Just beyond the trees a vessel the size of a small car hovered. It bristled with floodlights and what looked to be guns poking out from much of its surface. It floated silently for several seconds before a voice came as if through a loudspeaker.
“Rashmi Kapoor! Vi estas sub aresto pro krimoj kontraŭ la homaro. Vi ordonis resti ankoraŭ por preno..”
“I can’t understand them, Rashmi!” shouted Meiki, “What are they saying?”
Rashmi stood still with her hands in the air for several seconds. She said nothing but nodded upward at the hovercar.
A hatch opened in the underside. A young looking woman dropped down from it. She wore clothes similar to Rashmi’s except with blue circuit marks on black material. The fabric covered her entire head like a mask.
The interloper spoke some more gibberish and Rashmi dropped to her knees.
The woman strode toward Rashmi like a panther. From her belt she produced a cylinder the size of a linker. The woman began to poke at her with the small device at strategic points on her body. As she did so the glowing parts of Rashmi’s suit became dimmer.
The stranger continued to speak but Rashmi said nothing. She seemed to be looking deeper into the forest.
“Phel!” said Meiki, “We still have to find him. Those things....the ghosts.”
The masked woman said something sharp but undecipherable to Meiki then continued her work. The device seemed to be disabling Rashmi’s suit.
Meiki had never felt so helpless. Her best friend was lost in the woods and her new friend apparently being arrested.
In the brush something moved. Meiki hoped to see Phel...stumbling onto the scene. Then she noticed beaming eyes in the darkness.
The woman in black howled as a ghost leapt from the woods and onto her small frame. It tore at her uniform like the other had torn at the dome. In shock the woman spun and kicked it with colossal force.
The broken machine-thing shot across the clearing into a maple tree- it’s leg-like appendages bent at even odder angles than before. It whirred and sputtered before collapsing.
A tear ran down the woman’s outfit, revealing the flesh of her back. She suddenly appeared painfully vulnerable.
In the forest a wall of beaming eyes appeared and gazed at them with intent. A chaotic mess of dark and mangled machines crashed through the branches and bramble, descending upon the clearing.
Rashmi grabbed Meiki’s arm.
“Run!” she shouted to Meiki and dragged her in the opposite direction of the things.
They had gone at least fifty meters when Meiki looked back. She could see the ghosts did not follow them, but the uniformed woman was not so lucky.
“We have to go back for her!” Meiki implored to Rashmi.
“What?” she said.
“That lady! We can’t let them eat her!”
“They probably won’t! She’ll be ok...we need to get away from her...remember?”
Rashmi continued running, but Meiki stopped. She could never match her speed anyway.
She dashed back to the clearing. The woman held her own against the flailing mass of twisted metal and plastic that attacked her, but it was clearly a losing battle. Her vehicle hovered low to the ground and some sort of foamy substance sprayed out of the guns that covered its hull. The ghosts were slashing at it and the woman. All was a shamble of metal and plastic.
Meiki remembered her own cloak. Perhaps these creatures wouldn’t notice her with it activated.
She crept up to a tree near the battle and turned it on. The graphene fibers altered their surface impedence which would have caused Meiki to disappear to an onlooker.
Invisible, she grabbed the woman by the hand and pulled her into the forest.The two ran.
After two hundred meters or so Meiki removed her hood. She stopped running. The ghosts didn’t seem to be following her.
“You can see me, can’t you?” she asked.
“Jes.” the woman replied.
“Mia vizion etendas en la transruĝa spektro.”
Meiki held her hand to her face in exasperation then held the woman’s hand up to her mouth.
“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three. My name is Meiki. What’s yours?”
The woman tilted her hooded head to the side for a moment then seemed to understand.
“Denove.” she said and held her palm to Meiki’s mouth.
“Ummm..hello. I’m Meiki. I come from the town of Gates on the planet Naya. Who are you and where are you from?”
“Greetings Meiki. My name is Junko. I am an agent of the Republic. I have come to stop the fugitive known as Rashmi Kapoor. The woman who was present before those...things attacked.”
“Speaking of...we should probably get moving....there are ghosts all over and my friend, Phel is lost out here somewhere.”
“Ghosts? Is that what you think those strange machines are? How stupid are you people on this backwater world?”
“We ain’t backwards. We know there’s no such thing as ghosts...at least I do. That’s just...never mind. We need to go.” She hustled on.
Junko stayed behind.
“What’s wrong with you lady?” said Meiki. “Those gh- things are right behind us!”
“I detect no sign of them in the area. My skipper’s auto defenses would most certainly have incapacitated them by now. I believe it is safe for us to return.”
“You Mars people are something else.”
“I am from Earth. Born and raised on Philadelphia Island.”
“Philadelphia Island? Never mind...that’s not important right now. You’re certain that the ghost-bot things are not a threat right now? So that means Phel is probably safe?”
Junko paused and said, “If your friend was alive at the time of our attack then he is probably not in any danger of being harmed by any hostiles in the immediate area.”
“How are you sure that your...skipper...could handle those things. Look what they did to your suit- wait...it’s fine!”
Junko didn’t bother to glance over her shoulder at where the outfit had been torn. She seemed to be confident it was in perfect condition.
“My uniform is self healing...I come from a technologically advanced culture...it is made of-”
“Yeah Yeah...’zepto-scale foglets’. I know already.”
“What else did Rashmi Kapoor tell you?”
Meiki considered what Rashmi had said about the Catena and about chains. She decided it best not to give away too much.
“She just said that she was here on a research mission...and that someone was chasing her.”
