Google+ The Bluestocking Firefly: August 2012
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Retrieval

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


Grayson got to his feet. “She was a good woman,” he said gruffly. “Persistent thorn in my side, but a good woman.”

“We should burn her body,” Ramina said gently. “And then return to the others.”

“Good,” Grayson said. “The sooner we get Molly off this planet, the better.”


Molly was clearly terrified as Grayson and Ramina showed her the biohazard container she would have to stay in during the return flight to the
Sophia, but she lifted her chin and bravely climbed in. Ramina bent over her with a prepped needle and smoothed her hair back from her forehead.

“This will help you relax,” she said, gently injecting the drug into her arm. “It won’t send you to sleep, because I’ll need you awake, but it should help you not be too afraid.” She tucked the needle into a hazard bag and pocketed it. “We have to make absolutely sure you’re not sick before we can let you out onto the ship, so you’ll have to stay in here until I’m able to run some more tests. If you get scared, you can press this.” She placed a button in Molly’s hand. “That will open the comm link directly to your dad. Any questions before I close it up?”

Molly stared up at her and shook her head a fraction of an inch. “No,” she whispered. “I’m going to be okay, right?”

Grayson cupped his gloved hand against her cheek. “Yes,” he promised. “You’ll be just fine.” He nodded to Ramina. “Close it up.”

The lid of the container slid up, slowly obscuring Molly until the only thing left were her wide, terrified eyes. Then they, too, disappeared beneath the heavy metal-lined cover with a hiss as the container sealed. Grayson rested his hand briefly on the container, and then shook his head sharply. He caught the hatch and pulled it down. Securing it, he said,

“Take her up, Kate.”

“Gladly,” Kate said, sliding into the pilot’s seat. “Killigrew to
Sophia.”

Benji.”

“We’re on our way back,” she said, fingers flying over the controls. “Have Taz prep the flight deck for our arrival.”

Ramina leaned over her shoulder. “Benji, Ramina. Once we’re back aboard it will be safest for you if you seal yourself in your room and seal it. I don’t anticipate any problems, but it’ll ensure you’re out of harm’s way.”

Got it,” Benji said. “See you all soon.

Previous: Ellen
Next: The Idris vault

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ellen

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


“Go,” Kate said. “Molly and I will be fine.”

“Where do you suppose Ellen’s holed up?” Grayson asked, switching back to internal comms as they left the cave.

“She’ll have wanted to minimise the possibility of infecting Molly through the groundwater or through Molly accidentally stumbling upon her if she happened to go wandering, but I doubt she would have left the cliffs — if she turned out not to be infected I don’t think she would have wanted to leave Molly alone.”

Grayson surveyed the area with a frown. “Maybe down towards the southern basin? There’s a hell of a lot of caves in this region. She could be anywhere.”

“I suppose we could do worse than a cave-by-cave search,” Ramina replied, and smiled slightly. “We have done worse in our time.”

“Don’t remind me,” Grayson said, and trudged off towards the first cave.

Forty-five minutes later and Grayson was growing worried. He wouldn’t have thought Ellen would have travelled so far from Molly’s cave, but they had yet to see any other signs of habitation, and they certainly hadn’t found any bodies.

“You don’t suppose she realised she was definitely sick and set about putting as much distance between herself and Molly as she possibly could, do you?”

“It’s possible,” Ramina said. “If she did, how far she might have got would have depended entirely on the state she was in when she started travelling — and what direction she was moving in when she began.”

“Well, at least we know she wasn’t headed towards Reva,” Grayson said, ducking inside another cave and sweeping his shiner across the rocks. “We would have spotted a body on our way here.”

“There.” Ramina’s finger flashed out at a tiny movement towards the back of the cave.

Sophia’s sister had clearly fallen ill after leaving Molly. She was in the last stages of the illness, with blood trickling from her nose and caked at the corner of her mouth. Propped against the cliff face with her eyes closed, she didn’t see them come in, nor did she appear to hear them. When Grayson laid a hand on her arm, her whole body seized and a pained noise ripped from her throat.

“Don’t,” Ramina said. “Any touch will be excruciating by now.”

Grayson activated the external comm. “Ellen?”

Her eyelashes fluttered, and through what appeared to be a painful sheer force of will, she opened her crusted eyes. “Morgan,” she croaked. “You came.”

“I’m here,” he said.

“Molly.”

“She’s safe. She’s okay.”

“I was…careless,” Ellen said. “I didn’t realise…I thought everyone was…” She stopped to cough, dark flecks of blood spotting her lips. “I thought they were already dead.”

“Molly told us,” Grayson said. “She said someone grabbed you.”

“Scratched my skin,” she whispered. “Didn’t know what to do. Hoped you’d show up.”

Grayson sat down on the dirt beside her and leaned back against the cave wall. “I won’t leave you,” he said quietly. “I can never thank you enough for taking care of Molly for me.”

Something that might have been a laugh crackled from Ellen’s throat. “You’re a fine liar,” she managed. “You damn well hated me. Sophia sent Molly — ” She stopped to breathe, and then continued, “ — away with me. And I weren’t about to give her back.”

“But you kept her safe,” Grayson said. “And I couldn’t have kept Molly with me on the
Sophia.”

“Where you bound for?”

Grayson looked sideways at her. Her voice was fading, her eyes half-closed. “A friend of mine has somewhere for her to go,” he said. “She’ll be safe there. She can stay until I figure out what to do.”

“Good.” She was quiet for a moment, and then, so softly Grayson almost didn’t hear, she said, “She’d want you to forgive yourself, you know.” When Grayson said nothing, she added, “Sophia.”

