Kid's time in Junction City was not going as he'd thought it would, not at all, and he was irritated to say the absolute least.
It seemed like everything he did nowadays was jinxed. He went to grab breakfast at the army barracks' cafeterium; two hours later, he was seeing stars, speaking in tongues, and ripping his clothes off in front of the entire damn city during nothing less than the annual parade. He went as security for Council Representative Roberts' private meeting with the Gliesean ambassadors, only to find out, to his shock and horror, that she wasn't above threatening their lives to get DNA signatures on their latest version of the treaty- and his fellow soldiers didn't even seem to think the whole fiasco was worth a second glance.
At least she'd gotten caught out, somehow, gotten what she'd deserved, and the Glieseans given a real chance to negotiate fair terms- but that was dangerous thinking. Fletcher thinking, Wes would say with a scowl.
Anyway, the Glieseans were- rightly, Kid thought- as pissed off as organisms almost entirely mineral-based could get, which it turned out involved threats of outright war and some metaphorical waving of various nuclear devices, so Roberts had managed to shoot everything all to hell in one evening, no pun intended.
And right now, Kid's lack of luck was holding strong. He was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling and possibly brooding just a little, in an undignified way that wasn't at all suitable for a man of his age, when the lights stuttered and went out.
He sighed, and then, to his absolute surprise, realized he was smiling. The Fletchers were at it again.
He slept just fine in the dark, and though the mysteriously- and very thoroughly- sabotaged electrical system still wasn't up and running the next day, they were called for morning drill anyway.
Wes was running some new recruits through terrestrial tank practice on the other half of the field, voice pitched to carry clear over the rumbling machinery. Kid, listening with half an ear, caught, "No, the brakes, you moonbrained clod! Or did you think I wanted you to run me over?" and, so sarcastic it practically sizzled, "That's much better. In a battle you'll absolutely have time to get yourself stuck! Perfect tactics! Imperium can rest easy now you've enlisted, Cortez!"
Kid couldn't help it, he snorted, earning a stink eye from his own commanding officer, but then he thought suddenly: Battle? Forty-one percent of humanity's entire population was enlisted, retired from, supplying, working for, or otherwise affiliated with Imperium's army, but who were they fighting? Who were they practicing for? War with the primitive Kuipers, who had no real formal government and thus no active military- and who had few usable resources on their home planet- or war with the Glieseans, who'd proven time and again that they were a reasonable, generous species?
Humans, though… they couldn't even keep from killing each other. In fact other humans were the only thing at all Imperium seemed to be at war with, which made Kid stop dead in his tracks.
The delinquent Lady Luck reappeared just in time; before Kid's commanding officer could notice his misstep and begin to rage, Wes began yelling loud enough to make every single soul in the whole field pause and turn.
Wes' roaring, while amazingly profane, did nothing to stop young Cortez from diving clean out of his tank, which was smoking and rumbling full-speed towards another tank, whose driver managed, after a panicked moment of fumbling with the controls, to get out of the way. The first tank rushed forward as if cheered on by Wes's bellowing, smashing with fine enthusiasm into the side of the nearest storage building, a five-story brick hulk that loomed over the field and had the added, much-loved benefit of giving shade.
Judging by the explosion that rocked the ground and sent Kid staggering, that storage shed appeared to be holding most of Imperium's newest shipment of blaster guns.
Wes almost sounded like he was singing now, he was shouting so fast that all his words blurred into one infuriated roar, and Kid couldn't tell for sure in all the smoke but it looked like he might be pulling his hair out, too. If Cortez was smart he'd be running for his life.
"Sabotage!" someone stage-whispered, and then other voices in the crowd picked it up.
"Who'd want to sabotage the Imperium?" another soldier said. Someone laughed at that, scornfully, and Kid joined in.
"So. Everybody checked their equipment?" Maka added a stern finger shake for emphasis; the rebellion was hideously underfunded, to put it mildly, and their rusty old black-market blaster guns had an unfortunate tendency to break at unfortunate moments.
