one

Maggie

I’m being held in the graveyard that is BlumBot’s Elderon headquarters. Whoever used this office is dead. There’s a framed picture on the desktop taken with too much flash. It shows a pimply sunburned man and a woman with short blond hair.

Does she even know how he died?

I’m guessing it was the man who used to work here. A woman would have left something useful behind in her desk: hairspray or perfume that I could use to blind my captors, a nail file, or maybe a bobby pin.

Of course, a bobby pin wouldn’t be much help against the three-way biometric lock on my door, but at this point I’d take anything.

I emptied the contents of all the desk drawers ten minutes after they brought me here. All I found was a BlumBot lanyard, a charging pad, a tube of chapstick, and half a bag of trail mix.

The trail mix is already gone, and yet my stomach is still growling. I haven’t eaten anything else. I haven’t slept. All I can do is wait for what’s next and run through the list of regrets in my head.

I’m sitting on the carpet with my back to the door listening for any sound outside. My chin is still throbbing from where it slammed against the floor. It’s my only real injury from the battle, but every muscle in my body hurts.

The clock on the wall is completely immobile, so I have no idea how long I’ve been here. It feels like an hour, or maybe two or three — plenty of time to have covered every square inch of this place and realize that there’s no way out.

From my position on the floor, I can see out the tiny porthole window. The stars are just a shimmering blur thanks to Elderon’s constant rotation.

There’s no one on this entire space station who can help me now. Jonah is also Mordecai’s prisoner — if he’s even still alive. Raz is dead. He was killed by a bot. I just hope that the others are safe.

Ping, Alex, and Kiran are back on Earth. Jade is still missing. Tripp left the space station, and I don’t blame him. If I’d been Mordecai’s prisoner for three long years, there’s nothing that could have made me stay.

Tripp. Just the thought of him makes me squirm.

Before Raz was killed, he begged me to leave. Tripp kissed me. He kissed me. And I don’t know how I feel. All I knew in that moment was that I couldn’t get on that shuttle. After spending three years running and hiding from Mordecai and his army, I had had enough.

I was done running, done scrubbing toilets, done putting my loved ones in danger. Ever since Tripp transferred his inheritance, he put a target on my back. And every second I eluded Mordecai placed my friends and family in danger.

Mordecai isn’t above imprisonment and torture, and his bots routinely leave bodies in their wake. The bots took Kiran to a re-education camp. He might even be there still. They’ve killed hundreds of innocent people — including Raz. It all has to end.

The only way to stop Mordecai is to take his bots out of commission. Raz had a plan. We were so close, and now he’s dead. We’re right back where we started.

Except . . . I reach into the little pocket of my shorts and feel for the tiny square chip. It’s wrapped in a piece of white medical tape. I took it off of Raz’s body.

This chip could be our ticket to freedom. It contains Raz’s kill code.

According to Raz, we need access to the mainframe to upload the deadly software update. The idea was to infect every bot from Elderon to Earth with the virus that would shut them down. Raz said it was the only way — infecting them all at once. Do that, and you’d be able to bypass the bots’ hive mind and prevent the others from repairing another bot’s damaged software.

All I have to do is get this chip to the mainframe. It’s two sectors over on the Upper Deck — just one floor above my head.

But gaining access would be easier said than done — even if I weren’t locked up. Mordecai is onto us. He knows we tried to hack the bots. If Jade’s alive, she’ll be locked up somewhere, and he’ll have a small army guarding that mainframe.

Since I’ve been here, my mind’s been racing trying to come up with a plan. If Ping were here, he’d know what to do, but I keep hitting a wall.

My best hope is to get out of this room and find out where they’re holding Jonah. Jonah knows every square inch of this place, and he knows its vulnerabilities. If there’s anyone who can get us into Sector C, it’s him. But I don’t know where we stand.

Jonah came back. He didn’t leave. In the end, he stayed.

But does that make up for the last three years? Does it make up for what he’s done?

When I went into hiding, I thought that he was dead. I mourned him. I grieved. I cried for weeks. And he was alive the entire time.

Not only that, but he was Mordecai’s right hand. He fulfilled his role of Space Force sergeant and Mordecai’s chief enforcer. When I was locked in that room, Jonah tortured me for information. He might have justified it by telling himself that he was saving me greater pain, but in the end it was Jonah who pushed that button.

How can I forgive him for that? How can I ever trust him again? I know he’s still in there somewhere, but he’s been living another life.

The moment I saw him in the docking zone, I knew that he had changed. He was weathered by evil the way others become weathered with age. He wore it on his face. He wore it in his gait. Everything about him had changed.

But when that bot nearly killed him today, I thought part of me had died with him. I knew I couldn’t go through that again. I couldn’t stand the pain.

Just thinking about his limp lifeless form makes a lump rise up in my throat. A person can’t take that sort of loss twice.

But I don’t have time to dwell on that thought. There’s a rumble of a voice outside the door and a loud mechanical beep.

I fling myself away from the door and scramble to my feet. The door swings open of its own accord, and then I’m starting into the face of evil.

