Evening, Thursday the 12th, Lunar 3, Luka 16
Just before First Sunset
We arrived at Carthage in what I thought was afternoon, but when we disembarked, it was almost evening. The second sun had begun to set. Quail and Kipley took a team of electronically inclined crewmates over to peruse other ships in the harbor, including Hart, Cove, Jack and Mwenze. The rest of us had much, much less clear instructions, and from no one in particular. It seemed that was how things went on the ship. We were united in purpose (though I didn’t understand what that purpose was) but worked independently for the most part, often in groups of two at most. Pairs of people in disguise headed out one by one, although most separated immediately. Jane and I were the last to go.
The two of us waited a few minutes to ensure we were in the clear, that no one else would walk by and see us walking out from our not-so-well-disguised ship. Kipley hadn’t been able to get the invisibility shield to work at all ever again after Quail’s devastating wet stick attack, so instead they just covered the ship with some tarps to make it look like a literal heap of junk. Unsurprisingly, this worked well, given there were several other heaps of junk nearby. There were no lawful ships in the port I could see, just trash and abandoned parts. As we walked a bit further, we eventually came upon several larger, Lumerian cruisers, looking quite out of place around all of the scrap around them. It was dark and spooky, no lights from any of the ships or anywhere.
“Where is everybody?” I muttered. “I thought this was a busy port.”
“It was,” Jane said. “It was decommissioned again a few years ago.” I held my breath, instinctively, sure there would be no oxygen here. “But you don’t have to worry. The life support ecosystem and oxygen should last for another fifty years or so, even if nobody buys it by then.”
Hoping Jane hadn’t noticed, I exhaled slowly. She laughed, so it didn’t work. Damn. “So uh… we just walk around?”
“Well, the hope is that we can chat up some locals. Learn something. A lot like what I was doing when I met you.”
“Locals?” I asked. “Are you telling me people still live here?”
Jane stopped under a viaduct briefly and, from her pocket, retrieved what appeared to be a clear rod of sorts, like a fluorescent tube lightbulb. When she cracked it against the wall, a dull, blue hue of light emitted from it, illuminating the space just a few paces in front of us. “Plenty,” she said, motioning ahead. “Most people can’t afford to just up and leave.”
Up the road a bit was a row of cloth tents, messily strewn up on the side of the road. Some were just tarps thrown on top of plywood or sheet metal. I had thought for a second that they might have been pop up shops, or from some kind of a market, but as we grew closer I caught on that these were dwellings. People were living in them. Some were drawn closed even as we walked by, shadows of persons inside visible through glints of light coming through the exterior.
My stomach dropped a bit, remembering what Quail and that beaver woman, Kipley, said about living on Tianjin. I didn’t know people in our system lived this way, let alone so many of them. Maybe that was why she made that face at me before…
“By the way, most people out here are Lumerian. Be extra careful when we’re talking to anyone.”
It took me a second to realize she meant Lumerian like Hart, and not like me. “Why would they be here?”
“Well, remember what we talked about earlier? Most of them don’t have any money or anywhere else to go, so they live on artificial colonies like this one, around the edges of the system.”
I glanced away, back towards the shadows in the structures nearby. It did look like some of them had antlers.
As we continued walking up the path, additional beams of torch light shone toward us from what appeared to be the side streets on a city grid. We followed one, until we came upon a brightly-lit square, full of dozens of members of one of the Royal Police Corps and Bots. Some were standing at attention, as if waiting for instructions with their golden tridents in hand. Others were moving around in smaller groups of four or six. Among them were a handful of people I presumed to be locals — several different kinds of folks, dressed mostly in dirty, mismatched clothes.
“The million lux question is what the RPC are doing out here,” Jane whispered. “Let alone so many of the blue ones.”
‘The blue ones,’ Jane meant were the ones in blue uniforms—the Orias Corps—they were members of Lumeria’s Navy, the primary domestic defense Corps. Members of the Orias Corps were even the ones who arrested me back home, working along the Police Bots. Jane had a point. It was hard to fathom why they would be somewhere so dry, and so far away from home.
