As she had for the past three days since her meeting with Lakaya, Ada traveled uphill with Ezran into the town. She was bundled up against the chill blowing in from the direction of Lake Geneva. Soon, she would need to start wearing her heavy winter coat, but as it was only August, she wore a windbreaker with a wool sweater underneath that wicked away the sweat she was working up. Her shoulder ached from the weight of a wicker basket, filled with potatoes Ezran had grown for the community in his biopods. It was a heavy load, but Ezran’s knees were starting to go, so Ada always insisted she carry it.

Beside her, Ezran transported a relatively lighter load: wood carvings he’d made in his spare time for the neighbors.

“Just you wait, little one,” he’d said as they prepared to leave. “This time I will make us some money, also. These are some of my finest works yet.”

Ada had smiled and said she believed him. But he was too kind; he’d end up giving them all away for free, as always. He deserved a better life than they had. A pang of guilt had accompanied the thought. She hadn’t yet told him about the mission, knowing how devastated he would be to hear she’d be leaving him behind.
As they crested the hill leading to the town square, a powerful gust of wind bit right through Ada’s unzipped jacket and sent her stumbling forward. Five misshapen, scrawny potatoes tumbled into the icy dirt. One bounced back toward the slope, as though yearning for the soil in which it was grown. Cursing, Ada dropped her basket and lunged for it. But she was too slow. The spud accelerated downward, making the journey back alone.

Then, a drone zipped overhead and shot down the hill. It dove in front of the rogue potato and stopped it dead, then picked it up with a tiny claw and carried it back up to Ada.

She turned to see Guillermo’s grin as his drone dumped what he’d retrieved back in her basket.

“Nicely done, my boy!” Ezran exclaimed.

But Guillermo was no longer the boy she’d seen just a few days ago in her memory vault. He was a man fully grown now, one of the town’s lumberjacks, with a thick beard to prove it. Whereas Ada grew her hair long to cover the scar from her augment surgery, Guillermo kept his head shaved around a metal patch—an external antenna to provide better connectivity to the other nodes in the Chain. He had a far-off look when she met his eyes, like he was giving more attention to piloting his drone than to the people around him.

“Ada comes out of the woodworks for a third day in a row,” Guillermo said. “Special occasion, or have we finally rubbed off on you?”

A little surge of panic weltered inside Ada. She had been spending a lot of time with Ezran, trying to create some precious memories to look back on while away. She glanced at her uncle, hoping Guillermo’s question didn’t ignite any curiosity in him.

“You could say that,” Ada replied noncommittally, then bent to retrieve the rest of the potatoes. “Thanks.”

She made to pick up the refilled basket, but Guillermo had a hand on it before she could.

He hefted it and said, “I’ll take these to the stockpile. My mom is waiting at her market stall. I think she’s got something she wants to give you, Ada.”

“Me?” Ada raised one eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Don’t know,” Guillermo said, then chuckled nervously. Clearly, he did know, but he and his drone started for the communal farmhouse before Ada could press him.

“Well, if she is giving to you a gift,” Ezran said. “I certainly cannot ask her to pay for the carving I made for her.”

Ada smiled. “Let me help you carry those.”

The market was as bustling as a town of thirty-odd residents could be. Perhaps because the weather was as pleasant as a dying Earth could produce. The wind was brisk, but that only served to whisk away the scent of livestock. The cloud cover was complete, but not thick enough to completely black out the sun this afternoon. Many days passed in total darkness. This day was refreshingly gray. And so, the adults traded goods and gossip, attending their stalls while their children attended to games of their own.

Ada and Ezran found Ms. Erlein selling a knit cap to an elderly woman Ada had never met. Ms. Erlein looked much the same as Ada’s childhood memories of her, albeit a bit thinner and with a lot more gray in her hair. That was no surprise; everyone was always getting older and food was always becoming scarcer. The other woman, however, Ada had never seen in her life.

“Who is that?” Ada whispered to Ezran, waiting their turn while the two women talked.

