Even from orbit a sunset was an amazing experience. More so, however, on the ground. At least for Alexandra Wenzel. Having spent the majority of her life in space, she was accustomed to the orbital sunset.

Although PK-p222, also known as Eldorado, or Paradise, was tidal locked with its parent star, had no sunsets, or sunrises, per se, if one flew in orbit around the planet, or in a similar vessel in or outside the atmosphere, the illusion of a sunset would be created.

“Welcome to the sunset inn, your room has been prepared for you. Have a nice stay!” Woken from thought Alexandra thanked the woman at the reception of the hotel, looking at the key.

A key!

It had taken her some digging through archives to understand physical keys, and how to open a door with them.

 

Situated on a mountain slope looking out towards the dayside, the sunset inn had all guest rooms facing to the day side. In the winter the sun stood low, half omitted by the horizon, in summer it stood a little higher. All the time the slope was drenched in a perpetual sunset. Or sunrise, depending on the season.

PK-p222 had only a minute change in seasons, unlike other planets, it was barely noticeable in most places, but on the mountain side of the sunset inn, it was.

Booking a room usually took half a year in advance, when Alexandra’s fiancé told her that they were spending their anniversary in the sunset inn, she was reasonably surprised.

Trying not to be too fascinated by the key, Alexandra walked to the lobby, her luggage was already taken care of. So she just looked around for her fiancé.

Paul Dekowitz stood at the bar taking a sip of some beverage, from a far Alexandra could not tell what it was, but she figured it was something alcoholic.

Everything in the sunset was made to look and feel like a grand hotel, it stood to reason they would serve replicas of ancient drinks.

“Paul, what is that?” She blew him a kiss, stopping also at the bar. Somehow she felt out of place. Every other guest was wearing evening wardrobe, she still wore her uniform.

“Whiskey, seven years old.” A broad grin on his lips. “If we still used money like they did in the time these hotels existed on earth it’d be expensive.” He wanted to explain how it was made, but Alexandra cut him off by saying she’d change into something more fitting.

 

Although they came as couple, they had separate rooms. It seemed a little more romantic that way, besides they were connect by a balcony and a door.

Quickly she got out of her uniform, folded it properly, took a quick shower, and then got dressed. A long dress with a slash on the side.

Doubtful she looked at the shoes. No way I’m going to wear these! She slipped into  polished flat shoes, instead of the dangerously high heeled ones that came with the dress.

After twenty minutes she returned to the lobby, finding Paul still at the bar. He had something else in his glass. “It’s a non alcoholic tea.” He explained seeing her look.

 

Not much later a man in a butler outfit appeared, he showed them to a window side table, where they would have dinner.

Landing site for the hotel was good deal further down, from where the guests were brought to the hotel with shuttle service. Caterpillar, full enclosed snow mobiles, made to look like old limousines.

 

The sunset inn was founded and operated by a group of history buffs who loved the grandios aspects of that era and environment. They changed their responsibilities weekly, to keep things fresh, and not fall into a hated routine.

Below the window where Alexandra and Paul were seated, a limousine pulled up. Out of the corner of her eye Alexandra saw a uniform.

A richly decorated uniform. Followed by another person in uniform. Only able to catch a glimpse of the two she still could tell it was an Admiral and a shift commander of Horizon. Immediately she felt as if they were there for, or because of, her.

Minutes passed in which she didn’t really hear anything that Paul said. Another one arrived at the entrance. Another Admiral left the opened door, followed by a woman in an uptight suit.

This time Alexandra had her eyes turned to the arriving guests. It was the governor of the colony!

Governor Kristen Handall.

The feeling of being the reason for the presence of these highly decorated officials subsided, but her curiosity was woken. She had spent the last two days preparing for her vacation, during her shifts none of these things had come across her desk.

Elegantly as was to be expected a waiter came to the table. Paul was about to place his order when the man leaned forward to Alexandra, asking her to come to the lobby.

Immediately she the feeling of the officials being at the sunset inn because of her returned.