Grayson opened his mouth to say something harsh and then checked himself. Ellen was dying; there was no need to be cruel. “I killed my wife,” he said instead, gently. “I killed your sister. I can’t forgive myself for that.”

One of Ellen’s shoulders hitched upward slightly in an attempt at a shrug. “She weren't stupid, you know. She saw the storm comin’. She knew what would happen if she didn’t stop.”

“Ellen — ”

Her head lolled against the rock face towards him and she gazed at him through bleary eyes. “Today’s my day to meet my Maker,” she said, “so I can say whatever I damn well please. You shot your wife, Morgan, and I can’t say I’m best pleased with that because I ain’t, but you’re still the closest thing to a brother I’ve ever had and you’ve been good to me. But Sophia chose her path when she was still running on the Commissioner Squad and there wasn’t a person alive who could turn that girl from her path.”

Ramina touched Grayson’s shoulder. “She needs to stop talking,” she said. “She can’t talk and breathe at the same time.”

“I’ll die either way,” Ellen said bluntly, “so thank you for your medical advice, Doctor, but I’d rather be dying faster if it’s all the same to you. I’ve been feeling my body slowly liquefying for days now and I’d like to get it over with.” She returned her attention to Grayson. “Sophia was always going to end up at the wrong end of someone’s pistol, Morgan. The Commission just made sure you were the one that got stuck pulling the damn trigger.” By now the words were coming one at a time, each breath wheezing out with strain. “It’s time you stop mourning Sophia, Morgan. It’s been five years. She ain’t coming back.”

“Ellen, stop talking,” Grayson said. “You’re just making it more painful.”

She let her head fall back against the rocks. “Good,” she said. “I’m ready for the pain to stop.” Her eyes closed. “Keep that little girl safe.” Her chest rose, fell, and didn’t rise again.

Ramina waited a moment, and then crouched beside her to check. “She’s gone,” she said, rising. “I’m sorry for your loss.”


Previous: Molly
Next: Retrieval

Monday, August 27, 2012

Molly

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


Kate set the hopper down about fifty yards from the sheer gneiss cliff face, her landing struts struggling to settle on the rocky surface. The hopper pitched and slid on the uneven ground, making for a leery few minutes before Kate decided they were stable and cut the engines.

Grayson ducked under the rising hatch and stepped out onto the rocks, shading his eyes against the bright sun. There was no sign of movement anywhere near the cliffs, but he struck out unerringly, just to the south of where Kate had landed. As they drew closer, it became clear that there were caves in the cliff, hidden by the shape of the rock and by the shimmering heat waves.

“Someone’s been here,” Ramina said, looking around. She pointed at a discarded food wrapper. “There.”

“No footprints,” Kate observed.

Grayson shook his head. “This part of the country gets high gusts of wind. We won’t find footprints — they get swept away too fast.”

“Morgan,” Ramina said quietly. She nodded to the mouth of one of the caves, where something had just moved across the opening. “Someone’s there.”

The expression in Grayson’s eyes was terrifying, Kate thought, involuntarily taking a step back. Ramina put a hand on his arm.

“We don’t know who it is,” she said. “And we don’t know what kind of condition they’re in. Be cautious.”

“They can’t hurt us. We’re wearing biosuits,” Grayson said, shaking her off and striding towards the mouth of the cave. Ramina and Kate exchanged glances and followed him.

Grayson stopped at the entrance to the cave and flicked on a shiner, casting a beam of light into the darkness. Once, twice, three times he passed it across the cave, until finally the light sparked off something and he returned the beam to the dark corner.

Kate, peering over Grayson’s shoulder, saw a small, thin child huddled among the rocks, her cheekbones sharp against the skin of her face, her eyes big and haunted and tired. Ramina saw a child she had known many years before, in need of food and water but at first glance otherwise healthy — or at least apparently free of the disease that had ravaged her planet. Grayson saw his daughter, terrified, tiny, and clearly unwell.

“Molly,” he said, realised his voice was confined to the suit comms, and activated the external communication system. “Molly,” he said again. “It’s Dad.”

She stared at him without comprehension for a moment, and then burst into tears before running to him and flinging her arms around his waist. He held her to him, one hand pressing her head against his suit, and met Ramina’s eyes. “Make sure,” he said, and then gently pulled Molly away from him. Crouching down, he said, “You remember Doctor de Sara, Molly? She needs to have a look at you for a minute, but do you think you can tell me how you got here while she does that?”

Molly nodded, scrubbing away tears, but she wouldn’t let go of her father’s hand.

“It’s fine,” Ramina said, motioning for Molly to sit down. “I don’t need that hand. Just talk to your father, Molly, and ignore me.”

“Tell me what happened, Molly,” Grayson coaxed. “You’re safe now. Just tell me what happened. Where’s Aunt Ellen?”

“I came out here with Jordan to play,” Molly said haltingly. “We come out here a lot. It’s fun.”

Kate sat down on Molly’s other side and smiled at her encouragingly. “I bet it is,” she said. “I used to do a lot of clambering around on rocks when I was about your age.”

“Jordan didn’t feel so good, so we went home right after we got here.” Molly’s eyes flickered between Grayson and Kate, and she flinched as Ramina drew a blood sample from her arm. “Aunt Ellen met us as we came into Reva. She took me away immediately. She wouldn’t tell me what was happening. But later she said people were dying. She said everyone was sick and it was dangerous at home. That was after she’d had to go back to Reva, though.”

