Later, they would call it a dust storm, an ion storm, a mass ejection, the 'red spot' come to Europa. No one seemed clear on what it was, only that it had wrecked their comms, fritzed their transpo, gritted every stable cog and wheel and gear, and blown away the rest.
Alexander doesn’t die; he’s almost certain of it. Instead, he waits, curls up in his bunk while the storm rattles through, a Terran turn and another and another. Dust blocks even the thin daylight, and the power fails, and most of the backup generators too.
He can hear wailing - the wind, maybe, or the dying. He ventures out of his bunk only to find that the main tube has been breached. Wind screams past, and dust, enough to shear his skin, to leave pits in the hard plastic of his visor.
There’s nothing to be done, except to wait, and it gnaws at him. Will they find him later, encased like a mummy in his bedclothes, dust his last witness? Who will even know his name?
After, Europa feels like a dream, something he can’t quite place, a vision of ice and dust and the overly heated compound tubes. It’s hot, chokingly so. The atmo regulators are fucked, and they’re too busy triaging those taken with dust sickness to unfuck them.
He goes to the tunnels, helps as best he can, sits with an old woman as she wheezingly tells him about Terra, sponges what remains of their clean water over her mouth. She sleeps, peaceful, after that.
Others clear debris, move bodies. There’s no room for burial in the compound, and he stands and watches as Chaplain Knox and his assistant grimly man the airlock. The Chaplain reads a passage from Lamentations in Terran and then manipulates the mechanism until the lock snicks. Alex turns away before he can see any more.
He works until he can’t work any longer, until Chaplain Knox and Mr. Edwards send him back to his bunk. He sleeps fitfully, dreaming of waves of ice, of wind, of a glowing city that he’s never seen.
It’s hot when he wakes, and Alex strips out of his shirt and pants, down to his skivvies. He sits in his underclothes, struggling to breathe through the lingering dust. Perhaps it’s the heat or some dust-driven madness - or perhaps another more familiar storm rising, that hot electric feeling before he writes.
It's a blur, really, the writing, like a great cosmic thing coming down and touching him on the forehead - the bright shimmer of the right word and the next word and the right word again. He writes until his wrists ache, then switches to the voice-recog function. There’s enough power residual power left, and he talks and talks, throat going hoarse. He speaks and doesn’t premeditate, imagines himself as a vessel for epiphany, for ecstasy, a prophet in this peripheral desert.
He laughs, then, at his own grandiose imaginings, not enough to stop speaking, words piling on words, lines clicking across the screen, an army of letters marching toward his final invective.
He's tired, after, joints stiff from sitting, a slick coating of sweat and dust like he's been doused in engine grease. He smells, too, from huddling in his bunk through the storm. There's no water for showers - the entire compound is on half-rations until they sort out the living from the dead - and there's no spare power for a sonic wash. He gives himself a half-hearted swipe with a towel, but it's of little use. He wishes, profoundly, for his mother, for his brother, even, for someone familiar to him. Instead, he sleeps, dust obscuring the watching eyes of the stars.
He shows Chaplain Knox the essay a week later. He hands him the pad, charged enough that it can go portable. They have full power for half the day, and auxiliary for the rest, a sudden luxury.
Alexander waits, chewing his lip, hands curling and uncurling as he watches Knox read it. It’s good. He knows it’s good, but there’s a difference between knowing it and hearing it.
Knox takes a deep breath after reading. “Alexander,” he says. “This is ...”
He squares his shoulders, ready to defend the essay, to point out the narrative build, the carefully laid allusions when -
“This is remarkable, son.”
Alexander bristles, flinching when Knox carefully lays a hand on his shoulder. Knox removes it.
“We should send this out on the wire - to the rest of the city, and the other settlements at least. Perhaps to Terra or Mars.”
He startles at that. He’d imagined a newsreport, something beamed as far as Saturn, perhaps, but Terra. It’s something he hadn’t even let himself dream.
It goes out, later, an anonymous letter from a son to his father, even though Alex hasn’t seen his father in years. He’s likely on some distant asteroid, mining up more debt. “He’ll probably never read it,” Alexander says, when Knox shows him the wire notice that he’d written. His father doesn’t - or if he does, he never sends Alexander any notice.
But others do, others with credits to spare.
“How’d you like to get off this rock?” Knox asks, and Alexander has to read the message about his scholarship - and then read it again, and again, and once more for good measure. “There’s a ship bound for Mars. Two weeks on the Thorny Path, a month in hypersleep, a cruise through the main belt and then you’re on-planet. King’s College awaits.”
He walks through the tunnels ebullient, feeling like the grav mechanism has malfunctioned and that he could, at any moment, float up into space.
He imagines Mars from above, a glowing spider’s web of cities, of possibilities. There’s war brewing there too, if the wire is to be believed.
“Thank you,” he says, when Knox comes to see him off at the port, and his voice feels suddenly strained, like he might cry.
His belongings fit into a case; he’d read through the regs on luggage limits, and his few things didn’t compose half of what he could bring.
“You’ll make us proud, son,” Knox says.
