Helionox: Chronicles

By T. M. Romanelli

The final leg of the high velocity transit skimmed the outer magnetosphere of Jupiter, the escalating centripetal forces making the ship’s hull vibrate. The passengers didn’t complain, cocooned in their cryotubes deep within the vessel’s infirmary. Monitors surrounded each station, displaying vital signs and controlling hydrostatic infusions that prevented fatal complications from sustained high-G maneuvers. The flight crew did not have the luxury of cryosleep, but stim implants suppressed the disorientation and the insulated drivesuits contained pneumatic bladders that kneaded the abdomen and lower extremities to direct blood flow towards the brain and other vital organs. 

The Nazarene was one of the newest generation system cruisers operated by the Interworld Governments. Departing from Luna, the ship engaged the orbiting gravitic sling that would hurl the vessel at maximal sub-light speed towards a Jovian rendezvous. Arriving at the distant edge of the gas giant’s gravity well weeks later, the telemetric engineer conducted an aero-braking maneuver to shed momentum as they made the final approach to the smallest of the Galilean moons.

By the time the Nazarene had achieved a geosynchronous position above Tyre, the large, automated mining complex on Europa, the delegation was already emerging from cryosleep under the watchful eye of the flight surgeon. Ambassador Macallan conferred with the ship’s Commander and followed the officer’s tactical analysis across several screens and the central holographic display. The Ambassador was anxious to complete their surface descent within the hour. 

“Scans show no other vessels in orbit and there are ten satellites stationed at teir programmed altitudes,” the ship’s Commmander reported. “The autonomous mining rigs are operating in their assigned sectors. No unusual surface activity. At our current altitude it will be a quick trip by shuttle to the central docking bay- and an equally rapid extraction if the meeting does not go as planned.”

Macallan shifted in his form-fitting utility suit as he absorbed the Commander’s remarks, peering at the CIC displays that showed a multi-spectral view of Europa’s frozen surface. A network of lineae stretched irregularly towards the moon’s terminator, created by tidal flexing under the shadow of Jupiter. The monitors filtered the intense glare, which would have been uncomfortable on the naked eye. Tyre was built into one of the thickest layers of ice that covered the Jovian-facing hemisphere, and its reflective properties made Europa one of the brightest moons in the system. He saw smoke-like wisps ascending from the surface of a distant ice shelf. The cryogeyser eruption glittered as the ejected sub-surface water instantly sublimated in the negligible atmosphere. 

The Ambassador was approaching the boundaries of middle age, but he remained trim and fit by observing the routines of his prior military service. He used a tight crew cut to tame his dark hair, now seeded with grey, which prioritized hygiene over style in reduced gravity environments. A thin scar stretched from his eyebrow, blending in with the crow’s feet that failed to trouble his vanity. Quietly handsome, Macallan’s lean physique, military bearing and wry wit lent him a gravitas that was undeniably useful for a member of the Interworld Governments Diplomatic Corps. 

A former military intelligence officer and decorated veteran of operations on Mars, Ceres and Titan, the Council had noticed his talents and recruited him. Keen analytical skills afforded his employers the benefits of strategic planning. Periodically called upon to resolve the indiscretions of those loyal to the Council, he had gained a reputation for decisive action.  His training proved useful as he created of a network of contacts across the system that spanned many socioeconomic and political circles. The passing years saw statesmen, senior officers, criminals and even some religious figures come to owe him significant favors. Under his guidance, diverse groups did business and trusted him to endorse their transactions both legal and otherwise. Macallan was a broker, fixer and mixer. In due time, he became an influential advisor and was privy to many of the Council’s sensitive affairs.

Despite his authority, he remained anxious about the current mission.

“I’ll depart shortly with the Inspector. Track our beacons and stand ready with the assault team if they don’t cooperate,” Macallan instructed. “If all goes well, I’ll inform the Elders that we’ve taken possession of the Citadel.”

