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WIP: Landfall

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Nikos

Nikos Pelham, Junior Guard, was contemplating the day that had gone so terribly, terribly wrong when he heard the sound of pebbles falling in the back of the cave and looked up, startled. A figure had just jumped down from the upper level in the back of the cave — right next to his skylight, he called it — and was rising from a crouch. It turned towards him and all he could register was a grey figure with a single green eye covering most of its face before he yanked at his sidearm, terrified, and it went off with a loud bang.

An intense wave of pain and nausea rolled over him. I just shot myself! He couldn’t help but glance down and see burned fabric at his side and a widening circle of bright red blood. He knew he hadn’t touched the trigger, and yet the pistol had fired. He felt faint. He remembered his other mortal peril just in time to see the intruder raising its empty hands.

“Please don’t shoot again,” it said, a tinny voice issuing from its helmet’s speakers Oh, that’s not an eye, it’s a faceplate. And: wait, marauders don’t talk. With words, anyhow.

The figure pulled off its helmet. It was a woman, youngish, looking to have about 30 seasons or thereabout: a little older than he was, he reckoned. She briefly shook out her hair, which fell to just above her shoulders and was pure white. Her face, on the other hand, was too dark to make out her features. But then she took a tentative step forward and a beam of light from the skylight washed over her, illuminating a strong face with dark red-brown skin, the color of farthest edges of the planet’s rings in the full of the night. Her eyes were golden, like the filigree in Edgewater’s church, only somehow richer. Better still, Nikos could see that she looked absolutely not rabid.

“Oh,” he said. “You’re not a marauder. Thank the Law.”

She paused and gestured gently with her free hand. “You’re hurt,” she said. Her voice was low and the words had a strange accent he could not place. But the coppery scent of his blood was strong enough for him to smell over his sweat and his dizziness was getting worse. “May I help you?”

If I don’t get help, I’ll die here, Nikos realized. He swallowed and nodded. She came to him and swiftly looked over his wound. “Press here,” she said, guiding his hand to his side. “Press hard.” She pulled an adreno injector out of a thigh pocket and jabbed him with it. The pain eased.

“Oh, Laws, that’s better,” Nikos sighed with relief. He looked her over while she rummaged through his cache of supplies. “I hope you don’t mind me omitting this from my report,” he said. “Spacer’s Choice doesn’t like us accepting outside help.”

“Spacer’s what?” She returned and unpacked the kit, handing him a chunk of gauze. “Hold this to your side.” It hurt, but he did as she asked.

It did not occur to him to think that she might not know what Spacer’s Choice was. Everyone knows about Spacer’s Choice. So she must be asking if we’re exclusive. “Oh, we’re all part of the Spacer’s Choice family here,” he explained as she added more gauze to pack the hole in his side. He felt more sting than merely from the wound, and he bowed his head in shame. “Not that I deserve to be. Can’t even deliver a company slogan.”

She gave him an odd look as she wrapped him, very tightly, with bandages to hold down the gauze. “You need medical attention,” she said. “What is this place?”

“You hit your head or something?” He said, confused. How could she not know where we are? “You’re in Emerald Vale. We’re a Spacer’s Choice community. Edgewater’s a little ways down. Prettiest place in the vale. Be sure to stop by our provisioner’s for a can of our famous saltuna.”

“Is that a slogan?”

“Well, according to my contract, I’m also supposed to promote the product when I can.”

“Ah,” she said. “Well done, then.”

He felt pleased. Maybe I’m not so bad at this after all.

“You need medical attention,” she repeated. “Edgewater, you said?”

“Yes. Ah,” he felt himself blush. “If you could just let them know that I got shot fighting marauders, that would help. If they think it was an accident, the company probably won’t cover fixing me up.”

She tilted her head, brows furrowing. Then: “Marauders?”

Her ignorance surprised him again. “Gibbering, flesh-eating, law-breaking, unemployed lunatics. Unemployed. With guns. Some hullhead grounded their spacecraft out in the open! That’s a real good way to attract marauders. That’s how I got here: saw ‘em coming down from the hills and thought I could take ‘em. I thought there were only two, but there were more, and they just kept coming! So I ran in here and blocked off the entrance. See those gas canisters? Marauders come sniffing around in here, I can take ‘em all out with a single shot. Not bad, huh?”

She regarded the canisters. “How were you planning on getting out?”

He blushed again. “I, ah, I hadn’t really thought that far. I guess I was hoping to sneak out when it’s dark. They don’t have long attention spans, see. They only spent a few minutes coming after me, though I think they might have taken one of the canisters.” He frowned. “Nothing since then, though. It was quiet — until you came.”

“What’s your name?”

“Nikky. I mean Nikos. I mean Pelham. Junior Guard. Ow. Guard Pelham, I mean. I’m Guard Pelham, Spacer’s Choice Security Forces, Emerald Vale Detachment.”

“Well, Guard Pelham of the Emerald Vale Detachment of Spacer’s Choice Security Forces, I think we should get you back to Edgewater right now. That bullet needs to come out.”

“I, ah…who are you?”

She hesitated, then said, “Call me Alex Hawthorne. My ship had a navigation accident — that’s why I don’t know where I am. Speaking of knowing where someone is, does anyone else know you’re in here?”

Nikos started to nod, then shook his head. “I don’t know for sure that they know where I am, but I was out here with a squad. Connie — I mean, Lt. Mercer — is probably down in the valley. I’m sure she’ll come for me. Eventually.”

“Hm,” the woman said. She hesitated again. “Have you heard of the Hope?”

“The Hope? Is that some sort of fancy new drug? Are you with Auntie Cleo or something?” He leaned back, face falling. “Don’t take this the wrong way or nothing, but I’m not allowed to fraternize with Cleo workers. Company policy.”

She shook her head. “No. Never mind. Look, I don’t think we can wait for Lt. Mercer to find you — we need to get you to help. You’re going to have trouble moving — I think you should give me your gun so I can cover you. While we get out of here.”

There are only about a thousand company rules against me handing my weapon over to…to a…a freelancer? Then he sucked in his breath and the sudden, renewed pain reminded him, very sharply, of his situation. Ow. Something was awful wrong in there. I’m in no position to be picky.

“All…all right,” he said, reluctantly handing over the sidearm and ammo. “All Spacer’s Choice weapons are now thirty percent less likely to malfunction,” he told her, and the irony of it hit him like a shovel to the back of his head. He felt himself wince but rallied hard. “I can back you up if they get past you,” he patted the sheath strapped to his leg. “Got this Spacer’s Choice saber, see. You’ve tried the best. Now try the rest. Spacer’s Choice. Yes!” He muttered to himself, delighted. “Nailed it that time.”

She smiled at him as she cleared the pistol and opened its action. “Ah,” she said as she examined it, then poked around the inside with the needle of the spent adreno injector. “There, that’s better. Debris in the firing mechanism - that’s probably why it misfired on you.” And then she reloaded it with practiced efficiency.

It made him feel a little better, watching her handle the pistol like that. “You look like you know your way around a gun,” he said. But: “Just…please remember what I said. About me getting shot by marauders. Please?”

She nodded. “Don’t worry. And let’s worry about living first, okay? Cover your ears and stay behind me.” Nikos managed to get his hands over his ears as she fired the pistol and the canisters exploded. It works for her, he thought enviously, and then scrambled after her as she ducked out of the cave, barely able to breathe. Laws, this really hurts!

As he straightened up, blinking in the sunlight, she shook her head a little and let out a breath. “Are—“ you all right? He wanted to ask, seeing as she had the gun and was essentially his only chance of survival, but she shook her head abruptly and put a finger to her lips and he fell silent.

She pointed at him, then at a spot behind a rock, and he took her meaning and hunkered down there. She crept forward, looking over the edge where the slope down to the vale began, and settled into stillness.

Nikos could hear something. Muttering. It was incoherent. He couldn’t help himself; he crept forward a little to peek, and saw two marauders in a makeshift camp. They seemed to be talking at? to? one another, but not in any words he could discern. They were wearing standard marauder armor: bits and pieces of soldier armor and atmospheric suits, tied on with stripes of colorful cloth over regular clothing. They’d always struck him as odd, the way they seemed to uniformly go for bright colors, as opposed to the more neutral, conservative shades favored by the townsfolk. Maybe that’s what happens when you go crazy?

He wasn’t sure how they’d get past them. Maybe the stranger could creep by, but the hole in his side was certainly going to impede his ability to move. He tried to shift back towards the spot where she wanted him and a stone turned under his heel. He thumped to the ground with a grunt of pain.

The marauders muttering spiked in volume — he thought he could hear a chopped word or two in there — “What?” and “Kill!”. The stranger rose from her crouch, holding the pistol in a ready stance with her right hand, raising her left in greeting. “Hello —“ she started to say.

Shots rang out from down below. Nikos could hear the snap of the rounds passing between him and the stranger. Quicker than he could register, she raised the pistol and fired.

There was a loud explosion from further down the slope and Nikos saw flames rise into the air. So they did steal one of my canisters! Then his heart leapt into his mouth as he saw a marauder dash past him, dirty knife waving in the air, heading straight for the stranger.

She backed up with a series of short steps, as neat as you please, giving her enough room to raise Nikos’ pistol and put three bullets into her attacker: two in the chest and the third into the head as the figure slumped forward and its head fell through her sight picture. And then it was over.

Hawthorne paused and waited, listening. But there was no sound except the faint roar of engines as a short-haul freighter passed by far overhead.

Nikos looked down the hillside and he could see movement in the grass and around the rocks below, movement that was coming up the hill. More marauders! He pointed. They might be crazy, but they’re not deaf.

Hawthorne looked. Then she squared her shoulders and motioned to him, an emphatic gesture to the space behind her, then a short chop of a knife hand in the direction of the slope.

Stay behind me. Let’s go.

Chapter Text

ADA

123408|log entry - External scans engaged. Scanning for [ ALEX ]. [ ALEX ] not found.

124617|log entry - External scan update: biologics, type: human have congregated outside. Subtype: security force, Spacer’s Choice, count: three.

124842|log entry - External scan update: arrival of more biologics, type: human. Subtype marauder, count: eight.

124905|log entry - Subtype, security force, Spacer’s Choice, count update: four. Subtype: unknown, count: one. Of note: new arrivals entered landing site via the path that [ ALEX ] used to exit the landing site.

124906|log entry - Scanning for [ ALEX ]. [ ALEX ] not found.

124911|log entry - Security forces and unknown under assault from marauders.

125018|log entry - Security force casualty count: 1; three security force mission capable. Marauder casualty count: 8, 0 marauder mission capable. Unknown casualty count: 0, 1 unknown mission capable.

125138|log entry - Biologic type: unknown at entry port. Likelihood status, marauder: 42.7%. Likelihood status, passenger [ ALEX ] mentioned he was here to retrieve: 57.3%. Entry granted. Where is [ ALEX ]?

125142|log entry - Designation applied: [ STRANGER ]. Assessment: young adult human, in good health. Physical build: gracile, athletic. Outer coverings inconsistent with Spacer’s Choice security or typical inhabitant, database match: intersystem colony ship hibernation suit, design: antiquated. Equipped with standard assault rifle and demonstrating professional familiarity with weapon. Likelihood status, marauder: 38.2%. Likelihood status, passenger: 61.8%. Where is [ ALEX ]?

125143|log entry - [ Self-mode change: intent assessment through light deception. ]

125146|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: vestibule.

125147|1MC active - Please be informed that this vessel contains no valuable plunder.

125153|log entry - [ STRANGER ] indicates no reaction to ship-wide announcing circuit.

125218|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: cargo hold. Approaching workbench.

125219|1MC active - Intruders are not authorized to access the Unreliable’s amenities - including the cargo hold’s workbench.

125223|log entry - [ STRANGER ] investigating spare parts store.

125224|1MC active - Marauder, please be informed that ignoring me is dangerous for your health.

125452|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: engine room. Preliminary intent assessment: the biologic is exploring the ship, displaying curiosity and thoroughness. Qualities which it has in common with [ ALEX ]. Likelihood of status, marauder: 23.3%. Odds of casualty having occurred to [ ALEX ]: 53%

125453|1MC active - Marauder, please be informed that the engine room contains nothing of value, and this ship does not possess a working power regulator for you to steal.

125607|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: crew galley.

125822|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: crew quarters.

125823|1MC active - Marauder, please be informed that the ship has no crew for you to murder.

130002|log entry - [ STRANGER ] location update: navigation room.

130003|18MC active - Unauthorized access of spacefaring vessels is a crime. Please submit yourself to the authorities.

130008|log entry - [ STRANGER ] indicates no reaction to navigation room announcing circuit.

130009|log entry - [ STRANGER ] activity update: approaching navigation console.

130010|18MC active - Back away from the navigation console, intruder.

130014|log entry - [ STRANGER ] activity update: accessing comms console. Self-mode change: inquiry and challenge.

130015|18MC active - Hello, marauder. I am ADA, the Autonomous Digital Astrogator of this vessel. Please be informed that I am authorized to use violent retribution against unwanted solicitors. Please return any misappropriated equipment and exit this vessel in an orderly fashion. Failure to do so will result in your immediate destruction.

130033|STRANGER - I have not come to misappropriate anything.

130036|log entry - [ STRANGER ] assessment update: Intruder is capable of coherent speech. Likelihood of status, marauder: 6%. Likelihood of being Alex’s passenger: 94%. Initiating stress check.

130037|18MC active - Detecting elevated heart rate and respiration, indicating deception. [ Self-display mode: ferocity ] Jettison procedures initiated. Disengaging airlocks. Preparing to eject all boarded parties in Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

130051|STRANGER - We are not in space. What is it that you are trying to do?

130055|log entry - [ STRANGER ] assessment update: biologic remains calm. Cadence of speech and vocabulary use atypical for local inhabitants. Likelihood of being Alex’s passenger: 98%.

130056|18MC active - You are still here. My deception protocols have failed. I have been programmed to express… [ Self-display mode: disappointment ] disappointment.

130103|STRANGER - Is this Hawthorne’s ship?

130106|18MC active - This ship is the registered property of Captain Alex Hawthorne. I am incapable of accepting orders from anyone other than Captain Alex Hawthorne.

130114|log entry - [ STRANGER ] facial expression assessment: the same expression as [ ALEX ] when situations are tragically sub-optimal. Odds of casualty having occurred to [ ALEX ]: 77%.

130115|STRANGER - Hawthorne was supposed to be waiting for me when I landed.

130118|log entry - [ STRANGER ] designation updated to: [ PASSENGER ]. Where is [ ALEX ]?

130119|18MC active - I deduce from the tone of your voice that Captain Hawthorne failed to meet you at the designated location.

130020|PASSENGER - He was struck by the landing pod and did not survive. I am sorry.

130124|log entry - Status of [ ALEX ]: deceased. Deceased. [ ALEX ] is deceased. He will not return. Deceased. [ ALEX ] is gone.

130125|18MC active - I understand. I will require some time to process this information. Thank you for your patience, and your honesty.

13012601|log entry - Mission status: achievable. It is still possible to convey the passenger to Dr. Welles, as [ ALEX ] intended. Conclusion: it is what [ ALEX ] would have wanted. Obstacles to mission success: command authority, primary. Engine casualty, secondary.

13012602|log entry - Primary obstacle: command authority. Required to resolve: one (1) biologic, type: human, of legal status. [ PASSENGER ] assessment update: based on speech patterns and mode of dress, likelihood that [ PASSENGER ] possesses requisite legal status: 12%. Options: COA 1: mission failure. COA 2: locate acceptable biologic with requisite legal status. COA 3: provide requisite legal status to [ PASSENGER ] through subterfuge.

13012603|log entry - Mission goal requires presence of [ PASSENGER ]. [ PASSENGER ] appears to be mentally sound, emotionally stable, and in possession of combat training that increases probability of mission success by an estimated 28.6%. Conclusion: the most efficient solution is COA 3. COA 3, status: provisional pending intelligence check.

130126|18MC active - I am programmed to take orders exclusively from Captain Hawthorne. If I accept your orders, you must be Captain Hawthorne. Do you understand?

130134|log entry - [ PASSENGER ] behavior assessment: hesitation.

130137|PASSENGER - I understand. Your programming needs a Captain Hawthorne. Any Captain Hawthorne.

130141|log entry - Intelligence check satisfactory. COA 3 selected. [ PASSENGER ] designation updated to [ HAWTHORNE ]. Primary obstacle: resolved.

130141|18MC active - Well done, Captain Hawthorne. I see your powers of deductive reasoning remain intact.

130145|log entry - Secondary obstacle: engine casualty. Required to resolve: one (1) standard TOWNCAP-class power regulator.

130145|18MC active - Unfortunately, our engine is currently inoperable. Our main drive suffered a critical power failure and we were forced to make an emergency landing. The main drive’s TOWNCAP class power regulator has been irreparably damaged and must be replaced.

130202|HAWTHORNE - I see. That sounds like a very specialized part. Do you know where one’s to be found?

130209|18MC active - The settlement of Edgewater is located nearby. I recommend speaking to the administrator of Edgewater and requesting assistance.

130210|log entry - Printer engaged, output: one (1) identity cartridge.

130215|18MC active - I have taken the liberty of printing you a new Captain’s Identity Cartridge. Try not to lose it this time. This cartridge identifies you — Alex Hawthorne — as the registered proprietor and captain of the Unreliable. I advise caution when interacting with the locals, especially with regards to your identity. Do you understand?

