The stasis period ended. The ship’s automated systems slowly brought the crew out, raising their bodies’ temperature and restoring their minds to wakefulness. As they came to, their wetware merged with the ship’s systems, gradually feeding them swarms of data.




Time of arrival

Their pods finished draining protective fluids, and then opened onto a cool deck. Saana’s body was the first to emerge, starting with a single, shaky foot. At their current speed and distance, gravity wasn’t yet available. But the floor responded by becoming tacky and supportive, anchoring her in place as she emerged.

Four more bodies followed. Different in outward appearance, but identical in nature. All belonged to men and women who were currently bringing their neural suites up to date, digesting information from the ship’s data feed to bring themselves back to the present. Saana took in the faces and profiles of each.

Dina Okran – T901302

Bastion Henrissant – T1049113

Miri Popov – M22931

Elizabeth Konsou – C3134

Saana reached out to them, using the squad frequency.

[Assimilate mission package data. Deployment in minus sixty-three minutes.]

[Affirmative.] came four simultaneous replies.

Her squad did as she instructed, running over the mission data which had been uploaded to their neural cortices prior to being put into stasis. As they did this, they went about the decidedly worldly process of cleaning themselves up and donning coveralls.

Saana took the opportunity to consult the ship cams and check on their position. While the navigation systems assured her they were fast approaching Ganymede, she preferred to get an outside look and see it with her own eyes. Or the closest approximation of such.

The ship’s front-facing sensors obliged her, producing an image of a disk which resembled a half-moon. On the light side, the mottled ice of the surface gleamed, peppered with lights indicating the presence of the settlements. On the dark side, faint glows were visible, which were the result of Jovian radiation interacting with the moon’s magnetic field.

The disk slowly became larger as they neared it, their high velocity making short work of the distance. Similarly, every member of her squad moved quickly, finishing their prep and making their way from the hibernation area to the ship’s rear. They formed a single line, standing in their coveralls with their eyes trained forward and awaiting her orders. A mere formality, but one which was hard to shake. Attention stance and pre-mission briefs were something soldiers still relied on before sent off to fight.

Saana reached out to them again. She kept it plain and simple.

[Our landing coordinates place us directly outside the Selket settlement. Stealth conditions will be in effect. We’re to secure entrance to the settlement and procure identities on-site. Target package, weapon profiles, iconography, and exfil plans have all been included. Any questions?]

She received a unanimous negative.

[Good. Then suit up!]

Four affirmatives, and they moved to the storage lockers at one side of the bay. The doors unsealed and folded back, revealing exosuits. Saana joined them, fetching the exo from its resting place and letting its straps form around her arms, legs, shoulders and midriff. Once her suit power was activated, the nanomaterial matrix started covering her. It was like watching a puddle of mercury with a mind of its own, stretching forth and coating every part of her body in a second skin.

Once it was in place, and merged with her systems, she turned to face the others. Four metallic, reflective bodies looked back at her. The forms took on solidity, and status lights formed around their chests and faces. All indicated in the green, and they each ran the suits through basic systems check.

Saana did the same, calling up the weapons profiles included in the mission package. For this run, they weren’t being given anything radically advanced. Simple ballistic carbines, handguns, and stunners – the basic compliment for constables on a Jovian world. Naturally, they had a few options for exfil or emergency.

Directed Energy Weapons, Agni and Tarakona models. High-yield area stunners. Deployable shield generators. Electro-magnetic pulse float grenades. As always, Saana was determined to avoid the use of any heavy weaponry. Such means of last resort would mean failure in their mission.

The ship’s nav system reached out to her, indicating that they were slowing down to achieve orbital insertion.

[Be warned. Breaking thrust in five seconds.]


Their feet become more solidly fastened as the reverse-thrust set in, making the ship lurch slightly. When it passed, the floor material returned to its regular level of viscosity and they were able to walk again. They made their last circuit, moving from storage to the rear of the craft. There they waited, until the craft started its descent into the moon’s meagre atmosphere.

When the moment came, a general alarm was triggered. There was no noise in the cabin, but all five members of the squad were aware of it.

[Get into position.] ordered Saana.

