Aurora flew as she had never flown before—the love for her brother heightening her senses, sharpening her reflexes. She was going to get him back.
They broke into the thermosphere and straight into mayhem.
She didn't know where to look first.
"What in Neptune's nethers?" Cap breathed.
Nexus ships were everywhere, thrown into complete disorder. Defensive lines she knew they should be holding were wide open. Ships spun out of control, almost hitting other ships. Some weren't even moving, just stuck in space, their pilots banging on the controls. Others lurched back and forth, tossing around their pilots like laundry. It was as if none of them had any control over their vessels.
She weaved her way through the chaos, concentrating on the little blue dot on her radar. Albert had locked onto the signal for the Comma he had given Forrest, giving them something to track because his ID chip wasn't producing a signal.
She didn't want to think about what that might mean.
The Effer ship was far, far ahead, well away from the Nexus bedlam when they caught up to it. It seemed to be flying like it didn't have a care in the world. Lazily drifting from side to side. Its flexible base opening and closing, giving the ship bursts of speed, but not moving at a consistent pace.
Aurora was vaguely aware of Albert saying something about jammed signals and hacked transmissions, but nothing that could help her right now.
"Got any weapons on this shuttle?" she asked.
"Even if you get past its shields, you can't shoot it, you risk killing Forrest and the children," Jack warned.
"Get us close," Poe said. She vanished from her chair. They heard the docking ramp open and close and heavy footsteps on the hull. She reappeared, knocking on the cockpit's window from the outside.
Cap replaced her seat. "We're still in Nexus controlled space. Their scanners will pick you up if you use any energy," he said to her through the microphone in the console. She nodded her understanding. She tilted so he could see her back and the jetpack strapped there, Respect housed horizontally above the portable engines.
Poe squinted against an unexpected bright light. They all shielded their eyes.
The Effer ship's engines flared, it raced forward, its webbed base twisted close as if suddenly aware someone was following them, but Aurora would not let herself lose them. She stayed right on their tail. The Effer ship had more power, but no one was a better pilot than her. She diverted the shuttle's energy to the engines, boosting it with everything it had.
They were close, close enough for Poe to cut over.
Poe signaled she was about to make the jump when the Effer ship's base fanned out like an eight-pointed star, before curling in on itself, folding inside out around the main body as if in protection, but exposing the rear of the ship. A large door at the back slid open and from it… men poured out. Strange looking men all wearing the same outfit: khaki pants, a blue blazer over a pale green shirt and top hats. They crawled from the opening like spiders from a disturbed nest, alternating their limbs between the right side of their body and the left. They crawled on the ceiling, on the walls, on the floor. They scuttled until they were covering the ship's stern. More than a hundred of them. None were ripped away into space or suffocating. Their eyes fixed on the shuttle.
Their faces split at their mouths, their jaws opening like a hinged box, everything from their top lip and above folded away until the back of their heads rested in between their shoulder blades.
Their completely exposed throats glowed white. Their attack synchronized. A collective beam of pure energy shot forward.
Warning lights on the console blinked and flashed. Alerts beeped, pinged, and thrilled, creating a danger symphony.
There was no time to turn.
Someone screamed as the blinding light encompassed everything.
Aurora covered her eyes and then—
The light vanished, the Effer ship was gone. There was nothing but wide open space before them.
"No!" Aurora cried. She desperately checked the dials. Where was Forrest? Where was the ship? But something was wrong. The blue dot on the radar had disappeared.
Her stomach turned to lead.
The Effer ship hadn't disappeared, they had. They were in a totally different quadrant of the galaxy. In non-Nexus territory.
Something crashed behind her, she and Cap bolted out of their chairs.
Poe was on the ground. Her body splayed across the floor. Cap rushed to her side. He took her into his arms and removed her helmet. Blood collecting at the base of her helmet streaked up her cheeks as he did. She took ragged, shallow breaths. Dark circles ringed her eyes, fresh blood dripped from her nose, cutting across her cheeks, the crimson stark against her too pale skin. Her eyes darted beneath her lids but did not open.
