Prometheus

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Summary

Unfinished, unedited WIP. Sci-Fi novel set 130 years in the future. Constructive feedback most welcome. Alison Lake had never been off-world, she was known for her reports from the conflict zones of Earth, so no-one was more surprised than her when she was offered the role of the imbedded journalist for the maiden voyage of the state-of-the-art warship 'Prometheus'. For the first time in human history there was a starcraft fast enough to visit all the known systems in the solar system and even move beyond to unravel a mystery of centuries sitting upon its perimeter. Each step of the way there are new stories to report, encapsulating the challenges and way of life for the humans who no longer call Earth their home.

Genre:
Scifi / Adventure
Author:
WilEaston
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
13+

New York City

New York City; home to twelve million inhabitants or twenty-five million if the wider conurbation were included, this didn’t put it in the top twenty-five most populous cities on Earth anymore but make a list of the top twenty-five most important cities and you’ll find New York right there near the top. It was one of those cities like London, Paris, Rome and Moscow whose significance was unrelated to the fortunes of the nation-state within which it resided. Sure, New York had its problems; crime, litter, overcrowding, stress; all the things you’d expect from a major urban megalopolis. Having spent quite a bit of time elsewhere, Alison Lake knew very well there were worse places you could be.

In fact, being in New York always felt like a mixture of a holiday and home time. Although it was technically her home town she spent so little time there that she felt akin to the tourists gawping at the Statue of Liberty and filming scenes at Times’ Square on their PSDs. The sights, sounds and smells of civilisation seemed like Disneyland compared to the overwhelming reality of the baked sands and sprawling slums where she did her best work. That was the state of things in the world today life was either lived among the ‘haves’ or the ‘have-nots’.

Her wall screen flashed telling her that she was wanted in the office. She put down her fruit juice and tore herself away from the-one way windows affording her the ability to stare out at an unobstructed view of the upper-east side of Manhattan while wearing nothing but hair-product. Her large and exquisitely-formed bosom bounced on her ribcage as she skipped across the carpet. Like many who were born into wealth she would never know how much of her perfection would have been present without intervention with nature. All she could truly own was how well she took care of what her genes and the doctors had conspired to give her.

She touched the screen then said ‘link to office’. Two options were listed; ‘live chat’ and ‘link’. Alison repeated “link”. After a few beeps it connected and her boss appeared on her screen sitting in his office and furrowing his brow in her direction. “Alison? Oh goddammit. Why am I talking to an avatar?” Alison surmised she must have flickered to life on the 3-D projector in the office.

“It’s the weekend Bill. You can’t always expect a live show. I’m in the middle of something here.” Alison returned moving into her bedroom to start dressing. “Anyway, what’s up?”

“What’s up is your new project.”

“I thought we hadn’t decided on that yet. Pretty sure my holiday has a ways to run yet.”

“True but this has come to us. It’s a fantastic offer and could take you to the next level of stardom.”

“Come on, Bill. When has that ever been my motivation? Either it’s a good story or it’s not. That’s all that matters.”

“Right, so that’s why you only send text reports - oh wait, hang on, am I talking to the right Alison Lake here cos I’m pretty sure she’s one of the most recognised faces on our network.”

“What’s the story, Bill?”

“The story is sitting in the building. Why don’t you come in and we’ll all have a proper talk face-to-face.”

“You’re so old school.”

“Look, can you get your ass here in the next hour?”

“Sure. I’ll see you in twenty.”

Outside her apartment Alison Lake honoured New York City’s famous tradition and hailed a cab. More correctly she waved her hand in front of the roadside sensors that communicated her location to the nearest available vehicle but it amounted to the same thing. At this juncture she thought, as she had a number of times before, about the movies from the last two centuries that would always show her contemporary New York as being abuzz with flying cars. While it was true that the volume of short-range air traffic was considerably higher than it had been than even fifteen years ago, thanks to emerging magnetic propulsion fields, the flying car in the true sense was still a thing of fiction.

At university a friend of hers studying aeronautics had tried to explain to her the difficulties in the proposition. Most of it had slipped through the drains of passing time and alcoholic haze but she did remember his point about the difficulty of braking and turning without the resistance and traction of a road surface. A car going at any speed would need strong lateral thrusters to make a right angle turn without crashing into the side of a building and thrusters like that would cause their own damage to the facades they were repulsing themselves from.

She realised that thinking in terms of thrusters was becoming a little outdated. Her college friend had not predicted the advances in magnetic propulsion fields that had taken place over recent years. Perhaps in ten years’ time there would be cab sensors every two stories up and waiting by the roadside would be the reserve of the poor, not that anyone in Manhattan was truly poor; just shades of rich from well-off to obscenely wealthy.

A yellow two-seater car quietly pulled into the curb-side where she stood and opened its door for her to step in. She settled in on the right-hand side. Somewhere, hidden beneath the dashboard on the left-hand side was a set of manual driving controls in case of an emergency. Alison had never known anyone to have ever needed them in Manhattan. “73, Seventh Avenue.” The door closed behind her and the car began its automated journey. At times like this it was hard to believe there were parts of the world where everyone drove manual cars, if they had access to a car at all.

The journey was only the matter of a few blocks in normal conditions it would have only taken about six to seven minutes. Alison touched the car interface. “Why is the traffic so slow?”

“There are protests blocking traffic across many parts of the city including Times’ Square, Wall Street…” The car answered robotically.

“Ok.” Alison interrupted. Rapidly she accessed the news reports from her own station and opened them up on the inside of the windscreen. Beyond the windows of text and live images a holographic billboard sailed over the rooftops inciting the onlookers below to invest in a new hair product. Alison ignored it and focussed on the reports. It was a ritual of hers that when she got back from a long assignment she would institute a total news blackout for the first few days of her holiday. The endless feed of information, speculation, provocation, commentary, hyperbole and documentation, of which she was a part, could become like a tapestry of noise after a while. Sometimes what she needed was to blank it out, albeit temporarily. The side-effect of this was that, on occasion, she was ignorant of events unfolding in her hometown.

She quickly zoned in on the key information; the protests were part of a movement named ‘Retake Manhattan’. Residents of New York, angry at how they had been priced out of their urban centre; increasingly removed from the concern of city administrators, were staging a series of high-profile demonstrations aimed at reminding the great and good that they still existed. It might work for a day or a week or, if they were determined to camp out, perhaps a few months before the news feed had consumed all it wanted and boredom and indifference relegated their concerns back to sidelines.

Alison had been to some of the poorest parts of the world and had seen popular movements affect genuine change. She had seen the underdogs triumph and on occasion overturn the old order and encompass themselves in the seats of their former oppressors. It would not happen here. There was a particular intransigence in a system where the majority were invested by the slithers of prosperity that anchored them into inaction. The ruling order would not resist with crushing force or targeted reprisals but with deep, entrenched walls of money. Those who oppose would be rendered economically impotent and politically outcast. The hegemony was so complete that only the interests of the elite would ever be shown to be compatible with democracy. In the end the majority would tacitly agree with their own oppression.

Did this make her a cynic? Alison wondered. No, it was worse than that: she was a collaborator. She wanted her Upper East Side world intact because she was the right side of the fence between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. When she was feeling more optimistic about her role in this world she would remind herself that this was also the only place from whence people could make a difference. To have a voice you must be enfranchised; part of the game rather than a spectator. It was the only way the world would change. Technology had got to such a stage that ten thousand rioters could be put down my machines operated from ten thousand miles away. No amount of shouting shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed could compare to the power of putting their suffering on camera and this only had power because the people watching were those who directed the machines.

For the briefest of moments she could recall the smell of blood in her nostrils, its warmth clinging to her face, shrieks of grief the only sound able to break through the whistling in her ears before dust and shards of rubble brought her stinging to the ground. More luminous adverts floated in her peripheral vision and the sidewalks began to thicken with tourists babbling in a plethora of accents and dialects waving around their flexi-glass live-screens sharing the moment with relatives and friends afar. The cab came to a stop outside her channel’s studio building. With a swipe of her PSD she paid the fare and stepped out into the moving throng below the bright lights of the big city. This was fairy-tale New York perhaps but the real world needed its escape routes, even for her.

@@@@

If the bright lights and flashing screens of Times’ Square were a wonder to the tourists they were nothing compared to the frenetic iridescence of the news floor at ESB Network. Wall screens flashed above rows of desk monitors and 3D avatar bases allowing luminescent representations of correspondents across the world to be present in the building. Many were live-feeds capturing the motion of the reporter so that on occasion they would turn round and react to something outside of the transmission while often being blind to things happening within centimetres of their physical representation. Elsewhere there was a more traditional video interlink where the parties at either end got the benefit of each other’s web cameras. Consequently the interchange of communication about the room created a busy and constant din comparable to a bar on a Saturday night.

Alison looked on it fondly in passing by on her way to Bill’s office. For four years the news pit had been more of a home to her than her home. Now she only experienced it as a spectator and was able to forget the constant pressure, competitiveness and insanely long hours that had characterised her time there. By the time she reached the corridor outside Bill’s office the buzz and noise was completely blocked out and the only sound apart from her own footfall was that of the man heading to the same destination from the opposite direction. It was Dirk Higgins, chief science reporter at ESB. Average of height, build and looks with crinkly, curly black hair and eyes that never looked quite right unless seen from behind flexi-glass viewing specs. It was not often that their stories were connected.

“Hey Dirk.”

“Hey Ally, see Bill managed to drag you in on a day off.”

“Yeah, well it’s only a Saturday in New York, who could possibly have plans?”

“I know I didn’t but this trumps anything I might have come up with.”

“You know what this is about?”

“Sure, it’s the assignment of a lifetime.”

“Really?”

“You bet. Come on, Bill will be waiting. He’s in the conference room not his office.”