Walking in a pace adequate to her surrounding, Alexandra made her way to the lobby, indeed finding the governor the two Admirals and Ngyuen Tapron, the shift commander there waiting for her. One of the Admirals was Admiral Norton, a local man, the other she was unfamiliar with.

“Shift commander Wenzel! Glad you could make it.” Governor Handall feigned a friendly expression.

“Governor, Generals, Nguyen.” Not saluting on purpose, as she was on vacation, Alexandra greeted them. “What gives me the honor of being summoned on my vacation? The first in two years, might I add.”

Almsot mechanically the other Admiral jerked forward, extending his hand. “Admiral Friedhelm Bauer, colonial bureau of intelligence.” Reluctantly Alexandra shook his hand, with the same artificial friendliness the Governor had shown her before, she claimed to be pleased to meet him, although the CBI was anything but sympathetic.

“We should go to the conference hall.” The governor felt curious eyes on them.

 

The conference hall was kept in the same style as the rest of the sunset inn. Wooden panels covered the walls, but they were probably not real wood. A carpet coverd the floor and a glass covered lustre hung in the center over an oval table, which provided enough room for twenty people.

The double wing doors were shut behind them, Alexandra sat down at the table, if they had the nerve to disturb her unannounced in her vacation, it was her right to determine where at the table they sat.

“We have come here because we knew you’d be here. There was not enough time to cancel your vacation, and we don’t intend to keep you long.” Bauer was speaking while the governor and the others sat down.

“What’s this all about?”

There was a glint in his eyes she could not place, as Admiral Bauer approached and sat down three seats down from her. “The incident three weeks ago.”

Immediately Alexandra knew what incident he was referring to. He could have just said the incident, and she’d have known.

“Claire.”

“Yes, the linker woman.” He folded his hands, inching around in his seat. “We are, of course, reading the reports concerning her development, and we come to the same conclusion that you have reached, that your Doctor Antonius has reached. This person poses no threat to us, or our security.”

Folding her hands as well, Alexandra leaned forward. “However?” Her glance fell on the big old style clock on the wall. Twelve minutes to eleven, she had already been gone from the table with Paul for close to twenty minutes.

“Our long range sensors have picked up unusual activity at the linker moon over ES-p296, and a long range AI probe sent into space has also detected unusual activities, this time however from an unknown source.” He nodded to Admiral Norton who sat next to Alexandra, a tablet was produced and given to her.

Grainy images showed vessels of an usual shape.

Spherical.

No details were visible, no definite size could be determined. “Didn’t the AI steer the probe closer?”

“It did, but we lost contact with it.” Norton spoke for the first time since Alexandra had met him that eve. “That was a few hours ago.” Bauer added, completing the picture.

Slowly Alexandra understood why they had no time to cancel her vacation. In her report she had included the details about Digitalys, and the linkers involvement in an experiment there.

Naturally they came to her. “We would like to question the linker as well.”

Raising her eyebrows in disapproval Alexandra looked at Bauer. “It is not recommendable to do so, but of course. I however, doubt that you’ll get any satisfactory answers from her. Back when the collective mind had any contact with the sludge, it was just that. Sludge covering the planet. Any advances they made, they made in the time since coming in contact with the linkers.” She pushed the tablet back to Norton, who put it back in his jacket.

“Claire Doe falls into your jurisdiction, and yours alone. That’s why I brought them to you.” Nguyen leaned forward, her hair tied to a neat knot on top of her head, slightly bobbing as she spoke.

“I know.” Winking to her colleague paired with a knowing smile, Alexandra then glanced at the clock. More than half an hour.

Paul would be furious.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to return to my fiancé. After all I am on vacation, and this is our anniversary.” She got up, walked to the door.

 

Contrary to her assumptions, Paul was not angry, but surprisingly understanding.

Their meal was brought, and a relatively uneventful eve ensued. Yet, after their dinner she found herself staring out the window of her room.

Paul had turned in, their anniversary would be celebrated the following day.

Strangely she had not seen the Admirals and Governor leave again. In need of some fresh air Alexandra opened the door to the balcony. Immediately the cold air urged her to hug herself against it. Now she saw the balcony connected all rooms on the floor, but that there was no one else out.

