Chapter 2: Another Day in Paradise

Soundtrack: "Evolutionary Means," Russell Cox, courtesy of OverClocked ReMix.

Sprawled on her bunk, CJ stared at her terminal with rapt interest, absorbed in an article about the Federation's governing structure. She'd never been much for politics in the past, either in the workplace or on the public level, and she was somewhat surprised to find that the subject fascinated her once she got herself into it. Although it looked insurmountably complex, the system actually broke down to a few very simple mechanisms that should have worked flawlessly with each other - and indeed, they would have, if not for the slight problems of ego and vice endemic to so many sentient endeavors.

The Federation operated on a representative, democratic basis, but with over five hundred member worlds and thousands more independent deep-space stations represented in the Grand Council, it was literally impossible to force a particular agenda on the system. Whichever party wished to control the government invariably had to form a coalition to do so, a fractious process that usually resulted in parliamentary gridlock as one party or another jockeyed for better standing or tried to break up the ruling coalition. That structure had begun to change, though, thanks to several years of reform-minded governance aimed at streamlining the government and delegating more authority to the Prime Minister and his or her cabinet.

Underneath the political fracas, though, lay the real mechanisms of power: the dozens of agencies that collected the taxes, defended the borders, settled the civil disputes and maintained the public infrastructure. They alone kept the system from collapsing, and unlike the five-year limits on the politicians, those civil servants could easily keep their posts for life, except in cases of gross negligence or criminal behavior.

Who stands to benefit if the Prime Minister dies...?

A knock on the half-closed hatch startled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to see a familiar face leaning through the opening. "Sorry to bother you. I just wanted to let you know we're on approach."

"Sounds good." A lopsided smile crossed CJ's face as she commented, "You know, I've never been to Earth before."

"You poor deprived child," Samus chuckled. "Did you want to come up front for a better look?"

"Sure." She laid her portable terminal aside before following the hunter out the hatch and forward to the flight deck.

As CJ walked into the cockpit, she gasped at the view from the ship's forward viewscreen. The planet hung in space like an exotic sapphire, limned with the diamond sparkles of spacecraft and orbital stations. "Wow," she whispered, awestruck.

"I know." There was something almost wistful in the hunter's eyes as she continued, "When you spend enough time in space, planets start looking all the same, but there's always something about Earth that you never quite get used to seeing it. Perhaps it's genetic memory, or just a quirk of human nature."

The communications system pinged twice, and then a harried-sounding voice crackled through the loudspeakers. "Attention approaching vessel Golf Hotel Hotel Three-Zero-One, this is Earth Astro Control. Please identify yourself and state your intended course."

"Identify yourself?" CJ asked, confused. "They already know our registry number, they must have queried our IFF - what more identity do they need?"

"It's standard procedure," Samus replied, pulling the communications panel down from its overhead pivot arm and tapping in a four-character passcode. "Pinging us just gives them our registry and flight data. They still need to know about who or what is aboard." Thumbing the transmit key, she said, "Astro Control, this is Hunter III, private registry gunship out of Aliehs. PIC plus one aboard, both Standard Human, both Federation citizens, transmitting passport data now. We're on our way to a meeting in Pearl Harbor. Request clearance to land."

"Hunter III, Astro Control, stand by." A minute later, the controller came back on the channel. "Hunter III, you are cleared for landing at Pearl Intergalactic. Please stay within your designated flightpath and disable all weapons systems before you pass the hundred-kilometer boundary. Enjoy your stay."

"Copy that, thank you. Out."

The ship shuddered slightly as it encountered the outermost bounds of the planet's atmosphere, and an ephemeral orange glow began to flicker over the viewscreen. "You should probably buckle in," Samus said, indicating the folding jump seat behind the pilot's. "This could be bumpy."

"It wouldn't be if you would let me handle the approach, or at least fly like a normal sentient being," Adam commented. "I have never understood why you seem to feel the need to turn every landing into a combat drop."

