“The violence done to us by others is often less painful than that which we do to ourselves.”
-Francois de la Rochefoucauld
It was a pattern that was as predictable as it was repetitive: the sounds of a dock crew switching from its night crew to the morning shift. For Fitz, it began with the sounds of maintenance crews breaking out their strikers and welders and catching up on repair work. Sirens blared as cranes moved to transport shipping crates from one area of the docks to another. And of course, there were the sounds of the morning arrivals. This consisted of ships firing their VTOL thrusters as they landed in their berths, and other sirens warning the crews to remain safely behind the barriers until the ships were secure and their engines had powered down.
It was a strange thing, a morning on the docks. The docks never closed, and commerce on Saturn’s moon Dione didn’t obey any of the old diurnal orthodoxies. The original colonists had been so committed to maintaining a twenty-four-hour day. Hence, for all those who worked the docks, the biggest burst of activity always came between the hours of oh-six-hundred and ten-hundred hours. Naturally, this was the time when the Superintendent – and not one of his underqualified underlings – absolutely had to be on hand to supervise the loading and unloading.
It was an immutable pattern that never changed, and the reason why Fitz knew something was wrong the moment he arrived. His wary eyes scanned the dockhands, standing around in clustered masses with Gendarmes moving amongst them, asking his people questions. Sadrine was the first to notice his arrival, calling out with a shrill warning.
“Fitzy! Get out of here before –”
A Gendarme brandished his truncheon to silence her, while another officer stepped in to restrain Sadrine and prevent her from finishing her sentence. Fitz was unable to voice an objection before some official-looking type stepped forward to intercept him.
“Mr. Fitz,” said the lean man dressed in the blue uniform of the Dione Gendarmes. “You’re the Superintendent of these docks?”
Fitz looked the man up and down. The man was almost a full head taller than he was. The insignia on his arm indicated that he was a lieutenant. His craggy, lined face and gray eyes were unfamiliar, but that wasn’t surprising. The brass rarely ever came down to the docks, not unless something was wrong. The fact that the Gendarmes were holding his people for what appeared to be questioning certainly indicated that something was wrong – really wrong.
“Yes. And who are you?” asked Fitz.
“Lieutenant Boden, Superintendent, at your service.”
“All right. So what’s going on here?”
“We’re just conducting an inspection. Your dockworkers are not under arrest; they’re simply” – a thin smile tugged at Boden’s lips – “being questioned as part of a routine investigation.”
Fitz turned to look at his assembled workers. To a person, they looked like convicts being shuttled off to prison. A slightly less unpleasant description would be that of criminals being shuffled back to their cells. Nothing about what Fitz saw appeared routine to him.
Fitz took a deep, calming breath and addressed him civilly. “What is this about?”
Boden produced a tablet. Fitz expected to see a readout of an arrest warrant. To his surprise, it was something much more complicated. It appeared to be an authorization form, but one that he didn’t recognize. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. What am I looking at?”
“That’s an official sanction by the Council. And it’s in response to a tip we received through official channels about contraband coming through these docks.”
“Contraband?” Fitz choked back a laugh. Every day, untold amounts of contraband moved through the docks of the Cronian system. While Dione wasn’t exactly the hub of all the black-market goods coming into the system, the rigors of inspections and official seals usually found most of it. At no point did it warrant an investigation by a lieutenant and a squad of Gendarmes. At best, they’d send a lone officer around to conduct a fishing expedition. “What could be so important that you felt the need to round up all my workers?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, sir.”
“And why not?” demanded Fitz.
Boden remained unphased by Fitz’s question. Realizing he wasn’t going to get a response, Fitz looked past Boden to a ship docked beyond the corralled workers. An innocuous light transport, indiscernible from the hundreds of other vessels around them, rested in one of the dock’s many berths. Standard practice for light transports waiting to be unloaded. Only this time, the berth had been cordoned off, and uniformed Gendarmes were preventing anyone from approaching it.
What the hell is going on at my docks?
“Superintendent, we’re going to need your cooperation,” Boden continued. “Our officers are executing a search warrant on that transport. And so far, your workers have been of limited assistance.”
Fitz shot Boden a harsh look, regretting it immediately and replacing it with a more neutral expression. The tension in the hangar was plain as day. Fitz needed answers, and getting testy with the Gendarmes wasn’t going to help that.
“Has anyone on my staff impeded your investigation, Lieutenant?”
Boden’s hands moved behind his back as he assumed a parade stance, rocking gently back and forward on the heels of his feet.
“It’s not a question of impeding as much as” – the man appeared to be searching for the right word – “suspicion, sir.”
Fitz allowed himself a small smile. Despite the differences in their levels of authority, Boden was in a delicate spot. To call the current political climate tense would be an understatement in the extreme. As such, the Gendarmerie didn’t want to alienate anyone they didn’t have to. Dockworkers, for their part, were known for being well-organized and scrappy, not to mention essential to keeping Dione functioning. No one wanted to make an enemy of them if they could help it.
“Suspicion of what?” Fitz asked.
“I mean, the information we received indicated that some of your workers are…affiliated.”
Boden emphasized this last word, leaving it hanging in the air. Fitz’s voice got caught in his throat, and his heart began to race. “Lieutenant, I can assure you, no one on my staff is affiliated with the Centimanes.”
Affiliated. The implications of Boden’s thinly-veiled accusation caused Fitz to feel less in control of the situation.
Boden took a step closer to Fitz, forcing him to crane his neck to meet the man’s eyes. The way they stood now emphasized their differences in height, which mirrored their differences in authority. The mention of those radicals, who had recently transitioned from being mere agitators to being a terrorist organization, caused Boden to lose all traces of courtesy and kindness.
“Are you certain of that, sir?” said Boden in a firm tone. “Can you personally account for their activities when they’re not here?’
Fitz felt a hot sensation rising in his chest that he fought to contain. It was like choking down bile. Ever since the infamous trial of the Ganymede Five, things had become crazy in the Outer Worlds. Five kids in the Jovian system who’d been affiliated had decided to go on a tear and murder some security officers. Suddenly, everyone everywhere was a suspect, and that included the local band of misfits and radicals they called the Centimanes. The Gendarmerie didn’t seem to care who they stepped on, so long as it looked like they were maintaining order.