“The security detail will escort you at all times, Sir. Council’s orders,” the Commander replied. “We’ll remain in alert status until your return. Commodore Fontaine’s squadron will arrive in ten hours. We are equipped with penetrating warheads capable of destroying any sub-surface structures.”

Macallan considered this for a moment. “Don’t be hasty, Captain. Your initiative will not be rewarded if your actions damage what lies beneath the permafrost.”

“Sir, there is only a rudimentary satellite grid and no defensive emplacements on the surface. They’re not in a position to negotiate or make-”

“They have demonstrated their resourcefulness everytime,” Macallan interrupted. “Do you think the Council would have approached them with this project if they were incapable of completing it? Do not underestimate them, Commander. They never would have come here to this God forsaken place if it weren’t defensible.”

Macallan remembered the discussion that surrounded this assignment. Whatever the event was that had forced the Council to advance their timetable was not shared, but he sensed the urgency among the members during his briefing. He advised against this course of action for a number of reasons, but their ruthless pragmatism had been subverted by desperation. Confident in their power, the Elders were no longer interested in collaborating with their silent partner. In the end, he accepted the task because he had no choice- his refusal would have triggered an early and fatal retirement. 

A junior officer glided over to the central bridge console. “Commander, the shuttle is prepped and awaiting the Ambassador in the starboard hangar.”

“Very good,” replied the ship’s senior officer. “We’ll continue to monitor your progress, Mr. Ambassador.”

“Remember who you’re talking to. I’m sure you’ve been briefed that the Inspector and I are expendable,” Macallan said. He waited for the officer’s denial but there was none. “Just do your job, Commander.”

Exiting through the main hatch, he launched himself down the passageway towards the ship’s midsection. Although Luna had endemic problems with crime, water shortages and the episodic wave of mass hysteria, he still preferred the chaos of his home to the bleak landscape below. He did not want the burden of the security detail, since their presence complicated his planned exchange with the individual that waited below. The details about how they had established their relationship with the Elders were rarely spoken of, but most of them involved violence. No one even knew their real name, so they used the alias reported by a mole within the Martian syndicate.

The Ambassador secured his harness in the cramped confines of the shuttle as the pilot completed the pre-drop checklist. The Inspector was seated next to him, his eyes closed and lips moving in silent prayer. The security team squeezed into the aft compartment as the pilot announced they were ready for the drop.

“Good to go,” Macallan answered through his headset. “Let’s not keep The Duchess waiting.”


The descent from orbit was turbulent but mercifully brief. Their shuttle settled onto the landing platform, sending a vapor plume up and over the surrounding blast walls. Visible through narrow viewports, the control tower was the tallest structure of the surface facility that spread a few hundred square meters across the ice sheet. The sturdy, pressurized sleeve extended from the central dome and mated with the shuttle’s starboard aperture. A replicant, clad in a plastene carapace and speaking Old World Standard, escorted them from the airlock into a service elevator that descended rapidly through the central spindle of the habitat. Tyre was built almost two kilometers beneath the surface in a massive spherical pocket carved out of the permafrost. One hundred thousand metric tons of ice shielded the station from the cosmic radiation that scoured Europa’s surface. An enormous cylindrical structure, it spun on its long axis to simulate gravity within the external rings. The remaining volume of the pocket was flooded with water siphoned from the vast sub-surface ocean, which cooled the radiant arms of the fusion plant that provided power to the entire complex. 

Macallan’s ears popped as the pressure equilibrated, and the elevator came to a stop. An armored portal opened and they entered a large, circular chamber with three rows of seats that functioned like the Nazarene’s acceleration couches. The replicant confirmed that the visitors had secured themselves and then positioned itself at the control station. A high-pitched tone sounded and the entire structure began moving slowly. They descended towards the outer ring of the habitat on a funicular, and the couches provided welcome support as simulated gravity exerted itself on bodies accustomed to space flight. The tone repeated several minutes later when the tram had reached its destination. Macallan, the Inspector and four Sentinels disembarked carefully and stepped out into a massive atrium, leaving the replicant behind.