“Mrs. Noyer?” Ezran chuckled, then plucked one of his wood carvings from Ada’s arms. “You need to spend less time in your virtual worlds, little one.” When Mrs. Noyer thanked Ms. Erlein and put on the cap, Ezran called out to her. “Lunete! I have something for you.” He held up a carving of a fox and strolled to her, beaming.

“Ada!” Ms. Erlein called. “Just who I wanted to see today. How are you feeling, dear?”

“I’m fine,” Ada said, choosing not to mention the undercurrent of dread flowing through her. She’d have to tell Ezran about her mission soon, and it would break his heart. “Just spending time with my uncle…while I can.” That had come out before she could catch herself.

“Oh, don’t you worry about him.” Ms. Erlein eyed Ezran dreamily, not hiding her admiration one bit. Somehow, Ezran never seemed to notice it. “He may be getting older, but he’s got the heart of a bear. He’s got his best days ahead of him, I expect.”

Ada forced herself to breathe, stomach churning. “Guillermo said…you had a gift for me?”

“That’s right!” She ducked down and started rummaging noisily, then said, “Put those carvings down, would you? Ezran can sell them from my stall today.”

Maybe that was a good idea. If Ezran spent more time with Ms. Erlein, Ada’s leaving wouldn’t be so bad. At least she would know she wasn’t leaving him to be alone all the time.

She was carefully arranging Ezran’s carvings when Ms. Erlein evidently found what she was looking for. She popped up, hiding something behind her back. “Now, don’t get mad at Guillermo for telling me.”

Ada stiffened. “Telling you what?”

Ms. Erlein sighed, then revealed a nearly perfect recreation of the stuffed dodo Ada had lost when she was a child. When they were younger, Ada and Guillermo had exchanged photos of their families from before the war. Guillermo must have been keeping it all this time.

“I hope you like it.” Ms. Erlein wrung her hands. “I couldn’t get the cotton, so it’s synthetic wool, but I tried to match the photo Guillermo showed me stitch for stitch. I know it’s not the original, but…” She held it out.

Ada hesitated, fearing it would stir up her traumatic memories. Instead, it brought images of her parents’ smiling faces to mind and brought tears to her eyes that began flowing in earnest. She reached out and took it in both hands, then clutched the dodo against her chest. It felt…different, but it was close enough.

“Thank you.” Ada sobbed.

“Oh, dear, come here.”

Before she knew it, Ms. Erlein had rounded the stall and embraced Ada. She felt like a little girl again, in the arms of her mother. Ada closed her eyes and hugged her back.

“Is everything all right?” Ezran asked.

“Better than all right,” Ada said, wiping her eyes. Then, she hugged her uncle, too.
Ezran hesitated, apparently surprised, but then squeezed Ada close. She loved him like a father, and knew he loved her like the daughter he’d never had. And for just a moment, she let all her worries and fears fade into silence.

After spending the day giving away wooden carvings with Ezran and Ms. Erlein, Ada returned to her room and entered the Chain. She opened the presentation sent by the St. James Unity in the public vote and went over it several times. Each time she looked at it, she gleaned new details.

It had been a Chain-wide vote, meaning every citizen in the Chain had been notified of the motion, unless they’d delegated their vote to someone else. Most motions in the Ledger of Edicts included only those directly impacted by the results. That way, small problems could be solved by small groups of people with a stake in the outcome, and the number of voters could scale up as the problem increased in severity. The arrival of a rogue planet with potentially dangerous intelligent life was a huge problem indeed, so the size of the voter pool didn’t surprise Ada.

That didn’t stop her from continually being shocked at the number of people who had voted to send her on the mission. Thirteen billion votes had been cast, each ranking that person’s top five preferences. Ada had received the top spot with nearly seven billion votes in her favor. She found a crowd simulator in the Chain and tried to visualize how many people had suddenly become aware of her existence.

