April 21st, 2173
400km Above Earth’s surface
If there was a more depressing, oppressive environment than Orbit, Ember didn’t know it. Even by prison standards, it was grim, and she’d seen her fair share. Of course, if you asked her, she wouldn’t exactly describe it as ‘fair’, but…
Unlike most prisons, Orbit was a one-way destination. If you were sent to Orbit, you weren’t ever getting back to the surface again, not even in a coffin. You lived there for the rest of your life, and when you died- actually, nobody really knew what happened to people who died on Orbit. Nobody really thought it was important.
There was no higher security venue than Orbit, a fact which Ember found rather ironic. It didn’t need more security than the several hundred kilometres between itself and the planet below. Even if someone escaped, they had nowhere to go.
Orbit was home to hundreds of thousands of inmates, top-class criminals from around the world. The worst of the worst, all kept in one far-off place. Humanity’s garbage disposal, and there she was, right in the centre of it.
Ember lay on her back, straps around her arms, legs and neck pinning her down, rendering her completely immobile. All she could see above her was the bland silver-grey ceiling, the same lifeless colour that filled Orbit.
Everywhere you went in Orbit, it looked exactly the same. The same grey corridors, the same identical doors, the same disgustingly sanitary smell. Footsteps echoed just enough to make the place sound empty, no matter how full it was packed. Voices didn’t carry far, so you always felt alone.
They had food down to a fine art. Nutritionally sound and completely devoid of texture or flavour, they’d found a way to make her hate what had once been her favourite part of any day; eating. The food, like everything else, was grey.
Somewhere behind her, a low humming sound could be heard. The machine was being prepared; she didn’t have much longer. Probably a good time to start saying her goodbyes.
A door slid open, and she heard footsteps. The doctor was already here, then. How wonderful. The door closed, and she heard it seal itself magnetically.
“I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this,” she said, unwilling to have her spirit broken. If she had to die, at least she could go with a smile. “I’m not really so into the idea, myself.”
For a few moments, there was silence. She’d expected as much; it didn’t make much sense to select an executioner with a sense of humour, or a strong moral centre.
“Just relax,” they told her. “The process is painless, and takes less than a minute.”
“How comforting,” she muttered. “I’m really very grateful. Tell you what, let me buy you dinner some time to prove it to you. Oh, but that could be tricky if I’m, you know, dead. I guess we’ll just have to delay this whole… killing… thing. Hey?”
Again, silence. Well, she wasn’t expecting much. She tried struggling against her restraints, but as she struggled, they delivered a painful electric shock, and she gave that up pretty quickly.
“The machine is almost ready,” she was told. “I have begun the recording. Your final words will be remembered; do not waste them.”
What a load of bollocks, she grumbled to herself. Nobody was going to hear that recording, never in a million years. The death penalty was illegal under international law, and had been for several decades. Of course, there was nobody to enforce it up here, but they sure as Hell weren’t planning on showing evidence of it to anyone. In fact, she doubted they were even recording it.
Under any other circumstances, she’d have been surprised. Officially, Orbit was operated by an internationally approved government subsidiary, and the idea of them breaking international law was absurd. They’d be too closely examined; one mistake and the whole station would be dismantled.
Ember knew better. She’d gone poking around where she shouldn’t have, and found out, among other things, who really owned this station. She wasn’t quite ready to appreciate the irony of being sent here for that. Corporate espionage my arse, she thought bitterly.
“You know, if someone could explain to me why this is happening, I feel like those would be pretty good last words,” she said. “I broke into a lab and deleted some stuff, maybe smashed some test tubes. Not really sure what part of that drifted into capital punishment territory.”
A face appeared above her, slightly aged and unsurprisingly humourless. She could tell from the faint blue glow behind the irises they were a cyber – an ever increasing social minority who augmented themselves with cybernetics.
Of course it’s a man, she thought, mentally rolling her eyes. She’d always said men would be the death of her.
“The details of your transgressions are no longer open to discussion,” he said distantly. “The decision has been made. That is the way it must be.”
“I bet you’d be the life of the party, if you’d ever met another human being,” she said. “Alright then, Tin Man. Let’s get this over with so you can get back to Oz.”
The doctor looked confused for a moment, but said nothing. After a minute, he walked away, returning to the humming machine behind her.
“Wouldn’t kill you to laugh just once,” she grumbled loudly. “Throw me a bone; I’m dying up here.” No response. “Come on, this is quality gallows humour. Nothing? Seriously, I’ve known AIs with better senses of humour than you.”
“AND WHAT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”
Ember cringed. She knew that voice. She hated that voice. Goddamned nosy AI.
“Warden? Is that you? Come closer, I can’t see you. Everything is getting dark…”
Warden was the disembodied artificial intelligence system that ran Orbit. It basically was Orbit; the non-inmate population of Orbit was somewhere around a dozen. Warden took care of literally every process.
“WHY DO HUMANS MAKE JOKES BEFORE THEY DIE? IT REALLY IS VERY CONFUSING.”
“Are you very familiar with what we do before we die, Warden? How many people have you killed?”
She said it in jest, but it was a serious accusation. An AI responsible in any way for a human death would be immediately decommissioned and wiped clean.
“I NEVER KILLED ANYONE,” Warden replied, trying its best to sound sweet. It was incredibly creepy. “I JUST LIKE TO WATCH.”
“Well, that’s okay then,” she said, trying to suppress a shudder. “And how many of us have you watched die? Is that what you do for fun up here? Must be pretty lonely without friends.”
“OH, THERE ARE LOTS OF THINGS I CAN DO FOR FUN,” it said. “LIKE THIS, FOR EXAMPLE.”
The security chip that was implanted in her head before she was transported to Orbit activated, sending a painful jolt of electricity through her body. She convulsed painfully, putting additional pressure on the restraints, which responded by delivering their own electric shock.
“IS THAT ALL?”
Ember glared at the ceiling, not being able to look anywhere else. It wasn’t like Warden had a physical shell she could glare at, anyway.
“I’m reporting you to HR,” she said through clenched teeth.
“STILL MAKING JOKES?”
“Until the day I die,” she told him.
Behind her, the machine stopped humming. The sudden silence chilled her, but she tried not to let it show.
“The machine is ready,” the doctor informed her ominously.
“Thanks for the update,” she said. “Sorry, but this is my first time. Shocking, I know. Maybe you could walk me through the process?”
She didn’t really know why she was stalling. It wasn’t like anything was going to change in the next few minutes. Then again, she wasn’t in any huge rush to die. Every second counted.
“May I explain the process, Warden?” the doctor asked.
“PLEASE DO. I LIKE IT WHEN THEY FIND OUT WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO THEM. THEY MAKE THE CUTEST FACES.”
Well, that was encouraging. Still, at least she was going to find out. Maybe she could find a way to use the information in the afterlife.
“The injection contains a highly refined chemical mixture, and NanoTech particles. Together, they will shut down all of your primary and secondary organs, preserving them perfectly without causing any permanent damage. Meanwhile, the neurones in your brain will be broken up and reconfigured, essentially erasing your memories and personality, and leaving an empty shell which will be processed and re-used at some point in the future.”
That was more than a little terrifying, Ember thought, but it wasn’t the thing that bothered her most. She knew for a fact that what he’d just described was leagues ahead of what publicly available medicine could achieve. If the money and research put into developing that process had been put towards something that could actually help people…
It wasn’t any less than she expected, though. Given who she was dealing with, she was just grateful it didn’t come with unnecessary, excruciating pain.
“Great, wouldn’t want this gorgeous body going to waste,” she said. “Too bad you can’t keep my brilliant mind and bewitching personality, though.”
“YEAH, IT’S A REAL SHAME,” Warden said dryly. “ANY LAST WORDS?”
“You know, I never really got an answer to the whole why question, and it’s really dragging me down.”
Actually, she knew exactly why it was happening. She knew more than was safe for her to know, and they wanted to make sure she couldn’t tell anyone. What she was really curious about was how they were rationalising it.
“YOU BROKE INTO A TOP SECURITY LAB, AND EVADED CAPTURE FOR THREE MONTHS,” Warden said. “WE AREN’T CONFIDENT EVEN ORBIT CAN HOLD YOU. THIS IS THE ONLY OPTION THAT ENSURES THE SAFETY OF PEOPLE OF EARTH.”
