Hera of Lexington

Chapter 6 (read Chapter 1)

by Anta Baku

Mars concept art, NASA/JPL

A few days’ travel back toward the center of the system brought Hera’s team to the coordinates Zita had promised would allow them to rendezvous with the tiny, silent probe which was carrying the First Cup. Things were almost peaceful. Alistair, proud of his success in talking Zita into giving them the necessary information, had mostly given up on criticizing Shale. In return the AI wasn’t provoking him. Jean was occupied with analyzing Sage’s hermitage texts; whether the priest was looking for more clues to locations of the Relics, or seeking theological insight that wasn’t apparent at first glance, Hera wasn’t sure.

Fred was doing whatever it was Fred did when he was by himself. Nobody had ever really been inspired to pry into that. And Hera herself had gotten marvelous sleep on the trip from Eddy, pleased to not be worrying quite so much about internal conflicts, enemy agents, or inscrutable former bishops. They knew where the First Cup was, now, and before long they would be bringing it back to Lexington as heroes. 

She spent more time worrying about whether the Church would allow them to use its powers to rehabilitate the water supply in Springwood and the other damaged provinces. Whether they would even believe that the First Cup possessed the power to turn any liquid into pure water. That seemed like something out of myth, but enough people believed it, people who had reason to know. Hera had become almost entirely convinced. 

Surely she could convince the Church authorities to believe in it as well. She could demand to give a demonstration before returning the Cup to their custody. At least, she could do that if she could figure out how to make it work. Her greatest fear now, the one that occupied her mind when she tried to sleep, that heralded her return to consciousness in the morning, was that even after finding the Cup they wouldn’t be able to understand its mechanics. If they had to give it over to Church researchers to make it work, Hera wasn’t convinced she could talk them into making the effort. The Church had believed that the Relics were only symbolic for a very, very long time.

Those worries were assuaged, in a way, when they reached the rendezvous point and the probe was nowhere to be found. They scanned, they waited, they tracked back on the trajectory Zita had given them. Nothing. The probe was supposed to be small, and low-energy, and not easily detectable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. But it was also supposed to be easy to find for anyone privileged enough to already know its location. 

Had Zita lied to them? Alistair was convinced she hadn’t. Hera and Jean discussed the idea without him present, but couldn’t come up with any reason for such a deception. The ex-bishop could simply have kept telling them no. And if there was some other reason for Zita to want them in this location, it wasn’t readily apparent. This area of space was as empty as any other. And while their scans didn’t find the probe with the Relic, they didn’t find anything else either. No ship lying in wait to ambush them, or give them another clue, or some other baroque possibility Hera couldn’t even imagine. 

Just empty space. And a mystery that was quickly sucking away the positive feeling the crew had taken away from their successful sojourn on the frozen moon. 

After a few days of sitting and accomplishing nothing, they all started brainstorming ideas for what to do next. It was Alistair who came up with the one that seemed obviously most valuable to pursue. 

Just weeks before, the promised trajectory of the probe had passed near the fourth planet in the system, Saratoga. If someone from that planet had detected the probe, or come across it by accident, they might have taken it home with them. It seemed a slim chance, but no one had any better ideas. So they set course for Saratoga, with more frustration than hope. 

Saratoga was a dying planet, which had lost most of its moisture long before humans had colonized the system. Nevertheless, it had three settlements on its surface, and two of them were potential destinations for the First Cup.

The human colony was the home of a small, isolationist group of people who called themselves the Foundationists. Hera didn’t know much about their philosophy, only that they had settled a subsistence colony on Saratoga and declined to take part in the fight against the Gavidarians, either in the initial invasion or during the Resistance. Jean said that they were followers of Milo, but had very different fundamental beliefs. But Jean had never studied them in detail, either. Shale’s database had very little. They had limited spacefaring capability, but it might just have been enough to stumble upon the Preservation Mission probe as it passed by.

The second settlement was a scientific colony of an advanced alien race called the Penkwe. They were studying the ancient race that inhabited Saratoga before the water disappeared, and they kept strictly to themselves. Popular opinion on Lexington held that the Penkwe could have stopped the Gavidarians, but chose not to interfere. Their technology was certainly known to be significantly more advanced than either humans or Gavidarians, so perhaps that was true. It also meant that human anger at them for lack of protection had no practical outlet. 

The Penkwe undoubtedly were capable of detecting and capturing the Preservation Mission probe, but it wasn’t clear why they would have wanted to. Seizing the important artifacts of a lesser species wasn’t consistent with their non-interference philosophy. Fred pointed out that a Penkwe ship might very well have picked it up by accident, or out of bored curiosity. If that were true, probably all Hera’s team would have to do to get it back was ask politely. 

The third settlement was really a broad-ranging group of nomadic bands, native Saratogans who were the last remnants of the ancient race the Penkwe were there to study. They lived among the ruins of their ancestors, scavenging the works built long ago, and eking out an existence on a planet that had become barely survivable for their race, and not at all for any others. The humans and the Penkwe built their communities in domes. Only the natives lived on the surface, and there they didn’t live very well. They didn’t even have the technology to fly in Saratoga’s limited remaining atmosphere, much less get into space and find the Preservation mission probe. 

So the team focused on the other two possibilities. Shale tapped into the Foundationist version of a public records system, and started looking for clues. Hera called the Penkwe.

She had no idea what to expect. She’d never even seen a picture of a Penkwe, much less interacted with one. All she knew about them was that they had superior technology and a superior attitude to go with it, which they had used as an excuse to do nothing to stop the Occupation.

Right now she had a simple, unemotional question, however, and she repressed her historical anger in order to ask it. Had they inadvertently captured the First Cup? And if so, would they return it to its rightful owners?

The communications channel the Penkwe were willing to open was audio-only, and the voice obviously artificial. Too obviously artificial to be an AI; it must have been an automatic translator. So Hera still hadn’t seen a Penkwe, or heard one. The content of the conversation itself was brusque and businesslike. No, they hadn’t encountered any Lexingtonian probes. No, they didn’t have any Lexingtonian property. Of course they would be happy to return any they might find in the future. Have a pleasant day. 

Hera didn’t have any reason to disbelieve them, apart from a general irritation she wasn’t even sure why she was feeling. Was it the historical resentment over the Occupation? The feeling of being stymied by an impenetrable force field of politeness? The combination of the two?

In any case, the Penkwe were probably being honest about not having the Cup, and if they weren’t it was probably hopeless to get it back from them. Maybe the Foundationists were a better bet.

And indeed, Shale had found something. “I haven’t been able to access any secured records,” said the AI. “But I’ve been looking at public documents, particularly related to their water systems. There’s a discrepancy I can’t explain.” 