When the input was set to one hundred, it felt like a big crowd. When set to one thousand, it began to overwhelm her. She set it to one hundred thousand and the room transformed into a massive stadium, filled to the brim and roaring with sound. The number was already incomprehensible, and this was less than point one percent of the voters. Ada skipped right to seven billion, and the program hitched for a few seconds before giving up and zooming out to show the entire Earth, as if that would be helpful. Instead, it made her feel that the entire planet was just trying to send her away to be swallowed by the open maw of space.

She tamped down that little voice of anxiety; the simpler explanation was what the Unity had said, that she’d been chosen for her competence and, of all things, her eagerness. That realization threatened to inflate her ego if she didn’t keep it in check. It also meant all those people were counting on her to succeed, placing their trust in a total stranger. Nothing good would come from thinking about that, so Ada went back scouring the mission details for anything that might help her.

The report included so many fine-tuned points—the specifications of the rocket and crew capsule, the distance to be traveled by the ship, the weight of food and oxygen required to sustain the crew for the entire mission—yet there was one detail glaringly missing from the report.

When would the mission begin?

Ada had run the calculations so many times she knew them by heart. Advancement of rocket technology had essentially halted since the energy crisis began, so with the rogue planet being between four and six astronomical units from Earth depending on the date, the journey out would take more than a year to complete. She checked the charts, and the next closest approach would be in November of next year—just over fourteen months away—so Ada assumed they were aiming for the next launch window. That would give them another two years before the planetary orbits synced up again, plenty of time to complete an extensive training regime.

And extensive it would be. Ada couldn’t begin to guess how many regulations they would be subject to. Everything from energy restrictions to quarantine protocols to learning the ins and outs of the spaceship in case of emergency. The list went on and on. That gave her some comfort. This might be a high-risk mission, but at least they wouldn’t have to rush it. They’d have the time to do it right.

Still, why did she have to do all this guesswork? How had the Chain voted to accept this proposal without the inclusion of such a crucial detail? That was the kind of sloppy oversight that got humanity into the situation they were now in. Maybe everyone assumed it was just more of the need-to-know secrecy of the kind that kept this rogue planet hidden from the public for three years?

Ada shook her head in frustration, then closed the proposal. Whatever the case, she was selected for the mission, so eventually the time would come when she needed to know. It was only a matter of waiting.

In the meantime, she could appreciate the need for such secrecy. After all, the reaction to this mission’s acceptance hadn’t been entirely positive. Not everyone had voted in its favor, and several of the most vocal naysayers were spreading all kinds of misinformation in the Chain. As someone who really knew what was happening—more or less—the debates were often amusing.

Ada grinned and disabled her identifiers, then opened a portal to a Link called, `What is the SJU hiding?’, that had 162 participants. She double-checked that her avatar would be anonymous, then stepped through.

The environment loaded in first, bringing to mind a gladiator arena designed by nerdy conspiracy theorists rather than stately Romans. All the walls, floors, and seats ringing the arena were flaking black paint, and surrounded a central ring with a podium illuminated by fluorescent tubes dangling overhead. Animated, neon-colored posters were plastered haphazardly all over the walls, here a group of little green men, there a cryptic anagram or a group of photos connected by a network of string, which Ada could only assume was placed ironically.
Then the people loaded in, and with them, the shouting.

“—a cover to perform illegal research,” the man at the podium said, his voice amplified over the jeering crowd. “Research into controlling everyone’s minds through their augments.”

As the crowd’s booing grew louder, a scoreboard hanging over the podium changed from a green thumbs up to a red thumbs down. The man’s avatar exploded into bits and the boos turned to raucous cheers. Ada flinched. That was one way to settle a debate.

Another avatar teleported behind the podium, a humanoid wolf in a blazer who began speaking immediately. “There’s no denying the mission is real. I think we can all agree to that. But what I want to know is—”

The wolf promptly exploded. Ada laughed. The Unity could hide many things, but they included the transaction history for all the rocket parts in their proposal. If these people couldn’t even agree on the mission’s existence, this was going to be a fun night.

Another man took the podium, and somehow even his virtual avatar looked like it needed a bath. “I’m not saying the mission exists,” he hedged, “but if it does, then the most likely reason is because the aliens from the rogue planet are already on Earth, and they need a way of getting back home.”

