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, 2398 TST
“You said I have more time,” she whispered, meeting Percival Harper’s glare with narrowed eyes.
“And now I’m telling you that you need to hurry. What difference does it make? An order’s an order.” Harper crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at Casey. No doubt, the wiry Alterran didn’t appreciate her questioning. “Did you discover the codes’ location, at least? Where is he keeping them?”
Casey shook her head. The codes couldn’t be anywhere else but in one of the two locations: Mason’s office, or his private quarters. “I barely saw him since the last time we talked. He’s always busy.” Harper frowned, so she hurried to add, “Look, it’s more complicated than I thought it would be. He’s a guarded man. Getting past his defenses is going to be hard.”
Harper rolled his eyes and smacked his lips. “I’m not saying you make him fall in love with you, Jenkins. Just get access to his private cabin. That’s probably where he keeps the codes.”
Casey’s fists clenched. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, sir.” She was no seductress, but even she could pull this off. Probably. Sex was sex, right? She ignored the heat spreading through her lower body at the thought of Mason’s hands on her and focused on keeping her expression blank.
Harper hesitated for a moment, and Casey stiffened, a hundred percent sure she would not like his next words. “Also, we need you to get his password for VALID’s core.”
Casey’s eyes popped out of her head. Asking for the access codes to the command latch was one thing. Those should be on a tiny token. If she could grab the token, and replace it with a fake one, without Mason noticing, then her mission would be over. But his password was another thing entirely—that wasn’t just lying around somewhere; that was inside Mason’s head. “Sir, I… I don’t know how—“
“I cannot fathom how someone as cowardly as you made our ranks,” Harper hissed. “Do I have to tell you everything? Can’t you think for yourself?” He pulled out a vial from his pocket and thrusted it in Casey’s direction. “Grab a bottle of wine, pour this into his drink, and get him somewhere quiet. Easy.”
Casey hesitated, but took the vial of drugs and pocketed it. “If I drug him, won’t that blow my cover? He’ll know it was me.”
“Then find another option. I don’t care. Just get me those access codes and the password. You have two weeks.”
Casey swallowed and dropped her gaze. She knew she was nothing but a cork in a well-oiled machine, but she hadn’t realized how unimportant she was. They were prepared to sacrifice her without a second thought.
Harper sighed. “Gods, Jenkins. Don’t look so pathetic. Look, he probably won’t remember what happened. He’ll black out soon after you give those to him, so you only have a small window to get the password from him. Which will be easy, because the drugs will make him nice and pliant. I know we’re complicating your mission, but it’s all for the betterment of our people. Don’t you want them to be free, like us?” Casey nodded, but said nothing. She didn’t know what was true anymore. How was sabotaging the Eye going to help her people? “We didn’t need the password before, because we had our own ways bypassing VALID. But stuff happened, and the neuronet needs to be neutralized.”
Casey’s head jerked up at that. “The Black Alert, that was us?” Harper nodded. “Shit.”
Harper’s lips twisted. “It was a mistake, nothing more. Another recruit, like you, failed in his mission and tried to rectify his mistake through some very questionable means. And almost ruined everything in the process. So, here’s your chance to make things right for us, to save us. You’d like that, don’t you?”
Harper expected a nod, so she gave him that. “Is he all right? The recruit?”
“He’s been dealt with. Don’t worry about him, focus on your mission.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, because she suddenly wished for this meeting to end. She needed to get away from Harper, lest she asked to be ‘let go’.
“Good. Two weeks, Jenkins,” Harper reminded her. “Dismissed.”
Casey saluted and focused on keeping her stride measured, even if she wanted to run out of the room. Halfway down the corridor, her legs turned to jelly, and she collapsed against the wall in a dark corner. Gods of war and ruin, but she had no way out of this.
If she didn’t do this, the Alterrans would kill her. If she spilled the beans to Mason, Commander Corvald would no doubt imprison her, and then the Alterrans would kill her.
Casey closed her eyes and took a deep breath, dismissing her concerns. She was an Alterran, she reminded herself. She wasn’t like her friends on the station, regardless of how much she pretended to be normal this past year.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor, and Casey flinched, relaxing a minute later. They were coming from the opposite direction. She peered down the corridor, eyebrows raising to her hairline as she saw Morena Callahan, a shuttle pilot, entering the disused bay where Harper was still in.
Casey’s legs tensed as she prepared to get up and… what? Save Harper? If his cover was blown, then her own gig would be up as soon as she stepped inside that bay. Plus, she thought, exhaling as logic returned, if Harper was unmasked, then it wouldn’t be just a shuttle pilot confronting him. No. It was much more likely Morena was another one just like Casey, an Alterran, or someone working for their group.
She’d never met another of the ones sent here, besides Harper. Casey got up and pushed away from the wall, walking on wooden legs back to her cabin.
The next day, after her shift, Casey got ready for a night out with the rest of her engineering friends. The smell of singed hair blanketed the small bathroom, and Casey pulled away the Ellgess gun, releasing the strand.
With practiced movements, she replaced the empty DreamSkin crystal for a fresh one, choosing the color after by flicking the little dial on one side of the device. She watched as neon pink filled the crystal, then grabbed another strand of her hair and clamped the Ellgess gun around it. From root to tip, she passed it over her hair slowly.
When she was done, she inspected her work. Soon, she’d have no more space to do this, as the number of rainbow-colored strands almost hid her natural hair color. Still, every time she did this, she felt better about herself.
