“I heard a quote once. It went something like this… ‘Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject, then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.” Vincent whispered into his comm. as he crouched behind the stack of crates, showers of sparks rained down over him from the bullets disintegrating as they tore into the metal containers.

“And your point is?” Riana’s voice lilted cheerfully back through his comm.

“My point…” Vincent began as he stripped a grenade from his belt and tossed it carelessly over his shoulder toward the source of the gun fire. The hail of bullets slowed down as the shooters realized what had been thrown at them and scattered around the area. Vincent took the opportunity to dive forward and roll behind another crate before the deafening ‘ka-woomp’ of the grenade washed through the room. “…is that after all of the years I have been running. After all of the times I have dealt with Cal. I never once considered the possibility that he might actually start shooting at me.” As another round of gunfire began eating into his new cover he amended his statement, “At least not after the first year or so. I thought we were beyond this sort of thing.”

Riana giggled into the comm. “Well, most of your business contacts are not exactly what your average person would call reputable.”

“Easy for you to say. Everyone you know is an upstanding, moral example.” He replied sarcastically.

“There’s no reason to be mean. It isn’t as though I set him on you.” Her tone was still playful.

“I know this. It just seems as though this time is different somehow. Something isn’t quite right here.” He fired his pistol over his shoulder a couple of times before rolling behind another nearby crate.

“I told you I should have come along.”

“Ree, I am telling you that would have only made matters worse.”

“Oh.” She paused a moment then keyed up the mic again. “You mean worse that being betrayed and shot at by a trusted contact?” Now the playful tone was draining away from her voice.

Vincent sighed heavily. “Here it comes.” He said to himself, then keyed up his own mic again, “I don’t think it would have made much difference Ree. He was waiting for me with his gun in his hand, in all my years dealing with him that has never once happened before today.” Glancing around the area he saw his destination, the door to the cargo hold was now a mere thirty feet from him. Thirty feet of open space with a perfect line of fire to more than half the good cover positions in the room. “Shit.” He said simply.

“What’s the matter?” Riana’s voice was concerned now.

“Nothing.” He hadn’t realized that his mic had still been open.

“Vin…”

He sighed heavily. “There’s a good thirty feet of open space between me and the door.”

There was a long pause before the circuit opened again. “I’m coming.” Was all she said.

“No! Ree we need to keep the ship ready!”

There was no reply and the bullets pounding into his cover kept him from being able to devote too much energy to the conversation as he returned fire quickly, wounding one shooter in their gun arm and another in an exposed leg. “Riana!” He hollered into the mic.

“It’s taken care of. I’m nearly there.”

“Damnit!” He cursed out loud. Quickly he whirled around and took instant stock of his surroundings. With practiced efficiency he squeezed off half a dozen rounds from his pistol, causing nearly a dozen people to duck behind their respective places of cover. In an instant he was covering the distance to the door at a full sprint, slipping his pistol into its low-slung thigh holster and gliding the larger, sawed-off shotgun looking weapon from its holster across the small of his back.

Mere feet from the door he heard a single, resounding click as the hammer of a pistol was locked back. He stopped in his tracks. He had almost made it.

“That’s far enough Vin. Turn around. Slowly.” Cal’s voice echoed through the room and was punctuated by several of the other people standing up and leveling their own weapons at Vincent’s back.

Vincent slowly turned around to face them, his hands held out from his body, his bolt caster held loosely in his right. “It doesn’t have to be like this Cal. I don’t know why you are doing this, but it doesn’t have to be this way.”

The other man stood there, looking truly torn as he held the large caliber revolver leveled at Vincent. His dress was casual, a pair of nice pants and a stylish button-up shirt underneath a bomber’s jacket. His long, dark hair was pulled back into a pony tail at the base of his head and his cool blue eyes were leveled at Vincent. They eyes were what betrayed him. They betrayed his emotions despite his years of dealing with runners and thugs. That was why Vincent had started to trust Cal, because his eyes told a person everything they needed to know about him, if one knew how to read them. And today, his eyes were telling Vincent that they wished they were somewhere else, doing anything other than what was happening here, now.

