MY PARENTS WOULD KILL ME if they caught me reading manga at one in the morning, but I was too keyed up to sleep. I hunched over my tablet, trying to lose myself in the world of Robo Mecha Dream Girl 5. Usually I couldn’t wait for the latest issue and devoured it in a matter of minutes, only going back later to take it all in and absorb everything I’d missed. Tonight, though, I’d read the same page five times already and I still didn’t know what was happening. Yumiko—Robo Mecha Dream Girl herself—was in some sort of breeding facility. What were they breeding? Why? I had no idea.
Yet another thing my parents had managed to mess up with their little announcement.
Five hours ago I thought things were going pretty well—a well-paying part-time job, citizenship in one of the most powerful corporations in the solar system, a family that functioned in
its own comfortable routine. And then over dinner came those magic words: “Honey, we need to talk.”
I’d turned to Robo Mecha Dream Girl 5’s midnight release to distract me, but it wasn’t doing the trick. I cleared my tablet’s screen. No point trying to read this right now. I had a shift in the morning, anyway, and I needed to—
The shrill of the alarm shot me straight out of my chair. My head smashed against the overhead shelf, and my tablet flew across the room. It shut down in protest, leaving me in a sea of flashing red and blaring alarms.
I thumbed the wall controls and jammed my feet into my boots. The lights came up, revealing I had them on the wrong feet. Swearing, I swapped them and tugged at the laces.
“Kenzie!” Dad’s voice boomed from outside.
“Coming,” I shouted. I took a second to scrape my curls out of my face and into a ponytail before I slid the door aside.
Dad waited, his hair disheveled. He frowned at the reflective surface of the comm device embedded in his wrist. “I know!” I said, barreling past him. Wasn’t it enough that I was never late for a shift? Okay, fine, I was late for everything else. But this one really wasn’t my fault—and if it was, I thought Dad’s decision to “take a little break” and move into our old house without me and Mom was probably excuse enough.
The klaxon was loud enough to wake the dead, ridiculous since only five guards lived on the entire prison—six if you counted me. You’d think you’d need more people to staff a
prison for superpowered teenagers, but not Sanctuary. Not with the power of Omnistellar Concepts and their first-rate AI in charge. A shiver raced through me at the thought of a bunch of superpowered criminals running loose. There was literally no other corporation I’d trust to keep them contained, especially when they happened to live in my basement.
I ran down the deserted corridors with Dad on my heels. We bolted through the living quarters into the larger area of the station that housed medical supplies, airlocks, a common room, and the command center.
The command center was where we found Mom, hands clasped behind her back, not a hair out of place. She was wearing her professional demeanor—no longer my reserved but affectionate mom with her wicked sense of humor, but every inch the station commander. Mom viewed her role of protecting the solar system from the prisoners as a sacred duty, and she demanded nothing less from her crew—including me. Guiltily, I smoothed a hand over my rumpled uniform. Of course I was the only one who looked like she’d just rolled out of bed, and I hadn’t even been asleep. No matter how hard I tried to remember to fold my things neatly, I always wound up shoving them into drawers or tossing them in heaps around my room.
“About time,” Mom said crisply. I flashed Dad a grin and he shook his head, but a smile played on his lips. Mom, on the other hand, was all business now, as she had to be—if there were any issues with the security systems on Sanctuary, just one of
our criminal charges had the power to level the entire station. “Kenzie, pull up the video feed on the prison. Rita and Jonathan are already in position in case of an escape. Colton, back Rita up, and send Jonathan to man the emergency airlocks.”
I cringed. Jonathan, Sanctuary’s sole medical officer, was the least trained guard on the station. He didn’t have the experience to be the first line of defense in the event of a prisoner’s escape—that was Dad’s job, and he’d already be there if I hadn’t made him late. As for the rest of us, Noah and I did our thing on the bridge while Rita stalked around like she owned the place. We’d all been together less than three months, but we were a smoothly oiled team.
Or so I’d thought. Unbidden, my mind returned to that horrible conversation over dinner tonight, when Dad sighed and set his tray aside and my parents dropped their bombshell: Dad had requested a transfer back to Earth. After he finished his training seminar next week, he wasn’t coming back to Sanctuary. Oh, they said it wasn’t my fault—that it was the long hours and the like. But a lingering doubt made me wonder if I should have seen this coming, if I could have done something to prevent it.
Of course, if this was a genuine prison break, Mom and Dad were the least of my worries, and that meant I needed to keep my wits about me as well as my colleagues kept theirs. Even in a crisis like this one, I felt a surge of pride at being part of Sanctuary, at the trust Omnistellar Concepts placed in my
parents—and in me. We had an important job to do, and I wasn’t about to let anyone down.
Even if I was a few minutes late.
