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 All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Galactic Coalition Academy Series

Ava

Episode Two

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



AVA

EPISODE TWO


The instability continues, and so do the attempts on Leana’x’s life. There are more assassins aboard the Hercules, and John will have to sacrifice everything to keep her safe. If that wasn’t enough, the artificial intelligence inhabiting Leana’x is injured. And worse? It’s spread to John.



They’re now in this mess together, literally.



As the stakes rise, they must leave the ship behind. They must find out every secret the Artaxans kept from the galaxy before it’s too late….

Tune in for the thrilling second episode of the space-opera Ava.


Chapter 1

Admiral James Jones

Fisher had failed, and Leana’x was still alive.

James stood there in the throne room, staring down at the dead remains of the Queen, his face a stiff mask of fear. His cheeks were so hard, he almost couldn’t move them. So much tension had climbed his body, clamping around every single muscle that it felt as if his own skeleton were trying to strangle him.

But James held onto his last scrap of reason long enough that he darted his gaze up to the cracked throne the Queen had once sat upon.

The light had completely diminished from the room now, nothing left apart from the glow of the roving holographic panel that matched pace with James as he walked several steps forward, turned stiffly, back rigid, and paced in front of the throne again.

He waited.

He only had one more official asset aboard the Hercules – the pilot. And the pilot – a Sarah Harper – had already confirmed that Lieutenant Fisher had failed. There had definitely been an incident in the medical bay, but Fisher hadn’t managed to assassinate Leana’x.

She was still alive. And with every single second she remained alive?

This situation became all the harder.

Suddenly, a holographic panel beside James blinked a furious red. He clamped his teeth together, snarling his lips wide as he let out a hissing breath. “For the last time, Maqx, we haven’t received any word.”

Utilize the pilot now. Crash that whole damn ship into an asteroid if you have to. Kill Leana’x,” Maqx bellowed, and Admiral James Jones could hear the rage. The rest of the galaxy could probably hear the rage. It didn’t just bellow through Maqx’s throat – it seemed to tear through space itself.

Maqx’s anger was getting worse by the minute, and so too was James’.

But right now there was no target for them to attack, no fresh warm body for them to tear into, no throat for them to wrap their hands around.

So Admiral James Jones took another hissing breath. “Hold onto yourself,” he barked, enjoying the sound of his voice rattling through the room, echoing through this chamber that had been a place of total peace for centuries upon centuries until today.

You order me to control myself, but you should concern yourself with fixing this. We’re running out of time. The longer the intelligence remains within Leana’x, the more chance she will have of using it. And if – or when – she accesses AVA’s full knowledge, she will learn of this plot. She will track us down. You must utilize every asset you have now. Make the pilot crash the ship.”

Patience,” the Admiral snarled. “We cannot afford to crash the whole ship. Plus, though the pilot is a high-level asset, I very much doubt they will be able to maneuver the Hercules into an asteroid without anyone else noticing. We misused our last two assets – misjudged the protection around Leana’x. We must not do that again.”

“So what’s your plan?” Maqx demanded, voice rattling through the audio link.

Admiral James Jones paused. Paused long enough to lock his eyes on the growing gray remains of the Queen. Now all the light of AVA had left her, her body was sallow, pale, lifeless. And yet there still seemed to be a certain power about her. Maybe it was just her last defiant act, or maybe… maybe it was Admiral James Jones’ mind starting to turn on him.

It wasn’t impossible, a little voice in the back of his head pointed out. Because the Replacement technology left behind by the Force was not perfect. It hadn’t been used for millennia upon millennia, and God knows what had happened to those fine instruments.

No, it wasn’t impossible at all that there had been… a mistake. A mistake in the creation of the Replacement Admiral. A mistake large enough to blow a hole in this plan.

But James couldn’t allow that. Couldn’t allow that. He brought up a hand, formed it into a fist, and tapped his white knuckles against his temple so hard, it was as if he were a woodpecker trying to tear itself a new home in his own skull.

Fortunately, Maqx had only contacted using audio and couldn’t see the Admiral half breaking down. Couldn’t see the Admiral as he let his head arch all the way back, as he allowed his eyes to open as far as the lids would allow. He let his lips tear over his teeth, scrunch up until they pushed his nose high into his brow.

And he felt it. All the anger vying to be let out. The rage that seemed to grow without check in his heart, like a billowing, violent storm ready to burst from every pore, surge from his mouth, and rip, rip from his hands.

“Answer me,” Maqx demanded.