CJ held her tongue, but secretly she agreed with Adam: although she was a highly skilled pilot, nobody would ever accuse Samus of cautious flying.

Their flight path carried them in a series of wide, sweeping arcs up the western South American coastline before swinging out across the ocean, and a pair of heavy thumps accompanied by an increasing whine signaled the startup of the turbofan engines as their speed dropped below the sound barrier. Ahead, the towers of a massive city winked and flashed in the distance. Centuries ago, this area had boasted some of the most well-known island resorts in the world, but rising oceans had inundated the original cities, leaving them over a hundred meters underwater. Pearl Harbor and its outlying 'islands' were actually floating constructs hundreds of kilometers square, and since they weren't secured to any particular political subdivision, they made the ideal location for a planetary seat of government.

Supported by its directed thrusters, the ship settled lightly on one of the hundreds of landing pads that comprised the civilian section of the Pearl Harbor spaceport. "The Feds are supposed to be putting us up at a hotel a few blocks from the government complex," Samus remarked as she ran through the post-landing checklist. "I'm supposed to meet the head of Defense Intelligence this afternoon. If we hurry, we can check in and go grab something to eat before this meeting."

"Sounds good," CJ replied. "You finish locking up the controls, I'll get the suitcases."

"Nice," CJ cracked as she keyed open the door to their room. "So this is what the taxpayer's credit buys."

As it turned out, hurry had been on no one's agenda when they arrived at the spaceport. The staff, in a manner befitting the laid-back island atmosphere, had dawdled luxuriously over everything from inspecting their passports and permits to securing the ship and negotiating for ground power and maintenance. Acquiring a ground transport and then waiting for a ferry over to the "big island," as Pearl's main construct was known, ate up another obscene chunk of time. By the time they actually arrived at their hotel, a process that should have taken less than an hour had ballooned to three and a half, resulting in two very frazzled travelers. However, what they found on arrival more than made up for all the hassle.

The suite in which they'd been installed could only be described as palatial. A small foyer, tastefully decorated with a vase and a wall hanging, opened into a living area large enough to park the Hunter III with room to spare. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a stunning panoramic view of a sparkling white sand beach and the ocean beyond, and the furniture's design and construction suggested a purchase price commensurate with both their yearly incomes combined. A fully stocked bar, walk-in closets with auto-valets, and state-of-the-art information and entertainment terminals were all concealed behind sliding screens, and two lavishly appointed bedrooms and a massive bath completed the layout.

"Only the best for our elected officials," Samus replied dryly, surveying the scene from the entryway. "This is a bit of a surprise, actually. Usually when I have to come here, I either stay aboard ship or they stick me in the nearest barracks. I figured we'd be in some economy place in the back end of nowhere." Under her bluff good cheer, nervous tension coiled in her stomach, and she found herself irrationally glad that she'd opted for a semi-formal trousers outfit rather than her usual casual dress. The professional charm of the hotel staff, quite opposite its intended effect, had put her on notice that this wasn't the class of establishment that her kind was welcome to patronize.

Then again, she mused, one thing made it worth all the discomfort: her traveling companion. CJ looked like a child in a toy store as she surveyed the rooms, with occasional exclamations of surprise as she discovered the various amenities therein. Shaking her head in good-natured amusement, Samus headed toward the bedrooms, dropping each of their bags within. A glance at the nearby alarm clock told her that any hopes of eating before her meeting were unlikely at best, and indeed she'd have to hurry to make it at all.

"I'm going to have to run," she said. "I don't know how long this is going to take, but I'll call when I'm out. Will you be all right here alone?"

CJ snorted at that, although the derisive sound was accompanied by an indulgent smile. "Oh, I think I can keep myself entertained for a while."

The guard at the gate straightened up marginally as he spotted the woman approaching. GFB Pearl Harbor, unlike most Federation armed forces bases, operated on a more or less open basis. Civilian contractors traipsed in and out of the base routinely, as did politicians, civil servants and even tour groups, and as far as the security forces were concerned, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Even barring the odds of a terrorist or a spy, the chance of some John or Jane Public getting lost or seeing something they shouldn't was just too high. Since the political leadership had routinely vetoed the commanders' pleas for a closed base, the guards took their own security measures by scrutinizing all that traffic as intensely as they could.