Everybody nodded obediently, though she caught Black Star rolling his eyes with fine drama. "Okay. So you've all got your assignments. Good luck tonight. Stay safe and do as much damage as you can, oh, and don't forget to report back when you're finished- keep those intercoms we gave you in one piece, because we can't have all of you coming back here at once and leading Imp right to us, but we want to know you're alive. Got it?"
A low murmur of assent swept the room. Maka smiled at everyone. The basement deep below Mira's mechanic shop- a very old Imperium warehouse, actually, that she'd gotten the deed to somehow and then renovated with iron walls a foot thick- was packed to the gills with rebels, the loyal ones who'd already gone on a few smaller missions for the cause. There were quite a lot of young people in the crowd, most of whom looked alternately excited and about to puke, but there were grizzled veterans, too, and even a few old folk, brittle but with the same fire in their eyes.
Three Kuipers lurked in the back, all six clawed paws making soft scritching noises on the floor as they shifted, their lurid, furry eyespots growing and shrinking in what was probably nervousness; they'd volunteered, and though Maka had wondered how they'd found out, she'd accepted them with open arms. They were big ones, probably a few hundred years old, algae and moss growing delicately all over their bodies in cascading green dreadlocks, and four hundred pounds of toothy Kuiper was nothing to sneeze at.
The Fletchers would take them all. They couldn't afford to turn a single soul away. Right now there were twenty other meetings just like this going on, across the entire intricate nightmare of Junction City, but they were still outnumbered a thousand to one.
Well, Maka had never been one to pay much attention to odds, scientist or not. She raised a fist suddenly, impulsively, and shook it at the ceiling. "Fuck Imperium right into the sun," she shouted. Soul, waiting a little ways behind her in the shadows as if he thought she might fall right off the hoverchair she was standing on, gave a muffled snort, and she felt vaguely ridiculous.
It seemed to improve the mood a bit, though. People laughed, and quite a few other fists went into the air as they all trickled out slowly, in staggered ones and twos, blending drop by drop into the seething mass of rush-hour humanity outside.
The basement took a long time to empty. Two hours later, Maka and Soul were the last to leave, and she stood on the cold street watching her breath plume out pale in front of her, a tiny exhaled ghost, as he locked up the basement and discreetly armed the completely illegal security system.
"Well," she said, grabbing him by the collar and yanking him in for a quick, ferocious kiss, "Here we go."
"Yup," he said, squeezing her hand quickly before letting go. She glanced around as he disappeared into the crowd, then pulled her scrambler mask over her face. It was itchy and the canvas lining felt rough and clammy against her skin, but it was carefully designed to thwart any facial recognition technology by breaking up the shadows and shapes of her face..
Her ID picture- taken ten years ago, but still recognizable- had been in the papers that morning. Imperium had finally connected the dots and remembered her little adventure on Tethys.
So she wore the mask despite how damn annoying it was, letting the asymmetrical black stripes and squares mixed with slowly rotating white and red lights confuse the cameras that blinked on each corner. It was worth it.
It did give her a bit of a headache, though, which she just maybe took out on the two unlucky Imperium officials who were busy slashing the city's budget for free healthcare from tiny to nothing. They ended up sitting on their office floor bound, gagged, and naked instead of simply bound and gagged like she'd originally planned.
Their fine, warm Imperium-blue jumpsuits- real cotton, no less, not a synthetic fiber in the whole damn things- she gave away to a trio of hungry looking young women lurking outside the back door of a restaurant. They were more likely to sell the things than wear them, but they'd get a good bit of cash for such nice clothing, and they didn't look like druggies. Maka checked, too, before giving them the suits, hearing Stein's skeptical voice in her head.
But their eyes were clear and the veins on their thin wrists showed pale blue-green instead of the awful dirty silver that came with smoking bliss tar- the cheapest drug out there to make, and therefore the most common by far, at least in Junction City. Anyway, they were all blonde, and she found herself wistfully reminded of Liz and Patti, so when the youngest girl squealed and gave her an impulsive hug, Maka didn't resist.
