A Sea of Stars - Ch. 13 - Missing

                  when
                 in the
             deepest darkest
    depths of space, there is nowhere
      to run, nowhere to hide and
          no one to turn to when 
         everything      suddenly
        takes a              turn to
       the                     strange

“Madeline?” Lillian choked out after a moment of stunned silence. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m completely serious,” Eve responded evenly. “Why?”

“She’s my best friend,” Lillian replied, but it sounded flat even to her own ears.

Eve waited a moment before continuing in a perfectly reasonable voice–perhaps too reasonable. “Well then maybe she had a perfectly good reason to have broken into your computer system.”

“I didn’t even know that she was capable of such a thing.” Madeline had some abilities with the computers, but she’d never really shown that much skill as a hacker. That had always been something that would have made Lillian think of Jacobs first and Madeline… well, not at all.

“Apparently she is,” Eve said in that same even tone.

Lillian shook her head. “I don’t believe it.”

Eve shrugged. “The logs don’t lie.”

She shook her head harder. “I don’t want to believe it.”

Eve actually laughed lightly at that. “Be that as it may, that really doesn’t change anything.”

“Maybe you’re mistaken,” Lillian said on a sudden burst of insight. “You didn’t actually see her after all. You said it yourself, you didn’t have access to the cameras.”

Eve considered that for a second, but shook her head. “I didn’t, but my trackers are pretty good. They’ll know exactly how they find.”

“What if someone took over her account?” Lillian suggested. It seemed like a reasonable explanation, although it made it even more worrisome that there was someone targeting her that not only knew her well enough to choose Madeline’s account to take over but also had the technical skills to take over her account so seamlessly.

Eve shook her head with a smile. “Not possible. The trackers would have followed them back to their own account.” She sounded significantly more confident of that than Lillian felt.

Lillian paused for a second, considering. “I need to talk to her.”

Eve sat up in the bed and swung her legs over the side. The movement looked perfectly natural all the way until the very end when she misjudged the distance to the floor ever so slightly and sunk in slightly.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” she asked. She stood, adjusting to actually stand on the floor. Lillian backed up. Intangible or not, Eve was still entirely too close for comfort.

“I’ve known her for years,” Lillian said. “It’ll be fine.” Although if she really was the one to break into my system… she though, perhaps I really don’t know her after all.

“But you didn’t know that she broke into your room,” Eve said eerie echoing her thoughts.

“But that’s just it,” countered Lillian, “I don’t know that. All I know is that your trackers say that she accessed my computer system.”

Eve nodded and stepped closer to Lillian again. She stepped back, bumping into her door. “At least call someone to go with you? Surely you have someone that will do that.”

Lillian considered it. “I’ll call someone to keep an eye from the hallway.” Jacobs would probably volunteer, she thought. And she’d be just inside if anyone tried anything. “I want to talk to her alone though.”

“Acceptable.” Eve finally backed away, sitting back down on the bed. She got it perfectly this time. She seemed to be getting the hang of her virtual body.

Lillian called Jacobs and asked if they could meet up. He sounded groggy, but hearing Lillian’s tone agreed. Then she called Madeline’s room. There was no answer.

She might be asleep already, she thought. But even if she is, I’m going to wake her up. This can’t wait.

“I’ll be back,” she said to Eve, who just nodded. If anything she looked bored and slightly distracted. She was staring at the ceiling of the room with a distinctly blank look on her face.

Lillian left to go pick up Jacobs.


He answered his door on the first knock. He looked tired, but awake enough. “So what’s up?”

“I’m worried about Madeline,” she admitted. A partial truth was good.

“Madeline?” He still sounded half-asleep, making him sound even more puzzled. “Why? Did something happen?”

Lillian shook her head. “I’m not sure. I need to talk to her though.” And that was more than just a partial truth, she really did need to clear this up with Madeline as soon as possible. Without that, it just seemed to be eating away at her from the inside.

“Then why are you here?” Jacobs said, looking at her quizzically.

“Call me paranoid. I wanted someone there.” It was close enough to the truth. “Someone to keep an eye on things.”

Jacobs considered and nodded. “I guess that’s reasonable. Given all that’s happened. Give me a second?”

