Identity Theft, Chapter 22

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 22/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: It’s bad enough trying to get around a new town at the best of times. Add in only being halfway in its universe, and having to deal with a very frisky shoreline on the other side of the threshold, and Jack and Kyra have a lot 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. 😉

22.
The Phantom Tides of New Marrakesh

High tide crested some two meters above the Scarlet Matador’s hull and began to recede almost three hours after the first attempt to board the ship. Five hours after that, the water had withdrawn completely from the landing site. With no idea how long it would be until the phantom tide turned again, the ground crew moved quickly to reboard the Matador and evacuate its occupants.

Jack, who had listened to the comm discussions about the planned boarding, had also determined that Tangiers Prime’s spaceport was another customer of her father’s old security company. Well before the ground crew boarded, she had added her pseudonym, “P. Finch,” and Kyra’s “J. Houlot” pseudonym to the roster of miscellaneous ground crew workers press-ganged into managing the evacuation. They attached their name tags, which Jack had previously hidden on the closet’s top shelf, to their suits, and even joined the roll call over the comms, reporting for duty from inside the ship. Jack had to nudge Kyra when it was her turn to respond; the conversation was in Arabic, which hadn’t been spoken on New Dartmouth or in the hospital, but which Jack had picked up pretty quickly in the Al-Walid household. In the hurried pandemonium that followed, nobody noticed when Jack temporarily “glitched” the camera feeds and they slipped out of the utility closet to join the relief efforts.

It helped that both of them had run through simulations of disconnecting cryotubes dozens of times. Their speed and competence got them more than a few words of gratitude from actual members of the ground crew, some of them even in English.

Two hours in, after carrying a liberated cryotube down to the waiting transport, Jack and Kyra joined the team that would reconnect them at the other end in the hospital. True to Ground Control’s word, they were transported via air. Below them, the city spread out. Trying not to rubberneck like a tourist, Jack studied it, noting that there appeared to be a coastline to one side, running along the land from the spaceport to the urban center, and wondering which universe that water existed in.

Most of the other members of the ground crew were chatting in Arabic, too quickly for Jack to follow what they were saying, but a few were talking quietly in English nearby.

“Man,” one of their coworkers, wearing a tag identifying him in four languages as T. Alami, Ground Operations, gave an expressive, exaggerated shudder before leaning back in his seat. “This whole thing gives me the jeebies bigtime.”

“Seriously,” another—H. Aziz, Ramp Agent—chimed in. “I kept expecting some kinda monster to come charging around the corner at us, any second.”

“I wonder what it’s like for them,” Alami said after a moment. “You heard about the captain getting knocked over by an invisible wave, right?”

“Yeah,” Aziz groaned. “Jeez. Tomlin was standing right in front of her at the time.”

“He’s the arrival controller, right? The one in charge of this mess?”

“Yeah. Good guy. I’m glad he was on duty when the shit went down. Khalil says he slept in the control tower last night so he’d be there if they tried to reach him.”

That, Jack thought, explained why Ground Control had always answered with the same voice. She’d assumed it was an AI until a man with that voice walked in through the airlock.

Aziz tugged at her helmet, adjusting it a little. “Damn, I want out of this gear. Anyway, Tomlin said that after she fell down, he could see water all over her. Kinda. Like, her hazmat suit looked wet. And so did the floor of the ship. But he couldn’t see any of the water itself and there wasn’t a drop on him.”

“That’s mental.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait to get done with this and go home.”

Now it was Alami’s turn to groan. “Don’t you wish. You heard that we’re all supposed to get debriefed by the Quintessa Corporation rep before we can go, right?”

“Shit, I forgot. Damn it…”

Jack and Kyra exchanged a silent look. They were going to have to find a way to ditch their gear and get away from the rest of the ground crew before that happened.

At the hospital, Jack caught a glimpse of a man with Ground Control’s voice, now out of hazmat gear and in a smart military uniform, arguing with a hospital suit about the elevation of different hospital wings. His Arabic, she noticed, was as flawless and un-accented as his English. The laden ground crew milled about for a few minutes until word came down that, in an abundance of caution, the cryotubes would be taken to the hospital’s highest levels. Patients on those levels were being relocated to other wings in preparation.

Probably a smart move, Jack thought, but shuddered a little. There had been times, on the brief flight over, when she could feel the other universe’s pull, the sensation that the transport’s floor was illusory and she might fall through it at any moment. She hoped that wouldn’t actually happen to any of the cryotubes… or their occupants, once they were released.

Another transport flight arrived with even more cryotubes. As the area became increasingly crowded, Jack nudged Kyra and nodded towards a door with a familiar keypad beside it.

One Ghost Code later, they were hurrying down a flight of steps with signs that pointed to a garage, stripping off their suits as they went. The lights on all of the stairwell cameras were dark, having switched off the moment Jack input the code. In ten minutes, they would switch back on and the system would report a minor power glitch as cover.

“Damn,” Kyra whisper-hissed as they went. “That Paris guy must’ve been some really hot shit. His codes work everywhere.”

Jack grinned and nodded, recalling how she’d sneaked up on him and put a boomerang to his throat.

At the base of the stairs, they straightened their wigs one more time before wadding up the hazmat suits into the smallest bundles that they could and stuffing them into a pair of discarded shopping bags Jack had spotted on the way. Now dressed in ordinary street clothes and carrying the bags, looking like two ordinary teens who had been out store-hopping, they walked out into the hospital’s parking garage.

They were one level below the street entrance, Jack figured, and she was suddenly glad they hadn’t gone any lower. The ramp down to the next level ended abruptly, just a third of the way down, at a smooth plain of what looked like drying sand with seaweed strewn across its surface. Something small and crustacean-like was scuttling across the sand. As they watched, it seemed to pass through the concrete of the ramp and vanish.

Jack was just glad that they hadn’t encountered the other ’verse’s ground level before they’d been able to leave the stairway.

“We’d better find some higher ground fast,” Kyra said next to her. “This part of town is definitely going to be underwater when the tide comes back in.”

Jack nodded. “That Tomlin guy seemed to think that anything at an elevation of twenty meters above sea level—I mean, this ’verse’s sea level—should be safe.”

“How high up is the hospital’s ground level?” Kyra asked.

“Ten meters above.” Jack grimaced. “Let’s get somewhere where we can pull up an elevation map. We’ll pick a good spot to go to ground above the water.”

Nobody gave them a second glance as they left the hospital garage and headed toward a cluster of towers in the distance.

Tangiers Prime, like many large colonies, provided street signs in multiple languages. Arabic topped the signs, followed by Berber, then French, and finally English. As Jack recalled, most of its original settlers had been Moroccan, although it had diversified in the centuries since.

“What’s this city called?” Kyra asked, as she scanned one of the street signs and shook her head.

“New Marrakesh.” Jack led the way, mentally sorting through all of the guidebooks she’d flipped through when she had originally set out for this destination. The plan, back then, had been to arrive on Tangiers Prime roughly a year after she had left Deckard’s World, wait a few weeks, and then either bribe her way onto or stow away on one of the semi-annual supply ships headed for Furya and her father, a mere two-month journey away. It had all been timed so carefully, until it had fallen through so spectacularly.

Well, she’d made it this far. Finally.

After a few wrong turns, they found their way to an open air market that mixed centuries-old aesthetics, from old Morocco of Earth, with contemporary technology: carved wood screens with elaborate geometries concealed crass, ordinary information and banking kiosks. Before anything else, Jack sat down in front of a banking kiosk to acquire a little bit of the local currency.

And got a nasty shock.

Error. Card unreadable.

The kiosk spat the card – one that should have had roughly the equivalent of one hundred New Dirhams on it – back out of its slot. Jack felt as though she had just been tossed into ice water.

One by one, she and Kyra tried all of their money cards, with the same results. Unreadable. Unreadable. Unreadable.

“What the Hell?” Kyra hissed, struggling not to draw attention to them by raising her voice. “I know these were working back on Helion!”

Back on Helion…

“Ohhhh, damn it,” Jack groaned. “They’re straddling universes just like we are.”

“Oh.” Kyra sat down hard next to her. “Shit. So they’re only half here?”

“Yeah. Maybe that’s weakened their magnetic charge too much. Or maybe the other universe’s string frequencies are interfering with it.” Jack picked up one of the cards and held it to her, trying to will it to be part of just one universe. We are in U1. Only U1. The thing in my hand belongs here and nowhere else…

She sighed and pushed it into the slot, expecting the machine to spit it right back out again.

Welcome. Please provide your passcode.

“Holy… fuck.” She stared at the screen for a moment before giving Kyra an enormous grin.

Taking no chances, she had the banking kiosk issue replacements for each of the cards they had brought from Helion. Somehow, her Hail Mary was actually working, but she wasn’t going to assume that it would stick. They needed cards made out of materials strictly bound to this ’verse.

Aware that they might be running out of time, she decided to hold off on replacing their IDs for the moment. Instead, she pulled up an elevation map of the New Marrakesh area—noting, as she did so, that the coastline she’d glimpsed from the flyer was real—and identified which parts of town were safely above the other universe’s hypothetical high tide mark. Next up was a search for affordable rooms for rent in those regions.

“Fuck,” she muttered after half an hour of searching. “Why does every town in the Federacy make its heights so damn expensive?”

They had only two available options, both in an area that she suspected had gone into decline and was probably a little dangerous. Oh well. We’ll probably fit right in…

Kyra looked over the listings. “I like that one,” she said, touching one of the images on the screen. “Top floor. The higher the better, just in case.”

“Okay…” Jack submitted their application and deposit, putting a hold on the unit. After a whispered conference with Kyra, she entered the security code they agreed upon to use as a key in place of their possibly-fragged fake ID cards, aware that the option to do so indicated how seedy the place would probably be. “Let’s go claim it. We’ll figure out the rest once we’ve got it.”

Kyra quirked her lips. “I know that look. You think it’s got bugs?”

“We may have to fight them for territory, yeah.”

They took a moment to study a city map before setting off. The roads narrowed and became more and more winding as they hiked upward, the buildings becoming less ornate and more weather beaten and grungy. She hadn’t been wrong in her assessment; in the heights or not, this part of town was not prosperous. The haves and have-nots of New Marrakesh, she noted, weren’t divided along racial or ethnic lines; she and Kyra didn’t particularly stand out.

Score one for Tangiers Prime…

Her father, she mused, had been right about Deckard’s World.

It had been during one of the loudest pre-divorce arguments her parents had, when he’d shouted at her mother that they were raising their daughter on a racist planet. Thinking now about the cross-section of people she’d met while living on Helion, and saw in the low-rent district of New Marrakesh, she finally understood what he’d been so upset about. Virtually everyone in their moderately well-to-do part of town, and almost all of the kids at her school, had been white and had treated anyone with darker skin, who showed up in “their” parts of town, with unease and suspicion. Or as invisible, if they were gardening or engaging in some other role of quiet servitude. She’d gone offworld too quickly to even think about it at the time, but if she had needed to try to hide out in what passed for slums in her hometown, she never could have blended in.

Jack wondered if it ever occurred to members of her family, outside of her father, just how unjust all of that was.

“Deckard’s World!” the tourist brochures all touted, “Recreating the best elements of small-town America!” How much of that, she wondered, had been code for something far less pure and noble? How much of that code did her family understand and agree with?

They found their building as the light level started to change and the wispy clouds began to turn into fuchsia streamers above them. Their code opened the inner door into a dimly lit lobby. Several lights were either missing or burned out. A sign was taped over an elevator door, scrawled in Arabic and Berber but forgoing French and English.

Fortunately, Jack had been enrolled in “remedial” Arabic classes while she lived with the Al-Walids.

“Elevator broken. Please use the stairs.” She quirked an eyebrow at Kyra.

“No wonder the top floor unit was available.”

“At least we don’t have to tiptoe on these stairs,” Jack laughed. “C’mon.”

The stairwell smelled. Jack tried to ignore the odors—most of them biological—as much as she could. Maybe, once they knew their way around the town better and she’d set up some more resources through the other Ghost Codes—assuming those hadn’t been discovered and shut down while she and Kyra were in cryo—they could pick out a nicer place.

For now, it would do.

Eight flights up and they were on “their” level. Jack identified the unit they had reserved and punched in the security code they had chosen.

The space was cramped, musty, and dim. Jack touched the panel by the door and, after a few seconds, lights came up. One flickered, threatening to go back out at any moment.

The unit was furnished… more or less. Jack had the suspicion that someone had been evicted a while back and hadn’t been allowed to clear out most of their things before being given the bum’s rush. There was a ratty-looking couch and a rattier-looking chair, arranged to face a pitted and scarred table that had probably once had a vid screen sitting on it. Behind the table and a small half-wall divider, pots and pans, plates, cups, and utensils were jumbled on a kitchen counter, awaiting a washing that might be weeks or even months overdue.

“Yeah, we’re definitely going to be doing battle against the bugs,” Kyra sighed. “I sure can pick ’em.”

A small hallway led off to the left. Jack peeked into it and realized that it led to a single bedroom with an attached bath. Again, the rooms were technically furnished, with dilapidated furniture strewn with clothing and various possessions that had been left behind by the last tenant, most of which probably needed to be disposed of. The air had a chemical aftertaste to it; the place had been fumigated even if it hadn’t been cleaned.

“I think the battle with the bugs is over. We’re just gonna have to dispose of their remains.”

“Really not much better,” Kyra said beside her. “But what the hell…?”

She walked over to one of the windows, which had its curtains drawn and shades pulled, but which was leaking vibrant, magenta light around its edges. She pulled everything open and then gasped.

“Damn, Jack, you gotta see this.”

The window faced west. Twilight was fully upon New Marrakesh. The clouds had caught fire, molten orange at the horizon rising up to lava red and fuchsia, through dusky rose and a deep, muted purple before the color faded back to dark gray. The sky, between the clouds, was a gem-bright shade of blue that felt, to Jack, like it was searing its way into her heart. The shoreline she’d spotted from the flyer was visible, their lower perspective making it seem closer to the city than she remembered, its water glittering and reflecting the clouds’ riotous shades. Sloping down to that shoreline, New Marrakesh glowed like the mass of jewelry that had spilled out from one of Paris’s “sarcophagi” when he had ransacked his goods for weaponry, blazing and sparkling in the beam of Fry’s flashlight.

Jack wasn’t sure when she’d last seen anything so beautiful.

“You’d think, with a view like this, the owners of this building would have no trouble renting,” she breathed, feeling awed.

