End in Fire, Book I Zenith, Chapter 1

By Matthew James Seidel.

BOOK I: Zenith

Previous Section: Prologue, Next section: Chapter 2, Contents page.

Chapter 1

Like all patriotic holidays, Arrival Day accentuated the brutally maintained divisions within society. That was not, of course, its stated purpose. In fact, according to Malcolm Grady, Assistant Manager of the Public Relations Department, this upcoming Arrival Day in particular was about collective pride.

“Every year we talk about how grateful we should be and it’s true, we absolutely should be grateful to the Founder’s vision and to the Golden Age Corporation as a whole for making his vision a reality. And on a personal level, we should be grateful that our great-grandparents had the courage to trust in that vision and embrace a bold new future. But I think tomorrow, when we celebrate their accomplishments, we need to let ourselves be proud of what we’ve accomplished, too. We owe the first generation of colonists everything. But our children also owe us something and their children will owe them because we, as a society, didn’t stop dreaming after we reached Mars. We didn’t stop…working hard or being ambitious or…or pushing boundaries.”

Grady laughed, “I mean, think about all we’ve done in just the last few years! Think of the ships we’ve sent out to explore the solar system, the satellites we’ve built, the machines we’ve designed to extract minerals from asteroids. We’ve even improved the colony itself, made dome-generated energy production more efficient, added more water layers for cosmic ray protection, given Sector C more of a voice in management decisions, we’ve…sorry, Shirley, don’t worry, I see the blinking light. I know I get carried away and I have to wrap it up so you can introduce this year’s Arrival Day essay contest winner.”

“Any chance you could stick around,” asked Shirley from the other side of the curved news desk, “and talk to Greg afterwards?”

“Wish I could, but send along the essay and if it’s as good as I’ve heard, maybe I can find him a job!”

Grady, Shirley Ireson, and her co-anchor of Morning Upload, Miguel Diviera all shared a good laugh. None of them stopped laughing until Grady did.

“Oh, you’re too much!” Shirley said. “Well, thank you again for coming in person. We really appreciate it. Any final comments before we bring out Greg?”

“Just one if you don’t mind.”

“Please, go right ahead.”

“Thank you. I just wanted to say to everyone listening that I understand it might be hard to feel proud given what a difficult year it’s been. There’s no point ignoring the obvious. We’ve all heard about the protests, the confrontations with the peace officers, the Harinites. But the Zenith Colony has faced difficult times before. I remember when I was a kid how worried everyone was about this other gang called the Citizens. But I asked my kids the other day if they knew who they were and you know what they said?”

“What?” Shirley and Miguel asked simultaneously, their faces brimming with anticipation.

“They said, ‘Is that that new band?’”

Another good laugh from everyone.

“My point is,” Grady said, still chuckling, “we’ve faced challenges like the Harinites before but I promise that pretty soon they’ll just be something you might read about in a history book. The worst thing we could do is let them ruin tomorrow by thinking about them at all. Don’t give them the satis—”

The news broadcast, along with every program airing on every other channel, from the handful of public ones to the thousands of private, customized channels algorithms designed for every subscriber, switched to a message printed in white capital letters against a pitch-black background. It was from Seth Harin, announcing the Zenith Revolutionary Army had just set off a bomb at the Victor Zife Art Museum.


Terrorism instantly unites society through the shock of collective trauma. That anything, however, even terrorism, could unite all of Zenith was remarkable. The very design of the colony encouraged people to feel separate. At its center was Sector A, filled with administrative offices and an apartment complex for the most powerful in the corporate hierarchy, all clustered around the gigantic Main Office. Encircling this area was Sector B, or the Middle, home to over a hundred picturesque, gated communities. It did not contain any of the important offices in Zenith, and its highest buildings were dwarfed by the Main Office, the only structure visible above the high wall surrounding the colony center. But with its schools and gyms and restaurants and shops and cafes and brightly colored homes, it radiated a warmth totally absent in the monochromatic Sector A, or the Center. And it contained the only university in the entire colony, a building that inspired great pride.

Sector C, or the Outer officially—the Waste unofficially—encircled both these sectors. It made up seventy-seven percent of the Zenith Colony in terms of size, so was divided into further subsectors. Seventy percent of the population lived there, the vast majority of whom were, according to the story emphasized every Arrival Day, descended from those who came to Mars on the second journey from Earth.

On the surface, it might look like barely anyone lived in Sector C. Where Sector A contained towering offices and Sector B’s neighborhoods housed nearly the remaining thirty-percent of the population, there were no homes in Sector C. The dilapidated buildings that were there were scattered seemingly at random and the majority were only one floor. Sometimes the entrances were just high enough for an adult to enter, provided they stooped. Others had no entrance at all, and looked rather like structures that had sunk into the concrete that was laid over the entire colony floor to protect from the toxic regolith below. Unlike Sectors B or C, however, there were no screens built into the floor that—just as the screens above could project the day or night skies—could simulate grass or water or any other kind of surface the colonists’ ancestors knew on Earth. Throughout Sector C, the ground was a uniform gray.

Below the surface was a different matter. Within the enormous once empty lava tubes, formed by ancient Martian volcanoes, was a dense network of small dwelling quarters and workplaces, all connected by trains that limped along through tunnels mined over the course of a century.

The workplaces scattered underground were not much bigger than the austere dwellings, and the widest still had low ceilings. No matter where you were, the farthest you could ever see was a few yards away. The shape of this extensive network was compared accurately in a Sector B elementary school textbook to a collection of ant-colonies that once existed on Earth.

The people living in Sector C could go to the surface if they wished, but the areas that weren’t controlled by criminals were heavily policed by peace officers. Both were equally dangerous. It was also possible to enter Sector B. Those lucky enough to get work there—babysitters, mechanics, nurses, drivers, and so forth—went every day. But they carried permits to justify their presence, and not even these permits could guarantee safety from the peace officers or the general public.

Sector A, however, was off limits to anyone from Sector C without authorization from a department manager, who in turn needed approval from the director. Only a handful of colonists from the Outer had ever set foot there.

For all the stark differences between the masses in Sector C and the rest in Sectors B and A, the terrorist attack on the art museum did manage to unite them. The humblest family in Sector C was aware that they were obsessively watching the news as dumbfounded as students at the university. They would drift apart soon enough when shock gave way to rage in Sector B and fear in Sector C since they knew they would all be blamed for the actions of the Harinites. But for a brief moment, they were all asking themselves the same two questions. First, how had the Harinites managed to blow up a building so deep in Sector B it was practically at the edge of Sector A? And second, how would Director Louis Gern react to this latest act of aggression by Seth Harin?

But while everyone was devouring the latest bits of news from any source they could find in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Louis Gern was in his bathroom, staring at his reflection, unaware the attack had even taken place.