Her squad assumed their ready stances, bracing for the coming change in atmospheric pressure. Their boots grafted to the floor, anchoring them in place as the air was sucked out of the cabin. It was imperceptible, but Saana thought she could feel it rushing around her as it made its way through the vents. When the rear hatch opened before them, Saana was sure she could hear the last bit of air pressure escaping into Ganymede’s thin exosphere.

The exterior wall of the ship opened and retracted, retreating into the hall. Before them, Ganymede loomed. They were past the terminator now, looking down on a vast strip of lighted terrain fast retreating behind them. On the other side of it, rolling out beneath them, was a sheet of darkness with a few pinpricks where light shined through.

The next notification from the nav system told them they were over their jump target. Saana responded with the go order.

[Go! Go! Go!] she said mentally. The five of them were running out the rear of the craft, and falling into the darkness below.

For the next few seconds, time ceased. They were technically in freefall, being grabbed and pulled by the moon’s 0.146 g to the surface. But at the moment, it felt like weightlessness. It was an illusion which could only persist so long as they didn’t open their eyes.

But Saana did. Looking ahead, she kept the horizon in view. To her left, the Sun was now hugging the surface across Perrine and Barnard Regio. To her right, the auroral lights were the only illumination on the horizon. Beyond the horizon, the star field sparkled, indicating the end of the moon and the beginning of deep space.

Lastly, there were the lights of Selket immediately beneath them. The main settlements and its adjuncts looked like a glowing spider web. It was becoming larger and more intricate with every passing second.

Saana kept it all in view, refusing to shut it out. Far more appealing than a sensation of freefall was the sense of being overawed by the immensity. Despite the sheer number of people travelling between worlds on a regular basis, to be reminded of how small all humans were in the grand scheme of things was a rare and awesome experience.

If she wanted it, Saana could slow the experience down considerably. A simple command to her temporal lobe, and the entire fall would feel like it was taking hours or even days. But there was little point for such pretenses. At the moment, she wanted her team to get to where they were needed.

It wasn’t taking long. In her field of view, indicators went off, telling her they were reaching critical altitude. Saana reached out again, ordering the squad to begin the controlled portion of their descent.

[Deploy aerofoils.]

The squad acknowledged. Altogether, the appendages of their suits morphed into wing-like structures. From the front of their suits, nozzles took shape and fired bursts of ionized particles. The indicators in Saana’s HUD showed the squad’s rapid loss of vertical speed. As they drew closer to the surface, the foils changed shape. The nozzles also disappeared and re-emerged in other spots around their body – facing fore and aft.

Their direction shifted, and a new indicator formed in her field of view. In a hexagon, located outside the growing ember web of Selket, was their landing zone. She and her squad pitched their foils to follow the directional lines now appearing in their HUDs. Beneath them, the settlement shifted, falling to one side as they weaved through the tenuous oxygen atmosphere.

A few minutes later, and they would be touching down in Galileo, descending onto a small patch of darkened ice. Their airspeed was slowed by a few well-timed bursts from their forward-facing nozzles and their wings formed flaps. By the time their boots touched the ground, they were like feathers on the wind. Were they flying onto a world with a dense sheet of air around it, their boots would have barely made a sound when they touched down.

[Systems check,] she ordered. The others ran diagnostics on their suits’ systems and their uplinks to their suits. They sent her the results, which were all in the green. Turning around one-hundred and eighty degrees, she once again saw the terminator in the distance. It now cut across the surface perpendicular to them, with a glowing mass to the right of it.

The city of Selket. It was time to get moving.

[Proceed to checkpoint Alpha. Double time!]




It took mere seconds to hack the airlock’s antiquated security system. It opened to them, admitting them into a pressure chamber that they rapidly cycled through. When the light turned green, they opened a second door that led them into one of the settlements outer domes. All five formed up inside the tube, where Saana ordered them to go dark.

[Engage stealth mode and. proceed to checkpoint Beta.]

The squad obliged and engaged their electromagnetic cloaks. All five of them disappeared from sight, like puddles of mercury slowly disappearing into the background. Their sonic dampeners also kicked in, concealing their footfalls as they double-timed it down the tube towards the settlement proper. The occasional pod car passed them by, its inhabitants completely oblivious to the infiltrating crew.

