Without saying a word Akron moves to the tablet and taps it, closing files in rapid succession. The wall screen dissolves to black. He heads past me towards the mirrored wall at the end of the corridor.
I follow him out—ignoring my ugly, hulking reflection in the wall of mirrors—into an elegant apartment, graced by an arrangement of beautiful, stunning pieces of furniture, placed across the hardwood floor as though without thought. Hovering near a white leather sofa suite and an enormous glass coffee table—its surface almost entirely covered with piles of the rarest of all things: hardcover books from a world long gone—a white leather chair in the shape of an egg. A memory triggers. The only other place I had seen that piece was at the design museum during a culture training trip to Alpha III, where I learned it was worth a fortune—more than ten years my annual earnings including bonuses, and I do alright. One chair. Ten years income. I start to get the feeling I'm not anywhere near the barracks of Omega V.
We pass a fully equipped kitchen in gleaming white, its counter sporting a spotless chrome unit I recall makes special kinds of coffees. I saw this one at the museum, too. A Gaggia, from Italy. For as long as I can remember, coffee everywhere is made from freeze-dried chemicals to taste like coffee. But this machine—the curator spent a lot of time telling us how it used to work—it made coffee from beans it had ground only moments before, so I know it's useless. There are no more coffee beans. I would know; I used the black market enough.
On the immaculate island, pears, ripe and ready to eat perch in a metal basket shaped in a pattern of flower petals. It looks designer, expensive, and rare. An item like that—made just for fruit, in a world like ours. It's obnoxious. I glance at Akron to see if he is watching me. He's not, his eyes are straight ahead, fixed on a pair of closed walnut doors, offset by an antique mahogany baby grand piano on one side and a fully stocked bar on the other. I take a pear from the top of the heap and bite into it. Its grainy texture melts in my mouth and soft, sweet, almost vanilla-like juices run down my throat. I have never tasted such a perfect fruit in my life, I groan in pleasure. Akron glances back. A look of revulsion crosses his face.
'What a waste,' he mutters.
I shrug, defiant, and bite into the pear again, loud, chewing it with my mouth open just to piss him off.
Opposite the open-plan kitchen, a vast slab of a birch table surrounded by a variety of chairs—all of them arty and unique—overlooks a vista of a rugged, rocky terrain sloping down to a stormy, grey sea. Towering pines bend in the rough wind, and a gust of snowy wind hurtles past the windows, buffeting the trees.
I slow. Hanging over the table: a copper-tinted metallic lamp, its pieces arranged in the shape of an artichoke. Very, very expensive, and extremely rare. This piece I know, because I fell in love with it at the museum. It's the famous Artichoke lamp by Poul Henningsen, or PH as he was later called. I bought a postcard from the museum shop of an artful photo of it and hung it in my locker to remind me we weren't always monsters. Once, before we had fucked up the world, we had had art and beauty. We had had time to make lamps that looked like an artichoke, so perfect it could only be called art. The curator mentioned there were only fifty intact Artichoke lamps left in the world, and only ten in pristine condition, the rest lost to the upheavals and wars during the mass climate migrations. Now I am certain. I am definitely not in Omega V. I suck the last of the pear's flesh and juice from its core and toss it into a silver dish on top of the bar. Akron stops at the double doors. The wood is solid. Not veneered. Of course. He turns to me.
'I think I should warn you, we aren't in Omega V.'
'No shit,' I say and glance meaningfully at the lamp. Only nine others exist in that condition, including the one in the museum.
'We brought you here from the Bunker at Omega V while you were in stasis mode.'
'Stasis,' I repeat, bitter, trying and failing to avoid thinking of the metallic things roiling inside me, and my lack of genitalia. I press my revulsion down, promising myself I will deal with my situation later when I have more intel. A lifetime of military discipline redirects my focus and I become aware of pear juice on my fingers. I rub them against my trousers. I would have rather licked the juice off them but I can't bring myself to do it in front of Akron. I ate a pear, my first one in twenty years, and it was beautiful. It's enough. Also, I catch the thinning of Akron's lips as I do it, marking the waste, and a thrill of satisfaction ripples through me. Worth it.
'And 'here' is?' I prompt into the disapproving silence.
'You've been brought to Alpha VII,' Akron answers, watching me for a reaction. I give him none. He tilts his head toward the apartment's interior. 'This is—was—Henrik's home.'
I glance around, my interest deepening. I'm certain now, whatever the executive order has financed me into, I'm worth a lot. Much more than Akron is letting on. Alpha VII is for the elite of the elite—even Akron isn't good enough to be here. I realise he's only here because of me, to debrief me as my commanding officer. I keep my expression bland. 'It's been sixteen years since Henrik disappeared. I'm surprised they didn't give this place to someone else.'