“I’m sorry, old friend, but I am afraid it does.” His voice was calm and level, despite the betrayal of his eyes.

Vincent quickly cast his eyes to the bolt caster hanging loosely in his right hand. There was no way he could get a shot off before they could put him down. “I don’t know what caused this Cal, but I want you to know that you still have a chance to get out of here before this turns very ugly.”

Cal’s face almost turned into a smile as he eyed Vincent suspiciously. “Don’t do it Vin, no way are you going to get a shot off before we drop you.”

“I’m here.” Riana’s voice came coolly across the comm. In the access shaft just above them.”

Vincent sighed again. He liked Cal. Of all of his contacts and business partners, he liked him the most. Trusted him. At least as far as anyone in the running business could be trusted at any rate. “I’m sorry it had to be this way Cal.”

“Me too Vin. Me too. Now drop that rocket engine before it goes off and someone gets hurt.”

Vincent looked at his bolt caster again and released the handle. The weapon spun around on his finger, ending up dangling upside down loosely on his index finger by the trigger guard.

“Drop it.” Cal intoned.

“My dad gave it to me.” Vincent said coolly. “It’s the only thing he ever gave me. No way am I ever going to let it drop!” As he finished his statement, the ceiling seemed to erupt into pieces above the men. Shards of metal and debris rained down around them slicing a few of them up a bit as they scrambled to dive out of the way.

Riana landed lightly in the center of the metal rain, her fitted, shimmering duster billowing out around her, hardly having an instant to come to a rest before she sprung into the air again, whirling around in a graceful pirouette and lashing out with feet and hands, deftly disarming the panicked group, their weapons clattering off of the walls of the cargo hold and their surprised yelps filling the air.

Vincent slid his bolt caster back into its pouch and drew his pistol as he dived behind a crate that was much closer to the door on the opposite side from where he had dashed a moment ago. “Very subtle.” He quipped into the comm.

“Subtle goes out the window when my family and friends are on the line.” She said simply as she spun around, grabbed the barrel of someone’s weapon and twisted their arms into a close approximation of a bow as she deftly spun the weapon out of their grip. The man looked into her violet eyes for an instant and she looked back with a laser beam intensity before calmly placing her left hand on his chest and launching him backwards across the room with an easy push.

“So it seems. You know. That boy is never going to grow up right if you keep charging to his rescue all the time.” He said sarcastically.

Riana began striding toward the door where Vincent was now standing, waiting for her. A few steps brought her to where Cal was standing, his revolver at his side as he watched her confidently moving through what was left of his people, most of whom were nursing sprained and broken hands and wrists from her sudden attack.

She stopped next to him and glared unwaveringly into his eyes. “If you ever hurt him. I will stop at nothing until I find you, and make you pay. And pay. And pay some more.”

Cal looked at her coolly, his eyes calm despite her threat. “I’m sorry. I was left no choice in the matter.”

“Interesting.” She lied. “But now you DO have a choice. You can either take yourself and your goons out of here, alive and well. Or you can take option two where I like to vary the details a bit but the end result is, most of you never get to eat again. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to why that might be.”

Cal stood calmly and stared at her. Seemingly considering his options.

“So, what’s it going to be?” She prodded him in the shoulder with the butt of the gun she had taken from the last person.

Slowly a smile spread across his lips and then he bowed theatrically before slipping his large revolver into a shoulder harness under his faded bomber jacket. “Please. Enjoy your flight.”

“That’s what I thought you were going to say.” She quirked her lips into a smirk and turned toward Vincent. As she moved in his direction she tossed the gun over her shoulder where it struck one of the other people in the forehead as they were preparing to shoot her in the back. The person dropped to the ground like a sack of engine parts and Cal grinned widely at the entire scene.

“For what it’s worth Vin. I’m sorry.” He spoke across the room.