“There’s another way. We will turn another asset,” the Admiral managed, finally damping down on his rage long enough to move his lips. But his head was still arched all the way back, his eyes wide as they stared at the startling ceiling of the throne room. It was a live holographic image of the galaxy – of every single star that made up the multitudinous Milky Way. Except it wasn’t quite a holographic image. If the Admiral somehow found a ladder tall enough or managed to find a floating platform and reached the top of the ceiling, his hand wouldn’t pass through those stars. Because they were more than light.

They were formed by the remnant of AVA. And what was AVA? Beyond being the most sophisticated artificial intelligence the Milky Way had ever seen?

Ah, at her heart, AVA was an intelligence that inhabited particles. A fundamental form, if you will. A form the Force needed for their final push.

They had been waiting too long. Every other fine-tuned plan had backfired. Not completely. Even the situation with the Circle Traders, though ultimately a failure, had allowed the Force another foothold. And this? The destruction of the Artaxan Royal Family and the procurement of AVA? It would finally throw open the door that the Force required to storm the Milky Way in full.

The Replacement Admiral James Jones wore a device, a flat disc that sat over his sternum. The same device the Force had used on Admiral Forest during the Circle Trader incident. It allowed the Force continuous contact with the Replacement Jones, though they were careful not to overuse that connection. Though it had been relatively easy to control Admiral Forest, the Replacement Jones was just that – a Replacement. And though the Full Cloning technology had managed to build up a perfect copy of his body and re-create most of the contents of his mind, he was not, at his heart, a real being, and at his heart, he did not possess a true consciousness. So, although the Force could open a door through his mind to witness through his eyes and, most importantly, control his body, they rarely used it. Only glimpses now and then. Only reminders to push Jones forward, to underline the importance of this mission.

They did so now, pushing through that door in his mind for a fraction of a second as his eyes widened, as he stared at the stars of the Milky Way. All that light, all that life, all that potential – and all of it, all of it could be the Force’s. Soon.

But not soon enough.

The Force allowed the greed to swell through Admiral Jones, and it was a mistake, for it frayed the already parting strands of his sanity.

With two thumps, he fell to the throne room floor, his left knee then his right. He disrupted the green dust that had once been the Prime Queen’s hair.

It shifted around him, billowing over his body, marking his once pristine but now blood-splattered dress-uniform pants.

The Force swelled in his mind, their greed more than his fragile, Replacement consciousness could allow.

Blood started to trickle down from his nose, over his lips, down his chin, over his throat, and onto the starched collar of his uniform jacket.

Maqx demanded an answer in the background, but Admiral James Jones could not answer.

Just before the Force held on long enough that they could do critical damage to the Replacement, they regained their control and pulled away. As they did, Admiral Jones swayed back-and-forth, his stomach muscles clenching as they tried to hold him steady.

Before he could fall backward, he swayed down, slammed a shaking hand onto the dust-covered floor, and gasped, the move heaving through his body, the sound echoing through the closed throne room.

“Admiral? Admiral?” Maqx demanded.

As the Replacement Jones’ mind filled back into the cracks that the Force had left in his consciousness, he took another wheezing gasp.

“Admiral,” Maqx demanded with a snarl.

“Yes,” Jones managed as he brought a shaking hand up and thumbed the blood from his lip, the salty tang spreading over his tongue and teeth, distracting him as he pushed to his feet.

Though he swayed, he managed to stand.

“Answer me, Admiral. What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

“Nothing. You misheard.”

There was a pause.

“As for my plan, trust me. There is another asset I will turn.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Commander John Campbell. I have the resources to turn him. And I will.”

“According to the pilot, didn’t he save the Prime Queen Leana’x on two occasions now?”

“Irrelevant. We’ll give him a new purpose. A greater desire. He will be turned, like everyone else.”

“… You will be right,” Maqx said, and the way he said it implied an or.

“Or what?” Jones said, making no attempt whatsoever to control the anger in his tone, the danger, too.

You have been selected to lead for now. Fail to do so, and I will replace you,” Maqx said, taking obvious pleasure in the term replace.

Admiral Jones snarled, his lips and teeth cold as his body recoiled from the experience of having the Force inhabit his mind, even if it was only for several seconds. “Hold your place,” Jones warned. “My plan will work.”

“If it does not, I look forward to our battle,” Maqx said, and with that, he signed off.

Admiral Jones stood there for several seconds, hollow gaze staring at the dust until his chin ticked back and his eyes locked on the Milky Way above. Then? He let out a scream, fell to his knees, and began to pound the dust-covered floor until the dust mixed with the sweat and the blood from his nose, caking his face with grime.

It did not matter. For nothing mattered to a man with holes in his mind.

Chapter 2

Leana’x

She had no idea what was going on.

She’d been the first to wake up.

Commander Campbell?

