Google+ The Bluestocking Firefly: December 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

Return to Peleteth

Links to the rest of this story may be found here.

Two men and a woman, looking uncomfortable in dress uniforms, stood waiting on the other side of the access port. The moment Amy appeared, all three came to attention. The older man and the woman hid their unease and uncertainty well; the younger man was blatantly nervous. Amy paused just inside the access port and surveyed them silently.

“Captain Ellis?” said the older man. “Commander Kirkwood. Welcome to Peleteth.”

Amy inclined her head a fraction, keeping her eyes on Kirkwood’s face. Her continued silence clearly further unnerved Kirkwood; eyes darting rapidly from Amy to his companions, he gestured to the woman at his side and said,

“This is Lieutenant — ”

Cutting him off with a sharp motion, Amy said, “Your companions’ names are not why I am here, Kirkwood.”

Kirkwood laughed nervously, his facade of composure rapidly dissolving. “No. No, of course not.” He hesitated. “You will forgive me, Captain Ellis, but before your ship messaged to inform us of your arrival, we had not been apprised of your visit.”

Amy lifted her eyebrows. “Are you always kept apprised of the movements of Unit 11, Kirkwood?” she inquired, her voice cool.

“No, of course not — ”

“I should imagine that pre-knowledge of an assessment would somewhat negate its value,” Amy continued, clasping her hands behind her back. “Would you not agree?”

Kirkwood shook his head hurriedly. “No, of course, Captain. I certainly didn’t mean to imply — ” He stopped. Swallowed. “My apologies if it seemed as though I implied the Commission’s — Unit 11’s — method of conducting business was not well done.”

“Indeed.” Amy lifted her gaze from his face and gazed past him onto the promenade. “You may dismiss your flunkies, and then we will walk.”

Kirkwood exchanged glances with his nameless subordinates. Inwardly, Amy felt sorry for him; clearly he hadn’t expected to be run over quite so thoroughly at the first encounter, and quite aside from the formalities of bringing along an escort to greet a Unit 11 agent, Kirkwood had obviously intended his lieutenants to act as a buffer — and most likely as extra eyes and ears — between himself and Captain Ellis. Amy, however, had no intention of dealing with more people at once than she needed to. While perfectly capable of stringing three people or more along at once, it would be easier to manipulate Kirkwood on his own.

“Kirkwood,” Amy said, feeling as though it was taking too long for him to dismiss the others. She began to walk, forcing Kirkwood to either remain standing or move quickly to catch up. Behind her, she heard him murmur something and then rapid footsteps sounded. “Good,” she said, not bothering to look around. “I assume you are familiar with the manner in which assessments are carried out.”

“It’s been years,” Kirkwood hedged. She glanced sideways at him, and he added, “That is — of course I’m familiar, but I haven’t ever been present during one, ma’am.” When she remained silent, he continued, “I’ve only been commander of the spaceport for a year, and, well, you know, the commander before me had an
agreement with the Unit 11 agent…”

Amy stopped and looked down at him. “Are you suggesting that I may be bribed, Kirkwood?” she asked icily. “Allow me to assure you, that is not the case, whatever the…
agreement — ” the word dripped with distaste “ — between your predecessor and mine may have been.” She turned on her heel and began walking again.

Kirkwood nearly fell over himself and over his words as he ran after her, protesting that this was not at all what he had meant, that he had simply been explaining his predecessor’s method of doing things, that of course he could see that Captain Ellis was as honest and impossible to bribe as— Amy stopped listening halfway through his long-winded protestations and instead focused on the spaceport. The
Sophia had come in on Level Five this time, despite the fact she was a small ship; her status as a temporary government transport had given her clearance to dock on the largest ring. For Amy’s departure purposes, Level Five wasn’t going to do her any good. Annieka Brenner needed to steal a small ship, a high-powered pleasure cruiser. Something like an Obvera or a Sfera 21, which she was not going to find on Level Five.

Discovering that Kirkwood was
still talking, Amy turned to him and cut him short, saying, “I believe that as you clearly will be of little use to me while I am here, it would be best if you give me full access to all facilities on Peleteth. Do you have any objections?”

