RAINA NOVITSKI looked out through her cell’s window. A gray wall with no windows blocked her view. When they brought her in as a prisoner of war, she thought she would at least get to see Earth for the first time in her life.
But so far, the only views offered to her were the insides of a shuttle, a cloth bag they put over her head, the changing room where they forced her out of her combat suit, and this cell with a bed and a latrine.
Did John know this was how she would be treated when he sent her here? The mere thought of his name made her blood boil. He said he loved her, and she was stupid enough to love him back. And then he murdered the rest of their squad, tore out her tooth with the cyanide capsule, and sent her to Earth as a prisoner of war. All because she was an operator of the Exorcist System, a priceless technology only Mars possessed.
She ran her tongue over the gap in her teeth, confirming for the thousandth time that she didn’t have that tooth anymore. She needed to break something. And the window in front of her looked like the perfect candidate. She knew she wouldn’t be able to escape this facility, not mere hours after arrival, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t try. Imagining John’s face on the glass, she shifted her weight and punched. Pain shot through her arm. Good. That worked for a distraction. She drove her fist into the glass, again and again, until the pain became too blinding.
The glass didn’t budge, now smeared with her blood.
How could he do this to her? She braced her forehead on the glass. He told her Earth was a paradise she couldn’t imagine and that her life there would be better than anything the Martian Space Marine had to offer. Bugshit.
The door beeped and a section slid open, revealing a small window. Beyond stood a man in a black suit, hair short, beard trimmed.
Raina arched an eyebrow at him, not feeling like speaking.
“We will be transporting you.” He looked down a bit and a section of the door opened, revealing two pills on a steel platter. “These will help you with the gravity.”
“Why aren’t the pills packaged?” she asked.
“They were.” He smiled in a neutral way, neither friendly nor ironic. “But I figured you would have problems with the box due to the wounds on your hand.”
Of course, they had a camera inside the cell. And while Raina hated to admit the fact, her body was accustomed to a lower gravity than Earth’s. While on her home, Mars-1, a habitat rotating in the red planet’s orbit, the gravity and atmospheric pressure were the same as on Earth, but there were supposed to be minor differences and thus Martians needed supplements for their bodies so as not to collapse on Earth. She got up, took the pills, one red and one blue, and ate them. They tasted like strawberries and some fruit she didn’t recognize.
The last time she ate fruit was when her mother got her a strawberry cake for her tenth birthday. They celebrated that Raina got accepted into an elite marine academy. She still remembered the flavor. And how stupid she was back then.
Her thoughts jammed and she scowled. The military never added flavor to their pills, and she was imprisoned on an Earth Confederacy’s outpost. She glared at the man behind the door. “Who are you?”
“Agent Parker,” he said with an unreadable smile. “Put your hands to the door so I can shackle you.”
She glowered at him, adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her mind offered her four options on who this man could be. The most likely one was that this Agent Parker was from the Confederacy’s Special Forces and the good-tasting pills were a nice gesture to convince her they were trying to help her. In all the other options, he was an infiltrator impersonating an agent to get to her.
For that, he could have had three reasons. He could be a Martian or a third-party agent who came to kill her before she could spill the secrets about the Exorcist System; or a Martian agent trying to rescue her from being a prisoner of war; or a third-party agent who came to kidnap her to force her to help them learn about the system.
She hated the odds of her putting her hands into the slots in the door leading to an inevitable death.
Plus, the pills could have been anything. For all she knew, they contained a lethal poison or sedatives. Raina turned, leaning slightly forward with shoulders raised. “I don’t think so.”
He sighed. “Put your hands into the designated slots on the door or I will taze you and bring you by force.”
The odds of him being sent here to kill her suddenly seemed large. And perhaps her struggling could alert some real guards. But the room offered no cover. Even the sheet on the bed was sewn to the mattress, so she couldn’t remove it. She also had nothing to use as a weapon and instantly regretted breaking her hand. Raina kept her stance, saying nothing more.
Even without weapons, she was still a Martian Space Marine. She was not going to go down easily.
The door beeped and swung open. Parker shot from the taser he held at his hip. Two electrodes hit Raina in the chest. Electricity pulsed through her, and she fell on the ground.
Raina wasn’t slow. But this Agent Parker was so fast she didn’t manage to react. Worse, he didn’t give any indication of when he would open the door, so he surprised her despite Raina expecting the shot.
Parker walked to her and removed the two electrodes, which were now stuck to her orange jumpsuit. He looked bored and cold crept up Raina’s spine.
This wasn’t the usual layman agent.
Parker flipped her on her belly, caught her hands, and shackled them behind Raina’s back. She tried to struggle, but only flailed. He caught her legs and trapped the ankles in another pair of shackles. These had a two foot leeway, so she could walk but not kick.
