Councilor Moria de Curson waited for the luxury pod to switch itself from horizontal to vertical. Her seat remained fixed as everything around her moved. She took the light-blue and gold headdress from the seat beside her, placed it on her head, then checked a mirrored door before exiting the pod. She watched it flip back to its horizontal traveling position to join the stream of other pods circling the city.
The imposing white towers of the imperial chambers stood like a beacon above the wide grey-marbled steps leading up to it. The doors swung open as she entered.
The Imperial Commander was a tall, robust man with a pleasant smile and thinning brown hair he was doing his best to hold on to. He dismissed his staff, took her hand and kissed her gently on the cheek. He beckoned a military aide to join them. Moria recognized Military Commander Compton Fueget.
-œCouncilor de Curson,- said the Imperial Commander. -œThank you for coming at such notice. I’ll cut straight to it as I’m afraid time is not a luxury we can afford. Commander Fueget here will give you the brief. Commander.-
-œThank you, Sir. Councilor. We have an opportunity. As you know, the people of the Junas Collective have long held a dominant position within the Tujon solar system.-
He got to his feet and started to pace back and forth. He looked uncomfortable in what he wore, being too skinny for his uniform. It hung off his shoulders and between his legs, as if his weight loss had been sudden. His face was pinched, though a good chunk of it was hidden by a large silver moustache.
-œHere on Khaten, we have been in a position of power for more than two millennia. That status is now under threat as the Corale Group continue to push for growth. What has favored us is the planet mass and resources we enjoy within our system. We have eight legitimate planets and one micro. They, in turn, have six, plus a further four micros. Our issue is that–œ
-œWe can’t colonise a micro through the laws of the solar system unless its mass is recognized as having planetary status?-
-œCorrect, Councilor,- he replied.
-œSo this is about colonizing our only micro by adding mass to it?-
-œYes, Moria, that’s exactly right. Though we’re seeking to do that through the appropriate channels,- added the Imperial Commander.
-œBut wouldn’t we be setting a precedent here, Sir?-
-œCall me Zeforan-
-œThank you -¦ Zeforan.-
-œWe’re confident that if we can attain planetary status for the Iaos micro, we’ll put ourselves in an advantageous position that we’re confident will be unassailable,- he said.
-œCouncilor. We would ask that you represent us to push this through,- added Compton.
Moria searched their faces.
-œYou’d be well paid for your services,- said Zeforan. -œPending outcome, I don’t see why High Councilor couldn’t be on your horizon.-
It was what she’d been waiting to hear.
-œI’d expect full transparency. No fictitious documents, hidden files, or last-minute revelations. We need to tread carefully, to recognize the impact this case could have on us all.-
-œOf course,- they said in unison.
Zeforan stood, took her hand as she rose. -œThen you’ll do this for us, Moria?-
-œAnd that, High Councilor, is our position. We seek to work with all parties to improve conditions across the solar system in a low-impact, high-benefit outcome that ultimately supports the growth of the Tujon system.-
-œThank you, Councilor Aggressor de Curson,- said High Councilor Adjudicator Gratten Le Farr. We have heard your position and we thank you for your transparency. Councilor Repressor Finelle, your closing statements, please.-
Juckta Finelle had no redeeming features. Where most people with his means had rebuilt their teeth, transplanted fat from beneath their arms to lift their faces, he hadn’t. He preferred to let gravity take its course. He presented an honest face without the trappings someone of his station typically displayed. He wore the black-and-red headdress as well as the robes required of him, though his pants and shoes were plain. He looked the opposite of Moria.
-œHigh Councilor, we of the Corale Group believe this is nothing more than a grab for power. The Junas Collective are traditional thinkers, afraid of a future they can no longer control. As such, they want to stymie the growth of neighboring systems. How can they guarantee that building mass around the Iaos macro will be low-impact? What resources will they be using? How will they colonize it, and what is the long-term plan for growth beyond extending a dated dynasty into a future that no free-thinking planet within our combined star system actually wants? Is Iaos not furthest from their own central hub in Khaten? It’s a micro that is closer to our own central planet of Ghuban. Is this not just a play for proximity?-
-œThank you, Councilor Repressor Finelle. I think these are fair questions that need answers. Let’s adjourn for thirty-six hours and resume at eight a.m. Councilor Aggressor de Curson, I expect to hear responses to these in our next session. Adjourned.-
Moria’s comm hummed from inside her jacket. She turned the screen over in her hands. Words appeared as it recognized her breath.
