Seen on the display screen from above as they orbited it, Tethys was richly blue from its melted ice, nearly all ocean. Maka thought it looked rather pretty, wrapped with delicate wisps of white atmosphere with the pale pastels of massive Saturn shining behind it. Tethys looked good and healthy and deceptively clean- but every planet was lovely from far away. Liz looked a bit ill at the sight, though whether from nerves or something else, Maka didn't know. Nonetheless, it was making her nervous too- emotions had always been contagious to her in the most annoying, inconvenient ways. Soul called it empathy, while she called it a pain in the ass and a sign of an overactive imagination.
"We'd better go eat," she said, patting the younger girl on the shoulder despite knowing by now that Liz would jump and slide away at the touch. "I just thought you'd like to see it."
"Oh. Yeah." Liz, ever motivated by food, trailed her faithfully to the tiny mess hall, which doubled as a dumping ground for Stein's experiments. Currently he'd festooned the pantry lockers with the vines of some kind of fly-trap hybrid that were growing aggressively each day and seemed to enjoy Black Star's blood in particular- or maybe he was just the only one foolhardy enough to get within reach.
Everyone else was already sitting down, waiting with varying levels of impatience. Soul stood up with a scrape of chair legs when he saw her, a ladle sticking out from the pocket of his apron. "Captain," he said with a nod.
"Pilot." They shared a heated smile that was very at odds with the formal greetings, and she could just feel Black Star itching yet again to ask if they were together or not- teasing the little bastard was really one of the more rewarding parts of her day. "We should be out of orbit and on the planet's surface soon," she told everyone, sitting down. "Soon's they get around to sending someone for our paperwork, anyway."
"Very inefficient system," Stein observed, displeased, before tenderly feeding his flytraps a scrap of gristle. Maka couldn't argue, really. It was inefficient to have to wait for an actual person to shuttle up to the Bullseye, but simply sending electronic copies of paperwork had proven long ago to be far too easy for lawbreakers to get around.
"Gross," Black Star said, watching the fly trap warily.
"Don't be rude," Stein told him.
Black Star leapt to his feet in indignation, flailing and only just missing whacking Soul over the head with his spoon. Several tiny metal screws fell out of his pockets and a wrench impaled his rice. "What! I'm never rude! Never! I am polite and friendly to everyone, even if they're stupid and lame! That's why I've got friends on every planet!"
Liz and Tsubaki broke into identical peals of laughter at that ridiculous proclamation, then paused to eye each other suspiciously. Patti just giggled into her napkin. "You're rude all the time," she said cheerfully. "Just yesterday you made fun of my hair."
He regarded her with typical teenage sullenness. "So? You made fun of mine first."
If his lower lip stuck out any further he'd trip on the damn thing; Maka was hard pressed to keep from giggling herself, especially when Patti said solemnly, "Yeah, but yours is blue."
The argument degenerated into some ferocious arm-wrestling, in which scrawny Patti appeared, amusingly, to be holding her own. Liz, cheeks stuffed to bulging, cheered them on with a wild whoop that sent bread crumbs spraying across the table, and Tsubaki laughed again, high and pure. Maka caught Soul cocking his head towards her and discreetly adjusting his ears, as he often did whenever he found someone with a particularly interesting or lovely voice, and she sighed just a little. Trust her, with her own screechy, rapid speaking voice, to fall madly in love with an alien who got off on pretty sounds.
Just then he caught her gaze, and his slow, toothy smile reminded her that they'd had far too little alone time during the last month's journey, what with a ship crowded full of rowdy passengers. Suddenly, despite the current lively, congenial atmosphere that was so unusual during meals here, Maka was very eager indeed to get everyone off her damn ship.
Eventually Black Star won the arm-wrestling match, though only by a hair and some totally illegal, if creative, weaponization of his rice, and the meal settled down a little. For dessert, Soul brought out seven little ramekins of butterscotch pudding with a flourish. "Since it's probably our last meal together," he explained happily. "Or, you know, whatever."
