Asala, like most people who had served in the military, had a simple philosophy about complications. They sucked. Complications never worked in your favor. And the cube that they had just discovered on the Vela was exactly that: a complication, one that she suspected was liable to get them killed.
The immense, nearly empty containment chamber of the Vela had, with this one discovery, become a trap. Asala was mortally certain that President Ekrem, who had sent her and Niko all this way to find the ship in the first place, had hidden information from her. She couldn’t imagine that it was a coincidence that what was supposed to be a refugee ship contained a mysterious prototype.
The question was, how much had Ekrem told Niko, and was Niko hiding anything from her?
Asala had no intention of dying over a piece of tech, no matter how mysterious. Her eyes were drawn once again to the shining crystalline cube with its uncanny contents, the way the light-sucking black material within kept seething and writhing as if with a mind of its own. What was so important about the cube that he had felt the need to lie to her about the Vela, after all the missions she’d carried out for him? Need-to-know or not, it rankled.
Asala forced herself to breathe calmly, despite the stink of her own nervous sweat. The Ghalan suit filters weren’t very good. But they were better than nothing, and she was suddenly glad for even this pittance of protection.
Niko was experimentally waving a hand in front of the cube, and the substance within kept moving in a way that turned Asala’s stomach for reasons she couldn’t articulate.
“Niko,” she said in a sharp undertone. “Niko!”
Niko turned to her. Even through the helmet their face looked strained. “I’ve never seen an artificial gravity component that looks like that. Asala, we’ve got to find out what this is and what it does. It makes no sense that a refugee ship is hiding some weird prototype.”
If Niko knew more about the cube, they were doing a good job hiding it. And there would be ample time to question them about it after they hightailed it out of here. Asala nodded, in agreement with them for once.
“Help me extract it,” Asala said. The two of them were lucky that the cube was so small, no larger than a handspan in all dimensions. Still, she didn’t want the ship to implode around them if they tampered with the wrong piece of engineering.
In tense silence, while the black material continued its spooky dance, Asala and Niko studied the hardware. Despite her best efforts, Asala found that the substance kept snagging her attention, and she cursed herself for not focusing on the task at hand. Too bad she couldn’t selectively edit her vision the way she could turn off her hearing.
“Someone designed this specifically to plug into and supplement the standard artificial grav,” Niko said, pointing to the connectors that held the cube in place. “But if the Vela already has regular artigrav, why does it need an additional . . . thing? Whatever it is?”
“Unplug it first, figure it out later,” Asala said. She hated feeling out of her depth. Sure, when it came to artigrav, she could handle the basic maintenance tasks that anyone with starship piloting credentials needed to know. That didn’t mean she had the expertise to decipher experimental physics shit.
“Here goes nothing,” Niko said, and uncoupled the first of the shining metal connectors, more pristine than anything else on the entire ship, before Asala could warn them to be careful.
The black substance squirmed toward Niko’s grasp, not away, as they jostled the cube. Memory pricked at Asala as she helped with the next connector. Where had she seen that counterintuitive behavior before? As she racked her brain, she began working on another connector, careful not to damage the delicate wiring.
The two of them had gotten through half the connectors when the alarm went off. It screeched in long blasts, echoing through the passageways of the Vela. Asala had no doubt that it could be heard loud and clear the next ship over as well.
“Shit!” Niko said under their breath. “I could have sworn I—”
“Save it,” Asala snapped. The fact that Niko had managed to fool the security system this long was a small miracle. In retrospect, considering the cube’s presence, she was a little surprised that the place wasn’t crawling with guards. But only a little. After all, extraordinary precautions would have alerted Camp Ghala’s populace that a likewise extraordinary secret was being guarded here. And given the desperation of many refugees, she would have expected thieves and scavengers to follow; all the Sorayas in the world couldn’t keep petty crime in check.
No more time for delicacy. They had to leave. Asala grabbed the cube with both...