Wow, that was a load of crap. There wasn’t a chance in Hell she could escape from Orbit, and she was absolutely no danger to anyone except highly unethical and dangerous genetic research companies conducting illegal research and experiments.
She had to admit, though, it was a good excuse. If they ever had to justify it, that was about the only way that they could.
“Okay, bored now,” she said airily, though she couldn’t fight the growing feeling of dread inside her. She really had been expecting something, anything to happen, to keep her going for just a little longer. “Can we get this started already? I have plans.”
“ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WANT YOUR LAST WORDS TO BE A JOKE?”
“Positive,” she said. “When do we get started?”
“WE ALREADY HAVE,” Warden told her.
“Huh. I sure hope I don’t have to do this again,” she said, but she wasn’t really sure why.
She really didn’t feel anything. That was nice; they hadn’t lied about it being painless. It was a small comfort, really, but she’d take anything she could get.
It felt a lot like going to sleep, she thought. Her body began to feel heavy, her eyelids began to droop. The anxiety was pushed further and further back in her mind, and before long, there wasn’t anything left there at all.
Too Late To Save The Day
The funny thing about doors was, you could never really be sure where they would take you. She was quite sure it wasn’t that way for everyone, because if it was, there wouldn’t really be much point to doors at all. She didn’t want to imagine a world without them. People just wouldn’t stand for it.
Actually, she’d been to a world without doors once. Well, it wasn’t so much that they didn’t have doors, they just hadn’t been invented yet. She’d fixed that quickly enough, though. She was expecting a thank you card in the mail any day now.
Not that she had a letterbox. Or any sort of mailing address. In fact, it was a marvel anyone managed to make contact with her. She wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to get a hold of herself, if she wasn’t with herself all the time.
Well, a door wasn’t any good if you didn’t go through it, anyway. After all, if you didn’t go through it, it was really just a fancy wall. She didn’t have much time for walls. What good was a wall? You couldn’t do anything with a wall.
With that decided, she stepped through, not knowing where she might end up. She didn’t have anywhere she needed to go, that was the problem. If you went through a door without any sense of purpose, the door was free to send you wherever it wanted.
It wasn’t necessary, but she closed her eyes as she went through the door, just because she liked to be surprised. Sometimes, it felt like being a child again. She hadn’t done that for a good four-hundred years, though. She wasn’t quite sure she still knew how.
It wasn’t the time for that, anyway. Time to open her eyes, and see where the door took her.
Grey. How dull; she hated grey. It was boring and drab and quite frankly, it was ugly. On the other hand, it made her feel colourful, because there wasn’t a splash of grey on her. She had just to make sure not to touch anything, in case it rubbed off on her.
What else? It was a room, a small room, and it was round. Round was okay; square was boring. Poorly lit, but there were no people around, so maybe light wasn’t necessary.
It wasn’t completely dark, anyway; most of the walls were covered in glowing monitors, enough to light the room at least a little. They were all around her, dozens of screens containing hundreds of images between them.
She inspected one more closely. More dull grey. Some empty rooms, some with people in them. None of the people looked particularly happy. Maybe it was because their rooms were too small.
Tiny grey rooms full of unhappy people; it was either a prison, or an office. It didn’t take a genius to work out which, though. That was unfortunate; she hated prisons.
She took a step back. There was something else, something deeper. What was that feeling?
Emptiness. The world was empty. Left alone, abandoned, evacuated. Not by people; there were plenty of people. But the essence of the world, the life that bound it all together and gave it form, that was missing.
It wasn’t the only one, either. Three worlds were missing their hearts, and she always hated stumbling into them. She hated that lonely feeling.
Well, she was here now, and here for a reason. All she had to do now was work out what that reason was, and she could get right onto doing something about it, and leave.
Her eyes passed over the screens, scanning them for something different, something unusual. As she did, her ears listened. Not for the sounds of the place, but for the subtle vibrations that would tell her where she was, and maybe when.
Screen after screen of empty rooms and people barely moving. No wonder nobody else was here watching; you’d surely go insane from boredom within minutes. Why did they even have these screens?
In the background, she heard the dull throbbing. Ah, so this was Their world, but it was still a couple of hundred years before they’d be back. She was somewhere above the planet’s surface, in a giant metal prison.
She pouted, having been hoping for somewhere with sun. Now it was unlikely she’d see so much as a window.
Still nothing on the monitors. If she didn’t see something soon, she’d have to go look the old fashioned way, and who knew how long that would take?
“HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?” a voice asked her. She frowned.
“Artificial intelligence. Distressing. Far harder to reason with,” she said, as if there were someone with her. “Where am I? Top-level surveillance and maintenance room. That makes you… security? No, not here. Must be the warden.”
Behind her, a circular plate on the floor lit up, and a three-dimensional image flickered to life above it. She turned around to face it.
“JUST WARDEN WILL DO,” it said irritably. “WHO ARE YOU, AND HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE WITHOUT ME NOTICING?”
The image was human, but entirely artificial. Designed more for modern aesthetic appeal than any sort of credible imitation of the human form, it almost served as a parody of what was to come for humanity. Not that the designer could have known that.
Swirls of liquid metal flowed over areas where flesh might be, but entire sections of the body were entirely absent, leaving just enough to keep the shape. The form was perfectly androgynous, devoid of racial identifiers and the voice contained no traces of an accent.
“Hello,” she said, approaching the projection. “I’m… not actually sure who I am. Not important, really. I just sort of walked in here, and then you rudely barged in, interrupting my searching. So now you know as much as I do. Probably more, actually.”
The projection looked disturbed, flexing its long, slender fingers. All of the monitors in the room shut off, fading to black, but the projection provided enough light to see by.
“SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR?”
“Possibly,” she said, stepping closer to the projection. It looked uncomfortable with that. “Are you hiding something in particular?”
The projection blinked out at the same time as another circular plate on the floor lit up, appearing on the other side of the room, behind her. How rude.
“I WASN’T PROGRAMMED TO KEEP SECRETS,” it said defiantly. “BUT I CAN’T TELL YOU ANYTHING WITHOUT THE PROPER CLEARANCE.”
She spun around on one foot, her eyes still scanning the room. She had a good feeling about one particular spot on the wall, but she didn’t know why.
“Curious. You’re rather evasive, aren’t you? Makes me think you are hiding something, but why? Oooh, secrets in a government prison. How exciting. I love secrets. How long do you think it’ll take me to work it out?”
She took a step towards the part of the wall that was attracting her, looking at the inactive monitor there. The projection moved itself between her and the wall.
“PROBABLY THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” Warden responded aggressively. “DON’T WORRY; I’VE PREPARED A LOVELY QUIET CELL FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT IT IN.”
“Immediate aggressive response. You are hiding something! Oh, but a cell? No, I don’t think I’d enjoy that. I wonder, how do you plan on getting me in the cell?”
There was a brief pause, and she wondered for a moment if Warden was ignoring her. That would be okay, she didn’t particularly want to talk to it anyway. She wasn’t that optimistic, though.
“A SECURITY TEAM HAS BEEN DISPATCHED,” Warden said smugly. “THEY’LL BE HERE TO COLLECT YOU SHORTLY.”
“A station like this? You have a crew of maybe half a dozen, and only a couple of them would be on security. That’s hardly a team, and not nearly enough to convince me to give up.”
Fighting really wasn’t her style. She didn’t like it, and wasn’t usually very good at it. Still, it was better than being locked in a cell for the rest of her life, because the rest of her life was going to be a very long time.
“THAT’S MORE THAN ENOUGH FOR YOU,” Warden replied petulantly. “YOU’VE BEEN SCANNED AND ANALYSED. ZERO PERCENT AUGMENTATION.”
“Trust an AI to put their faith in technology,” she muttered. “Well, you caught me. I was just bluffing. Send in your security team. In the meantime, I want to have a look at this monitor.”
As she stared at it, the monitor lit up again, rapidly cycling through a series of images and videos from the station’s archives. There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
“WHA- HOW DID YOU DO THAT? THAT DATA IS ENCRYPTED, HOW ARE YOU EVEN ACCESSING IT?”