“Okay, maybe I can pick ’em,” Kyra murmured back. She looked mesmerized. Had she ever seen a view like this before?

Jack took a closer look around the unit. The woodwork, she realized, was carved—or at least, where it hadn’t been buried under a dozen coats of paint, there were signs of elaborate Marrakesh-style embellishments. Decades ago, she thought, this building had been the hot commodity in the town, and its views had commanded a premium.

She wondered why that had changed, exactly.

“Hey, Jack… uh… I think the tide may be rising again.” Kyra’s voice had become uncertain.

Jack looked out the window again and felt her breath catch in her throat. The shoreline had moved even closer.

“The base of this building is twenty-two meters above Tangiers Prime sea level,” Jack told Kyra, trying to reassure herself at the same time. “We’re on the ninth floor, roughly another twenty-four meters up. We’ll be fine.”

The lights along the shoreline were dimming, as if veiled… or overlaid by water from another universe. Moving lights of vehicles began to vanish and appear along that edge… and the edge was creeping closer.

At high tide, Jack realized, all of New Marrakesh’s downtown would disappear beneath the water. Her eyes were drawn to the glittering twenty-story central tower of the hospital. She hoped that all of the quarantined passengers and crew of the Scarlet Matador had been moved to its top levels by now.

Behind her, Kyra was moving around the room. Jack turned to look.

Kyra had set down her shopping bag by the bathroom door and had draped her auburn wig over it. She was gathering up all of the strewn clothing decorating the floor and furniture of the room and piling it on the bed. When she finished, she pulled the corners of the sheets and blankets on the bed out and turned the clothing pile into a wrapped package.

“I saw a chute labeled ‘incinerator’ out in the hallway,” she explained, as she hauled the large package off of the stripped mattress. “Back in a few minutes.”

Jack nodded, aware that she needed to start helping with the clean-up too, but drawn back to the view out the window. The waters had reached the city center and the gaudy lights of the market square, that they had sat in only a few hours before, were going dim. What had formerly been the shoreline had gone completely dark.

It’s okay, Jack tried to reassure herself. It’ll come close to where we are, but it won’t go over it. Kyra picked the perfect place for us. We can learn how to time the tides from this window, and we can plan trips to town around them. And plan when we can get off-planet around the tides, too. We’ll be fine.

We’ll be fine.

They spent the next hour hauling things out of the bedroom, stripping it down to the basics and keeping only things that were already clean or could be cleaned easily. None of the clothes were in their sizes, and most of them were so stained that there was no point in offering them to the building’s other tenants.

They left the other rooms for later; they were far too tired to do the whole place. The last— thirty? Forty? God knew how many—hours were finally catching up with them. Once the stained mattress was clean and the sources of various unpleasant smells in the room had been eliminated, and they had wrestled the windows open to let in some fresh air, they took their small collections of money and identity cards out of their smalls, set them on the battered dresser, and collapsed on the mattress together.

Jack later thought that she’d fallen asleep the moment that her head touched the mattress. She didn’t even remember to take off her shoes.

She dreamed that she was back on the crash planet, watching the eclipse overtake the sky. But now, instead of strange creatures emerging from rock formations, even more bizarre-looking things were emerging from the ground below her. One of them reached out with a warm, wet tentacle and wrapped it around her ankle—

She woke up, gasping. Warm water slapped her foot again.

The room was bathed in strange, bright moonlight that seemed to pierce the ceiling as it fell. It glittered on the rippling water sloshing back and forth a few inches below the mattress. Another wave rolled across the surface, just above the height of the mattress, and splashed her again.

“Oh fuck,” Kyra said beside her.

Jack gave her friend a worried look and climbed out of the bed, sloshing her way to the window. Ground Control—Tomlin—had said that the water was the temperature of bathwater. He hadn’t been wrong. About that much, at least.

An enormous full moon hung in the sky almost directly above them. Beneath it, sparkling waves had engulfed all but the tallest buildings of New Marrakesh. The water, she calculated, was almost forty-seven meters above local sea level. Only the top five floors of the hospital tower, now an island jutting out of the dark waters, were still visible in the distance, an impossible lighthouse.

And the phantom tide was, Jack realized, as another wave broke against her legs, still rising.

Identity Theft, Chapter 21

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 21/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: At the best of times, the most dangerous part of space travel is atmospheric re-entry. These are not the best of times…
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. 😉

21.
Matador Falling

“Here,” Jack told Kyra, handing her a protein bar she’d stowed in her bag. “Breakfast.”

She pulled out one for herself as well. In all honesty, she had almost no appetite. The stress of the new situation, the new crisis, had stolen it away. But they needed to eat. They needed their wits about them if they wanted to maneuver their way through this latest disaster.

The speaker on their comm panel indicated that the crew had stayed on the flight deck for the moment. They were arguing, with little enthusiasm, over how long they were likely to have to stay quarantined once they landed.

Nibbling at the protein bar, Jack stood up and looked around the utility closet, taking in its contents and estimating how likely it was that the crew of the Scarlet Matador would decide any of it was important during the next twenty-four hours. After a moment, she sighed with a small amount of relief.

Most of the items on the shelves, beneath their protective webbing, were things for a port crew to use to clean up and recondition the cryo tubes between uses, and to tidy up the cryo deck once all of its occupants had debarked. There were some spare comm panels and other bits of hardware, some hazmat jumpsuits and helmets, and a handful of scanners—Geiger counters, toxic gas detectors, others she couldn’t identify at all—but very little else.

Jack grabbed a bin of comm hardware and pulled it down for a closer look. After a moment, she began assembling some of the pieces.

“What are you making?” Kyra asked in a whisper.

“Video screen,” Jack answered, unwrapping a screen unit and settling it in its housing. “So we can see what’s on the ship’s cameras.”

Once she realized that Kyra was interested in what she was doing, she kept up a soft running commentary as she worked. She never mentioned that it was her father who had showed her how pieces like these fit together, hinting instead that this was another thing Paris P. Ogilvie had taught her while she was “running” with the smuggler. But she explained what each part was for, what each connection would do, as she assembled them. Finally, she was ready to plug it into the comm panel.

There were dozens of cameras placed throughout the ship, more than Jack had expected. She went through their pre- and post-launch feeds first, strategically erasing any footage that she and Kyra had appeared on. Once that was done, she began examining the feeds from right before the emergency revival had been triggered.

“What are you looking for?” Kyra asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I want to know more about what went wrong.”

Nothing seemed to change, anywhere on board the ship, during the half hour leading up to the moment she burst out of her cryo-tube. She erased the footage of her and Kyra, up to the moment when they had vanished into the utility closet.

Maybe, she thought, the Isomorph Drive would have something useful in its logs. She pulled them up, and sighed. Most of the records were identical.

2517.03.18.21:15:30 ARRIVING AT FIRST JUMP POINT.
2517.03.18.21:15:33 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U137. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:02 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:37 NO ANOMALIES DETECTED. MOVING TO SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:21 ARRIVING AT SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:24 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U23C. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL…

The log went on like that. Some of the jumps lasted two or three days, while most lasted only a few hours. Jack scrolled down to the final star jump.

2517.04.12.18:25:22 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U322A. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:04 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:39 ANOMALY DETECTED.
2517.04.16.20:43:42 ISOMORPHIC OVERLAY IN PROGRESS. ATTEMPTING TO CORRECT.
2517.04.16.20:43:45 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:48 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:51 CORRECTION FAILED. ANALYZING STRING FREQUENCIES.
2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT CONFIRMED.
2517.04.16.20:43:57 QUINTESSA CORPORATION NOTIFIED. DATA PACKET DISPATCHED. ADVANCE REVIVAL PROTOCOL INITIATED.
2517.04.16.20.45:48 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:47:27 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.
2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 INSTRUCTIONS FROM QUINTESSA CORPORATION RECEIVED.
2517.04.16:21:11:32 ISOMORPH DRIVE DECOMISSIONED.
2517.04.16:21:11:33 ISOMORPH COORDINATE DATABASE WIPED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

“Well, shit,” Jack muttered, after reading it over a third time.

“What does it mean?” Kyra asked.

“Um, okay… so the last star jump for this trip was kind of long, looks like. It started four days ago and ended today.” Jack pointed to the first two lines in the final log segment. “The Isomorpher took us into ‘U322A,’ I’m guessing that’s the number they assigned to the universe with the wormhole where they wanted it… and then today it tried to bring us back to ‘U1,’ which is—”

“Our home universe. Got it.” Kyra nodded, reading the log over her shoulder again.

“So about thirty-five seconds after we were supposed to be safely back home, the system detected that something was wrong.”

“The isomorphic overlay?”

“Yeah. I’ll bet it was getting readings that matched both universes.”

“So then it tried to fix it?”

“Yeah, three times. And when it didn’t work, it did some kind of quantum-level analysis that confirmed we’re physically in both universes at the same time.”

“So then it declared this ‘Level Five Incident’ thing?”

“Yeah, and sent an alert out to the corporation that makes the Isomorpher, with all of the data, looks like.”

“How come it took another fifteen minutes to wake up the crew?”

“’Cause the system had instructions that it had to wake us up first. See those two redacted entries? That’s when I closed my cryo-tube and then closed yours. It redacted the logs of our revival, just like it was told to.”

“Damn, it really took us that long to get from the tubes to this closet?”

“We were pretty wobbly. But here’s the crazy part. The Quintessa Corporation seems to have sent instructions back to the ship’s mainframe, while all that was going on, ordering it to decommission the Isomorpher and wipe its database. That’s stuff you’d think accident investigators on the surface would want access to.”

“That’s crazy—hey! Look what just happened to those entries.”

Jack blinked. While the two of them had been talking, the entries had changed drastically.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:32 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:33 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

A second later, they had changed again.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

Jack noticed that even more had disappeared from earlier on.

2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT DECLARED.
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.

“Holy shit. Did this thing just cover up…?”

“Everything we did and everything the Quintessa Corporation did. Yeah.”

There was now no record that the Quintessa Corporation had ever been notified of the incident, no record that it had instructed the system to trash the Isomorpher. And, fortunately, no record of two stowaways being given a fifteen-minute head start before the crew woke up.

Kyra’s eyes, meeting hers, were awed and a little horrified. “Everybody’ll just assume that the drive got wiped by the Incident, won’t they?”

Jack nodded, feeling a little ill… and a lot confused. What had been in the drive and the database that needed so much protection? Mr. Reilly had told her that the Quintessa Corporation was secretive, but…

“We cannot get caught,” she muttered. Aside from the whole issue of being arrested for stowing away, and potentially identified as fugitives from a mental hospital, there was now the issue of what the Quintessa Corporation might do to inconvenient witnesses.

Exactly what they were witnesses of, she wasn’t even sure. But it scared her almost as much as the prospect of straddling a universe that was on fire.

“So what do we do?” Kyra asked after a moment, looking around at the closet’s shelves.

“I don’t know. Not yet. If we can just… stay unseen by the Matador’s crew, and then by the relief crew, maybe we can get out after they’ve evacuated the ship.”

That, she suddenly thought, could be an hours-long or days-long process, as the ground crews switched cryo-tubes over to portable feeds before moving them, and their occupants, out. Could they manage to stay hidden all that time? A quick check of the schematics showed her a single set of restrooms at the other end of the cryo deck.

“We’re gonna have to ‘hold it’ until the Matador’s crew goes to sleep,” she realized. “Or at least, until I can figure out how to switch off active feeds between here and the bathroom while we’re on the move.”

“Fun,” Kyra muttered. “Any chance we can blend in with the ground crew while they’re working? I mean, we’re dressed in pretty standard ground crew gear, right?”

Jack glanced at Kyra’s jumpsuit as she gestured at it. “Maybe. But there could be official logos, or colors, that we don’t have. And they’ll probably be wearing protective—”

She didn’t even try to finish her sentence. Instead, she keyed in one of her highest-level ghost codes, inputting her search parameters once she was sure they would be concealed from the flight deck.

STANDARD PROTECTIVE WEAR FOR LEVEL FIVE INCIDENTS

“Why do the call it ‘Level Five,’ of all things?” Kyra huffed. “What are levels one through four?”

“Dimensions, maybe. The whole point is to connect points in our spacetime with… isomorphic… points elsewhere in the fifth dimension… I think.” Jack frowned. “Maybe ‘Isomorpher’ isn’t such a bad name after all.”

The system wasn’t especially cooperative. She had to rephrase the search a dozen times before she found a series of pictures someone had clandestinely taken of an incident on Atreyus 4. The crew seen offloading cryo-tubes in the images wore standard hazmat suits.

A search for emergency protocols on Tangiers Prime generated a list of what ground crews were expected to wear during different emergencies. But she couldn’t find references to Level Five Incidents…

“There,” Kyra said, pointing to a paragraph at the very bottom of the long screed she’d been reading.

Due to the unpredictable nature of Level Five Incidents, there is no standardized requirement for protective gear. In most cases, the effects of the Level Five Incident will only be directly experienced by the occupants of the distressed vessel. Some secondary damage, however, is possible, if the physical effects (ex: fire) cross the threshold via the body of a crew member or passenger, or via affected materials on the ship. The recommendation is for full hazmat gear.

“Fire,” Kyra muttered. “So we could find ourselves on fire.”

“It’s happened at least once,” Jack told her. “So maybe hazmat gear would be a good idea even if we weren’t trying to disguise ourselves.”

Damn. The crew might be coming to this supply closet after all.

Jack switched over to inventory and breathed a sigh of relief. Each member of the crew had their own hazmat gear stored in their flight deck lockers. The suits she’d seen on the shelves were surplus.

Potentially useful surplus…

Finding recent pictures of the hazmat suits worn on Tangiers Prime took just a few more minutes. Jack pulled one of the suits off of the shelves to compare.

“Did we just catch a really big break?” Kyra breathed.

“I think we did.” Some worlds loved to gaudy up standard gear and make it unique, but Tangiers Prime apparently had no such pretensions. The suit in her hand was an exact match. She looked over the details and then began scrounging through the shelves. Hazmat footwear covers, in a variety of sizes, were stored below the pile of suits. She began searching for the gear closest to their sizes.

For the next several hours, Jack and Kyra practiced putting on the suits, miming the ways that they would seal them shut with the included tape. Then, after Jack mentioned the amount of time it would take to offload the cryotubes, they called up instructions for the process of detaching an occupied cryotube from a ship’s central hub and attaching it to a portable feed. They watched videos together, quizzed each other on the different buttons and switches they would need to press and in which order—Jack, of course, had no problem remembering, but pretended to make mistakes so that Kyra could correct her and remember them all the better—until finally they heard the crew talking about bunking down for a few hours before it would be time to land.