The sentiment meter remained green while he rambled about government black sites and crashed alien space crafts. It was similar to Ada’s favorite persistent narrative, which is that the rogue planet was a fabled planet that had been here for hundreds of years. She tried not to fall too deep into the rabbit hole, but sometimes her curiosity got the better of her. Of course, another narrative ran counter to it, insisting the rogue planet didn’t exist at all. Their discourse got so nasty that Ada could only laugh at the ridiculousness of it, how two parties could be so entrenched in their own bubbles that they’d fight viciously to destroy the opponent even though both sides were equally ignorant of reality.

Ada missed what was said, but the poorly rendered bloody debris brought her attention back to the forum. Now an eight-foot-tall skeleton in medieval armor was telling everyone the rogue planet is a version of Earth from the future, come to save us from the effects of our climatic destruction.

The crowd went silent, Ada included. That was a new one.

She looked to her left and made eye contact with a smiling man who seemed to be considering the outlandish theory. Then, he did a double take and his eyes went wide.

“You’re Ada Bryce!” he shouted.

Shit. All this secrecy from the Unity, couldn’t they have kept their names private, too?

Ada cleared her throat. “No I’m not.”

“You are! I’ve watched your recording at the Ledger of Insight dozens of times. You knew they were planning this mission, didn’t you?”

She backed away from the man, silently cursing herself for not adding a voice modulation or any form of disguise to her anonymity settings. The outburst had drawn more attention and suddenly all eyes were on Ada. She continued backing up, then started when she was teleported front and center to the podium. She must have backed right into a portal someone had opened.

Ada gestured to open her interface for a portal home, then stopped when she realized the crowd had remained quiet, waiting for her to say something.

She had no idea what to say.

After the news had gotten out, Ada had no longer been blessed with a nearly empty ChainMail inbox. At all hours, connection requests from news reporters came in, or questions from curious scientists, or vote delegations for the Ledger of Edicts, even some messages from overly zealous fans. If the Unity hadn’t been sustaining Ada’s battery with an energy stipend, she could have made a fortune selling rights to her interviews alone. She’d remained quiet instead.

Now, however, something urged her to speak. Perhaps the absolute inanity of all the theories these lunatics had spewed out. Or perhaps it was that an alarmingly high percentage of the message influx was from people Ada didn’t know, but who apparently had a deep hatred for her. They were a small subset compared to the positive messages, but she spent far too much time reading them, and they had gotten under her skin. All the strange avatars and grim theatricality in this arena reminded her of the people behind that harassment, and she found herself wanting to defend the Unity from them.

“Look, what do you want me to say? You think the Unity is hiding something?”

“We want answers!” someone shouted.

“Answers?” Ada laughed. “Read the proposal, then. It’s a better use of your time than theorizing about time traveling aliens.” She expected the crowd to kick her out for that, but evidently they were giving her more leeway than the usual rabble. There was a sentiment meter on the podium with a more precise reading than thumbs up or down. It dropped from 96% to 92%. “The Chain has plenty of problems, but transparency isn’t one of them. How could the Unity hide anything when every interaction is public and stored forever?”

The crowd seemed to have grown since she started talking, and indeed she saw several new avatars load in around the arena.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” a nasally voice said from a dark section.

“I don’t—” Ada scoffed, her anger rising. “You people would be here using bigfoot avatars, discussing conspiracy theories debunked a century ago if not for our mission. I’ve seen the sim. The rogue planet came here, it’s real. I’m going on this mission while you all stay here in your sad little debate club.”

She was met with a mix of outrage and laughter, and the sentiment meter dropped again to 67%.

“Go die there!”

“Oh, yeah,” Ada sneered. “Real creative.”

She’d read much worse in her inbox over the past few days. People hoping the rocket would lose power and doom her to a slow death in the cold vacuum of space. People threatening her because they were far more qualified, and she had only been selected out of some misplaced sense of pity. The worst had been a message with far too much insight into her past, telling her that her parents had gotten themselves killed on purpose because she was such a wretched daughter. Those were grim thoughts that she’d harbored herself and that had tormented her into many a sleepless night.

