Canaan: Desert Research Station

Jameson Arthur stares out at the Canaan landscape and finds the vast, empty sands staring back. They glow orange in the midday sun, waves of heat distorting the dunes into various shapes so unrecognizable and yet familiar that he knows there is nothing to fear. He has his rifle at his side, safety on, as he reclines in his chair.

The sky is clear and powder blue with a rim of white. The research station itself is a sun-bleached black that does little to disperse the heat. At least, in his tower it is warm. The way the sunlight hits the windows combined with the small size of the room often leaves him feeling stifled. Even with the air conditioning on it is warm.

Some of the guards liked to strip down and enjoy the sauna-like warmth. Arthur never did, but he didn't see why any of them should be punished for it. Theirs was the only station for days, perhaps even on the whole planet. He didn't know for sure. No one came out here and announced their presence, so it was hard to get official numbers.

To his knowledge, Canaan wasn't a complete desert. It was warmer than most planets, located just slightly closer to the system's star. Close enough at least to keep parts of the planet so warm that they are uninhabitable. Near the poles he has heard of dense forests where life might flourish. Whatever could be found there was long since catalogued. That anything was found this far near the equator is often considered a miracle.

The Canaan Research Facility officially doesn't exist. This wasn't unusual for privatized military contractors like the one he worked for. Because of the Three-Party Accord signed just over a decade ago there are a lot of similar research facilities all across the galaxies. Anywhere uncovered ruins can be hidden from view there will be a corresponding facility to loot them.

Unofficially, the facility itself is funded by Republic wealth, old money that have a vested interest in the government's smooth operation. Officially, it is privately funded by anonymous donors. Either way, Arthur gets paid. He quit the politics of governments and military long ago and since has just been doing his best to draw a paycheck. It is hard enough to get work with his injury. He doesn't need something like opinions getting in the way.

What he does like about the job is the solitude. He sits alone for hours, staring into the wilderness. Sometimes he falls into himself, reflects on his life. Other times he does nothing at all but sit and bake in the tiny room, the tinted windows doing their best to absorb the sun's light.

A knock at the door draws him from whatever reverie he has, and he stands with his rifle at his side. When the next guard arrives, a small blond man with dark eyes and sharp shoulders. They shake hands. "See anything," the blonde asks.

Arthur shakes his head. "Nothing except the occasional mirage."

"Oh, good, then the shows on." The blonde enters the room and takes up the seat Arthur was just at. He sets his rifle to the side, safety on. "I hope today's episode is good."

"Honestly, it all seems a little random. The show's writer's must be drunk at the wheel."

The blonde laughs and waves, and Arthur waves back before leaving. He enters the hall and climbs the long ladder down into the facilities interior. It is cooler here, in the depths of the facility, and for that he is grateful. He keeps his rifle over his shoulder and makes his way down the hall where he can register it before he grabs a quick meal and goes for his bunk.

Twelve hours until his next shift.

-Stargazers, part 1-

The cafeteria is a comparatively large room within the context of the base. The walls are higher than most and, like the watch tower, there are windows looking outside. Outer walls obscure much of the sun however while still allowing enough light to see by. The air is cooler here, especially with the help of the air conditioner and closer proximity to the ground.

Jameson grabs a tray and loads it full. He remembered military rations with some envy. It was easier then to keep in shape simply because they told him what he could and couldn't eat. It is always the little things he missing about the military, but he takes comfort in the knowledge that so much of it is, deep down, still with him.

The room is quiet and the floor glossy and reflective. The facility itself is small. The guard staff is the most numerous, with general workers after them, maintenance after them, and the actual research team composing the smallest number of people there. In truth, Arthur doesn't know what they are researching. It is something to do with the Guides, but all of the specifics are confidential.

While in line Arthur runs into a pretty, tanned woman with long legs and a slender frame. She is older, her smile showing age-lines as she greets him. Like everyone in research she is wearing a long white coat with her nametag—Dr. Malik Achebe—but she is smiling as she regards him.

"Well, hello there..."

"Arthur." He holds out his hand and lets her shake it. "Jameson Arthur, security."

Achebe's smile returns. It shows the most in her eyes, but that is what Arthur likes about it. Achebe doesn't strike him as insincere. Her eyes just look different when she is smiling.

"Jameson, I am Malik Achebe. A pleasure."

"Likewise."

"Would you care to sit with us? There are plenty of free tables, but you're welcome at ours." She nods toward a table of researchers already eating.

Arthur gives a smile. "I'd be glad to," he says, and he waits for her to get her tray and thank the staff before she leads him to the table.

Arthur hasn't met any of the researchers. Most of his time there is spent getting used to the long shifts they have to work as well as getting used to the heat. The researchers are busy and often take their meals in their lab when they can, and what time they have off is spent resting just like him. In the three weeks, this is the most he has had the opportunity to speak with them, or anyone, and he is grateful for the conversation.