With the crew asleep, Jack switched off the camera feeds in the cryo deck long enough for them to make use of the restroom. The utility closet, they had decided, was the best place for them to be when the ground crew boarded. They would wait for a lull in the activities, a moment when nobody was within line of sight of the closet door, and then emerge, fully garbed in their hazmat gear, to blend in with the ground crew and help evacuate tubes. Once they were off the ship, they’d do a quick fade and make their escape.

Both of them were sure it couldn’t be that easy. But they spent the whole time that the Matador crew slept working out every possible complication they could imagine and what they might do in response. Jack found and modified a pair of linked comms, open-channel but scrambled against surveillance, so that they could still talk to each other once they were fully suited up and mingling with the ground crew.

When the Matador crew woke up and began preparing for the landing, they were ready. Or as ready as they could possibly be. Their cards, from Helion Prime, were back in their smalls. They had changed into fresh clothes, swapped wigs and carefully put them back on, and stowed the rest of their clothing and toiletries, all replaceable, far back in the top shelf where hopefully they wouldn’t be found for a long time. As the crew took their seats in the flight deck, Kyra and Jack exchanged a grim look.

“This is when things could start getting crazy,” Jack whispered.

“How?”

“Well, we don’t know what the other universe’s Tangiers Prime is like. Odds are it’s never been terraformed. So the atmosphere on that side could be really different.”

“Like, not breathable?”

“That’s a real risk, yeah. But it could be thicker or thinner, too, and that could change everything about atmospheric entry.”

“How do you know all this?” Kyra asked.

Jack decided that she might as well come clean, at least a little. “I have a photographic memory. If I hear it, see it, or read it, I’ll remember it forever. As long as I’m paying attention, anyway.”

Many people had thought her an odd child because of that. Where most small children thrived on and sought out repetition, watching the same movie dozens of times and repeating the same silly jokes ad nauseam, Jack had always found herself wanting to move on. She could remember whatever it was just fine, and repetition just felt like a waste of time to her. As she grew older and began to understand the social effects of her behavior, she had learned to tolerate and even engage in a certain amount of repetition… and to hide just how far ahead she was reading from her classmates and even teachers.

Right now, though, it was a strategic asset, and Kyra had a right to know it was at their disposal.

“Okay,” Kyra said after a moment. “So landing could be rough and unpredictable. Dangerous and fatal, even.”

“Pretty much, yeah. And then there’s the question of the landing site. If they are trying to have us land in an area that was artificially smoothed out…”

“There could be bumpy terrain on the other side. Shit. No wonder they’re making such a fuss about this. So we could burn up during entry, or crash during landing…”

“Or find ourselves choking on a half-poisonous atmosphere when the doors open.” Jack touched the helmet of her hazmat suit. “Once we try to take these off, anyway.”

“Well, hell. At least it’ll be an adventure, right?” Kyra grinned, but Jack could see the gallows humor in her eyes. The auburn wig, now carefully seated over her braided-back hair, was less jarring on her than the blonde bob—which Jack was now wearing over her much shorter, straight hair—had been.

“Everybody’s gotta die sometime, yeah.” Jack sighed. “At least it’ll be in good company.”

Kyra suddenly looked touched. She reached out and took Jack’s hand, giving it a squeeze.

“Tangiers Prime Ground Control,” the pilot said, her voice doubling slightly as it came through from both the flight deck microphone and the comm signal, “this is the Scarlet Matador on approach for our entry window, requesting clearance to proceed.”

Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control. Your descent vectors are looking good. You are cleared for landing. Do you have any anomalies to report at this time?”

“None detected yet, Ground Control. Scans indicate no atmospheric variances in density or temperature. Fingers crossed.”

“Godspeed, Scarlet Matador. We’re setting up emergency staging at your landing site.”

“Thank you. Entering the upper atmosphere now. Adjusting descent angle… resistance is textbook. So far, so good.”

The ship shivered a little beneath Jack’s crossed legs, through the floor of the utility closet. The hull groaned.

“Looking good from our end too. You’re nearing comms blackout.”

“Roger that. Talk to you on the other side.”

“Looking forward to it, Matador.”

For several minutes, only the hushed voices of the flight deck crew came through the utility closet’s comm speaker. Everyone seemed calm, although Jack had listened to comm recordings from some legendary accidents and almost-accidents that sounded every bit as nonchalant. Flight crews tended to have nerves of steel. She wished she could have watched Fry crash-landing the Hunter-Gratzner.

She probably never even broke a sweat… Johns had obviously been full of shit.

“…do you read? Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control, do you read?”

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador, reading you loud and clear.”

“Welcome back, Matador. We show you centered in your lane. Any anomalies to report?”

“None yet, Ground—hold on. I’m picking up some… Ground Control, please verify our landing coordinates.”

“42.434719 degrees north, 83.985001 degrees west.”

“Ground Control, we have an anomaly. We are intermittently picking up a large body of water on our scanners at the designated location.”

Scarlet Matador, please send us your readings.”

“Transmitting.”

There was a pause.

“They’d better come up with something fast,” the Captain grumbled. “We’ll be there in fifteen more minutes.”

Scarlet Matador,” Ground Control finally said, “you will attempt landing at the coordinates. You will need to spiral in and then hover over the landing site, just above the detected water level. We will tether you at that height and bring in support scaffolding. Ground support has been notified of the revised plan. Do you need further instruction?”

“No, but thank you. Adjusting approach trajectory now.”

“Once the ship is secured, we recommend you put on your protective gear.”

“Great minds think alike. God only knows what could be in that water.”

“Your readings indicate normal saltwater. About 28, 29 degrees… bathwater temperatures. Might be a tropical paradise on the other side.”

“Might have sharks, too.”

Ground Control laughed. “Well, if you find any coconuts, you pull them over to this side.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll have a luau.”

The captain turned off her microphone for a moment, her voice only coming in from the flight deck feed. “Tropical paradise my ass…”

One of the other crew members started singing an ancient sea chanty. “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship…”

“Don’t be an idiot.” The captain switched her microphone back on. “Ground Control, my readings are showing a five meter depth to the water. Seafloor appears to have roughly fifteen centimeters of variance from the tarmac of this ’verse. Can you confirm?”

“Roger, Scarlet Matador. The good news is that means you won’t sink. Adjusting landing plan accordingly. We will bolster the landing gear to match the seafloor height. Prepare to receive new trajectories. You will still want to come in at a hover and then do a slow descent.”

Jack looked over at Kyra. “Once they land, it’ll be time to put on our suits. They’ll be doing the same thing… and they won’t open up until they’re secure. Then we watch and wait. We’ll put on our helmets last, when we’re ready to join the ground crew.”

Kyra gave Jack a worried look. “Do you know how to swim?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty good at it. Just wasn’t sure if you came from a world where people swam. Most of the girls at the hospital didn’t know how. Not much swimming on a world that’s surface is only 10% water.”

Jack grinned. “I’m good. But… we should try not to swim in front of the locals.”

Kyra snickered. “Yeah, that might look a little weird.”

The floor began to tilt to one side, gradually and gently. Jack could feel them turning, a sensation that left her a little queasy since everything around her showed no signs of the motion. The tilt steepened, and the turning sensation grew more pronounced. The ship shivered against some turbulence.

“We’re spiraling in,” she told Kyra. “Another moment and they’ll switch to repulsor engines so we can hover.”

Kyra nodded, looking a little pale and nauseated.

The switch was a little rough. The ship shuddered, hard, as the repulsors switched on, and wobbled for several gut-clenching seconds before settling into a strange new attitude that reminded Jack of a floating dock.

CLANG!

She and Kyra both jumped.

“What the fuck was that?” Kyra gasped.

CLANG!

“I don’t—oh! They said they were going to anchor the ship while it hovered, didn’t they? I’ll bet that’s what it is.”

The loud noise repeated six more times, from various directions, before stopping.

Scarlet Matador, this is Ground Control. Platforms are in position below your landing gear. Begin dialing down your repulsors and descend.”

“Copy that.”

Jack could feel it, the moment the ship touched the surface of the water in the other universe. Suddenly there was resistance. Something wanted to keep the ship floating, even as the gravity of U1’s Tangiers Prime was trying to draw it down.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the Scarlet Matador descended the final fifteen meters. It was a remarkably gentle landing for one so harrowing.

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador. We have touched down. We will need additional anchoring. There’s some tidal forces at work on the other side.”

“Roger that, Scarlet Matador. We are moving in to bolster your anchor points. Boarding will commence in twenty minutes. Please be in full protective gear at that time.”

Twenty minutes was just enough time to finish getting ready. Jack and Kyra tested their comms, making sure they’d hear each other’s voices if they whispered but not be deafened if either of them had to shout. Jack switched the video feed over to external cameras so that they could watch the approaching ground crews and make sure that their protective gear would blend in.

“It’s like trying to watch someone on the other side of an aquarium,” Jack murmured to Kyra after a moment.

“Never tried that. But this is seriously trippy.”

The cameras kept registering the presence of water on the surface. The crews preparing to board the ship sometimes appeared to be doing so in open air, but frequently looked distorted by water, while the cameras struggled to refocus.

“Ground control, please be advised. The water level seems to be rising slowly. It’s now at 16 meters. Please enter via the upper decks to prevent flooding on board the Matador.”

“Copy, Matador. We will use flyers to transport you and the passengers. Keep us advised of water levels. We don’t want to drown anybody.”

Hanging the Geiger counters and other detection instruments on their belts—the approaching ground crew all had them—and preparing to don their helmets, Jack and Kyra watched as the Matador crew approached the airlock that had been chosen as the initial entry point. Large, two decks above the cryo deck—which, Jack realized with a shudder, was fully underwater in the other universe—and opening on a spacious room, it made a good staging point for the rescue operation that was about to begin.

Hopefully.

The captain stepped forward, wearing a hazmat suit emblazoned with the Scarlet Matador’s logo.

Good, Jack thought. Her suit, and Kyra’s, would suggest even more that they were from Tangiers Prime and not the ship. Just as long as they could stay above the water, anyway.

On the other side of the airlock, the leader of the ground crew approached the door.

Jack realized she was holding her breath as the unsealing commenced.

“Captain,” the leader said, stepping into the airlock. His voice was the voice of the Ground Control officer who had talked the ship down. “Permission to come aboard?”

“Granted,” the Matador’s captain said with obvious relief. “It’s good to meet you in pers—”

A wave broke against the ship, splashing through the open airlock and smacking the captain down to the floor.

Identity Theft, Chapter 20

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 20/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Maybe Jack should just avoid space travel altogether. It really never seems to work out all that well for her. The best laid plans…
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. 😉 This chapter has some deliberate weirdness going on, so let me know if it worked for you.

20.
Level Five

Jack had been in cryo before. Even before she ever climbed into a cryo-tube, she knew how they worked and what, in theory, to expect. The reality, however, was always a little jarring.

Cryosleep had taken more than a century to perfect, to find just the right cocktails of ingredients to add into human cells to make them resilient against the freezing process, to keep them from cracking and shattering. The ultimate result had been a formula that slowed, but never completely stopped, the internal processes of the slumbering body. There was, however, a weird side effect: synaptic rates sped up rather than slowing down.

Most cryo-chambers administered sedatives carefully calibrated to ensure that their occupants remained in a peaceful dream-state while frozen. But occasionally things could go wrong. Riddick had told Jack that he had been conscious for almost the entire voyage of the Hunter-Gratzner. Its twenty-two week journey before the crash had felt, to him, like twenty-two years. He claimed, when she asked, that he spent most of the time meditating. Certainly, he had come out of it remarkably sane; most people whose tubes malfunctioned spent years in therapy, and some never left psychiatric care again.

Antonia Chillingsworth had planned to put him in a similar state, permanently. Perhaps that was why Jack had felt so uncomfortably un-guilty about shooting her.

Jack’s cryo-tube worked perfectly, leading her into a world of benign dreams. Most of them were so soothing and innocuous that she wouldn’t recall them later. Somehow, though, she ended up back in Mr. Reilly’s classroom, replaying their discussion about the Lost Ships she was researching, and the fundamentals of faster-than-light space travel. He had just explained to her how little time would pass for people on the fastest sub-light ships, but how much objective time would still be lost. But Audrey knew that people could now cross dozens of light years in a matter of weeks, objective time. She just didn’t understand where the breakthrough had come from.

“How did they solve the problem?” Audrey had asked him. None of the books had explained it very clearly.

“Astrophysicists always posited the idea of wormholes, places that served as shortcuts through space,” he said. He walked over to one of his cupboards and removed some items: two balls, a length of string, and a short straw. “If these were the two stars you wanted to travel between…”

He set the balls on opposite ends of his desk.

“And this was the distance between them…”

He stretched the string between them, in a straight line. Looking around his desk, he grabbed a tape dispenser and taped the ends of the string to the balls.

“The wormhole would be a place where time and space folded up and a shortcut appeared.”

He set the straw on the desk. Then, holding the balls, he drew them together until each one touched an end of the straw. The string, between them, was no longer stretched tight, but had relaxed into loops and squiggles.

“How could they do that?” Audrey asked.

“It wasn’t something they could do, not at first. Wormholes are rare and hard to find. Wormholes that exist where you conveniently need one are even more rare. Emergency revival. And then the founder of the Quintessa Corporation patented the Isomorpher.” Mr. Reilly frowned. “Not the best name for it, in my opinion.”

“What does it do?”

“You’ve heard of the Many Worlds Theory, right? We won’t cover that in detail for a few more months.”

“A little.”

“Our three dimensions – four, if you count time itself – are only the first of roughly ten dimensions. Now, if we were two-dimensional beings, we would live on a plane, and only move through that plane… like this piece of paper. That would be our whole world.” He set the paper on the table. Then, he picked up a stack of papers and set them on top of it. “And there would be an infinite number of other two dimensional universes outside of the world we know. Level five incident detected. The same is true within three, and even four – and even more – dimensions. Parallel worlds, perpendicular worlds, do you understand what I’m suggesting here?”

“So, like…” Audrey took two pieces of paper from the pile. “If I were right… here… in my two-dimensional universe, there’d be another universe that had a spot that was exactly the same place as where I was, in my two dimensions, but was in a different place in the third dimension… so there’s another universe in exactly the same spot where I’m standing now… but it’s separated from me by being elsewhere on a higher dimension?”