He was still in a comatose state, the CMO, her second-in-command, and most of the CMO’s most trusted doctors trying to figure out what the hell had happened to him.

Though the Captain had demanded that the CMO prioritize Leana’x, she’d overridden that command.

She was fine.

Or as fine as she could be considering the breakneck nightmare that was unfolding around her.

It seemed that the assassination plot to take her out had been far more sophisticated than she’d allowed for.

She’d come to terms with the fact that Ensign Fa’ll had been specifically brought on board for the sole purpose of taking her out at the right time. But Fisher had served aboard the Hercules for several years, and according to the frantically muttered comments she’d overheard from the rest of the medical staff, he’d been well-liked, and worse than that? Well trusted.

It felt like Leana’x was in the center of a storm. One that kept whipping up with greater force with every passing second. A storm that threatened not just to overwhelm her, the Hercules, and her people, but potentially the whole Coalition.

Though Leana’x had been so insistent in the Captain’s ready room that she shouldn’t show weakness, right now, she couldn’t stop herself.

Nor could she tear her gaze off Commander Campbell as he rested on a bed in the main room, the medical staff shifting around him like wildfire. Confused wildfire.

Even from here, Leana’x could hear their muttered comments – they had no idea what was wrong with him.

It’d been an hour since she’d woken up, and they still didn’t know what had happened to him.

“But you do,” Leana’x’s lips suddenly opened and her voice pushed out in a whisper of its own accord.

The move surprised her, and she instantly brought a hand up and clamped it over her left temple as a searing pain spiked through her head.

The CMO must’ve had eyes in the back of her head, because as soon as Leana’x showed pain, the woman jerked her head all the way around and began to dash across the med bay toward Leana’x. “You alright? Are your symptoms returning?” She hurriedly snapped her medical scanner from her belt and began manipulating the controls, instantly bringing up a holographic representation of Leana’x’s biology that rested half an inch above the scanner.

Leana’x forced herself to unclench her hand from her temple as she brought it up and spread her fingers wide. To be honest, the pain was still there, searing through her mind as if someone were trying to cook her very brains, but she smoothed a calm disposition over her face. “I’m fine. Please get back to looking after the Commander,” she added, and there was an unmistakable order in her tone.

It was one the CMO didn’t look pleased about, and it was also one she ignored.

She marched right up to Leana’x.

Leana’x was still in the specialized medical room at the back of the med bay. And though she’d been instructed to rest on her bed, she’d been standing in the doorway, one hand pressed against the metal as she stared at John.

As the CMO approached, she shooed Leana’x back with several quick swipes of her free hand.

“I’m fine,” Leana’x insisted.

“You are not fine. You have an artificial intelligence inhabiting your hair that has grown from your body, a body that has recently undergone an almost complete genetic transformation. You are barely holding it together. What’s more,” the CMO said as her lips stiffened and she jerked her gaze off the holographic image of Leana’x’s system, “you’re not helping.”

Leana’x the Ensign should have bowed her head at that, walked around, and trundled back to her bed in shame. Leana’x the Prime Queen simply stood her ground. “I’ve already told you to prioritize helping the Commander.”

“Which we are. And this is why you’re not helping. I need to know that you’re safe, seated within the biomedical field of your bed,” she said as she raised a hand and pointed at the bed. “Somewhere my scanners can keep a running lock on you. The last thing I need is for you to be wandering around the med bay. You may believe you’re fine, but until we can put you through a thorough set of medical scans, we won’t know that for sure. Plus,” the CMO stopped fussing, she also stopped shooing Leana’x toward the bed long enough to make genuine eye contact, “there is nothing you can do by standing there and watching him. If you’re worried about the Commander, just look after yourself. He may very well have risked his life to save you, so you need to look after that gift,” she added.

Don’t show weakness. Her training told her not to. It told her to tip her head back and to push, but she was done pushing. She was weak – both physically and emotionally – and she let her shoulders droop.

… The CMO was right, even though it was the hardest thing in the world for Leana’x to appreciate. John had… John had risked his life to save Leana’x, and the last thing Leana’x should do was put herself in more danger.

“Now what did you mutter to me before?” the CMO said as she fussed over Leana’x, leading her through the flickering orange biomedical field that was in place around the stationary bed. Though the bed was stationary for now, it was erected on two hovering platforms and could be called anywhere within the med bay – or the entire deck – with a single command from the CMO. And only the CMO. The biomedical force field was also only coded to accept entry and exit from Leana’x and the CMO.

Since Fisher’s attempt on Leana’x’s life, the Captain had tightened security even further. It was clear he only intended to allow his most trusted members of senior staff access to Leana’x.