This one, the guard decided, was going to get the full degree. She looked perfectly normal, just a tall, attractive blonde in a rather severely styled suit, no doubt on her way to negotiate some kind of business deal with the base higher-ups. Something about her, though, sparked a subconscious warning in the guard's mind - the way she carried herself, how her eyes constantly scanned the crowds, didn't say 'civilian' at all.

"Good afternoon, ma'am," he said politely as she walked up to the guard shack. "Can I help you?"

"I'm here to see Brigadier Ogino," the woman replied. "I have a meeting with him at 1400 hours."

"The Brigadier's office is in a secured area," the guard replied, pulling a portable signature pad out of a cabinet and holding it out. "I'll have to ask you for identification..."

In response, the woman reached out and placed her left hand - which was odd, the guard noted, most people used their right - against the device's touch-sensitive surface. The machine bleeped a few times, and a dossier flashed up on the guard's terminal screen. He struggled to force his jaw shut as he saw the name and photo that headed the file.

"W-welcome to Pearl Harbor, Ms. Aran," he managed to blurt out. "If you'll, uh, if you'll wait just a moment I'll, uh, have someone escort you to the Intelligence building-"

"I can find my own way, thank you," she said with a thin smile. "Two blocks south and first building on the left - unless they've moved since I was here last?"

"Uh, that's right, but-"

"Have a nice day, Corporal," and the guard was left to gape at her rapidly receding back as she strode off down the base's main drive.

By the time the story reached the rest of the security forces in the mess hall that evening, she had stormed the gates in full armor with a dozen metroids at her heels. It just wouldn't do to say that the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter had breezed onto their base without so much as a bag check. They had a reputation to uphold, after all.

Brigadier General Nagal Ashak Ogino wasn't a big individual - standing only 176 centimeters in his low quarters, he was practically a dwarf by modern standards, and more than a few of the women in the office exceeded his height, to say nothing of the men. He more than made up for it in force of personality, though, which combined with his heavy-worlder's build, gave him the impression of being a force of nature, something that couldn't be opposed, only avoided. "Welcome back," he rumbled as a yeoman escorted Samus into the conference room. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."

"I was in the neighborhood," Samus replied offhandedly. "So, now we've dispensed with the pleasantries, shall we get to business?"

Ogino laughed a bit at that. "I like that. Seems like everyone these days has to spend a half hour rag-chewing before they get anything accomplished." Pushing a button on his terminal, he continued, "You mind if I have my adjutant in here? He knows how to use all the presentation gear, and I don't."

A second later, a thin, shy-looking man wearing the rank bars of a captain walked into the conference room. "Can I help you, sir?"

"Dennison, have a seat," Ogino said. "Pull up the Operation Kaleidoscope file, and then you're taking notes."

"Sir, you do know that file is classified," the adjutant said, with a meaningful look at the room's other occupant.

Ogino regarded him with a mildly disapproving expression. "If she wasn't cleared before, she is now, seeing as we hired her to deal with it..."

Much like the guard at the gate, Dennison nearly choked as he realized just who their guest was. "Oh! I'm so sorry, I thought you would be... uh, I mean, I didn't recognize you without your..."

"I get that a lot," Samus quipped, allowing herself a lopsided smile at the adjutant's flustered expression. "Anyway, the operation?"

"Right. I assume you already read the background file we sent you?" Off the hunter's affirmative nod, Dennison pulled a control panel from a hidden recess in the conference table's edge and began tapping commands into it, dimming the lights and activating the viewscreen on the far wall. "The day before we contacted you, we received a threat from a group calling itself the Pandoran Liberation Front. They're a planets' rights, anti-galactic group, and they've been around for a few years, but up till now it's all been low-level incidents - protests, vandalism, intimidation campaigns, a firebomb every now and then. They claimed responsibility for the death of the assistant economic affairs minister, and threatened another attack on the Unification Day celebrations in Daiban unless the Prime Minister dissolves the Grand Council."