Grayson looked at Ramina over Molly’s head. “Aunt Ellen had to go back to Reva? Why didn’t you both stay out here where you were safe?”

“We were hungry,” Molly said, her eyes anxious. “Aunt Ellen wanted so badly to leave she didn’t bring anything with her. There’s some stuff out here — mushrooms, and some green plants, and there’s a spring in one of the caves and Aunt Ellen boiled all the water — but it’s not a lot and we were hungry. So Aunt Ellen kept going back to Reva to get food. She only brought back stuff she said it was safe to eat, though. The stuff in wrappers. Sealed stuff. And she was really careful. She said so.” Molly sniffed. “She made sure to be super careful so she wouldn’t get sick and die too.”

“Molly,” Grayson said, “where is your Aunt Ellen?”

She stared up at him, eyes glittering with tears. “Aunt Ellen went back to Reva two and a half weeks ago for more food, but when she came back she wouldn’t come close to the cave. She left some food out by the rock but said I couldn’t touch it for at least a week, two to be really safe. She said — she said she thought there wasn’t anyone left when she went back this time and so she wasn’t as careful about looking out for people. And there was someone left and they saw her and thought she was there to help and they grabbed her and she was afraid they might have infected her and so she didn’t want me to come near her in case she got sick because she didn’t want me to get sick too.”

“You’ve been on your own for two and a half weeks?” Kate said. “You poor little thing.”

“I know how to get the mushrooms and which plants are safe to eat now,” Molly said. “Aunt Ellen made sure I knew that.” Her mouth twisted. “But I’ve been lonely and scared and I thought no one was ever going to come and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Ramina — ”

Ramina stood up. “She’s clean as far as I can tell — nothing’s pinging on the indicators. We’ll want to keep her quarantined on the ship until I can run further tests, but if she’s been out here since the virus was first dropped on Elderia and the last contact she had with her aunt was two and a half weeks ago, I’d think she’d be showing symptoms by now if she was infected.”

“Kate — ”

Kate took Molly’s hand and smiled at her. “Your daddy and Doctor de Sara are going to go look for your Aunt Ellen,” she said. “So I’m going to stay and keep you company. I bet I have a ration bar in this suit somewhere, and I bet that the doctor might approve a bite or two?”

“Only a bite or two,” Ramina said. “She needs food, but too much right now will only make her sick.”

“Go,” Kate said. “Molly and I will be fine.”


Previous: Reva
Next: Ellen

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reva

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


Once past the quarantine line, the Sophia made good time, entering into orbit above Elderia at about the same time Amy was crawling through air ducts on C-Prime. Her airspace was eerily empty; although the outliers weren’t known for heavy air traffic, the absence of even one short-range bird in the vicinity served as a sobering reminder that there likely weren’t many on the planet in any kind of condition to be flying.

Grayson leaned over Kate’s shoulder and frowned at the vid screen, his eyes narrowing. “Status.”

Kate’s fingers flew over the controls. “There’s a few flickers on the comm,” she said, “but not a lot. Mostly from the northern hemisphere, northwest precinct.” Glancing up at him, she added, “New Eldorado. It was the first settlement on Elderia. If there’s survivors, that’s probably where they are.”

“Not what we’re here for,” Grayson said, straightening. “Pinpoint Trattoria and put us in orbit directly over it.”

Kate opened her mouth to agree, and then said instead, “New Eldorado is sending us a message, sir.”

Grayson’s mouth thinned. “Ignore them.”

Kate swivelled to face him. “But sir — ”

“We can’t help them, Kate,” he said. He punched the ship intercom to the flight deck. “Taz, how’s that hopper pod from the
Waratah looking?”

Ready whenever you are. She’ll hold four at a squeeze plus the biohazard container for Molly, although there won’t be much room for moving around.

“Get her ready for launch and tell Ramina to report to the flight deck. I’ll be down in a minute.” He released the button and looked down at Kate. “Put the ship over Trattoria and then come down to the flight deck. I want you flying that hopper. Have Benji relieve you here.”

Grayson climbed down the ladder from the command deck and set off towards the flight deck, ignoring the feelings of fear that bubbled just beneath the surface and threatened to come rushing out if he gave them a chance. He’d come for his daughter, and he refused to believe she was dead. He’d never been one to believe in the fairness of the universe, but letting Molly die would just be too much.

Taz looked up from the hopper when Grayson walked in. “You’ll want to put the biosuits on before you get in,” he said. “There’s not room inside the pod for that kind of manoeuvring.”

Ramina, at the end of the hopper and already half into her biosuit, picked up a second suit and tossed it at Grayson. “These are good suits,” she said. “Should protect us from anything down there. Amy’s brother must have a lot of money.”

“You have no idea,” Grayson said, setting aside the helmet and stepping into the first leg. “Have everything you need?”

“My case is in the hopper,” she replied.

The doors opened and Kate trotted in. “We’re above Trattoria,” she said. “Benji’s got the conn.”

“Into your suit, Kate,” Grayson said. “Taz, keep my ship out of trouble until we get back.”

“Do my best,” Taz said. “Hope you find her.”


Kate set the hopper down outside the small southern settlement of Reva, after what Ramina dryly called the rollercoaster ride from hell.

“I’m sorry,” Kate said again as they slid out of the hopper and onto the parched, cracked earth. “But it’s my first time with Empire tech, and it’s not like the captain gave me any time to practice before throwing me off the deep end. At least I could fly the damn thing. You’re both still alive and none the worse for a few bruises.”

“Calm down, Kate,” Grayson said. “Your flying was fine.”