She wondered whether it would be enough. Then she realized the CMO was still looking at her, obviously expecting an answer.

So, without thinking, Leana’x gave it. “I know what’s wrong with him,” she said, and there was a far-off quality to her voice as if it wasn’t her own.

The CMO frowned. She’d been manipulating something on her scanner, but she quickly darted her gaze up, her hackles rising. “Sorry?”

Leana’x opened her lips wide, then realized what she’d said.

Searing pain exploded in both of her temples, and she practically fell against the bed, only regaining her balance just in time before she could bang the side of her head against the metal side of the bed.

The CMO jerked toward her, wrapping a firm hand over her elbow and locking Leana’x in place. “On the bed,” she growled.

Leana’x didn’t resist; she allowed the CMO to guide her onto the bed.

Leana’x took tight breath after tight breath.

“What do you mean you know what’s happening to him?” the CMO demanded, though it was soft, and the woman didn’t stop fussing over Leana’x, continually referring to the holographic image of Leana’x’s bio readings.

Leana’x brought up both hands and latched them on her temples preemptively.

There was something… happening to her, wasn’t there? This… knowledge.

It was beyond her, and she didn’t need to search far to realize where it came from.

AVA.

Another blast of pain soared through her head at that thought, and the CMO took a tight breath. “I need help in here,” she began.

Leana’x instantly jerked a hand off her temple and locked it on the CMO’s arm. “I’m fine. I just… I think I’m starting to learn how to access AVA. It’s painful, but I can push through it,” she said through clenched teeth.

There must’ve been something in Leana’x’s tone, because the CMO didn’t immediately call every single member of her team away from John to attend to Leana’x.

Leana’x took another breath, leaving her hand on the CMO’s shoulder until it was clear that the doctor was going to wait to see what happened next.

With one more breath, Leana’x let her other hand fall from her head, and she rested it on her stomach. “The… thing in my head,” she said carefully, hoping that if she didn’t use the word AVA, the pain would be blunted. It was, but only slightly. It still felt as if someone had a searing iron and they were scrambling her brains with it. “It’s… it’s giving me access to information, I think. Just… flashes. For now. But it appears to know what happened to John,” Leana’x managed, every word breathy as if she’d just run a marathon.

The CMO stood stiffly, her cheeks pale and hard. “Can you find out exactly what happened to John?” She brought up a hand and spread it wide. “But don’t push yourself. Like I said, the last thing I need right now is for you to do yourself an injury. We are already stretched thin.”

Leana’x didn’t answer. She closed her eyes, letting her eyelids seal as if she never intended to open them again.

Though most members of the Artaxan Royal Family were taught concentration techniques, she’d allowed her meditation practices to slip since joining the Academy. They all seemed so futile. Though a certain level of concentration was needed in any professional, especially an engineer, even the basic concentration techniques of the Royal Family were sufficient. The deeper meditations she was supposed to perform every day were over-the-top. They took too much time, too.

But right now they seemed key.

And that knowledge didn’t simply come from Leana’x herself – it came… through the door. Slipped in through the cracks of the passage that had formed between her mind and AVA’s.

Even thinking of AVA sent more pain blasting through Leana’x’s mind, but she tried to control it this time. She didn’t attend to it fully – didn’t dare let it absorb her focus like a sponge greedily lapping up water from an ocean.

“Are you all right?” the CMO demanded after several seconds of Leana’x’s silence.

Leana’x let out a shallow breath. “Just give me several seconds,” she whispered, and then she went right back to trying to control her mind.

Though Leana’x had never been a great meditator, something told her that if she didn’t learn how to filter the pain from her mind now, it wouldn’t just cost her, it would cost John. And that mere thought was enough to send her heart beating twice as fast.

“You’re having some kind of reaction,” the CMO snapped, fear shaking through her tone.

“I’m fine. Just allow me several minutes. I can do this,” she added through clenched teeth.

There must’ve been some kind of trust developing between her and the CMO, because the doctor didn’t push back. She just stood there, and though Leana’x’s eyes were closed, she could tell the doctor, though attentive, wasn’t about to leap into action.

Which meant Leana’x had to do what she’d just promised. She had to find a way, no matter the costs.

Though Leana’x had never exactly had a brilliant pain threshold, she wasn’t a baby, either. She was somewhere in between. But she’d seen the Queen, head tales of the Prime’s extraordinary ability to put up with agony. It was a part of the job, see. It wasn’t just the enormous weight of the hair pulling down the back of Leana’x’s neck. It was this, wasn’t it? The presence in her head.