“You don’t look like a director.”

As often as this thought plagued Gern, this was the first time he said it aloud.

“You don’t look like a director,” he repeated, sneering at his reflection. “Look at the bags under your eyes. Look at your skin. You look old. Old and pathetic and…soft!”

He undid his belt, pulled up his shirt, and lowered his pants all in a few frantic seconds so he could roughly grab hold of his side.”

“Soft!” He squeezed his side, staring at the reddening skin, amazed by how much it resembled dough.

He let go in disgust and held up a smaller mirror and positioned it so he could see his bald spot.

Look, he thought in disgust, it’s bigger! You want to lie to yourself? Go on, say it isn’t bigger. Say it’s smaller. Say it’s gone! Say whatever you like because it doesn’t matter because everyone sees you for the old, pathetic, soft creature you are.

Gern pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, telling himself to breathe. But his eyes sprang open again and he looked at his reflection with renewed wrath when, as always happened when he fixated on his bald spot, he thought of Daniel Mardo.

“Let me tell you something, kid,” Daniel had instructed him on his first day as an intern in the Public Safety and Security Department. “If you want to be a leader, you need two things. First, you need a tie. You can say the dumbest shit in the world but if you’ve got expensive clothes and a nice tie on, everyone will listen to you. Even the ones smart enough to know you’re full of shit will tell themselves it must be me, I must not get it, because look at this guy with his fancy tie. And second, you need hair. Real, fake, it doesn’t matter. Actually if people all know it’s fake that can help because it shows you can afford it. Even a toupee works, because who’s going to tell you you’ve got a toupee? Get people to fear you enough and they won’t even dare whisper it amongst their friends or family. They won’t even let themselves think it! Now wrinkles they can go either way. Wear wrinkles right and you’ll look wise. Wear em’ wrong and you’ll look like one of those ghouls in our elder care and appreciation centers,” he said with a devilish smirk. “Same with height. You don’t want to be too short or too tall, but you’re nice and average there. If you’re planning on becoming fat, carry yourself the right way and you’ll look imposing. Otherwise, you’ll come off soft.” Mardo spoke the last word with particular venom.

“Confidence can make up for a lot, because most people have none, especially bureaucrats. Most of em’ feel like imposters who are going to be exposed any minute. But there’s a limit. And remember there’s a difference between being someone respected and someone who can be a true leader. So if you wanna make it to the top, wear a tie and hold onto your hair.”

Now here you are, Gern thought to himself, going bald just like Daniel warned you not to. His most expensive ties were no match for those two grim realities, and he was beginning to admit to himself that he was speaking less confidently these days. Instead, when he listened to himself talking to subordinates, he oscillated between sounding uncertain or shrill with indignation at the suggestion he didn’t have things totally under control. Even his face was looking worse. His eyes were sinking into his round face, his nose had a reddish rash that wouldn’t go away despite all the creams he applied, and he hated how he looked totally clean shaven. The only reason he didn’t grow a beard was because every attempt only left him with a few disconnected patches.

Gern couldn’t look at himself anymore. He walked out the bathroom and into the expansive living room. Little had changed since he moved into the Director’s Suite. The furniture, paintings, bookshelves, everything that was refined or cultured dated back to Zenith’s first director, Claude Louis Mardo, Daniel’s grandfather. Subsequent directors had mostly preserved the suite like a museum, partly out of respect but more so because there was no way to improve it. Plenty of Golden Age administrators had paintings, but all the paintings here were originals. When he ran his fingertips across the canvas, he felt real paint, not the smooth, glossy surface of a print. His fingers certainly didn’t pass right through like any paintings you might find in Sector C, where the most people could afford were framed holograms. Real books were just as rare a commodity. Department managers might have five or six. The Director’s Suite held more than thirty.

And so directors after Claude Louis Mardo only added a few things to the suite, things that could be easily removed when the next director moved in. But the few people who visited Gern in the Director’s Suite were astonished by how little the place had changed even by past directors’ minimal standards. Aside from a few pieces of furniture being rearranged, it did not seem like he altered anything at all and certainly had not added anything. They were almost right—Gern had added nothing of his own except a single book, kept under his mattress.

Now here you are—these words that always precipitated an accusation against himself—polluting this place with your pathetic self with your shirt untucked and your gut hanging out because you can’t even be bothered to buckle your belt. At the same time, Gern felt a certain pride in being able to walk around such a hallowed place as the Director’s Suite like this. He always tried to look his best whether he was outside the suite or inside. The only two exceptions were the bedroom and bathroom. It felt sinful to do otherwise, an insult to the great figures that once lived here. Yet for the first time in three years, now that, lost in self-loathing, he had accidentally wandered into the living room so disheveled, the suite felt like home.

A long drone came from the front door, which was so old fashioned that you had to turn a knob to open it as opposed to simply activating a button to have it slide open. Gern sighed. He shouted towards the door, “What!”

To his horror, the door opened.

Neither Gern nor the young man standing in the doorway stared blankly at each other. The young man froze, eyes full of terror, the moment he saw Gern. Gern froze, too, though after five painful seconds passed, his hands slackened just enough that they could no longer support his pants. They fell to the floor, and another few humiliating seconds passed in silence. The only thing that saved the young man’s life was that Gern was wearing underwear.

“Close the door!” Gern screamed.

The young man flinched, turned, and slammed it shut. In the process, he dropped a Golden Tablet and a folder full of papers to the floor.

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m—”

Gern flew at him as soon as he had pulled his pants up. He was still fumbling with his belt when he screamed even louder, “Why did you open that door!”

“Y-You said t-to come in, sir.”

“I said what! I said what! Does what sound like come in?”

The young man shot to his feet once he’d collected everything. “N-no, sir, I’m so sor—”

“How did you get past the guards?”

“I showed them my badge, sir.”

“Badge? What badge? Who are you!”

“Alex…Alexander, sir. Alexander Rhodes? Your new intern?” He held up a green badge. Green badges allowed the highest level of clearance to an intern. Only the most accomplished interns could qualify for one, and even then they had to distinguish themselves from everyone else.

Gern’s fury needed more than one target. “Who assigned you to me?”

“You did.”


“You did, sir. My supervisor…she showed me.” He rapidly tapped on the Golden Tablet until he found the file. “Here. She said you knew I was coming today?” he asked more than stated.

Gern snatched the tablet from Rhodes’ quivering hand and stared at his signature. He had no memory of signing it, but had no doubt it had been one of those endless documents his secretary had him sign at the end of each day.

“Tell your supervisor she has no right to have me sign something like this without making clear it’s important!”

“I will, sir.”

Gern sighed. “Let me see my agenda.”

Rhodes quickly opened a new file.

“Wait…where’s…I was supposed to have a meeting with the Atmospheric Monitoring Department in two hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why isn’t it here?”