He disappeared back into his room, leaving the door open. Lillian watched him dig through several of the piles on his floor–they seemed to have been rearranged since she’d last seen them; definitely not cleaner, but different. He seemed to be looking for something. Whatever it was, he found it at last under a pile of dirty jumpsuits. He has more dirty jumpsuits on the floor there than I even own, she thought. Out of curiosity, she tried to get a look at whatever he’d grabbed, but it was no use. It was in his pocket before she could get a good luck.

He turned and caught her watching. He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on it. “Shall we?” he asked instead.

“We shall.”


At Madeline’s, Lillian first tried ringing the door. When there wasn’t a response, she tried knocking lightly. Still no response. She knocked a little bit harder.

“Think she’s asleep?” Jacobs asked.

“I don’t know. I really need to talk with her though.” She knocked even harder, but it still didn’t help.

“You could try to get a security override,” he suggested after a moment.

“Or you could ask me.” Lillian spun around, but Eve was no-where to be seen. It was definitely her voice though.

“Eve?” she hissed.

“Eve?” Jacobs echoed. “Who’s Eve?”

“I’m tapping into your private comm,” she replied with a slight sigh in her voice. “He can’t hear me.”

“Why?” Lillian asked.

“You said it.” Jacobs was looking at Lillian as if she’d possibly lost her senses.

“Because I don’t want anyone to know that I exist,” Eve said without a moment’s hesitation.

“That’s not what I meant,” Lillian muttered back.

Jacobs was looking up and down the hallway now, trying to find who Lillian was talking to.

“You know,” Eve said into Lillian’s ear. “You could use the eye tracking input to send me a message. That way your friend over there wouldn’t think you’re quite as crazy.”

Right, she typed. It had been a while since she’d used the system, but it came back to her easily enough. Essentially, a series of letters was projected across her field of view that only she could see. She only had to focus on the letter she wanted to type it out. It was smart enough to guess at what she was trying to type as well, so that words got easier to spell out as she went.

She turned to Jacobs. “Sorry about that, I got a private message. It startled me, that’s all.”

He looked at her askance. “Who’s Eve?”

That’s an excellent question, she thought to herself. To Eve, she typed, so can you get the door open?

“Sure,” she replied. “You might want to make your boyfriend think you’re calling security though.”

“He’s not…” she started and realized she was talking out loud again. He’s not my boyfriend.

“Uh huh,” Eve replied, clearly not convinced.

“Who’s not?” Jacobs asked, the puzzled look more pronounced than ever.

“He’s probably not awake,” Lillian amended, thinking quickly. “I’ll call anyways.” I can make this work, she thought.

“Who?”

“Adrian,” she said. “I’ve been talking to him the past few days about the whole bombing and break in thing. I bet he could get an override.”

Jacobs nodded, finally looking like something had made sense to him.

“I’ll shoot him a message.” She started typing it up, letting her augs pick up her fingers wiggling as if she had a virtual keyboard. She wasn’t really sending a message to Adrian though, just leaving a note to herself that she could delete later. Eve? The door?

“Got it.”

There was a click from the door’s lock disengaging. Jacobs whistled softly to himself, “That was quick. What’d you say to him?”

“Not much,” Lillian responded. “Just that I needed into Madeline’s room.” She hated the lie, but didn’t want to waste any more time. She pushed the door open.

Madeline’s room screamed PINK. There were posters, mostly abstracts, in various shades of pink all over the walls and the ceiling. Her bedding was pink, as was several of the non-work outfits in her closet. Lillian had forgotten just how pink it was. Most of the time, they ended up at her own room, for whatever reason. It had probably been a month or more since she’d been here. But the one thing missing from the room was Madeline. She was nowhere to be seen.

Jacobs had stepped up behind her. If he had any comment on the room’s decor, he kept it to himself. “So where is she?” he asked.

“I… don’t know. I just thought she’d be here.” Eve, you have access to the ship’s security cameras, don’t you?

Her reply came almost instantly. “Yes.”

Can you find Madeline? The whole idea was a little creepy, having a sentient–for all intents and purposes at the very least–computer program with the ability to see anything that happened anywhere on the station, just as it was happening.

She heard a slight chuckle come through the line. “If I could see her on any of the cameras, do you think I’d have bothered opening the door without telling you?”