"You big softie," Patti said, diving in delightedly and very deftly jabbing Black Star in the ribs with her spoon as he tried to steal some. He scowled and turned ridiculous puppy eyes on Tsubaki, who blushed prettily and offered him half, much to Stein's visible disgust.
"You are a big softie, you know," Maka told Soul quietly as they watched the others chitchat.
"No way," he denied, lips curving.
Liz, ever watchful, blinked at them as if they were a particularly interesting puzzle. "How old are you guys, anyway?" she said, fiddling with her pudding.
"Don't you know it's rude to ask a lady her age?" Soul snickered.
Maka took a cue from Patti and elbowed him sharply in the ribs while smiling sweetly at Liz. "I'm forty-five if you want to get really technical, I was born in 2452, but an awful lot of that's been spent on ice. Coldsleep tends to make age a bit of a pesky thing to pin down," she said honestly.
Liz gaped at her. "Really? Forty-five? Holy cow, and not a wrinkle. Maybe I ought to look into this planethopper thing."
Maka forced a smile at that, even though it very much soured her mood to even think of a bright thing like Liz, who had a whole new, hopefully shining future ahead of her in the Tethys colony, becoming a planethopper and whiling away her life in the void while time moved on around her. It was all the more painful because Liz, quite obviously, expected nothing from life in general, other than hurt and difficulty; she was too young to be so jaded, but there it was, and it wasn't unusual at all in this day and age. "I'd say I'm about twenty-five or twenty-six, as far as time spent awake goes," she said reflectively, after a fair bit of mental gyration. "It's usually at least several months going between planets…"
"It's probably in the ship's systems somewhere," Black Star offered, licking his ramekin and watching her with those cunning green eyes of his, the ones that, irritatingly, rarely missed a thing. "I could look it up if you really want to know. I mean, you always use the same coldbed, and you've always been on this ship, so I can do some math…"
"Don't bother. It doesn't really matter, anyway," she said, and then, touched by his offer to actually do math for her, she lunged forward and ruffled his hair while he was distracted by a very unsuspecting Tsubaki's cleavage.
"Argh!" he wailed. Another wrench fell out of his pocket, and a creeping vine stole up and dragged it away immediately; Stein wiped his good eye like a proud father.
"What?" she said innocently, laughing at Black Star's deeply offended face. "You're almost nineteen, I won't be able to do that for long, will I?" It was true; he was finally getting taller than she was. She sort of missed the days when he'd been a wide-eyed, gangly little twelve-year-old freshly escaped- for the sixth time- from the orphanage. Stowing away on her ship had been the last thing she'd ever expected a runaway to do, but it had turned out to be a wonderful coincidence for everyone.
"You can't do it now," he protested, even though she just had. "I'm a man, dammit!"
"You're not a man until you can outdrink me," Stein said calmly. "I've told you that, boy."
"But you're-" Tsubaki's eyes skimmed his various metal bits. She was obviously too well-bred to quite finish that thought, but Liz wasn't.
"You're a walking tin can," she exclaimed. "Isn't that cheating? With your better body? All the cyborgs I ever knew back in Junction City could outdrink a fish!" And just what kind of places had she been hanging out in, that she knew such things, Maka wondered- but then Liz was obviously quite familiar with the darker side of things, and Junction City had plenty of dark for any growing girl to play in.
Stein snorted. "I've got half a liver, girl, and this monkey still can't outdrink me."
"Livers regenerate," Black Star said snottily, stealing Tsubaki's ramekin to lick clean without an ounce of shame; she only blinked mildly at him. "I think you meant you've got half a brain, old man!"
Stein's eyes narrowed, but then he rapped his metal knuckles on his partially metal skull with a clank. "Obviously," he sneered, before rising slowly to his feet and pointing a false hand suddenly bristling with scalpels at Black Star. "Care to continue along that line of conversation? I'm sure my flytraps could digest you, given enough time. If you were in small enough pieces."
