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Nova
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Nova

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Author: Margaret Fortune
Publisher: DAW Books, 2015
Series: Spectre War: Book 1

1. Nova
2. Archangel

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
Colonization
Alien Invasion
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Synopsis

*36:00:00*

The clock activates so suddenly in my mind, my head involuntarily jerks a bit to the side. The fog vanishes, dissipated in an instant as though it never was. Memories come slotting into place, their edges sharp enough to leave furrows, and suddenly I know. I know exactly who I am.

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was named for a prisoner of war. She lived in the Tiersten Internment Colony for two years, and when they negotiated the return of the prisoners, I was given her memories and sent back in her place.

And I am a genetically engineered human bomb.

Lia Johansen was created for only one purpose: to slip onto the strategically placed New Sol Space Station and explode. But her mission goes to hell when her clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go. With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia has no idea what to do next. Her life gets even more complicated when she meets Michael Sorenson, the real Lia's childhood best friend.

Drawn to Michael and his family against her better judgment, Lia starts learning what it means to live and love, and to be human. It is only when her countdown clock begins sporadically losing time that she realizes even duds can still blow up. If she wants any chance at a future, she must find a way to unlock the secrets of her past and stop her clock. But as Lia digs into her origins, she begins to suspect there's far more to her mission and to this war, than meets the eye. With the fate of not just a space station but an entire empire hanging in the balance, Lia races to find the truth before her time -- literally -- runs out.


Excerpt

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was a prisoner of war. Taken when Aurora Colony fell, I lived in an internment camp for two years along with ten thousand other civilian colonists. My parents died in front of me from starvation and sickness. And I wept for them.

Or did I?

The memories are fuzzy most days; disjointed and piecemeal, they skitter out from under my grasp, leaving my mind empty-handed and blank. Today it is all I can do to remember my own name, to keep repeating my story over and over again in my head, the way they taught me to.

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was a prisoner of war...

Until today.

Standing at the viewport on the forward deck of the Xenia Anneli, I watch as the New Sol Space Station slowly draws into view. It's even bigger than I imagined, with two concentric rings connected by spokes to an inner hub shaped like a top. The station spins like a top, too, its lights flashing by like strings of holiday lights in blue and yellow and red. It's magnificent.

Magnificent... and frightening.

I reach out and lightly touch the viewport, slowly tracing my index finger along the curve of the upper ring, over the top of the hub. They tell me this place is my freedom. My first step to starting a new life now that a ceasefire has been reached with the Tellurian Alliance and us prisoners released. But how do I start a new life when I can barely remember my old one?

A loud whooshing sound catches me off guard, and I yank my hand back from the viewport in alarm before realizing it's just one of the ship's thrusters guiding us toward the gap between the rings. I glance around, slightly embarrassed by my reaction, though I have reason to be nervous. A door control malfunctioned just a week into the journey and gave me a nasty electric shock. I wasn't badly harmed--a burn on the end of my finger was the extent of my external injuries--but the jolt was enough to make me momentarily black out. Though I came to within seconds, I spent the next day and a half feeling dizzy and out of sorts. It's an experience I'd rather not repeat.

I step back to the viewport again, taking care not to touch anything this time. We are passing between the rings now, and I can see the docking ports straight ahead, positioned in the middle of the hub. The ship begins to turn, moving to align itself with the station's docking bay, and I find myself staring between the rings, at that long spill of ebony space painted with stars.

It's a view I've been staring at for three weeks now, ever since the transport left Tiersten Internment Colony. While the other ex-prisoners quickly grew tired of it, preferring to talk about what life would be like when we reached the station and were repatriated back into the Celestial Expanse, I've remained here at the viewport, watching. Though usually it's the aft deck I stand on, looking back as though there is something on Tiersten I can't let go of, no matter how much I may try. Not that I can remember what that might be.

The ship judders as we lock into place against the station, and the passengers' excited chatter only increases, never mind the captain's piped-in voice exhorting us to stay calm and quiet until the officers come to de-board us. I can't blame them; many of these captives lived in the camp for far longer than I. They have families to find, homes to return to. Not that New Sol is home for most of them. It is only a way station, a stepping stone into the Celestial Expanse. From here, they will all board transports to every corner of the expanse, every colony and planet not lost in the war. Everyone but me, that is.

For me, New Sol is the last stop.

I blink, uncertain where the thought came from. A memory tickles at the back of my mind, and I scrabble for it, instinctively sensing its importance...

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was a prisoner of war.

The memory is gone, slipped through my mental fingers, and I shake my head. Perhaps New Sol will be my last stop, perhaps not. With Aurora gone and my parents dead, I suppose I will go wherever they tell me to go.

"Attention! Attention, please!"