Vincent offered a disparaging look in return. “Uh huh. It was nice seeing you again Cal. Say hi to the kids for me.”

Cal grinned wider. “I will. Fly safe old friend. And watch your back, there will be others try…” His voice was suddenly a gurgle as the faint report of a bullet snapped through the room.

Vincent and Riana turned to face him at the same time, just in time to see his body drop to the floor, blood pumping from a large wound in the top of his head.

“Cal!” Vincent began to charge toward his friend but Riana reached out and caught him with her hand around his waist. “Let me go!”

“No. Vin look at the others.” She pointed with her other hand toward one of Cal’s men just as a spurt of blood erupted from his chest and he crumpled to the deck. “We have to go. Now.”

In a flash the pair dove through the door and into the hallway, then broke into a run toward the hangar where the Serendipity was waiting for them.

“The hell was that?” Vincent huffed as they ran down the hallway, dodging around people going about their business.

“I don’t know. But it seems we have an angel of death looking over our shoulder.

“Yeah. About that. You said you had the ship thing covered?”

“I do. Call control and get clearance. I’ll handle the ship.” Riana tapped the bracelet on her left wrist and a holographic display appeared in front of her. With deft movements she accessed the ship’s computer and began the start-up sequence for the engines as they continued to run down the crowded hallway.

Vincent just shook his head as he watched her hack into his ship’s computers. “I don’t know why I am at all surprised.” Then he tapped his comm. unit and hailed flight control.

The Neophyte Serendipity blasted away from the Mars Station much faster than it should have been moving. As they hurtled away from the facility all manner of warning lights and buzzers were going off, trying to inform them of their shattering the port speed limit.
Vincent ignored the warning lights and noises as he throttled the ships twin ion drives up even further. “Anything?” He asked calmly without taking his eyes off the controls.

Riana was busily scanning the sensor readouts, looking for any sign that they might be followed off the station. Thus far everything looked as though they had made a clean break. “Nothing yet.” She replied just as a blip appeared on the vessel’s side-scanning RADAR. “Shit.” She punctuated her statement.

“What is it?” Vincent asked calmly.

“It’s a small shuttle. But it’s moving fast. Faster than it should be able to.”

“Time to intercept?”

“Twenty seconds.” She replied after a moment.

“With our lead? That IS bloody fast.” He replied with a note of excitement in his voice as he throttled back the engines.

“Why are you slowing down?!” Riana gaped at him.

“There is no chance we can out run them. Not if they are moving that fast. I’ll just burn up the engines trying.”

Riana looked at him seriously for a moment, trying to figure out if he had gone completely insane. “Alright. What’s your plan?”

Vincent grinned from ear to ear as he spun around in his flight chair and hopped to his feet. “We open the door and let them come aboard.” He deftly drew his pistol, ejected the magazine and replaced it with a fresh one as he moved to the ready room behind the cockpit and grabbed a few extra magazines.

Riana stood up and quirked an eyebrow at him, the tips of her long, tapered ears rising a bit curiously. She hadn’t actually used any of her guns earlier so she knew they were all fully loaded and ready to go. “So we invite them aboard and then what? Whack them and eject their bodies into space?”

“Not my first choice, no.” He smiled t her. “There is no way that shuttle can match our guns or armor. But we can’t outrun it. So we give them a choice. They can talk this out, whatever it is, or we can blast them to atoms.”

Riana sighed as he spoke, trying to make some sense of the situation. “Ok, but that leaves two big holes in what is going on here.”

“What’s that?” He jammed his pistol back into its thigh holster and slipped back into his seat just as the comm. Started buzzing.

“Firstly, what are they after?” She said, her arms folded under her breasts.

“No idea, but I hope to find out here in a moment.” He flicked a few controls as he spoke.

“And secondly. If you are planning on a ship-to-ship battle, why are we checking our sidearms?”

“Because.” Vincent replied as he reached for the comm. switch. “They shouldn’t have been able to track the Serendipity once we cleared the station, so we may not be alone in here.”

