Blood gushes through my fingers like melted butter. It soaks through the wad of blue fabric pressed deep into the gaping wound.
Callaghan’s body is still beneath my hands. His face is damp, chalky, and pale. His eyes aren’t closed. They’re open with lazy drooping lids, but there’s no fight left in them. Callaghan has surrendered.
“We have a problem,” says Maggie.
She’s kneeling over the hostess’s body — the bot that’s been passing for a human.
Callaghan must have smashed her head with the edge of the heavy frame he ripped off the wall. She — it — didn’t shed a single drop of blood. All that’s left is a corpse of silicone, plastic, and copper.
Her eyes look like Callaghan’s — cold and lifeless. There’s not the faintest glimmer of a person left in those eyes, but Callaghan is dead. There’s a difference.
We could leave the bot here until every human died. She wouldn’t change. She wouldn’t decay. Callaghan doesn’t have that luxury. His body is made of flesh and bone. Someone’s going to notice he’s dead.
“Close the door,” I say to Ping. My voice is different — rough and hoarse.
He does as he’s told, takes a step toward the bot, and gives it a nudge with his boot. “Is she . . . Is it . . .”
Maggie nods, looking sick. She turns to me. “Is Callaghan . . .”
Her eyes flicker in surprise. Maggie’s never seen a dead body before — at least not fresh dead.
Ping seems worried. It’s a strange look for him. “What do we do?”
I shake my head and realize that I’ve still got my hands pressed into Callaghan’s wound. With great effort, I peel them away and experience a sickening tug as the flesh separates from the layer of blood drying in the fabric. The overshirt I’d been using to staunch the flow of blood has become part of him.
Maggie recoils. At first I’m not sure what caused her reaction, but then I see that I’m covered in blood and that it’s drying under my fingernails.
“We need to contain this,” I say.
“Contain it?” Maggie croaks.
“Nobody can find out about this.”
Ping glances at Maggie. He thinks I’m losing it. “Uh, sarge . . . I think they’re gonna notice.”
I shake my head. “We need to move the body.”
“What?” says Maggie.
“That thing that killed Callaghan . . . We don’t know how many more there might be. If they’re going after Space Force leadership, we need to get them before they get us.”
“You think they’re assassinating Space Force officers?” Maggie whispers.
“And you think we’ve got the element of surprise?” asks Ping.
“These things aren’t like the security bots,” I say. “They’re smarter. Deadlier. If this gets out . . . If the other bots think we might try to shut them down . . .”
“They could start killing anyone who gets in their way,” Maggie finishes.
Ping looks panicked. “What do we do?”
“We need to find the person who’s in charge now that Callaghan’s dead.”
Ping scrunches his face in disgust. “First Lieutenant Greaves?
“That’s the guy.”
“Greaves?” Ping groans. “Flaccid Greaves? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“No,” I admit. “But that’s protocol.”
“I’m sorry,” says Maggie. “Who is this person?”
I almost forgot. Maggie isn’t Space Force. Maggie’s just a journalist who got in way over her head.
“He’s next in the chain of command.”
If Callahan weren’t dead on the floor, Flaccid Greaves would be the absolute last person I’d call. Greaves got to where he is by being a first-rate kiss-ass. He got his nickname because he’s useless. He does everything by the book and is utterly incapable of thinking for himself.
“So you’re going to tell Greaves . . . what exactly?” asks Ping.
“I’m going to tell him that Callaghan was murdered and that we could be looking at a bot takeover if we don’t contain it.”
The one benefit to bringing Greaves into the fold is that he’s highly suggestible. If someone else has a plan and it’s a good one, he’ll steal the idea and take all the credit.
“All due respect, sarge . . . I think we need to call an emergency briefing.”
“And say what, exactly?” I snap. “Tell everyone that Callaghan’s dead and that there are a bunch of killer bots loose on the space station that look exactly like people? Do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“We have no way to tell the bots from humans,” says Maggie. “People could turn on each other.”
“Or the bots could just decide to kill us all.”
“Right,” says Ping. He seems to be deep in thought, but we don’t have time for him to process this. I let out a heavy breath and try to keep my shit together.
“Ping . . . You stay here and make sure no one comes in. Maggie and I will go find Greaves.”
“What?” he cries, looking panicked. “Why can’t we just ping him?”
“Because we don’t know who might be listening.”
Ping still looks as though I asked him to walk into a burning building.
“I can stay with him,” Maggie offers.