Alexander, for once, cannot find the words to respond.
Nueva New York seems like a dream at first, glittering impossibly against the red Martian dirt, a beacon beckoning to him as he dismounts the ship. There are people, ‘droids, and autodrivers and mechs, a great chaos that somehow seems to cog together. Vis-droids whir by, camera sights monitoring the streets, and Alexander wonders how he looks to them.
He has a few credits with him, a new ident profile registered to his thumbprint, and the promise of more funds waiting in an account at the college. Around the port, drivers mill, some beeping out their prices, others simply herding newly arrived passengers into transpo.
Alexander walks instead. He’d been prepared for dust, or so he thought. NNY was famous for its red dust. But it settles over everything in a haze, and by the time he gets to the subway entrance, his shoes are stained red.
He tries swiping his thumb over the subway turnstile, only to have it blink an ‘account not found’ message. He purchases a commuter card that displays credits left when he holds it to the sensor. Even in the tunnels and on the train, there’s a certain redness to the air.
He tries not to gawk at anyone, not the mechs displaying rapidly changing skinforms at one another, not the ‘droids wired in a line all blinking to unheard music, not the cool watching eyes of the security bots as they survey the scene.
A set of tumblers arrives, twirling around the subway handrails, soliciting credits and applause. Most passengers ignore them, though a few give specific glares. Alexander tries to fix his face into one of passive indifference, but finds that he cannot.
He probably looks like what he is, an outplanet rube, but he smiles regardless.
Things go less well at the bursar’s office.
“The credits are there,” Alexander insists, for the fourth time, after checking his bag into storage using his remaining cash.
The desk agent is a mech; the manager too.
He has a letter on his pad, and another in actual hardcopy, both guaranteeing his funds. Neither yields a response beyond polite certainty he cannot register that day.
“Sometimes,” the manager says calmly, and Alexander’s hands are already balling themselves into fists, “Monies from the outplanets take a while to register in one’s accounts.” It says ‘outplanets’ with a note of distaste.
“Dammit, they are there! Check again.” He slams his fist against the counter in frustration, once, hard enough to hurt.
“Sir,” it says. “If you continue to comport yourself in this way, I will be obliged to summon security.”
“If I -” He breathes in, deep, and then deliberately brings his hand down on the counter again, not loud enough to ring, but enough to make his point.
“Based on this letter of introduction - and the creditors listed, as you can see here” - he points to various lines on his pad - “here, and here, and the listing in my account, which you have, registered under my name, I should be more than able to register for classes in the absence of funds being fully credited to the account, which they should be, given that I have been traveling for several months, and these were sent in advance. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, in the interest of a swift education, I should be allowed to not only register, but to do so on an accelerated track, particularly given the decelerated pace at which this institution apparently runs and given the precedent set by another student for a similar course, I believe his name is -”
“Aaron Burr,” comes a voice from behind him. “At your service. And there’s no use yelling at a mech, but I commend your volume, regardless.”
Alexander turns, slowly, to find a young man about his age, clothes free of dust.
“Sir, I was trying to explain to the mech that -”
“Yes,” Burr says, simply. “I overheard. I believe most people in the office did.”
“It’s just that they didn’t transfer - and there was a mix-up in the funds - and I need to graduate as expediently as possible -”
“Nothing to be done today, probably. Patience is a virtue, or so the Terran poets tell us.”
“Efficiency is a virtue,” Alexander says, but he allows Burr to lead him out of the office. They walk for time, tracing a path through the hubub on the sidewalk.
He leads them to a bar. “Don’t swipe your ident-card,” Burr mutters, after holding a credit voucher to the screen. It registers a number and a picture of someone who’s not Burr. “Drinks are on me.”
The prices blinking on the menu board make Alexander think a decimal point got misplaced but he doesn’t do more than nod at Burr, who motions to a mech bartender. It pulls two foaming mugs and slides them down the bar, not bothering to ident either one of them.
“Thank you,” Alexander says, sipping his drink. It’s weaker than the ‘shine some of the miners sometimes gave him a cut of, sweeter, richer. The bar is clean, aggressively so, and there’s a high whine that must be from an ionic filtration system.
Burr notices Alexander looking, and gestures to his dust-covered shoes. “There’s a spray,” he says. “For the dust.”
“You can tell I’m fresh off the transpo,” Alex says, ruefully.
“There are new transpos every day,” he says, which isn’t really an answer. Nor is his noncommittal shrug, after. He takes a sip of his beer, wiping foam neatly from his upper lip. “Tell me about your plans at King’s,” he says.
Alexander explains his goals - a swift course of study, graduation, law school eventually. “I have sponsors,” he says. “And they expect great things.”
At that, something in Burr’s expression softens, and he considers for a minute before saying, “Yes, I understand. My parents - before they passed, they wished for my education. I was in the office today ensuring money from my trust came through.” He doesn’t elaborate, instead studying the mirrored surface of the bar, using the expensive fabric of his jacket to erase an invisible smudge.
“Before they passed,” Alexander repeats.
