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New Year's Eve, 2424

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December 31, 2424

For as long as Ari can remember, New Year's Eve has meant a fizzy excitement in her stomach and a good, happy feeling. This year should be no different: She’s accomplished a lot. There's Alpha Wing, her own addition to Reseune, with a full complement of staff and security to run it. Construction continues at Strassenberg township, another contribution to Cyteen's future—despite last summer's sabotage by persons still undetermined. She's temporarily held Directorship of Reseune during several turbulent months, uncovered a double-agent of long-standing and brought him firmly back to their side. She's also been named the Counselor of Information, although that was incidental and through no endeavor of her own; she has begun to make alliances in the corridors of power.

Ari's satisfaction is tempered this year by grim triumph. She’s survived multiple attempts on her life and ended the majority of those responsible. There are still enemies to be overcome, but tonight, she's going to put them out of her mind and enjoy the party. She surveys her reflection in the mirror with approval. Her makeup has been skillfully applied, dramatic, with a design of tiny jewels on her brow; she looks as sparkly as she feels. Her maid Joyesse fastens the clasp of her necklace carefully so as not to disarrange her upswept hair, the diamond and platinum strands vivid against the midnight blue of her gown.

Tonight's party will be the first real celebration in Alpha Wing, with a carefully selected guest list of dear friends and trusted colleagues. The courtyard with its unique gardens will be open, the enclosed mall will feature a buffet with the finest delicacies catering has to offer and provide space for dancing. She looks forward to the dancing—perhaps she and Justin will dance, without all the repercussions of last year...or not. She's mostly made peace with the idea that she and Justin will never have that kind of relationship. They can still work together, that's the important thing.

Joyesse is settling the light wrap around her shoulders and complimenting her on how pretty she looks when Florian enters, his expression focused on information he’s receiving through his earpiece. "Sera, we've had a message from Adam Hicks."

The head of ReseuneSec has resumed his office after a brief leave of absence, and maintains a cordial, if wary relationship with her and her staff. "What does he want that can't wait til next year?" she wants to know, half in earnest.

"He claims Kyle AK-36 has come across significant information regarding his Supervisor in Defense."

That is important enough for her to delay her arrival at the gala.

With Florian and two of her detail by her side, Ari makes the trek down to the Alpha Wing security office where Hicks and Kyle AK-36 are waiting. No sign of celebrating here; both men wear casual clothes more suited to a quiet evening at home than party-going.

Hicks confirms this. "I know you have plans for this evening, Sera Emory, but this shouldn't take long. We were watching a documentary about the War, and there was a clip about the defense of Beta Station. Kyle recognized the man he knew as Arbero, and I did an image capture—" He nods to Florian, who accesses a data-file.

Footage comes up on one of the screens, a gathering of men in uniform. There are several high-ranking individuals in the spotlight, ringed by unknowns of lesser rank. The central figures are immediately identifiable. Ari recognizes Admiral Azov from her studies; her predecessor had had her difficulties with him, but that was well before Ari's time. The late Admiral Gorodin is there, looking younger than she's used to seeing him, even with rejuv. How long ago was this?

"This man," Kyle speaks for the first time, indicating one of the less distinguished officers on the periphery of the group, "is the individual I knew as Colonel Vincente Arbero."

Ari studies the alleged colonel. Dark hair, a sharp-angled face intent on what's being said by the higher-ups. She's not certain what rank his insignia denotes—lieutenant?—but it's a victory to have a face to put on their adversary.

She addresses Florian. "Can we get the rest of this footage and find out who is officially in it? Also run facial recognition software and see if we can find 'Arbero' anywhere else. Especially scan Customs and Immigration data for recent whereabouts—any time he's spent on Cyteen."

"Certainly, Sera," he agrees. He's at a terminal, tapping at a keyboard, and footage begins to play, animating the group. "It's dated 2353, a strategic conference at Beta prior to Azov's departure for treaty negotiations. Archive data for military personnel only lists the key figures, but we can try a cross-search of general records for other appearances by that person."

"Very good," says Ari with an approving nod to Kyle AK. Gaining this information makes the marathon of preparation for his recontracting worth the grueling effort. "Thank you for bringing that to our attention."

Kyle looks troubled. "It's the least I can do, sera, after everything—"

Even with psych intervention, he's harboring guilt for his long-standing activities against Reseune. That's wearing on him. He appears less vigorous than before being unmasked and reprogrammed. His posture lacks its former military bearing and seems to be shrinking in on itself.

Although medical support has gotten him through the shocks of the summer, he's not young, and she suspects he's pushing the limits of what rejuv can do. Will he see another year? Two? Perhaps a decade at most—but no one knows for certain how long they have; rejuv is no cure for accident or treachery.

"It's alright," she assures him. "This is invaluable. It gives us a place to start digging."

"There's more, sera," he says. The news about Arbero is welcome—and there's more? Ari waits, a little breathless, for whatever else Kyle can tell them.

