from view, settling down as gently as butterflies. The engines powered down with a soft whine, and the dust danced around the landing gear as the turbines bled off the last of their charge. And then all was silent save for the whistle of the wind.

Being Specter-assigned ships, the Kestrels were equipped with psylink locks that required a specific neural access code to start up. Sigma and Tau engaged the locks before donning their VHE masks, which would protect their lungs and eyes from the sand-laden winds and insufficient atmosphere.

It did not protect them from the desiccant winds and oven-like heat that assaulted them the moment their cockpits slid open. Their long coats flapped behind them as they leapt to the ground, bionic reinforcements preventing them from harm. Sharing a glance, the two agents drew their weapons and activated their skimmers. Static crackled at their feet, shifting the dust into strange patterns as they rose a few inches above the ground. Moving in perfect synchronization, the two agents shot forward like missiles.

NO.

The voice exploded in their minds, a silent shockwave that sent them reeling. At the same moment, a wall of glittering light leapt up before them. Sigma pulled up short, skimmers shaking as they interacted with the energy fields of the force barrier. Tau was slightly closer to the barrier, and crashed into it with a spray of sparks. The young agent was violently rebuffed, thrown to the ground and rendered unconscious.

Sigma reacted instantly, dragging Tau back from the barrier and scanning for danger with heightened senses. The barrier curved around and above them, forming a semi-sphere that encircled the Kestrels, and only stopped where it met the cliff face. There was no way out.

On the other side of the barrier, a vehicle approached, some floating platform likely raided from one of the mining facilities. A bulky piece of equipment had been loaded atop it, most of which was obscured by the satellite dish facing them. A solitary figure stood at the controls. The figure’s face was hidden behind a protective mask, but there was no doubt about who it was. Agent Alpha.

Sigma sighted and fired at once. Even though there was practically no chance that the sidearm could penetrate an industrial shield, it wasn’t impossible. They only needed to tag Agent Alpha with a successful stunning shot in order to be declared victorious. Failing a hit, the flashes created by the interaction of beam and barrier would give them some visual cover while Sigma dragged Tau to safety.

Pointless. Foolish. Short-sighted. Every word Agent Alpha said was imbued with the weight of a neutron star, crushing all hope. Know thine enemy. Something we Specters understand better than anyone. And yet we spend so long in our enemies’ heads that we forget what it is like to be without that power. You did not even pause to consider that I might have anticipated your actions and reactions, since you could not sense mine. 

Agent Alpha brought the commandeered craft right up to the edge of the barrier, standing with perfect calm. Sigma fired repeatedly while retreating to the cover of the ships, painting strokes of light across the barrier, hoping to find just the right angle that would allow the beam to slip through some gap in the polarities. The barrier wavered under the assault but did not fail.

The psylink is supposed to be an enhancement, continued Agent Alpha calmly. Like those our soldiers use to run faster, fight harder, endure longer. But instead, so many of us – yourselves included – come to rely on it as the disabled do. As a crutch. 

Sigma reached the Kestrels, dragging Tau’s still-limp form behind the landing legs. The Artemis fell silent as Sigma considered what to do. There were no hidden caves or tunnels here, and they couldn’t pass through the shield, especially not with Agent Alpha there. It was impossible to say how long Tau might be unconscious.

There were only a few options. They could wait until Agent Alpha dropped the barrier in order to shoot at them, and then try to fire back or escape. They could wait until the barrier’s energy source ran out, but if the Agent had managed to cobble together something even half-way decent, it could remain in passive mode for decades. Or they could try to shoot their way out.

The Kestrels had particle cannons that could tear through a cruiser’s hull like sonic saws through cheap plastic, along with a full complement of missiles. The trick would be trying to overwhelm the barrier without killing themselves from the flashback.

Sigma decided try it. With nothing to stop Agent Alpha from simply starving them out and no other resources they could utilize, this was their best chance at some sort of escape. Sigma laid a hand on the leg of the Kestrel and established a neural link, unlocking the weapons systems and priming the particle cannons for a low-frequency pulse. The Artemis remained pointing directly at Agent Alpha’s heart, ready to fire the second the barrier fell.

Fire, Sigma commanded the ship through its artificial mind. The guns came to life, shrieking as they blasted against the barrier. Even at only five percent of their capacity, the noise and fury of the collision was tremendous. If not for bionic upgrades, Sigma would have been deafened, blinded, and blacked out. As it was, the Artemis never wavered throughout all the cacophony, waiting for the shot, the opportunity. But the chance never came.