“Wait, you can’t get into the secured records?” said Fred. “I thought Foundationist technology was primitive.” 

“Their spaceships are,” said Jean. “But they’re supposed to have the best cryptography in the system. It’s part of their philosophy of isolationism.” 

“I’m sure Fred and Shale can break it, given enough time,” said Hera. “Shale, what was it that you found?”

“Over the last two years, one of the biggest political conflicts within the Foundationist settlement has been over maintenance of their sewage and water reclamation system. It’s outdated and neglected, and of course on a planet like this it’s absolutely necessary. The political factions here have been casting blame on each other, and each demanding that someone else take responsibility. They’re each trying to protect the budgets of their own favorite projects and force their opponents to sacrifice things that matter more to them. There’s an unusual theological angle to their arguments.” 

“Foundationists value self-sacrifice,” said Jean. “The second tenet of Milo’s teachings, which we interpret as Compassion, and the Vexorians interpret as History, the Foundationists interpret as Sacrifice. It’s one of the biggest differences between the three sects.” 

“It’s hard to see those as three aspects of the same thing,” said Alistair.

“It’s not the only thing Milo said that the Foundationists are wrong about,” said Jean.

Hera tried to get them back on track. “So they’re fighting over who pays to get the system back to proper functioning.”

“They were fighting over it,” said Shale. “And it seems like each of the factions had people within it who wanted to make the sacrifice. But the bigger problem was that the money just wasn’t there for any single faction to give up their other priorities in order to save the water supply, and garner the credit for it.” 

“They need to find a way to compromise. All parties have to sacrifice to have enough resources,” said Fred.

“Exactly,” said Shale. “And I see signs that they were beginning to come to that conclusion, a few months ago. but it didn’t happen. Discussion simply stopped. There’s no more public news about system failures, which were a weekly occurrence before. And seemingly no more conflict within the government.”

“You think the First Cup could end government conflict?” said Alistair. “I knew the Relics were powerful but that’s not what it was ever rumored to do.” 

“No conflict over this issue,” said Shale. “They’ve moved on to fighting over other things.”

“So they found a way to solve their water problem without spending any money,” said Hera.

“I think so,” said Shale. “Every faction’s budget priorities are intact. It’s as if the problem just disappeared.” 

“It probably did,” said Hera. “Plug the First Cup into your water reclamation system and suddenly purification is free.” 

“That would certainly help the budget,” said Jean.

“The timing works,” said Shale. “The probe’s trajectory would have brought it in range of Saratoga just a few days before the conflict suddenly ended.”

“They must have found it at the first opportunity,” said Alistair. “Not much of a camouflage.”

“No matter how much you hide a probe,” said Jean, “if it’s on a fixed trajectory, there’s always the chance that it just happens to run into something.”

“Maybe it ran into a Foundationist ship on training maneuvers,” said Fred.

“It doesn’t really matter now,” said Hera. “However it got here, they have it, and we have to get it back.”

Nobody was quite comfortable with the idea of breaking the water reclamation system of a colony on a hostile planet. But the First Cup was their mission, and it didn’t belong to the Foundationists, it belonged to the Church. Somewhat surprisingly, Jean was the strongest advocate for taking it by force.

“They don’t belong here at all,” said the priest. “Milo ended the settlement of Saratoga. For someone who was often subtle and complex, he was very clear about that order. Humans were not to interfere with the natives here.”

“There was a terraforming project back then, wasn’t there?” said Fred.

“There was,” said Jean. “Milo recalled all the workers, and the other settlers. He told them that Saratoga was off limits as long as there were still natives surviving here.”

“And yet the Foundationists moved in anyway?” said Shale.

“They did,” said Jean. “If reclaiming the First Cup makes their settlement uninhabitable, it’s only what they deserve. Forcing them to relocate would be an extra service to Milo, and to the Church.”

“And to the natives, I imagine,” said Hera. Jean just nodded. 

“So how do we get it back?” said Fred.

“The Foundationists don’t welcome guests,” said Hera. “Infiltrating them isn’t going to be easy.”

“I’m sure I can talk my way in,” said Alistair.

“You always think you can talk your way in,” said Jean.

“And I’m always right.”

“But you can’t always talk your way out again,” said Jean.

“And not just you,” said Hera. “This time you’ll have to carry the First Cup.”

“I can do it,” said Alistair.

“We don’t know that we’ll have access to any but the most public parts of their feed,” said Fred. “If Shale hasn’t broken in yet, I’m not sure how much I can help.”

“I have confidence in Shale’s ability to break into any system that’s secured against humans,” said Hera.

“But does Alistair?” said Fred. That clearly shook Alistair’s confidence for the first time, but he didn’t reply.

“Your only backup is an AI you don’t trust,” said Hera. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”

“I don’t need backup,” said Alistair, but it was clearly bluster at this point. 

“No,” said Hera. “The First Cup is too important to risk on a wild social engineering plan with no information and no support.” 

“So do you have a better idea?” said Alistair.

“I do,” said Hera. “I’m just going to break in and steal the thing.” 

Hera guided her personnel pod to a soft landing near a steel-fabrication plant just outside the main Foundationist dome. Shale and Fred still hadn’t gotten into the security systems, but this was the sort of thing the team had done before, many times during the Occupation. They knew, or at least made a reasonable guess, that the high electrical output of the fabrication plant would disguise the landing of a one-person pod from Foundationist sensors. And while the atmosphere of Saratoga was still thick enough for a human to survive in a breath mask, the outdoors here wasn’t something humans spent any more time in than they had to. 

She wasn’t seen, and she fitted her own mask for the brief trip to the habitation dome. They’d managed to come up with a map of the water-reclamation system from public records, though it didn’t have as much detail as Hera would have liked. The larger sections were kept as far away as possible from the outdoors, presumably out of a desire to avoid polluting the native ecosystems with human wastewater. And also to minimize how much was lost in leaks. Even the outlying industrial plants only had small, high-pressure pipes sending their wastewater into the dome for processing. There was no direct entry into the system from out here. 

But all the airlocks into the settlement were, of course, monitored. Hera had considered bringing her full space suit, with its magical entry skills, but it handled awkwardly in atmosphere and they weren’t completely sure that system would operate correctly in these conditions. Getting her body trapped within a solid wall at the very beginning of the mission wasn’t Hera’s idea of a success. Especially when it was a wall that she could just cut a hole in. 