The screen refreshed itself, displaying a grainy video clip of three vaguely humanoid figures with obscured faces, split-screened with a time-lapse image of the Capital District in Daiban. Over the film, a synthetic voice spoke in flat monotone. "This is a message from the Pandoran Liberation Front. We hold that your Galactic Federation is an invalid and despotic government, insofar as it tramples the rights of each citizen to decide his, her or its own affairs within the scope of galactic events. We have endured the depredations of your taxes and the destruction wrought by your navies, and we resolve that your crimes will come to an end. We demand an immediate end to the tyranny of your government. You have until your false holiday to dissolve your corrupt Grand Council and return the powers you have usurped to the people. If you do not comply, we will unleash untold destructions upon you. We have recently targeted your ministry of finance as a demonstration of our power." The view flickered and shifted, displaying an office space surrounded with crime scene barriers, and then a series of still shots of marching bands and smiling parade-goers, and finally the Milky Way galaxy. "We will not negotiate; we will not surrender. We cannot be located. We cannot be destroyed. Expect us."

"Isn't that special." The hunter's words fairly dripped sarcasm. "So these clowns made a nice scary video and got all your shorts in a knot. I still haven't seen what they actually did."

"I thought you said you read the briefing file," Dennison replied, confused. "Surely there's only one asset in the galaxy that can inflict complete bioelectric dissolution on a target..."

"Humor me," Samus said with a smirk, resting her elbows on the table and steepling her fingers under her chin. "Maybe I'd just like to hear you actually say the M-word. Just so we're all clear what we're dealing with, and just who let that particular nightmare out of the closet again."

Dennison looked like he might have wanted to snap back at the dig, but Ogino held up his hand, with an uncomfortable-looking half-smile, half-wince. "We deserved that..." he muttered. "To your point, Samus: no, we don't know where this Pandoran Front could have gotten a live metroid, and no, this command is no longer sponsoring any metroid-related work. Nor do we know that it actually was a metroid attack that killed Minister Hakale. All we have is a pile of dust that probably used to be a human body, some suspicious-looking security tape, and a lot of inference and guesswork. However, all the evidence we have points to that conclusion, which is why we asked to bring you on board. Frankly, if we're right, then you're the only person in the galaxy who can intervene."

"All right. Just so we're clear, though: this had better not be one of your Special Ops dirty tricks gone wrong that you're sending me to clean up. If it is, I am going to be very, very angry."

Ogino nodded in reply. "The only contract we had for metroid research was with Biologic Space Labs. They had to restrict the work to one lab facility only, and we hand-picked their research team and kept our own liaisons on site. Breaching that contract by creating a backup lab would have forfeited all the company's assets and sent every one of their employees to prison for Federal treason. I can't imagine that they would even dream of committing that kind of corporate suicide."

Samus let that statement hang in the air for a few seconds, and then glanced at the wall chrono, which helpfully displayed local dates and times for Pearl Harbor, Gliese, the Capital District, and half a dozen other Defense Forces bases. A moment later, she leaned back in her chair. "That's reassuring, but this business still isn't passing the smell test. Based on your profile, these Pandorans were just a handful of overly enthusiastic anarchists up until a month or so ago, and then they come up with this out of nowhere. That's awfully fast, to go from spraying graffiti on the local police station to acquiring a metroid and dropping it on the Finance Ministry. Who heads them up? Did that change recently?"

"They don't appear to have any leader per se, but we've identified one of their major patrons. Its name is Dravas, a political mover and shaker from Egenion, and a close friend of several Grand Councillors, most of whom belong to opposition parties at the moment. The GFP Organized Crime Bureau has suspected this Dravas character of being mobbed up for some time now, but nobody can ever make the charges stick, and we all know what Egenion is like about extradition requests."

