The droid blinks. 'Capitaine Maddox,' General de Pommier says through her avatar. 'I understand Major Akron has debriefed you regarding your mission to acquire the target.' Her attention is back on the screen on the smartdesk. I sense our cosy chat time is over, it's all business now. I set my empty mug onto a nearby chair and stand at ease, my hands clasped behind my back.
'You were told the target is essential to the success of the project known as Genesis II?' she asks, tapping the smartdesk's screen, swiping left more than right.
'Excellent.' She looks up, her eyes sharp, calculating. 'However, that is not, shall we say, the whole of it.'
Why am I not surprised. I wait while she finishes scrolling through a list, swiping left at various intervals.
'What do you know of the UFF's so-called Oracle?' she asks as she closes several tabs.
'According to Delta Force intel,' I answer, crisp, 'the Oracle is capable of predicting the location and severity of major natural disasters with uncanny accuracy, disasters the UFF have exploited for their own purposes against Global Command since 2075. The first known strike was made in the same year against the Yukon space dock in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Josiah.'
General de Pommier nods. 'Accuracy of strikes to disasters since then?'
'One hundred percent, ma'am.'
'One hundred percent,' she repeats, soft. 'Thousands have died because of her—and you were sleeping with her.'
Here it comes. The stiletto. She smiles, enigmatic. 'But I am French, and I am romantic, so I like this strange story, very much.' She taps the screen. It goes dark. A few steps and she is front of the desk. She leans back and rests against the desk's glass edge. 'You see, you are unique. There was a reason you survived the transition when the other fourteen did not: You wanted to come back. For her.' She smiles again. 'Love is a powerful thing, no?'
'Was,' I answer, cold, thinking of my dead men, sprawled beside me like broken dolls.
A flick of her eyebrow. 'Be careful Capitaine Maddox,' she says, quiet. 'Not everything is as it seems. We know from your memories Cassandra wanted you to take her away with her. We had microexpression specialists read her face. It appears she was telling the truth.'
I lunge at the scrap like one of the starving dogs I fed outside Nairobi. 'Ma'am?'
General de Pommier's avatar pushes herself free of the desk. She approaches me. I keep my eyes fixed on the middle distance.
'Cassandra was born with her ability,' she says. From the corner of my eye I catch her looking me over, examining me anew, dispassionate. I feel like a lab specimen. 'We were lucky she was born into one of the families in Alpha I, and not the exclusion zone. Her ability was discovered quite by accident in 2063, when she was nine.' de Pommier's avatar turns away and paces to the opposite side of the room. 'During a lesson about the history of China, Cassandra pointed to a place on the map and told the class when there was going to be a devastating flood there, right down to the time. The teacher took note of it. It happened precisely as she predicted. Naturally, we were informed.'
I'm hanging onto the general's every word. Nascent hope flares within me. Cassandra is one of our own. She only wanted to come home. I was an out for her. I knew there was more to this. I wonder why she never told me. It would have changed everything. If I had told Command, they would have—
'She was taken by us,' the general continues, cutting into my thoughts, 'her abilities researched and honed under a team of neuroscientists. She saved so many lives. In 2070, due to her predictions, Genesis I was launched. An ambitious project. It was clear we needed to leave Earth and begin again.'
'Mars,' I breathe, recalling Akron's words about running out of time.
'Yes. Mars.' She stops pacing and sighs, resigned. 'Everything went perfectly until Command rewarded Cassandra with a residence in Alpha VII in 2073. She had the misfortune of travelling with Command's then-Brigadier General. The plane was shot down by the UFF over the exclusion zone. There were no survivors. It was . . . a terrible loss, and a devastating blow to Genesis I.'
I open my mouth to ask the question preying on my mind—how her apparent loss could affect a Mars colonization project, but the general lifts her hand. I shut my mouth.
'There is something else,' she says, and a look of discomfort crosses her features. 'I was not in the position I am in today or this never would have happened, although I did what I could to protest what was being done to her—it is part of the reason I still cannot see eye to eye with our Prime Minister. It was he who ordered the tests.'
Tests. I wait, my chest tight.
'They injected her with psychotropic drugs, and subjected her to psychic trauma among other things.' She looks away, her profile taut. 'She was only a child,' the general whispers, 'taken from her parents, forced to live in a glass room, without any comfort or privacy. Everyday, they strapped her to a table and tortured her, all in a sick quest to turn her into a weapon.'
I feel ill. I desperately want to punch something. My hands curl into fists. 'And did they?' I ask, tight.
The avatar of de Pommier nods, terse. 'They did. Once they found the right combination of drugs, she became highly susceptible to suggestion. They only needed state a location, type of disaster - say a hurricane, category 5, and within minutes, it occurred.' She shrugs, elegant. 'For three years, because of Cassandra, we kept the UFF on the back foot. For once we were not forced to fight on a hundred fronts. In the wake of his success, the Prime Minister passed a bill to end elections, ensuring he would hold absolute authority until his death. No one dared question it, not even me.'
I say nothing. A wall of black surrounds me. I always believed we were the good guys—now doubt plagues me. I think of the targets I have neutralised. How they begged for mercy. I blank it out. Not now.
'But in all these tests, they found something else—she could also create other things. Cloud cover, rain, lightning,' she pauses and catches my eye, 'perfect for terraforming a planet.'
And there it is. The real reason I am bringing her back, to finish what was begun in 2070.
'So her retrieval has nothing to do with Genesis II,' I say, the pieces falling together, neat, like I prefer them, even though the picture is ugly. 'Major Akron has been given incorrect intel.'
'It is unfortunate the Major was caught up in this.' The general's avatar sighs again. She rubs her slim fingers across her eyebrows. 'A difficult situation. But we must think of our survival. In circumstances such as these there is bound to be collateral damage.'
'I want him on my support team,' I say, desperate to buy him time. 'I need someone I can trust sitting at those screens when I go looking for her. Not those jacked-up technicians you have out there.'
'Those technicians are the cream of the Elite's intelligence forces,' she says, a hint of rebuke in her tone. 'He will be in the way.'
I hold her eyes, and my ground, stubborn.
'Genesis I's reactivation is above the Major's clearance,' she continues. 'If he becomes compromised there will be nothing I can do to protect him.'
'He won't find out.'
'Capitaine Maddox,' the avatar's eyes bore into mine, 'only one thousand people are destined for Mars. There are no exceptions. Imagine the riots we would face if people knew they were going to be left behind on a dying planet?'
'Like the ones in 2048 when we split society into haves and have-nothings?' I say without thinking. I catch her oblique look. 'Ma'am.' I duck my head, hoping she will let it slide. She does. She goes back to the desk and taps the screen. It flares back to life, dozens of blinking messages jockey for her attention.
'You may be surprised to know I am not on the list.' She glances up from the screen, its white light highlighting her smooth, even features. 'My skills will be of no use to a new human colony. So I will die here, too, as will my husband and my daughter. However, I am determined to dispatch my duty with integrity and honour.'
A surge of respect hurtles through me. 'When do I leave?'
'As soon as you can be ready. Anything you need, it will be yours.'
'Ma'am.' I salute her and turn to leave.
'Ah, one more thing.'
'You will go in alone. You have one chance. Do not fail me.' She looks back down to the screen, her fingers moving, swift over its interface. 'And do not deviate from the plan. We can shut you down just like this.' She snaps her fingers, the sound sharp and abrasive in the harsh, metal and glass-clad room. She looks up at me and tilts her head at the door. 'You are dismissed.'
Her eyes dull and the droid stiffens. I think that could be me, next. It won't happen. I'll get Blue for them, but after that, we'll see.