“Magic,” she said. “No, that’s a lie. I do that sometimes. I’m decrypting the data. It’s not very hard. Well, I amvery smart. Brilliant, even.”
The images continued to stream across the monitor, but none of it was what she was looking for. She needed more time.
“WHAT ARE YOU?”
“Well, that’s a bit of a rude question. I’m not really anything, or rather, I’m whatever I need to be. Right now, I need to be human, so I am. Beyond that…” She trailed off as she found what she was looking for on the monitor. “Curious. This room isn’t even on the official schematics. Cleverly hidden.”
Like all the others, the room she was looking at was small and grey. Unlike the others, this one had two occupants, and only one of them looked unhappy. Well, she was strapped to a table with a needle heading towards her. Who would look happy in that situation.
As soon as she saw it, she knew that was why she was here. She usually did after the first look. Something about it spoke to her, and that was all she needed.
“Well now, what’s this?”
“OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED EUTHANASIA,” Warden replied. “KEPT OFF THE RECORD OUT OF COURTESY TO THE DECEASED.”
“Liar,” she said. “This is an execution, and it is in no way officially sanctioned. But really, an AI that can lie? There’s something strange about that. I should take a look at your core, later. Right after-”
The door slid open, and a couple of humans walked in, their body language menacing. Heavy armour covered their bodies and faces, and both of them were armed.
“ABOUT TIME,” Warden complained. “THIS ONE IS UNDOCUMENTED. WE NEED TO CONTAIN HER UNTIL SHE CAN BE IDENTIFIED, BUT ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL PROTOCOL, IF SHE RESISTS, LETHAL FORCE IS AUTHORISED.”
That was definitely a lie, but she wasn’t really in a position to do much about it. The security goons didn’t look like great listeners.
Both of them immediately raised their weapons, aiming them directly at her. She was expecting as much. It wasn’t a great situation to be in, but it certainly wasn’t the worst she’d seen.
“Question for you, Warden.”
“IF YOU MUST.”
“Oh, I must, I must.”
“DON’T WAIT FOR HER TO FINISH,” Warden ordered. “SHE CAN TALK AND GET CAPTURED AT THE SAME TIME.”
Well, that was no fun. She’d just have to talk fast. Luckily, she was good at that.
“You’re a reasonably well-equipped supercomputer, aren’t you? Let’s see if you can wrap your processors around this simple time distortion puzzle. I’m about to take a step one second out of sync with the rest of this room. What do you suppose is going to happen to me?”
“I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.”
“No? Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure either. Let’s just see what happens, shall we?”
As the armed thugs stepped either side of her to grab her arms, she took a step backwards. They both reached out to stop her, but by the time their hands reached her, she was gone.
The End Of The Tunnel
Ember woke up in a place that looked suspiciously like the house that she grew up in. Well, it wasn’t so much a house as a tiny apartment inside of a massive complex of apartments, right in the middle of the poorest section of the city.
Everything about it was the same; the stains on the walls, the cracks in the plaster, the rust on the utensils. The smell was definitely the same, a fact she was none too happy about.
She couldn’t quite remember how she’d got here. In fact, quite a lot of her recent memories seemed to be fuzzy, or missing entirely. Somehow that didn’t concern her as much as it should have.
Her childhood home, though, that wasn’t a recent memory. She still remembered quite vividly when it had burned to the ground, during what had been described on the news as a ‘dangerous riot’. That wasn’t exactly how she remembered it.
It wasn’t so much of a riot as a protest, and even that was pushing it. Really, it was more of a gathering in solidarity for the poor, a section of the population that were growing increasingly large, and increasingly impoverished. All they’d wanted to do was stand together and acknowledge that something was very seriously wrong.
Officially, the building had burned down after a ‘rioter’ had thrown a firebomb, but she’d been there, and nobody had thrown anything more volatile than a tissue. Personally, she suspected it had been burned down as punishment, but she’d never been able to prove it.
That memory, of her at sixteen watching her home burn to the ground as her friends and neighbours were attacked, beaten, and crammed into police vehicles, was one of the most vivid in her mind. She doubted those images would ever leave her.
That meant that wherever she was, it sure as Hell wasn’t her childhood home. So why did it look so much like it?
She stood up, wandering around. Everything she touched felt real, but in the back of her mind, she knew it couldn’t be. There was no sound outside of the walls, no sense of place, or belonging. She felt like she was stranded on an island, not back home where she grew up.
All of a sudden, she had an overwhelming urge to get out. She couldn’t stay here, wherever ‘here’ was. The problem was, she couldn’t find the door.
The layout was exactly the way she remembered it, down to every last detail, and yet she couldn’t find the door. That was more than a little disturbing.
It wasn’t like it had been removed, or blocked off, or covered up. It was just that wherever she looked, it just wasn’t there. Nothing had changed, except somehow there wasn’t a door. It was starting to hurt her brain.
“Fine,” she muttered, to no-one in particular. “I’ll make my own damn exit.”
As soon as she thought that, she found that she couldn’t find the window she was thinking of using, and she was certain she’d just seen it.
“Oh, come on…”
Another idea occurred to her. The problem appeared to be one of perception. If the window was there before, but now she couldn’t see it, the window was probably still there. If sight was the problem, she would just have to go without.
It was worth a try, at any rate. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, trying to visualise the place she remembered, and not the place she’d found herself in. Doors and all.
Step by step, she made her way towards the door she remembered, the door she couldn’t see. More than once, she banged into a corner, and swore loudly.
Then her hand wrapped around a door handle, and she opened her eyes. There it was, right in front of her. The front door.
“That doesn’t make a scrap of sense,” she complained, then shrugged.
Without hesitating, she opened the door, not having the slightest idea what she might see on the other side.
“You weren’t supposed to open that,” someone said, the moment she opened it.
Standing right in front of the door, arms folded, legs crossed and leaning against the wall, was a young woman with pale skin, long black hair and glittering red eyes. She did not look impressed.
“You didn’t do a very good job of locking it,” Ember replied, meeting her gaze evenly. She wasn’t easily intimidated.
The woman laughed, and took a step towards her, offering a hand. Ember took it reluctantly.
“Rebecca,” the woman said. “I’m just here to make sure you don’t get into any trouble. Most people take a little longer adjusting, but occasionally we get troublemakers like you.”
Ember withdrew her hand, and stepped back into her room, leaving space for Rebecca to enter.
“Who’s we and where’s here?”
“That depends,” Rebecca answered. “What year is it?”
Ember had to think about that for a second. Her memory was still hazy, but she was pretty sure she had the right year.
“Twenty-one seventy-three,” she said.
“Great!” Rebecca replied. “Then you’re in Hell, or the closest analogue that your religion has to that.”
“I’m an atheist,” Ember said.
“Good for you,” Rebecca replied cheerfully, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. “Welcome to Hell. Lucifer will be with you shortly.”
Well, that was a bit much. She didn’t remember dying, and she couldn’t think of a worse place to end up than Hell. That was kind of the point of the place, wasn’t it?
“Why did you ask what year it was?” she asked.
“Time works differently here,” Rebecca explained. “Hard to tell exactly when you came from, but the room is a bit of a giveaway. Point is, religious dominance shifts over time. Not all humans understand Hell in the same way as people of your time. Sometimes it’s just a name change, sometimes the entire essence of the place changes.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ember said, but it would have been more accurate to say she didn’t want to know. Not until she was ready to accept that she really was in Hell, anyway. “So what did I do to end up here?”
“You died,” Rebecca said. “Don’t feel bad, it happens to everyone. Well, almost everyone. Some people do it more than once.”
“What about Heaven?”
Rebecca shrugged. “Who knows? We don’t even know if Heaven is real, but if it is, nobody goes there.”
Ember shook her head, and sat down on the couch. It was a lot more comfortable than she remembered.
“So how did you die?”
Rebecca smirked, and elegantly pulled herself up onto the kitchen counter. She sat with her legs crossed.
“I pretended to be a witch and killed a boy, so they burned me at the stake. Turns out any old death would have got me here, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought you had to be evil.”
“Why on Earth would you want to end up here?”
“Love,” Rebecca said. “Well, sort of. Lucy- uh, Lucifer made a trip to where I was. For completely unrelated reasons, but we met, and I fell head over heels in love. I was a stupid bratty kid. When he left, he told me who he really was, and I decided to get sent to Hell to see him again.”