Bill Saggers stood on the far side of the white oval conference table in animated conversation with a tall man Alison had never met. Only a few grey hairs showed on her boss’s brushed- back mane though he had his seventy-seventh birthday only last month. Alison was pretty sure this was a result of early-years gene therapy rather than any dying regimen. The stranger was a few inches taller than Bill and he was himself a couple inches above the American average. His fitted black outfit also hinted at an impressive physique to match his size. She recognised the material at once as what was known as ‘hard leather’. In truth despite the apparent resemblance there was no leather in the synthetic substance; it was a composite designed to harden under pressure, most particularly that of a bullet. Alison had worn similar gear herself on assignments in war zones and knew this apparel did not come cheap.

If this was not clear enough there were insignia on his chest collar and on his solid shoulder plate that marked him out as military, in this case Union military. There was a single symbol of crossed sabres denoting his rank. Alison rarely encountered Union officers in her work and so could not say what rank that was. Beside the uniform he was a handsome man with regular features and pale blue eyes that stood out sharply against his dark, closely cut hair.

“Alison.” Bill greeted in his customary drawl. “Let me introduce you to Major Sean Campbell of the Union Fleet. He is the XO of the starship Prometheus and he has come to us with an intriguing offer. Major Campbell, would you care to explain?”

“Thank you, Bill. I should say this is not from me personally this is right from the top of the Earth System Union. May I…?” Major Campbell asked Bill to a nod then interfaced with the conference table so that a 3-D image of a starship appeared above it. It was a sleek-looking thing akin to the jumpships Alison had seen leaving from spaceports. Its wings drooped downward slightly shaped around two large flattened cylinders somewhat reminiscent of old jet engines on airliners except there were clearly no turbines involved. “As you have no doubt noticed from the design it is a corvette class warship and…”

“Excuse me.” Alison interrupted. “I’m sorry but I’ve never been to space and don’t know anything about warship classification. This is really not my field.” The last part she directed more at Bill.

“My apologies. A corvette class is the smallest class of warship and is the only kind that would typically attempt in-atmosphere manoeuvres and landing. Hence the aerodynamic design. All other classes of warship are space only.”

“Now I follow.”

“Great. The Prometheus is the newest ship in the Union Fleet and is something altogether special. It has a revolutionary new drive system; some call it a singularity drive, some an apex drive, I’ve even heard it called an impossibility drive because the science in its construction is so advanced. Most of us just call it a g-drive.”

“Honestly, Alison this thing may be the biggest scientific breakthrough since fusion power.” Dirk enthused.

“So what’s so special about this g-drive?”

“We call it a g-drive because it manipulates gravitational forces. I’m not an engineer or a physicist so please don’t ask me to explain how it works but essentially in folds and unfolds space to achieve speeds our previous drives couldn’t dream of.”

“Gravity makes you go faster?”

“Yes and no. I think of it like a surfboard. On a calm sea you paddle at a certain rate you move at a certain speed. On the other hand, when waves are pushing you forward by paddling the same speed you move much further. The ship’s velocity is more or less the same as previous corvettes but space is compressed and expanded to move to thing along at a far greater rate. As I said, I’m not the person to explain this and you’re probably thinking ‘wow, this is interesting but I’m an Earth foreign affairs reporter what’s this got to do with me?’ am I right?”

“Kinda.”

“In short what matters is that the Prometheus can travel across our solar system in a fraction of the time of existing starcraft. The fastest recorded journey to Mars is four days. The Prometheus can do it in fifteen hours without a struggle. Interesting sure but fifteen hours or four days isn’t such a difference. Where it gets interesting is with the outer planets. Do you know how long it takes to get to the Jovian system?”

“I’m not sure, about six weeks, I guess.”

“Depending on the time of year that you start the journey.” Dirk added.

“Not including stops six weeks flight time is achievable. For the Prometheus it’s not much more than a week; Saturn two weeks instead of three months and so on. What this means is for the first time we have a ship that can connect to every part of our solar system.”

“And then there’s the even more exciting prospect.” Dirk continued. “If this data checks out in reality then this could be the beginning of real interstellar travel.”

“The Prometheus doesn’t quite have the fuel load for that kind of sustained acceleration but it is theoretically possible. For now we’re interested in connecting our own solar system and putting human boots on grounds it’s never been practical to touch before.”

“I thought we had landed men on Pluto.”

“We have but Pluto is not at the edge of our solar system. We intend to go as far as Eris. This is where you come in. Before we go to the outer edge of our solar system we intend to visit the major settlements along the way to show how the ESU can connect to everyone. However, we’re aware that not everyone will be pleased at the prospect of a greater ESU presence. Let’s face it, a good chunk of people on Earth seem to think we, I mean the ESU, shouldn’t exist and even many of those who accept and even support the ESU are opposed to the existence of the fleet. We want people to see the positive influence we have on the places we go.”

“So you want me to do a piece on how wonderful you are? Why me? I’ve never reported on anything off-world before.”

“I’ll answer the second part first. It seems there was some polling done on Harmony and you came out as the most recognised and popular news reporter. That’s why we want you but we don’t want you to do a propaganda piece before we set out. We want you to be imbedded on our voyage.”

“Embedded? Shit.” Alison exhaled. “Excuse me for being repetitive but you know I’ve never been off-world before. I don’t know the first thing about space travel or living on a ship. Surely this should be something for Dirk.”

“Thanks Ally but the real technical story is at Unity.”

“It will be great Alison.” Bill encouraged. “Most of our viewers have never left Earth either. It’s perfect. You’ll see things with the same eyes they will. Come on, wouldn’t you like a break from being shot at by rioters and terrorists?”

“Is space less dangerous?” All looked to Major Campbell for the answer.

“There are dangers. We are a military ship for a reason. As we go it will be our job to attempt to resolve any conflicts we encounter and there can be risk in that. Likewise, space is by its very nature a hostile environment. If the ship goes down a rescue is highly unlikely. On the other hand, barring technical failures while we are travelling you will be safe.”

“You may not realise it, Alison but this is a perfect assignment for you. Conditions of life are in need of report on many of our colonies. If I’d had this chance when I was your age I would have leapt at the opportunity.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested. It’s all very surprising that’s all.”

“Look, if you need time to think about this that’s ok.” Major Campbell assured. “I’m going to be interviewed by Larry Stewart tonight so me and the rest of my crew’s North American contingent are going to be hanging around for a while. We can meet up after the show and discuss this more then, if you like.” Major Campbell closed down the projection of the Prometheus. “So I’ll see you on the show.” He offered his hand and she shook it.

“Yeah, that’ll be great. See you later.” Alison watched him go then turned to her boss in confusion. “He’ll see me on the show?”

“Yeah, you’re also on Larry Stewart tonight. Myra Chanda cancelled. But this is great because you’ll get the chance to talk about your new project.”

“Bill, you’re making a lot of assumptions here.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to railroad you but I kid you not when I say this is the assignment of the century. The Union aren’t telling us everything but there’s got to be a reason they’re so keen to get to Eris and even if it is nothing more than a cold rock it’s still the first new human landing thirty-two years, which in my book definitely counts as news. And that’s not to mention what you’ll see along the way. We’ve never had a reporter able to do this kind of grand tour before. You’ll get a whole documentary series out of this at the least.”

“Well then I guess I should prepare for my interview. I take it you have something for me to wear.”

“All taken care of. You just need to be yourself.”

“I’ll try.”

@@@@

In the wings of the studio the green room began to fill up with the guests and their entourage as the seats within the audience were taken well in advance of filming. A ‘live’ show seemed such a quaint concept these days. The fact was the audience at transition would only be a fraction of the final audience once everyone who wished to had caught up. ‘Live’ in effect meant ‘unscripted’ and ‘unedited’. With so many virtual forms of entertainment there seemed to persist a hunger amongst audiences for something that was not artifice. Alison knew full well this was an illusion. She had done enough ‘live’ interviews where the guest demanded to know in advance what questions they would get and approval of what was broadcast. Even the strictest adherence to the principles of a ‘live’ show always involved a degree of manipulation.

Audiences knew this only too well: there was no deceit being perpetrated more a happy pact of suspended scrutiny. Bill had once said to her when she was a young reporter ‘If people really wanted spontaneity they’d go and talk to someone. When people access a broadcast what they really want is to be entertained’. In news they often spoke of negotiating the line between reporting and entertainment. This too was a fiction; in reality there was no line. News was entertainment fully and completely the trick was to get across some real information in the process.

Alison noticed Major Campbell standing with a group of six others in hard-leather uniforms. Two were female and four were male and there were three colours of outfit present. Two of the men wore blue-grey, one of the women and one of the men wore navy blue while the other woman and man were both dressed in the same black as Major Campbell. Presumably, the uniforms indicated which branch of the Union Fleet they represented. Navy was obviously the navy so black was likely the marines. Perhaps grey was the flying corps. As individuals, they were very varied in appearance, but even from distance it was clear they were a good-looking bunch overall. Alison couldn’t help but suspect it was no coincidence.

Major Campbell turned round and welcomed her over. It was then that she noticed they all had side-arms of differing designs at their belts. Noticing her surprise Major Campbell explained at once. “New regs. There have been attacks and attempted kidnapping of ESU personnel so we are now required to have our personal side-arms with us whenever we don the uniform. Don’t worry, Steve will be holding mine whilst I’m on the show so Larry Stewart isn’t going to get his head blown off accidentally.” Major Campbell gestured to a tanned man in his thirties with short dark hair. He patted the left-hand of two firearms holstered either side of his waist.

“You never know, once you met Larry you might wish you had it on you.”

“Maybe.” Campbell gestured to Steve again. Alison eye’s quickly darted to the rank plate on the side of his right shoulder. Three verticals chevrons and three descending bars either side of a star. On the left shoulder of his grey uniform was a small Mexican flag. “Allow me to introduce Sergeant-at-Arms Steve Garcia, quartermaster of the Prometheus.” Pleasantries exchanged Campbell moved on to the voluptuous red-haired woman in the navy uniform. The rank plate showed an ‘I’ like the Roman numeral for one, the flag was the maple leaf of Canada. “Lieutenant Celeste Landry, our doctor.” Celeste smiled in her greeting and Alison was taken aback by just how pretty she was. No, pretty didn’t cover it; she was outright beautiful.