He joins them at the table, following Achebe over and settling beside her. The two researchers were both men. One is squat and dark, with a neatly trimmed beard and a square head to match his square glasses. The other is taller and round. He keeps a beard, too, his greying at the edges. His hair is thinning and his body just seems to sag wherever Arthur looks at it. Still, he smiles and greets Arthur warmly. They are doctors Trevor Kalam and Stephen "Rooster" Ross.

"So, Arthur, anything we should be worried about?" Kalam asks before blowing on his soup and sipping it delicately. He has perfect manners in everything he does and seems to move with such precision that it is almost robotic. Every movement is premeditated, Arthur is sure.

Arthur shakes his head. "No, sir. I saw a sandstorm a few miles off, but it should blow over before the evening."

"And that won't cause us much trouble in here," Rooster says.

"Speak for yourself. I, for one, like to get out and get some fresh air when I can."

"Too hot for fresh air," Achebe says. "Too hot for much of anything out there. I feel bad for the pilots who come down here, waiting with their doors open while they unload. And the workers, too. And can you imagine the poor men and women who had to build this place? Incredible. They did the real work, I say."

"Oh, come on, you all are doing the best work in the galaxies," Arthur says, giving another smile. "The research you're doing out here will change technology as we know it."

"Not the work we're doing," Kalam says. He gives a conspiratorial smile around the table. "Really, it's the work she is doing. We're just doing everything we can to catch up."

"She," Arthur asks.

"He's talking about Clarke. The new girl who came in about a week ago."

Arthur has heard something about a new researcher, though he has seen less of her than these three. The rumor is that she is smartest woman in the galaxies, but there is always talk like that in these sorts of places. It isn't until now that Arthur put any stock into it. From where he sits, each of these three could be the top of their fields, and he wouldn't know enough to argue one way or another. To have them be so impressed with this new girl says something good, he figures.

"I haven't seen her," Arthur says.

"That's because she hardly ever leaves the lab," Rooster says. "She's a workaholic, that one."

"She's unhealthy. I worry about her," Achebe says.

Kalam laughs. "You're jealous. We all are. She's already started making progress on the code in only a week, progress we couldn't make even with our advanced notes on it."

"And what makes her so good," Arthur asks.

Kalam laughs again and gives him a long look over the table. He looks genuinely amused. "There's just something in her brain. She can see patterns. The girl understands computers in a way none of us ever will."

"Really?"

"She created an A.I." Rooster says, "And not a simple one. A so-called 'Smart A.I.' Fully functional. There was an interview with her about it. The girl was building computers and original O.S.s when she was barely out of diapers. She's a savant."

"But she works too hard," Achebe says now, frowning at her meal. She looks at Arthur. "She's going to die young if she keeps this sort of work up."

"She'll be fine. The young are resilient," Kalam says, laughing again. He pats his belly. "It's us older folk you need to be worried about." He looks up, over Arthur's shoulder. "And there she is, the talk of the town, out to get her lunch, I imagine."

Arthur looks back to find a small girl entering the room. She has dark hair and thin limbs, and as she passes by, she avoids the eyes of others. To Arthur it doesn't seem like she's rude, more that she's distracted, like even as she is walking the halls, she is really somewhere else, perhaps still in the lab.

She goes to the counter and grabs her meal, and she thanks the workers briefly before making a swift turn and leaving again. As she passes again, Arthur can hardly fathom it. From his estimation she couldn't even be five-feet tall, and he would be surprised if she were out of her teens. He looks back at the other researchers and finds Kalam and Rooster smiling. Achebe rolls her eyes.

"She's older than she looks," she says. "You men."

Rooster glares. "What do you mean, you men?"

"Nothing." Achebe turns to Arthur. "She is small, though, isn't she?"

"How old is she?"

"Twenty-one."

Arthur hums.

"Still damned impressive," Kalam says. "Two P.H.D.s, one is Computer Sciences and Neurosciences. She was teaching over at Urd University, in the Federation, when she was called out here. Don't know what they promised her, but it must have been good."

"That girl was a teacher?"

"One of the best," Kalam says.

"She's really quite friendly," Achebe says. "She has a nice way of speaking to people, and she knows how to explain things. Her interviewers are always charmed."

"But how is she away from the camera?"

Achebe smiles. "Kind but distracted. She's always working on something."

"Like I said, the smartest person in the galaxies," Kalam says. He finishes his soup and stands, lifting his tray as he does. "Now, I should really be getting back. Don't want her to show me up more than she already has, do I?"

-Stargazers, part 1-

Hector drops out of dive-space and drifts into Canaan's orbit. She glides into position and coasts along, just outside of the atmosphere, holding there. Clouds swirl in the planet's sky. From the ship's perspective it is enormously vast and yet the crew can fit it into their palms if they hold their fingers wide open. The emptiness of space surrounds the planet on all sides as it spirals around its star.

Lancelot walks the halls. He has two soldiers flanking him, and all three of them wear dark, skin-tight flight suits. The soldiers have their helmets on with their visors open. Lancelot keeps his helmet cradled under his arm.

