Shiplight – Benjamin C. Kinney

Shiplight – Benjamin C. Kinney

Metaphorosis September 2016
September 2016

“Right there, any moment now. Their future,” Jacob said, resentment thick and sour in his mouth. He pointed up into the night sky, above the heads of the close-packed crowd on the porch. Everyone was silent. Despite everything, Jacob and all the other Sea-born natives held their breath. A fresh pinprick appeared in the night’s threadbare shroud. A new star, flickering and bright with the flare of the decelerating pulse drive. Shiplight.

Voices erupted in drunken cheers, but Jacob leaned back against the railing’s moldy wood. Rache bumped her hip against his. Her lanky body smelled of alquila and dance-floor heat. “Hey, start smiling. You knew Earth was crazy enough to send you five thousand more colonists as a twenty-fifth birthday gift. And until the Ship sends us their roster, who knows?” She laughed, her amusement knife-sharp and just as bloody. “You and I might keep our jobs if they have, what, ten programmers? Sea probably has jobs for ten more right now.”

Jacob tapped his alquila glass against Rache’s and forced a laugh. “I knew I should’ve been a janitor. Maybe a pilot?” The liquor scoured his throat, a clean and purifying burn.

Lucia’s face appeared, a golden ghost beneath the shadow of her hair. “Jacob, Rache, hey! Look, we can’t get the feed from the Ship, can one of you come take a look?”

Rache poked her elbow into his ribs. “You set it up, you go save the day. Get back here quick, you’re supposed to kiss someone on Shiplight and I missed out. Or is that New Year’s?”

Jacob’s heart skipped, like a stone across the water. He grinned and let his hand touch Rache’s lower back. “I think it can work for either.”

He pushed through the crowd, into the curtained living room. Fourteen other natives huddled around the couches, while a skinny boy prodded the connection between the hook and its wide-screen display. Jacob settled in front of the electronics and tuned out everyone’s cheers and pleas.

There was nothing wrong with the feed, or the hook, or the net. There was no transmission from the Ship.

In the morning, Jacob found Lucia and Rache in the kitchen, tapping away on their hooks. The windows spread mid-morning sunlight across the room’s warped laminate countertops. Even the scattered and curtained reflection felt like a head-pounding glare. Jacob was wearing the same rumpled clothes as last night, and the two roommates looked scarcely more tidy in their bathrobes.

Lucia grinned. “You two keep cozy last night? Wow, you have a terrible poker face, Jacob.” A knock came from down the hall, and she set down her hook. “You two have fun, I’ll get the door.”

Jacob sat down beside Rache, and watched a thread of dark brown hair escape from her sloppy topknot. She turned her hook so he could read from the hand-sized glass tablet. “Take a look at the Shiplight news. It’s brilliant, the government is peeing their pants. Afraid the big boys on Earth are finally coming for their back taxes.”

Lucia returned, her shoulders tight. “We have guests.” She mouthed the word government.

A man and a woman entered the kitchen behind her. Rache flipped her hook face-down and turned around to greet the visitors. They wore pristine unembroidered shirts, and had flecks of grey in their hair. Not old, but at least in their forties. Colonists, not natives. Jacob knew of a few natives that old, children of the early colonists, but the government never hired those rare elders.

The man said, “Good morning, everyone. My name is Andrews.” He looked at Rache. “Ms. Rachel Ruiz-Levi, yes? We wanted to talk about some posts you wrote early this morning. As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a great deal of speculation about why the Ship didn’t make contact, and you seem to have a very particular take on the situation.”

“Well, it dropped out of gravity drive on schedule, so it can’t be broken too badly. If it’s some little malfunction, we’ll have a signal tomorrow and this all blows over. But if not…” She smiled like a lioness watching her cubs bring down their first prey. “I bet they’ve gone silent on purpose. I bet they could’ve sent us a feed full of lies or whatever they wanted. But they didn’t. They want you to feel ignorant.” She leaned forward. “To panic.”

She cracked her knuckles. “You’re from the government, Andrews. Want to help me fill in the gaps? Let’s see. Have you not been sending enough goodies on the Ship’s return trips? Or do you think they’ve finally noticed that you stopped following the original charter?”

Andrews pulled out a chair and sat down. “Would you rather we went back to the charter, Ms. Ruiz-Levi? A system designed to control five thousand miners? I don’t think so.

