Chapter 1: Lito CHAPTER 1 LITO
One may look at Val Akira Labs and see only its array of products and services. Another may look and see a legacy of scientific progress dating back to the discovery of hermium. But when I look, I see the cornerstone of mankind’s future, a map through which humanity will achieve true transcendence and the resulting immortality.
Souji val Akira, CEO of Val Akira Labs, End of Venus Rotation Shareholders Report
I can’t move in my coffin. Arms stuck to my sides, legs straight beneath me, toes pointed at ninety degrees. Glass mere centimeters from my nose. Beyond that, black. Trapped, and unable to do a damn thing about it.
Whenever the panic comes like an overwhelming wave, I do as Ofiera taught me: I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly. Of course, then I think of how I have at most fifteen minutes of air inside the cryo chamber and that makes the anxiety, and my breathing, heavier. Now it’s more tempting than ever to rely on my implant to erase my emotions. But for the mission, I need to be able to feel.
If Ofiera can do this, so can I.
Cold burning my lungs, muscles seizing as they reawaken, eyes adjusting from bright white lights to a hard face. A voice calls my name: “Oh-feaaaaaaaaar-uhhhhh.”
No, not me. Ofiera’s memories that I haven’t let go of after we shared thoughts through her faulty neural implant. They’re recalled more easily now than ever. A chamber just like this was her tomb, the ice box they locked her in whenever she finished her assigned missions, only now we’re both being wheeled into Val Akira Labs’ R&D facility in cryo chambers. Though we’re fully awake. That’s different, at least.
We had concerns with Hemlock’s plan, but we realized its brilliance at the same time. We couldn’t disappear without putting Sorrel at risk, and there was no way we could fight our way into the labs, get what we came for, and fight our way out. The odds were too overwhelming. So, during our trip from Ceres to Mercury, we fabricated false reports for Command, tales of Gean patrols that necessitated longer routes. Between the current rotation of planets and the speed of the retrofitted grasshopper, we bought ourselves four weeks.
They expected us to return to Cytherea, but at the end of those four weeks, we landed on Spero, where Hemlock had empty cryo pods and Aster agents at the ready. Each pod had an encrypted ID tag corresponding to the person to be delivered to the lab, only we would be taking their place. As I crawled into the pod, I wondered but couldn’t bring myself to ask what they’d done with the bodies.
The air is thin now, my breathing short. My legs cramp, aching to bend, but I don’t move, even for relief. It’s only been about ten minutes, not long enough for us to reach the inner labs, but there’s no telling our location when I can’t see out of the black canvas bag they have the chambers wrapped in. Instead of the mission, I think of the sea, the rolling of the waves as they wash in and out, brushing against the sand… a comforting thought, and one that settled me when I was a child watching holovids until I fell asleep.
As if I summon the sea itself, the pod around me hisses, spraying a wet mist over me. I suck in a sharp breath at the cold, only to hear it as a wheeze—the air is too thin, I can’t fill my lungs. Something even colder hits me—first on my sides, then pooling at my lower back—and while my muscles stiffen in response, I have nowhere I can move to get away from the liquid.
Shit—the damned cryo chamber has turned on. More frigid fluid pours into my pod, and I can’t get away from it—there’s nowhere for me to go—
I suck in my last breath, knowing I may never wake again. I sink into the liquid, letting it arrest the blood in my veins, my heart—
No, I’m not calm—I’m not Ofiera, and these are not my memories.
The sludge quickly fills the small space as I gasp for air and find none—it’s being pumped out as the liquid comes in. Instinct kicks in and I try to take one last breath before I’m submerged, but there’s no air—no air at all—and the icy solution, thick and stinging, rushes up over my head—I fight not to breathe it in—not to suck it into my lungs—I can’t hold on—I can’t—
I breathe in the liquid, freezing me from the inside out. My thoughts turn sluggish, ice crawling across my skin, stilling motor functions.
This feels like death.
Am I dying?
Then even that thought is lost.
WHEN I COME to, my last thought is my first.
Am I dying?
Then I correct myself: Am I dead?
The world around me is a bright light. Slowly other things filter into focus as my consciousness expands—my body, shivering. Voices, echoing as if underwater. Movement, zipping past the corner of my eye.
Not dead. No matter which stories you listened to, the Thousand Gods Below the Sun never described an afterlife like this.
I cough, and that vile, thick liquid stings coming up my throat, just as cold going out as it was coming in. I turn my head to spit, and my eyes slowly adjust to the figures—two Asters in charcoal-gray maintenance uniforms and one blessedly familiar face.
“O-O-Of-Offf—” I can’t manage her name.
Oh-feaaaaaaaaar-uhhhhh. I struggle against her memories.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s okay, Lito.”
She’s just as naked and sticky as I am, but she ignores her own state as the Asters—Peony and Elm, two of Hemlock’s agents on Spero—bring me a silver shock blanket. They wrap it around me, but it does little to help.