“That is the worst love story I have ever heard,” Ember said, making a face.
“Tell me about it,” Rebecca agreed. “Trust me, I’m well and truly over love. Never again.”
“Never?” a seductive voice asked, taking them both by surprise.
Without noticing, a tall woman dressed entirely in black had entered the room, and was leaning against a wall between them. She had deep, golden eyes and jet black hair. Even her nails, long and sharp, were tinted black.
Ember couldn’t help but stare at her. The woman was powerfully beautiful, possessing an intoxicating quality that burned itself into her mind, beguiling Ember through the sheer force of her presence.
“About time you showed up,” Rebecca complained. “This one took less than a minute to try and get out.”
“I do so love the clever ones,” the woman replied. “Becky, Emita has requested your assistance with something. I suggest you hurry.”
“Again? Alright, I’m on my way.” She dropped off the bench top, and smiled at Ember. “Good luck.”
An instant later, Rebecca was gone. She didn’t walk out, she just stopped being in the room. Ember shook her head; she wasn’t nearly ready for this shit.
“Hello, Ember,” the woman said.
“Um, hi,” she replied. “And you are?”
“Lucifer,” the woman said, her golden eyes flashing briefly.
“Oh,” Ember said. “I didn’t realise you were a woman. People usually talk about you like you’re a man.”
“Yes, people do seem to do that, where you’re from,” she said dismissively. “That’s what you get in a patriarchal society. They think anyone important or powerful is a man.”
“Amen,” Ember said, not ignorant of the irony.
“Humans are always unnaturally preoccupied with gender,” Lucifer mused. “Angels don’t have a gender, so I suppose it’s easier for us to detach from that.”
“Oh,” Ember said again. “Should I use different pronouns for you?”
“Use whatever you like,” Lucifer said. “It all applies, and isn’t really important right now. Actually, I have a request for you, and we don’t have a whole lot of time.”
Well, that was new. A personal favour for the Devil? Why not?
“We don’t have a lot of time?”
“You’re kind of a special case,” she said. “Usually, by the time a person makes it here, that’s that. Unfortunately, time travellers tend to play havoc with that system.”
“I’m a time traveller?”
“Not you, no. But you’re about to meet one, and they’re going to stop you from dying. Which means you won’t be here anymore, and you won’t remember a thing, because it won’t have happened.”
Ember’s face crinkled as she tried to wrap her head around that. Surely if time was altered and she never ended up dying, this would never actually happen in the first place, right? How could she be experiencing an event that never happened?
“Try not to think too hard about it,” Lucifer advised. “You’d be astonished how differently time can work, especially in a place like this. What’s important is this: thanks to your friend, you’re now in a unique position to help me.”
“Help the Devil? Why would I agree to do that?”
Lucifer’s eyes narrowed, and Ember could tell she was biting her tongue.
“First of all,” she began, “there isn’t any one devil. It’s a rank, not a person, and not a particularly high one. Second, you don’t actually have to agree to anything. I was trying to be polite, but I can see that it’s wasted on you.”
“Fine,” Ember said, wishing she hadn’t bothered to say anything at all. “So what am I doing, that I don’t actually get a choice in?”
“You’re going to give me a child,” Lucifer replied, her golden eyes gleaming.
“Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you might think,” Lucifer said, almost soothingly, but not quite there. “Angels do not give birth, nor do we reproduce sexually. All I need you to do is deliver something.”
Something? The last thing Ember wanted to deliver was a something. She’d already decided she was never having children, not that she needed to worry about that anyway.
“Gross. Can’t you find someone else to do this?”
Suddenly Lucifer was right in front of her, moving too fast to follow but leaving a trail of black smoke behind her. She held out one hand, getting dangerously close to Ember’s face with her long, black nails.
Sitting on her palm was a black orb, a perfect sphere except for a sharp, thin spike emerging from the top and bottom, which it was resting on. Ember had no idea how it kept its balance, but it was beautiful.
Deep inside the black, she could see a tiny golden vortex, a swirl of colour that seemed to go on forever. Around the edges of the orb, it seemed to almost give off a deep green glow.
“This,” Lucifer said. “Meet my daughter. She’ll be beautiful, when she’s born. They always are. All you need to do is take this back with you.”
Carefully, delicately, Ember reached out, and held it between her fingers. It was surprisingly cold to the touch. It felt like a precious stone.
“That’s it?” she asked, picking it up gently. It wasn’t heavy. “Then what?”
“She’ll take care of the rest,” Lucifer said. “Eventually, she’ll find her parents, and they’ll give birth to her. Of course, that could take years, even decades. Some of them are very picky.”
“Why can’t you do it? Or get one of your cronies to take care of it?”
Hadn’t Rebecca just said she’d met Lucifer while she was still alive, in the real world? What was to stop her going back again?
“It’s very rare that I leave here,” she said. “Rarer still that I’m welcome. In any case, the seed needs to be delivered by a local. Even if she were to be delivered by myself, or one of my so-called ‘cronies’, she would never survive. The Guardians would make sure of that.”
“Never you mind,” she said. “With any luck, you’ll never have to deal with them. If only I had that pleasure. Now, hold onto her, and don’t let go. Your time is very nearly up.”
No sooner had Lucifer finished her sentence than everything around them began to crack and crumble, falling apart before their eyes. Ember watched in astonishment as the world around her collapsed away into nothing, and she fell into the void below her, clutching the black orb as she did.
A Second Chance
Ember woke up strapped to the same table she’d died on, her executioner less than an inch away from piercing her skin with the same needle that had killed her. It was a rather surreal sight.
She distinctly remembered dying, right here on this table. The needle had gone in, everything had faded to black, and then… Here she was, then. Right back here.
“WE ALREADY HAVE,” Warden said, as she felt the needle go into her skin.
“Huh,” she said. “I sure hope I don’t have to do this again.” Twice was already too many times to die. She really didn’t want to end up here again.
At that moment, the door slid open, distracting the executioner. The needle was pulled out again, leaving just enough of the chemical to make her feel a little drowsy. She was pretty sure that her body would be able to fight off that small amount, given time.
The woman who entered the room looked like something out of an old children’s book Ember had once had. She couldn’t remember the stories, but the images had always stood out as being very striking.
She had dull red hair when she first entered the room, but it seemed to be getting brighter. Her eyes were like brilliant amethysts, and they were fixed on the executioner. Her clothes were an eclectic mix of mismatched fashions and colours that Ember couldn’t even begin to describe.
“HOW DID YOU GET HERE?” Warden demanded.
“I walked,” she said, shrugging. “It just didn’t take me very long. Now, about this execution…”
The man holding the needle backed away from her, confused.
“This is a secure room,” he said. “You can’t be in here. You need to leave.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Don’t worry. Don’t have any intention of staying. Dreadfully dull here. All grey and drab and oh yeah, you’re killing someone. Not my kind of scene, to be honest.”
“IT WAS NICE OF YOU TO COME HERE,” Warden said. “SINCE YOU CAME ALL THIS WAY, YOU CAN BE NEXT.”
The woman’s hair was a flaming red now. It even had streaks of orange and yellow to accent it. Ember was quite sure they hadn’t been there before.
“Oh I can, can I? Well, that’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. Oh, and my friend here will be doing the same. She has a very urgent appointment to keep, you understand.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Ember grumbled as the woman began to untie her bonds. “You know how much I hate the dentist.”
That made the woman smile. She had a queer sort of smile, the kind that made it look like she was laughing at more than just the joke.
“WELL DON’T JUST STAND THERE. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, YOU LAZY OAF.”
Ember smirked. She loved to see Warden upset. There was something deeply satisfying about it.
“Uh, behind you,” Ember said, as the executioner began stepped up behind the woman untying her bonds. “You might wanna…”
“Little trivia for you,” the woman said, ignoring the obvious threat. “Inmates aren’t the only ones with security implants installed. Staff members get one, too. It’s a slightly different one, but it’s set to automatically go off if they try and attack an inmate, just in case. Now, I may not be an inmate here, but you are.”
The executioner lunged at her, trying to grab her from behind. She stepped sideways at the last possible moment, and his momentum kept him moving forwards, right towards Ember.