The floor was polished stone, veined with pale grey striations, and possessed a subtle curve as it stretched between featureless, white walls. Fluted columns supported an arching canopy that bathed the space with a diffuse light. Automatons were positioned at intervals along the Great Hall, imitating an honor guard armed with ceremonial staffs like legionnaires of the old world. Beyond the foyer was an open area that contained a small dais. Standing in the center of the platform was a pale figure that wore a sleeveless gray top and a darker, deeply pleated hakama. Their eyes were the color of the failing star that continued to create so much misery among the system’s inhabitants. A mural occupied the entirety of the wall behind them, an artistic rendering of Sol in muted orange and yellow pigments, conveying a benevolence that had lapsed long ago. The low thrum of distant machinery permeated the room.

Macallan approached slowly and stopped by the bottom step. There was much at stake, and he predicted the odds were against him. Meticulous planning and some measure of luck would have to be sufficient, because there was simply no more time. He presumed the security team and the Nazarene’s Commander would be monitoring the  conversation, so he would try to be circumspect with his language. Experience allowed him to keep a steady voice, even though his pulse was racing.

“I’m Geoffrey Macallan, Special Envoy of the Executive Council for the Interworld Governments. I am accompanied by Ibn al Saud, an Inspector with the Defense Ministry.” The olive-skinned official behind the Ambassador did not speak but bowed slightly. “The Council expects your compliance with our inspection.”

He addressed the solitary figure that stood in the center of the dais. Although medical advances offered reliable and relatively inexpensive gender-morphing, language migrated more slowly throughout the many cultures and dialects within the system. What was an acceptable form of address to some was offensive to others, and even these terms oscillated in a manner that made it difficult to remain current with all customs spread across the administration of the Interworld Governments. Evolved “biologicals” like The Duchess were a special case, as the absence of reproductive organs and their androgenous external features often provoked incorrect social cues. The Manual of Linguistic Standards endorsed the application of “they” as a universal pronoun where cultural uncertainties were encountered.

They stood silent and looked at him, unblinking. The uniform fabric contrasted sharply against pallid, synthetic skin, and subtle articulations could be seen where the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints had been replaced with cybernetic enhancements. The hands were slightly over-sized, with smooth, multi-jointed fingers that tapered to a sharp point and the open neckline of their blouse revealed several blue-tinged markings that indicated a network of sub-dermal implants. Short and bleached white, the artificial hair was neatly coiled into an angled knot-top decorated with a strand of beaded cabling. The conversion had effectively masked any of The Duchess’ residual humanity, leaving behind a ghostly aura that made the ambassador suppress a shiver.

The dossier stated the agent had served the Council for several years, conducting acts of extortion, sabotage and assassination to advance the Elders’ various agendas. The Duchess was a simulant- an evolved biological that had committed to total synthetic conversion through the use of advanced neuromodulation. The process was brutal and not without complications, as small errors during the final cortex mirroring could result in memory deficits and a destabilized personality. Rarely, a miniscule flaw proliferated into systemic corruption and episodic psychosis. It was rumored that the Kombine, Vesta’s reclusive community of cybernetic entities, had broken ties with the simulant because their aggression was too extreme even for the collective.

Macallan suspected that The Duchess’ reputation for extreme violence was not the result of clinical pathological, but rather a deliberate, personal choice.

He glanced down and saw their bare feet, which were covered in markings more intricate than those on the torso- specialized implants that distributed power to the synmuscle bundles of their custom chassis for enhanced mobility and ballistic protection. Like many Simulants, The Duchess had an androgynous appearance, and it was presumed that any social exchanges would be guided by a perspective that was firmly agendered and asexual. Macallan fleetingly considered a philosophical question with profound implications.

