The city-satellite Verdant struggles to survive in deep space, knowing nothing of the state of an Earth ravaged by the Yellowstone Caldera. But when the deep-space discovery of the age is marred by the unexpected disappearance of one of Verdant’s freighters, CEO Julian Lenz and his staff must make a difficult decision: To take Verdant into hiding, perhaps forever; or to return to an Earth in uncertain condition, and risk Verdant’s survival.
Preview: Chapter 1
Officer Martha Twan expected to see any number of things, as she raced around the support bulkhead and followed the noise of the crowd.
She didn’t expect to see rain.
She was so utterly shocked at the site that she was taken completely unawares when her foot came down on the wet floor at a full run and slipped out from under her. Martha suddenly found herself sailing across the corridor, her body rotating under its own momentum, her arms windmilling in a futile attempt to control her fall. She landed hard on her side, and slid unceremoniously along the soaked floor until she impacted with the far wall. For the most part, the crowd rioting in front of the sewage treatment station scarcely noticed.
“Oww!” She had landed on her baton, and her right hip burned in protest. She shook her head to clear it of the pain, and water flew in every direction from her now-unbound and already-saturated hair. Her attention was drawn to a sputtering and snapping at her hip: Her baton’s taser circuitry, which had been malfunctioning more and more in the last four months, was shorting from exposure to the water. Martha winced, as she could have used the taser against the crowd now, and she had waded into too many situations wondering whether or not it would let her down that day. With a final disappointing pop, the baton answered the question for her.
Blinking against the water, she struggled to her feet, favoring her right leg, and surveyed the chamber. The first thing she looked for was the source of the water: Someone had gotten lucky, probably with one of those makeshift slingshots the peacekeepers were always discovering these days, and had actually pierced an overhead pressurized line. The water blasting out of the hole was almost invisible at that speed, and was accompanied by a high-pitched squeal that was hard on the ears, but it quickly slowed and formed drops that cascaded over the area and soaked down everyone and everything in a twenty-meter radius. Martha took a cautious sniff, but detected no obvious odor… thankfully, it must have been an outgoing water line.
The second thing she surveyed was the riot itself. To Martha, there were only three important facets to a riot: How many were involved; how high were the emotions of the crowd; and how armed were they. Fortunately, this was Verdant, and one thing you could always count on was that crowds were never that large. And other than those damned slingshots, and perhaps a few public-issue tasers, the crowd wasn’t likely to be that heavily armed.
That left emotions… and despite the impromptu rainshower, the crowd was undeniably ugly.
Martha’s partner, Humboldt Trevich, came up behind her. Like her, his uniform was already soaked clean through from just a few seconds’ exposure to the geyser from overhead. “Backup’s around the corner.”
“Tell them to watch their step,” Martha replied, rubbing her hip for emphasis. Then she caught sight of activity on the far side of the crowd. “Come on!” she rapped, drew her baton, and charged forward. Humboldt, who had been about to signal their backup with Martha’s warning, released his mike and followed after her.
“Peacekeepers! Stand down! Back off!” Without a working taser, Martha had to bull through the crowd, in some cases managing to run directly into a clot of fighting residents, and knocking them forcibly apart as she passed. Considering her short and wiry Asian build, her facility at mowing down those who were significantly larger than herself was nothing short of impressive. “Stay down!” she’d bark after them, and keep going. Humboldt followed in her wake, shoving rioters aside when he needed more room for his larger body to pass.
As they approached the far end of the crowd, they could see energetic fighting along the wall and the entrance to the sewer processing station. Members of the crowd and employees or security guards at the station were having it out, no holds barred… some of them could really fight, and the impacts, grunting and swearing were enough to make a more sensitive person’s ears burn. Fortunately, the waterworks were making everything and everyone so slick that the fighters were having a hard time getting grips on each other, or even standing on the slick deck. A lot of the yelling and cursing were from people slipping and falling about, knocking others over and splashing water in others’ faces. In spots, the riot looked like something out of a comedy, flying water and pratfalls.
Martha largely ignored them. She had already zeroed in on a more important target: Someone at the station entrance gate, his back to the crowd, and who seemed to be frantically struggling to do something before she could reach him. She pointed at the more rowdy of the rioters, mostly for Humboldt’s benefit, and kept plowing toward the man at the station gate. She had to do a bit of work to get there, of course—an elbow here, the flat of the hand there, a trip or two—but she was rewarded with the other side of the crowd in excellent time.