She was humming as she walked home, the highly classified drive full of passcodes and data she'd stolen tucked securely into her vest's inner pocket, and when she finally slipped inside Mira's home via the lone back door, which was masquerading as an especially filthy dumpster, she sighed in relief. Her face was sweaty and it felt like she'd maybe gotten a burn on her nose from the wiring to the lights. It took a fair bit of willpower to hang the mask up instead of chucking it into the wall.
Mira was returned from whatever bit of mischief she'd been assigned, kicked back with her bare feet propped on the wobbly table and one ear aimed at the staticky old radio.
"Hey," Maka said, pulling out a chair and slumping down beside her.
"Hi, chickadee," Mira said absently, peering at the tablet in her lap and marking something off. As if on cue, it made a suspicious whirring noise until she banged on it a few times. "We've gotten seventy-two people checking in. Uh, forty-three still to go."
"Well, there's plenty of time. Some of those assignments might not be done until morning."
"Mm. Oh, and Leilsson-" Mira's voice darkened and her toes began to wriggle irritably. "Caught him trying to get the passcodes to our southern storage shed from Tsubaki. He's been taken care of."
"Oh," Maka said, rather numbly. She'd liked Leilsson. He was, or had been, a skinny little dark-eyed guy with a strange fondness for oversize hats. But he wasn't the first traitor they'd caught. Far too many people fell to the temptation of selling out the Fletchers in hopes of getting rewarded by the Imperium, and one person could conceivably bring down the entire rebellion, so- on Mira's orders, and Steins, and, reluctantly, Maka's- they'd been brutal in weeding out their various Judases.
It was a good thing, actually, that the local den of Kuipers was firmly on their side. Poor humans would sometimes eat the Kuipers, but Kuipers had very advanced digestive systems that could dissolve steel, and they didn't at all mind eating humans if it were for a good cause, right down to the bones.
"You're shivering," Mira said, adjusting the radio dial just a little as someone named Maren checked in after a successful mission.
Maka put her head down on the table. "Sorry."
"Go put on a damn sweater," Mira ordered, maternal and prickly all at once; Maka laughed and complied, pulling on an old green thing that was Soul's. The sleeves came clear down over her hands, and she rolled them up as she made weak tea for herself and Mira.
It grew cold as they waited. Black Star arrived home, and Tsubaki close behind, and Stein last of all, looking rather manic on adrenaline and with some bright new bloodstains on his lab coat, which hadn't a square inch of its original color left.
"He'll be home anytime," Tsubaki said soothingly, when it was past midnight and Soul still hadn't returned. "He had to go clear over by the biodomes, and that's a long walk."
"Duh," Black Star said, giving a fine imitation of carefree; only the tap-tap-tap of his fingers on the table gave him away. Maka took a sip of her cold tea, grimaced, drank it anyway because real tea was an expensive luxury, and tried very hard not to glance at her wrist-comp's clock.
When someone knocked at the front door, they all jumped, and Mira spilled what was left of her tea with a curse before diving for the one-way door viewer and flicking it on. Soul peered back at them on the screen from behind a messy fringe of red-stained bangs. "Can you let me in, please," he said hoarsely, and he nearly fell through the door into Maka's arms when Mira opened it.
"Oh my god," Maka said frantically, pulling and clutching at him, her feet skidding under his weight on the cement floor. Black Star leapt to Soul's other side, and together they got him over to the table and into one of the chairs.
He slumped over, teeth gritted, and said while white-knuckling the edge of his seat, "I think they broke a few of my ribs."
"Well, stop bleeding on the floor, you'll stain the concrete," Stein told him practically, pulling a rag out of nowhere and plastering it to Soul's split lip with one hand, poking busily at his ribs with the other.
"Ow! Fucking hell!" Soul snarled, flailing and kicking and flicking droplets of scarlet all over the room; Maka felt one land on her cheek and had to close her eyes to keep from sinking to her knees. Her bones felt raw and splintery inside her crawling skin.