“Your secretary canceled it.”

Gern’s face was so tight he could speak.

“John canceled it?” he sputtered. “Why would he do something like that without my permission?”

“Because of the attack, sir?” Rhodes replied, trying to not make the answer sound too obvious.

“What attack?”

So thanks to his new intern, Director Louis Gern became the last person in Zenith to learn about the explosion.


“Did you know,” Gern asked, changing into his finest suit while Rhodes waited in the living room, “this is the first day I didn’t spend my whole morning watching the news?”

“No, sir,” he called back.

“Of course you didn’t! What was your name again?”

“Alexander Rhodes, sir.”

“If you’re going to be my intern, you need to be able to tell when I’m talking to myself and when I’m actually asking you a question. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. See? You’re already catching on. Now, what was I saying?”

“You said this was the first time you didn’t spend the morning watching the news.”

“Right, the first time I decided to let myself sleep in a few hours, just a few hours, and after that I read a book. A real book. Those are the only luxuries I ever allow myself—a few extra hours of sleep and time to read a book—and this is the day Seth Harin blows up a building. He couldn’t even wait until the afternoon, when I’d be in the office! It’s like he knew I was giving myself one peaceful morning, the first I’ve had in…in I don’t know how long! Do you know why I was relaxing just the slightest bit this morning? That was an actual question.”

“Oh, no, sir, I don’t.”

“All this planning for Arrival Day, it’s non-stop, coordinating with every department. Do you know what the worst part is?”

“What, sir?”

“It’s so dull! Everyone thinks Arrival Day is wonderful because there’s no school, Seconders can make a few extra points for any jobs they work, there’s a big show with music and the whole thing’s this big garish display but for me it’s a giant headache and I don’t mind headaches, I don’t mind working, I work harder than anyone, everyone knows that, but this isn’t like organizing a new construction project or developing new weapons for the peace officers, something useful, this is work where the end is a party that barely lasts a day and then it’s over until next year when you have to do it all again! Does that sound like a good use of the director’s time?”

“No, sir.”

He stepped out of the bedroom.

“Well? How do I look?”

“Great, sir.”

“If you’re going to amount to anything more than an intern, you’ll need to get better at lying. C’mon.”

Gern led Rhodes out into the lush hallway, covered by a rich red carpet embroidered with an intricate pattern. The walls were lined with almost as many antique, genuine paintings as the Director’s Suite. They passed the three peace officers and straight on until they reached a narrow gold elevator.

“I know it’s tight,” Gern said when they both were inside. “I’m usually in here alone. This elevator is only for the director. You should feel very privileged to be here.”

“I do, sir.”

“I got to be inside this elevator once, before I was a director, and I had to wait until I was a hell of a lot more than an intern.”

Rhodes said nothing.

As the elevator took them down fifty floors, Gern studied his intern. He was nineteen, maybe twenty. His suit looked brand new. Gern thought he recognized it from one of the more expensive stores in Sector B. Rhodes was clearly still dwelling on his terrible mistake. But now that some time had passed he was growing more composed by the second. He stood with the bearing of a man about to give a press conference. Gern had seen young people swagger through Sector A for years, ambitious, vain, and hungry.

“Alexander Rhodes, did I get that right?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, trying not to look too happy that Gern had finally remembered.

“Did you know I cook all my own food?”


“I know, seems like a strange question. But humor me.”

“No, I didn’t, sir.”

“I clean the suite myself, too. Once a week. Did you know that?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re probably wondering why, right? Why would the director of the Zenith Colony cook his own food and clean his own suite? Doesn’t he have servants to do that? And you’re right, there were chefs and cleaners. The best in the whole colony. You know what I did?”

“What, sir?”

“I fired them.”


“Now, I could say the reason is that I like cleaning, but that’s a lie. I hate cleaning. And cooking, well, I actually enjoy cooking. I don’t mind telling you, it’s an open secret. But the reason I fired all of them was I didn’t want people from the Waste in my home, and I’d never ask someone from the Middle to do that kind of work. Does that make sense to you?”

“Of course, sir.”

“I don’t like having them around me. I don’t like knowing a Seconder touched my things. I certainly don’t want them making my food. I don’t even like looking at them.”

“Neither do I, sir!” Rhodes said emphatically. “My family, we have some servants from the Waste, I mean, lots of families do, but I don’t like it. My mother especially hates having them around.”

“Funny you should say that, because it just makes me more curious why I now have a Seconder for an intern.”

Rhodes turned, ready to protest. But the certainty in Gern’s face deflated Rhodes. All his renewed confidence collapsed. He looked down at his feet just as the elevator passed the bottom floor and began its journey underground.

“What’s your real name?” Gern asked.

“Alexander.” He dabbed a few beads of sweat off his forehead. “I swear, sir.”

“What about Rhodes? Is that your real name, too?”

“Yes, sir. You can check—”

“But you are a Seconder.” It was not a question.

“I…I mean my parents were.”

“Which makes you a Seconder.”

Rhodes looked paralyzed, unable to decide how to salvage the situation.

“So how’d you do it? How’d you get all the way here? Did you grow up in the Middle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let me guess. Adopted?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But they didn’t know you were a Seconder.”

“All I know is my mother brought me to an orphanage in Sector B and convinced the staff to take me in, pretend I wasn’t…”

“I get the idea. I’ve heard of this kind of thing. Happens more than you’d think. Some bleeding heart wants to feel virtuous, decides to help out a Seconder. It’s very touching. Don’t look so worried. I won’t tell anyone your secret.”

Rhodes almost laughed in relief. “Thank you, sir. Can I ask…how did you know? No one’s ever thought I wasn’t…I mean, I’m lighter than you!”

Rhodes immediately regretted the comment. Gern let the excruciating silence drag on a while.

“I have a good eye for imposters,” he finally replied.”

A few moments later the elevator door opened to the Executive Tunnel, which connected the Executive Building where Gern and every other member of upper management lived to the Main Office. The white platform beneath their feet was polished so they could almost make out their reflections. The walls, too, were bright and spotless, though most were inlaid with displays. Some cycled endlessly through a series of ads. Others were tuned to official news channels. Only the rocky, uneven ceiling indicated they were underground.

Gern frowned. “Where is everyone?”

“Probably at the Main Office, sir.”

Gern took a deep breath.

“Perfect. The director gets to be the last one in. Just perfect.”

Gern went up to a tablet attached to a podium to call a train.

“So, as long as we’re being honest, what do you think of my bald spot? Don’t bother telling me you can’t see it. Well? What do you think?”

“I…I’m not sure what you want me to—”

“You know who Daniel Mardo was?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Of course, sir,” Gern mimicked. “I used to work for him when he was in charge of Public Safety and Security. You knew he was in charge of that department?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you know I used to be in charge of it, too?”