Could the conversion process recreate the human soul?

“I was required to bring a small security detail,” Macallan briefly pointed towards the Sentinels who had flanked the group in a way that did not inhibit the potential for close-quarters engagement. They were clad in black reactive armor and tactical harnesses, with heavy carbines slung across their chests. Combat rebreathers covered the lower face while the eyes were hidden behind mirrored targeting lenses. “Their presence is meant to be a formality.”

The Duchess seemed to accept this explanation. Despite the mass of their cybernetic body they padded silently down the steps towards Macallan and stood in front of him. They were slightly taller, even without shoes, and a vague but pleasant scent filled the air between them. Whether it was perfume or artificial pheromones, he couldn’t really say.

“Perhaps the time for aliases has passed,” Macallan began. “Will you tell me your real name?”

“No,” they answered. “However, it should be obvious that the inferred nobility is no more genuine than the diplomatic credentials the rank of ambassador confers upon you.”

“I respect the need for discretion,” he conceded. “And you’re correct that my title does not really describe the scope of my responsibilities, even though I wield considerable authority. The Council has sent my team to examine the project.”

“The Inspector is here to audit the progress of the construction,” stated The Duchess. “But you have been tasked possession of the vessel. That is the real reason why the Sentinels are here.”

Macallan nodded, because there was no point in lying to them. “I would have preferred to come alone, but the Council was uncertain about your cooperation. It’s also necessary to inform you that my ship is equipped with a ballistic package that will prevent any… unauthorized departure.”

“That was not the arrangement the Council agreed upon.”

“I was not made aware of those details,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll be given a chance to discuss more favorable terms. Shall we begin?”

The Duchess slowly turned and pointed. There was a brief flicker and the entire dais transformed into a holographic projector. It displayed a large gantry with hundreds of industrial drones that traversed the length of the ship under construction. The image then began to slowly rotate, allowing them to see the shipyard from different perspectives. The fuselage had a dumb-bell shape with a propulsion cluster at its base, a thick spine that housed geodesic cargo pods and a cylindrical superstructure that contained the crew quarters and life-support apparatus. When the image zoomed out to reveal the vessel’s true scale, Macallan could see that the shipyard occupied another spherical cavity that was larger than Tyre itself. 

“Please provide my colleague with the current technical specifications in a usable format,” he instructed. The Duchess carefully removed a data cube from their waist pocket and offered it to Ibn al Saud. He took the device, connected its adapter and then fitted a visor over his eyes. The cube began to pulse with multi-colored lights as the Inspector stood there, manipulating the data stream with haptic gloves, oblivious to his surroundings and everyone.

“I’ll also need your command protocols, security codes and overrides,” Macallan said somewhat apologetically, as the Sentinels readied their weapons. He disliked the theatrics and preferred persuasion to coercion, were unnecessary, but the Sentinels only obeyed the Council’s orders. The Duchess produced another cube, one with a glossy obsidian finish that reflected the Ambassador’s features as he examined the object. He passed it to one of the Sentinels. 

“The ship is an impressive accomplishment,” Macallan stated. “But I think an orbital depot would have been more efficient.”

“Orbital assembly would have been advantageous, but secrecy was prioritized to complete the project,” they said. “I could not permit the masses of fleeing refugees or even one of the Architects to interfere with the schedule. The threat of sabotage or theft was too great. The entire process was automated, performed underneath Europa’s permafrost to shield it from those desperate to escape at all costs.”

“And how were you going to launch it?”

“In the final sequence, a sleeve will be erected around the vessel before the entire cavity is pressurized with super-heated steam from the station reactor,” they explained. “The gradient will impart enough momentum for the vessel to crack any remaining surface ice and clear the gantry before ascension thrusters fire to reach orbit. The maritime forces that patrolled Old Earth’s oceans hundreds of years ago used this technique to launch their ballistic ordinance.”

