Jaylene waited at the last corridor lock before the President’s garden ring. There were a few members of his personal guard there, as usual, manning the security scanners. Their crisp white uniforms shone brilliantly in the light from Saturn shimmering through the windows here, though it wasn’t half as bright as the garden itself. Jaylene liked to pause here and let her eyes adjust for a few minutes before going inside.
Mundilfari Station was largely a maze of dimly lit hallways and drab, almost claustrophobic rooms. It had been a mining platform for the moon of the same name until the Saturn Collective declared independence from Earth. Even as the capital, the older warrens were still miner-grey, quaintly industrial and thickly plated against the vacuum of space. Only the newer sections like the garden had full quasiglass windows and a spectacular view.
Very few people got to see them. Jaylene was one of them. Today, so was the reporter from System Central Broadcasting, escorted through the corridors by three more of the President's guard.
The dark-haired woman ignored the security around her and smiled as she stepped toward Jaylene. “Loria Montello, System Central,” she said, as if they’d never met before. She’d chosen to wear a soft tan suit, its cut vaguely reminiscent of clothes from the era of independence. It was a subtle message; it would make stirring footage, assuming any of it could be kept.
Loria's camera drones hovered behind her shoulder, their telltales quiet. That was one of the rules: There would be no recording until the interview started.
“Jaylene Gorman, the President’s personal assistant,” Jaylene answered, carrying on the charade. “Please, call me J-Gren.” It was her standard greeting to newcomers; she’d been J-Gore for years as a child, and had learned to get that out of the way immediately. “Please step through the scanners, then follow me.”
Loria and her cameras passed through the scanning field without tripping the alarm. Only the faintest static at the bottom of the field suggested a possible malfunction, and Jaylene only saw it because she was looking for it. The guards, officious but uninformed, did not.
Jaylene took a moment to straighten her jacket -– a soft green today, something to fade into the background -– and stepped through the scanning field herself. No alarm. She had to stop herself from fidgeting as the guards opened the lock to the garden. There was no reason to be nervous.
When the lock spun open, the scent of wet earth and fecund soil rolled out in a wave of humid air. The unfiltered light left spots in front of Jaylene's eyes, despite her time in the corridor, and she could feel the sweat begin to bead at her forehead.
“How much of this is real?” Loria asked, pausing just inside the doorway and staring around with delight. After the drabness of the corridor, the rush of light and color were almost overwhelming. Gravel paths wound gently through meticulously curated plant life. Small clumps of green grasses gave way to feathery bushes, and then to glorious blooms: rhododendrons and hibiscus, camellia and azalea. A butterfly fluttered across the path, and then disappeared into the foliage.
“All of it,” Jaylene answered with a smile. “It was expensive, importing the soil biome and the pollinators. But a holo just wouldn’t be the same. I think you can understand why it’s worth it.”
“I do. It feels so much like Earth.”
Jaylene shrugged; she wouldn’t know. Like most citizens, she’d never set foot on a green planet and never expected to. “Smell the camellia. The red flowers, on your left.”
The President loved to give interviews from the garden. Nothing sold the idea of success as well as excess, and only the dream of success kept the Collective from dropping into total anarchy. In the outer system, lives were spent in dim, thin-aired boxes, with food cubes and water rationing all that anyone could likely look forward to. But to see Corbin Dekker, former hotmetal miner, living the good life – well, it made the ordinary people think they might get the good life, too, someday.
They wouldn’t. But in the meantime, they could dream. And turn in any of their neighbors with radical leanings for a tidy reward. After all, in an artificial environment, safety was everyone’s concern. Order is paramount, as the saying went.
Loria paused at the bush Jaylene pointed out, and dutifully stuck her nose against one of the flowers. She inhaled, made a brief noise of surprise, then sneezed. Twice.
“Oh, dear.” Jaylene forced a laugh. “Reality does have its moments.”
“I suppose it does.” Loria’s expression was far too serious, certainly for talking to someone she'd never met, who had no idea what her intentions were. “Thank you. I’d forgotten what real flowers are like.”
Jaylene didn’t answer. There really wasn’t anything she could say that wouldn’t be maudlin, or otherwise obvious at this point. Loria’s cameras were still quiescent, but Jaylene knew the President would be somewhere nearby. Watching. She couldn't afford to slip, not just yet.
The path led them to a small clearing, its low ground cover a smooth, soothing green. There were two old-fashioned shuttle benches and a small cube table set up there, with a pitcher of lemonade dripping condensation in the heat. A half dozen correction drones floated lazily above them, waiting to fill in color and additional lighting for the interview. Natural light had its drawbacks.
