18th January 2208
Colony Seven, Earth controlled space
A year ago, Jinnifer Blue would have said that gate crashing a meeting of government ministers on Colony Seven was ridiculous. She’d already made more than enough reckless decisions in her life. Running away from home at 18 and signing up for genetic modification followed by pilot prosthetics. Taking a job on a crappy freighter for minimal pay and no holidays and sticking with it even though she’d been hated by everyone else on board because she was Dome raised. Then taking a job with the security service where she was hated by everyone she worked with because she had genetic modifications and prosthetics. Returning to Earth thinking she could persuade her mother, Ferona, to put an end to the Second Species programme and stop selling human slaves to their alien neighbours.
She had learned since then that fate had a wicked sense of humour. It seemed that her life was destined to travel down a path that was neither safe nor easy. It didn’t matter how hard she tried to avoid trouble. It didn’t help that when the difficult choices presented themselves, she invariably went for the most difficult option, but given that other people seemed to drift easily through life without ever encountering pirates or murderous aliens, it couldn’t be entirely her fault.
‘I don’t like this Colony,’ said the man lying to next to her. They were on the roof of a three storey building, the wind howling over them. They’d been in position for an hour and Jinn’s feet were starting to go numb. ‘Too flashy.’
‘Ah,’ Jinn said. She settled herself a little deeper into the crevice between the edge of the building and the ventilation stack. ‘I see.’ She lifted her binoculars to her eyes and zoomed in on the building opposite, a squat, low slung block with a flat roof and an awful lot of cameras.
‘Remind me why we’re here again?’ he continued.
Jinn lowered her binoculars, turned her head, and looked at him. He was wedged in so close to her that she could feel the heat from his body seeping through his clothing and into hers. Caspian Dax, part human, part alien, all pirate, once her lover and now something she didn’t have a name for, had always been prone to asking challenging questions. ‘We’re here to gate crash the ministerial meeting due to take place in that building in approximately thirty minutes.’
‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘And why are we doing that?’
‘We’re doing it because Sittan deathships are burning their way through neutral space and we can’t stop them. We’ve tried. We need help and we’ve come here to ask for it.’
‘I see,’ he said.
‘You don’t think we should?’
‘Oh, I definitely think we should. I just needed to hear you say it one more time.’
Grief had brought them here, an awful mix of death and desperation. Humans and the Sittan had been at war for six months. She and Dax had spent that time in neutral space, jumping from station to station, trading post to trading post, trying to avoid the Sittan ships, seeing all too often the devastation that those ships left behind.
Breathing got difficult for a moment. Jinn rubbed the back of her hand against her eyes and reminded herself that that was why she was here; for all the people who had died and who would continue to die if the government didn’t do something. They couldn’t fix this problem by ignoring it. Eventually, the Sittan would run out of humans to kill in neutral space, and there was only one place they would go after that.
The street below was surprisingly busy. Droids rushed around, sweeping the pavement, polishing the windows. Two large troughs of deep purple flowers were wheeled into position next to the doors. Armed Security Service agents, immediately recognisable due to their familiar grey uniforms and pale hair, stood chatting, oblivious to the scurrying of the droids.
‘There’s a roller approaching,’ Dax said quietly.
Jinn followed the direction of his gaze and found it. It was a long, twelve wheeled vehicle that seemed to ooze rather than roll, shiny sides showing a mirror image of its surroundings. It eased to a halt right in front of the building. The agents snapped into position. They thought they were prepared for trouble.
But Jinn and Dax had planned for this. They had no blasters, no weapons that would give off a signal that could be easily detected. Dax’s coat was woven from a heat shielding fabric that would mask the thermal signature from their hot Type One bodies. And the small black cube that Dax had positioned on the rooftop just in front of them would block any camera drones.
Jinn had been to this Colony before. Her mother had an apartment here, and Jinn had been sent to it for a holiday twice a year, with her nanny droids in tow. It had made an exciting change from Earth when she’d been six. She’d liked all of it. The flight. The tall, glossy buildings, the shops, the museums, the play centres. It had all seemed so otherworldly and glamorous. She’d had dreams of coming to live here as an adult, imagined herself taking a job with one of the banks or the investment firms that had their offices here, living in a beautiful hundredth floor apartment. It was what Ferona wanted for her, and as a naïve six year old, pleasing her mother had been the most important thing in her life.