In times of great informational need – when the Prime had to bodily process massive amounts of data – according to what Leana’x had heard, the woman would shake, her nose would bleed, she would writhe around on the floor, but she would still do it. She would allow her mind to become one with the data. And though Leana’x hadn’t known of the existence of AVA until now, she could appreciate that AVA was what the Prime Queen had to become one with. It wasn’t simply the flow of data – of numbers, places, of languages, of facts. It was AVA herself. This… presence. This enormous, unquenchable, unfathomable presence.

As Leana’x opened up to it, it felt exactly like trying to swallow an ocean whole only to drown beneath its enormous depths.

She felt like gagging, felt like a massive weight had suddenly pressed against her chest.

But she held it together, sure that if she allowed the worst of her symptoms to show, the CMO would no longer show her any latitude and would jump into action.

… No, Leana’x could do this. She didn’t have any option but to.

And slowly, slowly it started to work. Flashes. She could see flashes in her mind. Pictures, snippets of sound, memories that weren’t hers.

Her lips parted of their own accord, the muscles weak. “His armor. Unusual. Different. Part of us now. Touching us when we awoke. Part of us now,” Leana’x said. Except it wasn’t Leana’x speaking. It was AVA.

Leana’x heard the CMO take a startled breath.

It was just at the wrong time. Despite the fact Leana’x had been pushing herself successfully into the meditation it required to become one with AVA, the CMO’s gasp broke her focus.

And the pain flooded in. Worse than before. So much worse. It felt as if every neuron had been plunged into acid.

She jerked forward and back, her head slamming against the metal table, shaking the thin gel mattress that supported her from the hard edges.

Easy,” the CMO snapped as she reached forward and locked a hand on Leana’x’s chest. “Damn, your readings are off the chart. I need help in here,” the doctor snapped, and this time, even though Leana’x tried to reach out a hand, tried to mutter that she was okay, the CMO ignored her.

In rushed the CMO’s most trusted staff, and they began to attend to Leana’x after the CMO had given them access to the biomedical field.

Leana’x’s consciousness kept slipping in and out. It seemed the cost of melding with AVA – even if only for a few seconds – was high.

Before she knew it, she slipped back into an uneasy unconsciousness. One filled with flashes of thought, half remembered facts, and – way back at the furthest reaches of AVA’s mind – a secret knowledge that had to be shared before it was too late.

Chapter 3

Commander John Campbell

It took him a long time to wake. And goddamn it was hard. His consciousness felt like thin wisps of smoke that he kept trying to gather with his hands but kept filtering through his fingers.

But the harder he tried, the more he could put together.

He could make out the hard feel of the gel mattress beneath him, the harsh smell of a medical force field, the hurried mutters of doctors.

It was all piecemeal at first, as if his brain had been replaced with a computer that desperately needed to defragment, its data corrupted and stored in bits.

But it came together. And one thing helped it.

It wasn’t the CMO as she rushed above John. It wasn’t the other medical technicians as they followed the CMO’s every snapped order.

… It was his bio armor.

It had smart processors, a sophisticated onboard computer that was hooked up to his central nervous system. Not only could it relay messages, but it could also give him important sensor readings, sharing with him tactical and location data he would never hope to be able to comprehend with his five human senses alone.

But now it felt different. Bigger somehow. More like a bridge. Though he was always aware of the feel of his endoskeleton inside his body as if it were another set of muscles, this was….

He opened his eyes.

He’s awake,” the CMO said, letting out a startled breath that was uncharacteristic for the usually unshakable woman. Juliet Sharp was a tough officer.

Now as John laboriously shifted his gaze over to her, he could see that her calm was cracked. It was a tension that was shared with every other member of her medical team.

John managed to scrounge enough energy to part his lips. “What happened?” His words were slurred – it was so damn hard to control his lips and tongue and mouth and cheeks long enough to breathe, let alone utter a coherent sentence.

“You stopped another assassination attempt on Leana’x—” the CMO began, speaking quickly, obviously indicating there was more to the story.

But John didn’t wait to hear it. Because the CMO’s words activated a memory.

He tried to lurch forward in his bed, but he didn’t have the muscular strength, and trying sent pain slamming down his back.

Hold yourself still,” Juliet snapped as she anchored a hand hard on his shoulder. Though she was a small, diminutive woman, her attitude made up for her lack of size. She was also more than used to lugging around heavy, muscled, angry, but still injured soldiers. Even with his endoskeleton, she was a match for him, especially in this state.

He felt a sudden wave of nausea shift through his head, his cheeks becoming sallow.

“You need to be careful, Commander – you’ve just woken up. And it took us hell to get you to this stage. So don’t you dare fall unconscious again.”

John took another shuddering breath. “Is Leana’x okay?” he demanded, and it was the only thing he could do. There were more self-interested questions he should ask to know what his condition was, but it was completely irrelevant to John. The only thing filling his mind was Leana’x and her safety.