Jaylene handed Loria a datapad with the list of acceptable questions for the interview. “You can change the order, of course, but no significant deviation is permitted.”
There were questions about the education initiative on Farbauti, and the upcoming First Strike Festival at Titan Habitat. There were even a few “tough” questions about the water shortage on Phoebe, carefully scripted to allow the President the appearance of honesty.
There was nothing about the riots on Dione, or Tethys. Nothing about the bombings in Rhea, or the executions in the Pan Orbitals. But those weren’t supposed to make the news.
Loria didn’t look at all surprised by the omissions as she scanned the list.
“Just so you know -- the glasses and the lemonade are real.” Jaylene nodded at the tableau. In any other station, all of it would be holo, not just the furniture. Energy was cheaper than mass, out here. “The garden can get a bit warm if you’re not used to it. I thought you might like something to drink.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.” Loria wasn't even sweating, but then, that was probably a mod she'd gotten along with her first on-camera job. Sweat ruined the appearance of perfection.
At that moment, the light drones overhead switched on, and President Corbin Dekker walked into the clearing. He was a tall man; his suit the color of the hallways outside, and only a few shades darker than his hair. He looked ordinary, until he smiled -- then he looked like an uncle, like a friend, like someone known and loved since childhood.
The plastic surgery had been expensive, but impressively effective.
He greeted the reporter with that trademark smile, and stood too close to be entirely polite. It was obnoxious posturing, but wasn't entirely this Corbin Dekker's fault.
“L-Mont! It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Mr. President.” Loria’s answering smile was just as practiced as his, but more obvious about it.
“None of that,” he scolded her, again with that paternal smile. “Call me C-Dek, we don’t stand on formality here.”
Jaylene excused herself before the camera drones could hover into position. She wasn’t part of the interview, and frankly, she didn't enjoy watching him make a fool of himself.
She followed the gravel path around the way that the President had come. It circled around a hedge, looping back to the edge of the clearing only twenty feet from the hovering cameras. She wouldn't be visible, though; she was hidden behind a privacy field, currently engaged. Anyone who stood here would be essentially invisible to the cameras, or to any live person looking this way, and would be able to watch the interview undetected.
Jaylene joined the President behind the privacy shield. He was wearing the same suit. It was standard practice, whenever he might be seen in two places on the same day.
“How long do you think this is going to take?” Corbin asked, not offering anything else in greeting. He didn't even bother to loom at her any more; she was practically invisible even when she was standing right there.
It made her grit her teeth every time he ignored her, even if the alternative was equally infuriating.
Jaylene shrugged, as much to loosen the tension in her shoulders as in answer to his question. “The interview is only scheduled for thirty minutes, and you have a reputation for punctuality. I think it will be ten minutes at the most, before she realizes something is wrong.”
Jaylene looked past his shoulder at Loria and the man who had introduced himself as the President. It was one of the newer models of android, with humanlike skin and holoed facial expressions; they hadn't reached the general market yet. It was almost certainly illegal to have one in the image of a real, living person, but illegality wasn’t much of a problem for the President.
It had taken Jaylene the better part of two years to convince Corbin that he needed one, but it had proved its use in a very short time. It made balancing the President's schedule so much easier to have two of him.
“My reputation for punctuality?” Corbin raised an eyebrow without looking at her. “You’re the one who marked ‘assassination attempt’ on my calendar.”
Jaylene let herself smirk. “Not officially.”
She and Corbin went back to watching the show. The android was perfect in every mannerism; charming, erudite, with just a hint of working class swagger in the hand gestures. It was a perfect amalgam of Corbin's gestures from every public interview he'd ever given. Not even Jaylene could tell the difference any more, and she'd been with Corbin since he started politics.
Loria kept the interview moving, the questions seemingly unrehearsed but never deviating from script. If she didn’t know better, Jaylene would think this was a normal interview.
At least, until Loria checked her watch. Discreetly, but still, the gesture was just outside of normal technique. She was probably checking her vitals for signs that the explosive she activated before walking into the garden was processing properly. It wasn’t; the pollen from the camellia had been laced with an inhibitor. She'd figure it out at some point. The only question was: what would she do about it?
Jaylene found herself tensing again. Here behind the force field, she had no way of affecting the outcome of events. She just had to hope that she’d primed the actors appropriately.
Loria’s eyes flicked back to her watch again, her smile tightening. She shifted on her bench, began to recross her legs –- and lunged toward the android, a shaker blade suddenly in her hand. The android was barely able to get an arm between them before she was on him.
Jaylene heard Corbin catch his breath beside her. It was a pointless attack; his double was wearing the same personal shield that the President always wears. A blade like that would never penetrate it. Jaylene had expected Loria to carry a pyro. Oh well, the silhouettes were similar on a scanner, and it couldn’t be helped now.