Things were different now. She was different. Seeing it through adult eyes made her notice all the little things that weren’t quite right with it. It was all too clean, too perfect. Everyone was tall and thin and pale haired and dressed in the same expensive way. Every building was the same. These people weren’t free. They were trapped inside this world of their own making, doing jobs that had no real meaning, not daring to set a foot wrong in case they were thrown out of the exclusive club that was Colony life.
The main city was to their left. The buildings were just like the people, all purposefully tall and thin, with gardens growing in rings around the outside. Even from a distance it was obvious that the trees were beautifully healthy, but then they would be. Sickness and death weren’t allowed here. At the far edge of the city, trucks and building equipment were zooming around, erecting more of those tall buildings. Without their greenery they looked stark and industrial. Their skeletal insides reminded Jinn of the workings of a ship, one she’d seen broken apart and burning in space a long time ago.
‘Why are they building here? It doesn’t make any sense,’ she said to Dax.
‘Nothing rich people do makes any sense.’
Jinn said nothing. Too many of their conversations recently had come to this. Rich against poor. Dome versus underworld. She’d thought they had moved past those differences. She’d been wrong. Sometimes, she was glad of it, because she was very afraid that without those reminders, she would ask him a question she did not want the answer to, such as do you still love me? Are you really glad that I came for you? Should I have left you there?
The roller pulled away, and another one slid in to take its place. More dark suited men got out and hurried inside. The agents surrounded the car and the doorway. ‘I can’t tell if they’re there to stop people from getting in or to stop the ministers from getting out,’ she said.
‘Does it make any difference?’
‘I guess not.’
Dax lifted his own optics to his eyes. ‘The drones are circling the perimeter in a pattern. There’s a gap.’
‘How long will we have?’
He counted. ‘Twenty-two seconds to make it to the roof.’
‘Is that long enough?’
‘It’ll be tricky, but I think we’ll manage.’ He folded up his optics and slipped
them into his jacket pocket.
Jinn pushed hers up on to the top of her head. She risked one last look down at the street below. She blew out a long breath.
‘Ready?’ Dax asked.
He moved to a crouch and gestured to the building. ‘After you.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, not meaning it in the slightest.
She got to her feet. She kept her knees bent, trying to keep her body low and out of sight. She’d survive the jump, there was no doubt about that. But knowing it and persuading her body to do it weren’t the same thing. She took a deep breath, held it. And jumped.
The fall was both incredibly slow and incredibly fast. The air rushed past her and so did a camera drone. She smacked it out of the air. It flew away to the left, spinning madly, disappearing out of sight right as the roof of the building rushed up to meet her. The drone had distracted her and she forgot to kick her skyboots on to soften her impact.
It didn’t matter. The Virena flew from her hands in a gentle cloud, slowing her speed. It was like sinking into thick air. She hadn’t asked it to, hadn’t willed it to move, had only a split second thought that she was going to go straight through the roof and make a far grander entrance than she had intended, and it had responded.
It caught her off guard and she stumbled a little on landing, the impact singing up through her legs as she willed the Virena back into her hands before Dax could see it. He was only seconds behind. His boots fired just before he hit the roof, settling him gently, silently down.
‘Messed up your landing,’ he pointed out.
He smiled just a little and pointed to the vent at the centre of the roof. They moved silently towards it. Heat rippled up through it, distorting the air just above. Dax tucked his fingertips under the edge and carefully pulled it free. It was a metre across, a huge, heavy thing, and yet he handled it as if it weighed nothing.
Jinn looked down into the shaft and sighed. ‘There better not be anything living in this.’
‘Only one way to find out.’
She peered down into the shaft, but it was too dark to see much. The scans that Dax had done of the building had indicated that this was their best way in. ‘I think you should go first.’
‘Need your blades, I’m afraid. In case there’s something living in it.’
