"Good morning and thank you all for being here on such short notice. The subject matter of this debriefing and all information regarding it are highly classified. I trust that you all will not allow it to fall into the wrong hands." Captain Helen Koing leans over the metal conference room table, eyeing each of us. Her calculated gaze lingers on me.

"At 22:18 last night we got word from an informant that former Lieutenant Commander Hansel Espralsa was pronounced dead by local officials on the Balesh known as Verdant Harvester. By 2300 hours our foreign affairs committee successfully appealed for the return of the deceased to UNSF custody with provisions for a proper military burial. According to our records, Espralsa was a loner—no friends or family to speak of. At 0600 hours a funeral will be held on Lumen. But, ladies and gentlemen, we've got bigger fish to fry." A smirk creeps across Cpt. Koing's thin face but her eyes remain focused. I glance at Eddie to my left and see him gulp. Further down, Marie squirms in her chair.

My palms had been sweating since the ride from the lab over to the Jotunheim where we sit now, in a windowless conference room somewhere. I have to squint my eyes a little to see under the unshrouded fluorescent lights and I feel my shirt stick to my lower back. I wonder if the others were prepared for this. I certainly wasn't.

Koing straightened her back and continues, "The remains en route to your facility as we speak. You will have access to the databases on Novus Terra but you must conduct your research on the ground. Due to the biohazard threat, you will be quarantined to the area until further notice."
"Biohazard? They do cadavers at Novus all the time, what's wrong with this one?" I blurt out. A pit forms in my stomach in response to the slow, smooth turn of Koing's head. I forgot that the officers cared so much about speaking in turn.

"This one is different. After death, the body was marked. Our intel is limited, but the data we have suggests that the symbol alerts the Balesh to destroy the body." Koing pauses and folds her arms across her chest. The pins and medals jingle on the stiff fabric and her neatly cropped blond hair shimmers in the artificial light.

She scans the room again, slowly, looking at Eddie and Marie before targeting me again with her intense green eyes. "It's up to you to find out how."
Koing abruptly strides to the door, ignoring the guards that shuffle out of her way. Without looking back, she calls to us, "Report back in a week with your findings. I expect you'll find something useful." Her red silk cape flaps out the door behind her.

The three of us sit in shock until one of the guards motions us towards the door. Eddie shakes Marie's leg and it takes a moment for her to register. What have we gotten ourselves into?

It's been about three weeks since we were debriefed on this assignment, the entire time has been hectic. Marie, Eddie and I have been toiling away over experiments and data, surviving on MREs and the fear of failure. Our initial tests revealed a corrosive compound that didn't match anything in the database. We could only isolate a few drops of the resin-like substance before the rotting corpse absorbed the rest.

We received specific orders to use it sparingly and deliver at least 50% of the vial's contents to an undisclosed location. They had us put the 6 oz. vial in a heavy triple-sealed case. Eddie could barely lift it into the delivery transport. We got good data from what we had, though. At least I think it's good, we won't really know until we speak to Cpt. Koing this afternoon. I'm optimistic. After our second status report, the three of us got invitations to one of her Galas. I guess she forgot about putting us under quarantine.

It's the fifth time meeting Koing in this tiny room on Jotunheim, but I'm still completely lost. Good thing this is top secret. I'm the only one from our crew, the others didn't pass the medical exam required before exiting the quarantine but the doctors didn't say why. At the table next to me is a broad-shouldered man, middle aged and clean shaven. He sits erect in a freshly pressed uniform. I see he's a commander from the chevrons on his sleeve.
Koing enters in her usual way—a powerful grace that commands both respect and admiration. She's panting lightly and exhales, "Let's make this quick. Cmdr. Reese, what's the status on the prototype?"

Commander Reese replies, "It's progressing well. Our first test fire was a moderate success. We've found that vaporizing the compound yields much greater better results, even with a less concentrated mixture."

"How soon can you put it into production?" Koing asked.

"The production model should be ready in a few weeks. I must warn you, Captain, we have not completed development on the proper safety protocols and equipm—"

Koing cut him short. "And you, Dr. Michiel? Can you meet production in two weeks?"

I only manage to babble in response, but Koing accepts it as affirmation and we're dismissed.


"Hurry Eddie, get in!" I shout into the ransacked laboratory, hanging out of a small transport ship. Marie holds her hand anxiously at the throttle. He struggles to delete the last of the the data from the database. Years of research, destroyed. It's better this way.

"Execute, damn it!" Eddie yells at the mainframe interface, smacking the controls in frustration. The display reads back "APPLICATION ERROR. PROCESS TERMINATED." Eddie abandons the terminal, muttering every curse word in his vocabulary, and heads for our transport as UNSF security bots swarm the entrance behind him.

The doors blow open, throwing Eddie forward. Without power to the generator, Eddie floats toward us in the minuscule gravity. He reaches for my outstretched hand. We connect and Marie slams the thrusters. Racing away, Eddie's eyes meet mine. We exchange looks of fear and relief and I pull him aboard. Marie's brow is thick with sweat as she speeds us through the rocky terrain. I work the control panel, shutting off as many systems as I can to avoid being tracked.

Eddie lays on his back in the middle of the hull, panting. After a few minutes, we catch our breath. A laugh bubbles out of him and spreads to the rest of us.
"Well, idiots," Eddie says between chuckles, "I guess we've just gone rogue."
The giggles die down into a heavy silence. We listened to the hum of the thrusters for a while after that.

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