The Centimanes were hardly better, Fitz knew. But at least they weren’t rounding people up and questioning their loyalty. Fitz had even heard rumors that the Gendarmes were taking liberties with those they arrested. Anything to get information, they said.
“No one on my staff is affiliated with the Centimanes, Lieutenant,” Fitz stated with a measure of conviction that he hoped was convincing. “We’re a tightly-knit group, and I know my people’s hearts and minds.”
Boden smirked and gazed back at the cordoned-off transport. Gendarmes were now exiting the transport, a team of them pushing a heavy loader with a large crate on it. When Boden turned back to Fitz, the smirk became a beaming grin. “Somebody on Titan seems to know them better, sir.”
Fitz said nothing, as their attention was now focused on the crate as it was maneuvered down to the edge of the mooring area. Carefully, the Gendarmes removed it from the pallet and set it down. A second team moved in, these ones wearing bulky suits of armor. With obvious care, they began opening the crate.
As the top was removed, the armored figures paused. From where he stood, Fitz couldn’t see what was inside, but from the way the officers were carrying on, it didn’t inspire confidence. One of the officers, whom Fitz guessed was the senior man, placed his right hand to the side of his helmet and looked in Boden’s direction. Boden, placing his finger to an earbud, listened and nodded, eventually releasing the earbud and turning back to Fitz.
“Ammunition,” he said as the team went back to work. “Rather specific, in fact. One doesn’t generally see such ordnance coming through Dione. But a tip from off-world allowed us to trace its route here.” Boden turned back to Fitz. His smile was now venomous. “How do you imagine the transport crew planned to get such cargo through this dock without someone on the inside?”
Fitz shook his head. Despite the rather shocking surprise, he still felt confident in his conviction that none of his people were in on this. “Lieutenant, the last time I checked, suspicion wasn’t a basis of proof. You and your officers intercepted an illegal package, and that’s commendable. But that doesn’t –”
“Kifo kwa die ugnetatelyam!”
Boden’s head snapped around to look for the voice that screamed suddenly in Cronian pidgin. Across the dock, Gendarmes were drawing their holstered weapons, bringing them to bear on a common target. To Fitz’s horror, their target was Baccu, one of Fitz’s dock workers. Fitz’s eyes widened in astonishment as he looked upon Baccu’s left arm, which now ended at the elbow. In his right hand, he was brandishing what was clearly a prosthetic limb… and that limb was emitting a loud beeping noise.
The dockworkers scattered in every direction, blocking the line of fire of those Gendarmes who had their weapons already drawn. Mercifully, Baccu waited until his fellow workers were clear before doing anything. The terrible look he had on his face let Fitz know what was coming.
“Uasi!” Baccu cried. The beeping from the prosthetic intensified and reached a fever pitch.
Fitz tried to call out, only to have the breath knocked out of him as Boden dove into him and brought him to the ground. He barely had time to fill his lungs again when another blast deflated him. This one began as a deafening roar that quickly became inaudible. Fitz’s eyes slammed shut as a wave of heat and pressure rolled over him, making him feel like his ears, nostrils, and eyeballs might all explode.
Just as quickly as it happened, everything began to go dark as he drifted off into unconsciousness. Baccu’s last words drifted through Fitz’ mind just before he slipped away entirely. The phrase itself was unmistakable, as it was something that was being uttered across many worlds.
Kifo kwa die ugnetatelyam, he thought. Death to the oppressors.
Slowly, the world began to resolve itself around him again. Fitz wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It took a moment for him to realize where he was and why everything appeared to be moving. He was looking up at the ceiling, with several faces looking down at him. There were bright lights and blinking instruments moving in front of his face and a deafening ringing in his ears. His mind filled in the blanks with frightening speed as he realized that he was on a gurney being pushed somewhere, most likely the nearest infirmary.
Rolling his head to the left, Fitz directed his gaze downward slightly. He noted that he wasn’t the only one who’d been injured. Several gurneys were being pushed in the same direction by medical personnel, a handful of Gendarmes escorting them. On the gurney closest to him, he spotted the face of Sadrine, a respirator covering its lower half. Her serene, pale features made him momentarily forget that they were both in need of medical attention.
Suddenly, Fitz remembered what had happened before his world went dark. Boden had saved his life by knocking him to the deck. If Fitz was currently on his way to an infirmary, then where was the brave lieutenant now? A cold, sickly feeling overtook him as he realized the likely answer.
The sound of the PA system penetrated the ringing in his ears, which was slowly subsiding. Now every sound felt like needles being shoved into his eardrums. Nevertheless, he managed to make out the message, which the PA system was repeating over and over.
“Attention, all citizens. Return to your domiciles immediately! The colony is in lockdown. Attention, all citizens. Return to your domiciles –”
Carefully rolling his head to the right, Fitz saw another bit of the world passing by. People were standing about, looking terrified at the gurneys being pushed before them. There were plenty of blue-uniformed Gendarmes attempting to contain and direct them. Fitz could sense the fear, the anger, and the terrible confusion that permeated everything around him.
From that and what he had witnessed on the docks, Fitz could draw only one conclusion.
The revolution had come to Dione.
Part I: Uprising
“To this day, some still speak of the revolts in the Outer Rim and ask, ‘why did it happen?’ The real question is, ‘why did it take so long?’ The seeds of the conflict had been planted centuries before and fertilized by generations of antagonism and enmity. But somehow, the breaking point always proves to be something no one expects.”
-Councilor Alastair Fionn, The Solar Crisis
A low hum. In the section of O’Neill’s Reach where the Constance was berthed, the background noise was always a low hum. The hangar bay was nestled next to a major air conduit or a power generator. Either that or the walls were just good conveyors of station noise. Regardless, it made for a soothing accompaniment to the noises coming from the Constance itself.