Burr looks at him, eyebrows raised in question.
“My parents, well, they died as well. My mother did. My father -” He cuts himself off. “It doesn’t matter. If there was a - if there were a war - a revolution - like I was reading about on the newsfeed, we could declare ourselves -”
Burr brings a hand over Alexander’s mouth. He directs Alexander’s gaze to the inset camera above the newscreen mounted behind the bar. “Talk less,” he says, leaning in. “Smile more,” he says, low, a whisper near Alexander’s ear. He gives the camera a grin that doesn’t reach his eyes, and peels his hand off Alexander’s mouth finger by finger, as if ensuring that Alexander will in fact not speak. “This isn’t the time or place.”
He pulls back then, gripping his mug of beer. “To the newest student at King’s College!” he says, loudly, clinking his mug against Alexander’s and taking a deep swallow.
They drain their beers quickly after that, and Burr hops off the stool before Alexander has even taken his final sip, running his hands over his vest pockets. He drops the ident card he used onto the floor, then steps on it with the heel of his shoe, casual enough that it almost looks accidental. He kicks it into a nearby slot that must lead to the debris recycler. “C’mon,” he says. “We need to further your orientation to the city.”
Outside, Burr eyes the vis-droid making a low swoop over the street. He waits until it passes overhead and then says, “If you want your revolution, go ahead,” pointing to a bar up the street from where they’re standing. “I have other matters to attend to.”
He begins to walk off, but turns back, crowding close to Alexander. “You need to watch yourself, Hamilton. This isn’t like where you came from. There are eyes everywhere, ears, too. Fools who run their mouths wind up dead - or worse.”
“Come with me, then,” Alexander says, challenging. “If you’re so worried about me doing something stupid.”
“You’re not stupid,” Burr says. “But that doesn’t mean you won’t get yourself killed.” He runs a hand over his face, considering. “One drink, then. One more, anyway.”
This bar is dirtier than the previous one, red dust coating the floor. The human bartender stares hard at both of them before pointing to the ‘Cash Only’ sign.
Burr sighs and rummages a hand through his pockets, putting a few bills on the counter. The drinks taste like what Alexander is used to - somewhere between a beverage and rocket fuel - and a quick glance around reveals only one camera, mounted in such a way that its wires feed into a wall.
Burr points with his chin. “Look closer,” he says.
It has a coax cable looped back on itself, simple enough to look like a wiring mistake, but enough that it can’t capture feed. Alexander had seen wiring like that on smugglers’ vessels, the kind packed with human cargo and contraband, headed for the ice mines on even more distant moons.
“If you want a revolution,” Burr says, voice steady. “Here’s where it’s happening.”
Alexander looks around, but most people - and a few droids, their serial numbers visibly having been filed off, scratchmarks on display - stare into their drinks.
There’s a murmur of conversation, but nothing revolutionary, just the sounds of people in their cups, a dice game going in the back, two miners haggling over the distribution of credits from a recent deal. Alexander listens for code or a thrum of anything, but there’s nothing. Maybe that’s something in and of itself - plots concealed from the vis-droids and the cam-mics and the newscreens.
It’s disappointing, after all of Burr’s warning, until -
He hears them before he sees them, a crash, a shout, Burr’s long-suffering sigh.
They’re singing, a mining song that Alexander recognizes from the laborers on Europa. None of them look like they’ve ever been below surface before, and certainly not on something as dreary as an outplanet mining camp.
Still, it’s thrilling somehow, to hear the familiar sung in this new city, and Alexander is singing along before he knows what’s he’s doing, raising a glass and toasting to their party.
“Comrade!” one calls, gesturing for Alexander to come over.
“If you go,” Burr says, “there’ll be a target on you. Even in a place like this, there are spies and informants.” He places a hand on Alexander’s arm.
Alexander considers Burr’s hand for a second. He shrugs it off, perhaps more forcefully than he probably should. What could he have to say to a man who’s crossed the city but seems afraid to cross the room? Alexander has come much farther than that, and he has much farther to go. “I -” he begins. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Burr says, sounding resigned. “Really.”
“I won’t,” Alexander says, and grabs his drink before heading over to their table.
Drinks appear and credits are exchanged, and Alexander pays for none of it.
“Redistribution of wealth,” Mulligan says, as Laurens tosses another set of bills on the table.
“I appreciate the seriousness with which you take your philosophy,” Alexander says, and he clinks his glass against Laurens’.
“That’s our boy,” Mulligan says, arm around Laurens. “When he finds something to believe in, he gets serious about it.”
Laurens flushes at that. “You’re a student at King’s?” he says, turning to Alexander.
“Well, I was trying to be, but the funds haven’t come in yet.” Alexander downs another shot. The bar looks hazier somehow, and lights behind Laurens make him look haloed. It’s possible Alexander has had too much to drink. “But yeah, legal studies.”
“Me too. Now,” Laurens says. He rolls his eyes, but doesn’t explain further. “And you’re from off-world?”
“That obvious, huh?”
Laurens shrugs. “Lafayette’s from Terra,” he says, like that’s somehow equivalent. “Mulligan too, I guess.”