"What happened?" she said once she'd recovered herself, taking the rag from Stein, wetting it in the rusted utility sink, and bending down to wipe Soul's face, pushing his sticky bangs gently away.
His ears were literally vibrating, and his dilated eyes were both furious and scared. He slid a bruised hand discreetly around to grip the back of Maka's knee and said, a tad thickly because of his swelling lip, "Someone saw my teeth, called me genmod scum. The usual. I didn't realize they were following me, and I didn't want them to take the petri dishes, and it- they got the stupid samples off me, okay, we'll have to rob some other Imp lab." He was positively hissing by the time he finished, and also going a little white and sweaty as the rush of danger wore off.
Maka gripped the back of his neck and gave a tiny comforting shake, then slid her fingers up into his hair. "Did they reference the rebellion at all?"
"No." He glanced at her, a flash of hunted red, and she nearly cried. That beautiful bloody color, and golden skin like the warm glow of hot engines- he was otherwordly, a fallen angel, he was perfect and she'd thought so since the first moment she saw him, back when she still believed he was a fairytale come to life and that her mama and papa were just on a trip somewhere. But people still thought he'd genetically modified himself, and they still kicked the hell out of him for it, just because they could, because it was strange, and he- scrapper to the end, and he was fighting her fight now- always hit back.
She couldn't breathe until the hand he had around her leg tightened. "I'm okay, Maka, I'm just pissed off."
"Pissed off with perfectly intact ribs," Stein chirped gaily, scrubbing a hand over Soul's hair like he was twelve again. His tone was light, but his gaze was somber. "But you'll need a few stitches!" Tsubaki sighed softly and turned to rummage in the cabinets, pulling out a bottle of vivid blue Cellgro.
"Don't sound so pleased about it," Soul protested, blanching; it was futile, and Stein descended with eyes glinting as bright as his needle.
Maka was curious, but she was always curious, to a maddening degree. Westing would've thought her insane if not for the fact that his little brother had been just the same at age eight, getting into absolutely everything and anything and asking the most awkward, nosy questions imaginable.
So when she came wandering up and tugged on his hand to ask, yet again, how aliens talked, he humored her. He was a teenager now, very grown up and responsible- and every day he felt the weight of the future and four mouths to feed pressing down on him- but sometimes it was nice to focus on something less terrifying for a while.
"Well," he began, watching as she straightened her pigtails carefully. Soul'd been doing her hair every morning since they woke up on this ship, but despite his intense insistence on doing it by himself, he seemed to be limited to messy braids, pigtails, and the occasional crooked ponytail. "You've heard me and Soul talking. Singing."
She nodded solemnly. "Yes. But I want to learn how to speak Kuiper, or Gliesean, or something, so I can trade with them when I'm older and go learn about them!"
Wes very carefully did not laugh at her tiny dreams. Instead he stroked a pigtail and said gently, "Oh? Well, I can speak a little Gliesean. So can Soul. They lived on the planet with us for a while, you know, before everyone got sick."
"The planet where my parents and Stein found you sleeping?" she asked carefully.
He suppressed the old, panicked pain and nodded. "Yes. So if you want, I'll teach you a little, but you've got to promise to work hard, okay?"
She pondered that. He noticed, with a twinge, that her trousers were getting short, and she was barefoot again, which meant her shoes were pinching her toes but she didn't want to say anything. "Can Soul help me too?" she said finally, peering up at him very seriously with those big green eyes. "He speaks it too, right?"
"Okay, then." She stuck her hand out.
He blinked at it. "Uh, what…?"
"You're suppose to shake on a deal." She grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down three times, little chest puffed out and looking very official and important.
He grinned at her, delighting in how wide her eyes got as she stared at his jagged teeth- even after four years of knowing him, she still thought his and Soul's teeth to be just the coolest thing this side of the sun. "Ah, okay. Must be one of those human things."
She frowned a little at that. "You are human."