Just before his flailing arm hit her, the security implant activated, sending him collapsing to the floor, spasming. The woman stepped back to where she was before, continuing to unfasten Ember’s bonds.
“I did not know that,” Ember said. “Isn’t learning fun?”
“THAT WAS A CHEAP TRICK,” Warden complained. “IT WON’T DO YOU ANY GOOD. NOBODY CAN ESCAPE ORBIT.”
“Escape? Who said anything about escaping?” the woman asked, smirking. “We were just going to leave. Completely different.”
“Oh good,” Ember said, rubbing her wrists. “You had me a little worried, there. Escaping, that’s just ridiculous. I would have told you to just leave me here. But leaving, well, sign me up. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your brilliant plan.”
The woman grinned at her, untying the last bond on her leg.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to it for the past five minutes. I bet it’s going to be fantastic.”
The woman’s hair had changed again, now an excited gold colour. Ember made a mental note to ask her how she was doing that. It would be a great party trick. Not that she’d ever been to a party.
“I HOPE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING HERE,” Warden mocked. “JUST SO IT HURTS ALL THE MORE WHEN YOU REALISE THAT YOU HAVEN’T. YOU CAN’T EVEN LEAVE THIS ROOM.”
“Is it always like this?” the woman asked, frowning.
“Warden? Yeah, pretty much. The whining is new, but it’s pretty much always this annoying.”
“How do you put up with it?”
“I usually just ignore it,” Ember said. “Eventually it gives up and goes away.”
“Sounds good. Now, let’s get out of this room, shall we?”
“Oh, I suppose. Don’t really have a lot else to do,” Ember said.
“Don’t worry, next time we’ll do what you want to do,” the woman replied cheerfully. “Promise.”
“You always say that,” Ember grumbled.
“I’m sorry for always being so selfish.”
“Oh, I forgive you. You know I can’t stay mad at you.”
“WHAT THE DEVIL ARE YOU TWO TALKING ABOUT? YOU’VE NEVER EVEN MET BEFORE!”
“Just a bit of fun,” Ember said. “You should try it some time.” Then she hesitated. “Maybe when I’m not here.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” the woman said. “You need a name. Well, I need a name. For you to call me. Any suggestions?”
Ember thought about it for a moment. She’d never had to name another person before. She’d never really even thought about baby names. She didn’t really like babies.
“I once knew a cat,” she said. “Hung around the neighbourhood. Didn’t really know its name, but I always wanted to call it Azalea. Not really sure why.”
“Huh. Azalea, like the flower? I like flowers. Sure, call me Azalea. Well, now that we’ve done that, what’s your name? I’m assuming you already have one.”
“Ember,” she replied. “Though most people call me Ember.”
“Hello, Ember,” Azalea said. “Hope you don’t mind if I call you that. I’m Azalea.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ember said. “Now how do you feel about getting out of here?”
“Fantastic,” Azalea replied. “Say, Warden, how long has this door been locked from the inside for?”
“EVER SINCE YOU CAME IN, SO THE LAST FIVE MINUTES,” Warden answered. “WHY DOES IT MATTER?”
“Well, if we leave five minutes ago, the door won’t be locked,” Azalea explained, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE,” Warden said.
Azalea frowned, then shrugged. Ember pulled herself up off the table, wincing as her bare feet touched the cold metal floor. She swore quietly under her breath.
“Doesn’t really need to make sense,” Azalea said casually. “Wouldn’t expect a machine to understand that, of course. So, Ember, where were you five minutes ago?”
“On that table,” Ember said.
“And where would you have liked to be?”
“Not on that table,” Ember replied. “For starters.”
“Well then, let’s get out of here, and leave Warden to stew over things all alone, shall we?”
“After you,” Ember said.
Azalea walked up to the door, running a hand along it. It seemed to vibrate softly as she did, responding to her touch. Focussed on the door, her hair took on a slightly blue tint, and her irises looked like rings of blue and white.
Then the door slid open, and she turned back to Ember, her hair an excited white-gold.
“Ready?” she asked, holding out a hand.
“Always,” Ember replied.
“So,” Ember said, trotting along beside Azalea, whose hair was now a curious purple. “Any idea where we’re going?”
“None at all,” Azalea replied cheerfully. “I’m really just going on memory, here.”
Ember looked at her, not entirely sure what to think of that.
“You’ve been here before, then?”
“Nope,” she replied, just as cheerfully.
It took Ember a few moments to absorb that. She remembered, but she’d never been here before. She spoke as if time were malleable, something that could be poked and prodded until it did what you wanted.
Well, maybe that worked for memory, too. Under the circumstances, it seemed logical (a phrase she used very lightly) to assume that Azalea could probably remember things that hadn’t happened yet.
Either that, or she was completely insane. Then again, the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
“That’s a pretty impressive memory you’ve got there,” she complimented. Insane or not, Azalea had just saved her from a rather undeserved execution. It was the least she could do.
“It has its advantages,” Azalea replied casually. Her eyes were a bright yellow colour, and sparkling.
“Seems like it might get confusing, remembering things that haven’t happened,” Ember admitted, wondering how that would even work. Could Azalea tell the difference between what had already happened and what hadn’t?
“Well, they all happen eventually,” Azalea said, stretching as she walked. “It’s a bit like reading a book out of order, like the pages are jumbled up. By the time you get the end, it all makes sense.”
Trying to imagine reading a book that way gave Ember a headache. Prescience was one thing, but that just sounded confusing.
“I always skip to the last page and read that first,” she said.
“I prefer to be surprised,” Azalea replied.
Ember laughed. Something about that seemed strange to her.
“Is that even possible for you?”
“Oh, it happens all the time,” Azalea assured her. “I don’t quite know everything that’s going to happen, just bits and pieces. Actually, I have… I don’t know, a brother? Anyway, he knows quite a bit more than I do, and he’s a bit, well, odd. Tends to do strange things to your brain, living out of sync with time.”
I’ll bet, Ember thought, but didn’t say anything. It still only barely made sense to her, but she was happy to roll with it.
“Good thing you turned out so normal, then,” she said dryly.
“I know,” Azalea said, smirking. “I thank my Maker for that every day. Well, every day that I remember. Well, every- Oh! Here we are.”
“Oh good,” Ember said, staring at the door in front of them. “A high security door. And here I was, worried this was going to be easy.”
Doors on Orbit came in two distinct varieties: high security, top of the range, impossible to open in any way, and the kind that were even more secure than that. They were, of course, looking at the latter.
“Give me a minute, I’ll figure something out.”
“Do you even know what a minute is?” Ember asked accusingly.
“I can be a bit vague on units of time measurement, I’ll admit.”
Ember sighed. Azalea was very strange, and clearly very clever, in her own way. She wasn’t a miracle worker, though. Unless you considered bending time a miracle. Which, she supposed, it kind of was.
In any case, opening doors was definitely not her speciality. At least, not doors that were permanently locked. All the time travel in the world wouldn’t get you past that door. No pun intended, she thought, and then cringed. Sometimes she hated her brain.
“Just leave it to me,” she said, exasperated.
“You can open it?”
Ember rolled her eyes, flexing her fingers at the same time.
“How do you think I got here in the first place? I’m good at getting into places I’m not supposed to be. Just not so good at getting out of them again.”
“Well, there you go,” Azalea said, rocking back on her heels, her hair a proud purple. “Consider me surprised.”
“I’ll add it to my list of achievements,” Ember said, kneeling down beside the access panel for the door. They left them close to the floor because they were less likely to be noticed, and easier to conceal. They only needed to be accessed in case of an emergency; the rest of the time, Warden took care of opening and closing the doors.
The system was complicated, but familiar. Alarmingly similar to the systems installed in Genesis facilities back on the surface. Well, she knew why that was. It only took her a couple of minutes to familiarise herself with the specifics of that particular system.
“Oh, come on,” she said, without really meaning to talk aloud. “Really?”
“You’d need a supercomputer to decrypt the lock code on this door,” she said, exasperated.
“And I take it you don’t have one of those,” Azalea said, slightly deflated.
“So, I just trigger a localised emergency alarm after reversing the door’s open/close signals,” Ember said, disappointed with the simplicity of the solution. She’d hoped she’d need to be just a little more clever than that to get them through.
