Through Fire – Snippet 10

Who Goes There?

Alexis knew exactly where the transport was, and it must have been very carefully procured because it looked nothing like an official vehicle.

It certainly didn’t look like anything that the Good Man would own. Parked in a narrow, deserted street, the flyer was gray, battered, with cracks showing on its ceramite finish. It was the sort of vehicle a very young man or a very poor one could own. It opened at the touch of Alexis’ finger in the genlock. We’d come to the street through a network of back streets, past bars and diners, past repair shops and used clothing stores.

Through it all, I kept my ears open and stayed alert, not because I didn’t trust Alexis, but because I didn’t trust anyone, because I had need of making sure he hadn’t lied to me simply to remove me from the seacity; because I had to make sure he wasn’t betraying me, or, worse, betraying Simon.

What I heard confirmed Alexis’ scouting of the situation. First of all, there was the smell. Have you ever smelled large-scale burning? I hadn’t. I came from a colony world. Eden existed inside a hollowed-out asteroid. If we burned anything much, it would play havoc with the atmosphere scrubbers. And yet, I knew when I smelled burning that it wasn’t the normal burning of a log in the fireplace or a campfire like the one that Simon had built on his land to show me what it looked like. No. This was a… the only way to describe it is “dirty smell” compounded of chemicals and seared flesh and other things not meant to be burned.

And then there were the sounds. Echoes of singing, that even at this distance, with no words audible, sounded angry. Explosions. The occasional scream. And laughter. The laughter was the worst.

So I tried to help Alexis pass, to make us go unnoticed, to help us escape. I’d put my arm through Alexis’ and tried to babble about what we were passing. I wasn’t sure this was right. Len and I hadn’t talked much in the end because, like all navigators and pilots from Eden, we had a bioengineered mind link to each other. And it was probably not the normal talk. He knew what I was and so did I. And we had mind-to-mind communication, a handy thing engineered into nav and cat pairs. So there had been no need for much talk.

But I leaned into Alexis and tried looking affectionate. Would a couple out for a day together talk about the disturbing events around them, or not? I didn’t. I talked of the dress and the weather, and an advertisement moving murkily on a shop window.

The scary thing about these streets was how quiet they were. Sounds came from other areas, but not here. I’d been here before, on normal evenings, and they’d been full of people. People on their way to work, people looking for a meal, people out with lovers or friends or relatives.

Now the streets spread out, empty, with closed shops on either side shining forlorn lights from the windows and their signs onto the pitted dimatough pavement. Even the eating establishments were closed. I wondered how many of the owners, how many of the residents in this unglamorous part of Liberte seacity were actually home, hiding behind their closed doors and their shuttered windows. And how many were elsewhere in the seacity? How many had been part of the mob that had taken over the palace.

Explosions illuminated our surroundings in sudden orange bursts. But, as far as I could tell, the explosions, the action were all at other levels in the seacity, above or below, accessible only by stairways and the public elevators, if those were still running.

We found the battered gray flyer, and Alexis opened it without a word. Inside, it was very clean and smelled vaguely of lemon, but the seats were cracked, and the controls looked shopworn.

Instead of taking off directly from parking, he flew just a little above the surface down the network of streets, as though the flyer were a ground vehicle. He caught my puzzled glance and said, “If we take off, we will be shot down. The word is out that there is an area from which we can take off. The revolutionary guard is vetting everyone allowed off the seacity. Not that they …” He shrugged. “They want to be sure, you know, that no one escapes.”

The thought came through that he might just be intending to turn me in, to have me killed as the price of his escape. Still, I remembered Simon more or less throwing me at Alexis, and directing Alexis to keep me safe, the desperate note but also the absolute trust in Simon’s voice. Sometimes the best you can do is trust that others know what they’re doing.

We flew at near ground level all the way to an area that might have been a parking lot in happier days. Now, there were some charred hulls of flyers, obviously set on fire. I wondered what had happened to the occupants, and refused to look too closely, just in case they were still there.

There were also other flyers, like ours, with people inside them, forming an irregular line. Down each side of the line came young men armed with burners. They were wearing red Frisian caps. I didn’t wonder at it. It had been part of the paraphernalia of the Sans Culottes, and Simon himself had worn one when he declared his own reign over and the transition to the tenth republic initiated. But there was something to the way these young men wore it that implied they were more serious — or at least less careless — of all that those caps implied. Liberty caps. I knew from Eden the history of the revolution they were associated with. Not in detail. It was ancient history, after all and I was not an historian. But enough to know that it had become a blood bath. I clutched my hands on either side of my seat and held on.

One of the young man came to our window and bent to look through it at us– dark brown hair, gray eyes, a face that looked as though it had been smudged in an explosion, with a sort of sneer that might mean pride or fear. Or both. “What business do you have flying out?” he asked. His voice was raspy. “And who are you?”

“I’m Alexandre,” Alexis said. “Alexandre Borde. This is my friend, Madeleine Fabron. We’re– That is–” He looked equal parts confused, scared, and perhaps embarrassed. “My mother is scared. In Shangri-la. She was on the com to me, and she’s scared. We’re flying back to stay with her.”

The young man’s lip curled upward. “You’re from Shangri-la?”

“Yeah,” Alexis said. “I work there, at the Debussy café. I’m the cook.”

The young man looked over at me. “Madeleine is the waitress there,” Alexis said. I realized that the light over the passenger seat was broken and wondered if he’d meant it that way. Then I told myself of course he meant it that way. I was not in the hands of a casual conspirator. His words I was on death row for revolutionary activities came back to me, and I wondered what those activities had been. Had he tried to overthrow the government of the Good Men? Had it all been propaganda and the distribution of pamphlets against their rule? Or had it been something more material? I had heard it was possible to get killed simply for disagreeing with them, but I didn’t know if that was true.