Jinn said a few choice words inside her head. She held out her hand. Dax took it. He lowered her down, fingers gripping hers, until she was able to jam her boots against the sides of the vent and hold her weight. Then she eased her way down to the bottom.
Below her, she could see the central meeting room, the huge round table in the middle, and she could hear the low babble of male voices. She carefully stretched out a hand. Dax thought she still had her Tellurium. He didn’t know that it was gone, entirely replaced by Virena, the strange living metal she’d brought with her from Sittan. Jinn intended to keep it that way.
She willed out a blade. Another low rumble of voices drifted up through the mesh. They sounded terribly calm. But that wouldn’t last. She was about to throw a great big Type One shaped spanner in the works. She counted down. Three. Two. One. Then she cut the mesh away with a quick swipe of her hand, jerking her ankles together in the same instant so that she fell straight down into the room below.
She didn’t mess up her landing this time. Stunned, pale faces stared up at her. ‘Good afternoon, Ministers. Sorry to interrupt. But I wasn’t sure how else to get your attention.’
A stride to the edge of the table, kicking an info cube and a glass of water out of her way as she did so. A short hop down to the floor. It was the work of a moment to throw some Virena at the doors and lock them. The men gathered around the table finally rediscovered their voices and began to wave their arms and shout. Someone yelled for security. But unfortunately for them, both agents and droids were on the other side of the locked door.
And then Dax dropped down into the room. The table cracked as he hit it. The gathered ministers rushed back as the two halves of the heavy table went their separate ways, throwing workpads and comm. units at the walls before thumping down against the floor. Spilled drinks formed dark puddles on the carpet. The temperature in the room seemed to rise ten degrees.
‘Please don’t hurt us!’ someone shouted, their voice high pitched with panic.
‘Trust me,’ Dax said. ‘I’m not the one you need to worry about. She is.’ He gestured to Jinn. ‘Everyone, please calm down. We don’t want to hurt you. We just want to talk.’
‘Why should we talk to you?’
‘Sit down,’ Jinn told them. A couple of them did as she said, but not all. So she said it again, more loudly this time. ‘Sit down!’
It took them long enough, but they finally seemed to get the message. She could tell by their faces that most were shocked. Some were angry, and they showed it in bulging veins and white knuckled fists. Jinn suspected that had she been there on her own, at least one of them would have tried to take her on. But all of them were intimidated enough by the sight of a huge, underworld raised space pirate to keep quiet.
Jinn had practised this, had prepared for it, but now that she was here, she found that the words she’d intended to say were no longer the right ones. They were too polite, too measured. They didn’t convey the enormity of what she felt now that she stood in a room with these self-interested cowards.
She pulled a holosphere from her pocket and flipped it into the air. It spun, then settled in a steady hover and switched itself on. A map of neutral space burst from it. She could see space stations now, fuelling stations, trading posts. And the red lines crossing out all those that had already been hit.
‘This is neutral space,’ she said. ‘These are all human occupied places in neutral space. And these are all the ones that the Sittan have already taken. Look at them.’
A few heads turned.
‘Look at them!’ she yelled. ‘People died on these stations! You left them alone and unprotected, and the Sittan slaughtered them. Why aren’t you helping them? Why aren’t there security service ships in neutral space? At the very least, you should be transporting people home to buy time until you sort this out.’
One of the men got to his feet. The others remained silent. ‘Jinnifer Blue,’ he said. ‘And Caspian Dax. That is who you are, isn’t it?’ His voice was steady, his tone completely reasonable. It knocked Jinn off balance. She’d been expecting a denial, an argument.
‘It is. Who are you?’
The murmur that rippled around the room combined with the flush of colour that hit his cheeks told her that wasn’t the question she was supposed to ask.
‘I’m President Bautista,’ he said. There was a definite edge to his voice now. The flush was still there, just under his skin, but he was more in control of himself than anyone else in the room. This was a dangerous man. ‘I don’t know how you got past the security outside,’ he continued. ‘Quite frankly at this point it doesn’t really matter. You won’t be leaving. But I have to say, I find myself a little disappointed.’ He looked her over. ‘I thought you’d be a little more . . . intelligent.’