Mordecai is standing in the doorway, flanked by a humanoid on each side. They each have pale porcelain skin and the most chilling eyes I have ever seen. They’re dressed in skintight white bodysuits with plunging necklines that reveal smooth silicone skin.

They carry no weapons because they don’t need them. Their bodies are their weapons.

I know that if I took a single step toward their master, they could rip me apart as easily as a child tearing wings off a butterfly.

“Hello, Miss Barnes,” says Mordecai in that voice that makes my hair stand on end.

Every inch of my skin is vibrating with the electric pulse of hatred. It’s as if every cell in my body has suddenly awakened.

“What do you want?” I ask. I mean for my voice to come out low and strong. Instead it wavers on the vowels, betraying the terror in my heart.

“For such a smart woman, you have made some truly baffling choices.”

A spark of rage flares in my gut, but I work to keep my expression blank. With Mordecai I’ve learned it’s best not to talk or show any emotion at all. Anything you give him can be used against you. And once he starts talking, he doesn’t stop. His murky evil deeds crystalize into a clearer picture of his intentions. I just need something that will show a weakness — his vulnerability. Sooner or later, he’ll give me what I need.

“I would expect as much from Sergeant Wyatt,” Mordecai continues. “On the surface he is a force of nature…a capable strategist, a confident leader, an animal on the battlefield. But I’m afraid once you get past appearances, he is a slave to his emotions. And when you are involved,” Mordecai chuckles, “he always plays the fool.”

Mordecai pauses for dramatic effect, watching to gauge my reaction.

I won’t take the bait. I refuse to play his game. But inside I am fuming.

“I must say that I was slightly disappointed by how easy it was to turn Sergeant Wyatt . . . One would almost be inclined to believe that I managed to tap into his true nature.”

This time, I’m not so strong. My mouth seems to have a mind of its own. “And what nature would that be?”

“The nature of man, Miss Barnes. A proclivity for violence and control. We are cut from the same cloth, he and I. The difference is that I’m self-aware. I know what I am — who I am — which is why I’ve worked tirelessly to realize my father’s vision. He saw what no one else could — the possibility of an entirely new species. A legion of bots that aren’t ruled by their baser instincts. Their intelligence, strength, and skill vastly outstrip our own, but they have a measure of self-restraint that humans aren’t capable of.”

I glance over at the bots, who have been listening silently to this exchange. They don’t move a muscle, but I can sense them watching — analyzing every tiny movement and every indiscernible tic. They’re capable of understanding what I’m about to do a second before I’m even aware of it.

“That’s the difference between he and I,” says Mordecai. “I recognize my personal failings . . . Sergeant Wyatt is a masochist. He enjoys ladening himself with arbitrary moral obligations and then flogging himself when he comes up short.”

Suddenly I realize that every muscle in my body is tensed. My hands are clenched into fists at my sides, and I can feel my fingernails digging into my palms. My face is very, very hot, and there’s this animal energy moving up through my chest. It’s dying to burst out of my throat, but all I can do is stand there.

“At the mere suggestion of violence against you, he was perfectly willing to do just about anything —”

“Shut up,” I snap. The voice that escapes doesn’t sound like me. It’s low and guttural — almost a growl.

If it weren’t for his entourage of deadly robots, I would tear him limb from limb.

A gloating smile spreads across his face. Mordecai is enjoying this, the sick fuck that he is.

“Am I correct to think that you too have your doubts about him?”

I don’t answer. I don’t think I can. My throat is swollen from holding back the scream that’s dying to burst from my throat.

“It’s all right if you do,” says Mordecai. “It’s only natural.” He pauses. “I don’t mean to pry, but . . . Perhaps Sergeant Wyatt has outlived his usefulness?”

It takes a few seconds for his words to travel from his mouth to my brain. What is he asking? If we’re on the same side? Or is he just asking if I’m finished with Jonah? If I want him dead?

“Outlived his usefulness” is the sort of phrase supervillains use to indicate that it’s time for their sidekicks to kill someone. But Mordecai and I aren’t on the same team, so why is he speaking as though we are?

“No,” I say. This time, my voice doesn’t come out as a growl or a scream. It’s one last desperate gasp from my better self, which is being quietly suffocated by Maggie the Monster.

In truth, I don’t know how I feel about Jonah. He stayed, and he helped me, but that doesn’t change what he’s done. Did he stay here to right his wrongs, or did he only stay because of me?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s a part of me that’s in love with him. I haven’t been able to cut that part out, no matter how hard I’ve tried. Whether or not Jonah’s worthy of it, I’d still do anything to protect him.

Mordecai fixes me with an appraising stare. There’s a light smile playing on his lips. It’s not the same gloating look he wore before, but it still makes me want to put my fist through the wall. It’s dreamy — almost wistful. It’s the look you might wear as you’re staring at your dream home . . . or sizing up the person you hope to turn into a vicious monster.

“Very well,” he says carelessly, not dropping that smile. “If you still wish for Sergeant Wyatt to live, I have to assume that you’re ready to cooperate.”