She could barely find words for what she was trying to puzzle out.

“Yes. Even when you’re standing perfectly still, you’re moving through a succession of three-dimensional spaces courtesy of time, the fourth dimension. Advance revival protocol initiated. And our spacetime moves through five-dimensional space. And that five-dimensional space moves through six-dimensional space… and so on… with parallel spaces existing on every level.”

“The sliding doors thing?” she asked with a gasp.

“Very good. Infinite possibilities, room for infinite choices to play out. Some of those parallel universes would be very similar to each other, almost identical. Others would be radically different. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-nine seconds. So Joren Kirshbaum – that’s the Quintessa Corporation’s founder – suggested that the wormholes we wanted, leading between different star systems, might not exist in our universe, but they would exist in plenty of other universes.”

That part, at least, made sense. “Okay, yeah. But how would we get to them?”

“That was what his patent was for. It’s… very incomplete. He filed it and made it proprietary, but exactly how the Isomorpher was built and programmed is something he never actually revealed and no one’s successfully reverse-engineered. The gist comes from quantum physics. When you get down to the extreme subatomic level, you no longer have particles. You have ‘strings,’ and the strings ‘vibrate’ at specific frequencies.”

Audrey nodded. Her parents had once watched a vid series that had discussed that topic. Now the vid made a little more sense to her.

“Kirshbaum proposed that each universe had its own frequency set,” Mr. Reilly continued. He had warmed to the subject, probably because he had the full attention of his audience of one. Most of Audrey’s classmates were fairly inattentive. “He found a mathematical model that could predict the frequencies that the other universes, the ones with the specific wormholes he was looking for, would vibrate at on the quantum level. Emergency revival. His machine would latch onto the frequencies that that other universe, and ours, had in common, and use them as a gateway to help objects transfer between universes, taking on the rest of the other universe’s frequencies and temporarily resonating with it instead of ours. They could then pass through the wormhole and, at the other end, transfer back to our universe.”

“And it worked?” There was so much in there that felt like guesswork to her.

“It’s the basis for the star jump drives we use now. Trust me, it still sounds crazy to most physicists… but you can’t really argue with the results.”

Audrey walked over to Mr. Reilly’s supply closet and brought out two more balls and a bright yellow pushpin. She walked over to his desk with them. She smoothed out the ball and string arrangement so that the original balls were on opposite sides of the desk once more, and then rested one of the new balls next to each of them. She inserted her pushpin into one of the original balls.

“So if I’m here…” She touched the pushpin. “And I wanted to get here…”

She leaned over and touched the ball on the opposite side of the desk.

“…the Isomorpher would move me…” She transferred the pushpin to the ball next to the first one. “…to here, which is in the same fourth-dimensional space we occupy but elsewhere in a higher dimension… and which has a wormhole…”

She held the straw up to the ball.

“…connecting it to here…” She walked to the opposite side of the desk and pressed the other end of the straw to the ball resting next to the one attached to the string.

“That’s right. Level five incident detected.”

Audrey removed the pushpin from the second ball she’d inserted it into, miming it traveling along the short length of the straw. “So I’d only have to travel this far to get there…” She inserted the pin into the ball at the other end.

“Exactly. Advance revival protocol intiated.”

“And then the Isomorpher would move me from that point back to…” She removed the pin from the ball connected to the straw, and inserted it in the final ball, connected by the string to the very first ball. “…here.”

“Yes. And instead of having to travel sixty light years, you would only have to travel, say, the length of an average solar system. One hundred astronomical units is still a lot, but there are more than sixty-three thousand astronomical units in a single light year. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-eight seconds. So, while you’d still need to build up some speed to cover that distance, it’s not nearly enough to have to deal with time dilation.”

The numbers were enormous enough to boggle Audrey for a few minutes. Then an odd thought occurred to her.

“But how do they figure out which universe to find the wormholes in?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine how any theoretical model would be that accurate.

“That’s the part no one knows. The patent doesn’t specify how the Isomorpher runs the calculations. It just claims that’s one of the proprietary things it does. And nobody else has ever figured out how. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. Which is why every star jump drive in the Federacy is made by the Quintessa Corporation.”

“Including the three that disappeared?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. And here’s what you’re not finding in the books, because nobody wants to be the one to write it down where they can be sued for saying it.” Mr. Reilly sat down, leaning back in his desk chair. “The big theory is that the three that disappeared got lost in other universes. Advance revival protocol initiated. They ‘isomorphed’ over to them, but couldn’t get back. Most star jumpers don’t make just one jump, after all. So, for example, the Tenth Crusade was supposed to make four jumps. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-seven seconds. Maybe, after one of those jumps, it couldn’t reconnect with the frequencies of our universe. Maybe it got stuck between two of the other universes, even.”

“Stuck between?” Audrey tried to imagine it: a ship straddling two whole, separate universes the way a child might straddle a fence. Or had it vanished into the fence itself?

“That’s happened several times to ships that didn’t disappear, too.” Mr. Reilly told her, his expression sober.

“It has? What happened to them?”

“Well…” Mr. Reilly shrugged. “Again, we don’t really know all that much. But the Quintessa Corporation can’t gag everybody. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. But imagine you’re in two worlds at the same time. One’s fine, it’s normal… but the other one’s on fire.”

Audrey shuddered. That was a horrible image. “So the people on board died?”

“Sometimes. One ship’s passengers came out of cryo and seemed to be hallucinating, describing animals that the ground crews couldn’t see but all the other passengers could.” Mr. Reilly’s expression sobered. “Then one of them got attacked by an animal, or something, right in front of the ground crew. Torn apart by a creature that nobody, except the other passengers, could see or hear. Quintessa couldn’t cover that up. After a few more incidents, it even got an unofficial name: threshold syndrome.”

That, Audrey thought, was a good name for being caught in a space that was neither one universe nor another, but both at the same time.

“So is that the main theory about the three missing star jumpers?” she asked after a few minutes of quiet thought. “They never made it back from the other universes, or only made it partway back?”

“It is. But it’s something most people don’t want to acknowledge, and something the Quintessa Corporation doesn’t want people talking about.” Mr. Reilly studied her dejected expression for a moment before continuing. “I can give you some links to articles about it. But you will have to be careful about what you use and how you cite them. Most of them are highly speculative. Advance revival protocol initiated. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-six seconds.”

Audrey had been gathering up her things, armed with all the information she needed to finish her report, when a new question occurred to her.

“Why didn’t the Quintessa Corporation use what they could do to just find alternate Earths humanity could settle on? Wouldn’t that be a million times cheaper?”

“It probably would be,” Mr. Reilly told her, putting on his coat. “But something seems to happen, the longer people stay in other universes. Most of the cases of threshold syndrome happened after really long jumps. That’s part of why most star jumpers take several shorter hops instead, these days. Maybe, the longer you’re in another universe, the more it changes you. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. Advance revival protocol initiated.”

He kept talking as he locked up the classroom and walked her outside. Sunset was approaching, and the light had taken on a molten gold, almost orange, quality.

“There are rumors—the Quintessa Corporation really tries to stamp these out, but they keep coming back—that some frequent star-jump travelers stop being entirely human.

“What are they instead?”

“I guess you’ll find out,” he suddenly said, turning to fix Audrey with an intense gaze. “Won’t you, Jack?”

She flinched. This was not how it had played out in reality.

“You need to wake up, Jack. Right now. Because it’s happening. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-five seconds.”

The golden light of late afternoon was changing, turning blood red. Lightning flashed somewhere nearby, strobing the air. Some strange bird was screaming in a nearby tree, long and keening. Jack – no longer Audrey – wanted to run but she couldn’t. She suddenly couldn’t move at all.

“Wake up now, Jack,” Mr. Reilly told her before he melted away.

Her eyes, she realized, were open.

She was in the cryo tube. Sensation and motion were returning to her body. She focused on the readouts, trying to understand what was going on, part of her still wondering where Mr. Reilly had vanished to.

EMERGENCY REVIVAL
LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT DETECTED
ADVANCE REVIVAL PROTOCOL INITIATED
CREW WILL WAKE IN 14 MINUTES 54 SECONDS

Level Five Incident… that had been the code phrase that the Quintessa Corporation had used to label threshold syndrome incidents. Jack realized that the screen in front of her had only just switched on a few seconds earlier, while skeins of time had spooled out in her dream state. Her tube, and Kyra’s, were both programmed to revive them a minimum of fifteen minutes ahead of the crew’s tubes.

She forced her hand to rise and pull the release, sending up a last minute prayer that, whichever universes the ship was straddling, none of them would be on fire.

The air was chilly and stale. Definitely not burning. She bumped into the tube across from hers and ricocheted back toward her own. Gravity hadn’t kicked in yet. Grabbing onto her tube, she hauled out her bag and awkwardly slung it over her shoulder, the move sending her into a slow spin. It took her a precious minute to stop the spin, close up her cryo-tube behind her, orient herself, and kick off again toward Kyra’s tube.

She was still two cryo-tubes away when Kyra’s tube burst open and the older girl flew out, gasping. She grabbed Kyra’s bag for her and closed the tube.

On the off chance that they survived whatever had gone wrong, after all, she didn’t want there to be any clues that they had been on board. Weeks ago, she had programmed both cryo-tubes with instructions to sanitize and reset themselves once vacated and shut, and then delete all records that they had ever been occupied.

“Hurry,” she said, awkwardly swimming through the air toward the utility closet where they had hidden during the launch.

“What’s happening?” Kyra didn’t sound entirely awake yet. Jack wondered if either of them really was.

“We’re in a lot of trouble. I’ll explain after we get back out of sight.”

Gravity was slowly asserting itself. No longer completely without control, both girls were able to make use of its low setting to leap moonwalk-style toward their destination, at the far end of the aisle of occupied tubes. They reached the utility closet just as gravity normalized and Jack heard a cryo-tube opening one aisle over, where the crew had been sleeping.

They got out of sight just before the crew began emerging. Jack jammed the utility closet handle and hoped that, if anybody tried to open it, they’d assume that its non-functionality was just another symptom of the emergency.

It was hard to make out what the crew members were saying to each other. The muffling effect of the door between them was bad enough without the way that they were talking over each other, quarreling as they went. From what Jack could manage to make out, most of them were vehemently arguing against the possibility of a threshold incident.

Jack could almost see their point. Nothing felt off at the moment. But then, they were still in space. Aside from the wormholes, there wasn’t much that was likely to differ across the universes chosen by the Isomorpher, at least within the near-vacuum of space. Jack wondered what might happen when they made planetfall.

The voices receded as the crew headed for the flight deck.

There was a comm terminal in the utility closet, one Jack already knew was susceptible to her ghost codes. As the voices receded, she found it and opened it to all active and passive comm frequencies, in “muted” mode. She needed to hear what was happening.

“So, what the hell is going on?” Kyra whispered.

“Our ship’s star jump drive fucked up,” Jack told her, trying to condense Mr. Reilly’s lesson down into as few words as possible. “Star jump drives work by taking us through wormholes in other universes and then bringing us back to our universe. Our drive didn’t bring us all the way back. We’re stuck between universes.”

The play of expressions on Kyra’s face was, in the dim light, astonishingly vivid. Confusion, enlightenment… horror.

“Tangiers System Control, this is the Scarlet Matador on secure channel 9157-B, come in, please,” the Captain said, registering on both the outgoing radio channel and the passive flight deck monitor.

Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers System Control, go ahead.”

“We are on long-range approach but our ship is registering a Level Five Incident. Can you confirm?”

There was a pause.

Scarlet Matador, our long-range sensors are picking up unusual energy field signatures around your vessel. Level Five Incident is confirmed. Are you experiencing any anomalies at this time?”

“None so far,” the Captain said. “Please advise of containment protocols.”

Jack pulled up the Tangiers System orbital schematics, finding the current location of the Matador on it.

Oh, thank God, she thought disjointedly. They had almost reached their destination before disaster had struck.

It could have been so much worse, she realized. The journey had been long enough that there had been some two dozen star jumps involved. If the Level Five had occurred at any other transition point, they would have been forced to divert to whatever outpost existed within range—and at least one always had to be—the way the Hunter-Gratzner had.

And that had been catastrophic.

The Hunter-Gratzner hadn’t experienced a Level Five Incident, but it had emerged from its star jump into some kind of meteor storm that had swiftly riddled it with stellar bullet holes. And although there had technically been an outpost nearby, it had been deserted for more than two decades thanks to an ecosystem that was hostile at the best of times, and purely lethal every so often. Loss of contact with that outpost, Jack had come to understand, had resulted in the shipping lane’s reclassification as a “ghost lane” and its removal from mainstream usage. In the wake of the survivors’ testimony that she and Imam had supplied, he had told her that that particular star jump route was likely to be discontinued permanently, its standby outpost world declared uninhabitable. No other cut-rate vessel would ever make use of it.

If the Scarlet Matador had been further out on its jump itinerary, and had been similarly forced to divert to an outpost, the best possible outcome would have been that she and Kyra would have been discovered and marked as stowaways. Worst case, it could have turned into another Hunter-Gratzner.

But the Matador had made it all the way to the Tangiers system. It was a tiny mercy, but she held onto it nonetheless. Things had only gone pear shaped at the very end of the journey.

Normally, she realized, the crew wouldn’t have awakened for another day. She had set the cryo-tube controls to wake them up a full hour ahead of the crew—under normal circumstances—and had mandated a minimum fifteen-minute head start for any emergency revivals. The Level Five must have been detected the moment they isomorphed back into their home universe. They were still in the process of crossing the system’s Oort cloud.

The comms pause stretched out for several minutes before the voice on the other end finally spoke again. Scarlet Matador, you are being given new landing coordinates. You will not dock at Tangiers Station B. It is not equipped for this situation. You will need to land on Tangiers 6 itself. Your specs indicate you have planetfall capacity. Is your crew able to perform a landing?”

“We did on Helion Prime, yes,” the Captain replied, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “We can do it here too.”

“Good. Do not wake your passengers. We are bringing you down near our best hospital complex and will transfer them to it prior to opening their tubes. Strict quarantine protocols will be observed.”

“Understood. I assume we will be quarantined, too?”

“Yes. Please submit a list of people to notify on your behalf and forward a copy of your passenger manifest and each passenger’s next-of-kin data. You are to maintain radio silence on all channels except this secure channel. Keep your comms open to us at all times and inform us of any anomalies you encounter.”

“Will do. Any idea what we might be about to experience?”

