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The hardest part was over. Hope echoed the words silently to herself as she forced deep breaths, but her heart beat a frantic rhythm that would not be cowed. As a surgeon, she had trained to be calm, calculating, and controlled, but she now couldn’t stop watching her escape play over and over in her mind.

The Lineae Institute was known across the solar system for several reasons. It was undeniably the oldest of humanity’s forays into the Jovian system—and the first permanent human settlement outside of Earth’s orbit. A remnant of the now-defunct Europan Discovery Initiative, the Institute was established after a team of EDI scientists departed Earth to investigate the cracks in the icy moon of Jupiter. After relaying the successful penetration of Europa’s crust and establishment of a base of operations in the underlying ocean, the Earth didn’t hear from the team again for decades.

Through a strange twist of fate, Lineae was the only extra-terrestrial colony that was not financed and executed as a corporate venture. Only after the exodus from Earth did the Institute once again ‘open its doors’ to the outside world—though nobody would call the ‘doors’ of Europa ‘open’ by any means today. The scientists in the sub-surface aquatic stations have proven to be reclusive, isolationist, and incredibly miserly with the technology they offer to off-worlders. But yet every ten cycles, corporate liaisons from across the system—GLME, BioCal, Rec6, and even 4-SEC—meet at the solitary surface-based station on Europa to bid on the undeniably mind-blowing technological offerings the Lineae Institute has to offer.

Hope had planned her escape for several cycles, and called in every favor she had earned in order to be selected as part of the minuscule team of representatives that brought their developments to the surface for corporate representation. She had traded some of the most valuable resources from her personal medical library for the scant off-world currency to be found sub-surface—all of which she had spent to convince a corporate representative from BioCal to smuggle her to a medical research facility on Callisto. The few resources she had taken with her from the underwater facilities were dwindling; whether she didn’t bring enough to barter with corrupt guards or she was too naïve to haggle a fairer price for silence, she couldn’t say.

“Dr. Mikkelsen?”

Hope was caught off-guard by the record clerk’s query. “…y-yes, that’s me. I’m sorry, what was it?” The young man waved a handful of docucards and a full-size BioCal libropad towards Hope and gently lay them on the counter. He opened his mouth to explain them, but Hope inadvertently interrupted him as she identified the materials she had given her last cache of Lineae tech to purchase. “Oh, excellent. Excellent! Accreditation for Bio-Medical certification, CV of a BioCal medical researcher, and… Oh, you’ve outdone yourself! This is one of the older libropads of the First Planetary Bio-systems Alliance, isn’t it!?”

“That’s right. Careful with it! That’s Earth-tech there, and only well-connected docs still use those here on the Far Moon.”

“Lars, I can’t thank you enough!”

When Hope tried to reach around him for a hug, the clerk didn’t smile, but instead raised his hands and took a half-step backward. “Be cool. That tech you gave me is good shit, but you better keep a low profile. I’d be surprised if the Institute hasn’t already sent out folks to recover their assets, you know what I’m saying? You best know what you’re doing—or at least make yourself scarce.”

“I’m not completely helpless,” Hope quipped defensively. “…but thank you.”

“Yeah, alright.” Lars looked over Hope’s shoulder, watching a lift door open and several people enter the spaceport terminal. “Alright Dr. Mikkelsen. Departures are right that way.” He nodded towards the lift, and Hope surreptitiously turned to follow his gesture. “That said… I’d check the bar down the concourse a bit. Unless you’re still totin’ any Institute tech, you’re gonna have to find a cheap pilot.”

Hope couldn’t tell whether he was being helpful or dismissive, but she couldn’t afford to ask. He’d guessed correctly—she only had enough credits to her name to buy meal or two. She nodded to Lars, turned, and walked down the concourse. Before she could enter the bar, the portal opened and a young man staggered backwards.

“Drink’s ain’t free, Callahan. Pay up or I take your ship!”

Hope smiled and gestured to the irate restaurateur. “Actually, his drink is on me.”