Dad ran out of the room, squeezing my shoulder as he went. In spite of the tension of the moment, I glanced at Mom, trying to see if there was anything different in the way she looked at him, but she only arched an eyebrow and nodded at my station.
I jogged past her to the row of computer consoles and perched on a stool, then poked at the buttons as if hitting them with enough force would log me in faster. Across from me, Noah, Sanctuary’s youngest official guard, wore an expression of agony. “Commander,” he called over the klaxon. “Now that we’re all in position, permission to mute the alarm?”
Mom hesitated. Muting the alarm technically violated protocol, but how were we supposed to work over its howling? After a second, she gave a terse nod. Noah muttered a thank you only I heard, and seconds later the klaxon stopped mid-shriek. Warning lights continued to illuminate us with periodic bursts of red, sending everyone’s face into sickly relief.
I logged in and found the feeds Mom requested. Instantly the command center’s rear wall dissolved from its normal image of the exterior into an emergency feed, showing us the prison beneath our feet from every angle. By and large things looked normal—or as normal as they got, given that the prison housed catastrophes in human form. “Drill?” I muttered to Noah.
“Of course it’s a drill.” He flashed me a grin, and again I felt
that sense of camaraderie. “The station’s top of the line. There’s never any real problem.”
“Every alarm is to be treated as a real problem, Noah.” Mom bit off the retort without even turning her head. Noah winced and shot an accusing look my way. He still hadn’t gotten used to Mom’s bloodhound senses. Me? I’d had seventeen years of practice. I’d mastered the art of the under-your-breath whisper.
I examined the screens more closely. Even if this was a drill—and it probably was; Sanctuary scheduled them every few weeks at unpredictable intervals—sometimes the computer did something shocking like open a cellblock or cause a malfunction in life support. Nothing that actually endangered anyone or risked a prisoner’s escape, of course—but God help us if we missed it. Omnistellar Concepts hadn’t become the undisputed king of universal law enforcement by hiring slackers, and it certainly hadn’t earned the right to house the world’s most dangerous teenagers with anything less than a fierce adherence to the rules.
The footage didn’t show much, although a strange flicker caught my eye. “Unit two reporting,” came Dad’s voice over the comm link. “All clear through sector five emergency airlock.”
“Roger that. Hold your position,” Mom snapped.
I tapped the screen to enlarge the flickering video. It looked perfectly normal now. Biting my lip and wondering if I’d internalized more of Robo Mecha Dream Girl than I’d realized, I retrieved an interactive map of Sanctuary.
“Noah?” I said, my voice shaky. “Could you take a look at this?”
“What?” Noah pretended shock, leaning over my shoulder. “Teen prodigy’s not sure of something? Well, color me—” He cursed loud enough to bring Mom to our side.
“Damn!” she said, and I glanced up at her in surprise. Mom never swore on duty. Was this some sort of latent stress from her arguments with Dad? Or was she just worried about the drill? “Colton, Jonathan, Rita! Come in! We’ve got some sort of malfunction in the door connecting sector five with the server room.”
Server rooms existed in each prison sector as an emergency measure, just in case a guard became trapped and needed to connect to the AI. They were all behind firewalls, and you couldn’t do much from inside one except access communications and conduct a few other routine operations. Even that much required a lot of codes and specialized knowledge. Still, my breath caught in my throat at the thought of a prisoner with access to our system. Not one of them had a conscience, and they’d stop at nothing to get free.
This was all just a little too involved, a little too freaky, to be a drill. I tossed the map aside, toward Noah’s console, so I could go through the video feeds in more detail. None of the cellblocks were open. The prisoners lounged in various poses of irritation and boredom. Some had managed to fall back
asleep after the alarms faded. A few had pillows clamped over their heads.
I enlarged the flickering video once again and leaned in to inspect it. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. The flicker had probably been a product of my imagination running wild at even the thought of one of these deadly kids going free.
Except there it went again. “Mom,” I said, throwing caution to the wind.
“?‘Commander’ when I’m on duty,” she corrected.
I rolled my eyes, making sure she didn’t see me. “Commander,” I replied. “Something’s going on with this vid feed.”
Mom leaned over my shoulder, leaving Noah to bark directions to Dad and Rita as they raced toward the server room. “There!” I said, pointing to the flicker again. We both bent closer. The cell was all of five feet square and housed two cots, a toilet, a sink, and a metal desk. An electronic tablet bolted to the desk served as the prisoners’ entertainment—Sanctuary’s library of music, movies, and books.
A lithe, muscular Chinese boy lounged on one of the cots. He’d tossed his shirt over the desk chair, revealing a series of tattoos inking his left arm and part of his back, and even in our current state of emergency, I couldn’t help registering the ripple of muscles along his spine, not to mention the dark hair failing in seemingly impossible geometric spikes over arched cheekbones.
Hey, what can I say? I was still human.