-œFeel like a drink?-
She had so much to do before the next session. She’d recorded and sent the questions on to Commander Compton’s team, so the work would already have begun. It had been a long day. She might as well salvage something out of it.
-œHmmm. Why not.-
Moria woke with a headache. She’d had way too many Greishan vials before summoning a pod to take her home, having declined an invitation to stay on.
Her comm buzzed from her nightstand. She deactivated video and answered.
-œCouncilor de Curson. Are you free to speak?-
-œI’ll need to you to step into a proof chamber then activate video at 360 degs, please.-
-œOkay. I’ll relink with you in five.-
She all but sprinted to her beauty suite, took a chair and relaxed as robotic arms fussed over her hair, face and makeup with steam and hot cloths.
In no time at all, she was ready for the call. Commander Compton stared down the screen, his dark eyes flitting from side to side, rotating his lens to check the room above, below and on either side of her was empty before he spoke.
-œAre we secure?-
She sent a signal through her comms unit that told him she was.
-œWe have just received word that Corale has had a massive influx of asteroids in belts above two of their micros. We’re confident they’re building.-
-œWhat? You mean without high council sanction? They’d be mad, it doesn’t make any sense.-
Her comms unit buzzed again as images appeared then disappeared seconds later. The pictures had been taken by a high-speed probe. They showed huge stations and massive vehicles being deployed across the smaller micro, called Sthol. The horizon appeared as quickly as it disappeared, though the evidence looked clear. The probe rose above then dropped below a huge cluster of asteroids surrounding it.
-œWhy would they think they can get away with that? It seems strange that they’re building when we had planned to. Wait. How long does it take to pull a mass of asteroids into one orbiting micro, let alone two?-
Compton smiled back at her. -œI’m guessing it’s years, right? That’s why we’re launching a request to build. It’s an exposure play, isn’t it?-
She slowed her breath before she spoke. Became cautious about her approach as thoughts raced through her mind.
-œThis is exactly what I asked to avoid. I’ll need to speak to the Imperial Commander.-
-œThere’s no need for that.-
-œThis isn’t a conversation our Commander needs to be a part of.-
-œBut he’s involved. His name is on the document you had me sign.-
-œWas his signature on it?-
It hadn’t been.
-œThis latest development is not part of what I signed on for.-
Compton sighed. -œThe secure signal you sent me, as well as the images you just viewed, make you complicit. You’ll continue in your representation of our position with the best of intentions. Our reaction to what is occurring is a fair one. Wouldn’t you agree?-
Moria ended the call. She stepped out of the proof room before forcing the robotic arm with the steam nozzle into the side of the comms unit and shorting it. It turned black and heavy before she dropped it into an evaporator duct beside the kitchen. It was probably too late, though she felt better for it.
-œCouncilor Aggressor de Curson. Are you with us?-
She looked up from the vidscreen lying in front of her
-œApologies, High Councilor. We’ve been presented with new evidence that suggests we’ll need to deviate from our original proposal of building on Iaos.-
Juckta looked puzzled. -œAnd why is that?-
-œIt appears our colleagues in the Corale Group are amassing asteroids in orbits surrounding two of their micros -“ Fuega and Sthol. Our team believe this has occurred as part of their preparations to build.-
-œIs this true, Councilor Repressor Finelle?-
-œIt is not, High Councilor. We are aware of the asteroids, though do not have plans to build. Our own team are trying to understand where they’ve come from. It’s not by our design.-
-œDo the micros Fuega and Sthol remain untouched?- she asked.
-œSo far as colonization pertains to them, yes. We mine them for minerals, so have some small stations there, though nothing has been built to alter atmospheric conditions or to support extended life on their surfaces.-
-œHigh Councilor, we would ask to send our own team to surface for an assessment.-
-œThat request is denied, Councilor Aggressor de Curson. Make the transcript reflect that. We will, however, require irrefutable evidence that what you’ve disclosed here, Councilor Repressor Finelle, is an accurate portrayal of what we’ve been told. A team of impartial diplomats will be deployed to report back within the next forty-eight hours. We’ll adjourn until then.-
Moria’s new comm unit buzzed even before she’d left the chambers.