From the Foundationist perspective, the only potential threats to worry about out here were the natives, and the natives didn’t have plasma torches. It was a good bet that every inch of the dome wasn’t closely monitored for damage. If Hera could prevent the external atmosphere from leaking into the inhabited part of the settlement, it could be weeks before anyone even noticed. 

The pressure on the outside wasn’t much lower than the pressure on the inside, and the team had concluded that if she worked fast enough she could make a hole, pass through it, and seal it again from the inside without very much of the external air making it inside the dome. It wasn’t easy to match features on the outside of the dome with low-traffic areas inside, but Shale identified a utility corridor that had a window for reasons they couldn’t explain. Hera could find it, cut her way through underneath it, and be within the Foundationist enclosure without anyone knowing. 

As long as there wasn’t a disaffected twelve-year-old using that space to gaze into the outdoors where he couldn’t be caught. At least the view out this window didn’t seem likely to be compelling, unless you really liked steel-fabrication plants. Hera looked through the window first anyway, prepared to dash back to her pod if anyone happened to look back at her. But the utility corridor was empty. 

Her plasma torch made short work of steel and insulation and another panel of steel, opening a hole below the window just big enough for her to squeeze her body through. A SuperPutty patch kit, scrounged from ship’s stores, provided an air seal over the new hole that was probably more effective than it needed to be. Hera didn’t think that the outside atmosphere had penetrated significantly, but she kept her breath mask on until she was ready to exit the corridor, just in case. 

She checked in with Shale first, and their feed was still intact, but the AI didn’t have any new information for her. They were still having difficulty gaining access. So it was still the original plan: hit the water reclamation system as quickly and quietly as possible, grab the First Cup, and run. Their presumption was that the moment the Relic was moved all security hell would break loose, even if Hera had managed to avoid it by then. If possible, get back to the original personnel pod and escape the planet’s surface ahead of pursuit. If not, there were several alternate extraction plans, up to and including shooting her way out.

Hera hated going into a mission heavily armed, especially when there wasn’t any chance that the people she needed to shoot would be Gavidarians. But this one was too important to give up any possible advantage. She’d cut her arsenal down to things that were easily carried, but she still had enough firepower to do serious damage to the dome and the population if it came to that. She hoped it didn’t.

For now, the key was speed and stealth, approaches Hera was more comfortable with. She had dressed for the mission in their best guess of what Foundationist daily wear would look like. No post-Occupation fashion, no modern technical accessories, just simple cloth garments in subdued colors. Her weapons were hidden away where they wouldn’t be noticed at a casual glance in a hallway. The plasma torch was too big to carry incognito, but she could just abandon it in the utility corridor. Hopefully she wouldn’t need it again. She shoved her breath mask into a pocket and set out into the main part of the settlement.

Their sartorial guesses hadn’t been perfect, but were good enough to generate a few minor funny looks and no more. Real Foundationists were more into bright colors than they had expected, and stripes with textural contrast. Hera looked out of place, but more like an eccentric conservative member of their community than an infiltrator from the outside. She made sure to walk with a purpose, and no one thought to stop her. Probably no one wanted to risk the likely content of the conversation of the woman she was pretending to be. 

Water reclamation was only a few minutes’ walk away, and the outer portions of the system were secured only by doors with “employees only” signs posted on them. Jean’s impression of the Foundationists, and their examination of the public records, suggested that infrastructural systems here were less automated than they were used to on Lexington. There would be humans inside making decisions about how wastewater should be handled and where fresh water needed to go. And those human employees probably knew each other well enough that a stranger passing through their work space would draw attention.

She passed by the first door they had identified into the system. She felt secure enough out here, at this point, that she could wander through the public corridors of the settlement all day without anyone stopping her as long as she looked like she knew what she was doing. But entering the domain of the water reclamation techs would require some sort of distraction, and that depended on Fred and Shale.

Just before she reached the second possible entry point, Shale let her know that they had breached the technical network used by the water reclamation employees, and downloaded their schedule. Wastewater from the outlying industrial facilities was processed here in batches, and the changes necessary to manage the transition from human waste to industrial effluent required the full attention of the technical staff. It was an excellent distraction that didn’t even require them to do anything that might be noticed.

It wasn’t quite the right time for entry, however, so Hera bypassed the second access door and slowed her walk slightly at Shale’s direction. The waste from a fertilizer plant was due to be processed in a few minutes, and with the help of the AI, Hera timed her arrival at the third possible entry point for the moment that the wastewater techs would be beginning the transition. Fortunately no one was in the hall when she ducked through the door, also unseen by any of the busy people on the other side. 

There were people right there in the room, dressed in more of a business-casual style than Hera’s wardrobe was going to be able to pull off, but their backs were turned to the door and their attention concentrated on their controls. If anyone saw here here they would know she didn’t belong, but so far she was lucky, and she had to trust to further luck at this point. Not that a bunch of unarmed techs would be able to stop her, but shooting civilians was a necessity she very much wanted to avoid. 

Instead she passed through like an unwanted health inspector, suspecting that the techs were hoping not to be distracted almost as hard as she was hoping not to draw their attention. The team had identified a central section of the reclamation system more given over to machinery and automated systems, controlled by the techs on the outside, and guessed that was where the First Cup would be kept. In the heart of the machinery there must be only a few places where all of the wastewater would eventually pass through, where it would make sense for a powerful artifact to be put to use.

Hera was past the areas that were naturally full of techs well before the end of the tasks necessary to handle the fertilizer waste. But she almost ran headlong into a very different set of people. These were uniformed and armed, and they saw her as she saw them, but she turned decisively into a lab just before their checkpoint, and they didn’t raise an alarm. The security team must be new enough not to know all of the techs by sight, or be alarmed at her unusual dress.

Fortunately the lab was empty, but it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long. Once the techs were done processing the fertilizer waste and had the system back to its normal functioning, whoever’s lab this was would come back and discover Hera, who would have a hard time inventing a reason for being there. They’d left their computer running a simulation, and there was a mess of testing supplies on one of the lab benches that indicated an experiment in progress. Whoever belonged here didn’t intend to be gone for long.

“I hope you’re into the security system by now,” she sent to the feed. “There’s a checkpoint ahead of me.” Fred sent a delaying meme, not what she wanted to see right now.

“At least it means you’re in the right place,” said Alistair. “They wouldn’t have guards on the standard mechanicals.”

“Yeah, well, I’m in the wrong place right now,” said Hera. “Or I will be in a minute. I really need a distraction to get past those guards.” 

“They’re still trying to get into the deeper systems,” said Jean. “Alistair and I will work on figuring out something else.” 

“Like what?” said Alistair.

“I don’t know,” said Jean. “Something more practical. What can we do with minor access?”

“I have no ideas,” said Alistair. 