Good point, Lillian sent back. At the very least, she hoped that was the case. Come to think about it, she really didn’t know how Eve would react to a great number of situations that should probably be Can you go back and see if you can find where she last showed up on the cameras?**

“Give me a few seconds.” She already sounded distracted. “It would help if I could narrow down the search a bit.”

She was in my room just before I was talking to you. Lillian thought back, but that was the last time she’d seen her.

“Lillian?” Jacobs was watching her. He’d probably noticed her eyes going back and forth, typing out the messages.

“I’m seeing if we can find her on the ship’s security cameras.”

“We?” He eyed her suspiciously. “Who are you talking to.”

Lillian hesitated, but didn’t see any option but to continue the lie. “Adrian. He’s looking into it.”

“Got her,” Eve came back. “You’re not going to like it though.”

Oh? Lillian shot back, ignoring Jacobs again for the time being.

Eve paused for a moment before responding. “She’s in her room.”

Lillian felt her eyebrows creeping up. She looked around. Madeline was clearly no where to be seen. No she’s not.

“She left your room and came straight here.” Eve’s voice had taken on a defensive tone. “She hasn’t left. I’ve got both the camera logs and the door access logs to prove it.”

Jacobs followed Lillian’s gaze into the room. “She’s not in there…” he said dryly.

“Can you check again,” she asked. “just to be sure?”

To his credit, he didn’t question her. He merely nodded and walked into the room. She could hear the sounds of him pulling aside the bedding and opening the closet. He came back a moment later. “Nothing.” His expression was unnaturally neutral.

Eve? Lillian asked.

Eve was silent for so long that Lillian thought she’d gone. “I don’t understand,” she said at last. “She’s in there all right.”

“This is just getting weird,” Lillian said aloud.

“You’ve got that right. What’d Adrian say?” he replied.

“That’s she’s in there,” Lillian said. She was getting a sinking feeling that her lies were about to come tumbling down around here, but it was too late to change her story now. “The cameras and access logs say that she came here right after leaving my room and hasn’t left.”

“But she’s not,” he replied, voice still dry. “I checked. You know as well as I do that there’s not exactly anywhere to hide in our rooms. Even for someone Madeline’s size.”

Lillian nodded agreement. “I think we need to report this to security.”

Jacobs’ eye narrowed. “I thought you’d been talking to Adrian?”

“Careful…” Eve hissed in her ear.

Lillian blushed. “Yes, but officially. We should go down to his office.”

“And what about when he doesn’t know a thing about unlocking the door for you?” Eve said.

Dang. Can you send him the requests as me? Hopefully he’ll open the door by the time we get there and we can work this all out.

“I don’t like it,” she replied. “The timing will be all off if anyone bothers to think about it.” When Lillian wasn’t forthcoming with anything more, there was an audible sigh over the line–how does she sigh without lungs? Lillian thought–before she continued. “Fine. I’ll do it. Just try not to dig yourself in any deeper.”

Lillian rolled her eyes–carefully not looking at Jacobs as she did, that would have been interesting to explain–and spoke to Jacobs, who was looking at her impatiently. “Can we stop by my room on the way? I want to pick something up.”

He was still watching her silently, an intent look on his face. “That’s kind of not on the way at all. What do you need to pick up?”

Lillian thought fast. She remembered something that Eve had mentioned earlier. “The physical disk that stores by door’s access logs. He said that I should bring it over when I had a chance to see if whoever broke in had missed it.” He hadn’t actually requested them, but hopefully they wouldn’t even come up.

“But now?” Jacobs asked. He had a point, with Madeline missing it really wasn’t the best time. But then again, time was the whole issue. It would look suspicious if they arrived at his office so soon after Eve’s faked messages.

“We’re going to see Adrian anyways. Come on.” She started back to her room, hoping that he’d follow. He looked reluctantly back at Madeline’s door. The second time he’d come out, he’d closed it behind him, but Lillian could feel the same pull that he must have been feeling. Hopefully there wasn’t anything wrong…


Adrian was in his office when they got there, although he was no longer in uniform. He stood and greeted them as they walked in.

“So how’s Madeline? I trust you found her well?”