Black Star went rather pale and dived wildly out the door, muttering something about bravery in retreat; the whole table, Stein included, dissolved in helpless mirth.
Maka, basking delightedly in everything, decided that maybe she'd persuade her next customers to forego coldsleep as well. It was nice to have company.
Soul caught her eye again and the corners of his mouth tipped up a little. "Not bad, huh?" he said softly, with a contented little burble.
Patti, who'd begun collecting the dishes, looked at him inquiringly. "Why do you do that?"
He tensed. "Do what?"
"You make those little noises. Like singing but not." She shrugged. "I like them. My mom used to sing to me when I was little." Patti said it very matter-of-factly, but a flash of pain crossed Liz's face, and she busied herself in ripping her napkin to tiny shreds; yet again Maka wondered just what the sisters had gone through, to make them so steely and stern at not even twenty years old.
"It's- um, a different language. A very old one. My first language," Soul said at last, surprisingly open. Maka looked at him, startled, but instead of the defensive look he usually wore when someone was pressing about his past, he was merely watching Patti carefully. "You really like it?"
"Mmhmm." She nodded. "They're good sounds. Do you think people sing on Tethys?"
"If they don't, we'll make 'em," Liz said. "I can sing. Yanno, if I'm a bit drunk."
"Good plan," Soul told them both, rising to help Patti with the dishes. "It's gonna be hard down there, you know that, right? Colonies get the dregs, the criminals and the poor folk, usually. It's all the Imperium will letimmigrate in. They want cheap labor."
"We'll all be fine," Tsubaki said confidently, apparently having lumped herself in with the sisters at some point. "I'm sure we can find work."
"Just be safe. Stick with Liz, she knows what's up," Maka advised.
Tsubaki looked at her rather coolly. "You'd be surprised what I know," she said, and her tone was just as smooth and calm as it ever was, but there was a dangerous spark in her eyes that had Maka scrambling to recalibrate and just a little wary, because suddenly she realized how neatly Tsubaki always slid out of giving any real answers.
Before she could say anything, though, a buzzing sound hit her ears from the intercom. "That'll be the Tethys official asking to board," she said, standing up and hastily slurping the last of her pudding. "Come on, everyone, let's get all this paperwork nonsense sorted out and get you three to your new home!" She threw in a massively cheery smile that actually hurt her face; Soul snorted loudly at her.
"Wonderful," Liz mumbled, looking vaguely green.
Maka paused at that, uneasy. "Is there going to be a problem we'll need to deal with?" she said directly.
"Noooo," Liz said, but it was reluctant.
"Fantastic." The last, the very last thing that Maka needed was to be caught shipping another batch of illegal colonists; the old excuse of, "What do you mean, their papers are fake?" only worked a few times, and she'd used it far more than a few. She'd only taken the quickest of looks at Liz's paperwork, assuming that a girl so obviously streetwise would have at least gotten reasonably passable fakes, but now Liz was moving steadily from green to chalk-white, and Patti was uncharacteristically silent too. It was almost painful to see. "Don't worry, we'll get you both down there safe," Maka told them both, and she meant it. Liz's answering smile was wobbly, but a vast improvement, and they all left to face the music with firm steps.
"At least he took the bribe," Maka said encouragingly, trying very hard to be positive despite the whanging stress headache she'd developed halfway through their desperate finagling with the atrociously corrupt Tethys immigration official. It could have been worse, but it also could have been much better. So much for her ship's 'fresh start'
Liz, who was back to green, only snarled, "Yeah, and now the asshole will remember us forever as targets, that's the last thing I need on a new planet!"
"You could tell Tsubaki thank you for paying him off, you know," put in Black Star smugly, apparently still stewing over their dinner conversation and determined to prove he could be polite.
Liz squinted at him ill-temperedly. "She's too old for you, kid."