If he closed his eyes, Houte suspected he might fall asleep. The thought was most appealing. It felt like an age since he’d fallen asleep while doing real maintenance work. And while the cart he was resting on was hardly ergonomic, it was certainly comfortable enough. The air in the bay was also warm enough that he didn’t feel the need for blankets.
Alas, sleep was something for another time. There was a lot of work to be done and a schedule to keep and, as always, people depended on him. After all the abuse they’d put her through, their ship was due for some much-needed maintenance. The last firefight with the mercs outside of the Jovian System had caused its share of damage to some of the ship’s more sensitive electrical systems. While all the backup systems had allowed them to get to a safe port, the damaged ones had to be repaired.
Assuming, of course, we ever want to take the Constance out again, thought Houte.
The name had been an informal choice, one that Houte had chosen himself without consulting the others. Not only did it pay homage to his little sister, the very woman who had led them to the vessel and got them out of more jams than Houte could count, it was also a testament to the ship’s toughness. Despite the hell they had put her through, it was still running.
Hence why Houte found himself on his back with an open panel in front of his face. They wanted it to keep running as long as possible.
The sound of metallic clanks alerted Houte to someone entering the bay and making their way towards him. The measured nature of the steps against the metal flooring let him know who it was. Few people in the System had the kind of deliberate steps that came from military training, and none of them were a part of his crew.
“Hello, Adele,” he said without sliding out from under the ship. “Come to check up on me?”
Now standing near his feat, Adelaide Cheboi responded with a measure of sarcasm.
“Hey, Franklin. Yeah, I was bored. The others are all out doing things ‘vital to our efforts.’ I guess that, by default, leaves me with babysitting duty.”
Houte might have been offended, but her playful tone prevented that. “What about your friend? Aren’t you supposed to be watching over her?”
Houte heard the distinct sound of a scoff. “Well, Gallego did insist on the need for privacy. I could have shadowed her, but I think I’ve come to respect her too much for that. Besides, she’s got her anonymizers handy, so if she does venture out into public, she won’t be identified. Speaking of which, good job getting the ship’s fab to make those for us.”
Houte smiled a little at her offhand compliment, then returned his attention to the exposed electrical systems. The sound of the fuser crackling drowned out the background hum for a second. As soon as he took a break to let the tool recharge, Cheboi started talking again.
“There is one thing I’m curious about.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“How you came to be involved in all this.”
Houte reapplied the fuser and finished soldering the connection, giving himself a few extra moments to formulate his reply. Powering down the fuser, he grabbed hold of a maintenance tablet and ran a connectivity test. The panel lit up as power flowed through the now-repaired system, and Houte issued a satisfied grunt. Powering the panel down, he slid out from under the ship and stood to meet Cheboi’s face.
She hadn’t altered her appearance much since their last encounter, but Houte sensed that her dark braided hair had grown shorter. Her face was as coolly stoic as ever, and her sharp cheekbones and the small thrust of her jaw only seemed to add to that impression. Even her eyes, the same deep brown as her skin, were still and never seemed to waver. She patiently waited for him to answer and would wait as long it took.
With a shrug of his shoulders, Houte began as simply he could. “Not much to say, really. Ward and I had an arrangement. In exchange for information, he’d make it worth my while. His last job put him up against some really bad people, and they killed him. My sister and I decided they needed to pay.”
“Oh, I understand that,” said Cheboi. “It was a brave move. Don’t get me wrong. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Houte grabbed a spanner from his tool kit and began making some adjustments to the fittings on the ship’s hull. This allowed for another pause, which he welcomed. He didn’t much like where the conversation was going. “What are you talking about?”
To Houte, the single word conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of meaning. Placing the spanner and the tablet aside, he turned around to face Cheboi. This wasn’t a conversation he could have in small bursts. When he came about, he saw Cheboi sitting on a nearby crate, with her legs carefully crossed. The smile on her face was similarly cautious, conveying courtesy, but letting him know there was steely determination behind it.
Houte hoped his impassive features were conveying the same level of determination. “You’ve been looking into us.”
“I make it a point to know who I’m dealing with,” replied Cheboi. “You and your sister, Constance, presented quite the anomaly. I wanted to know your story.”
Houte crossed his arms in front of his chest, causing the wiry muscles in his arms to bulge more prominently. It was an instinctive move, nothing more. He had absolutely no illusions about looking intimidating to Cheboi. The woman was enhanced and augmented in ways Houte couldn’t fathom, and any confrontation between them would end badly for him. Still, he felt the need to assume a tougher-looking posture. “And what exactly did you learn?”
Cheboi’s eyes darted to the side. Something new crept over her expression. It was evident in her tone, too: a slight, somber trace.
“She was part of a program for people who wanted to enhance themselves beyond what was conventionally available at the time. Subjects would have quantum components integrated directly into their brains, producing super-human intelligence and awareness.”
Houte nodded. “Go on.”
“The program was one of several that grew out of the old unlimited experimentation zones on Earth. But the real experiments, hidden away from prying eyes, took place in a facility near Fermi on Luna. That’s where the most promising subjects went after undergoing initial augmentation and testing.”
Cheboi paused, taking a breath before continuing. “There were some deaths. Only four of the original group survived. After the augmentations were complete, three of them went on to assume important roles in the Inner Worlds…”
Cheboi tilted her head to the side and fixed her eyes on him, her gaze penetrating. Houte turned away to prevent her from seeing his reaction, and walked back to the Constance. Scooping up his tool kit, he closed up the panel he’d been working on and moved to the next section that needed attention. Contrary to his intent, Cheboi took his refusal to reply as an invitation to continue.
“All four candidates disappeared for a time, but three re-emerged when they became integrated into the planetary networks of Venus, Earth, and Mars. Their augmented minds were intrinsic to the creation of Cisne, Gaia, and Mangala. The fourth wasn’t integrated into anything. No one even knew what happened to her.”
Houte removed a pry bar from the toolkit and began aggressively trying to open a buckled, scorched panel. The banging of metal against meta wasn’t enough to drown Cheboi out or make her go away, though.
