April 4th 2014
Something strange was definitely going down on Sesen. Jones had spun a good yarn, but had shied away from any real details. How had they gotten the Surveyors to stay away? Did it have to do with the appearance of the pirates? Was the government being blackmailed by the bandits? Perhaps the pirates had played a part in the people’s revolt, and now held that over them.
Jones had spoken of prosperity like their colony was still beholden to someone, still needed to break free. Were they being held hostage as a planet, but had recently devised a way to throw off their new oppressors?
And how was giving an interview supposed to help? Yadav had overheard Jones say that the reporter’s appearance was an ‘opportunity’ that could put an end to the piracy. How?
Perhaps the answers lay at the bottom of this staircase.
Without giving another thought to the corpse at her feet, she descended the steps. Maybe this was meant to be the shooter’s escape route. He’d kill Yadav, then disappear, ghost-like.
The staircase was several stories tall. It took her far beneath street-level, into a series of tunnels. A small light, attached to one of the vest’s belts, helped her find her way.
At first she thought she’d found the universe’s most clandestine sewer entrance, but the curving cement walls were free of filth. Nothing smelled foul, no mold or fatty masses clung to the sides. And though she could identify clear channels for water or pipes, everything was desert-dry.
After following the blinking red dot through a series of twists and turns, Yadav’s sense of direction failed. She was fine while top-side, and she hadn’t lost her bearings in space since flight school. But under meters of stone and dirt, her natural compass spun like a top.
Occasionally the tunnel branched, and the dot would instruct her which arm to take. Soon she realized it was leading her toward faint sounds. Motor whirs and clangs and bangs resolved themselves the further she pressed. Construction noise.
And on top of that, something else. Engines. Ships.
And now, lights up ahead.
Around another corner, Yadav found herself in a wide cavern. Quickly, she ducked back.
Flood lamps illuminated a major manufacturing production. Young, strong workers crawled over the hide of a giant, half-built drill. A crane lifted parts out of crates and into place. The stamps on the crates were unmistakable. These parts were from the transport she’d seen commandeered by the pirates.
To the right, up a sweeping wave of concrete, lay landing pads covered with older Cutlasses. Broad hangar doors splayed wide, allowing ships to fly down a channel from the surface and alight here. A quick and efficient way to deposit stolen goods.
“Don’t forget to update the list,” said a familiar man’s voice. “We’re still short on bolts that can support the weight. What we have now won’t cut it.”
From behind a pirate ship stepped Wei Martinez. That bastard.
The government must be taking a payoff from the pirates, Yadav concluded. Allowing the bandits to use Sesen as a staging ground.
But who sent the assassin? The government, or the pirates? Two of the governor’s guards were dead, surely that meant —
Something vibrated in Yadav’s gut. She clutched at her abdomen, confused. Muscle spasms? No, she remembered — the beacon she’d swallowed. It was alerting her to the presence of a New United ship.
The bread crumbs had worked. They’d come to rescue her.
Time to make a hasty retreat.
Just as she was about to follow the blinking red dot back the way she’d come, a new ship set down in the hanger. A Constellation, emblazoned with a government skin — skin that flickered and shifted as Yadav watched, becoming pirate war paint in a split second.
It hadn’t been her eyes after the crash. Jones’ craft had been sporting red.
The doors opened and the governor disembarked. She grabbed the closest technician by the sleeve. “These decals keep malfunctioning.”
The government isn’t taking payoffs from the pirates. They are the pirates. Jones was just as sleazy as any other politician Yadav had ever interviewed — worse. Which meant Yadav was on a planet controlled by a pirate pack. This was where all the young men and women had gone — down here, in the tunnels, or up there in the asteroid field.
Everything made sense now.
Except for why they hadn’t killed her when Haddix had died. It wouldn’t have been difficult to claim they’d both perished in the crash, should someone come snooping.
After holding a brief conversation with the technician, Jones stomped over to Martinez.
“What the hell have you done, Wei?”
The record keeper Martinez had been speaking with looked back and forth between the two cousins, unsure if he should leave. Martinez gave him no indication one way or the other.