Without a word, Parker walked back to the cell’s entrance where he put the taser into the laptop bag he left on the ground. When he returned, Raina was already regaining her ability to move. But she could not fight when shackled, so she needed to try a different approach. “Sorry,” she said while putting on an awkward smile. “This is my first day in this position.”
Agent Parker snorted, grabbed her jumpsuit high on her back and pulled her up with one arm. Raina wasn’t that light. Upon inspection, the agent wore a suit jacket with large sleeves, suggesting he was hiding a lot of muscle on his arms. “You will learn. Can you walk?”
Raina wasn’t supposed to be able to walk, but there was no point in hiding the fact. Plus, they probably learned about her genetic enhancements from the entry scan.
She took a step forward, acting unsure on her feet. “Somewhat.”
Parker nodded and led her from the cell, picking up his laptop bag on the way.
Her heart pumped wildly. She wasn’t sure if that was the effect of adrenaline, of the pills, or both. One in three odds of dying weren’t ones she would ever take.
No one else moved around them. They crossed a long hallway, passed a guard with whom Parker exchanged a courtesy nod, and the agent beeped an access card by a panel. The door in front of them opened and they entered an interrogation room with one wall fashioned as a mirror. A table with two chairs stood in the middle.
Parker led her to a chair and sat her down.
Raina did not struggle getting on the backless chair. The agent ducked and fixed the shackles on her ankles to the chair’s base. He attached the irons holding her wrists to the seat, so she couldn’t move.
The agent stepped up to her and put his laptop bag on the table in front of her. In the mirror’s corner, Raina glimpsed the room’s camera. The cable was disconnected, dangling from the machine.
Option one, which she hoped for, was no longer a possibility. Panic flooded Raina’s veins and she struggled against the shackles. The steel did not budge. Her training popped into her mind. In this case, she was not supposed to cooperate, but to die to keep the secrets of the Exorcist System.
For all the time in the army, she believed she would act like a good soldier and do as trained. But she couldn’t find any reason to do that. Instead, her mind raced to think of a way to stop him from killing her. And the way to do that was to assign a value to her life he would recognize. To make that more believable, she needed to start acting like a scared civilian. She took a deep breath and shouted with all her strength, “Help!”
“The room is soundproof, the microphones are off, and there is no one behind that mirror,” Parker said in a matter of fact tone and opened the laptop bag. Inside was a black, smooth box.
“What do you want from me?”
“Nothing.” He smiled, the same way as before. “Now, you need to put on a new face.” He opened the box.
A complex machine protruded from inside, a display at Raina’s eye level with shading on the sides and above. A dozen mechanical arms hung by the display’s sides, tipped with needles.
Raina’s eyes widened and she shouted for help once more.
Undisturbed, Parker moved the table closer to her, put the machine in front of her face and tapped a button on its side, which made suction cups glue the machine to the table. He caught the back of her head and forced her forehead against the display’s top. An auto-adjusting band caught her at the top of her head, fixing her in position, and another one gripped her neck. She couldn’t move her head at all. The display flashed to life and a mechanical, girly voice said, ‘Initializing facial scan.’
Light flashed everywhere in Raina’s vision. She struggled once more, but the combination of the machine and the shackles held her firmly.
‘Scan complete,’ the voice announced.
“Save the scan as preset one, Raina Novitski – Original,” Parker said.
“Implement face: Jacqueline Monroe,” Parker said.
“Abort command!” Raina shouted, desperate.
The machine said nothing, and the display went dark. Before she managed to wonder if that truly worked, dozens of needles bore into Raina’s face. But the pain was mild, much less than an injection into one’s arm.
The mechanical arms moved in a swift staccato, working on her face. Two minutes later, the arms stopped, the display lit up and the machine announced, ‘Implementation successful.’
“Shut down,” Parker said, and the display went dark. The binds released Raina and the machine packed itself into the smooth box, suction cups disconnecting.
Raina stared at the mirror across the wall, not recognizing herself. Her hair and body were the same, but her facial features had changed to a different person. The machine had to use artificial flesh and woven that onto the original to alter the features, 3D-printing the new face over hers.
The method most likely couldn’t make major changes, but even a lot of tiny changes on a human face were enough to make it unrecognizable.
When the amazement faded, cold dread wreathed Raina’s insides. She hadn’t known such technology existed. No one possessing such technology would let her see it unless they knew she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.
Overwhelmingly, odds were that Parker was here to take the Exorcist System and to clean up the tracks by killing her.
Parker packed the laptop bag and pulled out duct tape.
Raina shouted, “Without my help, your people will need ten times more effort to replicate the Exorcist System.”
“And why would that be?”
