Biff and Julia left the door jammed open and ran down the corridor toward the sound of blaster fire. One sailed over their heads as they drew near to the action.

“Over here,” Biff said, and he pulled Julia out from the middle of the corridor. They hurried past frightened passengers crouched on the floor and hiding behind chairs, trash bins, and kiosks.

When they reached the wall they kept moving, slowly and more carefully now that they were close.

They came up to a woman crouched behind a blaster-proof barricade, aiming at someone dressed in armor advancing down the corridor. He took several shots to the chest, cursing as each one hit. He kept firing back, but he couldn’t reach her, the barricade blocking his aim.

He continued advancing, trying to get close enough for a clear shot. Biff held Julia against the wall with one arm, out of the way of green bolts flying by as the armored gunman crept closer to the woman.

“That’s her,” Julia said. “Natasha Krizinksi!”

At the sound of her name, Natasha turned to stare at them. The gunman took the opportunity to run the last few meters to her position.

She turned around just in time and shot him pointblank in the face. He raised an arm to block the blast, but part of his helmet took a direct hit and stunned him. His visor flew off as he went down to the floor.

The guardbots tromped forward, their guns aimed at Natasha.

Dillon stirred on the floor, pulling himself to his feet as the last of his broken visor dropped away.

StarCen’s high-pitched voice came from overhead.

“Dillon Dvorak, known terrorist! Officers, arrest him!”

As one, all the guardbots shifted their guns from Natasha to Dillon.

“Aw, man!”

He dropped the blaster and held his hands up, frowning. Natasha smiled triumphantly and lowered her weapon.

Julia looked at Biff and said, “This is not right.”

She moved toward Natasha before Biff could stop her, whipping off her necklace in one smooth motion.

Natasha turned around to see a strange woman approaching.

Julia slapped her palm with the framer charm up against Natasha’s chest, right on her collarbone, and mentally activated the device. A digital horizontal line moved up, crossing Natasha’s neck and face to the top of her head.

“What . . . what is this? What’s going on?”

Julia pulled the charm off the other woman’s chest and stepped back.

Biff’s mouth dropped open.

Lights began flashing red again and a klaxon sounded.

StarCen said, “Andi Jones, known terrorist and suspected Tetrarch assassin! Apprehend with prejudice!”

The guardbots shifted aim once more, back toward Natasha.

Julia waved at Dillon. She said, “Get over here!”

He ran for the wall and out of the way of the bots’ blasters.

Natasha’s face, now looking like Andi’s, turned red in rage at all the guns aimed at her.

“What’s going on? My name is—”

“Shoot her!”

When the bots heard Biff, a registered police officer, shout this order they obeyed.

A torrent of green bolts slammed into Natasha’s chest, throwing her back.

Julia ran for the body, now behind the blasterproof desk and out of sight from the bots. She quickly searched around, feeling in pockets and loose spots on the clothes. Finally she checked behind the dead woman’s belt. There, tucked carefully behind the buckle, she found the small flat computer.

Julia grabbed it and nodded at Biff. He nodded back and stood, hands up, and walked slowly toward the police presence. The other officers gathered by the bots now, their own guns aimed toward the kiosk.

Biff said, “Hi guys. Officer Biffender Jones, badge number . . .”

“Oh, hey Biff!”

He recognized two or three of the other officers. Everyone lowered their weapons when they realized he was one of their own.

One of the women said, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s a long story. You all know I took some time off to go searching for my wife . . .”

Overhead lights stopped flashing red, and the tension eased. People stood and crawled out from their hiding places.

Julia looked at Dillon and said, “Come on. We’ve got to get you out of here.”

She hurried back toward the stairwell entrance. Dillon followed.

The door had been jammed open, and she pulled on it to make the crack wider. Dillon helped her, and they slipped through then ran up the stairs.

“Why are we going up?” Dillon said, panting.

“Trust me.”

They reached the hall, nearly identical to the one below, and she headed for a nearby disembarkation room. When they came inside, she approached a cylinder sitting end-up on the floor.

“Hello? Hello? Can you guys see me?”

Julia waved the pocket computer in front of the sensor.

“What’s that thing?” Dillon said.

“That is your ticket out of here.”

Out in the hall they heard voices.

“Ma’am? Sir? You’re not supposed to be up here . . .”

Julia said, “Look, I’ll go stall them. You take this,” she gave Dillon the pocket computer, “and get up to the spaceship. You’ll be safe there.”

She turned and looked at the cylinder on the floor. She said, “Take him with you, okay? Port him up too. He needs to leave.”

She stepped back and watched.

Dillon stood, awkwardly holding the pocket computer.

“Uh, I’m not going anywhere?”

Out in the hall voices grew closer.

Someone said, “Search every room and find them!”

Julia said, “They’re probably busy. Stay with the cylinder. They will take you up as soon as they can. Do not lose that pocket computer. I’ll go stall them out there.”

Julia ran out to the corridor leaving Dillon to stare down at the cylinder.

She said, “Oh thank God you’re here! There’s a gunfight downstairs! I ran up here to get away.”

An officer saw her, and relaxed, though he kept his hand on the butt of his gun.

He said, “It’s okay ma’am, the shooter has been neutralized. I’m afraid you and your friend are not authorized to be up here, however.”

“Friend? Oh somebody must have run up here with me. I came alone . . .”

“Yes, ma’am. We’re going to need to search this room, nonetheless.”

“Oh, but . . .”

The officer ignored her further attempts at stalling and opened the disembarkation zone.

“Hm. Nobody here. We’re still going to have to search this entire level.”

“I understand, Officer. I am so sorry I panicked and ran this way. I was so scared with all the shooting going on.”

“Perfectly alright, ma’am. One of our bots will escort you back downstairs.”

The door swished shut.

Dillon, perched on the contamination unit mounted on top of the door breathed a silent sigh of relief.

He pulled the cylinder out of his pocket and looked at its featureless gleaming metal.

“Any day now,” he said. “If they reactivate StarCen on this floor, I’m screwed.”


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