He kept smiling for her.
Soul woke up to dull, aching pain and said to the drab ceiling, "Ow."
Maka's head was off his chest in an instant as she peered at him. "How do you feel? Are you okay? Did your stitches tear? They'll be out in three days, that's not bad, but what about your ribs?"
"Take it easy," he managed. "Damn, it's no wonder hardly anybody does stitches any more, they fucking hurt."
She cringed. "I'm sorry!"
"Because this is my fault, idiot, I'm the one who got you tangled up in this-" He glared at her, and she sighed, wilting back down to nestle in the curve of his arm. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be all dramatic and make this about me when you're the one hurt. I just… you scared me."
She did look scared, even after he'd slept for nine hours without bursting into flames or spontaneously dying. There were murky violet smudges beneath her reddened eyes, and she'd been chewing on her lip again. "Love you," he said after a moment.
"Love you too." She kissed his nose, very gently because he'd been punched in it at least once last night. "How's all your bits feeling?"
"My bits, eh?" he snickered, feeling marginally more alive. "You could check for yourself, you know, and- ow! Don't pinch me, I'm injured!"
"I pinched an un-bruised bit," she informed him haughtily. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Okay, okay, sunspots, I was just asking."
"I know." He returned the favor and kissed her nose, then her cheeks, then her forehead. "You worry. It coulda happened to any of us, though." She rose up on one elbow to watch him, pushing his hair carefully back from his face with her other hand. "Maka, you know there'll be costs to this fight. Right? It could take years and years to make any real difference."
Now it was her turn to say, "I know. I do. Doesn't make me worry about you any less."
"I'd be a little offended if you weren't worried, honestly."
"Whatever." He settled back with a yawn and they drowsed for a few minutes before his racing brain got the best of him and he said, "Hey, sweetheart. Things are going as you wanted, right?"
He couldn't see her face from this angle, but he felt her eyelashes feather against his neck. "What do you mean?"
"I mean… I even heard the movement's spreading. It's working, the data drives we gave to the colonists… The big mine on Dysnomia. Got blown up a few weeks ago. Totally collapsed, and the miners are striking. Black Star and I were reading it in the paper before the missions..."
"No more easy fuel monopolies for the rich," Maka joked. The skin around her mouth was tight and tense.
Soul reached up to twirl a finger in her loose golden hair. "Yeah. It's spreading, though, it's becoming more than it was. Because of you, I think. You've been pushing people, you… it's what you wanted. You gave people hope. " She'd taken a rag-tag, flatlining cause and bound it with steel cables, woven together thousands of people all across the solar system into a tapestry of fight and determination and practicality. If he hadn't already seen what she was capable of, if he hadn't watched her tiny toddler hands wipe crusted blood and pus off Stein as he raved in the aftermath of his injuries, if he hadn't seen her bring a barren moon from lifeless dust to lavish greenery, he'd never have believed one woman could make such a difference, but she had.
"That's the problem," she whispered at last. I've done all I can here in Junction City. The ball's rolling. People know how to do what they need, we're getting more and more fighters every day, more scientists and mechanics, everything we need… but everywhere else needs the same help." There was longing in her voice, hot and wild, when she said, "I've got to get back to space, help the far moons."
Soul closed his eyes. Damn her and her musical pulse and her infinite eyes, damn her for trapping him so neatly. If he didn't love her so fiercely he sometimes thought he'd hate her. "No good sabotaging Imperium here in Junction City if they can keep bringing in ships and soldiers and resources to replace everything we break, huh?"
"Yeahhhh." Her tone said there was more coming.
Soul grunted, peeled his scratchy eyelids open with great effort, wriggled his ears briefly out of habit to check on the breathing of everybody in the adjoining rooms- Black Star was snoring hilariously in tiny, squeaky little kitten-sounds, and Tsubaki was practically shaking the walls- and said, with a swooping inner sensation of dread, "What're you trying to tell me?"
She slid cold fingers across his stomach. "I need a ship," she breathed. "A fast ship."