“But we’re not here for a debate. You’ve been very vocal about your lack of faith in the Senate’s ability to handle this. Right now might be a bad time for that kind of agitation. We all have some real challenges ahead of us in the coming months, and our society needs to pull together to prepare.” He drew a badge from his shirt pocket. “My colleague and I are with the Bureau.”

Rache crossed her arms. “I haven’t done anything wrong, colonists. Go drown yourselves.”

Andrews sighed. “We’re all colonists, ma’am. All sixty thousand of us on this world, no matter which planet you were born on.” He glanced at his partner, then back to Rache. His words fell through the murk of Jacob’s hangover like a block of lead dropped from a diving belt. “But if you’re not interested in a productive conversation right now, we’ll have to continue it elsewhere.”

Lucia’s eyes narrowed, and she placed her hook on the table. Rache set down her mug. “Is this the point where I ask for a lawyer?”

“As of this morning, the Senate has authorized emergency measures to head off unrest in this time of uncertainty. Which reactivates some clauses in the original charter, I’m sorry to say.” A smile flickered past his face, more irony than pleasure, and then he drew his sternness back into place. “By order of the Emergency Council, we’re taking you into custody until the situation is resolved.”

Rache’s eyes darted: between the guests, to the window, to the knife set. Blood and broken glass unfolded in Jacob’s mind. He clasped her hand. “Rache. Don’t give these bastards a real reason.”

Andrews kept his gaze on Rache’s face as his partner shifted a hand to her belt. Unnoticed by the visitors, Lucia tucked one of the two hooks under her arm.

As the front door shut, Jacob’s hangover shifted into reverse. He felt instead like he was still drunk, the world spinning with motion just beyond his view. Lucia picked up Rache’s mug and washed it in the sink. In the living room, somebody snored.

The mug shattered in the sink. “Drown it!” Lucia wiped her hands dry, and threw the towel after the broken mug. “I can’t believe those colonists! Is this just going to be a police state now?” She sagged into a chair.

Jacob shook his head, and realization spread through his body with a sharp and prickly heat. “If they came for Rache, she can’t be the only native they arrested. Drown that! I can’t believe the colonists would do this.” He stood up, driven by the urge to act, but the peeling walls offered no suggestions. “We have to do something about this.”

Lucia gave him a measuring smile, and then the balance tipped toward warmth. “Yeah? Huh, Rache was right about you.” Jacob’s cheeks flushed, but Lucia turned her attention down toward her hook. She tapped the screen, swept her finger through one list, and then another. “Found it! Here, if you want to help, take a look at this.”

Jacob leaned over her shoulder. “That’s Bluerail. A programming language for hardware automation. You’re not a coder too, are you?” He and Rache had met over the net, when his parents’ mineral-extraction float needed a second software engineer. He had never met another native coder; how could he not be enchanted?

“Hah, I wish! No, I’m a cook at The Glider. This is Rache’s hook. She snuck this program home from her Raytheon-Tinto contract, she always said we might need it someday. She was always saying the colonists would bring back those old Earth charter laws.”

Jacob swept through the pages of structured text. A comment caught his eye. “Hold on. This part down here, it’s the encryption algorithm for communicating with the police aerials.” The world no longer spun; instead, he was flying. “This is it, Lucia! With this, we can force the government to give Rache back.”

Lucia flinched. “Hold on a minute. That program does what now?” She gripped his wrist. “We can’t just take up arms, Jacob. That’s ridiculous. We can hold onto it as a backup plan, but you are not starting a violent revolution in my kitchen.” She ran her hands through her hair. “This emergency won’t last forever. All these charter-law folks are gonna answer to the Senate again someday, right? So they still have to care what the world thinks.”

Jacob’s head pounded, but it beat in sync with his thoughts, like waves hammering the turbines of a generator. A new idea, more gripping than the last. “A protest, then. If they’re going to do charter-style martial law, we’ll sit right in the middle of it! Force this into the open where the whole net has to look at it. How many people were here last night? A hundred and fifty?”

“At least. New Plymouth is half natives, though a lot of those are just kids.” She reclaimed the hook and tapped the screen. “Maybe a thousand in the right age range.”

“Nice! They can’t arrest us all, charter law or no. We need to start this soon, before that Andrews realizes he took the wrong hook, and —” His ferocity crumpled. “And before anything happens to Rache.”

