Alarms still blared in the control room, but the intruder's signal had vanished.
Melisse Ortus approached one of the monitoring stations. "What's the current status?"
The operator swung around in his chair. He had only recently been promoted to his post, and his inexperience showed on his face. "Uh, well, he's gone. I—I was tracking him on the radar, but he just disappeared. Do you think he could have escaped?"
"No," said Melisse. "We're on lockdown. Nothing can enter or leave the premises undetected. He must be here somewhere; he's probably using some sort of cloaking device."
"Then what should I do?" The operator's eyes darted back to the console. Melisse had seen him only a few times before and didn't remember his name, but she recognized his type: naïve, idealistic, eager to prove his own worth, terrified of failure. She had been the same way herself, once.
"Keep watching that screen in case he shows up. And if he does, report it to me immediately." She turned away from the station. "I'll be right back."
"B-but .... Yes, ma'am."
Melisse strode past the other monitoring stations without sparing a glance. The heavily reinforced door to the control room clanged shut behind her as she stepped into the hallway. The sirens were muted here, and warning lights strobed along the walls. She glanced around. The intruder was here somewhere, and if she had guessed his motives correctly, he'd be waiting for her to confront him alone.
She started down the corridor at an even pace, ignoring the instinct that screamed at her to run. Experience had taught her to think through her actions instead of acting on impulse; she couldn't afford to put any more lives at risk, especially not her own. If she panicked now, it might mean the end not only for Melisse Ortus, but for Scientia as well.
Stay calm, she told herself, imagining the words spoken in a voice that was not her own. Focus on strategy. Don't let your personal attachments get in the way. The Captain's advice came in useful at times like this, now that his memory no longer pained her as sharply as it once had. But the grief was still there, a dull ache in her throat rather than a stab in her heart, and she wondered if it would ever fade completely.
She thought again of the young technician in the control room: at that age, Melisse had believed in justice as if it were some natural law of the universe. But that was before she had seen how laws could be bent and twisted back on themselves until they were no longer congruent with the truth. That was before the Captain had put a gun to his head and blown away whatever illusions Melisse had left.
There in the ruins of the Archon Cathedral, in the silence after the final gunshot, she had stopped believing there was anything inherently right or fair about the way the world worked. Later, during her questioning, and later still, when she was hospitalized and made to doubt whether any of this had really happened the way she thought it had, she had endured by drawing upon a resolve she hadn't known was inside her. It was like a fist clenched in defiance, tightening its grasp in the moments when she doubted herself the most, and the more it was challenged the stronger it became. If she wanted justice, she would have to dispense it herself; if she wanted the truth, she would have to seize it by force from those who had an interest in keeping it hidden.
When they let her out of rehabilitation, she could hardly control her anger; she was angry at the Captain for killing himself and leaving her to deal with the aftermath, angry at the law and the corrupt system that upheld it, angry at her interrogators and the hospital staff for treating her as if she were delusional when she only wanted them all to know the truth. But the anger only made her more determined, more set in her resolve. As her work with Veritas, and eventually with her own organization, progressed, she had learned to rationalize the loss: if the investigation hadn't ended the way it had, she might never have gone on to establish Scientia, and if the Captain hadn't died, she might never have understood the value of what he had tried to tell her. But there was still a part of her that would have traded everything to have him back, to have her own faith in decency and rightness and fairness back, and that was the part she couldn't trust.
In the hallway she continued walking, pausing a few times to check the area around her before she went on. After a while she reached a deserted stretch in a little-used sector of the base, well away from the main control room, and there she stopped and listened. Silence, except for the distant screech of alarm sirens and the hum of the environmental controls and the rush of air through the ventilation shafts, and something else—
She jerked around in time to catch sight of a greenish mirage in the air behind her, advancing rapidly; she had already drawn her pistol as she turned, and she stepped out of the way and fired in one swift motion. The near-invisible figure staggered back a few steps, its outline flickering, darkening, becoming distinct for a moment before it retreated into shadow, struggling to prop itself upright against the wall.
Above the background noise she heard the frantic, wounded rasp of its breath. No, she realized, the intruder hadn't made a sound—that was her own breathing, and the thunder in her ears was her heartbeat, so fierce it made her tremble.
Steadying herself, she aimed the weapon and advanced with slow, deliberate strides. In the shadows she made out a faint gleam of light on metal, and now she understood why her shot hadn't done more damage. She had faced intruders before, usually Federation government agents or spies from some rival organization, but they had all been human. This one, whatever it was, would require a different strategy.