“Remarkable. I’m sure the Council’s engineers will appreciate your efforts when they arrive to take possession of the Citadel.”

Citadel. Such an arrogant name,” The Duchess observed, with a tone of disapproval. “The object of my considerable labor is worthy of a more proper title.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” Ibn al Saud announced loudly to no one in particular. He removed his visor and looked at The Duchess, then the Ambassador. He appeared slightly disoriented. “I don’t understand. The specifications…”

“What’s the problem?” Macallan asked, suddenly concerned.

“The schematics have been altered. The medical bays and some of the interior configurations are different. And there’s something else,” al Saud added. “The vessel’s name is incorrect. It’s not the Citadel.”

Macallan looked at The Duchess, and realized how badly the Council had misjudged their capabilities. Perhaps they never intended to honor their arrangement with the Elders. There would be a great deal of violence soon. And blood.

“Get back, al Saud!” he yelled at the Inspector. Then he turned towards the security detail. “Stand down! Do not engage! Do not-”

Two of the Sentinels immediately opened fire as The Duchess leapt away. Several high-velocity tungsten rounds struck center mass but had no effect. Macallan tried to follow the speed of the fighting. The black cube held by the Sentinel closest to the Inspector detonated, destroying most of its arm, chest and faceplate. Al Saud was enveloped in the blast and died instantly. The Sentinels kept firing in short, staccato bursts, shredding the clothes from The Duchess’ armored body. Macallan caught glimpses of them dodging among the columns, his shouted orders for the team to cease-fire were to no avail. He tried to contact the Nazarene but only heard the hissing static of frequency jamming. He wondered if the ship’s Commander had already fired the missiles meant to destroy the facility.

The Duchess engaged the Sentinels while one of them was reloading, carving through the armored skins with a blur of ceramite blades in a melee that was quick and decisive. The last Sentinel continued to fire upon the target while advancing. The Duchess brushed off direct hits at point-blank range and raised their arm. There was a sharp pneumatic hiss as they launched the tip of their thumb towards their attacker. The digit flew above the Sentinel as The Duchess whipped their arm in a wide, circular motion that ensnared the combatant’s upper torso in nanowire. 

The monofilament line constricted, creating a web of deep gashes that penetrated armor, enhanced muscle bundles and the reinforced endoskeleton as the soldier struggled futilely in its final moments. The Sentinel collapsed to the floor in jagged pieces, coolant and other fluids spreading across the stone floor. The wire was automatically reeled back, pulling the thumb tip free of the remains until it returned to its original position on the simulant’s hand.

The Duchess surveyed the carnage before locking eyes with the Ambassador. 

They moved slowly towards him, shedding the remnants of the uniform that clung to their body, leaving behind little piles of tattered cloth that marked their path. He now saw their naked form- a mosaic of sub-dermal implants, vestigial breast tissue without areola and the absence of external genitalia. The Duchess was an apex predator, exuding raw power and radiant in the exquisite violence of their will.

The Ambassador carried no weapons, for he had presumed that The Duchess had already prepared for the Council’s inevitable betrayal, but he did not consider himself defenseless. His death came closer, and yet he retained a measured composure earned from his harsh experiences on battlefields too numerous to count. Macallan had come too far and risked too much to spoil this moment with a display of weakness. 

“And now that the ‘formalities’ have been duly observed, perhaps we can have a productive conversation,” he said with confidence. “Unfortunately, the Nazarene’s Commander has been monitoring our exchange. The jamming may have prompted him to contact the Council for further orders, but he won’t wait much longer to fire upon this base. You have to destroy the Nazarene.”

The Duchess stood at arm’s length, ready for a killing blow. They stared at the Ambassador, and then withdrew several steps. 

“Monitor,” they called out, and a screen emerged from a nearby wall. The Nazarene was displayed just off-center, surrounded by a halo of changing numbers and symbols. The crystal-clear image originated from a high altitude targeting optic. An inset window showed one of the surveyors that orbited Europa. “Defense platform three, reconfigure for intercept. Acquire target. Engage and destroy.”