"During your predecessor's last trip to Novgorod, I was loaned to her security detail." He draws a long breath. "I witnessed one of Sera Emory's meetings during that trip—with Admiral Gorodin. She was negotiating for funds for the Rubin Project on Fargone, and he countered with a request for a military psych facility under cover of her budget."

She's perplexed;. How does a budgetary shell-game connect to Arbero?

"As the Admiral phrased it," Kyle's brow knots in recall, "'We're talking about Special Operations. People whose IDs change. People whose faces—you understand—I don't want seen.'"

Ari's eyes widen.

"The over-all implication was one of privacy issues, that the facility was going to assist people whose hazardous assignments had caused severe stress problems, such as disassociative disorders." Kyle shakes his head. "At the time, that was what I thought myself, but recent events have made me rethink that assumption."

"Understandably," she agrees. She has his deep-sets well charted; even without a tape-lab or cataphorics, she can Work him. "Well done, remembering that." To help bolster his flagging morale, she adds, "There's a lot you can tell us about Defense, things from behind the scenes, things that will help Reseune. You remembered this, you'll remember more. You're our secret weapon, and we're fortunate to have you."

Kyle looks more substantial; his shoulders are squared and his chin has come up. "I'm thankful that Reseune still believes in me."

"We're your Contract," she reminds him, smiling. "We have no doubts about your excellent performance. Your memories will be essential in the future—but we can talk about it next year."

"Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Sera Emory," Hicks says. "If there's anything else we can do, ReseuneSec is at your disposal."

"I'll reach out to your office on the second and we can talk further. Meanwhile, if anything else surfaces, you can contact Florian."

Who is the young man in the background, she wonders after Kyle and Hicks have left. Difficult to guess age from the news clip, but he doesn't appear to be much older than she is currently. He's probably nearing the century mark now, if that's so. Old enough to have power, and experienced enough to be able to wield it...a dangerous combination.

She studies the narrow face, the impassive expression displaying no sign of personality. If he hadn't been called to her attention, she wouldn't have taken any particular note of him. He seems to be just another junior officer in the crowd, an aide—perhaps someone's protégé? Only Azov and Gorodin are familiar; they'll have to investigate the whole group, to be safe.

Of course, that's what a good intelligence officer tries to achieve, that sort of anonymity—was he intelligence, that far back? If they can trace the identities of all the image's participants, will they find out who he was before he became Arbero? Will they find other untraceable individuals?

The revelation of that so-called psych facility is even more intriguing. The recurring matter of “non-persons” has been a puzzle, and this may be a major piece in solving where they[re coming from. Their security has been intent on two such ciphers, of which Arbero is only one. Is it possible that "Anton Clavery" also originated via Fargone?

Ari chews her lower lip, heedless of her lipstick. Moments before being murdered, the victim had said "They have someone inside.". She and her security had taken that to mean someone had infiltrated Reseune, not someone inside Defense.

In addition, the name "Anton Clavery" had surfaced—a person who wasn't on file anywhere. Paxer radicals were the suspected culprits, because the victim had been linked to them. Yes, the grenade launcher used suggested military—though it could have been stolen, they’d theorized.

On the other hand, the victim had worked under Defense for a long time—It was entirely possible that Clavery had been known in that context. But, Ari reminds herself, that death had occurred well before Kyle AK-36 revealed his Defense Supervisor, "Colonel Vincente Arbero", before they had that connection to a second person who seemingly didn't exist. She's now less likely to consider the two non-persons as coincidental.

While getting information from Defense is problematic, she may be able to access data about the Fargone facility through Ollie AOX Strassen. He’s been in command of Reseune’s territory there for a long time, and she has no doubt whatever of his loyalty to her.

It’s a difficult choice. She's always been wary of involving her loved ones in the intrigues that surround her, but she knows what Ari Senior would have said: ‘Don’t let sentiment interfere with matters that may impact your survival. It’s one thing not to squander a useful contact on a trivial matter, another to save it as too precious to use.’ This may be worth the risk.

"I've initiated enquiries, sera," Florian tells her, looking up from the terminal, and she nods, abstracted. The screens twinkle, reflecting her adornments.

It recalls her to the present, to the evening ahead. She resolutely pushes the revelations aside. Important though they are, there's only so much her security can find out tonight. She doesn’t need to decide immediately how she will use Ollie, although she is fairly sure that she will, because keeping herself and Reseune safe means making sacrifices.

The party is meaningful, too. Being who she is, her presence and state of mind will be noted and remarked upon. She can't appear worried or preoccupied, or rumors will begin, insidious and troublesome. Time to compartmentalize, to repair her lipstick and socialize, to show her friends and colleagues alike that all is well with her—and with Reseune.

It's New Year's Eve. This year ends with fresh information that stretches into the distant past. The year ahead looms with yet more puzzles and challenges. With a last glance at the enigma on the screen who has ordered at least one murder, Ari takes a deep breath and prepares to go sparkle.