Understandably, in the frigid temperatures. It was three in the morning, and although the sun shone, as it always did, a nightly silence lay over the sunset inn.

A few hundred meters lower than the sunset inn, drenched in the eternal night, the hangar was weakly illuminated. There was no sound of any transports comig or going, neither from the garage of the hotel, nor from the distant hangar.

Calm, peaceful night.

Alexandra walked a few paces to the balcony door of Paul’s room. He was lying on his bed, about to walk back to her own room, she noticed movement.

Movement not coming from the bed. His door was opened, someone walked into the room. A dim light went on at the nightstand, Paul got up. Finding herself at a loss for words, she saw her fiancé greet the late visitor. Admiral Bauer.

Apparently neither had noticed her presence, and as far as she was concerned, that should remain that way.

Up to that point she had assumed that Paul was just a regular crew member of Horizon, but the late visit by the CBI Admiral suggested he doubled as a spy.

Quickly she withdrew and went inside her room.

 

“…she’s probably asleep, sir.” Paul’s voice was apologetic.

“Your engagement to her puts a mark on your record, if her actions should in any way be hindering.” They were talking about Alexandra, obviously.

“I doubt her actions have any consequences for the bureau, sir. What brings you here anyway?” Was he not informed about the latest developments? Somehow Alexandra had doubts about that.

“You know what has happened at the linker moon, and the probe. I came to inquire personally.” The Admiral’s voice got closer to the door as he spoke, Alexandra held her breath, he tried to open it, found it locked, walked away again.

“What I found was an annoyingly lax way of handling potential security threats. In and of herself the linker woman could be a beachhead for potential invasion.” Angrily Alexandra closed her cold hands to fists. He had not seen Claire, her agony. She not only had been there after her landing, but also talked with her weekly, as part of her integration programme, devised by Doctor Antonius.

“Two possible scenarios have been developed by the professionals.” Bauer continued, the ensuing silence suggested he either showed Paul or handed him a tablet which held the information. “Sir, with all due respect, it’s late, and reading this much text,” genuinely sounding tired Paul sighed. If she hadn’t been enraged by him being a secret informant or agent of the CBI, Alexandra would have felt sorry for him, being dragged back to work in the middle of the vacation was annoying enough, but also late at night?

“Scenario one, the linkers have successfully managed to tame the sludge into their collective, preparing now for invasion, both by their forces amassing at ES-p296’s moon and the beachhead linker here. Either humans of biologic origin will become a thing of the past, replaced by creatures consisting entirely of nanites, or humans will be brimming with nanites. Scenario two, is what is being presented to us. The linkers accidentally ignited the spark of evolution in this stuff, and are increasing their forces to defend against it.”

Strongly suspecting that the specialists devising these scenarios were paranoid eggheads, Alexandra favoured the latter scenario.

Another sigh from Paul echoed through the door. “What’s my assignment, sir?”

As curious as him, Alexandra concentrated. “Keep an eye on your fiancé. She gets info, we need to get it asap. Other operatives have been put into place.”

That was all? Alexandra felt a little disappointed. She had hoped for something more spectacular.

 

How to handle the knowledge that your fiancé is a spy? Watching him take his breakfast, this time at a table further back from the windows, Alexandra had been feigning feeling unwell as he wanted to give her a morning kiss.

She had claimed that the late visit by the officials had made her feel unwell. Work seemed to never end, and took its toll on her, she claimed. Sadly that also meant to eat something out of her comfort zone for breakfast.

Oatmeal.

Confronting him would probably be disastrous. For his career, potentially hers, and their relationship.

Relationship. Could she maintain a relationship with him? “I thought, maybe we could go skiing today, if your health permits it?”

Realising she had to come back to reality from her absent minded state, Alexandra raised her eyebrows, uttering “Huh?”.

“Skiing?” A chance to be alone with him. Talk to him.

“Yes.” Forcing herself to chow down another spoon of oatmeal, she cleared her throat afterwards. “I’m beginning to feel better. Perhaps the empty stomach.” It was only half past eight, neither of the two had slept much, but still, both acted as if they had had a restful night.