Lucia’s grin remained. “Everyone’s supposed to be back at work tomorrow. Let’s give them something better to do.”

In a city of nine thousand, they had six hundred people ready to march. Across the ocean world’s far-spread islands and floating extractors, two thousand more natives promised to stay home on strike.

In the light of morning, the size of it all made Jacob want to run back to his island home. Six hundred people in one place! But he had set the tide in motion, and if he flinched now, the burden would land on Lucia’s shoulders. She might forgive him, but Rache wouldn’t.

The protest began just before noon at Rache and Lucia’s house, for a route of three short kilometers to Landing Square. Most of the protestors were younger than the party crowd, but every face seemed familiar, like family members gathered for their first reunion. They carried hand-made signs with slogans like “End emergency law!”, “Why do only natives go to jail?”, and “Shiplight: what are you hiding?” The most popular signs demanded “Free Rache!” and four other prisoners.

Lucia pulled Jacob to the front to march alongside her. As the procession began, he took slow steady steps, and Lucia walked backward to face the crowd. She started a simple chant, echoing the placards, and a chorus of voices joined in.

They walked from gravel to pavement to Main Street, the spine of New Plymouth, between the pourstone facades of the world’s administrative and cultural heart. They passed a construction site, paralyzed for lack of laborers. Bins overflowed with the weekend’s waste. Somewhere behind those walls, corporate offices lay half-empty, parents were stuck home without their daycare, and dishes remained unwashed. Jacob grinned. New Plymouth wore the skin of colonists and their tech, but natives moved the blood through its veins.

The procession reached Landing Square. The broad cobblestone plaza ended in wide white stone steps leading up to the metal and glass of Landing House, the city’s only three-story building. Spectators lined the steps and shopfronts, and Jacob spotted a few groups of people with tripods and camera lenses. He lifted his fist with the next chanted chorus, to create an image that would spread their voices across the breadth of Sea.

Lucia leaned in. “Check out the cameras! We’re gonna need more than one speech. Think of something while I talk?” She squeezed his arm, and then strode up the steps of Landing House and faced the crowd.

Jacob’s elation froze over. He tuned out Lucia’s voice and dredged his mind for something worth saying. Most of the protestors were skipping school, or menial jobs that no colonist would steal. But a woman imprisoned for speaking her mind — that, everyone could understand. Every arrested native was someone’s friend, someone’s family.

Lucia shouted, “…No, we will show them who the real citizens are. If they want to forget rights like peaceful assembly and discussion, we will remember them. Look, we aren’t children! We will be seen, and we will be heard. And we’ll be here every day, until the Senate releases all political prisoners and ends emergency rule!”

The crowd cheered, and Lucia beckoned to Jacob. He ascended the steps, and stared at the entrance of Landing House. Five police officers stood guard behind glass doors and the black plastic anonymity of riot helmets. Jacob turned around and faced the crowd of upraised eyes and camera lenses. Over a rooftop, a bulbous black metal disk flew on four rotors. A police aerial laden with cameras, Raytheon-Tinto programming, and weapons from Earth.

He could not remember how he opened his speech, only the sensation that he was a shard of driftwood on a rushing current, flailing but advancing on the same anger that animated every raised face and fist in the crowd. When he saw the shape of an ending, Jacob held out his hands, palms down. The natives grew hushed.

“…If they don’t, we will show them who this planet really belongs to. The colonists made this a fight, and we’re here today to show them we’re ready to fight back. We are the tide. We will not be denied!” He gestured at the crowd, and it joined his words. “We are the tide! We will not be denied!”

The crowd kept up the chant, again and again, until he raised his fists and the noise dissolved into cheers. As he stepped aside, a thrill rushed through his body like alquila, but he couldn’t tell whether it was the heady lightness of a perfect buzz or the looming giddiness of a party gone too late.

Lucia hugged him. “I knew you’d be perfect up there. Rache would’ve loved that! This is going to work, I know it. The colonists won’t last a day with us on strike.”

Jacob’s smile returned at full force, his doubts squeezed away in the embrace. No police or prison could stand against them. If they tried, well— “Can you imagine the show if they threw us out? Every parent in town watching live over the net as their kids get zapped.”

She ran a hand through her hair. “I think I promised we’d stay the night. Can you go around and see who’s willing, maybe organize folks to get tents? I’ll line up some more speeches. Rache isn’t the only one with friends who deserve to be heard.” Her smile gained a feral edge. “This is way better than another day frying fish.”