“Morgan,” Ramina said, and her tone cut sharply through Kate’s anxiety. “I hope for Molly’s sake she is not in Reva.” She pointed.

Clouds of insects swarmed over the settlement, drawn by the bodies that lay where they had fallen. A brightly coloured bird perched on a bloated corpse, pecking a staring eye. Another took to the air as they approached, leaving behind remains almost unrecognisable as human.

“Oh god,” Kate said, choking.

“Don’t be sick,” Ramina advised. “If you’re sick in your suit you’ll be stuck with it.”

Kate swallowed hard. “Surely there’s no one left alive here,” she whispered, and then fell silent, seeing Grayson’s face.

The decision was made to search the settlement. Kate tried to opt out, but Grayson shook his head and told her she had to help.

“If you don’t, it’ll take Ramina and I that much longer,” he said, staring down at her with a black look on his face. Then his expression softened slightly, and he added, “I am sorry that this is hard for you, Kate. I should have realised. Ramina and I have seen horrible things before, me as a soldier and she as a medic, but you would never have had cause. But no one else could have flown that hopper, so I needed you. And I need you now. When we return to the ship, you can go to Taz, and you can tell him about it, and he can comfort you and you can cry or be sick or whatever it is you need to do to cope. But right now I need you to force back the horror and try to be strong. Because I need you. Right now. Can you do that for me?”

She took a deep breath and whispered, “Yes.”

“Good. Now go.”

Several hours later, the three had concluded two things. First, the inhabitants of Reva were dead, and most of them had been for some time. The heat and the wildlife had sped up the rate of decomposition, leaving behind little that was recognisable and nothing worth saving. Second, despite the amount of decay, Ramina had been able to determine that none of the deceased children were Molly. While this was undeniably good news as it meant there was still hope that she was alive somewhere, it presented new questions.

“Where the hell is she?” Grayson demanded.

“It is entirely possible her guardian took her away when it first became evident individuals were becoming ill,” Ramina said. “It seems most likely. If that is the case, then we simply need to discover where it is they have gone.”

Grayson stared at the settlement for a moment, thinking. “Back in the hopper,” he said at last. “When we’re in the air, Kate, set Reva aflame. It’s the best kind of burial we can offer them. Then head out for the cliffs. Molly used to play out there.”


Previous: Games
Next: Molly

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Games

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


Amy didn’t stay to listen to the rest of the conversation. Inching backwards, she slid back into the air duct she’d come from and found the vent that dropped into the corridor outside Chancellor Naisbitt’s office. From what she could see, the hall was empty; she carefully prised open the vent and set it aside, and then dropped down into the corridor. Spotting a shadowed corner, she ducked into it as she heard the door to the office open.

“Yes, of course,” she heard her father say, and then the door closed. A moment later, he walked by. As he drew level, she reached out and caught his arm above the elbow, spinning him into the shadows beside her and clamping a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t move,” she said, pinioning his arms at his sides. “And don’t shout.”

Slowly she removed her hand. Brenner waited a moment, and then said calmly,

“I take it you were eavesdropping in the ducts. Someone remembered their childhood lessons, I see. Clearly we should have put a guard
in your room rather than simply outside it.” Sensing her tense behind him, he added, “Annieka, I’m well aware you don’t have a weapon on you, so if you think you’re going to threaten me into doing what you want it’s not going to work. Your hand-to-hand combat skills have never been above average and you’ve never been able to beat me — and I think a bout of fisticuffs would attract more attention than you’d like at the moment.” He smiled. “However, it seems to me that you’ve stolen the pistol concealed beneath my robes and have taken me hostage. Dear me.”

Amy retrieved the pint-sized pistol and held it loosely between her fingers, feeling stupid and wishing encounters with her father didn’t have a tendency to make her feel that way. “I suppose you’ll willingly go with me to the Idris vault, then,” she said grumpily.

“Goodness, what would ever give you that idea?” he inquired. “I’ll cooperate, of course, Annieka, but only because I shouldn’t like to be shot.” He glanced over his shoulder at her, eyebrows raised. “That
is the way of things, isn’t it?”

She frowned at him. “What game are you playing, Dad?”

“The game of not dying, I believe.”

Amy shook her head sharply. “You knew I was in the air ducts,” she said slowly, thinking back over the conversation she’d overheard. “You turned the conversation specifically to the location of the vaccine. Why?”

He looked away from her again. “You heard the conversation, Annieka. You’re a clever girl.”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Amy deliberately aimed the pistol at his head and said, “Tell me about the Idris vault.”

Brenner leaned back against the wall, ignoring the weapon. “It’s a high-security vault that requires the on-site authorisation of two members of Cabinet to be opened. Theoretically. Naisbitt can submit authorisation in absentia, which makes it a less effective system than it should be, although the Guardsmen that protect it won’t open the vault without ensuring at least one Cabinet member is physically present. The vault itself can only be accessed by the door, which is three feet thick. If the seal is breached without the appropriate authorisation codes it will trigger a series of explosions that will render the interior of the vault highly toxic.” He glanced at Amy, and then continued, “The items inside the vault are far too valuable to be themselves destroyed. Eliminating the intruders is considerably more efficient and costs far less money.”

“I suppose you came up with that idea.”

“Yes.” He rubbed his chin and said thoughtfully, “The vaccine and antiviral are kept in the same container within the vault, incidentally.”

“Tell me about Laura Hackett.”

“She won’t help you, if that’s what you’re wondering. She’s too deeply devoted to the Commission.”

“Where else has the capability to replicate enough of the vaccine and antiviral to put into distribution other than here with Dr. Hackett?”