Lillian heaved an internal sigh of relief. Eve had gotten through to him in plenty of time it seemed.. “Um, that’s what we’re here to talk to you about. She wasn’t there.”

He looked as confused as Eve had sounded. “But she has to be. The access logs and cameras don’t show her leaving again.”

“Exactly, that’s why we came here,” Jacobs said.

Adrian looked at him strangely–crap, there’s a loose end, Lillian thought–but he didn’t say anything. “But she can’t have just vanished. Let me check the cameras now.”

He rolled over to the physical display on his desk and started typing a rapid fire sequence of commands. The images flashed by so quickly that Lillian wasn’t sure how he could have seen a thing in them, but he seemed to know what he was doing.

His typing ceased and he turned to look back at the pair of them. “Nope. Nowhere to be seen.”

A chill ran up Lillian’s spine. “Then where is she?”

Adrian looked worried. “I don’t know. You two stay here. I’m going to wake up Johnson.”


He was back in minutes, with not just Johnson but what looked the entire security staff–half a dozen all told. Two were in the black jumpsuits of the security staff, but the rest–Adrian and Johnson included–were clothed in more casual garb. Several were obviously not completely awake and were rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

Johnson turned to Lillian and Jacobs immediately on entering the room. “I hear your friend is missing?”

“Yes sir.” Jacobs answered, perhaps a little more quietly than he normally would.

“By every indication, she should be in her room.”

“Correct,” Adrian answered this time. “Lillian here saw her last about… an hour would you say?” Lillian nodded. “An hour before going to check on her.”

Johnson rounded on Lillian. “And why did you go check on her?”

“Just a bad feeling,” she half-lied. “It’s been that kind of week.”

“And you’ve called for her on the comms?” he asked.

Lillian stood there with her mouth hanging slightly open, thinking, that’s so obvious. Why didn’t I try that? Luckily, she was saved by Jacobs’ responding with an entirely confident sounding affirmative.

He nodded at her. For a long moment, he stood looking, as though he was contemplating something, but then he turned to his staff without a word. “I want you to search the ship. Top to bottom. Try not to alarm anyone, but check everywhere. If someone’s in their room and doesn’t want to let you in, call me up and I’ll deal with them. Everyone in pairs.” His gaze included both Lillian and Jacobs. “You two reported her and we could use the manpower. Care to join us?”

Lillian nodded emphatically, Jacobs right after her. She had a few questions to ask of Madeline.

“Okay, Lillian, you go with Bailey.” He nodded to Adrian. “Jacobs, you’re with Watkins.” He pointed at the silent lady that had gone with Madeline and Lillian after the first bombing. He paired off with one of the other security staff–an older gentlemen that seemed to have more puckered scars on his face than just skin–and sent the other two off together. “Baily, get the storage section. Watkins, command and communication. We’ll take the living quarters. You two have the rest.”

There was a collection of ‘yes sir’s, nods, and half salutes as the security staff started to disperse out the door. Adrian pulled Lillian back just as she started to head out, jerking her back hard enough that her head snapped around uncomfortably. The snap also had the side effect of making them the last through this particular door. so that they were the last out the door.

“Lillian, I have to ask you a question,” he said once she’d calmed enough to make out the entire

“Yes?” she replied as innocently as she could, although it sounded hollow to her ears. Did he somehow find out about Eve? Or Jacobs’ binders?

“If you had some reason to believe that Madeline was definitely in serious trouble, you would tell me. Right?”

Lillian hesitated. “I’d say missing without any indication of how she could have disappeared is pretty serious trouble.”

Adrian considered it. “I mean if you have anything more concrete. Anything you know that you aren’t telling me.”

“If I think of anything that you need to know, I’ll tell you.”

He nodded. “Good.” She couldn’t tell if he believed her or not, but then again, it really didn’t seem to matter that overly much. They had more important issues to deal with. “Let’s go search the storage rooms then.”


The search was painstakingly slow. Most of the rooms were easy enough, Adrian’s access code would let them right in. But each room took time. Time to double check behind shelves. Time to check the larger containers and bins. It was unlikely that she was stowed away in one of the containers, but as far as anyone was concerned it wasn’t possible that she wasn’t in her room to begin with. So they weren’t taking any chances.