Again, despite the fact Juliet still had a hand locked on his shoulder, he tried to fight against her weight, tried to shift up to catch a glimpse of Leana’x.

“Leana’x’s fine. Alive.… And well,” Juliet added after a considerable pause.

Though the rest of John felt like utter crap, his eyes worked fine, and he darted them over to Juliet, the lids widening with a snap. “What does that mean?”

“It means that Leana’x has just ascended to Prime, and the process has been a considerably taxing one,” Juliet answered.

John felt another wave of fear take to him, this one almost strong enough to throw Juliet’s hand as he tried to rise.

Juliet growled. “I told you to hold still, Commander. And though you may outrank me when it comes to the Captain and disciplining this crew, this is my medical bay,” she said, voice rattling and breaking on the word my.

It got John’s attention. For a fraction of a second. Then it snapped right back to Leana’x.

Though he’d really only known her for several weeks, an impression of her had formed so clearly in his mind, it was as if he could reach out and touch her.

He half closed his eyes and shook his head. “Tell me she’s okay,” he demanded.

“I have already told you she’s okay. To be honest, you should be more concerned about yourself and what happened to… your armor,” the CMO said, dropping her voice into a conspiratorial, low tone.

John darted his gaze from the CMO to her relatively high-ranked medical technicians. Though he didn’t voice his concern, it was clear.

Juliet shrugged. “They already know about your top-secret biomedical armor, John – I couldn’t exactly hide it from them considering what you did.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?” Though John could remember the fact that he’d saved Leana’x from another assassination attempt, it was just that – a fact. Kind of like he’d saved it on a computer and was recalling it as you would numbers on a screen.

He couldn’t feel it, though. And that alarmed him.

“I told you to take it easy,” Juliet growled.

“You want me to take it easy, just tell me what the hell happened.”

“I wish I knew. We’re only figuring it out as we go along. If it weren’t for Leana’x’s help, you’d still be in a coma.”

John’s heart twisted at the mere mention of her name. It was a sensation more powerful than any he’d ever felt.

What the hell was happening to him? The semi-detached part of him realized his reaction was way out of proportion. Yes, Leana’x was growing to become important to him – not just because she was Prime Queen. But this? The way his heart shuddered in his chest, the way a cold pressure spread through his torso and descended through his stomach as if he’d swallowed an iceberg? This was the exquisitely fine and sometimes truly painful connection you could only have with those you were close to. Not a friend, not a colleague. Bare bones, body-to-body, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind close.

It was at that last revelation – mind-to-mind – that John felt his armor do something. Though it was within him and it wasn’t a muscle, he swore it twitched.

“What the hell was that?” the CMO snapped as she shifted over her shoulder and waved a hand toward a roving holographic panel. It shot toward her, stopping in front of her outstretched palm. A bead of sweat traced down the side of her face, trickling over her tensed cheek. “It was some kind of electrical discharge from your bio armor,” Juliet answered her own question. “I thought we’d shut that thing down?”

“It’s not responding to outside orders anymore,” the CMO’s second-in-command replied.

Their words started to wash over John as that fact pulled him in. A fact that his bio armor tensed at, that his heart shook at – that there was now some kind of connection between him and Leana’x.

He finally found the strength to pull up a hand, and though at first Juliet seemed to want to slap it back down, she allowed him to raise it high enough that he could stare at his fingers.

… Why did it feel as if he could stare right through them? Why did it feel as if he now had such exquisitely fine knowledge of his bio armor that it was almost as if it was alive and staring at him from the inside out?

At that mind-boggling thought, a certain kind of pain seared through his brain. It was enough to see him clench his teeth and jerk his head to the side.

“Reading a surge in neurological activity,” the second-in-charge snapped. The man took a quick, hissed breath through his teeth. “You’re right, Juliet – it’s… it’s similar to what’s happening to Leana’x.”

“I’m not the one who’s right – she’s the one who told us about it,” Juliet said, and though there was a note of satisfaction in her voice, there was also one of exasperation.

Though John’s eyes had closed as the pain had overcome his mind, now he allowed them to blast wide open. “What are you talking about?” His voice shook as if he were a child, not the competent Commander he should be.

He watched the second-in-command and Juliet exchange a meaningful glance.

Juliet took a calming breath. “It seems I was wrong,” she said.

John’s heart skipped several beats. He jerked his head from left to right, trying to spy Leana’x once more.

Juliet could honestly read his mind. She let out a growl. “Leana’x is fine. She’s not what I’m wrong about.”

John stopped and looked up at her. “What are you talking about?”

