Through Fire – Snippet 42

Party Line

The plaza was full. At first I thought our recruiting efforts had successful beyond all expectations. Then I feared none of them had anything to do with us.

I was wrong on both counts, I realized as I caught a glimpse of LaForce in the crowd. He had changed his clothes, and wore something that looked like a vending-machine worker suit in bright blue. There were other familiar faces in that crowd, faces I vaguely remembered seeing around the palace and which I had assumed were Simon’s surviving guards and other servants. There were a lot of them, too many considering how many people we had contacted. But then we’d recruited those people and told them to warn and recruit others. I knew the mechanics of exponential build-up, so I knew this was possible.

But it also didn’t take very long to realize that not everyone on this plaza could be a friendly. For one, there were people wearing white uniforms with splashes of red and blue, their heads crowned with the red Frisian cap. Though I had not seen this exact uniform, it felt familiar. The colors echoed what Rose Parr had worn, and both were bright and bold like a shout in a small room.

More dangerous than those were other people moving through the crowd.

Look, I can’t even tell how I knew they weren’t on our side, but my mind picked up on an accumulation of signs and behaviors. Perhaps it was the fact that none of those on our seemed to pay any attention to Jonathan LaForce or any of the other people I recognized. All those, without talking, traded looks that meant “I know you and I’m on your side.” These others didn’t. On the contrary. Their eyes would go slanty-hard as they looked around. There was something about them that made me think they should have been in uniform, but not only were they not, but none of them was anyone I remembered as Simon’s guard.

They moved warily, like people who on a mission. No. More than that. Like trained, disciplined soldiers on patrol and afraid the crowd would get out of control.

Back on Eden there are no laws as such, though there are customs, societal best practices, enforced by tradition and common vigilance.

As such, there are no trained policemen, no trained army. However, when I had met people who were part of either on Earth, I recognized their way of standing and, often, their way of looking around.

You see, on Eden there were two groups of people trained to do what society as a whole needed. I had been a member of one and close to members of the other.

One was the darkship pilots and navigators. Darkship thieves, as Earth called us, and I supposed they were right since technically we stole powerpods grown on the biological solar collector ring that orbited the Earth. In a practical sense, the pods were more than surplus, and trimming them was probably a service to the Earth. You see, the powertrees grew exponentially. No one knew how to trim the planting, the secret of which had left Earth — and died — with Jarl Ingemar, who had designed it. Powerpods that were not caught in time, exploded and seeded themselves. This had made the neat power tree ring of the late twenty first century into a thicket, which in turn had made it harder to harvest and caused it to become more unstable and dangerous. So our stealing of the pods made the ring safer for Earth’s harvesters. Though, of course, I could understand their not seeing it that way.

At any rate, from Eden’s point of view, the darkship pilots and navigators were unalloyed good, providing a service without which the entire society would starve for lack of energy. Because of that, and because the mission was dangerous, the people in the corps, usually designed before birth for the task by being given the special viral infections that changed our genes in the desired way, learned a discipline and a dedication quite absent from our peers. That resulted in protocols, designed to not give information to Earth, designed to bring us safely back to Eden when the mission was done. These protocols were rigid and unbreaking and had to be so ingrained that they could be obeyed even while ill or scared or even dying.

The training, the instillation of principles and routines made us different, harder. It made us stand differently and move differently. It made us more than private individuals swayed by private individual ideas or cravings.

Pilots and navigators of Eden behaved and stood much like the police and military on Earth. So did the hushers of Eden, the informal, all voluntary group that was supposed to protect Eden should the Earth trace us and break in, or send an envoy.

The hushers weren’t a proper paramilitary corps. It didn’t have uniforms. The training it had was minimal. Its members were teenagers.

But its members were teenagers who, while they might be playing at defense, knew that the stakes were deadly. They’d been shown holos or some hastily taken videos of the Turmoils. They knew Earth had laws against modified people and that if it got into Eden, it would almost surely kill us all, and do so in the most horrible of ways.

As such, the game they were playing could turn lethal at any minute and they knew that as well as anyone else. They knew that if faced with a real threat, they would all, likely, die first, simply to provide the citizenry-at-large with a warning of an impending invasion that might, under very optimistic odds, give Eden the ability to survive.

They too stood and looked as though what they did was more important than they themselves were. Particularly when one came limping home, with one’s ship half-dead and one’s spouse wholly so. I remembered those young men — though there wasn’t a rule about it, the hushers were almost always men — standing with grim faces, while some pointed weapons at me and two of them inspected my ship.

They had to do it, because a ship that damaged couldn’t be scanned. The radiation permeating its very walls prevented that. Which meant that men wearing radiation-proof suits could be sequestered aboard; the beginning of an invasion force that would open the floodgates to the Earth.

The people in the crowd that I was sure weren’t friendlies looked like those young men. Not very well trained, so not every movement was disciplined, unlike a policeman’s or soldier’s. But they were people on a mission, people doing something.