“I’ve no idea,” Brenner said blandly. “But I’m certain if you’re determined enough, you’ll find a way.”

Amy grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the wall. “Right,” she said, tucking the pistol down the back of her trousers and draping her shirt over it, “let’s take a walk.”

“Excellent,” Brenner said. “And never fear — I shall appear appropriately calm and like my usual self and will cooperate with you at every step as we make our way to the vault.” He smiled at her. “You could shoot me at any time, after all.”

Amy briefly considered thinking about her father’s motives, started to get a headache, and decided it wasn’t worth it. She could think about it later, once she had the vaccine and antiviral. And in the meantime, if he misbehaved, she could always do as he’d suggested and shoot him.


Previous: Phase Two 
Next: Reva

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Phase Two

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


Amy pressed closer to the ventilation slats; while the fact that Naisbitt was holding a death threat on she and Cam over her father’s head was very interesting, and she needed to remember to tell Cam so he could keep on guard, it wasn’t why she was here. Business, she hoped, would have something to do with the quarantine. She hoped.

“The Natterby Close rioters are under control,” Brenner said, and then added, “For now. They have a habit of acting up when we’re least expecting it.”

“So expect it,” Naisbitt said. “Put them down harder. Execute the prisoners you’ve taken on the public vid as an example. Take a few children as collateral and execute
them.” He considered. “Yes, do that.”

Brenner bowed slightly, his face unreadable. “I’ll put the order out, but I would advise caution, Chancellor; executing the rioters’ children may simply incite more violence.”

“Then torch Natterby Close and make it look like an accident,” Naisbitt said. “And relocate them into work camps. Call them refugees. We’ve done it before, although I’ll admit in the past we’ve been more subtle about it. At the moment, Seamus, we don’t have the time for a group of damned rioters. We have other things to worry about.”

“Rabb, what
are you planning on doing about the outliers?”

“Leave them to rot,” Naisbitt said. “And then reclaim the land. After a bit of terraforming, Petruri will make an ideal getaway for the Cabinet.”

“People are asking questions about the epidemic — ”

Naisbitt waved a hand dismissively. “You mean that daughter of yours is asking questions. I told you she was trouble, Seamus. Even if there are others, all rampant speculations aside, there is no one outside this room who knows the truth in any case.” He paused and directed a piercing glance at Brenner. “You did take care of the ships that delivered the infection to the outliers?”

“All six cruisers were destroyed with all hands,” Brenner replied. “It was a waste, Rabb. You could have as easily set unmanned drones to disperse the samples.”

Shrugging, Naisbitt said, “They’re soldiers, Seamus. They expect they’ll die eventually.”

“I wasn’t aware we were fighting a war.”

Nasibitt looked surprised. “We’re always fighting a war. Those rioters you keep putting down like dogs?
They think they’re at war, and certainly anyone in that aggravating underground network of dissenters that you seem unable to put a finger on would tell you that we’re at war. We may not have distinctly drawn lines of battle, but we are nevertheless still at war. You should know that.” He leaned back in his chair and idly tapped a finger against the rim of his glass. “What are the current statistics on the outliers?”

Brenner leaned back against a cabinet and folded his arms across his chest. “Fatality rate is high,” he said. “The exact percentages vary from planet to planet and settlement to settlement, but it’s ranging between about 85-95% on the whole. Because they’ve been entirely isolated, with no external help arriving, most of the rest are biting the dust from starvation or dehydration.”

“Good, good,” Naisbitt said. “That’s what we like to hear.”

“There’s a few that have tried to get off-world,” Brenner continued. Naisbitt’s eyes flickered up to his face and then returned to the glass his finger was tracing. “Mostly early on, after it became clear what was happening but before entire settlements began to fall. There’s been a few in the last week, though — a couple of individuals who’ve escaped getting sick, and one or two still in the early stages — who’ve come out begging for the Commission to send help.” He shifted position slightly and added, “They were vaporised as soon as they approached the quarantine line, of course.”

“Good,” Naisbitt said, abruptly standing up. “Glad to hear it. Now, I think it’s time to discuss the next phase.” He crossed the room and gazed out the window.

“Excuse me?” Brenner stared at his back. “You mean, for terraforming or whatever else it is you want to do once the disease has eliminated the populations?”

“Don’t be thick,” Naisbitt said. “Plenty of time for that. No. Clearly, this little epidemic experiment has been a success. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Indeed.”

“It’s ridding the Commission of hundreds of thousands of undesirables at one fell swoop.” Naisbitt turned back to face Brenner, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “Just imagine how useful that could be if we turned it inward.”

Brenner looked at him blankly. “Forgive me, Rabb, for being slow,” he said after a moment, “but I don’t understand.”

Amy, listening above, had a bad feeling she did understand, and at that moment she wanted nothing more than to drop down on Naisbitt’s head and throttle him with all of her strength. But she still hadn’t learnt what she needed to know, so she stayed silent and listened.

“Take Natterby Close,” Naisbitt said. “Turn Warner’s Disease on them, and they’d be dead all too soon. Undesirables, dead, and by natural causes. Who could blame us? Clearly the Commission could have nothing to do with a disease — someone must have slipped by the quarantine line and got into the city without our knowing. And once it was in the city, it’s bound to spread through the lower parts, through all of those rather unpleasant individuals we’ve all wished would just disappear. And since we simply couldn’t have known about it, it’s only logical to assume someone must have been exposed and got off-planet before the Natterby Close epidemic, and thus got to Neridia, and Eridani, and half a dozen of the other inner planets before we could ever have had enough notice to order a quarantine.”