It was a risky move. Technically, even Unit 11 was bound by certain restrictions, and while the anxiety generated by the appearance of a Unit 11 agent usually sufficed to achieve whatever the agent wanted, there were things that legally even Unit 11 wasn’t allowed to do. On the other hand, legally it was a little fuzzy to what point Unit 11’s authority extended, so most people tended to acquiesce with no questions asked. Commanders of spaceports, however, presumably had a better idea of where those boundaries lay, and Amy knew she was probably pushing her luck asking for full access. But Kirkwood was so rabbitty that it seemed worth the risk.

Sure enough…

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “But please, let me know at once if you have any questions — ”

“I sincerely doubt that will be the case,” she said, turning away and gazing up the centre of the station. “Should the occasion arise, however, I will be certain to let you know.”

With that, she nodded curtly to him and strode off across the promenade.

Previous: Spies and disguises 
Next: Move

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Spies and disguises

Links to the rest of this story may be found here.

The comm panel on the bulkhead buzzed. Pushing a final pin into her hair, Amy stabbed the button. “Yes?”

We’ve just arrived at Peleteth,” Kate said. “They’re waiting for you.

“I’ll be up in a minute. Thanks.”

Amy released the button and returned to the mirror. Settling the wig over her hair, she adjusted it until it hung straight and then ran a hand over her chest and stomach, smoothing invisible wrinkles in her uniform. It was an old uniform — it had been folded at the bottom of her bag for years — but it was in perfect condition and the Commission hadn’t changed its uniform policies in decades. There weren’t enough credits floating around to rekit every officer, much less every soldier.

She turned her face towards the light and leaned close to the mirror. Ramina had done something to her eyes to temporarily change their colour, and the steely blue matched the colour of her uniform. For a moment Amy stood and stared at her reflection, at the blue-eyed blonde wearing a captain’s stars, and then shook her head. She picked up her bag and left the room. She had work to do.

“Well, you don’t look a thing like yourself,” Grayson said. “How did you change the way your face looks?”

“Copious amounts of paints,” Amy replied.

Grayson eyed her suspiciously. “Something you learned overnight?”

Amy smiled disarmingly. “One picks up useful skills over the years, Grayson. I don’t ask you how you’ve become so talented, do I?”

He muttered something unintelligible and then said, “Are you ready, then?”


“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Taz said. He was lounging against the bulkhead, a concerned expression on his face. “You don’t owe any of us anything.”

She fixed him with an intent look. “I have a great deal of empathy for that little girl. Quite aside from that, however, I have my own life which you know nothing about. This has as much to do with me as it does to do with any of you.”

Taz shrugged, but his eyes didn’t leave Amy’s face. “You’re always welcome back to the

Amy looked at Grayson. “You say that, but I expect Grayson wishes he’d never met me.”

“Not entirely true,” Grayson said, brushing past her. “I may change my mind, however, once I work out who you are.”

“For your sake I hope you don’t.” Amy hesitated, and then caught Grayson’s arm. “May I speak with you for a moment?” She glanced over her shoulder at Taz. “Alone?”

“I’ll step out and see how your welcoming party’s doing,” Taz said. He smiled, but he looked troubled.

As the hatch closed behind him, Grayson turned to Amy. “What’s this about, then?”

“You know you have a spy on this ship, right?”

Grayson’s jaw worked. “Yes,” he said at last. “How do
you know that?”

“I told you. You pick up useful skills over the years.” She lifted a hand to run it through her hair and stopped just in time. “I’m concerned, however, because if someone’s reporting the movements of this ship back to the Commission then this entire mission could be compromised.”

Shaking his head, Grayson said, “When we came back from Idylla I had a look at the logs and it was obvious someone had been sending messages somewhere, so I shut down all external communications. If someone’s been sending messages to the Commission then it’s been through some other method, and the ship should have picked up the signal.”

“Your crew knew about the plan to rescue Molly before we left for Idylla,” Amy pointed out.

“But we didn’t have a solid plan then. All anyone could have reported was that there was an intention. There may be added security, but that’ll just mean we have to adapt.”

Amy frowned. “Do you know who it is?”

Grayson sighed. “If I knew who it was, I’d throw them out now.”

She glanced at the hatch. “Taz — ”

“I’ve been friends with Taz for fifteen years,” Grayson said sharply.

“But Taz doesn’t have the same animosity towards the Commission that you do,” Amy said gently. “The Commission rescued him from an unhappy childhood and what would undoubtedly have been a very short life on Meridani. The Commission was his home and his family. I’m sure he had reservations about things they did, but until you had to kill your wife I’m not sure that there was ever anything about the Commission that would have driven him away from it. Why might he not have left it then with the purpose of following you for the Commission?”