They reach the armor dock and the doors glide open. He grabs a handrail as his body lifts weightlessly and holds near the door while the two soldiers kick off the walls and direct themselves toward their armors, modified Archer models equipped with atmospheric entry-shells. Lancelot's custom armor, Jupiter, sits between them.

Lancelot pinches his helmet between his fingers and uses his outstretched index finger to hit the wall-mounted comms. When the bridge responds Lancelot says, "Range?"

"Fifteen minutes until we match rotation, sir."

"Stop thrust and keep out sight. I want this to be quick."

"Sir."

"And keep the drive warm. I want to make dive as soon as possible."

"Yes, sir."

"Mueller, Stewart, start up?"

"Ready, sir. We're good for launch."

"Good. Lawrence?"

"Sir?"

"I'll give you go from Jupiter's cockpit. Lancelot out."

Lancelot drifts over to his armor, a big, black, heavily plated monster with a peculiar weapon mounted on its right arm. It looks like a large javelin imbedded into the plating. He climbs in through the back and locks into position, fixing his straps and starting up. Once he is ready, he sends word to the bridge.

The oxygen is sucked from the room and the doors seal. The hangar opens, two large metal panels folding inward from above them, and the latches on their legs release. The armors drift upward and out of Hector, and they use small, controlled bursts of air to right themselves and turn toward the planet. Jupiter leads them as a pack as they ignite thrusters and make for Canaan.

-Stargazers, part 1-

Chastity yawns. It is late at night, and she is alone in the lab, which doesn't bother her in the least. Overall, Chastity likes people. She finds them interesting and, on the whole, friendly, but when she has a problem to solve, she prefers solitude. The problem with people is that they look at things the wrong way, and they ask the wrong questions. Mostly, they just get in her way and complicate the matter so much that she can't even see the solution.

Her whole life, Chastity could always see the solution. She still remembers the first computer she built. The pieces just seemed to fit together for her. She experimented for a few hours, putting pieces together, applying electricity, and she watched what happened. By the end of a week she had a fully functioning computer built from junk parts. She was three at the time. Her parents were astonished. Chastity just wanted to build more.

Some people call her gifted or a genius. Honestly, Chastity never thinks about it. She doesn't care how other people perceive her, and she doesn't care if they know she is smart. Sometimes, she doesn't feel very smart at all, like when she hits a roadblock or when she struggles with a concept. It happens, even to her, but that is when she digs in and breaks it down. When the solution isn't obvious, that is when Chastity is most driven to find it.

That is why she built her own A.I. The modern Simple A.I. has been around for decades. The ones that came before them for at least a century. None of them were truly alive, though, and not for a lack of trying. The problem was that, like most people, the developers couldn't see the solution. Chastity did, though, and that is how she built Cipher.

The problem is that people never looked at people. They never understood that if you want to build a smart computer, then you should look at the smartest computer that nature has ever made. A.I. learn rapidly, but they still have to learn. Even Cipher started simple, but he was able to grow past it. Chastity studied the brain and saw exactly how to build one.

She will never build another like him, though. She loves Cipher and knows that he is lonely sometimes, being the only Smart A.I. in the known-universe. Sometimes, she feels almost guilty enough to build another, though the undertaking was so great that she isn't sure if she could do it again. She hardly slept for three years to do it. In fact, she sometimes likes to say that is why her growth was so stunted.

The problem with building Smart A.I.s is the very reason she could build one in the first place. Chastity understands people, and while she thinks they are good, she also thinks they do some very bad things sometimes. People don't treat simple A.I.s well and have no interest in seeing them as living. Creating more Smart A.I., ones that would function like Cipher does, would be like building little, virtual slaves for people to abuse, and Chastity refuses to be a part of that.

That is why this project is so important to her. She was happy at her job. There were no big questions, no sleepless nights. Now, she is two days without a wink, surviving off of sugar packets and stale coffee, but she believes it will be worth it. Because when they told her that they found the first ever Guide, and that it might still be alive, Chastity had to come see.

And she is not disappointed with what they have. The Guide they found, codenamed "the Lady," looks like a human female. It stands nearly a foot taller than Chastity herself, putting it at almost 181 cm. It has blond hair, wide hips, and long, lithe limbs. Chastity finds it quite beautiful and so authentic that she has a hard time believing its body is entirely mechanical.

Every scan is the same, however, even the ones she has done. The Guide is a machine and, better yet, it is alive. It is in a low power state, lines of code running through what appears to be its brain, as if it is waiting for something to wake it. Afraid of what could be lost if they dissected it, they brought Chastity in to instead wake it up, because if there is anyone who knows how computers speak, it is her.

Which is why Chastity can't sleep. For her, it is more than the discovery of a lifetime. It is more than changing history. For her, it is proof to the world that artificial intelligence is alive. She has a hard time explaining to people what it meant to create Cipher, that she truly created a life, that in a way she has a child. To know that her work can create a world where Cipher doesn't have to be alone anymore is the only thing that matters to her now.

She stretches and goes to get another cup of coffee. Nearby, her computer runs the code, identifying repeating patterns which may be used for translation. As she pours, a thought comes into her head. It is Cipher, giving her an update.

