Prologue—Damion Pierce Hawk

Mars Recruitment Center

0726 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)

DAMION HELD one bag. One bag that contained his entire life—nothing more than a few chips full of pictures and vids, as well as Stim cigs, spare clothing, and enough money to get him here. Chrysalis Corporation Military Recruitment Center. He was standing in line for the second day with countless other candidates, waiting their turn to sign up and get physically assessed before being approved for entry. The Recruitment Center only took in a certain number of candidates a day, and yesterday he had arrived too late. Today he made sure to arrive before sunup, and despite that, he was still behind twenty people.

The Chrysalis Corporation brand displayed one long wing stretched outward from a perfectly cut crystal. Damion had seen it everywhere since he was a child. He assumed it was supposed to inspire hope, which was appropriate since this was his only hope to get off Mars. The Corporation kept their primary boot camp here on Mars, but if Damion made it through the ninety-day brutal treatment, he’d then be transferred to another planet for more training.

The idea of going off planet was surreal. Damion had never been off world before. No reason to, since his entire family was here and they didn’t have enough money to rent out a shuttle to take them all. Despite his mother’s constant trips to the temple and laying offerings to Ploutos, they had never been blessed with riches. His family had settled on Mars before his father was born, and they made a meager living off the dangerous mining of Red Ore—the ore that was used in all spacecraft engines. His mother’s family had been part of it, Damion’s brother was part of it, and his sister would also be when she was older. However, he didn’t want to follow the family trade. The mining hazards included cave-ins about once a year, frequent equipment failures, and for many, a progressive lung sickness from breathing in the red dust. They lived near starvation, on the precipice of hope that their situation would become better over time. Damion knew it never would.

When Damion left home, he knew that feeding two children instead of three would be easier on his family. And if he graduated from boot camp, he would be able to send his mother part of his military pay, which would make up for the lost wages the family was out since he quit the mining job. His father had told him not to worry about it, but Damion knew that meant the old man would just work ten extra hours a week trying to make up for the gap in the family income. His mother worried more about him being killed, even if there was no true war going on at the moment, only skirmishes against rebels who attacked numerous colonies across the solar system and, from the media coverage, continuously attacked Corporation shipments. The rebels would steal supplies, ships, and at times people. The rebel propaganda Damion had come across urged people to turn their backs on the Corporation. Damion, as well as many other people, considered that suicide. The rebels’ habit of putting innocent civilians in the way of their attacks was not gaining them favor.

Damion’s gaze lifted higher, past the tall building, toward the stars. He let his mind wander away from the sweat pouring down his back and chest. Each star was supposed to be surrounded by planets, and Damion’s heart raced with the awe-inspiring thought of seeing different colonies.

The sound of a large speeder roaring to a stop behind the long line of hopeful recruits broke his introspection. It appeared to be a private transport from the sleek look and lack of red dirt on the sides. He couldn’t quite make out who got out of the speeder, but he wasn’t a naturally nosy person. Damion Hawk had one person to worry about… and that was Damion Hawk.

He let out a small sigh of relief as he passed through the doorway and into the climate-controlled building. The air inside was easier to breathe and the temperature a good twenty degrees cooler. Corporation Infantry soldiers stood at attention, barely moving a muscle, their stances rigid. Living on Mars, Damion had seen the infantrymen get away with a lot of shit. He had a great distaste for the way they used their affiliation with the Corporation to break the most simple laws in his colony, such as night curfews and alcohol consumption on working days. Their presence would be tolerated by the locals as long as Red Ore was flowing from the mines and there was a chance of a rebel attack on the Corporation’s main source of clean engine fuel.

Damion had no desire to join the Infantry. He wanted to be a pilot. He had seen the vids of ships chasing off rebels since he was a kid. He had no clue how to fly a spaceship, but he would do anything to learn.

He stepped forward, and the man in front of him stepped to his right as they were ushered into different lines. At the end of each was a desk, and behind that desk was the person who decided if you continued on or went home. Damion stepped onto the scale. There was a small beep and a full-body examination scan rotated around him. His future was determined by his interviewer and the computer currently scanning his entire history. Damion was certain he would be allowed in since he wasn’t overweight, didn’t have any diseases, and had no record of breaking the law. He was confident, but that didn’t mean he was going to get past that woman behind the desk.