“No,” I say quickly. “You’re coming with me. Buford’s still on the loose. He wants you dead. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
Maggie seems a little thrown off by my reaction, so I add, “With a little luck, we can get Greaves to put out an order to isolate all Hospitality workers until we figure out who’s human and who’s not.”
“How do we test them?” asks Ping.
I hesitate. I hadn’t thought about that.
“We cut them,” says Maggie. “The bots don’t bleed. We cut everyone on Elderon . . . just to be sure.”
I nod. It’s a little primitive, but I like her style. I can’t think of any better alternative.
“We’ll start with the Hospitality workers,” I say. “Hopefully Greaves doesn’t fuck it all up. I’d do it myself, but we need to get him up to speed. People from the government are arriving by shuttle. They’re gonna want to speak to Callaghan.”
We leave Ping in the war room and head straight to Greaves’s quarters. I move fast and walk with my head on a swivel, hoping we don’t encounter anyone along the way.
Maggie is trailing a few feet behind me, looking as though she might pass out. I’m still covered in Callaghan’s blood, which could raise questions I don’t want to answer.
I’m not sure what I plan to do if a Hospitality worker crosses our path. “Kill first, ask questions later” is not Space Force protocol, but at the moment it’s what my instincts are telling me to do. It might be different if I were alone, but with Maggie I can’t take chances.
We reach Greave’s quarters spooked and out of breath, and I pound on the door with my fist. Nothing.
I knock again — pounding hard enough to wake the officer in the room next to his — but Greaves still doesn’t answer.
“You think the bots got him?” Maggie whispers.
“I don’t know.”
She thinks for a moment. “Is there anywhere else he could be?”
I shrug. Greaves could be anywhere: the fitness center, a girlfriend’s suite, in a meeting. Still, it’s getting late, and something feels off.
Maggie is wearing a look of deep concern, and my anxiety morphs into anger when I remember what she’s been through. Just a few hours ago, she was trapped in an airlock and nearly killed by a rogue maintenance bot that had been infected by malware.
Buford is the man responsible, and the two-faced lieutenant is still at large. He’s slinking around Elderon with the authority of an officer with no one but Maggie to contradict him. He could be with Greaves right now.
I shiver. As long as he’s out there, Maggie is still in danger. We all are. No one knows what Buford is capable of, and he has unrestricted access aboard the space station.
Once it becomes clear that Greaves isn’t going to answer, we high-tail it back to Sector R. Our footsteps echo down the long stark hallway, and the lights overhead start to flicker.
It’s quiet — too quiet. I hold out my arm, and Maggie stops. I don’t turn around, but I can feel her standing there, waiting.
I take a deep breath. My heart is pounding in my chest. Sweat is beading up under my arms, and a horrible sense of déjà vu swamps me.
Callaghan wasn’t in his quarters. If he had been, he might have been able to postpone such a gruesome and violent death. If he was summoned to the war room shortly after dinner, maybe Greaves was summoned, too.
A dozen horrible thoughts flash through my mind, but I try to push them away. Greaves can’t be dead — not Greaves and Callaghan. With both of them gone, the chain of command would dictate that the next senior lieutenant take command of the Space Force.
I rack my brain, trying to remember who that is. It can’t be Buford. It makes me sick just thinking about it. But I can’t remember if Buford served longer than Crispin or not.
I start walking again, and Maggie follows. We round the corner, and my chest tightens as if it’s being crushed by a giant fist.
Two figures are standing at the end of the hall looking into the war room. It’s Greaves and another man I can’t make out. Light is spilling into the hallway from the open door, and Greaves is standing just outside the room. The second man is standing in the doorway and has his back to me.
Greaves is a tall guy — clean cut with broad shoulders and oversized biceps. He clearly lifts weights but spends too much time on his upper body. The second man is of average height with mousy brown hair growing thin on top.
When Greaves sees me and Maggie coming toward him, his grim expression darkens. I know how we must look. I’m half out of uniform and covered in blood. Maggie is in civilian clothes — bruised and bloody with a bandaged neck.
The man standing next to Greaves pivots, and I feel a surge of bile rise up in my throat. It has the heat of anger and the gag of disgust. The man has a baby-smooth face and a mouth that’s usually stretched in a smile. It’s a fake salesy smile that always set me on edge, and now I know I was right to distrust him.
The man isn’t smiling now. His eyes are twinkling with a smug expression, and I have the urge to grab him by the throat.
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