This was her method of rebelling, of erasing just one bit of her Alterran identity. Colored hair was against regulations.
A stranger was staring back at her when she checked her reflection. Casey run a thumb across the dark bags under her eyes and dragged her makeup pouch closer. With a sigh, she stopped thinking about what she was about to do, about her mission.
A knock at her door sounded not long after she finished dressing, and VALID announced her visitors. Casey took a deep breath and opened the door with a smile.
“Sweetie,” Lydia, one of the best ‘friends’ here, whistled. “You look awesome!”
“Yeah, we’re gonna get some tonight,” Michelle chanted, pumping her fist in the air.
Casey laughed and stepped outside, locking the door behind her. “That’s what you always promise, Micha. Every time we go out,” she teased.
“Yeah, it’s getting quite tedious,” Lydia added.
Michelle stuck out her tongue and turned her back on them, sashaying down the corridor. Lydia snaked her arm through Casey’s and pulled her in their friend’s wake. Whispering and giggling, the three women made their way down to the Entertainment Sphere, and spilled into Stardust. The quiet bar was transformed into a nightclub every Thursday, for ladies’ night.
As soon as the pulsing music hit her, Casey disentangled from the other women and stepped onto the dance floor, joining the dozens already there, grinding against each other. She raised her arms and lost herself in the rhythm.
Glitter bombs burst, and she laughed, twirling this way and that, until she was completely covered in sparkling dust. Not much longer, Lydia and Michelle joined her, and Casey prodded them to the middle of the dance floor, adjusting the movement of her hips as the beat changed.
“I need a drink,” she shouted after a few more minutes, but Michelle had already turned away to grind against some guy, and Lydia was farther down the road as she shoved her tongue down another’s throat. Casey shook her head and moved to the bar, jumping up and down to get the bartender’s attention.
“Aren’t you bright tonight,” a deep voice growled in her ear and Casey froze. Turning her head, she met Mason’s eyes. He touched a finger to her bare shoulder and held it up for her afterwards, showing the glitter covering its tip.
Casey swallowed and forced a peaceful smile. “Yeah. Stardust,” she replied, making a fist, then uncurling her fingers to mime an explosion. “Fancy seeing you here, at ladies’ night,” she teased.
Mason guffawed and jerked his chin at the surroundings. “Are you kidding? It’s mostly guys in here.”
True. Every Thursday, there was an unusual number of male patrons inside Stardust. Casey’s smile slipped when she thought about Mason being here for the same reason as the others—looking to score. She shook her head. What did it matter? She was not jealous at the thought of him with some other woman. She turned away and grabbed one of the pads, ordering her drink when none of the bartenders came her way.
“Raul made me join him,” Mason confessed, nodding toward the other end of the bar where Raul Valeras, a First-Tier Engineer was talking to a blonde woman.
Casey hummed in acknowledgement and wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs, a motion she concealed by pretending to arrange her short dress. “I see.” God, she sucked at this. Here was her chance of gaining a foothold with Mason Miura, her target, and she was clamming up.
“You added a few streaks,” Mason said, touching her hair gingerly. She looked at him in surprise and gulped, her throat suddenly dry. Where was that drink?
A second later, a small square section of the gleaming counter slid open, and a tall cocktail glass emerged. Casey grabbed it with both hands and took a grateful sip.
“Look, I’m sorry about the other day,” Mason broke the silence, raising his own bottle to his lips. “I was just… I don’t know. Trying to protect you.”
“I’m a big girl, Mason. I can choose who to be friends with just fine. And I don’t care what people think or say.”
“Is that what we are?” Mason turned his back on the dance floor and braced both elbows on the bar. He was so tall, he could put them directly on the counter, while Casey’s shoulder was just barely brushing the curved edge. “Friends?”
Casey frowned, then shrugged. She couldn’t hear him properly over the loud music, but she thought he sounded… disappointed. “We can start there.”
Mason searched her eyes for a minute, then gave her a blinding grin. Casey blinked and offered him a tremulous smile in return. Gods, she was fucked, because she really liked him.
Her eyes trailed over the right side of his face, where most of his skin was covered in thick metal plates. His bionic eye stood in stark contrast, shining red in the darkened bar club. She knew Mason was incredibly self-conscious about his cybernetic augmentations.
They just made him that much more attractive to her. She wasn’t like the others, who twisted their lips in disgust every time he passed them.
So, baby steps. Throwing herself at him out of the blue was a sure recipe for disaster. A man like Mason would become instantly suspicious, if she were to do that. But if she made efforts to get to know him first, let the friendship run its course toward more, then she might have a chance.
She had two weeks.
She smiled and closed the distance between them, grabbing his metal arm. “Dance with me?” she asked over her shoulder, eyelashes fluttering.
Mason gulped and nodded, allowing her to lead him to an empty spot on the dance floor. Facing him, she started to move, and he followed her cue, stiffly at first. Gradually, he relaxed and his movements started to flow more naturally.
Beat by beat, she stepped backwards, until the rest of the partiers enveloped them. She used that as an excuse to advance until her body was plastered to his front. Mason stiffened and looked down at her, and she grimaced, shooting him an apologetic look.
When his hands dropped to her hips, she took it as permission to curl her arms around his neck. Mason stared at her, his eyes roving over her features, and she returned his look before she rested her head on his shoulder.
The corners of her lips turned up when he gathered her even closer to him. Casey closed her eyes and pretended this was real.
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