An ache had formed in her chest as she spiraled down into the certainty that she wasn’t worthy of her parents’ love. Why else would they have abandoned her?

That ache began to return as Ada stood at the center of the forum. She seized it and crystallized it into hatred for the worst of humanity that surrounded her.

“What’s the Unity hiding?” she snapped. “Nothing! They don’t have to hide the fact that we’re all going to die here. That’s not a secret. And I’m glad that when we’re scoured from the face of the universe, you monsters are going to be taken down with the rest of us.” Ada gave the crowd two middle fingers just as the sentiment meter dropped below 50%. She became a disembodied ghost as her avatar burst into a million bits.

Ada sighed, kicked from the forum back into her home environment.

“Idiots…” she mumbled.

Before Ada even had a chance to recover, a ping from her augments alerted her to someone in the real world trying to get her attention. She tapped behind her ear to enable outside audio.

“—out of there, Ada! Quickly!” It was Ezran, and he wasn’t just shouting at Ada. He was shaking her by the shoulder as well, according to her haptics, though they filtered out the sensations. She checked the time. 4:19 GMT. How late had she stayed up? And what was Ezran doing up this early?

Ada took a breath to steel herself, then set her augments and haptics to heads-up mode. The light of her home environment faded out as the darkness of the real world flooded in.

Past the overlays of her augments, Ezran’s face hovered above her, lit by a candle he held aloft in his left hand. He’d stopped shaking her. He must have noticed her eyes coming in to focus, a telltale sign that someone had left the virtual world behind.

“What is it?” she asked, standing from the chair she’d been sitting in for…the past fourteen hours. Had it really been that long? The groan of her knees and the soreness in her neck told her she wasn’t mistaken.

“You are not going to believe this, little one,” Ezran said. “Not unless I show you. Come, come.”

“Sure,” she said. “Just let me grab a bite to eat first.” God, she was hungry. Her augments’ hunger filter was great, but it made coming back to the real world even more difficult. Each time was a painful reminder that the body couldn’t be ignored.
She started for the kitchen.

But Ezran grabbed her by the wrist. “No, no, come first. You are going to want to see this.”

She jerked her hand away, but grumpily followed him through the house. The old floorboards creaked underfoot as they trod toward the front door, and she noted the chipped spot in the wood they’d never repaired. Passing Olsa’s memorial, Ezran briefly hesitated to bow his head as always, then continued on.
Ada couldn’t help but smile. Even with something apparently amazing ahead, it was important for him to keep up his rituals. Ada’s augments overlaid on the memorial a floating viewport containing an image of Olsa just how she remembered her when she was a child. Her bright blue eyes and amber hair glowed in the darkness of the hallway, but cast no light in the real world, only in Ada’s mind.

As they turned the corner to the house’s foyer, a real light emanated from the windows beside the door. That gave Ada pause. It should have been pitch black outside at this time of night, unless the moon was showing. But Ezran wouldn’t wake up just for the moon, and this was far too bright to be moonlight. His ivory smile seemed to radiate its own light as he opened the door for her and revealed what was outside.

Something so luminous shined through the doorway that Ada’s breath caught. She stepped through the threshold and was greeted by two painfully bright orbs that made her eyes tear up. They dimmed as she looked on, and the starry sky faded into view above the mysterious sources of light. But that was an illusion, another overlay from her augments. Ada wanted to see this unfiltered. She fully powered down her augments, and her haptics by extension. The now-unfiltered cold mountain air bit at her, and she wrapped her arms around herself. The false beauty of the night sky was replaced with the pitch black of clouds. And the two orbs regained their full brilliance.

“What are they?” Ada whispered, shivering.

“They?” Ezran asked. “There is only one. It is an auto!”

