The Cronian Incident by Matthew Williams
Disgraced investigator, Jeremiah Ward, once worked the Martian beat, now he’s serving out his sentence in a mining colony on Mercury. His golden opportunity arises when a member of a powerful faction on Titan vanishes and Ward is promised, in exchange for investigating this man’s disappearance, a clean slate and a second chance.
Unwittingly, Ward becomes embroiled in a conspiracy, centuries in the making, and begins to realise his one shot at redemption may cost him his life.
From terraforming to colonisation, to the Technological Singularity and the future of space exploration; The Cronian Incident is a must read for fans of thrilling mystery science fiction.
Targeted Age Group:: over 18
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 5 – NC-17
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A few things inspired this work, actually. For one, I've been a writer for Universe Today for many years. Researching and writing about the planets of the Solar System, and being able to speak to experts in the field about current and future missions, has always been inspiring. Eventually, I set out to write about how humans might one-day live on all the planets, moons and large asteroids out there.
At the same time, I've been researching the subjects of climate change and technological change for years, since these will be the predominant forces shaping our future. Specifically, I wanted to know how these forces would drive human exploration of the Solar System and its eventual colonization. Between these two sources of inspiration, I found The Cronian Incident!
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Jeremiah Ward had a number of influences. On the one hand, I wanted a deeply-flawed character, a sort of anti-hero for the modern age. On the other hand, he also needed to be skilled and competent as an investigator. In the end, I decided that he would be good at his job, but suffer from one fatal law. In his case, it was drug addication.
Janis Amaru, who is central to the story was largely inspired by my wife. I have always had a thing for strong, smart, dedicated women. And in the end, I found myself drawing on my many years of being married to one to inspire Amaru's character. The other characters, such as Guernsey, Pinter, Adler and Emile, were all just the products of my twisted imagination!
The walk was long and uncomfortable. The cuffs chafed, causing his wrists to ache and added injury to insult. Harsh and piercing cold blue lights illuminated the corridor. Even at the brisk pace the officers were keeping, the walk felt interminably long. Of course, that was the point. Before anyone was brought into the Administrator’s office, they had to be sufficiently intimidated.
Ward knew the procedure well enough, having subjected others to something very similar in the past. Now, somehow, knowing that simple fact didn’t help much. In the end, uncertainty was always the killer – the fact you didn’t know how bad you were going to get it once the runaround was complete.
A few bends later, they arrived at a nondescript door in the middle of a long corridor. Banks stood before a panel set to one side and waited for the panel’s sensor to pick up on his presence. The panel instantly processed the security chief’s ID and biometric information, beamed to the panel from his cortical implant, and turned green. He then issued an appeal into the small speaker mounted at the top.
“Who is it?” The reply sounded like grinding metal, only partially due to the quality of the speaker.
“Chief Banks, ma’am,” he replied. “We have prisoner Ward, as ordered.”
“Enter,” came the casual response. The door slid open, and Ward was escorted inside.
The décor changed once again, as did the smell of the air. Ward caught the smell of evergreens, soft perfumes, and sandalwood. He also noted several interesting features not present when the last Administrator had occupied the room. In the corner nearest the door, a sofa with the appearance of actual leather; a bunch of seats and tables that had nothing to do with her desk; rugs on the floor; and some artwork, depicting various places in the Solar System, hung on the walls.
The most impressive thing in the room was the aquarium in the far corner. At his current distance, Ward couldn’t be sure, but the dancing form inhabiting the aquamarine environment appeared distinctively Europan. The dancing form’s movements were immensely graceful and hypnotic, to the point Ward was startled when the Administrator – seated at her desk – began to speak.
Ward looked at her and answered in the affirmative. “Yes, ma’am.”
Cold, unemotional eyes began looking him over, surveying him as if she were trying to get a better sense of what she kind of take control of she was dealing with. Ward did the same, noting she seemed different than the last time he had seen her, when she first arrived several months ago. At the time, she had taken over control of the facility, and gone through the process of making a formal introduction of herself to the inmates and workers. He could tell she hadn’t enjoyed the proceedings.
Now, she looked different somehow. More focused, more intense, and more relaxed. The exact opposite of what he would have expected to see.
“Chief Banks, you and your men can go now.”
Banks attempted to protest. “Ma’am”
“You can remove the cuffs as well, Banks. I don’t imagine he will be able to do much.”
Banks gave Ward a look of anxious indecision. The thought of leaving an inmate unrestrained in the presence of the Administrator was evidently more than he could handle. Then again, so was disobedience. Ultimately, he opted for the least dangerous path, the one of compliance, and released the cuffs.
