Identity Theft, Chapter 46

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 46/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Something has been removed from Jack’s memories, but she has no idea what. Meanwhile, an afternoon with General Toal leads her to some surprising new information about Riddick, Kyra… and herself.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

46.
Heirs to the Caldera

The official story, which began circulating an hour before Jack and General Toal left for the old apartment, was that the second of the two Star Jumpers irreparably damaged in the spaceport explosion had also been compromised worse than anyone had realized. One of the reactor cores powering its sublight ion drive had slowly destabilized until it ruptured almost exactly seven Tangiers days later… a little under two of the planet’s long days after a similar rupture had allegedly destroyed the other damaged Star Jumper, the ill-fated Scarlet Matador. Jack, who knew exactly what had really happened to the Matador and where to find it, rolled her eyes and saw Ewan doing the same thing.

The unofficial story, which General Toal said was only being whispered by a handful of eyewitnesses, was that the ship had abruptly imploded some five hours after the Quintessa Corporation had tried to run an unexplained test… one that had begun at almost exactly the same moment as Jack’s strange fit toward the end of the morning-day. The test had ended not long after it had begun with everyone involved fleeing the ship, but no warnings of an impending crisis had been issued until the implosion itself occurred hours later. What little of the massive vessel was left was disturbingly friable, even its protective hull plates disintegrating when touched.

“They tried to use its Isomorph Drive to open a bridge to U322A,” Jack said when the General finished his update. The family had insisted on bed rest for her, but cabin fever was already building and making her antsy. Everyone crowding into the bedroom to listen in just added to the weird near-claustrophobia. Sebby, chittering in annoyance, had already retreated under the bed.

“You know this?” the General asked. “You remember?”

She shook her head. “I don’t remember much of anything after feeding Sebby.” She actually did remember the abortive tickle-battle, and the conversation with Kyra that had followed, but it seemed like everyone was more comfortable thinking that had been lost to her, too. “Just… we took away every other potential bridge they had, so…” She shrugged, wishing she could explain where her certainty came from. Usually she could, but there was a strange fog in parts of her mind that had never existed before.

“Yes,” Ewan said. “When we were going to the Scarlet Matador, you said that would be the only way for them to gain access to Elsewhere once everything else was gone. But why would they want to?”

“The envoy said she wanted to understand what made this Level Five Incident so different from all the others,” Jack mused. Sometimes, she felt like she knew, or should know, much more, but when she tried to chase the feeling down, it evaporated.

“Hopefully, having her attempt to re-establish a connection end in another disaster will deter her,” the General said. “Perhaps there is a way to make her believe that it’s a problem with that universe, itself.”

“Won’t that get any shipping route that uses U322A for a Jump suspended?” Cedric asked, frowning.

“Likely. But they can route around it. They have, in point of fact, done so several times in the past with other universes, and with Jumps they decided were too long. Better that than the realization that there might be a human mind behind so much of their ill fortune, or even two.” The General’s gaze on Jack, and on Kyra, was speculative.

“You think we did this?” Kyra asked him, looking shocked.

“Well, that’s the interesting thing,” he rumbled, his voice contemplative. “Neither of you ever left this house. And your whole focus, during that period, was your adopted sister. I don’t think you did anything…”

His gaze moved to Jack.

“…and you don’t seem to remember anything that happened while you were under.”

Under…

…beneath, below, under…

Yes, a soft voice murmured somewhere far away. You may know and tell that much… it will do no harm.

“I think I was with the Apeiros,” Jack answered slowly. “Whatever was happening… they were afraid. Terrified.”

“Do you think U322A, your Elsewhere, might be their home? Perhaps the bridge would have endangered it.”

She shook her head after a moment’s careful thought. Navigating her memory, at least where this was concerned, felt like jumping from one steppingstone to another, but instead of water between the stones, there were vast, fathomless gulfs of strange emptiness. She’d never experienced anything like it before in her life. It was unnerving.

But, strangely, there were other things that she knew with iron certainty now, which had never been in her head before.

“They call us ‘little larvae,’” she told everyone, “because our five-dimensional shapes are so small… only two universes wide. They’re much bigger…”

…tiny but enormous…

“I don’t think they could think of Elsewhere as their world any more than…” She cast about in her head for a suitable comparison. “…than you could think that chair you’re sitting in is your world.”

“And yet, whatever it was the Quintessa Corporation tried to do this morning-day, bridging U1 and U322A perhaps… terrified them and incapacitated you.” His eyes turned to Kyra. “But not you.”

Kyra shook her head. “Tizzy told them they were forbidden to talk to me anymore unless I talked to them first.”

General Toal looked fascinated. “You were able to forbid these beings to do something?”

Jack shrugged. “I told them they were hurting her. I guess they didn’t want to do that.”

“So they let her be…?”

“I think so. But…” She looked over at Kyra. “I think I remember you screaming that something was wrong.”

“Yeah, because you were having a fit.” Kyra shook her head. “Whatever it was, I didn’t feel any of it except what I could feel coming off of you.”

“And what was that?” Takama asked.

“Something was screaming for help and she was trying to go to it, in her head. And then she was gone.” Kyra shuddered. “I swear, it was like she wasn’t even in her body anymore…”

“Completely unresponsive,” Usadden murmured, and Jack saw him shudder, too.

“Except,” Ewan spoke up, “the brain-wave readings my portable scan got were off the charts.

“Please tell me I don’t have to go get another CT scan,” Jack groaned.

“No, that would be ill-advised indeed,” General Toal said. “Were her readings like that after the last… incident, Ewan Zdan?”

Ewan shook his head. “They were normal… but those were readings I took afterwards, not during. She might have lit up the scan the same way if I’d used it when she was moving the Matador out of our universe.”

“Perhaps you should scan her again now.”

Ewan looked at Jack, a question in his eyes. She nodded, watching him get the portable scanner back out of his field kit. Kyra tensed a little as he came over to Jack’s side, as though she expected both of them to fall under each other’s thrall again.

After all, he had almost needed to be pried off of her earlier.

Even as the alerts had begun to go off, he had dropped everything he’d been carrying onto the chair and raced over to her, landing beside her on the bed and pulling her into a hug so tight that she almost hadn’t been able to breathe. Sebby had screeched and begun posturing threateningly—snapping his pincers like rapid-fire castanets but, at least, not brandishing his stinger—until Kyra, hurrying in after the others, managed to calm him down. Although intensely and inappropriately aware of Ewan’s powerful torso pressed to hers, Jack had found herself even more aware that he was shaking. It had taken a long moment for Usadden to get through to him and convince him to let her go… and then convince her to let him go when her mixture of concern and desire made her clingy. Only then did Jack find out that, for the prior few hours, she had appeared to be comatose.

Now, though, Ewan was all business, running his scan the way he had undoubtedly done countless times when he had worked as a paramedic. “Much closer to normal. But…” He swallowed and shook his head. “When I still worked for the UMA, I had been instructed that if I ever saw readings like this, I should refer the patient for Quantification.” He shook his head again. “They didn’t look like this last time.”

The General looked as if a suspicion had been confirmed for him. Ewan, giving Jack an apologetic look, put the scanner away and returned to the chair he’d been sitting in. He was keeping his distance, but she could feel how much he didn’t actually want to.

“Okay,” she sighed, sitting up. “Brain is normal…ish. No signs of physical injury, right?”

Usadden nodded.

“Then can I please get up? I have a lot I still need to do. Today.”

“Perhaps it should wait until things calm down—” Tafrara began.

“No, I think she’s right,” the General said. “While all eyes are pointed at this new disaster, she may have an easier time insinuating herself into the systems she needs to access, in order to plausibly get the word out about Makarov. I will accompany her to the apartment and watch over her.”

At Jack’s request, he took her to a nearby tech shop to purchase a tablet she could use just for the purposes she had in mind, before driving her to the apartment building. The place was almost entirely empty and still; most of the tenants had moved out after the owners had been unresponsive and uncommunicative in the wake of the spaceport bombing. None of the shattered west and north windows had been repaired, although a very few had been boarded over on the lowest levels. Jack led General Toal up the filthy, stinking stairway, more conscious than ever of how nasty it was; if it bothered him, he showed no sign.

“So,” Jack asked as she unpacked the tablet, sat cross-legged on the floor—she refused to ever touch the couch again—and began to configure it, “why are you really here?”

He sat down in the chair they had left behind, steepling his fingers. “You are getting very good at reading people, Tizzy. I do, indeed, have an ulterior motive for wishing to speak with you alone.”

Maybe that should have scared her, but it didn’t. She knew that, as a military general, he was undoubtedly a dangerous man in at least some way… but she’d been associating with dangerous men for months, starting with Riddick and Johns. She just looked over at him and nodded encouragement.

“You have always had some esper ability, haven’t you?” he asked.

“Seems like it. Nothing obvious, but…” She restarted the tablet to let some of her custom configurations take. “…I think there were signs when I was little. Strange stuff. Nothing too freaky, though. Nothing that couldn’t be explained away.”

“But since the Scarlet Matador, and since your communions with the beings you call the Apeiros, it has grown considerably.” It wasn’t a question.

“I guess,” Jack said, busy armor-plating the tablet against incursions with the protective systems her father had liked best. “It’s… hard to tell. Like Ewan said the other night, I don’t know where my limits are until I crash into them—”

Oh, oops. Nobody but Kyra knew she’d heard that.

General Toal only laughed softly. “In truth, you would make an extraordinary recruit. An Operative who can stand among her targets, listening to their whispered secrets, without them ever knowing…” His expression grew serious. “That is what I needed to speak to you about.”

“You gonna try to recruit us?” The tablet was almost ready. Jack glanced over at the General. “Kyra might be interested if it means rescuing girls from the shit she was put through, but—”

“No, I am not,” he said, surprising her. “I have worked with Operatives before. Officially, slavery is illegal within the Federacy… except where they are concerned.”

Well, that wasn’t a chilling statement or anything… “Why?”

“Your own abilities would terrify most people, child. You can spy on any discussion without people knowing you’re standing among them. You can come and go from a locked and impregnable fortress as you please, regardless of its security systems. You have made bodies disappear from a morgue, hidden valuables vanish from a high-security vault, and a twenty-thousand-ton Star Jumper travel from one universe to another with a touch of your hand. And may, possibly, have imploded another Star Jumper in your sleep.

Jack opened her mouth to protest… but…

Holy fuck. She really had done all that. Phrased that way, she sounded scary as shit. And that wasn’t even touching on what Kyra could do, killing people without any sign she was anywhere near them—

“What government would ever allow such power to go unchecked?”

His rhetorical question sent an icy wind blowing through her. “What… would they do?”

“Espers are taken to a secure facility for training and conditioning. I don’t know exactly what happens there. They will not speak of it. But every Operative I have met is mentally and emotionally incapable of exercising their powers except under orders. Their ability to improvise, as you two do so well, has been taken from them, something that has cost more than a few of them their lives when situations went pear-shaped, the chain of command broke down, and there was no one left with the authority to tell them how to use their abilities to save themselves or others.”

“That’s…”

“Not a fate I could ever wish for you, no. I serve the Federacy to serve humanity, and this is one of the great conflicts between those two callings. I will not tell them about you or Kyra.”

“Th…thank you. What… is that all they would do? Psychological conditioning?”

The General shrugged. “You would have a tracker implanted in you… one with an explosive device inside, just in case you found a way to break through that conditioning and tried to escape. I know of only one Operative-in-training who has ever managed to successfully remove it and flee captivity. You have met him.”

It took a moment to find her voice. “Riddick.”

“They point to him, his kill count and the various crimes he has committed—or allegedly committed—in the last decade, whenever anyone objects to the way espers are handled. Did you ever see him use his abilities?”

“I don’t think so…” But there had always been something preternatural about him, about his speed and timing and the way he hadn’t even had to look behind him, most times, to know who or what was coming. He wasn’t invulnerable—he’d very nearly died on the crash planet—but…

She had watched him take a knife and cut his own neck open to remove the explosive tracker that Chillingsworth had ordered implanted in him, and had found herself thinking that it wasn’t the first one he’d removed that way…

“Espers were much rarer even a generation ago,” the General told her, “before the Furyan Diaspora. Many of the orphans of that… disaster… have turned out to be quite powerful. It’s something about their world itself, it seems. The powers have even appeared among the children of the relief troops who were stationed at the Caldera Base on Furya in the aftermath—”

Jack’s breath caught. Her father’s last tour of duty in the Corps of Engineers, the year before he met her mother, had been on Furya. He had shown her pictures of the Caldera, and the base that sat beside it, and had told her it was the strangest world he’d ever visited. But it was also the world he’d chosen to return to when he re-enlisted.

Was that where all of this came from?

General Toal was watching her with interest. He’d figured her out, knew she had to be the daughter of some member of the Service who had been stationed on Furya… where she had been headed, herself, before everything went wrong. What would she have found there, she wondered, if she had made it?

Except…

“I… don’t think Kyra has any ties to Furya…”

“No. The sublight colony ship she was on never passed that way. But the files on her are extensive. Did you know she was born on late twenty-first century Earth?”

Jack nodded.

“Before her mother joined her father’s church and gave up such things, she was a performer of some renown. Minerva Kirshbaum-Wittier, better known to her world as Minnie Sulis. A stage magician whose act included mind reading, levitation, and teleportation. Most such acts are elaborate trickery of course, but the records indicate that many of her signature ‘tricks’ could be neither replicated nor debunked. When she converted to the Church of the New Christy Pilgrims, though, she quit the stage and claimed that she had turned her back on the devil.”

“So she was probably an esper the whole time,” Jack mused.

“One who became convinced what she was doing was witchcraft, it seems. But yes.”

“You… need to tell Kyra all of this, too.”

The General nodded. “I will, yes. It’s important that both of you protect yourselves from discovery. Tomorrow evening, when I come to Ewan Zdan’s send-off party, I’m bringing each of you a very special device. A neurofeedback training unit. It will help you learn how to control your own minds, and the readings your brain scans produce, so that you can hopefully beat a Quantification test—should you ever be subjected to one—and pass as normal.”

For a long moment, Jack was rendered speechless. He was giving them something incalculably precious… and incredibly dangerous to him. If anyone ever discovered that he had helped two espers hide from the Federacy, it would be the end of more than just his career.

“Thank you,” she finally managed, wishing she could say something that would convey how much she knew he was risking, how much generosity he was showing.

“You’re welcome, Tizzy. Now… another reason I came here today is to help you deal with these terrible files you have found. I understand why you don’t want anyone else to have to see them,” he said as he walked over to sit down beside her on the floor, crisscrossing his legs with the limberness of a man a third his age, “but I have served as a judge on a great number of courts martial, and have reviewed evidence of the worst war crimes human beings can perpetrate. Please allow me to help you with this. I am far more inured to the trauma that even pictures of such things can cause than you should ever have to be.”

Jack felt relief suddenly untying the knots in her spine. The idea of looking at those images again, of sifting through them for examples that could be sent on, that would show enough to provoke outrage without being too graphic to ever be published, had been on the very edge of bearable. To look again at the misery and agony in the faces of those women and girls…

“I’d… really appreciate that. Last time I looked at this stuff, I ended up puking up everything I’d eaten for the last month.”

“I’m truly sorry that you had to see such things at all.”

Kyra, she thought, had lived through such things, which was immeasurably worse. Sometimes she had to remind herself that, for every man who was capable of such egregious brutality, for every Red Roger, or Duke Pritchard, or Javor Makarov… or even a William Johns… there were men like General Toal, like Cedric, Gavin, Ewan, and all the men of ait Meziane… like Riddick. Men who, although perhaps fearsome in their own ways, had too much honor to ever engage in such hideous, sadistic acts.

Men who possibly needed protection of their own from the schemes of monsters like Pritchard and Makarov.

“There’ll be stuff we need to delete, too,” she told the General. “Aside from following Kyra and me around to try to get to Riddick, he was helping Makarov track Toml— Gavin Brahim. I don’t think we want everything he recorded about that where people can nose into it… and I don’t want any of the pictures he took of Kyra and me getting out.”

“Agreed. We will curate this collection carefully.”

Jack logged them in and they got to work. It wasn’t long before she let him take over almost entirely, looking away as he examined the different image collections that Pritchard had assembled and chose examples from each collection to include in their fictional pervert’s stash.

“Hmm,” he said at one point. “I recognize three of the women so far. Former fugitives now serving prison terms… I think their sentences may end up being vacated on the strength of this evidence.”

“That’s… good, right?”

General Toal sighed. “Possibly. Unfortunately, I doubt they will receive much compensation or assistance, aside from being released and having the relevant crimes expunged from their records. Few in their positions do.”

“Is there anything you can do to help them?”

He shook his head, looking somber and a little regretful. “I suspect that this release of information is as much as I can personally do for them. Any overt intervention on my part could draw too much attention to what I might know about Pritchard and Makarov, myself… and how I might have learned it.”

Shit. “Yeah…”

Maybe, she thought, someday there would be something she could do. Her father had told her about working with various NGOs, when he was stationed on different worlds, which had provided targeted aid to groups in need. Maybe she could join, or if need be create, one that would help victims of these kinds of crimes—

“Dear God.”

“What?” Jack looked over at General Toal. “Something bad?”

The General was frowning, advancing through a series of pictures. Bracing herself, Jack leaned over to look.

Nothing remotely pornographic was on the screen anymore. Instead, a surveillance camera showed a man dressed in traditional Amazigh attire, a tagelmust covering his head and obscuring most of his face, exiting a swanky-looking restaurant, the image taken from behind him. It vanished and was replaced by a new shot, from a different angle—

Jack recognized this frame. The surveillance camera it originated from had been covering the entrance to the pilots’ lounge. The same man was emerging from the lounge, partly turned as though waving goodbye to whomever had brought him as a guest. She remembered watching him leave the lounge when she’d reviewed the footage.

Glancing at her, his expression suddenly a little wary, the General closed the folder without advancing through further pictures. “I don’t understand why they would be so interested in collecting stills of the people they murdered that day,” he said. “I may wish to examine this more closely… but I think its presence would cloud the investigation we wish to see pursued.”

As she watched, he took a chip out of his pocket, connected it to the tablet, and transferred three folders to it—none of them from the “Bad Kitties” folder—before deleting them from Pritchard’s account.

Jack had the strange feeling that some kind of sleight-of-hand had just occurred, but at the same time, she didn’t feel any ill intent coming off of the General… more a sense that he had just done something to protect someone else. Maybe it was, as she’d pondered earlier, someone who would be harmed by the scrutiny that even drawing the two mercs’ interest could generate. One of the other folders, she realized, was the one that contained the surveillance pictures of her and Kyra.

He already knows who we are, and he’s risking a shit-ton to hide us from his own bosses…

Whatever else he was hiding, whoever else he might be protecting, she’d let it slide. It probably wasn’t any of her business.

“There is,” he said slowly, pocketing the chip again, “one more thing I need to discuss with you while we’re here. If you and Kyra haven’t already begun to plan your exit strategy off this world, now is the time to do so.”

“Why?” Jack already had her exit in place, but his words sent a chill through her anyway.

“Because it’s only a matter of time before a formal investigation of the repeated calamities at the spaceport is initiated by the Federacy,” he told her. “Such investigations always include at least two esper Operatives. One of the things they will be looking for…”

He locked eyes with her, and she could feel him willing her to understand how serious the matter was.

“…is evidence of someone like you.”

Identity Theft, Chapter 45

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 45/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Jack’s impromptu mission has been a success… but there may be repercussions that no one could possibly anticipate… or even imagine.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

45.
Infinity Minus One

Where are you? Are you all right?

Ewan had sent the message to her tablet an hour earlier. Fuck. Everybody was probably freaking out.

Jack grabbed her massive sandwich and bit down as she keyed in a reply. She was ravenous.

I’m okay. Comm died. Don’t ask. Not on record.

She’d have to delete any trace of their communications later, just in case. A reply appeared on her screen after a moment.

Understood. Be safe. Come home soon.

Be safe… This day, Jack thought, had gotten absurdly complicated.

The last artifacts from the Scarlet Matador had been disposed of, though. She had carried them down to the receding waters of Elsewhere and, one by one, had flung all sixteen pilfered murder trophies as far out to sea as she could. Then she had hiked—slowly, but her ankle had thankfully stopped bitching after half an hour—to one of the piers in U1. She’d picked a touristy pier open to the public, isomorphed back in a sheltered location, and waded into the surf, slogging through the actual waters of U1’s Mutawassit Ocean before climbing onto the pier holding out her now-dead, dripping comm for everyone to see, muttering in Arabic about her stupid cousin Abu and no warranty against saltwater corrosion. Everybody in hearing range had given her sympathetic looks, one man suggesting she try putting it in a bowl of rice anyway, just in case.

She’d even done that, buying a bowl of uncooked rice from a chain restaurant that only English-speaking tourists seeking “Traditional American Cuisine” frequented, and that she’d also bought her ginormous meal from. The dead comm—which she’d deliberately immersed, herself, to create her alibi for how soaked her pants had gotten in another universe’s ocean—sat in the bowl off to her side while she stuffed her face with everything she’d ordered, feeling ridiculously famished and exhausted.

Apparently isomorphing the way she had, controlling her presence in and interactions with two universes at the same time, took a lot of calories out of a girl.

Kilometers away, the news on her tablet reported that downtown New Marrakesh was dealing with another security incident. Jack imagined that the moment Ewan or one of his relatives had seen that the Quintessa Corporation building was at the incident’s center, they’d begun trying to reach her comm. It had been a whole universe away at the time, and she’d dunked it too quickly, upon her return to U1, for it to hook back up to the comm system and inform her of their calls.

She’d need to buy a replacement when she bought the third tablet, on her way back up to the Rif. All this cloak-and-dagger bullshit was hard on tech.

But first she needed to eat and drink her weight in food.

Shit, she thought moments later as Cedric walked into the restaurant, right as she was finishing her first sandwich. I forgot to make the second tablet untraceable again… Half the family had connections to military and law enforcement; they’d probably been waiting for her to reply so they could lock onto her signal and come find her.

Outside, she could see Takama and General Toal sitting in the front seats of a vehicle. She wondered which one of them had sprung for the tech to locate her.

Honestly, though, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t just told them where she was and asked them to come get her. Other than the persistent, gnawing belief that she’d be imposing on them if she did.

“Welcome to the afterparty,” she muttered as Cedric sat down across from her. “Y’want anything?”

“What happened to your comm?” he asked, gesturing at the rice bowl.

“Sploosh, into the ocean. On purpose. I needed a good alibi for why I was soaked to the waist.” She stuffed several fries into her mouth before he could ask another question. While she chewed, she could see him taking in the size of her massive order—one “Mega Mac” down, one to go, and a “family size” order of skinny, salty “American Style French Fries”—and studying her more closely.

“You look exhausted. Why are you soaked to the waist?”

“I’ll tell you on the way back? It’s kinda…” She glanced around at the half-empty establishment—somehow, she kept missing lunch and then eating like a fiend to make up for it—before continuing. “…hush-hush. I swear, today I could eat my weight in crickets…”

“Miss? Can we get boxes and a bag for my daughter’s order?” Cedric asked a passing waitress. “And if she ordered dessert, that to go, too. Did you order dessert, Tizzy?”

“Not yet. I was gonna get apple pie. Haven’t had that in more than a year…” Damn, she was feeling sleepy.

“Do you have an entire pie? Actually, do you have two? I think the rest of the family would enjoy that too.” Cedric took out his card and offered it to the waitress. “Please put everything on here.”

“I’m hanging onto the fries for the ride,” Jack told Cedric as he boxed up the rest of her food. To her amusement, he poured the uncooked rice into a paper bag and pushed the comm back inside it, adding that to the to-go bag.

Once everything had been paid for and gathered up, Jack followed Cedric outside and to the waiting vehicle, which had a military surplus look to it. Maybe the General owned it? He was behind the wheel. Takama had a device in her hand, switched off, that Jack suspected had been used to find her.

“We are quite eager,” General Toal said once the vehicle was in motion, “to hear about your adventures today.”

“Which,” Takama added, “do not appear to have taken place anywhere near your old apartment.”

“Yeah… about that…” Jack shook her head. “I was getting ready to go there when I remembered I still needed to check for anything else that was straddling universes before Quintessa could find it.”

“There was more?” Cedric asked.

“Yeah. K—Dihya and I—”

“You can call Miss Wittier-Collins by her real name when we’re alone,” the General said as he turned a corner. “We all know it.”

Hoo boy. Just as long as they hadn’t figured out her real name…

“When Kyra and I first got here and were just figuring out the rules, a bunch of the stuff we brought with us got wrecked by our first high tide. We didn’t understand the significance of that yet when we threw it all out. I had to track all that stuff down. Then I was using my telescope to look up into the towers all the other survivors stayed in, in case they left anything behind, when I saw something in the Quintessa Corporation building that was definitely straddling universes.”

“And what did you find there?” The General asked. This, Jack realized, was a debriefing.

“Sixteen apeirochorons.” It was only at that moment that she realized she’d unconsciously counted them as she liberated their contents.

“What is an apeirochoron?” Takama asked. “Ewan mentioned that the other day, but I do not know what it means.”

“It’s a geometry term, I think,” Jack said. “It’s a cube. But it’s not a three-dimensional cube. It’s an infinite-dimensional cube.”

“Infinite dimensions?”

“Yeah. Like… it exists here and now in a very specific place in our universe… and it exists in that same location of every other universe at the same time.” The Apeiros had described it to her without language, or maybe in the less articulable language of pure mathematics itself, and she was struggling to find the right words. “There was one on board the Scarlet Matador. When I managed to push it out of this universe, I broke that one. Nearly broke me, too.”

“How did that break it?” Cedric asked.

“What’s infinity minus one?” Jack countered.

“Still infinity, according to mathematics.”