"Hey, hey, hey. I'm here," Cap said as he wiped sweat and blood from her face with his shirt. With one hand, he removed a candy bar from his pocket, unwrapping it with his teeth and biting off a piece. He gingerly smeared the chocolate around Poe's discolored lips, but she did not lick it, did not swallow.
Sicily checked her pulse. She placed Poe's arm over her chest when she was done, her grim face saying more than enough.
"She needs a med-bed," she said.
Cap wrapped his arms around Poe's body, holding her to his chest, ready to take her away.
"No one is going anywhere! What the hell just happened?" Aurora shouted. Her temper rising with each word. "Where is my brother?"
Jack's back stiffened as he said, "Poe had to do it. We would have been killed."
"Do you think Nexus tagged her power, tagged us?" Sicily asked, her voice wavering.
Albert shook his head as his fingers danced across his tablet screen. "I can't be sure. There may have been enough interference from their attack to mask her energy signature. I'll watch the chatter, block what I can."
Aurora stepped forward. Her eyes wild, hands fisted, and screamed, "Where is my brother?"
Jack's worried eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "Your brother has been taken by Effers working with…" He shook his head like he couldn't believe what he was about to say, his Adam's apple bobbing. "Effers working with androids. They launched an attack that would have incinerated us. Poe transported us, the ship, somewhere safe, but controlling that much energy at once…" He glanced down at Poe's motionless body.
Aurora wasn't sure what was happening. All she knew was her brother was still out there. Alone. With Effers. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "We're going to get him back, right? Together, right? We're going to save Forrest?" she asked through convulsing sobs, her arms wrapping around her waist.
Sicily took her into her arms, stroking her hair. "Of course we are," she whispered.
"They kidnapped at least ten kids," Cap said. "There was something seriously wrong with those Effers. They didn't disable any tech before striking." He blew out a troubled breath. "Like they wanted to be seen."
"Effers have never been undetected before or worked with androids," Albert added.
"Androids like that are dangerous, we don't know what they're capable of," Jack said.
"Someone hacked into Nexus' network. Making it impossible for their space force to attack and follow," Albert advised.
"Escaping nearly killed Poe," Cap said, wiping the blood from her nose with his sleeve again.
"This is not something we've ever seen before," Jack sighed, rubbing his temples.
Their back and forth discussion grated on Aurora's nerves. They hadn't mentioned Forrest at all. "How are we going to get my brother back?" she cried.
Jack, Albert, and Cap glanced at one another. Unsure of how to answer.
It dawned on her that they were up against something powerful, something they didn't know how to control, how to defeat.
But she didn't care.
She pushed away from Sicily, her body trembling. "Say something!" she shrieked, her feet stamping the floor.
But no one spoke.
Their silence smothered her.
Poe's lips moved, but there was no sound, she had no voice. Her eyes were still closed as if she was too weak to open them.
Aurora closed the gap between herself and the nearly dead woman. "What did she say?" she asked, her voice cracking—both eager and terrified to know.
Cap leaned his ear to Poe's lips, her mouth barely moving. He lifted his head, his bloodshot eyes meeting Aurora's. "She said, 'I will get him back. Alive. I promise.'"
Poe's dried, bloodless lips mouthed, I promise… I promise… I promise…
Aurora dropped to her knees. She gripped Poe's hand in hers and cried. Her tears were a strange mix of hope and fear. She knew Poe would do it. She was the only one that could. But when? How long would her brother be scared and alone? Would they hurt him?
She forced those crippling thoughts from her head. It did nothing to imagine the tortures he might be going through. He was gone. And that was enough.
But Poe would find him and bring him home. And at that moment, it was the only thing she needed to hear, to focus on.
Poe squeezed her hand, a mere twitch of pressure, but it was there.
The promise had been made. The bond accepted.
Together they would devise a plan, a rescue—they would find who had done this, save the children, save her brother.
And once he was back home, with the crew, and safely in her arms…
She would do it. Gladly. Unrepentantly.
She would unleash Poe upon their enemy.
And watch them burn.
The crew will return in Book Two, Anti-Fragile: Android Saga