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“This still doesn’t make any sense. So far, you two have taken turns politely informing me of new rules each ‘hand.'” Hope’s frustration with the unfamiliar game was made obvious by her loss of composure. Sarcasm, like beading droplets of water, clung to her words. “And by sheer coincidence I’ve managed to lose each one. The only reason I’m disinclined to believe you two aren’t conspiring against me is the lack of Kip’s petty giggling.”

Kip shifted his eyes from his hand to Hope, but only momentarily; his shoulders shrugged as he looked back at his cards. Katerina’s hand lay face-down on the table—alongside several pieces of the disassembled LE-4 pistol she was busy cleaning. Without turning her eyes from the barrel she was inspecting, she retorted, “Gerry told you the same rules he told us, honey.” Kat squinted down the barrel, then blew a puff of air through it. “Not our fault if you didn’t listen.”

“Fine. I’ll keep going.” As Hope pushed a scrap of paper toward the center of the table, Kip shook his head and dropped his cards. “It’s just you, ladies. I’m out.” Kat slid the barrel into its casing, set it propped up on the table, and lifted the corner of her bottom card. “Three Queens. Doctor?” Confident in her impending victory, Hope beamed as she placed her cards on the table and spun them to face her opponent. “Two Kings and two eights!”

Hope’s excitement didn’t elicit the reaction she was hoping for; Kip sucked his teeth while Kat closed her eyes and brought her hand to her brow. “Davai… Three of a kind beats two pairs, Hope.” Hope wasn’t having it. “No. Not again.” Kat took the notes from the table while Kip started collecting the cards to shuffle. “Listen, Doctor; wasn’t it you who wanted to play this ‘old Earth game’ to… what was it… ‘enjoy some Human culture for once?’” “Don’t start. I’m going to check with Gerald. He’s the only one here who played this game back on Earth, and the only one of you spacers I trust not to trick me.” Kip made a short show of pretending to be offended, but gave up as Hope walked out of the mess hall. “This doesn’t seem worth it, Kat. Y’all don’t even seem to be having fun, anyway.” “Fun? I’ll have fun over the next two weeks as Hope does my chores.”

Hope didn’t need to search the ship to find Gerald—she didn’t even check his quarters. Upon entering the engine room, she spied a toolbox on its side next to an open panel. She hardly had to peer into the crevice to see a worn-out shoe and oily pant leg.

“Gera–” she started, but the sound of a falling spanner and a shouted curse cut her off. “What?! Hope, is that you?” Hope winced as she watched the leg twist and contort. “Y-yes, sorry, you don’t need to come out… I, er, had a question about the Poker game you tau–” “You’ve got to be kidding me. Just stop playin’! We should’n’t’a even bought that deck on Phobos. Waste of credit! I said it then, I’ll say it now! Those twerps told you it di’n’t even have all 52 cards in it, right?”

Gerry’s whining continued, but Hope’s attention stalled as she lost herself in her memory. “Hold on… Phobos?” Something didn’t add up. “Gerry, we haven’t been to Phobos for… well, we haven’t been there while I’ve been on the ship.” A rumbling chuckle echoed out of the open panel. “Well how’d little Katya tell ya she got it? Did she amaze ya with tale ‘a her mountainous courage, pryin’ it outta some dead 4-SEC merc’s cold fingers?” Gerald snickered to himself, but didn’t hear anything in response. “Doc? Hope? Eh…” He didn’t waste time picking up his spanner and getting back to work.

The mess hall door slid up as Hope stormed in. “Phobos. You’ve all been to Phobos before!” Katerina let the hammer of the pistol slide forward and placed it on the table. Kip, surprised by the sudden return of the doctor, lost control of the cards while shuffling, sending them careening across the room. “You told me we couldn’t go to Phobos because of a bounty!” Kip pushed his fingers through his hair and loudly sighed. “Well, uh, yeah… since we picked you up…” Katerina smiled for the first time during their game. “Yeah, sweetie. Your bounty.”

“No signs of growth. Plot five, though…” Dr. Nadine turned down the piano sonata in her headphones and contemplated the lonely bloom of Lilium candidum. The pure white seemed drab in the featureless hallways of the station, but contrasted beautifully with the endless rust of the Martian hills.

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