The tube opened onto an open court. The lights changed drastically as holographic emitters filled the air with green, blue, orange and white images. The people were similar, wearing garbs of cotton, linen, and synthetic fibers. Some were drab and simple, others flamboyant and colorful – indicative of hundreds of different influences and overlapping cultures.

Once past the pod station, they were onto the main deck. Their overlays told them they were standing in Aljiran plaza. Saana scanned upwards and down, taking in the tiered-structure. Consistent with what the mission records had told them, the colony was laid out in a honeycomb fashion. Every plaza was arranged in a series of expanding levels, reaching upwards towards the main dome, and downwards into the floor.

The entire settlement sat in a base of regolith which had been harvested from Jove’s more rocky moons and Trojans. Each one had been pulverized and used to fill the crater. From this base layer, public spaces were carved out by assemblers, sucking up regolith and spitting out molten rock to create walls, rooms, and tunnels. And in no time at all, all of those honeycomb-shaped tiers were filled with willing inhabitants.

Moving from one side of their level to the other, they kept towards the walls, making sure not to get close to any of the pedestrian traffic. Quite a few people were out at this hour, despite it still being early morning for the settlement. They made it to the far side in no time at all, where a doorway passed to the adjacent plaza.

Saana became aware of a faint buzzing and noted the appearance of a strange signal in one of her display reticles. A Visible Light Communications signal was growing in intensity, and her proximity sensor indicated it was because something was encroaching on their position.

She turned around with the rest of her crew, looking to the source.

 [Tracking a UAV on approach. Remote traffic monitor. Unarmed.]

It was Henrissant saying this. He had already obtained the drone’s frequency and was accessing its specifications.

[Acquire it and connect its feed to us.]

Henrissant obliged, and soon, the drone’s cameras were broadcasting directly to them.

[I have control,] he said. [VLC interface is out of the Stone Age, but images are of sufficient resolution.]

[Dispatch to objective, acquire identities en route, and provide overwatch towards our approach.]

[Roger that.]

From the air, the colony looked even more strange and beautiful. Like pixels of color moving about a sea of grey-blue, little insects funneling their away along hexagonal tunnels. However, these views ended when the drone ducked between one passageway and the next, moving ahead of them to get to the corner where they needed to be.

Every so often, the drone caught sight of a person who carried markings that identified them as being a member of the Children of Jove. Red clothing, the right tattoos. On occasion, it spotted someone in a public place seeking to agitate. Henrissant slowed the drone to conduct a quick image capture of these ones. When he had five, he signaled to Saana.

[Identities acquired.]

They kept following along, maintaining a constant distance. Henrissant also maintained a speed which prevented the drone from getting too far ahead of them. Saana kept her eyes focused on their path, following the markers projected by her overlay onto the world around her. With every step, with every marker passed, the distance indicator continued to tick down. The mission clock did the same. So far, they were well within their specified timeframe.

When the drone finally reached the passageway they were seeking, Henrissant brought it to a stop. Its cameras then focused on the constables standing in a security hub located beneath it. Some were heavily outfitted, wearing ballistic armor suits and helmets, and carrying rifles. The rest wore the standard coveralls and carried basic sidearm. As people came and went, they watched and occasionally checked IDs.

The constables stationed there took notice of the drone too, then looked away. Henrissant started moving it again to avoid any suspicion. There wasn’thing strange about a traffic monitor passing above them. But one that lingered in one place for too long? That was something they might feel obligated to call in about.

After passing through this last doorway, they sought out a corner. Under the cover of shadows and obstructions, they disengaged their stealth fields. With her four squad members now apparent before her, Saana gave the order.

[Upload identifications, select weapons profiles.]

Four affirmatives. Within seconds, the five squad members in their metallic suits starting changing form. Monochromatic mercury turned into solid form, mimicking the color of cloth and flesh perfectly. It took only a few seconds before they were all the spitting image of those the drone had spotted on the way in.

They raised their hands next, gripping a space that filled with swarms of nanoware. Their weapons of choice materialized shortly, producing three carbines, one rifle and one heavy repeater. They let a few seconds pass, waiting for a break in the people who were passing through. Witnesses were needed, but as few as possible. Saana ordered Henrissant to bring the UAV back around and release it from their control. A picture was worth far more than testimonials.

When the mission clock counted down to zero, she issued the order.