“Constance is the fourth, isn’t she?”
Houte found that question impossible to ignore. Throwing the pry bar down, he spun around and strode to within two steps of her. She was standing now, so his next words were spoken directly to her face.
“Just what it is you think you’ve figured out here?”
Cheboi smiled. “There are few things more powerful in this universe than family ties, Franklin. I can imagine that a young man who was smart, well-equipped, and willing would have been able to penetrate the facility on Luna and get her out.”
Houte inched closer to her, so close that he could feel her breath on his face. Enhanced as she was, Houte wasn’t the slightest bit afraid of her right now. She had crossed a line that few people even knew existed.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You came up with all of this since we got to the Reach? We’ve been here less than a day!”
Cheboi drew back a step, holding her palms up at her sides. “As I said, I make it a point of knowing who I’m dealing with.”
Houte’s jaw clenched, as did his hands. For decades, Constance’s past had been a carefully guarded secret, known only to one person outside of their circle – and that was Ward. In that time, those who had known about Ascension had largely died off or given up trying to find out what happened to their fourth subject. Were they to learn of Constance’s whereabouts, they might try to bring her back to Luna for examination – or worse, for more experiments.
Houte continued to clench and unclench his hands, as if he were trying to figure out what to do with them. He wasn’t prepared to lay a hand on her, for several reasons – not the least of which was that she might break it. But now that she was in possession of this newfound knowledge, there was the question of what she planned to do with it. “So what now?” he said softly behind grinding teeth.
“We’re on the same side, Franklin,” Cheboi said a bit crossly. Her words sounded chastising. “I’m not about to share this information with anyone. Besides, the way I figure it, just about everyone else in this crew knew about it already.”
Houte shook his head. She had a point. Amaru had had plenty of time to acquaint herself with Constance and learn some of the details of her and his past. As for Pinter – the Martian exile who existed only in virtual form – it was difficult to determine what he knew. Houte hadn’t exactly been privy to all their conversations, so there was no telling what Constance had told him.
“You might know more than most,” Houte said finally. “No one else has shown quite the same aptitude for digging into our pasts as you have.”
Cheboi let out a small laugh. “So what you’re saying is, I’m part of an exclusive club? I’m honored.”
Houte might have laughed, but he’d checked his sense of humor at the door a long time ago. Cheboi had finished with her little fishing expedition and let him down gently, which was more than kind. But since he couldn’t think of a way to express his feelings, not in a way he was comfortable with, Houte chose to throw himself back into his work and hoped she would take the hint.
“I better get back to it,” he said, picking up the pry bar and tablet and turning to face the Constance once more.
“All right, I’ll leave you alone. I just wanted to let you know that your secret is safe with me.”
Houte heard the clanking of her retreating footsteps. Shortly before Cheboi’s feet reached the door, she stopped and turned. There was one more thing she needed to ask.
“Have you ever thought about going home to Terra again? You and your sister?”
Houte didn’t pause from his work. The question required no particular thought to answer, at least not when answered honestly. “We were home,” he said flatly. “Until you and your friends showed up.”
Cheboi once again took the hint and completed her retreat from the bay. At last, Houte was left alone with nothing but the sound of his tools and the ship’s systems to keep him company. The background hum coming through the walls became audible again too. For a moment, he felt like he might be able to relax.
Gallego waited patiently as the tall cylinder finished its cycle. Beneath the transparent outer shell, she could see Janis Amaru lying there unconscious. It was strange for Gallego to see her associate in this type of state. The usual stiffness with which she looked out at the universe was now gone, her face looking soft and passive. The way it was enclosed by her flowing burnt chestnut-colored hair also drew Gallego’s attention to how beautiful she was.
It was almost sad to behold. In a deep enough sleep, even the most hardened of people could look innocent and serene.
A scanner bar hovered above Amaru, performing a final check and passing over her from head to toe, toe to head. The readouts on the shell eventually turned green and began showing the results of its biometric scans. Gallego looked them over briefly and emitted a soft sigh.
The results weren’t bad, but Gallego anticipated that the medbot would have a few unkind words for her comrade when it arrived.
With a loud chime, the cylinder indicated that it had completed its assigned task and positioned itself horizontally. The lights inside went from a soft blue to bright white, calling attention to the woman who lay within. A seam appeared along the length of the cylinder, running directly up the center. When the seam parted, there was a mild hiss as the internal atmosphere was let out. Slowly, Amaru opened her eyes.
“Hey, Janis. How do you feel?” Gallego asked. She placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and flinched at the feel of her still-cold and clammy skin. Amaru blinked several times and then groaned softly in response.
“Like I’m waking up from a non-restful coma. I hate getting a full physical.”
“Small price to pay for near-immortality,” Gallego muttered.
As expected, the medical unit arrived just in time to help Amaru out of the cylinder. The Geminoid looked every bit the part of an actual physician, dressed in white and moving with a sense of purpose. The freckled, feminine face and comforting smile were also a nice touch. It was a practice that was centuries old by now: medbots were designed to look and sound as human as possible, so patients would feel more comfortable in their presence.
In Gallego’s experience, it had the opposite effect.
“Welcome back, Ms. Amaru,” said the medbot through two gleaming rows of white teeth. “Are you comfortable?”
“A little sore,” Amaru replied. She reached out with one arm and accepted the medbot’s help to bring herself upright and get to her feet. This produced more groans and complaints. “I guess I put this off for a little while.”
“Indeed,” the medbot replied, somewhat pedantically. “From the information you provided, it has been over twenty years since your last treatment. It is strongly recommended that all citizens living and traveling to the Outer Worlds undergo treatments at least once every ten years.”
Amaru bent over at the hips and placed her hands on her legs, drawing several deep breaths. When she stood up, her face was a vision of impatience, with just a hint of nausea. “Yeah, well, I guess I’ve been busy.”
The medbot’s tone became more pedantic. “An understatement, to say the least. In addition to changes in your musculature and bone density, your scans indicated evidence of recent trauma, severe blood loss, and the presence of nanoware not registered to your person. Under the circumstances, it is strongly recommended that you report any recent incidents that could account for this to the authorities immediately.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Amaru said with a raised hand. The medbot cleared its throat, a strictly behavioral gesture, and continued.