“Back in Tunnel 22A when I told you that it was relatively safe for members of the crew to touch Leana’x… I was wrong.”

John had opened his mouth, but his lips were frozen open. “… What?” he managed after a considerable pause.

While it was safe for every ordinary biological member of the crew to touch Leana’x… it was different for you. I couldn’t have predicted how your bio armor would react to AVA. For, at the time, I did not know that AVA existed.”

John’s head started to spin. Faster and faster. His mouth started to taste like metal shavings, his throat constricting to the point of a pin until it sounded as if he were trying to breathe through a straw.

“Calm yourself,” Juliet growled, and when John didn’t comply, he felt her quickly inject something with an air syringe right into the base of his neck.

His swirling thoughts started to settle like a blanket wrapped around his body. It dulled his fear, for now. But he still had just enough of a scrap of intelligence left over to realize that something serious was happening.

Something that would change the rest of his life, if it hadn’t already changed it.

He managed to crack his lips open, though they wobbled badly. “What?”

Though we still need to run more scans, it seems… a little of AVA has transferred over to your bio armor.”

Even through the dampening, dulling effects of the medication Juliet had given him, he felt terror pulse through his form. “What… what do you mean? How… how is that possible?”

“I can’t answer that question, Commander. We’re going to have to wait and see. And though I know that’s really not an answer you want, it’s the only one I can give you. For now – based on the scans we’ve undertaken – it doesn’t seem that you’re in any danger. Your bio armor has been altered, and… a little of your biology, too. But the changes are stable. You are in no immediate danger,” she repeated again with the practiced calm tone of somebody who was used to telling people whether they would live or die. And it was just lucky for him that today, according to her at least, he would live.

But exactly what kind of life would that be? A part of him questioned immediately.

He was… he was somehow sharing AVA with Leana’x.

That thought almost sent them spiraling back into the arms of unconsciousness, and it was only his years of training that allowed him to hold on.

The CMO started fussing over him again, ordering a roving magical bot to go and synthesize her various drugs.

John tried to center himself, tried to focus on his breath as he pressed it low into the base of his belly. He could feel sweat slicking his brow, he could feel a tight cold pressure in his torso, but he didn’t allow himself to indulge in the fright too long.

With one more grounding breath, he opened his eyes and faced Juliet. “Can you take the armor out?” he asked, and yet, even as he asked his question, he got his answer. Just not from Juliet. His bio armor pulsed, just a little, just enough to allow itself to be known.

It felt like a blanket wrapping him up from the inside out, or maybe like an anchor, one that could weigh him to the spot even through the most violent storm.

And the more he realized that – the more he realized his armor wasn’t there to hurt him – the more he let his fear slip away as his rational mind took hold.

“No, you can’t,” he answered just as Juliet shook her head.

She narrowed her eyes in interest. “How do you know that?”

I think… I think AVA told me,” he managed, and as he did, he felt it again – this searing pain sliced across his brain, more precise and more damaging than a surgeon’s light scalpel.

He blinked his eyes closed hard, clenched his teeth, and shifted his head to the left as he tried to battle the pain out.

“He is registering the same intense neurological activity that Leana’x did,” the second-in-command noted.

It has to have something to do with them accessing this AVA,” Juliet commented.

Though it could’ve been easy to indulge in the pain and let it swallow up what remained of his consciousness, John scrounged up his years of training and pushed the pain back.

He’d been through the wars, literally. He’d had more broken bones than you could count. He’d once had one whole side of his body blasted off by a Barbarian harpoon missile. Only his heart, one of his lungs, and several of his internal organs had been saved. His liver had almost been completely cauterized. The only reason he’d survived was that the fight with the Barbarian had gone down in the medical bay, and the quick thinking doctor had put him straight into a stasis pod. He’d undergone extensive cellular regrowth, which had ultimately saved his life. It’d also made him a prime candidate for bio armor.

That had been pain. And yet, he’d managed to push past it.

So he could push past this, and he would as he opened his eyes, centered his breath, and focused his attention on Juliet. “What are you talking about?”

Juliet looked surprised at John’s sudden recovery. “Leana’x appears to be experiencing exactly what you do when you attempt to access AVA’s knowledge.”

John’s stomach kicked at the mere mention of Leana’x’s name, but he wouldn’t let it derail him. “What do you think is causing it?”

Juliet shrugged, but it certainly wasn’t a dismissive move. The look in her eyes was piercing. “I wish I knew. And I will find out,” she added with determined certainty. “We just need more time and more data.”

“Will we have time?” John wondered out loud. “Doesn’t Leana’x need to address the Senate, calm her people, and start them on the path to recovery?”