Recognition dawned on Ada. A scene from the Energy War came unbidden, filling her awareness. Suddenly, she was eight years old again, standing in the middle of the road and staring at an oncoming truck full of soldiers. Uncle Ezran was there behind her, with his hands on her shoulders. The vehicle came to a stop and men in blue poured out of it. They yelled at her and Uncle Ezran, pointing their guns at them. The scream building in her throat, Ada took an involuntary step backward, away from the dangerous men.

She bumped into Ezran.

“An auto, Ada,” he said reverently. “Can you believe it?”

The memory of their flight into Switzerland had passed, but the fear remained. The cold was becoming too much to bear, so Ada flicked on her augments to whisk it away.

“What’s it doing here?” Ada asked.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Ezran said. “You are the one with all the secrets.”

A flicker of guilt passed over Ada. Whatever danger she’d gotten herself into, Ada hadn’t expected it to show up on Ezran’s doorstep.

She glanced at her uncle, then took a cautious step toward the vehicle. It felt like approaching a wild animal. Its glowing eyes watched her, silent as she inched ever closer, wasting all that energy needed to power its lights. She realized, then. Only the Unity would be so brazen in their energy consumption. They had sent it for her.

When she rounded the auto and was freed of the obstructing glare of its headlights, the vehicle’s full shape finally revealed itself. It looked nothing like the trucks she had seen during the war. The auto only came up to her shoulder height, and it was sleek, built to be aerodynamic. There were no windows, save for a black windshield in the front. It didn’t seem to have any doors either. The entire thing looked to be one solid piece of brushed steel with four rubber wheels attached.

Ezran joined her. “I have never seen one like this,” he said.

“How did it get here, anyway?” Ada asked. The road leading up to their house on the mountainside was poorly maintained, pitted by holes and often treacherously icy. Anytime she and Ezran needed something, they walked uphill into town. They never had reason to descend the mountain. Ada didn’t even know the path, yet somehow the auto had found it, navigating the difficult, snowy terrain.

Ezrin pointed at two tracks behind the auto. “No mystery there,” he said. “It just…came right up.”

“Is that something most autos could do?” Ada asked.

Her uncle frowned at her. “No,” he said. “No, I think this one is special.”

An alert appeared in Ada’s heads-up display notifying her of a new message in her inbox. She hesitated. This wasn’t a coincidence.

“I think we’re about to find out what this is doing here,” she said.

Ezran raised an eyebrow at her. “Hmm?”

“New message,” she said, and opened a ChainMail viewport in her display. “It’s from Constance St. James.”

Ezran’s mouth fell open. “The Constance St. James? What does she want with you?”

Even though he recognized the name, Ezran clearly still had no idea what was going on. No idea that Ada would be leaving him. Everything was happening too fast. She’d promised herself she would explain everything to him before she left. She thought she would have more time, but at the moment it would have to wait. This needed to be dealt with first.

The instant she opened Constance’s message, the auto released a rush of air and slid open a hidden door in the side of the vehicle.

Get in, the message read.

Ada jumped back from the sudden movement. Was she being watched through some camera the vehicle was equipped with? She felt like she was being abducted again, in real life this time. Was this how the Unity operated? The mission was important, sure, but some sort of forewarning would have been nice. And if she set foot in that auto, it might be a long time before she got to see Ezran again. Her poor uncle had already lost too many people who never got to say their goodbyes. So, she touched a finger behind her ear and composed a response to the message.

“I’m not ready to leave yet,” Ada said under her breath. Her augments transcribed the words into text and sent off her reply.

The door to the auto shut, joining seamlessly with the rest of the vehicle. For a moment, she expected it to roll away down the mountainside, an opportunity squandered. Then, another message alert popped up.

You have ten minutes.

Ada clenched her fists. Ten minutes, or else what? She’d received more votes than anyone else, even Constance St. James herself. Were they going to launch without her? She wanted to push back, to make the Unity work according to her schedule. But she also truly wanted to be part of this mission, and getting on Constance St. James’ bad side would only have made the next few years miserable. So, she had ten minutes.

“Come inside,” she urged, grabbing Ezran’s arm and dragging him back toward the door.