“In any case, your medimachines have been upgraded to the latest version, and your bioimplants and neural loom have all received the necessary updates. If you wish, you can backup your neurological patterns before you leave. It might help to have them on file if you are planning on engaging in any high-risk behaviors again soon.”
Gallego suppressed the urge to laugh. Here was another subtle quirk that the medbot’s designers had incorporated. Somehow, a capacity for sarcasm made them seem more human as well.
“Thank you for the advice!” Amaru repeated. The medbot understood that it was being dismissed. It made some parting remarks about the importance of proper biomechanical maintenance and regular checkups, then promptly marched out of the room.
“Not exactly what you’d call proper bedside manner for dealing with fugitives,” said Gallego. Her comment made Amaru scowl.
“I know your friend arranged for this, but he could have done a better job of establishing some parameters for that synthetic. Whether or not it would report me to the authorities, it could at least keep its mouth shut.”
Gallego grimaced. The mention of Burhan only pressed home just how uncomfortable she’d felt asking him for the favor. She was sure he’d be holding it above her head later. Burhan was nothing if not passionate, for better and for worse.
“Now that you’re all fixed up,” Gallego said, hoping to move things forward, “why don’t we talk about this meeting you have scheduled?”
Amaru reached over her shoulder to rub at a tight muscle in her neck and sighed. The fugue of the therapy session was making her a little impatient, but the subject of the meeting seemed to rouse her a little. “I still think I should be meeting with the seller alone. He’s not exactly good with strangers.”
“Yes,” Gallego nodded. “But I know we’d all feel better if you had some backup. Besides, at some point, all of this is going to be shared with Elenko and the Council. I prefer to be there so I can construct a living record of it all in my head.”
Amaru scoffed at Gallego’s description. She wanted to attend a clandestine meeting so she would have memories that could be preserved in her neural loom for posterity or in the event of their deaths. But somehow, Gallego made it sound like some kind of official bureaucratic procedure.
“You can take the Cytherean out of Venus, but you can’t take Venus out of the Cytherean,” she remarked.
Gallego smiled. It was certainly an apt statement and something the two of them understood intimately. As expatriates of the floating colonies, they knew that no matter how well-traveled their people were, they always maintained a strong connection to home. Gallego suspected that in her case, it was truer than for others. She hoped Amaru, given her many years of venturing even further abroad (and taking up with some revolutionary groups in both the Jovian and Cronian systems in between it all), still felt some inkling to do right by her people.
“I can promise nothing,” she said. “I can try and get you in, but ‘the Stout’ is in charge. I’ve got no right to ask anything more of him, not after what he’s done for us.”
Gallego looked past the majority of what she said to focus on the man’s name. She still found it difficult to believe that this was the name their contact had chosen for himself. But after a lifetime of traveling the System and meeting people of various backgrounds and particular enhancements, few things surprised her anymore.
“Fine; when can you find out?” Gallego asked.
Amaru shivered, her body still adjusting to the effects of the therapy. “Give me an hour or two. I can arrange the details of the meeting at that time, and maybe you can visit with that boyfriend of yours in the meantime.”
Gallego winced at the thought of her inevitable rendezvous with Burhan. A lot had happened since she’d last seen him, and it was unclear where they stood with each other. Burhan had been very relieved to hear from her and to know she was back in the Reach. He had also been kind enough to arrange a private session with the rejuvenation clinic. Otherwise, he’d been rather guarded when talking to her. While she had no intention of taking him back after the way he’d ended things, it would be good to know what his intentions were at this point.
How sad is that? she asked herself. In the past few weeks, she and her comrades had walked into multiple ambushes and faced down foes who’d had every intention of murdering them. Several players still wanted to see them meet with a nasty end. But for some reason, it was the thought of running into her ex that was making her nervous!
The room was a virtual cornucopia of media feeds. Projected from the various emitters that lined the wall, holographic images showed dozens of scenes from the Jovian and Cronian systems. In the center of the bubble, Councilwoman Xenia Elenko and the various members of the Solar Council sat and watched. Each feed told a different story, though all had the same central theme. On one feed, there was footage from a security checkpoint around Titan. On another, there was closed-circuit camera footage from Dione. Another displayed activity on Rhea. Wherever the media was reporting from within the Jovian and Cronian systems, it was being beamed into the room for the Council members to see.
The footage had all been provided by these systems’ authorities, consistent with the Freedom of Information Agreements that existed between their governments and the Council. Given the situation they were facing, they were more than happy to share the information. Perhaps they thought the Council would be sympathetic and motivated to offer assistance to them as they continued their ongoing guerilla war on multiple fronts. As conflicts went, it was arguably the worst kind and the most insidious, with no clear battle lines and no way of telling friend from foe.
Elenko’s attention was drawn to a feed that had been captured near Rhea a few days prior. In the distance, the partially-illuminated disk of the second-largest of Saturn’s moon shone, with the faint glow of light reflecting from Saturn’s E Ring visible in the background. In the foreground was a small fleet of transports whose presence was indicated by the blinking of their status lights. Elenko’sgaze moved momentarily to the bottom right corner of the recording, where it was indicated that the images had been captured by the gun camera of a light skimmer, one that the Cronian Security Forces had repurposed as a patrol craft.
Three more skimmers were formed up in front of the one recording the action. All four were closing in on the transports. As Elenko refocused on the main image, she heard the voice of the skimmer’s captain issuing commands to the transport in a firm tone.
“Commercial ship Illyrian, you are ordered to heave to and submit to inspection. If you do not reverse thrust immediately, we will be forced to take action.”
The skimmers formed a loose pyramid around the Illyrian, completely enveloping it. The remaining transports immediately altered course, firing their thrusters as hard as they dared and vectoring away from the standoff. Their crews engaged their maneuvering thrusters once they were far enough away, rotating their axes a full one hundred and eighty degrees and firing their main engines again to come to a complete stop.