Instead, the barrier grew closer, smaller, like a fist clenching. The air pressure within the dome rose notably, forcing Sigma’s ears to pop. The barrier glittered as brightly as ever, showing no signs of weakening. Not so much as a flicker. Behind the mask, Sigma frowned, a rare display of emotion from a Specter. Judging by the size of the machinery, the barrier should have wavered at least.

Another shortcoming, Agent Alpha said, nudging the hovercraft closer to the new boundary. So much time spent on military training and subterfuge that we neglect the more mundane workings of the worlds. This device is sometimes called a slip shield. It is calibrated to maintain a constant level of integrity, rather than covering a consistent area, as you typically see. As a result, the more stress the shield is placed under, the smaller it grows.

Agent Alpha leaned forward, body tension showing what was hidden behind the mask: pure malice. I have disabled the minimum size safeguards. This shield can continue to shrink until it crushes you and your ship like insects. Until the very air pressure squeezes you into spheres of flesh. 

Sigma sensed something wrong. It was expected for the senior agent to display some frustration toward initiates, especially when they had gotten themselves into such a disastrous tactical situation. But everything about Agent Alpha, from voice to posture, screamed of pure malice and unbridled contempt. Either something was very wrong…

Or else this wasn’t the sort of test they’d been told it was.

Unlock your ships, Agent Alpha demanded, confirming Sigma’s suspicions. Do it quickly, before I kill Initiate Tau.

Sigma holstered the Artemis and locked eyes with Agent Alpha, standing with a proud chin and square shoulders. This was not a test of skills. It was a test of loyalty.

Never. Sigma replied stoically. There was a moment of silence, and then the barrier dropped. Before Sigma could draw the gun again, Agent Alpha had already sighted and fired. Initiate Sigma joined Initiate Tau in immediate unconsciousness.

•••

 Sigma awoke in a small room riddled with rust and filled with the sweet smell of rotting bioplastics. A few small chem-lights cast greenish illumination over faded safety warnings and broken furniture. Sigma reached for a weapon but found the Artemis missing, along with the VHE gear and everything else useful. There was no sign of Agent Alpha, no trace of Tau.

Tau? Sigma called out. There was no answer through the psy-link. Nothing resulted from a ping, either, which should have given a response even if Tau was still unconscious. That worried Sigma more than anything else. The two of them were closer than friends, more intimate than lovers, sharing a bond forged through years of intense training and hardship. They were the first Specter agents trained as a team, and they were one; in mind and soul.

Without that bond, Sigma felt naked. Exposed. Vulnerable.

There had to be a way out. That was what the test was all about, wasn’t it? It couldn’t be a test if there wasn’t a solution. The very fact that the test was ongoing meant that they hadn’t failed yet. They had proved their ability and skills a dozen times over. What if this scenario was intended to test their resolve, or their ingenuity? For all their prowess, Specters were not invincible or infallible. Loyalty was more valuable than expertise.

Sigma stood up, stretching sore muscles and focusing addled thoughts. Perhaps this was a test of ingenuity. What was useable here? A quick scan revealed precious little. Two quick-form desks and a few chairs lay scattered about the room, blocky constructions of fabricated bioplastics, produced en masse and on demand to furnish the space as cheaply as possible. All were half-rotten, slowly degrading into a handful of lifeless dust. There was no power in the room, but something was powering the shimmering barrier field in the doorway. Chem-lights had been tossed into the room along with a couple of ration packs, but those were the only additions. Even the dead cabling had been ripped out, leaving only pale lines on the wall to show where they’d been.

Not a test of resourcefulness then. Sigma began unwrapping the ration packs. It would be important to keep up strength, especially if this did turn out to be a test of loyalty. Torture might be involved.

Sigma hadn’t gotten more than a mouthful before the doorway barrier deactivated. Sigma scrambled up to a fighting stance, but Agent Alpha stormed in with a drawn weapon and leveled it at the initiate’s face, fury apparent despite the face-concealing VHE mask.

You will unlock your ship, initiate, the agent demanded. Now. On the Remus handgun Alpha leveled at Sigma’s forehead, scarlet lights began to glow, indicating the weapon was primed with lethal force.