He let himself be pulled inside but kept glancing over his shoulder back toward the blinding sources of light. “Ada, dear, you really must explain what is happening.”

Ada shut the door. “Uncle Ezran, listen.”

“Uncle…” A reminiscent smile spread across his face. “You have not called me that in a long time, little one.”

Ezran’s smile placed in Ada’s mind a childhood memory of her uncle. One where his face didn’t have so many wrinkles. Where his hair had specks of gray amidst the black, and not the other way around. From back when his eyes weren’t filled with such sorrow. The Ezran of her memory was a younger man whose optimism had never been plundered from him by the cruelty of this grim reality. He had regained some semblance of happiness when Ada came home after her divorce, his positive outlook slowly recovering. She was afraid that when she left, he’d lose it once more. When she returned several years from now, would he be the same kind, compassionate man, or would bitterness take over in his solitude?

“Listen, please.” Ada’s eyes filled with tears, draining the warmth from her uncle’s expression. “I have to go now. The auto is here to take me on a mission I’ve been selected to join.”

“A mission?”

“I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner, but I didn’t know things would happen so fast. I’m traveling aboard a rocket to a planet that showed up three years ago near Jupiter. I was chosen as an expert to communicate with intelligent life, if it’s found.”

This must all sound like science fiction to Ezran. His days consisted of tending the crops in his biopods, making wood carvings, and reading old books. It was as if those with augments and those without lived in two entirely different realities. In Ezran’s, the solar system was just as it had been for the past four billion years. In Ada’s, Earth might have been on the brink of contact with another form of intelligent life, and her mission might decide what kind of future the planet would have.

But in truth, there was only one reality. And if this mission went poorly, Ezran and their unaugmented neighbors would face the dire consequences the same as the rest.

“You are traveling to another planet?” Ezran’s face twisted in confusion.

“Not just me,” she assured him. “Five of us are going. I won’t be alone.” Then she took her uncle’s hands in her own. “And you shouldn’t be alone either while I’m gone. Spend more time with your friends up the hill. I’ve seen the way Ms. Erlein looks at you, you know. You should talk to her more.” Ada’s heart was breaking as she watched Ezran’s confusion turn to sadness. When he glanced toward his wife’s memorial, her heart broke just a little more. “I’ll make sure your energy budget is taken care of,” Ada promised. “You won’t need to worry about money. I may be gone for several years, but I will be back. And I’ll be sure to send messages all the time while I’m away. Guillermo will make sure you get them.”

Ada had so much more she wanted to say to her uncle, but her voice cracked and she couldn’t get any more out. She broke down into sobbing, and Ezran wrapped his arms around her in an embrace.

“There, there, little one,” he consoled her. “I will be fine. Do not worry about me. It is you who is going on an important mission.” He patted Ada on the back, then held her at arm's length by the shoulders and gave a warm-hearted laugh that sapped away all the worry Ada had been feeling. “But you cannot start the journey off with an empty stomach. Quickly, go pack your things. I will bring you food for the trip.”

Ezran rushed into the kitchen, and the sounds of cabinets frantically being opened and closed drifted down the hall. Ada laughed, despite herself, then rushed into her bedroom. She quickly packed a bag with all the essentials: a few changes of clothes, a spare wireless charger for her augments, and even some printed books to occupy her if she needed to conserve power. She didn’t expect to run low on her energy budget anytime soon, but she was leaving for a long time, and anything could happen.

When she finished packing, Ezran was waiting for her by the front door with a tied bundle full of food. “Here we are. Fresh vegetables, energy bars, and your share of the chocolates we made earlier this month.”

Ada took it and felt tears forming again. She had her perfect memory and her vault full of experiences, but she was going to miss this man. He had done so much for her and never asked for anything in return. He just wanted her to be happy, and she him. It was a lot to ask from two people the world had broken.

“Thank you,” Ada said. “I’ll tell you all about the mission when I get back.”

“Back from space!” Ezran exclaimed. “I never thought I would see the day when humankind took to the stars again. I am so proud of you, little one.”