“Europa,” Alexander says. “Well, for the most part. It’s a trade outpost. And mining.” He frowns into his drink.
“Really? I’ve been reading about the miners’ rights movement and I was hoping to talk with someone who knew about them.”
“Whatever you’ve heard,” Alexander says. “It’s worse.”
“If people here knew,” Laurens says. “If they understood -”
“Do you think it’d make a difference?” Alexander thinks of the smell of the ships by the time they reached Europa, the bodies ejected onto ice planes and left without burial. “People know already. Business is about self-interest - and if Mars wants to truly be free of Terran influence, we need to handle that self-interest in such a way as to make economic sense of our principles.”
“But what if we could make them see that it’s in their better interest to stop these practices -”
“There’s a treatise - I don’t know if you’ve read it - but I was reading it on the ship.” He fumbles for his pad, hands too uncoordinated to type in the correct catalog number, returning a string of garbage code and a notice of pursuing a broader wire search. “Of course, it’s wrong in about 800 ways, but that just means I’ll need to write my own ...”
“Of course,” Laurens says. “Naturally.”
“Words are the only immortality we have.” He laughs and reaches for his empty glass.
“That’s because y’all are trying to get yourselves killed,” Mulligan says. “But have a drink first.”
More shots arrive, then, and the bartender puts the tray between them. Laurens goes for his pocket, but Lafayette waves his money away. “To the newly arrived Alexander,” he says. “Brought across space and delivered to our very own revolution.”
Somehow, Alexander finds himself on a table. He’s pretty sure he climbed up on his own, though Mulligan is laughing and Lafayette is blasting something from the bar’s sole speaker and Laurens is looking up at him like -
The bartender has evidently had enough and flicks the lights. “Closing time,” Mulligan says. He offers Alexander a hand down.
They all stumble out, Laurens leading him. Mulligan and Lafayette are behind them, arms around each other, singing a Terran song Alexander’s never heard before, loud in the quiet of the street. A vis-droid on patrol lingers over them, filming, away from where Laurens and Alexander are.
Laurens has his arm draped over Alexander’s shoulder, and he leans down, talking about something, words slurring all slurred together. They pause outside an alley, and Laurens makes an elaborate show of looking both ways before tugging Alexander into it, crowding him against the wall.
He breathes, then, close enough for Alexander to smell the alcohol on his breath. His eyes are light up-close, and he catches one of Alexander’s hands in his and raises them above Alexander’s head, holding them against the cold brick of the alleyway.
“We only have a minute,” he says.
Alexander shudders then, a full-body thing, involuntary. They’re pressed together, and Alexander’s pulse is up, blood hot both from the drinks and from Laurens’ proximity and this entire improbable evening and -
“There’s a data port two inches to the left of your hand,” Laurens says, tone suddenly sober, but face still close to Alexander’s. “Here.” He moves their hands, slightly, and Alexander can feel it, a slight metal outcropping, probably undetectable unless you know to look for it. “You want to write? You gotta get a burner drive - I can help. Don’t use anything registered to your name. Even if you think it’s clean of trackers, it’s not. Upload it here. It’ll get to the right people.”
“Oh,” Alexander says. He expects Laurens to pull back then, but he doesn’t, instead burying his face in the crook of Alexander’s neck.
“Sorry for all the cloak and dagger shit,” he says. “There’s a camera overhead, I think, and another at the street. Hercules and Lafayette got the one with the best sound pick-up, but there are probably others.”
“No, uh, no worries,” Alexander says.
Laurens pauses then, and pulls back, slow enough that Alexander has time to breathe and relax. “C’mon,” he says, loud. “They’ll be waiting.”
Mulligan and Lafayette are waiting a good distance from the alleyway entrance, having a spirited argument about nothing in particular. They’re loud enough to have attracted at least one security bot, which trails them, camera blinking as they lean against one another.
“You all set then?” Mulligan asks, and he gives Alexander’s rucked up shirt a meaningful glance, laughing when Alexander pulls it down.
“We’re good,” Laurens says.
“C’mon, kid, you gotta place to crash?”
Mulligan’s place is above his shop. Alexander must be drunker - or more tired - than he knew, because he pauses among the racks of cloth to run his hand over the synth fabrics, finer than any of his clothes, colors and patterns shifting under his touch.
Laurens takes his arm, gentler than he was in the alley, and guides him up the tilting stairway into the loft. There’s a pallet on the floor, a couch that Lafayette collapses onto, kicking his shoes off onto the floor, and another room through a doorway. Mulligan doesn’t bother with lights, just gesturing vaguely to where the water reclamation unit is and telling them not to fuck with any of his merchandise - “No matter what a good idea it seems like at the time, Lafayette.”
“Looks like we’re bunking together,” Laurens says, pointing to the pallet. They don’t sleep, though, or Alexander doesn’t, just taking off his dust-covered shoes and pants and accepting the blanket Laurens procures from somewhere.
He spends time examining the cracks in the ceiling. Outside, the city continues its constant hum and whirr, only half-dark even when the planet is turned away from the sun.