Across from him sprawled one of the biggest prisoners in the cellblock. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, occasionally saying something in response to his cellmate. I knew him on sight: Alexei Danshov. I’d looked him up the first time I saw him, certain his sheer mass was a result of the genetic mutations that gave the prisoners unique superpowers. But nope—Danshov’s power registered as pyrokinesis. His size was just a freak-of-nature-type bonus, because shooting blasts of flame at people didn’t make him dangerous enough.
The screen flickered again, and Danshov moved slightly—a mere tic of his left arm. “Oh my God,” I said. My irritation with Mom, my distraction, all vanished in a heartbeat. The oldest trick in the book, and one we would never dream of looking for, one we would never even imagine. “Mom. I mean, Commander. The video’s on a loop.”
“What?” She lunged forward. “Kenzie, are you sure?”
“I’m certain!” I was almost yelling. What if this wasn’t a drill after all? What if it was an actual prison break, and Dad and Rita were running into the hands of murderers?
Mom hesitated for a split second before nodding, accepting my judgment. A burst of pride rushed through me as she slapped her hand down to open a channel. “Colton! Rita! Proceed with caution. There’s a good chance we have two prisoners on the loose.”
Did I imagine the extra strain in her voice? If this wasn’t a drill, Dad could be in danger. Separation or not, they’d
been together a long time. They had to feel something for one another. I searched her expression and she flashed me a quick smile, then squeezed my arm as she turned away.
Rita’s voice filled the channel with colorful Spanish swearing. Then my dad, significantly more restrained: “Which prisoners?”
Mom thumbed the mobile unit in its hollowed-out resting place in her wrist, manually calling up the files. “5-B and C. Cheung Hu and Alexei Danshov.”
More cursing from Rita. “Danshov? We’re going to need backup.”
Mom slammed her hand on the console, making Noah jump. She quickly clenched it into a fist, but not before I caught it trembling. “You’re armed. They’re not. Watch your backs and you’ll be fine.”
“Are you kidding me?” I exploded. “Mom, those kids are the most dangerous people in the solar system! They’ll—”
Her brows drew together, her jaw tightening in a way that stopped me mid-sentence. “No one understands the stakes better than I do, Kenzie,” she said, more gently than I’d expected. “Sit down.”
Slowly, I sank onto my stool, my face flaming in embarrassment. Mom was right. The prisoners couldn’t use their powers and had no access to weapons. Dad would be fine as long as we followed regulations.
Noah cleared his throat.
“What?” asked Mom.
“Commander, I have movement in the server room.”
Mom leveled a finger at me. “Look for other discrepancies in the video feed,” she ordered, and transferred her attention to Noah.
Swallowing hard, I retrieved a series of videos and sorted through them, alert for any more blips or flickers. I should have known better than to shout at Mom in the middle of an emergency. My position as a junior guard wasn’t exactly stable, and I knew I’d only gotten the job because both of my parents already served on Sanctuary. I had to work to prove myself every moment of every day, and yelling at my CO was hardly the epitome of maturity. The sheer terror of prisoners on the loose had overwhelmed me. I hoped spotting the blip in the video made up for it.
Suddenly, gunfire erupted over the comm link. I shot to my feet, leaving my stomach behind. “Dad!” I cried.
Mom had gone equally pale. “Colton!” she shouted. “Rita! Report!”
“We’re here, Commander!” Rita bellowed, making everyone wince. “Someone opened fire on us from the server room.”
If I hadn’t known Mom so well, I would have missed the slight tremor in her voice when she asked, “Are either of you hurt?”
“We’re okay! They didn’t get near us.”
I closed my eyes in relief, my breath shuddering through
my lips. That first rattle of gunfire and for a moment I’d thought . . .
Noah shook his head. “How in the five hells did they get their hands on weaponry?”
“It doesn’t matter how,” Mom returned through gritted teeth. “Only that they did. This is no drill, Noah. Kenzie! Find me the auto-turrets in the area.”
My fingers flew over the keypad. I paused briefly, cramming another video feed toward Noah’s screen, clearing space so that I had room to work. He swore at me under his breath, shoving the security screen to the side, but I didn’t care. I’d slipped into the zone. “Something’s wrong with the auto-turret in sector five. I think that’s what’s firing at them.” And really, I reminded myself, weapons fire was a good sign. If the prisoners had somehow managed to remove the inhibitors embedded in their necks, they wouldn’t bother with guns. They wouldn’t need them.
I prodded the system. Something interfered with my ability to link to Sanctuary’s defenses. My heart drumming, I scouted a back door, searching for a work-around.
On another screen, I opened the turret’s code. I wasn’t a programmer, and I couldn’t code traditionally, but one of the awesome features on Sanctuary’s computer was visual coding, a more pictorial, easier-to-follow version of a program’s scripts. Using that, I could access and read most of the station’s systems, all but the most complicated. I was already pretty familiar with
the visual code for the turrets and I might spot any discrepancies. Sure enough, the computer had highlighted it for me in glowing red, a loop that didn’t belong. “I’ve got it!” I called. “Dad, Rita, hang on!”