I swivel my head to the entranceway, craning to see between the two middle-aged ladies behind me. An officer in the crisp black-and-golds of the fleet is giving instructions for our debarkation, and everyone starts forming up into a ragged queue to the door. I fall in line behind the two ladies, my legs aching from an eternity of standing in one place until finally the back of the line begins to move. Following the others through the corridors and into the ship's docking bay, I hesitate as I look through the security scanners and into the station beyond. With a glance back into the transport, I frown. I have the nagging feeling I was supposed to do something. An officer urges me forward, and I shrug. Whatever it was, it's too late now. I step through the docking ring and take my first breath as a free citizen of the Celestial Expanse.

Matte gray walls, metal floor tiling, soft white light. These are the only things I have time to take in before the jostling of the prisoners behind me presses me forward and down the corridor. I glance around to either side as I walk, letting the crowd in front lead me as much as the smiling officers standing at intervals along the passageway. There's little to see in this monotonous hallway, though I do notice two strips of flat blue lights sunk into the floor on either side of the passage, running down the hall as far as I can see. Emergency lights, I wonder, or do they have another purpose?

At the end of the hall, they wave us into what looks like a large cargo bay. They managed to empty or relocate most of the contents before we arrived, and the remaining barrels, bins, and crates have been pushed up against the walls to accommodate us. Despite this, it's still a tight squeeze, long lines of people queued up behind makeshift checkpoints manned by a handful of officers. Many have already sat down on the floor to wait, while others pace in place, the space inadequate to do anything more.

As I join the back of a line to wait, I check out a large screen posted by the other bay entrance. A name and picture flash on the screen. The name and picture of a former prisoner, I realize, its purpose suddenly becoming clear when I catch sight of the crowd waiting behind a tapeline on the other side of the door. I understand now. The screen isn't for us; it's for them. For the stationers who have come to see if their loved ones are part of the lucky few that have been returned. I marvel at how long some of them must have stood there, will stand there, waiting anxiously for that one special name to appear. I picture my face and name on the screen.

Lia Johansen.

No family, no relatives; no one will be waiting to claim her.

To pass the time, I listen to the conversations around me. A few feet to my left, a father is telling his children about his family's old house back on Devora Colony. They look so young, I'm sure they don't remember it, even if they have seen it. Ahead of me, the two middle-aged ladies hold hands, unspeaking though they occasionally exchange looks brimming with equal parts hope and disbelief. Perhaps they are listening to the grandmother not far behind us as she sings an old Earth lullaby to the little one on her lap.

Everyone seems to have someone, even if only a friend they made after months, even years of captivity. Everyone except me. After two years on Tiersten, it seems like I should know at least a few of them, but if I do, I don't remember. Of course, there were thousands of prisoners in my camp alone, so I could hardly have known them all. I kept to myself on the transport, turning away from any who spoke to me. No sense getting attached to people I don't remember anyway, and will just lose in the end.

The line inches forward, and I with it. My attention drifts to a pair of soldiers standing along the wall not far from my new position. They appear relaxed as they scan the crowd, but their hands rest on their hips, within easy reach of their weapons. I strain my ears to catch their conversation.

"...know anyone from the Tiersten Colony?" the first is asking.

The other shakes her head as her gaze takes another pass through the crowd. "Not me. You?"

"My cousin knew someone," the first soldier replies. "Old sweetheart who moved to Aurora just a few years ago."

"Talk about bad timing."

"No kidding. She thinks she's going to start a new life after her divorce, only to end up interned on a prison planet for two years. Assuming she survived the initial invasion, that is. I keep looking for her, but I haven't seen her yet. Of course, this is only a small percentage of the prisoners on Tiersten. What are the chances she'd be one of the lucky five hundred?"

The female snorts. "I'm just surprised the Tellurians are letting any prisoners go at all, not with the future of New Earth still up in the air."

"They're probably hoping a few released prisoners will soften us up, make us more open to bargaining. What was it they called it? A goodwill gesture?"

"Goodwill? That'll be the day! One hundred milicreds says the ceasefire doesn't last more than a four-square."

"You're on," the first soldier agrees. "I give it six weeks at least. So did you catch the game two nights ago?"

"No, missed it. Why? Was it good?"

"You'd better believe it. By the end of the first quarter..."

The line moves up and the soldiers move down, their conversation lost to my ears. I've been waiting for two hours now, and I'm starting to understand the pacers, so restless that even pivoting in place is better than simply waiting.

To distract myself, I peer around to the head of the line. I'm close enough now to see the officer in charge of my checkpoint. A young man with sandy hair, the insignia on his uniform marks him a lieutenant. And not just a lieutenant, but a member of the Celestial PsyCorp.

A psychic!

I instinctively stumble back a step, narrowly missing the elderly man behind me. My heart speeds up, though I'm not sure why. I'm old enough to know that all the stories about PsyCorp being the boogeyman are just that--stories. Everyone knows that most psychics need direct contact to pick anything up, and even a brief touch won't garner them much more than a sense of your emotions and intentions, and maybe a stray surface thought. Besides, it's not as if I haven't seen a psychic before. I saw one just three weeks ago while boarding the transport off Tiersten. Still, my uneasiness only continues to grow the longer I stare at him, and all I know is that I want to avoid him at all costs.

