Aurora

Description:

Rigel and Rion Wyatt have just won the Spaceracer Championship. The young men are on top of the world until an enslaved girl named Aurora challenges everything they know about their sport. Determined to set her free, the twins must execute a daring plan with all the finesse a champion Spaceracer team can muster.

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“You have another holographic network appearance this evening and then there’s the after-party. Try not to get too drunk between now and then, m’kay? Yeah.” The woman never looked up as she raked a hand through her fiery pink hair and tapped the screen on her wrist comm. Rigel swiveled briefly to raise an eyebrow at his twin brother, Orion.

Rion returned his look with a shrug and spoke mentally, Guess she doesn’t know we don’t go for that kind of thing.

Yes, even when we win the Spaceracer Championship, Rigel added. His brother answered with a silent fist pump.

The woman’s wrist comm pinged. “Boss’ll see you now.” She jerked her head toward the glass door in front of them. Rion waved his hand to open the door and waited politely. She squinted at him and then hurried past, saying in an undertone, “No thanks. I try to stay out of his office as much as possible.”

Nice guy, apparently. Rion commented telepathically, his mental scowl perfectly apparent to Rigel, even though his face remained neutral.

They stepped into the office.

“Boys, oh, boys, oh boys! See what I did there? HAHA!” The large man lounging in a cream leather hover-chair growled out jubilantly. “Rookies winning with spectacular—absolutely SPEC-TAC-U-LAR—flying? My crowds have never been wilder! You boys are the best thing that’s happened at the Championships in a while! You’ve made Mr. Maxis very happy—and rich, but that’s beside the point—and he’s going to throw you the biggest, wildest after-party the sport has ever seen!”

Talking about himself in the third person, Rigel pointed out.

Also assuming we’re into wild parties, Rion answered. Apparently that’s the norm around here?

Neither twin could get a word in edgewise as Mr. Maxis, the owner of the entire Spaceracing sport gushed on. They sat somewhat uncomfortably in the over-large chairs at the front of the man’s desk. Rigel wondered if the chairs were intended to make visitors feel small. If that was the case, it was working.

Still talking, the big man stood and they followed him out the door to where the pink-haired assistant waited. “Pink!” he said loudly. “Take these boys to their suite, and that—what’s her name?—Aurora will take care of the rest.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

Mr. Maxis gave her a broad wink and jerked his head toward the teleporter at the end of hall.

Pink took them to a private floor of Mr. Maxis’ building. A white and chrome atrium extended from one end of the floor to the other, huge windows at either end filling it with bright natural light. A fountain gurgled and swirled peacefully at the center, and a few highly polished doors punctuated the left and right walls.

“Your rooms are on that side and there’s various entertainment stuff on the other side,” Pink said, sounding bored as she gestured to doors on one side and then the other.

She turned back toward the teleporter they’d just walked out of.

“This Aurora: that’s the A.I., right? Do we need any sort of access or does it already—“

“Aurora is not an A.I.,” Pink said. “She’ll take care of you now.” She ignored them and began tapping on her wrist comm again as the blue lights of the teleporter encapsulated her.

“And just like that she’s gone,” Rion said. “Not very chatty, that one.”

Rigel snorted. “No, but would you be in the habit of talking much if you worked for someone as chatty as Mr. Maxis?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t. Hey—“ Rion said. “Let’s find this Aurora person and ask how we order some lunch. I’m starving!”

Rigel turned and started, surprised to find they were no longer alone in the atrium. A young woman stood by quietly, hands clasped and eyes fixed on their shoes. She wore a form-fitting grey top and a short skirt. Her dark hair tumbled loosely forward, hiding much of her face from view.

“Oh, hi! We didn’t hear you. Are you Aurora?” he asked.

“Y-yes, sir,” she stammered, her voice barely above a whisper. She still hadn’t looked up.

Rigel and Rion exchanged glances and raised eyebrows.

After a prolonged silence, the girl finally looked up, her light hazel eyes wide and—scared?

Rigel swallowed, trying to keep it from being noisy. “We—um, we were curious how we could order some food.”

“I can call for it,” Aurora said, dipping her head so her hair hid her face again. “What would you like? —to eat?”

She peeked up to gauge their reaction, her eyes darting from him to his brother.