“Yeah, but what if it isn’t?” She argued, trying to explain something that she had learned in one of her not-dreams and that still hurt her head. “What if, by taking away that one, you’ve made the infinite finite?”

“This is not a hypothetical situation you’re posing, is it?” General Toal asked as he wound the vehicle up toward the Rif. “This is what happened to the box you found on the Matador. When it ceased to exist in this universe…”

“I don’t know for sure, but the Apeiros think it’s collapsing in all the universes now.”

Like a knitted scarf slowly unraveling once a single stitch was lost…

“Is that why they didn’t want you to do it?” Takama asked.

“No, they were afraid doing it’d kill me. They seem to think it’s a good thing that it’s collapsing. I think. It’s hard to tell with them sometimes.”

“What about these new boxes you found?” The General asked after a moment. “Is the new security situation because you broke one or more of them?”

“Unh-uh,” Jack said, swallowing the last bit of the cooling fry she’d been chewing while the General spoke. “That would’ve knocked me out cold again. Or maybe dead. But these ones weren’t sealed. They were being used to hold items the Corporation stole from the hospital after the first high tide got everybody evacuated. Stuff everybody’d lost when they left or died, that didn’t get taken to the morgue. Stuff that could’ve been analyzed to learn more about Elsewhere.”

“‘Stuff’ that I presume you liberated?” General Toal couldn’t quite hide his smile when she nodded. “And that’s why they locked down a three-block radius around their building. And you spent your next hour…?”

“Throwing it all as far out to sea as I could, putting a few klicks between me and downtown before I returned to U1, and making up a plausible explanation for why I was soaked.”

“Her explanation,” Cedric said as the General pulled into the ait Meziane garage, “was that her comm fell into the water by the pier and she had to fish it out. Which is why she still wasn’t answering our calls once she returned to this universe.”

“Sorry,” Jack muttered, and then ate the last of her fries.

“Are you always so hungry and tired after a venture into Elsewhere?” the General asked as he parked.

“Only when I do something big. Like moving a whole fu—freakin’ spaceship or making a floor in one ’verse hold me up in another…” Jack yawned. “Shit, I still have so much to do…”

“I think your other ‘mission’ can wait until this evening-day, yes?” Takama said. “In fact, that gives Dr. Robie more time to get away from the comm he has been carrying around.”

“Yeah… I think it’ll have to wait,” Jack admitted as Cedric helped her out of the vehicle and led her toward the stairs. “I need my second sandwich…”

And then a nap. A long nap.

“I have Tislilel!” Cedric called out as they emerged on the ground level of the house. “And apple pie!” He pitched his voice lower for her sake. “You may have a slice before or after your sandwich, as you please.”

“I’d better give you guys a head start on the pie or I might eat the whole thing in one gulp—

An instant later, she had been lifted into an almost-crushing hug by a pair of strong arms, only her toes still touching the ground.

“I was so worried about you…” Ewan whispered, holding her tightly to him.

Her reaction had nothing to do with worry.

Kyra cleared her throat loudly nearby.

“Zdan!” Safiyya said sharply. “Let the poor girl breathe.”

Ewan released her, looking like a man just coming to his senses after blacking out for a moment. “Sorry…”

Everyone, including Kyra, was giving him charged looks, but nobody was saying a damn thing.

The elephant in this room is fucking ginormous, Jack thought, now feeling breathless, and could feel Kyra suppressing a laugh in response.

Cedric led the way into the dining room while Jack caught her breath and Ewan got his embarrassed blush under control, everyone pretending that they couldn’t see either of them even as they tried not to look at each other.

“So. What kind of adventure did you have downtown?” Safiyya asked as she set out plates and forks for everyone.

Jack threw a pleading glance at Cedric as she lifted her second “Mega Mac” out of the bag.

For the next few minutes, while she concentrated on eating, Cedric retold her story with a fair degree accuracy and even more flair. Jack found herself thinking that it was much like listening to her father narrating one of his probably autobiographical Adventures of Jack B. Badd, back when he’d still told her bedtime stories. It all sounded like such a charming scrape now, but she remembered being more than a little scared the whole time…

…not to mention feeling an infuriated disgust at the idea that the Corporation, or even just the envoy, was keeping trophies from their victims…

Kyra turned and gave her a knowing look. Better they think it was a charming scrape than we give them another reason to want to lock us up for our own good, right?

Yeah… “I know it all sounds really impulsive… but… only because I didn’t think to mention that I needed to finish that job first before starting on my next one. And ’cause I had no idea I’d need to go after those boxes to do it.”

So yeah, she admitted to herself, really impulsive…

She was glad she didn’t have to tell them about her ankle. And at least, she suddenly thought, she could eat. She’d probably have had no appetite at all by then if she’d gone with her original plans. Maybe that was why she’d found an excuse to put those plans off…?

“We’re just glad you’re safe,” Lalla said, setting a slice of the apple pie in front of her. The rest, she realized, had been divided among everyone else at the table. Probably for the best.

“Thank you.” She was, finally, beginning to feel like she might be approaching full… but not until she had at least some of her pie.

“There is, however,” Tafrara said with a stern voice, “another matter that we need to discuss with you.”

Uh oh…

Tafrara held up the scorecard, pointing to the 0 Jack had put next to her name. “Really? Really? We’re going to need an instant replay of this.”

Judging by the sighs and laughter around the table, Jack wasn’t the only one feeling sudden relief. It occurred to her that everybody, including Kyra, was trying very hard not to scold her for scaring them yet again. Had they worried Tafrara was about to break some agreed-upon approach for dealing with her?

Definitely not telling them I fell off the stairs… Or, well, through a wall. She was suddenly twice as glad that her ankle hadn’t even been sprained.

Kyra’s breath hitched and she turned a searing look on Jack. Don’t make me take their side… Jeez. Can’t leave you alone for a minute…

Jack napped for a few hours, Sebby insisting on sleeping beside her head the whole time, and woke shortly before dinnertime. The sun was shining directly into the courtyard, still about six hours away from actual high noon, but summer-intense enough already that nobody wanted to actually walk through it and instead took longer detours through the house to reach the dining room. Her ravenous appetite was back.

Thanks to her excursion, she learned, and also to her nap, she had missed two of the Tai Chi sessions that Ewan and Tafrara had started up for Kyra. That, it turned out, had been the big surprise Tafrara had hinted at the night before.

“It’s so good, Tizzy, you need to try it,” Kyra said, seeming to prefer that sobriquet to Jack. “It’s slow, didn’t pull my stitches at all, but after we were done, I felt like I’d had a real workout.”

“You had,” Ewan laughed. “Slow and controlled takes as much effort as any other kind of action. More, sometimes.”

Usadden picked that moment to swallow wrong. Jack wasn’t sure why both Ewan and Tafrara promptly shot him glares.

“That sounds amazing,” Jack said. Usadden, still sputtering, excused himself from the table and went into the kitchen for a moment.

“We’ll hold another session after the overnoon sleep,” Ewan told her. “Perhaps you can join it before you go off on your next, hopefully easier, adventure.”

“I’d like that.” She’d seen vids of people doing Tai Chi and had wondered about its slow pace. If Kyra said it was the real deal, though, it undoubtedly was.

“So,” Tafrara said as the table was being cleared, “it’s time for us to settle the matter of the crickets. Definitively.”

Izil and Ewan both began laughing.

“Yes, we need proof of this,” Izil agreed.

“Okay…” Jack felt herself struggling not to smirk. “C’mon up… you can watch and learn.”

Kyra began snickering.

Everybody wanted to see. Practically the whole family, plus the General, followed Jack upstairs as she carried Sebby’s singing box.

This, she thought to herself, was going to be fun.

Sebby was a little bit nervous when so many people came into the room, but it was dinnertime and that part had him ecstatic. While he bounced on the bed and shrieked at her to hurry, she knelt down in front of the tub and lowered the cricket box inside. Winking at Kyra, she isomorphed herself and the cardboard into Elsewhere, letting the crickets spill out into the tub and vanishing from everyone’s sight except her sister’s.

The room erupted in gasps of astonishment. Sebby hesitated for a second and then leapt into the tub to begin the carnage in earnest.

Jack stood up, holding the box in front of her, and reappeared in U1. Opening its lid, she tilted it forward so that everyone could see that it was empty of any crickets. “Tah-dah!”

“You cheater!” Ewan exclaimed, his expression one of pure delight.

“That’s not cheating,” Jack told him, laughing.

“Oh no?” He stepped forward, his smile wide and giving the lie to the faux scowl he was trying to effect. “How is that not cheating?”

“’Cause it’s skill,” she replied, walking toward him in mock challenge. “I got skill.”

“Skill at cheating,” he teased back, eyes dancing with humor as he stepped closer. “I’m calling foul on this…”

“Oh yeah? What’s the penalty?” She found herself grinning up at him, inches from him, daring him to…

…to what, exactly?

“The penalty is… tickling!” He laughed, his hands going for her ribs and startling a squeak out of her!

The rush of feeling that exploded through her was almost nothing like being tickled, though—

Kyra coughed loudly.

“Okay, enough of that,” Cedric said with strangely forced levity, moving between them. Jack found herself backing up and then sitting down abruptly on the foot of her bed. How had she gotten so out of breath again? Her heart was racing—

“What do the judges think of the instant replay?” Tafrara asked everyone, her tone odd. Ewan had turned away, nodding at something his father was murmuring in his ear.

“I think the score is valid,” General Toal said. “Zero and zero.”

“Agreed,” Lalla said. Izil nodded.

“Perhaps we should allow our ‘cricket champion’ to rest,” Safiyya said, ushering everyone out of the room.

Jack was still regaining her equilibrium as they left; they were gone before exactly what had happened really sank in.

“I swear, you two are like… some kind of dangerous chemical reaction,” Kyra said, sitting down next to her on the bed.

“My cousins and I teased each other all the time that way,” Jack found herself protesting. “Nothing like that ever happened when we did…”

“Like I said, it’s the combination of the two of you,” Kyra replied. “Never seen anything like it, myself. If you could bottle it, people’d pay billions for it.”

“This sucks,” Jack grumbled. “We’re trying to just… be…”

Friends? Siblings? Cousins? Something, anything that would let them retain the powerful emotional connection that had blossomed between them without it veering into hormonal chaos. But the chaos kept taking over.

“Maybe, in five years or so, you can come back and see if those crazy-huge sparks still fly,” Kyra said.

“If we can break our trails well enough,” Jack sighed. Why did that suddenly stir a tickle of fear in her? The hungry ache Ewan’s touch had awakened in her had abruptly disappeared.

“That video of yours probably will,” Kyra chuckled. “Everybody’s gonna be looking for our trail on Shakti Four now, right? It’d probably be a bad idea for either of us to ever go there.”

“A very bad idea,” Jack agreed, glad that the subject had, more or less, moved on. She shivered against a sudden chill. “It’s a big world, though, right? Plenty of places Riddick and his two… hench-bitches…

Kyra laughed. “That’s us, yeah.”

“…could go to ground for years. Aside from one or two big cities where most of the population lives, it’s all wild frontier. I could see him liking a place like that.” It should have been a comforting thought, but somehow it wasn’t. Her mouth felt weirdly dry. The cold seemed to be deepening, even though it was a bright, hot day outside. The hairs on her arms, she noticed, were standing straight up.

“I could see me liking a place like that, too,” Kyra sighed. “Damn.”

“So mercs might spend years looking for him on that one world…” Jack continued, trying to slow down her heart—which had begun racing again—and quiet the growing sense of foreboding that was filling her, “and we can go anywhere else we want, maybe even—”

Whatever Jack had been about to say next was lost in a sudden surging flood of panic.

“Tizzy? Tizzy, are you okay?”

She felt ice cold. Her heart was hammering. Pure terror was flowing into her, not her own, but from somewhere close by, somewhere…

“Something’s wrong!” Kyra shouted.

No, no, no, please no… no… please don’t make me… please… no more…

Those weren’t her thoughts. It wasn’t her terror. But it was consuming her.

I’ll die, I’ll die, please don’t make me…

“Something’s wrong!” Kyra screamed, from far, far away.

Jack could hear footsteps and shouts as people poured back into the bedroom. She could see the ornate ceiling above her, feel the bed beneath her back…

But she was somewhere else. Somewhere dark, cramped, shot with pain…

Screaming. Not her. Only a tiny thread of sound could escape her constricted throat.

The Apeiros were screaming. The spangled darkness behind her eyes was full of their terror.

Help me… please help me…

Jack flung herself forward, reaching out toward the voice.

I’m here! I’m here! I—

The world went dark.


Break it open… do it now…

We will keep you safe…

You will not die…

…yet…

We will not let the demons find you.


Stone that wasn’t stone cracked, splintered, shivered into dust and vanished into nothing. Ripples spread out, twisting across dimensions. Something tiny but enormous clutched her hand.


Floating… drifting in a shattered oblivion…

Rest now, little larva. You have done well.

Something was unraveling, an impossible equation breaking down before her not-eyes.

Infinity minus one…

Infinity broken.

You will not die.

Long, black legs, tipped with claws, emerged from the gaping tear in reality.


Sebby hissed beside her, rising up, stinger flailing…

“It’s okay, Sebby. She won’t hurt me…”

He slowly backed away, stinger still lashing with agitation, as She approached, void-black appendages reaching toward Jack’s face. A thousand eyes gazing down upon her… A million eyes… infinite eyes…

Infinity unchained, uncontained…

this infinity unbroken and…

…rising.

Little larva, what you have done will never be forgotten…

Her obsidian skin contained the shine of galaxies.

…by us.

One delicate tarsus touched Jack’s forehead… and something vanished. There was an empty space where once there had been terrible knowledge, peace where there had been crushing anguish.

One day, you may remember, too.

The door to the bedroom opened.

Reality twisted and She was gone.


Takama entered the bedroom, carrying an I-V pole. Usadden and Ewan followed behind her, both carrying I-V bags and monitoring equipment. They stopped, their morose expressions dissolving into astonishment.

Jack sat up in bed, yawning, wiping at her wet cheeks. She looked around. By the shadows, it was nearly high noon. Had she fallen asleep? The last thing she remembered… was…

Baraka,” she heard three voices say in unison. A saline bag dropped from Ewan’s hand to the floor.

Sebby climbed onto her lap, his stinger tucked away. She thought that it had been out a moment ago, but that made no sense. Had he been trying to protect her from something? She stroked his carapace, and he caressed her arm with his antennae. She’d been feeding Sebby, she remembered, and then…

She’d been dreaming, she thought. A strange dream about demons in the darkness—no, of the darkness—and a creature whose n-shape was both impossible to look at and too beautiful to look away from…

…and an unraveling scarf?

“Hi guys,” she said, wondering why they were staring at her so strangely. “What’s going on?”

As if things weren’t already weird enough, a loud, rumbling boom struck at that moment. The emergency alerts on three comms and one tablet started going off a few seconds later.

Identity Theft, Chapter 44

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 44/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Avoiding a nauseating task, Jack goes on a solo mission. It doesn’t go as planned.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

44.
Any Box Could Be Pandora’s

Jack’s letter of employment from the Sirius Corporation was waiting for her when she woke up. “Marianne Tepper” had officially been hired.

She had an odd memory of speaking with the Apeiros and asking them to help her not dream… or to pull her back into their “space” if her dreams became troubled. Maybe it had worked, because she had no memory of any other dreams, but felt surprisingly well-rested given how wretched she’d felt when she’d closed her eyes.

As she had suspected they might, the Sirius Corporation had bypassed the formal interview—one would be held, more or less, when she arrived at the orbital shipyard and they checked her in—and instead had sent her all of the forms a new hire had to fill out. She completed and returned them before Kyra began to stir.

The countdown, she thought, had truly begun for her.

Ewan’s leave would end in two evening-days; his family had been discussing his planned send-off as they walked to the garden grove the evening-day before. Two morning-days after that, it would be Jack’s turn to go. The Sirius Corporation had included information about her reservation on its shuttle to the shipyards that evening-day; she just needed to make sure she was in New Casablanca in plenty of time for it. She booked her ticket immediately, using one of the new funding cards she had picked up from the drop she’d finally visited the day before. Most of the other cards would go to Kyra; all of Jack’s expenses would be paid for once she boarded the Nephrite Undine, and the payout for flying it to Deckard’s World was an almost obscene amount that would easily fund her return home and whatever cover stories she needed to concoct once she got there.

Now she could focus on getting through the next few days.

“So,” Kyra murmured from the pillow next to her, “you got good news?”

“Yeah. Got a route back to— home…” At the last second, she reminded herself that, even though she was finally at the point where she was okay with telling Kyra where home was, they’d agreed that she shouldn’t. Damn. “…leaving three morning-days from now. If all goes as planned, I’ll be back long before my fifteenth birthday.”

“How much younger than that will you actually be?” Kyra asked, smirking. Jack had, after all, told the first group therapy session she’d attended that she was thirteen, and only three Standard months outside of cryo had passed since then.

“Just about fourteen when I get home,” Jack admitted. “I’ve lost nine months to cryo so far. Hopefully I won’t seem too much younger than my official age when I get back.”

“You’ll look different than they remember, I bet, enough to keep them from thinking you should’ve changed even more. I mean, you shot up in height while we were in the hospital.” Kyra snickered at Jack’s shocked look. “Seriously. You didn’t notice? You were two inches shorter than me when you got there. Now we’re the same height. You’ve been on a helluva growth spurt.

“1.73 meters…” Jack said with awe. “I saw it on my charts two evening-days ago and couldn’t figure it out. I was 1.63 meters when I left— home…”

“I don’t think you’re done growing yet, either, not with the appetite you’ve got,” Kyra told her. “Your family run tall?”

“My dad’s side, yeah. My mom’s side isn’t as tall, but yeah.” Her father was 1.9 meters, the same height as most of the men in the Tomlin-Meziane family. Back on Deckard’s World, though, they used old Imperial measurements, just like twentieth century Americans had; by that reckoning, her father was 6’3”, her mother was 5’6”, and she had been 5’4” when her Missing posters would have gone up, and had just crossed the 5’8” mark on her way to god-knew-what. Kyra, she noticed, used feet and inches, too. But Audrey’s father had insisted on teaching her the metric system concurrently with the Imperial; as ex-military and an engineer, he’d considered it both more precise and more valuable to a life in the wider Federacy.

“Bet you get another inch or two before you stop,” Kyra chuckled beside her. “C’mon… let’s go have breakfast. No more room service unless one of us gets sick or hurt, y’know.”

“Except for Sebby,” Jack laughed, climbing out of bed. “Sebby gets room service.”

Reeeeee? The crustacean in question peeked out from beneath the dresser, where he’d apparently been playing.

“Only because Lalla doesn’t want crickets hopping around in her kitchen,” Kyra laughed back. “Don’t worry, Sebby, we’ll bring you your food soon.”

Sebby chirped happily and vanished under the dresser again.

“I swear, he understands everything we say…”

General Toal was at the table with everyone when they entered, Jack noticed. She wondered if he was staying at the house as a guest. Everyone seemed relaxed around him, though. Maybe he was a regular guest.

Cedric waited until the meal was ending before bringing up the previous night. “We really are sorry about jumping to so many conclusions last night, Tizzy,” he said. “And for overstepping where your liberties are concerned.” His gaze turned to Kyra. “We won’t try to parent you, Dihya. It’s hard not to want to, but… we understand how you feel about it.”

“Thank you,” Kyra murmured, but she set her fork down with food still on it and didn’t pick it back up.

“I’m sorry, too, about not telling you where I was going or anything,” Jack said. “So I should probably tell you that I need to go out for a while, today, to do some things I can’t do here.”

Takama gave her an inquiring look.

“Duke Pritchard brought the bomb into the spaceport,” she told them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw General Toal come to complete alertness, his teacup freezing millimeters from his lips. “The man in the bomber video is Javor Makarov. They’ve worked together a lot. I have evidence I need to release into the wild, but if law enforcement is gonna be able to use it, it has to go out in a way that doesn’t disqualify it from use. Which means I need to do some pretty illegal things to make it look like Pritchard himself accidentally released it. Things I don’t want ever getting traced back here.”

“So you’re going back to the apartment again,” Takama said, her voice soft.

“Yeah. Probably for a few hours.” Jack swallowed. Looking through Pritchard’s files again, making sure she created a trail that would lead law enforcement back to his and Makarov’s Merc Network accounts, making sure none of the surveillance pictures he’d taken of her and Kyra still existed, was going to be a hideous ordeal. At least, if she ended up stress-puking again, the family wouldn’t hear her doing it—

“Someone should go with you—” Ewan said. Tafrara jostled his arm, her expression scolding. “…Like Tafrara—”

“No,” Jack said too quickly. “I… don’t want anybody to see what I’ve found. It’s really bad. I wish I hadn’t seen any of it. But when law enforcement gets it, it’ll be a game changer. Just… it’s bad enough that I had to look at it—”

Kyra, next to her, gasped in horror and covered her mouth. Fuck. Some of what she had seen must have slipped across their connection.

Everyone was looking at Kyra with concern now. She swallowed, wincing, and lowered her hand after a moment. “None of you should see it,” she agreed. “Ever.”

“Won’t it come out, whatever it is?” Lalla asked.

“Not… in so much detail…” Kyra said, pushing her plate a little further way from her.

“Unfortunately, the only way to ensure that it is acted upon at all is a wide release,” General Toal rumbled. “The Universal Mercenary Registry is a powerful organization with a history of evading law enforcement oversight and having warrants voided. You will need to get your data into the public sector, into the hands of people who can and will broadcast it widely, who have high profiles and strong credibility, to ensure it isn’t covered up again.”

“Pretty sure it’s a Federacy crime to broadcast those kinds of pictures,” Jack muttered without thinking, and heard Safiyya gasp.

But she was already mulling it over, thinking about major news outlets that, even if they could never show the pictures themselves, could raise enough of a stink about their mere existence to prevent anyone from being able to sweep it under a rug. Especially if it was obvious that Makarov was also the bomber every law enforcement agency in the Tangiers system was seeking…

What if some random perv reached out to law enforcement and the press, claiming that the porn he’d been collecting starred the bomber, providing just enough examples to prove that multiple class-one felonies had been perpetrated by Makarov, and giving Pritchard’s Merc Network address as the original source…?

Nobody would find it even a little suspicious that the hypothetical sicko was using a brand-new, anonymized account to reach out from, given that whoever it was would have enjoyed those kinds of pictures and only came forward at all because of the bombing.

It could work. She’d just need another new tablet, because the one she’d do it all with would be forever contaminated—

The table, she realized, had gone deathly silent. She looked up. Everyone was gazing at her with similar expressions of sad comprehension and empathy. It was dangerous for her to meet their eyes right now. She focused on Ewan, on what she needed to tell him, avoiding his eyes and looking at his throat instead as she talked.

“Your pirate friend, the one who has Pritchard’s comm… you need to get word to him to get rid of it and get as far away from it as possible. It’s about to become serious hazmat. Especially given the places he’s been taking it.”

“You gave it to Robie?” Usadden asked.

Ewan answered with a curt nod.

“It is not what you think,” Usadden told her, “although under the circumstances, I can see why you might think it… and why it would fit a little too well. Dr. Robie is a gynecologist with the Tangiers Department of Health.”

The absurdity of that—the mental image of a man, who looked like he belonged in an ancient Disney vid about Caribbean pirates, traveling by motorcycle from brothel to brothel to perform state-mandated health checks—startled a laugh out of Jack, a much louder one than was appropriate. She covered her mouth, trying to rein it in.

“I’ll let him know.” Ewan’s voice was subdued, sober.

Nobody at the table was touching their food now. Fuck.

“I’m sorry,” Jack said, getting up. “I didn’t mean to say any of this. I didn’t want any of you to have to know. I’m gonna… go get started…”

“You shouldn’t have to do this alone,” Takama said.

“Shouldn’t…” Jack said in part agreement, wishing that even half of the shoulds everyone cherished so much could be real. “Have to.”

She picked up the singing box of crickets, sitting on a small table by the courtyard doorway, and left before things could get even more complicated.

There was a scorecard attached to the box, she noticed as she carried it upstairs.

How Many Crickets?

The title had been written in both English and Tamazight. Different names had different tallies. Izil had two numbers beside his name: 3 and 5. Tafrara had 7 and 4. Ewan had 8 and 5. Kyra had a 4 by her “Dihya” name. Lalla had a 9. No numbers were by Jack’s name—well, “Tizzy”—yet, but they’d given her a line.

It wasn’t how many crickets were in the box, she realized, but how many would jump onto her when she opened the box. That was what she would need to write in.

Except I know how to make it a zero… It’d give her a chance to practice her new trick.

Sebby leapt onto the bed, bouncing and chittering with excitement, when he heard the cricket song. Jack grinned at him and walked over to his tub, kneeling down and setting the box inside it, and then resting her hands on the box. She focused, for a moment, on the texture and dimensions of the cardboard under her fingers.

The floor of U1, beneath my legs, supports me whether I am in U1 or Elsewhere, she thought carefully. And I am now in Elsewhere, too, and so is this cardboard box… but only the cardboard part, not any of the things inside it, no matter how hard they cling… and I am all the way in Elsewhere with the box now

The floor held her up. The box vanished from U1, staying firmly in her hands on the other side of the threshold. Within the tub in U1, hundreds of crickets spilled out, their chirps stilling for an instant. Sebby shrieked with delight and leapt into the tub, chomping the first crickets in easy reach of his mandibles.

Exhaling, Jack lifted the cardboard box away, stood up, and isomorphed back into U1 before opening its lid carefully.

No crickets had remained inside.

She found a pen in the bedroom’s desk drawer and put a 0 by her name on the scorecard, setting the box next to the door.

She wished she’d known this particular parlor trick back when Pritchard had invaded the apartment. She could have dispatched him without Kyra even needing to wake up.