“If someone doesn’t come up with something quickly I’m going to have to fire on that checkpoint,” said Hera. “I don’t want to but the alternative is firing on the techs when they come back and find me here.”

“Give us a minute yet,” said Jean.

“I don’t know if I have a minute.” 

There was a deep rumbling noise and the whole room shook briefly. “Was that your distraction?” said Hera. 

“No,” said Jean. Hera heard running footsteps in the corridor and peeked out to see the backs of the security guards as they left their checkpoint, headed out of the water reclamation facility entirely. 

“That looks like my distraction,” she said. “I’m going in.” 

“It’s a distraction all right,” said Shale. “But I’m not sure it’s a good thing.”

“Should I stay put?” said Hera. “What was that noise?”

“Go on ahead,” said Shale. “You might as well. Security people are coming from all over the dome. The Cup is probably unguarded. But we need another plan for after you find it.” 

“Why?” said Hera as she guardedly exited the lab, looked both ways in the empty corridor, and dashed for the checkpoint.

It was Jean who answered. “That explosion was your personnel pod blowing up.”

“That’s a hell of a distraction,” said Hera. 

“It wasn’t us,” said Shale. “And from the response it doesn’t look like it was the Foundationists either.” 

“Could it have been an accident?” said Alistar.

“I don’t see how,” said Shale.

“Great,” said Hera. “We’ve got a third party interfering. Figure out who it is while I go get the Cup.”

The checkpoint, now unattended, wasn’t difficult to pass through. This wasn’t Vexor Alexi, where everything was automated. On Saratoga decisions were made by humans, and Hera was just as capable a human as the ones who were supposed to be there. The controls were physical and analog, archaic even by the standards of mainstream Lexington society. Nothing prevented her from operating them, or from entering the secured area of the facility.

However, that also meant she couldn’t reset the controls behind her. “Start a timer,” she sent to the team. “I’ve left evidence of my entry, and everything depends on speed now.” Shale popped one up in the corner of her feed display, but she shelved it immediately. She knew she had to act fast, and having a live counter wasn’t helpful. She just wanted to be able to refer to it later if necessary.

The secure area turned out to be neither large nor complicated. Two turns that were obvious choices led her into a mid-sized room where a new device had obviously been recently constructed. Large pipes led out of the ceiling into a metal box that no professional designer had even been consulted on, then out again through one of the walls. There were valves right there to cut off the flow, and Hera was able to turn them easily. Breaking open the box was hardly more difficult, once the water pressure was removed.

Inside was something that could hardly be anything but the First Cup. Hera had seen photographs of it, of course. She and Jean had developed contingencies, when they first set out on this mission, for how to make sure that what they found was the real First Cup and not a counterfeit. But neither of them had ever seen it in person, and the photos had not indicated just how impossible it would be to counterfeit the object Hera now saw before her in reality.

It was a simple cup, which appeared to have been carved out of a dark stone with red and purple highlights, just large enough to fill Hera’s hand. That much they had expected. But no stone cup had ever been this free of imperfections. It was perfectly symmetric, in a way that no human carver, no mechanical carver, could ever have duplicated. There were no imperfections of its creation, nor were there any that had been introduced in its thousands of years of existence. Just moments ago there had been wastewater surging through the chamber containing it, and yet the cup was perfectly, miraculously pristine. 

For that matter, so was the chamber, although its surfaces remained wet. The cup itself was dry, somehow, when Hera worked up the nerve to grab it. She had not expected its mere presence to command respect and reverence. In photographs, the Relics were just religious regalia, the artifacts of cultural devotion. Objects that held meaning purely because their devotees chose to give meaning to them. 

In person, Hera wasn’t sure how anyone had ever doubted that they had incredible powers. It took a huge amount of effort for her to offer this one the disrespect of stuffing it into her backpack. But she hadn’t thought to bring a sacred ark, and she was in a hurry. 

She thought about leaving the way she had come in, but that would just lead her back toward her pod and the alerted security forces, who would probably be beginning to search the dome by now. When they found the Cup missing, and the checkpoints open, she wanted to be as far away from there as possible. And if one checkpoint had been abandoned, probably all of them had.

The team hadn’t learned anything more about the cause of the explosion, but they were prepared to send down a second personnel pod to pick her up. They aimed it for the industrial outskirts on the opposite end of the settlement from the one Hera had used to enter. She reminded them to make it not quite directly opposite; if security found the hole she had left in the outer wall, and her plasma cutter, the search would begin there. But they might very well be intelligent enough to look in the farthest direction from it as well. 

The first task was to get out of the unsecured secure area before they thought to restore personnel to the checkpoints. She approached her chosen exit carefully, but it was as empty as the one she had entered through. At least, the checkpoint itself was. Just past it, she nearly collided with someone completely unexpected. Unfortunately, he saw her as well. 

“Malachite!” she shouted into the feed, as she reflexively turned her near-collision into an awkward attack. The Gavidarian hadn’t expected her either, and her push took them both down to the floor. Hera bounced up first and fled down the corridor, hoping she was fast enough to get away before he was able to follow. She supposed they knew now who it was that had destroyed her pod. If Malachite was also here and tracking their movements, getting off-planet had suddenly become much more difficult. He wasn’t limited by the archaic technology of the Foundationists.

She made it out of his reach, but it was only a few seconds before she heard heavy stone footsteps pounding down the corridor behind her. She remembered how fast he had been chasing Alistair through Vexor Alexi, and took every turn she could, hoping to use his greater momentum against him. She managed to stay ahead of the Gavidarian, but she couldn’t do this for long before Foundationist security caught up to both of them. And while being held by the Foundationists was undoubtedly better than capture by Malachite, she wasn’t yet ready to resign herself to it. She had the Cup, she was free, and surely there had to be some way to get off the planet. 

The first step was getting out of the Foundationist dome. Malachite was a problem, and he would be faster than she was on the open surface, but reducing the enemies she had to avoid to a single one was a necessary step, even if that one was the most dangerous. Shale plotted her a route to an airlock that was reachable without any straight-line sprints, and she just hoped it was clear of security. 

She startled a couple of civilians in her headlong flight, and didn’t look back to find out how much more astonished they would be at the bright green rock man following her. She made it to the airlock ahead of pursuit, and secured the door just in time. There was a rack of breath masks on the wall inside, and after Hera positioned one on her face she cleared the rest of them out of the rack onto the floor, hoping the airlock was programmed not to open when there weren’t masks present. Malachite didn’t need one but maybe Foundationist security procedures would slow him longer than the lock’s cycle time. 