She seems really scared of us, Rigel commented to his twin’s mind.

This whole thing feels odd. Rion said mentally. “Are you scared of us?” he asked aloud.

Rigel frowned slightly and then asked his own question. “Do you work for Mr. Maxis?”

“I—do for today. I mean—”

Nobody here is a very good conversationalist, Rion complained.

Give her a break. Rigel said. I have a bad feeling about this. Look how tense she is. Listen, I’m going to comment on how nice this atrium is. Let’s turn around like we’re admiring it and look for cameras. I want to know how wired up this room is. I’ll turn left. You turn right.

Rion agreed, and Rigel said aloud, “Man, lucky you! This is a gorgeous place to work! I mean, look at this!” He gave a low whistle. Slowly, he and his brother turned in opposite directions.

Together, they mentally counted a total of 5 tiny, round security cameras in the atrium.

Let’s go to the fountain. The white noise will cover our voices if the cameras are recording audio. I have questions, Rigel told his brother. He started walking and Rion casually followed, Aurora bowing her head and following them without a word.

The brothers sat down on the edge of the sparkling fountain and Rigel patted the space between them. Aurora perched where he’d indicated and hunched her shoulders as if to make herself smaller.

Thinking quickly, Rigel spoke just loud enough for Rion and the girl to hear him, but quiet enough that the noise of the fountain would cover it. “Aurora, are you okay? You seem really nervous.”

The girl didn’t answer.

He tried again, “Look, my brother and I kind of feel like something isn’t right here. We want to find out if there’s a way we can help you, but we don’t want to get you in trouble. If we speak softly, the fountain should cover our voices.”

Aurora peeked at him past her hair and stammered, “W-why would you think that? I haven’t said anything is wrong. I-I’m—fine…“ Her voice trailed off.

Rion cleared his throat. “They may not be able to hear us, but they can still see us. Let’s pretend we’re ordering food.”

In her first acknowledgement of their plan, Aurora swiped her finger over a bracelet she wore. A holographic screen unfurled at her motion. She quickly brought up a food menu.

“Great thinking, Rion,” Rigel told his brother. “This is perfect. Now, Aurora, what exactly do you do for Mr. Maxis?”

“I am supposed to do anything required of me during my rental period,” the girl murmured, not meeting their eyes.

“Your rental period?” Rion asked, incredulous. “What is that supposed to mean? You can’t rent people! Slavery has been totally outlawed by the Universal Congress for—I don’t know, forever?”

The girl winced and bit her lip.

For good measure, Rigel gestured toward the holographic menu as he spoke. “You’re not a slave are you?”

Aurora didn’t answer for a moment. “Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s not —something I can’t pretend to be if that would p-please you,” she ended in an anguished whisper.

Rigel curled his lip in disgust. So that’s what they’ve brought her here for. Whatever the heck we want. Sick.

He swiveled and leaned forward to see past the black curtain of Aurora’s hair. She blinked and glanced up at him. “Hey, we’re not like that, okay? I realize you’re scared. You’ve probably been warned not to let on you’re a slave. Am I right?”

Aurora winced and clamped her mouth shut.

“That’s what I thought. We’re going to get you out of this. Slavery shouldn’t even be a thing, and if the law can’t protect you—“ he glanced up at Rion to see the sentiment confirmed on his brother’s face “—we will.”

”But—but,” Aurora stuttered. “You’re champions. You can’t help me without getting one or all of us killed to cover up their “trade” as they call it.”

“We’ll buy you and set you free!” Rion said, incongruously gesturing to the menu. “We’ve got to have enough between our winnings and our savings!”

Rigel nodded and did the mental math quickly. “Yeah, I’m sure it would be enough.”

Aurora bit her lip. “You are good men, but they’d never sell me to you. That would be admitting I can be bought and sold. They deny that we’re slaves. They claim we’re contractors. It eases the consciences of people like Mr. Maxis and keeps the law off their backs.”

Rigel clenched his fists. “We’ll help you escape, then.”

“They’ll kill you, champions or not.”

He leaned back and studied the menu, frowning.

“What if they don’t know it’s us?” Rion said. Everyone was quiet for a moment, pondering his suggestion.

“It’s too risky,” Aurora said with a sigh. “They’ve installed a tracker in me and besdies, at this point—I’m not worth it.” She hugged herself and hunched her shoulders.

