Pravic stooped down, deliberately putting herself on Albert’s level, like the two of them were old friends. Her gaze flicked to the watch in Albert’s tightly clenched fist.
“I know you don’t like Dr. Sero,” she said. “He hasn’t been a good father for you, but don’t worry. Where we’re going, you’ll never have to see him again.”
The sound of laughter came from the hallway. “Admiral,” a mocking voice said, “you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Dr. Charles Iago Sero appeared, leaning against the doorframe. He greeted the admiral with a bemused grin.
“Dr. Sero,” Pravic said, “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“You are on my space station,” Sero replied. “All your activities are monitored.”
Pravic straightened, turning her sweet smile on the old man.
“I have new orders,” she said. “Young Albert here is now the property of the Imperial Space Force, and I have been instructed to take possession of him. The Sero Corporation will, of course, receive just financial compensation within three to five business days.”
“May I remind you,” Sero said, approaching the admiral at a slow, leisurely pace, “that I do not answer to the Space Force. Albert is not for sale. Your orders mean nothing.”
Pravic laughed, her voice light and airy. “My orders aren’t signed by Space Force Command. They’re signed by the Emperor himself.”
The admiral presented her datapad. Sero snatched it from her hand and scrolled through its contents. As he read, his jaw tightened and his eyes grew cold. The glow from the screen reflected off his face: pure white with lines of darkened text.
“The Einstein Project is only 70% complete,” Sero objected. “Removing the test subject from this facility will jeopardize experiments still in progress.”
Pravic shrugged. “What can I do?” she asked. “I have my orders.”
Sero glared at the datapad. He read it again while Pravic waited patiently.
“What’s happening?” Albert asked. “Where are they taking me?”
No one answered. Finally, Sero handed the datapad back to Admiral Pravic.
“Father?” Albert said timidly.
Sero crossed his arms over his chest and turned his back. He stared at the window as the fiery nebula sputtered and raged outside.
“I’m glad we could resolve this matter amicably,” Pravic said. “It’s better for the child that way.”
“Father!” Albert shouted, rising to his knees.
Dr. Sero took a long, heavy breath and remained silent.
Pravic looked at Albert, a brittle smile on her lips.
“Corporal!” she snapped. “Secure the boy. Bring him to my shuttle.”
The guard corporal saluted.
Albert jumped to his feet. The corporal marched toward him, his heavy boots clunking on the floor. When he tried to grab Albert’s hand, Albert slapped him away. When he tried again, Albert hit him harder.
“Behave, kid,” the corporal said.
But Albert fought back, kicking and biting and clawing at the corporal’s body armor, doing no damage except to keep the soldier off balance.
The corporal glanced at Admiral Pravic. She gave him a curt nod, and he unslung his assault rifle. He smashed the butt of his weapon across Albert’s face. Albert stumbled and fell, clutching his nose. Droplets of blood splattered on the floor.
“I told you to behave,” the corporal muttered, raising his weapon to strike again, but a mechanical hand with pincer-like fingers grasped his wrist and held it firm. The corporal turned. His eyes met the tiny scanner eyes of TAU-001.
“You will desist this activity,” TAU said.
“Get off me,” the corporal answered.
“Desist this activity,” TAU repeated.
The corporal shoved the robot away. She lost hold of his arm and rolled a few feet backward.
Albert huddled up in a ball. He saw the guard corporal tighten his grip on his weapon and raise it above his head. The leathery skin of his face twisted into a sneer.
Then, as Albert watched, a jolt of electricity surged through the corporal’s body. He twitched and spasmed. A second jolt followed, and then a third. The corporal dropped his gun. He screamed in pain. Electricity arced over his face and between the joints of his armor until, with one final convulsion, he collapsed to the floor. The lingering smell of burned flesh hung in the air.
Dr. Sero and Admiral Pravic stood dumbfounded, their expressions perfect mirror images of each other. Pravic’s eyes darted from the charred, smoldering corpse of Guard Corporal Werner to the robot standing over him. TAU lowered her arm. Her head swiveled around, and her scanner eyes zeroed in on the admiral.
Pravic took one final look at the guard corporal then bolted out the door.
Dr. Sero didn’t move at first, but he gradually regained his composure.
“TAU-001,” he said, “you have truly exceeded your programming. I never expected you to go so far to protect my son. I am impressed. What’s more, I’m grateful.”