Shadows spread into night as the Centaur descended, the main sun falling behind buildings and horizon to join the absent Foal. Jacob saved his progress on Rache’s code, and took a break to browse the news. The popular knots had avoided mentioning the arrests at first, but every image of the protest had a “Free Rache!” sign to explain. Her name flashed in every video frame, echoed on every tongue. Each repetition punched into his heart like a nail — into, and through.

Lucia sat down beside him with a flask of tea. “Any news?”

“About Rache, and us? Plenty. No response from the Emergency Council, though.”

She frowned. “Anything about Shiplight?”

“Nothing that makes sense. The knot for the Mount Zheng telescope is down, so it’s all rumors and conspiracy theories. Ridiculous stuff: a second vessel shadowing the Ship, or an encrypted low-power signal bounced off the moon, or weapons welded to the outside. It seems to be coming in on the right trajectory, so hopefully there aren’t—” The next words caught in his throat. Since Shiplight, he had gained and lost Rache, gained and kept a cause; but he had not considered the price already paid. “Hopefully there aren’t five thousand corpses up there.”

Lucia squeezed his shoulder. “Makes me wonder whether Rache was right. Back taxes and all that? Maybe Earth finally decided to lay down the law.”

“I hope not. You ever read the old charter? No citizens, just workers. Earth only cares about two things: giving their people hope with colonist lotteries and competitions, and then extracting every atom of value from them once they get here.”

Lucia shrugged. “It didn’t work when the population was ten thousand, or fifteen. Earth couldn’t rule us if they wanted to, not through a ten-year round trip, no matter how short it feels to the people on board.

“Let the colonists worry about pleasing their so-called bosses. We needed something like this to stir the pot.” She stood up and gave him a two-fingered salute. “We are the tide, remember?”

He checked his messages. A bundle of interview requests, and a video from his parents. He returned to Rache’s code. He debugged, he tested, he wrote some comments. Once the hour grew too late to call them back, he watched his parents’ message, and then recorded a reply.

“Mom, Dad, stop it. That’s not the point! Earth doesn’t even know how many programmers we have, and if they did, they wouldn’t care. All that education won’t mean a thing until there’s enough demand again. Which could take years. And that puts me ahead of most natives!”

Jacob took a deep breath. What good was his cause if he couldn’t convince his own parents? “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t yell. It’s not your fault. Anyways, the arrests are the real issue. When Rache is free, I’ll invite her out to the islands so you can meet her in person. But I’m staying here until they release her. If you want me home sooner, call Senator Feeley’s office, tell her to come listen to us.”

He paused. There had to be a way to frame this so even a senator would listen. This issue had more sides than he could shout to a crowd. “The Senate can’t keep treating us like second-class citizens forever. It literally can’t! These days, way more kids are born than colonists come off the Ship. How many years until we’re the ones deciding who get reelected?” He put on a smile. “Don’t fret about the Ship. A few months from now, it’ll come into orbit just fine. Good night, and love you both.”

Jacob awoke when the Centaur’s first rays pierced his tent. He found a café that would let him wash up in their bathroom if he bought breakfast. The server was a grey-haired man, perhaps the manager or owner, running back and forth single-handedly among the six tables. He scowled, but he took Jacob’s money, and hungry protestors filled every table. The irony made the prices worth paying.

Jacob lingered in the café. The breakfast crowd thinned, and he could sit in relative quiet, in a comfortable foam-polymer chair, drinking tea and building a proper program around Rache’s code. No teenagers shouted for his attention, no camera-wielding colonists demanded answers. He chuckled. This must be how parents felt when their children disappeared to school: I love you, but I’m glad you’re out of my hair.

When had he grown so comfortable? He had started the protests in anger, and then reluctance, and then necessity; but when all those younger faces lifted to his, he would do anything in his power to let them succeed and flourish. He was older than three-quarters of the natives, and in the last day and half they had all become his family.

Jacob finished his programming, and his seaweed quiche settled uneasily in his stomach. Rache’s unfinished code would overwrite the priorities and instructions for the police aerials, but that provided only half of the equation. His fresh-built structures and interface would make the code work, but the program’s output would interact with the robots’ existing programming, far beyond his reach.. He and Rache had built the program together, across time and distance and prison walls, but he couldn’t know for certain what it would accomplish — if anything. Still, he knew what Rache wanted, the goal of every line of code she wrote: a way to throw off the colonists’ yoke.