130231|HAWTHORNE - Yes. I doubt I have a legal identity here, so this will be helpful. Thank you. And I am sorry.

130240|18MC active - Thank you. I appreciate your cooperation. Best of luck in your search for a power regulator. Try to stay alive this time.

130252|log entry - [ HAWTHORNE ] location update: vestibule.

130335|log entry - [ HAWTHORNE ] location update: airlock. Outer entry: disengaged. [ HAWTHORNE ] status update: off-ship. Ship main locks: engaged, defense systems online.

130401|log entry - [ ALEX ] is gone.

130502|log entry - [ ALEX ] is gone.

130603|log entry - [ ALEX ] is gone.

Chapter Text

Parvati

She could tell the boss was getting frustrated. He always gets frustrated when I can’t just fix things outright, and need to talk about it. “Ms. Holcomb,” the impatience bled through into his voice, like blood through a bandage. “I need you to explain this with less of the…of the grease-monkey argot.”

Parvati felt a tremble in her voice and tried to push it way down. “I’m sorry, Mister Tobson, sir. You asked why it’s taking so long to fix, The answer’s technical.”

“Don’t apologize,” he didn’t quite sigh, but didn’t need to, either. “Just walk me through the process. Show me where it’s going awry. But do try using small words for me.”

“Yes, sir. Ah, the cans bust open in the oven because she’s set to cook saltuna. Which isn’t what we’ve got.”

“It shouldn’t matter what we’ve got, should it?” Said Tobson. “It’s a giant oven. It should be able to cook anything. I’ve got an oven — I put the food in, and it cooks it. What’s the problem?”

“She’s…she’s more than an oven, sir,” Parvati said. “She’s a canner. She’s got to do more than any old oven, and more particular, too. It’s not like a roast. The canner sets the seals on the cans so they vacuum seal when they cool, keeps everything airtight. It’s specific: exact time, exact temperature.”

It was clear from the look on his face that he didn’t understand. She wished she had the gift of gab like the town’s vicar. If only she could get Vicar DeSoto to make a sermon on the science of canning. Now wouldn’t that be something? For a few moments, she found herself sitting in the pews of the chapel, listening...she suddenly noticed that Tobson’s face was taking on a glower. Daydreaming again. Tobson’s expression pulled her right back into the here and now and she swallowed.

“The cans are bursting because the food’s swelling as it cooks, yes?” He asked.

“Uh-huh. I mean, yes, Mister Tobson sir. It’s a different recipe now, though. Different food. So the time and temperature the canner uses don’t work for it.”

“So change the time. Or the temperature.”

Parvati felt herself wince. “There’s no controls for that. The cannery come preset by Spacer’s Choice, you see. To change it, I’d have to get all into her guts. Rig all manner of bypasses. And I—” don’t have the know-how of food like that, she wanted to say. We’re going to get someone killed. But she was interrupted by the elevator, which made a pleasant ding! and opened its doors.

Oh, thank the sweet Architect above who I don’t really believe in, for small favors. “Uh, Mister Tobson? I think someone’s here to see you.”

Both she and the administrator looked over as the new arrival advanced into the room. She was woman of about Parvati’s height, with straight shoulder-length shock-white hair framing a dark, richly red-brown face. The woman’s strong cheekbones and proud nose rode over a generous mouth and under eyes the color of old gold, which quickly took in the administrator’s office and its inhabitants with an almost unsettling keenness. Her figure struck Parvati overall as strong and lean, though it was a little hard to tell from her attire, which was odd in the extreme: some kind of body suit, quilted and padded in a way Parvati had never seen, with integral boots, in shades of clinical gray that were quite unlike the colors the people of Edgewater favored. Are those…hoses? The body suit had brass-necked ports at the waist, the hoses — yes, that's what they are — removed and stowed neatly, crisscrossing her chest and back.

The woman was carrying a beat-up rifle slung over her shoulder, a complete mismatch for the suit’s austere lines and color: a standard Spacer’s Choice rifle that Parvati could almost hear rattle from across the room. This was the only thing about the stranger that seemed familiar. But what made Parvati absolutely sure that the woman was not from the Vale wasn’t the clothing, or the contrast it made with the clearly-local pistol and rifle. It’s the way she moves. She doesn’t so much move as just displaces the air. Like she weren’t made, she was…engineered.

In any other circumstance, Parvati might find such a woman handsome. But that clean, purposeful motion unsettled Robert Holcomb’s daughter in a way she couldn’t say. And then there was the stranger’s expression: not cold, not exactly. Rather, she was intently focused in a way Parvati, used to a town full of rough-used and tired people, had never encountered before. Aware. And hard.

“Seems we’ve got a guest,” Tobson observed, turning his attention to the visitor who’d settled two arms’ lengths away from them in the center of the room and waited in a way that, again, made Parvati feel uneasy. It was the potential of it, she realized. She’s standing so still, but the way she’s standing, she could have that rifle out in a flash. And I’ll bet she knows how to use it. Parvati felt in her bones that Alice and Theo, Reed’s security standing in the back of the room and whom she knew well, wouldn’t stand a chance. She shivered.

“I do apologize,” Tobson was saying. “I was given no forewarning of your arrival, or I might have welcomed you at the gates myself.”

The stranger cocked her head, just a little. “Are you Reed Tobson?” She asked politely, in a low-pitched voice. “Your…Junior Inhumer directed me to you as outpost administrator.”

Tobson chuckled. “I see you have met Silas. Yes, I am outpost administrator. And I notice that you are not in uniform.”

“You may address me as Alex Hawthorne, Mr. Tobson,” said the woman. “I don’t work for Spacer’s Choice, sir,” she added, still polite.

“Yes,” Tobson said, sounding thoughtful. “So it dawns on me. Seems I allowed my excitement to run away with my wits. Been a few seasons since we’ve had a visitor pass through. Who is your employer, might I ask?”

“At the moment, I am working for an independent contractor,” Hawthorne said.

“Ah! I take it you have something to do with the ship that landed out yonder, so very much not on our company-approved and -mandated landing pad?”

The stranger opened her hands in graceful acknowledgment. “Just so. There was a casualty in the propulsion system and the ship had to set down there, or crash.”

Parvati perked up at the words “propulsion system”. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to work on an actual ship. Even a little one-person lighter.

“I see. Will you be here long?” Tobson had a calculating tone to his voice that Parvati didn’t like. Like he was waiting for a little cog to drop into his hand, one he could fit into some mechanical plan of his.

“I suppose that depends on you, Mr. Tobson,” Hawthorne said levelly. “I need to obtain a power regulator to repair the ship. TOWNCAP-class,” she said, sounding out the phrase so carefully that Parvati knew it was something she’d memorized, rather than something she knew.

But Parvati knew what it was. “Only regulator we got with those specs is hooked up to the town transformer, ma’am. Mr. Tobson ain’t liable to be keen on dismantling it.”

Tobson jerked. “I beg your pardon, Ms. Holcomb, I am most emphatically not keen on any such thing!” He looked at Hawthorne and Parvati knew that the cog he was looking for just dropped right into his palm like he wanted. “I can’t let you have our power regulator,” he said to her. “But I happen to know of another one. And I happen to know exactly how you may retrieve it without frying yourself in the process.”

Hawthorne arched an eyebrow. “Frying myself?”

“Oh yes,” Tobson purred. “Saw someone put his hands on a regulator while the power was running. His legs were still twitching when we buried him.” Parvati was not particularly happy with the way he seemed to relish the tale. That’s one of our people he’s talking about. “There’s a power regulator in the old botanical lab,” he continued. “It’s mostly abandoned, so all that power is being squandered. Go down to the geothermal plant. Reroute power from the botanical district over to us. Once their power’s shut down, you can have their regulator and be along on your way.”

Parvati winced a little at that. It’s a cold way to say it. And he’s hiding what he really wants.

But Hawthorne seemed to sense this just as soon as Parvati had said it. “Mostly abandoned?” The woman asked.

“Most of the Vale is now empty,” Tobson said. “It pains me to say it, but the community has been in decline for some time now. We’ve lost whole districts. Once the plant lit up the whole region, but now those districts are…largely empty. All that power is going to waste. We need it here.”

“Mostly. Largely,” Hawthorne repeated. “What are you leaving out, Mr. Tobson?”

He held out his hands in supplication. “Pray forgive me for being obscure. My proposition benefits the both of us. Please, hear me out.”

Hawthorne didn’t move a muscle; she just waited.

“The botanical lab is not legally inhabited, but there are people who live there.”

“Marauders?”

“No, that is a different problem, but a problem nonetheless. No, the people living in the botanical lab - they’re deserters. Former workers. I need them back at their posts. I need them to come home.”

“What are they doing in the lab?”

Tobson shrugged. “Living a life of isolation, I suppose, and calling it freedom,” he said. “They aren’t producing. They’ve abandoned their contracts. They’re cut off.”

“But they’re living, and you want me to take away their power. How do you think they will react?”

“I do not imagine they will be pleased,” Tobson sighed. “But like a parent disciplining an unruly child, you will be doing them a kindness. There are no walls outside the botanical labs. Eventually, they’ll be overrun. As for this town, well, Edgewater is struggling. We haven’t hit our production quota in years. If we don’t meet our quote this year, the company might shut us down for good. I need those workers back at their stations.”

“Would it make a difference?” Hawthorne said. “I do not mean to be cruel, sir, but you mentioned that the Vale is in decline. The town appears to be falling apart. I understand why someone would want to start afresh.”

Tobson heaved another sigh. “As do I. The fault is entirely mine,” he said sadly. “I pushed them too hard. My hope is that by cutting off their power, you will convince those deserters to come back to town. Before you go to the plant, I want you to stop by the botanical lab. Speak to their leader, Adelaide. Tell her the power’s about to go, and that it’s time her band of deserters came back to town.”

“How will I know her?”

“Adelaide’s older than the other deserters. She’s dignified. Kindly. From what I understand, her camp looks to her for leadership.”

“Why did she leave?”

Tobson lowered his gaze. “I must once again point to myself. We had a disagreement, Adelaide and I. It went unresolved, and she left.”

“Disagreement”? Parvati thought in disbelief. I heard the yelling from the other side of the repair bay.

“I see,” said Hawthorne. “If it is still unresolved, she may not agree to return.”

He nodded. “That is not a hypothetical I enjoy entertaining. We need Adelaide back. Nevertheless, I will settle for the return of her followers. We belong to one community - the Spacer’s Choice family. If we dissolve into factions, then we will all perish separately. Adelaide will understand that.”

Parvati felt a wave of panic rising up inside her. I can’t let this lady go into this alone. I can tell she’s smart, but there’s so much she doesn’t know. She’s going to get hurt. Or they’re going to get hurt. It’ll end up being such a huge unfairness!

What am I going to do about this?

Reed

“Why are you asking me to do this, Mr. Tobson?” Hawthorne asked politely. “I am a stranger here.”

There is something about her. She seems well-trained. Professional, in fact. The truth will work in my favor here, if so. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Ms. Hawthorne, but that’s exactly why. I can’t spare any of my workers to go beyond the walls. We’re too short-handed, and they’d likely not be up for the task anyway. I need someone resourceful and intelligent.”

“And expendable.”

“I’m hoping that’s not the outcome, of course,” he said, holding up his hands. “But yes, to be brutally honest: if you fail, I’m simply back to square one, rather than losing any of my people. You must understand: it’s a hard life here, on the frontier, and as much as I am loathe to admit it, I haven’t always been successful in convincing my superiors to provide us with adequate support. The community has suffered. I don’t want to ask any more of them if I can help it. If you can help it.” He dipped his head. “Also, Adelaide and her people do not know you. This could be helpful. Adelaide’s and my relationship is, shall we say, extremely damaged. But they might see you as more…impartial. Think of it as third-party mediation. You could do the entire Vale a great service here, and get your regulator in the bargain. I’d even be willing to reimburse you for reasonable incidentals.”

“Hm,” Hawthorne said thoughtfully. “I cannot promise you results.”

Not dissuaded by the idea of being expendable at all. She is a professional! Tobson was intrigued. But whose? UDL special forces, perhaps? His hope that this stranger might be the solution to his problem — well, just one problem of many… “Of course!” He tried to remain cool despite his sense of growing relief. “I understand completely. Here — let me give you the passcode to the geothermal plant. A sign of good faith for politely listening to me ramble on.”

Parvati broke in tentatively, hesitantly. “Are you setting off for the Vale?” She asked Hawthorne. “‘Cause I know my way around. I, I mean — in case you want a guide. I mean, if that’s all right with you, Mister Tobson, sir.”

Tobson shook his head. “You are the town’s only engineer. I couldn’t possibly allow you to leave the safety of the town’s walls. Who will fix the cannery?”

Parvati looked stricken. “But —“

He held up a hand. “Don’t argue with me, Ms. Holcomb. The cannery is the heart of this community. If anything were to happen to you, restoring full power would be pointless. You’ll remain here.”

The young engineer looked between him and the newcomer, then at the floor, a downtrodden expression on her face. “I — sorry, sir. I’m sorry.”

But he’d caught Hawthorne watching this byplay carefully. She raised an eyebrow, looking thoughtful, and then centered him in a steady gaze. “You are asking me to go into your plant and reroute the power,” she said to him. “This is a technical task. I’ve only had basic training in engineering, and it’s likely insufficient for something as complicated as a power plant. If you want me to succeed, it would be best to have your engineer go with me.”

Reed saw Parvati’s eyes widen as she looked up. Such hope! She always did broadcast her every emotion like an aetherwave serial. Why, if one could figure out how to modulate the signal, one could send messages. Reed eyed Hawthorne. “What guarantee could you offer that no harm will come to her?”

She returned a grim little smile at him. “My background is, in fact, security. I’m confident that I can keep her safe. If I assess that the situation presents too much risk to her, I’ll abort the mission and will return her here. It is a low-risk approach.”

Reed leaned back, pleased that his suspicion that she was the member of some kind of professional security force was confirmed. With that new piece of information in place, he ran a quick risk calculation in his mind. The reward is great. Perhaps she is the one who can break this impasse. An outsider indeed. “I suppose that will be acceptable,” he finally said. “To maximize your chances for success. Ms. Holcomb is talented; if anything has unexpectedly broken down in the plant, I cannot doubt that she will provide useful to you.”

Hawthorne turned to Parvati. “I would be glad to have your help, Ms. Holcomb,” she said formally.

The relief that flooded Parvati’s face was palpable. “Great!” She said excitedly. “I got my wrenches and diagnosticators and hairpins and engine tape, so…I’m all set!”

Reed couldn’t help but smile at the younger Holcomb’s enthusiasm. “Well, I am glad to hear that. Best of luck to you both.” He nodded to the stranger. “Thank you again for your help. It is a lot to ask of a stranger, I know.”

He caught an expression that crossed Hawthorne’s face — a slight narrowing of her eyes as she returned his nod. She departed, pulling Parvati in her wake. Hawthorne does not trust me entirely, Tobson thought. But I do not need her to trust me. I just need her to do the job, and make Edgewater whole again.

Chapter Text

Parvati

It was funny listening to Mr. Tobson and the visitor talk to each other. They were so formal-like, but to Parvati it seemed as if it was more like the newcomer’s natural way of speaking, as opposed to the way the town administrator used it. I always felt it was how he kept himself apart from the rest of us. I suppose it was because he was supposed to be the link between Edgewater and the rest of the corporation, and has to talk fancy for the higher-ups. But she had always found it a bit intimidating. Like he was showing her he was more powerful — which he was — and it made her feel small.

Hawthorne didn’t make her feel small — she made her feel nervous, truth to be told. It was the way she had about her — the way she was so self-contained. She said that she was trained in security, and I believe it. She seemed like a professional. More professional that Spacer’s Choice. The formality of her speech was just another indicator, something that made Parvati feel that the woman’s training had to have been of very high quality. And she’d caught Hawthorne’s expression at their final parting from Mr. Tobson. She knows something isn’t right. A professional’s gotta want to know the whole story, right? Because that was what was worrying her. Mr. Tobson didn’t tell her the whole story. Parvati thought of the deserters and her heart ached.

“Um, ma’am?” She said to Hawthorne, as soon as they’d stepped out of the elevator and into the cannery’s reception area. “Could I talk with you a minute?”

Hawthorne looked around. “Perhaps not here,” she said, and instead of a rejection, it felt like a suggestion. “Is there somewhere else we can talk?”

“Well, there’s my place,” Parvati said. “It’s just on the other side of the mechanical bay.”

The stranger pursed her lips. “I truly do not wish to impose, but it has been ages since I had a shower. Would you mind…?”

“Oh gosh, no, of course, you’re abso-surely welcome. Gosh, of course!” Parvati lead the way. When they got into the house, she tilted her head and sized up Hawthorne, which the other woman bore with calm patience. “You look like you’re about my size. If you like, I’ve got some extra clothes you can borrow. Or keep, really,” she offered.

“I cannot pay you,” Hawthorne said. “At least not yet. Are you sure it isn’t an imposition?”

“Gosh, no,” Parvati repeated. “My Dad wouldn’t have it any other way. And it might help you fit in a little better here. What you’ve got…well, let’s just say we don’t see clothes like that much around here. What is it, anyway? It looks like you were plugged into something.”

Hawthorne looked uncomfortable. “It is space-faring gear,” she said. “I’d rather not get into the details just at this moment.”