“I did what needed done. Having her around wasn’t worth the risk,” Martinez said to Jones casually. He continued his conversation with the records man as though she had not interrupted.
“You sent someone to kill an innocent woman — without my consent. Just like you shot them down without my consent. You do not give such orders without my authorization.” Jones was trembling with barely restrained anger. “That idiot you sent killed some of our people, Wei.”
“People have died in our wake before.”
“Not like this. Not because you found them inconvenient. We agreed to leave the reporter alone, to try and get her to tell the colony’s story. We need aid. She can draw attention to our lack of basic necessities —”
“She can draw attention to our crimes,” he said firmly, turning his full attention on her. The record keeper scurried away. “You were fine when we revolted, you could do what needed doing during war time. But what you don’t realize is that we’re still in a war. We are still fighting for our survival. If the Advocacy discovers our syndicate, they won’t sigh and say, well, if only you’d been given a better lot in life.”
“If we can get help — from the UEE, from a corporation, from some wealthy consortium, whoever — we can stop commandeering ships. Right now we pour ninety percent of what we steal back into the damn business — more ships, more weapons, more scanners, more forged IDs. Money and goods that should go to our people instead. We can’t keep growing the pack. When do our crimes start benefiting our colony? That’s the whole reason we started, to get set on our feet. If we find alternative means, we can stop being criminals.”
“It’s not that clean cut. Can’t you tell how naïve you sound? What do you think all this is?” he waved at the construction. “Isn’t this for the people?”
“It’s not enough.”
“It has to be enough, because there isn’t an alternative. You chose piracy and all it entailed. It’s not a lifestyle you can just cast off when you want to reinvent yourself. You have to accept that you are a damn crime boss, not a chameleon.”
She took a step forward, invading his personal space. “It doesn’t matter what you think I’ve accepted or not. I am in charge. I give the orders. Bottom line: we agreed to leave the reporter alone.”
“I never agreed to let her wander around in the city, poking and prodding.”
“Doesn’t matter. My orders were that she wasn’t to be harmed. That should have been enough.”
Yadav began slowly backing out, down the tunnel. She had everything she needed — enough to prepare her report and more. It was time to go. The chain of command was in question, and that never ended well.
She had to get somewhere the rescue ship could land. Barring that, she had to figure out how to steal a ship and meet the team.
Once she’d tiptoed well out of the light, she spun on her heel and prepared to run.
And found herself nose-to-chest with a very tall, very broad guardsman. He was flanked on either side by two more guards — five crew in total.
“I’m sorry to see you down here,” said one — Sato. It was the guard who had stood outside her hospital room door. “The governor sent us to find you. She thought you were dead. By the looks of that guy up top, I’d say you’re a lady who can take care of herself.”
“She’s also a lady who doesn’t know how to quit when she’s ahead,” said the big man. He grabbed her by both arms. His hand almost wrapped entirely around her bicep. “You shouldn’t have come down here. Mr. Martinez won’t like it.”
“Mr. Martinez can kiss my ass,” Yadav said.
The group spun her around, then marched her into the cavern. Men and women stopped working as she plodded past.
Jones’ and Martinez’ heads both snapped in Yadav’s direction.
“See?” Martinez shouted. “Reporters are like cockroaches. They get into everything. Soil everything. And they won’t die no matter how many times you step on them.”
Jones sighed and shook her head in disappointment. “I’ll explain,” she said to Yadav.
“No, you won’t,” said Martinez. “She’s seen too much. You can’t expect she’ll just play nice and shut up. This damn woman will bring interplanetary law — the Advocacy — down on our heads. We have to get rid of her.”
“We have to explain to her,” Jones said.
Martinez glared at her. For a minute, it looked like the governor had won. “Screw this,” he said suddenly, drawing his firearm from its holster.
The barrel pointed directly at Yadav’s heart.
Everyone moved at once. Yadav tried to collapse, letting her knees turn to jelly, but the guard kept her upright. Jones jumped in front of the gun. Martinez pulled the trigger.
Crack. The smell of smoldering accelerant filled the air.
Jones stumbled to the floor. Blood pooled on the clean cement.