Rigel felt a growing anger at people who would make an innocent young woman feel this way. That she had no way out and wasn’t worth saving. At people like Mr. Maxis who had to know what they were “renting.”

“I have a way,” he said. “And you are worth it.”

Aurora looked up at him, her eyes filling. “But no matter what your idea is, the tracker—“

“Won’t be a problem,” Rigel said, placing a hand on her shoulder and then quickly removing it, not wanting to make her uncomfortable. “We’ll eat this,” he poked a finger at the menu and Aurora rose to place the order.

You’re thinking of our Distrupters, aren’t you, Rion said into his mind.

Yep. They should disrupt her tracking device the same way they disrupt the identical brain waves.

You’re brilliant, brother. You’re sure you don’t mind having a brainstorm? Rion asked.

It will be a trip down memory lane, that’s for sure. Rigel smirked. But in all seriousness, it’s absolutely worth it to me. You in?

Completely.

One of the doors on the left side of the atrium opened to a state-of-the-art immersive theater with a holographic film stage filling one end of it and a sitting area at the other, raised end. The twins ate the meal Aurora had ordered for them and then Rigel excused himself to the bathroom.

There, with the lack of surveillance, he closed his eyes and steadied himself with one hand against the wall. He took a small metal knife from the pocket of his racing uniform and sterilized it with the bathroom’s UV stream. Feeling along the skin at the base of his neck, he located the slight bump that was his Disrupter chip.

Taking a deep breath, he leaned toward the mirror and made a small slice at the base of the lump. He gritted his teeth at the fiery pain. Small cuts always hurt more than it seemed they should.

He pressed gently on the lump with one finger, and it slid out of its home just under his skin. He carefully cleaned the Disrupter and put a Biopatch over the cut.

They would need to talk Aurora through the plan’s details one more time, but it was likely the theater was surveilled as well.

“Holofilm time!” he called out when he returned. “Rion, find us something exciting to watch will you?”

And loud enough to cover conversation.

“Sure thing!” Rion said, getting up from his seat.

“And this nice young lady can watch it with us!” Rigel said, catching Aurora’s wrist and leading her to sit between them again.

As soon as the Holofilm’s music crescendoed, Rigel said, “Sorry for having to act a little weird. They expect us to be in a partying mood after our win; I don’t want to set off alarm bells when they look at the security footage later, you know?”

”You don’t seem weird at all,” Aurora said, clasping her hands in her lap. “Just very determined and smart and—kind.” Her voice caught and she fell silent.

“So here’s the plan,” Rion said, keeping his eyes on the Holofilm, “you’re going to use my teleportation bracelet to make the jump to our ship where you’ll need to hide in the hold until we come find you. I’ve gone and strewn the contents of my luggage all over my bed. The bracelet is on the pillow so you can find it easily.”

Aurora nodded, but she still looked puzzled.

The twins paused in their explanation, giving some attention to the movie. Overbuilt super soldiers battled each other in thunderous holographic splendor.

After a moment, Rigel said in an undertone, “Can you put your hands down on the seat? I need to pass something to you.” Without looking at him, Aurora shifted and did what he asked. He slipped the tiny Disrupter chip under her fingers where they rested in the narrow space between them.

“I want you to keep this with you at all times. It’s a wave disrupter that will block your tracker’s signal. Normally it’s installed in the base of my neck—Rion has one too—to keep any matching brain waves from causing a sort of telepathic storm for both of us.”

“You have a telepathic connection with your brother?” Aurora sounded surprised.

“Always have,” Rion said, his eyes still on the Holofilm. “It was all fun and games until our early teens. Then it started causing the brainstorms, as we like to call them. Doctors fitted us with the disruptors to make it stop.”

“We’re going to intentionally trigger a telepathic storm since it is a lot like a seizure.” Rigel told her. “The commotion that causes will give you a chance to get the teleportation bracelet and make the jump.”

“And your disruptor will keep me hidden. Oh—I could hug you both!” Aurora bit her lip and blinked rapidly to hold back tears swimming in her eyes. “Are you sure it’s safe?”

Rigel nodded. “Don’t worry about us, and don’t be scared when we have the storm. It looks pretty frightening.”

Ready, brother? Rion asked.