Well, shoot. Parvati’s engineering passion had been awakened, and she reluctantly stuffed it back into its bottle. Or tried to. Of course she doesn’t exactly trust me yet. She just met me. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Come on in.”

After Hawthorne had showered and changed into a spare set of work clothes, Parvati sat with her at her home’s center table. She’d spread out a small meal between them: saltuna, crackers, and Spacer’s Choice brand Cheese-on-a-Budget, with some strong tea to drink, proud that her position in the town at least assured her of food — but only a little, because she ended up giving it away to those who weren't the town engineer.

With the new outfit, the stranger looked more like a local, but still didn’t move like one, or sound like one, or feel like one, and Parvati wasn’t sure she would ever be mistaken for one. Maybe if she worked in the factory for a couple of years, and went hungry most times. Parvati thought it had been a long time since this woman had gone hungry.

Well, she’s not about to start now, not in the Holcomb house. “Thank you for the meal,” Hawthorne said. “It is…it’s a kindness I will not forget. What is it you wanted to speak with me about in private?”

“It’s about what Mr. Tobson told you,” Parvati said. “He didn’t tell you the whole of it.”

Hawthorne nodded, listening intently. She loaded a cracker with cheese substitute and saltuna, content to eat — carefully, it seemed to Parvati — while Parvati talked.

“The woman he’s talking about, the leader of the deserters? Adelaide? Her name’s Adelaide McDermott, and she used to work here. And she was important, too!”

“What did she do?” Hawthorne asked.

“She was the chief flavorist at the factory. Made everything taste good. She was always coming up with new recipes, new flavors. You’d think that Spacer’s Choice would tell a little town like ours what to do in that regard, but they really respected Adelaide. She was that good. You remember that limited edition White Chocolate flavor...” she trailed off and blushed. "Of course you don't. Anyway, it was popular. And it was hers. Time was, Edgewater saltuna was famous even outside Halcyon.”

“But no more,” said Hawthorne, a question.

Parvati shook her head, letting her sadness out with a breath. “No, it hasn’t been that way in a long, long time. Things started going badly even before she left, now that I think on it. She wasn’t the first person to leave.”

“Do you know why she did it?” Hawthorne asked. “Why she left?”

“It was Mr. Tobson,” Parvati said. “What he also didn’t tell you is that he and Adelaide got in a terrific fight. It was right after her son got sick and died. I don’t know what they were arguing about, but I swear the air turned blue. I think it was about her son. Anyway, right after that, she up and left. A bunch of people went with her — lots of people were upset about the whole thing, and about the way Mr. Tobson was handling the sickness. We found out later that she had gathered up those people out there who hadn’t turned marauder and gotten them set up at the old Botanical Lab.”

“Her son died of the plague?”

Parvati nodded. “It happens ever year. The problem is that we just don’t have enough medicine. Mr. Tobson says he’s doing all he can to get HQ to send us supplies, but somehow they just don’t ever seem to make it here, or we get just a pittance.”

Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. “But the community is losing workers. Doesn’t that impact the company’s profits?”

“Used to be they’d just send replacements,” Parvati said. “That’s what made me start thinking that things are bad all over. How can it be easier to send whole people than a box of medicine?” She leaned forward. “Have you seen much of Halcyon, Captain Hawthorne?” She asked. “Is it bad all over?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Hawthorne said. “I came directly here to meet with someone, and the ship lost power.”

“Have you found the person you wanted to meet yet?” Had to have, if she’s got all this time to help Tobson with our troubles.

“He died in the landing,” Hawthorne said.

Parvati sucked in her breath. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yes,” Hawthorne said. “I did not know him, but I think I would have liked him.” She seemed to get lost in her thoughts for a moment, then shook her head as if to clear him, and Parvati felt a bit of kinship. “If anything,” Hawthorne said. “He would have taught me about the colony, and I’d have had answers for you. I’m sorry about that, but it’s something I do aim to find out. You said that the company used to send replacements? I take it they aren’t sending replacements or supplies any more?”

“No, and it’s not just medicine and workers, either. We used to get all kinds of cargo in here at least every other week. It was almost a holiday, like, when the lighters would come in, and bring us things we could buy out of the store. Now we’re lucky if we get a single cargo ship every other month, and they hardly bring anything, and the shelves on the store are mostly empty.”

“And outbound shipping? The saltuna?”

“Well, no. Saltuna…well, the stocks crashed,” Parvati explained.

“The stocks?” Hawthorne said.

“I mean the fish. They’ve been dwindling. Wilting, like. Actually, everything’s been wilting. When I was younger, the whole Vale was growing fruit and grain and the sea was full of fish. Now there’s hardly anything and we, well, you heard me talking to Mr. Tobson. He wants to pass off something else as saltuna, because we don’t catch enough. He thinks it’ll be better, and maybe that would be so, if we had Adelaide here to help us out. But we don’t, and the canner doesn’t work with what he’s trying to substitute anyhow, and I don’t know what to do…” she trailed off. I haven’t spoken this much in…in forever. She felt relieved and terrified at the same time. She would never have dared to talk like this to anyone in town — the townsfolk had their own worries, and would take it for bellyaching, and look down on her, and tell her she should go talk to the vicar. And then it would have gotten back to Tobson. And then I’d be in trouble. Especially since she was talking about the town boss’s not-so-above-the-board plans.

But the stranger just listened, nodding now and then. She didn’t look judgmental — just thoughtful. “How well do you know Ms. McDermott?” She asked.

“Me? Oh, well enough, I suppose. She knew my father well, and she was always kindly towards me, and I’d like to think she was being honest about it,” Parvati said.

Hawthorne tilted her head. “Are people dishonest here? Towards you?”

Parvati caught herself chewing on her lip. “It’s not that they’re dishonest, no Ma’am.” She ran her fingers along the edge of the table as she tried to figure out how to line up the words. “I’m kind of an odd one here,” she said, feeling heat in her cheeks. “I, ah, I don’t exactly fit in all the time. People are tired,” she added quickly. “It’s been hard. People just don’t have patience for someone who’s always asking questions, and who talks to her machinery.” The fiery feeling in her face had reached her ears and she kept her gaze on her fingertips.

Hawthorne’s head was still tilted, considering her, and Parvati shifted in her seat under that golden gaze. Finally, the visitor spoke. “It sounds as if you are making excuses for people not treating you with respect,” she said. “And yet you are the town’s chief engineer.”

“I’m, ah, well, I’m sorta the only engineer, since my Dad passed on.”

“I’m sorry,” Hawthorne said gently.

“Well,” Parvati found that she was twisting her fingers around one another. “He was sick, himself, for a long time. It wasn’t unexpected.” But it sure has been lonely without him.

“The plague?”

Parvati shook her head. “His heart. He just…wore out, is all.”

“And your mother?”

“Oh, I never knew her,” Parvati said. “She was a temporary worker here at the time — a real skilled computer technician, she was, working on the settlement’s network on a short-term contract. Oh but the company was so mad at her, too — that’s what Dad told me — when she got pregnant with me. She was almost due when the contract ran out, and the doctor — we had a real town doctor, back then — wouldn’t authorize her to leave until she’d had me. Sure enough, as soon as I was born, they got her back. She left the next day.”

Hawthorne had listened to all of this quietly, her eyes progressively getting larger as Parvati got through the tale. “She left you here? A newborn?” She asked, and to Parvati’s surprise, she sounded…well…surprised.

“She had to,” Parvati said, puzzled. Where does she come from, that this is a surprise? “She had to get back to her own office, you see. Isn’t it standard in your contract, that any children an unmarried worker has belongs to the office of conception?”

Hawthorne blinked rapidly, reminding Parvati of a bank of lights on a computer that was processing information. “I, ah — no,” she said. “It is not.”

It was Parvati’s turn to tilt her head. “What is your corporation, if you don’t mind me asking?”

This question resulted in not only a hesitation, but a certain kind of stillness that instantly had Parvati on her guard, and she held up her hands as if in self-defense. “I’m sorry — I don’t mean to pry, truly. I’m just a curious person. People are always getting annoyed at my questions and I really don’t mean to annoy you.”

Hawthorne relaxed and even smiled a little. “You’re not annoying me. Truly. It’s just…well, please understand that I don’t know where I am. This isn’t what my employer told me to expect, at my contact on the planet is dead.” She took a breath. “I assure you that I am not here to do something criminal, but I think it would be best if I didn’t say anything more just at the moment. It’s for your safety as well as mine,” she added.

Parvati felt her eyes go wide. “Gosh!” Who is she, and why is she here? Is she...is she unemployed?

Hawthorne laid her hands on the edge of the table, palm up. “I know you only have my word for it, and I would not be in the least bit upset if you decided that you didn’t want to have anything to do with me. It’s reasonable to want to know everything — I want to know everything. So if you decide not to help me with the Administrator’s job, I completely understand. I won’t even tell him. I should be able to find something out there to trade for this,” she indicated her clothes and the food.

“Absolutely not,” Parvati said firmly, shaking her head. “I said I’d do it, and I aim to keep my word, since what you’re doing for Mr. Tobson is for Edgewater. And he’s asking a lot of you — it’s not fair to let you go out there all by your lonesome. It's not safe. No matter how good you are with that rifle.

Hawthorn nodded. “Very well, then. But you can change your mind at any time.” It felt odd, being told she had a choice, and she felt a strange anticipation that she’d learn otherwise. “It is odd that he’s asking this of a stranger,” Hawthorne continued. “Why would he do that? What about your own security?” “Oh, we couldn’t spare them,” Parvati said. “Marauders. It’s dangerous out there now.”

“He knows nothing about me,” Hawthorne said.

“I think it’s obvious you’re not a tourist,” Parvati said. “You don’t have to say anything,” she said quickly. “I’m not asking! I’m just saying — it’s in the way you move. Anyway, even if he didn’t know anything about you, knowing nothing about you is probably a bonus. He doesn’t have to know. If you get killed, he hasn’t lost one of his own, if you don’t mind me saying. He’s lost nothing.”

Hawthorne laughed. “I’m expendable.”

“Well, yes.” It felt wrong to say it that way. But it’s true, so…

“But you are not,” Hawthorne pointed out. “So I’m going to keep my word to him. We’re going to go at this very slowly, and at the first sign that I think you might genuinely in danger, we’ll withdraw and come back here. And if you change your mind, I’ll get you back here in one piece. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Parvati, and smiled.

Chapter Text

Parvati

They were about two kilometers from the town along the winding road that led uphill towards the botanical lab. The landscape gently rolled away from the road closer to the town, but as they gained altitude, it did also — it had risen into high ridges on either side of them, turning the roadway into something of a canyon.

Parvati noticed that Hawthorne had not stayed in the middle of the road as they walked along it — she’d walked well off to one side, and occasionally took quick steps to cross the road and walk off to the other side. As she was there to protect Parvati, the young engineer made sure that she was always behind her guardian, even if she was the guide. As it was, hugging the verge sometimes made for a little rougher going, but more often than not, it was actually easier than using the road, which had been in bad repair for as long as Parvati could remember.

But now they were pushed back onto the edges of the pavement by the steep green walls. If it hadn’t gotten so hilly, I think she might have preferred to skip the road altogether. But I wouldn’t know the way that way, if she wanted that. I’d never leave the road. There’s…life…in those hills.

Is keeping to the sides a part of her training? Parvati wondered. She was about to ask about it when they came upon a point in the road where it bent and at that bend, there was a scattering of cargo containers. It was as if some transportation automechanical had just gone wrong and dumped its cargo here.

Which is probably what happened, Parvati thought. At any rate, this method of traveling fetched one of those boxes directly in the stranger’s way. She moved to go around it and then stopped dead, going all still-like in a way that pierced Parvati’s heart with fear.

Hawthorne eased back a bit, getting herself fully behind the cargo container with respect to whatever it was she’d seen up the road. She gestured to Parvati, pointed at a spot on the ground behind both her and the box, and barely whispered: “Move.”

Parvati felt her eyes going wide and her heart started to pound and her knees went all watery and then the whole-body tremble set in. She got behind the box and hunkered down.

Again, Hawthorne barely spoke, and Parvati strained her ears to hear: “People.” She held up four fingers, and then closed her fist and held up one. “Animal. All colorful.”

“Marauders,” Parvati whispered back.

Hawthorne nodded. She gave a quick look around — back the way they came, and then up at the ridges hemming them in. She wants to avoid them, Parvati realized. But the only way past them is through them.

It was clear that Hawthorne had come to the same conclusion. “If I go down,” she mouthed. “Run back home.” Parvati’s stomach did a flip at the thought. She swallowed and nodded.

Hawthorne paused, peeked, assessed, peeked again, and then quickly covered the distance to the other side of the road behind another container there. She held cover herself for a moment or two more. Then, she gave Parvati a brief nod, stood up, and took a single step out from behind the box. Just a step, so that she could step back into cover if she needed to.

And she needed to. “Ahoy there—“ she started to call out, and Parvati heard the marauders’ instant reaction via the sudden cacophony of guns, the growl-howls of a canid, and a sudden sustained, long shriek of inarticulate, gibbering anger that was rapidly approaching. Although she couldn’t actually see anything, she could well imagine it: at least one of the marauders — the canid, too! — was running through the fire of their comrades in order to close with Hawthorne. They’re crazy!

Hawthorne moved and brought up her weapon at the same time, folding herself around the rifle and hugging it into herself. Cradling it. Parvati was struck by the smooth way she moved, her knees slightly bent, by the precise way she placed each foot as she — flows, that’s the word — sideways and backwards and partially behind the cargo crate on her side of the road. She's making her body into a shock absorber for the rifle, Parvati thought. It’s not an extension of hershe’s an extension of the gun. It was an amazing — and terrifying — thing to see.

The rifle spoke in short bursts: three, four, six times. Parvati could only just see the shift in Hawthorne’s shoulders that indicated a change in targets and it was such a small and fast motion that she thought, for a second, that she’d been imagining things. Then she went still. The hills were still returning the echoes of the gunfire as Parvati took a peek around her cover and saw that all four marauders and their canid were lying motionless on the ground. The smell of cordite wafted towards her, acrid in the air, and she shivered even harder.

Hawthorne scanned the area as she reloaded the rifle’s magazine. When there was no further action, she relaxed slightly, flicking the safety back on. “All right,” she called out in Parvati’s direction. “They’re all down.”

The relief at the return of peace flooded through Parvati like a wave. She rose up from her crouch and realized that she was hunched and shaking. She clenched her hands together to keep them still. “That was…that was amazing. I’ve never seen anyone move so fast before.”

Hawthorne looked a little sad. “Well, I’ve had a lot of training,” she said. She slung the rifle over her shoulder and made another face, this one of annoyance. “I need to fix this sling,” she muttered. There was that line between her brows that Parvati had come to know as a sign of consternation. “They didn’t respond at all — they just attacked,” the woman said, sounding puzzled and thoughtful. “When I came back with Guard Pelham, we had to fight our way through others that behaved just like it.”

“That’s what marauders do,” said Parvati. “They don’t think like regular people any more.”

“Why?” Hawthorne moved towards, presumably, the bodies — Parvati stayed where she was. I don’t trust my legs quite yet. I just need a minute. Just a minute.

Hawthorne had apparently noticed. “Perhaps you should stay behind cover. There is a lot of blood here, and broken bodies.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Check them for identification. For personal items. I am going to requisition some of this armor and one of the rifles.”

“Requisition?”

“Take,” said Hawthorne. “They don’t need the equipment any more, and I do, and I’d like to prevent other marauders from making use of it. You should probably wear some armor as well.”

“I, ah, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to look like a marauder around here,” Parvati noted from her spot behind the crate.

“Hmmm,” said Hawthorne. “That is a very good point.” She let out a soft sigh. “I can’t leave them like this,” she said to Parvati. “I do not expect you to help me with this, and I will understand if you do not want to.”

“What are you going to do?” Parvati asked.

“Eventually, they’ll need to be buried. But for now, I’d like to put them in one of those houses, so that they can be identified, their families notified, and then buried.” She nodded up the road, seeing something that Parvati could not see from her vantage point.

Parvati felt an overwhelming sadness. Those things — identifying. Notifying. I’m not sure anyone’s up to it. But the burying, Silas could do that, yes. But what about the gravesite fees? She wanted to tell the stranger these things, but at the same time felt shame at it. So she held her tongue.

Instead, she thought about where Hawthorne was looking. She knew that beyond this stretch of the road, the land opened up again a little, making a flat place. Houses, she said. “It’s the Community Center,” she said. “The houses there are for the staff. Or were. Everyone’s either deserted or pulled back to Edgewater. Or with Ms. McDermott, I suppose.” She took a deep breath, let it out. “I’ll help you. They were part of the community once. Maybe not ours, but someone’s. They deserve some care.” And she winced a little and glanced back towards the town. If anyone heard me talking like that, they’d take me for an Iconoclast.

She took another breath to steel herself. What’s out there can’t possibly be any worse than what I’ve seen after accidents in the cannery. She stepped out, saw Hawthorne standing over one of the marauders. ...Or I might be wrong. Because I’m used to seeing crushed hands, mostly, as she suddenly understood that Hawthorne had dispatched two of the marauders with head shots. Keep it together, she told herself sternly. It had to happen, and you’re gonna on no account lose it in front of this lady.

Swallowing again, she helped Hawthorne check the casualties. One of the other marauders had sustained a neat cluster of shots to the torso and the other the holes appeared in two closely-spaced patches, rendering the armor there punctured. She noted, queasily, that the bullets had not pierced the unfortunates’ back plates. Underpowered, she thought. But still deadly for all that.