Every once in a while, they would get to a room where Adrian’s code didn’t open the room. When that happened, he had to log a security request on his computer and wait for Johnson to confirm the override. It didn’t take long, but any time at all was still to long in Lillian’s estimation.

“Why doesn’t he just give you some sort of blanket override?” Lillian asked after the third time they’d had to wait for confirmation.

“I don’t know if he can. The security system is pretty tight.” He smiled at her. “I would know.”

“I guess,” she shrugged. “It just seems slow.”

He nodded his agreement, but didn’t seem willing to concede that such a thing would actually be a good idea. “Well what if the bomber somehow got access to that same override? They could plant bombs anywhere at all.”

“They don’t seem to have had much problem doing that anyways,” Lillian replied. She thought that she had been tactful, but Adrian’s face darkened as she spoke.

“Both bombings where in publicly accessible areas,” he started, but it didn’t sound like he even believed that it really mattered. Public areas or not, they had still gone right through his system.

“And under the watchful eyes of your security cameras…” Lillian pointed out.

“Sure,” he replied. “But whoever did it knew how to blank out the cameras. When we loaded the logs afterwards, we didn’t see a thing.”

“Like we can’t see Madeline?” Lillian asked.

“Exactly,” he said, but after a moment he went on. “Except that you should have been able to see her when you checked yourself. You can’t exactly hide from the naked eye after all.”

But Lillian wasn’t quite sure. Eve could after all. Not that it mattered, it wasn’t something she was keen to bring up with anyone right now, let alone Adrian.

The next room to check was the room where Lillian had first found Eve. A chill ran up Lillian’s spine. For some reason, she really didn’t want to have to check that room. That’s where they’d found Jenkins, she realized after a moment. What if Madeline’s in there now? I don’t think I could stand it… Logically, she knew that the idea was silly. Jenkins had killed himself, right? There was no logical reason that Madeline would do the same.

Adrian tried his access code. It didn’t work. He started to call for another override when Lillian reached past him and entered her own code. Just as it had before, the room opened without issue.

He turned to stare at her with a puzzled expression on his face. “You have your own storeroom?”

“I guess so. I just discovered a few days ago that my code opens it.” Just so long as he didn’t ask how she had discovered that particular fact. “There’s nothing in here though.”

She swung the door wide open. For a moment, an irrational fear spiked through here–the universe would conspire against here, the room wouldn’t be empty at all–but ultimately, she was proven correct. The room was completely empty, with the only exception being the table Eve’s case had once stood on. The whole room was still glaringly white and clean.

“Interesting room,” he commented. “Isn’t this where they found that cook? Jenkins was it?” Lillian’s voice failed her–all she could do was nod. “And you have the access code for it.” Another nodded. “Strange.” He shrugged. “But she’s not here.”

Lillian looked around the room. It had a history of things being that that didn’t appear to be. But still, it wasn’t exactly a complicated room. The only way that she could possibly be hiding would be if she had suddenly gotten much thinner. Inhumanly so, in fact, to fit behind that table. So no Madeline.

They finished the last few rooms without trouble. Adrian’s code worked on all of them, so it took only minutes. And still no Madeline. There hadn’t been any reports from the other teams, so Lillian assumed that they hadn’t found her either.

“Now what?” she asked Adrian.

“Now we go back to security and see what everyone else has to see.” He seemed even more worried. “But it really looks like she doesn’t want to be found.”

“Or was well hidden.” She shuddered.

“Or well hidden,” he agreed. She thought she saw the ghost of a shudder from him as well.


They were the first back to the security office, although the two guards that had been checking the nearest quarter of the ship returned only minutes afterward. They spoke quietly with Adrian, but Lillian could tell from the way they were talking that they hadn’t found anything either.

It’s not that large of a ship, Lillian thought. Where in the world could she be?

With Adrian busy, she had no-one to talk to, so she decided to contact Eve. She used the eye tracking software again–if she could talk to anyone about her, it would be Madeline, not Adrian.

Eve? she typed quickly.

There was a slight delay and then, “Yes Lillian?”

We’ve been looking for Madeline, she typed. Her eyes hesitated for a moment as the oddity of the whole situation sunk in. She was talking to an AI… After a moment more, she suppressed the thought. It wasn’t going to help her find Madeline. She could deal with that later. So far we haven’t had any luck.