The smell of my sister’s coconut shampoo hits me. “Luce?” I manage through my raw throat.
“It’s okay,” Ofiera says again, and this time I believe her. At least, I can hear her better. “It’s hard coming out of cryo the first few times.”
Gods, the thought of experiencing this a few times…
“Your neurons fire strangely, make your memory play tricks on you.”
The scent of Luce still dances on the air. I close my eyes and try to focus on the warmth of the blanket instead.
“You’ll continue to improve over the next hour.”
Do we have an hour to spare? I don’t know. I don’t even know how long we’ve been under. Hours? Days?
As I suck in lungfuls of air and the control of my body and mind returns to me piece by piece, I run through what I know: Ofiera fon Bain is my Dagger. I was tasked with killing my former partner, Hiro val Akira. I followed Hiro to Ceres, where they were supposed to kill the Mother, the leader of the Sisterhood. When I found them, I discovered Hiro had been geneassisted into Saito Ren, a Gean captain. Together we killed the Mother and escaped to the Under with Hemlock’s help.
And that bastard Hemlock is the reason I’m here in Val Akira Labs, coming out of a frozen coma…
I sit up once I feel able to. By now, Ofiera has dressed in the same charcoal maintenance uniform that the Asters wear and is pulling her shoulder-length brown hair into its usual messy bun. “There’s a towel and some clothes beside you.”
“You’re way better at this than I am…” I slip off the table and force myself to drop the blanket. I shiver as soon as it’s gone.
“Practice makes perfect, as the old phrase goes,” Ofiera says wryly.
“Look at you, making a joke.” I towel the remaining cold slime off of me, and as my muscles work, I feel more in control of them. “Why did the cryo chambers turn on? That was only supposed to happen in cases of—”
“Emergency,” Elm confirms. He’s stocky and thick-shouldered for an Aster, making him appear more intimidating than he is. His voice is the exact opposite: soft and sibilant. “We ran into trouble. Had to store you until we could come back for you.”
“?‘Trouble’?” I repeat. It could be anything from nosy guards to Souji val Akira himself.
“It would be easier to show you… Just a second while I connect. Can’t be too forceful or they’ll notice we’ve tapped the cameras.” Elm’s fingers drum on a compad, its screen reflected in the lenses of his goggles.
As he works, I pull on the waiting clothes, loving every stitch of them despite the Val Akira Labs logo embroidered on the chest. After the cryo chamber, I’d be happy to wear rags. At least they’re warm.
“Are we in the inner labs?” Ofiera asks.
Peony, who keeps her Aster-plaited white hair wrapped about her neck like a scarf, nods. “Main lab is just down the hall.”
“Good,” Ofiera replies. “That’s where military assets are kept.” Assets like Sorrel.
“And that’s where we’ll be able to plant the relay.” If the trouble Elm mentioned isn’t too bad… My brain may be sluggish, but I still remember that our mission here is twofold. If we can successfully install a relay for Hemlock, he’ll be able to snatch precious data right out from under Souji val Akira’s nose.
“That’s the problem,” Elm says.
I can feel Ofiera’s emotions spike through the implant. “What?” she asks in a low voice, doing her best to keep calm.
Elm hands his compad over to Ofiera, and I huddle close to watch over her shoulder. The video starts with a wide shot of a laboratory. In one room, a group of scientists in lab coats monitor screens; in the other, through a wall of glass, a figure sits in a cruel-looking metal chair.
“Is this live?” I ask.
Elm shifts from foot to foot. “Yeah, a live view of the main lab.”
Shit. Packed room like this means we aren’t getting in to plant the relay unless we can somehow get the scientists out. We were brought in during late evening. According to the clock, it’s just past midnight. We were supposed to be able to sneak through the lab without running into employees. “What the hell are they doing?”
No one answers me, and as I watch, my throat tightens. The footage zooms in to focus on the lab’s glass wall. As the lighting adjusts, I make out an Aster in the chair, the top of their skull removed, their brain exposed. At intervals, their eyes shoot wide before falling sleepily, back and forth, switching between exhausted and terrified. Strangely, it’s the Aster’s silence that sends a shiver down my spine. From the trembling that shoots through their body, arms straining against the straps that tie them down, open mouth gasping, they look like they want to scream but… can’t.
This has to be one of the off-the-books experiments; Hemlock will want us to gather proof for later. If we could just get the relay in place…
“We have to cancel the op,” Elm says, halting my thoughts. “There are too many people here. There’s no way someone won’t spot us if we try to pull Sorrel or plant the relay.”
“There has to be another lab where we can pull military assets,” Ofiera says, and the heat in her tone says she’s not giving up.
Elm looks to Peony. “There is,” she says, slender fingers picking at the fabric of her uniform. “But with the test happening, lab security is heavier than expected.”