Keeping a watchful eye trained on them, I nodded. “So what do we do now?”
“Act natural. Try not to attract the wrong kind of attention,” Jane said, continuing forward. “Think like… we’re on a casual stroll, maybe looking for food or water, or something. More people live up to the left. We’ll start there.”
Nothing could’ve made me act weirder or more out of place than being told to act natural. The ungodly loud thudding of Jane’s oversized boots beneath my feet was all I could think of as we walked through the square, trying desperately not to make eye-contact with anyone, let alone the buff-ass military guys trotting around. Up ahead, one of them was standing near a young girl with antlers like Hart in a faded green dress, holding something over her head. It was a ceramic jug of water.
“Please give it back–P-please!” she cried, jumping up trying to reach it with her little fingers.
With a smug laugh, he threw it down on the ground, shattering it and spilling all the water inside. Dust and mud splashed up, all over the girl’s bare feet and legs.
“Hey!” I cried out, rushing over. I felt a hand behind me; Jane must have tried to stop me. “What was that abou–”
A fist rammed into my cheek before I could finish. He’d punched me in the face. It felt like time froze, but I kept moving until I hit the ground. My entire face felt hot, throbbing. It wasn’t pain–not yet–more like electricity, and a ringing in my ear.
“Oh I’m so sorry. My brother just gets… a little riled up sometimes!” Jane’s voice came muffled. He yelled something back at her. “It won’t happen again; I promise.”
A little, cold hand pat my cheek. “Are you okay, mister? Mister?” I thought it was Jane for a second, but it was the little girl. She pat me again, and I shot right up. Jane’s hand clamped over my mouth before I could say a word. Whoever it was, was already on their way.
“And that is what I meant about not attracting the wrong type of attention,” Jane muttered, squeezing my chin in her hand. She examined my face. “Anything broken?”
“No.” It hurt to speak, not my throat, but to move my mouth and lips. Blood and spit drained from the corner of my mouth.
Jane’s eyes went wide. She bit her lip, trying to hide an obvious laugh. “Eh. You look better without that tooth, anyways.”
Running my tongue over my gums, I found a gap. I looked around the ground, looking for a tooth. “You gotta be ti—titting…” a whistling sound came out of the gap when I tried to say shitting.
“You probably swallowed it,” Jane said, looking a little too amused for my liking. “It’s okay. We’ll get you patched up later.”
“Did you… did you see that guy?” I wiped the blood from my lip. “What the fuck?! I didn’t even–”
Jane shushed me, and grabbed me by the shirt. “Listen to me, you do not go after them, okay? They won’t arrest you out here. They’ll kill you and be done with it.” Her eyes were suddenly so stiff and serious.
“Uhm… you can come with me,” the little girl said. Both Jane and I stopped, realizing she was still there. “Maybe my mom can help.”
Hoping the little girl’s mom was a dentist, I agreed to go along. Jane was really the one who made the decision, as apparently, following a random strange child into a dingy tent city was exactly what she had in mind when she said we needed to find locals and talk to them. This particular local was named Isi. Isi was very proudly eight-years-old, the same as my brother Duncan, and missing the same upper right front tooth that I now was, although she assured me that a little mouse named Topolino would bring me something that would make it worth it. We call it the Tooth Fairy on Lumeria, but it sounded like we were talking about the same thing. She explained along the way that she’d just gone out to get water for her and her mom, and was fortunate enough to find some before that corpsman stepped in. That had been their only container for water.
“I regret not letting you go after that guy,” Jane grumbled to me, listening to her story. “Even though he would’ve beat your ass.”
Isi and her heavily-pregnant mother lived in a structure composed of thin sheet metal, larger than others around it, but still only about the size of my room back on the ship. Fitting two people in it comfortably, let alone three, couldn’t have been easy. Her mother was skittish of us at first–especially me–but welcomed us inside once she saw Isi, and my face. There was barely enough space for the four of us to sit in a circle.