“I know,” Eve’s voice came back almost immediately. “I’ve been watching the search from here.”

That’s useful, she thought. It’s a pity know one knows about her though. She could probably have cut down a lot of our organization time. Oh well, I guess I can still learn a little… How are the other two teams doing?

“Your friend–Jacobs is his name, yes?–is heading back right now. He should be there shortly. Johnson is still looking. Maybe another 10 minutes for him.”

Yet no word of Madeline. How can she have just disappeared like that? she typed, without really expecting an answer.

“If I didn’t know better…” Eve started, but cut off. “But no…”

What? Lillian asked. Whatever it was, it was better than what they were going on now.

Eve’s response was slow in coming, but eventually she did reply, choosing her words carefully as she did. “She could have a cloak like mine.”

Lillian gasped at the idea, earning a surprised look from Adrian. She shrugged at him in what she hoped was a non-committal manner. After a moment, he turned back to the others.

She’d thought about it back in the storeroom, but dismissed it out of hand. Such things just didn’t exist. There’d been work for years on trying to hide things from sight, but they always needed very special circumstances or a rather impressive collection of hardware that just wasn’t feasible for realistic use.

Is that possible? she asked as her brain frantically churned away at the idea. No man or woman had ever managed to build cloaking technology that actually worked, but then again Eve claimed to have been built from technology other than mankind’s own. Lillian made a mental note to ask Eve more about where she had come from as soon as she could.

“Well, no” Eve admitted. “It shouldn’t be.”

Because it’s not human technology, Lillian finished for her.

“Exactly,” Eve said.

Lillian sighed, earning her a look from Adrian across the room. You’re going to have to tell me what you know about these aliens at some point.

“Yes,” Eve said. There was an interesting twist to the word. “I am. That’s actually one of the primary goals I was given before being shut in that case.”

Really?

“Yes,” Eve said again. “By your father. He instructed me to pass along all of the information he’d gathered.”

About what? Lillian asked.

“That’s really a story for another time,” Eve responded before going quiet.

Adrian had finished his conversation and was heading over to Lillian, so she had to agree. She was distracted enough without an impossible piece of technology chatting away in her ear.

Later then, Lillian replied.

As Adrian reached her, Johnson and his partner came into the room. There was a quick exchange of glances and shaken heads between Adrian and Johnson as he came over to stand with Lillian and Adrian.

“Nothing?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Adrian replied. “We can only hope that the last time had more luck.”

“I’ll call them up.” He tapped his comm. “Johnson to Watkins, report.”

There was a faint crackle of static on the line, but otherwise nothing.

“Watkins, report,” he repeated.

Still nothing.

He looked over at Adrian with flat eyes while trying another approach. “Johnson to Jacobs, do you read me?”

His comm remained silent.

Lillian could feel a chill running up her spine. First Madeline and now Jacobs? It couldn’t be. She tried her own comm. “Jacobs, are you there?”

Still no answer.

She turned to the security guards. The rest had come over to join their boss as they’d been talking. They were all subdued, having picked up on his mood. After a moment, he said. “It’s probably nothing. They’re just too busy checking the rooms.”

“Watkins, sir?” The disbelief was clear in Adrian’s voice. “Never.”

He sighed. “You’re right. This night is getting too strange for me. They were in this section, right?”

“Command and communications, yes sir.” One of the guards that Lillian didn’t know answered him.

“And when was the last time anyone saw them?” There was the beginnings of a dangerous glint in his eyes.

They all looked at each other, but no one answered.

“When we left here?” he asked with an edge in his voice.

Nods all around.

“Then they can’t be far,” he continued. Of course they can’t be far, Lillian thought mutinously. There’s no where to go. “We’re at one end of the section, so we’ll all go together. Surely we can’t all go missing.

All the while, Lillian had been subtly trying to reopen the line to Eve. She finally got the system ready to send the message. Eve?

Her voice came back immediately. “Yes, Lillian.”

Have you been following this? Although she had a feeling she already knew the answer.

“Yes,” she replied. “And before you ask, I don’t know where he is.”

How is that possible?

“Quite frankly, it shouldn’t be.” Eve chose There weren’t more than a few fractions of a second where I didn’t have enough attention to spare to keep an eye on all of you.”