It’s all so much to process, and he feels overtaxed, a circuit about to trip its breaker. He imagines himself traveling through the tesseract of time and space, to reach out and touch himself on the shoulder during the storm, to say, yes, this will pass, this soon will pass, some comfort when he had none.
Laurens notices him thinking, turning toward him. “Whatever it is, Ham,” he says, “it’ll wait until morning.” He gives a great yawn. “Sleep,” he says, and Alexander does.
King’s College is louder, busier, and more conservative than Alexander was expecting. Still, he soaks it up like a solar panel soaking up the sun. There are books, files and files of them to put on his pad, and he reads until his eyes ache from strain, then switches to audio and listens until his head feels full.
He writes and tells Knox of the city, of the way it feels like it goes on forever past the horizon, its great tubes and tunnels, its noise, its newness. He sends bits and quotes from his readings, highlights of the college lectures, news that might not otherwise make it through the censors for months. In all this, he asks after Europa only in the most general terms - it feels farther away than half a solar system - a lifetime, really, a place that Alexander knows he will never see again.
Despite Burr’s warnings the revolution isn’t entirely underground, and he watches public debate devolve into public argument in the college square. Security drones wail through and clear the crowds, dragging some out, and leaving others smarting, eyes burning from ‘control gas.’
A few masked rebels offer aid, bodies rendered shapeless in dark clothing. They communicate in signals to one another, hand gestures that Alexander doesn’t understand, and glide silently around him as he watches the fracas from a distant wall.
Laurens is in thick of it, of course, and he rolls into Mulligan’s later, shirt torn from a fight. He sits, grinning, as Mulligan wipes his eyes with a homebrewed concoction that’s supposed to alleviate the gas’ sting.
“You’re lucky they don’t haul you off by your pretty hair, John,” Mulligan says, but this isn’t his first time administering first aid, so Alexander questions the sincerity of his disapproval.
“You should come,” he says to Mulligan.
“The point of being part of a spy ring,” Mulligan says. “Is to keep it a secret. Not all of us think the revolution is measured by blood alone. Besides -” He pauses to wring out the rag and dip it into the bowl of milky solution - “do you think they would just leave you to nurse your wounds if they didn’t have image recog?”
John frowns. “You think my father -”
“I think arresting the fine young upstanding men of Nueva New York, even your narrow ass -” Another swipe across his eyes, and he wipes off rivulets of solution as they drip down John’s neck with a second cloth, “Isn’t the kind of publicity that the Terrans want. They could put much less photogenic rebels on the newswire. Or at least, poorer ones.”
He casts a significant glance at where Alexander is, scrolling through his newsfeed and occasionally kicking his feet against the table he’s sitting on.
“I’m staying out of trouble!” Alexander says. “I mean, mostly.”
“He is,” John says. “Primarily because he’s too busy trying to upload the library to his brain. I’ve looked for the data port on his neck, but apparently he’s going to do it the old-fashioned way.”
Alexander pulls down the collar of his shirt, revealing a neck absent the slot many mechs have. “100 percent orgo,” he says. “Straight outta Europa.”
Mulligan laughs and places the rag he’d be using back into the bowl.
“I’ve been thinking, though,” Alexander says. “I need a drive, something that’s really untraceable. There’s this guy calling himself a ‘miner,’ and he’s such a trifling fool. I have some things I think we gotta say. I was thinking about publishing something, finally.”
“Seabury. You’re gonna go after him? You’ll need a clean drive,” John says, settling next Alexander on the table where he’d perched. He leans over and begins reading through the outline Alexander had sketched.
“I was thinking about it. I have some ideas as to how best to ...” Alexander brings his notes up on his pad. “He calls the revolution an ‘ill-projected, ill-conducted, abominable scheme,’ that will lead to our ruin and won’t someone just think of the poor miners. Like he’s ever dug ice in his entire life or knows what it’s like to go below surface or to sweat it out in a busted tunnel, with no more reward than another day’s labor to await you. He’s got no more business talking about mines than I do talking about gardening or whatever it is rich assholes do with their time.”
“Sounds like you’ve done more than thought about it,” John says.
“I may have a few ideas that could use some expansion.”
“And you’ll probably need someone to make sure all your footnotes are in order.” John smiles up at him.
Mulligan clears his throat. “’I’ll leave you all to that, then.”
“The last time I wrote like this,” Alexander says, collapsing back onto his narrow dorm bed, “It was, uh, after a storm.” He wedges his pillow between his back and the wall and sits.
“Yeah?” John is kneeling in a sea of pads all cued to different texts. Some blink specific pull quotes; a few contain general reference guides; some show Alexander’s school work that he’s dispensed with. Only one of the pads is Alexander’s - the rest John had brought with little comment as to their cost.
He gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, picking up Alexander’s wrist and rubbing it gently. He has soft hands, softer than Alexander’s have become. “Tell me about the storm.”
“I don’t - It’s ...” Alexander begins. He exhales, then tips his head back against the wall.