I'm going to back up the data.

"That's a good idea, Cipher. Thank you." Chastity returns to her seat and swivels it around, planting the backrest between her legs and leaning forward on it. She sips and winces.

Watch out. That's hot.

"And thank you for that." She moves from the holding pod, where the Lady is displayed in a long tube of clear glass, to her computer, where she starts to examine the code again. The scripting language in entirely unlike anything they use today. She has looked back at ancient records, and while the code itself is similar to code found in other Guide ruins, it is not uniform. Chastity squints at the screen.

You really should have went to sleep with the others.

"It's fine. I stayed up longer when I was working on you."

Labor, they call it.

Chastity laughs.

But, still, you won't solve this overnight, and the computer will work while you rest. It might help to come back to it with a clear head.

"Mm. I have you to keep it straight. You have updated my personal logs, right?"

Of course. I can do another back up, if you like.

"Nah. I trust you." She squints again. "Can you do a retinal and take a look at this, C? Make sure I'm not going crazy."

You probably are, but I'm doing it. Chastity feels a tickle in her brain or something like it. She has never been able to explain what the implant feels like when it interacts with other parts of her grey matter. Okay. What am I looking at?

"The code. Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Clearly not or I wouldn't be asking.

"Hardy-har. You say I need sleep, but you're the one being grumpy."

Just tell me what I'm looking for.

"The computer code."

Yes. Of course. Very funny. What about it?

"I just realized." She scans a few more lines, smiles. "It's not uniform. Which is why we're finding so little repetition. At least, in places where it would make sense. Which means..."

Clever. Though, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Chastity smiles. You want to say it, don't you?

"Well, it does feel good to say it out loud. And it'd be good to have it on record."

I'll get my tape recorder. She frowns. Oh, go ahead.

Chastity's smile returns as she stands from her chair and paces over to the Lady. She stares at it through the glass, her lab coat hanging around her body like a cloak. It was the smallest they had and still seems to swallow her. She sweeps back her hair and gives it a haughty look. "The reason we can't find a script that matches yours is because yours isn't a script at all. It's a cipher."

Very good, taunting the poor thing while it's asleep. What, do you want to put its hand in a bowl of warm water, next?

"Honestly, I was thinking about it." Chastity goes back to her desk and picks up her mug. She stares at the computer code, still smiling. Her entire life, she has always seen solutions. This isn't any different.

Still, good job, Chastity. I couldn't have done better...

The lights flicker and die, as do the computers around Chastity. The hair on her arms stands up, and she can feel something charged in the air. The front of her head begins to burn for a moment, and she winces, dropping her coffee cup as she braces against the desk in front of her.

"Whoa, C, maybe you were right. Maybe I need a rest." She stumbles forward. Outside, she hears something, something loud, like a localized sandstorm. She sees lights and large, humanoid figures. "What're..." Her arms feel numb, and she falls forward, onto the cup she just dropped.

"Uh-oh. C, I think I need help." Silence. Not even a tickle. Her head throbs, and she feels very far away. "C. C? Where are you? C..." She whispers into the darkness and then passes out.

-Stargazers, part 1-

Arthur is just falling asleep when a familiar feeling sweeps over him. His hair stands on end and his skin has a light charge, a tickle across its surface. It is faint and last less than a second, but it is enough to stir him from his sleep and pull him from the bed. When his feet find the floor it is shaking, and for a moment he stares down in the darkness until he sees light outside. He peeks through the blinds and sees there armors in the sandstorm

He goes to his desk and finds his pistol. Checking the clip, he flips the safety off and goes to the door. There is gunfire outside and an explosion. The guard tower crumbles nearby, collapsing one of the halls. Arthur ducks down and covers his head as his window is shattered in a hail of bullets.

The armor outside stomps off, continuing its execution, and Arthur takes the chance to wedge his fingers into his door and work it open. He slips his body through, sucking his gut in to grow thin enough. Whatever the attackers are looking for, it will be in the lab. There are three armors including one still working outside. That means it will be two on foot and they will be well-armed.

Another explosion jars the building and smoke spreads through the halls. Arthur swallows a cough and holds what breath he has. Outside, the Gigas continues it march around the building, unloading more bullets. He hears a pause in the gunfire around where the lab is, which confirms his suspicion.

Arthur sneaks down the hall and stops where it intersects with another hall. He pauses, back against the wall, and peeks down both ways. The smoke and the darkness makes it hard to see, burns his eyes and makes them tear, but he is able to make out an empty hall except for a downed guard at unmoving in a pool of blood. The guard has a bullet wound in his skull and a few more across his chest.

Arthur continues down the hall, toward the lab.

-Stargazers, part 1-

After finishing his last sweep around the base, Lancelot lands Jupiter heavily at the facility's southern entrance and opens the back hatch. Smoke from the collapsed tower fills the air as he breathes and brings back fond memories. Being a soldier has always been the best part of Lancelot's life. In ways, it is the only thing he was ever good at.

