The hull of the massive Imperium ship was rough. It sat silently, hulking and ominous, a sleeping dragon scaled with a million tiny, thick, high-temperature surface insulation tiles. It was the perfect surface for the shadow to climb up. Blue haired and wearing darker, perfectly matte blue clothing that matched the shadows and blurred his edges, he inched his way painstakingly up the vast curved surface, clinging like a spider. In less than thirty minutes he was at the top, and the sixteenth entry hatch he tested was unlocked, in a stroke of luck that had him doing a very silent and extremely graceless jig of joy.
The next morning, all ten thousand soldiers aboard the ship would wake up right on time, unsuspecting, but within the week they'd be out in deep space and wondering uneasily why the artificial gravity kept malfunctioning. They'd lose precious cargo when the altered gravity sent crates flying around the cargo hold, and more than a few of them spent hours stuck to the ground on their backs, like overturned turtles. Even more odd, nobody would be able to figure out just exactly what was wrong with the gravity generators, none of the higher-ups and none of Imperium's best mechanics. When the troops finally hit dirt after the longest damn trip of their lives, to walk among underfed, overworked colonists who all had the same flashing, bitter eyes, they'd be unaware that their boots and armor were impregnated with invisible spores just waiting to grow.
They were very special spores, made to help repair ecosystems that hadn't been terraformed correctly in the first place due to budget cuts and Imperium impatience. They were genetically altered by one of the few entirely authentic mad scientists left in the solar system- and really, he'd embraced the title and decided long ago to be crazy enough for several men. Within a year, the colonists would notice huge patches of fragrant, velvety purplish moss blooming across their previously barren moon, adding nutrients to the soil and purifying the air, and then soon some enterprising scientist would notice that their crops were growing better, higher and faster and stronger.
But for now, the blue shadow only grinned as he slipped away, mission complete. A faint, victorious, extremely off-pitch yodel echoing from the depths of the city was the only sign he'd ever been there- that, and the titanic male genitalia painted with wonderful detail on the top of the towering ship, where nobody would see it for months.
"Why'd you leave home?"
Tsubaki looked away from her plans and down at him, wide-eyed. The soft reflections of a hundred glowing names and lists and maps, all the Fletcher data there was, showed faintly on her face. "Huh?"
"I mean, you know." He walked his fingertips up the bumps of her spine- she was too thin, too stressed lately, but then they all were- and then gave a gentle tug on the end of her ponytail, pulling her back down to lie on his chest. She shut off the holo-tablet she'd been working on with a soft beep and stretched an arm out to set it carefully on the floor. "It sounds like you had everything I wanted growin' up, money, schooling, a rocketbike, all that. Why'd you leave? What made you… care?"
She closed her eyes, and it took a long time for her to begin speaking. He waited patiently; she always had something to say that made him think, whether they were discussing breakfast or the best ways to overthrow the entire solar system's corrupt government. "I had to. I was dying there in a lot of ways. My family… my father and mother fought in the revolutionary war. I was born after they'd been dead for years. Stored embryo, uh, because my brother needed some organs. He's sick. I refused to donate, he took me to court, he called me his property… so I ran. He's sick in the head, too, especially now that he's getting older... He was a soldier, back when we first made contact with the Glieseans. And I'd been in school to be a doctor, but I.. I guess I got tired of being told who I couldn't and couldn't help."
Black Star sucked in a slow breath, staring up at the yellowed ceiling of one of Mira's tiny upstairs guest rooms. Really it was a glorified closet, but it was a lot better than he'd had when he was a kid. "Shit."
"Yeah," she whispered, curling closer. "He killed a lot of them. He was there for all the nuclear drops, all of that. He even ordered some of it. I don't think he would ever have hurt me, as long as I listened to him, anyway, but it was… it became harder and harder to love a person who could proudly believe such terrible things. I tried for years, and it wore me away. I was a ghost for a while."