“Not like you to be out of words,” John says. He raises Alexander’s arm so that he can work the tendon there towards his elbow. It aches pleasantly.
“I don’t want to be - I’m more than where I’m from,” Alexander says, in a rush.
John places Alexander’s right hand down, pausing, then reaches for his left. “I don’t pretend to know what you’ve been through,” he says. “But I can understand wanting to be judged for your actions and not your origins.” He digs his thumb into the aching center of Alexander’s palm, smiling when Alex lets out an involuntary gasp. “I was going to study medicine. My father wishes me to study law.”
“You would make a good doctor,” Alexander says. They sit like that for a while, John rubbing his hand, down each finger, and then his wrist. Alexander has seen him bloody from fights in the square, tired from exams and whatever errands Mulligan has him running, but this is a strange new tenderness.
He feels his muscles untense. The dorm’s ionic filters hum, loud enough that the building seems to be breathing, and Alex breathes along with them. “There was a storm,” he says. “On Europa. I thought - I thought I was going to die.”
“Was anyone with you?” John stops rubbing his hand, but leaves his fingers circling Alexander’s wrist.
“No,” Alexander says. “My mother had died already. My brother - he got an apprenticeship off-world. My father - I was alone.”
“It went for days and days. I don’t know how long, exactly, but it felt like forever. I had a bunk outside the main tunnel network, and one of the tubes caved in. I couldn’t get to anyone and -” He sucks in a breath.
“Hey,” John says, and he grips Alexander’s wrist, then adjusts so that their palms are together, holding Alexander’s hand. “It’s - you’re not alone now.” He leans and presses his mouth to Alexander’s cheek.
“No,” Alexander says, turning his face to meet John’s. “No, I’m not.”
He could compare it to a storm, to dust clouding his vision, to a dream, but it’s really nothing like those, just the practicality of one body on another, John’s mouth hot on his neck, the scrape of his teeth and the insistence of his hands.
Alexander had been barefoot already, and John pushes off his shoes, twin thunks on the floor, then pulls off his shirt, and Alexander’s too. He pins one of Alexander’s hands above his head.
“That first night in the alley,” Alexander says, panting. “I’m pretty sure there are about fifteen other ways to communicate ‘here’s the secret data port for all your revolutionary needs.’”
“Sure,” John says. “Mine was more fun, though.” He smiles and returns his attentions to Alexander’s neck.
“It was. Though I think given our current, uh, goals, we should, uh, perhaps reassess the means by which we choose to disseminate this -”
John leans up and bites Alexander’s lower lip, once. “Anyone ever tell you you talk a lot?” he says, pulling back slightly.
Alexander surges up and bites him back, feeling almost feral now, especially when John thrusts his hips against his, and the bed creaks with their efforts. “Shut me up then.”
“I wouldn’t even if I could,” John says.
“It’s not there.” Alexander runs his hand over the brick again to be sure, but the mortar is smooth. “No port.”
“Shit,” John says. “Shit.”
“So, either, they’ve moved drop-points or -”
“Or we’re about to get fucking disappeared,” John says.
“You mean, I’m about to get fucking disappeared,” Alexander says. “Where’s the printer? If we drop it directly, at least we’ll get the word out.”
“It moves,” John says. “Or rather, its IP moves. This was the best upload spot. No idea when they’ll put in a new one.”
A vis-droid whirs overhead, its eye looking down on them, and they clear out of the alley. “What’re we gonna do now?” John asks.
Alexander considers their options. “We could - I have a great idea.”
“This is a terrible idea,” Mulligan says, later, when they’re sitting in his shop. “Just so we’re clear, when John gets imprisoned and you get shipped back to bumble-fuck Jupiter, I want everyone to remember that I told y’all so.”
“It’s a great idea,” Alexander says. “Because it’s a terrible idea.”
“First, getting Burr of all people involved is a dumbass idea,” Mulligan says, ticking numbers off on his fingers. “Second, dragging a fucking bishop in the press is bound to get you noticed, and, third, and most importantly, we’re predicating all of this on the idea that John’s father is just itching to bail him out for sedition, if you get caught, which, by the way, you probably will.”
“He needs me to pass the bar,” John says. “Gotta keep charges off my name to do that.”
“You’re still dumbasses,” Mulligan says.
“So you’re not going to help?”
“I didn’t say that.”
In the end, Burr gives them the address with minimal prompting.
“We need it for -”
“Don’t,” Burr says, holding up a hand. “Whatever it is, surely give me the option of plausible deniability.”
Lafayette, John, and he take a transpo uptown, outside the grid of the main city into the warrens of the new city. Burr’s directions seemed clear enough - he’d gone so far as to write them long-hand with instructions to burn them later - but every street looked like every other, a strange mobius of intersections.
They walk, and there are fewer visible droids here, only a passing security bot that doesn’t ID them.
“Let me do the negotiating,” Lafayette says for the third time.
“You really think that you’re gonna be the least conspicuous out of all of us?” Alexander asks.