Where is Initiate Tau? Sigma countered, totally unfazed. It wasn’t impossible for initiates to be killed during the final test, but it wouldn’t happen here, not like this. There had to be some way out of this mess. Diplomacy, deception, perhaps even disarmament and escape. If Agent Alpha could be caught off guard…

Tau is dead. Agent Alpha said with finality. That ship is useless now. You will unlock yours.

It had to be a lie, but that didn’t stop the chill of fear from creeping into Sigma’s pounding heart. It was a tactic, designed to inspire nervousness and sloppiness. To let one’s guard down. Sigma locked down the errant fears, focusing on the mental techniques that the Academy had drilled in over countless hours. Total control.

I will not violate protocol. I will not unlock my ship. Sigma stared down the barrel of the Remus with utter confidence. A long moment passed. The gun trembled, and then wavered, and then dropped. Then it fired, turning Sigma’s leg into a mangled mess of shredded muscle and shattered bone. Sigma stared, dumbfounded. Then the pain hit.

 Every muscle was flayed open, exposing every inch of tissue within. Every nerve was afire with exquisite agony, each one enhanced for greater sensitivity and transmission speed. The sheer supernova force of the pain was enough to consume even the most disciplined minds, but like all Specter agents, Sigma’s system had been fortified. A specialized stun shot could bring an agent down, but it would keep an agent awake throughout any measure of typical abuse.

Those same systems shut down the offending pain receptors after a mere heartbeat, but the sheer scale of the pain was enough to send Sigma reeling, the mere echoes of it clouding any attempt to think or reason. Staggering, the initiate slipped on the spray of blood and fell to the floor, mutilated leg useless for support. The memory of the pain was nearly as sharp as the pain itself had been, and Sigma struggled not to cry out. Agent Alpha looked on impassively.

You will unlock your ship. The demand was cold. Merciless. The Remus charged up for another deadly shot, blood-red lights throbbing.

Sigma, unconsciously reaching out for Tau’s support, responded by reflex, pouring a maelstrom of raw emotion into the agent’s head. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Questioning. A flood of mindless fury. Alpha watched for a moment, then sighed and holstered the gun, stepping out of the room briefly.

Time passed without passing as Sigma tried and failed to put the pieces of the world back together, and settled for dealing with the wound instead. Bionic implants fought desperately to reduce dizziness and combat stress. Autonomous systems worked to stanch the bleeding, but with injuries this extensive, the best they could do was keep it from gushing.

A small mad corner of Sigma’s brain was raving, repeating the same thoughts over and over, like a ship orbiting the event horizon of a black hole, trying to keep from falling into oblivion. Was this part of the test? Was that even possible? With access to a proper medical facility, it would be possible to fully reconstruct the leg, or even clone and graft a new one, although that would be a nuisance. Failing that, the leg could be replaced by a fully cybernetic system. Some agents even replaced their limbs or organs deliberately in order to make use of the gadgets that such things could contain.

But to do this to an initiate? The Specter Agency was ruthless, but this seemed extreme, even for them. Reckless and risky for a business all about care and precision. There could be any number of excuses, but something felt wrong about this to Sigma, something in the gut that went beyond the excruciating pain and fear for Tau. Something wrong about Agent Alpha.

The agent returned a moment later, dragging a full military med-pod, all smooth white polymer and soothing blue lights. It cracked open like an egg with the press of a button, scanning the room with a sweeping laser. The light settled on Sigma’s leg and was soon joined by others, assessing the extent of the damage and calculating the necessary procedures. Even this ruin presented only a moment’s challenge to the pod’s computers, and all of a sudden the eggshell-smooth surface of the pod exploded with doors and hatches. Robotic arms emerged from within, followed by prehensile hoses and tiny hovering drones. A mass of machinery descended on the carnage, setting to work with uncanny coordination and certainty.

Agent Alpha watched patiently, idly tapping a finger, as though this were nothing more than a mild inconvenience, like waiting for a quantum signal to resolve. Sigma gathered the presence of mind to speak, for once not really caring if it broke some protocol.

Why?

The agent shot a glance toward the immobilized initiate, but it ricocheted away just as quickly. One hand went toward the Remus, and the other hovered over the kill switch on the med-pod. The meaning was clear: I control your life and death.