Riana’s eyes went wide at his statement. “I left the ship locked up…”

Vincent cut her off with a smile on his face, “I know, don’t worry about it.” Then he flicked the comm. to life and addressed the small shuttle that was pulling up alongside them. “Good morning. What can we do for you?”

“You can disarm yourselves and prepare to be boarded.” A harsh voice came back across the channel.

“I don’t think THAT’s going to happen.” Vincent replied coolly. “We have you outgunned even if you are twice our speed, which is a very nice trick by the way, I thought I had some serious engines, but the Serendipity’s got nothing on your rig.”

“Disarm yourselves and prepare to be boarded.” The voice repeated.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.” Vincent replied with a scowl on his face as he switched off the comm. and engaged the targeting computers.

The tiny shuttle suddenly jerked to the side and its impressive engines sprung to life as they detected the Serendipity’s weapons coming to life, but it was too little too late. The twin laser cannons concealed in the ship’s port wing sliced a line through the hull of the sleeker vessel and it spun out of control as atmosphere began venting through the gap in the hull.

Vincent grimaced as he activated another system and two small, guided missiles launched from the Serendipity’s concealed launcher. The twin projectiles fired out in a wide arc from the ship, making a hair-pin turn and coming about to face the tiny shuttle. An instant before they struck the hull however, the missiles detonated against the shuttle craft’s shields, causing a flash of energy to appear around the vessel for an instant.

“Looks like they made it through the first salvo.” Vincent said more to himself than to Riana as he reached for more controls.

Riana sighed as she took in the tactical display. The shuttle was still in pretty good shape despite the nature of the first attack, and since it was a much better sprinter, they were in for an extended battle. Calmly she activated her wrist computer and its display sprung to life in her field of view. With a few quick mental commands to the unit she tied it into the Serendipity’s sensors so she could both monitor the battle and watch the interior motion and biological sensors that Vincent had installed after his run-in with the strange blue-haired half-man, half-woman a few months ago.

“I’m going to check the ship for any extra passengers.” She said quietly as she turned around and slipped out the door of the cockpit, closing the door and locking it behind her.

“Those new bio-sensors should help you out a bit. Try starting in the cargo hold.” Vincent’s voice chimed over the comm. in Riana’s ear.

“Ten-four.” She replied simply as she calmly drew one of her pistols and slid the charging rail back until it clicked, then let it snap forward again with a crisp ‘snick’ sound.

Carefully she moved forward, each step placed exactly where she wanted it, toes first, gun held at her waist and slightly forward, ready to bring to bear at an instant’s notice. One cabin at a time, she made her way slowly to the stairs that led down to the main hold. She stopped at each door, swept the room visually, then closed and locked the door before moving on to the next. As she moved down the corridor methodically the ship rocked a couple of times from impacts to the shields, but it never felt as though any significant damage was being done and it was never enough to sway her balance.

Finally she reached the door at the bottom of the stairs. Pausing for a moment she scanned the sensor readings and pulled up the video feeds from the cargo hold. Switching through the four cameras in the hold she could not see any immediate signs of an intruder, however there were a few spots the cameras did not cover, which is where the bio and motion sensors would fill in the gaps. All told, it appeared that the main hold was empty so Riana keyed open the door, stepped through, then closed and locked it behind her. Slowly and methodically she began her sweep of the hold. It wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a large enough space that, when a few crates were stacked in it, would take a lone person several minutes to check out. Keeping her attention split between the sensor readings, camera feeds and what she was actually seeing, she made her way around the room, checking behind crates and in nooks and crannies, all the while trying to keep everything she hadn’t searched yet in front of her.

It happened in a flash. The motion sensors chirped to life and an instant later a heavy boot flashed out from behind a crate and kicked her weapon from her hand. The impact startled her and stunned her right hand, but she regained her senses quickly and, in a wide arc, swung around the blind corner to face her adversary.