He went hideously red in a way he hadn't done in years. "Wha- you're nuts! You're totally nuts, lady, and I hope you drown down on that stupid moon!"
"We're going down there too, you know," Maka put in, for once not bothering to try and stifle her laughter. Judging by Black Star's appraising, pleased expression, she hadn't been laughing enough lately. "We're gonna drop our passengers off personally, safe and sound on the ground."
"That's not necessary-" Liz started.
"It is," Maka said. "We need to refuel, we need rations, I have some cargo to sell, I want to take a look at the terraforming up close… I haven't been to the coldest moon in probably twenty years, it'll be worth a visit. Besides, I like to get some dirt between my toes every now and then, I spend enough time up in the stars." Actually, she needed to make some money before she could really go anywhere; they badly needed to refuel.
"Anyway, you don't want to ride the shuttles down," Black Star said darkly to Liz. "Sometimes people get on and never get off, especially pretty girls."
Liz sighed, and her very lack of surprise at his words spoke volumes. "Yeah, I figured. 'S part of why we didn't bring any luggage. Nothin' to steal, you know? But if you're docking anyway, I mean, I guess we can do that."
"I'll go ask for air control clearance," Soul sighed, ignoring the stairs and swinging lithely up onto the catwalk with both hands before tromping towards the control room. Before long they were shuddering hotly down through the atmosphere, shooting through the deceptively misty clouds with force that was jarring to the bone, but with his usual smoothness Soul kept tight control and settled them safely on solid ground.
Twenty years had been an understatement; Maka hadn't been to Tethys since she was thirteen, which meant around thirty years had passed on the moon, and in truth she hardly remembered it. Seeing it now- well, the dampness of the thin air was familiar, and the severe chill, but the rest was shocking. She was staring like an absolute idiot, but she couldn't seem to stop, even as the wind shrieked and pulled at her where she stood high atop the ship docks. The sea was far below, lit by the ghostly glow of all Saturn's many moons and peppered by round artificial islands linked by innumerable flexible bridges and packed to the gills with glowing skyscrapers- obviously the lack of square footage had led to a philosophy of up rather than out. It was a complex neon spiderweb, all the islands cunningly and perfectly placed to protect their greenery and to shield the inhabitants, and Maka recognized the style of it.
Soul read her before she could even manage to get her own brain working straight and put a hand discreetly on her elbow, looking at her with those wide astonishing eyes. "Okay?" he asked quietly.
Damn it all, but she wasn't, and she wished Stein would have thought to warn her, though she knew he didn't like to think about the Bullseye's original crew. "It's my mother," she sighed, putting her palms over her eyes and pushing until she could see all the stars of a thousand nebulae. "I'd forgotten-" And that brought its own unique guilt- "But she… this was the second planet she ever terraformed. It was in her journals."
"Oh," he said thoughtfully, and then he tucked his chin on her shoulder and stared down at the web of glittering islands for a while, shivering slightly. "I like how the wind sounds here," he said at last, trapping her hair beneath his hands as it finally started to annoy him. "Sounds like someone forgot to feed it."
"I don't like it," she said truthfully. The wind on this moon was angry, whipping furiously forward over the restless water with no mountains to soften its fury.
He smiled against her neck. "Well, I always did like things with a temper. Let's get inside, then."
She followed meekly. The ship was so cold inside that their breath plumed out white in front of them, but she really didn't have the cash to waste fuel on heating it, not after feeding four ravenous teenagers for a month. Everyone was holed up in their cabins, it seemed, probably drowning in blankets; the three girls had planned to leave that night, but Maka, not wanting to let them wander around a strange planet and end up sleeping universe knew where, had insisted they sleep onboard. She'd be parked for a week or so anyway, at least, so they might as well; at least that's what she'd told Black Star when he gave her a knowing glance.
She shivered as a gust of wind blew hard enough to be audible even inside the Bullseye. This place was ice cold in more ways than one, but perhaps the islands down below were better. Anyway, it wasn't as if Soul was particularly averse to keeping her warm.
