“You can't do this!” someone shouted.
They'd herded them all into the cafeteria at gunpoint, most of them wearing no more then sleepwear. Mara caught sight of the MuniPrin at the front of the room, speaking to a female soldier. She pushed through the milling crowd towards him.
MuniPrin Ludei was holding a tablet, reading from it. “This is the Autarch's code,” he said, reluctantly, to Vil Noli, the trimind, standing next to him. “Very well. I am exercising my rights as a member of the ruling dynasty and demand an immediate appeal of this action to the Autarch.”
“And I,” the trimind rumbled, “will be requesting the intervention of my guild forthwith.”
“You have that right, of course,” the woman said. “My orders, in fact, are to convey you, Commander Milesi, and the rest of your command staff, to Elysium forthwith. The remainder of your personnel will remain here under guard until their ultimate disposition is determined.”
“Everything that has taken place here is my responsibility,” the MuniPrin said. “The personnel of this station have acted only under my orders – and with the Autarch's blessing, I might add.”
The woman shrugged. “You will need to discuss that with His Excellency. Now, I must ask you to accompany me to the airlock.”
“May I speak with my aides for a moment? I would not want anyone here to do anything foolish.”
He turned to Mara. “I'm sure this some kind of misunderstanding. I don't want anyone doing anything that may get them killed. Make sure the rest of the team knows.” He looked deep into her eyes. “Not to mention, the records here are invaluable, and I don't want them damaged by accident. I'm relying on you.”
“Of course, sir,” she said, and her heart beat faster. “I'll make sure of it.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Two hours later they finally let them out of the cafeteria, though the front third of the habitat, with the servers and the data vault, was still blocked off by armed soldiers standing in the halls.
The Orphans' dorm had been thoroughly turned over, every container emptied onto the floor, every mattress taken off its rack. Her few things lay scattered on the floor next to her locker – a spare uniform, the comb for her fur, a bar of soap, a choc pack she'd been saving, her airmask. The pile seemed infinitely pathetic lying there. Her tablet and data sticks were missing, a fact which did not surprise her. By the sounds of distress from the other Orphans picking through the wreckage, she wasn't the only one.
She felt like she was in a dream. Any moment, surely, the alarm would sound and she would wake with the others for breakfast, another day at the observatory.
She left the room, leaving the pile where it was. Past the two soldiers standing guard in the hall, she could see carts loaded with the server banks heading towards the airlock, and felt a pang as she remembered the long nights spent setting them up.
The door to the MuniPrin's private room was unlocked. They'd treated it somewhat more respectfully, made a half-hearted attempt to put things back where they'd been. She'd been amazed at how small it was when she first saw the inside, no more then half the size of the Orphans' dorm, the furniture no more then a bed, bureau, desk, washstand. The entryway was blocked from the sight of the soldiers by a slight turn in the corridor. She slipped inside, her heart pounding.
She got on her hands and knees and slipped under the bed. Then she carefully unscrewed one of the floor panels.
Underneath, in a hollow in the space between the panel and the stone floor of the tunnel, was a bag. It looked, to all outward appearances, like any other. She drew it out and left the MuniPrin's room to look for Ermon.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“You idiots can get yourselves killed if you want, but I'm staying out of it,” Dee said.
“If they're shutting the observatory down, they'll smash the disks and burn the books. Or stick them in a hole where no one will ever see them again. It's our responsibility to our species to get them out,” Ermon replied.
“Psych that. I'm not responsible to anybody but me, and I'm not committing suicide for the sake of some photos of rocks.”
“You psyching little malcon, we should never have let you in the Guild. Trust an orphan to not know the meaning of duty!”
There was a loud thump. Dust rained down from the ceiling of the supply closet. “What on Mars was that?” Dee demanded.
“Blowing up the 'scope,” Ermon replied. “I did my journeyman's tour as a mining seismologist; that was a demo charge.”
“Dee,” Mara said quietly. “They're going to kill us all if we stay. Otherwise they would have brought us back to Elysium with the MuniPrin and the rest of the command staff. There's no reason to leave us out here unless they want to get rid of us.”
“You can't know that!”
“Keep your voice down!” Ermon hissed. “That air duct leads to the cafeteria!”
“I'm pretty sure,” Mara replied, her voice cold. “Why would they let us live?”
“Then why didn't they just shoot us to begin with?”
“They're not done cleaning the place out,” Ermon said. “They've already asked me about backup disks. They don't want to kill us until they're sure they've found everything.”
Dee glared at them, unwilling to believe.
“If you don't want to help, then leave,” Mara said.
“Nuts,” Dee muttered. “You're going to do this no matter what I say, aren't you?”
“Yes,” Ermon said. Mara nodded.
“And go where?”
“If we can get across the border, we'll be okay,” Ermon said. “There are Architect ruins all up and down there where we can hide. And I know some people in Lucky Strike who can make copies of the disks and get them to the right places.”
“Then what? Live as outlaws the rest of your lives? Lucky Strike won't let you in without passes!”
“This is bigger then us, Dee,” Mara said quietly. “Bigger then our lives. We need to get the data out. And as many of the others as will come with us. Better to die in the wastes then here.”
“Well, then you need me,” Dee said flatly. “You'll never get past the guards on the airlock. But I know another way out.”
“Tell me,” Ermon demanded.
“I will. But not for your damned disks, or for you, you psyching malcon. I'll do it because otherwise you're going to get even more people killed.”
“Can your self-congratulatory speech and tell us.”
“Fine. Ventilation intake three's screen pops out if you...”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Mara crouched in the ventilation duct, waiting.
It was night outside. Ermon was in front of her, his booted feet in her face, scrabbling at the vent screen with a screwdriver. Dee and Yat and half a dozen others were behind her, all who chose to go with them. The bag of disks and books sat next to her in the crowded ductwork.
There was a soft thump as the screen fell free, and Ermon dropped out and ran. She counted the seconds as he sprinted for the observatory. There was about ten meters of ground where he'd be in sight of any guards at the habitat airlock. No shout of warning pierced the air, no gunfire lanced out to catch him. He made it to the side of the observatory airlock and out of sight in twenty seconds.
She crawled forward to the ventilation exit, pushing the bag in front of her. Her heart pounded, and she dropped down and ran, arms pumping, expecting death at any moment.
It didn't come.
Ermon was crouched beside the observatory wall, on top of a soldier. His screw driver was buried in the soldier's neck, the soldier's blood black on the ground under the moonlight. Mara struggled not to vomit, forced herself to look away, to look towards the observatory airlock – hanging empty and open, the observatory depressurized – in to the airmasks and emergency kits hanging in racks inside the airlock chamber. She pulled an airmask on, tossed another next to Ermon. Dee came round the corner and she threw another, and another, until by some miracle all nine of them had made it.
She couldn't believe it was working. She handed out the emergency kits while Ermon stripped the soldier of his gear. Then, in single file, they headed east, into the wastelands.