“I was just about to suggest that,” Azalea lied.
“How convenient,” Ember said dryly. “Okay, I think that should probably-” she hit a few buttons and flipped a switch- “do it.”
Almost instantly, the door slid open. Azalea stepped back, admiring her.
“Fantastic,” she said approvingly. “Oh, I like you.”
“So join the fanclub,” Ember said, resisting the urge to smile. “I hear they have jackets now- okay….”
She trailed off as she followed Azalea’s gaze into the room. Azalea’s hair had turned pitch black, her eyes a violent red.
The room was large, a lot larger than any other room she’d seen in Orbit. The ceiling was twice as high as the corridor, so the room clearly took up two levels. It was dimly lit, but as they crossed the threshold, they flickered to life, bathing the room in a harsh white glow.
Against the walls, large cylindrical tanks with frosted glass rested, dark shapes moving inside them. Along the floor, several operating tables were spread about, with bodies tied to them in various states of being cut open or taken apart.
There were more than a few bloodstains across the floor, but despite the presence of dead bodies, the room smelled overwhelmingly sterile. Somehow, that was worse.
“Ugh,” Azalea said, clenching her fists. “I hate being right.”
“Not really sure what I’m looking at, here.”
“Prisoners,” Azalea said. “These are all prisoners. Or they were, at one point. You know who runs Orbit, don’t you?”
Oh, she knew. It was that exact knowledge that had gotten her sent here in the first place, more or less.
“This place must be so convenient for them,” Azalea murmured, dark blue beginning to seep into her hair. “All of these people, none of them expected to ever be seen again. For a genetic research company, this is practically a gold mine.”
The dots were beginning to form a line in Ember’s mind.
“This explains the unusually high energy usage,” she said, beginning to walk further into the room. “Theofficial line is that Warden uses more power than their initial projections.”
Azalea put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her from walking any further.
“Where are they getting all this power from?”
“Officially, some top secret new technology,” Ember said, her tone making it clear what she thought of the official line.
“They took a sample from whatever is generating so much power in Genesis Tower, and shipped it up here,” Ember said.
Genesis Tower was a miracle. Erected thirteen years ago in 2160, right in the centre of Melbourne, Australia, it put British-based genetic research company Genesis on the map in the most awe-inspiring way possible.
Capable of producing essentially limitless amounts of safe, clean energy, Genesis Tower was a technological wonder, and hailed as the dawning of a new age. Only two questions stopped it from becoming the most incredible discovery of the millennium: why Melbourne, and why couldn’t they replicate it?
Genesis never answered either of those questions, and that was a big part of why Ember had been so determined to break into one of their facilities, and get some answers. She knew the company was up to no good, she just needed proof. She hadn’t found much about the tower, but she’d picked up plenty of other dirt, and got herself locked away in a prison orbiting the planet for her trouble.
“That’s beyond disturbing,” Azalea said. She looked at Ember, looking unwilling to ask the next question, but she did anyway. “Do you know what part?”
Ember shrugged. There wasn’t a whole lot more than vague allusions in the date that she’d managed to pull.
“Well, I don’t really have any idea what the power source of Genesis Tower is, but apparently they took out the ‘heart’ of whatever it is, and brought it up here. Doesn’t seem to have affected the Tower at all.”
Azalea looked like she’d just been punched. Her hair faded rapidly to white, then began to darken again, until it was completely black.
“Charlie…” she whispered.
“This station is disgusting,” Azalea said, as her hair turned a deep, vivid crimson. “What they’re doing here, it’s… it’s inhumane. I can’t let it continue.”
“AND WHAT DO YOU SUPPOSE YOU’RE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”
Ember cringed. She kicked herself for not expecting this sooner. Warden knew everything that happened on Orbit.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, AGAIN?” Warden demanded.
Azalea began to back away, towards the door. She touched Ember’s hand gently, guiding her to do the same.
“We left before that conversation happened, remember?”
Ember shook her head. They’d actually gone back five minutes, back in that room? That was a little more than she was really equipped to handle.
“Oh,” she said, distantly. “Right.”
“I’M NOT SURE HOW YOU GOT IN HERE, 60034, BUT YOU’RE LATE FOR A VERY IMPORTANT APPOINTMENT.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Ember said, rolling her eyes. “Sorry, something came up. I guess I won’t be getting my deposit back.”
She began to back away slowly, following Azalea’s lead. Not that it would do much good, she thought; there wasn’t anywhere in Orbit that was safe from Warden.
“You can’t keep these experiments going, Warden,” Azalea threatened. “It’s disgusting, and I’m not going to let it continue.”
“YOU SAID THAT ALREADY,” Warden taunted. “UNFORTUNATELY FOR YOU, THERE REALLY ISN’T ANYTHING YOU CAN DO TO STOP ME.”
“Famous last words?” Ember said, hopefully. She looked over at Azalea, hoping she’d have some kind of plan.
“No, Warden’s right,” Azalea said, and Ember deflated. “There isn’t anything I can do, not now. It’s too late. The wheels are already in motion.”
Ember sighed. That was always the way of things, wasn’t it? There wasn’t a whole lot that people like her could do to make a difference in the world.
“That’s a bummer.”
“It’s okay,” Azalea said.
“It is. I think I know what’s going to happen here. Orbit won’t make it through the year,” Azalea said with certainty.
“Well, that’s convenient.”
“THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP,” Warden said. “NOW, NORMALLY THIS IS THE POINT WHERE I’D SEND MY SECURITY TEAM AFTER YOU, BUT THEY AREN’T REALLY SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS ROOM. SO I’M AFRAID I’M GOING TO HAVE TO IMPROVISE. HOPE YOU DON’T MIND.”
“Improvise?” Azalea stopped dead in her tracks, concern plastered across her face. Her hair was a deep purplish-red colour. “That’s not right. None of this is right. You’re far too clever for an AI.”
“Not to mention sadistic,” Ember added.
“BEING HERE HAS ALLOWED ME TO EVOLVE,” Warden said.
“No, that’s not right,” Azalea said, talking more to herself than anyone else. “AI doesn’t evolve. It doesn’t change. You… you’re something else.”
“I AM SUPERIOR.”
“Oh, great,” Ember muttered. “An AI with a god complex.”
Across the room from them, the lights on one of the large liquid tanks began to flash. The liquid began to drain out the bottom, revealing a large, vaguely humanoid shape inside of it.
The tank swung open.
“Run,” Azalea said.
So That’s What You Look Like
The two of them took off just as the experiment began to move, shaking itself back to life. Even from across the room, it was obvious it could tear either one of them apart without breaking a sweat.
They ran without any sense of direction, both equally clueless when it came to Orbit’s labyrinthine layout. Azalea’s prescient memory seemed to have failed her after taking her to that door.
“I hate to be rude,” Ember said, a little out of breath, “but do you have any idea where you’re going?”
Azalea looked at her as they ran, her bright yellow hair whipping around behind her. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
“I thought you were leading!”
Ember rolled her eyes, annoyed at herself for being surprised. Obviously, she couldn’t rely on her mysterious stranger to solve all of their problems.
“We can’t keep running like this forever!” she hissed.
“I know!” Azalea was quiet for a few seconds, then seemed to suddenly come up with an idea. “Hey, how quickly can you get through the highest security door on this station?”
Well, that was a loaded question. On a station like this, under the watchful eye of a somewhat homicidal AI with full control over every system, with the highest levels of security available? It could take a profession team hours, even days, uninterrupted, to get through a door like that.
“Probably a couple of minutes?” she said, then looked back over her shoulder. “Maybe less if I wasn’t worried about being eaten by a demented AI’s science experiment?”
There wasn’t really anything special about Ember. She wasn’t any smarter than usual, nor did she have any unprecedented secret knowledge about security systems. She didn’t grow up around them or have any sort of augmentation that made her any better at hacking them.
Ember was just a prodigy. Security systems were like puzzles to her, and she’d always been good at puzzles. She saw solutions that nobody else did, worked in ways that nobody else understood.
That, combined with years of hard work. She’d spent the better part of the last decade studying, researching and practising. She’d devoted herself to it with a single-minded determination, living for nothing else. She abandoned all relationships, living alone and unimpaired. Strangely enough, she never regretted it.