He seemed to feel her gaze and turned, brows raised. "Yeees, Captain?" he drawled. "Did you need something, Captain? Hey, Captain, do you- mmpf!"
She tackled him as if they were kids again, and he laughed high and wild like the wind as he pried her off and slung her over one shoulder, practically sprinting to her quarters.
"Gold," Tsubaki said. There was heat in her eyes like anger, but deeper and colder all at once. "And helium, and iron. I've seen this before. They've set up all these drills to hit the ocean's bottom. They're mining for resources, which explains all the soldiers."
Maka was speechless, so Soul voiced her thoughts for her. "Fuckin' ugly," he pronounced, looking all around in disgust at the towering, crowded factories belching black smoke. "And they're fucking up the terraforming already, the assholes, they know it takes at least a few centuries to get an ecosystem goin' steady, what the fuck were they thinking?"
"There were thinking money," Black Star said grimly. "And they were thinkin' if they ship in a bunch of prisoners, they won't have to pay 'em as much." That explained the furtive, hungry looks on the faces of every single colonist they'd passed.
"I didn't know there was so much development on Tethys," Liz mumbled, rubbing her temples.
"It comes fast, and news goes slow through space," Maka told her. "Doesn't mean there aren't other jobs. There are still plenty of farmers here, plenty of good people trying to make it work. You'll just have to be careful." Liz's irritated scowl said she knew that very well, thank you, so Maka sighed and shut up, taking another look around instead.
This was one of the larger islands, probably ten miles square, and it was fringed by several underwater drilling rigs, gross hulking things rusted from the water; they stuck out like horrid mockeries of trees above the lavish plant life still clinging to the island's surface, and the air was already tainted with smoke from the refining plant looming just to the east. Pigeons- rats of the sky, invincible, found somehow on every goddamn planet humans had touched- still flew, still made their idiotic cooing sounds, and there were doubtless still fish in the water, carefully chosen species that would breed quickly, but it was always a thin balance at best, and no doubt the colonists were feeling the pressure of trying to feed their families while being taxed so the soldiers and factory workers could eat too.
It was dark and depressing, and she knew without having seen them that the homesteads on the other islands would be bitter places, scraped out desperately from the earth, full of hard-eyed people who hadn't had a full belly in weeks, even as the planet they had pledged to protect was ripped to pieces and carried away by a hundred Imperium ships. Suddenly she was deeply relieved that she owned the Bullseye, her ticket to freedom, even as she was ashamed for thinking such a thing.
"Soul," she said. "I don't like this. I don't like looking at it."
He regarded her wearily. "No way around it. We better get moving and figure out a way to make some cash."
No way around it, huh. She smiled at him, all teeth, and he tensed. "Yeah, you're right. Black Star! Stein!" Her crew snapped to attention, though Stein quirked a brow at her. "Let's go find a market somewhere and hustle. Stein, can you go see if there are any Imp 'forming jobs that we could put in a bid on?"
The eyebrow rose higher. "Been a few years since you terraformed for Imperium, Captain."
She shrugged, mind working at light speed. "Needs must, enemies closer, all that. Go on, scatter."
Black Star lingered. "Tsubaki asked for my help lookin' for someplace for them all to live," he started, fidgeting madly.
"Ah. Go on, then," Maka said, flapping her hands, and the young people headed off, Black Star with a suspicious puff to his chest as he strode beside Tsubaki. Maka approved silently of his attitude; she'd told him to keep an eye on Tsubaki, to try and figure out what the girl was hiding, and he'd come up with the perfect excuse to spend more time with her.
"See you later," she said grimly to the factory, craning her neck back to see the Imperium logo shining brightly above her, far bluer than the polluted sky.
The fences were simple chainlink, she noticed, and they weren't wired to any sort of alarm. Interesting.
Maka, my little girl, tiny devil daughter.