He cupped a tender hand around the velvety back of her neck. "Sounds like you're better off away from him."
"Yeah. Just, um… draw a bigger dick on the ship next time, okay?"
He gaped at her, eyebrows shooting up, then snickered. "Yeah, okay."
A pretty young woman, well-dressed, tall and dark-haired, smiled appealingly at the Imperium security official; he practically melted. Visibly dazzled, he opened up Sky Heights' gates for her. It was the most exclusive neighborhood in all of Junction City, consisting mostly of seasonal homes for the wealthy, who usually lived in the lavish orbiting space stations, far above all the muck and chaos, but this girl obviously belonged. Anyway, who hadn't accidentally forgotten their identification papers at home before? It was a common mistake. A perfectly legitimate excuse.
She kept smiling at him as she stepped into the ornate lift, gave a little wave as she ascended, and the soldier didn't notice the hard glint in her eyes.
Forty-two minutes later, she was safely hidden in some extremely expensive bushes just outside the clear, domed bubble protecting Tierra Roberts' gorgeous home and grounds. Tierra Roberts was both an ex-Imperium sergeant major and Junction City's elected council representative for ten years running- elected in the sense that somehow she always won, and somehow the board in charge of the vote ended up with much fatter bank accounts immediately after the last ballot had been counted.
Tierra Roberts was a great believer in the democratic system.
She also believed that a certain class of organism- namely, aliens, animals and anyone unemployed or uneducated- tended to sink naturally to the bottom of things, where they belonged, and she worked strenuously to keep things so nicely separated out.
Tierra Roberts was a greedy, immoral bitch- Tsubaki, following Mira and Maka's lead, called her much worse things inside the privacy of her skull, but 'bitch' was about the limit of the profanity she could speak out loud. Outside of Black Star's bed, anyway.
She fought down the massive blush that thought caused- no need to set fire to the bushes and get caught- and twelve scratchy, insect-filled hours later, she was tromping happily back to the lift. They'd hit pay dirt like she'd never thought possible, all because of Maka's brainstorm- Maka had been the one to suggest going right to the top, and how, and months of surveillance and close calls had finally paid off.
It was a different security guard at the gates to Sky Heights, and he eyed her askance. Probably it was the leaves in her hair, her scratched-up arms, and just maybe the evil grin on her face, but she couldn't help it. Tsubaki patted her purse gently, careful to keep the camera inside- a special model, not on the market, modified by Fletcher's best programmers to record body heat images even through several walls- safe.
The next morning Tierra Roberts sat down to a breakfast of fresh, real fruit, and booted up the daily news on her holographic projector. Her name was all over the headlines, and so were the crisp thermal images of her personal conference with the Gliesean ambassadors, the one she'd said would lead to 'new horizons and great progress in alien-human relations'.
The Glieseans were unarmed, quite clearly; there were shots of them arriving, during, and leaving the conference. Tierra Roberts' many security guards were armed, and the very best shot- the one Mira blew up and framed- showed Roberts nodding her head to one of the Glieseans while two of her security guards, wearing shining blue armor that showed up pitch-black on the thermal images, held their blasters to its body. It was coercion of the most violent kind.
Tsubaki saved each and every article she could find on a data drive and gave it to Maka, wrapped in a little black ribbon. They got outrageously drunk on cheap rice wine; Mira found them blissfully passed out together on the floor, beneath a hologram of Junction City's former council representative.
Mira was so pleased that later, when she stumbled wearily home, she only kicked them once each to wake them up.
Tsubaki hemmed and hawed for a moment, then said tentatively, "Do you think we'll win?"
Maka blinked. "Well- why are you asking me, you're the one who's been doing this since you were, what, sixteen?"
Tsubaki flushed a little and started actually wringing her hands. "I know, I just- if I really let myself think about it, about the numbers and all the other rebellions that failed and the cold hard data, I mean, it just seems impossible!"