Next up was an African-American almost as tall as Campbell and clearly at least as fond of weight-training and a striking Cuban sergeant with wavy black hair down to her square jaw whose uniform bulged around the arms noticeably “Marine Dwayne Williams and our squad leader Sergeant Rosa Valera.” This left the grey uniformed man and the other naval officer. They both had light brown hair and fair skin and, like Dwayne, bore the stars and stripes on their shoulders but where the former had a full face and straight hairline the latter had narrower features and a high brow. Both faces had an accessible charm that she knew would make them likeable on camera. “And last but not least we have Constable Truman Clark, our fusilier, and our navigator Lieutenant Hal White.”

“Glad to meet you all. Have you served together long?”

“No. The crew of the Prometheus have been selected from across the fleet. Each department head chose their own team so some of us have worked together before but most are new to each other.” Campbell explained.

“How are you finding New York?”

“I’m from the Bronx so it’s all pretty familiar to me on the outside. This though is something different. I swear I recognise every other person here.”

“Is that Lizzie Pennington over there?” Celeste asked.

“Yup. That’s her.”

“Is she on the show tonight?”

“No, Larry Stewart’s green room is kind of a celebrity hang out. Get yourselves drinks, relax talk to some famous people. You won’t get another chance for a while.”

“Major would that be ok?” Dwayne asked.

“Sure, go ahead. Grab me a beer while you’re up there.” At Campbell’s encouragement the group fractured into excited pairs heading for the bar and people they’d only ever seen on a screen. “I gather you’ve accepted our offer?”

“I’m not sure how it happened but yes, you’re going to have to put up with me for some time. I hope you realise I’m not going to be your PR department. I fully intent to report truthfully on everything I see and without censorship.”

“So long as it does not compromise the safety of the crew you can report as you see fit.”

“I’m surprised the ESU are so keen to have a reporter on board. In my experience the military and the press don’t have a close relationship.”

“I hope we’re a bit different to the military you’ve encountered so far. But, yeah I can see it might seem a strange step. The fact is, we need some positivity and for people to put human faces on us. The whole Union Fleet is such a new thing that it still doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. The last twenty-five years has seen the biggest military restructuring of the modern era. I’m not surprised a lot of people are unsure of who does what and is answerable to whom. I can still remember the Union Marine Corps being established: now we’re on the front line across the solar system.”

“I suppose people might ask who you’re supposed to be on the front line against.”

“I guess that’s what you’re going to find out.”

“So can you explain the different uniforms to me? I’m a little unclear how a marine is an XO on a naval vessel.”

“Understandable. Essentially, the branch of service you work under determines your specialism and placing. In theory all positions are open to all services but in practice most positions will better suit a particular training path. For example, ground teams are almost always marines and bridge crew are usually naval officers. It doesn’t have to be so but it makes sense to go that way.”

“You came up through the marines?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re second-in-command of a starship.”

“The distinctions matter less the higher up the ranks you go. On the Prometheus I am Head of Tactics and Security and as I happen to be the second highest ranking officer it makes sense for me to be XO.”

“So in theory a starship captain could be a marine, a naval officer or a pilot?”

“Or even from Security.”

“So there’re four branches?”

“Yes.”

“And you all have different ranks?”

“Yes. That was part of the deal; service distinctivity within a unified structure.”

“How do you know who outranks whom?”

“Insignia are similar across services and ESU grading makes it clear. I have one mark of crossed sabres; a naval officer of the same rank will have a single anchor an airman a pair of wings. Lower grade officers all have bars: higher grade all use stars.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler just to use one set of ranks and merge the whole thing?”

“Simpler: maybe. More effective: unlikely. Distinct training paths are what lead us to particular specialisms.” Campbell’s eyes drifted to one of the overhead screens. “Looks like the protests are getting serious.”

Alison followed his gaze to the footage of angry crowds moving in the ambient evening light from the buildings and projections and the probing beams of helicopters. The drones were out in force now; mechanical cops and unmanned flyers. It was always a bad sign when they appeared. She knew well the argument for their deployment and had heard it enough times from the mouths of politicians and commissioners. Why put a human life in danger when a mech can be sent in their place? Mechs could take a bullet and carry a wider range of pacifying equipment and at the worst if they were destroyed no family would be robbed of their loved one performing their duties in the line of service.

It was a sound idea but it didn’t work because it changed the psychology. People were more inclined to attack a mech than a human being. Perversely, their very emotionless nature inspired greater anger. They symbolised the remoteness of those who deployed them as they attempted to, quite literally, control the populace from a safe distance. They were the system in mechanised form. This worked both ways too. While a human being might hesitate to open fire on someone who they could look in the eyes, over a control screen it became much easier to take ruthless decisions.

There was a counter point to this that making cold decisions was better for all sides. Under fear for their life a policeman on the scene might panic and make the situation worse. Once the mortal danger to the policeman was removed they could remain calm even under extreme provocation. Alison could see the logic in that but to her mind it failed to take account of the fact that the presence of drones was in itself a provocation. It suggested the law enforcers were not in the mood to listen.

In recent years work had been done to improve human-mechanical relations. The old mechs looked like skeletal machinery now they came with transparent helmet screens that projected the head of the operator onto the inside to re-establish the face-to-face connection. It was an improvement, Alison conceded, yet it failed to get to the heart of the problem. To make a human connection with someone you needed to be a human-being. So many times she had been in tense situations and found that a gentle hand on the arm or the touch of warm skin could achieve more than the most eloquent reasoning ever could.

“You’re from this city. Do you think they have a point?” She asked of Campbell.

“Absolutely but shouting doesn’t change anything. Dialogue only happens when both sides are talking.”

“Maybe they’re shouting because they think no-one listens when they talk.”

“They may be right about that. If I knew how to change that maybe I wouldn’t have left the Bronx the first time I got the chance.”

“So is travelling the stars a means of getting away from the troubles on Earth?”

“It is for many, I suppose.”

“Not for you?”

“No. I could have joined the Terran Army instead and gotten away just the same. I chose the marines for a reason.”

“Namely?”

“The Army and Colonial Militia are the last line of defence it’s true but when threats can travel between planets the first line of defence is in space. That’s what it means to be on the front line.”

“You should put that on your recruitment vids.”

“I’m sure it’s what I’m supposed to say tonight.” Campbell’s and went to his PSD on his belt. “On which subject…I gotta take a call. I think the brass want to remind me what to say again.”

“I’ll see you later.” Alison scanned the room for the rest of the group. The two naval officers were mixing with the A-listers, Garcia was at the bar with the two marines. Clarke, the fusilier, was returning from the snacks table and caught her eye. Since she was going to spend something like nine months with this crew it was best she got to know them all. Still part of her was unsure how she’d ended up agreeing to such a commitment with so little reflection. On the other hand, the jumpship wasn’t booked for another three days so there was time for her to have a change of heart. “Hi again, Truman, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Call me Alison. I don’t think I’ll be able to take nine months plus of ‘ma’am’.”

“Ok, Alison.” Clarke smiled wryly. His nose was slightly bulbous and brow was too crinkled for his years yet somehow the combination gave his non-classical features a charming warmth.

“So what’s a fusilier do?”

“I take care of all the guns, keep the ammo in good shape and oversee arms training.”

“And you’re a cop?”

“ESU Security so I guess that’s like a cross between military police and civilian militia as well as a regular police force.”

“Does that mean you can arrest crew members?”

“Security on board is the responsibility of the Tactical Team so…yeah. Major Campbell is our department head so he’s responsible overall for on-board discipline. I hope that’s not an issue. These guys are professionals.”

“Tensions are inevitable when you’re contained in a high-stress environment.”

“Tell me about it. Prometheus is a bit different. We’ll have much more regular shore leave than fleet crews usually get because we’ll be getting to places so much quicker. My major concern is making sure that if a gun has to be fired it fires as it should.”

“I noticed the guns. I’m surprised building security is so relaxed about you having them on you. Things get stolen and accidents can happen.” Alison remarked. Clarke smiled and pulled out his chunky pistol from its holster. It was large and quite square in design and looked as though it was a hefty weight in the hand.

“Notice that the side lights are off.” He turned the gun upside down and showed an empty slot in the underside of gun next to the hand-support rail. “It needs a battery to provide enough power to shoot and then it has to cross reference with our PSD and an eye-scan before it will let me pull the trigger. Nobody is firing this thing but me and if I do so I won’t be by accident.”

“You all seem to have different guns. I’m surprised they’re not standard-issue.”

“In the fleet we like to have some choice with our weapons. A ground team should be equipped for a range of different environments and this goes to weapons too. Plus, when it comes to your own personal side-arm it’s best to have something you’re happy with. You see what Lt. White is carrying.” Alison looked over to the navigator’s holstered weapon. From what she could see of it there was a handgrip at the back that connected to a vertical section in the middle in a mix of grey and black sections. “That is the M2 Spectre, standard-issue for naval crew; large calibre so that can fit electro-stun rounds but with a short barrel to limit damage. You’ve might have seen SWAT teams carrying them.”

“I’ve also seen how much damage supposedly non-lethal rounds can do.”

“Any railgun is going to pack a sizeable punch. That’s why they’re not legal for general sale. Even the M1 Shuriken like Doctor Landry is carrying will out-power an old gas and powder type firearm.”

“I can scarcely imagine what your gun can do then.”

“Yeah. It’s an M6 Grunt the most powerful handgun around, designed for operations on Mars, which as you know has lower g than Earth but higher than moons.”

“Surely lower g means you need less power, unless my basic physics is wrong.”