She wasted no time when her own cycle completed, running out onto the surface. There were outlying industrial sites at this exit as well, though she couldn’t identify any of them. Shale directed her to a plant off to her right, a pigment production facility they said had a pressurized interior. That was as good a place as any to play hide and seek with Malachite while the team tried to put another personnel pod onto the surface.

She was able to jam the interior door of this airlock open after entering, which should buy her some time. The other door wouldn’t open automatically for Malachite while the inner one was open. He was sure to be carrying tools, but anything powerful enough to break through an airlock quickly would have been too bulky to chase her with. She shoved the breath mask into her pocket next to the one that was already there, and set out making sure she knew where another exit was located. Delaying Malachite was only useful if she didn’t trap herself here, and if she did, it might literally be a dead end.

“I have good news and bad news,” said Alistair as she found the second airlock. 

“Don’t be cute, just tell me,” Hera sent back.

“The good news is, we found out where Malachite’s ship was hidden,” he said. Then he just stopped. Hera was about ready to kill him, if she got out of this.

“What’s the bad news?” she gave up and asked.

“It just shot down our second personnel pod.” 

Great. Without a pod to extract her, staying in this factory wasn’t going to be helpful. She just had to hope that Malachite was too focused on breaking into the first airlock to notice her exiting on the other side. 

“You’re going to have to land the ship to pick me up,” she said. 

“We can’t land that close to the dome,” said Shale. “There’s too much industrial infrastructure.” 

“I know,” said Hera. “I’m going to have to get some distance on the surface.” 

“Malachite will catch you in minutes in the open,” said Alistair. 

“I’m not going to stay in the open,” she said. She pulled up a map within the feed and circled the nearest settlement of the native Saratogans. “I can hide here. And their buildings aren’t large enough to prevent you from landing nearby.” 

“The natives’ reaction to you will be unpredictable,” said Shale.

“I know,” she said. “But maybe they’ll like me more than they like Malachite.” She grabbed another breath mask as she passed through the second airlock. 

Fred sent a meme saying “it’s about time we got lucky.” Hera was too busy running to respond.

The Saratogans didn’t seem to like or dislike her, but they didn’t object to being used as a hiding place. They were little, blue, round-headed creatures with big eyes, ears, and mouths, and four arms. Their uncanny resemblance to a legendary alien creature from ancient Earth had been remarked upon throughout Lexingtonian history, but no evidence had ever been found to connect the two. Besides, the legend was obnoxiously garrulous, and Saratogans, as Hera was finding out, were almost impossibly reticent. They wouldn’t talk to her, or listen to her, and the only reason she was sure they could see her at all was that they didn’t try to walk into her personal space. 

There wasn’t any chance of getting them to help against Malachite, but at least they made no objection to Hera hiding in their homes, small structures that were very cramped to a human, and that she hoped would look impractical to a less-flexible Gavidarian. If nothing else, he would have a hard time getting in to search them, and that might give the team enough time to make a landing and allow her to dash for a final escape. 

Unfortunately Malachite didn’t have to resort to searching for her hut-by-hut. His own ship got there ahead of the team’s, and sat right between the native village and their landing spot. Neither party thought they had an advantage from the ships slugging it out, and its presence prevented Alistair and Jean from attacking Malachite in person.

At least the Gavidarian was unwilling to attack the native village directly. Either there were some atrocities he was reluctant to commit, or he was worried about what would happen if they took sides. Hera’s long experience with Gavidarians made her favor the latter explanation. But as much as she tried to establish communications, the natives kept their own counsel. Short of Malachite shooting at them, they had no interest in intervention.

Before long, though, the bilateral standoff gained a third participant anyway. Foundationist ships creaked to an awkward landing surrounding both the team’s ship and Malachite’s, in an arc, only the village preventing them from a complete encirclement. They were less-sophisticated than either foreign ship. On the other hand, there were a lot more of them.

This wasn’t going to get any better with time. She had to move, while there was still a direction she was free to move in, even if it was back toward the Foundationist dome. If their security was all out here, maybe she could beat them back to their homes and find some other method of escape. If she could outrace Malachite somehow. It was a desperate plan, but it had to be tried. So she picked a moment, squirmed out the tiny entrance to the Saratogan hut she had been hiding in, and dashed back along the route she had entered by not long before. 

It didn’t come close to working. It took too long to get out of the hut, and Malachite had plenty of time to get up to his full speed before she even managed her slower, human sprint. He tackled her before she even cleared the edge of the village. 

The Foundationists were slow to react. Unfortunately so was the rest of her team; not that she had any concrete image of how they could have rescued her. She was going to lose the First Cup to Malachite, and maybe even her life, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She fought him on her own, instinctively, but she knew it was impossible for her to win.

So she was taken completely by surprise when the Saratogans intervened, pushing the two combatants apart. Malachite kept trying to get at her, and they kept getting in his way. Her own initial reflexes were to hit him while he was restrained, but the little blue creatures wouldn’t allow that either. They still weren’t talking, or even making eye contact with either of the interlopers. But clearly no fighting was going to be allowed in their village. 

Malachite continued trying to fight them off, and continued to be surrounded by surprisingly-effective little blue figures. Hera relaxed, and as she had hoped, they went right back to ignoring her. She backed away gradually, toward the nearest boundary of the village, and no Saratogans followed her. Malachite tried to follow, but trying to force his way through the natives just caused them to resist him more fiercely. 

She had an opportunity, and she ran. Foundationist ships struggled into the air behind her, but they were anything but speedy about it. Others stayed behind, trapping both her own ship and Malachite’s, at least as long as they were both unwilling to take violent action to escape. She made sure the team didn’t make that mistake, and Malachite was too occupied fighting the Saratogans to give his ship any orders.

Hera was halfway back to the dome when Shale informed her that Malachite had finally figured out he could get free of the natives by ending his resistance. But rather than running after her, the Gavidarian returned to his ship and the three-way standoff that was still holding outside the village. The Foundationist ships which had taken off in pursuit were beginning to gain on her, but she was pretty sure she would be able to get into the dome before they arrived.

She could hear chaos behind her as she arrived at the airlock, and risked a look back while she wanted for the door to open. Malachite’s unwillingness to fire on the natives apparently didn’t extend to the Foundationists as well. Two of their ships that had been the farthest away from the Saratogan village were now on fire, as much as they could be in the low-oxygen atmosphere, and Malachite’s ship was lifting off unopposed. The airlock door closed, cutting off her view of events, but she clearly needed to form a new plan quickly before the Gavidarian could catch up to her again.