“My officers and I will be right outside if you need us,” he said, more for Ward’s benefit than the Administrator’s. She shooed them away as they departed the room, halting outside the door to assume the position of attention as the door closed in front of them.
Ward stared back to the Iron Widow. For her part, she ignored him as she perused the single Folio that lay before her. His earlier impression had been correct. He expected her to look like her brief time here had taken a toll. In truth, she appeared far more comfortable than when she had first shown up. Something about that didn’t sit right with him. Anyone who became progressively more at ease during their time on the Rock had to be more dangerous than all the criminal population combined.
For several long moments, she continued reading from the Folio. Several times, she swiped at the Folio to change the page being displayed, scrolling down every so often to see more. Ward scoffed inwardly as he realized she was probably looking over some of the same materials repeatedly. No way she would have let him into her office before preparing to tear him down.
Why are you doing this? he wondered. I know the routine, I’ve done the routine!
Ward knew the feigned disregard for his presence was necessary, at least to her. All part of a prolonged act to make him sweat, to make his anxiety build and to drive home the all-important fact he was not in control of the situation here. All he could do was wait and be prepared for the inevitable lecture about rules, safety regs, and the like.
The act all seemed a little excessive for that, though.
Eventually, she took a deep breath and launched into an unmistakably pre-prepared speech.
“I have some interesting news for you, Mr. Ward,” she said. Ward noted she now used his name, a dubious development if there ever was one. “The facility has been contacted by a representative of a powerful Martian Faction. They are sending an envoy to meet you, and I am informed they will be here shortly.”
Ward already felt a little lightheaded, his breathing a bit shallow – common side-effects of the medication they were all required to take. Now, he felt like someone let the air out of the room.
“Are you saying, I am being released?”
“That would seem to be the case.” The Iron Widow smiled as she said this, but her eyes were like two fine, jagged pieces of ice. Evidently, he was being released as soon as this representative arrived, and she wasn’t too happy about his impending freedom.
Which naturally begged the question.
“Who is this representative? Who’s coming?”
“They didn’t say,” she replied. “All I know for sure is there’s been a development in the Outer Worlds. Apparently, one of their colleagues went missing on Titan, and that has something to do with you.”
Ward frowned. He couldn’t quite trace the logic. So someone from back home lost an associate of theirs, and for this reason, they were coming to free him. Ward struggled to see the connection. However, right now that seemed inconsequential.
He was going to be free!
“How long before this, envoy arrives?”
The Iron Widow checked the Folio before relaying the estimated date of their arrival.
“Seven days,” she said, doing the math. “Doesn’t leave much time.”
“Time for what?”
She intentionally placed the Folio down where Ward could see the open page, his eyes drawn to a single media box on the page’s center. The box appeared to be a grid with some icons on it. A sense of dread filled him as he recognized the icons as being from the autonav, the icons representing the Sapper and his team. Looking back at her face, he noticed a loss of all traces of false cheerfulness. All business. The Iron Widow returned.
“I’ve been looking over the records of your last run, prisoner. I noted some . . . discrepancies, some rather telling.”
“I see. . .” Ward replied, mirroring her pause. “Could you be more specific?”
She took a deep breath, her expression becoming sharper. “Where to begin? Your order to a crew member to disregard safety protocols? Your own disregard for proper procedure when you ordered members of your crew to demolish an obstruction? You showed a marked disregard for the safety of your people, prisoner. Do you have any thoughts on that?”
Ward hesitated. He had the feeling she was holding something back, though he couldn’t imagine what. She covered all the little deficiencies in his mission, what more could there be? His unkempt appearance? His behavior towards her and her officers?
Regardless, she had asked for his thoughts on the issue, and he had several to share.
“I do,” he said, finally. “For one, we stayed out longer than is commonly advised, but we were never in any danger. We still had days before the terminator would have been upon us. Second, the extra time allowed us to haul in a significant amount of ore, which as I understand the rules, is the purpose of the worker-incentive program.”
He took a breath before getting to the third point, trusting his confidence would confound her little show of force here more than anything. His confident attitude had always worked for him in the past, even though he would never have admitted it at the time.
“Last, the obstruction blocking our path – the rock wasn’t listed on the autonav, so I could only assume we were the first to spot the obstruction. My crew and I were facing a delay. I knew we could clear the rock much quicker than a team dispatched from Prokofiev could. Since we were already overdue, I figured time was of the essence. So, I made a decision, ma’am. I regret I may have inadvertently broken some regulations.”