Yeah, but then Toombs and Logan would’ve been banging down our door because his comm’s last-known address would’ve been our building…

And, as much as what she’d seen in Pritchard’s account made her gorge rise, she’d never have gained access to it and wouldn’t be able to let the worlds know who had bombed the spaceport.

It was sickening to think that the violence of that night, including Kyra getting stabbed, might have been the best possible outcome.

I need out of this life…

Not life itself, she amended. Just this one.

But Ewan was in this life, and Kyra, and Sebby, and this amazing family…

And I can’t keep any of them. I’m gonna lose them all. Whether I stay or go, and if I try to stay it’ll probably end up being a much worse loss. The thought left her feeling strangled.

As much as she needed to go home, a huge part of her never wanted to leave this place and the family she’d found. The thought that she might, possibly, never see any of them again was hard to face.

She gathered her things, everything she would need for the day—including, she decided, her telescope—and isomorphed over to Elsewhere before leaving the room. She wasn’t in any condition to talk to anyone. She might start bawling her eyes out if she did.

The tide had only just receded, and was still close enough that she could hear it washing in and out nearby, as she reached the wet sand on the ground level. She hadn’t needed to concentrate quite as hard, this time, to keep the surfaces of U1 supporting her. Soon, she suspected, she’d be able to do it subconsciously, and then unconsciously as she continued practicing the new skill.

Okay, first things first, she told herself, aware that she was suddenly procrastinating. Look around New Marrakesh for anything still floating in Elsewhere that shouldn’t be… hopefully there won’t be anything to find, but if there is, hopefully I can get to it before anyone from Quintessa does…

Once that was done, she’d pick up another tablet to use just for her incursions into the Merc Network, and other parts of what her father had always called the Dark Zone and admonished her to stay far away from. She’d set up an account for her fictitious pervert, populate it with “gifts” from Pritchard, and then have the “perv” reach out to a variety of law enforcement and news agencies with just enough evidence to set everyone onto Pritchard’s and Makarov’s trail.

But before she did that, she reminded herself, she had to make sure anything Pritchard had learned about her, or about the Tomlin-Meziane family, was long gone from his account and unrecoverable.

Bonus if I can find something in there that connects him to the Quintessa Corporation and rains fire down on their heads if it comes out…

She pulled out her telescope and got down to business.

An hour later, she’d found several items that she and Kyra had unthinkingly thrown out during their first days in New Marrakesh, including the wigs they had worn that had been ruined by their first high tide. It took another hour to finish reaching all of them and bring them fully into Elsewhere. Her ruined video screen from the Matador, which someone had apparently salvaged from the trash for parts, forced her to carefully climb the phantom steps of a twelve-story building in order to retrieve it and all of its little pieces, something that gave her mild fear of heights an extreme workout and made her wish she’d asked Kyra to accompany her. She got it done, though, and even managed to resist the temptation to kiss the ground once she’d painstakingly made her way back down. As the waters continued to recede in Elsewhere, she followed them down into town, searching for anything small and fencible that one of the orderlies might have helped themselves to.

Nothing.

Maybe they only made the move when they realized they wouldn’t get another chance, she thought. They were supposed to inventory the bodies and personal effects to get them ready for transfer to the Quintessa Corporation… maybe that’s when someone decided to grab those earrings and the cash…

It more or less made sense. Especially if the thief had control over the inventory sheets and could make sure it looked like the missing items had never been there to begin with.

She hoped that was the case. Her life would be a whole lot easier if that were the case.

She did one final look around, sweeping the telescope across the area. Othman Tower and Mansour Plaza were still clear; none of the survivors had left anything behind when they’d been evacuated from either of those buildings. Same for the hospital tower. She swept wider—

…the fuck?…

Something was downtown, in one of the areas that housed fancy government offices and high-powered corporate headquarters. She zoomed in on it as much as the telescope would permit.

Three stories up, within an elegant glass building, hovered at least a dozen small—

Cubes.

“Fuck me,” Jack muttered, putting away the telescope and heading downtown.

There were more apeirochorons in New Marrakesh.


Elsewhere’s tide hadn’t fully receded when she reached the glass building, and she had to slosh through its hip-deep waters as she crossed the final city blocks. It didn’t come as a surprise to her that the corporate logo on the entrance was for the Quintessa Corporation.

Inside, the place looked almost like a movie set for one of the dystopian sci-fi vids her cousins had loved. Everything was shiny and brand-new looking, displaying none of the signs of weathering and use that even her mother’s luxe legal offices had shown. A well-coiffed and impossibly beautiful woman—too beautiful and far too poised to be anything but synthetic—waited to greet people entering the building; well-armed security guards were stationed near every entrance and every doorway further in. An ordinary burglar would never have been able to get past the front doors, she suspected.

But did any of their security extend past U1? The boxes, after all, did.

She kept her movements slow and careful as she crossed the floor, studying everything. So far, nothing on the ground level seemed to exist outside of U1. At least, nothing existed within that space in Elsewhere except salty air and sloshing tidewaters over sand, rocks, and shells. Did they have any kind of map up somewhere, she wondered, as she tried to decide which doorway might lead to a staircase or some other way of reaching the third story without slipping back into U1.

There weren’t any maps or floor plans where she could find them. Not even the ones usually required by Federacy fire codes.

It took her half an hour of quartering the ground level, as cautiously as she could, before she found stairs leading up, tucked into the back of the building. She climbed them with painstaking slowness, studying her surroundings for any sign of anything that could see or reach into Elsewhere, knots slowly twisting their way into her nerves.

Nobody knows I’m here, she thought. It was both reassuring—the Corporation had no idea it was being infiltrated—and distressing. The whole family thinks I’m at the apartment building…

Hopefully this wouldn’t be as stupid a move as she suddenly worried it was.

She took a deep breath as she reached the third story. The floor held her up, but she was starting to feel the full effects of her intense level of concentration. She’d need to find some food to eat, and a place to sit quietly for a while, when she was done here. This shit was taxing.

The cubes floated ahead of her in the space of Elsewhere, hidden behind walls in U1. She passed through those walls easily, avoiding one area that she already knew contained elevator shafts. The walls, to her, were just phantom layers between her and her quarry. She just couldn’t see what else existed in the space with the cubes until she was finally through all of those walls and inside the room that held them.

A laboratory. A laboratory inside a thick steel vault.

One of the cubes was sitting on a counter; the others were stored inside a large cabinet. The walls of the cabinet in U1 blocked her from seeing what else might be inside in that ’verse. In Elsewhere, the cubes simply hung in space, seeming to defy the laws of physics.

They were made of the same strange material as the one she’d encountered in the Scarlet Matador. Up close, they were even stranger. Metal? Stone? She couldn’t tell for sure. Maybe both. Aware that there was a camera in the room, she bypassed the cube on the counter for the moment, reached through the phantom cabinet door, and tried to lift one.

Light. Weird… given the fight the other one gave me, I was expecting it to be super heavy…

But its density was not in any one universe, she realized.

An apeirochoron simultaneously exists in every universe, occupying the same isomorphic point in spacetime in each…

How did she know that?

With a chill, she realized that they had told her that at some point, in one of the dreams that she could mostly, but not completely, remember. They had shown her an apeirochoron when they’d asked her what kinds of locks she knew how to break. And, at some point, they had whispered the rules of its existence to her, most of which she still couldn’t consciously recall.

But unlike the last one she’d encountered, these boxes, she saw, had lids. Unlike the sealed box of her dreams, and the one she’d played an almost-deadly tug-of-war with inside the Matador, they could be opened.

It was only after she lifted the first lid that she wondered if she’d just opened Pandora’s box.

Now, that’s just dumb, she told herself after nothing happened.

She put the base of the box back down, careful to set it exactly where she had picked it up from, held the lid up and away, and reached inside.

Her fingers touched something that felt like a large brooch or badge. It existed on both sides of the threshold, both in Elsewhere and U1.

Motherfuckers already had some souvenirs, she thought, shifting the object all the way into Elsewhere and pulling it out of the box and cabinet.

It was, she realized, a crew badge, complete with Captain’s bars, that had belonged to Octavia Rehnquist, the late captain of the Scarlet Matador. She, along with the rest of the crew, had been among the eighteen dead, too deeply—and deliberately—sedated to save themselves when Elsewhere’s high tide had overtaken their hospital floor. This wasn’t a souvenir; it was a murder trophy.

You absolute fuckers…

She shoved it into her pocket. She’d take it away from the building before tossing it into Elsewhere’s retreating sea, where hopefully nobody from Quintessa could ever find it.

Slowly, carefully, she opened box after box and removed the items inside: a baby’s pacifier, a soldier’s dog-tags, someone’s asthma inhaler, a cigarette lighter, a signet ring, and much more besides. She stuffed most of the items into her pack after realizing there was no way she could carry all of it in her pockets. Just as she was resettling the lid on the last of the boxes within the cabinet, she heard a soft chime and saw the security panel by the massive steel door into the lab change from red to green. The door opened a moment later as she shrugged her pack back on and slipped the second-to-last of the murder trophies, someone’s chrono, into her pocket to join the captain’s badge.

I got done not even a second too soon.

Two technicians walked into the room, followed by the Quintessa envoy.

Bitch has a real thing for wearing white, Jack thought, studying her.

The woman was at least sixty years old, probably older. She was short, around fifteen centimeters, or six inches, shorter than Jack. The shape of her face was not all that dissimilar from Kyra’s, although her nose wasn’t as narrow and her chin had no hint of a cleft like Jack’s sister’s, and her cheekbones were a bit more pronounced. She had blue eyes and snow-white hair that was unusually thick and straight for someone with so much age on her face. She wore it long, barely contained by a loose, translucent off-white scarf worn almost like a shayla but crafted more like a dupatta. Jack wondered if she was wearing that as a perfunctory gesture to the local culture, or if it had any special meaning to her.

Surely, if she had any empathy for the local culture, she wouldn’t have let her mercs dress in anything but white for Tomlin’s memorial, though. It was enlightening to see that white was what she seemed to wear all the time; she hadn’t been making any kind of special effort for the sake of Tomlin’s family and friends. She still looked like she was dressed to upstage some wedding’s hapless bride.

Only part of the envoy was in U1. As before, portions of the space she should have occupied were occluded by a malevolent darkness that no one but Jack seemed to be able to perceive. She hadn’t been able to see it, herself, when she’d been fully present in U1 at the memorial. That had been a mercy.

“I’d like to begin right away with testing,” the envoy was saying to one of the technicians in her Mary Poppins accent. “I need to understand what’s so different about this incident. You’re sure that containment has been holding for the last week?”

“Everything’s been fine, Ma’am,” the technician replied. “No anomalies recorded. The kirshbaumium is stable, as always—almost always, sorry. We waited for you before opening any of the boxes again, though.”

Jack, feeling her heart begin to race, walked over to the box on the counter and stood next to it. Whatever was inside was the final item she needed to rescue. And it had nearly been too late to do so. She was glad she’d gotten to the other boxes first, though. If she did this right, they might never be sure that the contents hadn’t simply vanished at the same time as the bodies.

“Let’s begin,” the envoy said, nodding toward the last—or, to them, first—box.

The technician pulled on a pair of protective gloves and picked up a large, heavy pair of forceps before walking over to where Jack waited. He lifted the lid on the box and slid the forceps inside, starting to draw out a pearl necklace.

As soon as there was room for her fingers, Jack leaned forward, snagged the necklace, and pulled it into Elsewhere.

“What the hell?” the technician gasped. “It was here! I felt it! And now it’s—”

“Lock down the building,” the Envoy snapped, going deathly pale. “I want no one in or out. I want a three-block cordon. Now!”

Clutching the string of pearls in her hand, Jack passed through the vault’s thick walls and raced for the stairs, feeling suddenly like she was running for her life.

She took the phantom stairs much too fast, especially given that only the steps themselves were tangible to her. Fortunately, she was only half a story above ground level when she inevitably careened through the stairwell’s phantom back wall, and the wet sand of Elsewhere cushioned her fall.

As she limped away from the scene of her latest crime, she hoped the pain in her ankle would be something she could walk off and wouldn’t have to explain to anybody.

Identity Theft, Chapter 43

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 43/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Knowledge is power. Some knowledge comes at a terrible price.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

43.
What Cannot Be Unlearned

The silence grew more and more painful as the moment dragged on. Takama’s words hung over everyone. Jack, standing in two thresholds at once, could barely breathe.

Oh fuck, Jack, she heard in her head. Kyra wasn’t any happier about this than she was.

“No,” Ewan finally said, looking from one face to another. “No. Don’t even start thinking about it.”

“We may have to—” Safiyya began.

“What the hell are you planning on doing, exactly?” he demanded. “Casting a circle of salt around them? Trapping them in a bottle or a lamp? Locking them in a tower above Elsewhere’s high tide line? Do you think they will ever believe you’re on their side again—”

“We are on their side—”

“Not if you start thinking of imprisoning them! Tislilel hasn’t even confided her real name to us yet and you would completely shatter her trust—”

“We just want to keep them safe,” his mother protested.

“Don’t make me remind you of what happened the last time someone tried to keep her safely locked up,” Ewan told her, his voice shaking a little. “Look at her arms if you’ve forgotten.”

Jack glanced down at her wrists. She’d honestly begun to forget the scars were there, markings of a suicide attempt that now seemed to have happened eons ago to another girl. She’d have to figure out what to do about them when she was heading home. There would be a lot of questions waiting for her on the other end of her journey, and that could be an especially difficult one to answer.

“What would you suggest we do instead? Let them run wild?” For whatever reason, Safiyya seemed to be the most upset.

Her first-born son’s been dead for less than two weeks, Jack reminded herself.

She can’t replace him with us, even if we were staying, Kyra countered in her head.

“Why do you believe she’s running wild?” Ewan asked his mother. “A child prodigy may still be a child, but she’s also still a prodigy and if we stop respecting that—”

“I just want to know where she is!” Safiyya’s voice was breaking.

Jack winced at the desperate pain in her voice and stepped back out of their line of sight, isomorphing into U1 before re-entering the dining room doorway. “Right here,” she said. She’d gone for her calmest tone, but it sounded more depressed than calm.

Four alarmed faces stared at her; General Toal’s expression remained deadpan. She could see, in Ewan’s face in particular, the knowledge that she had probably heard everything.

“The Quintessa Corporation envoy fired Toombs and Logan after the scuffle at the garden,” she told them, her voice still heavier than she’d planned, before any of them could get over their shock and start in on her. That dual revelation seemed to shock them all speechless anew. “They’re planning on leaving Tangiers Prime. Back during the overnoon sleep period, I sent out a fake vid that makes it look like Kyra and I are on Shakti Four with Riddick, and they’ve fallen for it, so that’s where they’re planning to go now. Before they were fired, Logan was reviewing recordings of all outgoing calls made by morgue employees before the Matador bodies disappeared. I spent the last five hours hiding the evidence that Usadden called Ewan and took a call from him a few hours later.”

She kept her words calm, informative, trying to use the debriefing style that both Ewan and his older brother had sometimes used. Silence greeted her. Almost everyone looked stricken; General Toal’s face remained inscrutable.

“If anyone ever asks,” she said, turning to Ewan and meeting his gaze, “you called Usadden that morning-day, not the other way around, and only once. You wanted him to settle a bet you had with Didier over how and when rigor mortis sets in.”

Ewan blinked, his eyes widening slightly. The call had been in Tamazight, but her translator program had helped her wade through it. Still, she could see him wondering how much of the language she’d picked up.

Jack shrugged at him. “It was the only other recording I could find that was short enough and didn’t reference times or events that could get flagged. I hope all of you agreed to your service provider recording your calls, because it looks like they have recordings of everything.”

“Tizzy…” Cedric began softly.

She couldn’t let him continue. She didn’t dare. Part of her desperately wanted to apologize to them, beg their forgiveness, let them take control of the moment and all the moments to come, but she couldn’t. In only a few more days, she had to leave, and if she let them tie her to them—and it would be so easy to—she might never go. This was, probably, as good a moment as she would ever get to sever that forming knot before it could tighten into something inescapable.

“I didn’t want to commit any class-one felony cybercrimes using your network address or geolocation,” she told all five of them instead, “so I went back to the apartment. It’s paid through the end of the month, anyway.”

Takama closed her eyes and nodded, sighing. Jack had the odd feeling that General Toal was struggling to hide a smile.

“I also learned, from shadowing Toombs, that the real name of the man I killed—” she faltered for a second as Safiyya flinched “—is Pritchard. They worked together sometimes. He was borrowing Toombs’ Master Key when he broke into our apartment, and I guess Toombs was holding onto his ‘Cam-Jam’ as collateral. I looked it up. It’s merc slang for a long-range camera jammer. I think Pritchard may have been the person who brought the bomb into the spaceport, but I won’t know for sure until I crack open his Merc Network account and take a look. So I’m gonna go do that, and then I’m gonna go to bed. Good night.”

She’d kept her voice calm, almost flat, through the whole speech. She’d tried not to let any of the hurt show, the sadness, the growing awareness that the harder they tried to hold onto her, the more she’d want to run. She hoped none of that had managed to come through, but her voice had felt so heavy the whole time.

Before they could say anything, she turned and started across the courtyard.

“Tislilel,” Ewan called after her, “have you eaten anything?”

She turned around again. He was standing in the doorway, poised to follow her. She could feel him struggling not to, struggling not to say dozens of things that could never be undone if he gave them voice. She shook her head at him, realizing for the first time that she hadn’t eaten since before they had all left for the officers’ reception and she had followed behind them as a phantom.

“Tafrara and I will bring something up to you,” He managed.

“Thank you.” She wanted to say so much more to him. Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for defending me. Thank you for protecting me from myself on the beach of Elsewhere…

…I love you…

If she said another word, she’d unravel everything. Instead, she turned away and headed into the opposite side of the ait Meziane house.

If they did lock us up, she found herself thinking, How would we get out? Our room is on the third floor. Unless we floated out of the house during high tide, we can’t pass through the walls without falling through the floor.

Could they?

She hadn’t been able to follow Logan into the courthouse, and had missed the beginning of her argument with Toombs, because the courthouse steps hadn’t existed in Elsewhere. But was there any way to be more selective? To let some of U1’s solid surfaces prevail while others were excluded?

She was still on the ground level, Elsewhere’s sands beneath her feet on the other side of the threshold, she thought as she reached the staircase up to the second story. If she wanted to test her idea, this was the best place to try. She isomorphed over, keeping U1 visible as a shadowy overlay, and contemplated the lowest stairstep.

I am in Elsewhere, completely in Elsewhere… the objects of U1 are not with me. I can pass through them, but… the surfaces of U1 will elevate me…

Her foot dropped through the top of the first step when she tried to put her weight on it.

Fuck. She sighed and concentrated harder. I didn’t learn to isomorph the first time I tried to, either… This was too important to give up yet.

She repeated her mantra, focusing on the idea that the solid surfaces of U1, the floors and stairs, should support her weight even when her body was all the way in Elsewhere… when she wanted them to. That the step, although it didn’t exist in Elsewhere, could still override the laws of gravity of that other ’verse, at least where she was concerned…

She tried stepping onto it again.

It held her weight.

Carefully, one step after another, she began to climb the staircase, barely daring to breathe.

“Tizzy?” Cedric’s voice called from behind her. She stopped, heart lurching, and turned to look at him.

Was she actually in U1? Could he see her on the stairs? Was that why the steps were holding her up?

But Cedric was looking around, walking toward the staircase but not focusing on her.

“Is she upstairs already?” Safiyya asked, entering the room with General Toal.

“Looks like,” Cedric told her. He took his wife’s arm as she started toward the stairs herself. “You need to let Ewan and Tafrara handle this. After everything she may have heard you and Takama saying.”

“But—”

“We’ll only make things worse right now. Let them talk to her first, m’love?”

“I recommend this as well,” General Toal agreed. “Tonight was, unfortunately, not handled well. Especially now that we know where she was, and what she was doing for your family’s sake.”

Safiyya looked like she wanted to argue with him, but then she sighed and nodded, her face crumpling. Cedric drew her into a hug. Their grief was too painful for Jack to look at long.

She turned and finished climbing the steps. They hadn’t known she was there; what she had tried was working.

Kyra, can you feel what I’m doing?

Yeah. Good thought. You’ll need to teach me how. Now get up here.

Kyra pulled her into a hug the moment she entered their room. They stood still, embracing fiercely, for a long moment, only finally letting go when Sebby climbed onto both of them to get their attention.

“We can’t stay much longer,” her sister whispered, sadness in her face. “I love them and I know you do, too… but they don’t get how much danger they’re putting themselves in, trying to look out for us.”

“Yeah,” Jack sighed, wishing there was some argument that could be mustered against that, but knowing there wasn’t. “Did you find anything?”

“Got a few possibilities,” Kyra said with a wry grin. “Can you help me write the cover letters? You’re pretty good at that.”

They were finishing the first cover letter when Tafrara and Ewan knocked on the door. Kyra closed down the tablet and put it away while Jack walked over to let them in.

True to Ewan’s word, they had brought up food. The moment its aroma hit Jack’s nose, she realized how ravenous she was. “Thank you. So much. Do you two want to come in?”

They did, but the next few minutes were a little awkward. Jack tried to concentrate on stuffing her face, especially any time the urge to apologize surfaced again.

I’m going my own way in just a few days more, she reminded herself. They’d better get used to it now. I’d better get used to it now.

Kyra, however, needed firmer answers.

“Look,” she said, her eyes moving between Ewan and Tafrara. “We love all of you, we really do, but I gotta know if someone’s about to start locking us in here or anything.”

Ewan winced, looking ashamed, even though he was the one who had argued vehemently against it.

“Our parents are very sorry,” Tafrara began.

“Sorry they considered it, or sorry we overheard them considering it?” Kyra asked.

“A bit of both,” Ewan muttered.

Tafrara shot him a look. “It’s just… neither of you should be on your own, not at your ages,” she told them. “You shouldn’t have to take care of yourselves so much.”

Kyra looked over at Jack. Don’t rise to that, she sent through the air before turning to look at Tafrara again. “You know neither of us chose to be in these situations, right?”

“But that just makes it more important for you to have someone—”

“Making the few choices we have left for us?” Kyra tilted her head, still keeping her eyes locked with Tafrara’s. “You know my story, right? You know what started the whole damned stand-off in the first place?”

Ewan and Tafrara both shook their heads.

“The New Christy Elders wouldn’t let girls learn math. Or science. Or social sciences. Or anything much except how to be good little wives and brood mares. You know who figured that out and raised a stink?” When they didn’t answer, she continued. “Amnesty Interplanetary, that’s who. And a bunch of shitstains who hated us already took it up as a cause. ‘Save the girls of New Christy.’ As if they actually gave a fuck. You know how many of those girls died after Red Roger and his men stormed the place to supposedly rescue us?”

“All but three,” Ewan whispered. “And you were one of those three.”

“And trust me, you don’t want to know what they did before killing most of ’em. You don’t even want to imagine.” Kyra stood up, stalking the room with restless energy. Jack could feel her wishing for something, someone, to pummel until the pain went away again. “So yeah, I know your parents mean well… but people meaning well already cost me my whole family, my friends, my freedom, my virginity…

Brother and sister both winced.

Kyra stopped near the balcony doors and turned back to face the room. “Nobody… nobody makes my choices for me. Not ever again. I appreciate everything you guys have done for me, are trying to do for me, but that’s my line in the sand. I’m not gonna be anybody’s daughter. It’s too late.”

It was, Jack realized, the last word on the subject. Neither Tafrara nor Ewan asked about her own reasoning or plans; Kyra had shut the whole conversation down too thoroughly. Her sister had done that on purpose, so that Jack wouldn’t tell them where she had been trying to go, or where she was going back to, or even just that she already had a family that was awaiting her return. The known quantity of Kyra’s history had been used to obscure the hidden story of “Jack B. Badd.”

No wonder she’s not impressed by Amnesty Interplanetary’s attempts to defend her now, Jack thought. They accidentally set all of it in motion, and even if they try to atone now—

“We are so sorry, Dihya,” Ewan said. His voice was subdued.

Kyra managed a curt nod. “Not like any of you were in on it. It’s just… too late for me to go back. You know, the most fucked up part of all of it was I wanted someone to rescue me back then. I wanted a different life than I’d gotten. I wanted to do the things they said were boy things. I wanted out of the enclave. Did I ever get my fucking wish…

You didn’t make any of that happen, Jack told her. None of it was your fault.

Kyra looked her way, a pained smirk appearing on her face. Survivor’s guilt, right? Just another thing we have in common…

“We’ll explain to our parents,” Tafrara said in a voice that was every bit as cowed as Ewan’s. “I think… they miss getting to be parents… once Zdan went off to university, they haven’t quite known what to do with themselves since. I think, when they saw these two orphans wander into the Rif—not just our parents but Takama and Brahim, too—they were all hoping…”

“To rescue us,” Jack finished for her. “Only the things they wanted to rescue us from…”

Mercenaries? Monsters? Death and destruction? Mayhem? Being, essentially, child soldiers on a shadowed battlefield where most of the villains posed as white-hats? The loss of innocence?

“…already ate us,” Kyra finished when she couldn’t.

Ewan closed his eyes, swallowing. When he reopened them, and they met Jack’s, the sorrow and regret in them speared through her. She couldn’t look away—

Kyra cleared her throat sharply.

“We should go,” Tafrara said, nudging her brother to break the dangerous spell that had begun to build. “We’ll let you two rest. In the morning, we have something special planned,” she continued as she ushered Ewan out of the room. “We saw you watching us spar, and even though your stitches won’t let you do that yet, there are exercises that are safe for you to do.”

Ewan allowed himself to be pushed out of the room, not looking back.