Fortunately the corridor behind the airlock was not full of Foundationist security. She stuffed another mask into her pocket and returned to a casual walking speed that might not attract everyone’s attention. Civilians here had plenty to think about now, and a passing stranger was far less exciting than exploding spaceships. As long as she kept it less exciting. Hera needed help, somehow, and there was only one person who was likely to be able to talk anyone here into helping her.

As much as she disliked the idea, she asked Alistair to find her a contact somewhere in the Foundationist dome. Someone who could hide her until they could find a way to smuggle her off-planet. Someone who wouldn’t guess that she was carrying the stolen First Cup. 

Alistair didn’t respond. She pinged Fred for his location, but Fred just sent back a shrugging meme. She pinged Jean, but Jean didn’t know why Alistair was missing from the feed either. Shale was occupied with taking the opportunity to get their own ship off the ground without opposition from the local authorities. And she wasn’t sure asking the AI to keep tabs on Alistair was a wise idea, anyway. It was bad enough that Alistair was constantly suspicious of Shale. She didn’t need it going both directions. 

Hera couldn’t find that sort of refuge on her own, presuming that it was even possible to begin with. Any Foundationist she approached was much more likely to turn her in than to assist her. She had to get out of the dome again, and make one last shot at finding a way off this difficult planet. 

There was one more alternative nearby, one Hera had considered an option of last resort: the ruins of the original Lexingtonian terraforming project. Technical equipment that hadn’t been maintained in two thousand years wasn’t her idea of a safe location, but the last resort had come, and what was unsafe for her might well be equally unsafe for Malachite and for Foundationist security. 

She walked casually to the airlock that was closest to the terraforming ruins, and no one stopped her. There still wasn’t a fugitive alert on the public channels here, only a reassuring message about the explosions and a recommendation that residents shelter in place. The general Foundationist population didn’t seem to take even that warning very seriously; the corridors were as full of pedestrians now as they had been when she first entered. 

Nor was the airlock secured, which it ought to have been by now in any competent security apparatus from Hera’s experience. Passing in and out of the dome freely was a luxury she appreciated, but one she didn’t understand at this point, and was reluctant to rely upon any further. The longer this went on the more likely that someone in Foundationist security would realize that restricting everyone else’s movement would only be of benefit to them.

She took three masks from the rack inside the airlock this time, not knowing how long she might have to hide inside the ruins of the terraforming facility. One went on her face; she tried to stuff the other two into the pocket that was already holding the ones she’d used before, but there wasn’t room. She had to switch hands and put them in a new pocket on the other side. She cycled the lock for what she hoped was the last time, and headed out into the open again, moving as quickly as she felt she could without attracting too much attention. There weren’t any other people outdoors here, and she was sure to attract suspicion, but maybe running flat out would grab more attention than just looking like a maintenance tech on a mission. Besides, all this running was starting to make her tired. 

That lasted until halfway to the ruins, when Malachite’s ship appeared over the rim of the Foundationist dome behind her. Foundationist security might still be too confused to be hunting for her specifically, but the Gavidarian knew what he was looking for, and no disguising her pace would fool him. At least the Foundationist ships didn’t seem to be following him anymore, or if they were, they were lagging well behind and out of sight. She hoped he hadn’t killed them all, but one enemy was enough right now. 

Even once she started running he didn’t try to shoot her from the ship, probably out of fear of destroying the First Cup. He still hadn’t seen the thing, and didn’t know how imperturbable it looked by any force known to man. Or known to rock monster. He could probably have blown up the whole planet and sifted through its rubble for the artifact, which would still be whole and unmarked.  

But he wanted to capture it himself, which became clear to Hera when a green figure fell out of the bottom of his ship and it peeled off, presumably to make an automatic landing nearby. He hadn’t gauged the jump quite properly to land on top of her, and his impact with the surface kicked up a huge dust cloud not far away. Even with Saratoga’s lighter gravity, that fall would have instantly killed any human. Malachite would probably be running full-speed after her within a minute. 

But a minute was enough time for her to reach the ruins of the ancient terraforming project ahead of him. Hera didn’t have the energy, or the breath, to talk to the team while she was trying to get there. She trusted that they would do something to help her, anything they could figure out. Well, she trusted everyone but Alistair, who still hadn’t returned to the feed. 

Shale, however, was working. They had equipped the ship’s third and final personnel pod with a maintenance drone, as a last-resort attempt to have some physical impact on the events on the surface. With the ship in atmosphere rather than in orbit, the AI could control the drone in real-time. And the pod could get it to the terraforming ruins at almost the same time Hera arrived. 

She wasn’t expecting a functioning airlock, and she definitely wasn’t expecting an airlock that was newer than the ones she had been using to go in and out of the Foundationist dome. But there was no time to worry about it, and nowhere else to go. This one, surprisingly, was securable from the inside. She locked it as solidly as she could against Malachite’s entry, and passed on into a building which was far less ruined than she had expected. 

There was breathable air here, somehow, and she took off her mask and stuffed it into her off-hand pocket with the two unused spares. And not just air; there were powered control consoles throughout the large room she had entered, which was clearly an operations center. They were more sophisticated than the ones she had seen inside the Foundationist dome, but still had analog controls, or at least simulations of analog controls. The style was Foundationist, but the tech was absolutely cutting-edge. She double-checked her map to make sure she was in the right place; these were the terraforming project ruins, all right. Nothing here should have been less than two thousand years old. And yet it might have been brand new. 

A door slid open on the second level, and she braced to defend herself, but the new arrival was Shale’s drone. It flew down to her, and she felt a little bit reassured that now they were two actors on the surface. A repurposed maintenance drone didn’t double their ability, but at least it was something. 

Even if it had doubled their ability, that wouldn’t have done much good when all four interior doors on the first level opened at once and Hera was suddenly surrounded by armed humans in uniform. So this was where all of the Foundationist security troops had gone. Why was the former terraforming project more important to them than their own dome? Or had they just lured Hera here to trap her where there wouldn’t be collateral damage? She didn’t think she had been herded to this location on purpose, but maybe they were smarter than she had given them credit for.

In any case, there were close to thirty of them, and no way out except the airlock that led back to an angry Gavidarian. She took cover behind a console, and they didn’t start shooting immediately. If this facility meant so much to them, maybe they wouldn’t want to trash it trying to capture her when patience would do them just as well. 

“Surrender,” said a male voice from the other side of the room. “Return our property.” 

“And I won’t be harmed?” said Hera.


“You’re supposed to say ‘surrender and you won’t be harmed.'”

“Surrender and we won’t kill you in the next five minutes,” said the man.

“That’s not very inspiring,” said Hera.

“Best I can do.” 