She took advantage of a final surge of resistance by the crowd, and transferred that into enough forward momentum, to slam hard into the back of the man at the station entrance. “Oof!” he coughed, and flattened against the gate, his arms folding up in front of him. Martha saw a flash of metal between the man and the door… bolt cutters. She bounced off of the man, grabbed the back of his soaked shirt, and yanked him backward, around and down. Her knee was deep into his back the moment he hit the deck. The cutters had been wedged into the narrow access channel, almost far enough to have allowed them to cut the gate’s lock, until Martha’s impact forced him against the cutters and knocked them out of position; now out of the man’s hands, they went clattering to the deck.
“You’re under arrest, Gimpy!” Martha shouted above the crowd noise, unlimbering zipcuffs and securing his hands behind him as she spoke. Once his hands were secure, she lifted him to a sitting position and dragged him over to the gate. Then she used another set of zipcuffs to tie his ankle to the gate, while using her free foot to kick the metal cutters under the gate and out of reach of any other rioters. When she finally stood up, she said, “Feel free to gnaw your leg off while I’m gone, Gopher.” Then she ran off to help her partner and the station security men.
After ten minutes of breaking up fights, arresting individuals and finding inanimate objects to cuff them against, Martha eventually ended up simply tackling and hogtying the last of the rioters… then remaining on the ground, where she would simply trip the rioters from below and hogtie them. When the riot finally started to thin out and quiet, her partner looked down at Martha, sitting cross-legged on the floor, one elbow on her knee so her hand could prop up her head.
“Getting bored?” Humboldt asked with a smile. “I’ll be glad to find a better fight to pitch you into.”
“Maybe just a drier one,” Martha replied tiredly, throwing a nasty look at the still-gushing water line. Almost as if in response to her gaze, the shower of water suddenly began to thin out, the high-pitched keen dissipated, and the shower became a stream, then a drip. Someone had finally shut off flow to the line.
“About time.” She looked casually at an arrested rioter, lying on his stomach in front of her with his left wrist zipcuffed to his right ankle.
He glared coldly back at her, and shouted, “You can’t do this! We have a right to go home! We must go home! We must go home!”
The rest of the captive rioters quickly picked up the man’s chant, and began repeating it loudly. “We must go home! We must go home! We must go home!” Martha, unimpressed, slapped her hand on his ass with a wet smack, and used his soaked backside to lever herself to her feet while he protested nastily. She stretched her back to get the kinks out of it, and given her thin frame and relatively flat chest, she did not trouble herself that anyone would be ogling her through her soaked uniform as she did so. Finally, she walked around the hogtied rioters littering the ground, until she reached the one who had been trying to cut through the gate lock.
She knelt down until she was face to face with the man, who sat crookedly on the ground thanks to the awkward position she had left him in when she cuffed him. She wasn’t the kind to gloat, or to unnecessarily threaten, so she simply regarded him, and glanced at the bolt cutters she’d kicked out of his reach. “Who put you up to this?” she asked. When he didn’t respond, she added, “Are they here?” Again, no response. “What did you think you were going to do once you got inside? Were you planning to poison Verdant’s population?”
The man returned her gaze, but was clearly unwilling to speak. Martha didn’t bother to press the issue… she was tired. So she stood up and surveyed the area. There were at least three dozen people zipcuffed to nearby beams, against the gate fence, or hogtied to themselves. Their chanting had steadily died down, with no one nearby to inspire or impress, until it had become a background grumbling among the rioters. There had been scores more, but they’d fled when the peacekeepers and security personnel asserted themselves—despite the obvious intent to do infrastructure damage, most of them weren’t so intent that they were willing to get themselves locked up over it. Still, the more die-hard elements were growing in number, and Martha wasn’t sure where this bunch would end up serving their time… the lock-ups were pretty full already.
After a moment, Humboldt joined her, and surveyed the crowd with her. “Getting to be quite the nuisance, these Gophers, aren’t they?” Before she answered, he added, “Wagon’s on the way to pick them up. I think they’re bringing two of ‘em.”
“Why?” Martha shrugged. “They can just pile ‘em on top of each other.” She looked at Humboldt, and didn’t bother to hide her expression: As far as she was concerned, treating the rioters like so much cordwood wouldn’t be the worst thing she could imagine. Humboldt just grinned back at her without responding… then, a moment later, looked past her. Martha caught the motion, and turned to see what had caught his attention.
It was the EO, Reya Luis, coming up the corridor and staring about in dismay at the waterlogged scene. Martha wasn’t sure what had prompted Verdant’s Executive Officer to come down and see this—maybe the water leak had set off some extra alarms in CnC, maybe she was just passing through—but she was here, so Martha gave herself a quick shake to shuck off a bit more of the water from her uniform, and returned her fried baton to its holster. Reya saw her then, and approached her directly. Humboldt turned and left Martha’s side to assist in collecting rioters. When Reya reached her, Martha nodded and said, “Morning, Exec.”