He turns, walking backwards to face them. “Will probably try to start a fight,” he says, pointing to John. “Will probably help,” he says, indicating Alex. “Besides, it’s not that hard to imitate your terrible -” and he says it like a Martian now, with John’s nasal tones - “on-planet accent.”
“That’s not bad,” John says. “Alexander has the names.”
“Good,” Lafayette says. “So, reviewing, we have our roles. I do the talking, John provides the money and gets Alexander to be quiet, and Alexander shuts up for the entire transaction.”
“Hey, I can -”
John clamps a hand over his mouth. “Talk less,” he says, not removing his hand even when Alexander mumbles his objections. “No, seriously, shut up. There’s a vis-droid right above us, and unlike him, you can’t do an on-planet accent.”
It glides over them and Alexander fixes his gaze on the street ahead so that it doesn’t image-recog their faces.
“OK,” Lafayette says, once it’s passed. “Money now.” John hands him a wad of bills. “Chat later.”
They approach a corner store, its neon light flickering. Inside, there are ads for fauxbacco and beer, a few posters of bots displayed, and signs saying they don’t accept off-world credit.
A ‘droid sits behind the counter, which is cordoned off with blaster-proof glass. Lafayette has to speak through a grate to get its attention. “A friend says you can help us with a request,” he says.
The droid’s eyes flick over them, once, and it doesn’t respond.
Lafayette puts the cash on the turntable used for transactions, but doesn’t rotate it. “He said you specialized in ident cards. His cousin is coming in from the outer rim and lost his.”
The droid moves to turn the cash toward it, but Lafayette wedges his hand between the money and the glass before it can fully access it. “Some assurance you heard me would be nice,” he says.
It blinks its lights at him, repeating a pattern Alexander recognizes as signal code from Europa. The ‘all-clear’ sign smugglers use. He nudges Lafayette’s arm, and Lafayette removes his hand. Behind them, a door snicks open.
“You boys gonna stand there all day and wait for the bots to come get you or what?” They turn and Alexander sees an old woman, face scarred as the surface of Europa, who’s gesturing for them.
In the back, there are terminals too nice for the rest of the store, a printer that’s free of red dust, and several more machines that Alexander doesn’t know the purpose of.
“His cousin, you said?”
Lafayette hands her the list bearing the names of smugglers Alexander had known on Europa - dead, or on the outer rim so long they might as well be. “Right,” she says, examining the list. “Everybody’s got a cousin nowadays.”
“So you can make them?” Lafayette asks.
“Sonny, do I come to your office and ask if you can push pads, or whatever soft-handed boys like you do all day?”
Lafayette has the good sense to laugh then. “I meant no disrespect, ma’am.”
“Aw, quit showing off your manners, and catch a seat,” she says, pointing to a few worn-looking stools. “This’ll take a minute.”
Her hands, wrinkled as they are, are quick on the keys, and soon the various machines buzz around them.
“Where’d you hear about me?” she asks, while they’re waiting.
Lafayette gives John and Alexander a glance, and then says, “A very discreet mutual acquaintance.”
“Well, that’s a fucking fancy way to say you don’t want to say. Can’t say as I blame you, though, times being what they are.” She pauses, glancing each of them over. “But from the look of you, I’d say students. So, Aaron Burr. Nice boy, that one. Knows when to keep his mouth shut. A rare commodity.”
The printer spits out the first of the ident cards, chip gleaming, a holo-pic of someone Alexander has never seen before. “Nice thing about the mining business,” she says. “An infinite number of IDs and no one too pressed about claiming them.”
Three more cards spit out, and she blows on each before handing them to Lafayette. “I’d tell you not to do anything stupid, but I can see that’s a lost cost on the lot of you. Now get the fuck out of my store.”
John supplies four blank data keys. “You know, if you were a mech, this would be a lot easier,” he says, hand on Alexander’s neck, finger running over where a data drive would be.
“Probably best that I’m not though,” Alexander says.
They go to nearby ‘net cafe, one that Mulligan swears up and down is their kind of crooked. “Just for safety’s sake,” he says. “We can put you in this -” He holds up a bolt of fabric whose pattern shifts so violently it makes Alexander’s stomach roil.
“How is that going to make us less memorable?” John asks. “I can barely look directly at it.”
“Neither can the vis-droids,” Mulligan says. “Fresh off the mills of Olympus Mons and ready for a little intrigue. Sew some to the back of your coats, and bam, you register as a blur on camera, at least at first pass. It’s also a few hundred credits a yard - the Schuyler sisters special ordered it - so don’t say I never did anything for you knuckleheads.”
They swipe their ident cards at the cafe entrance, and a different set at adjoining terminals. A sign above them blinks the message ‘All data saved locally will be deleted at the end of the session!’ There’s a handwritten sign under it that says, “That means back up your data. Yes, you!”
“You ready?” John asks, and doesn’t wait before plugging in the first drive. Alexander does the same, and watches the slow crawl of the upload bar.
“Did you have to write quite this much?” John asks.
The plan is for John to post the essay to a burner site, the kind of anonymous message board King’s students use to bitch about their professors, then as a file purporting to be ‘best of the web’ droid porn, then as an automatic message reply to a burner email he signs up for every newsfeed site available.
