After an accident, the only way star pilot Rory Tennyson can pay back the company that replaced her damaged body parts is to captain a trip to the faraway ice world, Zaidor. As it turns out, the most intriguing thing about the journey is the starship itself and the interactions she has with its computer system. While sleeping during transit, Rory also has mysterious dreams of a beautiful woman who seems oddly connected to everything. But Rory's dreams are the least of her worries, because on the return home, strange entities appear and suddenly threaten the safety of everyone on board. The only hope to combat the situation seems to lie within the memory banks of a deceased star pilot, Antonnia Hushley--a woman who has a compelling and mysterious link to the ship's onboard computer system.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This is an extensively re-written and re-edited title.
The icy road glittered and the early morning sun gave it a pinkish hue. Rory thought it was kind of pretty as she prepared to leave. A few moments passed then she cocked her head and snapped the visor down on her helmet with a solid click. She tightened her hands and gunned the engine of her thrumming road bike then roared toward the shimmering hills.
It was a shame she'd underestimated the ice, the traction of her new tires, and her ability to keep such a heavy bike upright in a minor crisis. The X41 skittered into the path of an oncoming utility truck and narrowly missed a potential sideswipe. It might have righted itself after this minor event; however, its momentum kept it barreling forward until the front wheel met a series of hidden corrugated bumps, slick with melted ice.
Through the thickness of her helmet she heard the scratching, tearing sound the bike made over the road. The landscape seemed to cartwheel past in a surreal blur that made it hard to stay anchored, and although she could hear the snaps of bone on tarmac, it all happened too fast to register physical pain or injury. She had just enough time before she lost consciousness to wonder who would take care of everything now.
So had come the sudden end to her holiday that hadn't even started yet. She woke up several weeks later in a specialized unit with several strangers standing over her. They weren't faces she could remember, so she waited for an explanation.
"Welcome back. Harry Wilson's my name." A white-lab-coated man with intense brown eyes thrust an arm out then shook her hand, only his touch didn't feel quite right. Rory looked down then yelped with alarm.
"I told you this would be a shock for her." Another lab-coated man with glasses and dark eyes said to the third bystander.
"Well, we're not responsible for her reaction," the third man, twitchy and nervous-looking, answered in a worried tone.
"Where's my hand?" Rory yelled at the bedside gathering.
"Calm down, Miss Tennyson. Yes, you're missing a few of your own pieces, but the scientists here at CyberGeni have replaced all your missing parts. You're in fine form and lucky to be alive and kicking. Twenty years ago, you'd be fish food."
Rory growled at the distasteful comment. "Explain!" She glared at the three lab coats as they leaned over her. This had better be good because she was fit to commit murder right now, after discovering how much of her original flesh was missing.
"You had an accident on your bike," the one called Harry explained, "and lost a few bits, but we've replaced them all. Seems your right side took the worst of the impact. We had to replace your right hand and most of your right hip joint and knee. You also suffered some permanent damage to your ear canal, which has been taken care of." He stopped his little speech and waited for her to answer.
"Oh, really?" Rory was tempted to roll her eyes. Not so long ago she'd heard about the new cyber parts available to accident victims unable to pay for lab-grown organic ones. She even had some friends with a few new bits. But she'd never imagined she might end up with some extra parts herself, at least not until she became so decrepit with age that she could barely walk anymore. A sigh of exasperation leaked from her lips as she looked down and wriggled her fingers. Surprisingly, the artificial replacements for muscles, tissues, and bones responded almost as well as an organic hand would have.
"My hand is connected to my brain artificially?" She stared at the men and wondered how much of her brain they had claim to now.
"Well, basically your brain is still your own," the thin young man explained, as if he'd read her thoughts. "But umm...you can use your new hand to access artificial systems programmed for your use."
"I see." Rory stared gloomily around the room. "How long is this going to take me to pay off?" The rest of my life, most likely. All of it sounded too stupid for words. She closed her eyes then took a deep breath and steeled herself for the answer.
"Well"--Harry's voice crackled in her new state-of-the-art hearing system as he leaned in too close--"this can all be paid off rather quickly if you agree to do a flight to Zaidor in a few weeks. The government has had trouble filling the position, but someone like you could work off your debt if you want to accept it."
"Oh my gods, is this a joke?" The idea was so abysmal that she had to close her eyes. CyberGeni was known for giving undesirable jobs to recipients in exchange for paying off enhancements. With that in mind, she couldn't help worrying that a sudden lapse in concentration a few weeks ago would soon see her sent to the far reaches of space on a rust bucket to collect moonbeams in a sieve.
"And I just happen to be a pilot," Harry informed her. A long, awkward silence fell across the room. Some instinct warned her that the three scientists were hesitant to come forth with the whole truth.
"What will I be bringing back, and what's the cargo I'm taking out there?"
"The usual--fuels, food items, textiles, and er...brides."
"Brides!" Rory's eyes widened. Are they freaking mad? She raked her hand through her hair and wondered if she was hearing things.
"Well...uh...there was a request from Zaidor for, um...healthy singletons, and we seem to have a bunch of volunteers willing to give such an adventure a go right now."
"Rounded up from some local lunatic asylum, no doubt." Rory groaned. "No sane individual would want to go out to a world that is so cold that it's practically stuck in the stone age. And those poor Zaidoreans... Do they know what they're getting?"
"Excuse me. The volunteers are very sound citizens with no ulterior motives. I resent any suggestion otherwise. Now, do you want the job or not?"
"I guess if I want to pay off my new parts as soon as possible then I'd be a fool not to accept your offer," she replied.
Her fate was sealed. The ship she'd been given captaincy of--the Manifestum--would begin travel to Zaidor within a week. Unbelievable, really.