Romy didn’t feel insane. That was how she knew she must be.
The other space soldiers on Orbito Four didn’t think they were crazy either. . . . Romy eyed a tall man hugging himself, humming a wordless tune. Strange—she had no trouble seeing how the other occupants of Orbito Four were three planets short of a galaxy.
She straightened her shoulders further than they already were, and clasped her hands behind her back as she strode to a window. Black space, a lot of it, met her eyes at first. But inevitably, the only light in the blackness commandeered her attention.
Their barren homeland, currently in the toxic throes of global warming—the reason the space soldiers were all the way up here, and not all the way down there.
“Soldier Rosemary.” The deep voice behind her rang with command.
She pivoted, snapping the heels of her standard-issue white boots together, and stood to attention. “Yes, sir.”
The man in the lab coat ignored her, consulting his nano. His pale eyes flicked up, checking her platinum hair and blue eyes against the picture on the screen. She wondered why he did this. The doctors collected her three times a week for observation, and this man had personally escorted her to the lab many times. But she shouldn’t question procedures. There was a reason for everything. Usually that reason was safety.
“Rosemary, formerly of Knot 27,” he read. “Follow me.”
Grief tore through her chest as she marched after the doctor down the stark white halls, and a familiar frustration began to simmer. Formerly of Knot 27. They tagged the words onto the end of her name like a title. It seemed cruel, though she knew they did it for the sake of efficiency. Couldn’t they say, “Formerly of Orbito One”, instead?
Like all the soldiers here, some or all of her knot were dead. Some of the teams had only lost one knot member before tumbling into insanity. Others, like Romy, survived as the sole remaining member of their team. Both had the same result. Batshit. The thing was, Romy couldn’t remember her knot at all. She couldn’t remember anything beyond automatic functions. She woke three months ago with a gaping hole in her chest and no idea why until the doctors filled her in; blown to smithereens during a battle with the Critamal, the commander told her. A battle Romy miraculously survived. She wished she hadn’t. Not like this. Not when she didn’t have her memories of them.
Romy did have their names, though—the doctors had given her that much. Elara, Phobos, Deimos, and Thrym. Four names to explain the emptiness inside. Sometimes Romy tried so hard to remember, she felt her brain might start bleeding. Maybe if the doctor’s explanation seemed real, she could accept her knot were gone. Maybe then she’d remember and the black hole inside her chest would be filled. But the frustration which bubbled every time the doctors said, “Formerly of Knot 27”, acted like a block. The more they said it, the harder it was for her to accept the truth.
The doctor stopped in front of the lab door. “Balbus reporting for screening with subject Rosemary, formerly of Knot 27.”
Romy clenched her teeth.
None of the other insane soldiers went to the clinic any more than once a week. She averaged three. Romy suspected the doctors tested her so much because she’d reacted differently to the loss of her knot. The year spent floating inside the cultivation tanks should have wiped away all of her memories, barring one—her knot.
Not in her case. No. In her case, every single thing was gone.
She hated it so much, but she understood why the doctors would want to research her difference. All space soldiers possessed a flaw. The loss of a member within a knot rendered the other members insane. Repairing this mental flaw would greatly reduce the number of soldiers the orbitos had to cultivate and harvest each month to keep their force at four thousand strong to fight the Critamal. This had to be why the doctors showed so much interest in her. Then again, what did she know? She was bonkers.
The white door retracted to the ceiling with a hiss of air and she entered the pristine lab.
“Disrobe,” the pale-eyed man said.
She clambered out of her white fatigues and settled onto the padded bed in her white underwear. Three more doctors entered the room and began to roll medi-tech into place around her. They slapped electrodes onto her chest, arms, and legs. Romy grimaced at the red spreading out from beneath the electrodes as her fair skin protested the doctors’ rough treatment.
“Nanos are fully operational,” stated a female doctor. Romy chanted the words at the same time. She could probably recite the whole script of this visit. Not like she had anything else to do on Orbito Four.
Insanity gets old, quick.
Her body wasn’t the problem. The nanotech inside of her repaired any physical damage. Romy wished they’d give her a task. Just a simple one. Anything to stop her agonising about things she didn’t know for five minutes. Apparently without a mind you weren’t capable of doing anything other than operating a treadmill.
Though she had found a way to help get through each dragging day. . .
. . . Thrym, she began. Her imagination drew up a picture of him as a doctor placed electrodes on her temples, catching the small hairs there. She’d created appearances, personalities, and traits for all of Knot 27.
Thrym: The joker of the group . . . blue eyes, olive skin. Whenever the rest of them were sad after losing comrades to the poachers, he’d break his back trying to cheer them up. She’d loved Thrym and the way his eyes danced, blue like Earth’s sky. Occasionally, he pushed the boundaries a bit much.
She winced as an electrical current ran through her head. Sweat broke out on her forehead at the pins and needles in both temples. Heat burned at her temples. An acrid smell reached her nostrils . . . was that from her hair? Romy returned to her daydream with renewed vigour.
Elara: Tall, dark and beautiful. The perfect soldier. Deimos was her best friend—together they were the stars of Knot 27, renowned throughout all eight stations for their heroic actions. Romy was so proud of them, she thought her heart might burst.
This left her and Phobos, the quieter members of the knot; identical in most ways—except he was smarter, and she, more reasonable. Romy smiled, ignoring that the pins and needles more closely resembled a stabbing sensation now. The burning hair smell grew steadily, overwhelming the clinical disinfectant in the room.
Dr Balbus frowned at the screen, tilting the monitor away as Romy tried to catch a peek. She pressed her lips together. The doctors never let her see the screen. Why was that?