“Morning, Martha,” Reya Luis replied, looking her up and down and not bothering to hide her sympathy. Reya was close to Martha’s height—which didn’t say much for either of them, as they were both petite in stature—but where Martha’s wiry build made her look like a wet cat in a peacekeeper uniform, Reya’s body nicely, though not extravagantly, filled out her executive staff uniform. And she was dry. After she regarded Martha, she looked around at the rioters. “Gophers again?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Martha replied. Martha and Reya actually knew each other on and off-duty, well enough to go by first names (Verdant was a big place, but most upper-level staff were at least acquainted with each other, especially due to the rigors of the last year), but in an official situation, they accepted formality and acted appropriately. Martha pointed to the rioter cuffed to the gate entrance. “Gimpy, there, had bolt cutters, and was close to getting the gate open when we got here.”
Reya nodded, suppressing a wry smile at the name Martha used—Gimpy Gopher was an old animated character from a child’s video series, around long enough to be fondly remembered by most adults—and looked up at the still-dripping water line. “Any idea who did that?”
“‘Fraid not,” Martha said. “It was going when I got here. Probably a slingshot did it.”
Reya reacted to that with a mixed expression, part incredulity, part disgust, part concern. “Everybody worries about pocket lasers and tasers… we end up fighting off the Gimpy Gopher brigade and kid’s toys. God, it’s been a long year.” She surveyed the crowd again. “Any sign of the leader?”
Martha shook her head. “But we may get lucky,” she said, motioning with her head to indicate the many zipcuffed rioters strewn about the area.
Reya looked at her dubiously. “Do you really believe that?”
After a moment, Martha smiled wryly and shook her head at her executive officer. So far, the Gopher movement had managed several protests, acts of civil disobedience, and now attempted vandalism, and not once had anyone been caught who could be considered the leader of the movement. Whoever they were, they were good at keeping a low profile.
After a moment, Reya finally nodded in indication that she had everything she needed to know. “As you were, then.” In a voice loud enough for the rest of the peacekeepers to hear, she added, “Finish up, then go get some dry clothes on, before you-all catch pneumonia!” Then she turned back to Martha and said, “Keep the faith, babe.”
“Doing the du, boss,” Martha replied. Reya turned and walked away, taking her time so as not to splash herself overmuch. Martha turned about and, along the way to help her fellow officers, deliberately kicked water at as many rioters as she passed.
“Where’s Dud?” Martha said loudly as she walked into her sector station. “Somebody find Dudley!”
Her yelling drew attention from many of the peacekeepers in the station… followed by additional attention directed at her and her partner, who still showed the effects of their being drenched at the riot site. Numerous shouts and laughter followed, and good-natured comments along the lines of: “So, you two showering together now?” “No, they swam here! Didn’t you hear Section 20 is under water?” “You guys been transferred to waterfront duty?”
The comments barely registered on Martha, and Humboldt likewise shrugged and grinned past them, as they proceeded on to the locker room. Along the way, Martha saw an officer come around the corner, and before he could join in on the laughter at her expense, she unlimbered her baton, switched on the taser, and quickly tossed it at his head. The officer caught the baton inches from his face, then recoiled at the sound of sizzling and popping.
“Went out on me again, in the middle of a riot, Dud!” Martha called at him impatiently. “Your guys get that thing fixed, or get me a new one, y’hear?”
The officer looked at the baton, then back to Martha. “No one told you to take it swimming! It’s not like I’ve got spares…”
Martha turned and leveled a finger at Dudley’s head as she walked past. “Every time that thing misfires, I’m gonna throw it at you harder and harder. Your choice,” she finished, and walked into the locker room before Dudley could respond.
Inside, she loudly slapped her hand on the lock sensor of her locker, creating a clang-a-lang-a-lang! that echoed through the room louder than she had intended. This served to cow Martha a bit, and she more calmly opened her locker and withdrew a fresh uniform. A few rows away, she could hear the much quieter sounds of Humboldt’s locker opening. She started to take off her soaked uniform, and used a towel to dry off her skin and underwear. “Y’know,” she said loudly enough for Humboldt to hear, “I don’t ask for much. A good job, serving my community. Competent, agreeable co-workers. The tools to do the job. And yes, an occasional head to crack when it needs cracking. Is that really too much to ask?”