We should call the op off. It would be the safest thing to do. But we can’t reenter cryo sleep and wait until a better time. The longer we’re here, the higher a chance that someone discovers we’re not the people who’re supposed to be in the pods. We can’t plant the relay with the main lab occupied. We can get Sorrel out, but only if we’re willing to deal with security while we have no weapons and our clothes aren’t shielded. One shot, and we’re dead. The best option is to leave empty-handed and try again at another time.
I turn to Ofiera, and her yearning reaches me through the implant, impatience to be reunited with Sorrel warring with the need to keep him safe—so close, we’re so close. Leaving has its drawbacks too. If we don’t show up in Cytherea within the next couple of days, High Commander Beron val Bellator’s going to know we’ve gone rogue, and the punishment for Ofiera failing her mission has always been Sorrel’s demise. That’s not a factor either of us wants to play with.
“Up for risking your life?” I ask Ofiera.
Her eyes narrow as she senses my determination through the implant. “Always.”
WE MOVE THROUGH the white hallways on light feet. The recessed lighting is turned low, a golden glow the only thing fighting back the overwhelming shadows. The corridors are nearly identical and the doors are labeled with both numbers and symbols, making the building look more like a maze than a sprawling laboratory. If not for Elm and Peony’s instructions, we would no doubt be lost in minutes.
We come to a T junction, but as I start to turn the last corner before we reach the secondary cryo lab, Ofiera reaches out through the implant and screams a warning. I hear the noise that alerted her a second too late, two sets of shoes clipping against the polished floor toward us. I press myself against the wall and freeze; the human eye has always been drawn to movement, easily missing people who hold perfectly still. I hope with all my might that they don’t turn down our hallway, that security doesn’t have heat scanners, as if I could impress my will on the universe through desperation alone. Though we’re wearing the maintenance uniforms, our faces aren’t in the system, so all it’d take to screw our entire plan is someone with com-lenses identifying us as outsiders.
The two people come to the T junction, walking slowly. They’re in lab coats—scientists. I hold my breath as one looks down the hallway, and my heart speeds as I feel his eyes land directly on me—but he doesn’t stop. Doesn’t really see me. In the dark uniform, completely still, I blend into the shadows.
They continue on and, within seconds, are gone.
Still, if security has noticed us skulking about in the dark, it’s only a matter of time before we’re hunted down… Tempted to erase my anxiety with the implant, I instead release a long, shuddering breath and steel myself. Ofiera nudges me forward.
We turn left, the direction the passing scientists came from. We don’t have to go far before we reach a door labeled 18C. My throat tightens as I press the compad Elm left with me before he and Peony returned to work, unable to risk themselves further, to the bioscanner. I wait for either the click of an unlocking door or the blare of alarms.
The door clicks. Ofiera enters, and I follow after.
Inside is a room similar to the main lab but far smaller. Rows of monitors wait in the dark like sleeping sentinels. The glass between the observation area and the temperature-controlled chamber is fogged from the cold. On the other side are rows and rows of cryo chambers hanging from hooks on the ceiling. From just a quick glance, I calculate that there are hundreds of them in this lab alone.
“Thousand gods,” I murmur.
Ofiera is silent as she crosses the room and approaches the glass. Set before it is a hulking control panel with a screen that wakes at her touch. As if she knows what she’s doing—she’s probably seen scientists do this before—she types a string of numbers, 4757828, into the field labeled ASSET.
The pods swing into motion, the belt on the ceiling shuffling the frozen occupants like they’re no more than clothes in a closet. I stiffen at the unholy amount of noise in the otherwise silent lab, expecting any second to be the one security comes to check out our unscheduled work. Finally the machine halts on one pod in particular, and the hook brings it forward, close to the glass, so that we can see who rests inside.
Ofiera’s emotions are like an electric shock through the implant. A pain in my chest grows at the sight before me. And though he looks different than in Ofiera’s memories—older, wearier, his white hair shaved close to his scalp—I’d know him all the same from her response: Sorrel.
My feelings rise to take the place of Ofiera’s. Outrage battles with guilt. Cryo ads always promise a peaceful slumber, but Sorrel’s face is contorted in a rictus of pain. I doubt he’s known peace for many years.
Ofiera jerks into motion, fingers on the screen again. Sorrel sways away from the glass and disappears in the shuffle of pods.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“We can’t wake him here. Security is too thick. But we came in on a ship marked for loading and unloading, so from here, we can send his cryo pod into our ship’s hold. We’ll wake him once we’re in orbit.” Over her shoulder I see her selecting a delivery route for Sorrel’s pod to dock three, the place our ship is parked. At the same time, a vibration in my pocket grabs my attention.
I pull out Elm’s hacked compad, slaved to the Val Akira Labs security system. There are no alarms blaring, no flashing lights—but there don’t need to be.
I swallow her name, tilting the compad toward her so she can see.
Moving Sorrel, an important military asset, has alerted lab security. The cameras capture the flurry of the guards’ movements.
They hunt through the hallways. They have guns at the ready. They’re moving in for the kill. And we have nothing but a hacked compad and our lives to lose.