There was another pause. “None, Ma’am. This is the first Level Five Incident on this endpoint of a star jump. We have no idea what might be across your threshold.” The voice, which had been clipped and precise until then, softened. “I’m sorry. I wish we knew what was going to happen.”

“You and me both. Scarlet Matador out.”

There was a long, pregnant pause in the flight deck.

“Son of a fuck,” one of the crew members snarled.

“Well, everybody,” the Captain said after another moment, “we’ve got a day to kill. Joe, turn those fucking alarms off before I jet’ them, would you? We all know what’s going on now.”

The high, keening alert, which had been the strange birdcall in Jack’s dream, finally went silent. The strobing ended at the same time. A moment later, the lighting in the utility closet switched from red to bluish white.

“Anybody got a deck of cards?” someone on the flight deck quipped.

Jack looked around the closet, trying to decide how likely it was that the crew might come their way in the next few hours. It’d be just their luck if it housed decks of cards and other supplies a crew killing time would suddenly conjure a need for.

One day. She had one day to figure out how they were going to dodge not only the Scarlet Matador’s crew but the emergency personnel on the surface… assuming that nothing on the other universe’s version of the surface, itself, didn’t try to take them out. Her plans were falling apart. In spite of everything she had learned from Mr. Reilly, years ago, this was a scenario she hadn’t thought to plan for.

Maybe because she couldn’t figure out how to plan for something this fucked up, she fumed to herself.

“We are so fucked,” Kyra muttered beside her.

Jack couldn’t think of a single argument against that assessment.

Identity Theft, Chapter 19

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 19/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Before they can make it off-planet, Jack and Kyra have one more hurdle to clear: a pair of very persistent mercenaries. It’s time to get a little bit crazy.
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. 😉

19.
Forgive Me, Gina

Jack had only managed to get three hours of sleep the night before the breakout. When the sun finally rose on her and Kyra, a surreal veil was beginning to drape itself over her perception of the world. Fortunately, her plan was working without a hitch. She felt like she could probably sleepwalk her way through it. In fact, she probably did at times.

Too little sleep could impair even her phenomenal memory. Later, she would recall much of the rest of that night and the next day in little fragments, moments that stuck out from the parts of the journey that had played out exactly the way she had visualized.

Explaining to Kyra, in whispers, that the bus driver had strict instructions not to let any passengers without staff or guest passes board at the stop by the hospital…

…Kyra suggesting, on the bus, that they should go a few stops beyond the train station and double back, so that the driver wouldn’t know they had taken the train…

…Kyra, fully uncaged at last, climbing two trees and a scaffold so that she could drape a leafy branch over the security camera monitoring the station…

…finding someone’s lost baseball cap, for a team called the Helion Hellcats, on the way out of the train station and putting it on, while Kyra teased her that she’d probably get head lice from it…

…walking through one of the seediest, roughest neighborhoods they could find, their money cards hidden deep in their smalls, a wallet with the two hospital guest passes bulging conspicuously in her back pocket, and feeling the moment when someone brushed past her and the wallet was gone, exactly as she had intended. A second later, a yelp and a voice swearing, “that bitch cut me!” while Kyra smiled serenely…

…crumpling up the papers from the hospital files and feeding them, a few at a time, to a trash can fire that had burned low before they got there, while Kyra read over the notes in her file before adding them to the flames…

…calling out to two working girls on their way home, as the sky lightened, asking if they wanted to make more money in five minutes than they’d made all week by swapping clothes…

…how jarring Kyra looked with a short, blonde bob, after one of the working girls also sold them her wig…

…taking another train ride, their trail hopefully broken, to the spaceport, while Kyra tried not to shrink away from the stares their outfits were drawing…

…yet another costume change after hitting one of the 24-hour stores situated around the spaceport, now into the same kinds of coveralls that Jack had observed a dozen workers wearing on their commute into the station…

…passing a group of kids right around their age, dancing and freestyling for coins from passing travelers and feeling a wistful longing to stop and get to know them better…

…finding a data kiosk that she could log into, turned away from most of the cameras…

That was when Jack came fully awake again, her focus snapping back into place. It was almost ten in the morning.

By now, she figured, the pandemonium her Scorched Earth plan had created would have been mostly brought under control. It would have receded slowly, simulating various system failures for several hours before allowing the systems to be restored more than an hour after shift change would normally have occurred. By the time the day crew could even get into the building, any patients who had slept through the chaos would be awake and expecting breakfast… and their morning meds. None of which would have been prepared during the crisis.

If they were lucky, the purely human bedlam that would have resulted from that would only now be coming under control. And if they were really lucky, nobody would have bothered to check in on how two heavily sedated patients, who were expected to sleep past noon, were faring while there were so many more immediate concerns.

It would be especially ideal if nobody realized anything was amiss in their room until it was time for the custody transfer. But Jack was a realist. More likely — and especially given her personal history of hiding in unexpected places to avoid group therapy sessions — the ward was being searched, top to bottom, and within the next hour the search might begin to spread outward.

Sitting at the data kiosk, Jack felt herself relaxing just a little as familiar menus appeared. Apparently the government of Helion Prime had contracted for a lot of the products her father’s old firm had designed. The hospital, law enforcement, and now the spaceport…

A moment later, she had logged into the law enforcement back door and was configuring their next moves.

“Who taught you how to do this?” Kyra whispered, watching the screen intently.

Jack liked Kyra. She trusted her. But, she realized, not quite enough to actually tell her the truth. “I ran with a guy, Paris, for a while. He was a smuggler.”

Every word she’d just said was, technically, true. It just wasn’t actually the answer to Kyra’s question.

Kyra, however, seemed content with the answer, nodding and going back to watching as Jack pulled up maps and schematics, memorizing them and setting up subroutines for the security system to run when she put in her ghost codes. She wouldn’t do anything dramatic, not here. Drama would ground all the flights, and they were trying to get offworld. Instead, things would be subtle, insidious, minor glitches that rectified themselves mere minutes later. Much like her original escape plan for the hospital before she realized nothing short of total chaos would give them enough of a head start.

Finally she felt ready. She’d picked their ship, cleared the path, and even arranged for a few things they would need. When a courier approached them ten minutes later and asked her to sign for a package, she inwardly sighed with relief. Now they had everything.

“One day,” Kyra said, attaching the ID tag that identified her as J. Houlot, electrician, to her coveralls. “You get a staff account for one day, and this is what you do. And I thought Stacy was scary…”

Kyra grinned at her to soften the words, the admiration in her eyes reassuring Jack that, in this case, “scary” was a compliment.

“Says the girl who climbed thirty feet in the air to disable a camera,” Jack teased back. That was something she’d never have had the guts to do, herself. Her tag identified her as P. Finch, systems tech. With AI systems completely outlawed on Helion, computer technicians were fairly commonplace. No one would question them.

And, given how haggard she and Kyra were beginning to look after being up all night, no one was likely to think they looked too young for the job. She hoped.

“So what’s the plan?” Kyra asked, keeping her voice soft. The spaceport was noisy, and the acoustics in the main departure terminal were terrible, but they were still taking no chances.

“There’s a ship scheduled to depart this evening, the Scarlet Matador, that will take us to Tangiers Six.”

“Why Tangiers Six?”

“Its spaceport is five times the size of this one,” Jack explained. “We get there and we can go anywhere.”

“Won’t that make it obvious that we’d try to go there?” Kyra asked, her expression keen.

“Normally, but I left clues in my file to suggest I’m from the Bayou Nebula and might try to go back there, but that’s in the opposite direction, and the ship going there leaves an hour and a half after the Matador. Hopefully that’s the one people will be watching.”

Kyra chuckled. “You really plan ahead. So why the maintenance worker costumes?”

“We’re going to board the Matador through the service corridors an hour before passengers are scheduled to start boarding,” Jack explained. “That’ll be at 4:30 pm. I saved spaces for us. Officially three cryo tubes are malfunctioning and we can even say we were dispatched to look at them, if anyone asks. So any last-minute passengers won’t be able to reserve them. They’ll be ours.”

“I don’t know. I hate the thought of being in cryo if anybody catches up with us.” A worried frown creased the older girl’s forehead.

“Me too. You don’t even know.” The hour she’d spent trapped in her tube, during and after the Hunter-Gratzner crash, might have counted as one of the most terrifying of her life, if that whole damned planet hadn’t decided to engage in a progressive game of one-upsmanship. “I’m going to set our tubes to wake us up the moment anything goes even a little weird, and — if everything goes normally — two hours before the crew is scheduled to wake up. We’ll be ghosts.”

Kyra’s uncertain look faded, and she nodded. “I guess that’s as good as we can get, right? So now what?”

“Food. I planned on bringing some of the dinner rolls from last night with us, but I forgot the damn things. I really need something to eat.”

The two girls grinned at each other and went in search of a long-overdue breakfast.

Small as the spaceport might be compared to other worlds, the place was still enormous. They stopped in a few shops after eating, buying bags that passed for the kinds of gear bags technicians would carry, filling them with basic necessities: toiletries, a change of clothes, items of that nature. Jack found herself an auburn wig, in a small boutique, and swapped out her “Helion Hellcats” cap for it, adding to her disguise. Then they began to wind their way through the crowds toward their destination. Helion was a peaceful and prosperous world, untroubled by political strife and terrorism, and its spaceport reflected that; non-passengers, meeting or seeing off friends and family, could walk almost all the way up to the gates before any security screening commenced.

Which, Jack realized as her heart lurched, meant so could mercenaries on the hunt. Her arm flashed across Kyra’s midriff, stopping the girl in her tracks.

Two familiar figures were studying the departure lists ahead of them, right where the hallways divided.

“So, which do ya reckon they’ll try to take?” Toombs asked in a raspy drawl. “The Bon Temps or the Scarlet Matador?”

Eve Logan, standing next to him, shook her head in annoyance. “How the hell should I know? My mark isn’t exactly a worldly type.”

“So let’s dope it out. Which one do you think he’ll want to take?”

Kyra pulled at Jack’s arm, drawing her over to some empty seats near the mercs. They sat down, backs turned to Toombs and Logan, listening carefully.

“You really think he’s with them?” Logan asked.

“Are you kidding? Who else coulda planned that escape?” Toombs demanded. “This has Riddick written all over it. Bastard walked right in and snatched them from under our noses.

“Doesn’t seem like his usual M.O. to me,” Logan objected.

“Oh really? And why’s that?”

“Nobody’s dead.”

Toombs’s only response was an annoyed grumble.

“So why the Bon Temps?” Logan asked after a moment.

Unlike Toombs, who had pronounced “Temps” as if he were talking about short-term workers, Logan pronounced it the French way, almost rhyming it with “Bon.” That earned another grumble from her companion.

“The Jane Doe’s from there,” Toombs told her. “He probably thought he was hot shit, scrambling their files and stealing the hard copies, but he didn’t get her browser records from yesterday, when you were hangin’ out in the library. Girl was all up in her favorite shows, The Cookin’ Cajun and Bayou Dreamers, fergodsake. You had to hear ’em.”

“I heard some. She wasn’t anything to me back then except my mark’s roomie.”

“So you gotta know she’s from the Bayou Nebula.”

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”

“Sounds like I have.”

“Tell you what,” Logan said after a moment. “Your reasoning is sound, but just in case, how ’bout I stake out the Matador while you’re staking out the Bon Temps?”

“Don’t you be thinkin’ of cashin’ in on all three of ’em without me. You need me. Riddick eats little girls like you for breakfast.”

“Is that what he’s doing with them?”

Toombs let out a raucous laugh. “You got a sick turn of mind. I like it. Okay. Fine. I take the Bon Temps…”

This time, he deliberately pronounced it correctly, his tone mocking.

“…and you take the Matador, and if either one of us sees somethin’ we call the other.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Jack risked a peek behind her. Toombs and Logan had parted ways and were walking toward their respective departure gates. As Jack watched, Logan sat down on a bench that gave her a prime view of all of the foot traffic that would approach the Matador’s gate. Fifteen feet behind her, the security screening station was open and processing early arrivals. Another ten feet past her, on her right, was the service entry that Jack had planned to use.

There was no way to reach it without walking right in front of Eve Logan.

“We can’t go in through another corridor?” Kyra asked, when Jack told her the problem.

“Each maintenance corridor is for one gate only. They don’t connect up.”

“Why?” Kyra asked in exasperation.

“Probably in case quarantine has to be called.” Jack’s mind was racing. They needed to get past Logan without her seeing. They needed her attention focused elsewhere. And they couldn’t do anything dramatic—

Oh.

Oh hell yes I can.

The plan bloomed in her mind and she almost laughed out loud. She glanced at the nearby chrono. They had time. She could make it happen.

“Come on,” she told Kyra, shouldering her bag and retracing their steps.

Aside from one collision with a distracted-looking man — “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there!” — nothing slowed them down. Kyra didn’t even notice until they were almost back at the spaceport entrance that Jack now had a fancy-looking comm unit and a snakeskin wallet.

“Where did you get—? You know what? Never mind.”

One more stop, in a greeting card store, and Jack was ready. She pocketed her ID tag, prompting Kyra to do the same, before pushing through the outer doors, instantly feeling relief when she spotted the freestylers still performing.

“Hey kid!” she called out to the obvious ringleader of the group.

The kids tensed. Their leader, however, puffed up on the spot.

“What, you think you some rent-a-cop? Gonna tell us to get lost? Who you callin’ a kid anyway? You look like you twelve!”

Jack grinned and rolled her eyes. “Ease up. I’m not here to chase you off or anything. Damn, even gettin’ a degree don’t help. People still think I’m a little kid. I’m gonna be gettin’ carded when I’m fifty. Shit.”

The kids laughed, relaxing.

“So you ain’t here to roll us, what you want?”

“You wanna make some money helping me out?”

The ringleader smirked. “Depends on what kind of help you need.”

“Okay, it’s like this,” Jack began. She hoped Kyra would play along with the wild ride she was about to take them on. “My brother Travi is a grade-A douchebag sometimes. I love him, but it’s the truth. Douchebag. Anyway, he fucked up on the royal the other night and now his fiancée is pissed at him and, like, threw the ring at him and told him she’s taking off for the Janus systems. Like, seriously, he’s totally unworthy of her but we all love her and want them to stay together. I mean, I’d trade him in for her in a heartbeat, you feel?”

The kids listened, their expressions still a little dubious.

“Yeah, and?” their leader prompted.

“So she’s got her ticket and everything, and she blocked his comm number, and all of our numbers. And he’s off feeling sorry for himself because he’s that doofed, you feel?”

The kids nodded.