Maka regarded her with raised brows, then sat down, putting aside the petri dish and pipetter she'd been working with. She peeled off her gloves, shoved her safety glasses up on her head, and said firmly, "Sit."
"Listen," Maka started. "The odds are overwhelming. That's true. It's your job to know that. But remember what you told me? That the reason the Fletchers have lasted this long is because of the people?"
Tsubaki looked teary for a moment, then she smiled. "The good people, the strong ones. I remember. I told you we were the best."
"Yeah, and it's true. I've met more smart people in the last few months than I have pretty much my whole life! We've got scientists, pilots, mechanics, politicians, business leaders- we've got quality, because anyone with a brain can see that they way Imperium's going will drive humanity into the ground. Okay? We're better than them. We'll win."
Tsubaki handed her a fresh pair of disposable gloves with a shy grin. "Yeah, okay. I just get-"
"We're all nervous. It's normal. Keeps us sharp, right?"
Tsubaki left, and Soul slunk in from nowhere in a creepy way that meant he'd been hanging out with Stein too much lately. "Hey."
"Hey," she said, squinting into her microscope. She didn't see him come up and sit beside her, but she felt it. "Don't touch anything."
"Yeah, yeah. Did you mean that? What you told Tsu?"
She pulled away from the microscope and looked him right in the eye. "Yes. I do think Imperium will be brought down eventually. No government's perfect, but they've done too much wrong for too long. We'll all be fine."
Soul sighed and leaned forward to rest his forehead on her shoulder. He was feverish, with split knuckles and a bruised cheek from a late-night scrape with Imperium soldiers during a Fletcher mission, and Maka could hardly bear to touch him even as she couldn't possibly not. She knew she probably looked much the same, and they were both getting so, so tired of living paranoid and violent. "Your pulse picks up when you lie," he mumbled.
Maka was nervous, extremely nervous, or maybe it was more excitement than anything else, but it manifested just like nerves- sweaty palms, bellyful of butterflies, pounding pulse.
It felt like fighting, and it felt like hope, for the first time in a long time. She ran a finger over the black ribbon tied around her wrist, took a deep breath, pulled on two pairs of rubber gloves, and opened her wire cutters.
The highly electrified fence made an awful screeching, crackling sound with each wire that she cut, and it sounded incredibly loud in the late evening air, even with all the usual backdrop clamor of Junction City's endless nightlife.
She gritted her teeth and kept going, flinching back from each bright spray of sparks. Three more cuts and she'd made a hole big enough to slip through safely. The Imperium soldier barracks were straight ahead- thank god, that map the Fletchers had was accurate- and she had her back up against the cool stone wall, cringing behind a stack of crates, before she could talk herself out of it.
Breaking and entering, armed with intent, maybe even chemical assault or terrorism- they wouldn't just toss her in jail if they caught her, they'd shoot her and toss her in a landfill faster than she could say, "Can I at least get a trial?"
She took another breath, looking every which way, and then she leaned down to flick on the hoverboots she'd borrowed from another Fletcher last night, during their planning session, over twenty people huddled in a tiny basement room around a cheap flickering holographic projector and a computer system from decades ago. It had smelled like rancid tobacco and sweat, but it had sounded like laughter and camaraderie and grim, practical determination. Borrowing shoes had been the least weird part about it.
The boots hummed, made an audible whooshing sound, but that was all. She wobbled a little as they kicked in fully, floating her a wavering six feet off the ground- not much, but enough to reach the little metal grate concealing an intake for the air filtration system.
She barely resisted the urge to bang on it. Stupid thing. Colonists had to breathe low-oxygen, highly polluted, poor-quality air every day of their lives, but the moment someone decided they'd join the Imperium they got some of the best oxygen on the planet, because the Imperium liked its soldiers to serve them for a long time and damn the cost.