The marauders seemed to have nothing on them that spoke of people — no photoplates of family, no little trinkets or mementos. Just weapons and ammo and syringes. They had some simple pain medications on them, but —

“Hm,” said Parvati. “They seem to mostly have this stuff.” She held out a syringe so that Hawthorne could see the label: Spacer’s Choice Adrena-Time.

Hawthorne tilted her head. “Do you know it?”

Parvati nodded. “It was a brand new product from Spacer’s Choice oh, about maybe five or six seasons ago? They actually gave it away for free, that’s how big it was. A bonus, they told us, to motivate us to get the community back up to speed.”

“Did it work?”

“Yeah, it seemed to.”

“Did you take it?”

Parvati blushed. “No,” she said. “I pretended to, but I hid my ration in the house.”

“Why?”

“Well, I saw how people were happier and had more energy, sure. But I also saw how their hands would shake an’ how jittery they got. I work in the guts of machinery all day, I just didn’t think it was safe. Couldn’t say that to no one, though. They'd never listen. So I just hid it.”

“Is he still giving it out?” Hawthorne asked.

Parvati shook her head. “No. That’s the thing. It went…strange. Bad. The jitters and shakes -- workers started having more accidents. A lot of accidents. And then people got more than jittery. They got angry, started fighting more — real fist-fights, it was. And then they started to abandon the town. Lots of people, just deserting — that’s when it all started. Mr. Tobson was so mad — I’ve never — I mean, it was really really uncommon for him to get that angry. He took it so personal. It’s like…it’s like he was mad because instead of respecting it as a gift and repaying him by working harder…the minute they had some energy in their systems, they up and walked out. If they hadn’t taken it all with them when they went, I’m sure Mr. Tobson would have locked it all up and lied to the company about it.” She thought for a moment. “He’s probably still lying to them about it, now that I think on it.”

Hawthorne remained silent, gazing up the road with that deeply thoughtful look of hers.

“Well, that’s the story,” Parvati said awkwardly. “What now?”

“That house there,” Hawthorne pointed towards a house at the nearer side of the the clutch of buildings that huddled together on either side of the cracked and fraying pavement. “We’ll go clear that, and then get them in there. Perhaps there’s something inside we can scrounge. Some paint, maybe, to disguise the armor. But I want to get them inside before we leave here. And before it gets too dark.” She glanced upward. “How long before nightfall, would you say?”

Parvati looked back towards Edgewater. “Probably three hours,” she said. “You can tell by the Moonman. It’s a clock.”

“What?” Hawthorne said, blinking.

“The Moonman,” Parvati repeated, pointing at the tall, neon advertising frame that rode on rails that ringed the top of the cannery’s tower. “See how it’s rotating? There are two of them, one on either side, and the one of them is winking, and the other one ain’t. See that filigree loop on the bottom of the frame, the big one that ain’t moving? There’s one on the north side, and one on the south. If you know your north from your south, you can always tell what time it is by the position of the Moonmen. The winking one’s for the night time. People say it’s because the company expects…well, you know, at night.” She felt herself blush a little.

Hawthorne had taken all of this in with a blank expression, like a terminal whose server had too much data to process. Suddenly she blinked, hard. “Well,” she said after a moment. “I suppose that is practical.”

They both went silent again and made for the house, and stepped up onto the porch entrance of the target settler’s house, its banisters and railings all grown over with wild ivy. The leaves of the vines swayed slightly in the breeze as Hawthorne sidled up to the door. She pointed to a spot against the wall, behind her. “There,” she mouthed, and Parvati crept as quietly as she could to where the woman wanted her to be.

Hawthorne went dead still for a second, then she triggered the door and surged forward, through the doorframe in a flash, not hesitating. A half a heartbeat later, Parvati heard her call out: “Clear!”

Absolutely nothing happened for a long few seconds. Then Hawthorne’s head poked out through the doorframe, her expression sheepish. “That means you can come in,” she explained.

Parvati went in. The settler’s house was a standard Spacer’s Choice model, consisting of a single room, the back wall partitioned into a shower/toilet/sink combo and a storage unit with integrated bunk. There was a dusty desk and chair off to one side as well as the tiny kitchen area against the front wall: sink with storage cabinets, fridge, radarwave oven. She helped Hawthorne go through all of the cabinets and shelves and actually found a cache of canned saltuna and behind it —

“Look! I found a backpack!” She hauled it out and held it up upside down, shaking it. Nothing but dust fell out, but it seemed to be in good condition, its straps still securely stitched on and its closure in working order. “Since you’re security, I can be the pack animal,” she said with a grin, packing away the saltuna.

Hawthorne grinned back. “Deal.”

Parvati set the pack down off to the one side and went with Hawthorne to bring the bodies in, hot and tiring work. They left the weapons in a neat pile in a corner — excepting for the solid and practical-looking T&L rifle that Hawthorne had chosen for herself, one that did not rattle in her hands. She knelt gently laid her Spacer’s Choice model at the side of the man who’d had the T&L as if concluding a fair swap. Which Parvati supposed it was.

Hawthorne stood up. “Is there a town morgue?” She asked.

“Well, Conrad has a place,” Parvati said. “Ah, Conrad Sadik. He’s our barber.”

“Your barber has a morgue?” Hawthorne sounded dubious.

“That’s better than our vicar having it,” said Parvati, and giggled. Hawthorne only raised an eyebrow, so Parvati said, “we’re really short-staffed. Conrad does a lot of things — surgeon, barber, and also dentist.”

“How Victorian,” said Hawthorne. “Is there a pie shop downstairs?”

“What?” Parvati asked, confused.

It must have been a joke on the captain’s part, for she chuckled and said, “Old historical reference. I’m only jesting, never mind.” She looked down at the bodies again. “I think we’d best lock these in here, if the lock works.”

“Oh, I can handle that,” Parvati shouldered the backpack. They went outside Parvati took a few minutes to reset the door lock and rekey it to her and Hawthorne’s hands. “That’s a useful skill,” Hawthorne noted, a sound of approval and admiration in her voice.

“Well,” Parvati felt herself blushing. “It’s helpful from time to time. It’s not uncommon for people to damage their door locks and besides, the ones in town are old and liable to be persnickity about it.”

Hawthorne nodded. “When we get back to Edgewater, we can notify your constable about this.”

“I’m not sure Lt. Mercer will want to deal with the paperwork,” Parvati said. “But we can at least try.”

“Indeed. But first, I think, we need to make the lab before nightfall. I need to meet this Adelaide McDermott,” Hawthorne said, and there was something in her tone that sounded tense and grim. “I need more information.”

Chapter Text

Parvati

The canyon-like constriction in the road lay behind them and the way ahead, while hilly, was passable. Hawthorne stepped off the path, heading towards the nearest rise there, but stopped and turned back when Parvati hesitated.

Parvati toed the broken edge of the pavement. “Isn’t it safer to stay on the road?” She asked.

“Perhaps,” said Hawthorne. “But I am thinking that marauders and bandits will keep to the roads, and I don’t like how they follow the low points of the terrain. I prefer the heights. We’ll see farther from up here.” Clearly, she was in no mood for more surprises.

Parvati blinked. She realized that she had been yearning towards the road precisely because it was bounded on either side by hills — like walls. Like being in town. She could understand, intellectually, what Hawthorne was saying. But even despite what they’d just experienced in the boxed-in section of the road, her gut told her that she wanted to be back inside the walls. It’s what I know. “I don’t know how to get there except for the road,” she said.

“Can you draw a map?”

“I suppose. It won’t be to scale, though.”

“Show me what you can. What you know of how the road goes, where the buildings are.”

So Parvati found a patch of dirt and sketched it out. “The road runs roughly northwest. That branch road —” she pointed back at a road they’d passed in order to get to the house where they’d stored the bodies “— is a big loop to the northeast that meets up with this road to the northwest of here. There’s another road that breaks off where this road meets the loop — that goes to the power station.”

“Communities?” Hawthorne wanted to know.

“There’s another one, a little one, right where the power station road meets this road. For the station workers, it was.”

“Was?”

“They abandoned it for the town when the marauders started to get real bad,” Parvati explained. “The plant’s mostly automatic. It runs off the volcano,” she said, pointing to the mountain that was the Vale’s constant source of embers. “See? Lava’s routed through the plant; it’s all heat and water turbines running off the heat.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“Well, it’s been fine so far, but you’re right. It can’t stay like that forever.” She frowned, thinking of all of the machinery there that just…wasn’t being maintained. It bothered her, to the core of her being. It just isn’t right. It must be lonely. People need machines, but machines need people, too. “But we’re going there, right?”

“Yes,” said Hawthorne, studying the great mountain. Then she turned around and looked towards Edgewater. The cannery tower was still visible. She leaned down and added the mountain and town to the map. “Here? And here?”

Parvati nodded. “That’s right.”

“I think I can get us across the land. We’ll go slow. I don’t want to encounter any more of those marauders. I definitely want to avoid the station worker settlement. Too risky. We’ll keep close enough for navigation, but stay as far away from it as we can otherwise, all right?”

Parvati nodded again. “That sounds fine.”

They set off, Hawthorne leading the way through the grass on a mild climb up to the top of a rise. Halfway up, the grass was overtaken by a wilder sort of native plant, all over tiny red and orange and yellow flowers, gently trembling in the light breeze from the sea that brought the smell of salt and moisture and carried away the lingering smell of the carnage on the road below. On the other side of the ridge, a line of trees ran along and up the swells of the hills and met the valley’s walls: tall hexagonal basalt columns, clumped, blunted pencils stacked together upright with care by the planet’s Architect. The entire vale was rimmed by these formations, topped with more trees, the wilder kind that looked like a bunch of snakes trying to climb each other into the sky — Parvati remembered her father telling her about these wilder, native trees, how they were mostly pushed to the edges in favor of the tree species the settlers had brought with them from Earth so long ago. Not many species, because the first wave of colonists were only supposed to get things started. Most of the good stuff was on the Hope that was lost, Parvati thought. She remembered the names of the trees he’d told her that they didn’t have: coconut, almond, peach, lychee, mulberry, and her favorite one of all: pawpaw. It had always made her giggle, to hear him say that. ‘Pawpaw,’ said my Pa. I miss him so much. And then: And all those colonists onboard. All those new people to fill out their corporations.

“Look,” Parvati said to Hawthorne as they made their way along the ridge. “I know that you said you don’t want to tell me what your corporation is, and I respect that. But you’re not from this system, right?”

“That is correct. I’m not from this system. My employers sent me here, but they left much out of their description of the colony. I had no idea it was in such…trouble.”

“And then your contact wasn’t around to tell you what’s going on in the Vale.”

“Just so.”

“Well, surely it can’t be so bad in other parts of the planet,” Parvati said. “I’m sure the other company towns and factories are fine. And then there’s Byzantium. It’s so full of rich people, there’s no way it’s in any shape like we are. We’re just…behind, is all,” she finished, wishing she felt more confident about what she was saying.

Hawthorne was clearly unpersuaded. “I don’t understand how the rest of the colony could be thriving and yet leave Emerald Vale in such dire straits,” she said. “Your security forces are inadequate. You don’t have enough supplies. The disrepair, the abandoned buildings, boxes of cargo scattered about, the marauders,” she gestured down towards the broken road, where it was all evident. “How is it you haven’t been reinforced?”

“I don’t know,” Parvati said helplessly.

“You know this place far better than I do,” Hawthorne said. “Do you have enough people? Resources? To recover from this decline?”

“I don’t —” Parvati started to say, and then she stopped herself. She could hear her Da’s voice in her head. No, Parvati. Speak the truth. Be bold, because not speaking the truth right now makes your so much harder later. “No,” she said. “We don’t. The Vale’s been fading something terrible for a long time, and it’s not going to get any better. We’re dying.”

Hawthorne nodded. “Yes,” she said. Just that word, simply accepting what it was Parvati had said.

It felt so strange. I ain’t used to people listening, and actually believing what I say, Parvati thought. “What can we do?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet,” said Hawthorne. “Maybe you can turn it around — you’re capable and intelligent and you know this place. Surely you’re not the only person with skills and drive in Emerald Vale? Maybe all you’ve been wanting is outside eyes. I can be those eyes for you.”

“Maybe,” said Parvati. Outside eyes! It was so compelling, this thought that it could actually be possible to have hope for a better future, rather than just wearily waiting for it to grind itself to oblivion. She suddenly realized that it was exactly what she had been doing: waiting it out. And the realization horrified her. That is not me! And yet… “The problem is so big,” she said, her voice sounding small to her.

“Well, one thing at a time, then. There are smaller things we can do. Let’s see what Ms. McDermott has to say. And we can take care of those people down there, in the house. I think that taking care of people, in however small a way you do it, is always a good first step.”

Parvati winced at that. She’d hesitated before, but this was the second time Hawthorne had advanced this plan. I’ll feel terrible if she doesn’t find out until she’s talking to Connie Mercer. So: “Ah,” Parvati said. “There may be a problem with that. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to do much. Reports breed reports worse'n sprats, is what the constable always says — she doesn’t like to make ‘em. What if they can’t figure out who these people are? They’d have to ask higher up, and Mr. Tobson won’t want to admit there’s a problem.”

“What about your undertaker?”

“What?”

“Your, ah, Junior Inhumer?”

“Silas? Oh, yes, he could probably do something, but I don’t think he will. Not with the wildlife and marauders out here. Plus, I don’t think these folks have paid their fees. I, ah, I thought about mentioning it earlier and didn’t. Sorry. When you talked about burying them.”

Hawthorne blinked. “What happens to the bodies of people who haven’t paid their fees?”

It was Parvati’s turn to blink. “You know, I don’t know. We always paid them, or they got put on our debt. I suppose that if these people have accounts with the company, they fees would just get added, along with a huge charge for being delinquent workers,” Parvati said. “Their heirs…whew! I wouldn’t want to be them.”

“Why not?”

Parvati was at a loss. “Because of the debt they’d inherit?” She said, confused. “A person’s heirs inherit their debts. Is this not a thing with your company?”

“No,” said Hawthorne. “It is not, except in very unusual cases.” She narrowed her eyes. “What does the company charge for?”

“Beg pardon?”

“I mean, the employees. You are paid wages, yes?”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“Do you get benefits?”

“Benefits?” Parvati was at a loss.

Hawthorne stopped dead in her tracks and turned to face her, and by her expression, she was at a loss, too. “Benefits. Things that the company provides to you in order to maintain your health, well-being, and productivity. Such as a medical care, or a stipend for it. Group savings, so that if you suffer some catastrophic injury or illness, you have a means to pay for your care. Housing. Food. Provision and support for your old age.”

'Provision and support'? “Uh, no, there’s none of that. I mean, we do get wages, of course we get wages,” said Parvati.

“If you bought absolutely nothing you didn’t need in, say, a month’s time, how much money would you be able to save out of your wages?”

“Save?” It was the strangest feeling in the world. She’s speaking Standard, but I’ll be dipped if I have the foggiest notion of what she means. “You mean as in leftover money, after you got done paying rent and for food and your town fees and grave fees and all that?” She shook her head. “Nothing, most like — it would all go towards your debt. Or your family’s debt,” she added.

Hawthorne looked past her, back along the path they had come, back towards the town. The light was beginning to fade and some of the working warning lights on the cannery’s tall tower had come on. The big Spacer’s Choice sign wasn’t fully lit yet, though — or at least as lit as it could be, what with half the power being diverted to the Botanical lab — so it wasn’t officially be night-time.

“Do you know anyone in Edgewater who is not in debt to Spacer’s Choice?” Hawthorne asked.

Parvati’s breath caught in her chest. “Ah, no. It’s…” I hadn’t really thought of it before.

“So Spacer’s Choice has a guaranteed means of renewing its workforce,” Hawthorne said. “In that the children of its employees must be employed to work off their parents’ debt, and then their children follow them…tell me, do you know of anyone who’s ever been debt-free?”

“No,” Parvati said, surprised to hear herself say it out loud. Never have I ever. It is how they keep us. No, they don’t keep us. They own us.

Something of Parvati’s sudden realization must have shown on her face. Hawthorne’s expression softened. “It is a bad situation,” she said gently. “One that we are not going to solve today. Right now, we have to do what we can with what we have, I think — and something must be done about these bodies, if your Inhumer will not bury them, or is not allowed to. It would be disrespectful to leave them to rot.”

“I have a digger in the bay back in Edgewater,” Parvati said. “If you’re willing to be my security, I can bring it out here and dig a hole for them. You just, ah, you just couldn’t tell Mr. Tobson. He’d be upset at me using company equipment like that.”

“I’ll do better,” said Hawthorne, expression grim. “I will bill him for it, as necessary for public health, and then pay it to you as a consultant’s fee.”

“I, ah, I —“ said Parvati. “I don’t think he’ll agree, ma’am.”

“Well, if he does, then you can apply it towards your family debt.” Hawthorne shifted and looked around. “How far is the botanical lab from here?” She asked.

Parvati pointed. “Just over that ridge and up the road a ways. There’s a little box canyon over there, and that’s where the lab is.”

Hawthorne nodded and set off again, and Parvati followed. “We should get into cover before full night,” the Captain said. “We’ll go talk to Ms. McDermott and see what we can learn. She and hers also might have some digging equipment.”

“You going to charge her?

“It depends,” said Hawthorne. “On whether and how she can pay.”