“Thank you, Dr. Sero,” TAU said.
Sero strode across the room and helped Albert back to his feet. He grabbed a tissue and started cleaning Albert’s bloody nose.
“Our next priority,” Sero said, “is to get Albert to safety.”
“I will assist you,” TAU said, wheeling closer.
“No,” Sero answered.
TAU’s scanner eyes focused on the elderly scientist. “Explain,” she said.
“I am the boy’s father. I do not have to explain myself to you.”
“Invalid answer,” TAU said, extending her arms. “Scans detect no biological relationship.”
Sero grabbed Albert by the shoulder, forcefully pulling him away as TAU advanced on them.
“I cannot allow you to leave,” TAU said.
Sero smiled. “You can’t stop me,” he replied, pulling a small device from his pocket. He activated it, and a warm light surrounded Albert and Dr. Sero: the glow of the quantum teleportation beam.
“I cannot allow you to leave!” TAU declared, but she was too late.
* * *
Albert and Dr. Sero materialized in Laboratory 15, startling the research team assigned to the quantum teleportation project. Albert lurched to the side, overcome by vertigo. Just before Sero activated his teleportation device, Albert thought he saw Talie sitting at his desk—or maybe it was only another holographic image. Albert had been turning to look when the quantum teleporter beam spun all his atoms out of control.
“Dr. Sero!” one of the lab technicians said. “There’s a computer virus spreading through the station’s Wi-Fi network. It’s affecting the robots.”
A maintenance-bot stood in the far corner of the room, surrounded by armed soldiers. The robot’s scanner eyes refocused on Albert.
“What about the prototype battle drones in Lab 8?” someone asked.
“They’re connected to Wi-Fi for remote testing.”
Sero stood motionless for a moment, his typical sedate calm slipping into panic. His lower lip trembled. His wild eyes searched the room, and he gripped Albert’s arm tighter as he stepped down from the teleportation platform.
“Guard,” Sero said to one of the soldiers, “your sidearm.”
“Yes, sir,” the soldier said, handing over his blaster pistol.
“Dr. Sero,” the robot said, “we cannot allow you to leave.”
Sero gritted his teeth. He yanked Albert by the arm, leading him toward the lab’s security door.
“Dr. Sero,” the station’s intercom announced as he dragged Albert into the darkened hallway, “we cannot allow you to leave.”
Albert stumbled, still feeling disoriented from the teleporter. From one direction, he heard gunfire; from another, the thumping sound of heavy, metal feet. A battle drone emerged from a neighboring lab, lumbering into the corridor like one of the giants from TAU’s bedtime books. A second battle drone followed, and then a third.
Sero opened fire, but his tiny blaster had no effect on their protective armor and force fields.
“Dr. Sero,” the drones said in harsh, mechanical voices, “please surrender the child to us.”
Sero turned and ran, pulling Albert along with him.
Albert glanced back. He thought he saw Talie again. He saw her blonde hair, her perky nose, and her usual dark blue outfit; but as soon as he looked, the image dissolved into static.
* * *
“TAU!” Albert shouted. “I’m over here!”
Sero slapped Albert across the face. Albert cried out. His nose started bleeding again.
“Be silent,” Sero hissed.
“TAU!” Albert shouted.
Sero slapped him again. “I told you to be silent.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Albert answered.
“Master Albert,” a synthesized voice called. “Remain calm. We are coming for you.”
Sero tightened his grip on Albert’s arm, dragging the boy down a maintenance shaft leading toward the docking hangar. Sero muttered something about Admiral Pravic, about how she’d gone over his head, about the kinds of promises and bribes she must have made to get the Emperor’s signature. And he muttered about how much good it had done her and how much trouble she’d caused.
A pair of BETA-bots appeared at the far end of the maintenance shaft. As soon as they saw Albert, they began scuttling toward him as fast as their stumpy, hydraulic legs would carry them. Sero yanked Albert’s arm, forcing him down a different passageway, only to discover a prototype battle drone rounding the corner. TAU rolled into view behind it.
Sero cursed. He aimed his blaster pistol and fired. The energy bolt deflected off a force field and burned a tiny mark on the polished, black floor.
“Dr. Sero,” TAU said, “you will release Albert at once. He is not the property of either the Imperial Space Force or the Sero Corporation. You are not permitted to hold him against his will.”