It was a rhetorical question that Martha had asked herself, and others, far too often in the last few months. In return, she heard Humboldt give the same reply that had become an overused mantra in that time—in fact, as he spoke, she silently mouthed the words she knew he would say:
“We’re not over Kansas anymore.”
Martha narrowed her almond eyes and sighed deeply, but she did not respond. What was there to say? As overworked as the phrase was, it pretty well summed up Verdant’s situation, and the root of their problems, effectively. Being out of their orbital position with Earth—by a few thousand light-years, no less, and despite the Rios broadcasts, don’t ask her how that worked—had cut off their supply lines. No more could they depend on the gear and consumables that they used to ship up from Earth, whenever they needed it… now they had to find ways of fabricating things themselves, finding replacements, or doing without.
The rest of the satellite was dealing with the same shortages as the peacekeepers, of course, which made her job doubly frustrating. You’d think people would understand that we were all in this together. Yet, when stored items ran out, when there was not enough to go around, people tended to defer to the traditions of their ancestry, and started fighting over the scraps.
Even she was doing it… picking on Dudley, their equipment repairman, when she knew very well that he had no way to fabricate the optronic components needed to fix her baton, and had already torn apart every piece of optronics he could get his hands on to do what he could for the department. It wouldn’t surprise her to find out he was now prowling around at night, desperately looking for any control box, security scanner or loose gadget he could scavenge when no one was looking.
She was buttoning up when Humboldt came around the corner, himself still a few buttons short of finishing. “Got an assignment from Casch,” he said neutrally. “They need an escort from food processing. You ready?”
Martha closed her locker. “Soon as I find a spare baton.”
It was funny how much the simple appearance of a uniform could do. Despite there being only herself, Humboldt and two other peacekeepers, walking on each corner of a slow-moving freight pallet on its way to the markets, the residents they passed made no attempt to come near, no matter how much they clearly wanted to. In a way, Martha felt even more aggravated by this assignment than by the riot. At least the riot represented people with intense feeling, willing to put themselves at risk in order to further their agenda. Here, there were only people who eyed the passing pallet like starving rats, wishing for an opening that would allow them to sneak up, grab a few boxes of goods, and slink off into the shadows.
The worst part was, they were not starving… they didn’t have a reason to be hungry. There really was enough food to go around on Verdant, even if it wasn’t all the tastiest items that could be shipped from Earth. The aeroponics, hydroponics and traditional farms provided plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and tubers for the population; and the grown meat, while not Argentinean beef, was fine with a bit of creative preparation and seasoning. But since Verdant had moved, the residents had reacted to the lack of imported food as if it represented a serious shortage, and had taken to stealing and hoarding food whenever opportunities arose.
She glanced at some residents, her eyes connecting with a few of them directly. They stared back, their eyes reflecting a calculating docility. Rats. She actually couldn’t get that image out of her head. So she turned and directed her eyes straight ahead, concentrating on the slow march down the corridors to the transport line.
As they approached the entrance to the transport system, a man stepped out of the terminal and nodded in their direction. “Afternoon, peacekeepers. I’m Devan Fix, from the market.”
Martha stepped aside and waved him over to her, as she removed an ID verifier from her belt. The man obligingly ran his finger across the IDV sensor strip, and a moment later, the screen displayed Devan Fix’s face, name, ID number and position. It matched the ID she had been given at the stationhouse, their assigned escort to the market, so Martha nodded. “Nice to meet you. Are you ready to load?”
“The transport’s waiting,” Fix replied, and waved them on into the terminal. “Slot nine.” He fell in step with Martha as she followed the group into the terminal. After a moment, he looked down at her appraisingly, and smiled slightly. “Sorry to have to stick you with such a boring assignment, officer—?”
“Twan,” Martha replied, realizing a bit belatedly that he was simply trying to make small talk. In return, she grinned back and shrugged. “And that’s okay, it’s part of the job.”
“Who would’ve thought?” Fix said to her. “That we’d have to protect basic food stores, from our own people?”
Martha actually found herself using the words she had grown to dislike so much, though she tried to put a brave face on it: “We’re not over Kansas anymore.” Even Humboldt turned in mute reaction to her comment. Afterward, she wished she had said anything but that.
“Well, hopefully something will break,” Fix went on. “This is no way to run a satellite.”
The pallet automatically loaded itself onto the waiting transport, leaving enough room for Fix and the peacekeepers to step inside behind it. Fix entered the destination, and the transport closed and started along the track. They rode in silence at first, the peacekeepers mindful that they were hardly needed during this leg of the trip. But none of them seemed to indicate they preferred silence, and their open expressions prompted Fix to turn back to Martha, the only female of the peacekeepers on the transport. “I guess things are getting a bit tense with you guys lately, huh?”