“No, you’re right but Mars level g lends itself to heavy vehicles and armour-plating. Any lower and everything would be airborne any higher and weight becomes an issue. Net result is Martian arms are high power and long range. Now you see marine Williams’s gun?” He pointed towards a large side-arm of with a curved handle and space for a forehand grip below the muzzle and in front of a closed central section, presumable for the battery, all linked by a winding support rail. “That’s the M5 Basilisk, a Titan design. Titan has low g but high pressure and impeded vision so it’s like shooting through deep, murky water. Titan weapons are high power and capacity as a result. Sgt Valera, on the other hand, is carrying an M3 Gale made for operations on Venus.”

“Isn’t Venus also high-pressure and poor visibility?”

“Yeah but it’s brighter and it’s almost Earth g so heavy armour-plating is impractical. The range is shorter too because we can’t use the landscape.”

“Do any of you carry Earth-based pistols?”

“Sgt Garcia and the Major use M4 Rapiers. They’re the side-arm of Terran Army Special Forces. And I think I’ve been talking about guns way too much.” Clarke said uncertainly.

“It’s ok.”

“I don’t know what to talk about in these surrounding so I just stick to what I know.”

“Hey, I’m learning a lot about other environments here. It might be useful if someone starts shooting at me when we land.”

“Are you expecting to get shot at?”

“I’ve come to expect it wherever I go.”

“Have you ever considered being a showbiz reporter instead?”

“I’d be terrible at it. Look at all these famous people here and I haven’t got a tearful confession from any of them.”

“Isn’t that what Larry Stewart’s supposed to do?”

“No. Larry’s supposed to use them as background decoration for his jokes.”

@@@@

Alison went first and was at the far end of the couch through Campbell’s interview. He was good in front of an audience; he got the balance between charm and reticence just right, never trying to upstage Larry Stewart but giving a good account when given asked to respond. The ESU was clearly serious about the charm offensive. The interview was coming to an end and typically, Larry’s questions were becoming more irreverent as they went.

“You’ve brought some of your crew with you tonight. Let’s have a look at them here on the front row.” Larry said directing the camera over them. “How many are there of you on board?”

“We have a compliment of forty-three crew, forty-four with Alison.” Campbell said smiling in her direction.

“Wow, would you look at them. You’ve got yourself a handsome crew there, Major.” Campbell nodded in appreciation. “I’ve gotta ask, you know you’re a long way from home, you’re feeling a bit lonely and you’ve got this handsome crew around you. Something’s gotta happen, am I right?” Titters grew from the audience.

“I’m not sure what you’re saying, Larry but I think whatever it is it would be against regulations.”

“You’re kidding me, right? You’re thousands of miles away from anyone else. Who’s going to know?”

“Well, I guess the reporter might.”

“Yeah, true. That footage would take a lot of explaining when you got home.” Larry switched to a pretend conversation. “Honey, you don’t understand how lonely it gets in space.” The audience chuckling went on. “Can you imagine it? You know what it’s like when you’ve been building up to an argument for a day and you’re thinking ‘I’m sooo mad’ and every little detail gets worse and worse. Forgotten anniversaries become as bad as war crimes, every comment that could possibly be considered passive-aggressive becomes like the worst insult in the world. You’d have to come home to someone who’s been building up for months.”

“Now you say that the cold vacuum of space seems like a safer place to be.”

“Do you have any married couples on board? The argument about ending up at Saturn instead of Jupiter because he wouldn’t stop and ask for directions is gonna be pretty fierce.”

“There are many couples in the service but not on the Prometheus and I trust Lt. White not to get us lost.”

“Can that happen? What do you do if it does?”

“Point the ship back at the sun until we see a blue and green planet”

“Well, hopefully that won’t happen until you’ve completed your mission. Thanks for joining us tonight, Major, and I wish you and Alison the best of luck out there. You’re doing a brave thing I know I could never do it. Send us back some great vidcasts. Sooo, I’d like to thank all my guests for coming tonight, the wonderful….”

Alison zoned out as the applause rippled across the room drowning out Larry’s voice for those within earshot. In a procession of exchanged handshakes she led the way back to a green room that would be quite a bit livelier than before the recording.

“That was really good. Have you done many interviews before?”

“Thanks. That was my first time on camera in front of an audience. Can’t believe how nervous I was. I’ve been calmer under fire than that.”

“I didn’t show. You looked really relaxed and confident. It will play well for the viewers, I’m sure.”

“I hope so.”

More guests and their guests flooded into the bar area adding to the buzz across the room that grew more intense still a few minutes later when Larry Stewart himself walked in. Above it all the wall screens still showed scenes of protest going into the night. The lights flashed and the room was plunged into darkness. A few people yelped as they dropped their drinks and bumped into furniture, followed by nervous laughter and people asking each other if they were all right before everyone switched on the lights on their PSD interfaces bringing the crowd back into view in a hazy glow.

Chatter returned slowly and some groups began to resume their drinks and conversations until shouts were heard followed by the unmistakable crack of gunfire from both above and below them. Panic spread across the room and people began shoving blindly for the exits. Blue strip lights and a flashlight beam moved by her side and she saw Major Campbell loom up with his right hand held high placatingly and his gun in his left. Next to him the others from his crew had powered up their guns and were tracing their beams over the ways in and out of the room.

“Stay calm, everyone.” The sound of three more shots made this impossible. “We need to assess the situation and check for a clear way out otherwise you might run straight into gun fire. My crew have weapons and we are going to split up and look for an exit for you.”

“You’re gonna leave us here unprotected?” Larry Stewart asked in disbelief.

“No, sir, Doctor Landry and Lt. White are going to stay right here with you. Now I believe I heard some people were injured when we first lost the lights. Where are they?”

“Over here.”

“Ok, Dr Landry is going to help you out. Everyone else stay calm and quiet and we will get you out of here the moment the coast is clear, I promise.” To Alison’s astonishment the room seemed to accept this readily and Dr Landry moved through the assembled to treat the minor hurts. “Sgt. Valera, Williams north exit.”

“Yes sir.”

“Sgt. Garcia, Clarke south exit.”

“Sir.”

“Alison, I’m going to…”

“Major, I have colleagues at work upstairs. I need to see if they are safe.”

“Very well. I’ll go ahead. Lieutenant…”

“Sir.”

“You’re in charge here till I get back. Keep these people calm and together. If people start breaking up and running loose we won’t be able to contain this.”

“I understand, sir.”

The way ahead was lit by the flashlight at the end of Campbell’s pistol taking them into a stairwell connecting to the upper floors. The major took the steps swiftly and soundlessly two at a time always staying far enough ahead to so that he alone was exposed at each turn. She caught him up at the doorway to the corridor. “Where now?”

“This way.” Alison said pointing. Campbell went ahead once more into the central circling corridor in the heart of the floor. The news room was a mess of sparks and electrical fires flashing yellow through the film of smoke. Footsteps crunched on broken glass and there was shouting as figures moved in the semi-darkness. Some seemed to be carrying weapons, some with their hands over their heads but it was impossible to make a reliable distinction between assailant and victim amid the gloom and blinding flashlight beams.

“We need to pull back.” Campbell whispered. Alison stifled the urge to protest and put her trust in the military man’s experience. They started to move when in an instant the room and surrounding corridor lit up with strip lights and the wall screens that had not been destroyed burst into life showing scenes of rioting and burning mechs surrounded by corpses. At once they were exposed. Before she knew what was happening Campbell had pushed her to the ground and there were three booms of a shotgun barrel.

Glass shattered and Campbell’s was sent sprawling into one of the offices. Bullets sprayed at the desk above her head ripping through the monitors in a spray of orange embers. Five men came forward; three went into the office and two flanked the ruined desk and low wall where Alison was crouching. She looked up into two faces covered with gas masks above bodies that were covered by long, heavy coats and metal plating over their torsos. Light shone in her face and a voice growled. “Over with the others!”

“Wait.” The second man said lowering his light beam to her chest. “She’s famous. She goes below. On your feet.”

Alison stood calmly. If they had expected her to be cowering with fear they were going to be disappointed. There was movement in the office beside her. A shot went up into the ceiling followed by a muffled groan. The men at her side marched her firmly back towards the stairwell. The second speaker pushed her through the doorway while the first turned and let loose all three barrels of his shotgun.

Stumbling over the first flight of steps, Alison hit the landing on her knees. Her companion slung his sub-machine gun over his shoulder, pulled out a pistol and grabbed her by collar. “Keep moving.”

They kept going down past the floor where they filmed ‘Larry Stewart Tonight’ all the way into the basement. With the gun still pointed at her he turned his head repeatedly back towards the stairwell.

“Lost your friend?”

“Who was the man with you?”

“A marine.” Alison returned. The man swore to himself.

“A dead marine now.”

“Then what happened to your buddies?”

“There’s a lot more of us than that.” The man answered nodding behind her to where a group of three more men appeared without gas masks but still covering their faces with scarves and hoods. “I’ve got you a reporter.”

“Good job.” One answered fishing another scarf from his pocket that promptly went around her head cutting off her vision. She felt twine going around her wrists binding her hands in front. These men had clearly come prepared. One of them, the last who spoke she presumed, put his hand on her shoulder and guided her forward. “Just keep walking unless we say otherwise. We won’t let you crash into anything.”

And so she walked and walked for minutes on end with little sense of where she was going other than it was somewhere quiet. Occasionally, her minders would stop her and change direction. For all she knew they were doing this only to ensure she could not easily retrace her steps. If so that was a good sign: it meant they were concerned about her finding them again and that at least suggested the prospect of being released further down the line. Other groups caught up with them, from the footfall she guessed there were maybe fifteen of their captors with each three guiding a hostage. She knew trying to engage them in conversation would be pointless for the first stretch and everyone who tried was given short thrift or gagged. They were too concerned with getting away and seemed to interpret it as a distraction ploy in a prelude to an escape attempt. Initially, she needed to give the sense that she was co-operating.