She gave him a big hug and wanted never to let go. But the time had come for her to leave. Ezrin opened the door for her, and she stepped outside into the light of the waiting auto. As she approached it, she checked the time stamp on the last message she’d received from Constance St. James. Fourteen minutes had passed. Ada grinned.

The vehicle’s door slid open again and she tossed her bag into its dark interior. With one last wave to her uncle, she ducked her head and entered the vehicle. The door sealed shut.

After an uncomfortable moment in pitch black, the seat began to shift beneath her. She jumped, then yelped as two tendrils slithered over her shoulders and down toward her waist. Under the bundle of food on her lap the creatures slid, writhing until two simultaneous clicks sounded on either side of her. Ada whimpered, unsure what was happening. She jerked forward, but straps across her chest held her firmly in place. She struggled against them, grunting as she tried to free herself, but to no avail.

“Relax,” a voice said.

In the darkness, Ada wasn’t alone. Two neon green lights glowed from the seat opposite hers. Six more pinpricks of green joined them, lighting up around Ada’s feet. Then came the characteristic whirring of a microdrone swarm, and the luminous dots lifted from the ground to surround the original set of eyes. As they hovered there, Ada felt as though she was meeting the gaze of some insectoid creature. Her breathing quickened, but as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Ada discerned the shape of a human figure in the dim glow of the drones.

“It’s just a seatbelt.” It was a woman’s voice, though it had a monotonous, synthetic tinge to it, as though it were being produced by a speech synthesizer. Yet, it sounded familiar. “Trust me, if the auto wasn’t equipped with seatbelts, you’d be holding on for your life. This ride is going to be more than a little bit bumpy.”

The auto moved, accelerating faster than Ada expected and pressing her back into the form-fitting seat. When they began down the hill, Ada couldn’t stop herself from holding onto the seatbelts for dear life.

“Who are you?” she blurted out.

Despite the vehicle’s jerky movements from the rough terrain, the woman hadn’t moved at all since the drone swarm came online. She hadn’t even blinked. Her neon green eyes bored into Ada, who couldn’t help but avert her gaze. “You’re smarter than that, Ada.”

The interior lights of the vehicle faded on, and Ada drew in a sharp breath. The woman across from her was more metal than flesh. She had no need for a seatbelt herself; an exoskeleton wrapping around her torso was locked into a bracket at the front of the auto. Dark braces ran down the insides and outsides of both the woman’s legs, with powered joints at the knees and hips. The device terminated at her neck, leaving her face unencumbered. She had the same pale skin and dark hair as Ada, but she was older and had sharper features. And of course, the eyes. They changed to a pale red as Ada examined the person across from her.

“Infrared shows your heart rate has increased by fifteen percent. Do I frighten you?”

Ada became aware of her elevated pulse. “No. You just…surprised me, is all.”

“Good, because you’ll face much worse than me on our mission. I hope you’re ready.”

Our mission? Recognition clicked into place. Ada had heard this woman’s voice on many broadcasts in the Chain. “You’re Constance St. James.” Few had ever seen a visual of the Unity’s founder, and Ada was beginning to understand why.

Constance grinned. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ada Bryce.”

A loud bang sounded from below, and Ada’s stomach lurched as the auto left the ground and they entered free fall. An instant later, the vehicle landed. The impact was teeth-rattling, but after that, they no longer jerked around. Ada relaxed her white-knuckled grip on the restraints. The windshield darkened the landscape, but they seemed to have reached flat ground. Had they gotten down the mountain that quickly?

“I hope you’re comfortable with high speeds,” Constance said. “We have a lot of ground to travel tonight if we’re to reach the launch facility by noon.”

“We’re training at the launch facility?” Ada had assumed there would be a separate training complex with specialized equipment to simulate the effects of space travel.

“Training?” Constance snorted. It was a surprisingly human sound from someone who reminded Ada so much of a bot. “The launch is occurring tomorrow at midnight. The only kind of training we’re getting is on-the-job.”