“I know Taz,” Grayson said. “And there is no way in hell he would do something like that. It’s not Taz.”

“Well, you’re left with three options,” Amy said. “Ramina seems an unlikely choice — the tribes hate the Commission. They’ve suffered under Commissioner law for generations.” She frowned. “On the other hand, Ramina went to medical school. She must have got a scholarship from the Commission as I can’t imagine how she afforded it otherwise — in which case the Commission owns her ass.”

“It’s not Ramina.”

“Grayson, I get that you think incredibly highly of your crew and don’t like to think of any of them spying on you, but — ”

“Aside from the fact that I’ve known Ramina almost as long as I’ve known Taz,” Grayson interrupted, “Ramina’s medical training wasn’t paid by the Commission. Her community recognised the fact that they needed a doctor, so the entire community came together and paid for her to go to university, with the understanding that when she finished she would return and train others.”

“Oh,” Amy said. “Why’s she on the
Sophia, then?”

Grayson sat down on a crate. “She went home for several years after she finished her residency and trained several of her people, but decided that she’d be of best use the more she knew. So she’s out here gathering information.”

“She’d learn more on a Commissioner ship. They have better utilities.”

“There’s no privacy, for starters, and she’d have to wear a uniform. I don’t know how she got through university. She despises the Commission.”

Amy sat down across from Grayson and rested her arms on her knees. “That leaves you with Benji and Kate.”

“As far as I’m aware, Kate has no particular feelings towards the Commission one way or another.” Grayson ran his fingers through his hair. “Her father was a pilot for charter flights and her mother was a receptionist in a civilian law firm. She’s the only child of only children, so there’s no extended family that the Commission’s got their claws in. Kate’s father started teaching her to fly when she was small and she never grew out of it, and I think she started piloting charters herself when she was eighteen before moving spaceward. Both of her parents are still alive.”

“And Benji?”

Grayson’s mouth twisted. “Benji hates the Commission. More than I do, more than Ramina does, more than anyone else I’ve ever met. He grew up poor in a district that received virtually no aid from the government and that constantly had patrols coming through giving its residents grief. Benji’s older brother was killed in the Meridani riots when Benji was still a kid. His parents were arrested for being part of an underground resistance movement and were shot. Most of his extended family was killed in a Commission-sanctioned razing of their tenement district. I think he’s still got a kid sister somewhere.”

Amy examined her fingernails. “So you’re probably looking at Kate, then.”

“Unless it’s you.”

She lifted her eyes to his face. “Grayson, if I were working for the Commission, believe me, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

He studied her, his eyes narrowed. “And why is that?”

“Because you’d be in bed, spilling everything you’ve ever known about everything.”

“You’re awfully confident. Either you’re amazing in bed or you’re the world’s best interrogator.”

She gave him a sad smile. “As I’ve said — ”

“You pick up skills. Yeah.”

The hatch opened and Taz poked his head in. “They’re waiting for you.”

With a sigh, Amy pushed herself to her feet and straightened her uniform jacket. “Good luck,” she said. “I’ve left instructions in my room for a pick-up, so after you’ve retrieved Molly and taken her to Cam I would appreciate it if you could come for me.”

Grayson frowned. “Why do you want us to come get you? Surely you don’t need us.”

She paused at the door. “We still have business together, Grayson. The
Waratah, remember? I don’t want to have to track you down later.”


Amy saluted him. “Until next time, Captain Grayson.”

He half-heartedly brought his hand to his head. “Captain.”

Taking a deep breath, Amy squared her shoulders and stepped out onto Peleteth’s promenade.

Previous: Gentlemen prefer blondes 
Next: Return to Peleteth

Friday, December 16, 2011

Gentlemen prefer blondes

Links to the rest of this story may be found here.

Amy knocked on Kate’s partially open door and then slid the hatch aside. “Got a minute?” she asked, poking her head inside.

Kate was curled up on her bed, reading a tattered antique book. Her face lit up when she saw Amy. “Come in!” she exclaimed, folding down the corner of her page and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “Grayson said you’d be coming. I’m so glad you’re back!” She gave Amy an enthusiastic hug which the older woman gingerly returned.

“Did Grayson tell you what I needed?” Amy asked, perching on the edge of the bed.