The soreness in her feet told her she had been walking for some way. Unless they had been going around in circles only they had to be some way from where they had started. “So why do you need a reporter? Does someone want to give an interview?”

“Maybe or maybe you’re just a famous face that people will miss.”

“You’re taking hostages for publicity?”

“Call it a new level of protest.”

“What are you protesting about specifically?”

“Specifically, everything. What’s not to protest about? Is there a single thing that’s right in this city?”

“You would say the answer is no, I presume?”

“What would you know, you’re a Manhattan girl. You’re part of the elite.”

“I don’t deny that but I’ve seen and lived what life is like in other places.”

“It’s true, man whenever I see her on the screen she’s like got a war on behind her or some shit.” A new speaker and coming to her aid. That was promising.

“Maybe, but she can always go home at the end. Poverty and suffering is an adventure vacation for you, Ms Lake.”

“You’re right in a way. I don’t report on my life I report what’s happening to other people. The truth is in their stories not mine. I don’t know what it’s like for you in this city and I don’t pretend to. You know the truth: tell me what it’s like.”

“So you can report it?”

“Why not? Isn’t protest about having your voice heard?”

“Oh, that’s good. People are gonna hear the stories of the nice men who took you hostage and their gonna start listening and making changes. No Ms Reporter lady we’re beyond that now. We’re tired of waiting for rich folk to grow a conscience cos it aint gonna happen. Things will change when they see their protected little world going up in flames.”

“This is about revolution then?”

“No. This isn’t some noble political philosophy about making the world a better place. This is what happens when you kick a dog one too many times and it remembers it’s got teeth.”

“What happens after the violence? Do you think things will be better for you?”

“I don’t think you get what we’re about. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re surrounded by criminals here. We’re the people you cross the street to avoid. We’re the people whose neighbourhoods you give a wide birth. We’re what this city has made us. If you’re expecting us to be better than that you’re in for one hell of a disappointment.”

@@@@

The blindfold came off to the dull glow of bonfires licking up the sides of abandoned crates and barrels scattered about the dark space that marked the end of her journey. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust and when they did they made out an interior of concrete and metal scaffold where no outside light penetrated. There were people gathered around the fires and not just the heavy coated kidnappers; women, children, the old. Every age, shape and ethnic group that lived in New York City seemed to be represented in one way or another but this was no happy bonding or celebration of togetherness. These people were clearly here out of desperation and want; they carried the signs on their grime-covered faced, they showed in in their hobbled gaits and with each hacking cough that tore through their muted conversations. “Is this a subway station?”

“This is the end of the line. Once this was the new 7th avenue line until our city authorities decided it wouldn’t be part of the new magnetised railways. Hell, why bother? Who in Manhattan would want to come here anyway?”

“Are all these people homeless?”

“Do you think they live here for fun?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“That’s a start. This way, I’ll take you to someone who enjoys talking politics more than I do.” The kidnapper prodded her back with the muzzle of his carbine. Alison stumbled forward trying to steal glances over her shoulder as she went in an attempt to see her fellow hostages. Most of them had been gagged or silent on the journey.

Over rubble and the slabs of a concourse that was never opened for business they came to an empty shop-front covered with tarpaulin where her escorts came to a stop. “Hey, professor we have a guest for you.”

“Show them in.” Alison’s captor pointed to a gap in the sheet with his gun and Alison stepped through. One set of footsteps moved away while the other who had walked with them took up a guard position outside. Inside the covering was a living space composed of a pile of sheets and rugs atop a mattress of empty boxes and a table set between two upturned halves of a barrel serving as chairs. A tall, bulky man with grey streaked brown hair rose from the left-hand of the two and held out his hand in greeting. The table hosted a tablet and a lamp by which she could make out the lantern jaw and stubble covered cheeks of a man in his middle years. His smile was effusive and his eyes gleamed beneath his unkempt brow. He almost seemed familiar.

“I would shake hands but…” Alison held up her bound wrists.

“Well now, is that Alison Lake?”

“It is and I am sure I have seen your face before.”

“You probably have, although it was better worn when you last saw it I guess.” The man unknotted the twine holding her hands together. “I suppose I should demand your PSD and interfaces. What do you have, earrings and necklace?” Alison reluctantly shed her ear-piece imbedded earrings and camera holding necklace and placed them on the table before reaching round under the back of her jacket and shirt to unstick her PSD from the base of her spine. “Good. And of course as you are a journalist I expect you don’t travel without a flexi-pad. Show it.” This time Alison went to the inside pocket of her jacket and produced a black cylinder slightly larger than a traditional ink pen. Her host took it from her and tugged on the flap to unfurl an A5 sized sheet of flexi-glass that with a stretch became taut and solid between his palms. “I’d forgotten how neat these things are.” He said placing it next to the PSD. “We have to build our own from parts and they’re never as good. My apologies, I didn’t introduce myself yet. Landon Irvine.”

“Congressman Landon Irvine.”

“Former Congressman, if you recall.”

“I do. I was working on my college news site at the time. There were some links to some of the endowments and your slush funds.”

“You were at Columbia?”

“Yes.”

“Is it possible you played a part in my downfall?”

“Only a tiny bit, I’m sure. “

“Don’t worry I’m not out for revenge. There’s only one person who’s to blame for my troubles and that’s me. I was corrupt, I was a substance abuser, I was an alcoholic, I used hookers and paid people to keep my secrets and make my problems go away. I think the worst thing I did was going after people who spoke the truth. If we’d met back when you were reporting for your news site I might have tried to ruin you. Thankfully, that’s all in the past now.”

“So you’re a better man now that you’re working with killers and hostage-takers?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“How did you end up here?”

“Pure serendipity or fate, as I prefer to think of it. My crimes were not the kind that usually brings people down here. When I was convicted my career in politics was over but I still had money. My wife left me but I still had family and friends who were prepared to stick by me. Realistically, with my lawyers and good behaviour I was looking at two to three years inside and then the long road to rehabilitation. There’s always a way back for people like me.”

“Were you thinking of making a political comeback?”

“It might have been possible. If not, with my connections I could surely have found any number of well-paid positions in the private sector. But that all changed my first week in prison. One of the inmates, I later found out his name was Bryan Hanson, came at me. I wasn’t surprised; you don’t spend two terms as a congressman without pissing some people off. I saw it as a test. I knew that if I let this guy beat on me it would be open season on me the whole time I was there so I gave as good as I got. This guy, Bryan, was maybe five-eight, pretty skinny. Obviously he thought I’d be a pussy. I may be many things, but that’s one thing I’m not. I guess I was lucky he came at me with his fists and not a shank.”

“So you won this guy’s respect?”

“No. I killed him. I didn’t mean to but it happened. I won’t bore you by telling how cut up I was about it. You wouldn’t believe me and it won’t make a bit of difference to Bryan and his family.”

“I might believe you.”

“Well that’s awfully kind but it’s beside the point. That day ended the Landon Irvine comeback. I wouldn’t be getting out early now and I wouldn’t be transferred to minimum security no matter what my lawyers argued. It ended the illusion that I was any different to the other prisoners. That was the one blessing. After that I got to know my fellow inmates and discovered to my surprised they weren’t a different species. Sure, some of them were cruel psychos who deserved to be exactly where they were. Most of them, they were just desperate in different ways. Desperate to satiate their drug dependency, desperate to pay bills, desperate to have a piece of what they thought everybody needed to have.”

“This sounds like the start of a feel-good movie.”

“I would expect more sympathy from you. I saw your documentaries; you know what desperation does to people.”

“I’m just surprised to hear it from you. Didn’t you used to say that all these people needed was some drive and entrepreneurial spirit?”

“When I said those things I believed them and had every reason to think they were true. Everyone I’d ever met who’d tried hard and put in the hours was able to make something of themself. I couldn’t appreciate what it was like to work over sixty hours a week and still not make enough to survive. I didn’t know what it was like to live in a neighbourhood where the only entrepreneurs making it are the drug dealers. I don’t need to tell you this, what’s important is that meeting these people changed me.”

“It was your road to Damascus moment.”

“It was but really the decisive moment was the riots and subsequent prison-break. I could have argued at the time that it was not safe to stay and later surrendered myself. Yet each day that passed where I was a free man I became more at one with those I escaped with. Staying on the run was to sever any final hope of returning to the life I knew before. My fate and the fate of my brothers are one and the same now.”

“To what end?”

“Does there need to be an end?”

“We are not simply talking after meeting in the street. You have plans underway. What do you hope to achieve?”

“What is your guess?”

“Your brother said you were taking protest to the next level. Is this a political statement?”

“No and yes. I think of it as politics by other means. Democracy doesn’t work for the majority of people. Concerns only reach the agenda when they are backed by money. Look at the last election for mayor. Both the Republicans and the Democrats received over a billion dollars in donations. How much of that do you think came from ordinary, honest, hardworking voters? It’s all a big sham, show business to give corporate power a veneer of accountability.”

“Don’t voters decide who has power?”

“It doesn’t matter which name gets the most votes. What matters is what is done with power and that is out of the voters hands. The main parties fiddle around the edges but the fundamentals remain the same. Politicians express concern about low turnout and commentators bemoan the populace’s lack of engagement and education in the democratic principles when in fact they are showing they understand it full well. Their votes really don’t make a difference.”

“If it is hopeless why protest? Why take prisoners? Why riot on the streets?”

“I didn’t say nothing can be changed. I’m saying democracy will not accomplish it. The disaffected cannot communicate with politicians because the dialogue has become a monologue. ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Now vote for it’. And that’s supposing the promises are kept. It means nothing to the people down here or in the streets above our heads. They cannot be heard through the language of democracy. What you call riots and looting is the only form of communication we have left. This is not violence for violence’s sake this is violence as a language, the vocabulary of theft and destruction being the only words that our city rulers can understand. We can scream a thousand times that if nothing is done a thousand poor children will die and nothing will happen. On the other hand, if we say if nothing is done you and your children will suffer then you have to pay attention.”