As they watched the screen, the satellite suddenly dispersed into a mass of small, identical objects. A dozen of them flashed red and disappeared from the display. When Macallan looked again, all that was left of the cruiser was an expanding cloud of irregular debris. He had served during the Martian Insurrection, and recognized the signature of hyper-velocity kinetic weapons. The remaining warheads consolidated back into their satellite form, an impressive display of weaponized mimicry. He would have spared the ship and its crew, but the Commander’s loyalties to the Council had sealed their collective fate.

“You ordered the Sentinels to cease fire,” The Duchess said. “Why?”

“I never had direct command over them, but it was worth a try,” Macallan answered. “The Council ordered your assassination. If the Inspector found the vessel was free of sabotage, I had hoped I could persuade the Elders that your skills were essential. But then I realized that you would almost certainly betray them before they did the same to you. Well played.”

“I do not require your assistance.”

“Actually, you do,” he countered. The Duchess contemplated this statement, and recognizing the hazards of imperfect information, gestured for him to continue.

The solar instability had wrought terrible changes throughout the system, overwhelming the resources of the Interworld Governments. The Helionox held no regard for politics, wealth or beliefs. Faced with the possibility of an extinction-level event, the Elders had positioned themselves for deliverance while the member worlds inexorably perished. Although the Council never revealed its plans to Macallan, he correctly surmised that an evacuation ship was being constructed in orbit around Deimos. None of them had foreseen how disease, famine and water shortages would accelerate the civil unrest that fomented the Martian rebellion, nor the subsequent fighting that spread beyond the red planet to destroy the shipyard.

Following this material loss, Macallan had been directed by the Council to procure a piece of illegal technology from his contacts within the Mercurian Diaspora. When he learned about the unique capabilities of the device, he realized that the Elders had commissioned another starship. The assembly site was a closely held secret, known only to the Elders and the individual that would coordinate the project. Without exposing his own covert inquiries, Macallan discovered his superiors had struck a deal with The Duchess.

Employing his considerable skill in penetrating secured networks, Macallan leveraged a weakness in the navigation algorithms of Europa’s mobile mining platforms to introduce a virtual scripter. The AI program infiltrated the station’s core server and accessed material inventories, delivery schedules and engineering schematics. The construct was unlike anything he had ever seen. Only when he determined how the vessel would be merged with Mercurian tech did he appreciate the audacity and brilliance of the Elders’ master plan. 

Then he made a plan of his own. 

The Duchess listened, but their expression revealed nothing. “An impressive but non-specific fiction. I am not persuaded by your elaborate bluffing.”

“The ark is equipped with a Chasm Jumper,” he said, and The Duchess froze. 

“The Council relied on your technical expertise to build a vessel capable of interstellar transits, but it was my job to acquire the key engine components. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but my contact explained that it’s a ‘displacement drive’ capable of navigating through the subspace architecture. The vessel could easily travel beyond the light of Sol, out of reach of the Helionox.”

“I will not confirm or deny any of your claims, but there is no compelling reason for me not to kill you.”

“The Council needed you, but never really trusted you. They withheld the Jumper’s control module. Perhaps you hoped I was delivering it, but that honor was given to Commodore Fontaine. His squadron will arrive in less than ten hours, and won’t be deterred by your satellites. He will neutralize your defense grid then eradicate us with a railgun penetrator round. Your options are limited- kill me now or wait a short while to die together. However, there is an alternative.”

Several moments passed while each assessed the other, seeking a means to evade the realities of their dire circumstances. The simulant weighed the results of the Ambassador’s death, assigning probabilistic values to the varied outcomes based on whether or not he was lying. As for Macallan, he had gambled that The Duchess’ analytical curiosity and self-preservation was enough to consider an alliance. 

“State your proposal.”