“Really?” Rhodes could immediately tell Gern was insulted.

“It’s fine, I don’t care. I don’t need people to know about all my accomplishments. Anyway, it makes sense you’d know about Daniel. Being assassinated tends to make you more memorable.” Gern tried to sound lighthearted, but his attempt to laugh came off sad and insincere.

“He told me you need hair to be a leader. I used to have great hair. I know that sounds vain and it is vain, I know it is, but I didn’t used to think I was vain when it came to my hair. I didn’t think about my hair at all. Now I know the only reason I didn’t worry about my hair was because I assumed it would always be there, that I’d never get old, like I’m sure you do. You know your body won’t stay the same as you were when you were in your twenties, but you don’t really know it, or you don’t believe it, that’s what I mean. I didn’t even believe it when my hair was thinning, I lied to myself, I put off getting a toupee or that surgery some people get and now…” Gern gestured with disgust towards his head.

“Sir, I don’t think it’s that—”

“You know what someone told me a while back? That I should get my hair cut short so the bald spot wouldn’t be so noticeable. Isn’t that the most idiotic thing? I’m worried I’m losing my hair so the solution is to lose my hair?

“I think what they meant—”

“Must’ve been an accelerationalist. You know what that is?”

“Yes, sir, my focus my last year of school was—”

“This is a waste of time! Seth Harin just bombed the art museum and we’re talking about hair! Might as well talk about my grotesque gut!”

“Sir, I don’t think you look bad.”

“Maybe you are a good liar. I guess you have to be. You lie every day of your life. You know, I told everyone something like this would happen. No one believed me, they said we increased security so much after the last attack that they wouldn’t dare attack again for a while and certainly not in Sector B again, but here we are. No one listened to me then and watch, they won’t listen to me now, they’ll—”

Suddenly the train, hardly making a sound, arrived. It was not so much a train, however, as a series of linked blindingly white cube compartments that could comfortably fit three people at most.

“Give me all that.”

Rhodes handed Gern the tablet and folder. When Gern noticed Rhodes following him to the middle compartment, Gern stopped.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m…following you, sir.” What began as a statement sounded almost like a question by the end.

“No, I don’t think I’ll need you today.”

“What should I do then, sir?”

Gern didn’t answer. He boarded the train and as soon as it started moving he made a mental note to have Rhodes reassigned. It was already impossible to accept having a Seconder as an intern. But even if he was descended from Victor Zife himself, he could never have an intern who had seen him with his pants down.


It would take a few minutes to reach the Main Office. For the first minute, Gern activated his Z-link and watched the news projected before his eyes. The images were crystal clear from his perspective, but anyone else would have only seen a gray haze. With enough points, it was possible to buy a privacy setting that prevented others from seeing what you were watching. However, the cost for this level of privacy was going up each year, so more people were resigning themselves to either having no privacy or looking at their GoldenPhones, which were also getting more expensive.

Unfortunately, he had not paid his monthly bill to remove ads.

“Is the news stressing you out?” asked a soothing voice while a black and white video played of a woman scrolling through her GoldenPhone feed, the news clearly stressing her out. The image changed to colored shots of her meditating peacefully in her living room. “Purchase our meditation audio aide now to achieve a new level of tranquility.” Gern was relieved when the image dissolved into what he knew was the last portion of the ad. “Find what you’re missing at the Church of You,” the voice concluded as the logo of the official Zenith church above contact information and a link where you could connect your points account to make automatic payments.

When the news footage returned, Gern hardly paid attention. Journalists barely had anything to go on, so they fell back on talking about Seth Harin and his followers. They interviewed people, asked their opinion of the Harinites, which was always the same, and debated amongst themselves about the degree and scope of the threat Harin posed. With this latest attack, everyone was insisting something must be done.

Gern knew he would be the one expected to do something, but was at a loss. There had been agitators before, protestors, even saboteurs and violent groups. But all of them had confined their activities to Sector C. Any news about them only reached residents of Sector B through photos and videos. And as ugly as some might have been, the most gruesome footage was never aired. It was easy, then, to modulate the average colonist’s response, who at worst might moan about how savage the Seconders were, how they didn’t deserve to live in Zenith, or assault someone now and then. Now the attacks were happening in Sector B—this latest was the third this year and the eleventh in the last two. To everyone’s horror, agitators, protestors, and saboteurs were coming from Sector B, too. People no longer had to watch the news to see violent clashes between mobs and the peace officers. They just had to look outside their windows, where teenagers and twenty-somethings, mostly university students, stood in solidarity with Seconders who were getting more brazen by the day. Giving the peace officers more funding and less restrictions had only emboldened them.

As if all this weren’t enough, there were more militias in Zenith than ever before. Gern skimmed through the papers in the folder the intern had given him and, sure enough, it was full of pamphlets from the dozens of groups that had spawned in reaction to Seth Harin’s recent notoriety. The Supervisors, the Final Stand, the Vigilant, the Golden Shield, the Watch, the Guardians, the Protectors, the Defense, the Last Defense, the Defenders, The Last Defenders. Dozens of them with barely distinguishable names and none of them comprised of more than a few dozen disgruntled people, mostly men, who wanted to feel like avenging superheroes. They supported the Golden Age Corporation, but they could still be a nuisance, especially during protests. Peace officers had enough trouble maintaining order without them escalating things. Finally, there was the sudden outbreak of unions and unions of unions, hundreds of them with more every week, pretending to be autonomous but really just fronts for the Harinites. Gern was only grateful that they didn’t give themselves similar-sounding names he would be expected to memorize.

Suddenly, a familiar face on the news caught Gern’s attention. It was Daniel Mardo’s daughter, Remy, walking towards the Main Office’s front door.

“We’re right outside the Main Office where Department of Labor Relations Manager Remy Mardo has just arrived. Ms. Mardo, Ms. Mardo could you please comment on the attack?”

Remy shook her head. Without stopping, she said, “It’s a tragedy and our hearts go out to all the victims of this senseless attack.”

“Do you believe Seth Harin is responsible?” asked the reporter, hurrying alongside her.

“He’s certainly happy enough to claim responsibility.”

“Do you know how Harin was able to upload his message to the Z-net? Have you been able to track the source?”

“I’m sorry, but I have to go. Excuse me.”

One of the two bodyguards that always followed Remy and her constant companion, Public Safety and Security Manager, Francis Metzdorf, stepped between them and the reporter. The cameraman unwisely tried to sneak past. The footage cut to black.

Of course she walked to the Main Office, Gern thought. Of course she didn’t take the underground train like you because you’re a coward and she’s so brave, that’s what everyone’s thinking, they’re thinking look at Remy Mardo, she’s not afraid of being shot or blown up, not like Director Gern and where is he anyway?

