When Cora rebooted, the first thing she heard was Kim’s voice.
She turned over and scrambled backward until she bumped into a wall, glancing around frantically, expecting to find herself in the middle of a lobotomization procedure. What she found was Chechik’s security team fanning out across the hub and Kim reaching out to her.
“Take it easy! We got him.” Kim crouched beside her and held her hand. “Thanks to you, we got him.”
Cora turned to the tunnel she’d tried to enter and found Deus Vult sprawled on the ground with the EMP device stuck to his abdomen.
“It’s over,” Kim whispered. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Cora sat up and put her arms around Kim and just held her for a long moment. When they parted, Kim gave her a peck on the lips, nodded toward Vult, and grinned.
“You woke up just in time to watch me cut his brain out. Come on.” She helped Cora to her feet and led her over to the terrorist. “Glad we had the gadget Willy threw together. This bastard was tough. One of us had to keep zapping him every few seconds to keep him down long enough for me to grab the doohickey and stick it to him.”
“Sorry I missed it, but I’m thankful it was done.” Cora spotted Chechik standing in the tunnel entrance and keeping his back to the captive humans. She walked up to him and spoke softly. “Are they going to be okay?”
“Eventually. The poor woman who doesn’t have any clothes is probably going to have the roughest time ahead. We’ve got a trauma team incoming and we’re trying to find her something to wear.”
Cora slipped her coat off and took a step past him. Several of the humans flinched and the naked woman sobbed. Cora stopped, raised one hand, sank to her knees, and held the coat out to her. The woman stared at her.
“I’m so sorry for what happened to you. We’ll take you back home as soon as we can. In the meantime … well, here.” She glanced at the coat but didn’t move any closer.
Another woman finally crawled over, took the coat, and passed it to the naked woman.
“Thank you.” Cora turned away, scooted over to Kim, and sat cross-legged on the ground, doing whatever she could to appear non-threatening. She watched Kim cut a square section out of Deus Vult’s torso with a thermal lance and then reach in to extract the case that contained his processor and memory modules.
“There. This scumbag is officially under arrest.” Kim passed the case off to one of Chechik’s guys and helped Cora up again. Chechik walked over to them and put a hand on their shoulders.
“You can head on back to the station if you want. We mopped up the rest of Vult’s crew, so we’ll be packing up as soon as the medical team picks up the injured.” He smiled. “You did good. You deserve a little peace and quiet. I’ll meet you back in the office.”
“Thanks.” Kim gave Cora’s hand a gentle tug and led her out of the hub. Cora followed along, lost in thought, until they returned to the surface and made their way to the security station. Kim led her to a break room and guided her to a sofa in the far corner.
Willy poked his head through the door, broke into a relieved grin when he saw them, and rushed over.
“I’m glad to see you both.” He gave each of them a hug before they sank down onto the sofa. “Dad called while you were on the way over. Said you went through a lot.”
“The things I said, mostly.” Cora shook her head. “They were so repugnant. I don’t ever want to do anything like that again.”
“You only did what you needed to get Deus Vult to lower his guard enough to let you get close enough to nail him.” Willy put an arm around her shoulders.
“But it didn’t work. He already knew it was a ruse and was just waiting for me to get within reach.” Cora shivered. “There’s more to it, though. I wanted to do this to take him down, but when he got the advantage, I fell apart completely. I was so helpless and so afraid. More than I’ve ever been before.”
Willy’s dad appeared in the doorway, waved, perched on the edge of an armchair across the room, and leaned forward.
“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You were in a situation you’d never faced before. I think you did pretty well, considering.”
“I begged him not to reprogram me. I couldn’t bear to end up as one of his tools. I would’ve preferred to die.” Cora stared at the floor and tried to keep her thoughts far away from that moment. It didn’t work. “I couldn’t even move. Couldn’t stop anything he was about to do. And I panicked.”
Chechik thought something over and looked into her optics. “When I was a little kid, I was one of the school bullies’ favorite targets. They were everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, and the teachers were never able to catch them in the act. I tried fighting them off once and they beat the living shit out of me. It was such a thorough stomping, I ended up in the hospital. Nothing was ever done about them, and when I went back to school, they picked up where they left off, and there was nothing I could do about it. Several times, it was so bad that I ended up crying. Which, of course, only made everything even worse.”
They stared back at him, mouths hanging open. He shrugged.
“I know there’s no comparison to what happened to Cora, but to a little kid whose age is still measured in a single digit, it feels just as bad. All we can do, though, is move forward. The lucky ones have friends who can help them through it.”
Kim nodded slowly and glanced back and forth between him and Cora.
“How I got this body was … well, it was pretty rough. When I was seventeen, some friends and I had a stalker. One night, he followed two of us into a park and stabbed both of us. The blade was coated with a nanotech agent that started shutting my organs down. Some extreme experimental technologies had to be brought in to keep me alive. After a while, those stopped working and my brain had to be installed in a robotic body, but at least I survived. My friend wasn’t that lucky. She bled out right there in the park.”
“Oh, no,” Willy said softly. “I’m sorry.”
Cora leaned over and put an arm around her.
“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through, but I had friends who were there for me.” She patted Cora’s hand. “So do you. Maybe when our ship is repaired, we can find something that needs to be hauled back to Earth and we can go see them while we’re there.”
“I’d like that. Thanks.”
“In the meantime,” Chechik said, “you can send us a copy of everything your eyes and sensors picked up when you went into the tunnels. Just excerpt it by date and time stamp, so you don’t have to see any of it all over again.”
Cora nodded. “Ready.”
He took his comm out of his pocket. “Okay, let ’er rip.”
Cora transferred the file.
“Thanks. Now, you should go get some rest.” He grinned at his son. “You three were planning a date anyway, so maybe you can let ’em stay at your place while their ship is being fixed. Get their minds off what went down today.”
“I’ve got a small office at the shop that I use as an apartment. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to open up a shop. This way, I don’t have to share any bunks with anyone. Although …”
Kim chuckled. “You wouldn’t mind sharing a bed with us? I wouldn’t mind, either. How about you, Cora?”
Cora managed a smile. “We were planning to end up in bed sooner or later, anyway, so, sure.”
“We can have dinner and a movie first if you want. Cora probably doesn’t need a whirlwind romance right now.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Kim nudged Cora’s shoulder.
“Yes, that sounds like a good start. We’ll see where things go later tonight.”
Willy grinned, stood, and tossed a quick wave at his dad. “If you’ll excuse us.”
“Of course.” Chechik grinned back and headed for his office. “Go on, show the ladies a good time.”
The three returned to Willy’s Wares, taking their time, not rushing anything. Cora’s unease faded as they took in the sights. Finally, she was able to laugh softly.
“We arrived and immediately fell into a huge mess. At least we’ll get to make up for it over the next few days.”
“I’m definitely hoping to play a big part in that.” Willy entered his shop, took a quick look around, and sighed. “Looks like nothing’s been stolen. That’s a step up from the past few hours.”
Kim grinned and held Cora’s hand while Willy slid the main door down and locked it.
“There.” He let out a slow breath and motioned at the workshop door. “Closing time.”
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