“Then I suppose I should ask about your intentions towards those you have taken, myself included. Are we to be eloi to your morlocks?”

“I hadn’t considered that comparison. Maybe is the answer. Not you though, Alison Lake. You’re going to be more useful than that. As for the others…well that depends on who we’ve got.” Irvine picked up Alison’s flexi-pad and handed it to her. “Come on, you get to play reporter now.”

“I’ll need my PSD.”

“No, you won’t. This won’t be live. You can transfer the data to our devices for broadcast when we’re satisfied.”

@@@@

The carbine-armed man who had accompanied her on the trek and the guard who had stayed with her since took her to one side away from the other hostages. By careful listening-in she had gleaned that their names were Oscar and Avon, respectively. Oscar was giving instructions while Avon was holding her flexi-pad in preparation to play the role of cameraman. “Speak when we put you onscreen and stay quiet when you’re not. You don’t ask any questions unless we invite you to. State the facts and keep opinions to yourself.” For all the peril of the situation he reminded her uncannily of her first editor with the exception that he didn’t try to indirectly suggest she should show more cleavage. On the other hand, in her current outfit she was showing quite a bit already.

With Landon Irvine lurking out of shot on one side and Oscar on the other, Alison stepped into the frame and began her narration.

“This is Alison Lake reporting to from underground somewhere in New York City. Earlier tonight I was seized along with others from the ESB Studios on Times’ Square by members of the Retake Manhattan movement and we are now being held captive amid a community of several hundred homeless families.” Oscar held up his hand to silence her. Avon let his hands drop to show he wasn’t recording.

“Can you edit in footage of the homeless there?”

“Easily.”

“Good. Now on me.” He instructed Avon and stepped towards the hostages bound and on their knees. They had ignored Alison’s suggestion that their movement would appear more sympathetic if they had allowed them to sit. “Name and job.” He demanded with a point of his gun.

“Oh god, my name is Lizzie Pennington. I’m an actress and I…they’re not letting us go.” Lizzie’s perfectly styled hair stuck together with sweat and her make-up had begun to smear. She still looked beautiful and everyone who saw her would be pained by her distress and the tears in her dazzling blue eyes.

“That’s enough. You!”

“Oh come on…this is absurd.” Larry Stewart protested.

“Name and job.”

“Larry Stewart. Comedian and presenter.”

“Have you been hurt yet?”

“Well, you’ve ruined a perfectly decent suit.” He rebuked.

“You, name and profession.”

“I…I…my…my name is Don Hollman. I’m a weather reporter with ESB.”

“Shame you didn’t forecast this.” Larry Stewart quipped. This time his remark got him a punch to the side of his face from Oscar.

“Should I cut that out?” Avon asked.

“Leave it in.” Irvine directed.

“It makes you look like thugs.” Alison argued. “And if that’s how you treat your captives that’s what you are.”

“Don’t push it, Alison. Most people here think you should be on your knees next to them. In any case, people will pay more attention if they think their favourite talk show host is in real danger, which he is.” Irvine added addressing the last part to Larry Stewart. “Continue the recording.”

“Name and profession.”

“Lieutenant Henry White, navigator Earth System Union Navy.” The lieutenant looked up at the recording screen on the flexi-pad with a squint through his swollen right eye. “Do not listen to these men they are criminals…” Oscar struck him to the back of the head with the butt of his carbine knocking his face into the dirt. The other hostages cried out in alarm.

“Irvine, this doesn’t do you any good.”

“He’ll live. Keep going.”

“Name and job.”

“My name is Celeste Landry and I am a doctor with the Earth System Union Navy.”

“Good. See easy enough.”

“Can you untie me now? I need to treat his head wound.” Celeste pleaded. Irvine nodded and two men from out of shot before moved in to lift her upright and untie her hands. At once she pulled out a cloth from the medi-pack attached to her thigh and applied it to the back of Lt. White’s head as he rose back to his knees spitting out dust.

“Alright, let’s get them all on their feet and somewhere warm to sit. Alison, take Avon with you and do some reporting about the homeless.”

“Avon, take someone with you to keep a gun on her while you film.” Oscar added.

“Hey, Martinez. Come with us.”

“Hey, why’d you have to go and say my name in front of the reporter?” Martinez complained jogging after them.

“Brother, you’re a wanted criminal already and last time I checked there were about a million Martinezes in the Bronx.”

So they were in the Bronx, Alison thought to herself. It made sense if they were at the end of the abandoned 7th Avenue line. Presumably, the old line was some way above their heads. She corrected herself remembering the new line went someway east of the old line right into the heart of the borough.

Filming the homeless and reporting on their plight was straightforward enough. It didn’t matter if Retake Manhattan intended to use it as propaganda. The suffering was real and demanded attention. Her only hope was that the attention would not simply mean evicting them from where they were. The empty station was no paradise but it was at least some protection from the elements. There was a community of sorts down here working to provide the essentials. Many of the families were eager to tell her how the members of ‘Retake’ as they called them brought down food every day and helped them build their shelters. Things weren’t getting better for these people but for now they were surviving.

“Avon, may I call you Avon?”

“Sure, whatever.”

“Are you from here?”

“Yeah, here and prison are the only places I know. It’s all any of us know.”

“Why don’t you leave?”

“My family is here. They need me. Anyway, it’s no better anywhere else for someone like me. No education and a record. Who’d give me a job?”

“I don’t know, Avon. I won’t lie to you it’s hard coming from nothing. What I can tell you is that it’s a big world out there and there is more than just Earth. There’s bound to a place somewhere where your past doesn’t matter and you can find a better life.”

“Maybe, maybe this is what I’m good at, you know, helping these people. Don’t you have somewhere you belong, Ms Lake?”

“I really don’t.”

@@@@

Alison woke in the early hours pressed between Lizzie Pennington and Larry Stewart. Now there was a showbiz story she would have never expected. Sadly for scandal mongers they were all very much fully-clothed. The electric generator that had kept them warm last night had ceased its whirring and stood silent. There was dim daylight coming from somewhere leading her to think that this empty shop-front might be near an exit. That information wasn’t useful at present as there were evidently a number of armed men visible through the plastic sheeting covering their sleeping quarters.

Landon Irvine and a masked man, probably Oscar, moved outside and lifted up the sheeting to step through waking the rest of the hostages with the noise. “I thought you’d like an update.” Irvine began. “Since we broadcast Alison’s report we’ve had quite a lot of interest in you. It’s time for us to decide what to do. Donations for your release are quite high and like everyone else we need money. In case you’re wondering Larry, Lizzie’s got more so far.”

“Hey, I’d pay for her first too.” Larry shrugged.

“Lucky for you, your brand of lightweight satire is also quite popular. If the money keeps coming we might release you next.”

“You’re going to release us?” Asked Don Hollman.

“I didn’t say that. We’re going to release Lizzie.” Irivine clicked his fingers and two men in masks came into the room and picked the actress up by her arm pits. “Don’t worry. We’re going to take you to a safe house for a few hours to let the donations grow and then you’ll be free and unharmed.” Lizzie Pennington broke into tears and let herself be guided away and out of sight of the others. Once she was gone Irvine turned back to them. “What do you think that will do for our PR, Alison?”

“It’s a start. Now all you have to do is release everyone else.”

“Yeah, that might be a problem. You see, democracy may not work in this city as a whole but it’s still a pretty good system within small groups. I’m no dictator and there are other points of view to consider.”

“Such as?”

“Most of us think we should kill at least one of you.” Oscar answered. He let the shock ripple through the group. “I’m thinking navy boy might be a good start.”

“Oh that’s real brave. Threatening an unarmed man with his hands tied.” Lt. White spat back.

“Who says anything about threats? You’re name’s Hal White, right?”

“You know it is.”

“Where you from Hal?”

“Greenwhich, Connecticut.”

“Of course you are. What was it, Yale then officer school?”

“Right, and I’m supposed to feel bad about that?”

“You’re supposed to feel bad that you’re part of something that drains resources away from the things that matter. You’re part of a propaganda exercise showing how wonderful our modern age has become. Look how we travel the stars, look at our nice shiny uniforms, forget about the people starving in the next borough.”

“You can’t seriously believe that? Do you think there’s a pot of money that either goes to the ESU or to help poverty? That’s not how it works. The ESU provides jobs and scientific breakthroughs, we protect people and bring relief in emergencies. We directly and indirectly benefit the very people you claim to care about.”

“I aint never seen no benefits in my neighbourhood. I see simple projects like the one we’re sitting in called too expensive while our same government gives money to you guys to build destroyers. What do you even need a destroyer for? I don’t see no alien invasion fleets heading this way.”

“Yeah, because that moment would be just a great time to start building ships that take years to finish. Be honest with yourself, we’re not a symbol of oppression we’re a symbol of something distant enough from you to blame all your problems on. Trust me, the navy didn’t fuck your life up: you did.”

“Man, are you trying to get killed?”

“As interesting as this is we are not at a Liberist-Unionist debate.” Irvine interceded. “Decisions have to be made in the interest of the cause.”

“What exactly is your cause?” Larry Stewart asked. “How does any of this really help? However much money you get for us you’re not going to be able to retake Manhattan with it.”

“Retake Manhattan is just a phrase. It serves as a simple form of the argument.”

“And what argument is that? That there are poor people in this city? Yeah, no shit. Do you think we don’t know that?”

“I think you think it doesn’t matter. Not you. Personally, Larry I’m sure you can hit the right liberal notes if you want, same as Alison. In fact, I’d guess that none of you have ever voted for a party further to the right than the Democrats. Collectively though, as members of the elite as once was I, you don’t care. Manhattan doesn’t care about the Bronx or Queens. Do you like statistics Mr Stewart?”

“Sixty-three per cent of the time they’re ok.”