Gern shut off the news. He knew he couldn’t meet his subordinates, let alone the press, so upset. He also knew the only thing that could calm him down but there was less than a minute left before he would reach the Main Office.

Still, after needlessly checking the empty train compartments on either side to make sure he was alone, he folded his hands, closed his eyes, and prayed.


Gern remembered how stunned he was the first time he entered the Main Office. Like everyone else, he had been desperate to know what it was like inside the most important place in all Zenith. He assumed it would be beautiful, a work of art. And it was beautiful, Gern still had to remind himself. He simply had to alter his definition of beautiful.

The Main Office had a minimalist aesthetic, everything functional, without decoration or color. Every single element, from floor to the ceiling supported by massive octagonal columns high above, was a non-reflective white. Carefully placed black sections and outlines prevented everything on the massive first floor from blurring together. The only other color was the gold in the Golden Age Corporation logo, and even that was black and only outlined in gold.

There were people in suits everywhere, bustling about, conversations coalescing into an unintelligible din. Though as Gern approached, any nearby conversations quickly subsided into awkward whispers, picking up again in his wake.

Gern hurried past, trying to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze. He did not want to speak to anyone, least of all Remy, who might be nearby.

Once inside the only elevator with the Golden Age logo emblazoned on it, also reserved exclusively for the director, Gern read over the tablet Rhodes had handed him. All interns were expected to collect the most important data from every department and distill it into a concise report. This one focused on all the details known about the attack, like Gern expected, but he marveled at just how profesional a job Rhodes had done. It was better written, better organized, and shorter than any of the reports his past interns had produced. By the time the elevator brought him to the second-highest floor, he felt fully informed, ready to talk knowledgably about the situation to subordinates, or even the press. It was a shame, Gern thought, that he would have to get rid of Rhodes.

The décor of the director’s floor was in stark contrast to the rest of the building. It had also been designed by Claude Louis Mardo. With its carpeted floor, wooden desks, old-fashioned doors, antique lamps, and few paintings, it almost looked like the suite. And like the suite, no director after Claude Louis Mardo had changed the floor in any substantial way. Gern had, in fact, not changed a single thing.

“Good morning, Louis.”

John was busily typing away on his desk, which looked like an ornate wooden antique but had a large touch screen in the center. Like Gern he was middle-aged, but he radiated a quiet confidence and light-heartedness that made all the little signs of age that Gern obsessed over seem unimportant. Gern personally felt this was because he still had a full head of chestnut hair and could grow a thick beard.

Gern strode past his secretary and towards his office. “Yeah, fantastic morning, John. Any messages?”

“About a hundred.”

“Handle them for me.”

“Already started.”

“Then could you get me a cup of—”

There was a cup of coffee waiting on his desk.


“You wanted it black, right?”

“What? No, with milk! Have I ever asked—”

“I’m kidding!” John said. He got up and stood in the doorway as Gern settled in. “I know what kind of coffee you like. You’re the most predictable man I’ve ever met.”

“I resent that.”

“I know.”

“You’re in an awfully jovial mood considering there was a terrorist attack.”

“I’m not really, but I know it’s going to be a miserable day, so figured I could try to get at least one smile or two outta you first.”

“Well, nice try.”

“You smiled.”

“I think I’d know if I smiled.”

“Oh, right, Louis Gern never smiles. He’s too stern. He’s—”

The door opened and a messenger came in with a tablet.

Gern cleared his throat and waved John off. “Go uh…go take care of that.”

John nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“And get me…Deborah Mills on the phone.”

“Yes, sir,” John repeated before closing the door behind him.

Gern obsessively moved the few folders and tablets before him to line them up more precisely until a small, circular screen near the main screen in the center of his desk began to flash. Gern announced, “Accept call.”

Deborah Mills, Manager of the Department of Public Relations, appeared. The latest software update had made the image even more lifelike than before. He could see individual gray hairs on her head, the bags under her eyes, the permanent crease between her eyes from constantly furrowing her brow. Gern could almost believe he was speaking not to a projection but to the disembodied upper half of Mill’s body behind her desk.

“So how are we spinning this?” Gern barked before Mills could say a word.

“We haven’t let out too much information yet, sir.”

“I noticed.”

“But I just got off with Metzdorf. Apparently they have some kid in custody who met the Harinite shortly before the explosion.”


“The kid says the Harinite told him to go to the entrance, that you were there and if he said something to the peace officers they’d let him meet you.”

“Did he want the kid to deliver a message to us or something?”

“That’s all Metzdorf told me.”

“But why would he tell the kid that?”

“I don’t know for sure, sir, but he might have been trying to save his life.”

“So he was fine murdering everyone else but a kid, that would have crossed the line.”

“It does look like this was the only kid in the museum at the time.”

“Well, how do you think we should spin it?”

Mills didn’t hesitate. “We say the kid thought this guy looked suspicious and was going to the peace officers to get help.”

“What about his parents?”

“The kid told them they thought he looked suspicious, his parents agreed, and they told him to get the peace officers. Maybe the parents played it off like he needed to go to the bathroom or something like that. They didn’t want to spook the Harinite, and all three of them leaving might have tipped him off.”

“Okay…that works. What about the message Seth Harin sent out? Who got it?”

“Everyone got it.”

“I didn’t.”

“Well, you didn’t, sir. No one in upper management did. Our security software blocked it out. But Metzdorf did say it still spread unusually far, which means even if they didn’t crack our best security software, they are getting better. They got into all the biggest GoldenVerse games, too. It showed up in the middle of a semifinal Coliseum match.”

Gern had never played Coliseum but John loved it. He had been talking about this semifinal match all week.

“Well, what was the message? Send it to me.”

Gern took out his personal tablet and opened the document Mills sent.











Gern threw up his hands triumphantly.

“I told you! I told you this would happen!”

Mills closed her eyes. “You did, sir.”

“None of you believed me!”

“We didn’t, sir.”

“I said give him a year, give him a few months, anything, otherwise—”

“Sir, if I may, you’re right, Doobin’s acquittal has been…problematic. But for the time being—”

Problematic. Gern had heard that word too often to cover everything from trivialities to disasters. “Handle the media and I’ll get back to you this afternoon.”

“Yes, sir. Oh, wait! Director Gern, there was one other thing. The Harinite was Nathan O’Maly.”

“O’Maly…why do I know that name?”

“Nathan was Brian O’Maly’s son.”

“Brian from the university board?”

Mills nodded solemnly, but the hint of a smile animating her generally stoic face revealed how much she was enjoying the scandal.

“Is there any chance this could get out?” Gern asked.

“Not unless we want it to.”

“Why would we want people knowing a university board member’s son became a terrorist?”

