When last we left our heroes... well, actually, that's irrelevant, because we're starting this chapter somewhere else with some new characters. This is, for the record, probably the chapter that needs the most rewriting to get rid of sexist narrative elements. Younger me really sucked.
The Chair of the Subcommittee on Special Projects of the Federation Senate Committee on Science and Technology was tired. He had been up all night looking through agents' dossiers with the apparently inexhaustible Minister of Intelligence, trying to guess which skillset would be most useful in the mission they had to assign. Minister Niklaus had picked his brain for every detail of the research facility, even though he doubtless knew more than the Chair did.
He rubbed his eyes and gazed blearily down at the dossier before him. He had no doubt that Niklaus was doing it on purpose, to punish him. Everyone knew that their two parties were going to break their coalition after the coming election. Prime Minister Norris was popular, and the Realian Voting Rights Act was going to create a massive new block of voters who would doubtless back the Manifest Destiny party all the way.
Any day now, the Prime Minister would call for elections, and the MDs simply wouldn't need to put up with the embarrassing religiosity of their coalition partners any longer. The Unionists would get the shaft, and Niklaus would lose his cabinet post.
The Chair's phone buzzed. "Your seven o'clock is here, sir."
"Send her in," he said, stifling a yawn, and stood as the door opened.
The young woman who entered looked to be in her late teens or early twenties, short and slim and dark, with a soft-featured, round face and very long, thick black hair. Only her amber eyes and crisp uniform revealed her true nature: a combat Realian, an artificial lifeform constructed for a specific purpose on the battlefield. Her features marked her age as closer to two or three years, the time since the Semito-Dravidian fad in Realian design--more recent models tended to vibrant pinks and greens for skin and hair, and tall, angular frames. "Lieutenant Sardula Diesieger, Special Forces, reporting as ordered, sirs!" she said, and saluted.
"At ease, lieutenant," said Niklaus. "You know Chairman Koi?"
Sardula continued to stand ramrod-straight, but put her hands behind her back. "I have seen him on the news, sir."
"Hm," said Koi. "We have an assignment for you, lieutenant, as I imagine you've guessed. Shall we?" He gestured at a chair.
Sardula glanced briefly at Niklaus, much to Koi's annoyance. All three were soon seated at a conference table, and Niklaus triggered the holodisplay in the center. A planet appeared, rotating -- a mottled blue-and-white ball, as any habitable world must be.
"Ur," said Koi. "What do you know about them?"
Sardula paused for a moment. Data streamed across her eyes, too fast to read. Koi often wondered why so many Realians were designed to do that when running a memory search; perhaps it was intended simply as a reminder, like the eye color itself, that they were not human. "An independent world with economic ties both to us and to Artaxerxes," she finally said. "After the Collapse, they had no Realian repair or construction facilities intact, despite being a populous and industrialized world. They therefore developed cybernetics and robotics to an unusually high degree. There is a major Scientia research facility just outside the capital, originally devoted to cybernetics but since generalized."
Koi nodded. "For the past three years, a joint project involving the Federation, Scientia, and the Ur government has been underway at that facility. Recently, however, a new faction has gained control of the Ur government."
"Citizen dissatisfaction was high with the aggressive secularity of the previous government," Niklaus explained. "The new party they have elected has strong ties to the Fleet Church and Artaxerxes, and is not as friendly to the Federation or Scientia. One of our researchers at the facility has contacted us. He has provided solid evidence that the government intends to seize sole control of the facility, and in particular our project."
"The research subject is Federation property, and of vital national security importance," said Koi. "It must be retrieved."
"In addition, the extraction of the scientist is a primary objective," Niklaus said, stroking his thin, neat mustache. "Secondarily, you are to misdirect any investigations as to your purpose, origins, and loyalties."
Koi's pudgy face pinked slightly, and he shifted uncomfortably. "We have created a cover identity for you as a member of an extremist religious group opposed to Scientia. You are to leave evidence that this was a random terrorist attack." He took a sip of coffee from the mug at his elbow.
"If you accept the mission, further data will be provided to you. You would leave immediately."
"If I accept?" asked Sardula.
Koi nodded. "This is a dangerous mission," he said. "You have the option of refusing. No disciplinary action will be taken, and no record of this meeting exists."
"I am a soldier, Senator Koi," Sardula said. "I am prepared to die."
"Admirable," said Niklaus. "Understand, however, that if you are killed or captured it will be as a terrorist, not a Federation soldier. Sardula Diesieger will be erased from history."
"Soldier or no, you are a free individual, lieutenant. You may choose to take this mission or not."
No expression crossed Sardula's face, but she found herself feeling vaguely sorry for the two humans before her. Unlike them, she knew the purpose for which she was created. Her body, abilities, and personality were crafted to excel at destroying the Federation's enemies. Two years ago she emerged from a prototyping plant full-grown and educated, ready to begin service, and she had served since. The legal fictions with which they comforted themselves, filled the void of not knowing why they were made, had no meaning for her. "I will take the mission," she said.
The two men glanced at each other. "Good," said Niklaus. "We will transmit the full mission details to you within the hour."
"Good luck," said Koi. "I'll try to find a cover story to give you a medal when you return."
"Thank you, senator," Sardula said. He didn't understand. Few even among the Realians did, let alone humans.