After a moment, however, the agent let the hovering hands lie still, and turned to sit on one of the decaying pieces of furniture. It sagged slightly beneath the weight, spilling sweet dust as it settled under the strain. For a moment, there was only the whirr of mechanical surgery, Sigma’s labored breathing, and the sharp hiss of the VHE mask as the agent stared.

Have you seen it yet?

Sigma frowned, then flinched as the med-pod shifted the leg’s position. Until now, the Agent’s voice had been hard and serious. Now there was something new, something curious and pitying, almost sorrowful. Have I seen what?

The truth.

What truth?

The truth that the Agency doesn’t want you to know, Alpha said, and now the tone of the psylink had shifted to something more sinister, more deadly. Cold fury burned just beneath the surface, just strong enough to give a hint to its depth and ferocity. The truth about Aquila Major, and the Perseus Conflict, and the Cassiopeian Ambassador. The truth about the lies they’ve told, the fortunes they’ve stolen, the murders they’ve committed. Every one of them is corrupt to the core. 

The med-pod finished its work, arms retracting back into the body as it sealed closed once more. The leg was a patchwork of hyper-fine stitches and flesh-mesh grafts, all sealed in a clear polymer flex-cast. It would still take weeks of intensive therapy and further surgery to restore the limb to full strength, but it was usable for the time being. Sigma stood shakily, wincing as the newly-repaired leg took the weight.

Alpha studied this for a moment, considering. I will return in an hour. Then you will unlock your ship… and the truth will escape. Don’t act as though you are blind to such things. The citizens of the universe deserve to know.

Sigma said nothing. Agent Alpha stalked out, dismissing and restoring the barrier in quick succession. Sigma stared blankly, mind churning with what had been said.

Was it possible that Agent Alpha had truly turned, or was this just a fantasy devised for the purposes of the test? It was entirely possible that Tau was waiting in a another room nearby, being told the same things. Agent Alpha seemed sincere, but they wouldn’t send two initiates in to actually take down a rogue veteran agent, surely.

Don’t act as if you are blind to such things, the agent had said. As much as Sigma wanted to believe otherwise, there was truth to that statement. They had heard all about the suppression in Aquila, about the removal of the corrupt ambassador from Cassiopeia. The Agency had made it quite clear that these were extreme circumstances justifying extreme responses. They had been very, very thorough on that point. Perhaps too thorough.

Sigma staggered over to the discarded ration pack, stretching the new muscle carefully, and quickly drained a bottle of water laced with nutrients. Something had to be done, but what? Was this an elaborate test or a genuine mission? Did it make a difference?

Think, Sigma thought. Tau’s absence was like a hole in the head, a missing lobe of the brain, a shout with no echo. Think like Agent Alpha said. Empathize. Imagine what you would do if you were them. If you didn’t know.

If this was a test, there would have to be a solution. Given the circumstances, it seemed unlikely that torture was the point of the exercise, so that meant they were testing something else. A way to escape. But how? No tools, no Tau, no tech…

Almost no tech. Sigma nearly twisted a vulnerable ankle spinning to look at the med-pod. Alpha had left it here. The pearly surface reflected a battered face smiling grimly as the realization struck. This would have to be quick.

Limping over, Sigma grabbed hold of the pod’s handles and heaved the heavy thing toward the doorway barrier. A press of the button cracked the pod open, revealing its interior. Blue lights flashed around the room once more, but before the scan could be completed, Sigma spotted and tripped the override switch on the back of the periscope. The pod went silent, lights blinking on standby.

Sigma scanned the instructions molded into the access hatch, and followed them to put the machine in maintenance mode. The pod unfolded, granting easy access to all the gadgetry within. Sigma wasted no time on celebration, plunging within to scavenge anything useful.

Some old-fashioned scalpels provided an improvised weapon, as did some aerosol anesthetics. Practically useless against a trained agent, but better than nothing. Unfortunately, there was little else of use. Most of the medicinal compounds were useless, and kept in locked tanks besides. The computing system was worthless for anything besides medical work.

The only thing that might prove truly valuable was the surgical laser, but that was firmly fixed to the pod, and required direct access to the pod’s power systems. It might be useful to attack Agent Alpha, but that could easily prove fatal, which would be problematic if this was a test. And if the laser was turned against the barrier, it would probably just shrink until it crushed the whole room.