“I’m not saying it’s definitely a good idea.” Mills shifted into the pose she used to default to when lecturing to students as a university professor on media studies. “Basically, there are two ways to play this. We could say it was some Seconder from the Waste. Actually there are a few in particular Metzdorf suggested we blame. But if we let people know a university board member’s son became a Harinite, it could get us more support from the Middle to crack down on student groups. It could put students on the defensive. We say that anyone in Sector B who supports Seconders is either a Harinite or an apologist. That could give us some breathing room to take back the narrative. I don’t think they’ve totally seized the narrative, by the way, but we could be doing better overall. I’ve seen some polls that show they’re starting to get support from more colonists in the 25 – 40 demographic. Personally, I think it’s worth exploring, especially since the blaming Seconders narrative is getting stale. It still works, but the student movements are starting to figure out ways of getting around it.”

Gern considered the options in silence for almost thirty seconds. Daniel had told him long ago silence was a great tool to let subordinates know where they stood.

“You could be right,” he finally said. “Write up a proposal with possible risks for me in two hours. In the meantime, just make sure no one in your department leaks this. Same goes for Metzdorf. I don’t mind him telling you—”

“Oh, I heard it from Remy.”


“Yeah, Metzdorf told her and she told me. Don’t worry, I don’t think Metzdorf even told anyone except the people directly under him.”

“Aside from Remy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Because it’s obviously vital she knows.”

“I agree it doesn’t affect Labor Relations, but it’s not surprising he’d tell her,” Mills replied. “They’re practically family.”

Gern scoffed.

“I’ll let you know if I come across anything else, sir, though you might want to reach out to Remy directly. She always seems to know everything first.”

“Oh really? Does she know about the Seconder who lied his way into becoming my intern?”

Mill’s eyes widened. “What?”


Mills waited. Gern’s mouth started to fall open but he closed it in time. He would have taken it back if he could, but it was too late now. Besides, he enjoyed the expectant look in Mills’ eyes and couldn’t resist the chance to scoop Remy.

“Alexander Rhodes. He was just assigned to me today. He’s a Seconder.”


“Someone at an orphanage falsified his records. You know, that whole scam.”

“How did you find out?”

Gern smirked. “I’ll fill you in some other time.” He was immensely proud of himself for not explaining it all at once. Now he’d be able to hold Mills’ interest all over again later. Maybe more people. Maybe he could gather a whole crowd around him, all listening to his story in rapt attention, the way they crowded around Remy.

He abruptly cut off communication, eager to have the last word and demonstrate how busy he was.

But as he went to press a button that would summon John, he hesitated, suddenly feeling nauseous. He thought about Alexander. A moment later he reassured himself that it would be fine, and even if Mills does tell someone and people find out about Alexander, whatever happens isn’t your fault. Someone else would have found him out sooner or later. And better he’s found out now than when he became a manager of a department or…

Gern shook his head, reminding himself Alexander wasn’t worth his time. He reached out again to summon John.

But before he could John opened the door.

“Director Gern—”

Four peace officers, each at least a foot taller than John shoved past him. They were dressed like typical peace officers, but their uniforms were black and gold, not black and a shade of rust. And instead of ash gray their masks were as black as their goggles. There was no device to scramble their speech beneath, either. They didn’t need them since they never spoke. Because they had no other name, the handful of people in Zenith’s entire history who had ever seen them simply called them the Quiet Ones.

Gern sprang to his feet just as a black gloved hand wrapped completely around his arm and dragged him forward.

In a hushed whisper, trying to maintain the illusion for Gern’s sake that he had any choice in the matter, John announced, “Mr. Dasik would like to speak to you.”


For as long as Gern could remember, he had imagined that the director of the Zenith Colony stood at the peak of a great pyramid of power. He ached to reach that peak, and every step closer—from intern to department manager—made the yearning more intense. But he did not let himself imagine what it would be like to be the director, certain that even a single indulgent fantasy would somehow jeopardize his chances in reality. So when the last director informed him he had chosen him to be his successor, Gern felt unspeakably happy. He had reached the top at last.

Except it was not the top. What he thought was the peak of the pyramid was merely the base of an unimaginably larger one. And it rested atop the peaks of not only the Zenith Colony’s pyramid of power but those of the Summa and Paragon colonies, the other two colonies managed by the Golden Age Corporation. Gern had no idea if the hierarchies of these colonies were structured like Zenith’s. Like everyone else, he barely knew anything other than they existed. Only the fact that so many buildings, like the art museum, were called the Zenith “branch” prevented people from forgetting there was a world beyond the dome. Unlike everyone else, Gern knew each had a director, though he had never met either of his counterparts.

Only directors knew about the greater pyramid that rested upon the peaks of Zenith, Summa, and Paragon. At that pyramid’s dizzying summit was the Board of Directors—directors who were not to be confused with someone like Gern. Despite their shared title, Gern knew his power was nothing compared to theirs. And though he was relatively young at forty-nine when he became director of the Zenith Colony, Gern never aspired to one day join the Board himself. Even if he learned how many levels he would have to climb, the distance between him and the Board was so enormous that to imagine he could one day join them, perhaps supplant the Chairman of the Board who may or may not exist, and rule the entire Golden Age Corporation was as hopeless as imagining he might seize the throne of God.

The relative insignificance of Gern’s position was made abundantly clear when he met the Board’s liaison. Gern’s predecessor introduced him to the current liaison, Mr. Eric Dasik, and then left them to talk, something Gern learned was a tradition for outgoing Zenith directors.

About Mr. Dasik himself Gern knew almost nothing. He did not know if he worked with the other colonies or what his specific duties were. He did not know the man’s first name. But his immense power was never in question. Without ever being told, Gern understood he must always call him Mr. Dasik. Not even in his innermost thoughts did he refer to him as just Dasik.

He was a strange man. His shining black hair was too perfect, just like his custom clothes, precisely tailored to his lean frame. His smooth, wrinkleless face was what equally unnerving. His lipless mouth was a razor thin straight line. Gern had never seen him smile or frown. His tone never wavered—he said everything laconically, precisely, and at the same even, almost robotic pace. It was impossible to tell how he felt from his eyes, either. They were always hidden behind glasses with silver frames that captured Gern’s reflection in extraordinary detail while shielding Mr. Dasik’s gaze completely. Anytime Gern met Mr. Dasik, he left with the impression that the man was not quite real, like he was an avatar in the GoldenVerse.

The first time they met Gern was struck by his age and he remained just as dumbfounded now. Mr. Dasik could not be older than forty. Probably younger. How, Gern continued to wonder, could someone so young have risen to such a high position? Gern had prided himself on not wasting a second in his career. Yet here Mr. Dasik had gone so much farther so much faster. Mr. Dasik told him he was born in the Summa Colony but that explained nothing. Surely Summa’s corporate ladder was as complex and difficult to climb as Zenith’s. So how had he done it? What about the Board? Who were they? How did they earn their positions? And where were they? Where exactly was the “headquarters” Mr. Dasik alluded to now and then? Did Mr. Dasik communicate with them, or visit them directly? If directly, how did he get through the dome?