Samus knew quite well, having run afoul of the notoriously corrupt Egenoid justice system more than once in her career. "Wouldn't be the first gangster in politics," she mused, studying the alien's face intently. "I'm still not seeing the connection, though. Usually when a criminal syndicate wants someone dead, they stick with the classics. Shooting, stabbing, bombing. Poison, maybe, if they want to be cute about it. A metroid, though... no. Too risky, too uncontrollable, and far, far too distinctive."

"We thought the same thing," Brigadier Ogino commented. "It's likely that someone else is pulling both Dravas' and the PLF's strings, but we haven't yet figured out who."

Dennison nodded. "Right, sir. Meanwhile, one of the things we do here at DFDI is monitor traffic in the means of terror - radioactive materials, explosives, chemicals, biomaterials and reagents, electronics equipment and so forth. Starting six months ago, we started noticing odd patterns of scientific equipment purchases across half a dozen planets and independent stations in the Kalceti Sector. Small purchases, a few things at a time - containment vessels, a pair of high-capacity electrical generators, a stasis unit, several hundred kilos of nutrient gel. Each purchase was made under a different name for a different organization, but all of them were fronts - when we sent inspectors to the various listed addresses, we found abandoned space every time."

Tapping on the presenter's controls again, Dennison brought up a holograph of a massive cargo ship. "The kicker came three weeks ago, when the M/V Hephaestus went missing. She was taking mixed cargo and passengers from Sandanona to Shin-Nihon, with a layover at Demeter Station..." He paused, with a nervous glance at Ogino. "Sir?"

"Demeter Station contains one of our black facilities," Ogino said quietly. "We do biowarfare research there - it's a hundred light-minutes from the nearest inhabited planet, to avoid any chance of contamination if anything goes wrong. Among other things, Hephaestus was transporting several thousand kilos of various weaponized pathogens from there to Niihama Arsenal. However, the doers didn't touch the bugs as far as we know. All the canisters have tracking transponders on them, and none of them have turned up. Nor, for that matter, has Hephaestus' distress beacon." He sighed, leaning back in his chair. "A week after that, the finance minister."

Samus' expression darkened further at the mention of black operations and biowarfare, but she decided to let it go for now. "Three weeks is a long time. She could be anywhere by now - a Pirate prize fleet, a breakers' yard in some Outer Rim backwater. Or hulled out and drifting someplace off the grids."

"We'd be willing to add a rider to your contract for salvage and recovery fees related to locating the ship and safe return of the cargo," Ogino added.

"Very well. So you have, what, about two weeks Galactic to neutralize these people. Any last known whereabouts for any of them?"

"We have files on most of the group, as well as Hephaestus' flight plans. If you still have that AICAS unit, I'll forward a copy," Captain Dennison said.

It took a moment before she realized that he was referring to Adam. "That's fine."

"And on that note, I hate to run, but I have a staff briefing in ten minutes. If we can give you any other assistance, please feel free to get in touch with either Captain Dennison or myself." Ogino stood to leave, and Dennison shut off the projection gear. "Again, thanks for coming, and good hunting. Oh, and give your Marine friend my regards."

"I'll do that," Samus replied, carefully disguising her discomfiture at the comments and the implications behind them. Whether she'd been given a threat or a warning, though, she couldn't guess.

"Your order will be right out, miss," the waiter said with a smile as he placed a bread basket on the table and refilled the water glass. "Can I get anything else for you?"

"Not right now, that's fine, thanks," CJ replied, returning the smile. Although she occasionally flirted with gourmet aspirations, fine or even good dining wasn't something she had enjoyed much of in Mandeville. Being the college town that it was, the choice of restaurants there tended toward various flavors of fast food and casual eateries, and the handful of high-end places charged prices that a single diner, even one as relatively well paid as she, really couldn't justify. The situation hadn't improved any after their flight, either. Samus had made an effort to keep the Hunter III's galley stocked with fresh food, but rarely ate any of it as a condition of remaining in her armor. The end result for CJ was a lot of single-portion, prepackaged meals, since she had found that cooking for one aboard ship was an even more depressing exercise than it had been when she had lived alone.