“Because its usage requires a one-in-ten-million genetic mutation that I happen to have.”
“That means I need your brain, nothing more,” Parker said and stretched the duct tape over Raina’s mouth. She struggled, but the shackles still held.
Parker pocketed the duct tape, and withdrew a white cloth bag, which he placed over Raina’s head. She could see shapes through the fabric, nothing more.
Though she glimpsed Parker taking something else out of the laptop bag. He stepped behind Raina, moved her jumpsuit and struck a needle under her collarbone. She sprung her body, trying to make him wound her enough so the guard outside would notice, but he held her too firmly.
Slowly, he injected some liquid into Raina, and she started feeling dizzy. Her head felt light, and body weakened.
Parker returned the syringe to the bag and took out something else. Pain soon shot through Raina’s shoulder. That was where they injected a chip into her when entering the prison. Drugged, she barely registered the pain. After Parker pulled out the chip, he produced another stick from the bag, stabbed it into the tiny wound, and gave Raina a new chip.
He hid that stick too, unlocked the shackles binding Raina’s irons to the chair, and raised her up, holding the back of the jumpsuit. Raina tried to clench her muscles, but her body didn’t listen. She was so weak she couldn’t stand without his help.
Parker led her to the door and passed through. A shape appeared in her vision, the guard.
“What’s with the bag?” the guard asked casually.
“She’s got some space bug shit the scans missed,” Parker replied. “I’m taking her to quarantine.”
The guard leapt back. “Holy shit, these fucking Martians!”
“Yeah. And I’ve most likely got it all over me.” Parker led her through the hallway, through two more, and then they approached a gate with a large monitor at the side.
Parker removed the cloth bag from her face, angling her to look at the display portraying two guards sitting in the control room.
Raina tried to wiggle from his grip and hit the monitor with her head, but she could barely move and was so, so weak. He held her straight effortlessly.
“Agent Parker,” he said, looking at the display, “transporting prisoner XZZ12-63 Jacqueline Monroe.”
One of the guards on the display raised an eyebrow. “I see Jacqueline’s still a screamer.”
“That plus she tried to bite me,” Parker said in a matter of fact tone. “Twice.”
“She does that. Jim spent months on antibiotics after she bit him during transport. Best be careful, Agent,” the other guard said, looking at a monitor. “The paperwork checks out, so you’re good to go, Agent.”
“Thanks.” Parker smiled and put the cloth bag over Raina’s head.
She was resigned at this point. Parker—whoever he was—showed no doubt, hesitation, or nervousness. He gave the other guards no chance to realize something was wrong. Shackled, and injected with the weakening drug with a duct tape over her mouth, Raina had nothing to try.
Parker guided her through the exit scan, which once more confirmed they were Agent Parker and Jacqueline Monroe, and led her to the courtyard. Fresh wind blew at Raina and she wished she didn’t have a bag over her face.
At least once before she died, she wanted to see Earth. Parker put her in the back seat of a car, where a person sat behind the wheel. Parker clipped the shackles on Raina’s wrists to a holder behind her.
She contorted her body so as not to press her back against her broken hand, but pain still shot through her. Parker sat on the back seat next to her and closed the door.
“We’re good to go,” Parker said.
Without a word, the person sitting behind the wheel pressed something on the control board and the vehicle started moving.
Slowly, the machine drove them from the prison complex. Raina had never sat in a car, though she knew them from movies. In space and on Mars, everything was either a spaceship or moved on rails.
The car was soundless, and after a stop at the exit gate, the machine sped up.
Raina was slowly regaining her senses but saw nothing she could do. Next to her, Parker took out the face-changing box and the machine greeted him.
He pressed his head against the display and said, “Put on my original preset.”
‘Implementing face forty-three for Agent One,’ the machine said and started working.
Two minutes later, the machine said, ‘Implementation successful.’
Parker returned the machine into the bag. “Step on it, Hanako,” he said in a very different, more dominant tone than he had used before. “My daughter’s got a concert tonight.”
“Boss,” the woman behind the wheel said and the car swiftly accelerated, pressing Raina into the seat. Manual driving wasn’t something one could do on rails.
After about fifteen minutes, the car slowed down and passed through sharp turns. That threw Raina around, pressing her against the broken hand, which made her grunt in pain.
The car moved for long minutes and then suddenly stopped.
“Good.” Parker placed something small and metallic into Raina’s healthy hand. Instantly, he opened the door and got out of the car. Here, the air was wetter, but also fresher.
Raina palmed the object in her hand, recognizing it as a key. This was probably a trap, but her survival instinct kicked in. She turned the key, found the shackle’s lock, slid it inside and turned. The lock clicked and her left hand was freed.