One by one, they emerged from behind cover. The constables looked up to see them. All at once, they reacted in what felt like slow motion. A widening of the eyes, pupils dilating, and hands moving frantically to go for their weapons or assume a defensive position.

It made no difference.

Her squad opened fire, and the body of every officer at the checkpoint was riddled with holes. Fast-moving caseless slugs, propelled by electromagnetic force, tore through the constables’ bodies. When their bodies fell, it too happened in slow motion.

They never had a chance.

Saana’s senses slowly adjusted to take in the chaos around her. Behind them, voices cried out as people ran from the sudden burst of gunfire. Behind them, the monitor hovered in place, recording their every movement. They let it watch them for just long enough before Saana ordered Popov to destroy it.

She looked to Okran next and gestured to the nearest section of open wall.

[Paint it,] she ordered.

Okran did as she was told, placing her hand above the wall and uploading the proper icon. Her suit sent bits of nanoware onto the flat metal surface, bombarding individual particles with microwaves and breaking them off in a precise fashion. After a moment, an image was burned into the surface for all to see.

An eagle poised over three circles. The letters CoJ appearedbeneath.

As icons went, it was crude and makeshift. But what it lacked in artistry, it more than made up for in clarity.

In Saana’s visual field, a new indicator appeared. This one was their exfil clock, and it was rapidly counting down.

[Engage stealth fields,] she ordered. [Make for LZ and prepare to dust off.]


A typical morning in O’Neill’s Reach.

The horizon, if it could be called that, measured a dozen kilometers from one end to the other. Looking straight ahead, it formed a horseshoe of greenery, standing water, and domiciles, all stretching into the distance. At the far end, the massive gyro powering the station’s rotation loomed, obscured by a haze of water vapor and wispy clouds.

Through a series of carefully arranged side-panels, which responded like petals slowly opening themselves up to the Sun, daylight entered. In the center of the Reach, a small ball of light appeared, photons coming from outside being redirected into the center of a gravitational ball to create what would – to all those below – appear like the rising Sun.

Gradually, the ball grew and expanded. Beneath it, the landscape was bathed in sunlight, letting everyone in this hemisphere know that it was time to greet the day.

From a dais overlooking the Reach from a spot in the far north, a lone woman stood and drank it all in.

“My name is Veronika Gallego, engineer of engineers,” she said. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

“Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, with some minor adjustments” said the person standing behind her. “And here I thought you usually started the day with Coleridge.”

Gallego turned to see Burhan emerging from the doorway. Like her, he wore a simple silk gown with decorative lace in the shape of a clockwork mechanism. It was tied with a sash at his hip, billowing enough to expose his hairy, olivine legs.

She smiled at his comment and looked back at the landscape. “This one has more appeal right now. It speaks to the inner conqueror in me.”

Burhan’s arms embraced her from behind. Gallego was overtaken by his musk and felt his warmth through her gown. Their lace patterns started to flow in response, the filament receiving energy from contact with their skin and emitting the excess as light. The clockwork mechanisms danced as well, dissipating their heat to ensure they maintained cozy core temperatures.

“So you’re celebrating your latest contribution to the life of the Gyros, hmm?”

“It did work out well,” she replied, eyeing the orb. “Even if it doesn’t underscore a certain point.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

Gallego turned around to face him, adjusting his arms so they now embraced her shoulders. She looked into his dark green eyes, and issued her well-timed barb directly to his face.

“Even Gyros long for the creature comforts of home. Deep in our bones, we’re all still terrestrial monkeys looking for Sun, sky, and some nice land to live on.”

Burhan smiled at her sardonically. “Seriously? Terrestrialism, first thing in the morning?”

Gallego giggled. “Well, if people like you didn’t want your Habs looking more like a planet, people like me would be out of a job.”

“Is that why you keep coming here?” Burhan raised an eyebrow. Gallego ran her hands down to his flanks, letting her fingers caress his hip bones beneath the silk fabric.

“That, and the company’s really nice.”

Burhan sighed happily in reponse to her touch, but he wasn’t about to let the opportunity to retort pass. In the end, any added animosity would only make the impending sex better.

“Big talk for someone whose feet didn’t touch solid ground until she went off-world. You’d think you were some kind of self-hating Cytherean or something.”