“We’ll show you tomorrow. Good night, girls,” Tafrara said, and closed their door.

Kyra stared after them for a moment and then started to snicker. “Damn. You two can’t even look at each other without sparks the size of Sebby flying. Now we know how to end any awkward conversation around here.”

“Jeez, yeah,” Jack grumbled. “With even more awkwardness.”

“Well, he’s only here for two more Tangiers days,” Kyra said, and then winced as pain sliced through Jack at the thought. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. But even if you were eighteen right now, we’d still have to leave, you know. So it’s better that there’s this …barrier… anyway.”

“I guess so,” Jack said, pulling the new tablet out of her bag. “I’m gonna move my stuff off that tablet so it’s all yours. I’ve got instructions on how to use ghost codes and how to make fake IDs on there. You get to keep those. But that way you don’t have to worry about me seeing your plans.”

“And you don’t have to worry about me seeing yours,” Kyra nodded. “I know you don’t like it, but… everybody thinks they’re brave and stoic enough to make it through being interrogated, but most people turn out not to be. We can’t spill what we don’t know.”

Jack nodded, reminded of Pritchard again. He hadn’t seemed to care that she didn’t know where Riddick was. She was pretty sure he’d begun really looking forward to hurting her because he’d realized she wouldn’t have any bargaining chips to use to make him stop. There’d been something deeply sick in his head.

“Yeah, that guy was a fucking creep,” Kyra agreed. “I felt it, too. A little too literally. Son of a bitch got a hard-on when he stabbed me.”

“Eww. I didn’t see that.”

“I felt it. Went away fast after Sebby stung him, though. You’d better not feel even a little regret about finishing him off.”

“Don’t you cry for Johns. Don’t you dare,” a voice rumbled, in response, out of memory. Even though it was entirely inside her head, her sister heard it.

“When’d that happen?” Kyra asked, tilting her head quizzically.

“Damn, I still have a lot to tell you about the eclipse.”

Jack talked while she ported her data over to the new tablet, careful not to describe in too much detail just what had happened to Hassan, focusing instead on the discovery that light wasn’t merely painful but injurious to the crash planet’s native life, burning away the skin of the one Johns shot and killed. All they needed, they’d realized, was enough light, and they could make their way back to the mining settlement and the skiff.

Except that Johns wanted to stay put. The argument had gotten ugly. Imam, still seeming so wise and judicious to her, had said that the orrery back in the settlement indicated that the darkness might last a long time, days or even weeks, subtly siding with Fry. Paris, aside from volunteering his alcohol stash for burning and pointing out that the sand cat wouldn’t run at night—an assumption Jack still had issues with—refused to choose a side. But then when Johns and Fry started getting really nasty with each other, and Johns had started to make a move toward violence—

Riddick had stepped in.

Calm, silent, having said nothing at all during the debate, he still didn’t speak, but he put himself between Fry and the muzzle of Johns’ gun. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the possibility that, if the merc pulled the trigger, he’d be headless. Instead, he’d gently tapped one of Johns’ legs with his shiv.

At the time, Jack had thought it was her imagination, the male voice she’d heard in her head, the Riddick voice in her head murmuring The abdominal aorta’s a gusher, but wait ’til you see the femoral artery go…

“Goddamn, he’s a serious badass,” Kyra snickered.

It shouldn’t have been quite so equal a standoff. Would Riddick really have had time to slice open Johns’ thigh if the lawman—she’d still thought he was one up to that point—started to pull the trigger? But she’d heard another echo of Riddick’s voice, along with the remembered heat of him against her back—

—No, not her back, but Fry’s—

—saying “then again, I am worth twice as much alive.

And somehow she’d known, suddenly, that Fry knew Johns wasn’t a real cop. That he’d done something so horrible that he’d lost all of Fry’s respect in the process. Something that, when Fry had realized it, had shifted her allegiance away from him and his empty representation of law and order. She had no faith in him, no belief that he could or would help any of them. She trusted Riddick more…

Riddick, who was calmly staring Johns down while acting as Fry’s shield.

The fake cop had backed off, his smile disturbingly unhinged as he did so. Jack had been struck with terrible knowledge: this wasn’t over. Whatever was going on with the three of them was going to end in blood.

“Hopefully his,” Kyra said, powering down her tablet and setting it aside. “Okay… my cover letters and credentials are sent and my brain is fried… you okay if I go to sleep now?”

“Sure,” Jack said, checking over her new tablet’s safeguards one more time. “I’m gonna see if I can get into Pritchard’s account and then I’ll probably do the same.”

“Sounds good. G’night…”

Jack spent another half hour making sure that her incursion into the Merc Network would be untraceable, before finally pulling up the login screen. Typing in Pritchard’s username, she hoped that Toombs wasn’t still tossing obscene password possibilities at the account and it wouldn’t be locked.

A new screen appeared, inviting her to enter a password.

Jack closed her eyes, visualizing the piece of paper that had been tucked into Pritchard’s billfold. It had looked like a random string of numbers and letters at the time; now, having seen the gross passwords that Toombs had tried, and the way he’d used numbers as letter substitutions in places, the string resolved into a revolting phrase that told her far too much about what Pritchard paid brothels extra to let him do. Suddenly she regretted being eidetic; there was no way to wash that back out of her mind.

She entered the combination into the password field, feeling sullied just typing it.

Welcome, Duke Pritchard.

She was in.

The man was a packrat; that didn’t surprise her. His case and correspondence files stretched back for more than two decades. He and Toombs had been messaging for the last decade, on and off, and had seemingly worked on several cases together. Only one other correspondence file was larger. She opened that file and dug in.

Bingo.

She read over the most recent messages, feeling a strange tightening in her stomach as she went.

DP: Don’t worry about it. Lay low. I’ve got a line on him. We can make him take the fall for everything. Bonus: both his girls are fair game.

“Motherfucker,” Jack murmured. They’d been planning on shifting the blame for the spaceport explosion onto Riddick?

She looked back further in the log.

JM: Target inaccessible. Need a two-block package. You know the kind. Can you bring it to me?
DP: On my way. Location?
JM: Concourse C4. How’s that for irony?

You fucking bastards.

DP, Duke Pritchard, had brought the bomb into the spaceport. A “package” sized to take out two city blocks? Or maybe a package made out of two blocks of explosives? She wasn’t sure. But JM was the man who had shadowed Tomlin in the spaceport, driving him into the pilots’ lounge, and then calling for a bomb to wipe him and hundreds of others off the map.

Who was JM?

She dug around in more correspondence and case subfolders, looking for anything where the full name was spelled out. It took just ten minutes and then she hit the jackpot.

Javor Makarov. He and Pritchard had hunted together often. Their bounties, she noticed, were almost always women when they did. She realized why soon after when she found the media files Pritchard had hidden in a subfolder with the odd label “Bad Kitties.”

There were, she realized, multiple image collections behind the label… hideous pictures that Stacey would have loved, of Pritchard and Makarov with, when Jack opened one collection, a young woman who looked barely older than Kyra…

There were more than two dozen different collections like that, she saw, her nausea rising. Each set featured a different woman. Or girl. Always young, one or two looking younger than her

There were vid files in each folder, too. She didn’t even try to open any of those.

The man with Pritchard in virtually every image was recognizably the same man who had been captured, at a distance, by surveillance cameras as he set the bomb down on a bench. Makarov was the bomber. But he was so much worse than that.

Her hands shaking, Jack began to assemble a new file folder in Pritchard’s account, copying as much damning evidence as she could stomach into one deadly, terrible dossier. She would have to send it on later, from the old apartment, just in case anyone could break through the backtrail protections that she had in place. Once the tide went back out, she would go.

And then law enforcement would learn a whole lot more about Duke Pritchard and Javor Makarov, two monsters hiding behind fake badges… two hideous excuses of men who made William Johns look like an Eagle Scout by comparison.

She wondered just how much Toombs had really known about Pritchard… and how much Logan really knew about Toombs. Worse, she now knew exactly what would have been done to her and Kyra, only a few evening-days earlier, if the Apeiros and Sebby hadn’t been helping them defend themselves.

…both his girls are fair game…

It was too much.

Jack hoped none of the ait Meziane clan—especially not Ewan, who had made such an effort to get her fed—could hear her puking her guts out into the toilet. She hoped she’d shielded Kyra from what she had learned, and it wouldn’t seep into either of their dreams.

Could she ever be Audrey again with this monstrous knowledge in her head?

Identity Theft, Chapter 42

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 42/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Hunting the hunters, Jack follows Toombs and Logan and learns of an imminent threat to the Meziane family. Taking care of that threat, however, opens up a new can of worms.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

42.
A Growing Stack of Felonies

Jack didn’t bother keeping a discreet distance between herself and Eve Logan as she shadowed the merc. There was no need. She was, after all, in Elsewhere as she did it. It was more fun that way, hiking practically by Logan’s side; she got to hear everything the merc was muttering as she walked.

“Idiot! Absolute idiot! He’s gonna get us kicked off this planet… not that I’d be sad to leave this teetotaler shithole…”

Only when Logan hurried up the flight of steps that led to New Marrakesh’s courthouse did Jack stay behind; there were no such steps in Elsewhere for her to climb. It didn’t matter too much; she knew exactly what the merc was doing inside.

Her honey trap had caught Toombs; now Logan had to bail him out of jail.

Kyra had stayed back at the ait Meziane house, not wanting to be a phantom attendee of a party that had, originally, been clandestinely in her honor. She intended to spend the evening-day researching other opportunities that could replace the one she had lost, and that her false ID qualified her for. But Jack hadn’t been able to stay away.

She had begun worrying about the four women she’d thrown into Toombs’ path too much to just let everything play out without watching. Elsewhere and U1 were similar enough in terrain—most places—that following everyone back to the garden, invisibly, hadn’t been hard at all. She’d felt like the star of one of the Ginny Lane, Kid Spy novels she’d voraciously devoured at the age of nine as she did it. Ginny’s cases would have been so much easier if she could have conducted surveillance from another universe. She wouldn’t have needed so much of the tech Audrey’s father had insisted didn’t actually exist.

She had antigravity shoes, which don’t exist, but never once used a Master Key, which does… huh. Of course, using a Master Key was a felony. Jack had, months ago, already discovered how different adventures were in reality, compared to those safe, sanitized books where every case was solved, and every caper foiled, within a hundred pages.

The party hadn’t even begun yet. The grotto was still being set up by the garden’s regular staff. Cedric was greeting men and women in military uniforms outside of the garden complex itself and directing them inside. Apparently, among the officers Tomlin had served with, early was on time, on time was late, and there was absolutely nothing fashionable about being late. The wait staff was still arriving, intermingled with the officers they would soon be serving, when one of the four waitresses Jack had added hurried up to Cedric… and Toombs pounced.

It was one of the two who looked a great deal like Kyra, technically not even his bounty as much as Logan’s. In person, the resemblance was even more uncanny, although the woman had straight black hair and bangs instead of Kyra’s wild, dark brown tangle. But Kyra had been wearing a long, black wig with bangs at Tomlin’s memorial, when Toombs and Logan had gotten a brief look at her and been told she was Ewan’s cousin Dihya. The waitress was almost at the entryway, and had begun asking Cedric in Arabic if she was late, when Toombs emerged from concealment between two ornamental topiaries and grabbed her from behind.

“Ain’t happenin’, Miss Wittier-Collins,” he said, grasping the crown of her hair and pulling as if to remove a wig. “You’re comin’ with me, an’ you’re gonna tell me where your friends—”

The waitress, who hadn’t understood a word of what Toombs was saying—none of the women Jack had hired spoke English—obligingly picked that moment to scream.

Within seconds, Toombs was surrounded by several active members of Tangiers Prime’s military service and the two off-duty police officers Cedric had asked to join the event. While Tafrara comforted the disheveled waitress once they’d pulled Toombs away from her, he shouted about how they were harboring a fugitive from the law and would pay for interfering with an officer conducting an arrest. Seeing him arrested, on the spot, by two actual police officers had made Jack very glad that nobody could hear her whoop of victory in Elsewhere.

“You stupid son of a bitch,” Logan had quietly said from behind another topiary.

Seriously? You’re hiding behind a bush shaped like a camel and calling him stupid?

A military captain, a few years older than and almost as handsome as Ewan, had taken the young waitress in hand, charming away her tears and asking her if she would accompany him to the police station, promising to stay with her and hold her hand the whole time she gave her statement to the authorities. Jack could see the young woman going from thinking that this was one of the worst days of her life to the starry-eyed hope that it might turn into one of the best.

Do the men of this planet just breathe in suave from birth?

Toombs, meanwhile, was staring in outraged confusion at the second Kyra doppelganger, who had just walked up and begun asking Safiyya for directions to the party. This one looked even more like Kyra than the first. Both of Jack’s own lookalikes had arrived with her, one shorter and much curvier than her and the other with long auburn hair braided in an updo that would be impossible to pull off with any wig. Several of Tomlin’s former colleagues had begun murmuring to each other, gesturing to the waitresses and to Toombs as they did.

He just lost all credibility with the military officers who witnessed this, Jack thought with delight as some of them offered to escort the new doppelgangers inside. Everybody at the party is gonna hear just how full of shit his accusations turned out to be. And they’re all gonna see how easy it is for a New Marrakesh woman to meet the descriptions he’s been throwing around…

But, she admitted as she waited for Logan to re-emerge from the courthouse, it wouldn’t be enough. Kyra was right. Their mere presence on Tangiers Prime, if ever proved, would reveal that they had to have traveled on the Scarlet Matador, and that anyone who had given them shelter might know too much about that accident to live.

They still had to leave the planet, and they could only ever possibly return if they broke their trails too thoroughly for any connection between their visits to ever be made.

Thinking about that filled her with strange, hollow pain. This world, she thought, could have become Kyra’s home, maybe even hers too, if only—

Logan and Toombs, fortunately, emerged from the courthouse right as she was in danger of wallowing in the unfairness of it all. Although the two mercs walked side by side, Jack could feel, even across the threshold between worlds, just how angry both of them were with each other.

“…and don’t even get started on me about them bein’ locals,” Toombs was growling as they came into hearing range. “I was goddamn set up and nobody’ll say who by.”

“Nobody knows, damn it,” Logan fumed right back at him. “The women were hired last minute to work for the party, but not by the Meziane family. There’s no record of who contracted them or where the payment came from, but the garden staff was expecting them. Whoever arranged this—”

He did. He’s here. This proves what I’ve been tellin’ ya.” Toombs scratched at his neck. “Son of a bitch flushed us out—”

“I hate to break it to you, especially now, but you’re wrong,” Logan said, pulling out her comm and cuing something up on it. “I got an alert about this from the Merc Network while I was waiting for you to get processed and released. Hot off the damned presses.”

Jack, who had fallen into step with the mercs as they came in range, didn’t need to look over Toombs’ shoulder to see what he was about to watch. She’d spent most of the morning-day and part of the noon sleeping period building the video file, using extremely powerful, and even more extremely illegal, programs to do it. The programs had just needed some archival footage of Riddick and a few minutes of posing and talking on camera from her and Kyra, and they had assembled everything with such speed and precision that Jack had been left wondering if the people of Helion Prime were right about AIs after all. Even so, it had taken hours to get just right. Toombs’ face, to her delight, became more and more confused, and angry, as he watched.

On the little screen, in long-shot but looking as real as if they were standing in front of the mercs, she and Kyra were dancing, clad in slinky little dresses, on either side of Richard B. Riddick, touching his chest and arms suggestively as he finished a drink and said something that made both of them laugh. They were surrounded by other revelers out on a public street at night, the glittering buildings in the background indicating that the street party was on—

Shakti Four? What the fuck are they doing on Shakti Four?” Toombs looked as if he was about to break Logan’s comm. She grabbed it back out of his hand before he could.

“It was the spring equinox on Shakti Four two weeks ago,” Logan told him. “Big party. The ship that took off for there was the Barsoom. It boarded and launched while we were fussing over the Scarlet Matador and Bon Temps passengers, and landed there just in time for a hemisphere-wide shindig. I checked the Barsoom’s manifest and there were three last-minute passengers. A man and two women. It’s them. We’ve been chasing wild geese here.”

“Fuck. I hate that guy.” Toombs scratched at his head, making Jack glad that whatever vermin his fingers were chasing down couldn’t jump across the threshold and onto her. “We thought he was distractin’ you from the passengers on the Matador. Then, when they all cleared, we thought maybe it was a diversion to keep me away from the Bon fuckin’ Temps…” His mimicry of Logan’s correct French pronunciation was childishly mocking. “And by the time we were done with that, and thinkin’ maybe we’d missed somethin’ on the Matador ’cause no cameras glitched over by the Pretentious Fuckin’ Good Times… he and his girlies were gone on a whole ’nother ship. Son of a bitch. The big ones are s’posed to be dumb…

Jack didn’t bother hiding the smug grin that had bloomed over her face. The false trail had worked.

It wasn’t even something she could really take much credit for, aside from a few moments’ research into which ships she and Kyra could have departed on instead of the Matador. Her father had told her about several very dangerous worm programs that still showed up from time to time on the networks… some of which could be tamed and even trained by people with the right codes and sent on new targeted missions. He’d showed her the codes, probably unaware that they would stay in her head forever. Now two of those worms had been liberated from law enforcement containment and, after a little bit of domestication and instruction, one was burrowing its way through the Merc Network, laying bits of false trail and erasing contradictory data as it spread from node to node. In a few weeks, the entire merc network, from one end of the Federacy to the other, would carry her video… and the accuracy of the information about her and Kyra would be massively diminished, too. Another, smaller worm was making minute changes to the Barsoom’s flight manifest records throughout the Federacy.

And, Jack thought ruefully, by doing all that, I’m technically a class-one cyberterrorist now… The felonies kept stacking up somehow.

She’d gone back to the old apartment building to pull those stunts, wanting to make sure that none of it could ever be traced back to the ait Meziane house. That trip could have caused a few problems of its own, but Ewan was the only one who saw her and Kyra sneaking back into the house, and he’d kept his mouth shut even if he hadn’t looked thrilled about it.

“Does that mean we’re leaving?” Logan asked. “Finally?”

“Soon as Pritchard turns back up,” Toombs said. “Son of a bitch still has my Master Key. Where the fuck is he today?”

Logan tapped her comm a few times. “Still somewhere south of here on the coast. The… Shady La— damn it, another brothel. How is he paying for all this shit?”

Jack snickered, remembering the motorcycle pirate that Ewan had given “Pritchard’s” comm to. Apparently, the ride it had gone on was a wild one indeed. I should ask him what that guy’s story is…

“Maybe that big score he insisted was about to come through did, and he just didn’t wanna share it,” Toombs grumbled. “Fucker’ll be back when he finishes blowin’ through his winnin’s. Meantime, you get anywhere with his account?”

“Nope. His password clue was ‘fuck you, Alex.’”

Toombs snorted. “Asshole knows me, I’ll give him that. Lemme try.”

Logan started to hand over her comm again and then stopped, holding it out of Toombs’ reach for a moment. “You break it, and you’re buying me a brand new one with twice the memory.”

“Yeah, yeah… gimme.”

Now Jack did watch over Toombs’ shoulder as he pulled up Pritchard’s Merc Network login. She paid close attention as he entered the other man’s User ID, committing it to memory.

“How many tries do I get?” Toombs asked.

Logan rolled her eyes, you should know this written on her face. “Three. Then the system locks you out for an hour.”

Toombs began to type.

BOOBS

“Oh for God’s sake,” Logan grumbled. “Are you twelve? You know damn well that you have to use capital and lower-case letters, and numbers, and a minimum of eight.”

“Fine,” Toombs snickered, changing his guess.

B1gB00bs

“You’re really not funny,” Logan told him.

Toombs seemed genuinely surprised that his guess hadn’t worked. His next one was obscene enough to make Logan smack the back of his head.

“You’re just wasting guesses here, fergodsake—”

“He’s spent the last how-the-fuck long goin’ from brothel to brothel and you think this password would be out of character?” Toombs asked, smirking as she rolled her eyes. “You don’t even know what he pays those places to let him do. Count yourself lucky.”

“Trust me, anything you find gross, I don’t wanna know about.”

“Annnnd… now I’m locked out. So much for his favorite food groups…”

“Why are you even bothering, anyway? Let’s just get the hell off this rock.”

“He owes me a Master Key.”

“So what?” Logan groused. “You’ve got his Cam-Jam. Call it even.”

“Maybe I will. What’s the word from Her Majesty?”

“Oh. Yeah. ‘You’re fired.’” Logan frowned at him. “That was for both of us, by the way. I’m guilty by goddamn association. Thanks for that, asshole. I had a perfect record ’til you came along.”

“’Til Riddick came along and took a likin’ to the piece of tail you were huntin’, you mean.” Toombs handed her back her comm. “Not a scratch on it, see? Does that mean you don’t have to finish goin’ through the comm records for the morgue staff?”

A chill moved through Jack.

“Yeah, she said she’d have someone else do that,” Logan sighed. “I managed to get your charges reduced to misdemeanor assault. The Meziane family was talking about pressing stalking charges, saying you had intended to assault a visiting relative—way to be subtle, by the way—but I talked them out of it. Plead no contest, pay the damned fine, and we can get off this planet today.

“Damn right. You wanna come with me to Shakti Four when we do? They’re a civilized world that knows how to serve booze.” Toombs waggled his brows.

“Jesus Christ, you just can’t let go of him, can you? You’re gonna end up like Johns.” Logan shook her head. “Maybe. Gotta check on the status of the Wittier-Collins case back on New Dartmouth, first, make sure the bounty hasn’t been pulled. There’s a bunch of pressure on the government about that case from both sides. Half the planet wants to see her hang and the other half wants her crowned as a rebel princess. Weird damned world.”

“They’re all weird. Whether or not she’s good for the bounty, we catch up to her and we find the big prize. I’m still willin’ to split the take with you…”

Jack turned away from the pair, on a new mission. Slipping back into U1 behind an ornamental screen, she headed for the transit station where she’d rented a locker for a two-month stretch. Once she had liberated the funding cards inside, she went straight to a nearby tech shop, hurriedly purchasing the equipment she needed, and then started back for the Rif. The two mercs would be gone in the next few hours, the next day at most, and she no longer needed to dog their steps. She had something much more urgent to attend to.

As much as she didn’t like going back to the apartment where Kyra had been stabbed—by a merc she now knew was really named Pritchard—it was better to pull some of her more illegal shenanigans there than near or in the ait Meziane house. And anyway, Kyra was using her tablet to plan her next moves. The two of them had agreed, unhappily, that neither one of them should know where the other was going, just in case one of them got caught. Jack spent an hour setting things up on the new tablet, pulling in some of her more illegal resources, before she was ready to get started. Fortunately, the reception for Tomlin’s service colleagues was a lunch-to-dinner affair and she had until full dark to get back to the house without anyone noticing she’d been gone.

The first issue to deal with, she decided, was the morgue staff comm records.

Sometime after the Quintessa Corporation had informed the morgue of their intention to claim the Matador passengers’ bodies, after all, Usadden had called Ewan to warn him. That call linked the Meziane family, even if only tenuously, to the subsequent disappearance of all eighteen of those bodies. It needed to cease to exist.

It took another hour to locate the cache that was being sifted through, which technically belonged to law enforcement but was being handled by Quintessa Corporation staff and their associates. Once she found her way in, she began searching. She had the advantage of knowing what she was looking for, while the staff did not. It still took longer than she liked.

Usadden had been smart; no calls had been made from the morgue to the Meziane household or Ewan’s private comm number. But his private comm showed a call to Ewan’s, approximately an hour after he had finished talking to the Quintessa Corporation on the morgue’s line, that lasted two minutes. Worse, a recording of the call had been downloaded and logged.

She was going to have to fix that.

“Here’s the problem with trying to steal something, or kill somebody, and not have people realize that you were targeting something or someone specific,” Riddick had told her one “night” on the skiff, after Imam had fallen asleep and they could speak freely without incurring the holy man’s censure. The cleric was already trying to limit their conversations; talking shop about felonies would have sent him raging if he’d known. But Jack would have been happy to listen to Riddick talk about anything, and the world of crime was what he knew best. “You do a surgical strike, just taking that one thing, or taking out that one person, and you’ve told everybody way too much about the reason behind it. And how to find you, or your employer.”

“What do you mean?” she’d asked.

“Well… say I was hired to get a new piece of military tech that some developer had at home in his safe. I go in, crack open the safe, steal the tech, and leave… and everybody knows that the tech was the target. They know whoever stole it was hired by someone who wanted to use it, or maybe stop its developer from using it. So there’s a small suspect list, the fences who deal in that kind of tech are put under surveillance, countermeasures go into place to minimize the damage the tech can do… everybody’s anticipating the next steps of someone who’d steal, or use, that tech.”

Jack had nodded. Anything to keep him talking, but it really was fascinating. Riddick was, after all, one of the only people who’d ever defeated one of her father’s security systems, and he’d defeated four of them.

“But what if, instead, I went in like a normal burglar? Emptied out the safe, not just of that piece of tech but all the other documents and valuables inside. Stole the wife’s jewelry. Took the electronics. Made off with some of the smaller artworks. Made it look like my goal was just to grab anything valuable and portable and the tech just happened to get caught up with all that. Now they don’t know what I was really after. Now, as far as they know, I don’t even know what I have. Now they gotta put every fence in town under surveillance. If they want the tech back, they gotta hope that some of the other things I stole start showing up on the black market and can be traced back to one source. The whole way they look for me, and everything I took, changes…”

If she just deleted that one recording, Jack realized, she would draw all the attention to it, to that one call and the people who had made and received it. But if a wider array of materials went missing or got damaged…

Thank you, Riddick, wherever you are. She hoped it was somewhere nice… just not Shakti Four.