Alexander sets up a bunch of burner accounts that do nothing but ping Seabury with a link to the essay. And a few more accounts that do nothing but ping at the first accounts to shut up. And a few more accounts that tell the other accounts not to yell at the first accounts, all while pinging Seabury in their mentions.
“Remind me not to piss you off,” John says. “You think he’ll take the bait?”
“Let’s see. I call him phlegmatic, trifling, splenetic, sterile, illiterate, etc. etc. etc.” He ticks off the list on his fingers. “He’s all that shit. So, yeah, I think he’ll probably bite.”
By the time they’re done, a few real life accounts - and a few of the higher level droid accounts that pick up keywords - are already on the wire debating whether the essay is puerile revolutionary nonsense or a necessary exercise in free expression.
“Anywhere else you can think of?” John asks.
“One more,” Alexander says. He names the last account ‘Ionian_storm’ and sends it to a bunch of off-planet newsites, the kind for which every day is a slow news cycle. He doesn’t know if Knox will see it, much less attribute it to him, but it’s worth a shot.
Outside, a vis-droid buzzes by, lingering over them a little too long for Alexander’s comfort. John takes his hand and says, “If you wanted to give them something to record, now’s the time.”
“I should have known treason gets you hot,” Alexander says, and lets himself get pulled into an alleyway.
It makes the newswire. “Anonymous essayist derides ‘miner’ letters,” reads one feed. The official state media declines to comment, and Seabury, while denying any of it’s aimed at him, calls it ‘peevish, petulant, riotous, and treasonous.’
“I might get that tattooed somewhere,” Alexander says.
“I think someone might notice if you had that and connect it to your essay,” Lafayette says.
“I didn’t say it’d be somewhere anyone could see.”
John offers a few suggestions as to its location, and Mulligan mostly makes gagging noises in response.
Alexander spends a two sleepless nights waiting for a knock on the door, the kick of ‘bot wheels, a dark hood. Nothing comes. John sleeps beside him, steady where he’s fitful, arms wrapped around him in Alexander’s narrow twin bed.
Alexander must sleep, because he dreams of the storm, an ocean of dust rising to drown him. He’s in his old bunk, but the tunnels are gone, nothing to protect him from the void of the sky. He watches as the dust accumulates, slowly, inexorably working its way until it covers his neck and face, powerless to stop it. He calls out - to John, to Lafayette and Mulligan, to Knox, to his mother - until his throat no longer issues sound, until the dust covers his lips and nose. He chokes on it, and he can feel it filling his mouth and -
“Alexander. Hey!” John’s shaking him by the shoulder. “You were screaming.”
His throat feels ragged, and his eyes are wet. He wipes his face with his hands. “I - it was a bad dream. A nightmare.” He breathes, once, deep, trying to steady himself.
“I figured,” John says. He pulls water from the reclamation unit, offering it to Alexander.
It’s warm and tastes metallic. He swallows it in two great gulps. “Thank you,” he says. “If you wanted to - sorry for waking you up.”
John doesn’t say anything, just sits beside him. “If they were coming for us,” he says. “They’d have already come.”
“Yeah,” Alexander says. “Unless they’re waiting for it to blow over, and then I’m walking down the street, and, boom, give my regards to the boys from the prison moon they send me to.”
“I didn’t think you’d spook this easily.” John drapes an arm around him, tipping Alexander’s head onto his shoulder.
“To be honest, neither did I,” Alexander says. “I imagine death a hundred different ways. I just - I can’t see myself as an old man, you know?”
John exhales. “Yeah,” he says. “I understand. The night we met, you said words were the only immortality we get.”
Alexander laughs. “That sounds like the kind of pretentious shit I would say.” He’s crying again, and doesn’t bother wiping his face. “I was trying so hard -”
“I know,” John says, kissing the top of his head. “It’s gonna be OK.”
“We can’t know that.”
“I know that too,” John says. He pets Alexander’s hair where it’s come loose from its knot, and doesn’t say much else. Eventually, they both sleep.
A knock does come that morning, and he and John look at each other before answering the door. Outside stands a woman he’s never seen before. She doesn’t say anything and makes a sign with her fingers that Alexander doesn’t recognize. “Oh for -” she begins, and then turns around to show him the shimmering stripe of fabric on her jacket, the kind that Mulligan had put on his. “Let me in.”
Inside, she turns the water reclamation unit on auto-clean, and it burbles loudly. “I don’t know if they’ve got eyes on you yet,” she says. “But if I do, they can’t be far behind.”
“Who are you?” he asks.
“My name is Angelica Schuyler,” she says. “I’m with the resistance. We have a tailor in common, it seems. We read what you wrote and certain people were very impressed. I shouldn’t say any more here.” She goes over to the shaded window, pressing the button to dissolve the window’s opacity and looking out at the early-morning yard. “You need to come with me.”
“Why?” he asks.
She looks back at him and gives him a smile that’s all teeth. “Because I’m about to change your life.”