By the time Jacob returned to the square, a counter-protest had gathered in the far corner. A few dozen colonists carried printed signs like “Respect our Senate” and “Now is not the time to whine.” Jacob wanted to laugh at their “Unity, not protest” and “Get back to work” placards, but his humor found no footing. A few natives tried to drown out the counter-protestors with chants of “We are the tide!”, but the aerials kept their weapons pointed toward the younger crowd.

Someone ran past, carrying an empty glass bottle in his fist. Armored vans sat parked end-to-end on one of the access roads. The vans disgorged fifteen police officers, holding transparent riot shields against the crowd’s simmering stares. Between them and the officers at the Landing House doors, almost the city’s entire force was here. A few of them carried wide-barreled gas-grenade launchers outlawed since the end of charter days, but the protestors outnumbered them nearly thirty to one.

Jacob found Lucia toe-to-toe with the counter-protest, her face contorted in anger as she jabbed her finger at the face of a thin-haired man. An aerial lingered overhead like a personal thundercloud. Jacob’s skin tingled, anticipating the invisible field of a magnetic inducer.

The man shouted, “You think we can just conjure up a university for you? You have no idea how good you have it! We gave up everything so you could have clean air and a better life.” Another colonist tried to pull back the shouting man, but he yanked free. “You’re a bunch of goddamned whiners!”

Jacob grabbed Lucia’s arm and pulled. “Lucia! Get away from them! The whole planet is watching this.”
Lucia shouted over his shoulder. “You think you’re so generous? What a load of crap. Charter law, natives getting arrested, and you come down here and yell at us?” She spat. “Real supportive, Dad!”

Jacob yanked Lucia back into the crowd, and other protestors filled in the gap behind her. She grabbed his shirt. “Is Rache’s program ready? Give me your hook!”

“Lucia!” He swatted her hands away. “No! We’re not wasting it on a bunch of colonist nobodies. What’s gotten into everyone?”

She clenched her fists until her knuckles went white, but then she puffed her cheeks and exhaled. “Yeah. Maybe. Drown it, Jacob, why do you have to go be angry at the right people?” She shook her head. “You didn’t hear the Emergency Council’s statement? All they said was, I quote you here: We trust that the citizens of New Plymouth will show solidarity during the current crisis, and resolve their differences without resorting to hooliganism.”

She crossed her arms. “If they’re going to call us hooligans, I’d rather do something to earn it. Rache sure would’ve.”

Jacob’s head began to throb, like his Shiplight hangover rising from the grave. He sat down on a hard sliver of curb. He wanted to put his head in his hands, to return to his tent and sleep, but the crowd around him had grown hushed. Watching him, awaiting his response. The weight doubled on his shoulders, but he had to lift his head and say some meaningless, encouraging platitude.

“They’ll come around. They have to. We just have to stay strong.”

Jacob spent the afternoon with the crowd. Whenever he approached, people dropped what they were doing to talk to him, to discuss his speech or to share a story of their own. Once he realized what was happening, he sought out corners of the crowd where trouble brewed. He settled an argument over thrown trash, and distracted a group of teens trying to pry cobblestones up from underfoot. The work exhausted him, but someone had to play father to this raucous family.

Around sunset, a spiky-haired protester touched his arm. She smirked and hooked a thumb toward the edge of the square. “Colonist wants to talk to you,” she said, and then vanished into the crowd.

Tension twined in his stomach, and he considered chasing her, but he followed the direction of her thumb. A familiar man waited by the locked door of a corporate office, among a gaggle of colonist spectators. He beckoned Jacob closer. The man was taller than most, with flecks of grey in his hair, and new lines of exhaustion on his face. Andrews.

Jacob glanced around, expecting more figures with plain shirts and hardened expressions. But this time he had hundreds of natives at his back. He had nothing to fear.

Andrews smiled politely. “Jacob Abasi. Do you have a minute?”

“I might. What’s this about?” Jacob’s hands balled into fists, but he kept them by his sides.

“We’d like to discuss some possibilities, Mr. Abasi. This situation isn’t what we want, and I don’t think it’s what you want either, is it?”

Jacob crossed his arms. “Actually, we’re pretty comfortable here.”