I'll just switch lines, I decide, slipping out of place and moving toward the next queue. It will mean more waiting, but then, it's not like I have anywhere to go.

Except the officer at the next checkpoint bears the same patterned half-star on her tunic, as does the one at every other checkpoint in the bay. Is that why there are so few checkpoints for so many people? Because they're only using psychics to process the refugees? But why?

The elderly man is kind enough to let me back into line, no doubt assuming I stepped out to use the hygiene facilities at the other end of the bay. Wiping my sweaty hands on my jumpsuit, I reluctantly slide back into my original place. Minute by minute, the line pulls me inexorably forward, closer and closer to the checkpoint just ahead. I'm finding it hard to breathe now. The psychics, the soldiers, the crowds, the walls. This place suddenly feels like a trap, as much of a prison as the one I just left. By the time I reach the front of the line, I'm starting to feel lightheaded, like my head will detach from my body and float away any minute.

"Name, please."

I look down, mouth too dry to speak. He wears no weapon, and yet every nerve in my body is screaming that this man is dangerous.

"Miss? Your name?" the officer asks again, fingers hovering impatiently over his tip-pad.

I clear my throat and finally manage to force out the words. "Lia. Lia Johansen."

"Okay, Lia. I need you to lift your head, lean forward, and open your eyes wide."

He's holding a retinal scanner in his hand, a short metal tube about the size of a stylus with a circular scanner on top. Retinal scans are standard practice, a fast and painless way of ascertaining identity, but for some reason the device only heightens my anxiety, as though it is a weapon rather than a tool. I should do as he says, but somehow I can't seem to make myself move.

Cool fingers nudge my chin up. A spark of light bursts in my head and I jerk back, twisting my head away from the touch with a gasp. Fear shoots through me, cold and icy down my back, and even through the din of the bay I can hear my breaths grow ragged and short. I struggle to find the reason, to pinpoint the danger, but a fog rolls over me, pressing down through the cracks in my mind, shrouding my thoughts, smothering my memories, forcing every rational notion into oblivion. My mind goes blank, and for a moment I am gone, lost and adrift without a name, without a memory, without anything to call myself. I scrabble frantically in the fog, searching for something, anything, to anchor myself to...

"Lia?"

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was a prisoner of war.

And I am back.

My heart slows, and finally I turn my gaze back to the officer.

His impatience is gone, his face creased with concern, and I wonder what he saw in my mind in that brief touch to engender such sympathy. For the first time, I look beyond the lieutenant's bars and the half-star on his chest. Though only in his twenties, he looks weary, like a man who has looked into the eyes of too many and seen too much in those depths. His own eyes, a startling shade of blue, shine clear and deep and surprisingly gentle. My gaze flicks to the name spelled out across his breast pocket. Rowan.

"Lia, it won't hurt. I promise."

My fear is still there, frothing beneath the surface in frantic eddies, but I have it in check now. Leaning forward, I allow him to pass the scanner slowly in front of my right eye. The device hums, then beeps, and PsyLieutenant Rowan glances at the data readout on his tip-pad. He frowns. "Where are you from, Lia? Before you were taken prisoner?"

"Aurora Colony."

He nods, expecting the answer. Aurora's central records were destroyed when the colony was taken, which means anyone born on the colony wouldn't have a ret scan on file or any other personal information. He types some data into his tip-pad, possibly opening a new file for me.

"And your family? Do you have any living relatives here with you from the camp?"

I shake my head. "I only had my parents, and they died at Tiersten."

"I'm sorry," he says, and again I hear that gentle tone, so unexpected. "What about off-planet? Do you have any friends or relatives that weren't on Aurora? Anyone that might take you in?"

"No," I whisper, and again I think of that board of names, those people waiting behind the tapeline.

PsyLt. Rowan pauses for a second, regarding me silently, then finally nods. "Can you tell me your birth date, Lia? Your age?" he adds when I don't immediately answer.

My age? The answer eludes me, and I experience a momentary stab of panic at being put on the spot with a question I should know the answer to, but don't. I force myself to remain calm, breathing a sigh of relief when the number flashes in my head. He smiles when I tell him the date.

"Sixteen? I thought so. You look so much like--" He stops suddenly, a faraway look in his eyes, and shakes his head. "Never mind."

He asks me a few more questions, and I answer as best as I can, watching as he rapidly types the information into his tip-pad, his fingernails as precise as a surgeon's scalpels. He saves the file and codes it into an identity chit the size of my pinky. Loading it into a small insertion gun, he holds out his left hand, palm up. A silent request for my hand, I realize after a second.