She thought suddenly, with a pang, of Patti and Liz and the masks she'd given them. With a weary, silent little prayer to the universe that the masks were holding up and that someone on Orcus had been able to read the blueprints to make more, she tapped the grate gingerly with her screwdriver.
It was a good thing she was still wearing the rubber gloves. The grate was electrified too, and the brilliant shower of sparks her screwdriver caused sent her flailing backwards, nearly snapping her spine in a valiant effort to keep herself up in the air.
She didn't fall, but it was a near thing. The damn boots had a hell of a learning curve.
Well, whatever. The grate didn't need to be undone after all; it had holes big enough for a hypodermic, and luckily for Maka, that was Stein's absolute favorite way to hand out goodies, whether or not they really required it. He'd said once that he liked the intimidation factor of a nice, fat, shiny needle. She pulled the little vial out of her pocket, filled the syringe while holding her breath, capped it with a needle, and stuck it right into the grate, ignoring the sparks as best she could as the metal touched.
"Done," she whispered gleefully.
"Oh yeah?" someone said; she nearly screamed.
Two soldiers were walking through the small alley between the fence she'd cut and the wall of the barracks, obviously coming home from leave; they were staggering just a little, talking overloud, but they weren't drunk enough to not notice her.
She pressed to the wall, trembling and desperate, jaw clenched in an attempt to quiet her quick breathing, one hand itching for the battered old contraband blaster tucked into her belt.
They kept coming, and she was a heartbeat away from reaching for the gun- but the alley was narrow, and it was dark. Her luck held, for once. They didn't look up, didn't see her clinging to the wall just above their heads.
She watched them go, chatting and laughing, and then leant her forehead against the cold wall with a shaky sigh before yanking the needle back out of the air shaft, dropping back down to the ground, and darting out the cut fence, ephemeral as smoke.
The next day, the day of the traditional annual military pride parade, which was propaganda if Maka had ever seen it- fit, healthy soldiers parading their well-fed bodies through the unwashed masses, catnip to any young people who didn't know where their next meal might come from. The streets were packed, as usual, with more soldiers in full riot gear hovering watchfully over the crowds. The Imperium was pleased until, twenty minutes in, the vast majority of their soldiers began sweating, giggling, and spouting nonsense, all over the city in every section of the parade, staggering out of formation with uproarious laughter. Several of them stripped entirely naked and started dancing, following the lead of one absolutely overjoyed fellow with three parallel scars on his temple. Others began skipping, singing, pulling civilians happily into the parade and lifting children up onto their shoulders, or tossing their armor into the crowd like souvenirs, completely oblivious to their superiors' furious bellows. At one point they found a stand of watermelons and began the most disastrous game of catch Maka had ever seen.
Their rigid parade formation dissolved as they spread gently out across the city, abandoning valuable blasters and clothing in their wake, which the Fletchers- prepared and stationed at regular intervals- quietly scooped up. It was beautiful, and it was a much better parade than the Imperium had ever put on before. Soul nearly busted a rib laughing, and he and Maka left the parade panting, red-faced and teary from mirth.
Stein, tinkering with a microscope and something suspiciously like a sample of human brain tissue, looked up as they re-entered Mira's tiny loft, grinning the most devious grin Maka had ever seen. He was the absolute incarnation of smug. "Told you I had the timing down perfectly on that laughing gas," he said, waving his eyebrows. Smugly.
Maka wanted to be irritated, just on principle and because her boys, like everything except a little more so, tended naturally towards chaos and needed to be kept in line, but it was just too funny. She held up the blue helmet she'd caught during the parade, rather sheepishly, and then burst into giggles when Stein's face lit up. "Uh. You want a souvenir?"
A dreadlocked woman was so commonplace as to be boring, even one with glowing blue eyes, and a crotchety old cyborg wasn't all that out of place either, not in Junction City. Together they did garner a few raised eyebrows, but mostly that was because of the way the cyborg kept clacking his blade-tipped metal fingers together gleefully. They were wearing the standard blue overalls and tool belt of Imperium mechanics, and had perfectly forged papers. They filed aboard Imperium's second largest soldier transport ship with ease, along with a clanking shuffling crowd of twenty-odd other mechanics.