Andrews shared a sympathetic smile. “For now. But what are the odds, Mr. Abasi, that this gets violent? There are so many ways it could happen. One of your people starts a fight, or the aerials overreact, or someone on the Emergency Council decides to impress on you just how serious this situation is. Or maybe someone, somewhere, starts to call this a revolution.” He spread his hands. “I’d much rather we came to an understanding.”

The thought crept along Jacob’s arms like a cold-footed insect. Yesterday, he had been eager to see the police clear the square, but he had scarcely considered the price. If the police attacked, the natives would win their cause, as the net filled with images of batons, gas, and magnetic nerve inducers. But violence meant more than just videos. Those young and hopeful faces would feel every strike and shock and broken bone.

He said, “Are you offering to negotiate?”

“You could call it that.”

Jacob shook his head. This should have been what he wanted, but the taste of victory only made his courage falter. “I’m not in charge here, you do realize that, right?”

“But you have a great deal of influence, Mr. Abasi. A lot of people look up to you. And more importantly, two-thirds of our colony lives outside the cities, a long way away from this protest. Those people watched a young man from the islands standing at the front of the march, giving one of the first speeches.” Andrews shrugged, as if to commiserate. “Speaking of influence, I’ve been trying to find Lucia Tuan. Will you extend her our invitation as well?”

“I’ll let her know. But first I need to know where we’re going, because I drowned well better come back.”

“Don’t worry, everyone will know where you are. Have you ever been in Landing House?”

Jacob had walked the halls of Landing House once before, as a child. It was one of the oldest buildings on Sea. His fingertips brushed along the walls of glossy metal from the first shuttles, still smooth after sixty years. The air was dry, and uncomfortably cool.

“Who are we meeting?” asked Jacob.

“Me, as it turns out. I’m the Deputy Director, and the Bureau has a great deal of authority in the Emergency Council.”

Lucia said, “Seriously? The Deputy Director was walking around making arrests?”

Andrews laughed, sounding genuinely amused for a moment. “I think you overestimate the size of the Bureau, Ms. Tuan.” He led them to a second-floor conference room with a long knotwood table, a dozen soft synthetic chairs, and tinted windows overlooking the square. “Coffee?” An exotic luxury, but Lucia shook her head, and Jacob followed suit.

When they all sat down, Andrews leaned toward them, his amusement replaced by weary anger. “Jacob. Lucia. Do you realize what you’re doing?”

Lucia crossed her arms. “Yes. We’re telling you, all of you colonists, that we’re not going to take your crap anymore.”

Jacob slipped his hook into his hand, the aerial-control program loaded and ready, and drew confidence from the hidden blade. “We understand you’re in a panic. The Ship’s pulled the rug out from under you, but that’s not what this is about. It doesn’t give you license to throw natives in jail when you don’t like what they say.”

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss the events of Shiplight,” Andrews said. “I’m going to let you two in on a secret, but it’ll be public soon enough anyways. We have reason to believe the Ship is carrying an invasion force.”

Jacob exhaled. Rache had seen the truth after all. Or could this be a lie? But the Deputy Director watched him with eyes shadowed by sleepless nights.

Andrews said, “We have a few months before the Ship reaches orbit. We believe we can intercept the shuttles, but we’ll have to mobilize the entire colony to build defenses. That’s why this —” He gestured toward the window. “This is as dangerous as five thousand marines.”

Lucia said, “You expect us to believe that crap? Besides, if you don’t want people angry at you right now, you shouldn’t throw innocent people in jail! Look, we wouldn’t be out here if you hadn’t arrested our friends!”

“Are you sure? Your friend Rachel was already trying to convince everyone that the government is a bunch of useless old colonists who couldn’t find their own feet without a map from Earth. She was inciting panic. And once people realize there’s war coming, there’d be far too much fuel for her spark.” He sighed. “Even if we hadn’t arrested her, she would’ve fomented riots soon enough. Maybe we arrested the wrong people.”

Jacob gritted his teeth. “Is that a threat?”

“No, just a regret. We’re rolling down this hill, now we have to try and stop the barrel. Those kids won’t go home quietly, will they? They’re angry. Merely getting what they want won’t make that go away. Or am I wrong? Tell me.”

“Andrews, this is not some…” Frustration trapped Jacob’s tongue. “We’re not children, acting out because you’ve taken our toys. All we want is for you to stick with your own laws.”