He hops down the back of Jupiter and lands beside it, kneeling as he does and closing the cockpit remotely. He has a single weapon in hand, a sword just under two feet in length and bladed on one side. As he lands, he closes the visor on his helm and clicks a few buttons.

His space suit shimmers and fades, and so does he. The current that races through the suit passes also into the blade and swallows it, and soon there is no trace of Lancelot, save for the faint sound of his footprints as he moves and the occasional breath. A trained eye may spot him, if they are looking carefully, and even then, it will be too late for them to react by the he is noticed.

His men have their orders. They are to sweep the interior, planting bombs where necessary to collapse the hallways and kill anyone they find on sight, save for the scientists in the lab. Their targets are two in number: an expert researcher brought in from the Alliance and the living Guide.

He hears gunfire inside and ducks around the corner to be safe. It roars a moment longer and then fades. Someone screams. There is an explosion. It rocks the walls of the building, but the foundations are solid. After peeking around the corner, he enters, his weapon held with the back of it pinned to his forearm. Years of training have left him almost completely silent.

A guard comes around the corner, assault rifle up and looking down the scope. He turns toward where the lab is and gets only a single step in that direction before Lancelot grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him back. He doesn't even have time to react before the blade moves through him, and the guard doesn't know what is killing him until he sees it jutting from his stomach.

"Who—Who are..."

Lancelot withdraws and drops the man to the ground, dragging the blade smoothly across his throat as he steps over him. After, he uses the man's shirt to clean his blade, leaving himself virtually invisible again as he moves quietly down the hall, toward the lab and his prizes.

-Stargazers, part 1-

Chastity feels cold on the floor, her face flat against the panels, her body slightly numb. The cold feels good, in truth, against her head. When she moves, she feels sick. Her head pulses and her vision blurs. She has to brace against the nearby tables to keep from falling over.

It takes her a few minutes before she recovers enough to move, and she manages to crawl from her place in the center of the room to a nearby wall. Outside she hears gunfire. It makes the pain in her head spread through her body. Another wave of nausea washes over her, augmented by her sudden fear. Now, she is shaking, and no amount of breathing is helping her through it.

"Cipher." She says his name again and keeps whispering him in the darkness, but there is no reply. It hurts her to think it, so much so that she tucks the thought away in the deepest parts of her and pretends it isn't even there, but she can always see the solution in the problem, and she knows the truth. Cipher is gone.

She begins to cry, hard and loud, and every effort to stop is met only in failure. She curls up and holds herself, lying on the ground so that her face is flat against the cold floor again and breathing through the nausea and the shakes and the sorrow. The room is dark and, outside, she can hear voices. There are two, both male.

"It's in there. We need to get inside."

"But the power's cut. The door won't open."

More gunfire, this time getting closer. "Shit! We need to find a way. Come on."

They begin beating on the door. Chastity can feel it in the walls they are hitting so hard. It rattles her back softly. She starts holding her breath, an effort meant to ease her sobs and hide her more completely in the shadows. It doesn't last long, and soon she is panting.

The door slides partway open and light spills in along with hot, fresh air. Two men enter, each carrying assault rifles with lights attached to their scopes. Chastity holds her breath again and does her best to melt into the wall. She is hidden underneath one of the desks and hopes no one notices her. Whenever the lights sweep over her body, she closes her eyes like a child might.

She ignores their approaching footsteps; just like she ignores their voices.

"Hey. I found one. Hey, you, are you okay?' A hand on her shoulder, and she begins screaming. She screams and kicks, and she backs away into the wall as best she can.

"No! Go away! Get away from me! Go!"

She swings wildly until one hand takes her about the wrist and pins her to the wall.

"Calm down. Calm down, damn it! We're here to help you!"

"Poor thing, she's scared senseless." That is the second man. He is standing behind the first.

Chastity pants and cries, and she keeps kicking until one of them slaps her hard across the face. When her eyes focus, she sees a man there, hair dark and trim, face edged in shadows. It is hard to see his features with only the flashlight to see by. The light makes her headache worse. "Now, listen. We're here to help you. We're part of the guard."

"The guard. The guard?" Chastity falls into him, crying. "They killed him, killed Cipher. He's gone. All gone!" She sobs so hard into his chest that she can't breathe. She sobs until it hurts in her stomach, until her throat feels bare and until she finally wretches, vomiting all over herself as he ducks away.

"Damn it!" The first man stands. He paces around her. "We don't have time for this!"

"We do if we want to save her." The second man kneels. In the darkness, he looks quite a bit like he first. He hands her a handkerchief and, when she doesn't move, uses it to wipe her mouth himself. "We're sorry that you're scared, and we know you've lost someone, but if you don't want to die yourself, you'll have to trust us. So, will you trust us?"

Chastity looks at him. She nods, not because she does, but because she doesn't know what else to do. She keeps trying to think of what Cipher would say or what Cipher would do. Whenever something was wrong in her life, whenever she was overwhelmed, she would turn to him for help. Now, she won't ever have the option again.

"Good. Now, are you okay?"