Unfortunately, Mr. Dasik made it clear the day they met that Gern’s job was to answer questions, not ask them.

That first meeting had been quite brief. Mr. Dasik explained that, with the Board’s authorization, was responsible for selecting directors for Zenith, not whoever was the current director. He also had the authority to overrule any decision Gern might make. He doubted he would do so often—Mr. Dasik was fine with Gern handling the day-to-day operations of the colony. But in the most important matters, Mr. Dasik would likely intervene. When Mr. Dasik made a decision, Gern must pretend it was his own. No one other than Zenith directors could know about Mr. Dasik’s existence, or anything they might discuss. No one else was permitted on the top floor or to know that it existed. As far as anyone else knew, there was no floor above Gern.

The only slight exception was the director’s secretary. They could know Mr. Dasik’s name and the fact that he occupied a much higher position. It was unavoidable that the secretary would see whenever Mr. Dasik’s personal attendants—the Quiet Ones—came to bring Gern to the top floor. They might look like peace offices, but they only obeyed Mr. Dasik. Since their existence must remain secret, too, they would only come when no one other than Gern and his secretary were present. When Gern asked how he would know if no one else was around, Mr. Dasik only said he’d know.

Mr. Dasik concluded by repeating that he must reveal nothing about him to anyone. His secretary was also expected to stay totally silent. Harold Thurson had only served as director for three months when he told a few friends about Mr. Dasik and their conversations while drunk. The next day Thurson decided to step down for health reasons. After claiming to select his successor, he was found dead from heart failure which, Mr. Dasik noted, was technically true.

In the three years since Gern became director, Mr. Dasik had summoned him only twice before. It had been so long since that last visit that Gern had almost forgotten about Mr. Dasik when the Quiet Ones barged into his office and reminded him who was really in charge of Zenith.


The Quiet Ones blindfolded Gern the moment they entered the main hall of the director’s floor. They shoved him forward until, not more than ten seconds later, a door hissed open and he was pushed inside. The door hissed shut and, wedged between the four Quiet Ones and still blindfolded, Gern felt what was clearly an elevator shoot them to the top floor in seconds.

The blindfold was still not removed as they walked through a hallway. It was cold. That was all Gern knew for certain about wherever he was.

Finally, another door slid open, Gern was physically moved by one or two Quiet Ones to a specific position, and the door slid closed after they left.

“Remove the blindfold.”

Gern removed it. He still remembered how urgently the last director, before the Quiet Ones came to bring Gern to his first meeting with Mr. Dasik, reminded him to do nothing without Mr. Dasik’s permission, including taking off the blindfold.


Gern sat on the small metallic chair that chilled his thighs through his pants. The room was gray. There were no windows. One other identical chair was on the other side of a desk with only a tablet on it. Calling it a desk, however, gave it too much credit. It looked like the metallic tables in interrogation rooms. Mr. Dasik sat across from Gern, wearing the same black shoes, black pants, gray shirt—almost the same gray as the walls—thin black tie, and glasses with reflective silver lenses. Even his black suit jacket was thrown over the back of the chair the same way as the last time Gern had been in this room.

The detail that always drew Gern’s attention first was the door behind Mr. Dasik. It was nearly indistinguishable from the wall, but it was there. Gern always hoped it would open or he might notice some panel, some way of opening it. But in the few seconds before he met Mr. Dasik’s eyes he saw nothing new. And he only gave himself a few seconds. He had been reprimanded before for staring at the door.

“We need to discuss the meeting tomorrow.”

Gern had spent the entire way up preparing answers for questions about Seth Harin and the attack. Thrown off, he could only think to say, “Meeting?”

“You do read through the new political pamphlets you receive every morning.”

“Yes, Mr. Dasik, I did see them, I just—”

“You just didn’t read them.”

“No! I mean, it’s not…I didn’t read all of—”

Mr. Dasik reached for his tablet and handed it to Gern after finding a file.

“Read through them. Now.”

“All of them, sir?”

Mr. Dasik said nothing. Gern began to read.

After reading through the twenty-one pamphlets in the awkward silence, Gern handed it back to Mr. Dasik.

“Did anything strike you about them?”

Mr. Dasik hardly ever asked Gern for his opinion. He felt this was some kind of important test, which only made him more nervous and unable to think clearly.

“They…they all talk about Seth Harin,” was all he could think to say after the silence had gone on too long.


“And…six or seven mentioned a meeting.”

“Eight mentioned a meeting. Anything else?”

“And uh…”

“How many pamphlets were there?”


“Twenty-one. Each signed by a different militia. Do you know how many militias there were in Zenith two years ago?”

“No, sir.”

“Three. The newest of them was formed ten years ago. The oldest was formed fifty-nine years ago, after the general strike. None of them enjoyed popular support. They attracted criminals and conspiracy theorists. At their height they numbered one thousand nine-hundred and fifty- two combined. You look confused.”

“It’s just, I assumed you would want to talk about the attack—”

“I ask you here to talk about tomorrow’s problems, not today’s.”


“The attack is not a serious matter.”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but they blew up a museum right on the border of Sector A. We don’t even know how they got the bomb inside—”

“A peace officer helped the perpetrator,” Mr. Dasik interrupted casually.


“One of Harin’s followers joined the peace officers at some point with the express purpose of doing something like this. They interfered with the security system so we wouldn’t detect the explosive.”

“So there are Harinites in the peace officers?”

“Of course there are. Harinites have infiltrated departments throughout the colony to assist in missions like this or for specialized training in anticipation of an insurrection.”

“Sir, you seem…very calm about all this.”

“There will always be groups like the Harinites,” he said in the tone of a disappointed teacher who must repeat a lesson to a lazy student. “There have been since the founding of the colony because dissatisfied workers have always had three options for how to respond to what they perceive as oppression. First, they can complain but take no meaningful action. Most will do nothing so long as they feel they are on their own and there is no larger organization to direct their actions or defend them. Second, they can fight for incremental reform. Or third, they can engage in armed resistance. Only a small minority will ever fight back, and even fewer will if they believe there is hope through reform. But there will always remain those who are committed to revolution. If they are kept in check, their existence can be extremely useful for shaping public opinion, recruiting new peace officers, and inspiring counter-revolutionaries, like these militias. Are you following me?”

“Yes, sir, but you have to admit that the Harinites have accomplished much more than any group before. They’re a unique threat, an unprecedented threat. Blowing up a museum isn’t the same as…as attacking a group of peace offices out in the Waste. And what about when they accessed our bank records and distributed fifty million points throughout Sector C?”