Paranoia is a symptom of insanity, comet face.
. . . still. It would be nice to know what they’d found so far.
Just a hint. Maybe that would trigger her memories of them. A lump rose in her throat. If the Thrym of her daydreams were here, he’d probably make a joke to cheer her up.
She blew a strand of chin-length platinum hair off her cheek. Her job, in the limited capacity she could contribute after the battle, was to help, not hinder; to serve and protect. If the soldiers could hold Earth for another 848 years until global warming passed, they could return to their homeland. No more fighting back the black-shelled aliens trying to invade and colonise the planet. The orbitos would blow their yellow guts up for good, and retreat to their homeland oasis: Earth.
Sure, waiting another 848 years meant being recycled in the cultivation tanks every time the space soldiers reached thirty-five. Wiped, refreshed, updated. It was just a necessary part of it. No one could live for one thousand years.
Romy wondered if she used to care about going back to Earth. Without her knot, she couldn’t care less about The Return—as long as some of the space soldiers got there. The deaths of her knot had to mean something, after all. The pain had to be for a reason.
She whimpered as electricity burned a path through her spinal cord, but a bright red colour flaring across the white ceiling stole her attention.
The foreign colour saturated the pristine clinic. She blinked. Flashing lights. The silent alarm was going off. She lifted her head off the padded bed to peer at the doctors surrounding her. They’d paused in their work and stared at the red lights, too, appearing as confused as she.
The space station’s speakers crackled to life.
The sound cut off.
The looks of relief from the doctors ended with it.
Romy frowned. ‘Be’ what?
Only the beeping of the medi-tech disturbed the tense quiet that followed—the beep was her heartbeat. Faster than usual. Romy remained with her head off the bed, waiting. There had to be more. . . .
The red lights stopped flashing, and the walls of the lab returned to clinical, undisturbed white.
False alarm? She rested back, slightly perturbed. She didn’t envy the person who made that mistake. The commander would come down on the culprit harder than a meteor shower.
Dr Balbus shared a long glance with a female doctor—the one who liked to slap on electrodes extra hard—before turning to the two other doctors. “Flavia, Gallus, please report to the commanding deck and check our status.”
The two doctors nodded, abandoning their screens. They departed with the tell-tale hiss of the door.
Dr Balbus returned his attention to his own screen, resuming his tapping. Watery blue eyes reading with riveted intensity.
His gaze wrenched back to the front as a series of thuds sounded from the other side. A loud crash reverberated and a sound that reminded her of a finger rubbing on a wet mirror seemed to slide down the outside wall.
The sliding noise stopped.
Romy lifted her head again, looking past her bare feet to the door four metres from the foot of her bed.
“Stay still,” the woman snapped. She shoved Romy’s forehead down. The back of her skull hit the bed with a bruising thump.
Note to self: don’t lift head.
“Seal the door,” Dr Balbus directed. Romy wondered at the tightness in his voice. The alarm stopped . . . only the high command had the ability to do this. The Critamal sat three hundred kilometres farther from Earth than their ring of space stations. The aliens couldn’t have crossed the three hundred kilometre gap without the station detecting them. At least, they hadn’t before. . . . Ever.
The female threw Romy a withering glare to ensure she was keeping still and hustled to obey Dr Balbus’s command.
Romy strained for any other hint of disturbance.
An eerie calm filled the space. The electrodes and wires now felt like restraints—a barrier keeping her from being able to protect herself with a syringe or . . . something. She closed her eyes and attempted to regulate her breathing.
Everything is fine.
There was nothing to—
The space station rocked as a muted explosion emanated from the clinic door. Her stomach dropped, and she nearly sat before remembering Electrode Slapper’s order to stay still. Romy held herself immobile, flat, eyes darting side to side, senses stretched to maximum capacity. Was that smoke creeping along the ceiling? Not the normal smoke from her burning hair, real smoke. She was insane, yet Romy couldn’t help feeling fire on a space station was generally a bad thing to occur.
Unable to deny fear’s curiosity, she turned to stare at Dr Balbus, awaiting his order to evacuate. His attention was fixed on the door, the whites of his eyes showing his terror of something there. He scrambled from his seat, hands raised, stammering and babbling at nothing.
Not something. Someone.
Romy inhaled sharply as a dart appeared out of nowhere, sticking deep into the side of his neck. The doctor staggered and slowly keeled over beside the bed, sending a screen smashing to the ground as he did so. She jerked as his body rebounded off the ground before settling into unconsciousness.
The medi-tech beeped, high-pitched and urgent, snatching up her distress and telling the world about it. So much for playing dead.
She took stock, her mind racing. Frozen. At least five electrodes and their wires hung off each limb. Another ten on her torso and five more on her head. Extracting herself in a hurry wasn’t looking good.
Heavy footsteps approached the bed. Several sets of footsteps, she realised—maybe ten. Romy swallowed, palms sweating where they touched her bare thighs.
A large shadow fell across her body and dread settled heavy in her bones.
A man dressed in solid black blotted her view of the white ceiling. A soldier, but unlike any she’d seen in her three months. Why wasn’t he dressed in white? The man’s face was clean-shaven and as his scent reached her, she got the oddest sense of . . . another time.
She blinked into his soft grey eyes.
With careful movements, the man moved the gun he carried over his shoulder and slung it across his back. The weapon was small and sleek—the polar opposite to the huge laser guns fitted on the space station.
Who was this person?
The man reached for her, expression impassive, though she noted a slight tremor in his hands.
He spoke a single, hoarse word.