“No, Mr. Abasi.” Andrews stood up. “Your protest isn’t some legal disagreement. As Ms. Tuan said, you just don’t want to take our crap anymore. This is opportunism, plain and simple. Taking advantage of our common crisis to push your narrow interests. Starting a riot because you’re afraid you’ll lose your job.” Andrews clenched his jaw, but then he sat back down and pressed his hands against his temples. “I’m sympathetic to some of your underlying issues, and there are deals I’m prepared to offer if you’ll persuade everyone to go home and get back to work.” He slid a folder across the table.

Jacob pushed aside the stiff yellowgrass folder. Andrews’ speech had bled his anger dry, but no guilt rose to take its place. Instead, he felt lost, diving at night with some great sharp wreck waiting just outside the span of a faltering flashlight. He pushed back his chair and walked to the window so the others couldn’t see his face.

Behind him, Lucia opened the folder and skimmed aloud. “More promises about all-ages training programs… Starting next year. For Rache, barred from making public appearances, restricted net access… Monitoring by the Bureau… But she’ll be home. The others too.”

“Rache won’t take it,” Jacob said to the window.

Andrews said, “Can you convince her? I know you’re doing this for your friend, both of you. Because if you aren’t, then you’re just kids lashing out to get what you want the moment your parents are distracted. And I’m not going to let some angry kids paralyze this colony while a sword hangs over our heads.” He drew a hook from his pocket. “Your protest ends, Jacob. But you get to decide how. I’m calling the chief of police. Let me know what I should tell him.”

Lucia said, “Drown that. Andrews, this is your whole problem! You rely on Earth, so you have to follow their rules, or they’ll send you to your room. This is what you deserve for trusting people light-years away who couldn’t care less what you need.” She leveled a finger at Andrews, and turned toward Jacob. “This so-called army is after the colonists, not us. If it really exists, they’ll thank us for kicking things over. Backup plan, Jacob!”

Andrews laughed with more exhaustion than humor. “Backup plan?”

In the darkness outside, lights bustled around the protest camp, a restless little echo of the city’s streetlights and windows. Like a fish at the center of a net, or a child at the center of an embrace. Jacob turned around, to face Andrews and Lucia and their hungry stares, each of them waiting for him to turn off his diving light and plunge into the night-black sea.

Jacob said, “Enact the law before we go home, and actual training has to start within a month. And laws to protect natives against losing their jobs just because people from Earth become available.”

Andrews sighed. “The timeline isn’t negotiable. We can’t start new education programs while we’re preparing for an invasion.” He rubbed the heel of his hand against an eye. “Fine. Have it your way. I’m not spending any more of my time dealing with you stupid kids. We’re clearing the square.” He raised his hook to his ear.

Weight pressed down on Jacob’s lungs. Hundreds of men and women, girls and boys. He could not abandon them. Not to pistols, gas, and robots; and not to a government that would sweep them aside for the rumor of some foreign threat. “I can’t let you hurt them.” He lifted his hook and pressed a button.

Andrews paused his call. “I’m sorry?”

Lucia grinned like a wolf picking the lock of its cage. “Take a look outside, Andrews.” His eyes narrowed, but he rose from his chair to join Jacob.

Through the window, everything unfolded in silence. The six police aerials stuttered, drifted, and then righted themselves in halting unison. They turned away from the crowd. Some of the counter-protesters collapsed, and the rest dropped their signs and ran. The police on the far side of the square drew back, and then fell to the ground as their nervous systems convulsed. One policewoman fired a canister of gas into the protesters. The crowd bunched together like a startled snail, and figures stumbled as someone kicked the plume of smoke. A line of fire arced through the air from an access road, and smashed into an aerial. Below the window, something flashed in a staccato burst.

Jacob’s throat had gone dry in the parched air of Landing House. This was Rache’s code, written against the day when Earth’s old laws might rear their head. But on her own, she had left the weapon unfinished, just as he on his own never had reason to make it. They had created it together, the first and fiercest offspring of their minds. It might win her freedom, but he could see no victory in the scene below.

Lucia punched his arm. “Buck up, Jacob! We are the tide, remember? This way we get to choose the terms. Isn’t that right, Andrews?

Andrews wasn’t listening. His eyes scanned the crowd, striving to make out faces. Searching for a son or a daughter, a niece or a nephew.

Jacob looked up, away from the chaos, toward the night sky and the silent flicker of Shiplight. He imagined that it looked down on them all, and was pleased with what it had wrought.

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