'A-Seven has been maintaining it in case he turned up again,' Akron says, but he looks away, feigning interest in the visual of the Nordic snowstorm sweeping past the dining area. A white-capped wave breaks against the rocky shore. It's beautiful. Envy slices into me. Life isn't bad in Omega V, but it's nothing like this. This is a whole other thing, and compared to the exclusion zones, like the one where I found Blue, this is a fantasy. My heart clenches, regret, then remorse strike me in quick succession. No, not Blue. Cassandra. The Oracle. The one who drugged me, learned about my next mission, and kissed me goodbye, knowing all my men would die.
'Given the recent developments, this property has now come under the jurisdiction of A-Seven's authority. It has been reserved for a new resident.' He looks back at me, bland. 'Cassandra Vallis.'
I blink. 'I don't understand.' I say, and mean it. He just convinced me she is the enemy; the reason all my men died, and now she gets a free ticket into Alpha VII? It makes no sense.
Akron smiles, close-lipped, tight. He nods at the closed doors. 'Until Genesis II goes live, this will be where she will stay. She doesn't get past these doors. The whole floor has been secured for mission purposes.'
'But why here and not back at headquarters at O-Five?' I ask.
'Because Genesis II is here. And there are too many other players looking for her, lower down the chain. There is too much risk she might taken out from under our noses. Orders are to get her here, alive, using deep covert.' He lifts his hand, stopping me from asking whose orders. 'A-Seven calls the shots now. I am the only officer outside of A-Seven who knows about Vallis and her connection to Genesis II.'
'And you know all this because—?' I ask, but feel like I am starting to see the picture, at least the outline of it.
'Because of your memories,' Akron says, flat. 'As your CO, I have to read them and submit a report. Elites were in my office within ten minutes of me seeing Vallis. You know they can see everything in our systems. Facial recognition caught it.'
'So you're a security risk now?' I scoff.
He doesn't meet my eyes. 'I've been reassigned.'
'For now, debriefing you,' he says, and opens the door. Two Elites—A-Seven's private military personnel, the majority of them repurposed from what was left of Israel's Defense Force—sit at a glass smartdesk in a wide, plush-carpeted, neutral-toned corridor, the desk's surface covered with screens flicking from one image to another. Both men wear wireless earpieces. I lean forward, discreet, to see what's on the screens. Upside-down views of the interior of Henrik's apartment scroll past: the bedroom where I woke up, the toilets, the showers, the kitchen, dining room, another bedroom, behind the bar, the front door, everywhere. I'm certain they have listened to our entire conversation.
Akron salutes them. I don't, determined to exploit what few perks there are of being a machine. Without looking up, one of the Elites slides from his seat, turns his back to us and walks down the corridor, ignoring us. Akron's humiliation is tangible. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Outside of A-Seven, he's someone, but in here, he's nothing. Just like me. One point for the droid. I follow after Akron and our black-bereted escort.
'What happened to Genesis I?' I ask, low.
Akron glances at me. 'They ran out of time, had to scrap it,' he whispers.
'Time to do what?'
'To set up a colony on Mars,' Akron answers, wary, his eyes on our escort's back.
'What do you mean ran out of time?' I ask, tight.
He says nothing. Instead he jerks his head, terse, at our escort who pauses at another smartdesk where a pair of black-fatigued Elites sit outside the double doors of the only other apartment on the floor. The number twelve glows in white on a glass panel by the door. The men exchange several sentences in Hebrew. Our escort departs, his eyes hard. I catch the translucent silver shimmer of an iris overlay, and realise he's reading data embedded in the corridor we can't see. He brushes past us as though we don't exist. And maybe we don't. I'm officially dead. I wonder if Akron's status has changed, too. The thought makes me uneasy. I'm used to covert ops, and high clearance missions, but this mission—whatever the whole of it is—has a whole other feel to it. It feels dark, dangerous, and stinks of deception. I sense I'm close to the real power on Earth and I don't like it.
One of the Elites goes to the panel by the door, enters a code, then presses his thumbprint against the screen. The doors unlock with a quiet click. He opens one of them, and steps back. Inside, an apartment similar in layout to Henrik's, transformed into a dark cave, lit by the light of more than four dozen glass screens.
In the middle of the room, a conference table. Desks, screens, and tech occupy the apartment's perimeter. The stink of stale coffee hits me. Several operators sit at desks, typing on the glass interfaces, the glow of the screens bathing their profiles in ghastly greens, whites, and blues. They look exhausted. Several are chewing gum. I'm willing to bet the gum is laced with amphetamines. So this is mission control. I'm going to get strung out guys for base support. Not a good start.
'You'll be debriefed by someone who has higher clearance than me.' Akron stops at the door. 'I have orders to wait here.' He backs up several steps and stands at ease, his hands clasped behind his back. I pause. This feels wrong. He's my CO. He tilts his head at the open door, a look of warning in his eyes.
The Elite behind me is giving off a hostile vibe. I sense him willing me to hurry up. I go in. As the door closes behind me, I glance back, but Akron is looking the other way, his gaze distant, blank, neutral, like he doesn't care, but I know he does. I have a feeling my worst suspicions are right. He will never go back to O-Five. His career is over. Guilt washes through me. Was it not enough my men died? I turn and prepare to face the music, the taste of pear sour in my mouth.