"They killed him," she says, her voice cracking.

"I know. I know, you said. Where is he?"

"Gone." She shakes again. "All gone."

"Damn it, not again," the first man says, but he gets a glare from the second.

The second offers her his hand and pulls her onto her feet. He lets her lean into him as they walk. It isn't like her, she realizes, to lean on others, but she figures that after everything that has happened today, she really does deserve the rest.

"Okay, miss, we're going to have to run. It might be dangerous out there, okay? So, whatever you do, watch my back, and don't stop running. Nod if you understand."

The first man moves to the door and peeks out. He looks back. "Hurry up, man!"

"Quiet," second says over his shoulder, and back to Chastity, "Do you understand?" She nods, and he pats her shoulder. "That a girl. Now." He turns and takes her by the hand, guiding her fingers to his belt. "Don't let go, and don't look at anything but my back, okay?"

Finally, she speaks, and it is hardly a whisper. "O-Okay."

"Okay." He moves forward, testing her. She holds on to prove to everyone, including herself, that she can. "Okay," he says. "Ready to go."

"Finally," first says, and he draws his pistol until he gets through the door and then uses his assault rifle to see by.

-Stargazers, part 1-

They move slowly. The man with Chastity leads with the other following. Both keep their assault rifles up and move with quick, regimented precision. They keep along the walls, staring down the sights of their rifles with the lights on. The halls are hazy with smoke, and it burns Chastity's lungs as they move. She swallows her coughs, though, breathing through the pain even as her eyes water.

They stop at a crossroads between halls. A warm breeze passes through, and Chastity can vaguely smell baked stone on it. There is a way outside somewhere nearby, and she is ready for the fresh air. The man in front of her peeks down a hall and curses. He looks over his shoulder, and over her, at the other guard. "The western walkway has been completely collapsed. We can't take her through there."

"We need to get to the hangar," the second man says, looking increasingly irate.

"I'm telling you, we can't take her down there!"

The second man pauses, looks at her, nods. "We'll move forward and take the path along the wall. The Gigas outside isn't moving, which I assume means that its pilot is inside with us."

"Agreed."

First looks ahead and starts moving again. A gurgle, and he stops. Second whispers at him, asking what the hold is, and Chastity can see a faint shimmer in the air. The first man's back opens and a thin blade escapes him, coming to a stop only inches from her face, visible only because of the blood.

First slumps against the wall as the blade is retracted, and Chastity falls beside him, still clutching his belt. He shoves at her with his hand, coughing as he does, smearing his blood across her cheeks. "Go. Go, damn it. Go!" He pushes her off and onto the ground, where she lies, sobbing.

"Damn it!" Two steps forward and fires into the darkened hall. All he can see the enemy by is the spray of blood left as the blade sways. He tries to follow that but can't land a hit as it sways back and forth before closing in. Soon, second is pinned to the wall by the blade. He fires as his body tightens from the pain but hits nothing.

The blade shifts in him, driving up and ending second quickly. After that, it is dragged along first's throat. Chasity lies there, continuing to sob as second slides slowly down on top of her. Blood pools around her, seeping into her clothes, wetting her skin. She is taken by the hair and dragged away by some unknown force. She cries so hard that she begins to cough.

Footsteps echo around her in the empty hall. Someone chuckles. "Now, now, don't cry, little one. I'm not here to kill you." A man appears, dressed in a skin-tight, silver flight suit. He stares at her through the visor of his helm as he kneels before her, using second's pants to wipe his blade clean. He looks it over before turning his attention back on her. "I need you."

Chastity shakes, hyperventilates. The world sways, blurs. This man's eyes are cold, heartless, he is a predatory, a hardly tamed beast. Every part of her tells her to scramble and run but she cannot. Her pants feel wet and warm, and she doesn't know if it's the blood or not anymore.

"Where is the Guide?" Chastity stares at him; he smacks her across the face. "I won't ask again. Where?" She points, shaking, down the hall. "Good girl." He takes her by the arm and starts walking, dragging her after him. They are nearly to the room when she hears gunfire from down the hall, and the man stops. He looks at her, blade still greasy with blood. "You didn't see me," he says, and he disappears.

Footsteps drift away behind her as more come approaching from the front. She has her eyes closed, crying to herself, willing it all away, when she feels strong arms on her shoulder. She jumps and sways, swinging at the air, and catches a broad chest before she breaks down sobbing. Two equally strong arms fold around her.

"Hey, hey, you okay?"

Her head is lifted, and she opens her eyes to find a kind face staring back. Arthur is a big man but moves with even greater care than the guard from before. She falls into him, hugging him around the waist. "They're dead! They died protecting me and...And..."

"I know. I know, it's alright."

"It's not alright," she whispers to him. "He's still here."

Arthur pauses. "He's...Who?"

She looks up at him but can hardly seem him through her tears. "Please, don't die for me."

Arthur is about to speak when he hears footsteps. He ducks as the air above him whistles and turns assault rifle on the empty hall, releasing a spray of gunfire. He sweeps it around the hall and up along the walls. Footsteps echo, retreating from him as he holds his rifle ready. His ears ring in the darkness. Chastity is clutching his back now and shaking.

