“Marco looked. Nearby was a table of STC officers, all in navy blue uniforms, golden insignias sewn onto their sleeves. At the end of the table sat a tall woman that Marco had to admit was indeed beautiful—achingly so. She had alabaster skin, a platinum bob cut, and features that could convince Marco that God existed and was a sculptor. Yet there was something indeed icy about her too. Something eerie. She wore no insignia, and she ate nothing, didn’t even sit in front of a plate.
The woman seemed to feel them staring. She turned her head, and she stared right at Marco. Her eyes were lavender, the color of scum miasma, and seemed to penetrate Marco.
He and Elvis quickly looked away.
"Oh shit," Elvis whispered under his breath. "Why did you stare? Just glance, never stare." He gulped. "She’s coming over. Oh God, she’s coming over." He passed his hand through his hair. "How do I look? I stand a chance with her, right, Poet? I—"
The woman came to stand by their table. She leaned down. She stared at Marco, then at Elvis. Her skin was perfectly smooth, almost waxy, deathlike. Her eyes were almost luminous, almost inhuman.
"You stink of scum," she said, voice emotionless.
Elvis cleared his throat and rose to his feet. "Um, it’s actually Hammer body spray. Do you like it? The commercials promised me that women would chase me, and—"
The woman’s hand lashed out. She grabbed Elvis by the throat and squeezed.
"Section Three, article four, Enlisted Soldier’s Handbook ," the woman said, voice monotone. "Soldiers of the HDF may not wear perfumes, and all soaps and aftershaves must be odorless."
"Whoa, hold on!" Addy said, leaping to her feet, and tried to pull the woman back. Elvis was gasping for breath, trying to pull the woman’s hand off his throat, but seemed powerless to stop her. When Marco grabbed the woman, she lashed her free hand against him. She was amazingly strong, knocking Marco onto the table. Plastic plates clattered to the floor. When Addy attempted to pull Elvis free, she too was knocked down. Soon their entire squad was on their feet, then the entire mess.
One voice, louder than the others, tore across the hall.
"Osiris! Release him!"
Instantly the tall woman with platinum hair opened her hand. Elvis fell to the floor, gasping for air.
"So," Elvis managed to croak, "does that mean you’ll date me?"
They all turned toward the doorway; the voice had come from there. Across the mess hall, the soldiers rose and stood at attention.
Captain Petty walked through the hall, approaching Marco’s table.
"Who antagonized Osiris?" Petty said, then turned toward Marco. "Was it you?"
Marco shook his head. "No, ma’am. She just grabbed him. She—"
"I didn’t ask you what happened, soldier." Petty looked across their squad’s table. "You’re all assigned to kitchen duty for the duration of our flight. If you ever misuse STC equipment again, you’ll be dropped off at the nearest penal asteroid. Is that understood?"
Marco glanced toward Osiris. STC equipment? The tall, platinum-haired woman gazed at him, and now there was no mistaking the glow in her purple eyes. The eyes weren’t just reflecting the overhead lights. They emitted their own glow.
My God, Marco thought. She’s an android.
He had heard of androids before—in old books from before the Cataclysm, mostly. Such high technology was largely gone from Earth now. Some on Earth claimed that they still existed, but Marco had never seen one until now.
"Listen up, soldiers!" Captain Petty said, marching toward the back of the mess hall. "In less than two hours, we activate our warp drives. The journey to the frontier will take twenty days. STC soldiers may spend their time in the entertainment lounge, the commissary, the mess, and the gym." She looked at Marco’s table. "Earth Territorial Command soldiers will spend the journey confined to their bunks, except for chow time and morning inspections in the corridor." She glanced toward the officers’ table. "That includes officers and cadets too. Once we reach Nightwall, they’ll decide what to do with you. Until then you are cargo, nothing more. Perhaps a few of you will end up wearing the blue. If the rest of you are ejected into space, try to be eaten quickly. I like keeping space clean." She pointed toward her staff sergeants. "The twins will show you to your bunks."”