For all that, the opportunity to go for a walk on real constructed ground, breathe some fresh planet-side air, and eat an actual prepared meal felt like a heavenly indulgence. The sun was shining down from a bluebird sky, and the scent of tropical flowers drifted lazily on the breeze as she sat at her corner table. The small bistro she'd chosen had come well recommended by the hotel's concierge, its prices were reasonable, and its outdoor seating patio offered a great view of the nearby square - allowing her to indulge another favorite pastime too long ignored.

Absorbed in crowd-watching, she almost didn't hear the "incoming call" chime of the portable communicator in her pocket. Reflexively she glanced at its display before answering, even though only one person knew to call her on that device. "Hi, Sam. How'd your meeting go?"

"Interesting," Samus replied. "Nothing I can discuss over an open channel, though. Where are you?"

"A restaurant on Union Plaza. I thought I'd grab something to eat. Did you want to meet me here?"

"That sounds great. I'm starving."

CJ began laughing at the remark. "You and your hollow leg," she said, which earned her a "Very funny" from the hunter. "It's called Andre's on the Square. Corner of Third and Rowan. I'll order you something."

Exactly ten minutes after she ended the call, CJ spotted a familiar figure crossing the plaza. "You're nuts, you know that?" she said teasingly as Samus hopped over the short railing that separated the patio from the sidewalk. "Any other sentient creature would have walked in the door and then come back out to the patio."

"Never let it be said I kept you waiting," Samus replied with a smirk, and the scientist fought hard not to blush.

"So, what did the spooks have to say?"

"A lot of what we already knew." The waiter arrived then, bearing a tray with a large salad, a bowl of vegetable soup and a grilled fish sandwich, and she waited until he had departed before continuing. "A bunch of radicals claimed responsibility for the hit, but nobody's buying it. Apparently they were just your garden variety, political fringe whackos up until this. Not nice people, to be sure, but groups like that generally don't mutate into full-blown terrorist fronts by themselves. The Feds think there's some would-be mobster by the name of Dravas involved, but I'm not so sure about that either. He might be the bagman, but frankly I'll be shocked if he actually has anything to do with the hit."

"You don't think the, uh... you know, might be involved, do you?"

Samus didn't reply for several minutes, being otherwise engrossed in her meal. "That is really good soup. I wonder what they put in it." After a moment she continued, "No, I don't see the Pirates being involved in this, either, or at least not directly. Pirates generally don't go for the subtle approach. They would just storm the Prime Minister's residence and have done with it. On the other hand, they might well still have access to metroids, either as cryopreserved breeding stock or as live specimens, and if they do, there's nothing stopping them from providing that stock to someone with a grudge against the government."

"Funny that they never have tried to do that," CJ pointed out. "For all the years that the Pirates have been on the scene, it's apparently never occurred to them that they could well and truly screw the Federation just by selling a few of the little parasites. Half a dozen to a rogue regime here, stash a couple in a cargo shipment there, toss a few out on the black markets, and watch the galaxy burn. Instead, they take one-off shots at our ships and colonies, and then we hand them their own asses back plus interest. And pretty much all it's gotten them since the death of Mother Brain is ten years of epic failure."

"Believe me, I know," Samus replied, with a lopsided smile. "And may they never figure it out, either. As for who I do see being involved... since the odds are about nil of these people acting alone, I have to think it's someone already in the government. No other explanation makes sense, despite what the spooks might think."

"I thought the same thing," CJ said. "I did some research of my own while you were gone. Lots of people might have motive, but the Pirates are the only other group with the means, and nobody else would have the opportunity. What I've not yet figured out is whether it's coming from the armed forces, the Grand Council or the civil service. All three stand to lose out big time with the reforms package that's before the Council right now."