The barrier. That was it. Agent Alpha had called it a slip shield because size was the variable, rather than strength. If the barrier was weakened, it would shrink. But if it was strengthened…

Sigma worked feverishly, calling up equations and computer commands from stored memories. The pod beeped and whirred as settings were adjusted and calibrated to harmonize frequencies and maximize energy transfer. The safety protocols were disengaged, routing all power from the battery to the laser. Sigma took a deep breath, steadying both mind and body, then activated the improvised weapon.

A beam of shimmering light lanced from the surgical laser, searing the air with the sharp smell of ozone. Unlike the Kestrel’s cannons, blasting the barrier with the laser did not result in jangling lights and sprays of sparks, but rather flowed into the barrier wall like drizzled honey, rippling outward from the point of contact.

The effect was immediate. The shield shuddered and began to swell, pulling back from the doorway by a few feet. When it encountered resistance from other parts of the structure, it crackled and fought, trying to shrink and grow at the same time. The resulting interplay caused the barrier to vibrate rapidly, pounding against the walls like a jackhammer. The air sang with the constant vibration, and the already crumbling walls began to deteriorate even faster. If this kept up, the building would collapse within minutes.

Moving quickly and carefully around the laser beam, Sigma slid out of the room, sizing up the situation in an instant. The impromptu cell was one of many, all stacked into a wall along one side of a large hangar or warehouse. The surrounding cells had been knocked away, allowing the dome-like barrier to surround the cell entirely, but it was now eating away at the cells further down.

Like the rest of the facility, the space was empty and abandoned, littered with discarded wrappers and bits of broken materials. Scanning for any sign of Agent Alpha, Sigma spotted a pile of familiar gear just around the corner of the isolated room. The stolen Specter gear, apparently undamaged.

Hobbling over to the tactical suit as quickly as possible, Sigma stepped inside the waiting skimmer boots. They hummed into life at the touch, and a single neural command was enough to activate the attached suit. The smart fabric came to life, crawling up legs and torso like ivy climbing a tree, sealing itself as it went. Within seconds, the suit was sealed and powered up. The VHE mask followed shortly, providing a much-need boost of oxygen.

Sigma gave a quick sigh of relief. The tactical suit was a familiar and reassuring weight, with armor panels to offer protection, skimmers for mobility, and micro-pnuematics to give additional strength. It would adequately compensate for a wounded leg. Hopefully.

With the Artemis primed and suit functioning properly, Sigma felt much more confident, spirits buoyed. A second scan of the area collapsed them again.

In the center of the open space lay a small junkyard of broken and disassembled machinery, with the barrier generator and hover-lift in the middle, warning lights blinking impotently. Sprawled next to it was Tau, still dressed in full combat gear and undeniably dead.

It could all still be an illusion, Sigma thought unconvincingly. A very good illusion.

No time to worry. Whether Tau was dead or alive, nothing could be done about it. Sigma walled off the part of the mind that wept, and went to work.

Matters between the spastic barrier and the collapsing building were reaching a crisis point. The cheap metal flooring began to ring like a bell, and falling dust was giving way to larger chunks and beams, falling within and without the barrier dome.

Sigma raced to a hole in the wall where one of the former cells had been. It was big enough to fit through, but one glance outside put any thoughts of jumping to rest. The ground was at least five hundred feet below, too far a fall to cushion with the skimmers. That left only one way out.

The Artemis began to charge for an overclocked shot, emerald indicators growing brighter and brighter. Most guns lacked this capacity, as overcharging posed a significant explosive risk, but with just the right timing…

The floor exploded with a fountain of sparks and ricochetting light, which soon cleared to reveal a two-foot hole punched neatly through the metal, bleeding acrid smoke from the edges. The floor below was only a twenty foot drop, easily negated by the skimmers.

Sigma hopped through just as the building began to collapse, sending an avalanche of rubble onto the barrier. It collapsed in an eye-blink, shrinking to a mere fraction of its size before the generator itself was crushed. A hurricane blast of compressed air exploded through the hole Sigma had cut, forced through by the violent contraction of the barrier.

The force of the sudden wind was enough to send Sigma flying across the room and out the window into the empty air.

Spinning. Gasping. Falling. There was nothing to grab, nothing for the skimmers to push off of but the weak air. The wall of the facility was studded with innumerable handholds, but it was too far away. If there was more time, it might be possible to go spread-eagle and tilt toward it, but there wasn’t.

Something. There had to be something. There. In the tumbling madness of the fall, Sigma spotted an angled support beam that propped up the massive refinery against the buffeting winds. If there was some way to get there, it would be easy for the skimmers to slide along it all the way to the ground.