They had her surrounded on the first floor, but the doors on the second were still unguarded. Largely because there weren’t any staircases for the security troopers to take up there. Of course, if there weren’t any for them, there weren’t any for Hera either. But if she could find a way up there, there was still a chance she could escape. 

“Ten seconds to surrender before we come get you,” said the man. 

No way to find a way to find a route to the second floor in that amount of time. Well, no way to find a route for Hera to the second floor in that amount of time. Shale’s drone could fly, and they had brought it behind the console with her when she took cover. It wasn’t big enough to carry her, but it was big enough to carry her backpack, or nearly so. She had to pull some of her weapons out to make it light enough.

Wait, she had weapons! Hera didn’t like blasters, and wasn’t used to carrying them, but she felt intensely stupid for forgetting that she had been carrying some high-powered personal ordnance all this time. It was just easier to run, and fight, and run again, and not have to worry about murdering anyone. She didn’t want to murder anyone, not even Foundationists who weren’t willing to promise a whole hour of not murdering her. 

She attached her backpack to the drone anyway. “Take this back to the pod,” she said to Shale. “And get it back to the ship.”

“How will we get you out?” said the AI.

“I don’t think I’m getting out without killing somebody,” said Hera. “And if I have to kill somebody, I have a pretty good idea who I want that to be.” 

She set her blaster to its highest power and fired straight up into the ceiling, trying to do as much property damage as she could. If any of the Foundationists got crushed by falling debris, that was their own problem. She had to keep them from firing at the drone, and she trusted that Shale was a good enough pilot to dodge any wreckage coming at it. 

It took only seconds to exit the room through the same second-floor door it had entered, and the Foundationists still hadn’t figured out they should be firing their weapons at all. Not an anxious trigger finger among them, apparently. Saving the room’s equipment from collateral damage wasn’t an achievable goal anymore. Hera took the opportunity to run for the airlock. She didn’t bother bringing the blaster’s power setting back down. 

But when she got there, and when she undogged the controls and grabbed yet another mask, and when she stumbled into the open, there was no Gavidarian waiting for her. Even his ship was missing. She was almost disappointed at missing the opportunity to blast Malachite to smithereens, and it took her a moment of startlement before she realized she could head for the hills. Or what passed for hills on Saratoga, anyway. Distant crater walls barely gave character to the horizon out away from the terraforming project, and the dome, and the industrial sites, and the natives. There was a mostly-empty planet out there and no one currently preventing her from setting out into its wilderness.

“Get the Cup and get out of here,” she sent to the team. “Shake Malachite, avoid the Foundationists, and come back for me. I’ll be out there somewhere.”

“How long can you last on the surface?” said Jean. “Those breath masks are only good for hours. You’ll asphyxiate before we can make it back for you.” 

Hera checked her pockets. “I’ve got seven of them,” she said. “That should be enough time.”

She set out, periodically looking over her shoulder for Foundationist pursuit, or Malachite showing himself again, but neither of those happened immediately. She saw the pod lift off from the other side of the terraforming building, and was about to send a congratulatory message to the feed when Shale sent her a garbled one full of half-constructed words and static.

She’d never known the AI to be anything but a precise communicator, and quickly asked for a repeat of the message. Shale sent again, but sounded shaky, somehow. Like they had experienced a physical shock. 

“My drone was destroyed,” they said. 

“What? How?” 

“I don’t know. Ambushed when it came back to the pod.” 

“Are you all right?” 

“I will be. There wasn’t much of me inside of it when it went.”

“I just saw the pod take off, though,” said Hera. “It’s coming back to the ship with the First Cup.”

“It might have the First Cup,” said Jean. “But I don’t think it’s coming back to our ship.” 

“I’m tracking the course,” said Shale. “It’s definitely not coming here.” 

“Is anyone else following it?” said Hera.

“No,” said Shale. “Wait, yes. A Foundationist ship just launched in pursuit. It will never catch the pod, though.” 

“If the Foundationists are chasing it,” said Fred, “they must not be controlling it. Which means–”

“Malachite,” said Hera. “Can you find his ship?”

“That’s where the pod is going,” said Shale. “I can confirm the course. It will be there in forty-two seconds. We have no opportunity to intercept.” 

“You’ll have to follow him,” said Hera.

“We can’t leave you on the surface,” said Jean. 

“You can’t let him have the First Cup,” said Hera.

“He has it already,” said Jean. “We need you if we’re going to get it back.”

“I’m in charge here and I’m telling you to follow him.” 

“You may be the boss, but we’re in control of the ship,” said Shale. “We’re going to pick you up first.”

“And if we can’t find him again?” 

“We will,” said Fred. 


“I don’t know,” said Jean. “But we’ll find him, and we’ll find him together.”

Alistair still wasn’t back in the feed, but the other three were clearly unified against her. And Shale was right, there wasn’t anything she could do at this point to make them follow her orders. 

“Fine,” she said. “What’s your extraction plan?”

“The Foundationist ships are following Malachite,” said Shale. “If we land over the horizon from their settlement we might not attract any more opposition.” 

Fred sent a map into the feed, with a potential landing site marked. Those crater walls on the horizon weren’t as smooth as they looked from Hera’s position. Leading into them there was a canyon, and at the bottom of the canyon an open space just large enough for the ship to land where it couldn’t be seen from a distance. 

It was a long walk, and Hera’s legs were already sore, but the limited gravity made the journey seem more possible, and she didn’t have any better ideas. If they landed closer to the dome the Foundationists would be on them again, and they were all out of personnel pods. So she told them to go ahead and land at the target area, and she set out on a long hike across the dry, barren surface. 

For a long time it seemed like Foundationist attention was focused exclusively on following Malachite. Their ships weren’t as fast as his, but all he could do was put distance between them as he headed away from the planet. There wasn’t anywhere for him to hide. Hera wasn’t sure that there was room in the realities of space combat for an indefatigable pursuit predator, but the Foundationists were clearly determined to try. Shale continued to track the chase, though their hopes declined that something of note would happen there.

But of course, that was only their space forces, and the department of Foundationist security that operated on the ground eventually got reorganized well enough to be interested in Hera again. Shale could look in two directions at once, and the AI spotted a squad of nine dune buggies exiting the dome well before Hera could have. She had put a fair amount of distance between herself and the settlement, but with the benefit of vehicles they would catch her long before she reached the ship. 

So they set a trap. She went to ground as well as she could in terrain of limited complexity, and hoped that whatever overhead tracking the Foundationists were using couldn’t pinpoint her while she was hiding. Their buggies remained entirely conspicuous, and Shale tracked them easily as they reached her last-known location and broke formation into a search pattern. 