Touching him is the last thing I want to do, but I give him my hand anyway, this time prepared for the rush of fear and adrenaline the contact brings. Taking my hand, he turns it over and staples the chit into my palm, right into the fleshy part at the base of my thumb. The metal spikes sink into my skin, and I jump as the chit's biometal filaments unfurl and spread up through my palm to twine themselves into the nerves of my fingers.

"Did that hurt?" Rowan asks with a frown, releasing my hand and absently fingering his own chit.

I cock my head at the question, thinking. Did it hurt? The sensation was so brief, I can't place it. Finally, I shake my head. "You just surprised me."

"Sorry," he apologizes. "All right, Lia. You've been temporarily assigned a cot in Cargo Bay 8A. You can use your ID chit to get food in the cafeteria, and here's your sleeping kit. We hope to get everyone a change of clothes within the next couple days, but for now you'll have to make do with what you have from the transport." He shrugs apologetically at my plain gray jumpsuit, then hands me a bedroll wrapped around a towel and toiletry kit. Gesturing toward the entranceway, he offers a few final tips. "The nearest cafeteria is in the main hub, that's here, along the yellow ring on Level Five, and the cargo bay where you're assigned is along the red ring on Level Eight. We've posted a map right outside the bay so it shouldn't be hard to find. For now, we're asking that you stay..."

*36:00:00*

The clock activates so suddenly in my mind, my head involuntarily jerks a bit to the side. The fog vanishes, dissipated in an instant as though it never was. Memories come slotting into place, their edges sharp enough to leave furrows in my mind, and suddenly I know. I know exactly who I am.

My name is Lia Johansen, and I was named for a prisoner of war. She lived in the Tiersten Internment Colony for two years, and when they negotiated the return of the prisoners, I was given her memories and sent back in her place.

And I am a genetically engineered human bomb.

"...can be confusing at first," PsyLt. Rowan is saying, his voice sounding far away to my negligent ear, "but remember that the levels--"

*35:59:59*

"--have been coded into four sectors--red, yellow, green, and blue--"

*35:59:58*

"--which each correspond to one of the quadrants of the hub. So if--"

*35:59:57*

"--you get lost, just look at the floor. Do you understand, Lia? Lia?" He reaches out a hand toward me.

Don't let him touch you, don't let him touch you, don't let him touch you!

Attention snapping back to the world around me, I jump back just in time to avoid his hand. "I've got it," I quickly affirm. "Thanks. For everything. I think I can manage."

Even as his brow furrows in concern, I am already nodding and stepping away toward the bay entrance. I shiver, recognizing just how close I came to being discovered. With the memory overlay shattered and my true memory restored, all it would take is one touch for him to realize I'm no longer the confused refugee he read before. If I'd let him touch me, or if my clock had started just minutes earlier, before they processed me in...

I rub the chit in my palm, remembering the way Rowan took my hand, held my chin. They had orders to touch everyone who came in, I realize. They were looking for enemy agents. It is the only explanation for every post being manned by a member of PsyCorp.

"Oh, and Lia?"

My feet freeze only steps away from the entrance. Did I give myself away somehow? Every instinct bids me to flee, but I force myself to look back.

Rowan smiles. "Welcome to New Sol Station."

In just under thirty-six hours, this man will die by my hand. He'll perish in a blaze of fire, blown apart in his prime by the very hand he touched, his young life ended after it barely began. This man who showed kindness to an abused refugee who was not what she seemed. Should I feel bad for my part in his demise?

Perhaps Lia would. But I am not Lia.

I pause just outside of the cargo bay to get my bearings. I'm standing in a huge circular room at the center of the hub. Sections have been cordoned off for the crowd, leaving makeshift corridors running along the wall and out to the lift station at the center of the room. A few crowd members glance at me hopefully, their faces falling as they realize I'm not their daughter, sister, cousin, friend, but I ignore them. Instead I concentrate on the map posted on the wall.

Thirteen levels make up the Central Hub, all connected by the lift station running down the center. The level I'm currently on, Level Seven, is made up of docking ports, hangars, and cargo bays, as are Levels Six and Eight. The station is a military outpost as well as a colony, and from what I can tell, the hub is primarily for military and transport use. I zero in on the top three levels--Station Control--and file the location away for future reference.

Levels Five and Nine are public levels. They contain the spokes leading out to the two habitat rings, and the space has been devoted to shops, bars, restaurants--places where visitors can eat, relax, and resupply. My stomach rumbles as I notice that both also contain the two hub cafeterias. I check my internal clock, still ticking down one second at a time. Thirty-five hours, forty-six minutes, three seconds. Plenty of time to get something to eat.

Feeling confident of my direction, I head down the roped-off corridor toward the lift station. People call out to me as I pass, wanting to know if I've seen this loved one or that. I keep my eyes forward, not responding to their queries.

"Lia? Lia!"

I keep going, certain the voice is addressing someone else. Lia's parents are dead. She has no family now; no one who would come looking for her.