Isi’s mother went digging into a pack full of fruit behind her, and retrieved a small, cool square, an icepack. She handed it to me. “I won’t ask what brings you out here.”
I pressed it to my face. “Thank you.” It wasn’t terribly cold, but anything helped.
“I thought you was one of them at first,” Isi’s mother said, nodding to me. “No offense. We don’t get folk like you around here much, except those peace workers and the Corps.”
“Peace workers?” I asked.
She nodded. “Always out here in their suits, two of them at a time like you, trying to make everybody live like they do. At least they bring food.”
I nodded along, realizing she was talking about some of the volunteer programs from my planet. Remembering Jane’s comment about being careful about what I said, I decided not to ask what made them so bad.
“I can get you food and water if you tell me something,” Jane said. Isi’s mother stopped. “How long have the Corps been here?”
Isi’s mother hesitated. “It started a few weeks ago. About three nights a week,” she said, offering us a piece of fruit from her basket. Neither Jane nor I took anything, but Isi took a peach. “One group meets the other, and then they exchange their cargo.”
“Any idea what that is?” Jane asked.
“Take a look for yourself.” Isi’s mother motioned toward a small gap in the metal sheeting behind her.
The four of us shuffled sides, so Jane and I could take a peak. Through the crack, in the distance, we saw a row of prisoners in grey uniforms waiting in line. My eyes went wide, but Jane didn’t look surprised.
“One Corps to the other?” Jane asked. “Or…?”
Isi’s mother shook her head. “Always the blue ones.”
The thud of footsteps filled the area outside. The four of us all froze in absolute silence. Isi’s mother held her close, shushing her.
“Anything over here?” came a voice. Lights shone around, visible in the shadows outside of us.
“Nah.” The light went out. “Think we’re good, sir. Probably just the five of them, sir.”
“Fuckin’ pirates,” came another voice. “That’ll teach them to jack our ship.”
Each one of us sat in absolute silence until the footsteps marched away, growing quiet.
“Sounds like we need to go,” Jane whispered, to me. “The others need us.”
“Wait,” Isi’s mother said. “Take my daughter with you — not now — when you leave–”
“Mommy?” Isi asked, eyes flying wide.
“–I don’t care where you’re going, or who you are, or who you work for. I’ll pay if I need to.”
Jane shook her head, no. “You don’t have to. You both can come with us.”
“You’ve paid us enough already,” I said, handing the ice pack back to her.
Jane agreed. “We’ll be back for you later. I promise. Actually…” she stopped, digging into her pocket, and retrieved her phone. “Keep this for now. Even if we don’t make it back, you’ll be able to find someone to pick you up this way. And I promise — call from that number, and somebody will come.”
We excused ourselves soon after.
“People?” I whispered. “They’re transporting people out here?”
“Re-education flunkies, I’d bet,” Jane muttered. “But we’ll get to that later. They–”
“Flunkies? I didn’t even know you could flunk re-education,” I said, panicked. “What happens to them?”
Jane continued on her original thought. “–They said five of them, right? So Quail, Kipley, Mwenze, Hart, Cove, Jack… that’s six. They should have six. Who’s still out there?” She looked at me, like I was supposed to know.
“Are they even…okay? You said they don’t arrest people out here.”
“People, no. Pirates? We’re useful for information at least,” Jane muttered, walking a bit more quickly. “At least I hope.”
“So what are we gonna do?”
“Let me figure that… out,” Jane stopped abruptly, holding out her arm to stop me from going forward, too. Up ahead was a lone corpsman, vaping some god-awful mint oil in an alley. His trident was propped up beside him, but he was otherwise unarmed.
He noticed us immediately. “Back for more?” He smirked.
I didn’t recognize his face, but that voice? I knew that voice. After a quick visual search to confirm he really was alone, I glanced to Jane. “Sooo… am I allowed to beat his ass now?”
“I’ll get his trident,” Jane said, grinning. “Don’t get any blood on his uniform–it might be useful.”