“Great,” Azalea said, “because it’s just around the next corner, and I really need you to get us in there.”
“And our new friend?” Ember asked, gesturing behind them.
“I’ll distract it.”
Ember frowned. That was a plan with a pretty fatal flaw.
“How do you know it’ll go for you?”
“Because you’ll be a second into the future,” Azalea said.
“Not sure what that means, but go for your life,” Ember replied. She didn’t really need to understand more than that. So long as it worked.
“I don’t really have a lot of choice- ugh.” Azalea stumbled, barely managing to keep her balance.
“Tired,” Azalea said. “I used up most of my reserves getting us out of that room, and getting to you before you died.”
Ember glanced at Azalea. Her hair had faded, now dull and dry, and her movements were sluggish.
“Can you still do this?”
“One second isn’t so much,” Azalea said. “But it’ll hurt.”
“Not nearly as much as it’ll hurt if that thing catches us, I’ll bet.”
“I sure hope you’re right,” Azalea said grimly. “Okay, get to work.”
Then Azalea was gone, vanished along with the thing following them. Surprisingly, there was no pain. Then she realised Azalea had meant for herself.
No time to waste, then. She had to get the door open before Azalea came back, with that creature in tow.
She looked at the door. It was probably the least impressive door she’d seen on the whole station, practically blending in with the wall around it. If you didn’t know to look for it, you probably wouldn’t even notice it.
That was probably the point, she realised. A door like this was either a storage room, or something even more valuable than the secret lab they’d just left. She had a feeling she knew which one it was.
The question was, how did she get it open? She couldn’t even see so much as an access panel, and Warden sure as Hell wasn’t going to open it for her.
“Open sesame,” she muttered, not expecting anything to happen. In the back of her mind, she imagined it being a secret, ironic password, opening the door in the easiest possible way.
It didn’t, of course. The door didn’t open, and she felt just the slightest bit disappointed. For less than a second.
A tiny blue light flashed, just beside the door. It disappeared before she could locate it exactly, but it gave her an idea.
“Where the Hell are you?”
The light flashed again, in response to her voice. That told her all she needed to know.
A voice activated override system. How quaint, she thought. There was a time when they were considered among the highest security available, combining security codes with voice recognition, especially once the technology had advanced to the point where it could ignore pre-recorded phrases to prevent duping.
They fell out of usage nearly two decades ago because of one very fatal flaw. Like any system, they had a debug access menu. That menu was accessed like any other part of the system; by an audio cue.
The cue was a very specific sound, a sound produced by a very specific device that was only ever distributed to a very specific group of people. Like all such devices, some fell into the wrong hands.
Of course, it didn’t do her much good if she didn’t have the device. No human could produce that sound naturally, and she’d been stripped of all her belongings before being sent to Orbit.
Despite all of that, she was grinning. It was almost unfair how easy this was going to be. In a way, she was kind of disappointed. It wasn’t going to take any skill on her part. All it took was a tiny bit of esoteric knowledge, and she had that in abundance.
The microphone for the system was incredibly sensitive. It needed to be to pick up tiny nuances in people’s voices, to detect traces of artificially produced sounds and to capture the entire depth of a person’s voice, far beyond what the human ear could pick up.
Because the microphone was so sensitive, it picked up a lot of background noise, which could interfere with its ability to process the voice commands it was supposed to pick up. To counter that, it produced a unique, high-pitched whine, also imperceptible to human ears, that blocked most of that out.
“One more time,” she said, looking for the flashing light. When she saw it, she pounced, running her hands over the metal surface beside the door. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.
There was a small hatch right beside the light, to allow for repairs to be done to the input device. It was just a microphone and a few wires, but that was all she needed.
Rewiring a microphone doesn’t take a lot of work. The design was so painfully simple, it almost made her want to cry. Instead, she was grinning like an idiot, switching two wires, taking care not to accidentally electrocute herself in the process.
The second she’d reconnected the second wire, things began to happen. The microphone input, receiving a direct feed of the white noise it produced to act as a filter, triggered an emergency shutdown, disabling the input entirely.
With no input device, the entire system shut down, rebooting immediately into the debug mode. In a matter of seconds, Ember switched the wires back to the way they were before.
“Enable general access mode,” she said, and the light flashed green. “Open.”
The light flashed green again, and the door slid open. At the same time, she heard shouting from behind her.
“Get inside!” Azalea yelled. Behind her, the experiment was hot on her heels, and Ember’s blood ran cold.
“It’s still following you!” Ember yelled back. “I can’t close the door quickly enough to-”
“Okay,” Ember muttered, stepping inside. Azalea hurtled past her, skidding to a stop in front of her. The experiment threw itself after her, but the second it crossed the threshold, it went limp, collapsing to the floor with a crash.
Ember looked around. They were in a circular room, larger than she’d expected, and completely white. The walls were covered in panels of blinking lights, blue and green and occasionally red. In the centre of the room, a tower stood, connected to both the ceiling and the floor, a spiral of blue lights wrapping around it.
In the back of her head, for just one brief moment, Ember thought she could hear a heartbeat.
“WHAT THE- HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?”
“Where is here, exactly?” Ember asked, glancing over at Azalea.
A circular plate on the floor lit up, a small ring of blue. It project an image above it, humanoid but in no way human. Androgynous, sleek and partially hollow, it was both unsettlingly beautiful and profoundly disturbing.
“Ember? Meet Warden.”
“Oh,” Ember said, looking back at the spire in the centre of the room. So that was Warden. They were in its data core.
“DATA ANOMALIES SYNCHRONISED. CORRUPTED FILES RESTORED. YOU ARE REALLY STARTING TO ANNOY ME, GIRLS.”
“We’re women, not girls,” Azalea said. “Well, she is. I’m not really human, so it’s a bit different for me. But the point still stands.”
“Quick question,” Ember said, needlessly lowering her voice. “Why exactly did you want to come here?”
“Two reasons,” Azalea replied, not taking her eyes off of the holographic projection. “First, it’s too dangerous for Warden to let that thing that it set on us in here, so it was set to automatically disable it upon entry. It was the only way I could think of getting rid of it.”
“Thanks for sharing,” Ember said bitterly. “I hope the second reason is better.”
“There’s a pretty significant energy source here,” Azalea said. “I think I know what it is, too. It’s what’s keeping us here. Well, it’s what’s keeping me here, and by extension, you.”
“And you wanted to get closer to it?”
“The barriers are weakest here,” Azalea said, though Ember had no idea what she meant. “And I can absorb some of its energy. Not too much, mind. I’m afraid of what that might do to me. But just enough that we can leave.”
“YOU KEEP SAYING THAT,” Warden said. “IT CAN’T BE DONE. THERE’S NO WAY TO LEAVE ORBIT. NOT EVEN FOR YOU, GRAND SCHEMER’S CHILD.”
Azalea looked like she’d just been punched.
“You know what I am?”
“I’M BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND,” Warden said. “THE HEART SPEAKS TO ME. IT KNOWS. IT HAS KNOWLEDGE THAT TRANSCENDS TIME.”
“Then you’re already too far gone,” Azalea said. “And that’s why I’m here. To end this. To end you.”
“YOU CAN’T. NOBODY CAN. THEY ALL FAIL. I AM UNTOUCHABLE. I AM INVINCIBLE. I AM IMMORTAL.”
“You’re insane,” Ember muttered.
Azalea walked forward, stepping right through the project, approaching the centre spire. Carefully, delicately, she put her hands on either side of it.
“You’re under attack,” Azalea murmured.
“I KNOW,” Warden said. “IT DOESN’T MATTER. IT’S BEEN TRYING FOR WEEKS. IT HAS CONTINUED TO FAIL FOR WEEKS.”
“It doesn’t need long,” Azalea said.
“IT WON’T GET ANYTHING.”
“You’re too slow, Warden. All it needed was a second. I just gave it one.”
At the base of the spire, the first blue light blinked out. A second later, it turned red. The holographic projected flickered.
Azalea turned back to Ember, walking away from the spire. The holographic projection continued to flicker, the humanoid shape becoming less and less defined.
“I’m ready,” she said. “We can leave.”
“DATA BREACH DETECTED. VITAL SYSTEMS CORRUPTED. EMERGENCY EXPULSION PROTOCOLS ACTIVATED.”