"Lia Johansen!"

This time I have to stop. There is no mistake; someone is calling me. Well, not me, but the person they think I am. Even though I know better, my eyes begin involuntarily scanning the crowd.

"Lia!"

The voice sounds practically in my ear, and I whirl around to find its owner standing right behind me. I step back so quickly I trip over my own feet. Warm hands grab my wrists and right me. Dark eyes, so brown they're almost black, stare back into mine.

I forget to breathe.

It's not that I haven't been touched before; looked at, spoken to. I spent three weeks in the company of five hundred prisoners, after all. Only the contact was always impersonal, that of stranger to stranger. I was no one to them. Not one of them ever looked at me like I was someone. Until now.

His hands relax, but don't let go. "It is you," he says softly. "When I saw your name on the list, I didn't really think it would be."

The smart thing would be to tell him I'm not. To deny being who he thinks I am, to push him away and forget about him. I have only one mission, and it doesn't include him. Whoever he is. It's just... I don't want him to let go of my wrists. I don't want him to stop looking at me.

I stall for time. "Who did you think I'd be?"

"I don't know. Some other Lia Johansen from Aurora Colony, I suppose."

"Were there that many of us?"

"If there were, none of them mattered but you." He ducks his head, looking embarrassed, and adds, "It's good to see you again, Lia."

"It's good to see you too, Michael."

Michael? The name popped out without thought, but it must be right or he wouldn't be smiling at me. When the overlay shattered, Lia's memories scattered and fell away, disappearing from my conscious mind. I'd thought they were gone for good, but apparently they're still in there, crouching somewhere within the pockets of my mind.

I plumb the depths of my memory, trying to place this Michael. He looks about my age--or rather, Lia's age--but with his skin dark and mine pale, it seems unlikely that we're related. Besides, Lia has no living relatives. A friend, then?

"It's been a long time since those summer days in the park, hasn't it?" he continues. "Seven years now?"

The park.

A playground, grass, white flowers everywhere.

"Higher, Michael! Push me higher!"

"How high, Li-Li?"

"To the sky!"

I blink, surprised by the memory. Now where did that come from? In my three weeks aboard the Xenia Anneli, I never recalled that. "You used to push L--me on the swings."

He grins. "You always wanted to go higher."

"To the sky," I agree. It's starting to come back now. Michael, from Aurora Colony. Childhood playmates, he and Lia lived next door all their lives until his family left the colony when he was nine. I cried for days after he left.

She, I correct myself. Lia cried for days after he left. I have never met Michael, and he has never met me. For the first time, I suddenly feel like the imposter I am. Not because I'm an enemy agent, not because I'm a bomb, but because I'm basking in the warm glow of a gaze meant for someone else. Someone special. Someone who is not me.

In its way, that's even worse than being looked at like I'm no one.

I pull my wrists from his grasp and look away, suddenly all too aware that they aren't my hands Michael is holding but Lia's. "I should go," I say, careful to avoid his eyes as I begin edging around him. "Thanks for coming to see me."

He doesn't take the hint, falling into step beside me as I head for the lift station. "Where are you going? Maybe I can show you the way."

"The cafeteria, but I can fi--"

"Oh, sure. You must be hungry after traveling all day. Come on, we'll go up to the one on Five."

We? "That's okay, you don't--"

"There's one on Nine, too," he continues, reaching out to take my sleeping kit before I even realize what he's about, "but Five always has better desserts."

Somehow our positions have gotten reversed, and now instead of Michael following me to the lift, I'm following him. I trail behind him, uncertain how to detach myself from him now that he's so neatly taken charge.

The lift station is essentially a giant metal pulley that is continually in motion, one side always going up while the other goes down. I watch as the man in front of us steps onto a platform sliding up a track in the pulley as it comes level with the floor, briefly touching the metal pole to steady himself as the lift continues up. Glancing down the hole, I hesitate as the next platform comes into view. As if sensing my uncertainty, Michael grabs my hand and steps on, pulling me with him.

On instinct, I latch onto the metal pulley only to find that I don't really need it. The lift isn't moving particularly fast, and besides, the platform is surrounded on three sides by waist-high glass walls. The crowd shrinks as the lift bears us up and away. We pass the thick metal divider that serves as both floor and ceiling, and then we're gliding into Level Six, which looks similar to Seven, but without the crowd or roped-off areas. I barely have time to take it in before we're passing the next divider into Five. I'm so intrigued by the ride, I would have forgotten to get off if not for Michael's hand tugging me along.

I pause next to the lift, watching as the platform disappears through the hole in the ceiling. "What happens if you don't get off at the top floor?" I ask nervously.

"I guess we'll have to try it sometime," Michael answers with a shrug.

My eyes widen, visions of being smashed into the ceiling or pitched off at the top abounding in my head. Michael suddenly grins.

"Don't worry, we won't go splat. I promise."

No, not splat. Just boom.