They walked out twelve hours later covered head to toe in grease and feeling quite a bit more weight in their tool belts, though no one could tell by looking. They were ferrying out vital screws, bits of air hose, miniscule gears- all the little things they managed to sabotage under the guise of 'repairs' and which would take forever to diagnose as a problem.
Their mission was arguably one of the easiest, least dangerous ones anybody had been assigned in a while. Even if they did get caught, the bits and pieces they'd taken could easily be passed as a mechanic's normal odds and ends supply.
Still, Stein found his steps dragging as they headed home, and it wasn't just old bones full of fatigue. "There are a lot of soldiers on that ship," he said at last. "And it's got a run scheduled to Tethys in two days."
"Yes," Mira said, staring at the sky.
"We killed a lot of people today. They'll die knowing it's coming, too."
"Yes." She glanced at him, a brilliant flash of violent blue. "I'd do it again."
He sighed and rubbed absently at the metal plate in his skull; Maka always laughingly told him he was 'massaging his brain' when he did that, but it was soothing. "So would I. I suppose I will, actually. But I'm going to wonder till I die how many of those soldiers weren't-"
"They were all Imperium. They all chose it," Mira interrupted coldly.
"Yes. And we chose this." Still, he fought his heavy old bones all the way home.
The white haired man slouching in the alley was extensively modified, obviously, but it was so subtly done- except for the eyes, anyway- that most people didn't notice it until they'd already spoken with him, and then they were too close and too obvious to study him the way they wanted, unless they were really rude, anyway. But the ears didn't wriggle often, and the teeth weren't incredibly obtrusive, and the long fingers were usually shoved in his pockets.
"Hey, so… How'd you bleach your eyelashes without going blind?" said the pink-haired, pink-browed, pink-skinned girl in front of him him now, looking envious.
She'd managed to color her skin somehow without dying, so surely she could figure out something as simple as eyelashes. "Didn't," he said, blinking and furrowing his brow. "Are you really sure you want to emigrate? Hair dye's pretty scarce in the colonies, you know." An understatement of massive proportions; everything was scarce, not just luxuries but necessities.
She narrowed her eyes warningly. "I'm aware, but there's no way I'm staying here and getting caught in the crossfire when this stupid city goes up in flames. Besides, I have family there. Farmers. There's nothing here for me any more, and maybe there's nothing there, but I'll have people.."
At least she had a realistic view of things. "What d'you mean up in flames?"
"What, you haven't heard? The Fletchers," she grinned, "are really fucking Imp deep. Anybody wearing blue nowadays is wearing a target on their backs too."
Soul grimaced. "Charming. Well, okay, look, how much can you take with you and keep hidden?"
She shrugged. Something in her arm made a whirring, gear-crank sound. "'Bout a backpack full. I'll just keep it on me."
"Okay, small stuff then. I've got a few seedlings for you. Nitrogen fixers, generalists, uh, they spread fast. Good for grazing. I've got a couple beneficial bacteria samples, I've got all the 'forming or soil testing equipment you could want, makes growing enough to eat a lot easier."
She hesitated suddenly. "Um-"
"I'm not gonna turn you in! Why do you think we're selling this stuff dirt cheap? The more people who smuggle in contraband to people who need it, the less of our resources we waste doing it ourselves." He didn't add that if she were a spy, an Imperium sympathizer, she'd never leave the alley.
"Oh, wow, you- uh, okay. Okay." She stared at her feet, thinking. "Do the seedlings need to be watered and stuff en-route? Like, because if I have to take what I buy out in the open it's more likely to be seen and I don't fancy prison."
"Yeah, they do need some upkeep. The other stuff doesn't, though."
