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Episode 8

Disclaimer: This is a free work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2020 Rhea V. May. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form, by an electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except quoted brief passages in a review, post, article or other pieces of content. This work is intended for mature audiences only (18+).

Terran Prime Station, year 2398 TST


“Please repeat the confirmation code, Miss Starr,” VALID said, wearing a placid expression.

Seeing the neuronet, even in holo form, felt surreal. Tessa almost had a heart attack when she entered Neural Net Central and VALID materialized in front of her. “Welcome to NNC, Miss Starr,” he said, just like that. Like neuronets designed holo forms for themselves all the time. VALID was the single one that did, as far as she knew.

Later, she calmed once VALID explained he wasn’t about to stroll through the corridors anytime soon, as the holo was tethered to this room, his room. And even if he were to pop out randomly, did it matter? He was just a holo, and not corporeal in the least.

Still, seeing him, instead of just hearing him, humanized VALID in a way that made Tessa understand why so many restriction algorithms were in place every time a neuronet was involved. Tessa suppressed a shiver as the question of how sentient VALID truly was popped into her mind.

She knew VALID was unique among the billion other neuronets constantly used throughout the Union. Probably more than unique–the best of them. The only neuronet designed by the Renditions in such a manner. VALID, or Voluntarily Assimilated Logic & Intelligence Directory, had something truly wondrous buried inside his code—a part of each of the creators’ conscience.

Just like the scientists of the Union did a long time ago with the Renditions and the organic Donors, so did his bionic creators with VALID.

VALID, or Vasktrosti, Aktrosti, Lortrosti, Indtrosti, and Durtrosti. Every creator’s name, rearranged by order of assimilation.

“Right,” she replied, shaking herself out of her thoughts. “Validation code for credential update: Scorpius, Lyra, Andromeda, seven, four, Ursa.”

“Thank you, Miss Starr.” He smiled at her, and he looked so cute, she couldn’t help but return the gesture. Eerily, because the holo’s lips never moved, VALID announced after a few moments, “Credentials updated to SEC-7 Corporate level for Starr, Theresa June.”

“Th-thanks,” Tessa murmured. “Now, could you transfer the rest of the documents pertaining to my new level of clearance to my Correslink, please?”

“Certainly,” VALID nodded, his holo flickering for an instant. “Done. Do you require further assistance, Miss Starr?”

“No. Thank you, VALID. Um… see ya.” She didn’t know why she said that last part, as she never planned to return to the chilly NNC ever again, not if she could help it. She had nothing against VALID, it wasn’t personal. Neuronets just really creeped her out.

Most likely, her frontier upbringing was at fault. On Yutok-7, her homeplanet, she never had to deal with such advanced technology.

“See ya, Miss Starr,” VALID returned cheerfully. “Hope it’s soon. Few people come to NNC, and I always think it’s nice when they do. And not just because I like them admiring the holo form I designed.”

Unbidden, a chuckle escaped Tessa’s lips. Her eyes softened as she gave VALID one last wave before exiting.

This morning, she was supposed to comm her boss, Milton Blackbury (on which she had a little crush on), for an update report, but Commander Corvald had called a CC meeting. As she walked toward it, she activated her Correslink and recorded a brief message, explaining why she couldn’t take his comm and that a severe solar storm was about to disrupt further communications for the next few days, so she’d be unavailable. Tapping the send option, Tessa switched off her Correslink after first ensuring her comm hit the nearest deep space relay.

She decided against taking the elevator directly to CC, as there was plenty of time before the meeting and she enjoyed the stroll. Having a desk job was nice, but sometimes she missed the more active lifestyle she was used to growing up. Life on a frontier planet wasn’t easy. You snoozed, you died.

She regretted her decision as soon as the double doors to one of the bays opened and no one came out. Worse, she could hear voices muttering, hisses that sounded from much farther away than just inside the room. The lights in that section of the corridor flickered, and Tessa jumped.

“Hello?” she called into the dark bay, receiving no response. Icy tickles danced down her spine, and Tessa shivered. The station being haunted, those were just rumors. Right?

The thing was, she could almost believe them in this moment, the longer she looked into the dark, empty bay, listening to the foreign mumbles of ghosts. It didn’t help that Terran Prime, as a whole, looked so decrepit and abandoned.

Everything ended just as abruptly as it started. The doors closed, and the mumbles ceased. The harsh white lights came back on. 

Scowling, Tessa looked around, half-expecting someone would jump out and laugh at their own stupid prank. “Not funny,” she muttered, hugging herself as she started walking again.