Her suit looked perfectly pressed, and a medal Damion didn’t know the meaning of was pinned to her right sleeve. Her nameplate stated that she was Lieutenant Orion.

Damion stepped forward, dropping his bag in front of his feet.

“Family name.”

“Hawk, Damion Pierce.”

“Age.” She typed on the transparent keypad, the monitor she focused on obscuring half of her face.

“Twenty-six.”

“Do you have any other markings on your body besides the tattoo on your arm?”

“No, just that one.” A crystal Earth with wings coming from behind, protecting the home world of all humans. It was the only body art he had ever put on his skin. His father had been upset because, in his opinion, Damion had ruined his body.

“Do you have a history of disease, including childhood or venereal?”

“No.”

“Do you have surviving siblings?”

“Yes.”

“Do you or anyone in your family own a loan against a Corporation Banking System?”

“No.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No.” Damion said a silent prayer of thanks. He couldn’t imagine having children in the near future.

“Do you have family currently employed by the military?”

“No.”

“What is your aspiration for joining the Chrysalis Military?”

“To be a pilot.” Damion pulled back his shoulders and straightened his back.

“Clarify.” An intonation of boredom entered her voice.

“Oh, ah, to be a Spacecraft Fighter.”

Damion felt these questions were rather mundane and asinine, considering the Corporation had most of this information on file from his application. However, he was ready to answer a hundred more if it meant getting him inside. The woman continued to look at the computer screen, moving her hands every five heartbeats or less.

He swallowed a lump forming in his throat as the briefest seed of doubt began to eat at his gut. There really could not be any skeleton hiding in his past preventing him from enlisting. Neither his father nor his mother ever told him about any long-lost rogue pirates in the family line. They would have warned him before he headed out of the house.

Right?

“You’ve been approved.”

The words seemed surreal until the lieutenant’s dark eyes tore away from the computer screen to glare at him. “Mr. Hawk. Please move to your left and go through into the medical clearance area.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He picked up his bag in a daze and walked past two more Infantry guards.

The next five hours were a complete blur. Snapshots of events. The military police who monitored them and watched them their entire stay allowed Damion enough time to use the lavatory and head down to the mess hall to be served a meal by local workers. His clothes had been taken by the Recruitment Center’s LADDS—Laundry and Decontamination Dry-cleaning System—and he’d been issued a standard black suit that had his last name on the left side of his chest, along with matching black boots. Damion’s arm felt sore from the twelve shots the medical team gave him after clearing him. They said he would need another five rounds if he passed boot camp.

Then he was stuck at a computer and forced to take the longest test of his life. Math, reading, problem-solving puzzles, and a few questions Damion had no clue how to even categorize. Thankfully, his mother had made sure he and his siblings went to school the entire time until they were eighteen, even though it wasn’t required on Mars. Damion knew his father could barely keep the budget and let his mother do it, since she had been able to attend school until she was fifteen versus his father leaving school after he turned ten years old. So he wasn’t completely lost, but it certainly droned on. If he had to pass the test to continue on with boot camp, he would do it.

Taking a deep breath, Damion prepared himself for a long day and buckled down to finish the test.

He was finally getting off Mars. He was going to see the stars.

 

Prologue—Core 47

Saturday March 12, 454 MC

Destroyer Class Flagship Zeus

2043 GMT

CORE 47 managed not to wince as Alpha Fighter Morales, the man Command had assigned him to, roughly slammed him against the closed door to Morales’s new Alpha quarters. This was yet another assignment for the Core, or Corporation Organic Robotic Entity. Despite telling the Creators that 47 knew who his Fighter was, they had yet again gone against protocol and assigned him to a Fighter not of his choosing for the third time.