‘We did not start the war,’ the man said, as if that absolved him of all responsibility. ‘And what happens outside of earth-controlled space is not our concern. Earth’s government has one job, and one job only, and that is to manage things on the side of the border. It is up to the senate to deal with neutral space.’
‘The senate is doing nothing either!’
‘Then there is nothing to be done.’
‘People are dying,’ Dax said. His tone was chilling. And for a moment, Jinn saw the flicker of fear in Bautista’s eyes. ‘And you are letting it happen.’
‘Our focus has to be on protecting Earth controlled space. Protecting our border. I am sorry for those beyond it, but we cannot help them.’
‘You are choosing not to.’
‘What would you have me do?’ Bautista asked. ‘I have a dying planet to contend with. You talk about the people in neutral space as if they are the only ones who matter. There are people dying on earth right now. What about them?’
‘You could at least send ships to bring people back to earth-controlled space.’
‘And who will pay for that? Who will pay for their food rations and medications? Their housing? I must also point out, Ms Blue, that many of those living in neutral space have warrants out for their arrest. Who will pay for the additional prison space that will be needed for them when they reach earth-controlled space?’
‘You could just cancel the warrants.’
‘And have Bugs and criminals running free? I don’t think so.’
Jinn had known, when they came here, that it was unlikely that she would be able to persuade any of these men to help. But she had wanted to stand in a room with them and make her case. She had wanted to hear for herself that they had no intention of helping the people in neutral space.
‘It doesn’t matter what people have done,’ she told him. ‘Not anymore. We have to stop dividing ourselves into them and us. We have to stop thinking that Dome is better, that rich is better, that the people who have genetic modifications so they can work in the mines are inferior to people who have genetic modifications to get rid of the family nose. The Sittan are coming, President Bautista. Soon, they’ll be done with neutral space. I know. I’ve been tracking them. And then they’ll come here. What will you do when the Sittan cross the border? Because they will. What will you do?’
She could feel fury burning within her, and didn’t know how much longer she would be able to control it. She wanted to tear this place apart. She could feel the Virena responding to the rush of emotion, encouraging her to act on those feelings, but she pushed it back, refusing to let it distract her.
‘The Sittan will not cross the border.’
‘Of course they will!’
Bautista shook his head, laughing a little. ‘No alien ships have ever crossed our border, and they’re not about to start doing so. We have control of the jump gates and every part of the border is being patrolled.’
‘What makes you think you can stop the Sittan from crossing the border when you couldn’t stop me? I flew my ship straight past your patrols. It wasn’t even searched. You’re not safe. You’re an easy target.’
‘They didn’t stop you because you’re not a threat.’
‘Not a threat?’ Jinn asked in disbelief. ‘Do you not understand what I am?’
‘You’re a mistake,’ he said.
‘No,’ she corrected him. ‘I am the only thing standing between you and annihilation.’
She could sense some of the others fidgeting. If she and Dax didn’t wrap this up soon, things were going to get messy.
‘You?’ he laughed. ‘A fugitive who aligned herself with pirates and criminals? No. I don’t think so. This war, if you can even call it that, will burn itself out in neutral space. It is not our concern.’ There was a little white dot of spit on his bottom lip. Jinn couldn’t stop looking at it.
She knew that there was nothing she could say that would change his mind. He wasn’t nearly frightened enough for that. Not yet. And if she killed him, which she could, easily, someone just the same would step up and take his place.
But she wanted him to remember this meeting, this moment. She wanted him to look back in the months to come and know that he’d had the chance to form an alliance, a chance to act, and had chosen not to.
She walked right up to him, wondering if he had the spine to hold his ground, and he surprised her by proving that he did. He was a tall man. They were eye to eye. He didn’t like that, she could tell, as he jerked his chin up, his adam’s apple travelling down and back up again as he tried to make it seem like he had to look down at her. ‘They’re coming,’ she said softly. ‘And when they do, I’ll make sure everyone knows you could have stopped them.’
His face turned purple. ‘You’ll regret this!’ he choked out.
‘Probably,’ she told him.
She and Dax left through the front door.
No-one tried to stop them.