Jack checked the log. Eve Logan hadn’t been replaced yet, and she’d only just finished going through the records from the morgue itself. Morgue employees’ private comm calls, however…

…had all been stored in a separate folder. Personal comms required more warrants, many of which were still being signed, filed, and served.

Jack replaced the contents of every single recording within the folder with pure white noise. Then, carefully, she reversed the metadata of Usadden’s call to Ewan, making it look like Ewan had called Usadden. For good measure, she canceled forty of the warrants that were still being processed, including the one for Usadden’s comm, and erased all evidence that they had ever been filed. A quick side-trip using another Ghost Code, into the comms servicer the Meziane family used, and their records also indicated that Ewan had called Usadden that morning instead of the reverse. Much less suspicious.

She listened to a few of the other comm conversations Ewan and Usadden had had in recent weeks, wondering if the Meziane family even knew such things were being kept on file, picking the most innocuous and extemporaneous of them and replacing the comms servicer’s offending audio file with it. If the file got downloaded again and another warrant was served, all anyone would hear was Ewan asking his cousin to settle a debate he and his—literal—wingman had about when and how rigor mortis set in after death. Ewan had apparently won the debate.

Weird thing to be arguing about, she thought. Something to do with a really old vid called Clerks…?

There had been another, actual call from Ewan to Usadden several hours later, which no one from Quintessa or law enforcement had logged or requisitioned. Yet. If they ever did, it would damn the whole family. That one, at least, Jack could erase completely from the system. She spent some extra time making sure that all traces of that call had been eradicated.

By the time she finished, night had settled in. She still needed to hack into Pritchard’s account in the merc network, but that was something she could safely do back in her and Kyra’s room in the ait Meziane house. She wouldn’t be committing any class-one felonies by logging into a dead merc’s account, especially since, she realized, she already knew his password. She wiped her new equipment and reset it to factory specs, hopefully erasing all evidence that it had been used to commit several cybercrimes, and then bundled everything up to take home.

Someone had always escorted her into the ait Meziane house, she realized as she reached the locked gates. Even when Ewan had caught them sneaking back during the noon sleeping hours earlier that day—and he’d never said why he was up at that time—he’d simply opened each of the gates for them and it hadn’t occurred to her that they might have needed keys, even though the courtyard level was under six meters of Elsewhere’s high tide at the time and bypassing them hadn’t been an option. Fortunately, the next tide had yet to arrive. She passed through the gates’ corridor on the Elsewhere side, wondering if she should ask for keys or if that would be a bad idea, given how soon she was going to be leaving.

It had gotten later than she’d realized; the party had already broken up. Takama, Safiyya, Cedric, and Ewan were arguing in the dining room as she entered the courtyard. She slipped back across the threshold into Elsewhere before they could see or hear her, approaching them as a phantom.

“…can’t keep just going off on her own like this,” Safiyya was saying. The presence of General Toal, seated nearby and diplomatically staying out of the fray, explained why she was saying it in English.

“It is what she is accustomed to doing,” Takama said. “That is a habit that we may have trouble breaking.”

Kyra? Listen in with me. You need to hear this. After a second, she could feel her sister paying attention to what she was seeing and hearing.

“But if she is to live with us—”

“Is she?” Cedric asked. “Gavin said she told him she had somewhere she needed to go. What makes you believe either of them plan to stay past Dihya’s recovery? Have you even invited them to yet? Much less heard them say yes?”

“They are children!” Safiyya protested.

“D’you think, after everything they’ve been through and done, that they’re just going to let any of us treat them like children?” Ewan asked. “You know what I was like at that age, and I was still fairly sheltered. They already know how to survive without—”

Survive? Dihya was stabbed!”

“And Tizzy killed the man who did it,” Cedric observed, putting a gentle hand on his wife’s shoulder.

Jack winced even as Safiyya did.

“My point is,” Ewan continued, “you’re not going to convince them that you’re looking out for them by treating them like kids. Especially since they’re used to us not doing so.”

“Even if that was—”

“Even if that was wrong, yes. I do know that. But if you turn around and start… infantilizing them now—”

Safiyya gasped, staring at her son in offended shock.

“—it might just be the last time we ever see them.” He looked around at his parents and aunt. “I’m serious. For God’s sake, they’re high-powered espers with experience living on the streets and cracking security systems, and the ability to move into a whole other universe at will. You couldn’t keep me out of trouble, and I’m a baseline human and your son. Even if you were their parents and had the authority, how could you possibly think to ground someone who can do all that?”

“You can’t,” Takama agreed. “Not without locking them up in a way that they can’t escape, even with all of those advantages.”

For a moment, as Jack felt her heart plummeting, no one spoke.

Identity Theft, Chapter 41

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 41/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Even as Jack and Kyra solidify their plans to leave New Marrakesh, and the ait Meziane tribe, on journeys that may separate them from each other for years, the bond between them deepens unexpectedly and the tribe begins making moves to welcome them into its inner circles…
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

41.
Monde à Deux

Clack!

Jack woke up to the sound of… baseball?

Clack! Clack! Her first impression was of someone hitting ball after ball out of a park in rapid succession. As she woke up more, she realized that she was hearing wood striking wood.

“Again,” Cedric’s voice said from somewhere below her and to the left. She opened her eyes.

Kyra had thrown wide the balcony doors and was sitting in a chair, her arms on the railing and her chin resting on her hands, watching something that was going on outside. Jack got up, pulling on her robe and walking over to see.

Two levels down, in the central area of the courtyard, Tafrara and Ewan were sparring with staffs while Cedric observed them and called out commands. By the sweat sheening their skin and soaking their tops, they had been at it for a while. Both wore loose white pants and tank tops and moved barefoot across the paving stones, circling each other. Just when Jack wondered if that was all they were going to do, they came together again in a flurry of movements, staffs cracking into each other repeatedly as they struck and blocked one another’s strikes.

Ewan was taller and stronger, with a greater reach. But Tafrara, Jack decided, had more skill and experience… and a lower center of gravity that she knew how to use to her advantage. They were evenly matched. Their attacks were almost brutal, forcing Jack to cover her mouth several times when the impulse to cry out a warning struck her. They clearly knew what they were doing, though. On the rare occasions when one of their staffs slipped the other’s guard, it stopped centimeters before actual impact. For a second, both combatants would freeze, waiting for their father to confirm which one of them had just gained a point.

That kind of control was impressive. They hadn’t just been taught how to hit; they’d been taught how not to.

“Goddamn,” Kyra said, her voice wistful and cracking a little. “I want to get in on that…”

Jack put her arm around Kyra’s shoulder, aware all over again just how much her sister had suddenly lost in the last day. By the time she was healed enough to join them in a sparring match like this, Ewan would be back at the flight academy… and it would be time for the two of them to leave. The chance to be part of something so perfectly suited to her had been cruelly ripped away. Worst of all, she could see that beautiful dream right in front of her, but it would be forever out of reach.

I have to help her find something even better before we go…

And it wasn’t like the scene was much easier for Jack to watch.

It was the first time she had seen Ewan wearing so little. His musculature was leaner than Riddick’s and his older brother’s, but he still looked like he could have been carved by either a Renaissance artist or the ancient Greek sculptors they had been emulating. She found herself wishing she could touch him, feel him against her again—

“Down, girl,” Kyra murmured next to her.

“Shit, am I that obvious?” she whispered.

Kyra smirked and shook her head, tapping her temple. “You got a good poker face, though. Shame… think what kind’a damage we could’a done in a casino…”

It was a little hard to laugh at that. All of the might-have-beens were hitting them like violent blows now that they had committed themselves to a course of action that would separate them for years…

…maybe forever.

“Did I miss breakfast?” Jack made herself ask after a moment. The sun appeared to have risen a while ago.

“Yeah, and my first physical therapy session, but I’m sure they’ll get you something.” Kyra glanced at Jack. “Did you tell the Apeiros to stay out of my head?”

“I did, yeah. They were giving you nightmares last night.” She hadn’t actually told Kyra the name she’d given them, but she supposed it was no surprise that her sister knew it anyway.

“They were. Then they said that you had forbidden them to talk to me anymore unless I talked to them first… and I haven’t heard a peep out of ’em since. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Least I could do. I mean, they weren’t even supposed to start talking to you again until I said they could, until I told them you’d healed up—”

“But they freaked the fuck out when you hurt yourself breaking open a …something… Some word like the name you gave them. That’s what they said you’d done, anyway. And I… couldn’t feel you for a few hours… I didn’t even realize I could, and had, until you were suddenly gone from my head. I thought you might’ve died. I kept asking them if you were okay and they kept saying they didn’t know.” Kyra looked incredibly vulnerable in that moment.

“Fuck, I’m sorry. I really didn’t think, did I?”

“Hey. Quit that. You did good. It was something you had to do, even if it was gonna scare a bunch of us. You’re closing the door between ’verses, as much as it can be. It’ll make it harder for that Quintessa bitch to find the other survivors. Or prove that we were ever among them.”

“Yeah…” Jack swallowed. She didn’t feel entirely reassured. “When did you start to feel me again?”

“About two hours before you came back. But damn, you felt weak. There was this moment, though… whoo! You and Ewan better not have been fucking, because I was serious—”

Jack burst out laughing. Below them, in the courtyard, three heads turned to look their way. She felt heat rising into her cheeks. Hopefully, they hadn’t heard what had made her laugh. Hopefully, they didn’t think she was laughing at them. She waved in their direction and Ewan raised his hand, waving back at her.

“No,” she managed to tell Kyra, struggling not to laugh again. “We weren’t. Not for a lack of me wanting to, though. It’s been kinda awkward since then. He knows what I was feeling.”

She tried to leave the rest of it—that she believed the intense chemistry had been mutual—unsaid, but she could see in Kyra’s eyes that she might as well have said that part out loud.

“Of course he does. I knew what you were feeling from how many miles away? Kind of a shame, in a way,” Kyra mused. “He’s been so gentle and careful with me, treating my stab wound, and today’s physical therapy session… If I’d lost my virginity to someone like him, maybe the idea of sex wouldn’t be so disgusting…” She shook her head. “’Course, someone like him would’a never taken it from me when I was twelve… and won’t take it from you now. Well, he’d just better keep being honorable about it all. I figured it was why he was looking so freaked out last night.”

“Yeah,” Jack sighed, “things are uncomfortable right now. They were almost back to normal until that whole dinner table conversation.”

“He was having a hard time looking at you after that, wasn’t he? You never told me what I missed. I mean, I caught some of the ‘child prodigy’ stuff. What brought that talk about?”

“The brain scans I had last night,” Jack explained. “I guess I didn’t actually do myself any brain damage or anything when I broke the apeirochoron—”

“Yeah, that’s what they were going on and on about.”

“—but the scans were abnormal enough that they did an EEG and decided I’m probably a psychic.”

Kyra was giving her a duh look. “And you didn’t know that until now?”

“I…” She hadn’t believed that kind of stuff existed outside of the adventure books she’d read as a kid, and some of the old sword-and-sorcery vids she’d watched with her cousins. There’d been one strange girl in her fourth-grade class who had claimed it was all real, and that she had powers, but had always refused to prove it and had, the next year, claimed she was the secret love child of a popular twentieth century movie star instead. It had all seemed ridiculous to Audrey back then, even if sometimes—

Damn, Jack, the hour before Heather died, you were following her around like a worried puppy. Wouldn’t let her out of your sight. You looked real uneasy and kept staying super close to her, like you were expecting her to fall over at any second. When she finally did, when I heard you screaming for help, I remember thinking ‘oh, this is why.’”

When Kyra described it like that, it was suddenly so obvious. “I… when I was little, my parents had a dog who was epileptic. I could always tell when Balto was about to have a seizure. He died while I was at school and I… they told me I couldn’t possibly have, but I felt it when he died. And then when Heather started feeling the same way to me…”

“You knew the exact moment she died, too, didn’t you?” Kyra asked. “I saw your face change. And then there were other times, I swore I could feel you in my head, and… that night you had the nightmare about Riddick cutting your throat, I could see it.”

“He’d never do that,” Jack said, still conscious that Kyra needed Riddick to be a hero and not any kind of threat.

“I mean, of course not, but that asshole who visited you got you all mixed up for a while. El Imam Abu al-Walid,” she sneered, spelling out the full name Jack had described him rattling off when they had first met.

Again, Jack found herself remembering how Fry had seemed to think the el Imam part was his first name, calling him by it several times the way he had called her Carolyn, and sometimes seeming to pronounce it as “Elmo.” She’d liked Fry a great deal, and had started to think of her as a kind of older sister, but there had been moments—

“Judgmental dickhead,” Kyra continued. “He really thought you could enjoy killing? Shit.”

“He was nice to me back then,” Jack found herself protesting. “I mean, before the Kubla Khan… during the eclipse…”

“Yeah, before he decided to save you from yourself. Before everybody else who could’a stepped in and made him cut his shit out was gone.” Kyra shook her head. “Sorry. It just makes me so mad. I saw how you looked after he got done giving you a talking-to, and I wanted to beat the shit out of him.”

That, Jack realized, had been the moment a switch flipped in their relationship, and Kyra had begun acting protective toward her… and their minds had started to link up. Two esper roomies, both with PTSD… if the hospital staff had had any idea, she thought, they’d have put them on opposite sides of the building from each other.

“Yeah, they’d have sent us to opposite sides of the planet, even,” Kyra replied to her unspoken words.

“Here, I want to try something…” Jack said, and closed her eyes. She began to put together, in her mind, one of the most beautiful and terrifying moments she’d been describing to her sister… the ringed gas giant rising into the sky and slowly creeping closer and closer to the twin suns…

“Oh shit, Jack, that’s so beautiful…

It had worked.

After a quick run down to the kitchen for some breakfast—okay, she admitted, a lot of breakfast—Jack spent the next hour conjuring more visions for Kyra, different moments on the crash planet that had been particularly stunning. The miles-long damage path behind the remains of the crash ship… the rising of the blue sun as the twin suns were setting… the enormous field of bones… living clouds of tiny monsters eddying against the auburn sky… in its own way, that desolate, dangerous world had been spectacularly beautiful.

She shied away from other visions, though, refusing to show her sister what Ali’s devoured body had looked like, or Shazza in pieces in the screaming maelstrom… for those, she would only share her carefully crafted words. Kyra was still recovering, still delicate, and seeing those hideous moments wouldn’t help her stay distracted from her pain. She needed the part of the story that was adventure and excitement… not the gruesome reality.

Jack told herself that she wasn’t really lying… just being selective about how much of the ugly truth she would divulge. But part of her, even then, knew that was possibly the biggest lie of all. Kyra, however, seemed to want the lie too much to question it.

Jack was able to let Kyra hear the sounds of the strange creatures on the crash planet, even as she described huddling with the other survivors inside the cargo container and Imam speculating that they used those noises to see. Riddick had located the cutting torch that Shazza had left behind, when they had stopped trying to salvage things and had relocated to the mining settlement, and he had used it carve a passage into one of the largest cargo compartments after they’d ended up trapped in a small one.

“He handed Fry the torch and went off scouting right away, while we were trying to block the opening behind us. He could see everything just fine. But there were sounds… in the compartment… and we all knew the things were already inside.”

Fry had told her to stay close, but Imam hadn’t repeated the admonition in Arabic. Nobody, not even Jack, had noticed at first that Hassan had wandered off.

Not until Jack heard Riddick speak, his voice pitched low enough that the others around her didn’t seem to hear: “Extremely… bad… timing.”

She had convinced herself, until now, that her feeling that the darkness was horribly alive was just her overactive imagination. Now she wondered if she’d been feeling the creatures’ presence. What had she felt?

Two… no… five minds in that stygian darkness. Two human… and three almost incomprehensible aside from ravenous hunger. Hassan, rooted to the spot in terror as he stared up at a horrifying, barely-visible shape above him. Riddick, near him, feeling an almost academic fascination about the creature he could see clearly and a mixture of annoyance and concern for the scared boy just in front of him…

Had she really managed to get that far into people’s heads at the time? Without knowing or understanding?

She’d heard him tell Hassan “just don’t run…” Unlike Ali, Hassan would have known enough English to understand that.

Or should have. As she explored her memories of that moment in greater detail, she thought the boy’s mind had been paralyzed with fear; he could barely think in Arabic, much less English.

“Wow,” Kyra said beside her. “Poor kid…”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “He was really nice, too. So they were over there, just staring at the thing above them in the darkness. Fry called out to Riddick and he raised his voice just a little more, so everybody else could hear him, and said ‘don’t stop burning.’ I think he meant they needed to cut another hole in a wall to get us out of that compartment. That’s what Fry and Johns thought, anyway, because she gave him the torch and he gave her his flashlight, and he started cutting another hole. And that was when Imam finally noticed that Hassan wasn’t in the group anymore.”

The boys, she suddenly realized, had liked giving him the slip, the whole time she’d known them, and Suleiman—who spoke the best English of all of them—had quietly told her back at the mining settlement that they had hardly known him at all before he had been put in charge of their youth group’s Hajj. He’d been a newcomer to their mosque, less member than guest, but had been selected as a replacement guardian after another Imam, who had organized the journey, fell ill; he was only taking them because he’d been on his way to Helion Prime anyway, to return to his wife and young daughter. Perhaps, if they’d known him better, they would have stayed closer to him—

“You knew him better and you cut your wrists to get away,” Kyra grumbled beside her. “Damn, this in-your-head shit is getting spooky. Sorry. It’s hard for me to think of him as one of the good guys in your story after how I saw him treat you.”

The courtyard had fallen silent while they talked and Jack shared her memories; she glanced down and it was empty. Before she could pick up the tale again at the moment of Hassan’s terrified flight and death, someone knocked at their door.

Takama, Cedric, and Safiyya were outside, expressions serious.

Jack had to give them credit; they didn’t hide a thing about the meeting the night before, except just how torn up Ewan had been by all of it. Thanks to the interference of the envoy and Alexander Toombs, she and Kyra were told, it was no longer safe for them to try to introduce Kyra to Tomlin’s former brothers and sisters in arms yet. Out of further concern that the envoy would try to enter their home and provoke an incident with Tafrara, they had contacted all of the invited guests and informed them that the reception had been moved to the grotto Jack and Ewan had used the evening-day before.

The venue change let them also claim that they couldn’t accommodate any guests beyond the ones they had specifically invited, something that would have been preposterous if they had still been hosting it in their enormous home that could—and did, when needed—accommodate the entire ait Meziane tribe. The house, which Jack had been giving a hyphenated name in her head until then, belonged to the whole tribe and was used by whichever members happened to be in town at any time.

“Officially, the change has happened because three visiting members of the tribe have fallen ill,” Takama said. “Including, should anyone inquire, both of you. It is a summer fever common in the New Atlas region. Perhaps you brought it with you when you came down from the mountains.”

“We’ve already had it, so we’re immune, but we wouldn’t want to accidentally spread it to our esteemed guests,” Cedric added, lips quirking a little.

“We truly are sorry that you can’t meet everyone yet, Dihya,” Safiyya told Kyra, reaching out to take her hand. Kyra allowed it, but Jack could feel how much she was struggling with the impulse to pull away from the affection behind it. “But the last thing we want to have happen is for one of them to decide that Toombs’ story about you is more plausible than the truth and turn you over to him.”

“Yeah,” Kyra sighed. “Especially since the only way for me to be the girl he says I am—”

The girl I really am… Jack heard in her head.

“—is if I came on the Scarlet Matador, which would open up a can of Guinea worms all over all of us.”

The image Kyra had in her mind, of those worms, was horrifying. Jack couldn’t help shuddering.

She wondered if Toombs and Logan would stake out the gardens, hoping to get a better look at “Dihya” and “Tislilel” before the disappointing news that they were “sick” was shared—

Hoo boy. There it was.

“Got an idea,” Jack said, unable to suppress her grin. Four sets of eyebrows went up as she grabbed her tablet and began searching for local hospitality services. The others kept talking as she worked, telling Kyra that they hoped, in a few weeks or months, to make the meeting possible.

We’ll be long gone before then, she thought. Well, she would be, anyway. There was always the possibility that Kyra would change her mind and want to stay.

But the vibes coming off her sister didn’t point in that direction.

“There,” she finally said, feeling immense satisfaction. Maybe this would help fix her screw-ups of the evening-day before.

“What is it?” Cedric asked, amusement and trepidation in his voice.

“I just booked some extra help to take care of your guests this evening-day,” Jack told them with a grin. “Nothing major, just carrying hors d’oeuvres trays around and stuff, but check them out.”

The four young women, whose pictures were on the tablet screen, bore eerie resemblances to her, and to Kyra. It really hadn’t been all that difficult to find some who would.

We really could blend in here… hide in plain sight…

It’s too late for that, Jack… Kyra’s voice sighed sadly in her head.

“Good heavens,” Safiyya said, laughing.

“Maybe your guests’ll stop thinking we looked a lot like… us… when they’re looking at other girls who do, too,” Jack said. “And who knows? Maybe Toombs will try to arrest one of them and embarrass the fuck out of himself and that envoy.”

“Not bad,” Cedric told her, trying to hide a grin. “I’ll make sure to have some people on hand who can step in if he tries.”

The conversation briefly shifted to logistics—when and where Jack should have the four waitresses arrive at the garden—before the plans were fully solidified and the discussion moved to the future.

“We’ve settled on a date for the celebration of Brahim’s life,” Takama told them. “His birthday. It’s four Standard months away, so it will be very early in the fall this year. That will give his former colleagues plenty of time to request leave, and the rest of the tribe time to come here.”

“Sounds lovely,” Kyra said beside her. Jack hoped she was the only one who had heard the slight break in her voice as she said it and had caught the sudden feeling of wistful sadness embedded in it. She was feeling much the same way; if things went according to plan, she’d be most of the way back to Deckard’s World when it took place.

It was lunchtime by then. It was also the first time Kyra was officially cleared to go up and down stairs, so it was the first time both of them joined the family in the dining room—for food, anyway—since the memorial dinner. The table was huge, but the family, many of whom Jack had only met once before, almost completely filled it. Lalla, Izil, and even Usadden all joined them; the hospital morgue, Usadden told them, was closed for another Tangiers day while investigators went over everything centimeter by centimeter, trying to discover how eighteen bodies, and all of their belongings, had vanished into thin air. Already, to his dismay, two orderlies had been found to have been pilfering personal effects of the deceased, but nothing connected to the missing Matador passengers had been among their recovered loot.

Jack remembered the earrings and the cash she’d isomorphed out of one of the orderlies’ lockers. Those were floating out in the sea by now, but she would need to do a walkabout through New Marrakesh at some point to see if anything had been stolen and fenced in the days prior and could be seen hovering incongruously somewhere in Elsewhere. Even one such artifact could tell the envoy far too much about her and Kyra…

Ewan, Jack noticed, was sitting at the far end of the table, engaged in quiet conversation with an elderly man who looked a great deal like a male version of Tafrara and Safiyya. His grandfather? They were speaking in Tamazight, so she couldn’t eavesdrop. She felt a little embarrassed and guilty over how much she wanted to.

Most of the family, though, was speaking in English, discussing the plans for the celebration of Gavin Brahim Tomlin Meziane’s life, making suggestions, planning out how to send word to various members of the tribe and other far-flung friends. They were deliberately making sure to include her and Kyra in the conversation, under the blithe assumption that both girls would still be on Tangiers Prime and participants in the festivities.

Jack didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise. Neither, she noticed, did Kyra.

Identity Theft, Chapter 40

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 40/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Jack’s plans for her future had already crashed and burned; now Kyra’s have, too. They must now make a difficult choice and begin plotting a new way forward, when an unusual and dangerous opportunity appears… for one of them.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

40.
Out of the Field of Fire

“So what now?” Jack asked Kyra as they returned to their room and two unappetizing trays of food. Sebby had already helped himself to bits of their meals from both trays, including all the olives, and was grooming his carapace on Jack’s pillow.

Kyra swallowed, looking around the room with hurt, wistful longing. “Now… we get ready to leave in a few more days.” Her voice cracked on the word leave. Jack moved to hug her, but she held up a hand. “I can’t right now, I need to… fuck, if that Toombs bastard were in range, I’d—”

“Yeah. Me too.” Jack sighed and sat down, picking up her tablet to start a search. “So where do we go next?”

“We…” Kyra sighed. “I’m sorry, Jack. I really am. I don’t want to run out on you, but… it can’t be we anymore. You heard that Toal guy. Toombs is looking for two girls, partners in whatever crimes he’s made up…”

She sat down on the foot of their bed and sighed, surreptitiously wiping at the corner of her eye.

“He’ll catch us if we stay together,” Kyra finally said.

“Not if I lay a false trail,” Jack protested. “I was thinking maybe some doctored photos of us, with Riddick, could show up on the merc network—”

You have a life to get back to,” Kyra told her. “You really think that’s gonna work if you show up back at your mom’s house with the Black Fox of Canaan Mountain in tow? ‘She followed me home, mom, can I keep her?’” The bark of humorless laughter that escaped Kyra was painful.

Of course Kyra knew where she was going, Jack realized. She’d felt, in the last few weeks, like they were sometimes hearing each other’s thoughts, seeing into the insides of each other’s heads… and based on the latest revelations, she hadn’t been wrong.

It had started in the hospital, at least between the two of them. Looking back, she thought she could see so many clues—

“I’m a known quantity,” Kyra said, flopping back on the bed and then wincing with pain. “Fucking stitches… my prints are on record. Finger and retina. All kinds of data. You were able to clear yours out, I know that, but mine are in too many systems for you to get to them, too.”

“Amnesty Interplanetary—”

“It doesn’t matter, Jack. They could get me exonerated or pardoned or whatever and it wouldn’t matter. If I’m with you, I’ll lead Toombs right to you. He doesn’t give a fuck about me. He just wants to use me to get to you, and you to get to Riddick.” Kyra sighed and closed her eyes. “Even if the bounty on me ceases to exist tomorrow, I still won’t be safe for you to be around. You can’t ever stop being Jack B. Badd if I’m along for the ride. And we both know you’re sick of being her.”