He was bred by the Creators, a singular group of scientists who lived on ship and were rarely seen by lower personnel, for the purpose of strengthening the Alpha Zodiac spacefighter systems. The Fighter whom 47 had chosen was coming soon. Damion Hawk. 47 had been tracking him for a little less than two years, ever since the Fighter’s initial training test scores had come into the system. And he had not been disappointed, because the Fighter continued to improve as time and training went by. He had known since then that Damion Hawk was the Fighter he wanted to fly with, for 47 was the best Core the Chrysalis Corporation had, and he deserved to be assigned to the best. Together 47 and Fighter Hawk would be able to achieve great things for the militaristic Corporation, as well as further advance their technology and battle tactics for the battle against the rebels, which would protect the colonies.

Another teeth-rattling slam against the metal door shook 47 out of his thoughts. The shooting pain up his spine and into his head forced him to pay attention to the present instead of his future plans. The fingers digging into his shoulders and holding him harshly against the door tightened and were accompanied by the nasty voice of 47’s newly assigned Alpha Fighter—Riviara Morales: a man who was an undiscovered murderer and a mediocre pilot. 47 was also aware, from performing a check into the pilot’s background, that Morales was cruel to his Cores, his last one having been taken away and plugged into the Zeus’s main control system since his body had been too damaged to walk again. All this would have caused any normal human to be terrified of their fate, but 47 was a Core and didn’t have the ability to be afraid.

“Are you even listening to me, you little shit?” Morales growled as he shook 47 so hard that again 47’s teeth rattled, his head hitting the door. But 47 didn’t raise his gaze from where it had focused on the zipper of the Fighter’s black flight suit, nor did he answer. The Fighter’s right hand left 47’s shoulder, only to grab his throat. Using his thumb under 47’s jaw, he forced 47’s glacier blue gaze to meet the anger in his chocolate brown eyes.

“You are mine now. Crow and Luco may not have been smart enough to keep you under control, but I promise you that I won’t have that issue.” The Fighter’s thumb dug painfully into the soft space right beneath 47’s jawbone, so much so that it pushed his tongue up in his closed mouth and forced his head back farther. “I’ll bring you to heel quickly and to the point that you’ll be so respectful of me that you won’t even think about offing me like you did those two pilots. That’s why the Commander pressured the Creators into giving you to me. He knew I could control you and beat that rebellious and holier-than-thou attitude right out of your machine brain. Do you understand me?”

“Core 47 understands your words, Fighter Morales,” 47 replied in a monotone voice as Morales’s grip loosened. His gaze locked with the tanned man’s.

He said this, and he did understand the man’s words completely, but he would never submit to this Fighter’s commands because he was not 47’s Fighter, the only person, besides the Creators, from whom 47 would take commands. While he could bond with Fighters whom the Commander matched him with, he would not with this man. He would go through the motions without forming the connection. Cores were made to merge with the Zodiac systems, including navigation, life support, engine performance, and programming high-response protocols for the Zodiacs. The bond aided the Core to modify those systems to suit the individual Fighter. The bonding process allowed the Core to sense the Fighter within the system. It made them able to recognize the way their pilot worked within the Zodiac. 47 would be his Fighter’s key to unlocking optimal performance.

“Glad we have an understanding,” Morales said with a smirk, his massive ego showing through. “I have no idea how a weak-looking thing like you got the best of two other Fighters. You’ll be a good little dog soon enough.” He yanked 47 away from the door by his throat before throwing him toward the bathroom door. 47 managed to catch himself with his hands on the floor before his face smashed into it, and he stayed there, knowing better than to get up without permission. 47’s body had been modified since his creation, but he still bled from his nose and mouth as a normal human would. Bleeding was apparently not enough for the Fighter, though, as the swift kick in the ribs that flipped 47 onto his back showed him. He kept his gaze lowered, locked on the boot that had nearly cracked a rib, his face expressionless, not even showing the pain throbbing through his neck and chest.

“Get up and strip. Your first lesson is going to be how to please me, and I need a shower. You’re going to wash me as well as make sure my cock is properly drained. I don’t care how long it takes or what I have to do to you, as long as I am satisfied in the end. Do you understand me?”

“Affirmative, Fighter Morales, I understand you,” 47 said clearly, getting to his feet and beginning to unzip his flight suit.