 

An hour later they met outside their rooms, im full skiing atire. From the sunset inn a shuttle service ferried guests to the other side of the mountain, to a well lit skiing slope. Unlike the hotel, this was run by the government, in an effort to promote exercise. Ever since mankind had settled down again, abandoning the rigid lifestyle of a military run spaceship, unhealthy lifestyles were on the rise again.

 

“I saw you and Admiral Bauer last night.” Her and Paul were alone, halfway down the slope, no other skiiers in sight, let alone earshot.

If he was surprised he hid it well. “What are you talking about?” Well acted, honey. Well acted. “I heard your conversation. And I’m giving you a choice my dear. Tell me the truth, all of it. Or we are through.”

There was a small stop on the side of the slope, Paul gestured towards it. “There’s nothing illegal of my being a CBI agent. It is our mandate to accumulate intelligence, and official channels sometimes don’t give you all of it. If you heard what I said, you know that my feelings for you are genuine.” He kept his voice low, nervously looking around.

Before they had sat down to speak he had taken out a small cellphone sized device, activated a scrambling function, in case one of them was bugged.

“I know, and all I want is the truth, the CBI doesn’t need to know that I know.”

With a long sigh Paul looked into the distance. Far away from the brightly lit skiing slope the nightsky was in full glory. “I was placed here five years ago, the CBI was distrustful of the colony, as it was contradictory to its own doctrine. No antimatter, but in orbit hovers a space station housing countless ships with antimatter, generating power with said antimatter for both the station and the colony. Naturally we were curious what else the colony did that was against their mandate, or that of the fleet.”

With little satisfaction over the answer received, Alexandra still managed to fake a smile. “It’s a start. What are your plans concerning Claire?” Now Paul did react, he made a tortured grimace. “Do I have to?”

“If you desire to keep me, yes.”

Lowering his head Paul began to understand why agents and informants with a family were seen as a liability. “The guard on duty at her side, will be replaced by an agent, who will steer the psychiatrist to ask her the right questions. The CBI sees your orders as a hindrance to getting all the information out of her.”

Already knowing about that part Alexandra just nodded. “Thank you for your honesty.” She put her gloved hand on his. “Now we can continue our vacation.” Satisfaction was far away, but it was all that she could hope for. Unless she gave him drugs designed to make a subject talk.

 

The week of vacation went by without further incidents with the CBI Admiral, or the other officials, who left the sunset inn on the third day. Thanks to Paul she stayed up to date concerning the situation at the Ghoti farm.

Not much relaxation had settled in during the time at the sunset inn, but still Alexandra felt refreshed as they entered the hangar. Stepping out of the luxurious comfort of the shuttle service, into the hangar it felt like stepping through a time portal. From an opulent past into a functional futuristic time.

 

Returning to Horizon Alexandra found a report waiting for her. Doctor Antonius wrote that Claire had refused cooperation since the new guard had arrived, along with a few discreet, but pointing, questions to Claire. That was quick.

Looking to see what had been going on in her friends lives she put the report aside.

Later she decided that a little away mission to the Ghoti farm was warranted, to see how the CBI operative was doing on his mission, and maybe give Antonius a few hints on how to distinguish between the influence of the CBI and genuine medical advice, from the board of specialists supporting him in his task.

The very next day, she took her own ship, down to the surface. As shift commander she enjoyed that sort of liberty, as the Admiral was mostly to be found at the colony, and the shift commanders enjoyed free reign aboard the Horizon, during their shift, of course.

At her side she had one of the security guards she knew and trusted, she was to replace the phoney one sent by the CBI.

Sure, her actions would be noted by the CBI, perhaps they’d even take actions to prevent future actions of the sort, but for the moment, it was a necessity to her. Claire fell into her jurisdiction and her responsibility.

 

Outside her cockpit she saw Claire and Dmitry, sitting next to the door of his pod. Antonius stood in front of them arguing wildly.

The phoney guard was nowhere to be seen.

Intrigued she left the ship. Feeling the soft ground beneath her shoes she had to smile, who would’ve thought she’d be back on the surface so soon?