Jack found herself desperately wishing that Kyra was wrong, but knowing that she wasn’t.

“And,” Kyra sighed, “if anybody outside of this family and that Toal guy ever puts our trail together, enough to prove to the envoy that we were on board the Scarlet Matador… there’s no place in the Federacy that’ll be safe for us or anybody we care about. So yeah, get those fake images out there. Make ’em think we did run off to the Bayou Nebula or something. Make ’em think we’re living lives of crime as Riddick’s hench-bitches a hundred light years away from here. We need all the camouflage we can get. But it doesn’t change what has to happen.”

Jack swallowed, nodding. She could do that. She could lay down a convincing false trail, for all of their sakes. But—

“Will you be okay?” Kyra asked, snatching up the words that she’d been about to say. “I mean, you weren’t being abused by your mom or her boyfriend, were you?”

“No,” Jack told her, sighing. “It wasn’t anything like that. It’s just… I don’t think Alvin and I ever liked each other. He was dating my mom, but… the fact that she had a kid from a previous marriage was a big turn-off for him. I think it made things a little too real. I tried to just… make myself scarce when he was over. I figured they wouldn’t be together long anyway, and when they started fighting all the time, I figured I was right. They even broke up for about a week.”

“What were they fighting about?” Kyra asked, looking interested. It struck Jack again how incredibly different their childhood homes had to have been. If Kyra’s mother had been on board for the whole New Christy colony project, she’d probably been domestic and pious, not a high-powered corporate lawyer who, in the year before Jack took off, often hadn’t gotten back from dates until early Sunday afternoon.

“Everything. Nothing. The dumbest things were suddenly setting them off at each other. I was relieved when it ended, especially because, for a few days, I thought maybe my dad had a chance to come home…”

And then everything had crashed and burned.

“I still don’t know what happened, but suddenly my father was just… really quiet, and then he told me he’d rejoined the Corps of Engineers and was leaving for Furya. I wanted to go, too, but he said there weren’t any schools there that’d be challenging enough for me, and I should stay with my mom, and I’d understand why soon…”

“And did you?” Kyra’s voice was soft, almost hesitant.

“Two days after he left, I came home from school and Alvin was back. Sitting in the living room, holding my mom’s hand… and they told me they were getting married in three weeks.” The pain of that moment was still sharp and fresh. She pressed her fist against her heart, trying to tamp it down.  “They fucking waited until it was too late for me to go with him…”

“Why the hell did she take Alvin back?” Kyra sounded every bit as confused as Jack felt.

“I don’t… know. I didn’t really care. I just felt—” …feel… “—so fucking betrayed…”

“How long after that did you run?”

“A week before the wedding,” Jack sighed. “He was already throwing his weight around, wanting to be a father figure, wanting to be the fucking man of the house, like we needed one of those… He even said ‘my house, my rules’ to me one time, that fucker… So I figured out a route to Furya, forged my mom’s signature on some forms that’d let me pull the money I’d been saving up for summer camp out of the bank, and got the fuck outta there while they were having their bachelor parties and some twit from up the street was too busy making out with her boyfriend to babysit me.”

“And you’re just gonna go back to that?” Kyra looked dubious.

Jack shrugged. “Maybe. Probably. I can’t get to Furya, and I don’t want my parents to think I just died somewhere… but if he’s still a shit I’ll just… I dunno, threaten to disappear again if they don’t let me go live with my grandparents or one of my aunts and uncles, or something. I can’t let them think I just died, though. I didn’t… I didn’t do any of this to hurt them.”

I never wanted to hurt anybody…

It made her ill to think of what she’d put her mother, and also her father, her cousins, her grandparents, everybody through for more than a year now. It was especially hard to think of how her cats must have looked for her, called for her, those first few nights… and they would still have been bereft even if she’d made it to Furya on schedule.

Ewan’s wrong… I don’t think enough about how my actions affect others…

“No, Jack, Ewan’s right about you,” Kyra said.

She glanced over, surprised. Kyra smirked and tapped her temple. There was, she realized, no point in either one of them hiding or denying anymore that they were in each other’s heads.

“You don’t try to hurt anybody. You just tried to get to your dad fast before anyone could stop you,” Kyra continued. “Not your fault there was an unexpected detour into a shitstorm. Life’s just a series of detours, anyway, right? Most of what we plan out never really happens the way we expect it.”

“Yeah. Probably…” No probably about it, Jack admitted to herself. “Yeah. And that’s why I’m gonna give you a shit-ton of resources to take with you if we’re splitting up. Gonna teach you how to ghost around in case you ever need to replace Kali Montgomery with another alias.”

For the next hour, they made plans. They wouldn’t leave right away, but they would have to go soon, before someone got it into their head to restrict their movements “for their own good.” The conversation came to an abrupt halt when they heard voices in the courtyard.

“Fuck,” Kyra said, rising up and grabbing their plates and carrying them into the bathroom. “I don’t know how to put my IV back in. Take Sebby and jump in the shower, okay? I’m going to tell them I needed to take a shit and you couldn’t help me get up to do it because you were already showering. C’mon, go.

While Jack climbed into the shower with an excited crustacean, Kyra scraped their cold, uneaten food into the toilet and flushed it down.

Jack waited a few minutes, giving Sebby time to do his little water dance at her feet, before she emerged from the shower and slipped into the robe that Kyra had left for her. In the bedroom, Ewan was reconnecting her sister’s IV drip with an air that was simultaneously amused and martyred. He avoided looking at Jack much once he realized she was only wearing a bathrobe.

“In the morning, we’ll begin your physical therapy,” he was telling Kyra. “Your stitches look really good, though. In another few weeks, if you want, Takama can take you to a clinic to have the scar removed.”

“Scars are trophies,” Kyra said. “I want to keep it.”

Tafrara entered the room with a box… a singing box. Sebby, on Jack’s shoulder, began to make a high-pitched reeeeee of excitement.

“Yes, little one, this is your dinner,” she said, pouring the box’s contents into Sebby’s tub. “Yezan! Get off of me, you little…” She brushed off several crickets that had jumped onto her arms instead of into the tub.

With a delighted shriek, Sebby leapt off Jack’s shoulder, bouncing across the bed and then sailing through the air, straight into the tubful of crickets.

“This is why Izil put the box into the tub, flipped open the lid, and jumped back,” Ewan observed.

“And he still had three crickets jump on him,” Tafrara retorted, smirking. “We’ll see how well you manage next feeding. You can show us how it’s done.”

Throughout their good-natured ribbing, Jack noticed, they never once mentioned their visitor, or the conversation in the dining room. She wondered if it would ever come up.

Some of it’ll have to, she thought sadly. They’re gonna have to tell Kyra that her participation in the reception tomorrow evening is off.

Several times, before Ewan and Tafrara said good night and left the room, she thought Ewan was going to say something to her, but he always stopped himself. Things still weren’t normal between them. They’d almost gotten there, until everything changed again while she and Kyra were supposedly having dinner in their room.

Maybe we’ll find a way back to normal, she thought, picking up her tablet and carrying it over to the bed as the door closed. We still have three more Tangiers days…

And then he would be gone. And, soon after, so would she.

Kyra fell asleep almost immediately, but Jack couldn’t manage to. Maybe it was because she’d taken an unscheduled nap during the middle of the day, but her mind was too active. She spent another hour writing up instructions for how to access the hidden menus on different security platforms before Kyra began to whimper in her sleep.

“No… leave me alone… don’t wanna look…”

“Kyra?”

“Just… fucking… stop already…”

Jack closed her eyes, focusing on the starlit place that the Apeiros inhabited. “Are you talking to the other larva?” she demanded.

Yes.

“Stop. Leave her alone. You’re hurting her,” Jack told them.

For a moment, there was silence. Then…

We did not know.

Back on the bed, Jack could feel Kyra relaxing beside her.

“She’s still not healed. Talk to me. Just me.”

You are also injured, they pointed out.

“Maybe, but you don’t hurt me by talking to me. It hurts her when you do. So I need you to leave her alone.”

Nothing should have to be alone, one of them whispered.

“Okay. Fine. But you wait until she talks to you. If she calls to you, you can answer. But otherwise, let her be.”

There was a long pause. She had the sense that the ether they inhabited was full of communication, just none of it directed at her.

This is acceptable, they finally said. You and the smallest ones are enough.

That was a little creepy, she thought, and decided not to ask “enough for what?” Not yet. She wasn’t sure she was ready to know.

They didn’t seem to mean either her or Kyra harm, she reflected. They had been afraid, when she’d been struggling with the cube from the Scarlet Matador, that she would hurt or even kill herself, and had tried to stop her. For the moment, their motives seemed kind. But, and it would be especially true once she left Tangiers Prime and parted ways with Kyra, soon there would be no one she could discuss them with if she developed doubts about that. She would sound completely psychotic—

like an escapee from a mental hospital, even

—if she told anyone she was communicating telepathically with a strange alien race, unless she submitted herself to Quantification and the risks Takama believed came with that.

If she ever came to think they posed a threat, though, she might have to.

Unless it’s just a threat to me…

And… there it was.

She spent another half hour, still not even a little sleepy, researching “suicide by proxy” on the tablet. The historical material was disturbing; the law enforcement literature was a little horrifying. She skimmed over case studies of people whose guilt had overwhelmed them but who were repressed from making active suicide attempts, and who began to do more and more dangerous things, most of them in some way connected to the guilt they felt or a moment that they’d survived but felt they hadn’t deserved to. “Suicide by Cop,” she learned, was one of the most common forms, as people punished themselves and ended their lives by creating threatening-seeming situations in which police believed they had no alternative but to shoot to kill.

But it didn’t seem to cover what she was doing. Or what she had done.

In the al-Walid house, she reflected, she had felt completely alone and cut off from the world. She barely spoke Arabic for the first several weeks, none of the people she encountered there knew or were willing to speak English to her even though she knew that Abu, Lajjun, and even little Ziza were all bilingual—they were, they had told her, immersing her in “her” new language “for her own good” —and she wasn’t even allowed to control how she presented herself to the world. Skirts, dresses, and hair coverings, not as disguises but as her new normal, had been shoved upon her. They only grudgingly continued to call her “Jack” because she had refused to give them, or answer to, any other name; they used it as little as possible, too, often referring to her as “her” when she was standing right there.

Why, she wondered, was it so much easier to let people call her Tislilel—which, when she’d looked it up, she’d found literally meant “bride of the sea”—and to wear jalabiyas and other traditional North African attire, here in New Marrakesh than it had been there?

Because the Tomlin-Meziane family loves me, loves us… And because the name had been a gift from a man she had fallen in love with and was in mourning for.

She’d tried so hard to believe in the love that “Uncle Abu” and “Aunt Lajjun” had claimed to feel for her, tried so hard to reciprocate it… but in comparison to what she’d experienced in New Marrakesh, she could see just how empty and controlling it had all really been. The al-Walids had used “love” as a bludgeon, and had very nearly broken her with it.

In their house, she hadn’t had access to any resources she could use to run away again, and they had never given her an opportunity to find any. Anything she questioned or protested was grounds for a lecture about everything they were sacrificing for her sake, and how hurtful her ingratitude was to them. Through it all, she’d felt “Uncle Abu’s” judgmental censure over her hooligan ways, hidden beneath a wrapping of well-intended avuncular guidance, even as she’d been made to feel guilty over her instinctive, bone-deep rejection of all that prescriptive “nurturing.”

Death, she thought, had been the only way she’d seen out of the terrible, inescapable prison that had been assembled around her. Somehow, she’d even come to believe she deserved it all.

Those musings seemed to resonate with something. She tried to follow the thought, but it vanished as she tried to chase it down.

But the only remaining part of the despair she’d suffered in the al-Walid household was the sense that she had failed others when they’d needed her most, hadn’t done enough to help or protect them… and an absolute terror of finding herself as the sole survivor of yet another disaster.

There was, she noted ruefully, an abundance of links to the subject of “survivor’s guilt” on the tablet.

If she really was an esper, the way everybody suddenly seemed to think, was her persistent survival in part because she’d unconsciously foreseen, and been able to side-step, disasters as they came at her?

“First you’re a boy, then you’re a girl, and now you’re a psychic. Careful what you wish for, Jack…”

Of all the people she’d met on the first leg of her run, only three had survived meeting her, and only one of the people she’d loved had. She realized that she couldn’t stop dreading the possibility that history would repeat itself here.

She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to be the only one left standing if death came for the people she loved again.

On Deckard’s World, movies from twentieth century America were enormously popular, and she had watched hundreds of them with her cousins. There had been one where a man—a Scotsman, much like Cedric—had discovered that he was immortal and outlived everybody who mattered to him over and over, losing all the people he loved to war and time, slowly growing more aloof and disconnected from humanity. The film had made it seem so romantic and dashing, but a line from one of the songs that had played in it had indelibly embedded itself in her head: Who wants to live forever when love must die?

The conviction that the Tomlin-Meziane family, and the ait Meziane tribe as a whole, would be far safer with her and Kyra gone was still strong. And Kyra would probably be a lot safer, too, no longer traveling with the walking bullseye that was Jack B. Badd. Every bullet she’d dodged, and there had been so many now, seemed to have struck someone else as a result.

She didn’t want to step into a bullet’s path, though. She wanted out of the field of fire.

“Deckard’s World it is,” she sighed, and burrowed her way into the shipping schedules for that region of space.

Most of the shipping turned out to be indirect. Her planet, which had seemed so huge and consequential when she’d lived on it, was considered something of a remote backwater by the rest of the Federacy. There was regular, direct passenger traffic between there and New Queensland, and most of the freight that reached her home world was offloaded on Vasenji Station before making the final leg of its journey on smaller vessels. She would probably have to pass through one of those two locations on her way back.

She narrowed her search, setting a maximum time frame: she wanted to return to Deckard’s World within two years of the date of her disappearance. When she added Tangiers Prime as a starting location, only fourteen scheduled flights were left with openings in either their passenger or crew manifests. With a feeling of resignation, she added an exclusion for cryo-sleep, expecting all of them to disappear from the list.

One did not.

The Nephrite Undine was a new freighter, which was only just coming out of Sirius Shipping’s orbital shipyard at their headquarters above Tangiers Six. The company was preparing for its run-in flight using a new set of Star Jumps that would allow for direct traffic between the Tangiers system and Deckard’s World—

Could anything be more perfect? It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

The ship had never Star Jumped before. Maiden voyages, she soon discovered, had 90.3% success rates. They generally carried inexpensive and easily replaced cargo and were staffed by tiny skeleton crews that not only had to agree to the risk of a journey they might never return from, but also had to be willing to stay out of cryo and be “on call” every second of the journey in case something went wrong. High risk, high maintenance… hardly anybody wanted that. Those positions paid handsomely but were difficult to fill, especially if, as in this case, it was a months-long solo flight.

And, Jack saw, the job listing for the Nephrite Undine was still up.

Sirius Shipping had been sweetening the pot every way they could think of, she read, in an attempt to get even one qualified person to apply. It would be a five-month journey with twenty-five Jumps, none of them more than two days long and the rest of the time spent traversing normal space. The crew quarters were advertised as lush, with a recreational facility and data center that was described as “on par with any luxury system available to the public.” The maintenance schedule, they insisted, would only take up a few hours of each day, and the emergency procedures had been streamlined but shouldn’t be necessary. The human crew member would have AI support and would only be responsible for situations that non-humans had no legal authority to handle.

And yet the position was unfilled.

She dug deeper, slipping behind Sirius Shipping’s firewalls—she gravitated to their ships and ads, she thought, because she knew that they used her father’s security systems everywhere—and digging into their Human Resources department’s confidential files.

The job had been filled, briefly, a month ago, but had been relisted less than a week earlier… following the discovery of an obituary for the man they had hired and who had died in the spaceport explosion. The one backup candidate they’d had on file was no longer available. With the inaugural flight just eleven Standard days away, the company was becoming desperate and had, just hours earlier, increased the benefits they were offering.

Still, the almost one in ten chance that the ship would fail to reach its destination seemed to have deterred everyone… especially with the lucrative alternatives that had opened up in New Casablanca and New Fes as both cities’ spaceports expanded their staffs to accommodate traffic that would normally have gone through New Marrakesh. The few queries the listing had received in the last eight Standard days were from people seeking even more benefits and securities.

“Marianne Tepper,” she noted as she looked over the listing again, was fully qualified for the position. And under the circumstances, she didn’t really care how much she’d be paid.

Ewan was leaving in three Tangiers Prime days, slightly less than six Standard days. To reach the Tangiers Six orbital shipyards in time, she would need to leave New Marrakesh two morning-days after, travel to New Casablanca, and take a midnight launch from there. She would arrive at the Sirius Shipping HQ a little under one Standard day before the Nephrite Undine was scheduled to leave.

But there was almost a one in ten chance that, if she boarded that ship, she’d vanish forever and never make it home at all…

Would this be this some addlepated suicide attempt on her part? Boarding a ship that might never be seen again?

The Hunter-Gratzner was never seen again, she thought, and everybody thought it’d be safe. She had already survived one Level Five Incident. She could survive another, if it came to that.

She’d be home in less than six months if it worked, well before what everybody would think was her fifteenth birthday. If she could play a good enough hand, maybe she could even make people believe she’d been somewhere on Deckard’s World the whole time…

No matter what happened, the Nephrite Undine could break her trail.

Jack opened the message that she had received from Sirius Shipping that morning-day. They were still waiting to hear whether she wanted an interview for the Major Barbara position, something that was probably a simple formality. They might even skip an interview altogether when she made her counter-offer. She began to compose a reply.

Dear Ms. Nguyen, she wrote, addressing it to the executive who had signed the interview offer. A year before she’d taken off, her mother had shown her a stack of letters that had come from candidates she was considering for her law firm. Jack tried to phrase things the way her mother’s favorite choices had in their letters.

Thank you for your kind offer of a potential position on the Major Barbara. I regret that, due to some logistical and scheduling issues traveling to the Catalan System would create, I must decline the offer at this time. However, I am aware that you have another opening that doesn’t pose any such conflicts on your new vessel, the Nephrite Undine

Either way, she told herself as Kyra slept on beside her, Jack B. Badd could finally disappear forever.

Identity Theft, Chapter 39

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 39/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, violence
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Even as Jack finds herself concealing ugly truths about the eclipse from Kyra, new and terrible truths are looming that may threaten both girls’ futures.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

39.
Unquantified, Unseen, Unmasked

The good thing about telling Kyra the story of the eclipse, Jack thought to herself, was that she was increasingly sure whatever head trauma she might have wasn’t affecting her memory. The bad thing about it was realizing how often she was lying to her sister about just what had really happened.

Most of her lies, she was aware, were about Riddick. About his thoughts and motivations. About the depth of their emotional connection. In truth, Jack still wasn’t sure what he had thought of his little copycat, whether she’d amused or annoyed him. But in the story she told Kyra—who needed Riddick to be the hero and needed to go on believing that he had metaphorically vanquished Red Roger for her—their friendship had bloomed early and was never in doubt.

There were small things he’d done in their interactions that had pointed to genuine kindness. When they had been sitting in the back of the sand cat, for instance, and she’d been doing her best Riddick impression for him, he had given her the tiniest hint of a smile… and then pointed. When she followed the direction of his finger, she’d spotted the approaching skeletal remains of a massive creature. Shazza, in her haste, was about to drive through it without alerting anyone. Riddick’s silent warning allowed her to duck in time.

For Kyra’s sake, she played up that kindness and removed any ambiguity about his actions and their motives. For the story she told to soothe her sister, he was unfailingly kind to, and protective of, her.

Elsewhere’s lightning was strobing their room and its thunder growled and roared almost nonstop as they lay in bed and Jack continued the story. If they’d been on that side of the threshold, they would have been completely soaked. Both of them were enjoying the show, though; no window had ever provided as spectacular a view of a storm as their window between ’verses.

“We pulled the sand cat up to the crash ship—that’s what we were all calling it, nobody wanted to waste their time calling it the Hunter-Gratzner or anything—and most everybody jumped off to grab supplies and power cells and things, to load into the back. Shazza stayed in the driver’s seat and kept it idling so that we could move the second everything was loaded up. But it was getting darker and darker. The rings were starting to come between us and the suns. I thought, maybe, if I got all the dirt off of the solar collector’s dome, there might still be enough light, so I started wiping at it like crazy with one of my shirts…”

“Why didn’t they have backup power for it?” Kyra asked. “Even just a battery?”

“They really should’ve. Hell, they should’ve had a port where we could have plugged in one of the power cells, or something.” Jack was still peeved about the sand cat, and the suggestion she’d tried to make, later on, that had been completely ignored. She still thought it would have worked. “But they didn’t know there’d ever be a sunset on their planet, not until it was too late, so probably somebody was just too cheap to add that.”

Her father had often railed against customers who were too cheap to pay for protective features they were obstinately convinced they’d never need, especially when they blamed him, later on, for their absence. Deciding to drive without insurance was what he’d called it. The psychiatric hospital on Helion Prime, as it had turned out, had been among those customers. At least, she thought, she and Kyra had personally benefited from that bout of short-sightedness. On a planet of almost eternal sunlight, that same kind of skinflint incaution had cost almost everyone their lives.

“I got that dome so clean, but once the rings were over both of the suns, the collector just stopped turning. The sand cat was dead. The temperature dropped real fast too, by about ten degrees. I could still kind of see the suns behind the rings… a big red blob and a smaller yellow blob… but it had gotten so dark. And then the noises started.”

“Noises?” Kyra snickered. “C’mon, you can be more specific than that.”

“Animal noises,” Jack said, hearing them again in her head. “Growls, cries… sounds I’d heard faintly the whole time we’d been at the crash ship, but I’d thought it was just the wind until after Fry almost got taken. But now they were really loud. And then…”

It had been, she told Kyra, picking through her words carefully as she tried to capture the terrifying beauty of the moment with them, almost like someone had shaken up a snow-globe full of pitch black, batlike shapes, that had begun floating into the darkening sky from the chimney-like structures as if smoke itself had developed sentience. They shrieked as they flowed upward, whirling and spinning in the twilight…

“People… just a suggestion… perhaps you should flee!” Paris’s voice echoed in her head.

She had found herself running alongside the others, racing for the upturned cargo container where Paris was shouting for them to hurry. It was only when she reached the container and looked back that she realized Shazza and Riddick had fallen behind.

“Riddick brought up the rear,” she told Kyra. “He stayed behind Shazza the whole time. I think he could have outrun her if he’d wanted to, but he didn’t. Fry yelled at them to get down, because the creatures were almost on them. They ran up the side of the gouge that the crash ship had plowed in the ground and dove down inside it. I swear, the creatures were chasing them too… flew right over them and away, but then…”

Then, as she had watched helplessly from much too far away, the screeching murmuration had begun to circle back.

She’d watched them both lying on the ground, Riddick on his side, Shazza on her belly. And even from that distance, she had seen the moment when Shazza’s nerves had frayed and snapped.

“Shazza, stay there!” She’d yelled, pulling free of Paris’s restraining grasp. “Stay down, Shazza, just stay down!”

“Come here!” the would-be tomb raider had shouted, pulling her back into the cargo container. She struggled against him, against what was inevitably about to happen.

Shazza couldn’t see what was behind her, running flat-out for the cargo container. But Riddick, on his side, could see everything. He hadn’t even tried to rise. Instead, he rolled onto his back and flattened himself against the dirt. The flock swooped past just inches above his chest.

Several of them struck Shazza, knocking her to her knees. Instead of flinging herself to the ground, instead of rolling to get them off of her, she tried to rise, to keep going.

“Shazza!” Jack had heard herself screaming, trying to throw herself forward to the rescue, “just stay down!”

Paris hauled her back again, his arm around her no longer at all gentle. She fought his hold until the moment when she heard Shazza’s unearthly scream of agony and saw her torso pulling free of her legs in an explosion of blood. She was still screaming, now in several pieces in the living whirlwind’s grasp, as it spun past the container and off into the darkness.

Suddenly Paris’s arm had been the only thing holding Jack up.

And now she found herself lying to Kyra again. Riddick had risen from the ground, calmly, looking completely unbothered, dusting himself off as he sauntered over to the container, stepping around the splashes of Shazza’s blood in the dirt with casual indifference. Jack, who had just lost the closest thing she’d had to a mother since she’d left Deckard’s World, had felt a moment of intense resentment for that nonchalance. For that moment, she’d found herself almost hating him.

She couldn’t tell Kyra that. This wasn’t supposed to be that kind of story for Kyra. Riddick was the tale’s hero. So she muted the grief and pain and…

“There wasn’t anything he could have done to save her, but I know he wanted to…”

She was projecting her own feelings onto him, her own motivations. His had been completely inscrutable. She had no real idea what had lain behind that calm deadpan, not then, maybe not ever. But in the story she told Kyra, it was a mirror of what she had been feeling and wishing.

“Paris was telling us we needed to get deeper inside so he could close the outer doors. Everybody climbed in, but I could hear Fry and Riddick, still outside. These strange new hoots and howls had started up and she asked him, ‘what is it, Riddick? What is it now?’ And he told her, ‘like I said, it ain’t me you gotta worry about.’ And then the last of the light was gone.”

Before she could get further with the story, Takama knocked on the door. Ewan and Tafrara were with her. While they began tending Kyra, Takama led Jack down to the garage level and helped her into a swanky-looking car so they could go get her head imaged.

Dusk had descended over New Marrakesh. In Elsewhere the storm had moved off, upward into the New Atlas foothills, and the tide was moving in. They didn’t drive toward the waters, though, instead driving further uphill and into one of the ritzier suburbs of the city, arriving at what appeared to be a satellite branch of the hospital.