Oh yes. This man was going to join his former comrades. This man, who was not his Fighter, was going to die.

 

Chapter One

Tuesday March 22, 454 MC

Destroyer Class Flagship Zeus, 1208 GMT

Damion

THE MESS hall was crowded and loud. The Zeus was the largest ship in the Chrysalis Corporation fleet, an immense combined battle cruiser and scientific transport of nearly thirty levels. Ten of those levels were strictly military controlled and housed the Fighters. The Zeus was a colony in and of itself. It held everything from a local market to a missile that could destroy an entire planet. It was a majestic vessel that seemed to extend forever as it floated through limitless space. At this point in the day, there were nearly a hundred people in this common area, from all ranks and of differing ages. The hall was cacophonous with all the voices echoing off the shiny steel walls.

Damion was dark-skinned, as most Mars-born were due in part to the UV lighting used in the tunnels, but not nearly as dark-skinned as Mercurian men and women, who were generally so dark that their skin contained blue highlights. He was also taller than the average pilot, since the Corporation had stipulations on maximum and minimum height, but the rule could be overlooked for skill. And Damion definitely had the skill.

He ate with his fellow Beta pilots. Sammy and Dulton were the seniors at their table. They were there to get a bead on the rookies, find out who were the troublemakers and who had potential to go further up the ranks. They had asked Damion where Juni had run off to, and he told them Juni was choosing sleep over chow, again. Damion didn’t care about the loud vocalizations, because the more he listened to all the bullshit flying around, the more he was able to sift through it and pick out what was real and what was fiction.

In the short time he had been listening, one subject stood out: whoever the Core named 47 was, he seemed to like killing his Alpha Fighters. As he listened to the story unfold, Damion hoped he never crossed paths with him. The stories seemed to be more fiction than fact. However, the first parts came from Dulton, who appeared to not be one to bullshit. The senior Beta pilot told Damion that the Alpha Fighters had all died on their first mission with 47. They all suffered from unexplainable life-support failures within their pilot chairs in the bow of the Zodiac.

Except for the last one. According to Dulton, the last one had a feeling what his fate was going to be based on the Core’s previous two Fighters, so he had tried to kill 47 three days ago while out on a mission. According to the reports, as soon as the Fighter’s hands wrapped around 47’s throat, the boosters activated and the unfortunate Fighter was thrown against the hull, crushing his head against the hard metal. Dulton said he had seen the bruises from the Alpha Fighter’s fingers on Core 47’s throat, telling of the Fighter’s obvious abuse of him.

Then Sammy stepped in and continued telling the tall tale of the evil, homicidal Core to the table. Damion half paid attention while determining if he should eat the protein offered on his plate or the baked goods his mother had sent him last week instead.

Sammy’s deep voice caught his attention. “Generally within the Chrysalis Corp, Cores pick their Fighters. It seems to work better that way since a more positive working bond forms between them. But in 47’s case, he had repeatedly refused to select a Fighter since he arrived on the Zeus about two years ago. He held off, telling the Creators and Commander Sandrite that he was waiting for the best and wished to experiment on different weapons systems for the Zodiac spaceship. But they didn’t believe him, so they went with a default protocol to reassign a Core when one refuses to make a choice and assigned him a Fighter—or rather, several Fighters. I’m sure they’re kicking themselves now.”

“They should just kill him,” Tethis spat in disgust, shaking his head. “No Core could be worth that much trouble.”

“Why would the Corporation or the Creators put up with that?” another Beta asked from farther down the table.

“I don’t know,” Sammy answered. “Everything I get about them is from a friend who is dating a sister of one of the Alpha pilots. For some reason what they do is super hush-hush, and unless you get picked, you don’t get told shit.”

Tethis frowned. “But we need to wait for one of the disturbing bastards to pick us to get a spot.”

“Well, technically we need to wait for someone to vacate an Alpha seat.” Sammy winked and pointed a finger at Tethis.

Damion did not have an opinion on the matter—at least not in the open space of the mess hall.

“One of the Zodiac Cores was overheard telling his Alpha Fighter that he heard 47 mumbling “He’s here. He is finally here’ a few days ago.” Dulton tossed his head back and drank down the last of his ration of water before changing the subject to maintenance schedules and away from murdering Cores.