The knife shattered on the android’s personal shield, shards embedding themselves in Loria’s hand and forearm. At the same moment, the garden’s safety fields engaged.
The holo projectors closed down, dropping the privacy wall in front of Jaylene and Corbin. The holo cube and benches disappeared as well, the pitcher and glasses tumbling onto the grass. Before they even hit the ground, a glittering fountain of light burst up from Loria’s feet and wrapped around her in a tangle net. Blood seeped slowly along her arm, but the net wouldn't let it fall.
Unable to move, the reporter stared in growing horror as the android, reacting to his safety protocols, froze in mid-motion. Jaylene could see the comprehension cross the other woman's face. No, she’d never even had a chance of success. Jaylene wished there was a way to console her: she had gotten closer than anyone else.
Loria’s eyes widened further when Corbin walked toward her, Jaylene dragging a half-step behind. This was his whole reason for watching the interview: the opportunity to gloat over a helpless enemy. It was pathetic.
“That wasn’t very smart of you.” Corbin laughed, obviously too delighted at the reporter’s fear to come up with anything original. “If we hadn’t stopped you, you’d be dead right now, with that little explosive you were carrying.”
The mumble he got in response was garbled because of the net, but the tone definitely said go to hell.
“We only let you get this far so you can tell us who your friends are," Corbin went on with his inane script anyway. "Now we can round you all up at once. Much neater that way.”
He took another step forward, using his height to loom over her -- she was helpless, unable to move or speak, and he was still posturing! -- when his foot slipped slightly in the puddle of spilled lemonade.
In a crackle of static, his personal shield went down.
It was the kind of accident that was difficult to arrange. Acidic liquid and the kinds of fertilizers used in the garden were known to react in strange ways -- ways that were highly damaging to hyperelectronics. But how to get them together? The casing in his shoe would normally have protected the shield circuits, but he’d been putting off the scheduled maintenance appointments for a month now.
Jaylene had made sure of that.
While the ozone from the shield's fall was still fresh, the android moved, more quickly than it had moved when Loria attacked. It pulled the pyro that Jaylene had given it earlier, and shot the President in the back. Arcfire spread from the contact point as the chain reaction moved through the cells of his body, releasing pent-up energy as heat and leaving nothing but a pile of carbon ash in its wake.
It was over in less than a minute; there was no time for Corbin to even register Jaylene’s betrayal before he died. Unlike him, she didn’t feel the need to gloat.
Jaylene canceled the tangle on Loria, who fell back a step, clutching her wounded arm.
“You’re okay,” Jaylene told her. "There's a first aid kit a few hundred yards down the path.”
Loria froze, staring. Clearly, she was still trying to understand what had happened. “I thought you’d sold me out.”
“I did.” Jaylene took the pyro from the android’s hand and tucked it into her jacket. “You were never going to succeed with an explosion. But it distracted him enough for me to put a better plan together.”
"Right." Loria shook herself and refused to look at the pile of ash on the ground. "Is there an escape portion of this plan of yours?”
“Escape?” Jaylene asked. “Who needs to escape? Nothing happened.”
“What do you mean, nothing happened? President Dekker is dead!”
“No, he’s not.” Jaylene pointed to the android. “He’s just fine.”
"You can't pass an android off as the President!"
"I can't imagine why not. Who's going to say otherwise?" Jaylene tried very hard not to roll her eyes. Loria would be very useful, even if she was depressingly slow on the uptake. "This way, we can clean up his messes without all the turmoil that a power vacuum would cause."
"No. We need to get the truth out --" Loria took another step back. “He was a monster, and people deserve to know that. We can’t just -–”
“--Save lives and prevent a general panic? How many people would die if the news got out?” Jaylene could see the other woman wavering, and drove the point home. “Let the history books tell the truth. You know that he systematically replaced the station governors with people who’d go along with his ideas. If we let them have their way, we’ll end up with someone just like C-Dek when the smoke clears. Order is paramount.”
Loria stared hard at Jaylene for a long moment, blood dripping unheeded down her arm. Finally, she nodded. “All right. Just. Until we can...”
She trailed off, and Jaylene had to admit that Loria might be smarter than she seemed. There wasn't really a good endpoint for that sentence; when exactly would they give up power?
But Jaylene just nodded back. She already had that covered -- she'd been working on a transition plan for months. The rebels would have gotten Corbin sooner or later; this way, Jaylene could ride the wave of change straight into the new hierarchy. Maybe she’d even keep her job. Personal assistant to the President -- whichever president it was -- suited her just fine.