Soul didn't fall back asleep after that.
Mira was staring, and Maka could feel that electric-blue gaze like a drill into her frontal lobe. She growled into her tea and said finally, "Did you want something?"
"You've got itchy feet, girl," said Mira, getting right to the point. She took a noisy slurp of her own tea as if to punctuate her point and then added slyly, "Heard the other day from a little songbird that you've got a craving to be Captain again."
Maka squinted at her, eyebrows shooting up. Soul and his big mouth, and his meddling ways- the man was worse than a bored grandmother. "Oh yeah?"
"Mmhmm. A fast one. One the Imperium can't catch, one they won't track at first. Nothing with a past, I'm guessing… Though it'd be easier to just smuggle you off the planet if you wanna spread the good news."
Maka grimaced and wrapped both hands more firmly around her cup, trying to soak in the warmth; she always felt chilly these days, and fearful, like Junction City's acid rain and constant, bitter fog had crept into her heart. "I know, I thought about that, but there's too much I'll need to bring with me to really help. We've got everything we took from the Bullseye's hold, all Stein's plant strains-" His carnivorous vines were currently creeping all along the baseboards of Mira's cramped apartment, snapping at anyone who came impertinently close- "And all our bacteria samples, the vaccines, my moss spores, all my 'forming tech, I've got two tons of it rusting in that damn storage unit, and I need it. So it also follows that I need a ship."
Mira hummed, then set down her tea with a clink and twisted her dreadlocks into a thick knot at the back of her head. She stared at the big crack in the southern wall for a long time, where the ancient drywall sometimes cracked under the force of the shifting city above them and drifted down to powder the floor. Everybody always tracked it around the place in ghostly white footprints. "You're stubborn, just like your mama was," Mira said at last, voice unusually soft. "Look where she ended up."
Maka's teacup hit the cracked wall and shattered; more drywall dust filtered down. She was on her feet before she knew it, panting with rage and hurt. "You do not get to speak about my parents!" she choked.
Mira shook her head sadly at the shards of teacup. "Why not? They were my friends too. And I'll thank you not to break my stuff. I don't have much." She shot Maka a level look. "I've spent all my savings helping the rebellion, and good porcelain's hard to come by these days."
"I- I'm sorry." Maka sat back down, then leapt up abruptly and started picking up bits of teacup. "I'm sorry. It's not an excuse, or at least not a good one, but you're right, I'm going crazy being stuck here. All I can think about is getting back in the sky, about all the things that need to be done still in other places, I'm losing my mind."
Mira nodded wisely. "Lost mine somewhere a long time ago. Stein tells me I musta left it in someone's ship by accident, swapped my brain for a bit of fuselage and forgot to notice…"
It was so ridiculous that Maka had to laugh, kneeling there in a goopy mixture of wall dust and tea, palms cupping jagged bits of one of Mira's last cups. "I'm so sorry," she said again, sheepishly, once she'd recovered.
"S'alright, I break things too, sometimes not even when I'm mad," Mira said airily, lips twitching. "Listen, though, on a more serious note-"
"My gratuitous tantrums and destruction of your property isn't serious?"
"Ha. If you want, I know some people."
Maka paused at that, then said, "People?"
"People who just might be able to find you a cheap ship. Might be able to work a deal with 'em, my name's got some pull in these parts, especially in the cruiser scene, I've worked on most of them… I've got some spendy engine bits I've been saving we could put up for trade, too. It's worth it. We've got to ride this wave all the way to the finish."
"You-" For once in Maka's life, words failed her, and she was reduced to goggling at Mira with her jaw opening and closing silently like a fish. "You-"
Mira smirked and took an incredibly smug sip of tea, smacking her lips at the finish. "Ahhhhh. So? How 'bout it, Captain? You up to spreading a little dangerous Fletcher propaganda?"
Maka squeaked once, flung herself at Mira and nearly broke the other teacup, and said fervently, madly, shaking all over, "Yes! Yes, please, oh god, get us a ship!"