As she came within range, her target suddenly wavered and vanished again. She turned, but reacted too late; the gun clattered away across the floor as an arm locked around her neck, trapping her in a choke hold. Silvery-black spots swarmed her vision and she waited to pass out, but the attacker only held her tightly enough to prevent her escaping, as if he—it?—had no intention of killing her yet. Long seconds passed. Then she became aware of another heartbeat, out of synch with her own, and she noticed that the arm that held her was made of flesh and blood. She looked around in confusion. Were there two agents? A man and a machine, working together?
She made a halfhearted struggle to escape, but the intruder only tightened his hold. "Who sent you here?" she hissed through her teeth. "What do you want from Scientia?"
A low voice beside her ear said, "Don't move."
Her heart froze at the sound, and yet she felt as though every bone in her body had turned to water. If he hadn't been supporting her, she might have collapsed. No, she thought, please, no. She wanted to believe it was a coincidence, that if she could turn around, she would find herself at the mercy of a stranger. But she already knew better.
"I'm sorry I have to do this, Melisse." The voice sounded leaden and monotonous, lifeless in a way no human voice should sound, but it was definitely his.
"Captain ... why ...?" She heard her own voice break the way it used to when she got upset, and she hated herself for letting that weakness betray her again, in front of him. He must think she hadn't changed at all.
"I didn't have a choice. I received an assignment to infiltrate Scientia headquarters and assassinate its leader. At present, I am unable to disobey instructions."
Her eyes stung, and she bit her lip until she no longer felt the urge to cry; the pain distracted her, made her feel stronger, if only for a few moments. "But ... they ... how could they give you such an assignment? Didn't they know we used to work together?"
"I would assume that my present employers had access to my records, but it's possible they weren't aware of your identity."
"Did you know?"
"That you were the founder of Scientia?" For a moment he was quiet. "I suspected as much on the basis of the evidence given at my briefing. But I didn't know for certain until I saw you just now."
She swallowed to force down the ache in her throat. "Well, then ... you know what this means, don't you?"
"I am aware of the possible outcomes of this situation. Regrettably, it seems one of us will have to die. Since I cannot voluntarily abandon my assignment, I trust you to decide which of our lives is the most valuable. I'm sure you'll make the right decision, Melisse."
"Don't say that! It's not fair. You can't expect me to—"
"Would it help," he said, "if I told you that ever since I was brought back to life, I've wished for a way to end it? I can't presume to ask you for anything, but ... you would be doing me a favor."
Melisse tried to shake her head, but his arm across her throat restricted her movement. "I saw you die once. That was enough."
She cleared her throat and suddenly her strength came back, as it always did when she felt at her weakest. "But as the founder of this organization, I can't let anyone or anything threaten what I've worked for. Even you. Scientia is ... well, you've seen it for yourself. It's bigger than both of us, more important than either of our lives. And it would be a disgrace to your memory, and to everything I learned from you, if I let my feelings get in the way of what's important." While she spoke, she had slipped a knife from her sleeve and held it at her side, concealing it from his sight until the last moment. "Forgive me, Captain," she said, and shoved the blade into his arm.
He let go instinctively, and while he was still reeling from the wound, she reached for the gun she had dropped. Before she had time to consider what she was doing, she aimed again and fired.
He went to the floor hard and fast, a dark spot flowering near his shoulder. Melisse turned away quickly. She didn't want to see what he had become, didn't want to think about what she herself was becoming, what she was capable of doing with her new resolve.
Her heart was still racing. Stay calm, she told herself again, but now the voice in her mind sounded like her own, and she realized she had spoken aloud. She repeated his words under her breath like a mantra—half to herself, and half to him, if he was conscious enough to listen—until the guards arrived.
The young man who had spoken to her in the control room was with them, and he rushed toward her when he saw her. "Are you all right, ma'am? We tracked his signal as soon as it reappeared, but—"
Melisse pressed her lips together, clenched her fists at her sides. "Get him to the medical bay. He needs to be treated at once. I don't care what you have to do. I want him out of here alive." She wondered what kind of penalty he would incur when he reported back to his employers with the news that his mission had failed. Maybe they would offer him the mercy she had been unwilling or unable to grant him, but somehow she didn't think so. He must be a valuable piece of equipment, too much of an investment to scrap after a single failure; they'd probably just find some way to improve him, to prevent it from happening again. And then she didn't want to think about it anymore. She turned back to the young technician and the guards, who hadn't moved since she had last spoken. "What are you waiting for? I gave you orders."
"But—he's a— Didn't he just—"
"You heard what I said. Do it." Without waiting to see if they would comply, she walked past them down the hallway, keeping her strides even and her head forward, because she didn't trust herself to look back.