I mentally check my internal clock. Thirty-five hours, twenty-eight minutes, three seconds, and then...

Nova.

They told me what it would be like, when I finally go. It will begin with a stretchy feeling in my mind, as if my brain is being thinned out, flattened and pulled taut like skin over a drum. My vision will go next, the world around me blurring as sparkles of silver and gold begin dancing in my eyes. Then my heart will begin pounding--it will have to, to force the chemicals through my bloodstream and into my chest where they will meet and ignite. The chemicals come from my arms, one from a sac engineered into my left forearm, the other from my right. Separate, they are completely benign, undetectable by any security system, but together they have the power to take down this entire station.

I'll know that the chemicals have been released into my bloodstream when I feel a burning sensation in each arm. It won't be long then. My eyes will go completely blind, vision obscured by a million glittering sparkles as the chemicals combine under the furious pumping of my heart, and then it will all go white. Brilliant, dazzling white the likes of which no one has ever seen before. It will be glorious.

So they tell me, anyway. Of course I have never experienced it for myself. Yet.

I give Michael a sideways glance. It's a shame he'll never get to feel what I'll feel, to see what I'll see, to experience what I'll experience. To know the awe-inspiring power of going Nova. At least, he'll still get to be a part of it like everyone else on the station, I remind myself. Just not the way I will.

Michael is waiting for me, lips quirked in an expression I can't fathom as he studies me. Does he know I'm not Lia? If anyone could tell, surely it would be her childhood friend. But he only waves a hand at the area around us and asks, "Shall we?"

I nod and follow Michael away from the lift station and into Level Five. Compared to the relative quiet of Six, Five is a veritable hive of activity. The area is divided by four wide concourses marked by floor lights in red, yellow, green, and blue. They jut out from the lift station in the shape of a cross, each one leading to a spoke that connects the habitat ring to the hub. Between the concourses, shops and eating establishments vie for space with pop-up kiosks and traders with the odd grav-sled of merchandise to sell. Military officers in black and gold mix with colonists and station visitors, and I even see some refugees wandering around the floor, their origin easily denoted by their gray jumpsuits. It's a good thing I have Michael to guide me, for I would be lost within the shuffle in a second without him.

He leads me through the bustle with unerring direction, skirting a couple kiosks and drawing me down a corridor between an Ionian restaurant and a clothing store. As we move away from the kiosks at the center of the level, the din quiets a bit, the outer reaches of the circle filled with more sedate lounges and bars. I glance at the floor and spy yellow emergency lights set into the decking. Yellow Quadrant.

The cafeteria is tucked into the back arc, its patrons a mix of military personnel and refugees. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was thinking of food after being processed in. Tucking my sleeping kit under his arm, Michael grabs a tray for me.

"So what do you like?"

I take the tray and look around at the dizzying array of food, not entirely sure how to answer. I was engineered without a true sense of taste, or smell for that matter. To me everything gives off the same odor: a pale sour-and-sweet tang that tickles around the edges of my nostrils and lays lightly across my tongue. Only the intensity varies. The odor was persistent on the transport. Here in the cafeteria, it is hardly noticeable.

The lack of smell or taste hardly mattered on the transport. The soldiers offered us no choice, and it was either eat what they gave us or go hungry. While I recognize most of the dishes, I have little preference for one over the next. Food holds no pleasure for me. It is a means to survive, nothing else. I suppose I could choose based on nutritional content, but there seems little point when I have less than thirty-six hours of existence left. I try to think back to what I ate before the transport ship, but for some reason I can't call to mind a single meal I had before boarding.

Shrugging, I choose a medley of items: a piece of chicken, a stalk of celery, an orange, some fries. Michael raises his eyebrow when he catches sight of my plate.

"I thought you hated celery."

I do? I struggle for an answer. "They gave us lots of celery on Tiersten. I guess I got used to it."

"They did? Celery? Glitchy." Michael shakes his head, then shrugs and helps himself to a piece of cake from the bakery corner.

After swiping our chits for the cashier, we find a place at a small table in the corner. I concentrate on my food, using it as an excuse to stay silent. With Lia's memories submerged firmly beneath the surface, I don't dare talk any more than I have to. It would be too easy to say something Lia would not.

To my surprise, Michael seems just as uneasy, his earlier confidence somehow diminished now that we are sitting face-to-face with nothing to do but talk. He drums his fingers on the table.

"You're so quiet," he finally says.

"I am?"

"When we were kids, you never stopped talking. My mom used to say you were a regular little chatterbug."

Just by staying silent I have erred. I search my mind for Lia, hoping to find the words she might say, but she's not there. I shrug uncomfortably. "Things change."

It's not a great answer by any means, but he seems to accept it.

"I noticed your parents' names weren't on the list," he adds carefully. "Are they...?"

My parents died in front of me from starvation and sickness.