“Meiki,” said Junko, “you must come with me. You are a witness to her crimes and I will require a full account of your experience.”
“If I come with you will you help me find my friend, Phel? Make sure he’s ok?”
“Where did Kapoor say she was headed?”
“Answer my question first, lady.”
The portion of Junko’s uniform that masked her face faded away revealing a stern pair of eyes. “I’m the one who asks questions here.”
“Well, I’m just a kid. What are you going to do? Torture me?” Meiki said with defiance.
“Oh, I wish," said Junko. “I’ll tell you what. Come back with me to my skipper. We’ll comb the area for your friend. He can’t be too far from here. Then the two of you will help me find the fugitive.”
They didn’t speak again until they got to the clearing.
“What happened?” asked Meiki as she surveyed the scene. It was a jumble of machine parts and downed trees. The skipper seemed to have collapsed under the weight of the ghosts that had tried to devour it, but remained mostly intact. All around were massive mounds of what looked like mashed potatoes with broken black bits of ghost-parts sticking out.
“It’s a defensive foam," said Junko, “The skipper expels a chemical sprays which hardens and immobilizes attackers.”
“Oh...so it’s a non-lethal weapon?”
“Non lethal as long as the attacker doesn’t require oxygen.”
Was that a joke? Meiki thought. She looked to see if Junko was smiling but the mask had reformed leaving only a disturbing faceless visage.
Meiki had an uneasy feeling around Junko. It wasn’t every day that she met an alien from another world, but two in one day could make anyone feel like the ground had been pulled out from under her. Something about this one made her harder to trust than Rashmi. Maybe it was the way she kept her face hidden most of the time or her single-minded pursuit of her goal. Meiki wanted nothing to do with this woman.
Junko reached into the wreckage of the skipper and pulled out a small pack. She looked inside it as if making sure the contents were still intact.
“What are you going to do?” asked Meiki.
“I already said. I’m going to find your friend and then Kapoor.”
“But then what? You’re going to drag her back to Earth? Put her on trial? And how? Your spaceship is trashed! How are you getting home?”
“This isn’t my ship," said Junko. “This is just for getting around swiftly. We travelled to your world with-”
“Never mind...” she clipped the pouch to a previously non-existent latch on her suit. Junko looked through the trees. “We need to find your friend, remember?”
Meiki saw the raincoat that Rashmi had made for Phel. It still hung from a branch half covered in solidified foam.
Rashmi had said it was a trap right before everything went crazy. The raincoat was the bait. That meant Junko already knew where Phel was.
“What have you done with Phel?”
Junko glanced at the raincoat. “He’s safe. For now. Once we capture Rashmi Kapoor we will question all three and you and your little friend will be set free.”
“Where is Phel now? And how many of you people are there?”
“I’m not going to be interrogated by a child. I’m the one who asks questions. You answer.”
She held her hand out in Meiki’s direction as if it were a weapon. It probably was.
“Where is your Nebcore?”
“Your Nebula Core? The local hub that connects your world to the Neb? It’s what allows you to communicate instantaneously with other worlds.”
“We can’t do that. Ever since this colony was founded we haven’t heard a peep from the rest of the universe. We figured you people blew each other up in a war or something.”
“That’s ridiculous. All of the colonies have Nebcores.”
“Not this one.” Meiki said. “We’ve been on our own for centuries. How would that even work? How can you communicate with us from Earth anyway? It’s light years away. There’s no way to do so instantly.”
“It uses a thing called the Spukhafte Exchange...I don’t know. Something to do with quantum entanglement...I’m a government agent, not a scientist. Don’t ask me how it works.” Junko shook her head with frustration. “Just tell me where your oldest and largest settlement is. That’s the most likely place to start looking.”
“Wait. You came here in a spaceship but you didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out where this Nebcore thing was before you landed? You don’t even have-I dunno- a satellite or something that can help you find Newbright without my help?”
“I don’t have time for this. My skipper is damaged and I don’t have contact with the dropship...and, yes you people have GPS satellites but they use such an outdated protocol that I can’t even get a fix. Newbright? That’s the name of the settlement I’m looking for? That’s where Kapoor is headed? You’re taking me there.”
“Oh get real, lady," said Meiki. “That’s where I’m going anyway. But you promise me Phel is somewhere safe?”
“Your friend is safe. He is under protection until we have cleared up this situation. Lead me to Newbright and you will both be released.”
Meiki led Junko to where the dome had been. Not much remained of it save a handful of scraps, but she found what she had been looking for- her backpack. Her book was still inside- untouched by the ghosts. Maybe they hadn’t noticed it or it just wasn’t the sort of thing they were interested in. Meiki wondered what exactly the ghosts were interested in.
“Here,” she said as she showed the book to Junko, “it’s a map showing the way to the city in relation to our current location.”
Junko waved her hand over the map and said, “Got it.”
“That’s it? You just recorded it? What else can that outfit of yours do?”
“Watch this.” Junko said in a way that sounded like she may actually be smiling.
From the pack she had attached to her suit she pulled out a small tube and threw it to the ground. In a flash it took the shape and size of a small hovering motorbike. Junko hopped on it.
“That’s insane.” Meiki said. “You guys can do things that don’t even make sense. I mean...we have makers. But you can produce whatever you want with...with nothing.”
“Not whatever we want," said Junko.
“Still, that thing’s pretty small. It’s not like we can both ride it.”
“Good point," said Junko. “Luckily for me, I don’t really need you.” She kicked Meiki to the ground.
“But. What about our deal? What about Phel?”
“I lied. I have no clue where your friend is. See ya.” She sped off into the forest faster than Meiki imagined possible.