“So I figure, she’s not gonna talk to me, if I walk up to her she’ll walk right off, maybe get security to roll me, but maybe if she gets a kind of… singing telegram that she thinks is from him…”

“You want us to do our thing for her?” The leader asked, his eyes lighting up.

“Yeah, and give her this.” Jack handed over the card. Covered in hearts and frills, with a sappy message inside and an even sappier inscription, done in her best imitation of her cousin Joey’s handwriting:

Please forgive me.
I never meant to hurt you.
You are my world and I’m lost without you.
Call me.

She’d even added a comm number, using the Al-Walid household’s number but with the last three digits changed. If Eve Logan tried to call it, she’d end up speaking to someone who had no idea what was going on.

The group’s leader grinned and accepted the card, along with the wad of cash Jack had taken out of the snakeskin wallet.

“I’m gonna record it all,” she said, brandishing the hapless traveler’s comm, “so when she hopefully tells my brother she forgives him and thanks him for it, he’ll know what it is he’s supposed to have done. But she can’t see me, okay? She’ll rabbit if she sees me.”

“Okay, we’re in. Who is she and what does she look like?”

“Gina Stansfield,” Jack told them, and then described Logan to them in detail. It was a level of detail that only someone intimately acquainted with a person — or someone, like Jack, with eidetic recall — could manage. She knew that she had sealed the deal with it. Then she gave them directions to the place Logan had staked out.

The little troupe crackled with energy as they led the way back to Logan, chattering about dance move combinations. Jack let a bit of distance build. Stopping at a random door, she keyed in one of her ghost codes. For the next ten minutes, nothing in the vicinity of the Matador’s gate would be recorded. And the randomized loops at the security desks would omit those cameras altogether. There would, sadly, be no record of what was about to happen.

Logan was so focused on scanning the crowd that she had looked at, and mentally dismissed, the entire troupe before they suddenly had her surrounded.

“This song’s for you, Gina!” The leader boomed, catching the attention of everyone in the causeway.

The kids were damned good. Along the way, they must have planned out which routines they intended to use. They ringed Eve’s bench, moving in remarkable synchrony as they danced, spun, flipped, and wove together a three-part harmony backup tune for their leader.

“Baby I was wrong,” he belted in a stunning tenor, “So listen to my song…”

Pulling out the stolen comm and holding it in front of her face, Jack approached the group with Kyra behind her, blocked from Logan’s view.

“Gina don’t you know
You’re up in my soul
There’s nothin’ I won’t do for love
And babe, you’re all I’m thinkin’ of…”

Still pretending to record the performance, Jack circled wide, not even trying to go near the Matador’s gate, keeping her face hidden and her body interposed between Kyra and Logan. The kids were drawing a crowd.

“Come back to me Gina
You know I’m always yours…”

People were clapping and cheering. If Jack had really been recording the performance, their bodies would now be in the way. She finished circling, standing in front of the maintenance door. Glancing over at it, she punched in the code and ushered Kyra through.

The door closed as the group’s leader presented Logan with the card. “Travi says he’s sorry for how he hurt you. Please call him, yeah?”

The crowd erupted with applause as the door clicked shut.

“You… are… insane.” Kyra whispered, a mile-wide grin on her face.

Jack reattached her nametag, gesturing for Kyra to do the same, but was unable to suppress a grin of her own. “Come on. We’re twenty minutes behind schedule.”

But the rest ended up being all too easy. An hour later, hidden away in a utility closet by the cryo-lockers, they got to listen to embarking passengers griping about the mercenaries who had insisted on looking each of them over before they were allowed to board. The hardest part was liftoff, which they had to endure with less padding than the other passengers, but even that couldn’t dent their sense of giddy triumph. Jack had spent the pre-boarding time programming their tubes and the special security routines that would apply to them; once all of the passengers and crew members had gone to sleep, it was finally their turn. The “defective” units turned on for them immediately.

Kyra had never worked a cryo tube, so Jack helped her in and got her settled, feeling like an old hand. Climbing into her own tube and settling in, she snickered at the image of Eve Logan surrounded by the freestylers. She had already disposed of the stolen comm, but part of her wished she had really recorded the performance.

As sleep claimed her, she could be forgiven for thinking that the worst was finally behind her. But it would be a very long time before she would forgive herself for it.

Identity Theft, Chapter 18

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 18/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Richard B. Riddick may be known for his spectacular escapes, but another escape artist is about to make a mark that will puzzle authorities for years. It’s time for Jack and Kyra to break out of the hospital. But has Jack accounted for every possible variable?
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. 😉

18.
The Game, Afoot

By the time the lights rose at 2 a.m., Jack’s nerves were screaming at a fever pitch. She and Kyra sat up simultaneously.

Jack walked over to Kyra’s side so she could keep her voice to a whisper. “Anything you want, grab now. Once we walk through that door, it’s going to lock behind us and nobody will be able to open it until Lights On.”

Kyra gave her an impressed look, walking over to her drawers and grabbing the two pairs of socks she had told Jack about: the ones hiding her knives. She gestured to her pajamas. Do we need to change? was her unspoken question.

Jack shook her head and motioned toward the door. The only thing she had chosen to take was a small cloth, which she planned to use to keep her fingerprints off of everything. She’d already erased her fingerprints from her files this afternoon, retracting two outstanding database queries at the same time, but there was no point in leaving them new samples to collect. Their room had already been thoroughly wiped down.

The lights dimmed back off as Kyra opened the door, exactly according to plan. Jack followed her out, closing the door behind them and giving it a gentle, testing push. It had locked. She took a deep, shaky breath, aware that Kyra was watching her in the dim light, and led the way toward the door out of C Ward.

The halls were empty and silent, with no sign of the usual guard staff that would normally be on duty. On the very rare occasions when Jack had needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, someone had always been nearby and watching. Not now. It was more than a little spooky.

Jack knew exactly where all of the staff probably was right now, exactly where her faked orders had sent each of them at 1:45 and how long it would take them to complete the tasks they believed they had been assigned… but there was always the possibility of error, of some annoyed or bored person deciding “let’s not and say we did” about an assignment, someone being so efficient that they would manage to get done well ahead of schedule, or someone procrastinating. Her nerves screamed at her that, any moment, she and Kyra would be caught before they had even left C ward. It took all of her effort not to launch into a flat-out run for the door.

She made herself keep walking, steadily and carefully. She had budgeted them plenty of time. As long as they weren’t seen, they should be all right.

They had reached the door when she heard voices around the corner, grumbling about the stupid task she had assigned them and arguing over whether it really had to be done right this moment. Kyra gave her a stricken look.

Deep breath.

Her cloth-covered hand was surprisingly steady as she punched in the Ghost Code. The security light flashed green and, with a soft click, the door opened before her. She motioned Kyra through.

And then, they were in the stairwell. She closed the door as softly as she could, releasing the breath she was holding as the security light switched back to red.

Two more doors greeted them. One, to Jack’s left, opened on the stairway down to D Ward, while the other, across from the door she had just closed, led upward to B Ward and the levels above it. Like a twisted airlock, the landing itself was just a waiting area, a security measure to prevent… well, to prevent exactly what she was doing.

Next to her, Kyra looked as taut-wound as she felt. An aura of danger was coming off of her, similar to the one that she had felt coming off of Riddick months ago, as he prepared to flood the skiff with fire suppressant. The older girl had switched into battle mode.

Jack didn’t, as far as she knew, have a battle mode, but she could feel her own mode switching on, the one that had let her power through exams and crack her way through research sources. The one that she had used when she was leaving Deckard’s World, to make her way through both familiar and new security systems. Her focus had gone needle-sharp.

“Nobody can get into the stairwell now, not as long as we’re in it,” she murmured to Kyra. “I need you to remember this number chain. 7-4-3-3-4-2-5. Put it in any keypad and whatever you’re trying to open will open. Repeat it back.”

Her voice the tiniest thread in the silence, Kyra responded. “7-4-3-3-4-2-5.”

Jack nodded and punched the code into the door that led up to B Ward. She ushered Kyra through, made sure it locked behind her, and began climbing the steps. She could hear Kyra almost-silently repeating the numbers beside her.

Most of the keypads had letters on them. She wondered if Kyra would notice that the code was spelling out Riddick’s name. Didn’t matter. That had been her own private joke. She was, after all, pulling a Riddick here, breaking out of a place that was supposed to be too secure for such breakouts.

She wondered if her father would be mortified by what she was doing.

She had, after all, cut through virtually every safeguard he had ever designed, because she knew the designs as intimately as if she had created them herself. That, she realized, was one handle she would have absolutely no control over: if anybody realized that the compromised systems had a designer in common, John MacNamera, who had a missing daughter her age…

It didn’t matter. Not now. There was nothing she could do about it, anyway.

They had reached the door to the next landing. Jack entered the code again. Green. They passed into the B Ward vestibule.

Below her, she knew, things would be returning to almost normal. Aside from her room with Kyra remaining locked until Lights On, few other anomalies would remain as long as nobody tried to go up from either C or D Ward. If D Ward called for backup for any reason, the orderlies on C Ward would know and could respond, and the reverse was true as well. Only a few minutes had passed so far, but they were on schedule, and the disruption was still minimal, negligible, hopefully both unnoticeable and unnoticed.

She punched the Ghost Code into the door for the A Ward stairway and ushered Kyra through. The older girl had remained silent and hypervigilant, seeming to understand the stakes every bit as well as — and perhaps even better than — she did.

And now, Jack thought as they climbed the stairs toward A Ward, B Ward was returning to a level of normalcy… as long as nobody needed to go up.

They passed through the A Ward doors two minutes later. Now all of the wards could go about business as usual, slightly more isolated from the outside world than they realized, but otherwise normal except for one locked and very empty room.

The last flight of stairs, used by both the girls’ and boys’ wards and the isolation wing, was as ghostly-silent as the previous ones, but it felt somehow more momentous. At the top, she would no longer be controlling most of the cameras, after all. She wouldn’t need to.

They reached the door at the top, and she put her hand on Kyra’s shoulder, feeling the tiniest flinch beneath her fingers. She kept her voice to the thinnest thread of a whisper.

“Okay. This is where you want to do exactly what I do, exactly when I do it. If I walk, you walk with me. If I stop, you stop too. I know how all of the cameras on the main level are timed. If we do this right, we won’t appear on any of them.”

“What about the cameras in the stairwell? And below us?”

“I put them on a loop.”

Kyra looked stunned. “How?”

“I set it up this afternoon. Short loops of the cameras, seeing nothing, from recordings made about this time last night. So the light would be the same. The loops started when I punched in the code to leave C Ward. When we walk through this door and it locks behind us, they’ll go back to actually recording what’s happening now.”

“You couldn’t do the same with the ones up top?”

“Not with most of them. Many of them are moving. And this level has actual windows. Furniture. Things that get moved around from day to day. A loop from another night would be more obvious. But it’s fine. They’ll never see us. You ready?”

She could feel Kyra steeling herself next to her. “Let’s do it.”

Once more, Jack punched in the Ghost Code. The door’s click echoed through the stairwell as it opened, but nobody from the lower wards should hear it. She hoped.

Most of the people who worked on the Admin level worked there in the day. The nighttime staff was a skeleton crew, much as the orderlies on the Third Shift were a third in number of either of the two day shifts. A handful of security staff and a few janitors were the only occupants, and almost all of them had been assigned to the two upper floors for the next hour. Jack glanced at the chrono in the hallway.

2:15.

Their silent, careful ascent had taken fifteen minutes, mostly because of how cautious she was being.

Jack closed the door behind them. She rested her hand on Kyra’s arm as she watched the movement of the cameras closest to them. One stationary camera stared right at them, but saw nothing. It would continue to loop on nothing until she punched in the Ghost Code again, away from its reach.

Once she was certain of where she was in the timing, she squeezed Kyra’s arm and began walking. Not toward the exit.

Kyra gave her a confused look but kept up with her, halting when she stopped abruptly and then walking again with her once the cameras were looking away again. When they reached Jack’s destination, she gave Jack another quizzical look.

Jack wished she could put more concrete meaning into the smile she gave Kyra in return, as she punched the Ghost Code into the door of the Women’s Locker Room and ushered her through.

The lights came on automatically as they entered, and Jack closed her eyes against the sudden brightness for a moment. Behind them, the locker room door closed, locked, and became impervious to all codes except the Ghost Code until their exit.

“What’s this for?” Kyra whispered.

“We can’t go out in our PJs,” Jack whispered back with a grin. “It’d be dead obvious where we escaped from. Locker number 223. The nurse who uses it has your shoe size and is maybe a size bigger than you in pants and shirts. She’s on duty down on D ward right now, so her street clothes should be in there. Her shift won’t end until after they realize we’re gone.”

“What’s her combination?”

“Just use the code I gave you. It works for all the locks.”

Kyra gave her another impressed look and walked over to locker number 223. Jack walked over to 347 and popped it open. Her choice was an orderly on B Ward, who was tall enough that her pants wouldn’t show Jack’s ankles.

The chrono read 2:25 when they finished changing, and 2:35 when Jack finished going through the night shift lockers for spare cash and wiping prints off of everything she and Kyra had touched. There wasn’t a huge amount, but there didn’t need to be. She had other plans for that. But cash was always useful, and its absence might distract law enforcement, briefly, from the real nature of what had happened tonight.

“One more stop and then we’re on our way out.”

She could see that Kyra was already feeling antsy. Freedom was so close, after all, why delay it? But this was necessary.

They reached Director Flint’s office, unseen, at 2:40. Twenty minutes left until the diversionary activities she’d assigned the staff ended on the levels below them, fifty until they ended in the admin levels. Jack intended to be out of the building before 3 am, but she had built in the extra time, just in case.

His office was much as she remembered it. She glanced over the papers on his desk, quickly, spotting the transfer orders for Kyra, awaiting final signatures. Helion Prime, it seemed, had a real thing for hard copies rather than digital, probably thanks to the whole AI Rebellion that had happened on Helion Six a decade earlier. Lajjun had told her about that one day, when she’d asked why so many of the things that were automated on other worlds — or, at least, on Deckard’s World — were done manually. The people of Helion had a huge distrust for computer minds.

Which, come to think of it, probably explained why so many of the higher security features on her father’s security had been switched off. In all probability, the hospital and local law enforcement didn’t even know Ghost Mode existed on their systems.

She moved to Flint’s file cabinet. Its keypad control was susceptible to Ghost Mode; she’d made sure of it a few hours ago. The files, well organized, included hard copies of everything known about her, and Kyra. She pulled their files out and closed the cabinets.