“Not exactly,” Kate said, crossing her legs and leaning forward. “Just that part of the epically amazing plan he won’t tell us anything about means you need a disguise. And I can help you with that.”

“Which is very sweet of you, but I’m not sure why Grayson thought you’d be more help than anyone else,” Amy said, picking at a loose thread in Kate’s blanket. “I should have raided my brother’s things before leaving Idylla.”

“Idylla has such tedious customs officials,” Kate said. “I, on the other hand, have a collection from all over Commission space.” She slid off the bed and pulled a box from beneath the frame. Flipping open the lid, she eyed Amy critically and said, “Blonde, I think,” and whipped a blonde wig out from a tangle of different hair colours.

Amy took the wig and turned it over in her hands. “Should I ask why you happen to have — ” She peered into the box and counted colours of hair. “ — six different wigs on hand?”

Kate laughed. “Benji and I like to role-play.”

“Oh!” Amy said, her eyebrows lifting.

“And I haven’t always dyed my hair with such frequency,” Kate added, fluffing her bright blue curls. “Let’s see how it looks.”

Amy twisted her hair into a knot on top of her head and settled the wig over it. The edge of the straight fringe just brushed her eyebrows and the edge of the bob tickled her jawline. The wig felt heavy, although Amy suspected that that was largely a psychological weight rather than a real one. She knew what came after the cosmological alterations and was not looking forward to it.

“You make an attractive blonde,” Kate said, her head tilted to one side. “A bit severe, but that’s as much the cut of the wig as anything else. Have you ever thought about dying your hair?”

“Not really,” Amy replied, sliding the wig off again.

“Grayson likes blondes.”

Amy’s eyebrows rose. “Good for Grayson,” she said. “Since I’m not trying to sleep with Grayson, I don’t think dying my hair blonde is going to make a bit of difference, do you?”

Kate’s cheeks turned pink. “I didn’t mean to imply — ”

“I know what you meant,” Amy said. “It’s fine. In any case, if that was what I was interested in it wouldn’t matter what colour my hair was.” She fingered a strand of hair and smiled. “But what I look like isn’t high on my list of priorities. I spend too much time digging around in dirty ships to be bothered.”

“Would you ever be bothered?” Kate asked curiously. “I mean, would there ever be anyone you’d make an effort for?”

Shrugging, Amy said, “Either they like you or they don’t, Kate. And if you’re wasting time worrying then there’s other, more important things that you’re not focusing on.” She hesitated, and then added, “And when you start caring about people it just opens up a weak spot in your defences. Keep that in mind.”

Kate was silent for a moment, studying Amy. Abruptly she said, “If you really want to alter the way you look, you’ll want to do something with your face, you know. Especially as you never wear paints usually.” Seeing Amy’s expression, she hastened to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I was just thinking that since you don’t, usually, you know, it would mean that wearing paints would mean your face would really look different…” She trailed off, her mouth twisted unhappily. “Have I upset you?”

Amy ran her hand through her hair. “No. You haven’t. Old memories.”

Tentatively, Kate said, “Do you — would you like me to show you how to…to apply the paints?”

Amy let out a burst of laughter. “Kate, just because I
don’t wear them doesn’t mean I don’t know how.” She thought of all the years spent applying disguises on a regular basis and then shook off the memories. “I haven’t got anything with me, though, so if I could possibly borrow your kits?”

“Sure thing,” Kate said, stretching sideways and grabbing a slim case from beside her bed. “Take whatever you need. Take it with you if you need to.”

“Thanks.” Amy stood up, wig in one hand and case in the other, and headed for the door.

“Amy — ”

Amy turned. Kat bit the inside of her lip, clearly uncertain as to whether she should continue or not. At last she said,

“Grayson wouldn’t say when I asked, but it’s obvious that whatever it is you’re doing, you’re leaving us so that we can go get Molly. Are you — ” She hesitated. “Are we going to see you again?”

There was an uncomfortable silence as Amy thought about how to reply. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “It depends on how things go after I get caught. And no, I’m not going to elaborate, but you don’t need to worry about me.”

Kate didn’t look very happy, but all she said was, “If you need eye alterations you’ll have to ask Ramina. I don’t know how to do that.”

Amy nodded. “Thanks again for these,” she said, lifting the wig and case slightly. “See you later.”

Previous: Signal boxes 
Next: Spies and disguises

Signal boxes

Links to the rest of this story may be found here.