Lillian took a second to digest that. Apparently Eve was quite a multitasker, but still had her limits. That was something good to know. Where did you lose them?

Eve considered for no more than a second before responding. “About 10 minutes after they started searching. They were in the communication center, looking under the desks. Jacobs crawled under one first. When he didn’t come out, Watkins called after him then crawled in as well. Neither ever came out.”

And you can’t see under the desks? Another limitation…

“I can only see what the ship’s cameras can see,” Eve admitted. “There are several available, but none of them cover that particular section of the room.”

Lillian shuddered. Thanks. Keep me posted if you see anything else?

“Can do. And Lillian?”

Yes?

“Be careful.”

Always.

By this time, the group was moving. For the most part, Lillian stayed in the back with Adrian. He was watching back down the hall to make sure that no-one snuck up on them.

He seemed out of sorts, so Lillian tapped his shoulder to get his attention. He jumped slightly at the touch and one hand went to his waist. He wasn’t wearing a gun though, none of them were. Shipboard policy prohibited them, except in extreme cases–which would require the authorization of both the Head of Security and the Commander.

“Has anyone checked that cameras?” Lillian asked.

He shook his head. “No. After Madeline vanished without a trace on the cameras, I don’t think Johnson quite trusts them anymore. I can’t say that I blame him either.”

Lillian shook her head in agreement. “It could at least show us their last location,” she suggested.

He shrugged. “That’s true, but we’d need to be at one of the security terminals to do it easily. It’s not something I can bring up on my augs and still be able to walk.”

Lillian nodded. They’d just reached the communication center, so the point was mostly unimportant anyways. Either they would find Watkins and Jacobs or they wouldn’t.

Johnson went in first, followed by the trio that Lillian hadn’t really met. Adrian gestured for Lillian to go next and followed her in. There wasn’t actually anyone on duty in the communications center, there rarely was. For on-board communication, the ship’s systems could run themselves without any trouble. Other than that, there really wasn’t anyone to talk to unless the gate was active. Then the communication center would be bustling, constantly correcting the slight but rather annoying distortions the gate imposed on radio signals.

They spread out to search the room. It so happened that Lillian ended up looking in the aisle where the cameras had last seen Jacobs and Watkins. She got to the desk where they’d disappeared and looked underneath it.

“Adrian, Johnson, get over her now,” she yelled. They both snapped to her, Johnson with a look of surprise on his face–probably at her tone–and Adrian with a look of concern. “And someone call a medical team.”

Jacobs and Watkins were both lying under the desk. Jacobs was mostly lined up with the back of the desks and Watkins had fallen with her head on his side. Neither was moving a muscle, so far as Lillian could tell. She couldn’t even tell if they were breathing.

She scuttled forward. She heard a crash and cursing from behind her. It sounded like Adrian had taken out one of the comm stations on his way to her. But it just wasn’t important. She reached for Jacobs and felt for a pulse. She breathed a massive sigh of relief when she found one. Judging from the little she knew, it was weaker than it should be, but it was there. She let her head fall to the floor and took a deep breath of relief.

“What the… Are they all right?” she heard Adrian right behind her. He must have vaulted over at least one row of desks to get to her that quickly. At least that explained the crashing sounds.

“He’s alive.” She reached out for Watkins again, but she was close enough now to see the slower rise and fall of her chest. She looked like she was in a deep sleep. “So’s she. They’re out though.”

Adrian rested a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you come out from there. Medical will be here shortly.”

Lillian suddenly realized that she was shaking. From fear of what had happened or anger at the strangeness of the whole situation, she wasn’t sure. She scooted her way back out, keeping an eye on Jacobs. He skin was unnaturally pale.

Johnson arrived around the corner of the desks, breathing hard. He’d been searching the far side of the room and had to have gone around several rows to get her. He repeated Adrian’s question word for word. Adrian spared her having to answer by conveying what he knew back to Johnson. He nodded and got down on his knees to inspect the pair.

“Sir?” Adrian asked. He had the tone that implied he had a question but wasn’t sure that he should ask it.

Johnson turned back to look at him.

“You did actually check Madeline’s room, didn’t you?” Overall, his voice was respectful, but there was a strong undercurrent to it.