“That can wait,” Juliet began.

John found himself shaking his head. “It can’t. Calming the galaxy is our priority right now,” he demanded.

Juliet looked shocked at his certainty and passion. John just kept his chin jutted out, even if he couldn’t sit or stand.

This… certainty was swelling through him. And as long as he didn’t concentrate on where it was coming from for too long, it didn’t bring with it the pain or fear.

AVA….

As soon as he tried to think of her, a lick of pain exploded in his mind, and he quickly pushed the thought away.

He clenched his teeth. “Where is Leana’x? I want to see her,” he said. There was… a strange regal quality to his tone, wasn’t there? Yes, John was a Commander, and yes, he outranked every member of the crew in this medical room. But no, he wasn’t a king, and he didn’t have any right to speak like one.

And yet, the words still came out.

Juliet shot him a long, confused look, but didn’t pull him up on his odd behavior. She appeared to make a note of it on her wrist device as she turned and shrugged toward the opposite side of the room. “Leana’x is resting.”

“Resting?” John said quickly. The fear was back. Honestly, all it took was the mention of her name and John’s body reacted, reacted like he wanted to reach out, stretch across space, and find Leana’x wherever she was.

There was something more to this desire. It wasn’t just that John needed to see Leana’x in his presence, needed to confirm visually that she was alive.

No, he wanted to touch her. And hell no, he wasn’t being indecent here. This desire didn’t come from his hormones running rampant. He just… he needed to touch her, hand-to-hand, fingers-to-fingers, heart-to-heart.

Whatever it would take to confirm that she was whole, to confirm that she was surviving her transformation.

Because if she didn’t?

… Neither John nor the growing presence in his mind could comprehend what would happen then.

Chapter 4

Leana’x

She woke. It wasn’t a subtle affair. It felt like someone throwing ice-cold water down her back.

With a rattling gasp that shook through her sternum and plowed hard into her ribcage, she jerked up.

Instantly, she heard the angry beeping of medical devices all around her, and the biomedical field she was suspended in began to flash.

The sound of rushing footfall heralded the CMO. The doctor was moving so quickly that as she hooked a right into the room, she latched a hand onto the doorway, used it to pivot, and threw herself in.

Despite the fact Leana’x’s muscles felt as if they’d been whipped, she still managed to pull herself into a seated position as she clamped a hand on her chest and breathed wildly.

“You’re awake,” the CMO said, pure relief washing through her expression and dragging her previously tightened shoulders down an inch. “Thank God.”

“How long was I out?” Leana’x began, then she shook her head as a far more pressing question slammed into her mind. “How is he? Is he awake yet?” she asked, her voice shaking.

The CMO opened her mouth but didn’t need to answer.

There was the sound of more footfall – this time it was louder, harder, too. And if footfall could ever sound worried, these strident steps did.

She knew who it was several seconds before he dashed into the room, and unlike the CMO who’d had to hold the door for support, John didn’t.

Because of his exoskeleton.

The mere thought of it did something to her, and she gave a full-bodied shudder that saw her shoulders jerk back-and-forth as if somebody was shaking her wildly.

“What’s happening?” the CMO snapped as she darted forward and began to manipulate several floating consoles behind Leana’x’s bed.

It took Leana’x several seconds to answer, took her several seconds to drag her gaze off John’s.

For as she looked at him, something… passed between them.

And no, it wasn’t an implied message. It was a real one.

I’m so glad she’s okay,” she heard John say.

In her mind.

Honestly, his words appeared in her mind.

Leana’x shrieked, grasped her head with both her hands, and doubled forward, locking her elbows over her knees.

“What’s happening?” John bellowed.

“We need a team in here,” the CMO began.

Though pain had accompanied John’s thought, it quickly drifted away. It wasn’t true pain, either. More the kind of exertion that would come after heavy labor.

As it began to dissipate, she slowly let her hands fall from her head. Then she locked her terrified gaze on John. “What did you just say to me?”

John looked taken aback. “Leana’x – are you alright?”

“Say it again,” she said through a shaking, breathy demand.

What’s wrong with her?” he thought. And again his thoughts appeared in her mind, as clearly as if he’d whispered them in her own skull.

She gave another gasp but didn’t shriek this time. She brought her hands up halfway to her head, her fingers curling hard, but she stopped herself from clasping her face in terror.

Instead, she breathed. In and out, in and out.

The medical team rushed in, and Leana’x finally brought up a hand, extending it in front of the CMO. “It’s… it’s all right,” she began.

“Like hell it’s all right,” the CMO snapped right over the top of her. “Your neurological activity is off the chart. I need a tri-phasic energy scanner, now,” she bellowed.


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