March 14th 2014
A long time passed before Martinez returned with a gaggle of guards and the spare pantsuit. Once he’d made his delivery he left again, without a word to Jones.
Yadav was freed, then left alone to change. The eggplant colored suit was too tight and too long, but it would have to do. It felt good to be dressed like a professional again. That robe had left her open, vulnerable, in ways she couldn’t fully appreciate until she was once more properly clothed.
The interview party totaled seven; Yadav, Jones and five bodyguards. They split between Jones’ Connie and a second transport, then flew to the bottom of the hill. There they abandoned the protection of the ships and began a leisurely stroll through the dust-covered streets.
Surprisingly, Jones threaded her arm through Yadav’s. They walked linked together like old schoolmates, while the guards trailed behind like a pack of local strays.
Sometimes Yadav had to constantly ask questions in order for an interviewee to open up. Not Jones. She clearly had a story to tell, and had been waiting for someone to share it with.
But she didn’t begin right away. Comfortable silence settled over them as Jones led them onto a main thoroughfare — the only paved street. Hot sunshine beat down on the dry asphalt, warm enough to make Yadav’s skin prickle without summoning forth gallons of sweat.
The people did not shy away as the governor’s party approached. No one spat. But neither did they break down in tears of false hero-worship, like so many dictators demanded. They were cordial, polite.
Young mothers carried infants in baby slings, or braced toddlers against their hips, while bargaining for baked goods. Several old men and women worked hand in hand to patch a crumbling mud wall. Dirty children kicked at a deflated ball — the older ones shouting to one another with the authority of professional athletes.
“These smiles —” Jones said, pointing to two young girls making a pyramid out of pebbles — “Are hard won. “Only those under twenty are native to this planet — Sesen, we’ve named it. Means ‘lotus flower,’ symbol of rebirth. Most of us are original colonists — displaced persons. Since the first surge, no one new has come. If you’d arrived a decade and a half ago, you would have seen why. We are not your typical colony.”
Yadav’s attention split. While Jones spoke, her ears (and her recorder) listened intently. But her eyes fixated on their surroundings, taking mental snapshots. There were no dogs, no cats, no chickens running wild. None of the animals she’d come to associate with a poverty-stricken area. She realized she hadn’t seen a single bird or rat since crawling out of her downed craft. A lone lizard, streaking from the shade of one building into that of another, was a novelty — a rare sign of non-Human life. The colony didn’t have enough scraps to support anything besides its people. “This isn’t good land, is it?” she asked. “Deemed unsuitable for colonization by the UEE?”
“Yes. But official terraforming results don’t mean much. No one simply abandons a planet after all that work has gone into it. The surveyors don’t shrug their shoulders and leave. Even though it was worthless, they found a way to make a profit.
“Traffickers came to my home station. Gathered us all together, and told us about this grand new frontier. They convinced my parents it was as rich as the Nile delta of old — I think one of them recognized my name. Tentopet was an Egyptian queen. My mother was obsessed with the history of the ancients — their habits, their food, their dress. The traffickers spun mother a story that put lights in her eyes.
“Wei is the son of my mother’s brother. His parents and my parents gave their life savings to the people-movers, so that we could start anew in this glorious paradise.” Sarcasm dripped from her tongue, but it was devoid of true contempt. “When we made our fortunes we were to go back for them.”
Subtly, Yadav continued to survey every person who came within view, and a strange pattern emerged. There was not an unattached, able-bodied man or woman in sight. The only virile adults were those with small children. Yadav hadn’t seen any single persons between the ages of fifteen and fifty who weren’t part of the governor’s party.
Where were all of the adults? They weren’t poking out of shop fronts or darning clothes or building structures — they were simply absent. Surely not all of them were needed up on the governor’s hill.
She made a mental note, but kept the observation to herself.
An elderly man offered Jones a chunk of bread from the loaf he’d ripped apart for his grandchildren. She accepted it with a small bow.
“What’s it like living here?” Yadav asked the man, “Compared to where you come from?”
“Warmer,” he said. His voice carried the tremors of old age, and the gravel of someone who had abused his lungs in youth. “Climate’s pretty mild. Can’t grow much, though. Even now that we don’t have to pay the tax.”
Yadav glanced sideways at Jones. “What tax?”
“The Surveyors’ tax. The traffickers dumped us here, and the Surveyors thought their cut had been too little. Since they owned the land — sanctioned or not — they taxed us in goods. The best we could grow went to them.”
“You starved and worked the land, or you starved and were buried under it,” said the grandfather. “They didn’t care. They don’t come ’round anymore, so we get to keep it all. But the ground is weak, and the water isn’t good — oceans and lakes are so full of toxic bacteria, we could never filter it enough. Clean rain almost never pools. It seeps right down and out of reach.”
Yadav pressed the toe of her pump against a crack at the edge of the asphalt. The dirt crumpled away, thinning to dust. No little bits of grass or random weeds held it together. “What happened to the Surveyors?”
“Ask this young lady right here,” he said, pointing his thumb at Jones. “She and ’er crew organized us against them. We drove ’em away but good.” He laughed lightly at the memory, revealing his broken teeth.
“Myself, Wei and a few others from our home station. Stole some of their ships —”
“And gave ’em reason enough never to come nosing around Sesen again,” the man finished, slapping his knee.
Jones smiled. “Afterward, we threw together a loose government and started to try to make this our home, for real. I was only supposed to lead temporarily. But here I am, well over a decade later. I’ve offered to step down —”
Sure, Yadav thought cynically.
“— but we won’t have her resignation,” confirmed the old man.
“So, when you introduce yourself as ‘Governor Jones’…?”
“It’s unsanctioned, unrecognized. None of us are Citizens. How could we be? I don’t think the UEE knows we exist.”
Yadav thanked the man for answering her questions, and she and Jones moved on.
A stiff wind wafted into Yadav’s face. It carried the scent of roasting grains, compost rot and hot metal. “You’ve kept your promise, then?” she asked after a long break in conversation.
Jones looked confused. “Which promise was that?”
“To bring your parents here when you made your fortune. They must be getting on in years.”
“They aren’t here yet. We aren’t ready. But we’re working on it. A new prosperity will be coming to our people. We’ll do more than scratch out a living. We’ll thrive. And then Wei and I will go back to our home station and collect everyone. Not just our parents. Cousins, nieces, nephews. Everyone we can.”
“Sounds lovely,” Yadav conceded. “But where will this ‘new prosperity’ spring from? Your resources don’t seem adequate for trade off worl —”
A sharp series of consecutive pops rang out. Puffs of dust burst from the ground at Yadav’s feet, and she instinctively jumped back.
She was all too familiar with gunfire.