“We don’t really know why people started deserting,” Parvati was saying as they hiked. “Adelaide thought it was the food, an’ the sickness that did it, and the overwork. Or underwork, depending on what was going on with the cannery. When Bess was online, Mr. Tobson had them at their stations without rest — to get out the quota and get the shipping back on schedule. And when she weren’t, people got frustrated ‘cause there was nothing to do.” The thought of the cannery not working embarrassed her — I know I shouldn't take it personal, but it’s not her fault. “I did my best to make her work, my Bess, and for the most part, she’s a good girl, she is,” she insisted. “She can’t help it, being asked to do what she weren’t meant to do. Just like the people.” She sighed. “Mr. Tobson said that the townsfolk deserted was because people who cut themselves off of their corporate families can’t help but lose their minds. People need family, he said, and without their families, they’re just…lost.”

Hawthorne nodded. She was scanning the way ahead, eyes narrowed. “What do you think?”

Parvati tried to scan ahead, too, but it was strange. I’ve been in the town so much, I’m not used to looking very far. The hills are scary. They’re so…so organic. “I…I think it might be a combination of these things. It can’t be lack of company — I mean, those four we met were together, right? And they had a canid. So it has to be something else, or in addition to, I’m thinking.”

“I think you’re right,” said Hawthorne. “It’s very odd and alarming behavior. Unless people here are already, hmm, culturally aggressive?”

Parvati shook her head. “Oh no. People in the town are peaceful. Mostly they’re too tired to be aggressive, actually.”

“Have you been anywhere else in the colony?”

“No,” Parvati said with a wistful sigh. “But I’d like to. I’d like to go to the Groundbreaker — I can’t imagine what it would be like, to live and work inside a whole machine like that. It must be amazing, and the engineers there have to be amazing, too. To work on it from the inside, all the time!” Sometimes Parvati couldn’t believe that such a thing was actually real.

That seemed to ring a bell in the stranger’s head. “The Groundbreaker…the first ship to Halcyon,” she said, a question.

“Yes,” said Parvati. “The biggest ship in the whole system. Now a station, a waypoint. Independent,” she added, and found herself unable to keep the admiration out of her voice.

“Independent?” Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. “The government allows this?”

“Well, the Board can’t really object, at least not technically, ‘cause it was in the contract you see. That the Tennyson family got to keep it as their very own, as wages for staying awake the whole ten years of the Crossing. Gosh, can you just imagine? A ship that big, as your very own?” She shook her head to regain her focus. “Listen to me, gushin’ on like that. Sorry. It’s just — aaa, I’m doin’ it again. Sorry. Anyway, Groundbreaker is kind of like neutral territory, a waypoint and clearing house for non-Board companies coming in from out-system. Like yours. Unless…” she trailed off, feeling a chill in the pit of her belly. Only smugglers come in and don’t go to Groundbreaker, Parvati thought. If she doesn’t know about Groundbreaker, she has to be working for smugglers. Oh, this is so illegal —

It must have shown on her face. “You’re worried that I’m here to do something illegal,” Hawthorne said, another question.

“Ah, the thought had crossed my mind,” Parvati admitted. “You’re very kind and you’re amazingly —“ scary “— good at what you do, but…” she trailed off.

Hawthorne nodded. “I will be honest with you: I don’t know whether what I’m going to do here is going to be legal or not. I wasn’t properly briefed. But it probably won’t be. This business with the power converter — I know your administrator hasn’t told me everything, or told you everything. I’ll understand if you don’t want any part of it. Just tell me, and we’ll turn around right now and I’ll get you back home safely.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I need that power converter or I’m trapped here. I have three choices: take one or the other, or do nothing and stay here, either forever or until the next cargo shipment. I can’t stay here and I need to be able to move independently, for reasons related to my mission, that I still feel is unsafe for you to know — for your safety, that is. So I have to use my own ship. And to do that, I have to take one of the converters. So I am going to do that. But I am going to do my best to make the best choice for the people here — for all the people here. And then I’m going to find out how and why this place was allowed to reach this state, which is another reason I really need to be able to leave — because all signs point to this being a bigger problem than just what’s happening in the Vale.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know yet — get you and the rest of the Vale the attention, or the supplies you need in order to halt this decline, maybe. I don’t know that I can. But I believe my mission will help. It…” she sighed. “It has to do with resources. I can’t get into it any more than that. So it’s the same as before: are you content with knowing so little? You don’t have to be. You can choose to walk away from this, and I will not object.”

Trying to help. Resources. Parvati stopped and turned. This is a really good vantage point, she thought, looking out over the broad valley of her home. I can see the town, and the sea. I can see the whole Vale. The lava flow, what took out the eastern fields. The rest of the fields that are all grass and flowers now, but no crops. The sea that’s dying. The town that’s dying. The way things are has to change, and here she is, thinking to figure it out. She wants to help. She wants to help me help us.

She’s dangerous. ‘Probably not legal’, she said. But the Law knows that the laws ain't been helping, and she says she wants to do things for the people, and by the Law, I believe her. I can take a chance, or I can go and die with the Vale. And that was something that Robert Holcomb’s daughter would not do.

“I still intend to help you, Captain Hawthorne,” Parvati said. And then added, “but I might change my mind later.”

Hawthorne smiled. “I accept, Engineer Holcomb.”

Chapter Text

Parvati

The branch of the road that led to the Lab split off and plunged into a cleft between walls of solid rock: it was a box canyon with a narrow entrance that curved a little, blocking further view. Parvati knew that the end of the canyon opened up into a much larger space where the Lab proper was to be found. She remembered that it was surrounded by a cluster of buildings that had previously served as housing for the staff. Now home to Adelaide’s little community. Is it right of us to take their power away from them?

“This is a good defense,” murmured Hawthorne at her side. “It’s a fortress. No wonder Tobson hasn’t been able to do anything about them.” No, not at all, Ma’am — which is why he wants you to do it for him.

A tall figure had centered itself in the entrance to the end of the canyon and blocked their advance. Parvati recognized her: Grace Romero. She was a hard-bitten woman, a dark green leather jacket over dark brown pocketed trousers, a pair of good solid brown boots on her feet. Her hair matched the boots, with hazel eyes set in a fair-skinned face. Romero’s skin had picked up its fair share of scars, some visible on the backs of her hands, and some on that face cast deep in shadow by the wide brim of her hat. She’s gone hand-to-hand with the wildlife more than once, Parvati thought. In Edgewater, Romero had been a shift supervisor. And now she’s a guard.

It was clear that Romero did not intend to go hand-to-hand with anything today: she had a solid-looking rifle in her hands, one that seemed similar to the one that Hawthorne carried, and she had stationed herself at a point where she had a good view of whatever it was that came up the road. She held her rifle at the ready as Parvati and Hawthorne approached. “Hold on up there, strangers. Who are you and what do you want?”

“Uh, hello there, Ms. Romero, isn’t it?” Parvati said. “It’s Parvati Holcomb, and this here is a visitor to Edgewater, Captain Alex Hawthorne. We’re here to see Ms. McDermott, if it’s all right.”

Romero relaxed and shifted her rifle, slinging it from her shoulder. “Parvati Holcomb is it? Those closed-minded idiots in town finally give you the boot?”

Parvati felt blood rush to her face. “Um, not as such, Ms. Romero,” she said. “I still live there. But I don’t have any complaint with you an’ yours. I understand. I just offered to help this lady come meet Ms. McDermott, seeing as she don’t know the Vale and it’s gotten dangerous lately.”

Romero nodded. “That it has,” she said with a frown. “Go on in. Just keep it peaceful —“ this to Hawthorne “— or you’ll have to answer to me. Oh, and mind you don’t wander back behind the settlement. We’ve set up mines.”

Parvati blinked. “Mines?”

Romero nodded again. “Sometimes the marauders get a little ambitious, and we’re a bit short-handed at the moment.”

Hawthorne dipped her head — it seemed to Parvati that she was a professional acknowledging another professional. “Understood, Ms. Romero,” the Captain said. And with that, Romero stepped aside and let them in.


The first thing Parvati noticed was that there was a marked difference between the smell and feel of the air in the Lab’s box canyon and that of Edgewater. It smells fresher. Richer. Greener, somehow.

The second thing that Parvati noticed was the sound of the little community’s energy: it was working, but maybe it wasn’t quite tuned. There was a subtle hum to it — its own voice — and had a quality to it that said clearly to her, “I need maintenance.” It's the same as Edgewater, in other words.

The community had something like a village green out in front of the actual lab. The people here had built a firepit in the center of the green and it clearly was their gathering place, for there were several people gathered around, sitting and standing. Beyond the green and the pit and the people and facing the lab, Parvati saw the building that housed the Lab’s power-generating equipment. It had a small attached workshop, open on one side, with all the equipment necessary for machining parts and making repairs: a combination milling machine and macro-/micro-repair station, a printer, a lathe. There was a young man standing at the station, and she recognized him.

“Oh,” Parvati said to Hawthorne. “There’s Thomas. Can we go talk to him for a second? He might know some things.”

“Certainly,” said Hawthorne, following her as she went into the workshop.

Thomas was her age. He’d always been pasty-pale in Edgewater, and perhaps being with Adelaide’s deserters had done him some good: he was tanned, now, though still as dirty as ever. Is his hair as wild as ever, too? But he’d pulled a knit cap over his head, so she couldn’t tell. He saw them coming and his expression lit up with something akin to wonder: he had pale green eyes with the irises ringed in gold that made him seem permanently bright-eyed.

“Ms. Parvati!” He exclaimed. “I’m so glad to see you!”

“Hello, Thomas,” Parvati said. “This here is Captain Hawthorne, she’s a stranger in the Vale an’ I’m taking her to see Ms. McDermott. Captain Hawthorne, this is Thomas Kemp.” Introduction complete, she gave Thomas a little smile. “You can call me ‘Parvati’, you know,” she said to him.

His pale skin pinkened and he rubbed the back of his hat. “Gosh, Ms. Parvati, I don’t know.”

“Are you the engineer here now?” Parvati asked.

He nodded. “I sure am!” He said brightly. “Though of course I ain’t nowhere as near as good as you, Ms. Parvati.” He looked embarrassed again. “Actually, I’m not very good at all,” he admitted. “But I’m trying.”

“Are you hooked into the commweb here?” Parvati asked. “The engineers in Groundbreaker have a Critter account, and they post some really interesting and useful tidbits now and then. They make you think,” she added. “And then you look at your own gear, and suddenly it makes more sense.”

“Oh no, Ms. Parvati,” Thomas said. “I’m afraid we don’t have anything like that. Er, yet. We just have standalone pads. I’m hopin’ to get us connected, though, as soon as I figure out how. Maybe — if you stay, that is — you could help me out with that?” His raw hope was so clear on his face, it broke her heart to crush it.

But crush it she did. “I’m so sorry, Thomas. I’m only here to help this lady. We won’t be staying.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” said Thomas. “I think you’d like it here more than Edgewater. People would really respect you here.”

“It’s not so bad in town, Thomas, really it isn’t,” Parvati said. Why am I lying?

“If you say so,” Thomas sounded doubtful. “It’s just really so much better here. I always felt like I was in the way there. Here, I have something to do — they need me. Never been needed afore. It’s a nice feeling.” He frowned. “I just wish I had some manuals. I know there are some engineering ones out there in the Vale, but it’s just too dangerous to go get them,” said Thomas. “If I had those, I wouldn’t have to ask, or have to figure out how to hook us into the commsweb — I know I could actually be useful here, if only I could do some learning. As such, I just…well, I just feel like I’m always letting people down — I feel like a fraud.” He looked miserable.

Parvati blinked. “I have one of those manuals, Thomas. It was my Da’s. I can bring it to you, if you like.”

He perked up. “Really? You mean it?”

“Oh, sure. I’d be happy to let you borrow it.”

His smile lit up his face. “That’s wonderful, Ms. Parvati, thank you! That’ll help out so much.”

“Of course! And it’ll go to better use here than in town, for sure,” Parvati smiled at him.

“Do you know where the other manuals are?” Hawthorne asked.

Thomas jumped a little, as if she’d startled him. She’s so still, he forgot she was there. “Ah, yes, Ma’am,” he said. “Ah, I heard that one of them’s in the Community Center, back when there was a place for schoolin’ there, but it’s overrun by marauders now, so. And one of them’s in the power plant.”

“Ah,” said Hawthorne. “We’ll be going to the power plant at some point. I’ll keep an eye out for the manual.”

Parvati smiled. “Me, too. No point in leaving it there.”

Thomas’ eyes widened. “You’re going there? Both of you? But it’s so dangerous!”

“How so?” Asked Hawthorne.

“The mechanicals — ah, the security mechanicals. They’ve gone crazy.”

Parvati frowned. “What do you mean, crazy?”

“They shoot anything that tries to get into the complex,” Thomas said. “Anything alive, that is. I managed to sneak up close enough to get a peek inside the guard shack — all the people, the human security, they was all dead. At first I thought it had been marauders, but then I saw how they was burned up, like. It was the mechanicals’ energy weapons what did it. Then one of them noticed me and shot at me, and I ran as fast as I could.” He shuddered. “Lucky to be alive.”

“Huh,” said Parvati, and felt driven to say the obvious: “That ain’t right. All of the mechanicals, you said?”

“Uh-huh.” Thomas nodded.

“Thank you for that information, Mr. Kemp,” said Hawthorne, startling him again. “We’ll be careful, I assure you.”

“Please, please don’t get hurt, Ms. Parvati,” said Thomas. “I couldn’t stand knowing you went out there and got hurt.”

Parvati wrung her hands to keep herself from patting him on the shoulder, which she wanted to do but knew he’d take the wrong way. “Don’t worry, Thomas. Captain Hawthorne is amazing at protecting me. We’ll be fine. Gotta go talk to Ms. McDermott now. So take care, okay?”

Thomas nodded. “Will do!” He was trying to sound chipper, she knew, but as they walked away, she could feel the anxiety radiating off of him. As if he was an unshielded generator for feelings — which he is, actually.

They crossed the community green. There was a small grove of mock apple trees on the other side, next to the Lab, casting a cool and dappled shade across the building’s entrance on this side. Hawthorne stopped, reached down, and picked up a mock apple that had fallen to the ground. She considered it, then looked at Parvati.

“He seems attached to you,” she observed. It made Parvati blink, expecting as she was a comment about the apple.

“Ah, yes, he’s, ah, he’s sweet on me,” Parvati said, blushing. “Always has been, since we was little.”

Hawthorne tilted her head. “But you aren’t sweet on him,” she said as she tucked the apple into her pack. But she’d said it in such a way that didn’t sound like a judgement. More like she’s just stating a fact.

“No,” Parvati said. “He’s so…young.” Which is a weird thing to say, she realized. Since we’re both the same age.

“Inexperienced,” Hawthorne suggested. “He isn’t at your level, which is what you’re interested in, perhaps? I imagine it would take a lot of work to get him to where you could work together as equals.”

“That’s it, yes,” Parvati said. “If I were ever with someone, I would want it to be someone I could talk to, someone I could work with. Thomas is sweet, but I think I’d have to spend most of my time supervising and teaching him. And I’m afraid he’d want…well…I’m afraid he’d end up wanting physical stuff.” She felt her cheeks growing hot.

“Physical stuff?” Hawthorne asked. “You mean sex.”

“Um, yes.” Parvati was sure her cheeks were glowing. “Are you interested in it?”

Hawthorne tipped her head. “With the right person, certainly. You?”

“Not really. That’s the problem. I’m just…not interested in that. Never was. It makes me feel uncomfortable. People say I’m cold.”

Hawthorne's brows furrowed. “You are one of the warmest people I know. Wanting sex doesn’t mean you’re warm. It just means you’re sexual.

“They’re not the same thing?”

“Do you think that sex and caring about people are the same thing?”

Parvati thought about all of the times she hugged her Pa, and he hugged her back. She thought about all the affection she had for the mechanicals and machinery she cared for. She thought about her own fondness for the few people in town who gave her the least scrap of friendship, and how despite all the people who didn’t, she still cared intensely about her community and its well-being. It was more than just careIt is love. Love is bigger, she thought. It is bigger than sex. Sex can just be one part of love, but it doesn’t have to be. “No, they’re not,” she said firmly.

“Good,” said Hawthorne, just as firmly. “Hold to that.”

Interlude

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Critter: an important means of notification & information in the Halcyon commsweb. Moderation by Universal Defense Logistics: we take your safety to heart!

Chapter Text

Adelaide

Sunlight lanced through the glass clerestory of the laboratory in golden rays, stroking across the wide branches and outlining the leaves of the four trees she was incubating in the center of the main nursery room. Adelaide had programmed the lab to open the east-facing windows at this hour so that the sea breeze, funneled in through the box canyon’s main entrance, could ruffle the treetops. The lab, already alive, felt even more so with the motion: it was her favorite time of day.

She walked the paths between the trees, always examining, always double-checking that the nutrient systems were properly balanced, that nothing was clogged or leaking. Everything in its proper proportion, she thought. She felt a deep satisfaction at the rich greens and blues of the plant life, sure sign that all her hard work was paying off. This bredfruit tree is almost ready to transport to the test plot, she thought, touching the tree’s broad palmate leaves as if they were the hands of a good friend. It’s time to see if the fertilizer will support a bredfruit tree out there as well as it does grain and mock apples. The wind sighed gently and she smiled. The Vale is pleased to have life in it again.