Cam was standing with his finger on the wall panel, his eyebrows raised. “Not that I don’t love having warzones in my house, but next time, maybe a little warning? I could hear the screaming down the corridor.”

Amy stood on her tiptoes and kissed Cam’s cheek. “Sorry, little brother,” she said. “We should be going. Keep us informed of how things are progressing here, please.”

“Anni — ”

She paused by the door and glanced back at her brother.


A thumb-sized silver box arced through the air; Amy’s hand shot up and nabbed it as it began its descent. She turned it over and then brought her eyes back to Cam’s face.

“This is an encrypted two-way signal box,” she said. “Long-range. Where did you get this?”

He leaned against the door frame. “When money isn’t an issue…” His shoulders lifted slightly.

Amy prised up the top of the box with her fingernails and tilted it towards the light. “These are not only illegal, Cam, but owning one if you’re not specially cleared by Section Eight is punishable by death. You
do know that, right?”

“You’re my sister, Anni,” Cam said. “I’m not letting you go into the lion’s den without backup.”

“Poetic, Cam, but if you really didn’t want to let me go in alone you’d come with me.” She flashed him a smile to let him know she was only kidding and returned her attention to the signal box. “I assume you have the other one?”

“They’re illegal, Anni,” Cam exclaimed, a shocked look on his face. “I’d never have such a thing in my possession!”

She laughed and clicked the top back into place. “Yeah. Liar.”

Cam glanced out the window. “Transport’s waiting to take you up to the spaceport. You’d better get going.”

Sophia’s in your dock.”

“Cheeky bitch. Guess the pilot’ll have to boot you out the access port.” Seeing her expression, he relented. “Oh, fine. No exploded blood vessels for you.” He reached out and pulled her close. “I shall miss you, you know.”

Amy rested her cheek against his chest. “No, you’ll just go back to doing whatever it is you usually do when you don’t have your big sister looking over your shoulder.”

“You can’t look over my shoulder, you’re too short.”

She pulled away and swatted his arm. “I should have dropped you down a ravine when you were born.”

Cam grinned. “But think of all the entertainment I provide free of charge.”

“Are you two going to stand there and banter all day or can we actually leave?” Grayson demanded from behind them. “Warner’s Disease is not going to just vanish from Elderia if we wait long enough.”

Amy and Cam exchanged guilty looks.

“Sorry,” Amy said, grabbing her bag from the floor.

“And off you go,” Cam said, following them to the door and waving as they headed for the dirt-to-space transport waiting on the lawn. “See you next time, sis.”

He watched as they scrambled aboard and lifted off, and then turned his attention to the hills behind the manor. A bird flew across the sky in the distance and Cam’s eyes narrowed. A slight frown on his face, he ducked back into the house. Opening a wall panel, he removed a small, boxy object with three antennae and several switches and dials and flicked it on. Holding it close to his ear, he listened with intense concentration to a droning, staticky report on the failing crops in the southern highlands and then turned the device off. He stared at it for a moment and then grabbed his coat from the wall and headed out the door.

Previous: Natterby Close 
Next: Gentlemen prefer blondes

Monday, December 5, 2011

Flashbacks IV

Sophia's turn.

Links to the rest of this story may be found here.

The Natterby Close Home for Unwanted Girls and Boys did not look like a pleasant place for a child to grow up. Originally housed solely in a tall, narrow pre-Empire-era building of crumbling grey brick, overcrowding had over the years forced expansion into the once-empty lot next door, leading to an ugly and incongruous two-story extension built out of cheap pre-fab material that had (unheeded) been recalled for structural flaws. The matron of the Home, Beatrice Fitzpatrick, had looked after the building and its inhabitants for forty-seven years, since the former matron had unexpectedly died and Beatrice had felt called, at the age of eighteen, to step forward from her position as an inhabitant of the Home to take on the mantle of protector to the children she called her ducklings. The fact that she neither liked children nor knew anything whatsoever about running a children’s home had not troubled her in the slightest; from the time she was small, Beatrice had been a disagreeable child with few practical skills and even fewer interpersonal ones, with virtually no chances of employment in society and, conscious of this fact, she had seized the opportunity presented by the previous matron’s death and clung to it with grim determination. The best that could be said of Beatrice Fitzpatrick was that she successfully managed to place several of her children in actual homes each year; the worst was that several of her children died each year. But neither of these occurrences was particularly remarkable when one considered the overall state of the children’s homes on the central planets.