Elenko’s undivided attention was now focused on this one scene unfolding before her.
The captain of the lead skimmer signaled again, his tone much firmer this time. “I say again, Illyrian. You are ordered to heave to and submit to inspection. If you do not comply, you will be fired upon!”
Elenko’s eyes centered on the isolated transport. Its status lights were still blinking serenely in the darkness, its course unaltered despite the threat of impending force. Elenko could only imagine what was going through the heads of the ship’s crew. Their attempts to pass through the checkpoint had failed. Now they were surrounded by armed skimmers threatening to blow their vessel to pieces. The only question now was, did they risk running for it, submit to arrest, or see if the security forces were bluffing?
“Very well,” said the captain. Switching frequencies, he radioed the other skimmers. His voice held no trace of malice and even sounded a bit mournful. “All ships, close and terminate.”
Elenko’s breath caught in her throat as bright flashes of light erupted from the skimmers’ noses as they opened fire with their rail guns directly into the transport’s path. There were several small eruptions as rounds of iridium alloy were accelerated by electromagnetic energy and struck home. These quickly tore into the Illyrian’s hull, causing explosive decompression. A series of bright flashes followed as fuel and other combustibles ignited, turning the ship into a firestorm.
The ship was consumed in one final explosion, ever so briefly creating a new star in the night that winked out a second later. Glowing pieces of hot debris expanded outwards, propelled by the explosion and the release of the transport’s internal atmosphere.
“All ships, scan the debris for survivors,” said the lead skimmer’s captain, his tone flat and unemotional. “One of them might have got to a lifeboat in time.”
Watching the debris spiraling away into the void, Elenko knew in her heart that none of the Illyrian’s crew had survived the maelstrom that engulfed the transport. The video switched to the captain’s after-action report. Elenko quickly scanned it until she found what she was looking for. Sure enough, no survivors had been found. The report also indicated that traces of weapons-grade explosives were aboard. None of these had detonated during the encounter since none had been properly activated. A fortunate thing, since it would have resulted in an even larger explosion, which could have sent debris flying in all directions and caused damage to the skimmers or other transports. The traces of explosives, however, offered a possible explanation for why the crew had reacted the way they had. Elenko waved a weary hand at the display, cutting off the feed.
Under Cronian law, trafficking in explosives or firearms would have resulted in a severe penalty. The Illyrian‘s crew, if convicted, would have been shipped off to a penal mine to spend what would most likely be their last days digging up ice and ore. With the recent incident at the shipping docks on Dione, the authorities were considering passing a series of strict new anti-terrorism laws. Elenko had heard that anyone arrested under these laws was to be summarily thrown out of an airlock.
Was this why the smugglers had chosen not to run or surrender, Elenko wondered. In their minds, once the authorities had descended on them, the only foreseeable outcome was death. Was the situation that desperate, or were the dissidents in the Outer Worlds willing to die just to make a point?
And what of the general population on the Jovian and Cronian worlds, the ones that weren’t the subject of the daily news feeds? How were they reacting to this mess? From the broadcasts alone, residents of the Inner Worlds were getting the impression that violence and chaos were becoming the norm beyond the Main Asteroid Belt. Behind the open displays of defiance and rebellion were countless millions who, more than anything, were simply afraid.
Councilor Fionn shut down the remaining feeds and turned about in his chair to look at his assembled colleagues. “I trust we’ve seen enough?”
From around the table, Fionn was answered with multiple murmurs of ascent. To a person, every Councilor had the same expression of disquiet on their faces. Currently, their worlds were in conjunction with Venus. Being on the same side of the Sun relative to each other ensured that the delay was minimal and the resolution optimal. As a result, the Councilors’ holographic representations flawlessly conveyed their anxiety.
What they were seeing wasn’t new to them. Scarcely anyone in the entire Solar System hadn’t seen or heard about the latest incidents taking place across the Outer Worlds. Faster than any trending topic or newly-released upgrade, the footage of protests, general strikes, and clashes with authorities had gone viral months ago. Now blockade-running and summary executions were being added to the mix, and the effect it was having could be felt from Mercury to the Main Asteroid Belt.
Elenko placed her hand on the tabletop, her fingers drumming fretfully. After a few seconds, she finally obliged the alerts that were blinking in her visual field, letting Elenko know that her biomonitors weren’t pleased with her. They’d been warning her that her cortisol levels had been above normal since they’d begun watching the visual feeds.
Elenko acknowledged their warnings before dismissing them. What she was feeling wasn’t something she wanted to block out with endorphins or dopamine.
She then looked around the table at the four other members of the Solar Council, who represented Terra, Luna, Mars, and the Low Earth Orbit Nations. Elenko had no words for them right now, which left a strained silence hanging in the air. Eventually, the silence was broken by Councilor Ulen Batbayar, the representative from the LEO Nations of Earth. Speaking gingerly, Batbayar drove directly to the heart of the matter.
“It appears that the very situation we were hoping to avoid has happened all the same.” She did her best not to look in Elenko’s direction. “Exactly where did we go wrong?”
Fionn volunteered his thoughts, which were non-committal. “That remains unclear at this time. It seems that there were unforeseen factors at play.”
Elenko caught Batbayar looking uncomfortably at her colleagues seated next to her. They also looked uncomfortable, as if they were all sharing the same thoughts. Not one of them would speak them aloud, but Elenko knew what was on their minds.
The Council’s attempt at diffusing the situation in the Outer Worlds had failed. Someone had to be held accountable, and who better than Elenko? After all, it was she who had suggested sending Gallego and Cheboi to Ganymede. It was fortunate that the other Council members didn’t voice these thoughts. Otherwise, Elenko might find herself voicing accusations of her own.
But that would only raise the obvious, the fact that they had no idea who else might be involved in the multiple incidents that had taken place in the Jovian System.
The first, where several constables were brutally shot to death on Ganymede, appeared to be the work of one group. The second, also on Ganymede, appeared to involve two groups, and had nearly cost Gallego and Cheboi their lives. The third and final incident had taken place on Europa shortly thereafter and had once again involved a single team, which Gallego and Cheboi had managed to get the better of this time.