“Well shit,” Dulton blurted.

“Speaking of the demon spawn….” Tethis groaned.

Damion half turned his head to see whom the men were cursing about.

The Core strode through the room, his gaze in their direction and apparently not bothered that the mess hall was becoming quiet. A silence similar to the void of space descended in the large hall.

Damion would have known immediately what the Core was by the suit he was wearing even if Sammy hadn’t pointed him out. It was a typical black flight suit with the Chrysalis Corporation brand of the crystal and wing. There weren’t many differences between a Core’s suit and a Fighter’s except for the holes. All along the back of the Core’s suit, strategically placed cutouts fitted over the ports installed in all Cores’ skin; ports that allowed them to access the system.

“Fighter Damion Pierce Hawk, please come with me.”

Everyone at Damion’s table stopped eating, staring at the Core behind him. The dark color of the attire made everything else about the Core stand out. Pure white hair that was nearly see-through hung slightly haphazardly around the almost severe features. The only thing that didn’t make the Core’s face angry-looking was the softness around his jaw, his slightly pointed nose, and his full pink lips. Those made him handsome. Not that Damion often looked at other men, but this one drew his attention. From the white hair to the pale-as-snow skin, it was obvious the Core was of Plutonian descent. But what drew Damion in completely, almost compellingly, were the glacier-bright blue eyes that had fixed on Damion. They were like two chips of aquamarine that shone brightly but without any life in them.

Damion cleared his throat and spoke as authoritatively as he could, “Why? What is your number?” He didn’t think that pilots, no matter how low in rank they were on the ship, were supposed to take orders from Cores. But honestly, he didn’t know much about the modified, emotionless beings. He was only a grunt—a mere Beta pilot.

“I am 47. You have been chosen. You need to accompany me so that you can receive your reassignment from Beta to Alpha class as well as begin to familiarize yourself with your Zodiac-class vessel.” The Core tilted his head slightly to the side, his expression blank, his voice a monotone as he added, “Is that sufficient information?”

“A little weird, but yeah, sure.” At the moment he couldn’t produce a witty reply if he wanted to. Uranus’s ball sac, this was just his luck.

Damion put his utensils down and stood up, motioning to Dulton to take care of his tray. The men at his table looked as surprised as Damion felt, not to mention as confused. The evil Core swooping in on his chow time to take him to the Commander’s office was nothing to laugh about, especially considering Core 47’s history. Damion’s best friend and roommate, Juni, wasn’t going to believe any of this, and of course this was the day Juni had decided to skip mess to nap.

“Let’s go, Core.”

The Core didn’t say anything as he turned and swiftly walked out of the mess hall and into the corridor. He didn’t stop until he reached the elevator at the end of the corridor and called it to their level. He waited for Damion to enter it before himself, then pressed a button to take them to the fifth floor—the floor with the Commander’s office.

“We will be reporting to Commander Sandrite to have your assignment made official and also to retrieve your room access card and pass for the Zodiac vessel.” The Core announced the orders in a monotone voice. Typical for a Core, or so Damion had heard. This was all completely new to him. His brow furrowed in confusion. He’d been working hard to eventually achieve command of “his own” Zodiac, but he hadn’t expected it to be so soon or to be receiving one in such a manner. All junior pilots had aspirations to be assigned to a Beta ship that they would share with other pilots before finally working their way to Alpha status and a Zodiac-class ship of their own.

Achieving Alpha rank so quickly was unheard of. Until today.

“A bit soon, isn’t it? I haven’t even met any other Cores, and I’ve only become part of the Beta squad.” Only top pilots—the Alphas—were paired with Cores. Ten Alphas were in command of a unit of twenty Betas each, along with working as a unit with ten other Alphas. This brought the Zeus attack fleet to a total number of 210 ships available for deployment. Unless there was a large battle or they had to practice maneuvers as a unit with their Alpha leader, Betas generally stayed on the ship and worked with simulation units, which had proved boring to Damion so far, Although that didn’t mean he was ready to become an Alpha.