“That’s insane,” Brenner said. Above, Amy was thinking the same thing and feeling distinctly sick. “We’ve been able to control the outliers because we distributed it and then locked the entire
planets down almost as soon as we did. Nothing could get in or out. You release it on C-Prime, and it’s not just the residents of Natterby Close, or the Eleventh Precinct, or Enfield, that are going to get infected and die. You might be able to contain Natterby Close by restricting it on the grounds of the riots, but how would you contain the rest of the slums or the lower city? Putting quarantine procedures in effect before anyone shows symptoms would be a sure fire way of letting everyone know that we’re responsible; how else would we know about the epidemic before it arrives? Restricting civilian movements in areas that haven’t shown any signs of trouble prior to now, while not something we haven’t done before, isn’t advisable at present given the situation in Natterby Close and other areas that are showing signs of tension; it would be like dropping a match in kindling. The whole lower city might go up in arms, and while they’d then go back down to disease, they’d break through the quarantine lines before the epidemic took them, and then that defeats the purpose of the quarantine lines in the first place.”

Naisbitt waited for him to finish, an amused smile on his face as he leaned back against the windowsill. “Are you finished?” he asked eventually.

“Yes,” Brenner said tersely.

“You seem to think I’m a complete idiot,” Naisbitt said calmly. “Have you forgotten the vaccine?”

Amy’s breath caught in her throat and she almost stopped breathing.

Brenner’s eyebrows shot up. “Do you intend to vaccinate everyone in the city, then?” he demanded.

Naisbitt made a little bow. “I am a beneficent man,” he said, smiling beatifically. “I have grown
so concerned about the threat posed to the denizens of my beloved Commission by the conditions on the outliers that I am delighted to reveal the existence of a vaccine, which Commissioner scientists have been working diligently to create, and which we are prepared to offer to every citizen of the Commission — free of charge.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Brenner said, at the same time Amy mouthed the same thing in the air duct above the chancellor’s chambers.

“Not in the slightest,” Naisbitt replied, sitting back down at his desk and turning the chair back and forth slightly. “If someone wants to be vaccinated against the potential threat of the
dreadful disease ravaging the outliers, all they’ll have to do is register and come into one of the many hospitals we’ll have offering the vaccine.”

Brenner waited, watching him.

Naisbitt smiled again, but his eyes were cold. “We’ll prepare a list in advance of those individuals who may receive the vaccine. Everyone else will receive a jab so they’ll think they’ve been vaccinated, but it’ll just be saline.”

“Why not just infect them individually that way, then?” Brenner asked, keeping his voice calm. He’d seen and done any number of appalling things during his time with the Commission, many of which had been of his own free will and any number of which he did not regret, but this troubled him.

“Perhaps we will.” Naisbitt steepled his fingers. “We shall see. But I like it. And we’ve got the antiviral up our sleeves if we decide we want to save anyone.”

“Rabb, don’t you think someone is going to get suspicious if the people in the slums die while everyone in the upper city survives?”

Naisbitt shrugged. “They’re the same as the people on the outliers. People expect them to die miserable, pathetic deaths. They aren’t worth enough to live. No one will question what everyone expects. Make it happen, Seamus.”

“We don’t have enough vaccine for the Cabinet at the moment, much less whoever else it is that might make your list of ‘desirable’ individuals.”

“Put the scientists to work on it.”

“I’ll have to get the vaccine out of the secure vault.”

Naisbitt looked supremely uninterested. “Is that where we put it?”

Looking annoyed, Brenner said, “Yes. You explicitly said to put it in the high security Idris vault.”

Amy bit her lips to keep from squeaking. Finally. She knew where the damned vaccine was.

“Well, go get it then. I’ll send down my authorisation; I can’t be bothered to go myself.”

“It kind of defeats the purpose of having a high security vault, Rabb, if you can order it opened remotely,” Brenner said sardonically.

Naisbitt shrugged. “They won’t open it until they get your secondary authorisation on site. Go get the damn thing and take it to whoever our best scientists are. What’s that woman’s name — Beckett?”

“Hackett,” Brenner replied. “Dr. Laura Hackett.”

“Yes, her. Tell her it’s top priority. Get it sorted.”

Brenner bowed. “It’ll get done.”

“Get it into production by the end of the week, Seamus. I want this plan in motion.”


Previous: Air ducts
Next: Games

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Air ducts

Links to all parts of this story may be found here.


