It's time. Mara nudges Fir. The light of a tablet screen splits the darkness, almost painful after so long. Fir goes to work.
Fir's a good man. He was in the militia in the last war – unemployed Hivers with underpowered rifles and no armor, little more then nuke fodder. The experience left him with few illusions and a lot of questions, questions he found answers to in the Cause. And, critically, he was trained in electronic warfare. Mara desperately hopes she's not about to get him killed.
“I'm in,” he murmurs. So the master code was good after all. Thirty seconds later: “Patch uploaded. Time to go.”
Mara unlatches the lid of the box. They're still in darkness, but there's a bit of light trickling in from under a doorway, revealing a store room packed with boxes. Mara's legs are wobbly as she stands, blood returning painfully after hours of sitting. They're dressed in the gray jumpsuits of palace maintenance techs, bags slung over their shoulders. They don't have long before someone notices their illicit software update – maybe an hour, if they're lucky, probably less. Maybe a lot less.
Mara walks to the door, opens it, and strides out into the hallway, Fir following. They're in one of the servants' halls, linking the vehicle airlock, the storage rooms, and the kitchen. The dimly lit corridor might be in any industrial complex; the only sign they're in one of the official centers of Autarchial power is the ceiling-mounted cameras every few meters. Mara is careful not to look up at them, careful not to betray any sign she doesn't belong as she strides purposefully down the hall towards the generator room.
- - - - - - - -
“So nice of you to come visit.” MuniPrix Sara Ludei smiles politely. She doesn't mean a word of it, but she's lived too long in the royal court to show it. “I'll let you get changed and washed before dinner, shall I?”
Iskander Iskandrus smiles back. “I look forward to seeing you there.” He doesn't mean it either. He keeps smiling until the door hisses shut behind MuniPrix Sara, and then the smile vanishes like a flashlight being turned off.
Iskander is standing in one of the guest rooms of the Urban Palace. It's exemplary of the Palace's architecture as a whole: at first glance, unspeakable luxury; at closer inspection, dust and wear. The room is a good twenty meters long and ten wide, with red marble floors covered in thick rugs made of naturally-grown wool, and high arching walls covered in the paintings of dead ancestors, and an enormous glass skylight letting in bountiful natural light. There's a bed so deep you could drown in it, a personal bath that doubles as a small pool and jacuzzi, and shelves lined with bric-a-brac accumulated by generations of Ludeis and related clans. But if you look closely you can see that the marble is scarred with age, and the skylight needs to be cleaned, and there's dust on the shelved trinkets.
Iskander's about to take off his clothes and try out the pool when his earpiece chimes, and he pales. He'd expected to have more time to get ready – much more time. But an Iskandrus always rises to the occasion, he tells himself, as he strides purposefully towards the door.
- - - - - - - -
“There,” Mara says. She's standing next to the backup reactor's generator, maintenance panel open. Ten kilograms of thermite are carefully arranged on top of the casing for the stator, wired into the main circuit bus. She closes the panel and locks it, then turns to Fir, who's standing guard by the door. “Let's get moving.”