Martha caught a knowing glance from Humboldt, before she looked up at Fix. “We’re keeping busy. But the majority of Verdant’s residents are managing to take our situation well.”
Fix cocked one eyebrow at her, in a way that looked to Martha to be forced and superficial… trying to impress her, and doing a bad job of it. Humboldt saw it, too, and knowing his partner, stifled a groan. “Situation… that’s a mild way of putting it. Ongoing crisis… forced exile… head in the sand… those are the phrases I more often hear about our… situation.”
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Martha said, hoping he wouldn’t intuit that she only half-believed her own words. “It’s a difficult stage we’re in… but not a crisis.”
“I’d very much like to see what you consider a crisis,” Fix stated.
Without a pause, Martha replied: “Tranquil.”
Fix returned her look, but did not respond. The satellite Tranquil had suffered serious damage from the attack on it, resulting in the death of the entire command staff, and structural damage that they assumed had caused further loss of life and forced an evacuation of the satellite’s population back to Earth.
Back down to life under the shadow of the caldera.
Verdant had left the confines of Earth mere days after the eruption, and no one had been back since… consequently, no one had an idea what state Tranquil was in… or Earth, for that matter. But it was assumed that their state was not good.
This seemed to take the flirtatiousness out of Fix, and he remained silent through the rest of the trip.
A group of offloaders were waiting at the market when they arrived, and as the peacekeepers stood watch, they made short work of transferring the food products to their closed containers and trundling off to their respective kiosks and eateries. Their finishing with the transport signaled the end of shift for Martha, Humboldt and the other two peacekeepers, who wasted no time bidding good-night and heading off on their own.
“Well… as long as I’m here,” Martha said, “might as well get some shopping done. See you tomorrow,” she waved to Humboldt.
“And you,” Humboldt returned, and after a moment, turned and walked casually back in the direction of the transport line.
They were relatively close to a vendor that Martha preferred, so she headed in that direction. The market was on Floor 16, which afforded a comprehensive view of the interior of Verdant from the market. It was easy for a resident to forget they were inside a giant space-borne satellite… except at the times when they could look out and see the vast curving cylinder, more than a kilometer in length, and the twenty terraced levels of residential, business, service and commercial suites and accessways, each cylindrical level rotating at differing rates to simulate a standard Earth gravity at most levels, increments of an Earth-Gee at a few, and zero-Gee at Floor Zero, the central column. Below, the open expanse of Floor 20 extended all the way to the southern end of the satellite, and was covered with an attractive mosaic of small and medium-sized buildings, greenspaces, farms and parks… like a picturesque rural town that had been somehow rolled up to meet itself, becoming its own sky. The terraces extended outward from the northern hub, at different lengths, so as to afford an unencumbered view from almost every terrace at some point of its rotation. Martha took in the expanse of Verdant’s interior as she meandered through the market.
Along her way, Martha examined much of the produce and merchandise of the other kiosks, and took careful note that most of the kiosks had smaller amounts of product, but very little empty shelf-space; despite the shortages inherent in their situation, they still had stock to sell. As she approached her vendor, she noticed a thin boy standing about near one of the shelves by the entrance. The proprietor was there, and was apparently aware of the boy, but was also busy with his own work. The boy had been showing interest in buying something, but not sure what to buy, so the proprietor had turned his back on the boy until he was ready. Martha could tell the boy was planning to use that moment to grab something and run.
Martha altered her approach, sidling up beside the boy quietly. When the boy noticed that someone was close by, his eyes came around while the rest of him tried to keep still and remain unnoticed. But he instantly realized he was staring at a peacekeeper, at which point his head followed his eyes around, and his entire body jerked as if plucked. Without making a further sound, he backed away from the produce he had been eyeing, stepped around Martha, and walked with a forced non-chalance out of the kiosk.
The proprietor finally looked up, saw the boy leaving, Martha watching him, and took in the situation in a glance. He smiled as Martha turned to him. “Officer Twan… I think I owe you a thanks for saving some of my stock.”
“Think nothing of it, Giotto,” Martha grinned back. “Glad to be of service. Do you have my usual order this week?”
“Mostly,” Giotto replied. “We had a run on grapes yesterday. I think our local winemakers are at it again,” he chuckled tolerantly. “I’ll get the rest.”
Giotto disappeared into the back, and Martha rummaged around to see if she’d find anything she wanted to add to her order. Orders were necessarily smaller nowadays, with the lesser availability of many products, so she often supplemented her usual order with something extra, mostly for Alix. He sometimes delighted in trying to think up inventive ways to prepare the miscellaneous items she would bring… almost as much as she delighted in pleasing him. If she picked well, it often meant a delightful evening all around.