Sophia Davis was twelve when she first came to live at the Natterby Close Home. Her parents had died in a fire when a pilot in the Ninth Commissioner Squadron lost control of his bird and nosedived into the tenement district; Sophia had gone to live in the Twelfth District Commissionate Orphanage until a kitchen fire destroyed the building and forced the relocation of the children within. Her arrival at the Natterby Close Home coincided with a yearly inspection from the Commission’s Board for the Welfare of Children, Disabled Persons, and the Poor, and as a result Sophia was more or less forgotten in Beatrice Fitzpatrick’s manic rush to ensure that the Commission allowed the Home to remain open for another year. As this largely involved bribing the Inspector and ensuring he or she was
not offered one of the rock-like muffins for which Beatrice was infamous, the inspection passed by smoothly, leaving Beatrice satisfied that she was (regardless of all appearances to the contrary) running her children’s home to standard and with a degree of luxury unavailable elsewhere.

Left to her own devices from almost the moment she was deposited at the door and well-versed in the way in which these homes were run, Sophia quietly moved herself into the building without bothering to check where Beatrice wanted her. Her life in the tenements had taught her many things, including the fact that pretty girls attracted trouble — and Sophia knew that she was a pretty girl, even if she was only twelve years old. With that in mind, she installed herself in the girls’ dormitory on the first floor — the dormitory furthest from the older boys’ rooms and the only one with a lock on the door.

As she sat on the thin mattress that first evening and carefully unpacked her bag of keepsakes, Sophia heard footsteps in the corridor and lifted her head as Beatrice appeared in the doorway. The matron stood for a moment, filling the space, a frown on her face.

“Your paperwork says you were one of those that lost their parents in that Helborne tenement fire five years ago,” she said abruptly.

Sophia tucked her hair behind her ears and ducked her head. “Yes, miss,” she said softly.

Beatrice huffed. Her puffy white fringe lifted with the expulsion of air and then drifted back down. “Well, don’t expect you can come crying to me when you miss your parents. I don’t have time to coddle children. I have a home to run.”

“Yes, miss,” Sophia murmured.

“You’re a lucky girl,” Beatrice continued, walking into the room. This caught Sophia’s attention; startled, she lifted her head. Beatrice stopped beside the bed, smelling of old cabbage and sickly sweet cheap perfume, and studied the girl. “You’re pretty enough; someone’s bound to want you. No one ever wants the ugly ones.” She caught Sophia’s chin between her fingers and turned her face towards the light. “Someone will want you. If no one wants you when you’re young, they’ll want you when you’re older.” She released Sophia and patted her hard on the cheek. “You’ll get by.”

With that, she clomped out of the room. Sophia reached into her bag, her fingers trembling, and pulled out a battered old book. Its aluminium casing was dented and scratched, and when she opened it the holo-pages flickered frantically.

“Please don’t die,” she whispered, holding it close. “Please.”

She set it on her knee and after a moment the holo-pages stabilised, only flickering occasionally. Turning to the first page, she traced her finger over the fuzzy image plate and began to read
A Little Princess for what must have been the hundredth time.

Hearing shouts on the stairs and echoing down the corridor, she hurriedly shut the book and thrust it out of sight under her mattress before scrambling to her feet. The other children came rushing into the room and stopped short upon finding her standing beside the bed, her hands twisted in front of her; the threadbare gown she still wore from the Twelfth District Commissionate Orphanage marked her as an outsider, but her eyes, wide and haunted in a thin, pinched face, were reflected a dozen times over in the crowd of children pushing in through the door and proclaimed her one of the lost children.

An older girl of about seventeen, with a pretty, round face and short-cropped hair, pushed forward to stand in front of Sophia, her arms folded across her chest. She looked the younger girl up and down and then spat in her hand and held it out. “We take care of our own here,” she said, watching for Sophia’s reaction. “Fitzy won’t take care of you and the Commission don’t give a shit. So we take care of our own.”

Sophia lifted her gaze and then, her eyes never leaving the other girl’s face, carefully spat in her own hand and extended it. The girl clasped Sophia’s hand and gripped it tightly.

“Good,” she said. “What’s your name, then?”

“Sophia Davis,” Sophia whispered.