Encouraged by this invitation, the Ambassador outlined his scheme, disclosing every detail to The Duchess. Macallan saw a different future than the one the Council had tried to create for itself, and he had decided to exploit the Elders’ initiative by stealing their vessel. He quietly sought out potential accomplices amongst his most trusted allies and even some sworn enemies of the Council. There were only a few with whom he could fully share the nature of his plans, but they all agreed to assist him. 

A battle group loyal to Admiral Atsuko Mai, an accomplished strategist and experienced combatant, would intercept the Commodore’s squadron and then rally at Europa to provide a screen from further interference. One of Macallan’s underground contacts was already enroute with a group of technicians that would finish prepping the vessel for orbital ascent. Veil was a Mercurian refugee, and a black marketeer, but she possessed an auxiliary control module to activate the Chasm Jumper. She was his source for the illegal tech that was an essential feature of the Council’s plan. The small fleet of deserters would travel together to a hidden outpost near the Kuiper Belt operated by Tiberius, a former Fleet officer now turned pirate. Once there, final preparations of the vessel could be completed for the next, great leap beyond the fading aura of Sol. If all went well, it could be a new beginning for humanity.

“The plan will work, if I can fill the missing piece of it,” Macallan finished. “You are that missing piece. We need your knowledge of the vessel and its systems, just like you need us to finish the Jumper. Each is useless without the other. If I can’t convince you to join us, we’ll all fail.”

The Duchess stood there quietly, looking at something he could not see. They seemed lost in thought, and for a moment Macallan believed he saw the remnants of the human they had once been. When they looked back, their demeanor had changed, and they gazed at him as if they were seeing him for the first time. 

“A convergence,” they said. “The integration of disparate elements into a unified form, creating order from chaos. You are attempting to orchestrate a convergence among the Architects.”

“It has proven to be more difficult than I ever expected,” he replied. “But it’s the only chance any of us have. The choice is simple- work together, or die alone.”

“I did not think such a union would be possible,” The Duchess stated, admiring the audacity of Macallan’s efforts while still remaining skeptical of such a complex dependency. “The others agreed to this arrangement?”

“It didn’t happen all at once, if that’s what you mean. I had to be very discreet about who I approached and how much I could share with them at first. There are still some challenges- I’ll have to temper some egos and mediate a few unavoidable arguments. The alliance I’ve built is delicate, and incomplete without you. I wouldn’t go as far to call them all friends, but yes, they agreed to help each other.”

Macallan told her about the extensive groundwork that he had laid to bring his grand design to fruition. There were many variables, and he was forced to alter his plans innumerable times. Finally, all of the people and resources were in place. He manipulated the Council to send him on this mission, but the true objective had always been to contact The Duchess directly and recruit them to a common cause. There were still many obstacles to overcome, and no guarantee of success. It would be a leap of faith.

The Duchess considered the proposal in silence, and then they said, “I accept.”

Macallan breathed a sigh of relief, and managed to express his gratitude without sounding desperate. “We have a lot to discuss before the others arrive. And a tremendous amount of work to be done before the four Architects are ready to-”


“I’m sorry?” he asked, not hiding his confusion. “There’s only four of you.”

“No, Mr. Macallan,” The Duchess replied, showing him a genuine smile. “There are five of us. The events that you alone have set into motion have provided an opportunity to explore a joint future. Although our collective success or failure has yet to be determined, you have created a unity of purpose where there was only discord. Do not be modest. You are an Architect.”

They discussed logistics and the Council’s likely retaliations to punish their treason. After he sent an encrypted message to Admiral Mai, The Duchess escorted him to one of the panoramic viewing ports where they could see the vessel under construction. As he watched the drones swarm over the ship’s hull, he thought about the path that lay before them. 

“I’m just curious, of course,” Macallan said. “But if the vessel is no longer called Citadel, then what-”

Exodus,” they answered.

He could not think of a more fitting name.

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