-œCouncilor. What are you doing?-
-œI asked, what you were doing?-
-œI requested a surface visit. That way we could examine the current status of any potential builds.-
-œWe didn’t ask you to do that. In fact, it’s in contradiction to what we recommended.-
-œWe, Commander? Or just you? Are you afraid of what they might discover?-
-œI don’t care. Wait. Are you on a secure line, Councilor?-
-œI thought you would have had enough of me last night,- replied Moria.
-œNo, as it turns out.-
-œI’d like to eat, though it won’t be what you hoped for. Something’s come up.-
-œHigh Councilor Adjudicator,- said Juckta Finelle. -œWe of the Corale Group have nothing to hide. We would be willing to step away from the need for impartiality in the interest of saving time. We would be open to escorting members of the Junas Collective to the surface of both micros, should that expedite matters. Our only request is that both the Imperial Commander and his Military Commander attend.-
-œThank you, Councilor Repressor Finelle, we appreciate your candor. Councilor Aggressor de Curson, would your clients agree to these terms?-
-œI have passed these terms on to both parties, though unfortunately, they cannot attend due to unforeseen commitments.-
-œWould you be willing to accompany them?-
-œI’m not sure it would be in my best interests, High Councilor Adjudicator.-
-œAnd why is that?-
The doors burst open and the Imperial Commander walked in.
-œHigh Councilor Adjudicator Le Farr,- he said.
-œImperial Commander. This is highly irregular. To what do we owe the pleasure?-
-œApologies. We’d like to strike our representation from the charter, please,- he said, talking directly to Moria. There was no hint of the pleasant smile she’d become accustomed to. -œWe ask this as I believe her to be complicit with my own Military Commander on matters of the Junas Collective. Recently intercepted comms suggest that we may have opened ourselves up to an unauthorized attack. Might I use the screen in the room, please?-
Moria’s heart fluttered as her face appeared on a giant floating screen in the middle of the room. A recorded and edited version of her conversation with Fueget played out with negative impact. The room fell silent. All eyes turned towards her.
Her cheeks reddened as she spoke. -œThis is a false portrayal of the conversation I had with Military Councilor Fueget.-
-œHigh Councilor, you can check the data recordings. You’ll find they played verbatim. As I understand it, this unauthorized plan was activated at three-nineteen this morning.-
The whole place shook and the screen in front of them glitched.
-œWhat was that?- asked the High Councilor.
Every comm in the room sounded as their screens flared to life.
-œOh my god,- said Moria.
She synced her comm unit to the screen above them. Both micros, Fuega and Sthol, or what was left of them, appeared on the screen. They all watched horrified as they imploded. Huge tracts of the surface fell inward, sending stations, vehicles and workers tumbling into the center of each micro.
It didn’t end there. Orbital gravity followed. What was left of Sthol began to turn, then gently spin before being stretched into the larger hole that was the center of Fuega. Like a giant Pacman, Fuega appeared to eat the smaller micro. Then it was Fuega’s turn to spin. It rotated gently at first, then faster, before being devoured by a gaping black hole that siphoned the remnants of both micros and their orbiting moons like power pills into a deep, empty maw of nothing. The chamber was silent as they all stared at the giant black hole on the screen.
It was several minutes before Councilor Repressor Finelle spoke. Quietly at first, before his voice gradually rose.
-œThere will be ramifications for this, Imperial Commander. It is now clear where the asteroids came from and what you hid inside them.-
-œCouncilor Finelle, I can only express my deepest condolences for the–
-œExpress nothing, Zeforan.-
-œCouncilor Finelle! Contain yourself in my courtroom.-
-œApologies, High Councilor. The Imperial Commander is lying.-
-œAnd why is that?-
-œCouncilor Aggressor Moria de Curson was with me last night. Any order given at the time the Imperial Commander suggested wouldn’t have been possible or sanctioned. He’s complicit, and as I understand the nature of our star system’s laws, given what we have just witnessed, Khaten is forfeit for his actions.-
Moria said nothing. She looked at Zeforan’s face, at Gratten Le Farr’s, then crossed the floor to stand beside Juckta Finelle.