“I’m Mellie.” She jabbed her thumb at the others at the door. “You’ll get to know this lot eventually. The little girls are upstairs. We got to take turns sleeping with them. They get nightmares. You’ll get your turn eventually.” Her nose wrinkled and she spat on the floor. Sophia flinched. “Boys are out in the extension. Most of ’em are harmless. We lock doors at night. Aren’t supposed to — Fitzy’s supposed to be able to come and go as she wants. Lazy bitch doesn’t get up at night, so doesn’t matter. You eaten?”

Sophia shook her head.

“Yeah, you’re well skinny. Piece of advice — don’t ever miss meal time. There’s almost never anything left. But — ” She turned around. “Abby, dig up something from the stores for Sophia, here.”

A skinny redhead darted past and scuttled over to the corner, where she pried up a loose piece of plastic flooring and tugged out a sack. “Mellie — ” she hissed, and, having caught the older girl’s attention, tossed the bag her way. The other girls had filtered into the room and had shut the door — Sophia assumed this was to avoid being caught with unauthorised food by…Fitzy.

Mellie handed Sophia a wedge of cheese and the heel of a loaf of bread. “Scrape off the blue bits,” she said. “It’s just mould. You might have to hold the bread in your mouth a bit to get it to soften up — it’s probably pretty stale.”

Sophia grimaced at the warning, having already unwittingly attempted to bite down on the bread and almost chipped a tooth. “We did the same thing,” she said shyly. “Kept food, I mean. At the Twelfth District Commissionate Orphanage.”

“Oh, is that where you’ve come from? Abby.” Mellie shook the bag at Abby until the girl grabbed it and went to tuck it away again. Sophia nodded. “What was it like there?”

Sophia shrugged. “Big. Crowded. No one ever talked to anyone else. Matron was nice enough. Stern. She’s dead now.”

Abby perched on the edge of the bed. “Did she die in the fire?” she asked, eyes bright with interest.

“Go to bed, Abby,” Mellie said. “You’re too interested in fires for your own good.”

“Yes,” Sophia said. “So did my parents.”

“The Commission killed my parents,” Abby said matter-of-factly. “They were very clever and were planning to bring down the government but the Commission found out and so they killed them. I was only little.”

Sophia looked at her and said, around a mouthful of cheese, “How come you know the Commies killed your parents if you were little? I was seven when my parents died and I don’t think I’d’ve remembered something like that.”

“Clearly I’m more clever than you,” Abby said.

“Or you’re a conspiracy theorist,” Mellie said, catching Abby by the ear and pulling her up off the bed, ignoring the girl’s cries of protest. “Come on, all of you, bed. You too, newbie. You’ll learn how this works soon enough. The earlier we’re out in the morning, the more chances we have of snagging better odds and ends.” She bent over and confiscated something from beneath a girl’s pillow, saying over her shoulder to Sophia, “Natterby Close probably has the highest number of children’s homes for its size on this side of the planet. The sheer number of kids fighting for odd jobs and scraps is well stupid.”

Sophia thrust her things back into her bag and tucked it under her bed. “Does — Fitzy — make you go out?”

“Well, no, but would you want to stay in if you could go out? Anything’s better than here.” A faint expression of pain crossed her face. “Well, almost anything.” With a sigh, Mellie shucked her boots and pulled her dress over her head, draping it over the bedpost. “Besides, there’s always the off-chance someone will decide they want to hire you for good.” She slid into bed with a yawn. “That’s what happened to Jim. Got a job with an accountant seeing as he was so good with numbers. Sometimes that just happens. Luck. Damnedest thing. Night night, Sophia. Welcome to Hell.”

Sophia lay on her back on the hard mattress and pulled the thin blanket up to her chin. As she lay staring at the ceiling, listening the sound of the girls’ breathing falling into slow and steady patterns, she thought about her parents and the tenement district in which she had grown up. In many ways the Natterby Close Home was not any worse than the tenements; the only difference was that then she had had her parents, who loved her dearly, and now she had no one except a loosely-formed coalition of girls. Somehow she was not reassured. And Fitzy’s words about how she’d be wanted kept floating through her mind, bumping up against Mellie’s words about catching jobs. Sophia knew what happened to pretty girls with no families, and from the look in Mellie’s eyes she had a bad feeling that Mellie had already turned down that road. And Sophia didn’t want that to happen to her.

Turning over onto her side, she pulled the blanket up over her shoulder and closed her eyes. Some day she’d get out of Natterby Close. Someday she’d see the universe.