Standing before her was a person wearing a lightly armored pressure suit, complete with helmet and tinted visor so she could not see any features of the person within. What she did know was the person was about her size and build, and most likely a woman from the shape of her hips, waist, and upper body, although those suits could be very deceiving. The person seemed to be unarmed and was standing in a solid fighting stance facing Riana.

Stepping back into a fighting stance of her own, Riana raised a purple eyebrow at her adversary, ears cocking back from her head. “I don’t know what this is all about, but it doesn’t have to be like this. We can take you somewhere, anywhere you want. Just call off the attack and we can be friends.”

“I don’t think so.” The other person’s voice came back, sounding filtered and mechanical.

“Why the voice chip? Afraid I’ll peg you for who you really are?”

“All in good time. I am merely here to test the water.”

“Nothing I can do to change your mind?” Riana tried again.

“Nothing.” The other woman replied as the ship rocked again.

“Fine.” Riana lowered her chin and raised her hands up level with it, rocking back and forth from foot to foot as she slowly advanced on the mysterious suited figure.

The other woman followed suit and the pair began to move out into the center of the hold where the floor was largely devoid of shipping containers. They circled one another for a few long moments as each analyzed the other’s defenses before they both finally lunged in at the same instant.

Their forearms collided in the space between them and Riana instantly knew that her opponent was more than human. She had swung her arm with enough force to shatter a normal person’s forearm and this woman hadn’t so much as flinched, yet her arm did not feel stiff or rigid as though it were armored or metallic, it felt like normal flesh and bone.

“Couple after-market parts uh?” She quipped as they separated and began circling one another again.

“Obviously I am not alone in that area.”

“Obviously.” Riana replied as she lunged in with a quick hook kick. Her foot whisked past the other woman’s helmet, within a hair’s width of its target, but she managed to fade back just enough to get out of the way. Not to be discouraged, Riana brought her foot back again in a quick, snapping, round kick, which the other woman caught in her left hand.

“Nice.” Riana said as her foot was held securely in the other woman’s hand. In a flash she jumped up and lifted her back leg off the ground, throwing it around in a tight arc, knee first. Her momentum rolled her trapped foot out of the other woman’s clenched hand and then her other foot came to bear, snapping outward to pass harmlessly through open air as her target ducked under the attack.

As she caught her feet again, Riana was forced to take a step back as her sparring partner’s punch came at her. Slipping past the jab she raised her right hand in time to deflect an incoming round kick aimed at her temple, then dropped her elbow down and raised her knee in time to trap her opponent’s foot between them, stopping the follow-up side-kick cold.

“Well. This is interesting.” Riana couldn’t stop herself smiling as she stepped back again, releasing her opponent’s leg as she took her in with a newfound appreciation. “I haven’t been able to open up on someone in a long time. This should be fun.”

“Quit your blathering and let’s do this.” The other replied.

“Fair enough.”

To the outside observer the engagement would appear to have been not much more than a blur of motion and a swirl of wind as the pair danced around one another. Each attack was met with a perfectly synchronized defense and each counter-attack was stopped cold or avoided entirely. The battle became a symphony of what looked like perfectly choreographed moves as the pair met one another’s attacks move for move. While each definitely had their own style, the end result was what looked like a stereotypical fight scene between the gritty protagonist and his life-time archrival in any one of a dozen different action vids of the day.

They whirled around the cargo hold, jumping on and over crates, climbing the cargo netting on the walls and leaping through the air as they clashed again and again, each taking her own turn leading the dance. The occasional rocking of the Serendipity went completely unnoticed by either of them as they focused their entire beings on the battle at hand.

After five minutes, Riana could not believe that she had yet to penetrate her adversary’s defenses and in a bid to change the score she unclipped her sword from her belt and turned it on, the monofilament blade quietly extending from the hilt, suspended in its magnetic field and barely catching the light of the cargo hold. Bring the weapon down in a quick over-head strike that she knew would end this game she was stunned to find her attack stopped cold with a flash of blue-white light and a quiet hum.