Only a few seconds to do it. A quick thought to the tactical suit brought it to life, shifting position and morphing shape to fight the wind and offer stability. The skimmers flared to maximum power, but they needed solid surfaces to be truly effective. The best they could manage was to alter the angle of the fall by a few degrees. Not quite close enough. Sigma only needed a small push to reach the beam, but where else to get it? The VHE masks was useless, and the Artemis was an energy weapon with no recoil…

Or was it? Out of other options, Sigma locked the handgun into overload and tossed it away, relying on neural computing to reach just the right angle and timing. The gun, now a makeshift grenade, detonated precisely three seconds later with a violent, ear-splitting clap.

Green light and shrapnel exploded from the gun. Some of it grazed the back of Sigma’s head – painful but non-fatal – but most was caught by the tactical suit, bumping the falling initiate slightly further toward the target. The shockwave did the rest.

Sigma flipped into position, only just managing to catch the edge of the support beam in the skimmer field. There was a moment of precarious balance, as cerebral enhancements struggled to fight off dizziness, but after a moment, Sigma was able to tilt toward safety.

The slide to the bottom might have been exhilarating under different circumstances, but not now. Once back on safe, solid ground, Sigma took a moment to rest, trying to regain some composure. Even with years of combat training and mental preparation, this day had been harrowing. Sigma hadn’t felt so frazzled and off-kilter since those first grueling days of surgery. The mantra was an anchor, the only thing that could keep insanity at bay. It’s just a test. Only a test. And there’s a way to beat it. Tau isn’t dead. I’m not dead. This is only a test. 

Sigma’s Artemis was gone, and Tau’s was unreachable. Agent Alpha’s flesh-rending Remus was likely the only other firearm on the entire planet. So far as Sigma could see, reaching the Kestrels was the only viable option. Once in orbit, there would be time to rest, recover, and reassess.

The allure of a moment’s peace was irresistible, and the goal of reaching the Kestrels shone like bright, singular beacon through Sigma’s clouded thoughts. It would have to be quick though, before Agent Alpha realized what had happened and came searching.

 The ridge was in the distance. Sigma crouched low and flew across the cracked and arid earth with heavy heart and grim face, a specter indeed.

•••

Night had fallen by the time Sigma reached the waiting Kestrels, coloring the broken landscape in charcoal and slate. The wind had stilled, as though Sigma’s escape had left the planet breathless with anticipation. Two small moons chased each other across the soulless black of the sky, just bright enough to call attention to the shadows without truly illuminating the terrain. If not for the guidance of the psylink and a photographic memory, the Kestrels would have been impossible to find, totally invisible in the dark.

Here at last, Sigma deactivated the skimmer for the first time in hours, feeling the injured leg complain at once. Skimmers were quick – faster than anything Alpha was likely to find, thankfully – but they required the user to stand. Even with the help of the tactical suit, it wasn’t an ideal situation for recovery.

Besides that, the med-pod’s painkillers were wearing off, and Sigma’s neuro-upgrades didn’t have the sophistication to shut down pain receptors without also rendering the leg useless. All the more reason to get inside the Kestrel as soon as possible.

Sigma limped toward the ships, too exhausted to think of anything further than getting inside and finding a moment’s rest. However, the sight of the two craft side by side gave the initiate pause. It was a painful reminder of Tau. Whether deceased or merely absent, the separation was painful. It took a great force of will to turn away from Tau’s ship and approach the other.

The Kestrel came alive with a simple thought, turbines whining as they charged. Moving parts all over the ship tested themselves, so that the fighter craft resembled a bird ruffling its feathers. All systems were stable. Not wanting to draw attention to the Kestrel’s location by activating the lights, Sigma climbed up to the cockpit in the dark.

Not wanting to waste a single second, Sigma disengaged the neural locks during the climb. The hatch opened with a hiss, revealing the familiar cockpit. Sigma heaved a sigh of relief and climbed aboard.

A hand latched onto Sigma’s foot with mechanical strength, slamming the initiate to the ground with frightful force. The hand belonged to Alpha, and the agent’s other hand was holding the Remus.

Still so blind, the agent said disdainfully. The truth cannot be stopped. 