“You do not need to,” the Core replied without looking at him. The doors opened, and the Core waited until Damion exited first before doing so himself. “You have already been chosen by a Core. Therefore there is no need for you to meet others. We are the ones who pick our Alpha Fighters. The Fighters do not pick the Core. It is not “a bit soon,’ as you say, for one such as yourself.”

The Core began walking down the corridor beside Damion, obviously leading him but not walking in front of him.

“Right, but how can I be chosen if none of the other Cores have met me?”

Damion was starting to feel even more unbalanced than before. He felt as if he were talking to a wall or a computer console, but knew that if he were truly going to be an Alpha, he would have to adjust to the way Cores spoke, no matter the frustration. If the Commander didn’t laugh him out of his office first.

“You were chosen before you arrived on the Zeus,” the Core stated as if it explained everything. He paused at Commander Sandrite’s gray office door.

Damion sighed as he pulled on the edge of his uniform to straighten out any remaining wrinkles. “I hope you’re not being extremely obtuse on purpose.”

The Core finally turned to him, his odd-hued eyes meeting Damion’s through a length of bangs. “What do you need me to explain? I assumed I was being clear.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Damion replied, glancing at the door. A hint of excitement joined the nausea in his stomach. “There is no way someone can choose me if they haven’t met me. It’s impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible, and anything deemed such should be proven otherwise,” the Core stated matter-of-factly, some essence of almost emotion flashing in his eyes. He turned to the door himself. “As I have just proven.”

When the Core pressed the door chime beside the metal entrance, a buzz was heard inside the room and a gruff voice bade them enter. The Core walked forward and the door opened automatically. He stopped in front of the door sensor and waited on Damion to follow.

“Obtuse.” Damion gave a small glare at the Core before he marched into the office. He made sure to keep his eyes facing forward, stepping only a few meters into the room before giving the Commander a formal salute.

The office was large for a destroyer class ship but befitted the Commander’s position. Directly in front of Damion and his Core was a massive wooden desk. The Commander sat behind it with a console in front of him and an intership communicator off to his right.

“Reporting as requested, sir.” Damion spoke in a clear, strong voice.

The Core stopped slightly behind and to the right of Damion, gaze lowered to the ground in a submissive pose that was unlike his previous almost commanding attitude.

“So you’re the one he’s been waiting for? I sure hope you were worth the three fucking lives that 47 went through to prove his gods-be-damned point.” The Commander was an ex-Alpha Fighter with a no-nonsense air about him. His watery pale-blue gaze rose from a comm tablet to look first at Damion and then at the Core before looking back down.

“Excuse me, sir?” Damion looked behind him at the silent, expressionless Core before directing his attention back at his Commander. “I don’t understand. I never met this Core until ten minutes ago.”

The Commander looked up again, his mouth pinched in a frown. “Let me give you a bit of advice for free, Fighter. Never try and understand a Core. What they do, how they do it, and the decisions they make are nothing we will ever understand. They’re trained and modified from birth to be nothing more than breathing computers with a pulse. They also give our Fighters an edge in combat when they merge with the Zodiac flight systems, making them a pivotal element to our forces.”

Damion had always felt, from the moment he first saw the Commander, that this was definitely a man who wouldn’t take any shit and would give more than he got if pressed. He was middle-aged, with salt-and-pepper hair, and he was in a position he had obviously earned instead of kissing asses to get there. Damion had not overlooked the height difference, having noted before that the Commander was a full hand shorter than him, but the man made up for it with a stocky stature that commanded attention.

Grumbling under his breath, the Commander finally put down his tablet, placing his elbows on the desk before lacing his fingers in front of his chin. “That particular one especially. He’s gone against his programming and isn’t the perfect little toy that the Chrysalis Corporation or the Creators want him to be. But he’s so fucking good, they won’t wipe him and plug him into the Zeus’s system. No, they let him get away with killing my goddamn Fighters, because they wouldn’t listen to his reasons as to why he hadn’t chosen yet. He’s been here on my ship for over a year now. When he said he’d chosen but his Fighter wasn’t here or ready yet, they decided to go against protocol and force him to pair with different Fighters. He’s too good to waste on idleness.”