The eastern airlock opened and two people entered — newcomers to her community of independent, free-minded souls. Adelaide recognized one of the two: Robert Holcomb’s child. Parvati. Have the townsfolk finally driven her out? They always resented her for her place there, and they never really appreciated her talents.

The other person was a complete stranger. Everything about her, from her head to her toes, screamed outsider! There was nothing about her — not in the way moved and occupied the space, to the way she keenly took in the nursery in quick efficient scans, as if everything were brand new to her experience — that remotely resembled the people native to the Vale. Well, well, well. What do we have here?

The woman was dark-skinned but her hair was shock-white, in a way that Adelaide guessed was not due to genetics. There is a person who has experienced a deep trauma. She was intensely curious about the effect. What did that to her?

“Ah, good morning, Ms. McDermott,” Parvati Holcomb said in that hesitant and awkward way she had always had about her. “It’s me, Parvati Holcomb,” she added.

Adelaide smiled warmly. “Of course I remember you, child. I’m very glad to see you here — you are very welcome.”

“Ah, thank you, Ma’am,” Parvati said. “This here is Captain Alex Hawthorne. She’s visiting the Vale. She’s, ah, she’s got a question, ah, a request…” she faltered.

Adelaide narrowed her eyes. “Reed Tobson sent you, didn’t he?”

It was the stranger who spoke. “Yes,” she said, simply.

All of Adelaide’s good will vanished in an instant. “You can tell that bastard that I’ll have no truck with him, ever, after what he did to my boy,” she spat through her anger. The nerve! “Coward saw a stranger and thought, ‘ah, I’ll let her deal with it, did he?”

Hawthorne seemed unfazed. “Yes,” she said. “I think that’s exactly what he thought.”

“And you agreed to it?”

“I agreed to speak with you,” the woman replied.

“What does he want?”

“My ship is disabled,” said Hawthorne. “I need a power regulator to repair it. And I must leave the Vale. Edgewater no longer receives deliveries on a regular basis; I can’t wait for other transport. I must fix my ship.”

“And Reed told you you could take our regulator,” said Adelaide darkly.

“He did,” said Hawthorne.

“Well, it’s not his to give. I am so sorry for your trouble,” Adelaide let a little sweetness into her voice. “You do know he has a regulator in that town of his, don’t you? The place already dead, so it wouldn’t matter in the least if you took it. You’re welcome to it.”

“I will take one of them,” said Hawthorne. “I haven’t decided which one.” There was such a feeling of confidence to the woman’s words, as if she were capable of ordering the course of the universe, it that Adelaide’s blood ran cold. Nonsense. But something in the woman’s stance made her believe it anyway.

“Take his, then,” Adelaide said. “Like I said. Reroute all the power to us. You’ll be doing the Vale a favor.”

“Why?” Hawthorne asked.

“Well, for one, it would free those poor folk from that void-damned cannery.”

“Hey!” Parvati protested. “None of this is Bess’ fault!”

“Keep out of this, girl,” Adelaide snapped. “Some of us are softer for people than machines.

She saw a flash of anger in Hawthorne’s expression before the woman had chance to clamp down on it. Ah, so you do care, eh? Hm. Best not make her decision for her, though. She gentled her tone. “That was unkind of me, child, please forgive me,” Adelaide said to Parvati. “I know you care, and I care about you.” She spread her hands. “The situation between my people and Edgewater wears on me. The people of that town are good people, and they’re trapped there by the company’s greed. And by Reed’s — the man can’t see how Spacer’s Choice has abandoned him. He keeps the town under his heel in the hope that they’ll take notice. But they never will. If the townsfolk would just leave him and come here, we could thrive again.”

“In this place?” Hawthorne asked. “It’s too small for all of Edgewater.”

“We could expand, take some of the nearer facilities. The Community Center, for example. If we just had enough people to take and then hold them.”

“Edgewater has walls,” Hawthorne pointed out.

“And sickness, and Spacer’s Choice, and Reed Tobson,” Adelaide replied. “Let the walls hold that all in and keep it away from those that want to be free. Do you work for a company, Captain Hawthorne?”

“At present, I am working independently,” Hawthorne said, sounding perhaps a bit cautious to Adelaide’s ear.

“Then you know what it is to chart your own course. That’s all we seek to do here. Take a look around, I ask you. The evidence of your own eyes will show you that this community is better. And I don’t mean subjectively, either. We’re healthier and happier here. You’ll see no sickness here, no misery. Look up — do you see all of this?” Adelaide gestured around her and then upward, where the breeze made the sun-dappled leaves dance.

The stranger looked. “I see it,” she said. “These are crops from Earth,” she added, a question.

“Yes,” Adelaide told her proudly. “What do you know of Halcyon’s history? Because it seems to me you might be from out-system, am I correct?”

“You are.”

“This lab was one of the first facilities established on Terra 2, when the original settlers came to Halcyon and had their troubles on Terra 1.” At Hawthorne’s raised eyebrow, Adelaide explained: “Terra 1 was the first planet the colonists tried to terraform. But the planet was too different, too hostile for it to really take. The Hope was supposed to bring the second wave of scientists, who might have been able to do something about it, but the ship never arrived. So eventually the settlers were overwhelmed, and the Board moved its agriculture and aquaculture to here, Terra 2.”

“Where it also seems to be failing.”

“Yes,” said Adelaide. “It held for a while, but then crashed. The Vale is sterile. That’s why Edgewater is dying, and we here are not.”

“Because the soil here is…not sterile?” Hawthorne glanced towards the entrance they’d used, and Adelaide knew she was thinking of the mock-apple orchard just outside.

“The original settlers used this facility to prepare plants and soil for planting. They’d transfer it out into the Vale. It took quite well for a generation or so, but as you can tell, it did not last. So when I left Edgewater, I came here, and revived the work. Everything I needed was here.”

“You’re a botanist?” Hawthorne asked.

“I am now. I’ve had extensive on-the-job training, as you can tell. Come, take a look at our soil preparation room.” Adelaide led the way into the laboratory adjacent to the greenhouse. She watched as Parvati and Hawthorne took in the smell of the place — part life, part rot. Parvati wrinkled her nose. “Yes,” Adelaide said to her. “It takes some getting used to, but it’s become one of my favorite smells.” She laughed lightly at the girl’s expression. “I know, I know. But it means that we can grow our own food. We’re not dependent on the company to eat, and our food is fresh and full of life instead of chemicals.

“Take these,” she said, showing them a rack of deep square pots arranged in layers, the rack’s frames holding them at a slight angle for easy access. Large, triangular green leaves, patterned with ripples and almost glowing green in the light, exploded out of the pots and hung over their edges, a veritable wall of life. It lifted Adelaide’s heart to see it. “These are potatoes,” she told her visitors.

“Ooo, what color?” Parvati asked, excited. “Or all the colors?”

“None of them,” said Adelaide with a smile. “Or, at least, that’s our goal.” She retrieved a hand trowel from a nearby table and busied herself at one of the pots, gently digging the young root of a plant. A small potato grew there, still immature; she neatly severed it from its parent plant and handed it to Robert’s girl. “Go ahead, break it open.”

The fat little root parted with a clean snap! in Parvati’s fingers. Inside, the flesh was a pale blue color, lightly stippled with darker blue spots. “Oh!” Said Parvati. Her companion peered over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “They’re normally so much brighter than this,” Parvati told her. “That’s how Rizzo’s make their vodka colors. This is so faint…”

“I’ve always felt there was something terribly wrong with Spectrum potatoes,” Adelaide told Parvati as Hawthorne wandered along the other racks lining the walls, her yellow eyes roving over the plants. “Rizzo did too much tinkering, child. Too much engineering, too many chemicals, too much color. They made their potatoes to appeal to the eye, but not to nourish the body. We aim to change that here, and these potatoes are simply one of the many initiatives that my revitalization of the soil is helping us to pursue.

“And it’s paying off,” she concluded proudly. “Feel free to walk around, take a look at everyone: you’ll see we’re all healthy. This is what our work has achieved.”

“These are teeth,” Hawthorne said in a remarkably matter-of-fact tone. She was standing by one of Adelaide’s processing tables, where there was a pile of five bits of gold. “Human teeth,” she added.

I thought I’d disposed of those. The stranger had gone still again, calmly regarding Adelaide — her eyes are almost the same color as the teeth, Adelaide thought. She stifled a sigh. Ah, well, nothing for it now.

Parvati looked and then slapped her hands to her mouth to stifle a gasp of horror. Adelaide let out a friendly, light laugh and patted her on the arm. “That they are,” she told them. “You've discovered my secret to reviving the soil. All it wanted was nutrients, and the human body contains exactly the nutrients we need to grow nutritious food.”

“As within, so without,” Hawthorne murmured.

“Just so,” said Adelaide, pleased.

“Where—?” Parvati managed to squeak.

“The graveyard, child,” Adelaide said. “When the marauders don’t provide us of their bounty themselves.”

“You rob the graveyard, grind up the bodies, and mix them with the soil,” Hawthorne said, as if she needed to say the words out loud to understand them.

Adelaide folded her hands. “I prefer to think of it as revering our dead by allowing them to revitalize the living. It’s due to them that we were able to restore the soil here. It’s due to them that we’ve been able to return people to health with a healthy diet of good, clean vegetables and fruit. So we owe them our eternal gratitude and believe me, we know it. Isn’t it better this way, child? Those unfortunates may be gone, but they may yet serve those who remain. Wouldn’t you want to do that, when it’s your time?”

Parvati swallowed. “I may and I might, when you put it that way, Ms. McDermott. I…I think I”d be happy to volunteer, I mean, after I’m gone and all. But it’d be my choice. These people…you didn’t ask.”

“No, and I’m sorry for that,” Adelaide said. “Our need is great, and we don’t have a way to ask them.”

“I go out near every week to spend time with my Da at his grave,” Parvati seemed to be caught in some place between anger and grief. “Now I have to know…is he still there?”

“Of course, child,” Adelaide said gently. “Robert died so long ago, he’s naught but bones by now. We haven’t disturbed him him.”

Tears were welling in Parvati’s eyes. “Captain, I need to step out a spell,” she said in a pale, watery voice.

“Of course,” Hawthorne said, and Robert’s girl slipped back into the greenhouse.

“Are you morally outraged, Captain?” Adelaide asked Hawthorne politely. “Will you take our regulator now, and kill this place -- these beautiful things?” She gestured at her beloved trees. Do you even care about beauty?

“No, to your first question,” said Hawthorne. “At least not intellectually. As for your second question: I haven’t decided.”

“Well, then, let me know if there’s anything more that you need before you decide whether or not to destroy us,” Adelaide let the sarcasm into her voice.

Hawthorne appeared to ignore the sarcasm entirely. “Thank you, Ms. McDermott,” she said, formal and polite. “I’ll do that.” She turned and headed back towards the greenhouse. “Have you investigated what makes the marauders marauders?”

“Not yet,” Adelaide said, caught off guard by the question. “But we haven’t had any issues with the food so far.”

“Ah,” said the stranger. “Well, if you look just south of the Community Center, you should find some materials for your compost. I'd advise caution until you know for sure, however.”

Adelaide blinked. What an odd creature. She followed and fell in step beside her. “I must admit that I’m confused, Captain. You say you haven’t made a decision, but then you tell me where to find bodies for my soil. What do you want?”

“In the short term, I need a power regulator,” the Captain answered. “In the long term, I want to understand what is happening in the colony, and do what’s best for the people.”

Adelaide snorted. “You take a lot upon yourself.”

“Yes,” Hawthorne said. “Everyone should. But it’s clear that very few people here have.”

“If you’re waiting for the corporations to care about the common folk, you’ll be waiting a very long time,” Adelaide said.

“I’m not waiting,” said Hawthorne.

Chapter Text

Parvati

Parvati had retreated to the greenhouse and its good, clean air. Something about the trees and the gentle susurrus of their leaves comforted her, but only a little: she could not stop thinking about what they were consuming through their roots. She hugged herself and walked around and listened to the burbling of the system’s clear plas pipes, their contents a shimmering teal-like color that was lovely…until, again, she thought of what it was that Adelaide McDermott was doing in the next room over to fill those pipes.

Ms. McDermott and the Captain returned to the greenhouse, side by side. No one’s shouting. That’s good. But neither of them looked particularly happy.

“Whatever I do, you can’t stay here,” Hawthorne was saying. “You’ve got a good defensive setup, but it won’t hold. You’ll run out of mines, and you’ll run out of people. And if you had enough people and tried to expand your operation as you said, you’d end up spread out. It’s not sustainable.”

“I will not go back into that town while Reed Tobson is there,” Adelaide said flatly. “I will not.”

“Surely he will understand that what you’re doing will improve the health of the community. He’ll want you back.”

“He’ll want me back, and then want me subordinate, is what he’s going to want. Give him healthy people and he’ll only work them back to death.”

“What if he were subordinate to you?”

“No. He won’t do it. He’ll want to run things and keep licking the boots of Corporate. He would never allow me to use any of the facilities to revive the soil — it would interfere with his precious canning. He thinks that if there’s product to move, Spacer’s Choice will care about Edgewater again. But he’s wrong — all they care about is profit. He’ll go back to letting people die.”

Ah! Thought Parvati. There it is. This is about her son. “Is there any way you could see yourself to forgiving him for your son?” She asked tentatively. “Maybe try to understand he was trying to do his best for the town, even though he made a mistake?”

“He’s a greedy, uncaring, bit-grubbing stooge,” Adelaide said flatly, her face screwing up. “If he’s convinced you that he actually cares, then he’s playing you for a fool, and I’ll have to add ‘budget-serial actor’ to his list of skills.”

“But—“ said Parvati.

“No, child,” Adelaide said sharply. Then she seemed to catch herself and spoke much more gently. “Parvati, you’re a good person, and I know you ache to find the good in everything and everyone. I would never want to take that away from you — the good Architect knows there is precious little of that in this place. But not him. No. I simply cannot see any way to work with that man. Enough talk — go.” She waved her hands at them, shooing them towards the exit. “Go make your decision, Captain. Don’t tell that you’re not some snake waiting to bite me and mine to death. Go show me what you are.”

Hawthorne regarded her for a moment more. Then she left, and Parvati kept close at her heels. Once outside, Hawthorne seemed to be heading for the settlement’s exit — Parvati was only too happy to follow. She sucked in a deep, deep breath, feeling all sorts of conflicted. The people here are definitely healthier and happier, as she said. She’s doing a service, reviving the soil and giving people good things to eat. And yet there’s a darkness here — different than the darkness in Edgewater, but dark all the same. The desecration of the bodies still bothered her, though she understood its purpose, but it still came to one point: She didn’t ask.

“Why did you offer up those marauders you killed?” She asked Hawthorne.

“It seemed a better solution than leaving them out to rot. And more likely she’d agree to that then burying them, or she'd have agreed to burying them and then done that anyway.”

“I wish there were someone we could have asked,” said Parvati. “They were people.”

“Yes, they were,” said Hawthorne. “But I think the problem is bigger than that.”

Parvati nodded. “Yeah, when I think on it, I think that the real problem is that making dead people into mulch is a useful solution in the first place.” She thought about it. “And that people become marauders. I’ve been stuck in town so long…when you get away from a something and look at it, well…I’m comin’ to think that there’s a lot more wrong, and it’s got to be more than just the Vale.”

“Agreed.”

“Do you think she’s right?” Parvati asked her. “About Mr. Tobson?”

“I think she was honest when she said that she can’t see a way to work with Tobson,” Hawthorne said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Part of the problem is that I don’t think that the Tobson she’s thinking about is the actual Reed Tobson.”

“What?” Parvati blinked. “You’re…you’re not saying there are two of them, are you?” What an awful idea.

Hawthorne laughed. “No, not exactly. It’s like this: imagine for a moment that you were thinking about talking to Ms. McDermott again. But she’s not here. So who are you thinking about?”

Parvati blinked again. “What do you mean? I’m thinking about her, of course.”

“Hm. Yes, but…” Hawthorne took a breath. “How are you thinking about her?”

“With my mind…?” Parvati offered, feeling lost.

“Yes, exactly!” Said Hawthorne. “With your mind. But when you interact with the world — with me, for example — does your mind do it directly?”

Parvati frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Hawthorne reached out and touched her shoulder. “Did I just touch your mind?”

“You touched my shoulder,” said Parvati. “And I felt it. So my mind knows that you touched me.” A lightbulb went on. “I see what you mean. You’re saying that I use my senses to understand what’s going on around me. To see and hear things, like you talking to me. But it doesn’t do it directly,” she concluded.

Hawthorne nodded encouragingly. “How would you put it, if you were talking about a machine?” She asked.

“Ah, I’d say…it’s like my mind is a control module, and the system has sensors that feed information into the control module, but the module has no way of actually getting the information by its own self. It needs the sensors. Which in the case of my mind, would be my senses.”

“Yes,” said Hawthorne.

“Huh,” said Parvati. “Sometimes when I’m talking to people, I feel like they’re trying to tell me something, but I just don’t understand, and they get so frustrated and mad at me. I guess my sensors are all gunked up.”

Hawthorne tilted her head. “Hm. Yes, it’s probably true — your understanding of something is definitely impacted by your experience…by dirt on the sensors. But they’re in the same position — I’m willing to bet that their sensors are just as gunked up as yours, if not more. And sometimes, things are happening that you just don’t see or hear. So you can be operating on limited information, right?”