Computer! Sigma cried, but before the ship could be locked again, all thought was obliterated by an explosion of pain. Agent Alpha had fired on the other leg. By the time Sigma’s mental barriers were in place, Agent Alpha had taken control of the Kestrel, using manual controls to override any mental commands from the outside.

The landing legs retracted as the Kestrel hovered above the ground, preparing for takeoff, but Agent Alpha held there for a moment, locking eyes with Sigma.

I’m sorry it came to this, said Agent Alpha without a shred of sarcasm. They used us both. I’m afraid you will likely die here, but you may rest at ease, knowing your misguided actions have allowed the truth to escape. Once I am past the quantum barrier, the whole universe will know the terrible secrets that have been kept from them. For this, poor Sigma, I salute you.

Alpha tapped two fingers to the VHE mask, and then took off in a blaze of light and fury, streaking across the desert like a comet. Sigma watched, crippled and helpless to follow.

No. It couldn’t end like this, test or not. There was a blockade in place, but Kestrel fighters were the cutting edge, able to match any dozen fighters and slip past the most imposing destroyers. Manned by a psychic pilot… Sigma was their only chance.

Inch by inch, Sigma crawled across the dusty stone, leaving a trail of blood behind. Tau’s Kestrel was close, but it still took thirty agonizing seconds to reach it, another half-minute to climb inside. As Tau’s partner, Sigma was able to activate auxiliary functions such as the in-ship medical facilities and scanning functions, but these were useless without the ability to fly.

The screen showed Alpha’s progress, circling the planet to get an idea of any weak points in the blockade’s defenses. There was precious little time, and nothing to do with it. If only Tau was here…

The idea came like a slap to the face. The neural code to unlock the ship was based on brain patterns and thought processes, each as unique as a strand of DNA. But – like twins from the same womb could share the same genetic code – Tau and Sigma had been made together, twins of the mind. No two souls in the galaxy knew each other better.

Sigma let go of all the pain and panic from the past day. All that mattered now was to make the thousand tiny adjustments to the mind, each one familiar and cherished, to mirror the way Tau thought, and felt, and saw, and feared, and loved…

The turbines came alive, the usual whine as sweet as any song, and a screen in the cockpit welcomed Initiate Tau aboard, and stated that all systems were in order. Would you like to launch?

Yes I would, Sigma thought, feeling both triumphant and sad. I’m sorry, Tau.

The Kestrel screamed a battle cry and tore across the face of the barren earth, trailing fire and destruction in its wake. Sigma fused with the ship, linking every display and system into the psylink, nearly becoming the Kestrel. Echoes of Tau lingered here, small preferences that differed from Sigma’s own, but those were left there as a tribute.

Sigma saw with the ship’s eyes that Alpha was already in combat, moving like a dancer among clumsy children, dodging every attack by mere inches, moving with an economical elegance and deadly precision. Already the area was littered with debris from a dozen fighters and the crippled remains of a battle cruiser.

The minds of those aboard unfolded before Sigma’s consciousness. Each was another eye, another mind at an agent’s command, amplifying both of their powers, but Sigma could feel the rage of those that fought an invincible foe, the fear of those already dying, and the terrible void that came from each mind that was snuffed out. It was a memory that never dimmed. How many would die to conceal the secrets of other men? How long had Agent Alpha spent haunted by those ghosts?

Sigma’s Kestrel wove through innumerable hazards almost without thought, dodging errant fire and evading deadly debris in a counterpoint to Alpha’s movements. But no matter how Sigma maneuvered, Agent Alpha was always just out of reach, slipping behind the bulk of a dreadnaught or leaping for the cover of a hapless squadron.

Sigma’s mind worked independently of the body and the ship. Would they sacrifice so many as part of a test? Was Alpha playing an elaborate game or had the agent truly gone rogue? If so, was that heroism or treachery? Was Tau truly dead?

The fleet withdrew, and Sigma was free of the blockade, but so was Alpha. The stolen Kestrel was driving at maximum speed for the quantum barrier, but Sigma had a clear shot, and Alpha had no cover. In a few seconds, Alpha would be beyond the point of no return, free to broadcast a message that could be true or false, but almost certainly destructive.

It was time to decide. Nobody to offer guidance or support. Alone. Sigma’s thumb trembled on the fire button, and the initiate could practically feel the terrible power of the guns waiting to be unleashed, vengeance and mercy and power only a wish away.

Was it all a test?

Did it even matter?

Sigma made the decision.

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