His eyes widen, and I realize I spoke the words aloud, the catchphrase automatically tumbling from my mouth before my brain could even process it. "I'm sorry," Michael says. "I really liked your parents. You must miss them a lot."

"I wept for them."

Another manufactured answer, for I have no other. I have no sentiments of my own; no words besides the ones they put in my head. Even my name is not my name, but another girl's treasured possession, now taken and bestowed on me. And like any piece of stolen property, it has been worn in by the original owner, and I know it will never fit me quite as well as it did her.

We eat in silence, or at least attempt to eat, Michael poking at his cake with his fork and me absently swirling a slice of orange in my ketchup before I catch myself and surreptitiously stick it in my mouth. Would the real Lia be this tongue-tied if it were she meeting Michael again for the first time in seven years?

Michael glances around, as if hoping a topic will condense out of thin air, and his eyes fall on my tray. "You never got dessert," he exclaims.

"Oh, well--"

"That was the whole point of coming up to Five, remember? The desserts. Here, try some of mine," he offers, stabbing his fork into the uneaten side and holding it out at me.

"I really don't--"

I duck my head at the same time he jabs the fork forward, and instead of the cake going in my mouth, it ends up all over my nose. Michael starts apologizing, and for a moment I freeze, unsure what the protocol is for a situation like this. I only know that I don't want him to feel bad.

I tentatively reach up and catch a daub of frosting on my finger, then stick it in my mouth. Michael's stricken look slowly dissolves into a grin, a chuckle coming out of his mouth as he asks, "How is it?"

It tastes exactly like the ketchup. Which is to say, it doesn't taste like anything at all.

"It's really good," I tell him, accepting the napkin he offers and wiping off my nose.

Somehow I did the right thing, because as Michael starts telling me a story about his first time at the station cafeteria, his easygoing manner suddenly returns. He eats some of my fries, and I nibble on his cake, content to just listen and nod.

After a while he stops, shaking his head in self-deprecation. "Listen to me. Now I've become the chatterbug."

I shrug. "I don't mind."

He gives me a look I can't read, then busies himself gathering up our trays and plates. I grab my sleeping kit, and together we bus our table and head out of the cafeteria. We wander along the outer edge of the level until we reach the concourse at the edge of the quadrant, one side bordered with yellow lights, the other green. Sliding doors at the end of the concourse periodically open to let people come and go from spoke to hub and vice versa. Michael jerks his head toward the doors.

"I should probably go before Gran starts to worry." He hesitates. "I'm really glad to see you again, Lia. Maybe I could come by tomorrow? Where are you staying?"

I think back to PsyLt. Rowan's directives. Cargo Bay 8A.

"With the refugees in Cargo Bay 7C," I tell him.

"Okay, great." He raises one hand in a wave as he takes a couple backward steps down the concourse. "See you later, Lia."

*34:17:02*

No, Michael, I think as he strolls through the doors and disappears, you won't.

I take the concourse back to the lift station, drifting along among all the others coming and going. No one pays any attention to me, a pale, sixteen-year-old refugee who is small for her age, but I pay attention to them, examining their clothes, analyzing their movements, listening to their conversations.

"...have those reports to the colonel by eighteen-hundred..."

"...afford to get behind schedule, what with the Santa Maria's arrival in a few weeks..."

"Our docking pass expires in three hours. We have to secure that shipment..."

"...so I told him, not on my milicred, he's not..."

A woman in a flowing red dress, its hues rippling in time with her movements, sweeps past me complaining of a produce sickness in hydroponics, and the white-haired man with her mentions Chinese cabbage. Their words hold no meaning for me, all part and parcel of lives I have never lived and could never comprehend. Perhaps that is why they intrigue me so.

I reach the lift station, but instead of joining the busy line to go down, I step on a platform going up. No one else is headed in this direction, the platforms above and below me all empty as far as I can see. I pass the divider and Four comes into view, an administrative level with offices and conference rooms. It holds no interest for me, and I crane my head up, watching as the lift comes even with the ceiling and then slides into Three. Station Control.

Getting off, I find myself in a small vestibule created by four metal walls completely enclosing the lift. Aside from a bench, an artificial plant, and a piece of framed artwork, the room is empty. A keypad and retinal scanner are mounted by each of the two doors. Clearly not just anybody can enter this level.

Climbing back on the lift, I ride up to Two, which is an exact match for Three, except for the artwork. I let my fingers drift over the keypad, wondering if it will spark a memory, an instruction of some kind, but it doesn't. Dropping my hand, I turn back toward the lift just as the door slides open and an officer comes striding through. He collides with me before I can avoid him, and I jump back from the contact, nose wrinkling as the sour-and-sweet odor sharpens. He must be wearing a pungent cologne.

"What are you doing up here? This level is for technicians and military personnel only." He narrows his eyes, taking in my jumpsuit with a suspicious look.

My mind flips back to my conversation with Michael. Don't worry, we won't go splat. I promise.