“Cute. New York is the first city to have a million credit millionaires. Who knows how many dollar millionaires? That should be a real achievement. Except it’s not because this city also has eight million people living in poverty. That’s not relative poverty; that’s absolute poverty that’s people who with full-time jobs or not simply cannot make enough money to cover the basics. Now I’m not saying all those millionaires are on Manhattan or all the poor are in the Bronx but it’s near enough to be a rallying call.”

“Do you think riots and hostage-taking is going to change this?”

“I think it makes it harder to ignore. And I think the publicity we are now getting is definitely helping. More than that, every cent that bleeds from the wealthy is a cause for concern. The elite may not care about people but they do care about loss margins. So relax, Larry, we’re probably going to let you live because you’re helping us bleed them. The same goes for you, Alison. The Canadian is a doctor so she’s useful and let’s be honest she’s too pretty to shoot on camera. So that just leaves the weatherman.”

“What?” Don asked in surprise. Landon stood up and lifted up the sheet. Two men took his place and dragged Don upright. “What are you doing?”

“Irvine, you can’t do this!” Alison protested. “People will never forgive you!” It was too late. The ex-congressman was gone.

“This aint Irvine’s call, Ms Lake.” Oscar said with a push to Don’s back to force him under the sheeting. Lt White tried to make a grab for the weather reporter with his bound hands and was kicked back to the ground.

“Stop this, this is war crime!” Celeste shouted as she tried to squeeze past the extra two men who rushed into the shop-front to hold them back.

“He’s done nothing to you. He has a wife and a daughter.” Alison added almost at screaming pitch. “She’s eight-years old. Her name is Emma. Listen to me!” A single-crack of gunfire echoed off the concrete and there was a thud.

“Keep filming.” Oscar directed. “See this! See how serious we are. This is not something you can ignore.”

Alison found herself hugging Celeste unable to discern her sobs from hers. Lt White kicked the wall and swore vehemently. For once, Larry Stewart had no words. There was really nothing funny to say.

@@@@

It was not easy conducting an interview with someone when you wanted to claw their eyes out. That did not mean it was not possible. Alison reminded herself over and again that she had interviewed worse people than Oscar. Men who’d killed thousands of innocents and not just one poor, innocent, weather reporter. She swallowed her disgust and tried to guide her questions in such a way to limit how much diatribe he could insert.

“You think that’s enough?” He asked her.

“It’s enough. Where’s Irvine?”

“He’s got other things to do. He wants to see you later though. He’s going to show you what we’re doing in the neighbourhoods.”

“What’s that?”

“Cleaning them up. We’ve turned drug use from something crippling to nothing more than a recreation in the streets we run.”

“You’re real saints.”

“You won’t believe me but I’m sorry about your friend. That wasn’t fun. This is a war and every war has its victims.”

“They always do.” Alison bent the flexi-glass and retracted it back into the cylinder. No matter how many times she did it she was always weirdly reminded of toilet roll.

Avon ran towards them out of breath and stopped panting in front of Oscar.

“Cops, cops in the neighbourhood. Lots of them.”

“Fuck. Ok, start packing up. Send half the guys up the stairs not all through the same exit. The rest bring with you. You…” He pointed at Alison. “Go and get your friends. Don’t think about making a break for it I guarantee you’ll be shot if you try.”

To her amazement she was left alone in Oscar’s den. Immediately she considered her options. Escape was out of the question, too many guns lay between her and the exits and it would mean going without Celeste and Hal. Little as she knew them she could not abandon them after what they’d been through together. She thought about her PSD and interfaces. For all she knew they were out of reach. Anything other than returning to the other captives would raise suspicion. That did not mean she had to return to them empty-handed. This was Oscar’s den what might he have that was of use?

She searched through the crates where he kept his effects until she hit the jackpot. He had kept the two pistols that belonged to the navy officers right next to their batteries and PSDs. First, she picked up the Shuriken and clipped on the battery pack below the muzzle. It was a sleek gun, small by rail pistol standards with a closed hand-grip. She picked up the ammo marked sound-burst rounds and loaded it into the handle. The trigger was locked in place showing that the safety system was still working. Carefully, Alison stowed it in her trouser belt by the small of her back then turned to the next pistol.

The Spectre was a touch more problematic. It was a fairly chunky angular gun with a large front section where the battery went into the support rail-grip. It took two parallel clips loaded from the rear in front of the trigger. Even with thirty large rounds inside it was still surprisingly light. Concealing its shape was the main difficulty. The only thing she could think of was to wrap it in a rag along with the PSDs and hope no-one questioned her on the way.

She ran back to her companions and thanked her luck that everyone she passed was too occupied to accost her. Both Celeste and Hal were on their feet and they had taken the opportunity to loosen Hal’s bonds. Their delight at seeing her was bolstered further by the presents she gave them. They attached their PSDs and simultaneously peered at their guns to get an eye-recognition. Lights on the firearms glowed in approval not a moment too soon. A gunman slid into view and in a second recognised that the prisoners were armed. Celeste shot three times against his bullet vest and he was hurled against the wall with a deafening boom.

The doctor stepped towards him and Hal pulled her back. “No time to check if he’s ok. Everyone in this place will have heard those rounds go off.”

In tandem they ran towards the platform trying to retrace the way in which they’d first entered the hideout. Dropping down onto the tracks they headed towards the semi-darkness beyond when they heard footsteps on the platform and shouting. “Stop or we open fire!”

Alison turned at Oscar’s voice to see eight gunmen fanning out over the platforms covering their position.

“Get behind us!” Hal commanded as he and Celeste stepped forth with their weapons raised.

“Give it up. You’re surrounded. Put the weapons down.”

“You give it up! The cops are coming. You don’t have time for this.”

“It only takes a second to pull a trigger.”

“Bad idea. Our uniforms can resist your bullets. My rounds will go clean through you, bullet-vest and all.” In emphasis Lt White brought the laser sight to Oscar’s chest.

“Martinez. Aim at their heads!” Martinez stepped down onto the track and pointed his triple-barrelled short shot gun towards their faces and at that his head exploded into a red mess. For a heartbeat no one knew what had happened. Blue flashes appeared behind Alison and two more of Oscar’s men were ripped apart before they could reach cover. She saw Avon crouch down behind a metal bench and then writhe to the floor behind a hail of sparks. Lt White let off a single shot then dragged Celeste and her flat to the ground. The staccato bark of the gas guns ceased and a second later the higher pitched buzz of the rail pistols did likewise leaving a thin hue of smoke trails where their projectiles had burned the air.

A hand reached down to her and pulled her to her feet bringing her face to face, or rather face to collar, with Major Campbell. Unthinkingly she threw her arms around his neck and held him like a long lost friend. “Are you ok, Alison.”

“Yes, yes, I’m…I’m ok.”

Sgt Valera and Marine Williams hovered over the fallen gunmen checking for signs of life. The latter stopped over Oscar and Celeste hurried over at his call and tried to staunch his wound.

“Marine Williams, could you go to the police outside and see if they have any paramedics or medical supplies with them.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alison detached herself and wandered over to where Avon had fallen. The bench beside him was riddled with holes and had clearly offered no protection. His face bore an expression of total surprise. Was that better or worse than knowing what was coming?

“You knew this boy?”

“I talked to him a little. He said he had family that depended on him. What will they do now?”

“Try to get by the best they can. That’s all anyone can do.”

“Is this how victory feels?”

“Often.”

“Hardly seems worth it.”

“It is.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because his death is not the victory. The victory is that you are alive.”

“So my life is more important than his.”

“I can’t say. All I can say is that between the man with a gun and the unarmed civilian he’s pointing it at my sympathy will always go to the latter.”

“Do you think he’ll survive?” Alison asked turning to Oscar.

“He might. Is that a good or bad thing?”

“I wish I knew.”

With a gentle hand Campbell guided her away and towards an exit. Outside it was daylight and police were swarming in the streets. Drones buzzed overhead and mechanical patrolmen exchanged high fives with the SWAT teams who’d come in behind them. Vans full of prisoners drove away from the scene while ambulances took their place. The homeless bystanders and the active criminals were taken as one to be filtered through processing later.

“You’re from this neighbourhood doesn’t this make you pissed?”

“What part?”

“I’m not saying Oscar was right. I hate him for what he did to Don. I just can’t stand to see the system win like this. I know what the news today will be like. There’ll be back-slapping and pornographic worship of the superior tech that won the day. Oscar will become a cartoon villain and Irvine a cautionary tale of the fall of the mighty. All the things they’re right about will be lost in the wrong they did and anyone who follows who tries to make those points will be tarred with their names. It almost feels like a stitch-up.”

“In answer to your question, yes it makes me pissed as hell. I grew up in these streets and they’re full of good people who deserve more than to be thought of a social problem. It’s going to get worse too.”

“How so?”

“You forgot the part where our intervention is seen as a set-up to make the ESU look good. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the conspiracy theories alleging that we were behind it all.”

“If you knew that why did you intervene?”

“They took our crew. We stand by our crew and that includes you.”

“You hardly know me.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’re with the Prometheus now and that makes you my sister-in-arms.”

“Wow, you really are a living recruitment commercial.”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s good. It’s what I need right now. Major Campbell, could you do me a favour?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Could you get me off this planet?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

@@@@

In the departure lounge of McNeil spaceport Alison kept seeing her own face. Every screen on every wall seemed to be running stories about the events in New York. It was only a matter of time before her features flashed up. This was the section of the news that interested her the least. She was there she knew what had happened. What grabbed her attention more was the reporting of the events outside. Most people had emerged unscathed from the attack on the ESB Studios. Apparently the attack on the building was a distraction from other operations including her kidnapping. The riots had got pretty serious. Mechs were destroyed and no few protesters and bystanders had been injured and killed. She kept thinking back to the things Oscar said and wished she had screamed at him ‘do you know what happens when a crowd goes against drones because I do.’ She knew and she saw it repeated once again on the streets of her home town.