"You don't miss a trick, do you?" Samus chuckled, and this time CJ did blush at the compliment. "Anyway, we have two places we can go from here. Problem number one is that a cargo ship carrying biowarfare ordnance went missing from the Ardri Sector at the same time all this business started, and the Feds think the incidents might be linked. Apparently there's bonus money on the table if we can find her and secure her cargo. Our other option is Egenion - that's where this Dravas character has his little stronghold. Even if he doesn't know about the hit, he'll know where the group is getting their money."

"So what's the plan?"

"Stay here overnight, get the ship tuned up - we may as well, it's on the Feds' tab - and head for Shin-Nihon in the morning. Getting visas for Egenion is going to be a platinum-plated pain, and something is telling me that DFDI knows more than they let on about this hijacked ship. Besides, if nothing else, if we find the cargo we've taken a lot of very ugly bugs off the market."

"All right." CJ took a sip of her water before speaking, and the glint of amusement was in her eyes. "Finish your lunch, oh bottomless pit, and let's head back. There's a stretch of beach out there with my name on it."

In a much seedier part of town, a man walked down a much less trafficked street, whistling cheerfully as he went. Nobody paid him any notice; his ill-kempt appearance blended in perfectly with the bums and addicts that called this place home, and people here made a point of not noticing their neighbors' doings. He turned left down an alleyway that reeked of garbage and urine, pausing only when he reached a door marked "Taylor's Cleaners - Delivery Entrance." The door appeared rusted and much abused, just like the building. They'd gone to a lot of trouble to make it look that way.

'Forester' - he'd given up his birth name years ago, in a fit of revolutionary zeal - pressed his palm to the security plate next to the door. The machine whirred momentarily, and the door hissed shut as soon as he passed through. "Afternoon, Luna," he said to the young woman at the computer terminal. "How's everything been?"

"Fine," Luna replied, not looking up from whatever gossip feed she was absorbed in. "The specimens are calm, the machines are all working, and good riddance to 'em."

"All for the cause," Forester said with a grin, knowing that the humor was lost on her, but he couldn't help his good cheer. There was just no reason to be unhappy when their plans were going so well, and right under the noses of the almighty Federation to boot. Another palm-locked door took him through a small changing area, and he shed his battered street clothes for a clean technician's jumpsuit before proceeding.

The room he walked into resembled nothing so much as a mad scientist's laboratory from an old science fiction film. The entire place was bathed in sickly green-yellow light, and the scent of ozone hung thick in the muggy air. Row after row of cylindrical incubation chambers filled the majority of the space, indistinct shadows bobbing and floating within their confines. At the far end of the room stood a much larger chamber, hung with radiation warning placards and attached to a bank of computer equipment. It was to that bank that Forester walked, picking up a clipboard on the nearby desk and studying it for a moment. He tapped a few commands into the computer, and a mechanical lift clanked into motion, sliding on ceiling-mounted rails toward one of the incubators. The lift picked the unit off its pedestal and ferried it over to the radiation chamber, lowering it inside and dropping a thick leaden lid on the entire apparatus.

Treatment initiated - 47 pulses 2 min 12 sec - Total dose 88.5 Sv

A harsh buzzing noise filled the room. A few minutes later it was over, and the lift mechanism trundled back over to pick up the irradiated incubator. As the machine transported the chamber back to its pedestal, Forester smiled as the organism within began to awaken.


Author's Notes:

Not too much to comment upon in this chapter, except to apologize for the delay in writing it. Real Life can be such a pain in the neck that way.

The Pandoran manifesto riffs heavily on the (in)famous Anonymous declaration against the Church of Scientology. There's also a shout-out to Nutzoide, whose original series Starlight is the reference for a location in this chapter. In regards to that guy playing with a beta generator at the end, a sievert (Sv) is a unit of radiation dosage, one joule per kilogram, with a correction factor applied for radiation absorption by varying biological tissues. For comparison, a CT scan of the brain is about 1-1.5 millisievert (mSv), 10 Sv is a lethal dose in a human, while the highest recorded dose in the Fukushima Daiichi reactor was 204 Sv, measured by a robot inspecting a reactor wall.

Thanks to all of you for reading and reviewing (and putting up with my delays...!)