“These recent attacks are different only in degree. They remain isolated incidents that, if managed properly, can serve our long term interests. I will…concede the Harinites could one day present a real threat, but eliminating Seth Harin alone would significantly reduce their capabilities.”

“And we could do that?”


“So you think Seth Harin is real?”

“You don’t?”

“I assumed it was just a pen name or a made-up figure the Harinites use to rally behind, to set them apart from other groups…don’t you?”

“It’s enough for you to know that the Board is confident the Seth Harin situation is under control. The militias are the more pressing concern. Do you understand why?”

“Not really, sir.” Gern desperately wanted to give the correct answer, but he truly had no idea. Hoping it would help a little, he added, “You mentioned that counter-revolutionaries like the militias could be helpful, so why would these be problem, especially when there are twenty-one of them instead of just three?”

“The fact that there are twenty-one instead of just three is the problem. Their increase reflects a growing lack of confidence in our ability to maintain order. A small portion of the eccentric and violent forming small militias that function more like secret societies is one thing. Twenty-one militias acting like private armies is another.”

“But aren’t they on our side?”

“Ideologically, yes. That is the only thing that has prevented them from being a threat so far. But if they start to think we are incapable of maintaining order, they will start believing they are better equipped to defend our shared ideology. It might start with them pushing for certain policies or wanting to join boards or join the peace officers as a formally recognized unit…but things could escalate rapidly.”

“So what do you think we should do, sir?”

“What do you think we should do?”

Gern did his best to look like was sifting through various options while he struggled to think of one. “We could…it might be best if we…”

Mr. Dasik leaned forward. Gern instinctively leaned back.

“The reason I have been asking you questions today is because I am no longer confident you are the best person to serve as director at this time.”

“What?” Indignation overcame his inclination to speak softly before Mr. Dasik. “I’m perfectly capable of handling—”

“You are perfectly capable in normal times. These are not normal times. The Harinites do not as yet pose a real threat. Nor do the militias. But the…ingredients for an upheaval are beginning to coalesce. Times like these require a certain kind of director.”

“If you replaced me,” Gern said, just as forcefully, “they’d just follow your orders and-and I’ve always followed your orders, I will follow your orders! Whatever you need me to do I’ll do!”

“I’m aware of this.”

“Then why does it matter who’s director?”

“Being director is not the same as being an anonymous bureaucrat in an office or even manager of a department. Competence is not enough. And however competent you are in private, you are inept when it comes to the public. Louis, your appearances in the media have been embarrassing. This would be acceptable in normal times, but right now the public needs a leader to reassure them and, when the time comes, to deal directly with the militias, to convince them that we have matters under control. Someone like Remy Mardo, for example.”

Gern clenched his fists. “Mardo? You’re thinking of replacing me with her?”

“You think this would be a mistake?”

“She’s barely been manager of a department for two years!” He jabbed his chest with his thumb. “I was a manager for seven years before I became director!”

“Remy Mardo is very popular in Sectors A and B.”

“That’s only because of her family name!”

“There have been unpopular Mardos in the past.”

“What about her father? She’s been coasting off his accomplishments her whole life!”

“We both know that’s untrue. She could have easily coasted off his accomplishments or lived a decadent life like some of her relations chose to, but instead she has had a remarkable career in her own right in Labor Relations. She has used her fortune to better the lives of colonists and built good relationships with the labor boards. And she is excellent in interviews.”

“Being charming isn’t the same thing as being a leader,” Gern said, his voice lower as he felt his burst of confidence fade.

“I think you vastly underestimate her. But whether I replace you depends on how well you perform your assignment.”

“What assignment?”

Mr. Dasik leaned back in his chair again. Gern felt slightly less cornered.

“As you saw there is a meeting tomorrow night. All the largest militias will be sending representatives. The Golden Shield wants to create an alliance between them all. You do remember the Golden Shield at least?”

“Of course! They’re the…uh…”

“Doug Doobin is a member of Golden Shield. Since his case made him famous, he has become a symbol and is poised to become the organization’s leader, or at least its figurehead. He has also asked a preacher to speak.”

“A preacher? Why?”

“There is a new people’s preacher who has developed a small following over the past few months. I assume Doobin believes giving this preacher time to speak may inspire his followers to join the militias.”

“Do you think they’ll succeed in making an alliance?”

“That depends on how good a leader Doobin is. Based on his performance during the trial, I doubt it. But this is the first time so many counter-revolutionaries have even explored forming an alliance. If they succeeded in uniting all twenty-one militias—and if they unite the largest militias the rest will be pulled into their orbit—they would pose a serious threat to our control over the peace officers.”


“I suggest you try to figure that out yourself and see what you can come up with when you return with your report on the meeting.”

“My report, sir?”

“You’ll be attending in person.”

“What do you mean attending in person?”

“I mean attending in person.”

Gern involuntarily laughed. “You want me, the director of Zenith, to—”

“You will not be recognized because thanks to your social awkwardness it has been so long since people saw you that the average colonist likely has no idea what you look like. More importantly, as your incredulity just illustrated, the idea that the director would be in Sector C is so unthinkable that no one would believe it even if they recalled your face and were looking straight at you.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“Then wear a hat. You’ll be escorted by my attendants. They will drop you off and pick you up one mile from the meeting’s location. All the necessary details will be sent shortly.”

“Mr. Dasik…is this a punishment?”

“Quite the opposite. I am giving you an opportunity to prove your unique background makes you the best person to be director at this time.”

Gern shifted uncomfortably. “What does my background have to do with anything?”

“The people’s preacher is a follower of one of the old religions. Doobin will undoubtedly try to frame the event in religious terms. Since you are a follower of the same old religion, you will be able to blend in easily.”

“Me? I’m don’t—”

“You attend at least one illegal mass in the GoldenVerse a week using an untraceable avatar and you read from a god book every night before you go to sleep.”

“How do you know that?”

“All in all,” Mr. Dasik went on, ignoring him, “this should be quite easy. I’m not asking you to lie about your beliefs or about supporting the ideology of the militias or even your name. How long has it been since you used your real name?”

“I don’t know,” Gern admitted.

“What about Spanish? Are you still fluent?”

Gern nodded.

“Good. That’s everything. Put your blindfold back on. I’ll send for you the morning after the meeting.”

Gern slowly put on the blindfold and felt both his arms gripped by the Quiet Ones as soon as it was secure.

“Oh, Louis,” Mr. Dasik said.

The Quiet Ones stopped just as Gern heard the door they’d entered through slide open. He pointed his head towards Mr. Dasik’s voice, but with the blindfold on, he could only see darkness.

“Do not send someone else to the meeting in your place. I’ll know if you do. Seth Harin isn’t the only one who’s watching.”