“Good, you’re here!” Antonius greeted her, he seemed distressed to a certain degree. “Not that anyone called me, or anything.” Alexandra returned the unexpected greeting.

“That guard you sent down here, he is a spy!” No shit sherlock. “What makes you say that?”

“We, I mean Dmitry and I, caught him communicating in secret.” Claire spoke up, remaining seated, her voice clearer than the last time Alexandra had spoken her, a few days before her vacation. “He used a coded signal, which I was able to decipher. When we confronted him yesterday, he ran off into the woods.” Almost casually she pointed behind the pod. That path would lead the agent to a vast valley with many rivers and lakes, much wildlife and thick forests.

Once the battery on his gun ran out, he’d be practically defenseless against the predators of PK-p222. “I suspected as much, that’s why I brought someone I can trust.”

Alexandra too sat down. Someone, presumably Dmitry, had built a chair that stood opposite of the bench.

“What was in that transmission?” Not wasting any time on pleasantries, she cut right to the chase.

“They suspect Claire here to be a beachhead for the DEHumans,” interestingly enough for Alexandra, Dmitry had not called them linkers, “and some involvement with the sludge. Any insights on that?”

“Maybe.” Antonius brought a glass of some tea out, handing it to Alexandra. “A long distance probe has detected unusual space crafts near the Digitalys planet. Also, there’s a staging going on at the moon base in the 296 system.” Constantly looking from one to the other, Alexandra gave them all the information she had, that was not classified as far as she knew.

An absent gaze appeared in Claire’s expression. “Staging you say?”

“Yes, the CBI fears that you are just the beachhead, turning some people here into linkers, before the others can arrive in greater numbers.”

Slowly Claire’s expression grew horrified. By the glances Claire threw in Dmitry’s direction, Alexandra could tell that the thought of turning Dmitry into what she once was frightened her. “Our, I mean, their, strategy works differently. By now the population of your colonies is no where near the number of units in the collective mind. If they would desire to invade, they would arrive in massive numbers. Let alone the fact that they have superior firepower, shielding, engines.”

Raising a hand to stop her from talking, Alexandra nodded. “I understand. The CBI doesn’t.”

Best to keep the CBI’s suspicions concerning a linker involvement with the sludge from Claire, if she reacted this shocked to the other suspicions of the CBI, Alexandra mused.

Dmitry stretched, getting up. “It’s time, I need to continue working, if you’ll excuse me.” He gently touched Claire’s hand, and nodded to Antonius. There was an unspoken invitation to Alexandra, asking her to follow him.

“There is something I need to talk with you about, alone.” Alexandra too got up, following him across the clearing. A beaten path led through the forest to the nearby lake.

Much had changed since her last visit there.

After Claire’s capsule had been retrieved, Dmitry had built a peer out into the water. A drone sat on the edge of the peer, manufacturing parts for a hut.

“CBI suspects that the linkers have, in essence, tamed the sludge.” Alexandra blurted out as they arrived at the crystal shore of the crystal clear water.

“I feared as much.” Dmitry Zalenkov shook his head, they were outside of Claire’s hearing range, if she had remained at the pod. A casual glance at his scanner, as if to check the time, confirmed that the two were alone.

“I can’t guarantee that there won’t be other operatives of the CBI coming here. You know that?” Feeling help- and useless Alexandra watched him walk out on the peer. The artificially constructed material was safe she knew, and boyant in case the pillars failed, but still she shied away from it, as her swimming skills were miserable.

“I know. If you suspect that another operative is here, just tell us.” Winking he waved her to follow him.

“There is nothing more the CBI can learn from her, at least concerning current intentions of the collective mind, or the sludge. She is disconnected.” Almost with a proud expression he turned to her as Alexandra walked down the peer. “Permanently.”

An intrigued expression from the shift commander asked all the questions, there was no need for words. “She had disconnected herself, but asked me and Antonius to fry the circuits in her implant that would enable her to connect, or enable the others to do so, or contact her.”