Focusing on where her blade had stopped she saw that the other woman had retrieved a similar handle from her own belt and activated what looked like a plasma sword in time to parry her own attack. Now she knew she was in for a long day.

“That a plasma sword?” She asked as she stepped away again, allowing some distance to form between them as they began slowly circling each other once more.

“It is.” The other woman replied with a slight nod.

While it was true that her mono-wire sword could cut through nearly anything, the only reason it worked at all was because the wire itself was suspended within, and held rigid by, a strong electro-magnetic field. In a similar feat of engineering, a plasma sword operated by creating a field of highly energized, gaseous plasma that was capable of burning through the very same pretty much anything that Riana’s sword could cut. But the plasma was also held in place by a strong electro-magnetic field and since two electro-magnetic fields were rarely calibrated the same, they would nearly always repel one another very strongly. This was, she knew, why their chosen weapons were not able to cut through one another, and now they were at another impasse.

With a sigh and a shake of her head, Riana dove into the fray again and their dance continued, only this time it was accompanied by their own light show as their blades flashed through the air, intercepting one another again and again. Despite their destructive potential and flashy appearance, their weapons were eerily quiet, the only noise in the room was the sound of their feet touching the floor for mere instants as they danced and twirled about the cargo hold, blades intersecting again and again in the narrow gap between them.

Riana’s internal chronometer informed her that she had been engaged in battle with this mysterious woman for nearly twenty minutes when another violent rattle rolled the Serendipity to starboard and the combatants were forced to break from one another in order to keep their feet. For another instant they stood and stared at one another, Riana wishing all the while that she could see who it was beneath the dark visor of the pressure suit in front of her. Who was this mysterious woman that had fought her to an indefinite standstill?

Just as she was about to dive back into the fray, the other woman raised her hand to stop her advance. Riana stood still, raising a purple eyebrow and laying her ears back in distrust.

“Well fought child.” The computer-altered voice of the woman said. “I have learned all that I need to know, and now it is time for me to go.” With that, she touched a control panel on her left forearm and with a sudden rush of escaping air, the main cargo hatch of the Serendipity opened up, exposing them to the vacuum of space.

With a yelp of surprise, Riana turned and dove with all her strength for the nearest secured cargo container she could see but she was blind-sided by a smaller crate that struck her in the head. With a gasp she barely managed to entangle the fingers of her left hand in some loose cargo netting a few feet from the open hatch. With, slow, deliberate effort she switched off her mono-wire sword and clipped it to her belt, then swung her free hand up over her head to get a tighter grip on the life-saving netting. As she got a better grip she looked over her head and watched as the mysterious, suited woman walked calmly out of the cargo bay, her own electro-static boots holding her firmly to the deck. When she reached the end of the ramp she turned and waved brightly to the gasping, desperately flailing Riana before taking a step backward and floating off into space.

As the rush of air began to slow down and the lack of air and heat began to seep into Riana’s consciousness she was only faintly aware of the large cargo door silently closing. It was a long time before she realized that she had been moved to the bunk in Vincent’s cabin and wrapped tightly in several layers of thick comforters. She shivered from head to toe as the memory of the oxygen rushing from her lungs washed over her. As artificial as she was, it seemed there were some things she just was not equipped to do. Somehow the thought helped set her mind at ease, she wasn’t some invincible golem after all.

“I wouldn’t have figured to see a smile as your first expression after all of that.” Vincent’s voice quietly drifted over her, warming her spirit more than the pile of blankets could have ever hoped to warm her body.

Slowly she rolled over, careful to keep the covers pulled up tightly to her chin, sticking a hand out from beneath the covers only long enough to brush the thick wall of purple strands from her field of view. She smiled again when she saw Vincent sitting on the edge of a chair set no more than a few inches from the edge of the bunk.

“What happened to her?” Riana finally asked.

“I can’t say for certain, but it looked like the shuttle got round behind the Serendipity and snatched her up before rabbiting.” Vincent said coolly as he reached out slowly and set a hand on her thickly covered shoulder. “More importantly, how are you?”