Slowly, he turns and pries her fingers from his shirt. "Did he kill those two?"

She nods.

"Why didn't he kill you?"

"He said he won't. He asked me where the Lady is."

"The Lady?"

"The project." Chastity barely gets the word out before she coughs so hard she vomits. Arthur sighs.

"Okay. Then, don't worry. You'll be okay." He pauses to listen before pulling her to standing. "We need to move, though. He'll be back for you." Arthur looks over his shoulder. The hair on the back of his neck is standing.

"He's watching."

"He is." Arthur gives her a brief smile. "I can get us out of here, though."

"How?"

"Just trust me. Are you strong enough to run?"

"I think I..." She breaks down crying again. "No."

"Okay." Arthur turns and pulls her arms tight around his shoulders. He hooks her legs around his midsection. "Think you can hold on?"

"No."

"You'll have to."

"But..."

"Try. For me."

She sniffs and hooks her fingers, weaving them together. "I'm just slowing you down."

"No, you're not. I need you to live. I need your eyes. You watch my back, and I'll watch yours, and we'll both get out. Okay? Can you do that?"

Another sniff.

"Can you do that?"

"Yes."

"Good girl." He hooks one leg in hand and draws his pistol with the other, lifting her weight easily. Considering how small she is, it is almost like basic again. "Now, let's go." He fires into the hall, where he thinks the enemy might be, and starts charging. On the way, he drops a flash bang and lets it go off behind them.

He carries her through the halls, moving slowly and precisely and keeping his ears ready. They pass bodies on the way, soldiers killed in the initial gun fire or by intruders as they went. They stop in the end of the guard's quarters to catch their breath, ducking into one of the empty rooms and pressing themselves against the flat of the far wall. Chastity is quiet and still, staring despondently at the door. Arthur nudges her. "Hey, you never told me if you're hurt or not."

"I'm..." She stares at her hands. Her vision is better than it was. She flexes them to make sure they still have blood flow. They do, but it feels wrong. Everything feels like it is miles away. "I don't know."

"Scared?"

"No," she says, and she means it. She doesn't feel much of anything at this point. Briefly, she thinks she vomited out all of her feelings earlier. Anything else that remained after was swept away by the tears. She feels her pants. "I wet myself," she says. "Like a child."

"That's okay. That happens." He squeezes her shoulder, and she looks at him, not out of sympathy but just to look. "Can you walk yet?"

She moves her legs, stands long enough to test her own weight. "I guess."

Arthur joins her. "Then now is as good at time as any. Let's get on it."

"Where are we going? We're in the middle of nowhere."

"Not nowhere. There's the jointly held research station..."

"The Canaan Exploratory Research Station? It keeps a skeleton crew at best, no one who can help us. Besides, it's on the other side of the planet."

"Well, then there's the observatory, for the sun. It's run by the Olympic Government and..."

"That's still 482.807 km away. There's no way to make it there on foot, not with the heat outside."

"There are surface water sources for us to hit."

"The nearest to us is three km. In the opposite direction." Arthur stares, and she shrugs. "I memorized the map on the way here."

"Well, that's...impressive. Still, no matter how tall the order is, we can't just wait here to die. So, it's either we get shot up or we escape. So, what do you say?"

Chastity stares wretchedly at the door, and she takes a deep breath. "Fine."

Arthur grins. "Good. Then, stay close." He goes to the door and peeks out. Outside there is nothing but dust and shadows. The sun is still down, the sky is dark but there are stars to see by. The armors outside remain inert. Whatever took out the facility's power likely drained the cells of the armors stationed here, as well as any ships they have. The mess hall, however, may have something to keep them through the journey. He looks back at Chastity, who is absently plucking a stray hair from her jacket. "Your legs up to running?"

She taps her toes to the floor. "As ready as I'll ever be."

"You'll be fine." Arthur peeks out into the hall again. "Just follow me close and watch my back. Do as I say and we'll be fine. These guys are amateurs and I'm...I'm..." He squints into the shadows and sees nothing, but he can hear it, soft foot falls and then a small distortion in the air. He steps back just as there is a flash of movement in the air.

He fires wild, two shots into the wall, and hears foot falls around him. The gunfire echoes and a hazy of smoke follows the barrel as he turns it about. Someone is behind him, and he turns to fire but feels the barrel jerk away in a flash of sparks. A gash is left across his forearm.

Arthur slumps back into the wall and ducks a second swing. A shallow gash is left in the wall where his throat was. Arthur backs into the corner, where the angle will be harder. The enemy will have to lunge to get a good strike on him. He plants his feet and crouches low, giving the enemy a small target, and then lunges to meet them.

There is a subtle pain in his side as the blade grazes him and then an impact. His shoulder meets the enemy's chest and knocks them back. A blade appears in the air, materializing and clattering to the floor. Arthur scoops it up and stops, listening. He moves forward, slowly, sword ready.