The decision, to go full-on Scorched Earth, had come to her when she was almost done preparing for their escape. At 3:30 am, the instructions she had left behind would wipe the last year’s worth of backup data stored by the hospital, in both its secondary and tertiary locations. Meanwhile, a small collection of its data, about Heather and other patients on her deadly medicine, would be forwarded to several local media outlets. Most of the current, live records would be undamaged by the purges, but two files would be irretrievably corrupted: hers, and Kyra’s. With their hard copies lost as well, it would be hard for the hospital to reconstruct most of the details they had amassed about their two missing jailbirds… especially given the heat that would hopefully come down on them almost immediately with the news about the potentially lethal drug being handed out to a dozen patients.

“Wipe down anything I’ve been touching, please,” she said to Kyra, as she moved to Flint’s physical Inbox.

Kyra nodded, pulling out one of her special socks from the pocket of her new pants, and running it thoroughly over the file cabinet. Jack flipped through the Inbox until she found the packet she was looking for. It would have arrived shortly after midnight — the courier had been instructed to deliver it between midnight and 1 am — and so no one except the front desk would have seen it.

Inside, a dozen cards, ostensibly reward gifts for high-performing staffers, waited to be activated. Jack logged into Flint’s terminal, in full Ghost Mode, and activated them, one eye on the chrono. It was 2:50 once she was done. She divided the cards into two piles, pocketing half and holding half out to Kyra.

“Funds for our travels,” she whispered. “There’s a muni transport card in there, and money for food and clothes.”

Kyra’s expression was a little awed as she took the cards.

The last time Jack had staged a bug-out — back when she’d left Deckard’s World to go after her father — she hadn’t had these kinds of resources, and she’d found herself desperately wishing for them. This time, she was going to make sure she didn’t have to learn from the same mistakes twice. The hospital might not even notice how light their petty cash account was until after they finished dealing with all of their more pressing scandals, by which time — she hoped! — the last traces of the path the money had taken would be wiped away.

“We’re almost ready,” Jack said. She slid her file, and Kyra’s, and Kyra’s transfer papers, into the empty envelope. Then she opened up Director Flint’s printer, pulling out a loose piece of paper and nodding for Kyra to wipe the machine down. She set the paper on Flint’s desk and inscribed her final message to him.

I promised you that I would tell you the truth about Riddick before I left.
I always keep my promises, so here it is:
You will never, ever find him.
—Jack B. Badd

Kyra laughed softly beside her.

She had promised that the truth would be sitting on his desk when she left, but that part was one she needed to break. It would be too easy, too obvious, and would give the game away too quickly. She folded the paper, twice, and opened the drawer that had contained her file. She tucked the paper into the now-empty hanging folder that bore the label Jane Doe 7439, closed the drawer, and gave it a final wipe-down.

It was 2:55.

The stuffed envelope tucked under one arm and a smaller envelope in her hand, Jack opened the door to Flint’s office. He rated a stationary camera, which had begun looping when she and Kyra had left the women’s locker room. It would continue looping until she put in her next code. With Kyra waiting beside her, she timed the nearby cameras in their sweeps, and then began walking purposefully toward the front desk. Kyra kept pace, silently. Jack was suddenly aware that Flint’s decorative letter-opener, a bit of metal styled like a miniature antique sword, was now in Kyra’s right hand.

Well, why not? So far, everything had gone according to plan, but there were no guarantees.

She could make out the bank of monitors at the front desk, showing moving and static shots from around the hospitals. The timing was completely randomized, but she knew that nothing had appeared to break the desk guard’s boredom.

Well, until now… She put her hand on Kyra’s shoulder, stopping her by a door with a keypad. Taking out her little cloth, she keyed in one penultimate code.

It wasn’t 7-4-3-3-4-2-5. Not this time. Instead, she keyed in a new Ghost Code, switching from the quiet escape scenario to her Scorched Earth plan: 4-3-2-8-4-3-7.

HEATHER

And all hell began to break loose.

The monitors on the front desk dissolved into static. Then the lights died, plunging the complex into total blackness for ten seconds before emergency lighting activated. Throughout the hospital, Jack knew, a very convincing simulation of a blackout was unfolding. To everyone else within the building, it would appear that the emergency generators had switched on, powering essential systems.

Except that none of the cameras were recording anymore.

Except that some of the locks that were supposed to automatically unlock in an outage appeared to be stuck. And others, that were supposed to automatically lock down, were wide open.

Such as the freight entryway, just out of the direct line of sight of the front desk, and right next to her.

She pushed it open and ushered Kyra through, closing the door quietly as she heard the front desk guard trying to reach for backup on his comm.

Too bad the comms system was completely offline, now, too. All he’d get in response would be static.

Low red light bathed the short corridor she and Kyra hurried down. At its end, she simply pushed on the waiting, disarmed door. It opened onto a driveway with LOADING ZONE marked on it in Helion Prime’s four primary languages.

Heather’s body, she suddenly realized, would have taken this exact route when it left the hospital.

“Come on,” she murmured to Kyra. “We’re almost all the way out.”

“There’s more?” Kyra asked, keeping her voice soft as she jogged beside her up the driveway.

“Just the gate. Then we’ll be out. Gonna take us about five minutes to reach it.”

It took less than that.

With the gate almost in sight, Jack pulled Kyra to the side of the driveway and motioned for her to get low, creeping forward next to the hedge that lined both sides of the drive. She could hear the gate guard cursing, unable to raise either the outside world or the main building. The gate stood partway open, frozen in that position, seemingly having malfunctioned upon the start of the blackout.

“We can make it if we run,” Kyra murmured.

“We’re not going that way,” Jack told her. “C’mon.”

The hedge had a small break between one bush and the next, and a cobbled pathway emerging between the two bushes. Jack pulled Kyra down the path, to a small human-sized gate that appeared in the wall. Through the bars, she could see the virtually deserted parking lot beyond it. Only one vehicle was parked there; only one visitor was staying overnight.

She keyed Riddick’s name into a security keypad for the final time, and the little gate opened.

“When you go through, go left and stay close to the wall so the guard on the main gate can’t see you,” She told Kyra in a whisper.

Kyra nodded and went left. Jack closed the gate and followed her.

Now, behind them, the security system moved into its endgame, simulating a whole slew of minor malfunctions that expanded to include the guest facility — mostly — and the outer grounds. The lights over the parking area flickered and died. Most of the guest facility lost power as well. But not Eve Logan’s rooms. Nothing happened within them to disturb her rest… Jack hoped.

Enveloped in full darkness now, Jack grabbed Kyra’s hand and pulled her into a run, through the vast emptiness of the parking lot and toward the driveway beyond.

“Is somebody out there?” a man’s voice called from behind them.

A moment later, Jack heard a window roll up.

“What’s going on?” a woman called.

Fuck. Eve Logan, awake. Jack squeezed Kyra’s hand and ran flat out for the driveway.

“We got no power down here! I can’t even call anybody! Can you?” the gate guard shouted to Logan.

Jack and Kyra reached the driveway and sprinted up its length as the guard began sweeping his flashlight around the lot. Kyra had begun to outpace Jack, but waited for her at the edge of the road.

“Where the hell are we?” she asked. “I thought we were in a city!”

“More like its outer suburbs,” Jack told her. “Don’t worry. Logan can’t get out of her room for about another fifteen minutes, tops, and by then…”

The headlights for the muni bus appeared as it rounded the curb and approached. Jack stepped up to the bus stop and touched its call button. This, she knew, was how most of the staff got to and from work.

“…we will be long gone. Get out the muni transport card I gave you.” Jack already had hers in her hand.

Kyra fumbled for it, almost dropping her other cards, but then had it in her hand as well. Jack wasn’t sure what she’d done with Flint’s letter opener, but doubted she’d actually let go of it.

Jack opened the smaller envelope she’d been carrying and pulled out the final two items she’d ordered along with the money cards. “Here,” she told Kyra, clipping a GUEST tag from the hospital onto her shirt. She clipped her own on just before the headlights from the bus illuminated them.

The driver barely gave them a second look once he’d glanced at their tags. The muni transport cards worked. Jack sank down into one of the bus’s seats, Kyra beside her, struggling not to give into the urge to shake herself to oblivion.

“Four stops from now, we get off, and get on the train. We’re taking a detour into one of the shittiest parts of town to get rid of our files and change out our clothes. Hope you still have your knives on you,” she murmured to Kyra, low enough to keep the bus driver from hearing.

Kyra’s nod was tight, but the look in her eyes was warm in a way that it had never been before. Jack had been aware that, at some point in the past, she had earned Kyra’s respect, but that had changed.

Now, she realized with a strange lurch, she had earned something even stronger.

Admiration.

Identity Theft, Chapter 17

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 17/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: The lies have been told. Jack’s staff account has been bought, with Riddick’s reputation. Now Jack scrambles to tie off the loose threads she left hanging, and makes a disturbing discovery that forces her to accelerate the time-table for her escape with Kyra.
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. 😉

17.
The Player and the Game

Jack ran out of Stacey’s room at top speed, heading for the bathroom, the precious slip of paper with her staff account information clutched tightly in one hand. She ran flat-out, as though pursued by the natives of a world with too many suns and too much darkness. She still almost didn’t make it.

It was only when she was already heaving that the full weight of the déjà vu settled on her. Weeks ago, after her first group therapy session, she’d flung herself into this very same stall. Then she’d been struggling to make people believe the truth about Riddick. Now… lies. She’d been telling horrible, nauseating lies that had driven what was left of her breakfast right back out of her.

If he knew what I’d said, he’d hate me so much…

It was over, she realized, as she forced herself to her shaky feet. Whatever chance she’d had of one day meeting Riddick again, renewing their friendship, indulging her fantasies… was over. She’d never be able to look him in the eye, not after betraying him like this. Even if he never knew, she would. She’d destroyed it, all of it. There was nothing left; nothing more. Richard B. Riddick was out of her reach forever, and she’d never have the right to look for him.

Jack had betrayed him. Jack had to die. Audrey would leave here and resume her life, but Jack had no right to live on anymore, within or without.

But first, she had to get out of this place.

Stacy’s door was still closed when she left the bathroom. She tried not to think about what Stacy was doing behind that door, let alone what the vicious girl was imagining as she did it. Instead, she walked resolutely back to the library and the vacant terminals.

It had felt like she had been talking forever, but the clocks said it hadn’t been all that long. Lunch was still two hours away. She could hear the sounds of a popular movie playing in the main recreation area. She recognized the opening credits theme and knew it was one almost everybody had been waiting to see. Abu and Lajjun, still trying to pull her out of her downward spiral, had taken her to it during its first week in theaters, a scant week before she cut her wrists.

The library would probably be deserted. Maybe she could get her ass covered even before lunch.

Carmouche had gone off-duty and been replaced by an orderly that Jack didn’t recognize. That wasn’t ideal. The woman was tall, slender but muscled, her medium-brown hair tied back. She was reading one of the old, thick, Victoria Holt novels from old Earth and seemed absorbed in the text, but her posture reminded Jack somehow of Riddick at rest: contained peril that could burst forth at any moment. Jack wondered if the orderly normally worked on D Ward. Most of her nametag was blocked by the book she held, but it ended with “-AN.”

Pretending to ignore the orderly, Jack walked over to the terminals as calmly and resolutely as she could — act like you belong and people will believe you belong — waiting to be challenged, but she wasn’t. Either the orderly bought the act or just didn’t care either way.

Then again, everybody on the staff seemed to think they had all of their patients sandboxed on the computers. The truth was anything but.

Whatever else could be said about her, Stacy had come through. The login worked. Even better, as the staff menu opened up, Jack recognized its layout immediately.

Her father had helped design it. He’d shown her how it worked. And best of all, she still remembered the law enforcement override that he had helped build into it. Any law enforcement agency that had the command on file could get in. She could get in. On a level that the other girls had no idea existed.

I might not even have to wait to make my move until I leave C ward, she thought with shaky amazement.

Before she did anything else, though, she needed to make sure that she had control of the Celia situation. Stacy would be preoccupied for a little while longer… she hoped… and that would give her enough time to make sure that neither she — nor any of the other Killers Club girls with purloined admin accounts — could ever find out that it was Jack’s intel that had led to the girl’s transfer.

Snitches get stitches, she reminded herself. Those would be hard for Audrey to explain.

She pulled up the transfer notice and read it carefully. No signs of her handiwork there. Next, however, was Celia’s file.

There it was.

Based on confidential information from a fellow patient, we now know that Celia has been targeted for group bullying by a clique in the C ward nicknamed the “Killer’s Club.” Given her relatively clean record and overall progress, we are moving her to B ward to ensure her safety.

That wouldn’t do at all. Only members of the Killer’s Club had been in the room when Stacy revealed her plan, and only Jack was an unknown quantity to them. If any of them read it, it would be instantly obvious that the patient in question was her.

Let’s just fix that, shall we?

Jack rewrote the paragraph, changing the wording carefully so that it would still sound like something an adult, a professional, had written. Finally she was satisfied.

Based on similar prior incidents, we believe that Celia has been targeted for group bullying, possibly by a clique in the C ward nicknamed the “Killer’s Club.” Given her relatively clean record and overall progress, we are moving her to B ward to ensure her safety.

That, she finally thought with a sigh, was as good as she could make it. Now she just needed to make sure there were no handles in her own record… and do a little sanitizing of any information that could be used to track her once she bugged out.

Her record still listed her as Jane Doe 7439. That was a good sign. If they were trying to pin her identity down, nothing had come back yet. She moved to the most recent entries in her chart first. Would they have mentioned the incident?

Damn. Of course they did. And they have no idea how porous their system is…

Not that the code was porous, of course. Her father didn’t do bad work. It wasn’t his fault that one of the orderlies had been so lax about security, or that none of the features to detect and prevent that kind of breach that had been enabled. And she might just clean up a few more things once she launched the law enforcement back door.

But first, there was an entry to fix — and carefully — before any of the Killer’s Club girls thought to take a look.

In spite of the fact that Miss Doe was the first to get into a fight with Celia Wyndham, she has obliquely expressed remorse for the act by warning us that Miss Wyndham is now the target of systematic bullying. The previous concerns about her closer association with the Killer’s Club may be unfounded.

She definitely couldn’t risk any of the girls seeing that.

It took her almost a half hour, and a dozen unsatisfactory attempts, to find wording that would work. Not far off, she could hear the movie getting more and more car-chase and explosion heavy. Although few girls ventured into the library at any time, she couldn’t risk any of Stacy’s friends looking over her shoulder while she worked on this. Satisfied at last, she saved the new paragraph.

