The MIC’s nerve center was known as the Imperial Citadel. An armored metropolis composed of technological buildings and steel towers, some so high they touched the clouds; surveillance posts armed with laser cannons; elevated highways that meandered the city, and dozens of satellite dishes that looked up the sky, like gray sunflowers in search of the star. It had heliports and airports, and an outer circuit of radio-transmission and radar antennas: Rows and rows of metal posts, four times larger than any other imperialist facility.
In the Imperial Citadel, there was no time of day when the movement wasn’t constant. Tanks roamed the streets fulfilling their control rounds, military vehicles sailed through the highway bridges, and squadrons of Venatici grenadiers, wearing their armors, patrolling the area on their Icarus gliders. There were even model Hermes androids driving cranes, carrying containers, loading ammunition and repairing antennas in the heights.
The headquarter was in the heart of the city and it was the tallest tower, although its main offices and halls were not on the top, but hidden miles below the surface. As if they were the roots of a giant tree, the facility stretched underground, spreading into countless corridors connected with the basements of other buildings of the Citadel.
The command center was on the lower floor of the tower; and they called it the Assembly Hall because of its size, its semi-circular shape and a sloped floor that resembled the architecture of a university auditorium.
That night, the tension in the Assembly Hall was almost tangible. Voices superimposing on each other; phones and alarms ringing, and a lot of long faces.
Rows and rows of officers and operators were working in front of their crystal panels and monitors, reporting the chaos in Bellatrix, announcing medical reinforcements for those who were attending the injured, while high-ranking officers supervised them from platforms.
At the front of the hall, suspended in the air, many holographic screens of all sizes were showing different takes of the massacre led by the Hermes android at the scientific facility. No signal was free from interferences.
Every transmission coming from Bellatrix had bad quality. The videos were full of horizontal noise bars, and the audio was so broken it was impossible to tell what the reports were saying. Some screens were broadcasting scenes of the Venatici fighting against the android; on some others, he was seen entering a hallway; and in others, Commander Dubhe appeared giving his report.
It had been a long time since the Imperialists were the target of such a savage attack. That was clear by seeing the faces of the three generals standing on the command balcony, at the bottom of the Assembly Hall. All three of them were part of what was known as the Imperial Council, the Community’s high command; and all three of them were standing rigidly, with their hands behind their backs, and their eyes fixed on the chaotic images.
The first general, a thin man with a wrinkled face, approached to the edge of the balcony, rested his gloved hands on the handrail, and looked down at the officers. “We still can’t re-establish communication with Bellatrix?”
“No, sir. Their outer antenna circuit remains jammed.”
“What about the Hermes? His license-number? Something?”
“Negative. And according to the last report, he also didn’t have the mandatory manual switch.”
The general went back and re-took his position with his two other comrades.
“Someone has taken a lot of trouble to make him untraceable,” he muttered.
“Well, it’s pretty obvious that it’s an enhanced android,” the second general pointed out; there was some reproach in his tone of voice.
The first general gave him an angry look. “An enhanced Hermes can defeat a battalion of soldiers, but an entire Venatici squadron?” he said, and shook his head. “No. There must be more here than a terrorist strategy and not coming from the Rowdy Ones. Here, he must have received some kind of supernatural help.”
“Are you implying Eddanics may be behind this attack?” the second general asked.
“Those are serious accusations,” the third one entered the debate; his voice sounded convulsed, and his plump jowl stirred as he spoke. “Historically, the Eddanics have rejected our customs. None of them has ever shown interested in our technology. Why would they use now, of all things, a Hermes, and for something as serious as an attack?”
“I don’t know, but I want answers,” the first general replied, and turning back to the operators, he ordered, “Analyze the electromagnetic spectrum detected during the attack, and look for traces of red radiation.”
Detective Colonel Rigel Beta entered the Assembly Hall with a rougher expression than usual. His teeth were so tight his jaw looked dislocated; and under his thick eyebrows, his small eyes shone like two drops of tar. Grazing his cap’s visor with his hand, he saluted the Venatici guarding the entrance, and spotting the officer he was looking for among the others, he went down the stairs towards the hall’s lower levels.
He strode out, which went unnoticed with all the commotion; the long coat of his olive-green uniform shook with every step. His hands were covered with white gloves; one was on the belt, scratching the buckle with his thumb; and the other was turned into a fist, lying down. He wanted so badly to hit something to release some tension, but he had to keep his composure, even more in front of his superiors.
He took a glance sideways to the three generals that were arguing on the balcony, and he found it weird that General Benetnash was not among them.
Arriving at the last row of operators, he set about a particular officer and stood behind him. “Did you get what I asked for?” he asked, almost whispering.
John Staton, the operator in question, was a young man with an elongated face, blond hair, and a soft voice.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, and taking his hearing aids off his ears, making sure no one was near, he typed a code on his board. In the lower area of his monitor, a second holographic screen appeared, so tiny they cover it with their bodies.
A new recording made by a surveillance camera of Bellatrix appeared on it, one different from those retransmitted by the main screens. This video had even worse quality than the others and was crammed with distortions that made it impossible to recognize what was going on there.
Stanton shrugged. “That’s all I could get,” he said as an apology.
“Can you improve it?”
“It’ll be difficult,” the young man said. “The transmissions we receive are too many, and we’re on yellow alert, sir. If I force the satellite image, the information flow will exceed the permitted download; we may lose it.”