After a few minutes, when nothing else happened, Tessa blew out a breath and loosened her shoulders.

Just as she turned the corner, the door to one of the cabins opened. She couldn’t tell why, but hearing Brayden’s Connaway voice spill into the corridor made her backpedal. She pressed her spine to the metal wall at her back and peered around the corner.

“Baby girl,” Brayden cooed, scrambling to catch the shirt some woman threw at his chest. “Come on.”

A redhead stepped into the corridor, hands on her hips and executing a perfect hair flip. “Get out and don’t come back, Connaway.”

“Didn’t we have fun?” he purred, trying to press closer to the woman, but she stopped him with a hand on his chest. “Why are you being such a cockblock now?”

Tessa briefly checked the corridor behind, but it was early enough that few people were milling around the station. It would be just her luck, for someone to come and catch her in the act of spying.

“Go to hell, you cheating bastard,” the woman growled before slamming the door into his face.

“Now, that’s unfair!” Brayden yelled at the sealed door. “You knew the rules before you let me into your bed.”

Sighing, he turned around and threw the crumpled shirt at the opposite wall. In the harsh lightning, his tattoos looked that much more vivid. Biting her lower lip, Tessa studied his muscular back, seeing that the flames curling around his shoulders and neck, all the way up to his temples, were in fact part of a bigger tattoo. A huge phoenix took up most of his back, its wings spread wide and its tail curling around the left side of his abdomen. Toward his lower back, the flames tapered off to a thick row of embers.

After a minute, Brayden sauntered over to pick up his discarded shirt, uniform pants hanging low on his hips. Tessa bit down on her lip harder, until the tangy taste of blood hit her tongue.

Darting back, she closed her eyes and tried to regulate her breathing. She was panting, her pulse skyrocketing. What was it about Brayden Connaway that aroused her so? The man had barely said two words to her, and all of them were either teasing remarks or lewd comments.

She squeaked when she opened her eyes, and if it weren’t for the wall blocking her way, she’d have jumped back. Brayden Connaway was standing in front of her, his hands crossed over his chest, a smirk on his lips. With the white shirt buttoned halfway up and showing a tantalizing peak of a muscular chest, as tattooed as his back, he looked so beautiful it was almost scary.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” he drawled, his icy gaze sweeping over her from head to toe almost lazily.

Tessa straightened her body and brought her hands up to fix the tight bun, hiding their trembling. “Good morning, CSO Connaway. I was just on my way to the CC meeting.”

A flicker of anger started simmering in her lower belly, surprising Tessa. Every time he addressed her, it pissed her off, and she didn’t have a clue why this kept happening.

“You’re lying,” he proclaimed, closing the short distance between them with measured steps. Even when their toes touched, he kept coming. Realizing her breasts were brushing against his chest with each inhale, Tessa stopped breathing altogether. “I think you were spying on me, Miss Starr.”

Licking her lips, Tessa whispered, “Why would I do that?” She tried to bring her palms up, to push him away, but the bastard caught her wrists and trapped them between their bodies.

Bending down, he pressed his lips to the point where her shoulder met her neck in a semblance of a kiss, and inhaled. Slowly, he trailed the tip of his nose up the column of her neck, and Tessa trembled, restraining a moan. Or had she moaned already? She couldn’t tell. This movement right here—it was the single most erotic experience of her life, as pathetic as it sounded.

She understood now. Why so many women on the station allowed Brayden Connaway into their beds, even knowing he was a man-whore. For a brief time, they got to experience true bliss, didn’t they?

Licking the shell of her ear, he chuckled darkly when she gasped. “What’s your cabin number, baby girl? We should move this party there. Unless you’re naughtier than I thought and want to do it right here in the corridor. There’s a utility closet three doors down—” the rest of his sentence ended on a groan as he bent to cup his junk.

Shaking her head to clear up the rest of the fog, Tessa pushed him farther away and straightened to her full height. “You’re disgusting,” she spat. With a start, Tessa realized that if he hadn’t opened his mouth, she wouldn’t have stopped. In fact, she could feel a little prickle of irritation at being interrupted, at being denied. “This is assault.”

“Assault?” he choked and Tessa was proud for standing up for herself. “You hit me!” Brayden exhaled heavily and straightened from his curled position, observing her with his icy eyes. When the silence between them lengthened, Tessa dropped her glare and turned on her heel, picking up her things from the floor where they’ve fallen. With a brisk stride, she started a march toward the meeting. After a few seconds, she heard his footsteps behind, but she didn’t slow her stride.