As she shopped, her eyes happened to drift in the direction of a nearby café, where she and Alix had often stopped for lunch. At first idly reminiscing about how they’d first met, she slowly came to realize that she recognized someone in the café. Her eyes centered on Verdant’s COO, Aaron Hardy. The satellite’s Chief of Operations was seated at a table in a corner of the café, eating by himself. He seemed to be quietly absorbed in his eating, and paying no attention to his surroundings… at first. Then Martha noticed his eyes jump up to take in a woman who happened to pass his line of sight, hover for just a moment, then turn back to his food. A few moments later, he tossed out another furtive glance through the café, then back down.
Martha knew how to read that particularly male form of body language: Hardy was alone, and unhappy about it, but hoping no one else would notice. Martha, being female, had heard the talk about Hardy, poor man: Thanks to his subordinate, Dr. Silver, effectively snowballing him with false reports of experimental cargo technology, and leaving him looking foolish while she made good Verdant’s escape from Earth with technology he’d known nothing about—not to mention his losing the fairly public attention and favors of then-American-agent Kristine Fawkes to the CEO, Julian Lenz, during the crisis—he had been labeled “damaged goods” by just about every single female on the satellite. His position as third in command on the satellite used to mean at least a modest attention from the opposite sex, even given his increasing flabbiness, and distinct lack of any real sexual magnetism—now, there were those who couldn’t understand how he’d managed to keep his position, and the only women he spent time with were the ones he paid for in advance. And there seemed to be fewer and fewer of them lately, as well. Of the residents on Verdant, Martha imagined Aaron Hardy, one of the most powerful men on the satellite, was probably having less satisfaction with their present situation than most…
As she mused over the COO’s state, Giotto came out with a bag. “Here you go, officer.” Martha turned about, her thoughts of Aaron Hardy gone in an instant, and she accepted the bag of goods. “And here,” Giotto added, reaching past her and plucking a pear from the shelf that the boy had been hovering over. He tossed it in the bag, and smiled. “On me.”
“Thanks,” Martha said, and swiped her finger over the ID scanner Giotto held out to her. She waited until the cashier made its recorded ca-ching! noise, and turned to go. “See you later, Giotto!”
“Have a blessed evening, peacekeeper!” Giotto called back, pausing to watch her go for a moment before turning back to his work.
When Martha arrived at her flat, she could already smell dinner cooking. “Oh! Am I that late?”
A moment later, a man sidestepped out of the kitchen and looked out at her. Alix was a nice guy, with an attitude to life and a sense of humor that matched hers, average in looks, with a sexy body and hands that could get her screaming with ecstasy in minutes. He could even cook. He smiled back at her and said, “No, I started early. I wanted to put these beets to good use, and this recipe is slow.” She approached him, and slid a hand behind his neck as she drew him down and kissed him. Then she pulled back, reluctantly, and took her bag into the kitchen to put things away. As she did, Alix said, “I heard about a riot at an atmo station today. Were you there?”
“Uh-huh,” Martha replied. “I got in a week’s worth of showering in thirty seconds, too! It wasn’t much of a riot, though… Gophers may want to drive us back to Earth, but they’re not that dedicated to it, really. They scatter pretty easily.”
“Well, that’s nice to hear,” Alix smiled, and returned to the skillet on the range. “Mind you, if we manage to go back, I wouldn’t complain a bit… but I hope it won’t be because we can’t breathe, or all our water’s been expelled into space.”
“Hear, hear. Beets, huh?” Martha inhaled over the skillet. “Smells good. And how was your day?”
“Could’ve been better,” Alix replied matter-of-factly. “We still can’t crack our formula problem, and until we do, we can’t extend our growing capacity any further. It’s like a brick wall… I don’t know if we’re going to get past this one. And if we don’t… well, we may find ourselves going back to Earth just to get something to eat. Eventually,” he amended with a shrug.
“Well, keep at it,” Martha said, giving him a hug from behind. “I have faith in you.”
“Mmmm.” Alix turned around in her arms, until they were facing each other. “And I have love for you.”
They kissed again, held it, and after a moment, Alix started making amorous motions and putting his talented hands to work on her. It took all of Martha’s will to pull back from his mouth and say, “After the beets.”
Alix stopped pawing her, looked into her eyes and smiled. “Killjoy.”
“We’ll see if you still feel that way,” Martha cooed, “after dinner.”