One woman against nine vehicles and their operators wasn’t much of a contest, but she didn’t need to defeat them. She just needed to be the first one to her ship. So when the search pattern led one of the buggies to her hiding place, she was prepared. They weren’t. She wasn’t sure the three Foundationists even knew what happened until they were sprawled on the rocky surface watching their former buggy speed away from them toward the horizon. 

The other eight reacted rather slowly to the hijacking, but a Foundationist buggy was unlike anything Hera had ever driven before, and she didn’t open up nearly as much of a gap between them as the security guards’ disorganization might have allowed. Like so much technology here, it had exclusively analog controls. She had to experiment with how much force she could safely use on them, and she had to approach everything from the conservative side. The buggies had roll cages that looked perfectly safe, especially in this gravity, but if she flipped this thing the chase would be all over before she could recover. 

She was barely fast enough. Before the other eight buggies quite caught up, she had learned to drive just as fast as the trained operators trying to catch her. The nine buggies sped toward the crater walls, Hera headed dead-on for the canyon entrance, the eight pursuers spread out behind her. The Foundationists were dedicated in their pursuit, but Hera knew the canyon was only wide enough to admit one buggy at a time. She would have to slow down, then, because it didn’t lead straight to the ship. But there was no room inside the canyon for flanking maneuvers, even if the more-experienced drivers could move through it faster. They were stuck behind her, and would be until she was under the covering fire of her ship’s weapons. 

Only two buggies followed her into the canyon; the other six peeled off at the entrance, three on either side. She checked her map again, but it didn’t seem like there was anywhere useful for them to go. They’d be able to get ahead of her, going straight on the clear terrain above while she twisted her way through the canyon. But they’d be stuck high above, with no access to the ship’s landing space.  

She asked the team for confirmation that those extra buggies weren’t a threat, that there wasn’t some road down that she wasn’t seeing on the map. But instead of an answer, she got Alistair returning to the feed. 

He’d been off servicing his own obsession, apparently, and claimed that he’d discovered evidence that Shale had betrayed them to the Foundationists. How Alistair had been able to get into Foundationist data when Fred hadn’t was something of a mystery. Though Fred had been working with Shale, who could have sabotaged him. Either way, she didn’t have time for this; she needed to concentrate on driving. 

Jean was on top of things. Way back before Ticonderoga the team had installed a control that would instantly lock Shale out of ship’s systems, at Alistair’s insistence. He wasn’t allowed to use it himself, of course. But Jean hit the button, and they and Fred started examining the data Alistair was providing into the feed. 

That left no one to help Hera, but she wasn’t sure what good the ship’s help would do, anyway. As long as they remembered to have a hatch open when she got there, everything now depended only on Hera’s driving and the buggy holding up. Fortunately it was well-maintained. 

The buggy immediately behind her had a better driver, and was able to keep close. But all it could do in the narrow canyon was push against the rear end of her buggy and try to force her to lose control. Hera might have no experience with these vehicles, but she was good enough not to fall victim to that. 

With only a few turns left, the buggies that had gone high up the canyon walls came back into view. They had gotten a little bit ahead, but Hera still couldn’t figure out what they were doing. She supposed they could try to shoot at her from up there, but the roll cage of her buggy was solid enough to withstand fire from anti-personnel weapons, and she didn’t think they had brought anything heavier. Her own buggy certainly didn’t have any serious weapons in it. 

It turned out they had something else in mind. Just before the last turn, one buggy from each side jumped the rim of the canyon and crashed heavily into the opposite wall. They kicked up huge amounts of dust, and large chunks of rocks started falling from the sides of the canyon. The whole mass came down uncannily slowly, to Hera’s Lexington-trained eyes, and she thought for a moment she might be able to outrace the debris. But the gravity here wasn’t that low, and knowing she wasn’t judging it properly, she skidded her buggy to a stop as quickly as she could. Whatever else happened, being underneath that was definitely not a good idea. 

By the time the dust settled there was a wall between her and the ship, much too high to climb. It was made of dust, rocks, wreckage, and somewhere in there the bodies of two Foundationist buggy pilots. Hera remembered that Foundationists valued self-sacrifice; until this moment she hadn’t really understood what that meant. Even in the low gravity, no human could have survived that fall, much less being crushed beneath hundreds of tons of rock. They could never have thought they might, and yet gave their lives to the cause of cutting off Hera’s escape. And she didn’t even have the First Cup. 

The security guards from the buggies behind her quickly had her surrounded, and the remaining ones on the canyon walls now set up in firing positions. The avalanche had gotten Jean’s and Fred’s attention back from the question of Shale’s betrayal, but there was nothing they could do from the ship except withdraw and ensure their own safety. At least the Foundationist navy were all still chasing Malachite. 

She saw the ship lifting off for space as the security guards restrained her and bundled her into the back of one of the buggies for a trip back to their dome, and whatever would await her there. 

This sort of thing was exactly why Jean didn’t want to be the boss. Hera was in the hands of the Foundationists, Shale might have betrayed her into captivity, and Alistair had gone AWOL in the middle of the mission to try to prove it. At least Fred was still reliable. Presumably. This was just the sort of conflict-heavy situation that Hera was good at handling. She would have known what to prioritize, who to trust, and how to work everyone out of it in the best possible way.

Jean just wanted to bury their head in their hands, curl up in a little ball, and hope it would all go away. And if Hera weren’t in serious danger, the priest might have done exactly that. But the logic of the situation was unavoidable: if they were going to figure out how to rescue Hera, it was Jean’s job to make it happen. Even if it meant they had to do it with only Fred’s help. 

He had gotten a first look at the documents Alistair claimed to have acquired from the Foundationist security system, and said it sure looked like a report on all their previous activities written from Shale’s perspective. He was digging deeper into the data now, trying to find some evidence of creation, transmission, or storage that would verify Alistair’s story about where it came from and how he had found it. 

Shale was cut off and could stay cut off until the AI stopped simply claiming that they hadn’t sent any information to the Foundationists at all. Jean could tell there was more to the story, even while being very suspicious that Alistair wasn’t totally truthful himself. 

And while Fred could probably shed more light on things given enough time for analysis, time was the one thing they didn’t have right now. The two feuding team members, and the question of their reliability, would have to be put aside for the moment in favor of more important things. With any luck, maybe Hera could sort them out when she came back. But if she was going to come back at all, someone had to break her out of the hands of the Foundationists.

And right now the only someones available to do it were Jean and Fred.

Read Chapter 7 of Hera of Lexington.

For news and new story notifications sign up for my newsletter

  or follow me on MastodonTwitter, or Facebook