"I just wanted to see if it was true," I answer.

"True?"

"That if you forget to get off the lift at Level One, you'll go splat into the ceiling."

He lets out a bark of laughter. "Who told you that?"

I shrug. "Some boy on Level Five. He dared me to come up and try it, but I got scared, so I got off at the last minute."

His suspicion is gone, replaced with reluctant amusement. "Kids," he grunts. "If I had a milicred for every time I've heard that."

I tense up as he puts a hand on my shoulder and gives me a gentle shove toward the lift, but my quick search reveals no half-star on his uniform. I let him guide me around to the down side.

"Go back to your friends, kid, and try to stay out of trouble. Remember, we can always find you if you stray," he says, tapping meaningfully on his palm chit. I look at my own. So it's not just an identity and credit device, but a tracker as well. Of course.

The officer watches me while I wait for the next down platform. As I'm getting on, he grudgingly calls out, "If you really want to explore, you could try Level Thirteen. There's an ob--"

His words are cut off as the platform descends below the floor. Not that it matters. I have no interest in poking around the station like some curious child away from home for the first time. Not unless it will aid my mission in some way. I search my mind for instruction; surely my makers left me with some sort of direction for carrying out my assignment.

Nothing surfaces.

Uneasiness fills me, but I shrug it off. I'm sure if there was something I needed to know, I would remember it. Again, that nagging sensation flits through me that there was something I was supposed to do on the transport.

I let the thought go. It doesn't matter now. Thirty-three hours, fifty-five minutes, forty-nine seconds. In mere hours, nothing will matter anymore.

The levels float by, one after another, and I think about my next move. With so much time at my disposal, I might as well find my quarters and set down my sleeping kit.

Getting off the lift on Eight, I thread my way through a group of refugees and set off in search of Cargo Bay 8A. By some luck, I manage to find it without too much trouble. The bay looks similar to the one where PsyLt. Rowan processed me a couple short hours ago, with cargo pushed up against the walls to make way for rows of cots laid out in the middle of the floor. Well, rows more or less. With the arrival of the refugees, bunches of cots have been pulled together in clusters, blankets propped up with makeshift supports to create small bits of privacy within the vast space.

An officer peels away from the wall as I step farther into the bay. "Chit, please?"

I hold out my palm, and he scans it with his tip-pad. "Johansen, Lia. Yes, Cargo Bay 8A is correct. Hygiene units are in those corners there," he points, "and there. Take any bunk you want."

"They're not assigned?"

"Well, that was the original plan, but..." He grimaces and waves a hand at the chaos.

Ah. With an understanding nod, I locate an empty cot in the corner near an elderly couple. By some miracle they are asleep, harsh light and the noise of the crowd notwithstanding, their cots pushed together and their hands entwined. In the grip of sleep, they don't look like refugees sacking out in a cargo bay teeming with people, but a couple at home in their own bed, each secure in the knowledge that they are not alone. Feeling strangely like I'm somehow intruding, I push my cot up against the wall as far as I can.

My sleeping kit contains bedding--a thin mattress, sheets, and a blanket--which I lay out on my cot. I look at my new bed a bit longingly, exhausted though it's only midday by station time, but knowing I have no chance of finding rest in this noisy maze. Too bad I'm no longer Lia. Lia could curl up in this nest and be asleep within a minute. She could sleep anywhere. I'm sure she wouldn't feel the sharp edge of unease dogging her steps every moment since the memory overlay shattered.

Since I can't sleep, I join the line for the hygiene units. The wait for the showers is long, but it's worth it even though all I have to put on afterward is my spare change of clothes from the transport, which aren't much cleaner than what I already have on. At least my hair is clean again, the once filthy ponytail now falling in damp strands over my back.

For the next several hours, I pass the time as best I can. After combing out my hair as slowly as possible, I take a turn around the bay, scouting my temporary home. I find nothing of particular interest, though by late evening the stationers have set up a makeshift laundry service, collecting dirty jumpsuits and passing out the first batch of clean clothes some of us have seen in weeks. Their supply is exhausted by the time I reach the front of the line, but they take my other jumpsuit with a scan of my chit and a promise of a clean replacement by the following morning. Afterward, I catch a second meal in the hub cafeteria, this time going down to the one on Nine just for a change of scene. Michael was right; the selection of desserts on Five is far superior to that on Nine. Not that it matters to me, of course. It's simply an observation.

To my surprise, the bay is quiet when I return from my meal. The lights are dimmed and a feeling that could almost be described as restful has descended over the room. Most of the refugees are sleeping, or at least pretending to, and the ones who aren't keep their voices low in deference to the others. A screen on the wall shows the time: 2349. Almost midnight. No wonder everyone has finally settled down.

I lie down on my cot and pull my blanket over me. The past few hours have been about marking time until the end, nothing more. I check my internal clock.

*26:22:13*

Copyright © 2015 by Margaret Fortune


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