Sex was sex, but foreplay was fun. Alix made it that way. He loved to chase her, to carry her, to stroke her, to knead her, to spank her, to nibble on her; duly encouraged by her squeezing, her biting, her gazing, her laughing and moaning. They were even accomplished rough-housers, though they never went as far as pain-dominance or bondage. They had attended an orgy once, invited by a couple who were trying to be a bit more experimentive… with the result of never being invited back to their flat again afterward. Foreplay was incredibly liberating for Martha and Alix, an appetizer much more important than even the main course.
Sex being the main course, naturally. When Martha and Alix finally settled down to good, old-fashioned sex, they actually quieted down a bit, and just let things happen. Martha loved the weight of Alex’s body over her, or his hands gripping her tightly as he moved rhythmically against her. She would let him move her around, posing her like a doll before resuming his efforts inside of her… he was insatiable, and she loved every minute of it.
But as Martha obligingly came about and allowed him to take her from behind, she was once again aware of a fleeting moment when something had… changed. It was subtle, barely noticeable, and at times she doubted her feelings herself; but of late, their sex had occasionally taken on a tiny alteration in tone. It was minutely more insistent. Clinging. Desperate. As if one or both of them was becoming afraid that something about this wouldn’t last—
And then the feeling was gone, as fast as it had appeared. At that moment, they were both reaching a climax, and Martha eagerly emptied her head and went with it. She came just seconds ahead of Alix, and they both cried out as they shuddered and released, finished, and collapsed sideways on the bed. Martha immediately twisted around and found his mouth, and they molded their bodies into each other as they used the last of their energy to seal the moment with a kiss.
Finally, Martha turned over, and allowed Alix’s arms to enfold her as she settled in to sleep. She barely remembered the quicksilver moment when things had been not-quite-right, and she was well past caring even if she had. She felt Alix’s incredible body against hers, and all was right with the world.
Inside this flat, at any rate. Outside of it… that was someone else’s problem.
Her morning’s assignment, the next day, was to watch over the repair crews at the sewage treatment station as they made repairs to the gate and the overhead water line. They had waited to get started until Martha and her peacekeeper team arrived, and as soon as pleasantries were exchanged, one work crew quickly erected a scaffold, climbed up and started removing roof panels to get at the damaged water line. Martha kept an exceptionally close eye on them as they worked overhead.
The repair crew at the gate busied themselves replacing some of the anchor posts that had been damaged by the rioters, especially around the gate, and replacing the gate lock itself, which the tool-wielding rioter had managed to damage to a small extent. They had brought along a replacement lock assembly, which was redesigned to shield the lock from future bolt cutter attacks. Martha had directed some of the other peacekeepers, who were more familiar with metalwork than she was, to monitor that crew to make sure the job was being done properly. It also meant that, if the crew at the water line messed something up, she’d be closer to the avenue of exit and could hopefully stay dry this time.
Martha noticed the confused voices and head-scratching from the water line crew, before they started to look around for someone in authority to speak to. Eventually, they saw Martha watching them, and one of the engineers came down from the scaffolding and approached her.
“That water line,” he explained, “wasn’t shot.”
Martha looked at him dubiously. “If you’re about to tell me that that line didn’t soak down me and everyone else in a thirty meter radius—”
“Oh, it failed, all right,” the engineer said. “But not from being shot at. The line failed at a connection seam… a bad join.” He turned and pointed, as if he could show Martha the exact spot from that distance. “The weld was fatigued there, see? So when pressure built up, it popped.”
“Pressure? You mean extra pressure?”
“Yeah.” He brought a pad up and showed her the figures on the screen. “According to this, the regulator about fifty meters along—” and he pointed again, at a section of bulkhead in the other direction “—closed and created a pressure backup. That caused the failure at the seam.”
“So,” Martha prompted, “when it stopped leaking later?”
“The regulator opened back up. See, it’s here.” He pointed to the figures on the screen.
“Uh-huh,” Martha said. “So, someone happened to figure out that closing and opening that particular regulator would soak down this spot where the Gophers were rioting?”
The engineer looked at her queerly, before responding, “No one closed and opened the regulator.” Martha’s face screwed up, and just before she started to contradict him, he added, “It’s an automatic system. It’s controlled by the GLIS. There’s no manual control for it.”
Martha regarded the engineer in silence for a few moments, alternatively looking at him and his pad. Finally she asked, “What’s your name?”
Martha did a double-take at the name, but did not address it. “Tabby, you need to give this report to Coo Hardy as soon as you can, understand?”
“Sure, I can do that,” Tabby replied. “I need to get a few more details, first.”