This made her laugh. Pulling her hands from his hips, she beat them playfully against his chest. He cried out in mock pain, then pulled her close. Several seconds of play-fighting passed before their lips locked and their hands began exploring beneath the folds of their robes. Before the rest of the Reach had even risen yet, they found themselves back in bed, repeating the same rhythmic dance they had been doing the night before.


Gallego woke again a few hours later. Burhan was sleeping on his side next to her, a pillow wedged between his shoulder and ear and a ridiculous smile plastered on his face. She felt vaguely hungover, the combination of endorphins and physical exhaustion.

Her stomach was grumbling and her body was demanding an infusion of caffeine.

But this wasn’t what had stirred her.

Her comlink was chiming, an overlay coming up automatically to notify her of the call she was receiving, a call that came all the way from Venus. She frowned as she noted the routing number of the call.

It was using the Council’s official server, which meant it was something other than official business. The fact that they knew how to get in touch with her on her direct line meant it had to be something serious.

She took another look at Burhan and quietly slipped out of his bed. She made her way to his kitchen, just beyond earshot of his bedroom, before replying to the signal.

“Nika,” the familiar face said. “You’re not an easy woman to track down. I was beginning to think you might have left the System.”

Gallego needed a second to process. It had been years since she had spoken to her old mentor, Xenia Elenko, the woman who had schooled her in the fine arts of diplomacy and intelligence-gathering. Despite the passage of time, the woman she was looking at appeared not to have aged at all. But Gallego knew to expect as much from her.

“Xee,” she replied. “It’s been so long. How did you find me?”

“Remember who you’re talking to, Nika. The day I can’t find my way to an old friend, or grease a few palms to get the requisite comms for them – that’s the day you should be worried.”

“Indeed. So what can I do for you?”

“Well, in the course of tracking you down, I learned you were working on a project for the Gyros. Something to do with upgrading their environmental systems.” Gallego smiled sarcastically. It was cute that Elenko was being deliberately vague, but she imagined all the details of her work were known to Elenko at the moment. The woman had never been one to take an interest in something and not learn all she could about it first. “In any case, as I understand it, your contract with them is about up. I thought perhaps you might be looking for a new project.”

“You heard right. The project wrapped up a few days ago.” She paused before asking, ignoring the instinct that urged her not to. “So what did you have in mind?”

“As it happens, the Commons will be meeting soon to discuss a few developments. I can’t really speak too openly about it here and now. But if you’re interested, I’d like for you to attend. You still have the necessary clearance, and I think there will be a few people in attendance who would like to meet you again.”

Gallego frowned. Vagueness appeared to be a trend with her mentor this morning. She made her way over to Burhan’s cabinet and produced some cups and dishes. She placed them in the alcove of the dispenser, located in an island in the middle of the room. She prompted Elenko to continue while manually putting in an order for coffees and some breakfast snacks. “Go on.”

“The long and short of it is, there may be an opportunity for some freelance work. It would be quite lucrative, and would definitely endear you to a lot of people back home. It even entails a little travel, which I know you’re rather fond of.”

Gallego emitted a thoughtful noise. The alcove opened to reveal two cups filled with coffee and a plate decorated with fruit and baked goods. She removed them, one by one, and started searching for a tray with which to carry them back to the bedroom.

“I don’t suppose you can be more specific about where this job would take me?”

Elenko smiled. “To the Jovian system. Ganymede for sure, but with the possibility of an extra hop or two. It will depend on how the situation evolves.”

Gallego peered around the corner into the next room. Burhan was beginning to stir. The smell of coffee and hot croissants was likely waking him. She sighed, knowing what her decision was and resenting herself for it, and not only because she knew how Burhan would react.

“When’s the meeting?”


Emile looked around. Checking the status readouts in his overlay, he confirmed that the signal strength was optimal and the transmission wasn’t experiencing in any dips in fidelity. He also looked down at his hand and shuffled his feet a little, making sure his image was coming through clearly.

A flawless representation. He needed it to be so for his virtual meeting with the Councillor. Given the tone he was expecting, he didn’t want technical issues to get in the way.

Emile cast a look around the foyer, his lip curling with the slightest feeling of contempt. While he didn’t hold his surrounding in low regard, he knew his counterpart had selected them to make a point. How else was he to punctuate the gulf that lay between them? The geolocation and name of the place were included in his overlay as an unfriendly reminder.