“I’m ok I think. How did I…?”

“As soon as the shuttle broke off I had time to figure out what was going on and closed the cargo hold up. It took a moment to get enough pressure in there for me to go in after you. Plus I needed to make sure they were really leaving. Then I hauled you up here and got you wrapped up and on some oxygen as quickly as I could.”

“How long has it been?” She squinted at her internal chronometer’s display in her field of view, it was now late into the Sol system’s night.

“You were comatose for twenty minutes, then you slept for about six hours after that.”

“And you stayed here? The whole time? With me?”

Vincent smiled warmly. “No. I had some course adjustments to make, but other than that, I have been here.”

She smiled again, this time daring to stretch her body a bit and test it out. Everything seemed to be operating and she didn’t actually feel cold any longer. “So what the heck was that all about?”

Vincent shrugged as he watched her stretch herself out, testing her muscles for soreness or stiffness beneath the thick pile of blankets. “I don’t have any idea. After it was all over I got a message from Cal. It must have been sent on some sort of timed signal. The message said he was sorry and that his family had been threatened if he didn’t do something to draw you off the ship back there. I made some discrete inquiries and his family has been secreted away safely, it sucks having to be the one o deliver that sort of news though. Anyway, I can only assume they wanted to get on board to dance with you, whoever they were.”

“Dance?” Riana knitted her eyebrows together as she looked at him.

“Yeah. Check this out. I pulled it from the ship’s feeds after I got you up here.

With that he pressed a few controls on the cabin computer and a holographic display flashed into existence between them. In the display Riana saw herself and the suited stranger moving back and forth through the cargo hold. They moved with a feline grace, between and over the cargo containers that were strapped to the floor and walls. It did indeed look like some overly elaborate dance that they were making up on the fly as they perfectly matched one another strike for strike for over twenty minutes. She advanced the scene in fast forward and backed it up to specific spots once or twice, studying the footage intently for an hour before Vincent spoke again.

“So, who do you think it is?”

Riana blinked at him a couple times before she seemed to register his question was. Then she looked down at a frozen image of her and the stranger, swords locked together over their heads and hands locked below their chins. If it weren’t for the pressure suit, the two of them looked as though they could be identical height and build. She shook her head unknowingly. “I have no idea. I’ve never met anyone like that before. Although her fighting style feels familiar somehow…”

“Old friend uh?” Vincent quipped as he turned around and picked up a tray from a small table built into the wall behind him. He turned around with the tray and, setting it on his lap, tore a oil lid off of the top, letting loose a column of steam and the wonderful aroma of cooked food. Riana’s stomach instantly twisted itself around in a knot and started making all manner of lewd noises. She almost dove off the bunk at the tray.

Carefully she squeezed herself between Vincent and the tray, planting herself firmly on his lap with the tray on her own, and began hungrily wolfing down the tender morsels as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Strange things are afoot Ree. I’m concerned for you.”

“You keep cooking like this and you’ll never be rid of me.” She said around a mouthful of something she couldn’t quite identify.

Vincent laughed out loud, unable to contain himself. “Ree, those are ship’s rations. Flavor pack number twelve-twenty-two. Pre-cooked and sealed at the factory with a built in microwave rehydration and heating system. I took it out of the galley cupboards about twenty minutes ago.

She stopped eating and looked at him as she licked some gravy off her fingers. Eyeing him suspiciously for a moment, she finally shrugged, muttered a half-hearted, “whatever,” and dove back into the food once more.

As they made their way back to the Earth Ring Station, Riana couldn’t get the nagging feeling out of her mind that she knew that fighting style from somewhere. That and only one person had ever called her ‘child’ before. At least in that context, but it couldn’t have been him. She knew that much was possible through technology, she was a testament to that, but to completely change someone’s gender, size, strength, reflexes, everything from the ground up? Surely such a thing was not possible and even if it were, why would Gregory Shantal do something like that to himself?