“That wasn’t in any of the reports! Why?” Kneeling down next to him as he checked the programming of the drone, which was an older, outdated version of the drones used to build and maintain the colony. Dmitry had repaired it after it fell into disrepair, and took it with him to build the Ghoti farm. “I felt it was something we should add later to verify her intentions of joining our society, right now, it would seem like a desperate attempt to paint a nice picture of her.” He kept the part of Claire’s agonising headache after the procedure, to himself. The countless hours of her screaming in agony, which they explained to the guard as normal, almost withdrawal like symptoms.

After checking the programming, amd seeming satisfied with it, Dmitry looked out over the lake.

“There are other things you should know about.”

 

Pale, almost lifeless, Paul hung over the dinner that Alexandra had prepared for them. His condition was not brought on by her cooking skills, which were actually quite good, but the news she delivered unto him. He would’ve been more shocked, had she told him about her initial plan of replacing the guard by one of the people she could trust. “That guy’s failure will make Bauer mad!” Although the news of Claire’s disabled connectivity was uplifting, he still was not in a high spirit.

He would weave the report for Bauer about the lost capability of connecting as Alexandra spilling that secret over dinner.

The other part was a lot more difficult to report. “And Dmitry told you this?”

“Claire had recalled that information only shortly after the guard vanished.” Smiling dreamily Alexandra recalled the scene that Dmitry described.

 

After confronting the phoney guard the man took out his weapon, threatened to shoot them if they pursued him and ran off, afraid that they already had contacted Horizon. Relieved to be safe Claire had embraced Dmitry, kissed him. Which had triggered the memory from other women in the collective mind of the DEHumans, left buried in her brain somewhere.

 

“So the linkers send out women in cloaked ships, who then turn up in various nightlife locations, seducing men, gathering DNA?” When Bauer repeated the intel it sounded ridiculous. “As it seems, yes.” Paul weakly smiled into the video conversation.

“As far as I understand it, sir, they have a contraption in the uterus keeping the sperm alive. Just plain DNA like envisioned for the clone programmes, seems to be less in demand. Besides, they want to maintain a certain diversity.” Admitting to himself that he would not object having his DNA stolen that way, compared to having his own cells forcibly removed from his body, Paul maintained his weak smile. “Did the linker woman disclose any details?” A dark shadow seemed to hang over Admiral Bauer’s face as he spoke those words.

“No, sir. Only that it has happened in the past, and that the linkers have mimicked the cloaking technology of the silicate lifeforms after witnessing it on their long range sensors. Apparently good enough to fool our sensors.”

The Admiral remained silent, but there was a glint in his eyes that told Paul that the CBI was interested in the very same technology, if they didn’t already work on prototypes.

“Thank you for the report, agent Dekowitz. Until next time.” The report of the fled agent had flown past the Admiral, or it semed that way at least.

After the transmission had ended Alexandra stood up from behind the console, slowly clapping. “Excellent performance.”

By now he had accepted his role as double agent, for the CBI on the one side, and for his fiancé on the other. A news broadcast for CBI agents arrived, causing him to shake his head. Worried Alexandra moved behind him, a video message popped open. “Field Agents, this footage was recorded by long range sensors, monitoring the staging at the linker base in the 296 system.” What followed was a grainy image of the dozens of ships that had gathered there, vanishing. “As clearly visible they have jumped away, defense had been put to high alert, as their destination was unknown at the time. A reassigned deep space exploration vessel however had figured out their destination.”

The ships appeared out of nothing, in relative close proximity to the foreign objects linked to the sludge from Digitalys.

An exchange of hostilities ensued. Awestruck the two watched. After only a few moments most of the linker fleet was destroyed, as were a few of the foreign objects. As sudden as the ships had appeared, they vanished again, only a brief moment later, so did the supposed sludge vessels, leaving behind a debris field. “Remember Agents, this is classified information.” Only about a dozen agents received this news cast, as it seemed relevant to their assignments. Shocked and terrified at the prospect of an enemy that can defeat the linkers as easily as they once handled harpies and human ships, Alexandra subconsciously reached for Paul’s hand, who returned the squeeze.

“We better prepare ourselves for the worst.”