The doors to CC opened automatically as she reached them and Tessa breezed right through, stifling a snort at Brayden’s outraged yell when they closed right back into his face.

Schooling her expression, she paused to straighten her already impeccable outfit before stepping into the Station Commander’s office. Brayden passed by her and smirked as he disappeared behind the door. With flared nostrils, she followed him into the room.

All CC meetings took place inside the Commander’s office, at the conference table crammed into a corner, between the various consoles and the huge viewingpane offering a glimpse of Earth.

She caught the end of Commander Corvald’s grumbles at Brayden’s disheveled state as she entered. “… and change. You’re Chief of Security, for heaven’s sake.”

“Good morning, Commander Corvald,” Tessa inserted, moving to the conference table, and taking the first available seat. For now, the three of them were alone in the room.

“Good morning, Miss Starr,” Corvald returned. “And please, Zale is enough.”

“Only if you call me Tessa,” she quipped, uselessly. She knew from past interactions that Corvald would be back to calling her ‘Miss Starr’ tomorrow, forcing her to return the gesture.

“Come on, man. What’s your deal? I look just fine,” Brayden continued, closing his wrinkled shirt all the way, and putting a uniform jacket over it that he appropriated from the back of a chair. On second thought, it looked to be his own, as it was the perfect size and had CSO stitched in block letters on the left lapel. “See?”

Sighing, Corvald shook his head and turned to Tessa. “Any news from Corporate?” he asked, as the rest of the Department’s Heads filtered into the room.

“No, Zale. I sent my boss, Milton Blackbury, a comm this morning, letting him know about the storm and that we’d be incommunicado for the next few days.”

“Milton Blackbury? The Muffin Man?” Brayden guffawed, earning a look from Zale.

Tessa’s eyes narrowed, and she gave Connaway such a glare, she hoped he’d shrivel right on the spot. After studying her face for a few seconds, Brayden scowled. Sure, Milton was on the pudgier side, but he’d been nothing but nice to Tessa. Which is why she was crushing on him so badly. He might come out short in the looks department, but Milton was powerful and rich and ambitious. And he’d shown interest in her.

Plus, it wasn’t as if Tessa herself was some great beauty. She was short and rounded, and her hair wasn’t that great of an asset either. To make it worse, she was shy and awkward.

The meeting continued as usual, but with a new face across the table—Luna Jaffai, the astrophysicist from the Ark. Tessa swallowed a yawn as an argument ensued halfway through the meeting between Lima Harris-Pratt and Zale Corvald.

Unlike the other meetings, Lima stormed out of CC, leaving this angry ball of crackling energy in her wake. Tessa empathized with Lima, and Corporate itself would benefit from solving the problem. But there was nothing to be done.

With the flares coming in just a few short hours, the station’s module promised to Leeweather Holdings couldn’t be dismantled.

Frowning, Tessa got up as soon as the meeting was over and hurried outside CC, looking both ways once she got into the corridor. She hoped Lima wouldn’t do anything stupid. Like going to the module set for dismantling and… what?

Half-jogging, and cursing the bunch of bureaucratic crap she had to carry with her to every meeting, Tessa hurried in what she hoped not to be Lima’s wake.

As she entered the section, she stopped to regain her breath. Ignoring the warnings displayed above the passage, Tessa stepped into the dimly lit module.

“Lima,” she hissed, then paused. She was being ridiculous. “Lima!” she yelled this time.

The sound of her heels clicking on the metal floor was the only thing to be heard in her surroundings. After yelling a few more times Lima’s name, she backtracked to the entrance.

At least, she’d reassured herself the woman wasn’t here.

As she turned around to pass through the airlock and back into the station, a form emerged out of the shadows and pushed her back into the module.

Crying out, Tessa stumbled and fell on her butt, crawling backwards away from the being. Because of the darkness, she couldn’t see who it was, but she noticed the person’s features were obscured by a dark mask.

Jumping to her feet, Tessa abandoned her heels and prepared to run, but the masked one stepped back and palmed the controls beside the door, sealing her inside.

“Hey,” she yelled, going to the door and pounding it with her fists. “Let me out! What are you doing? VALID! VALID, let me out.”

She kept yelling and cursing until she lost her voice. Until her breath was sawing in and out of her chest in terrified bursts of air.

“Station module sealed. Dismantling process activated. Error. Retrying. Error. Dismantling process—“

With a crackle, the automatic warning cut off. The entire module shuddered and then plunged into darkness.

In the sudden silence, a tight ball of doom twisted her stomach into a knot.

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