“Do that,” Martha told him. “Then talk to Hardy.” He hurried back to the scaffolding, leaving Martha to glance at the spot where the line had failed… then at the surrounding walls of the section, as if she expected them to start moving or signaling with the overhead lights. To herself, she muttered, “I hate this ‘ghost in the machine’ crap…”
At eleven hundred, Martha turned at the sound of voices approaching the station. A number of suits were heading in their direction… they looked either like engineers, or administrators. As they came closer, Martha realized they were being led by Aaron Hardy. They talked among themselves as they approached, only occasionally looking about as if they actually cared about the work being done… which told her they were certainly administrators.
Tabby saw the group coming as well, and climbed down from his scaffolding to give Aaron his report. The group paused close to Martha when Tabby approached Aaron, then moved on as Aaron listened to the report. Martha was close enough to be able to tell that Tabby had little to add for Aaron that he hadn’t already told her… and that Aaron Hardy seemed as perplexed as she had been.
Finally Tabby was done with his report, and headed back to work. Aaron, still standing there, glanced about and noticed Martha nearby. “Morning, officer,” he said amiably. “How are things going here?”
“The work is progressing, sir,” Martha replied easily, aware that she really wouldn’t know how well it was progressing. “If you need details, I think the guy on the left, over there, is the foreman. No one seems to be bothering us, though.”
“Good, good,” Aaron nodded, taking in the repair work with a glance. Then he noticed Martha’s nameplate. “Oh—you’re Martha Twan. You were on-scene at the riot.”
So, he read and remembered his daily reports… obviously isn’t as dim as the girls say. “Yes, sir, I was.”
“Good work, officer.” As the other suits seemed to be paying most of their attention to the repair work being done, or to themselves, Aaron moved closer to Martha and lowered his voice somewhat. “Tell me, what is your assessment of the severity of the Gopher problem, based on what you saw yesterday?”
Martha did not speak instantly, but took a moment to survey the scene while she collected her thoughts. “I wouldn’t call most of them ‘dedicated to a cause,’ sir. Considering the way the group was so easily scattered, I’d characterize most of them as frustrated into trouble-making. Probably people whose lives have been seriously disrupted by our present situation—”
“I’m sure that describes literally everyone on Verdant,” Aaron pointed out casually.
“Yes, sir,” Martha nodded. “But some people handle adversity… better than others. And for those who don’t handle it so well, there always seem to be places for them to go where someone will induce them to stir up trouble, or at least non-constructive activity. That makes up the majority of the Gophers, in my opinion.”
Aaron caught the meaning behind her words. “And the minority?”
Martha paused again, aware that she was getting into more subjective grounds here, but she plowed ahead anyway. “These people aren’t just spraying graffiti on public walls and staging harmless protests. The Gophers have attacked six infrastructure facilities so far, each of them capable of dealing a serious blow to satellite sustainability over time if they had been damaged. Even if the attacks themselves were ineffective, it shows their leadership knows where to strike. And if nothing else, they are succeeding to make a point. Two, actually.”
“One, that we can’t ignore them; and two, that we are living on a precarious edge, environment-wise, and it won’t take much to push us over the edge… whereupon, we’d have to go back to Earth, just like they want us to.”
Aaron nodded. “Well,” he said, “there might still be other alternatives… but I agree, the seeds have been planted. So: What do you think their chances of success are?”
“Depends,” Martha replied. “On one hand, odds are that if they keep it up long enough, they’ll manage to hit a vital spot. On the other hand, we could do more to lock down station security, and make it harder for them to act in the first place.” After a minute pause, she added, “And there are other options.”
“Such as?” Aaron asked.
When Martha looked up at Aaron, her demeanor was less of a confident, independent professional and more as a hopeful subordinate. “Maybe we should risk contacting Earth, sir,” Martha replied quietly. “To see if we can re-establish relations and trade somehow.”
Aaron nodded lightly. In an equally low voice, he told her by way of assurance, “That’s been suggested by others, as well.” He seemed to be about to say something else, but at that moment he noted the activity between the suits and the workers by the gate, and apparently decided he needed to be part of it. To Martha, he said, “Thank you, officer… excuse me.”
“Of course, sir,” Martha replied as he walked off. She watched from her post as he injected himself efficiently into the discussion and took charge, answering questions, making sure the workers continued their work. It occurred to her that, at that moment, there was certainly no sign of the man she saw in the corner of a café the day before, brooding over his solitary existence. Despite his personal issues, he was still on top of it. In the midst of all the problems beset by Verdant’s situation, at least it was comforting to know that the COO was one of those people who managed to handle adversity better than most.