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A short story by

Matt Burns

It takes Pandora’s eyes a few minutes to adjust to the glowing white room. Monitors attached to the walls. Robotic arms with surgical lasers overhead. A med-bay, or a torture chamber. It isn’t until Pandora sees a bearded man she recognizes as Jacob Kang – dressed in the practical gray Umojan Ruling Council uniform and standing at the foot of her bed – that she knows she’s safe.

“Ulli,” he says, and he steps forward.

She hardly recognizes her real name. It brings her back to reality, to another life that seems so alien after spending months under cover.

“Your team was just here. It’s too bad they missed seeing you wake up.”

The details of the last few months are a blur. Augustgrad… the Simonson facility… the Odin. She reaches up and touches her face, expecting something hideous. It feels smooth, soft.

Kang smiles. “The doctors performed some reconstructive surgery when you came in. If you hadn’t put the plastiscab on, it would’ve been more difficult to repair.”

The revelation offers no relief, only a sense of cruel irony for the Odin pilot who had helped her. As Pandora thinks more about the past few months, she remembers deceiving Sage with the forged intel. There’s something else, though, a troubling blank patch in her memory.

“The micro-spies… were they damaged?” The words come out of Pandora’s mouth in a whisper.

“They’re perfect,” the official says, and he sets a small disc on a tray near Pandora’s bed. A holovid of one of the Odin’s tests captured by the micro-spies winks into existence, a looping image of the machine turning left and right while its arm cannons blast away at unseen targets.

“Your team’s timing was impeccable. We received information that the Odin may have been shipped to the Dominion’s Valhalla facility near Sigmaris Prime to undergo final testing. You should see the other Ruling Council members. They’re completely terrified. However, now that we know what it is, we can be prepared if the Dominion ever decides to use it against us.”

Kang pulls a small black box from his uniform and sets it at Pandora’s bedside. “The Ruling Council has a formal ceremony planned, but I persuaded them to let you keep this until then. You’ve earned it.”

She opens the box. Inside is the Guardian’s Order – a brilliant gold engraving of Umoja set against a featureless black shield.

“This award is rare even among our best agents. It’s a great honor, Ulli, and one that you deserve. You’re a hero.”

Pandora stares at the medal awarded to shadowguards who have shown bravery and sacrificed for the safety and future of Umojan society. She has overcome all of the obstacles. The difficult decisions on Augustgrad have been worth it.

She should be rejoicing, but something she can’t remember still nags at her. She thinks back to leaving the facility, heading out into the desert on the vulture, her body wracked with pain.

“Was anyone injured when we escaped?”

The official pauses. She senses the man trying to hide something in his mind. Casualties.

“The Dominion mobilized after what happened at the facility and combed Augustgrad for any signs of our other agents. Seven of them haven’t reported in since the sweeps.”

A chill runs up Pandora’s spine. She remembers Sage’s van behind a hill outside the facility. Guards and vultures approaching it. Gunfire. Pandora driving away, abandoning him.

“We’ve been sending out transmissions to link the captured agents and the Simonson incident to the Koprulu Liberation Front instead of us,” the official says. “I think we – ”

“Where’s Sage?” Pandora asks, her voice still a whisper.

Kang’s face pales. He opens his mouth, stammers, searching for words. Pandora cautiously probes his mind, afraid of what she will find.

“Let me get your team. They should be the ones to – ”

“Tell me!” she shouts, strong and commanding. The force of it surprises her, and it surprises the official even more.

“When you were extracted, Dominion security personnel were in pursuit. Your team managed to get you and the data out safely, but Sage…” The official swallows hard. “He went missing. We followed up on his whereabouts after the mission and believe he was killed near the facility.”

Despite Kang’s diplomatic words, Pandora sees the stark truth in the man’s head. A brief flash of a holo-image: Sage’s spike-riddled corpse. His dead eyes stare back at her with a look that reminds Pandora of the hollowness she saw in Sage the last time he was alive.

“He was one of our best team leaders. When he made his decisions, he carried out his responsibility to ensure his team’s safety at any cost. He would be… he was… proud of what you accomplished.”

Pandora says nothing, thinks nothing. She is numb.

“We’re all upset about what happened. But despite the cost, what you’ve found has been worth it,” Kang says as he edges toward the doorway. “I’ll go find your team and let them know you’re awake. They’ll want to see you.”

He leaves when Pandora doesn’t acknowledge the words.

The Odin repeats its movements in the holovid at her bedside, cannons blasting in an unending cycle of destruction. As Pandora stares blankly at the semi-translucent image, she rubs her fingers over the medal in her hand, the representation of everything she has worked so hard to overcome, and feels only a chilling emptiness inside.

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