When the doors closed, Julia activated the Framer hanging from her neck. She smiled at the Sergeant as her face changed into a new one.
Wilcox raised an eyebrow. She said. “That’s impressive. Your hair and eye color changed, too.”
Julia nodded. She now looked completely different. Still attractive, but with a different face.
“Classified technology,” she said.
Wilcox stared at the pendant, trying to figure out the circuitry.
She raised her eyebrow and gave up. She said, “It’s too complex. Maybe when we have some downtime I can examine it better.”
Julia nodded and waited patiently while LuteNet scanned them for foreign biomatter. The holo on the far wall showed the ship’s icon progressing toward Sporades. Numbers counted down the AUs, and the seconds left until they arrived.
Julia reached into her pack and pulled out a visor, with a headband attached. She handed it to Gina.
“Just in case.”
Wilcox nodded and pulled it on. Julia pulled out another one and covered her own face, too.
At last, the floating numbers approached zero. The women crouched, ready for the port. They popped out of the Mule.
They showed up next to LuteNet’s sensor, appearing suddenly in an empty warehouse. They watched as the sensor popped away in the following second, its presence no longer needed on the planet’s surface.
Up above, the Aquamarine was splitting apart and taking out solar torpedoes. But on the planet’s surface, in the warehouse, they were oblivious to what occurred in space.
Julia said, “Let’s go. Keep an eye out, or whatever, for sensors. We want to avoid them if we can, for as long as we can.”
Gina nodded and mentally stretched out her senses, looking for the telltale signs of electronic monitoring.
Finding nothing, she nodded at Julia and together they walked across an empty floor toward a distant door.
“Looks old fashioned. Hope it’s not locked,” Gina said.
Julia tried the latch. She turned it, and the door opened to the outside, letting the sun shine in. Before them, hundreds of people were stretched out or standing around. Many were huddled under makeshift shelters and tarps to stay out of the sun.
Several dozen turned to look at them with weary eyes.
Wilcox said, “Wow. A shanty town.”
“Yeah how about that. And nobody has an implant in all this lot?”
The Sergeant looked around, her senses extended. She pointed to an old man who smiled at them with no teeth.
“He has an older model. It’s not activated.”
Julia nodded again. She said, “Okay, then. Well, it looks like the exit is on the other side of this courtyard. Watch your step. Keep your visor on, just in case.”
They were in some sort of courtyard, walled off from the outside. But a set of double doors on the opposite side promised an exit. Carefully, the two women made their way between shacks, shelters, and sleeping bodies lying prone on the ground.
Halfway across, Gina tapped Julia on the shoulder.
She said, “Heads up. Guard bots approaching.”
The double doors burst open and two bots appeared, older models with round heads.
One of them had a loud voice, obviously magnified from its mouth speaker.
It said, “This site is condemned. Vacate the premises! Vacate the premises!”
Hundreds of eyes turned toward the bots, watching them with a sense of alarm. Julia and Gina froze, but nobody seemed in a rush to follow the bots’ orders.
Julia slowly reached for her lead-lined backpack, where she had a blaster stowed.
Before she could pull out a weapon, a man ran out of another door to the courtyard.
The women blinked, giving the man a double take. He had a priest’s collar around his neck.
He said, “Stop! Stop! This is not an illegal settlement! I have the paperwork right here!”
He ran up to the bots, who pointed their guns at him as he halted right in front of them, panting and out of breath. He flicked his wrist and a holosheet appeared, floating in the air. He twisted it around and let the bots read it.
One of the bots said, “This is not in our online records, Father Verrick.”
“I’m aware it may not be in there, yet,” the young priest said. “But I assure you this is an indigent care facility operating under the auspices of the local parish. This holo has the signature of the appropriate municipal administrators. Everything is up to date.”
The bots looked at the holo again and recorded the information.
One of them said, “We’ll check in with HQ. If there’s a problem, we’ll be back.”
They holstered their weapons and turned for the doors. Father Verrick seemed to deflate in relief as they walked out the courtyard.
When the doors closed, he turned and looked out over the shantytown. The two women wearing visors stood out like sore thumbs.
His brows furrowed and he said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Gina and Julia exchanged glances, although neither could see the other’s face.
Wilcox shrugged. She said, “You can’t lie to a priest.”
“Sure you can,” Julia said. “Or at least, you can leave some of the truth out.”
She lifted her visor up. Wilcox followed suit. Together they approached the priest.
Julia said, “Hi there. We’re here to help.”
“Help?” the priest said, a look of confusion on his face.
“Yeah. You know. Volunteer?”
“Well . . .”
Father Verrick looked out at the sea of people in the courtyard.
He said, “I could surely use some help.”