Zubrin Museum of Martian Colonization.

Attendance was a bit sparse at this time of day. A few families wandered about, their physical presence indicated by the way their feet occasionally tapped or shuffled across the floor. A few others were also walking about, but they were clearly porting in from various locations. While they looked real enough, their footfalls made no noise, and they never touched anything. All in all, a typical midweek afternoon.

Emile looked to his right and spotted one of the alcoves, a recreation of early settler habitats. Inside, arranged in a horseshoe configuration, were a series of scaled-down simulations showing the different kinds of structures that once housed the early settlers. In the first, under the heading of “Frontier Epoch” – and corresponding dates placing it in the early/mid-21st century – a cluster of pods sat against a red landscape.

Unostentatious and simple, these basic communities consisted of little more than landing craft. These were the same vehicles which had deposited the first settlers, now connected by pressurized collars to create a community. From these, the Red Pioneers had set out to construct more permanent settlements, and begin the hard work of transforming the harsh landscape into something livable.

Next door, in the center of the horseshoe, three displays sat side-by-side. The header indicated this was the “Settlement Epoch”. These showed the rather eclectic way in which early settlers lived, before large-scale construction began. On the right, a display showed a typical setup of ice structures that once dotted the lower latitudes. Set against a background of Martian twilight, they looked like glass houses, opal in color and glowing from within.

In the next, “sinterblocks” were the feature. These consisted of spaceship components which formed the structure of the houses. These were covered in molten regolith to create a ceramic shell. The backdrop was again the familiar hazy red that indicated a location within the equatorial latitudes. And last, there was a recreation of a settler colony that had been built directly into one of Arsia Mons’ extinct lava tubes.

Life had been a significant challenge for people in these humble epochs. Every aspect of life involved struggle, and comfort only came with hard work. But the rewards were obvious. By ensuring that humanity established a presence on the Red Dunes, more settlers had been able to come. When they arrived, they found a world where much of the hard work had already been done, and their presence allowed for further expansion.

While Emile hadn’t been there personally to witness it, he had been raised by those who had. More importantly, he had seen the transitions that followed. When the time came, he took up the mantle his own father couldn’t. Emile had committed to the great work the first settlers had dreamed of, one day turning the Red Planet into a green one. Even his great ancestor, who had taught him of this dream, was no longer standing in the way.

This brought Emile to the left end of the horse shoe. In this final display of the alcove was a representation of the “Belle Epoch”. This one showcased the construction of Pavanopolis and the Drift, the great capital and the space elevator that established Mars as its own civilization.

Emile lingered here for a moment, waving at the display to trigger the time-lapse animation. The simulation was entertaining, with work crews, robots and assemblers all building the domed structure and the long thread connecting the surface to orbit. Decades of work played out in mere seconds.

Looking upon these displays and reminiscing about the old days successfully used up the last of his spare time. According to his chrono, it was now time for the meeting. He had arrived early to get his bearing on the place the Councillor had chosen. No doubt, the Councillor had assumed the nostalgic and historic nature of the place would be off-putting to him.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When Emile had become leader of the Formists, he had inherited Mars’ past and become guarantor of its future. To him, remembering the early days was entirely necessary. It served as a reminder of what he and his colleagues were working towards. But letting the Councillor think he had the advantage of being on home turf was in Emile’s best interests. As long as his adversary felt secure, Emile would have an easier time outmaneuvering him.

“Emile. Good to see you again.”

Emile bristled at the voice. Placing a smile on his face, he turned to greet the Councillor, who was now standing behind him, looking entirely at ease.

“Alastair,” said Emile. He took an appreciative look around the room. “You’ve chosen an interesting location for this meeting. Then again, I suppose some people prefer the familiar in their lives. After all, change can be frightening.”

“And I see you’ve chosen to port in from Sarak Lovelock rather than come in person. Of course, I imagine you prefer to remain above the planet, rather than spend time down here with the rest of us.”

They both smiled at each other. Things were off to a predictable start, Emile condemning Fionn for his pedantic traditionalism, and Fionn condemning Emile for his arrogant determinism. It was a dance the two had fallen into long ago, and which they had become rather accustomed to.