As I looked around the plaza, I wondered if they knew what they were doing, precisely, or if what they were doing was looking for potential trouble: if some instinct, some thought, had made them aware of the possibility of an attack. Or if they simply knew with the Patrician clapped in his own dungeons someone was bound to attempt to free him.

Two things became obvious as I milled around. The first was that every one of the men and women in what we’ll call the spook corps were carrying weapons. You could see the bulges in their clothes, or simply follow the way their hands kept slipping to the butt of a concealed gun. In seeing it, I had to consciously avoid going for my own weapon, but I did so, with an effort of will.

The second was that the spooks did not like this crowd assembling in the plaza. They looked hyper-alert and hyper-suspicious, as though the influx of people were a personal affront or a personal danger.

Mailys caught up with me, stood right behind me, and said in a whisper that was just audible, “The fun is about to begin.”

She hadn’t bent to talk to me, nor got in any way nearer than merely standing behind me, so I didn’t know how to respond, but I half turned. Otherwise she wouldn’t hear my voice, even as those standing in front of me would be able to read my lips. “There are people here on the alert,” I said. “People who aren’t of us, and who aren’t in uniform.”

She said something in response. I couldn’t hear it clearly and it sounded like, “What? Madame’s trained monkeys?” but just as she said it, I realized a signal must have passed among our side, something I wasn’t privy to, not being born and raised in the seacity.

The milling of the crowd changed. A group organized, with people in the front making a rush towards a side entrance to the palace. I didn’t know why the side entrance, though I had a vague idea it might be the more direct route to the dungeon. What I did know was that Jonathan LaForce led it, running effortlessly forward, followed by a crowd that ran just as fast and like they’d trained for it. It seemed to me they shouted, “En avant” as they ran.

Like that, yet a third group of hostiles appeared, running out of the palace. These men were trained and knew what they were doing. I didn’t know if what they wore were uniforms. They wore some sort of drab jumpsuit. I didn’t spend much time studying them. They were armed with weapons, which they fired above the crowd. The crowd backed up, Jonathan LaForce in the middle, clearly not willing to be the first to return fire.

Somehow, with no thought or coordination, I’d moved forward, and I was now standing near the front of the crowd who’d made a run for the palace.

I noted by the corner of my eye that the first group of spooks I’d spotted in the crowd were moving into position, circling the group that had made the offensive, including those like Mailys and myself who had moved in afterwards, actuated by who knew what annoying protective instinct.

There were more of us, I knew, in the plaza-at-large. More people called upon by Mailys and me; more people who had been cajoled or guilted into this quixotic attempt to free Simon. But once those trained men had gotten into position, they would be no more able to join and help us or protect us than if we were on another planet. The spooks were professionals and would ruthlessly cut them all down in the attempt.

The men in white uniforms had moved in front of the palace entrance, but behind the men who’d fired above the crowd’s heads.

I ignored the uniformed people. There is a good rule of thumb in how to deal with someone who is armed and who might be hostile to you, and that is to look into their eyes.

In this case, the eyes of the uniformed men looked a little scared, a lot puzzled, caught somewhere between a wish that they weren’t there at all and a sense of panic.

But the eyes of the men who’d already fired looked sharp, attentive. They were following the spooks dispersing themselves around our group. The movement was not obvious, unless you knew what to look for. If it were obvious, the people about to become entrapped might panic and bolt. And if it didn’t become obvious? Well then the people would be trapped. And then? Who knew? They might kill us in batch lots, working from all sides, though that required rather precise settings on the burners if it weren’t to become a circular firing squad. Or they could march us off towards the newer version of Madame la Guillotine.

Where do our actions come from? From what deep well of thought and fear, of rationality and emotion do our sudden actions spring?

At the thought of having my head chopped off, just like the people I’d seen on the holo, at the memory of that lamentable spectacle, something sprang into place and combined with my certainty that we must get in and free Simon. With the thought of the invasion massing in the waters around Liberte, the invasion only he would know how to counter, and with the certainty that something horrible was about to be unleash upon us, I saw no other option.

I reached for my burner.

I could have talked, I suppose, and made some great speech. But I had a bad feeling the great historical speeches that had roused people to action throughout history only happened in historical or fictional holos.

The reality of here and now only allowed for one type of action. I had my burner out, had set it on cut and was sweeping through the line of non-uniformed men ready to shoot us.

My faster than human speed allowed me to get most of them before they could shoot. But the ones on the other end started shooting, and now the ones on the sides, the spooks who had been silently encircling the crowd, started firing also, revealing themselves.

I presume that their job of encircling wasn’t complete. I presume the larger crowd that had been on our side, or even perhaps casual bystanders, then joined in.

I presume, because from where I was standing what I saw and felt was a push in the back, a roar of a multitude behind me. The people who’d been blocking access to the palace were down, bleeding, injured or dead. There was hand-to-hand combat to the far left of me, but that didn’t matter.

The way ahead was clear, and I could go and rescue Simon, and then I could let him solve the rest of the problems, and I was done.

I leapt over a decapitated man on the ground, my burner in hand, and headed to the door to the palace, an inarticulate scream coming out of my throat.

And the crowd followed me.