Mara had forgotten the smell of the hives, that deep sweaty reek of too many bodies in too little space with nowhere near enough air filtration, topped with rotting garbage tang floating up from the lower levels. After a while you stopped smelling it, but after so many years away from Elysium it was enough to make her long for her the rubbersweat odor of her airmask.
The hives were enormous cylindrical chambers cut into the ground by the Architects millions of years ago, each hundreds of meters deep and wide and set a few dozen meters below the surface, excavated for some inscrutable alien purpose – storage tanks for something, the archeologists thought. When Earth was lost and Elysium's population exploded with refugees, they'd removed the roofs, installed transparent ceilings, plugged the exits, pumped them full of air, and cut apartment blocks into the side walls. Then when they ran out of room, they'd built towers in the center, until only the top two dozen levels still received any illumination from the windows in the ceiling. For 80% of Elysium's population, they were home, in all their reeking grandeur.
The Blue Marble Tavern was on level 24 of hive 5, snuggled into the student housing adjacent to the Academy, just close enough to the surface to catch some of the sunlight. Mara and Dee took the elevator there from their new lodgings in the bowels. The trip took a good twenty minutes to go sixty meters, crammed with a hundred others into the car; at one point Mara was swept out of the car and almost left behind when a group behind her exited, and had to elbow her way back in through the seething mass of humanity stuffed into the car. She managed to get a space near the car wall, where she was less likely to be pushed out, but which left her nose pressed to the heavily-graffiti'd wall. Kill the Autarch, read one – a good omen, she felt.
By the time they reached 24/5 the last of the reflected sunlight from the upper levels was disappearing. They walked along the catwalk overlooking the central chamber, just about level with the tops of the residential towers in the center of the hive, amidst crowds of students returning from the Academy a few levels up. Graffiti was thick here, and almost all of it political. This was supposed to be a surveilled zone, but every camera lens she saw was covered with black spray paint.
The Blue Marble lay twenty meters down a hallway dug into the side of the hive. The hall's lights were all out, but that only made the bright blue neon disk more visible in the darkness.
The Tavern was almost as dark as the hall outside, and still mostly empty. A few students sipped simcaf and studied at tables under dim leds hanging from the ceilings. A grizzled bartender, looking far too old for his clientele, wiped ineffectually at the steel bar with a dirty rag. He looked up when they entered, recognized them at once as out of place. Mara and Dee walked over to him. “Can I help you?” he asked, frowning, his tone half question, half threat.
“We're looking for a man about a book,” Dee said, speaking each syllable of the passphrase carefully and precisely.
The bartender's frown deepened to a scowl. “And what book would this be?”
“It has a blue cover.”
“He's giving a lecture in one of the back rooms,” the man said. “He'll be done in half an hour if you wanna wait.”
“Sounds good,” Dee agreed.
“Let me put you in one of the other back rooms. You two kind of stand out.” Which was true. Compared to the well-fed students occupying the tavern, they were obviously outsiders, scrawny and weather-beaten, their fur bleached by the sun. “My name's Pir, by the way.”
Pir led them into a tiny meeting room in the back, just big enough for a steel table and a few steel chairs and a dim led hanging on a cord from the ceiling. They could hear the faint rumble of the lecture next door, periodically rising into a chorus of “yes!” or “no!” or “Earth!” as the speaker made some particularly impressive point. Pir brought them cups of bad simcaf, which they both drank greedily.
Finally they heard the sounds of stomping feet and rattling chairs as the meeting broke up. After a few minutes, the door to their room opened and a man stepped in.
He was thin, gangly, dressed in the sightly-too-nice black tunic and slacks of a slumming noble, his hair tied in long, fashionable dreads. He had a black-and-silver optical band tucked up above his eyes. His fur was blond and showed a slight sheen of sweat from the effort he'd put into working the crowd next door. He gave them a big smile showing his teeth – pearly white and straight, Mara noted. She distrusted him at once – no one that with teeth that clean could have ever truly known struggle.
“Pir told me you wanted to see me,” he said, taking a seat at the table. “I'm Sev, Sev Redans.”
“You can call me Kel,” Dee said. “We're out of Ferrograd – the snakes started sniffing around, and we felt it best to be scarce. We got your name from Sel Sinaki.” Lies, of course, but he'd expect nothing less. “He said you were a man worth talking with, that you could introduce us.”
“Welcome to Elysium, then,” Sev said.
“They gave us some docs to share,” Dee said, and handed him a bag of memory sticks. “The latest from Ferrograd.”
“Much obliged.” The bag quickly disappeared under the table. “There's a meeting here, day after tomorrow. Most of the leading Zealots will be here. If you tell the bartender you're here for the study group on Confucius, he'll let you back.”
“How trustworthy is he?” Mara asked.
Sev shrugged. “As trustworthy as one can hope for, I suppose. If he was an IntSec man they'd have rolled us all up by now.”
Unless they want to know where you are, to keep an eye on you, Mara thought, but did not say.
“You have a source for blank sticks?” Dee asked.
“Yeah, I know a guy.”
“I'd like to meet your guy at some point.”
“What's the situation like here? News always takes a while to reach us out in the hinterlands.”
Sev shrugged again, smoothed back his hair. “It's what it is. We keep the docs circulating, put up posters. But mostly it's just talk in back rooms like these. The snakes cracked down after they shut down the observatory, arrested a bunch of people, but it's quieted down since then.”
Dee grinned ferally. “Maybe we can stir things up a bit.”
“I'd rather you didn't,” Sev said flatly. “Look at what happened when MuniPrin Lee got caught peeping at Earth. What did he accomplish? A few hundred people arrested, what there was of the movement broken. And the Leeites, running around the waste like bandits – they're the biggest liability the movement has now, you talk to someone about Earth and their first reaction is to wonder what you're planning to steal.”
“Chill,” Dee said. “I'm not talking about direct action. But let me ask you something. How many of your crowd tonight were students?”
“All but three,” Sev admitted. “And they were two tutors and a librarian.”
“You want a revolution? You aren't going to get it from students, there's not enough of them.”
“We've sent people into the bowels and the factories. Didn't get anywhere. If you think you can manage it, you're welcome to try.” His tone made clear what he thought the odds they would succeed were.
“We just might.” Dee stood, and Mara rose with her. “See you tomorrow.”