When she closed her eyes the images from the streets merged with her own experiences in Sao Paulo and Jakarta. It didn’t matter where the people came from the machine always won. If she hadn’t immediately taken another assignment she’d have had to have an appointment with one of ESB’s in-house counsellors in the coming days. It was standard practice after a reporter had witnessed violent events. She was almost certain the outcome would have been a diagnosis of PTSD. The last few days hadn’t exactly helped in that regard.

Out in the hangar she had spied the craft that was going to take them up into the stars. It was a Swan-class jumpship and seemed aptly-named. It was streamlined and long-necked and white and appeared to have a certain grace even when stationary. “Is this how we get to your ship then?” She asked when Major Campbell joined her at the window.

“No. We won’t get on board for a few days yet. First stop is ISS Window then a goodwill visit to Harmony before switching to Unity where the Prometheus is docked.”

“Will you all be with me for all of that?”

“Sadly, I’m not allowed to sit out any part of the promotional tour.”

“You’re the poster boy now. You’ve been on Larry Stewart.”

“How is Larry, is he taking time off?”

“Are you kidding? When there’s this much attention around him?”

“Yeah, White said he was cracking jokes even when you were taken captive. I guess he’s got some balls.”

“He’s committed to his art, I’ll give him that. He admitted to me afterwards he’d never been so terrified.”

“Then he gets all the more credit for not showing it. What about you? Can you take it all in your stride?”

“Would you ask that of Lt White?”

“I already did.”

“Sorry, a lot of military people I’ve met seem to look down on the courage of civilians.”

“If we thought you lacked courage I doubt you’d have been our popular choice of reporter. As it happens, my military experience tells me that no-one is immune to trauma. Some of the bravest people get the most fucked up because they expect to be able to handle things that a reasonable mind can’t accept.”

“Are you real? Can you really be such a PR dream? You know, if I hadn’t seen you in action I’d think you got your position through an audition.”

“Maybe I did.”

“Ooh, is this a scoop?”

“Well, come on. Have you seen how good-looking our crew is?” Campbell said breaking into a laugh. “Which reminds me, I didn’t finish answering your question. The others will go straight on to Unity. You and I will go to Harmony where we’ll meet with the Euro-section of our crew.”

“You’ve not met them?”

“I told you it’s a new crew.”

@@@@

Take off from a spaceport was unlike a normal take off. The first hundred metres the Swan was propelled by a mass driver that glued Alison to the back of her seat. Thereafter the thrusters took over continuing the steady acceleration while simultaneously the magnetic propulsion field formed below in opposition to the magnetisation of the hull. Alison didn’t completely understand how it worked only that the effect was that they lurched upwards as well as speeding forwards until they breached the cloud line and rose up into the empyrean layer. For a few precious moments starlight and sunlight could be seen in a long horizon before the Earth sank below them and all turbulence fell away.

The view was astounding and a number of the passengers craned towards their windows to capture the moment on their various recording devices. Alison found her concentration was absorbed first by the pressure of g-forces then by their sudden absence. Though belted into her seat she almost felt like her feet were rising and her whole body was encased in water. Her hair rapidly began to disobey her morning instructions and expanded outwards from her scalp. Now she understood why Celeste had tightly bound hers before she got on board.

The strangest of sensations filled her body. Her head felt light as she realised she no longer had to hold it upright. It had never occurred to her before that her neck went through such a constant strain. Almost instinctively she found herself straightening her spine with the urge to slump passing away. Less liberating was the feeling of the contents of her stomach freely floating around. Meanwhile her breasts for all their firmness seemed to want to migrate upwards. She could scarcely imagine the convections Celeste would be feeling.

Just as she was starting to get used to these effects the ship drew level with the spinning wheel of the International Space Station known as ‘Window’. Here the flight changed from one of speed to one of subtlety as the vessel tried to match the station for speed and trajectory. Never before had Alison been so confronted with the fact that all her life when she imagined that she was standing still she was in fact travelling at hundreds of miles an hour. The thought that they were also travelling at high speed on a circular trajectory of the sun was difficult to picture even now. In fact, any attempt to try and plot this three-dimensional course made her feel somewhat queasy.

The docking clamps eased into place and with a sorrowful swiftness the most interesting and life-changing journey of her life was ended with no great ceremony. She peaked out of the windows on either side of the craft. Around the docking point the circle of the habitation decks circled like an enormous ferris wheel. Campbell had said that Window was a small space station. To her it seemed immense, the London Eye expanded to almost four times the size and set into space looking down at the fragile Earth below.

“All passengers are invited to alight at this moment. We hope you’ve had a pleasant journey and if this is your first time allow us to welcome you to outer space. May your horizons have no limit.” Spoke the pilot’s voice over the speakers.

“Oh Christ, I’m in space.”

“Indeed you are.” Campbell agreed calmly floating up to her seat.

“That really wasn’t a cool first extra-terrestrial comment to make.”

“Nobody was recording.”

“Good. Then for the record my first words are….oh I don’t know I’m in space.”

“Haha. Don’t worry nobody is cool the first time.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t do this before.” Alison unbuckled herself and started to drift up from her seat. Looking leftwards the window was filled with blue. “Oh my, it’s Earth. I’ve just been there how can it seem so special now?”

“Don’t waste it now there are better views ahead.”

Led by the hand Alison passed through the airlock into a wide circular room with four exits that opened momentarily then closed soon after. The feeling of weightlessness was still something she was not close to normalising. Up, down, left and right all seemed rendered meaningless when you could move up and down as well. Campbell knew what he was doing and pulled her down (or was it up?) to what was either the floor or the ceiling depending on how it was regarded.

“How does it feel?”

“Weird doesn’t even come close.”

“Well, it’s either about to get weirder or considerably less weird. People can go either way with this.” Still leading her by the hand they entered through the sliding doors into a closed compartment. “Put your feet here.” Campbell said indicating the far wall. Alongside, Hal and Celeste and Rosa joined them and casually lined themselves up on the wall so that they were all horizontal to the position they had entered from. Alison tried to do likewise as though it was nothing unusual. Oh what you’ve not heard, yeah zero g is a thing it’s normal people do it all the time.

The room moved away from its point of origin in a direction that could only really be described as down. It was certainly easier to think of it that way the further they went. At first, Alison was deliberately perching herself against the wall in imitation of everyone else. The further they went the less it was necessary. Her feet gripped the surface with increasing ease until she felt weight passing first through her legs then all the way up her torso until finally the weight of her head was present once more upon her shoulders.

She exited the lift onto what felt like solid ground though in fact she realised it was ground that was moving at one revolution per minute to simulate something close to 1g. In a short space of time she had gone from Earth gravity to micro gravity back to near Earth gravity again. Added to the experience of travelling into the stars for the first time she was beginning to understand what people meant when they said their minds were blown.

“Any sickness?” Campbell inquired.

“No, not sickness as such. Does this place have somewhere to lie down?”

“Of course.” Campbell strode on taking her with him in his wake. The whiteness of the corridor and its lights seemed almost blinding compared to the darkness outside the windows at each side. The blue skies she’d always taken for granted she now realised were a universal rarity. Most places mankind could land or inhabit looked out onto the blackness of space. Even places like Mars that did have an atmosphere did not have the kind of skies to which she was used.

In the centre of this hospital-like sterility appeared an object she would never have expected. A tree; a cherry tree if she was any judge, standing in the middle of the gangway to part the oncoming pedestrians into two streams either side. The walls beside her had benches and she collapsed upon the nearest like the weariest of travellers. She leaned backward and her head swam. Was it that she could feel the movement of the station? If that was so why did she never feel the movement of the Earth beneath her feet?

Above her Campbell smiled down at her indulgently. “Major, can you give me an honest answer?”

“By all means.”

“How is my hair?”

“It’s settled down nicely.”

“Good.”

“Tell me when you’re ready. There’s something here I think you might want to see.”

“Give me a moment.” Alison counted to ten then forced herself upright. “What do I need to see?”

“Out there.” Campbell answered tapping the window. Alison leaned over and looked down onto the curving blue and green of Earth spinning beneath them. Their orbit was not geostationary so either the planet was spinning faster or the station was orbiting more quickly. Either way there was movement below. Night was spreading over North America, hitting Nova Scotia then making its way towards the Atlantic Coastline until it eventually swept over Long Island Sound. Then it happened; in a chorus of brilliance New York turned on its lights breaking through the darkness of space to announce its presence. Alison felt her chest go heavy and her heart start to race.

“It looks so small.”

“It’s far away.”

“This morning I wanted to get away from it and now it seems so precious.”

“I know what you mean.”

“It all seems unbelievably delicate.”

“It is. In all the vastness of known space it is the only place we know that is perfectly adapted for human life. I can’t truly describe the mix of sadness and joy I feel when I see it from here. So small and so precious and yet we fight over it.”

“I just want to cradle it in my arms. Everyone should have to see this. Every child should know this view with their own eyes. Oh my…” Alison put her hand to her face and to her great surprise found that there were tears in her eyes. Others were at the window and in their faces she saw the same wonder the same heart-swelling love of that tender globe of green and blue and glowing lights and all its twelve billion feeble, flawed, striving, wonderful, disparate, fallible people that clung to its surface. There had to be a better word to describe the exquisite confluence of despair and joy that the heart beheld looking down but none seemed to fit as well as love, love in all its fragility and complexity, love in all its heart-breaking glory. The feeling filled her up to bursting until she was no longer ashamed to weep. Didn’t the people down there deserve her tears? All she’d seen of the human race and it could do. Didn’t it deserve her grief and her love? Avon and Martinez and Don, Fernando Silva whose blood she had tasted in the riots of Sao Paulo, even Oscar. From here hate seemed so petty and forgiveness so great and eminently justified. “Goodbye, New York City. I guess I won’t see you in a while. Take care of yourself. So here I come space, how does it compare?”

“Well, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.”

“You are so cheesy.”

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