You're asleep right now. I think Spirit finally tired you out, thank goodness, because how something so small as you can make such loud noises is beyond me. I love you so much. I hope your voice is always loud, I hope you're never silenced.
Having a child is terrifying, really, and it's a good thing I've got this diary, because your father would throw a fit if I ever admitted how much it scares me to think of your future and all the things I want for you. He adores you so much. It's funny, I never thought he'd be much of a father, let alone a man, but perhaps he just needed someone to motivate him.
But back to how terrifying you are. All I can think of when I see you sleeping is: Who'll break her heart for the first time? Will she be lonely or sad? How hard will her life be? Will she be smart, will she learn early that hard work is the most important thing, as I did? Will she learn to see the symphony in an ecosystem, in the play of fungus and moss and insects? Will she be angry with me, that I kept her on a ship hopping planets for her whole childhood?
But I can't help that, Maka, I can't. There's simply too much to do. There are too many people who need my help. I touch down on one rough planet and see people who are hungry, who are fighting impossible odds, but their eyes are still bright- and then the next planet is a marvel of human ingenuity, a perfect embroidery of technology and wonder and neon lights, filled with people who have eyes dulled from a life of ease and acceptance, people who never question, who never know that their little luxuries are torn from the mouths of others.
Those cities, the few big ones, they're built on the backs of colonists too, on the efforts of those who came before, and yet who thinks of that now?
These are the things (a few out of a thousand) that I worry about. I worry that you'll be a colonist, scraping in the dirt to build a future for thankless generations to come, and dying early, and yet I worry too that you'll be prisoner in one of those cities with your feet in the mud and your eyes closed tight to injustice.
I don't know how to manage these fears, my little girl, and I'm afraid every day that I'm not teaching you well enough the things you'll need to survive in the world, and I love you so much that I can hardly breathe.
Keep your voice loud, sweetheart, and keep your hands outstretched towards anyone you can help. It all comes back around, I promise.
Remember the stories I tell you, and that to be a hero you simply have to choose.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Maka leapt a good three feet in the air with a strangled whimper and nearly clocked her head on the steps up to the catwalk. "Liz! I- I didn't think you'd be up, it's so cold out!"
"Yeah, it is." Two blue eyes peered distrustfully out from the massive blanket Liz was wrapped head to toe in. She puffed out a frosted breath like a frustrated dragon before adding, "For someone who was recommended to me as not caring much about the law, you're a shitty sneaker."
"I'm not sneaking," Maka yelped.
Blue eyes narrowed even further, and the blanket took on a rather angry hunch. "Yeah, right, and I'm gonna go join the army. What are you doin'?"
"I, uh…" Dammit all, this was ridiculous. Maka took a deep breath, tried to adopt an authoritative pose worthy of her station, and set her feet defiantly wide apart on the Bullseye's catwalk. "I was doing captain things. Privately. Private, but not secret things."
"Hmm." How could a girl so much younger infuse such school-marm disapproval in one syllable? Maka wilted. "So the fact that I saw you slithering out of here four hours ago has nothing to do with anything?" Liz said pointedly.
Maka's discomfit snowballed. "Er- I- I was-"
Liz shoved the rest of her face free of the blanket and, unexpectedly, flashed a wide grin. "Come on, Captain, loosen up. Trust me, there ain't a thing you can tell me that'll 'corrupt me' or anything, too late for that!"
Maka, all too aware of how unhappy Soul would be with the insane risk she'd just taken and that he'd only be upset once she told him, blew out a rough breath and decided, what the hell. At least Liz would cheer her on. Probably. "I just fucked the biggest Imperium processing plant in a hundred miles all to hell," she confessed, rather giddily, still riding the waves of fizzing adrenaline and more than a little drunk on the frigid Tethys night air. "A while ago I got my hands on a bacterium that feeds on iron like a politician on souls, and some of it just might have gotten out in their building. Somehow. And somehow their very expensive machinery will be falling to bits in a few weeks. They'll have to pay the colonists to help them, and they'll pay a lot."