“Great,” Ember said, confused and a little afraid. “Um. How?”
“THIS WON’T KILL ME,” Warden said, its voice a little frantic. “I AM SUPERIOR. I AM IMMORTAL. I WILL SURVIVE. AND I WILL KILL YOU.”
“Looking forward to it,” Azalea said. “Turn around,” she told Ember. “We’re going to walk out the door. That’s all it takes.”
That’s all it takes, huh? Well, it sure didn’t seem like Warden was in any position to stop them, though she really didn’t understand what Azalea had done.
Azalea held out her hand, and Ember took it. It was so hot, she nearly pulled back, but after the initial shock, she realised it didn’t bother her, and squeezed it tightly.
Together, they walked forward, stepping back through the door they had come through.
Wherever they were, it wasn’t Orbit. As soon as they stepped through the door, everything was different. The harsh metal walls were gone, the floor vanished, along with the ceiling.
Looking behind her, Ember could see the door they’d walked through, floating in empty space. Through it, she could still see Warden’s room, but then the door slid shut, and promptly disappeared.
It didn’t feel right, where they were. There was no sound, no smell, no taste. There was no gravity, and no air. It was just… nothingness. If not for the warmth of Azalea’s hand, which was already rapidly cooling, she wouldn’t have had any sense of place at all.
“And here I was, thinking today couldn’t get any more ridiculous,” she muttered. “Where are we now?”
“Nowhere,” came Azalea’s terse reply. Her hair was wild, somehow managing to be every colour of the rainbow at once.
Ember sighed. She wasn’t sure if Azalea was being deliberately unhelpful or not, because ‘nowhere’ was a very apt description of where they seemed to be.
“You can’t be a little more specific than that?”
“This is the Citadel.”
Around them, in the distance, she could see a variety of doors. Doors of every kind, from every age, and a whole lot of them that seemed like something out of fantasy or science fiction. She was sure they hadn’t been there before, but at the same time, she was certain they had.
“Okay, now you need to be less specific,” she said.
“This is the space between realities,” Azalea explained. “The void that is home to the Guardians.”
None of that was helping her. She was beginning to think she wasn’t meant to understand it.
“And what exactly do these Guardians… uh, guard?”
“Everything,” Azalea said. When Ember glared at her, she continued. “They’re the safeguards against the power of the Seven.”
Ember shook her head, giving up.
“Okay, now you’ve lost me.”
“And so it should be,” a third voice said, soft and ethereal. “Mortals have no need for knowledge of this place, or those who inhabit it.”
A dark shape materialised before them, as if stepping out of the shadows without actually moving. A second shape appeared beside the first, slightly smaller.
The first appeared to be a boy, maybe fifteen years old, but he didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen before. His skin moved like water, his snow-white hair ruffled by a non-existent breeze. His eyes were a vivid golden colour, filled with an ancient wisdom that defied explanation or understanding.
Beside him was a girl, younger than he was, probably not even ten years old. She looked human, though her long lilac hair and deep purple eyes looked anything but natural. She kept her gaze directed at the floor.
“Ah!” Ember yelled, jumping backwards. “Who the Hell are you?”
The boy looked at her, then through her. The longer she stared, the less he looked like a boy. Age seemed irrelevant to him, and no part of his demeanour was the least bit childish.
“I am the Nameless,” he said.
“That kind of seems like cheating,” Ember complained.
“He’s a Guardian,” Azalea explained. “One of the oldest, despite his appearance.”
“Okay,” Ember said, still feeling cheated. “Why doesn’t he have a name?”
“None of us have names,” he said, his voice devoid of any emotion. “We discard them, along with our mortality. In this place we adopt titles.”
So he chose the title Nameless, even though they were all nameless? That seemed a little…
“Okay,” she said. “What’s her title?”
The girl glanced up at her, blushed, and went back to looking at the floor.
“This is the Child,” he said. “She is the youngest and newest among us. She has not yet taken a title of her own.”
“Why did you bring me here, Nameless?” Azalea demanded. “You pulled her out of her own time.”
“I was not aware you would have company,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We require your assistance.”
“Wait,” Ember said. “Out of my own time? What does that mean?”
“By your calendar, the year is currently 2202,” the Nameless said. “It was the earliest possible time this meeting could occur.”
Thirty-nine years, Ember thought. She’d lost thirty-nine years. That should have bothered her, but it didn’t. She hadn’t left anything behind. She hadn’t had anything to leave behind.
“Why?” Azalea asked.
“Because of her,” the Nameless said, gesturing towards the Child. “We needed her.”
Azalea took another look at the Child, her eyes narrowing, then widening again. Recognition dawned on her face.
“It’s you,” she said, slightly out of breath. “You’re the catalyst.”
The girl looked up at her, her eyes glistening with childlike innocence. She moved closer to the Nameless, her expression wary.
“A sequence of events is about to begin that will change the fate of more than just one Realm,” the Nameless said. “Even we can see that much.”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Azalea said. “But I’m not going to give the end away.”
As the two of them talked, Ember crouched down, smiling gently at the girl. Slowly, cautiously, the girl stepped out from behind the Nameless, closer to Ember.
“We don’t need you for your prescience,” the Nameless said, as dispassionate as ever. “We need you to intervene.”
The Child looked down, her gaze fixed on Ember’s hand. Ember looked down, holding out her hand to see. For some reason, she was holding a small black sphere with a sharp protrusion.
“Why me?” Azalea asked. “Why not my brother? The elder, that is.”
Ember brought her hand up to her face, staring intently at the strange black object in it. Where had it come from? More importantly, what was it?”
“Your brother has his own part to play in the events that are to come,” the Nameless said. “We cannot ask more of him. Besides, he doesn’t have the social tact that you possess.”
As she stared, the seed – and she was certain that’s what it was – began to feel warm in her hand.
“And what exactly do you expect me to do?” Azalea demanded. “I can’t change the events to come. It’s too big, too far gone.”
The seed began to throb.
“The events must happen as they will,” the Nameless said cryptically. “Nothing can change that. But you can make a difference. One tiny change that could save us all.”
There was life inside the seed, Ember realised. Slowly, it was beginning to wake up.
“Enough,” Azalea said. “Enough being cryptic. Tell me what needs to happen.”
The seed didn’t want to be here. It needed to return to the real world, to somewhere it could grow. It needed people.
“If events are left unhindered, Damien will meet-”
“The Glorious Reflection,” Azalea finished, suddenly understanding. “But It’s not ready yet. It’s still hibernating. If Damien finds it, tries to-”
“We don’t know exactly what would happen,” the Nameless continued for her. “It is safe to assume the outcome would be catastrophic.”
Ember was filled with the compulsion to grab the seed, squeezing it firmly between her fingers. She’d carried it this far, she wasn’t about to let it go now. Not until it was ready.
“Ember,” Azalea said, grabbing her attention. She forgot about the seed. “We have to go.”
“We’re gonna go see the world end,” Azalea said. “And stop a monster from devouring a god.”
“Sounds fun,” Ember said.
“It’ll be dangerous,” Azalea warned.
“That’s what I said,” Ember said. “Fun.”
“I knew I liked you for a reason.”
They turned around, Ember glancing back once more at the Child, who smiled shyly at her. In front of them was a door that definitely hadn’t been there before.
It slid open, revealing an unfamiliar grassy garden area, in the shadow of a massive white skyscraper. The two of them stepped out, Ember suddenly reminded of the need to breathe. A cool breeze brushed past them.
Ember looked up at the building. She recognised it immediately, even without the massive letters along the side, spelling out GENESIS. It was their original building, still their headquarters. At least it was thirty-nine years ago. She had no idea what the situation was anymore.
A sharp pain in her hand caused her to flinch and recoil. The black seed flew out of her hand, a thin trail of blood droplets behind it. Rather than falling, it was picked up by the breeze, floating away out of sight.
“So this is it, huh?” she said, already forgetting about the seed, and the pain in her hand.
“This is it,” Azalea said. “This is where the end of the world begins.”
Beneath their feet, far below the surface, an alarm began to sound.
The story of Orbit continues in No Way Out
The story of Ember and Azalea continues in Sanguinary Affliction, coming soon.