Having established their mutual distaste for each other, Fionn moved on to other pleasantries.

“I would like to convey my condolences, Doctor. Pinter Chandrasekhar was a great man. His loss was most unfortunate.”

“Indeed,” replied Emile. “The entire facility has been in mourning since we learned. I imagine his absence will be felt for some time.”

Fionn looked down at Emile’s hands, which were folded in front of him.

“I notice you aren’t wearing the ring anymore.”

Emile held his right hand up to show the bare finger where the jewelled platinum band used to live. “Yes, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it anymore, knowing what it once represented.”

There was a brief pause. As expected, Fionn was probing into the death of Pinter, and was making little effort to hide his suspicions. His next question came as no surprise to Emile.

“Has there been any progress into learning what caused the malfunction?”

Emile recited his prepared response.

“Our chief of security is still investigating that. But it’s become obvious at this point the program had become a touch… unstable in recent years. The cascading failure that took him was almost inevitable, in hindsight.”

“Strange,” said Fionn. “I would have thought your people would have noticed if any bugs formed in his system over time. Weren’t you the one maintaining his program over the years?”

Emile feigned the look of a mourning man, glancing down at his feet and trying to appear angry and remorseful at the same time.

“His program was rather antiquated, and Pinter was used to having a certain degree of privacy and autonomy. Quite frankly, he resented anyone looking at his programming code or taking too much of an interest in his health.”

Fionn hummed thoughtfully. Emile’s explanation appeared to have brought this line of inquiry to an end. Fionn hadn’thing with which to accuse him, and could only play the part of the concerned friend. Emile, for his part, could only play the role of the grieving relative. Both had played their parts to completion.

“Well, Pinter was known for being the proud sort.”

“Indeed he was…”

Another few seconds passed before either man spoke again. Emile decided that it would be him, and he decided to move them directly to real purpose of their meeting.

“I imagine you didn’t call this meeting just so you could offer your condolences, Councillor. So why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”

“It’s not what’s on my mind, Doctor. It’s what is on everyone’s mind right now. The entire Solar System appears to be consumed by it, and I wanted to hear your thoughts.”

Emile nodded. As tired as he was with addressing questions about the Manifesto’s release, he did his best not to appear annoyed. The fact that he had prepared remarks for this also worked in his favor.

“My… thoughts are a matter of public record, Councillor. What makes you think I would have anything more to say on that?”

Fionn put his hands behind his back and took a few steps towards the other side of the room. Once there, he stood next to a life-size model of Zubrin, which stood among a series of caricatures honoring the “Red Visionaries.” Fionn looked it over briefly and turned back to Emile.

“What I’m about to say is somewhat sensitive, Doctor. So when I tell you this, I want you to understand precisely what I’m doing by sharing it.” He stopped and turned to look Emile directly in the eye. With a single command, he voked to the Doctor’s comlink, conveying it all wordlessly. It took mere seconds for the information to reach Emile in orbit, for him to process it and dispatch a reply.

[A Council meeting?] Emile said, feeling the slightest bit shaken. [Is one necessary? I was under the impression this is merely a local matter.]

[It has the potential of becoming more, Doctor. As such, the Solar Council needs to discuss possible contingencies and counter-measures. Which is why I need you to tell me everything there is to know about this matter.]

[I assure you, there’s nothing more to share. The accusations are nothing more than salacious falsehoods. There has never been any plan on behalf of myself or my people to steal any of the Outer Worlds. That’s preposterous!]

[And what of the claims about your colleague, Doctor Lee? For these accusations to have been made not long after he was abducted….] Fionn paused again, letting the insinuation hang in the air. Emile had read the Manifesto, was well aware of the rather detailed claims it made. He also knew why Fionn would make a point of raising Doctor Lee’s abduction. [Have you considered the possibility they can make good on their threat?]

Emile frowned, in spite of himself. [What are you implying, Councillor? That the accusations are true?]

Fionn smiled. [No, Doctor. I simply have unresolved questions, as do other members of the Council. They would like to know why this manifesto was released so shortly after an incident that left us all so very puzzled. An incident that involved several of your people.]