Takama handled the check-in paperwork, using false names for both Jack and herself and weaving a tale, for the intake staff’s benefit, of visiting relatives and a children’s competitive tree-climbing excursion that had gone awry. Moments later, Jack was lying on a table, her head inside what she could only think of as a massive white donut. It didn’t take long. But soon after, a frowning technician appeared, examining the images, and asked if they could do an electroencephalogram.

That took nearly an hour.

Finally, after that was over, a doctor entered the room.

“Is there something wrong with Tafsut?” Takama asked in Arabic, using the false name she’d picked for Jack.

“No, not at all,” the woman answered, surprising both of them. Officially, Jack couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but she was following along just fine. “There are no signs of concussion, no brain bleeds, nothing. She’s perfectly healthy. It’s just…”

Takama shot Jack a confused and worried look just as Jack was shooting one at her.

“Has your niece ever been Quantified?” The way she said it, Jack could hear the capitalization in the word.

Alarm appeared in Takama’s eyes for the briefest instance. Then her expression became disapproving. “No, of course not. We do not believe in such things.”

“You might want to consider having her tested,” the doctor said, holding out a tablet with colorful data and imaging on its screen. “The readings we were getting are unusually high—”

“Baraka!” Takama almost shouted, one hand slapping at the tablet while the other made a gesture that Jack had learned was for warding off evil. “Do not speak of such things! Do you wish to make her a pariah? Ruin her chances to marry and have a family? We will not stay to hear such nonsense!”

If Jack hadn’t spent the last two and a half weeks getting to know Takama quite well, she might have been fooled by the sudden act, but she wasn’t. She could see that the doctor was, though. She could see the change in her demeanor and could, she thought, almost hear her thinking, superstitious old bat…

Takama led Jack back out of the clinic, hovering over her the whole time while deliberately grumbling about terrible treatment and how the doctor was trying to hex her niece, fussing even when she paid the bill. Only after they had driven away from the clinic did she drop the act.

“What was that about?” Jack asked, her emotions caught in a tug of war between confusion, amusement, and a little bit of fear.

“Brahim said that you are good at infiltrating secure systems, yes? You will want to do so the moment we get home, and destroy all of the scans they made of you and the EEG readings they took.” Takama only looked worried now, as she glanced over at Jack. “Have you ever been Quantified?”

“I don’t know what that is,” Jack told her, “so I’m guessing not.”

“It’s testing for extrasensory abilities. When readings go above a certain level, and I think your scans indicated that they would… testers are required to notify the Federacy. You need to destroy those records as soon as we get home. At least,” Takama added, flashing a tight smile at her, “we know you took no lasting harm from your misadventures this afternoon. And I really should not be surprised that a girl who can move a starship between universes, using her will alone, would test highly. I am sorry, Tislilel. I was so worried about brain injury that it never occurred to me I might be exposing you to—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jack said, feeling a little stunned. “I’ll grab some baseline readings and sub them in, no problem, soon as I have my tablet.”

“I hope it is as easy as you make it sound,” Takama worried beside her.

“Is it that bad?” Jack suddenly found herself worrying that there might have been a kernel of truth in Takama’s act; if it really would make her a pariah with the Imazighen.

“Good heavens, no. Dihya—the warrior queen your sister is named after—was a seer of great power. Such gifts are only as good or as evil as the one making use of them. No, the problem is the Federacy. It ‘recruits’ anyone who tests highly enough. Whether or not they wish to be recruited.”

Jack, who had spent her childhood hearing only good things about the Federacy, was left a little dumbfounded by that claim.

Takama hustled her into the house the moment they returned, almost dragging her upstairs. Her anxiety was infectious, and Jack found herself running alongside her “aunt,” the need to delete the files filling her purpose.

“Get hacking,” Takama commanded the moment they reached the room. “I will have dinner sent up for both of you.”

It took Jack only a few minutes to find her way into the clinic’s files, using her most insidious Ghost Code. Looking over her patient file, she was relieved to see that almost none of the data would point directly to her. She made a few changes to obscure herself further, adjusting the height—when had she reached 1.73 meters?—weight, and eye color that were stored on file. She saved copies of the original scans and readings on her tablet—she wanted to take a closer look at them, herself, later—before going hunting in the system for another head’s data to replace hers with.

Tafrara and Ewan arrived with trays for her and Kyra right as she was finishing up and erasing the security footage, inside the clinic and out in the parking area, that she and Takama had appeared in. They didn’t stay more than a minute.

Weird. Usually there were at least a few moments of joking banter before they left. Jack walked over to the doors that led out onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard, pulling the curtain back just a little.

Brother and sister were hurrying across the courtyard toward the dining room.

Huh.

“I’ll be back,” she told Kyra, and slipped out of the room.

The moment she was level with the courtyard, and the ground of Elsewhere, she isomorphed over, keeping a strong visual and auditory connection with U1. She crossed the still-wet sand of Elsewhere’s version of the courtyard in a hurry, entering the space that was, back in U1, the dining room.

The whole family was assembled. There was no food on the table.

“I suppose it should not have come as a surprise,” Takama was saying in English, probably for the benefit and inclusion of an elderly, elegantly-dressed Black man sitting at the table with them. He, alone, had a cup of tea before him. “Brahim said most of the survivors struggled a great deal to master their instructions. I asked Amastan if any of them had spoken of dreaming of those… beings… both girls speak of, and he says no.”

“Did he answer you about the other matter?” Ewan asked.

“Yes. He says none of them met the envoy, although some of them remember seeing her on their hospital floor. She was aloof and never spoke to, much less touched, any of them.”

“Good. That’s something, at least.” Ewan still looked uneasy, and deeply unhappy.

“So…” Cedric said, after the momentary silence started to become uncomfortable, “all of the survivors of the Matador owe their lives to the fact that the two stowaways on board, who escaped Quintessa’s control, happened to be un-Quantified espers.”

“Are we sure it’s both of them?” Safiyya asked.

“You did not see Dihya bringing them across from the other world—”

“Elsewhere,” Ewan interjected.

“—from Elsewhere and into the market square,” Takama continued. “She has power, too, although probably not quite as much as Tislilel.”

“You got a look at the readings before you started up with the doctor, right?” Cedric asked. “What were the PKP indices?”

“Maximum. As high as the sensors could record.” Takama sighed, steepling her fingers and pressing them to her lips for a moment. “She is a cerebral girl, at her core. A teacher’s dream… Dihya, I think, relies more on her physicality. She has a good mind too, very intelligent, but—”

“Not on the same order of magnitude,” Cedric agreed. “She’s older, but follows Tizzy’s lead becau—”

“Tizzy?” Tafrara blurted.

“Why not? It suits her more than you think. Anyway, she follows Tizzy’s lead because she’s such a quick thinker. Makes it a little hard, though, to tell one of her plans from one of her impulses.”

“Exactly,” Safiyya sighed. “We have all been remiss. We need to bear in mind that even a child prodigy—”

“Is still a child,” Ewan finished her statement for her. “I… am… aware.”

His eyes looked haunted. Tafrara put her arm around his shoulder.

“It is hard for all of us to remember that about her,” she said, her voice soft and almost coaxing.

“I nearly let her kill herself,” he whispered, closing his eyes.

“Do you think that is what she was doing?” Takama suddenly asked.

An arm slipped around Jack’s waist. She flinched and then realized who it had to be. Kyra, wearing the bathrobe Jack had left on the chair, was standing beside her, fully in Elsewhere.

“What’ve I been missing?” her sister whispered. Jack couldn’t find her voice to answer.

“We have seen her records from New Athens General,” Takama was saying. “Severe blood loss and drowning. She very nearly succeeded that time. Could she still be suicidal?”

Ewan’s complexion had turned almost ashen.

“If she is,” Safiyya mused, “I don’t think she knows it. But there is something called ‘suicide by proxy,’ that some people engage in when they won’t deliberately try to die or consciously admit to wanting to. They put themselves into dangerous situations, ones that could result in their deaths—”

“I can’t—” Ewan almost knocked his chair over as he got up from the table. He crossed the room swiftly, approaching the doorway where Jack and Kyra were standing, unseen and intangible.

“Do not go to her!” Cedric commanded, bringing his son to a halt.

Although a world away, Ewan was only inches from Jack, his breathing ragged. The agony on his face twisted at her heart. He closed his eyes and took a few long, deep breaths. Everyone at the table was watching him with concern.

Jack wanted to hug him. She only realized she was leaning toward him when Kyra pulled her back.

Finally Ewan spoke, his expression and voice growing calmer. “She wouldn’t have done that to me. She wouldn’t have left me stranded in another universe.” He turned to face the table. “Maybe she’d put herself in harm’s way. I don’t know. But she’d never do something that put someone else in danger.”

“Not on purpose,” Jack whispered. Ali and Paris still haunted her.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Kyra whispered back, giving her waist a gentle squeeze.

“If she had known, or even suspected, that she was in that much danger… if she had been trying to die… she would have sent me back to this universe first,” Ewan continued.

“You can’t know that,” Safiyya said.

“I do know that. And you do, too.” He turned and stalked back to the table, sitting back down in the chair he’d vacated. His body was still tense. “I think… she just doesn’t know her limits until she crashes into them.”

“This is a reasonable hypothesis,” the Black man mused, his rumbling, accented voice even deeper than Riddick’s. “Many with her kind of ability only develop it at the onset of puberty, which the remaining fragments of her medical records indicate is relatively recent.”

Ewan winced, closing his eyes. Tafrara put her hand on the back of his neck and murmured something soft in Tamazight. He shook his head, his lips pressed tightly together as he looked over at her.

“Your ‘Tizzy,’” the man continued, “may have no idea what she can or cannot do with these gifts until she tries.”

“Who the fuck is he?” Kyra whispered.

Jack shrugged, shaking her head. She had seen him in line, well behind the envoy, at the end of the memorial, but Ewan had already whisked them away from the church before he came anywhere near the family.

“I guess we should be especially grateful that you decided to visit us tonight, General Toal,” Cedric said. “You’ve worked with espers in the past, haven’t you? Trained operatives.”

Even as the general nodded, Safiyya spoke up. “Is there any new word about your son or his platoon?”

General Toal shook his head, his expression briefly sad. “Nothing. It has been almost ten years… soon they will be declared dead. I… have made my peace with it.” He sighed and then seemed to put it aside. “But I am afraid that my visit this evening is not as auspicious as you have hoped. I came to warn you.”

Uneasy looks passed around the table.

“In the last day, the Quintessa envoy has been approaching many of Gavin Brahim’s former comrades-in-arms, the ones who will be visiting your home tomorrow evening. Many of them have asked me for advice,” the General explained. “She has hinted to all of them that she would like to attend as their ‘plus-one’ if they would be so inclined.”

“If that vile tkahbacht even tries to enter this house—” Tafrara exploded.

“What?” Ewan asked. “What can we do if she tries, Elspeth?”

Jack had wondered if, like her brothers, Tafrara had a Scottish name as well as a Tamazight name. Now she had an answer.

“Our brother’s murderer will never be welcome here!” his sister shouted, slamming her fists on the table. “I will see her dead first!”

“Tafrara.” Somehow, Cedric’s almost-gentle tone stopped her tirade cold. “It’s easily prevented. We’ll just clarify that this isn’t a gathering where plus-ones can be accommodated.”

The General’s mouth twitched and he nodded. “That does indeed solve that part of the problem. But she has not been alone in her visits. Her entourage, these days, includes a mercenary who is eager to tell everybody he meets about the pair of dangerous teenage girls he is tracking—”

Ewan muttered something in Tamazight that made every woman at the table gasp and glare at him. He even got a reproving look from his father. There was no shame on his face now, though; only fury.

“—and he has been circulating pictures of them,” General Toal continued. “Already many of the officers who spoke to me have commented how similar they look to your visiting nieces. Now, we all know the truth about these two young ladies. And certainly, we all know that, even if they were the monsters he portrays them as, they never would have had time to commit the heinous crimes he’s claiming they engaged in between their escape from the psychiatric hospital and when the Scarlet Matador left Helion Prime. But…”

“An accusation does not have to be true to do great damage,” Takama sighed.

Jack felt Kyra begin to tremble beside her.

“Indeed.” The General looked around the table at everyone. “I was hoping to help you make this work. I truly was. But at this time, there is no way we dare introduce Miss Wittier-Collins to the officers who will be visiting tomorrow evening. Whether or not he suspects who your ‘nieces’ really are, this ‘Alexander Toombs’ has poisoned the well.”

“Oh fuck, Jack…” Next to her, Kyra’s eyes were welling with tears.

It just figured that Elsewhere’s tide would show up right then, too.

Identity Theft, Chapter 38

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 38/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Actions have consequences. The consequences of Jack’s actions are bigger and more profound than she knows how to deal with.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

38.
The Bell That Must Not Ring

Pain.

There was nothing but pain for a time. Her universe was made of it.

Little larva, can you hear us? Little larva, come back to us…

She wanted to tell them to leave her alone, but she couldn’t make words.

Little larva, do not die. Come back to us…

They weren’t going to leave her alone. Finally she found just enough strength to answer.

“Not dying…” she mumbled. “Just… trying to fucking sleep…

“That’s my girl,” a man’s deep, velvety voice said from somewhere outside of the darkness. “You rest, a tafat-iw. I have you. I’ll keep you safe…”

Riddick? No. The voice was different, just as deep but not quite as rough. With a hint of an accent Riddick didn’t have…

Ewan. That was the name that went with the voice. Ewan Zdan…

We told you not to do that, little larva. You could have died.

“Had… to… move it…”

We do not understand how you accomplished that and lived. It should not have been possible. You are still so small.

The stars were far too bright to look at. She felt them surrounding her, peering at her with eyes that weren’t eyes, seeing her in some way she struggled to comprehend.

You almost broke your five-shape. Do not try to do anything like that again until you have hatched.

“Do what?” she managed to ask, also managing to limit her words to the dream space. She was vaguely aware that her body—her shell—was being held in someone’s arms. Ewan’s?

They tried to explain, but she didn’t understand. She could barely focus. They showed her mind-bending shapes, things that normally would have had her fleeing in terror, but she wasn’t even strong enough—or scared enough—to look away. Emotion was a blank. Emotion needed energy, and she had none.

A cube, she thought after they showed her yet another iteration. A sealed cube with no way in or out…

Broken now.

It means nothing. The …Moribund’s…? voice was like angry distant thunder.

It means everything.

She was already lost. What use is breaking an empty box? Be done with this filth.

She hatched this larva and its broodmates. They are not filth. They are hope. This little one might even be the One.

One reckless trick and you would fall at its nethers. You lie to yourselves. We will be your “One.” You waste your time. We do not need this filth’s help to rise. We will break the ’verse itself…

And have you yet? Go. You have no place among us.

If Jack were strong enough to care, she thought, she might have been afraid. But she felt almost as if she was back in the isolation ward, cocooned against herself, cut off from sense and emotion. Even the poisonous rage of the one entity—

She needed to call them something better than that.

“Do you have names?” she asked the darkness. “What are all of you called?”

Names are delimiters, the Moribund snarled. Jack wondered if it knew what the others called it.

Our names were stolen, they whispered.

“Can I give you one? I need something to call you.”

She sensed disgust from the one hateful “voice” in the darkness, but curiosity from the others.

“What about…” The word, which had been in her head since the morning, floated back. “Apeiros?”

Apeiros… infinite… She could feel them mulling it over. It is an interesting choice. You may see deeper than you know. A name that means hope. Yes, little larva, you may call us this.

Fools. All of you. Falling over a tiny piece of filth…

Little by little, the pain was receding. The stars were no longer blinding. Jack could feel herself, not floating anymore, but lying down on something warm. She could hear a soft double-rhythm pulling at her.

Go, little larva. You can wake to your five-space now. You will not die…

She opened her eyes.

There was still daylight, but the light level had dropped considerably. Even so, it felt almost too bright to keep her eyes open, and it set her head pounding again. She was resting in Ewan’s lap, head on his chest, his heartbeat in her ear. He was sitting in the sand, legs stretched out and his back leaning against a boulder, gazing out over the landscape of Elsewhere. The tide, although still several kilometers away, had begun rolling back in and the sun, mostly hidden by the deep grayish blue of pregnant storm clouds, was halfway to the horizon. Lightning flickered over the waters off to the southwest.

An unknotted string hung in the air nearby, marking the spot where Jack had tethered the special comm to a bench in U1. Ewan had carried her back to the location of the grotto.

He had the comm in one hand, and his other arm was wrapped around her. Their packs lay beside them in the sand. His was open and a smaller version of his field kit was out; several bloodstained wipes were lying crumpled beside it along with a penlight and a portable diagnostic.

He glanced down at her and blinked, his eyes widening a little. “Baraka. Oh, thank God. Tislilel? Are you back with me?”

“Mmm-hmm…”

“I need you to say a little more than that, tahbibt-iw. Can you, for me?”

“Did I pass out?” Jack managed to ask.

“You did. Your nose started bleeding right before you collapsed, and for a while, one of your pupils was dilated. You’ve been unconscious for the last three hours while I brought you back here. I was afraid you might have given yourself an aneurysm.”

“Kinda felt like I did… fuck, my head hurts… I felt like I split it open when I pushed that damned box out…”

“Box?” Ewan gave her a quizzical frown.

“Inside the ship. I think… I think I broke open an apeirochoron.”

“Unless that’s just the name of some cerebral blood vessel I’ve forgotten about, I don’t know what that means.”

She didn’t really have words for what she was trying to tell him… or if she did, she couldn’t put them together. She couldn’t paint the air with shapes made out of light, Apeiros style, to try to show him, either. But that was okay. Maybe one day…

Maybe one day what, exactly? She felt like she was trying to focus in eight directions at once, some of which were impossible. Her thoughts were looping… looping…

“Please don’t go back to sleep, Tislilel. Not yet.”

“Sorry…” She wanted to tell him that she’d gone too far, that she should have listened to him, and to them, and stopped. But she’d been incapable of doing so at the time, and even now that was hard to admit. It had been the act of a child, the child she kept telling herself she no longer was. She changed the subject. Slightly. “I saw the envoy. She was at the spaceport. And I got a better look at what she’s connected to. Darkness. She wears all white, but she’s all darkness.”

An infinite darkness that even the Apeiros seemed to fear…

The demons of the dark… What would look like a demon to one of them?

“Stay awake, Tislilel. No sleeping. Did she see you?”

“No. Remember how I used my tablet for a few minutes before we got close to the ship?”

“I do, yes.”

“I turned off the ship’s outside cameras. My codes were still good. Nobody saw us walk up, in either ’verse.”

Ewan laughed softly. “Well played. So you could see her in U1, but she couldn’t look into Elsewhere to see either of us. And if they were recording the camera feeds from the ship itself…”

“We never appeared on them before they stopped.”

“That’s a relief. I’m curious… do you play chess?”

Jack wondered if he really was curious, or just trying to keep her talking, coherent, and awake. “My dad was gonna teach me, but when my parents started fighting, and after the divorce, he never had time.”

“You should learn it. You have the right strategic mind for it.”

“I dunno. Half the time I feel like it doesn’t tell me the plan until it’s time to do it.” She was, slowly, having an easier time staying focused on the moment at hand. The tide would be rising soon. “What time is it?”

“Almost thirteen pm.” He quirked a smile at her. “We’ve missed lunch. Not that I had any kind of appetite until now. How about you? Are you feeling at all hungry?”

“Yeah, but… also queasy. Is that bad?”

“Possibly. Do you want to try to drink some water? I can give you something for your headache if you think you can keep it down.”

Until then, Jack hadn’t noticed how thirsty she was. “Yes, please. Or if you have anything with caffeine—”

“Absolutely not. Not until I know for certain you don’t have a brain injury.”

“Spoilsport…”

“I’m serious, Tislilel. No caffeine until I say it’s safe.”

Fine… any orange juice?”

“Yes, that you can have. And I do, indeed, have some.”

He brought out a small bottle of juice for her, making her use the first few sips to take some pills for her headache. To their mutual relief, her nausea began to ease, and he let her have some of the savory crackers he’d also brought, flavored with spices she’d never known before New Marrakesh.

“These are so good,” Jack sighed, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Now I’m really getting hungry.”

“It might be time for us to go, then. Especially with that rain approaching. I was just about to call for help when you began mumbling actual words.” He stroked her cheek with his fingertips. “You have no idea what a relief it was to hear you say ‘trying to fucking sleep…’”

He had done an amazing imitation of her accent. She found herself laughing. Ow.

“My head does still hurt,” she admitted, “but not nearly as bad. I think I can pull us back into U1, though.”

“Now you have me in a quandary,” Ewan sighed. “I don’t want to overtax you after everything you’ve already done, and especially not before I can get a good scan of your hard little head. But the alternative is dragging your sister out of bed, while she’s still healing, to come down here to bring us across. So you have to promise me…”

He leaned his head closer to hers, locking his eyes with hers, his expression simultaneously fiercely serious and gently teasing. The palm of his hand, where it rested on her cheek, made her skin tingle.

“…that this time, you really will stop if it becomes too much.” A hint of a genuine plea appeared on his face. “Please don’t scare me like that again.”

He thought I might be dying, too. At the time, it had just felt like a strange tug of war game that she’d desperately needed to win. Until the tension had abruptly snapped and its full power ricocheted back against her. She’d won, but she still wasn’t sure of the cost. What if she really had given herself brain damage?

She lifted her hand and rested it on his cheek, feeling smooth skin and rough stubble under her palm, the muscles over his cheekbone and the hollow below, the strong line of his jaw. “I promise. I really, truly promise.”

His eyes weren’t olive green, she found herself thinking. More a sea green, a few shades paler, and slightly bluer, than hers, which her father had called “moss green,” her mother had called “jade green,” and her cousins, always looking for creative ways to be rude, had called “pond scum green.” His sea green, she mused, was the loveliest shade she’d ever seen.

For a long, still moment, their eyes stayed locked. Jack found she was intensely aware of every point of contact between their bodies, all of which seemed to almost hum with energy. Then a look of alarm flickered over his face and he pulled away, just a little. A second later, a roguish—but somehow forced—grin appeared as he drew back even more. “In that case, I will accept your invitation to return to U1. I’ve made sure we’re in a clear space of the garden Ababat—sorry, my father—rented.”

“How’d you manage that?” Jack asked, still recovering from the moment herself as he moved her off of his lap—the brief touch of his hands on her waist sending powerful shocks coursing through her—and stood up.

He picked up the plastic bag that had held the comm, dropping the tether inside it at the same time. “I flapped it around the space to make sure it didn’t hit anything on the other side. Since it’s in both worlds.”

“Smart,” Jack laughed, climbing unsteadily to her feet. This time, laughing didn’t make her head hurt quite so much.

“I have my moments,” he agreed as he helped her up and began reassembling their packs. She noticed that he was careful not to let their bodies come into contact again.

It made the transition back a little awkward, but he was willing to at least let her hold his hands to do it. A moment later, they were surrounded by a garden that she realized would have been a terribly romantic setting if they weren’t suddenly so busy hiding from each other.

A lesser man, she mused, would have tried to kiss her. Would she have wanted him to quite so desperately if he’d been a lesser man?

If I were even just five years older… she thought, filled with a sense of terrible loss. He would never, ever act on what she was certain both of them had suddenly been feeling. Part of her, the part that still wanted to try to eat an entire bucket of Halloween candy in one sitting, the part that knew and didn’t care that some of the things she craved might be bad for her, the part that always convinced itself that she was more of an adult the less she acted like one—the part of her that had nearly shattered her brain over a sealed box just hours earlier—was tempted to try to get him to do so anyway. Every cell of her body was hungry for something she couldn’t name or explain but was certain he could give her. But—

It would break him. It would break them both. She didn’t want to know that, but she knew it.

And then, she admitted to herself and had to swallow back a laugh, Kyra would cut his dick off and make him eat it.

Maybe, she supposed as she rewound the tagelmust around her head, she could return to Tangiers Prime when she was legally an adult. Maybe then, if Ewan hadn’t already married and settled down, there would be a space for these feelings…

“So,” he asked behind her, the cheerful tone in his voice sounding just a little bit forced, “do you feel up to making the trek back home?”

Jack shouldered her pack and nodded, slipping back into her teenage boy persona. Hopefully that’d help defuse the moment further. “Let’s do it,” she said in her boy voice, an octave below normal.

The rented grotto was part of a garden complex that could be hired for lunches and dinners, for parties and gatherings. Although the lunch hours had already passed, many of the parties were only just breaking up. Well-dressed diners and revelers were departing, most giving Jack and Ewan askance looks as they emerged from their grotto and locked its gate behind them. They did rather look like a pair of disheveled ruffians, Jack thought. She was glad Ewan had already cleaned up her nosebleed.

I know what they all think he’s been doing… with a boy, she thought, hiding the snicker that bubbled up. Even a few hours ago, she could have shared the joke with him. Not now.

While he stayed close to her as they walked, and she could feel him watching her the whole time for signs that she was unwell, he didn’t touch her. The gulf suddenly between them felt miles wide. But any time she glanced his way, she saw only concern. Periodically, he tried to use the special comm to make a call, but it never seemed to go through, even after she pulled it all the way back into U1 for him.

Along the route back up into the Rif, Jack heard snatches of conversation and rumor about some kind of new security incident at the spaceport. Nobody was sure, exactly, what had happened out there, but the place was in full lockdown and the local comms system was overloaded. She was suddenly glad that the garden Cedric had chosen was so far away from the perimeters that had gone up around the spaceport… and might soon go up around the hospital. It was even outside of the checkpoints she and Kyra had encountered the last time they’d traveled downtown, partway up into the heights.