Sandoval fixed him with a steely look, the seconds passing in abject silence as if she were processing what he said. Or perhaps she was waiting to see if he had anything more to offer. Once again, Ward had the feeling there was something he was missing.
“Shall I enter that as your official explanation for your actions?”
“Is this an official inquiry?”
She shrugged. “It has the potential to be.”
“Then yes, that is my explanation,” Ward said firmly.
Sandoval returned her attention to the Folio lying on her desk and made a few quick gestures over the device, calling up the autonav data of their mission again. From where Ward stood, he could see what appeared to be footage from when his mining team was deployed.
“Prisoner, it is my opinion your judgement was impaired on this particular mission. I have it on good authority you’ve been abusing your meds, and this may have been responsible for your actions.”
Ward’s hands curled involuntarily into fists.
“Wha – what are you –”
“Furthermore,” Sandoval cut off his stuttered denial. “From what I’ve seen from the autonav feed, you nearly wandered into an open pit shortly after ordering your crew to defy standard safety regulations. A quick check on the comm chatter indeed seemed to reveal as much.”
Sandoval pressed her finger to the Folio. Over speakers which seemed to be embedded in the walls, familiar voices began to play.
“Bossman, you there?” A slight pause, followed by Guernsey repeating himself. “Bossman, are you with us here?”
“I’m here. Just a little tired.”
“Uh-huh. Well, we’re nearing the end of the vein.”
Another pause, this one much longer. Then the sound of Muscovy’s incensed words.
“Chto yebat' vy delayete, vy dura?!”
“Sir, is everything all right?”
“I’m fine! A little tired, is all. Only trying to see into the hole, maybe get a sense of how we’re doing.”
Sandoval waved her hand over the Folio, terminating the recording. Leaning back in her chair, she folded her arms, a look of sardonic contentment on her face.
“I would say this, more than anything, is a sign of impairment.”
Ward felt sweat percolating in his clenched hands. The small of his back felt sweaty too, and some beads were forming on his forehead. Worse yet was the feeling of pricking cold on his face. Between having his judgement questioned and narcotics being blamed, this was beginning to feel entirely too familiar.
“I . . . I don’t know what to tell you,” he managed to say finally. “The last time I checked, being tired was not a crime. We were several days into a mission and –”
“Your bio-readings indicated you slept plenty,” she said. “And they also registered a sudden change in your brainwaves shortly before you chose to step out and join the mining team. I imagine a more thorough check of your bioreadings will provide evidence this was caused by you dosing before you went out.” Her arms were still crossed. She was unflappable in her conclusions.
So, she had called up their comm traffic and his bioreadings, had she? He had to admire her proficiency. Still, he knew she had only revealed the circumstantial evidence so far, even if said evidence remained rather compelling.
You’ve got nothing!
That was what the suspects had always said to him whenever he reached this point in an interrogation. They always assumed the probing and insinuations were part of some elaborate bluff to get them to confess. Of course, Ward knew better. Even if Sandoval didn’t know things definitively, it would be easy enough for her to find out. Challenging her conclusions would only embolden her.
“Is there to be an investigation, then?” Ward asked.
Her expression remained firm, but her eyes were telling once again. This time around, they seemed gleeful, which instantly made Ward afraid.
“There already has, prisoner. We’ve searched your quarters and found additional packages of your prescribed medicine. Security has spoken with the facility’s pharmacist. Doctor Doyle confirmed you approached him multiple times in the past to request additional medication, a request which he mistakenly obliged. However, he kept a log of your transactions. One might say he simply didn’t trust you.”
That son of a bitch! Ward thought. And here he’d believed they had an understanding. All the while, keeping a record to cover his own ass.
His anger didn’t stop at Doyle. Patently, the Iron Widow hadn’t taken to the news of his imminent departure well, so she had gone looking for a reason to screw with him while she was still able. In the process, she found a wealth of infractions to punish him for.
“What is to happen to me?” Ward said, resigning himself to his fate. “Am I to be confined to my cell until the Martian gets here?”
Sandoval keyed the intercom on her desk and ordered Chief Banks to come back in. The office door slid open, and the staunch officer, accompanied by two of his men, rapidly moved to Ward’s sides to secure him. Roughly grabbing his hands, they replaced the shackles around them, one man grabbing him by each arm.
“No, prisoner,” said the Iron Widow. “I have a feeling you’ll require something a little more. . . private while you’re still under our care. We don’t want you overdosing before our guest arrives.”
Ward’s heart felt like it had suddenly dropped into the pit of his stomach. He knew exactly where she was going with this. He was going somewhere altogether horrible.
“Solitary block, Chief Banks. Make sure he gets one of our best cells.”
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