There was a long, long moment of silence, then an impressed huff of breath. "Somehow," Liz echoed agreeably, snickering and retreating back into her blanket. "You're insane. I like you more now. But still, insane."
"I've been called worse by better," Maka said, laughing a little herself even as she shivered. "I am insane, aren't I?" Wasn't that the brutal truth. She'd been so stupid, she'd almost gotten caught three times, she'd had to cut through two fences with clippers stolen from Black Star's toolbox, but by all the stars, it had been worth it, racing through the freezing dark and the narrow fog-damp streets with her heart in her throat.
"Did a good thing, though. It'll take months for Imperium to get that problem dealt with, and the colonists will get a nice break," Liz said thoughtfully, shuffling her socked feet. "I'm guessing that bacteria is just wildly illegal."
"Awesome." Liz was smiling again, ear to ear, and Maka thought absently that it was the youngest she'd ever looked, and the prettiest, even in the unflattering bluish light of the cargo hold's glowstrips.
"So do you think-" A loud clanging on the door of the hold interrupted her, and there was her heart again, making a bid for freedom by pounding right out of her chest. "Shit," Maka hissed, and then she grabbed Liz by the shoulders and shoved her in the direction of the living quarters. "Go on! Get! Wait, no, go get- get Stein! Or Soul!"
Liz staggered. "What?"
"Go get Soul!" Maka repeated, and, to her credit, Liz didn't waste anymore time, but instead charged off into the ship's cold darkness as the clanging went on.
Maka was cool and calm, at least on the outside, when the cargo hold door opened. "Yes?" she said pleasantly, adding a yawn, just to make it clear she'd only just woken up- she'd kicked off her boots too, into the darkness behind her crates, to add to the impression.
The man staring at her, his dock security badge shining bright against his crisp Imperium blues, looked unimpressed as he lifted his lightstick higher. "Sorry for the late hour, but your radio was off. I need to talk to the captain of this, uh, ship."
"That'd be me," she said pleasantly, with just the tiniest bite to her tone. A piece of her marvelled at how calm she managed to sound, even as she had to clench her hands to keep them from shaking. Vague voices in the night and flashing lights told her that her ship wasn't the only one being investigated, which was good and bad.
"All right, well, we need to do a routine survey of your ship camera's records, please. Someone broke into the big western factory a few hours ago, we're just doing checks. We think it was those damn Fletchers, it's the kind of stupid useless prank they like to pull."
She froze. Rather ridiculously, she wondered if she were a Fletcher now, if that underground shadowy rebellion that everyone was afraid of but nobody ever saw would welcome her into the fold. "Uh-"
His eyes narrowed, and then he looked her up and down, not lasciviously, but obviously taking note of the thick layers she was wearing, and- damnit- the dampness on the cuffs of her pants. Oh, hell, she thought, fists curling, and then, fatalistically, This is not going to end well, encouraging words from my radical dead mother's journal aside. I messed up. I went too far. And why had she done this stupid, stupid thing? Because she'd been irritated, because she'd wanted to, because- it felt better to do little things than nothing, even though deep down she knew her little things were hardly anything at all, and wasn't that sort of self-delusion part of the goddamn problem?
"Is there a problem?" the official prompted, and she let out the breath she'd been holding without noticing. She didn't miss the subtle shift in his weight as he pushed his coat back from his blaster.
"No sir," she said sweetly, wishing she could spit poison at him from between her clenched teeth. "I'm just surprised. I was in Junction City not a month ago, and the Fletcher problem there didn't surprise me, but here? I guess I wasn't expecting those morons to bring their filth to a new colony."
He relaxed, just slightly, but he wasn't stupid enough to turn around and leave. "Well, they're persistent. Like cockroaches. Did you see any of the tax protesters? Last news we got from Junction City, the strikes were still going on, it made getting new workers here real difficult."