“You don’t need to remind me we’re on yellow alert, Stanton. Do it.”
The operator raised the download percentage. When the image began to get fixed, the undesirable red sign that announced error popped up. The transmission was completely lost and the tiny screen disappeared.
Rigel and Stanton cursed in silence.
“Show me the last image before the cut,” Rigel asked.
Stanton replayed the video; there a picture was composed, in which the android was seen advancing towards Level 5. Apparently, the only contact Rigel would have with Broga—presuming that was him, of course—would always be the visual kind, and through the recording of a security camera.
“No,” he whispered. Those recordings didn’t show what he was looking for. Maybe he didn’t make it, he thought.
He patted the young man on the shoulder, thanking him for his efforts.
“Something strange happens, sir,” the officer said quietly. Rigel stopped and went back to him. “There’s a missing sequence in the video we just saw.”
“I’ve intercepted the transmissions of surveillance cameras three and five, as you had asked me to,” Stanton continued. “However, according to my computer, I’ve received the entire transmission of camera three, but only part of five’s. There’s a part of camera five’s footage that hasn’t reached my receiver.”
Rigel pursed his lips.
“Of course, it could be a simple error in the reception,” Stanton added. “Bellatrix’s antennas are damaged; it wouldn’t be surprising that’s the reason.”
Rigel wasn’t so sure about that. He left the Assembly Hall and headed toward the corridors that led to the now-empty conference rooms.
Making sure no one was around, he pulled out an unregistered phone and called a number. Thanks to his men from the System Department he could use frequency seven and speak freely. He looked at the screen where the phrase “Calling E.H.” showed, and took the device to his ear, begging not to hear what a second later he heard:
“Communication cannot be carried out.” The voicemail picked up the call for the fourth time. “There are disturbances on the line, or the number you are calling does not exist. Try it later. Thank you.”
Rigel cursed, closed his eyes and spun on his heels. Elias’ cell was dead, which could mean two things: He’d used the Ganymede and he crossed the dimensional space, or he’d perished during Broga’s attack as he tried to infiltrate Bellatrix. The first option, if it was the right one, would be a success. The second, a calamity.
He called another number, this time trying to contact Elli. The answer was the same: “Communication cannot be carried out. There are disturbances on the line, or the number you are calling does not exist. Try it later. Thank you.”
A terrible certainty touched his mind: Elli had joined Elias’ journey. Of course she would! How could he not have thought that would happen?
His heart sank. Would Elias and Elli’s corpses be among Bellatrix’s casualties? If that were the case, beyond the personal tragedy that would meat, his actions as a double agent could be in danger of being discovered; his own life could be at risk. Whoever found Elias’ body would also find the false ID and the card to activate the Ganymede that he had supplied him with. It wouldn’t take long for them to find out that the android who attacked the base was the same one accused of the murder of the students in the case he was investigating; which, in turn, would bring up the subject of the hidden laboratory and the Totem. Someone savvy could connect one thing and the other, and all the fingers would point at him.
Moreover, it was possible that could be happening at that very moment.
Desperate to know what had happened, and with so little freedom to do so—at least with the promptness he needed—he took off his cap, nervous, and fixed his hair with a growl.
Suddenly, two armored grenadiers appeared around the corridor’s corner, and with determined steps, approached him.
Rigel shuddered like he had never shuddered before.
He knew it was foolish to fear; the attack on Bellatrix had ended only fifteen minutes ago, and with so many casualties to attend, it was unlikely that, in that short period of time, the paramedics would have found Elias and the evidence that would accuse him of treason. But his heartbeat ignored the logic of his thoughts and smacked him with a heat difficult to hide.
He put his phone in the back pocket of his uniform, very slowly; and then, he peeked at the other side of the corridor, looking for an escape route in case his comrades wanted to give him trouble.
The two grenadiers continued advancing.
Maybe they’ll keep going, he thought, trying to give himself some hope; though he clenched his fist, anyway.
The armored soldiers stopped in front of him.
“Sir,” one soldier said and gave him a salute. “General Benetnash is waiting for you in his office. It’s urgent, sir.”
Rigel adjusted his cap again, gulped and returned the salute as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
“Understood, soldier,” he said, and ignoring the fear of having been busted, he headed for the general’s office on the top floor.
He didn’t look back, but he heard the soldiers walking behind him; he didn’t know if they were guarding him or if they were only escorting him, as the protocol dictated. However, the fact that General Benetnash wasn’t among the other generals on the command balcony of the Assembly Hall, in a critical situation like the one they were facing, was somewhat strange; and that the general now was asking to talk to him, it was even more strange. Meetings during a yellow alert were held in the strategy and conference room, never in a private office.
Calm down, he said to himself as he went up to the stairs, reminding to act naturally, not as he’d been doing since he heard about the Bellatrix attack. He had to contain the corrosive doubt whether his activities as an informant had been discovered or not. He recalled how many times he had gone through a similar situation and had managed to get away with it; it wasn’t bad to give some credit to himself, right?
Come on, you’ve been on this for years, he thought as he faced the office’s door. Behave like a pro.
He smoothed his olive-green uniform, raised his chin, and announced himself: “Colonel Detective Beta reporting, sir.”
The door opened; he entered, and then, it closed behind him, almost grazing his heels. The air conditioning blew in his neck, giving him chills. The grenadiers had remained outside, but that didn’t mean he already could claim victory.
The moment of truth has arrived.