So I just needed to delete the offensive loop? It couldn’t be that simple. But sure enough, the second I eliminated the loop, the sound of gunfire faded.
“That did it.” Relief laced Rita’s voice. “Good job, chica.”
“Get to sector five.” Mom’s hand trembled with fury, although the rest of her body stayed very still. “Find out what the hell is going on, and if those two are out of their cells, apprehend them. Do you hear me??”
“Copy that, Commander,” said Dad grimly. “We’re on our way.”
Mom stared at the screen a moment longer, then shook her head. “Damn it,” she said. “All right. They need backup. I’m going in, and Noah’s coming with me. Kenzie, you’re in charge here.”
“What?” My head jerked straight up. “Mom, I—”
“It’s ‘Commander,’ Kenzie. And there’s nobody else. Jonathan has to man the airlocks, and Colton and Rita are in combat. You know the stakes. We can’t risk those prisoners escaping.” She spared me a rare smile, allowing my mother to crack through the commander’s facade. “There’s not much to do up here except keep an eye on the monitors. If anything happens, call me.”
I drew a deep breath. If there really was a prison break, Dad needed her. And . . . well, just maybe this fiasco would be the glue that bound them back together. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try to find the prisoners on the video feed.”
“I know you will.” For a second she looked like she might hug me, but she settled for a smile, a touch of pride in her expression. My own heart swelled in response. I loved my work, loved being a citizen of Omnistellar Concepts—but I loved it even more when I got that uncharacteristic look of approval from my mother.
The door slid shut behind Mom and Noah, enclosing me in the small control chamber by myself, and my pride faded beneath near panic. Red lights continued in periodic bursts through the room. The window behind me showed an endless sea of stars, Earth barely visible in the lower corner. It occurred to me how easily someone could destroy that window, even with its thick glass—at which point I’d be blown into nothingness.
I wasn’t used to being in the command center on my own. Mom never left me alone here, and as an underage guard, I didn’t have to take night shifts. Not that “night” had much meaning in space, but we kept to an Earth schedule, and I had strict limits on how many shifts I worked and what I was allowed to do.
To be clear, my job description did not include taking command of the entire station during a prison break. That Mom
had abandoned me showed her desperation. A coil of hope unwound inside me. What was she afraid of?? The possibility of a real prison break—or the possibility of Dad in danger?
I couldn’t quite get my head around what was happening. My parents had worked together their entire adult lives. Not even Mom’s promotion two years ago that had elevated her to a superior position seemed to bother them, but Dad was never superambitious. He liked his job and it never bothered him to take orders. That worked well because Mom liked to give them. Sure, they’d argued more lately, but I’d assumed . . . what?
Another time, I reminded myself. Mom always said work and the company came first. She’d put a ton of trust in me, and I had to make sure I earned it.
I returned to the task of unraveling the video feed. The cameras would pick up any escaped prisoners somewhere. Impossible not to. Every inch of Sanctuary was under constant surveillance. That meant I had a lot of feeds to browse, but I only focused on cameras in sector 5. I wasn’t sure how these two prisoners had managed to escape their cell, much less program a loop into our video feed, but I knew for damn sure they couldn’t escape their sector. It was literally impossible. Any attempt would send the station into shutdown, to the point of venting oxygen and killing everyone on board—guards included. It wasn’t my favorite thing about Sanctuary, but like everyone else, I accepted the necessity. We simply couldn’t risk the prisoners escaping. Their containment came before everything else—even our own lives.
What I was really looking for was another glitch. If they’d somehow managed to get into a server room and loop the video in their own cell, maybe they’d managed it in another area. And if they had, I’d know where they were, or at least where they planned to be.
My comm unit sputtered, making me jump, but it was just Rita. “Are you in position, Commander?”
“Affirmative,” Mom’s voice said over the comm. “Nothing on our end.”
“Ours either. Let’s get moving. We’ll meet you in the middle.”
“Copy that. Radio silence until then.”
I drew another shaky breath. “Get it together, Kenz,” I muttered out loud. “You did not ace every single one of your training camps by panicking in a crisis.” The reminder of my past successes steadied me, and I set myself to rooting through video, letting anything not from sector 5 drift aside. I found my parents and tucked their feeds at the top of my screen to keep an eye on them. At least this way, if someone got the jump on them I could shout a warning.
As I sifted through vids, my nerves quickly turned to frustration. Not one flicker, not one bit of movement, that didn’t originate from my own people. Was it possible the feed hadn’t looped after all? Had I sent Mom on a wild goose chase?
And then, movement did catch my eye. But it wasn’t from sector 5.
It was directly outside the command center.