Before Rigel could answer, the door behind them slid open and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. All three of them stood and whipped around.

Pink stood in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. She scowled at the three of them before putting a finger to her ear and saying, “Yes, she’s still here. Hold, please.” She tapped something on her wrist comm.

“Why the heck is some freaky-sounding dude calling me to ask why they can’t track you anymore?” Pink fired the question at Aurora.

Aurora froze.

“They wanted to know if you’d left, or if we’d tampered with some transmitter. Come on, speak up.” Rolling her eyes, Pink muttered, “You’ll never last long in your line of work being that shy.”

“Hey—!” Rion began, but cut himself off.

Aurora stammered, “I—I don’t know how the tracker works, exactly… I…”

Pink narrowed her eyes at the girl. She then flicked her gaze at the twins.

Rigel prayed their faces were neutral.

“Uh-huh. You know what? I’m going to just mark this down as a dumb-luck technological failure,” she told them. She paused and then added, looking pointedly at Aurora. “Word of advice: whatever it is you did to make the thing malfunction, I suggest you don’t do it again. I’ve heard rumors that these guys you work ‘with’ have a temper. Careful.”

Rigel tried to keep his jaw from dropping. The secretary was obviously suspicious. Was she really going to cover for them? Glancing sideways, he realized Aurora was shaking.

Pink turned toward the door and unmuted the call on her wrist comm. “No, I don’t have any idea why her tracker quit transmitting. Maybe talk to the jerks that sold you the cheap thing? —Yeah, I just checked and she’s here and fine. Technological failures are not my problem nor my boss’s, and you’d better believe we won’t be paying anything extra because of it.”

The door began to slide shut.

NOW! Rigel mentally told his brother, and gave Aurora one last, reassuring smile. I sure hope this works.

Rigel felt the exact moment his brother switched off the other Disrupter and their matching brainwaves began to collide. There was a crackling sound inside his skull, which quickly turned into a whine and an accelerating throbbing. His vision went black and he barely heard Aurora’s scream and Pink’s oath as he and Rion fell to the floor, convulsing.

Rigel gradually became aware of light. His eyelids twitched. A woman’s voice murmured something softly, and a cool hand smoothed his hair back from his forehead.

Mom.

He squinted as the light sent pulsing pains through his head. When his eyes finally adjusted, he smiled up at his mother.

“Hi,” he said, hoarsely. Well, that’s good. I can still talk. “How am I?” he asked.

“Vivian says you’ll be fine,” she told him with a relieved look.

“And Rion?”

She glanced across the familiar Med-bay to where his father sat by Rion’s side. “He’s just woken up too. He’ll be fine. Oh, Rigel! What did you two—“ she closed her eyes and shook her head slightly.

What had they gotten into? Something niggled at the back of Rigel’s mind. All at once he sat up, everything coming back to him. Aurora! “How long has it been?”

His mother checked the time. “About 22 hours from when they called us. Once we told them how to stabilize you, their medics brought you here.”

“And our cruiser?”

“Your ship returned here on autopilot just like you programmed it to in case of emergency. It docked in the Hospitality’s hangar almost an hour ago.”

Rigel swung his legs over the edge of the bed excitedly and nearly jumped up before he realized his back felt cold. “A med gown? Really?” he muttered. “Mom, I need real clothes now!”

“Where are you going in such a hurry? You need to rest!” his mother protested.

“No, Mom!” he said, trying to hold shut the gaping back of the gown. “I need clothes now, and I need to get the cruiser! She must be scared out of her mind!”

His mother raised an eyebrow and peered around him, motioning someone over. Dr. Vivian Jones appeared in Rigel’s field of vision. He squirmed and tried to hold the back of the med gown together. “Don’t worry kiddo, I changed your diapers back in the day. There’s very little chance your back is going to scandalize me. Now, what’s this worried look all over your mama’s face about?”

“He’s not making sense. Are we sure he’s okay?” Mrs. Wyatt asked.

Vivian’s eyebrows puckered and she opened her mouth to speak, but Rion’s voice from across the room interrupted. “There’s a girl on our cruiser—hopefully.”

Captain Wyatt stood and came to stand between the two beds. “There’s a girl on your cruiser? What’s this all about?”