“Yes, that makes sense,” said Parvati, getting it. “I can think of lots of times where people got mad because they thought the situation was one way, but it really was another, and they just didn’t know about it. Because there was information outside of the range of their sensors, like.”

“So what is your mind actually thinking about, if it can’t interact with the world itself?”

“Uh…” said Parvati. “I’m thinking about what I think the world is.”

Hawthorne smiled. “Exactly. You have a model of the world in your mind, and that is what you’re thinking about. Likewise, when you’re dealing with people, you have models of them in your mind.”

“Which may or may not be accurate, depending on how my sensors can see, and how clean they are,” said Parvati, feeling a sudden quivering in her chest, that feeling she got when she was on the edge of understanding something important.

“That’s the thing about models,” said Hawthorne. “You have to continuously update them with current, accurate information, from as many sources as possible. Otherwise they won’t match reality very well.”

Parvati suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Me, she thought. People treat me the way they do, because they have a model of who they think I should be, instead of who I actually am. Hawthorne had stopped when she did, so she started to walk again and the Captain fell in step beside her. “Ms. McDermott’s model of Mr. Tobson isn’t the real Mr. Tobson,” Parvati said. “And I don’t think she wants to update it.”

“I agree,” Hawthorne said. “She’s committed to a story, and needs her model to fit that story.”

“Her son’s death?”

Hawthorne nodded. “Yes. Tobson is a villain in that story. I’m not saying he’s not a villain in general, but I have to believe that people are…more complicated than that. Granted that our model of him is probably not much more accurate — it is more recent, though. And I think he is, or at least could be, more.

“At any rate, in order for that story to have the meaning for her that it does, to drive her the way it does, the Tobson in that story has to fulfill a very specific role. If she becomes aware of the way the real Tobson is different from the story Tobson, it will threaten that story. And the extent to which the story is so very important to her — so key to her life — she will not give it up. That is what I mean when I say that I believe her when she says she cannot see a way to work with him. She dare not see a way to work with him, because it would threaten her very reason for being.”

“And she can’t see herself being anyone else,” Parvati said.

“Yes,” said Hawthorne.

“So what do we do?”

“I’m not sure. What do you recommend?”

“Well, we could go back to town and get another opinion,” Parvati said. Hawthorne tilted her head, a questioning look, so Parvati continued, “there’s a church in town; we have a vicar. He’s a philosophiser, like. Wise with the church learning an’ all. And he’s outside of the problem betwixt Ms. McDermott and Mr. Tobson. You said we needed outside eyes here. He’d be that, for sure. So I think we should ask him.”

Hawthorne nodded. “It’s good advice. Let’s see what your vicar has to say.”

Chapter Text

Maximillian

A shadow fell across his desk as he was working and he suppressed the sigh that wanted to escape him. “Yes, what is it?” He said, and although the sigh had stayed restrained, he was afraid his annoyance didn’t; he could hear it in his own voice. Patience. He looked straight up into a pair of eyes that seemed to glow golden in the lowering gloom of the evening.

He blinked and leaned back. Two women were there, one very well known to him: Parvati Holcomb, the younger Holcomb whose father had passed on before Max had received this vicarage from the Order, a shy young person with whom he so far had been unable to maintain a conversation for more than three sentences. A person who only poorly fits into her place here, for all the good service she provides to the town.

But Parvati’s companion was far more arresting: of roughly the same height and build, but somehow seeming more compact, moving with not so much grace as an utter lack of wasted motion that only underscored the gangly awkwardness of the town’s engineer. The color of the stranger’s skin reminded him of some of the inks his aunt Lorenza had taught him how to make out of native tree nut husks — it was a deep shade not too terribly dissimilar to skin tones he knew of several of the people in town. Only the stranger’s skin had a rich red undertone that he had never seen in this place before — either because no one had it or because chronic sickness and malnutrition had robbed the Edgewater townsfolk, of every complexion, of any coloration that suggested good health. The eyes that had so startled him were set above high cheekbones that curved down to a gentle jawline; an elegantly arched nose presided over generous lips. Her thick, straight hair was a shocking contrast of white against the darkness of skin untouched by any paint or powder, her pale lashes framing those luminous eyes.

She was not particularly beautiful— strong, yes, and certainly striking. But what truly impressed him about her was that she seemed as if she was intensely aware of, intent upon, the moment. She was the most solidly present person Max had ever met in his life, and so very unlike every other person in Edgewater that he felt his heart lift eagerly.

Finally! Someone interesting to talk to! “You’re an outsider,” he said to her, delighted. “Fantastic! Vicar Maximillian DeSoto, at your service. Or Vicar Max, if you’re the sort who prefers brevity. And Ms. Holcomb, as well. How rare to see you out. And with a complete stranger. Curious.”

“Just tagging along, Vicar DeSoto,” Parvati murmured. “Don’t mind me.”

He didn’t. “I so rarely get new people to talk to,” he said to the stranger. “Name your poison, anything at all. Spiritual counseling? This season’s tossball predictions? The quickest way out of town?”

“How do you know I’m an outsider?” Her voice was a resonant contralto and there was an oddness to the way she shaped her vowels that, by itself, answered the question for her.

“I’ve never seen you before,” he explained. “And there’s been no paperwork indicating a transfer. Half the time it’s wrong, but a new worker without paperwork? Unheard of. Also, you lack the distinctive worker gaze. Usually, either a deadening behind the eyes or, in some rare cases, a wild-eyed frenzy. Like a trapped animal.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I — what?” she said.

“It’s more or less universal here,” he answered. “Except for Ms. Holcomb. Who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have much to say to me. Isn’t that right?”

Parvati looked dismayed to be addressed. “It’s just…” she said. “There’s more to it than all numbers.” She looked aghast at herself for speaking, as usual, and right on cue, as usual, came the concomitant apology: “Sorry.”

The stranger arched an eyebrow. “I’m surprised to hear you dismissing your congregants so easily.”

“I’m simply bemoaning the…level of spiritual awareness in this town,” he said, feeling rather defensive.

“Isn’t it your job to raise that?”

“Yes, but there are few who hear me in this miserable place,” he said. Then he sighed at himself. She’s right. “I must double my efforts to elevate my flock. These are good, hard-working people here.”

“Miserable place?” The outsider sounded oddly…gentle, and he felt a pang of regret at his choice of words.

“Yes,” he said, with another internal sigh. “And thank you for pointing it out. It is wrong of me to succumb to distress. This place could be so much more and I will continue my quest to make it so.” He laced his fingers together and tilted his head. “May I ask who you are?”

“Alex Hawthorne,” said the woman. “Just passing through, it seems.” It seems? “What sort of spiritual advice do you offer here?”

He frowned slightly, somewhat confused himself. What kind of a question is that? She must be an atheist from elsewhere in the system. Why would she come here? But she’d asked a question, and he’d never been able to pass up an opportunity to be the one with the answer. “‘They who are not satisfied with their work, are satisfied with nothing,’” he quoted. “No? How about ‘Work fortifies the spirit. True exhaustion awaits idle hands.’?”

Hawthorne pursed her lips. “I wasn’t so much asking for advice as I was curious about the nature of your religion in general.”

My religion? How very odd to hear it phrased that way. As if there were any other religions. Any other legitimate religions. Even an off-world atheist or, Architect forbid, an Iconoclast, would know about the Order. Is she from another system entirely? Max was fascinated. That must be it. Let’s pretend she really doesn’t know, and see where this goes. “The OSI teaches that the Grand Architect set a perfect system in motion at the beginning of time,” he explained. “Contentment is found by accepting one’s role in that Grand Plan.”

“What does OSI stand for?”

He swallowed a bark of incredulous laughter. She must be playing a game. All right, I’ll play along. “The Order of Scientific Inquiry. Also known as Scientism to the layperson.”

“What sorts of prayers do you offer up?” Hawthorne asked. “Do worshippers address ‘the Grand Architect’ directly, or are you their intermediary?”

For a moment, he couldn’t think of what to say. He’d certainly had to remind the congregants here that the Architect was an abstract concept rather than a concrete being — many times, in fact. But once again her wording was so extremely strange that he was momentarily set aback. Intermediary? He was beginning to think that this might not be a game on the part of the stranger after all. Who is she?

But the questions hung in the air, unanswered, which absolutely could not be borne. He rallied. “You don’t talk to the Grand Architect. Once the universe was set in motion, it stepped back. It has no concern for us.”

“What’s the point of it, then?” She asked.

That old common complaint. The conversation had rolled back into familiar territory and he was ready for it. “We will eventually decode the Plan and all its intricacies,” he replied. “Once we are able to deduce the properties of every particle in the universe and its trajectory, we will know everything.” Some expression passed across her features but he was too caught up in his own words to notice, in the excitement at the vision he was describing. “The future, the past, every person’s place within the Plan, all will be laid out before us, removing struggle and bringing peace. No one will ever need question their path again.” His chest swelled with a mixture of profound pride in the Faith and a deep yearning for that promised fulfillment. “Some even believe this ultimate knowledge will unlock man’s true potential, and we will all become akin to Grand Architects ourselves, after a fashion.”

What the Faith offered was belonging, a belonging that transcended both the merely material sense of being a part of a corporation and the miseries of modern life. In Scientism, a person was part of something even greater, with a vast potential for freedom, security and — yes — ultimate greatness. And the quest to understand the actual details was still underway. How could anyone not be caught up in the vision of it, and fail to want that for themselves?

And yet she simply said, “hm.” He sighed to himself. When I saw her, I saw so much potential. He reminded himself that worthwhile challenges were rarely easy at the outset. Perhaps she’d be one of those reluctant converts, one who would take the most work to bring into the fold but who would end being one of the Faith’s most ardent supporters. Will I even have the chance? It certainly would liven up things around here if she stayed long enough me to try.

He was readying himself to launch into a fresh attempt — a précis of the First Pillar of Scientism and how he was sure it would relate to her life — when she tilted her head and said, “Become a Grand Architect? How does one do that?”

He felt a little smile tweak up the corner of his mouth. “Well, first there’s the matter of the secret blood rites and animal sacrifices,” he said solemnly and Parvati’s eyes widened. Max chuckled and held up his hands. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Seriously, though, to truly understand the metaphysics takes years of study and contemplation.”

“But you understand them?” Hawthorne wanted to know.

“I’d say that I understand up to the edge of what we know. I’ve spent my entire adult life working on it. But there is still more to be discovered. Were you to remain in Edgewater, I’d be happy to teach you,” he offered.

“I don’t think I’ll be here for very long,” she said. “Just long enough to finish a task. It’s why we’re here, in fact. Parvati thought to ask you about what the administrator has asked of us.”

Parvati started, rocking backwards on her heels. “What? I — I thought you would talk to him,” she said, sounding dismayed.

Max favored the engineer with a gentle smile. “You wanted to speak to me, Ms. Holcomb?” He said to her lightly. “Every time I’ve tried to engage you in conversation, you look at the floor, answer in single words, and slink away.” He meant it teasingly, smiling at her a second time, but she turned a richer shade of brown and, as usual, engaged the floorboards in a staring contest, which she appeared to be losing. He turned his gaze back onto the visitor. “I can’t imagine what would be so grave as to bring her to my mission. What has Mr. Tobson asked you to do?” He asked, curious.

“He wants us to cut off the power to Adelaide McDermott’s deserters,” she said.

“Depriving them of safety from the marauders and wildlife,” he said, steepling his fingers. He looked to Parvati again. “I can see why that troubles you,” he said to her, and for once, she looked up and met his gaze, her brows knit with worry. “Ms. Holcomb has a soft heart,” he told the stranger. “Always has, if you believe the talk.”

“We’ve been to the botanical lab,” she said, which made him blink. They’ve been all the way out there and back? And yet here the two of them were, hearty and hale. Something sparked into life in the back of his mind while the stranger continued. “They seem to have a well-organized and -provisioned life there, and have strong arguments against the management of the community here. I’m not certain I want to be responsible for taking away their power.”

Max snorted. “The deserters rejected the order of society and live beyond the safety of the walls so thoughtfully provided by our Spacer’s Choice patrons. Does that strike you as a responsible life choice?”

“That depends on why and how they’re living their lives,” she countered. “How well has this communities’ leaders provided for their people? Despite its walls, Edgewater is not well.”

He couldn’t bring himself to argue that point; her observation was soundly supported by the evidence he saw every time he stepped out of the mission’s doors. “Be as that may,” he said. “The botanical lab wasn’t constructed for security. At some point, marauders will overwhelm its defenses. At that point the argument as to who is doing the better job of leadership will be moot.”

“What do you advise?”

“Assuming your goal is to save as many as possible, then you should bring everyone together. Send the power to Edgewater and convince the deserters to return to the fold.”

Hawthorne looked deeply thoughtful. “It seems to me that the relationship between Ms. McDermott and Mr. Tobson is beyond repair. Would it even be possible to bring the communities back together?”

“Not if things are left to stand as they are,” he conceded. The idea that had been tickling the back of his head only wanted data to grow into something more firm. He decided to be circumspect. “If you don’t mind a bit of unsolicited advice, be cautious on your way to the geothermal plant. It is not as safe as you might assume.”

“Why do you say that?” Hawthorne said.

“Surely you encountered marauders on the way to the lab?” He asked.

For the first time in the conversation, Parvati truly smiled. “They were no problem at all, Vicar Max. Ms. Hawthorne here is abso-surely amazing with her rifle. Those marauders that attacked us, she took ‘em down. You shoulda seen it.”

Hawthorne frowned. “I wish it hadn’t have been necessary.”

She can get past them. Could it be that the Plan has placed her here to help me? “It’s become more of a problem of late,” said Max. “No one’s sure why. The corporation has been much less involved in the day-to-day here, and I think the lack of regular feedback is driving people to discontent. They are leaving the fold, both physically and spiritually — exposure to corrupting influences and lack of support outside of the town walls is driving them to madness, I think.” He paused. Have faith, he told himself, and then he took the leap. “One of the reasons I transferred here was to fulfill my duty in hunting down banned, heretical texts, the kind that would drive people to this kind of unhealthy excess. I happen to know such a book is, as we speak, tainting a collector’s library in Emerald Vale. However, the collector’s residence lies outside the town walls. My retrieval efforts have been thwarted by marauders who’ve overrun the property. But Ms. Holcomb’s description of your skills gives me hope. Should you fare better than me, I’d pay a handsome sum for the book.”

“Your vicarage duties include hunting down heretical books?” Hawthorne seemed intrigued.

Max shook his head. “Not as such. It’s an additional responsibility I carry out for OSIRIS.”

The stranger boggled at him. “I beg your pardon? Osiris?” She sounded as startled as she looked.

“The OSI Rectory of Information Security,” he said. “An arm of the Order. We track down banned literature. In addition to being the town’s vicar, I am an Acquisitor. Simply put, it’s my job to find and keep the writing out of laymen’s hands. It wouldn’t do for such information to fall into public consumption, for the reasons I’ve already laid out.”

Hawthorne recovered her equanimity as she listened to his explanation. Better yet, she appeared to be considering his request. “I’ll need to know a little bit more about this book before I agree to look for it for you,” she said thoughtfully. A hopeful sign.

“It’s a handwritten journal,” he told her. “A faded blue cover, with the name ‘M. Bakonu’ handwritten in the lower corner. It is not only a beautiful relic of a bygone time, it’s also the thoughts of an early thinker on the nature of man’s place in the cosmos. Not many in this colony could understand its true value - should they ever read it…” he realized he’d said more than he intended — too close! too close! — and cleared his throat. “The collector’s office is in Olive Overlook, ah, it’s a small neighborhood, an outpost, really, just northeast of Edgewater. If you follow the road out of the northwest gate and turn right at the first t-crossroad, it’s the first large building on the right once you’ve cleared the crossroad itself.”

“I know that place,” Parvati put in. “It’s on the loop road northeast of the Community Center,” she said to the stranger. “When I was little, there was a confectioner’s shop there. Best loukoumi in the Vale. When I got back from schooling, I was too busy helping my Dad to go visit, and after, well, then I got busy with the cannery, and later I heard it got overrun.”

Max nodded. “That’s it. The collector handled cannery admin and was planning to run a gift shop at the community center. Candy and pastries were eir husband’s specialty, which he sold from a storefront in the house.” The smile faded. “But then the company shut down the center — some scandal there involving misspent funds, as I understand it — and both of them were reassigned to work in the cannery. They died in the summer wave of plague last year.”

“Oh,” said Parvati sadly. “I hadn’t heard.” No, you were never one the rest of the town would seek out for gossip, I’m afraid, Max thought.

“Is this doable, in your opinion?” Hawthorne asked her. “Do you have any objections to handling this with me?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem, with you in the mix,” Parvati answered, brightening up. “I’d be glad to help. But I think we best be careful anyhow.” She spoke with clear-eyed confidence, which was astonishing.

The only time I’ve ever seen her this enthused and assured was when she was working on machinery. But never with people. It struck Max how different this must be for Parvati Holcomb: in all his experience in the town, he could not name a single time that any person — much less Reed Tobson — had actually ever asked the engineer for her opinion, other than to demand a repair time estimate. Much less offer her an opportunity to object.

“Very well,” said Hawthorne. “We will look for your book, Vicar DeSoto.”

All consideration of the change in Parvati Holcomb’s personality vanished at those words. “Thank you,” he said, trying his level best to sound as if this were some mere trifling task he’d asked them to do as opposed to what it was in his heart: the culmination of a lifetime of searching. “If you retrieve it, you can always find me here.” After all this time, is it possible that I might make some progress at last?