Emile took a deep breath. He hadn’t expected the Councillor to be quite this direct in his approach, but he wasn’t feeling cornered quite yet. As always, he stuck to his story, repeating it for the Councillor’s benefit.

[We’ve been up front about that. Ward was an incarcerated detective we recruited to look into Doctor Lee’s disappearance. The nature of Amaru’s involvement with the Cronian cell is still being looked into, but at the moment, it looks like she collaborated with them to kidnap Lee as some sort of political statement. It’s possible they wanted to ransom him and his death, was accidental. But that’s still being looked into. As for the rest, we can only assume Amaru turned Mr. Ward to her side as well, convinced him to go along with their scheme.]

[And how might she have done that?]

Emile shrugged. [She was quite persuasive. She convinced Lee to lower his guard, after all, and he was a very guarded man.]

Fionn nodded. [And the firefight which left dozens of extremists dead, the one that apparently involved some unknown assailants… what was their involvement in that aspect of things?]

[I honestly have no idea, Councillor. We’re liaising with the Cronian authorities to try and learn more. We’re getting updates from their Gendarmerie regularly and will of course be sharing the results.]

Fionn crossed his arms. He looked like he wanted to hurl some nasty accusations at Emile. But so far, Emile had offered nothing that could be called implausible, and Fionn knew that any outright denunciations would only lead Emile to cut their meeting short. There wasn’t much more that the Councillor could say at this point, and he clearly knew it.

[Very well,] Fionn replied. [In the meantime, I trust you won’t be sending any more ‘private investigators’ to look into the matter?]

[I will not. I think we’ve established they’re not very useful.]

[I hope for your sake this all blows over. It would be a shame if the accusations proved to have any merit.]

Emile supressed the urge to say something nasty himself and maintained his smile. [There is absolutely no proof of what they say. And I’m confident the people who released this are the same ones who were responsible for my colleague’s murder. They failed to blackmail us with Lee’s capture, so they’re attempting to damage our reputation with lies instead.]

Emile knew that the counter-accusation sounded paranoid, but such was the role he had to play. If he truly did want to deflect any suspicion from himself, he needed to appear like the victim. After all, a colleague of his had been murdered, one of his own had turned against him, and now his family’s name was being dragged through the mud. All at a time when they were grieving the loss of one of their own.

Eventually, Fionn appeared to accept this and moved on.

“Speaking of Doctor Lee,” he said, switching back to vocal, “how is he doing?”

Emile replied in kind. “He’s fine. Naturally, there was some degree of disorientation when he awakened. But he’s adjusting and getting along well.”

Disorientation was an accurate description of what the new Lee was experiencing. Without the original’s neural patterns to update his memory, the facsimile had woken up to a reality which was, by their reckoning, a few years out of date. What was worse was the fact that he had to be made aware of certain uncomfortable realities, not the least of which was that Amaru had been responsible for his abduction and death. For the newly-awakened Lee, knowing that his colleague had betrayed him had come as no small shock.

Still, all that made Lee what he was, prior to his final trip to the Outer Worlds, was there. Fionn could sympathetize with that, at least.

“I imagine it would be confusing to wake up and learn that you had been murdered,” he said. “How are his wife and son?”

“Also adjusting,” Emile said, lowering his voice somewhat. Unlike Lee, they didn’t need to be informed of Amaru’s role in the incident. “They’re simply happy to have him back.”

Fionn placed his hands out, palms up. “Well, please send my best wishes to him. It’s good to know we didn’t lose two prominent citizens to all this craziness.”

“Please do the same for me to the Solar Council,” Emile replied. “And feel free to tell them all that I’ve told you. We have nothing to hide and I’m confident this will all blow over.”

“Let’s hope so,” Fionn said.

The Councillor and the museum disappeared, replaced by the more familiar surroundings of Sarak Lovelock. He looked around the confines of his office and breathed a sigh of relief. The meeting had proven to be quite disconcerting. It wasn’t Fionn’s pointed questions that had made it so, but rather the questions Emile was still unable to answer.

Walking to his desk, he called on Lovelock’s friendly AI for assistance.

“Ganesha. I need you establish a line to the Illuvian compound in Venera. Make sure it’s secured, I need to send a message directly to Paulo Auriga. And it needs to be private.

“Very well, sir. Establishing now…”

It was time to get some answers.