Without waiting, she freed the other hand, pulled up her legs, and unlocked her ankles. Raina pulled off the cloth bag and saw the driver—Hanako—was looking at her with a stopwatch in hand.
Parker stood in the door, watching Raina. “Time?” he asked.
“Three point four one three seconds,” Hanako said.
“Good.” Parker motioned with his head at the door. “Get out of the car.”
Not sure what to think, Raina ripped the duct tape from her face. That hurt, but she made no sound. “So you don’t have to bother carrying my corpse to the grave?”
“Perhaps,” Parker said, voice cold. His face was a touch more handsome and younger than before, but nothing major changed. “Call me Peter.”
Raina glowered at him, noticing the belt at his waist. On the left thigh, he had a holster with a pistol. Military grade, made for large-caliber bullets, matching the fingerless glove he wore on his left hand.
And on his right thigh, he had a thick, foot-long baton. Raina had no idea what weapon that was. Reluctantly, she opened the door and stepped out.
They were next to a forest. With wide eyes, Raina stared at nature, at the trees, the birds, wheel marks in the mud, at the blue sky stretching from one horizon to another.
In space, everything had an end. Every habitat, every biome, everything had a floor, ceiling, and walls. Even if holograms were used to simulate open space, one knew the walls were there. And space itself was infinite but empty.
Sure, she had seen Earth in movies, even in virtual reality, but nothing quite conveyed the feeling of standing under the sky. John hadn’t lied to her.
Earth was a paradise she could never have imagined.
Peter cleared his throat as he stood next to her. Raina snapped back to reality. She could admire this place later. Now, she had to survive.
Since she still felt weakened by the drug in her body, attacking Peter didn’t seem smart. “What do you want from me?”
“First, we need to check something.” He stepped to the trunk and she followed. He opened it, revealing a dark-green box, which he opened as well. Inside, crumpled, lay Raina’s power armor with the helmet at the side. “Do we have everything or need I send Hanako back to get something?”
The helmet was there, looking unharmed, so was the wrist-mounted display and the armor’s innards. She ran her tongue over the gap in her teeth. She could lie and make Peter’s life more complicated, or she could ask questions. But the most likely path to survival was in convincing him that she was useful. That she would help him. “Yes, that’s everything.”
“Good.” Peter smiled. “Walk with me.” He stepped into the forest.
She followed, feet getting wet from the grass since prison slippers weren’t made for outdoors. They passed a tree and she couldn’t resist touching the bark. Growing biomes in space was so costly that even getting close to a tree was rarely allowed.
Here, trees stretched as far as she could see with a group of deer grazing nearby. Outside of the Zoo, the largest creature she had ever seen in space or on Mars was a cockroach. She named the biggest one Roachy and kept him as a pet.
They approached a meadow. Beside it stood a man in a suit, right hand gripping a pistol. He greeted them with a nod and Peter nodded back.
Yet what kept Raina’s gaze was the meadow. With a shovel, a man was digging a hole, dirt piling at his side. He was digging a grave. Hers.
Panic flooded her veins. But Peter kept his hands next to his weapons, posture tensed, chin tucked. He was ready to fight and so was the man with pistol in hand. Plus, even if she could escape, what would she do?
Peter kept walking and so did she. As they entered the meadow, she realized who was digging the hole. This was the real Agent Parker.
He stood chest-deep in the hole, looking at them with wide, terrified eyes, dried tears stuck to his face. “Look, you don’t have to do this.”
Peter shrugged theatrically, motioning Raina to stay back, and walked to the hole. “Come on, Parker, you know how this works.”
She stopped in place, the man by the tree watching her.
“I have money, so I can pay you.” Parker stuttered as he spoke. “And I’ve got fake identities I can use to disappear. You don’t have to do this.”
“Come here.” Peter motioned Parker to get out of the hole.
Parker tossed the shovel aside, grabbed the edge, and crawled out. He straightened in front of Peter but was smaller than him. Peter must have hunched when acting as Parker. “You have kids, right? I have two daughters. I’ll pay you anything you need to let me—”
In a seamless move, Peter drew the baton from his belt, a blade stretched out as he pressed the grip, the blade buzzed and Peter slashed Parker. The hypersonic blade cut smoothly through Parker’s chest, passing the heart, stopping in the center of his chest.
Peter stepped aside so the blood wouldn’t spray on him and pushed Parker into the hole. He was dead before he thudded inside.
With a calm smile, Peter pressed a switch above the sword’s grip and the blade stopped buzzing. He drew a white handkerchief from his pocket and started cleaning the blade.
Raina stood petrified. The hole was large enough for two bodies. She was next.
Peter donned a cruel smile. “I am Peter O’Connor, head of Interventions at the Shinomori Syndicate. And I’d like to offer you a position in my department.”