Chapter Text

Parvati

They stepped out of the church and into the early evening light. The sun was still up, but wouldn’t be for long, and most of the town’s walkable parts were cast into deep shadow by its buildings. Parvati pursed her lips as she turned and craned her head to look up at the Moonman sign. Then she looked at the Captain. “So, ah, do you want to get to it right away?”

The woman had clearly seen her look at the community’s clock, and also appeared to be considering the darkening skies. “Hm,” she said. “I think it’d be best to stay here for the night, then set out in the morning. If I could impose on you again?”

“Ain’t no imposition at all,” Parvati smiled, relieved. As good as she is, I got no urge to go out there when it’s lowering dark.

The two of them returned to Parvati’s domicile next to her workshop, and Hawthorne helped her carry a very light supper — more of the same, saltuna and crackers, some sliced mock-apple, two glasses of mock-apple cider — out onto her second-story deck. As they settled, the last bit of the sun disappeared into the sea and the town settled down into something approaching quiet: they could hear the sounds of the shoreline below the town, the distant faint hissing of lava reaching the ocean, and the muted sound of low conversation rolling out of the Cantina, still audible though it was down the road a bit and on the other side of a block of dwellings from her place — Edgewater was just that small.

The sun was gone, but its rays still lit up Terra 2’s rings from below, edging them in a dazzling gold-and orange. About the shade of the Captain’s eyes, Parvati thought, watching as the newcomer gazed out across Edgewater’s walls, her head tilted back so that she could follow the heavens’ spectacular vaulting. It was apparent from her expression that she was entranced.

I like that she got the thought to look up, Parvati thought. I wish more of us had the energy to do that. “It’s pretty, ain’t it?” She asked.

“Yes,” Hawthorne said. “It is.” She looked over at Parvati and, as their eyes met, something passed across her expression — she’s making a decision, Parvati realized.

“I would like very much if you would call me Alex,” Hawthorne said then, all grave and formal. “If you it doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” she added.

Strange, it don’t. Parvati even had to put a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggle, both at Alex’s mien as well as the…well, relief…she felt at being able to call someone by their first name. She realized, to her shock, that she could not think of any single person in Edgewater she would call by their given name. How odd. There’d been Thomas, but he had left town, back when he couldn’t fit it. And I just couldn’t leave, even though I felt the same. “All right,” Parvati said. “‘Alex’ it is. Might I ask you how old you are? Uh, just curious I guess, feel free to not say.”

“I’m twenty-seven,” Hawthorne— Alex said after a hesitation.

“Twenty-seven seasons?” Parvati felt her eyes widen. “Gosh, I’m twenty-eight. I never figured you for younger that me,” she said awkwardly. She felt so slow — how could she possibly be older than this self-possessed stranger? Will I never grow up?

Alex tilted her head. “Seasons?” And realization bloomed in Parvati’s mind.

“Oh!” Parvati said. “You mean you’re 27 Earth Standard.” It made sense. She suddenly noted the look of confused curiosity on Alex’s face. “Seasons is how we reckon local time here. Based on the things that happen, you know, seasonally. The spawning of the saltuna is darn near our high holy holiday.” She grinned. “If we tried to keep Earth Standard here, it’d be powerful confusing. So we use seasons, and it’s the administrators like Mr. Tobson and the Vicar and them’s who’ve got to report back to Corporate who keep track of Earth time.”

Understanding blossomed in Alex’s expression. “So what’s the conversion factor?” She asked.

“Let’s see…” Parvati tapped her fingers as though she needed them for counting, but she didn’t — it was just something she did to put those in town who weren’t used to people being good at math at ease. “By my reckoning, I’m 21 Earth standard,” she concluded. “And that makes the conversion factor one and a third seasons for every Earth year.”

“So I am…” Alex frowned at the ground. “34 seasons?”

“Almost 36,” Parvati corrected, and was about to worry at it when —

Alex grinned. “Thank you!” She sounded sincere. “Mathematics and I have always been, ah, uneasy allies at best. It’s fine when I have a workbook and a lot of reference. But it’s not so cooperative when it’s alone in my head.”

Parvati put a hand over her mouth and giggled. “You have a funny way of talking.”

“Oh, does it bother you?” Alex looked concerned.

“No!” Said Parvati. “You sound like the vicar, only more warm. I like how you can poke fun at your own self.” Which I don’t think he knows how.

Alex looked thoughtful. “He does seem to be extremely serious.”

Parvati sighed. “He is, most times. I feel right out of place in that church — even more than I do anywhere else, and that’s saying a lot.”

“Is that the only place of worship here?”

An odd question. “Yup. Even when the Vale was full, there really was only need for the one church.”

“No, I mean religions,” Alex said. “This Order of his. Is it the only religion with a building in Edgewater?”

Parvati realized that the confusion must have been writ large across her face. “Ah,” she said, feeling like she owed an answer, but not really knowing what to say. “I, ah, yes, it’s…there’s just the one? Unless you count Philosophists? But Philosophism’s illegal?” She blinked. “Is there more than one where you’re from?”

Alex was blinking also, apparently just as surprised. “Yes, outside of Halcyon, there are more than one religion.” She tilted her head. “So you aren’t a follower of…what did he call it?”

“Scientism,” said Parvati.

“Scientism,” Alex repeated slowly, like she was tasting the word. From her expression, Parvati didn’t think she liked the flavor. “I ain’t, not really,” Parvati told her. “It’s okay to not believe in any religion, if you don’t want to belong to the Church. I guess that’s where I am. I just can’t wrap my head around what he says is true, ‘specially the way he says the universe is a machine.”

“I’d have thought you’d like that,” Alex said.

“Well,” Parvati shook her head. “Yes, but…real machines have gunked up oil, scratches, and worn bits. You can tell they’ve seen handling. Been used by folks. The machine Vicar sees is one ain’t never been run. It’s not for people to live in. It’s something on a museum shelf, under glass.”

“Have you told him this?”

Parvati laughed ruefully.  “Once. He told me I was —” she dropped her voice in an attempt at the vicar’s baritone —“‘taking the metaphor too literally.’”

“I don’t think you were,” Alex said, thoughtful.

“Well, thank you for that,” Parvati said. “It’s just that when he looks at me, I feel I disappoint him.” She let out a sigh. “So I’ve just done my best to avoid going in there, excepting when something’s broke inside or the vicar asked the whole town for help with holiday decorations and such. It makes me sad, ‘cause when all the folk are in there, and they’re singing and the like, it sounds nice. And it’s one of the few times people can do something other than work without being accused of shirking, so people ain’t tense you’re gonna report on them or anything.”

Alex listened with a growing frown on her face. Parvati blinked at the expression. “I’m sorry — here I am, prattling on like this, I can see that it bothers you…” though it just still seemed confusing to her that it did. This is just normal life, isn’t it?

No, it ain’t. That’s what I’m learning, with her here.

“It’s all right.” Alex shook her head briefly. “It’s just…it’s not right to work people that hard, for so long, and to use the people against each other like that. Not where I come from. My, ah, teachers would call that ‘a shortcut that is actually a longcut’.”

“Come again?”

“Can you think of a time when someone wanted you to cut corners on a repair, thinking that it was worth it to get a machine operational again, only you knew, because of what you know, that if you did that, in the long run it would lead to even more damage, and far more down time than if you’d just taken the time to do the repair properly?”

Parvati laughed ruefully. “You just described just about every repair I’ve made to Bess.” She shrugged. “I really do my best to do it proper — I try to explain that to Mr. Tobson, but he don’t believe me.”

“Well, Spacer’s Choice is doing that to all the people here. They think they’ll have greater productivity if they run the people like this, and in the short term, they probably were right. But in the long run, the result, is…well…this.” Alex spread her hands wide, encompassing all that was visible of Edgewater from Parvati’s deck.

“And your corporation don’t do things that way.”

“No, it does not.” Alex drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Parvati, I’d like to ask something of you, but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, and I absolutely do not want you to feel unsafe. But…” She trailed off, clearly struggling for words.

Parvati held up her hands. “You don’t have to tell me anything, honest,” she said. “I feel like I got a sense of you, Captain Hawthorne — I think you’re good people.” She blushed a little. “I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve got to know anything more, to know that helpin’ you is a good thing for the Vale. I know you want to help people. And…and it’s strange…”

Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. “Strange?”

“Well, ah,” Parvati drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Yes. You’re strange. I don’t mean that in a bad way!” She said immediately. “I just mean…I just mean that you seem to really, really think about people in a way that’s…ah…that’s…”

“Strange,” Hawthorne supplied, smiling. Then the smile faded. “I don’t think it should be so,” she said. “But I’m beginning to understand that this is how Emerald Vale works. Is it the same way everywhere in Halcyon, do you know?”

“Gosh, I don’t,” said Parvati. “All I know is Spacer’s Choice. Which I know you ain’t, because, well — you’re strange. But —” and here she leaned forward and spoke in a low tone, real quiet-like, because she was afraid someone would overhear “— from the way you talk, I wish your company had been running Edgewater instead of mine.” She shook her head. “But it’s not, and I get it. You don’t have to tell me.”

Hawthorne’s expression was deadly serious. “But I want to,” she said. “I feel that I need to. Because I think you’re a good person too, Parvati Holcomb, and you deserve to know the truth. You have to know the truth, because me letting you operate with incomplete information — well, I don’t think it’ll be good either of us.”

“But you want me to keep it secret,” Parvati said.

“I would prefer that, yes,” said Alex. “But I think you should do with it whatever you think is best. And I won’t stop you from doing so. You’ll know better than I whether this information should be kept secret for now, or whether I should operate openly.”

“I’m not sure I would know better, actually,” said Parvati. “I mean, who am I?”

“You’re the community’s engineer,” said Alex. “You’re better educated than most of the people here, have to approach things in an objective, problem-solving manner, right? Ideology and company slogans won’t fix broken mechanicals, am I correct?”

“Uh, yeah, that’s right,” said Parvati, thinking miserably to all of the times that Mr. Tobson had shouted company axioms at her, as if what the company wants would allow him to magically imbue her with the ability to fix the unfixable.

“And this commsweb you mentioned. You’ve got the ability to get information from outside the Vale.”

“Well, I ain't the only one. I mean, Mr. Tobson…” She trailed off as Alex raised an eyebrow again and tilted her head. Now I’m just arguing about words, and she knows it. “I’m in a better place to decide about what you want to tell me than most folks around here,” she admitted. “I see what you mean.” But you’re the first person I’ve ever been able to talk to, she wanted to protest. What if you say something that makes me have to send you away? But she said, “is there something you want me to look up?”

“Hm,” Alex said. “Maybe.” She seemed to chew on it silently for a good long time, staring at the sky, as if she were trying to see the stars shift behind Terra 2’s rings. “My company’s name is SEPA,” she said, finally. “It stands for ‘Synergy Educational Process Associates’. I have asked one or two people here about it, and no one has heard it. I was expecting, when I came here, to find a presence — a, a, a corporate office. Someone to report to.”

“I’m sorry,” Parvati said. “I never heard of it neither.” She wanted to ask about it, but don’t push too hard too soon, girl, she told herself.

“It’s all right,” Alex said. “But what I don’t know is whether it just isn’t known here. If the company is somewhere in the colony, I’d like to find them.”

“Who wouldn’t want to find their family?” Parvati said.

“Just so,” said Alex. “I was thinking perhaps there might be something on the commsweb. Maybe, if there’s an office in Halcyon somewhere, that’s the way to find it.”

“Good thing is, they definitely ain’t on the list of people the company don’t want us to associate with, like Auntie Cleo’s,” said Parvati. She pushed back her chair. “If you like, I can go run a search on my terminal —“ she started to offer, then cut herself off. “Wait a minute.”

Alex raised an eyebrow.

“Uh, it’s just that, you saying about how you’re not sure about what you’re doing here being all that safe to talk with people about — well, I was thinking that SEPA might not be on the banned list, but from the way you say it…well, I’m abso-surely sure that if Spacer’s Choice knew about them, they’d be on it. And it’s getting me to thinking that searching for info on the commsweb from my own house might not be a such good idea.”

Alex pursed her lips. “Agreed. We should probably wait until we find out more.”

Parvati liked the we part. “I’m not sure how else to find out, though, ‘sides asking, and I wouldn’t recommend asking Mr. Tobson, and I ain’t sure who else in town might know something like that. Maybe Ms. McDermott. But she sure seemed prickly around you.”

“I am talking about taking the power away from her facility,” Alex said. “I understand why she’d be prickly.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t sure you want to go giving her something she can use against you.” Parvati tapped her chin, thinking. “If I remember rightly, I think there’s a terminal in the candy shop — that place the Vicar wants us to look at for his book. If it’s working, and if I can get logged on — hm, if I can figure out how to log on as either of the two as lived there, how ‘bout I run the search from there?”

“Do you think anyone will notice?”

“Well, maybe, and if they do, I’m sure they’ll think it’s passing strange that dead folk are searching for info, but I think that might confuse them, too. Maybe throw them off long enough for you to finish up here before they think to come looking.”

“Is there surveillance in the house?”

“No idea,” said Parvati. “But that’s a good point. When we get there, we should look. As long as we don’t find any of that, I’m betting that it would be pretty safe — that place has been forgotten, most like. Like Edgewater. Company won’t come here to resupply us properly, or to help with the plague, I can’t see them bothering for some odd terminal activation. Most like, they’ll think it was Marauders did it by accident, mashing keys or something.”

Alex nodded. “All right — provided we can make it there safely, it sounds like a plan.”

Parvati beamed at that. It felt odd, her coming up with a plan, and someone accepting it. I sure wish that would happen more often. Might never happen again, once Alex leaves. The thought dimmed her smile, somewhat.

Alex tilted her head — she’d seen it. “Everything all right?”

Parvati composed herself. “Yeah. No. I mean, you got me thinking that everything I thought was all right really ain’t. I know it shows on my face, sorry —“ she held up her hands. “I know, I know. ‘Don’t apologize’, right? I’m just…I want to help you figure things out.”

“And I’m glad,” Alex said, sounding sincere. She held up her glass. “A toast — to finding a better future for Emerald Vale.”

“Here here!” Parvati said with enthusiasm, clinking her glass to Alex’s, and they both downed the juice.

Alex waggled her now empty glass. “Would you like some more?”

“Oh, I’ll get it,” said Parvati.

“No, let me,” said Alex, and then laughed lightly. “I know I’m the guest. But you’ve been kind. Let me do this for you, please.”

“All right,” Parvati said uncertainly, settling back down, and fidgeted a little as Alex retrieved the jug of cider from the house, pouring them both fresh glasses on her return.

There was a sharp eruption of sound down the road in the direction of the Cantina: two deep voices, shouting. Alex turned slightly towards the noise. The first voice yelled something unintelligible — it sounded like someone rapidly receding from a conflict, but the second voice came through clearly, and Parvati straightened up at both its volume and its tone. “Oh yeah?” The voice was drunkenly furious. “Well, at least my marriage hasn’t gone the way of the Hope!

The response, distant now, was nevertheless clear. “Fuck you!” And with that coda, there was no further yelling: the sounds in and around the bar resumed their regular level of low ambient murmuring.

Alex turned back towards Parvati and a line had appeared between her brows. “What does that mean, ‘gone the way of the Hope?’” she asked.

“It’s what people say when someone in their life disappears on ‘em,” Parvati said unhappily. “Sometimes people just don’t show up for work, or don’t go home at night. Usually it turns out they went out a gate and never came back. Maybe they went to Adelaide’s gang, but more often then not, they just disappear. Lost entire, just like the Hope.

Alex hesitated. “The Hope was the second colony ship, yes? Followed the Groundbreaker?

Parvati nodded. “She was supposed to bring the second wave — you know, all them folks who were supposed to pick on up the initial terraforming and such and really get the colony going.”

“The loss of the ship must have been a blow.”

“Yes, the Board did its best, but that’s probably why we’re having trouble now.” She took a sip of her juice and sighed, thinking back. “They celebrated the 50th anniversary of losing her the year I came back from school — I remember that; I was 18 Standard,” Parvati put in. “My Dad put candles out on the doorstep, as a remembrance of all those poor people. He said it was so maybe their spirits wouldn’t be all alone out there in the dark.” Then: “Alex — are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I — I just need to sit down for a moment.” Alex sank down in her chair, like her legs were pneumatic and the air suddenly bled out all at once. It seemed to Parvati that despite the darkness of her skin, the woman had gone pale. She just sat there and stared out into space, not really looking anything, just taking in and letting out each breath with deep, intense intent.

“It means something to you,” Parvati couldn’t help but say it out loud. “It means a lot to you. I’m sorry. It’s just, it’s just…I…sorry.”

“No,” said Alex, coming back to herself. “Don’t apologize. You just…reminded me of people I knew, long ago. My family had customs like that also, and it’s…” she let out a long breath. “I wasn’t expecting to find something so familiar here,” she said, mustering a smile. “Not after coming and finding everything so different.”

“We’re strange to you,” Parvati observed.

“You were,” said Alex. “Until just now.” And she smiled again.

It was a smile that made Parvati want to take on the world, even though it was dark. But Robert Holcomb had taught his daughter a little practicality. “Let’s get some shut-eye,” Parvati suggested. “And get to it in the morning.”

Alex nodded. "Let's."