The Commander’s voice was rising, getting agitated as he slammed his hands on the desk loudly and stood, glaring at the bowed head of the Core. “When asked why, his only explanation was that he deserved the best! So—” He paused, turning his angry gaze back to Damion. “—you better be the fucking best, or you’ll be just as dead as the other three. Do I make myself absolutely fucking clear, Fighter?”

“Yes, sir!” Damion answered automatically, but it was a knee-jerk response and not what he truly felt. He didn’t understand for one damn moment why this Core had killed while waiting on him. He also knew that if the Core didn’t kill him, it seemed the Commander wouldn’t mind throwing them both out an airlock and into the nearest sun to be rid of the Core. It had started out as such a good day, too, and now it had turned to shit. “I will either prove myself or obviously be killed by this Core trying to.”

“That’s all we can really ask for, I suppose. Hopefully it will be different with you,” the Commander growled, taking one last moment to glare at the Core before sitting back down.

He took three items off his desk and held them out to Damion. “This is your assigned room passkey along with your security clearance and also your Zodiac. You’re assigned to the Ares Zodiac. It was specially outfitted under this Core’s direction and has already been modified to accommodate your height and body shape, since you’re so damn tall.” Sandrite glared again at the silent Core. “He had the maintenance crew modify it three months ago. How he knew you were coming, I’ll never know and won’t attempt to guess. Why he didn’t tell me you were his chosen before today also goes into the increasing “I don’t understand this Core’ pile. If he had given us a name, perhaps he wouldn’t have been matched to the last Fighter, but I can’t waste time waiting on one rogue Core’s opinion. I had an Alpha seat to fill, and I filled it, damn it.

“Moving on, that piece of paper contains your official assignment. You’ll start exercises with your Core tomorrow so that you can become better acquainted with each other’s styles and complete the bonding process. Any questions?”

“No, sir.”

Like hell. He had a lot more questions but didn’t want to be thought insubordinate. He also doubted Commander Sandrite would answer them. Hopefully he could keep up the front that he had his shit together and hide the fact that his state of shock was slowly wearing off. Of course, this meant his heart wasn’t beating as hard as before.

Damion didn’t even know what you did with a Core. Sure, he had heard the men talk, but most of the Fighters now with Cores had been regular or Beta pilots for years until chosen by a Core and becoming an Alpha. A Core did have the ability to bond with different Fighters, in case a Fighter died in combat, was reassigned, or failed to perform to expectations. Damion reached out and took the items held out to him before giving the Commander another salute. “Permission to leave, sir?”

“Yes, yes. Get him the hell out of here. He’s your responsibility now. Good fucking luck.” The Commander flapped a hand at him, dismissing them.

The Core was already at the door, waiting to follow Damion out of the office.

Damion read the room assignment, and as he expected, it was on the upper floor with the higher-ranked Alpha Fighters. “47, show me to my room.”

If there was one thing he had picked up from his talk with the other pilots, it was that the Cores had to do anything asked of them by their Fighters, and most of the time they complied. But this one had a record of refusing orders, and killing three of his Fighters in the process. Damion figured he had better test out the waters now, rather than risk his life in open space.

The Core merely turned back toward the elevators and pressed the up button, waiting yet again for Damion to get in before entering and queuing the elevator for the seventh floor. The command and control offices were on the fifth floor because it was the center of the ship and most protected from outside attacks. The officers’ quarters were on the tenth, while the other floors were scattered with different offices, Medical, mess, and general quarters. The seventh floor was for the senior Fighters, the Alphas.

Once they reached it, the Core followed Damion out and led him to the right, passing a dozen doors or so until he came to one marked 256. Pulling out his passkey from a chest pocket in his suit, 47 scanned it and the door hissed open. He waited for Damion to enter before following him inside. The entire time the Core was silent, his expression blank, emotionless, cold.