And Ewan had had to haul her unconscious ass that whole distance, she realized. Almost fifteen kilometers and up several hills…

“I’m really hoping that carrying my dead weight all that way didn’t throw out your back or anything,” she told him.

“It was torture,” he said with an almost-easy smile. “You weigh nearly much as my boot camp combat load.”

“This is what you guys get for feeding me,” she teased back, feeling more relaxed—more like things were normal—with each passing minute.

“You do eat enormous quantities. Not quite your weight in crickets, though… I could swear I thought it was going to rain soon,” Ewan said as they crested a switchback and looked down over the city and sea below them. To the west, the sky was mostly clear, the sun dropping closer to the horizon. Her eyes were handling the increased light level better, she realized.

“Not in this universe,” Jack reminded him. No one was around to hear.

“Ah. Yes. Of course.” Ewan’s smile became rueful. “Is it raining over there yet?”

Jack shifted her vision to look into the darkening world of Elsewhere. “Looks like it’s gonna storm pretty hard there soon. Good thing we didn’t wait around on that side.”

“It’s a beautiful place,” Ewan remarked. “So untouched by humans until now. And yet habitable…”

“Pretty weird, huh?” Jack agreed as she followed his train of thought. “No terraforming required.”

“I suppose every planet has a universe where that’s true,” he mused, gazing out over the more familiar landscape of U1’s New Marrakesh.

“Yeah. Back when I was first learning about this stuff, I asked my teacher why we’d gone into space at all if we could’ve just moved to other Earths that hadn’t been polluted to death. He didn’t know why.”

“Because colonization is about control,” Ewan said after a pensive moment. “The concessions and payments that had to be made, by so many societies, to gain access to ships to leave Earth… the treaties they had to sign, the rights they had to sell away… would have been unnecessary if all one had needed to do, to reach a new world, was take a beautiful girl’s hand—”

He stopped himself then, turning his head away, but not before she saw the sudden, stricken look that passed over his face.

Jack made herself look away, too. The instant of vulnerability she’d seen in his eyes was unnerving, almost negating the thrill of hearing him call her beautiful. “Oh look,” she said after an awkward minute, pointing at the hospital. Its base practically sparkled with flashing blue lights. “I think someone discovered our handiwork.”

“I think you’re right.” Ewan grinned, his expression relaxing again. “Fortunately, Usadden had this evening-day off and instructed the noon shift to complete an inventory of the Matador bodies an hour before we were set to arrive. In preparation for turning them over to the Quintessa Corporation tomorrow, of course. So they were fully accounted for long after he left the morgue at the end of the morning-day. And he has an iron-clad alibi for this afternoon.”

“Where’s he been while we’ve been doing crime?”

“Attending a conference hosted by the President of the City Council,” Ewan told her, the sparkle back in his eyes. “Discussing, of all things, how to improve the quarantine protocols for incoming Star Jumpers.”

“That,” Jack laughed, “is a damned good alibi.”

The silence between them as they hiked the rest of the way still wasn’t entirely comfortable, but it was slowly getting there. They were still two blocks away from home, and phantom thunder had begun to growl overhead in Elsewhere, when Cedric, Safiyya, Takama, and Izil hurried out to meet them.

“Where have you two been?” Takama demanded. “Dihya’s been upset for hours, saying Tislilel was hurt!”

Fuck, Jack thought, guilt knotting her stomach. Of course she knew… She hoped the Apeiros hadn’t begun badgering her sister again.

“Right after she started,” Cedric added, “we got word that the spaceport was under lockdown. What did you two do?”

Jack could feel even more guilt rising within her, and the sudden fear that they might never trust one of her plans, or her, again.

“Tislilel realized that it wouldn’t matter what else we took away from the Quintessa Corporation if they still had the Scarlet Matador,” Ewan told them. “But pulling that into Elsewhere turned out to be more difficult than she expected. Some part of it—you called it an ‘apeirochoron,’ is that right?—resisted. Pulling it through knocked her out.”

But she hadn’t pulled it through, she thought. It had already been in Elsewhere. She’d had to force it out of U1—

“And you allowed this?” Safiyya’s face, in that moment, looked almost exactly like her mother’s when she’d been up to no good with her cousins.

“He was yelling at me to stop,” Jack volunteered, some of Audrey’s I’m-so-sorry-please-forgive-me seeping into her voice. “I… didn’t.”

“I want her to have a proper CT scan,” Ewan added. “We can use the bruise she already has on her forehead as the excuse.”

“I will arrange it,” Takama said, sighing. “Right now, we had better let Dihya have a look at her so she can calm down and get back to resting.”

“Did you try to call us at all?” Izil asked. “The comms have been spotty since the lockdown was announced. We tried a few times, but got no answer.”

“It took almost three hours to get from the spaceport to the garden,” Ewan sighed. “But yes, I did try. Several times. No connection.”

“Why did it take so long?” Safiyya asked, frowning again at her son.

“He had to carry me the whole way,” Jack told them. “I was out cold.”

Big mistake. Takama and Safiyya began fussing over her, their arms around her as they shepherded her toward the house. Ewan had fallen back and was talking softly to Cedric and Izil, too softly for Jack to hear what they were saying.

“It’s done, though,” she told both women, struggling to find a way to get back to a sense of achievement. “Everything that had a connection to Elsewhere in the hospital and the spaceport is all the way in Elsewhere now. You should’a heard the envoy scream when the ship disappeared…”

“I am glad you succeeded,” Takama said, her voice still a little stern. “Now, though, you are on bed rest until I take you for the scan, and after that until the physician says otherwise. Understood? You may be very good at ‘heists,’ but there will be no more for a while.”

Kyra and Sebby were both agitated when Jack entered the bedroom.

“Oh thank fuck,” Kyra muttered, sagging against her pillows. She looked exhausted, sending another pang of intense guilt through Jack. Sebby, meanwhile, practically launched himself across the room and wouldn’t stop touching Jack’s face with his antennae.

Later, while Jack and Kyra rested, Ewan appeared with Tafrara by his side to change Kyra’s bandages and IV bags. He seemed more himself, bantering with both of them in an easy way, telling Kyra that, next morning-day, she would be allowed to get up and begin walking. They had brought a very late lunch with them, which Jack dug into ravenously, and he’d even teased her about how moving starships must be hungry work.

Those words echoed through her, trying to connect to… something… but failing.

It was only much later that Jack realized that, for the remainder of her stay on Tangiers Prime, Ewan made it a point to never be alone with her again.

Except once.

Identity Theft, Chapter 37

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 37/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: M
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language, body horror
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Even the most carefully planned heist will have something unexpected happen.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

37.
Folding a Dali Cross

By the time Jack and Ewan left to go to the morgue, everybody had weighed in on the heist. Very few major changes had been made to Jack’s plan, but there had been many good suggestions and improvements.

Including the idea that she should go back to dressing as a boy—but an Amazigh boy—for the day.

The entire family, as it turned out, had known who Kyra really was, and known as much about Jack as anyone on Helion Prime did, for as long as Tomlin himself had; Takama’s intelligence-gathering had been the original source of that information. They had simply chosen to wait for the girls to tell them, or not, themselves. Before his death, Tomlin had also told them that, despite assumptions to the contrary, it had been Jack who had masterminded the hospital escape rather than Riddick. They had been better-known quantities to the Tomlin-Meziane family, the whole time, than they had ever realized.

Either way, she thought, the family’s willingness to include her and Kyra in all of the discussions and decisions that affected them, rather than cutting them out and arbitrarily making decisions on their behalf, still astounded her. Maybe it was even more amazing, given what they had known all along. If only any adults had treated her this way before now…

That, she reflected, made it harder than ever to plan to move on. Going back to being Audrey MacNamera would mean going back to being talked about, rather than to, by all the adults in a room.

The dinner table conversation had been all about the heist. She and Ewan had both gone to bed early, taking mild sedatives to help them fall asleep so that they’d be fully rested when they woke up just two hours after noon. Kyra, although clearly wishing she could go too, had given the plan her stamp of approval.

Even they seemed to approve.

“I can’t talk to you long,” she had told them when she found herself suspended among the stars again. “I have to rest so I can do something difficult in a few hours.”

That had only excited their curiosity. She had struggled to explain, until one of them seemed to come to a strange understanding.

It is hiding the shells of its lost broodmates from them, so they can’t find the rest, it told the others. She felt comprehension, and endorsement, spread around her.

Now, suddenly, everybody seemed to understand except her. “Who are they?

The demons of the darkness. The makers of the cages.

That sounded like something the being that hated her and Kyra might have said.

The — does not understand, they told her. She wasn’t exactly sure what they called it. Not as much a name as a descriptor. Moribund? Something close to that. Your shell looks like their shells, and it thinks that makes you one of them. But your five-shape is different. You and your broodmates only just hatched into your five-shapes. Only you and one other larva are so developed. The others are barely growing, aside from the three from the smallest shells of all. But none of you will ever be like them.

“I… are you talking about our bodies? Our physical shapes? When you say shells?”

Your shell is not your shape. Your shape perceives your shell, but your shell cannot perceive your shape. With each hatching you will perceive more, understand more. You are strong and growing so quickly. But we are patient, and you must be too. You will hatch into your six-shape in your due time. Do not try to make it happen too soon.

And then… you will be ready to help us

They let her sleep then, and her dreams were full of strange attempts to understand what they had been telling her, to riddle out its meaning. Still, she woke feeling alert, ready to execute her plan.

Do I always start my crazy adventures at 2 in the “morning?” she found herself wondering, as she dressed herself like a teenaged Amazigh boy. This “morning” was bright, of course, the sun only beginning to come down from its hot zenith. She knew from the 44-hour library that people were awake at this hour, but not all that many. She and Ewan would arrive at the morgue while activity was still at its lowest ebb, and while the tide was still dropping away.

Sebby, who now had his cricket tub in their bedroom, climbed all over her for a moment, running his antennae over her strange new clothes, before returning to the bed to snuggle up to Kyra.

Ewan’s room, she had learned, was just two doors down the hall from hers and Kyra’s. He was emerging from it at almost the same moment that she emerged from theirs.

They went over the plan as they ate a simple breakfast, and then checked over their packs and the gear that Cedric had insisted they take with them in case anything went wrong. He had given them a comm with extremely powerful frequencies after dinner—“This thing can transmit through solid rock”—and had instructed Jack to take it halfway between ’verses. Then they had tested its signal, confirming that the part that was still in U1 could still connect to the comms system and reach him. Jack had taken it into the courtyard, isomorphed over to Elsewhere, and used it to call him in possibly the first comm conversation across universes. Before she and Ewan isomorphed into Elsewhere, they were to leave it behind in an agreed-upon, protected location in U1; if they ran into trouble and needed help getting back, they could return to that space in Elsewhere and use it to call Cedric. Kyra, when asked, had said that she felt strong enough to pull them back if she was taken to that location.

That was something Jack hadn’t even thought of when she had begun planning the heist. It made her very glad they were on her side and watching her back. She’d had to add one embellishment to that part of the plan, though, storing the comm in a plastic bag that “lived” in both universes and would shield it from harm in either direction. The outside of the bag, when she checked it over after breakfast, was wet on the Elsewhere side from the pre-noon high tide, but no water had gotten in.

Jack and Ewan went onto the roof, which turned out to have a beautiful rooftop garden, shortly before 3 pm to look over the city. Sunlight glittered on the waters of Elsewhere, which still overlaid most of New Marrakesh’s downtown streets. She described what she was seeing to Ewan, wishing she could show it to him. Technically, she could have, but she was afraid to transition him halfway between worlds, lest she somehow infect him with threshold syndrome and make him a target, too.

Describing it would just have to do for the moment.

They spent the next almost-hour walking down toward those streets, which were still nearly completely deserted. The sun was still high in the sky and Jack was suddenly very glad that Ewan had shown her how to wind a proper Amazigh tagelmust around her head; it kept the glare away from her eyes in addition to partly obscuring her face.

“You make a surprisingly convincing boy,” Ewan told her as they walked.

“Really? How come?” Her hair under the tagelmust was still short, of course, just starting to grow longer than was considered a “boy cut” back on Deckard’s World. But other than that, and using bandages to flatten her small breasts against her chest when she had changed, she wasn’t sure what he found so convincing besides dressing in his years-old castoffs.

“I think it’s the way you walk. You don’t normally walk like this. It’s…”

“Oh! Yeah, I watched the way Riddick walked.” She hadn’t been consciously aware that she had slipped into her Riddick imitation, but she realized in that moment that she’d also dropped her speaking voice by a full octave.

The only one she hadn’t been able to fool with the imitation, she thought ruefully, had been Riddick himself.

“You really ran with him, didn’t you? Not as his hostage.” There was no judgment in Ewan’s voice, just curiosity.

“I was never his hostage. He was… nothing like you’d expect.”

“What was he like?”

That was, Jack thought, a good question. She remembered him luring Fry closer and closer to him, his voice a teasing purr, before lunging up out of his seat, held back just inches from her by his chains, to see if she would flinch. Testing her mettle, Jack thought, testing whether she’d be brave enough to face down the real threats on that treacherous, desolate world. She remembered him telling Shazza how they could use the skiff, which the New Australian woman had noted wasn’t a Star Jumper, to flag down the next transport that came through that node in the shipping lanes.

Stick out a thumb. Bound to get picked up… Somehow, she’d skipped telling Kyra that part of the story. She’d have to fill that in for her.

“Pretty self-contained, I guess,” she told Ewan. “I was trying to learn how to walk and talk like a guy well enough to fool everybody, so I followed him around for a while, figuring out how to act like him. He spent that whole time exploring the mining settlement, looking at everything the people’d left behind when they disappeared. He knew they’d all been killed, and told us so, way before we found any bodies.”

“So he was honest with you. Volunteered information.”

“Yeah. Johns—the merc who’d captured him—was lying to all of us the whole time about a lot of things, but Riddick never lied to us. Not once.” She found herself chuckling suddenly. “The only thing I know for a fact he hid from anybody is that I was a girl and he knew it the whole time.”

But, she realized, he’d tried to forewarn her. After Johns had tried to play his little master-and-dog game with Riddick—“You’re missing the party! C’mon, boy!”—and walked away, Riddick had repeated the same words to her… minus the “boy.”

“I can see that. I looked up his record.” Ewan smiled at her expression of surprise. “He appears to have a… code, I guess, for lack of a better word. Maybe even an ethic. There’s a pattern in who he does and doesn’t kill. And aside from some insinuations your former hospital has attempted to make about his treatment of you—

“All of which are horse shit,” Jack found herself snapping.

That seemed to amuse Ewan. He grinned and shook his head. “Aside from them, all the evidence points to the conclusion that you were probably quite safe around him. Given what I’ve read in the declassified portions of the Hunter-Gratzner crash story, you may have even been far safer with him than away from him.”

“He’s the reason I’m still alive,” Jack told him. “He saved my life several times. Even times when he could’ve just let me die and nobody would’ve blamed him, and things probably would’ve been easier for him if he had.”

“Then he truly was a friend,” Ewan agreed, before changing the subject. “How’s the water level on the other side?”

“Dropping, but the lower level of the hospital will still be flooded. We’ve got time to get into position.”

In the meantime, they took the comm to its designated location, a private garden grotto that Cedric had booked for the family’s exclusive use for the next two days. Jack tethered its bag to a bench in the garden, making sure that the tether was tightly knotted and straddled universes as well. If they needed to take the comm to another location and still keep it protected from Elsewhere’s waters, they could do so. There were no cameras in the space, hinting at one of the ways the grotto was probably used. No one and nothing would see what happened next.

“It’s time,” Jack told Ewan, turning to him.

He took a deep breath, just a tiny hint of nervousness in his eyes. “I’m ready.”

There was sand beneath their feet on the other side; it would be a smooth transition. Jack stepped closer and put her arms around Ewan, stretching her senses to encompass his shape—

his shell?

—and drawing both of them, gently, carefully, into Elsewhere, letting one world fade away and the other take its place. She felt his heart speed up against her ear.

“Baraka…”

Now, for the first time, Ewan would be able to see the things she had described to him, the world on the other side of a threshold few could cross. He would see the rolling surf, still retreating from the sloping plain of sand and rock that corresponded with New Marrakesh’s downtown. Off to the northwest, the sun glittered on the hull of the Scarlet Matador, marking the location of the devastated spaceport. Nearer…

She took her binoculars out of her pack and focused on the area where the hospital building, in U1, was visible to her as a faint outline. Something had begun emerging from the water. This was going to be creepy as fuck.

“C’mon,” she said to Ewan, hoping he wouldn’t be too horrified when he saw it, too.

They had almost reached the morgue when he gasped beside her, an appalled look on his face.

The bodies floated in the air, at different levels above the glistening sand, all eighteen of them. Five appeared to be hovering vertically, toes just inches above the beach, while the rest were perfectly horizontal. Back in U1, she knew, they were resting in cold lockers in multiple rooms, draped by shrouds and tagged with identifying information. On the Elsewhere side, they were undraped, untagged… and nauseatingly putrescent. Bone showed in many places where passing fish had nibbled during high tides. Her cousin Joey would have loved a horror vid with visuals like these… as long as he couldn’t smell them. Jack suddenly wished she’d thought to bring nose plugs. Next to her, Ewan made a retching sound.

“What the hell happened to them?” he asked. “They’re supposed to be refrigerated!”

“They are,” Jack told him. “On the U1 side. Over here, they’ve been exposed to the elements for the last two and a half weeks.” She shifted her vision enough to see what they looked like in U1. The walls of the cold lockers blocked her view of most of them, but five were hanging from hooks in a separate room, shrouded in plastic wrappings. “They look frozen over there. I think someone’s been trying to stop the decay with no idea why it’s progressing so quickly.”

She hadn’t expected it to be this bad, but she really should have. Fortunately, the thought of touching corpses had already been bad enough; she’d brought two pairs of thick rubber gloves, one sized for her hands and one for Ewan’s, with her. Ewan, she knew, was carrying eighteen proper white funeral shrouds in his pack.

Regardless of his beliefs or hers, he’d told her, the bodies should be treated in a way that would respect their lost owners, whatever their creeds had been. He’d acquired a clandestine copy of the Matador’s passenger manifest and had the religious affiliations of every passenger who had drowned. He knew which prayers to say over them if they were Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish, or even, in two cases, Buddhist or Hindu, and intended to send them on their way properly upon the shores of Elsewhere, once Jack stole all of them from the morgue of U1.

So let’s do it already…

One by one, trying to breathe through her mouth against the terrible stench of decay, Jack reached out and put her gloved hands on each body, telling Ewan the name on its tag before pulling it the rest of the way into Elsewhere. The moment it was released from U1’s hold, it fell to the wet sand, now half-frozen and—mostly—odorless. The flesh cratered in places where parts that had remained whole in U1 sagged over the gruesome cavities that had developed in Elsewhere.

I did wonder what would happen if a shark from Elsewhere tried to make a meal out of me… The answer was far more disturbing than she’d expected.

It took an hour. An hour she knew she would desperately want to forget forever. She would, she thought, probably have nightmares about this day for a long time.

Jack did the hanging bodies last, since their disappearances would be the easiest to notice. The last of them tried to topple onto her, which gave her a few really bad moments while Ewan held her, murmuring soothingly and stroking her shuddering back.

He had followed her as she worked, draping each body in a shroud, arranging them to face eastward if they were Muslim, and speaking prayers in different languages—Arabic, Latin, English, Hebrew, Khmer, or Hindi—over them depending on which name she had given him for each one. As he was finishing with the last ones, Jack walked over to a strange multicolored cube that hovered, untethered, in part of the space that the morgue occupied in U1.

Their personal effects, she realized as she got closer. All stuffed into a compartment on the other side…

Those definitely had to go, too.

A moment later, all of those items had fallen and scattered onto the beach of Elsewhere. Clothes, that had probably been stuffed in now-empty plastic pouches in U1; jewelry; wallets and purses; corroded comms and chronos; all the little things that eighteen people had had with them first in cryo and then in the hospital, before they had been betrayed by the Quintessa Corporation and left to die horrible deaths…

Quintessa can’t have any of it.

Had any other artifacts been left behind? There didn’t appear to be anything else straddling ’verses in or around the hospital… aside from a pair of expensive-looking earrings and a large wad of cash she spotted and recovered from within an orderly’s nearby locker and dropped onto the sand. She pulled out her binoculars from her pack again, training them on the spaces occupied by first Mansour Plaza and then Othman Tower. Nothing appeared to float incongruously in those spaces. She would take her higher-powered telescope to the roof of the Meziane house to verify it when they got back, but she was almost certain she’d gotten everything. The Quintessa Corporation wouldn’t be able to analyze any of the physical objects that had been straddling universes. Not now.

Except, she suddenly realized, her heart sinking, one very large one…

“Fuck. I have to move the Scarlet Matador,” she groaned.

It was nearly a two-hour walk across the drying sand.

“Are you up for this?” Ewan asked as they hiked closer and closer. “Takama and Dihya have both talked about how you were almost completely wiped out from transitioning those two shuttles back and forth. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“I transitioned them really fast,” Jack said, aware that she was whistling in the dark. “I’m going to do this one slowly. Pull it over here a little at a time. It’ll help that it’s already halfway in Elsewhere.”

“It’s huge, though.”

“I can’t leave it connected to U1. Not now. You’re sure the cryo-tubes were returned to it?” Tracking down nearly two hundred cryo-tubes felt like it would be a far more daunting task than moving the ship.

“That’s what the reports said,” he told her. “Once the tubes were vacated, they were returned to the ship to be quarantined with the rest of its contents. The logs said nobody has entered since. I’m sure the Quintessa Corporation is planning on confiscating it next, though.”

“Bringing me back to my point,” Jack told him. “I… this is crazy, and I could be dead wrong about it, but I don’t think they know what’s in U322A. Your brother, when he was talking to the flight crew back when they first called him… he said that this was the first Level Five Incident on that Star Jump. If we cut them off from accessing anything directly connected to Elsewhere, I don’t think they can get to it on their own. Not without actually using an Isomorph Drive to open a new path.”

“That’s a lot of supposition,” Ewan observed.

“Maybe. But at least I’m not gonna make it any easier for them.” She wished she could make it not merely difficult but painful for them, after all the pain they’d inflicted on others.

“Just promise me that you’ll stop if it gets to be too much.”

She promised, but she wasn’t sure he believed her. She wasn’t sure she believed her, either.

She paused, briefly, to check whether her Ghost Codes still worked with the ship. Once her tablet confirmed the connection—and she had to briefly make it straddle ’verses to get the connection strong enough—she sent a few instructions to the ship before they entered the range of its now-deactivated exterior sensors. None of the cameras that could still see into Elsewhere would record anything unusual, and any cameras covering the ship in U1 were irrelevant.

It was just a few hours over eleven Tangiers Prime days since the Scarlet Matador had touched down. On the U1 side, it looked almost pristine… at least, on the side facing away from the shuttle explosion. In Elsewhere, seaweed coated many of its surfaces and barnacles had begun to grow. In its shade, creatures that looked eerily like Cambrian fossils Jack had once seen in a museum rested and trundled through the sand. Some of the metal surfaces were beginning to corrode. In a few years, Jack thought, the Matador would just be a strange reef on the beach of Elsewhere, sinking into the sand more each time the tide came through until it settled against rock… once it was released from the anchors and platforms of U1.

She put her hand on one of the struts and closed her eyes, feeling it, feeling its existence in both universes, feeling its shape—

its shell, this is only an empty shell, a shape is so much more…

—and sensing its boundaries.

She began to call it, and everything within it, home.

Slowly, little by little, she broke down the hold that U1 had on the massive spacecraft, aware that Ewan had moved to stand close behind her at some point, chest against her back, and had his arm around her waist. Bit by bit, she pulled it more and more of the way into Elsewhere, letting it begin to fade from the other ’verse altogether.

Except for one part. One part refused to budge, refused to let go of the other ’verse. One part was obstinately staying anchored.

She opened her eyes, focusing on what was happening in U1, aware that she was leaning back against Ewan and he had both arms around her now.

Alarms were sounding in that other world. People in ground crew gear and security uniforms were running toward the landing site, pointing and shouting. She could see a figure in flowing white garments racing with them—

The envoy. And around her, Jack could see, there was darkness. Some terrible darkness that inhabited the same space the envoy did, hidden by her white garments and the fact that human eyes weren’t made to see such hideous abysses in the fabric of reality…

The envoy was staring at one part of the Matador as she ran.

The rest, Jack felt as a small shockwave passed through her, had just finished crossing the threshold into Elsewhere. Back in U1, the anchors dropped to the ground with loud metallic crashes. Only one thing remained suspended in that space: a smallish metal box.

A box that refused to relinquish its grip on U1.

Her breath quickening, Jack focused all of her attention and energy on it, willing it to cross from U1 to Elsewhere—

Is it already in Elsewhere?

—and vanish from the other world. It resisted, feeling inert and far too dense, too complex, for something as simple as a cube…

She shifted her focus, pushing at it, willing it to relinquish its connection to U1, no matter where else it was…

Little larva, what are you doing?

The envoy was hurrying toward it, one hand outstretched.

I gotta get it out of there before she gets to it…

No! they cried out in her head. You are not ready!

She could feel it slowly, grudgingly beginning to shift, its ties to U1 almost imperceptibly thinning.

Little larva, you must stop! Stop now!

“Tislilel, what in God’s name…?” Ewan gasped at the same moment, echoing them without knowing. “Stop! Stop now!

She couldn’t. Not yet. She was almost there. She couldn’t let the envoy reach it… She almost had it…

With a final, aggressive thrust, Jack shoved hard at the box with her mind and felt something snap, lashing back at her and into her. Blinding pain bloomed in her head.

In U1, the box vanished, startling a horrified scream out of the envoy.

Darkness engulfed Jack.

Ardath Rekha • Works in Progress