"Okay." They chit-chatted, haggled, and then she left with a backpack stuffed full of illegal soil testing kits, a high-quality gas mask, and three small blaster guns- all for a fraction of what she'd have paid any other black market dealer, and bought at much less personal risk. "Tell anyone else you know who needs help," he called after her as she left.
"Pretty sure the word's out there, buddy," she shouted back laughingly before disappearing around the corner.
Soul sighed. That's what he kept hearing lately, all over. The city was electrified now with the spirit of change and revolution, igniting in slow-motion; she hadn't been far wrong when she'd said it was bound to go up in flames soon. Hopefully she'd read the information on the data drive stuffed into the gas mask; it held everything the Fletcher movement knew about quick, easy ways to disable Imperium ships and soldiers, and the best methods to get around the more restrictive laws.
There were several hundred identical data drives going out every day now, all over the solar system, full-on how-to rebellion manuals, and Maka said that if they fired a thousand arrows at least a few had to hit the mark.
They were all usually on separate schedules lately, some of them working at night and others in the daytime, but for once they'd all dragged themselves out of bed at roughly the same time- for once, they were all home at the same time. Maka was huddled protectively over a gigantic mug of steaming fake coffee, and she was chugging it pretty damn fast even though she had the cup's temperature control set high enough to make it steam. Soul was flicking slowly through the morning news, even though the holograms were bright enough to make him squint. Stein was still a bit comatose, slumped by the window with half-open eyes and a piece of toast in his hand, Tsubaki and Black Star were munching slowly at some bits of nutri-rations- it sounded like they were chewing cardboard- and Mira was waiting impatiently for Soul to finish with the news.
It was all pretty quiet, so when Soul smacked his palm down on the table and bellowed, "Holy fucking sunspots and solar flares, look at this!" they all jumped.
Stein, awake in an instant and furious about that fact, flung his toast directly at Soul's forehead before anybody else could move, but then they all crowded around to read over Soul's shoulder, elbowing and fighting.
"Oh, wow," Maka said, a bit blankly.
The headline read in big, dark, crisp letters: 'Fletcher Activity Skyrockets Here At Home: What's Next?'
"Yeah, wow," Black Star agreed, waving a hand disbelievingly through the letters; everyone, trying to read the article, shouted at him.
"Took 'em long enough to sit up at take notice," Stein commented, once they'd all read and discussed.
"Not that long considering Imperium controls the media," Mira said airily, looking more than a little devious.
Soul was busy staring at Maka, who was looking not only devious but not quite like the Maka he knew. She was reading the headline again, and she was smiling. It was terrible and gorgeous.
Just then- at the perfect moment to make everybody jump- a knock came at the door, four quick raps, three extra-loud, and then one gentle tap. Mira reached out and flipped on the cracked old one-way door screen.
"Colonist," she told everyone, after a glance at the tattered, nervous-looking man outside. "I know him." She turned the screen off, let the man in and re-locked the door.
He got to the point right away, though not without a rather hunted glance all round the crowded room. "I hear you're giving away things to help with poor oxygen levels."
Maka exchanged a glance with Mira, and then for the first time, she stood up and took charge. Mira watched with a funny, almost sad little smile. Apparently Maka wasn't content any longer to run errands and sit in the background modifying the plans of others. "We are. We'll also tell you what crops to plant to make the soil more hospitable, too, and what medications can help offset common health problems that come with a poor atmosphere. Come on, I've got some data for you in the other room." Just like that, something shifted, and everybody turned almost as one to stare at the headline again.
"Well, hell," said Soul passionately, leaping to his feet before he meant to do anything at all, staring after Maka as she left like she had his heart on a leash. "Here we go. Can't turn around now even if we wanted."
"Captain doesn't know how to turn back anyway," Black Star said staunchly before swiping a hand through the headline again, scattering it just for a moment into a staticky smear of shadow.