Two strong hands fix around Arthur's neck and squeeze. He gasps and wheezes, flailing and kicking at the air, but there is nothing to be done. His limbs go numb. He tries to remember how to break out of a choke hold but nothing in his training told him how to defeat an invisible man and his mind was foggy anyway. Before he can decide, Arthur blacks out.

Chastity remains pinned in a corner. The blade is just feet from her, gleaming. Then it disappears. She can hear it scrap along the floor, singing as it was drawn, and she heard it turn in the air. She remembers that sword, remembers how it looks covered in someone's blood.

"No more running," says a voice. "Nod if you understand."

She nods.

"Good." A man materializes in a silver suit, the blade in his hand. He paces a circle around Arthur, kicks him once, and then holds his blade suspended over Arthur's throat. This lasts for a few seconds as the man eyes him, looks him over, keeps him pinned with a single foot. Then, he drags the blade across Arthur's cheek and leaves him there.

The man presses a finger to his ear. "Hector. I've got the package. Near the hangar, we'll wait for pick up." A pause. "Go ahead and descend. We should be fine. There won't be any ships out this far, not military, at least." Another pause and he looks at her, his eyes hidden behind a reflective lens. "I've got the girl, and we've got someone else coming along. We'll need men for the Guide, though. Lancelot out."

The man lowers his arm and folds the blade, which is segmented, up for storage. He tucks it into a patch on his lower back and then approaches Chastity, kneeling to look her in the eyes. She still isn't crying, but only because she has nothing left in her to cry out.

"Listen. I don't need the sword to kill you. Either of you. So, keep quiet, don't struggle, and you won't die. Nod again if you understand."

Chastity nods and, from there on, does her best not to breathe too loudly.

-Stargazers, part 1-

Arthur wakes up feeling light-headed and queasy. His limbs are stiff and cold, but as he flexes them warmth returns slowly to his fingers. His head throbs. When he opens his eyes the pain grows worse, but he slowly adjusts to the light and sits up.

He is in a bed, the mattress thin and resting atop a cold steel plate. The ceiling of the room is angled and gray. Black lines frame the edges. He feels weightless and cold.

Chastity is beside him, hugging her knees and floating inches off the ground. She is crying quietly to herself. It takes a moment to get his bearings, but when he does, Arthur pushes off the wall and drifts toward her. When his hands find her shoulders, she flinches, screaming, and then remembers herself and falls into his chest. "Hey, hey, you okay?"

"You didn't die! I thought you died! I thought he killed you like everyone else! I thought..."

"No, no, shh," he pats her head. They drift into the nearby wall and bounce off, drifting lazily, from there, into the center of the room. He pats her back while she continues to cry. There is nothing around them, save for the single mattress on the small, steel platform. He looks around room and stops them against a nearby wall. "We're in space, aren't we?"

She nods.

He sighs. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay." She wipes her eyes and looks up at him. "There wasn't anything you could do. There was nothing any of us could do. We were—we are—powerless."

He pats her head. "Maybe. Did he tell you what he wants?"

She shakes her head. "No," she says, eyes now fixed on the ground. "They're going to kill us."

"No, they won't."

"How do you know?"

"If they were going to, they would have done it already. You saw how they came in. They weren't gentle. You and I are alive for something. So, think. What would they want us for?"

"Nothing," she said, shaking.

"Nothing at all? Nothing they might be after? Nothing in your research that might attract unwanted attention?"

She wipes her eyes. It is different, thinking now. Part of her brain feels numb, still, and without Cipher there to catalogue the information, to draw it for her, she feels slow. It has been years since she has had to rely only on her own intellect. She breathes deeply. "They wanted the Lady, but they already have her. Anything else we had was wiped with the EMP."

"The Lady?"

"She—It was what we found at the facility. Guide ruins aren't so rare. There's plenty to pick from across the planets, which is why the governments will share them. What made Canaan's ruins so special was that we found a survivor, or something like it. It was a humanoid machine, and everything we found suggests it is still operational, just in a suspended animation of some sort. In appearance, she looks like a human female—synthetic skin, synthetic everything, entirely indistinguishable to the naked eye. So, we called her The Lady."

"I see. And they were after her?"

Chastity nods. "Most research facilities are made public knowledge as demanded by the Three-Party Accord. This place was kept secret, because of the Lady, against the treaties and, in my opinion, better judgement."

"What better way to steal alien technology than to steal it from those who can't admit to having it stolen, huh?"

"Yes," Chastity says. "But we don't have anything on her. We were still decoding things and couldn't wake her, at least not without hurting her. There are protocols to these kinds of things, and we were trying to figure out what they might be."

"Well, maybe that's why they kept you alive. You're an A.I. Specialist, right?"

"Not a specialist, really. I mean, I do have an extensive background with adaptive codes. That's why the facility brought me in, between me and..."

"Either way, you're the best suited to helping them."

"Yes, but why would they attack now? Why not wait until we have something concrete? And furthermore, if they spared me for that reason..."

Arthur looks toward the door. "Why did they spare me?"