Rigel looked carefully around the Med-bay to be sure they were alone. “This whole thing was a rescue. We’ll explain later. Now, if I could please just get some real clothes—anything with a back—we’ve got to let her out of there!”

His parents seemed to finally grasp the urgency and seriousness of the situation. They left them to change into regular clothes. In another few minutes, the twins made the jump from the Med-bay to the hangar.

When the blue light of the teleporter disappeared around them, the twins sprinted to where their small cruiser was docked. Once inside, Rion sealed the hatch behind them and gave Rigel a nod.

“Aurora!” Rigel called, pulling back the trapdoor in the floor. “Aurora, it’s us. Please tell me you made it in here. Aurora?”

Silence.

“It’s Rigel. You’re safe now.”

He jumped down into the low space and snapped his fingers to turn on the strip of small lights along the wall of the hold. A movement toward the back caught his eye and he stepped forward. Aurora shielded her eyes from the sudden light and slowly stepped out from behind a large toolbox.

“It’s me: Rigel.”

With a quiet whimper, the girl ran forward and clung to his arm, burying her face against his shoulder. “I was afraid you’d never come—that you two had been caught or had died! You never actually said it was safe for you to do that!”

“We’re going to be fine,” he assured her. “And you’re safe. We’re in the docking bay of the diplomatic vessel Hospitality. It’s captained by my dad. He and my mom and our doctor are waiting to meet you in the Med-bay. C’mon!”

Aurora hesitated for a second before coming with him. They emerged together from the trapdoor.

“Oh, good!” Rion said to Aurora, looking relieved. “You’re here!”

She nodded, looking a little dazed.

“We need to get back to Med-bay and have Vivian check her out—make sure she’s doing okay and see what she can do about the tracker,” Rigel said.

“Yeah, and we probably should explain stuff to Dad and Mom,” Rion added.

“That too.”

Rion opened the hatch and stuck his head out. “The coast is clear,” he said, waving them over. “Nobody’s around.”

They led Aurora to the hangar’s Teleporter and made the jump back to the Med-bay.

“Mom, Dad, Dr. Vivian,” Rion said, “this is Aurora.”

Their mother’s mouth had dropped open when they’d stepped off the Teleporter. Now she snapped it shut and quickly gathered her wits. “Welcome, Aurora! I’m Kenzie Wyatt, the boys’ mother. I’m sorry you had to stay in the cruiser for so long! We didn’t know you were there until the boys woke.”

“I understand,” Aurora said shyly. “I’m just grateful and so glad they’re both okay.”

Vivian led her to an exam station. “Have a seat here, dear. I’m the ship’s doctor.”

“All right, you two,” the doctor said, looking over her shoulder at the boys, “get yourselves out of here so I can examine the patient. I suspect your parents are wanting an explanation anyway.”

The twins and their parents sat down in an adjacent room. “So what did you two get into this time?” Mrs. Wyatt asked, folding her hands and looking at them quizzically.

“Something good, Mom. Something really, really good.”

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Aurora asked softly.

“More than okay,” Rigel answered. “I’ll get a new disruptor installed soon. I want this one to keep you safe forever. They’ll never locate your tracker as long as my disruptor is stuck to it.” With a strip of permanent tape, Rigel bound together the wave disruptor and the tracking chip Dr. Vivian had surgically removed from Aurora’s arm.

They stood together at a large window in one of Hospitality’s conference rooms. Aurora placed her hand against the cool glass of the window and stared at the star-filled darkness outside.

“Rion says you two aren’t planning to compete in Spaceraces anymore,” she said.

“Yeah, the world of Spaceracing is apparently a lot seedier than anyone knew. I can’t participate in something that feeds a blackmarket slave trade.” Rigel set his jaw and finished taping the chips together before placing them in Aurora’s hand. “We have ideas of other ways we could use our mad piloting skills. Rescuing people seems like a great second career.”

Aurora smiled. For a moment she stared at the thumbnail-sized package Rigel had handed her. Taking a deep breath, she dropped it into a nearby garbage receptacle. Rigel pressed a button, and the receptacle’s airlock sealed and whirred. In a moment, the taped chips floated past the window and disappeared into the void of space.

Rigel swallowed hard and tried not to grin like a fool when Aurora’s hand slipped into his and held on tight.

“Help me learn to live?” she whispered.