The evac module was an independent system allowing Ashley to manually activate the safety pod. When she heard ship's atmosphere hiss, she jettisoned from the Enigma Rex, her home of nine years.
Relief came when Ashley sighted the twinkling lights of Porto Nortis. Four hundred low-grav steps later, she was able to knock on the metal rampart and gain entry. The outpost consisted of unregistered chloride traders, criminal rogues, and mining activists. Assistance from the Local Authority could compromise the renegade community but they could never neglect their duty of care in offering Ashley critical assistance. She would have to wait until the next shuttle to the nearest registered outpost before she could alert anyone about the incident with the rogue entity orbiting the moon.
Ashley sought out a place to rest and discovered a crowded tavern, deep inside the outpost. Half asleep in a booth, she contemplated the dead scientist's words. They troubled her. She dreamt of the 'thing that exists', of it taking on a humanoid form; its fingers morphing into sharp blades. She choked, feeling the stale air in her lungs boil.
Ashley awoke, lying in a dark, wet corridor with a Sentapod wrapped around her neck. A cloaked figure sat next to her. Ashley struggled, but the Malgorian creature tightened its grip.
"No use fighting it," said Ashley's captor. "It only responds to my command."
When Ashley settled back, the Sentapod relaxed. "What do you want?"
The hood came down revealing a glistening onyx-skinned Kucobani. "I, my friend, seek the Tesseract, just like all the ten known civilizations seek it."
"You know it?"
"No," she said.
"I've been studying humans a short time, but interpreting your truth-face was my easiest accomplishment. This ability to lie is enormously fascinating but annoyingly counterproductive. You are aware of the Tesseract existence, so hiding this fact isn't going to benefit you." The Kucobi were an ultra-religious race renowned for their intergalactic exploration and research in xenoarchaeology.
"Too bad it's inside humanity's domain," said Ashley.
"You think this gives you ownership of such a prize?"
"Are you claiming you possess special rights to this artifact?"
"No." The Kucobani hesitated, then said, "The artifact is the remains of an unknown alien star-city that survived a supernova eight billion years ago."
"Eight billion?" Ashley knew of no such ancient civilization.
"This stellar explosion rendered their civilization extinct. Yet, one city survived, and aeons later, as a new star was born, this city, with its long-dead citizens, entered the gravitational pull of the young gas-giant you call Oribus b and formed into this moon. Now, I'm going to persuade you to help get me into the excavation dig. Then we're going to steal the Tesseract."
"I'm not doing..." Ashley felt the Sentapod strangle her. She held out her hand in submission.
"Good," said the Kucobani. "Lead the way."
Ashley got to her feet and staggered along the corridor, passing other outpost dwellers. No one cared about her predicament. Inside unregistered outposts, minding one's own business was religion number one.
With a Malgorian around her neck and a Kucobani on her tail, Ashley headed for the Porto Nortis command bunker and convinced the corporate sheriff to allow them to get on a shuttle to the nearest interline.
When suiting up, Ashley asked her captor, "What's your name?"
"My name is Mr Alien," said the Kucobani before boarding the shuttle.