"Mm," she said noncommittally, wishing her mouth weren't quite so dry, that she could go back in time, or maybe that she could shut the door in this guy's face. "I don't like to go too far into the city."
"Don't blame you, miss, there's only so much order the law can keep in a place with so many people." He offered a conciliatory smile, and she began to feel rather bad.
Well, almost. "So did you have to see our records right now?" she tried, yawning again. "It's just I've got no idea how that stuff works and my mechanic's dead asleep..." Her hope practically gagged her.
"Unfortunately, yes, it's got to be now. The docks are on lockdown until we go through every ship. Sorry, miss, but it's Imperium orders. They want to send a message to whoever broke into the factory."
She had her mouth open to respond when she heard footsteps on the catwalk, and there was Soul, mussed and squinting blearily down at them. Hopefully he'd done a little lurking and listening before making his appearance. "Heyyy," she said sheepishly. "There's, um… a thing…"
He shot her an exasperated glance- no, scratch that, he was furious- and dropped down to stand beside her, offering the Imperium official a nod. "You need our ship recordings? Buddy, that's really going to cut into my sleeping time," he said grumpily, somehow managing to loom darkly despite being a solid handspan shorter than the other man.
"Sorry. Can't help it." The official was giving them that narrow look again, obviously growing suspicious at their waffling, and Maka stuck her hands inside her coat pockets to discreetly dry her sweaty palms, and also to get a good grip on her own blaster.
Soul grunted. "Fine, whatever, let's get it over with. You'd think the damn factory would have security cams of their own."
She was a little offended he thought she'd just wander around with her face uncovered, really, but anyway modern cameras were so small that she hadn't been able to tell for sure if there were any. "They do, but they're outdated, they don't record right half the time," the man said shortly, already walking past them. Maka took the opportunity to close the door behind him.
Soul raised his brows at her, looking beyond angry. "This is your fuckup," he said with dangerous softness as the man began climbing the steps to the catwalk. "And they might have you on film. Take care of it. I'll get us ready to leave."
Things were shifting in her head, ever so slowly, and she stared at him, frightened, suddenly all too aware of her own hitching breath. He tilted his head, red eyes wide, pupils dilated and gleaming like an animal's at night in the glowstrips' blue shine, and suddenly he seemed like a stranger, or perhaps she didn't quite recognize herself anymore. "I- but I don't- we'll be put on their watchlist, and-"
"Are you going to show me your films or do you want me to wander around in the dark?" the official demanded waspishly, apparently at the limit of his politeness.
Soul hissed quietly and whispered, "Take care of it. I'll have us in the air in five minutes."
"Heard you sneaking out earlier, and Liz just now was all wild-eyed," he muttered. "Got the ship ready to go, just in case, we're all fueled up."
She bit the inside of her cheek and closed her eyes, trying to regain equilibrium, trying to figure out how her stupid little game had turned sour so quickly. She'd been furious, and she'd felt stagnant, so she'd ridden the waves of her temper straight to hell without even bothering to really sit down and think about it-
Her mother would have been disappointed, probably. At least the version of her mother she'd concocted in her head would have been.
She blew out a shaky breath and smiled at the official. It felt toothy, wrong, but in her bones was nothing but liquid relief for Soul, who had been there always and who never failed her, who was as much a part of her as her very own heartbeat. "Sorry, here, I'll show you the way."
The official turned his back on her just long enough for her to put the butt of her blaster to good use on his skull. She pushed him well outside the cargo hold and pressed the emergency button on his radio to call for aid- he was already stirring, but head injuries were nothing to mess with, especially in a thin atmosphere- and then, even as the door scraped shut they were moving, rising straight up above a ravenous blossom of flames and silvery smoke, thundering slowly towards the dubious safety of the coldly glittering stars. Maka, already sliding around under heavy G-force, sat down on the floor and put one hand gingerly on the edge of a rust-brown stain, feeling her bones shake in time with her fleeing ship.