It had been years since Amy had crawled through ducts as heavily alarmed as those of the Parliament Building, and she was surprised to see more than half of the security systems seemed to be down. It made her journey much quicker as she didn’t have to constantly stop to disable air sensors and motion trips, but it made her wary; as the dead centre of the main hub of the capital city of the capital planet of the Commission, C-Prime’s Parliament Building was usually swarming with alarms and security, seen and unseen. Although she wasn’t entirely certain why they bothered tripping the air ducts in the first place; there were very few people she knew who were capable enough, or stupid enough, to mount an infiltration of the Parliament Building via air duct, or indeed of any kind of ship or building through ducts this narrow. That kind of close-quarters infiltration wasn’t part of cadet training, nor was it part of advanced manoeuvres, as far as Amy was aware. It was a different kind of manoeuvre than what she’d done in going from Cam’s ship back to Peleteth through the maintenance shaft, which even the greenest cadet should have been able to do (although a green cadet might not have been able to deal with the fact that the shaft had begun to detach partway through); maintenance shafts were designed for the movement of people, not air. Air ducts, on the other hand, were tight and cramped, big enough for a person if absolutely necessary, but hardly encouraged. The only reason Amy knew how to move through air ducts with any element of ease, much less disarm any level of security measures that happened to be present, was because her father had taught her and Cam the summer she was sixteen and Cam was twelve. That had been one of the hottest summers on record in the hill country of Idylla’s northern hemisphere, and he’d had her and Cam crawling around inside the air ducts of the grounded Commission museum ship at the flight yard. At twelve, Cam had already been almost too big to squeeze through the confines of the ducts. But the following summer he’d been exempt from those exercises; Amy had been jealous, although he’d been subjected to something that he had claimed, at the time, was equally unpleasant. That following summer, building on Amy’s success with the air ducts on the museum ship, Brenner had set up a very big, very intricate, very detailed course of air ducts with real sensors and alarms and trips — a course that Amy hadn’t realised until much later was an exact duplicate of the air ducts in the Parliament Building. She’d worked that one out the first time she’d come crawling up into these ducts, when she was nineteen and had just been sacked from her duties waiting on Chancellor Naisbitt. Annoyed and anxious to learn the end of the negotiations she’d been listening on as his server, she’d hacked into the classified files containing the blueprints for the governmental buildings in search of the layout plans for the air ducts, carefully ignoring everything that was thanking her father for having taught her how to get through them, and discovered, to her surprise, that she already recognised the design.

And now she was back, for the third time, again ignoring the feeling at the back of her brain that somehow her father was to thank for having taught her how to successfully navigate these ducts in the first place. When she was a child she’d never imagined she’d be crawling around air ducts at the age of thirty. Not for the first time she wished her hips were narrower — not because she had any particular objection to her physical appearance, but because she seemed to have developed a habit of ending up in narrow confines and having curves like the Hourglass Nebula didn’t exactly help when trying to squeeze through tight spaces.

She inched along until she came to a T-junction and went right. Thirty feet along the shaft, she paused, resting on her forearms so her eyes were inches above an air vent. Carefully, she twitched open the slats on the vent and found herself looking straight down at Chancellor Naisbitt’s desk. An outdated image of his son was perched on the corner; Dylan looked about eighteen in the picture, although at a guess Amy would have said he was close to forty. Definitely older than her, at any rate.

A balding head moved into view below the vent and stepped behind the desk — Naisbitt. He’d lost more of his hair since the last time she’d seen him. The impression wasn’t the best from above, but Amy had always been startled by what a physically powerful man Naisbitt was. In his University days he’d competed as a heavyweight boxer, and though he’d put on weight over the years during his time as a rising statesman and then as Chancellor, his tall frame carried the extra weight well. Amy had always thought it an odd contrast between Naisbitt, with his imposing presence and charismatic personality, and her father, whose appearance was almost forgettable, considering that it was Seamus Brenner who was the quietly acknowledged power behind Rabb Naisbitt. Naisbitt was the face of the Commission; Brenner operated the strings behind the curtain.

“…asleep now,” Brenner was saying, out of Amy’s line of sight.

“What was she doing here in the first place?” Naisbitt threw himself down into the desk chair, looking sulky, and snatched a half-full glass of what looked like water off the desk. “You know you’re supposed to get permission before one of them visits.”

Amy heard her father cough before he said, “It was unexpected, Chancellor. And as I’m sure you’re well aware, Annieka’s business here was less in the nature of a visit than it was a reprimand.”

Naisbitt turned his glass in his fingers. “You need to keep those children of yours in check, Seamus. Gallivanting all over the known systems, causing all manner of havoc — using your name and position to get themselves out of trouble… It won’t do!”

“Rabb, in order to even
see my kids I have to get special permission. How exactly would you like me to keep them in check?”

“I don’t know. Use one of your special skills. Throw them in prison. Have them killed.” Naisbitt must have seen something on Brenner’s face, because he sighed and said, “Oh, fine.
I don’t know. This isn’t what I do.” He took a drink and made a face. “Eugh, water. Damn medic’s got me off alcohol. What’s the point?” Standing up, he said, “Look, Seamus, I don’t give a damn what you do about those kids. Send out a vid to the entire damn galaxy telling them Annieka and Camryn Brenner no longer have carte blanche if that’s what it takes. Just get those damn kids of yours under control.” He leaned forward, his eyes cold and his face completely blank. Amy swallowed. “Or I warn you: I will.” Suddenly smiling, he straightened and said, “And then of course you won’t have anything to worry about any more. But then of course I won’t have anything to hold over you, and that’s just no fun, is it? So get it sorted, Seamus.”

“These frank talks of ours are the highlight of my day,” Brenner said dryly as he walked into Amy’s view.

“I must say, I look forward to them myself,” Naisbitt said. “After all, someone has to remind you of your place every now and again. Now, to business.”


Previous: University blues 
Next: Phase Two

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

El, part 2

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


He studied her, aware she was unabashedly doing the same to him. This was undoubtedly Rebecca St. Claire; there were other gingers in Eastbourne — the Delaney family on Mill Street, for instance — but none of them had a habit of wearing fine pink lace gowns or silk stockings. Although her clothing had undoubtedly been in pristine condition when her maid had dressed her that morning, the dress was dirty now, and her stockings had spots and tears at the knees; El recognised the tell-tale signs of repeated falls. There was dirt streaked across her cheek and forehead, and from the smears on her dress, El guessed she’d tried to rub her dress clean and then had got the dirt on her face. Her hair was an odd colour between red and blonde; it was pretty, El supposed, but he’d never seen hair that particular colour before. Although it had probably been curled and neatly tied back when she’d left home, the curls were straggling and the pink ribbon was untied. Her green eyes were surrounded by long lashes that made her look fragile, but El was used to sizing up people in a glance and recognised that the Lady Rebecca’s fragility was deceptive. She might be frightened — as she certainly was — but she wasn’t a fragile flower of the ton, even at twelve. Her gaze was much too direct, her chin too determined, her shoulders too straight. In fact, El thought, the way her body was squared up to his…if she’d been one of his mates he’d have reckoned she was readying herself for a fight. Interesting. She didn’t look much like Lady St. Claire, from what he’d seen of her through the carriage window; although Lady Rebecca showed the same promise of beauty that her mother fulfilled in maturity, the blonde Lady St. Claire’s beauty was washed-out and lifeless.