Much like the Manifesto’s publishers, the identities of these attackers and who they were working for all remained unanswered questions. After a few tense seconds, Councilor Kian Odawa of Earth raised the subject of Gallego and Cheboi.
“Have you heard from your special counsel? Can we at least confirm their whereabouts?”
“Yes,” Elenko replied quietly. “Gallego contacted me to indicate that she and Cheboi were alive and well. However, she continues to refuse to inform me of their location or give any additional details on their new companions.”
“That stands to reason,” said Arkady Bertrand-Fischer, the Councilor from Luna. The holographic representation straightened and adjusted the sleeves of spun regolith that had been creeping up his wrists. “Considering the multiple attempts on their lives, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to broadcast their location to the outside universe. But have they shared anything other than their whereabouts?”
Before Elenko could respond, a new voice interrupted. “For that matter, have they indicated what became of the mercenary team that tried to kill them? Or any indication of who the authors of the Manifesto are?”
Elenko turned her head to face her new inquisitor, Councilor Odawa of Earth. It was difficult to meet his eyes, as Elenko wasn’t sure how to hide the suspicions gnawing at her gut. Outside of Fionn, there was scarcely anyone within the Solar Council she felt she could trust anymore. Somehow, someway, the Council’s decision to send Gallego and Cheboi to the Jovian system had been leaked to a third party. There was no other explanation for the repeated attempts on their lives.
“No,” she replied after a moment. “Beyond indicating that they had eluded their attempted murderers, they didn’t indicate if their attempts to find the authors of the Manifesto – or who had instigated the attack on Ganymede – were a success or not.”
Odawa sighed heavily. His colleagues were similarly frustrated with her lack of answers, and she could see it. The desire to keep the information as tightly controlled as possible to protect operational security was understandable. But at the moment, they felt like she didn’t trust them, and they were right to feel this way.
The release of the Sarak Lovelock documents had substantiated much of what the Manifesto had claimed: that the Formists were looking to use Callisto and Titan to test their terraforming techniques and looking to release pandemics to clear the population out in advance. Given the circumstances, trust wasn’t at a premium anymore.
“I’m not sure what options that leaves us with,” said Bertrand-Fischer. “If the situation continues to escalate out there, it’s only a matter of time before the Jovian and Cronian governments ask for our assistance.”
“I think that’s a premature conclusion at this point,” Fionn said, responding to the representative of Luna. “There has been no indication that they even want our assistance at this point, let alone need it.”
“But surely they will,” said Batbayar. “And need I remind everyone here that there are still many Cythereans, Martians, Terrans, Selenians, and other Extropian citizens trapped in the Outer Worlds? Given the current restrictions that have been imposed on transports, there are people out there who desperately want to get out of harm’s way, but cannot.”
“Not to mention the fact that our people are likely to become targets, thanks to the effect the Manifesto and the Lovelock documents have had,” added Odawa.
Fionn sighed and nodded in reluctant agreement. No one needed to be reminded of how inflammatory the release of the Sarak Lovelock documents had been. Before the outbreaks of violence on virtually every Outer World, the release of this data had been the most newsworthy item in the system. Regardless, Elenko didn’t like where their conversation was going. Batbayar’s next comment only served to confirm her worst fears.
“Perhaps that should be our first order of business, then – arranging a convoy to evacuate our citizens and provide for their safety. If we cannot hope to prevent escalation at this point, we can at least make sure our citizens are protected.”
“You’re suggesting sending a military mission?” said Fionn, sounding wary. “Are you sure that’s the wisest course of action?”
“Given the situation, I think it’s the only course of action we can agree on for now,” replied Batbayar.
Fionn cast a glance at Elenko. He disagreed, but didn’t feel that he could challenge the idea alone. He was counting on her to add her voice to the dissenting side.
“I would be inclined to disagree,” she said, obliging him. “A military mission would look like a show of force to the locals. Evacuating our citizens would likely send the message that we’re not concerned about the well-being of the locals.”
“What are you suggesting, then?” said Batbayar, conspicuously failing to hide the note of derision in her voice.
“A humanitarian mission,” explained Elenko. “We offer medical assistance to those settlements that would allow it. Our physicians are far more skilled than the local medics. We would be able to relieve the pressure on their services considerably and offer life-saving treatments to anyone who’s been caught in harm’s way.”
To this, Odawa voiced agreement. “Such a move would foster goodwill among the local population, not to mention the Jovian and Cronian authorities.”
“Such a move would also put more of our people in harm’s way,” Bertrand-Fischer interjected. “If terrorists see our people currying favor with the local population or assisting the local authorities, they might choose to target them.”
“That is a risk,” Fionn grudgingly admitted as he cast an eye around the table, gauging the support of the four other Council members. “But if we prioritize only the needs of our citizens, we run the risk of letting the situation out there spiral out of control.”
“Then perhaps some incentive should be offered,” Odawa countered. “The local authorities certainly have their hands full dealing with these terrorist groups, whom I understand go by the names of the Aquiline Front and the Children of Jove. They could benefit from some outside help, especially if it came from us.”
“What do you mean?” Fionn asked.
“The Jovian and Cronian governments are dealing with asymmetric warfare, guerilla-style attacks, acts of terrorism, and the like. With their resources, they cannot anticipate where the next attacks will come from, and their methods for identifying insurgents are most likely mired in the previous centuries. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Fionn was about to repeat himself, demanding clarification, when Batbayar jumped in.
“I believe my respected colleague is suggesting we enter into a data-sharing arrangement.” Odawa nodded his head sagely as Batbayar continued. “If the Jovian Alliance were to permit us access to their network, surveillance feeds, general databases, and so forth, our Level IVs would make short work of their problems. We could narrow down the possible locations of insurgent cells, anticipate future attacks, even identify key members of the insurgencies themselves.”