Miss Doe’s instigation of the systematic bullying of Celia Wyndham seems to confirm our previous concerns about her growing association with the Killer’s Club. She should be monitored closely for any signs of remorse for her actions.

Much better, she thought. Now she was the Killer’s Club’s newest accomplice, not their snitch.

She read through the rest of her record carefully, looking for any notes that could potentially connect her to Audrey MacNamera once she went on the run. Someone had identified her accent as common to Deckard’s World. She deleted the line and found three more references to Deckard’s World — all speculative, but still — that needed to be deleted as well. The movie ended as she saved and closed Jane Doe 7439’s files. Nobody had come in yet; the orderly who had taken over from Carmouche appeared to be engrossed in her Victoria Holt novel and happy to ignore her.

Perfect.

Backing out to the administrative main menu, she launched the special login for law enforcement, holding her breath until its distinctive menu appeared. Now for the important moves.

She changed her staff account so that it was top-tier, with access to everything, and checked that the other Killer’s Club accounts — easy to identify now that she could see who had created each account — had been on the same tier that her own had been. She was relieved to see that none of them would have had greater clearance than she had; she didn’t need to dig back into her file, or Celia’s, to make sure that she hadn’t missed anything she hadn’t had access to. When it suddenly occurred to her to check Stacy’s file for references to her, she was relieved to see that there were none.

She only got to spend a few more minutes poking around on the law enforcement level, gleaning passcodes and information about lockdown systems, before she heard voices approaching. Her screen was back to normal — the screen of an ordinary patient — before Xi Hin and Omphalé walked in.

She suppressed a sigh of relief.

“Hey, Jack,” Xi Hin said, her voice very nearly friendly. “You haven’t seen a certain drama queen around, have you?”

Jack glanced nervously at the orderly, who was continuing to ignore them. The woman turned another page in her novel, seemingly oblivious to their conversation. Or she’s really good at pretending not to listen…

She decided to at least pretend to go with the latter.

Making her glance at the orderly a little more obvious, Jack motioned Xi Hin and Omphalé to move further away from the front desk with her. Both girls looked intrigued as they followed her.

“She’s gone,” she whispered, once she was sure that even an astute eavesdropper would be out of range.

“Gone?” Xi Hin blurted. Omphalé shushed her. “What do you mean, gone?” she continued in a whisper. “It’s my turn to—”

That earned her another shushing from Omphalé.

“Stacy told me earlier,” Jack whispered, glad that she didn’t have to be the originator of the news. “Sent up to B Ward.”

“Why?” Omphalé whispered, her expression shocked. Stacy had been enraged, but Omphalé just seemed confused. The plans for tormenting the girl had probably just been a diversion to her, and not the serious business they’d become for Stacy.

Jack shrugged. It was better not to leave too many handles out by knowing too much. “That’s what she wanted to know, too.”

Xi Hin turned and sat down at the nearest terminal — Jack’s — and logged her out before logging into her staff account. After a moment, she swore. “They figured us out, looks like. Sounds like Stacy’s not the first one to play that game here.”

Omphalé gave Jack an askance look and whispered something to Xi Hin, who started typing up a new query.

Bet I know what they’re going to check…

Omphalé’s amused snort confirmed it. “They say you instigated it all, Jack. Stacy’s gonna be pissed that you’re getting all the credit.”

Jack walked over and read the doctored passage over Xi Hin’s other shoulder, taking her time before reacting. Let them think she was a slowish reader. Let them think she’d never read that paragraph before, much less written most of it. “Looks to me like that’s blame I’m getting, not credit.”

“Po-tay-toe, Po-tah-toe.”

Inwardly, part of her wanted to curl into a ball and shiver for hours. She had come dangerously close to earning the lifelong enmity of the cruelest and most brutal girls in the ward. If Stacy had decided to dig into the reasons for Celia’s transfer before hearing Jack’s story, or if the other Killer’s Club girls hadn’t been distracted by an action movie…

I’d be in pieces, or maybe just in D Ward… and I’d never get out of here.

“You okay?”

She glanced over at both girls. “Yeah, sorry. I, uh… told Stacy some stuff she wanted to know about… uh… Riddick… and…”

She swallowed. Thinking about that recitation in Stacy’s room made her feel ill and guilty all over again. No faking needed.

The girls’ faces were almost sympathetic.

“Hey,” Xi Hin said after a moment. “I bet the therapists’d say it’s good you’re facing that stuff head-on. You know, admitting the truth.”

She and Omphalé nodded at each other with the sage expressions of old veterans at therapy.

“I guess,” she replied, and the lunch bell rang.

Food had no appeal to Jack. She sat quietly at the table, picking at the unappetizing contents of her plate, while conversation flowed around her. She avoided even glancing in Stacy’s direction. It was hard to look Kyra’s way, either. Those had been her ordeals she’d been describing. She just hoped that Kyra was right about Stacy, and that the stories would never spread. Having Riddick’s reputation tarnished with Red Roger’s crimes on Canaan Mountain would be a disaster.

I need more time in the system, she thought to herself. The sooner she could get out of this place, the better, before even more of her soul was compromised. She needed codes. She needed to sanitize Kyra’s records, too, so that her friend would also be harder to trace. There were a thousand moving parts and she needed to line all of them up—

Everyone was getting up. The meal was over.

“I’d ask how it went, but I guess I know,” murmured Kyra as they rose. “You okay?”

Jack looked over at Kyra, wishing she had even half the armor and aplomb the older girl possessed. Knowing what she had endured just made her all the more impressive.

I have to get her out of here.

“I will be,” she managed after a moment. “I need to get more time on the library terminals. Can you cover for me? Keep people from wondering what I’m up to?”

Kyra nodded, although she seemed to be wondering why it was so important. When the other girls in the Killer’s Club headed for the recreation room, she kept them distracted while Jack slipped away.

The romance novel enthusiast was still on duty in the library. Jack picked a different workspace, selecting a table with two terminals facing away from both the duty desk and the entry. On one, she began leading a set of false trails, using her patient account to browse pages that related to interests she’d never had as Audrey MacNamera. On the other, she logged in to her improved, highest level staff account and made some further changes to her patient record, deleting entries about her prior browsing history and the subjects she’d pursued. In their place, she added records connected to the new sites she was browsing. Jane Doe 7439, she had decided, liked to read about neo-Cajun cuisine, watched New Creole cooking shows, liked to listen to zydeco music, and never made anything above a B- on her schooling modules.

While another cooking show started on the terminal beside her, she switched over to the law enforcement account and began setting up a master passcode that would let her go through all of the facility’s doors… undetected. Via Ghost Mode.

“They don’t understand what they’re asking for,” John MacNamera had groused at her two years ago, leaning back on his couch and blowing out a frustrated breath. “This ‘Ghost Mode’ is going to blow up in their faces one day.”

Audrey had sat quietly. Her father would explain without her asking. He always did. She had glanced down at the specs he was working with. There it was: Ghost Mode. She scanned over the instructions for using it, filing them away in her memory.

It was very fortunate that nobody in the hospital had any idea just how good her memory was.

“Eidetic” was the term her mother used with her. She only had to read things once to remember them clearly and precisely. And her mother had sternly explained, after she got into a fight with one of her cousins about which of them was remembering an event “right,” that what she could do was extremely rare, a gift that she hadn’t done anything to earn, and that it was rude to show it off and unkind to expect others to have it.

Which, fortunately, meant that long before she left Deckard’s World and began her run, she had become an old hand in concealing the full extent of her knowledge and recall. Nobody expected a kid to remember everything, down to the tiniest detail, so nobody — except possibly her parents — ever realized that she was faking it when she got less-than-perfect marks on a quiz or test, or claimed not to remember something that had happened when she was three.

Now, however, sitting at the terminal, she could still see the instructions for “Ghost Gode” in her memory, and still hear her father grumbling about the mistake the security firm was making.

“When this mode is attached to a security code, no records are generated when the code is used,” he’d explained after a moment. “Sure, that’s great for a situation where you think someone high up is compromised and you don’t want them to know they’re being investigated, or the police are on the way… but I can think of a million ways it could be abused.”

“What are you going to do?” Audrey had asked him.

“I can’t take it out. We can’t have one package for clients who want Ghost Mode and another for clients who don’t. The code’s too integral.” Her father had sighed. “But we can make two sets of documentation. Only the clients who request Ghost Mode will get instructions on how to enable it.”

But it was always there, asked for or not, enabled or not. Now Jack keyed in the instructions for making her newly-minted security codes “Ghost Mode,” hiding them from the general administrative registry as well. She’d chosen a number combination that no one else used. Now it would open any door on any of the floors and there would be no record that the doors had opened at all.

Sure, she could have gone through the doors using any combination of the administrators’ passcodes — they were all in her head now — but this code had a further advantage: she could share it with Kyra, and her friend would only need to remember one number.

She spent the next hour — while a middle-aged woman, on the screen next to her, quietly droned on about the best jambalaya recipes — studying the camera layouts and timing on the stairs between C Ward and A Ward, and the layout of the ground level. She had the escape route picked, the timing worked out, and everything memorized when she heard voices approaching. By the time four girls entered the library, she seemed to be doing poorly on an algebra quiz while listening to singers from centuries earlier admonish listeners: “Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot.” She got a few funny looks, but nobody seemed to suspect anything.

They’d never heard her listen to music before. They’d never know that she listened to anything but zydeco. Now, though, there would be witnesses to the fact that this was Jane Doe 7439’s music of choice. Everything in her record would point to a colony on the opposite side of the Helion system from Deckard’s World.

We can leave whenever we want, she reassured herself. As soon as I clean up Kyra’s records so she’s harder to trace.

That, she decided, would be her next stop once she was alone again.

Score one for zydeco music. The girls, muttering about how weird she was, left quickly with their books. Once they were gone, she logged back in as a top admin and got back to work. She opened up Kyra’s file—

Oh. Shit.

A cold chill flowed down her back. Her fingers shook as she typed. She didn’t dare change much — the Black Fox of Canaan Mountain was, after all, the facility’s closest thing to a celebrity patient — but she changed what she could.

This was bad. This was very… very bad.

Her decision made, she switched over to the duty rosters and made subtle adjustments that would ensure a nice, wide open gap in coverage, all along her planned escape route, between 2 and 3 am. Scrolling through the daytime duty roster, she found the anomaly she was looking for. She switched back over to the law enforcement account and looked at the orderly’s records again.

It was even worse than she had thought.

Fuck. She glanced up at the seemingly-oblivious woman at the front desk, wondering whether she was just killing time or paying closer attention to everything than it seemed.

It wouldn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. She couldn’t let it matter.

She shut down the terminals when the dinner bell rang, and walked out of the library as calmly as she could, trying not to let it be too obvious that her skin was trying to crawl right off of her body.

She forced herself to eat her entire dinner. It was dry and tasteless in her mouth, and most of her attention was spent on keeping it down. From the few comments she could make herself focus on, everybody thought she was still out of sorts from her morning conversation with Stacy. She squirreled away a few rolls when nobody was looking.

For later.

The woman was gone when she returned to the library, replaced by one of the regular evening-duty orderlies. Jack felt a tiny amount of the tension leave her spine as she worked. It only took her another two hours to get everything in place. Her hands shook a little as she shut down the terminal, spent a few minutes pretending to be a germaphobe and wiping down all of the terminals she had used that day, and left the library.

Normally she showered in the morning, but she felt like she stank of fear. After a quick shower, she killed time cleaning the room she and Kyra shared, wiping down every surface that she might have touched at any point. Would anybody bother dusting for fingerprints? She wasn’t sure, but she didn’t want to risk it. While she waited for Kyra to return for Lights Out, she ran over the plan again and again in her mind, rehearsing each step of the way, each possible complication.

It would work. It had to.

Finally Kyra arrived, saying goodnight to Collette and Xi Hin before she entered their room.

“You’ve been the talk of the Club,” she said with a wry grin. “Not that Stacy’s sharing the story you told, thank God, but it bought you some legit cred. Especially with you being the insti—”

“Don’t let anybody give you meds tonight. If they do, fake swallowing them. Spit them out when nobody’s looking.”

“Okay…?”

Jack walked up to Kyra, getting close enough that she could breathe the next words and her friend would still hear them, but nobody else possibly could. “We’re leaving tonight.”

Kyra went still, staring at her in surprise and wonder. “Tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” It was to her credit that she didn’t even ask how, given that Jack had previously said they needed to get to A Ward first.

“There’s a transfer order in for you. For tomorrow at noon.”

“What?” Kyra whisper-hissed in astonishment.

“Somebody decided you’re well enough to stand trial. They’re shipping you back to New Dartmouth. And the mercenary in charge of taking you there is already here, pretending to be an orderly.”

“But—”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re going tonight. 2 am. Don’t go to sleep.”

Someone knocked on the door.

As if controlled by the same set of puppet strings, Kyra and Jack retreated to their beds in tandem. “Come in!” Jack called.

The Victoria Holt-reading orderly stood in the doorway. Her name tag, no longer obscured, confirmed everything Jack had already learned about her.

E. Logan

They didn’t even bother giving her a fake name…

The false orderly, a woman Jack now knew was really named Eve Logan, professional bounty hunter, entered the room with a smile that was just a hair too wide to be authentic, carrying a tray with pills on it. “Time for bed, girls!”

Neither one of them were normally scheduled for bedtime sedation. Their eyes met for the briefest moment. Then Kyra was all smiles, reaching for the cup the merc was offering her.

Jack accepted hers, fumbling the cup long enough to keep Logan from noticing that Kyra was pocketing her pills instead of putting them in her mouth. She was glad that her cousin had gone through a “close-up magic” kick and had insisted on teaching her several variations of the Vanishing Quarter. Eve Logan left a moment later, undoubtedly convinced that both girls would soon be sedated heavily enough that neither one would be up before noon.

Kyra gave her a haunted look as the lights were lowered. Jack nodded. She had set a timer in the system. The lights would come partway back up at 2 am exactly, right as their door unlocked and all of the orderlies would have assignments to be nowhere nearby. Eve Logan, she knew, would be asleep in the administrative guest building by then; if she woke up for any reason, she’d find her door and comms mysteriously locked and unresponsive until daybreak.

Glancing over at Kyra, barely visible in the dark, Jack had a feeling that both of them would still be wide awake when the lights came up.

Ardath Rekha • Works in Progress