He stood for a second, almost completely still, then shook his head. “Didn’t see any point. Ms. Shaw here said she wasn’t there when she kicked off this whole mess. We were already running behind waking up all of the people that were already in bed, so I decided to skip it.”

“I think we should check it,” Adrian said, somehow making it sound more of an offhand comment than a direct suggestion.

Johnson looked puzzled. “Why? She wasn’t there.”

Adrian gestured to something that Lillian couldn’t see. Whatever it was, he’d sent it to Johnson though, because he was nodding. “You see how Jacobs and Watkins are looking under the desk. This very desk.”

“Sure…”

“And there,” he made a quick gesture with one hand and then the gesture that would rewind a video playing on your augs. Then forward again, in slow motion. “Right there.”

Johnson’s head jerked in surprise. “Play that again.”

Adrian repeated the gestures.

“Go. Take Akers and Ms. Shaw. Keep in constant radio communication.”

“Yes sir.” Lillian and one of the younger security guards–Akers, she assumed–were already on their feet. She was torn between staying with Jacobs and going back to Madeline, but she figured that he was probably in good hands with Johnson. And a pair of medics had just arrived, so he would surely be taken care of. Adrian got to his feet as well and led at a quick walk out of the room. When he passed the medics, he grabbed one by the arm. They exchanged a few words on the go. The medic came with them. In the hallway, he lengthened his stride to a jog.

“What was that?” Lillian said while they ran.

“I brought up the videos while we were scanning the room. Call it a hunch. You got me thinking about it. I saw them go under the desk.”

Lillian nodded. She’d seen it as well, but couldn’t very well tell Adrian that.

“But right before Watkins was all of the way under the desk,” he continued, “she vanished.”

Lillian misplaced a step and almost tripped, but Adrian caught hold of her arm and pulled her upright without even breaking his stride.

“She what?” Lillian asked.

“She vanished. And not under the desk either. I could still see the soles of her boot. Then there was a slight shudder in the video feed and it vanished.”

“You mean she slid under the desk.”

“No, even with the shake, I would have seen that. She vanished.”

Lillian didn’t know how to respond. Neither did Akers, he was just watching Adrian intently. The medic Adrian had grabbed looked completely baffled. Lillian realized that he probably didn’t know a thing about the whole situation. After a moment, Adrian went on. “And then when you screamed, I jumped over one of the consoles to see what happened.”

“I heard that.”

He blushed slightly, but continued. “When you said they were ok, I skipped ahead to when we’d found them in the camera logs and ran them backwards.”

Lillian nodded. She could guess what was coming next.

“They came back,” he confirmed it. “About 5 minutes before we got there. Her boot reappeared in just the same place that it had been when she’d vanished.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Akers called from slightly behind them. “People don’t just vanish.”

Lillian thought of Eve. Maybe they do. Out loud, she asked, “and Eve?”

“I figure if they disappeared for a bit, maybe she did as well. If the time frame is the same, she’d be back now.”

“And if she’s unconscious, like those two?”

“That’s why I brought him along,” he nodded back to the medic who was jogging along a pace behind Akers. He had the long wavy blonde hair and shocking blue eyes that Lillian was sure would have distracted her plenty in any other situation, but Madeline was at stake. And even if they hadn’t been such close friends, she needed answers. Why had Madeline been in her computer system?

As they neared her door, she heard Adrian calling for a security override on the run. It was granted instantly, Johnson must have been waiting for it. Adrian slid to a halt in front of Madeline’s door a split second before Lillian got there and slid it open.

Madeline was back.

“Where’s the fire?” She was in some sort of yoga pose in the center of her bed. She looked remarkably calm for having Adrian, then Lillian, and then two additional grown men all pile into her room in the space of a few seconds. It was suddenly extremely crowded.

“Madeline?” Lillian asked in surprise.

“None other.”

Adrian was stuttering slightly, but nothing clear was coming out. Akers was staring at Madeline in surprise. The medic had one hand on his belt–bulked with supplies in much the same way that Lillian’s own would be on the job–and looked slightly lost.

Lillian looked sideways at Adrian and then back at Madeline. “Are you alright?”

“Never better.” Her voice was remarkably dry. “I have the distinct feeling that I may have missed something.”

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