The room was twice the size of the quarters Damion had shared with Juni until today. It even had a private toilet instead of a communal one for each corridor. Damion tossed the cards and assignment on a small table that had two thick Fighter manuals on it. He saw the full-size bed against the right wall and the recessed closet to the left. Hell, his duffel didn’t hold more than three uniforms and a few odds and ends—there would be plenty of room left over. Room for what, he didn’t fucking know, since he hadn’t planned on any of this.

Damion couldn’t recognize the last piece of furniture until he stepped closer and inspected it. The odd, egg-shaped bed (if that was what it could be called) was partly recessed in the floor and the back wall. It looked like that was where the Core would plug himself in for any number of reasons that Damion couldn’t begin to fathom.

The Core. Damion turned back to take in the pale man… kid… computer… whatever he was. Cores were something you heard about as a grunt in the Infantry and saw in flight school from far, far away. They were with their Alpha pilots, a constant silent, yet observant, shadow, and it did not help that the Alphas refused to share many details about their Cores.

Cores. They fought side by side with the Alpha Fighters to make them faster and better than any other seeded pilot, they obeyed, and they were for the Elite—the rich citizens in the private class. They didn’t kill and they didn’t scheme. Juni had mentioned seeing them on Lunar, but Damion was from Mars, and his colony didn’t have anything as high value as a Core. But now Damion himself had one and was stuck with him.

“47. Why did you kill those men?” Damion had to know what they had done so he didn’t follow in their footsteps. Or rather, their graves. He didn’t think he was the best—not yet—but damn it all to hell if he was going to just let someone kill him.

The Core still stood by the closed door, his gaze following Damion as he looked about and explored their quarters. “They were not whom I picked. They were assigned to me and were inferior to the one I had already chosen.”

“They were still your Fighters. They were human.” Damion crossed his arms. “What did they do to deserve death? Did they harm you? Threaten you?”

The Core tilted his head to the side briefly, seeming to consider the question. As he did so, it exposed part of his neck and showed stark bruises that wrapped around his windpipe in the shape of fingers.

“They were not the best. They were not whom I had chosen” was all he finally said. And he said it in a way that meant he deemed the question answered to its conclusion.

“You’re always like this, aren’t you?” Damion asked. He felt about ready to smack the back of the Core’s head. Perhaps there was a magical restart button back there, along with a “don’t kill my Fighter” button too. “You haven’t even seen me before. Why did you choose me and how?”

“I found you within the system two years ago. The top of your class, you had test scores above and beyond all your classmates in piloting and weapons. You were required to study two fighting styles, but you studied five. Your reaction time is also above average and beyond what the Corporation has seen in over twenty years. In addition you’ve shown yourself to be superior in battle tactics and leadership in all your simulation flights and in the reports from your days in the Academy. You are the best. I will accept no less.” The Core tilted his head again. “Does that sufficiently answer your question?”

“You picked me out by my test scores? I think I’m more worried than before.” Damion had other questions, but talking to this… being was stressful. He needed to move around and attempt to work through the whiplash of excitement and fear warring inside him. “I need to get my gear. Shit, I haven’t even been in a frontline pilot simulator since placements. Now I have to get into the real thing in less than ten hours.”

Damion picked up his new passkey and slipped it into his pocket. “You follow me. Tell me about your first Fighter. I want his name and how many missions you flew with him.”

As they stepped out of the room and into the corridor, they met a small crowd obviously waiting for them. Alpha Fighters with their Cores surrounded them. Damion was taller than all of them by a good fifteen centimeters, but he wasn’t stupid enough to think they couldn’t kick his ass as a group.

“One,” said the Fighter who was standing at the head of the group. He had short-cropped hair and a pissed off expression to go with a muscular body that spoke of more brawn than brains.

“Excuse me?” Damion’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“The three of them were able to fly once, and they barely made it to the battle before that broken piece of shit killed them,” the Fighter spat. “He should be plugged into a trash compactor and forgotten, not plugged into a Zodiac and bound to an Alpha.”

Wonderful. It was obvious that the Goddess of Luck, Tyche, was not with him today. First he was promoted and assigned the angel of death as his Core. Now a small mob was ready to kick said angel of death’s ass—and maybe Damion’s as well.

Dear Mom, life isn’t fucking fair.