Fionn’s forehead furrowed. Elenko knew what he was thinking. Using their respective planets’ quantum AIs to mine through the Outer Worlds’ networks was a bold suggestion. On the one hand, it seemed like overkill to use such advanced systems to deal with comparatively quant computer systems. It was also an intrusive idea that carried many risks. Fionn was sure to voice these.
“By offering our services to the local authorities, we would effectively be choosing a side. Any danger of our people being targeted would dramatically increase.”
“Not if we were to ensure that our people were evacuated before any such arrangement was made,” offered Bertrand-Fischer. “And I think we would all agree. We would rather side with the legitimate authorities of the Outer Worlds than remain neutral in the face of this barbarism.”
“A perilous decision, and perhaps premature, since we don’t know how this situation is going to play out yet,” Fionn countered, shaking his head. “Right now, we’re getting only one side of the story, and there are many unanswered questions. Perhaps we should focus on helping people get out of harm’s way before we agree to start actively assisting any of the Outer World governments.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Elenko said.
Fionn glanced at her, the look on his face indicating that he hoped she had more to add. Unfortunately, he was to be disappointed as Elenko lapsed into silence, once more unsure of what she felt safe revealing at this juncture. Her momentary silence allowed Batbayar to assume control of the discussion once more as she leaned back and squared her shoulders.
“Very well, then. The Low Earth Orbit Nations of Earth would like to prepare a convoy for the purpose of evacuating its citizens from the Outer Worlds. I would also insist that armed security personnel be included to ensure that the evacuees are kept safe during every phase of the evacuation.”
Elenko couldn’t fail to note the emphasis she placed on the word ‘armed,’ which let everyone know that she categorically rejected Elenko’s suggestion for a humanitarian mission. “If citizens from Earth, Mars, Venus, and any other Extropian settlement wish to follow suit, the convoy and its crew will certainly do all it can to accommodate them.”
To Batbayar’s left, Odawa scoffed loudly. “Do you honestly think that the Jovians and Cronians would accept the presence of armed Extropians on their worlds?”
“What choice will they have?” replied Batbayar. “By refusing, they would be saying that they’d rather our citizens be trapped on their worlds amid a crisis. They can’t do that if they have any intention of asking us for support. Besides, I think that given the situation, the local authorities would be happy to know that there are fewer people in harm’s way, people that they would otherwise be reluctant to protect.”
To her right-hand side, Councilor Bertrand-Fischer tapped his finger pensively against the table. Due to the lag caused by the time the signal took to travel between the Earth and the Moon, and from the Earth-Moon system and Venus, it was a few seconds before his image said anything.
“Agreed. The Selenian Council would like to formally offer logistical support to this mission. And if any additional crew, support staff, or vessels are needed, we would be happy to provide them.”
“The LEO Nations thank you,” Batbayar said with a nod, trying to hide the smile tugging at her lips.
The gathered physical and holographic heads now turned to Councilor Odawa. Elenko and Fionn had already made it clear that they wouldn’t support this venture, which made Odawa the tie-breaking vote. Odawa took a moment to absorb the opinions of the other Assembly members with whom he was currently sharing a physical space before slowly nodding.
“The Terran Council consents to this convoy,” said Odawa. “It would, however, also ask that the proposal for a humanitarian mission be tabled for further consideration.”
Batbayar and Odawa exchanged neutral looks before giving their assent.
“So the convoy is approved,” Fionn said flatly. “Very well, then. I shall address the Jovian and Cronian authorities and let them know what we are proposing. I don’t imagine they’ll like the idea, but as Councilor Batbayar put it, they will not likely refuse. Especially if we make it abundantly clear that our security personnel will be coordinating their efforts with the local security forces, and not acting on their authority.”
The holographic images of Batbayar and Bertrand-Fischer looked like they were ready to protest but kept their peace instead. Sensing that they had reached the end of their discussion, Elenko brought the meeting to a close. “Unless there is further business, I bid you adieu.”
The likenesses of Batbayar, Odawa, and Bertrand-Fischer disappeared from their seats, leaving Elenko and Fionn alone. After a short pause, Fionn turned to look at her, his face flushed with barely-concealed anger. “Now that they’re gone, would you like to tell me what you really know?”
There was no mistaking the edge in his voice. Elenko didn’t bother to stall or deflect. She and Fionn knew each other too well for there to be any games or deception between them.
“Not much,” she admitted. “Gallego couldn’t share any information about her current location or provide the identity of her attackers. But she did manage to convey a few things, and in such a way that only I would know what she meant.”
Fionn leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on his stomach. He knew Elenko well enough to know that she would have more to say, given time. Erring on the side of caution, Elenko voked her mind to Fionn’s so they could communicate privately. Even though the other Councilors were gone, there was still the possibility that the room was bugged.
[Gallego said, and I quote, “The peach blossoms are no longer in bloom. The local growers have been harvesting the fruit. The picked ones are now rotting in the quarry.”]
[Deliberately esoteric,] Fionn responded. [What exactly does that mean?]
Elenko took in Fionn’s face and recognized her own grave expression reflected in his eyes. [She’s telling me that the people who attacked her and Cheboi are now dead, but that it was someone from our world that sent them.]
Fionn jerked forward in his seat in alarm. [Does she know who?]
[Not yet. In addition to not being able to speak openly, Gallego also wanted to keep the transmission short. She promised that she would share the identities of the Manifesto’s authors and let me know what help they needed, once she had arranged a safe way to do so.]
[But no indication of where they are or where they might be headed?]
Fionn sighed before speaking aloud. “I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry too, thought Elenko. As much as she trusted Fionn, there were some cards she needed to keep close to her chest. Even though she was confident that Fionn wasn’t compromised, there was no guarantee that someone on his staff wasn’t sharing information with Emile or someone else. Gallego’s full communication was just another indication that the Council had its share of leaks.
However, there was one more piece of information that she did feel comfortable telling Fionn.
[Gallego also promised that she would contact me again before she and her colleagues made their next move.]
[Did she say what that was?]
[No,] Elenko replied, the truth. [But knowing her and all that she’s been through, I imagine it will be drastic.]