“You must be the Lady Rebecca,” El said. “You’ll have the whole of Eastbourne out lookin’ for you by now.”

She drew herself up to all of her small height and held out one hand. “I am Lady Rebecca St. Claire,” she said. “What is your name?”

He ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth and rocked backward on his heels.
Don’t get involved, don’t get involved, don’t get involved… “You can call me El,” he said, ignoring his misgivings and gripping her hand in his. The movement clearly startled her. Probably expected me to kiss it, he thought. “This ain’t your neighbourhood,” he said, executing a neat sleight-of-hand and pulling a coin from behind her ear. He deposited it in her hand and asked, “How’d you get separated from your ma?” “How’d you get separated from your ma?”

She hesitated, and then said defiantly, “I ran away.”

“’Scuse me?” El said in disbelief. “What would you go and run away for? Can’t imagine the life on Kensington Hill is such hell you couldn’t wait to get away.”

“How would you know?” she flashed. “You don’t know anything about my life.”

His eyebrows lifted. “You can afford silk stockings. That says somethin’.”

She gave an exasperated sigh that made the corners of El’s mouth quiver at the corners. Hiding a smile, he continued, “Say for a minute your life ain’t so great as we down here in the slums might think. Why the hell would you run away into Eastbourne? You could’ve picked a better spot, love.”

She stamped her foot, her brows knitting together and her mouth drawing into a thin line. “I don’t exactly have lots of opportunities to get out of Kensington. I’m only twelve.”

“You don’t say.”

Glaring at him, she said, “Papa almost never takes me anywhere, and whenever Mamma takes me somewhere it’s always in Kensington, and if I slipped away there someone would recognise me and bring me back. I tried it once. I think I managed about seven minutes before Lady Ormond’s
footman spotted me on my own and returned me to Mamma.”

“Clearly you need lessons in stealth,” El said, amused.

“And I’m hardly allowed to take out a carriage by myself, or go riding off the estate, so I can’t ever get away.” She sighed heavily. “So I took advantage of today’s situation. No one would recognise me in Eastbourne, I thought.”

“You forgot there ain’t many twelve-year-old girls wearin’ silk that got your particular colour hair in Eastbourne,” El said gently. “As far as runnin’ away goes, it’s usually helpful to stay inconspicuous, and you ain’t.”

“But I did so
well,” she protested. “Mamma and I left home this morning specifically to come to Eastbourne, as Papa is a patron of the Royal Brompton Orphanage and Mamma wished for me to see how the less fortunate live. The Orphanage isn’t very far from here, you know,” she said knowledgeably. Then the facade faded as she added, “At least, I don’t think it is. I’m not quite certain anymore where I am.”

“It’s about fifteen minute’s walk,” El said, sticking his hands in his pockets and fingering a jack. “Can’t say I’m surprised Lord St. Claire’s a patron; Royal Brompton’s got a list of patron’s as wide as the Andalus. Doesn’t mean they do much.”

“But Mamma and I went down this morning,” she said, “and the Matron gave us a tour, and then I purposefully stepped on Mamma’s hem and tore it. And while she and her maid were occupied with fixing it and John — the driver — was flirting with one of girls employed by the Orphanage, I ran away. And nobody noticed. And I ran and ran, and then I fell down, and then there were some exceedingly disagreeable boys who whistled and chased me, but I kept running and hid under a blanket and lost them, and I have been walking since.”

A nasty feeling settled in El’s stomach as he considered the number of unpleasant things that could have befallen the girl between the time she left her mother that morning and the time she ran into him. Eastbourne was full of amiable, if rough-edged, individuals, but it was equally full of troublesome and distinctly unpleasant people as well.

He hesitated, and then said, “Look, Becks, it ain’t none of my business, but Eastbourne ain’t safe for a girl like you. You’re lucky you ain’t run into trouble yet. You’d be best to get home as soon as you can.”

“I won’t,” she said. “I refuse.”

“Well, I ain’t going to be responsible for you,” El said, determined to wash his hands clean of the girl. He absently turned the ring on his finger as he looked down at Rebecca’s wide eyes.

“You don’t have to be,” she said staunchly. “I can take care of myself just fine, thank you very much. I have not asked for your help, Mr. — El.” She swallowed, and then lifted her chin and said, “I shall take my leave of you now, if you please, and go in — that direction.” She pointed at random.

El laughed. “That road dead-ends in the river. You won’t get far.” Seeing her cross face, he said, knowing he’d regret asking, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re so damn determined to run to run away?”

She chewed on her lip and looked away. “You won’t understand.”

“Probably not,” he agreed cheerfully, “but you might as well tell me anyway. Don’t seem like you’ve got anyone else to talk to.”

She teetered back and forth for a moment, and finally burst out, “My parents are going to marry me to my cousin Richard.” Her eyes flew open wide and she clapped a hand over her mouth in shock.