Mara lay on the sweat-soaked blanket and stared up at the ceiling. Just enough light leaked in from the corridor outside to make out the pattern of rust in the steel. The air this deep in the bowels was hot and humid and barely moved, the stench of unwashed people building to an almost tactile reek – they said that, another dozen levels down, you sometimes found people dead, choked on their own exhalations.
A kilometer or so above, it was night, and the stars would be spread across the sky. She could still see it in her mind's eye, still remember the point of light that was Earth...
Dee mumbled something in her sleep beneath her. Mara closed her eyes and willed herself towards sleep, but it still didn't come.
At times like this, she sometimes wondered at the other courses her life could have followed. If some other pod had been chosen for the observatory project. Or if she'd just wandered off when they made it to Lucky Strike – a few of them had, had found new lives for themselves, poor and on the fringe, but still. But somehow she couldn't invest those thoughts with any weight. The chain of events that had led her here seemed somehow inevitable; she couldn't imagine taking any other course but the one she had.
The vision of Earth the MuniPrin had given her was just too big. She was so small next to it, this great blinding thought, her life, Yat's life, Dee, Ermon, all of them, weighed nothing in comparison. She had to believe that, or else she'd thrown her life away for nothing, had become a robber and a killer for nothing, and she couldn't permit herself to think that.
Eventually sleep found her in the stinking heat.
- - - - - - - -
“Look, we're happy to sell you data sticks, but don't think this goes any further then that.”
Dee and Mara sat in another back room of another tavern, this one in the industrial quarter of Hive 5. Three block wardens – Han, Sar, and Lir, they'd said their names were – sat across from them, muscled and blotted with machine grease, wearing cheap gray jumpsuits with patches for their blocks and places of employment.
“I mean, I've nothing against your revolution,” Han, the leader, said. “Wish you luck and all. I'd love to see those guild malcons get theirs. But this isn't our fight, and I'm not going to have you stirring up trouble in this sector. Stick to the students,” the last word spoken like a curse.
“They aren't really our kind of people,” Dee said. “They're a little... Comfortable, if you catch my meaning.”
That got a smile, at least. The factory workers were better off then the truly destitute down in the bowels, but no one in the room could be described as comfortable. “I hear you,” Han said. “I really do. But it's not our problem and I don't want it to be our problem. So, like I said. We'll sell you sticks – we can lift fifty a week or so without anyone getting suspicious, log them as defective. Call it half a shilling each. But other then that, you stay out of these sectors, or we'll break your psyching legs.”
Dee sighed. “Well, I'll take what I can get.”
And with that the meeting broke up.
Dee didn't talk as they walked to the lift. The factory quarters were eerily empty at this time of day, the inhabitants busy on their assembly lines – most manufacturing was in automated factories on the surface, for waste heat disposal, but there was still plenty of assembly work that could be done by hands, and humans were cheaper then machines.
They were crossing the bridge from the central stick to the outer ring when Mara noticed their tail, in the reflection of a chrome advertisement for simcaf – Lir the block warden, fifty paces behind them. She waited until they were across the bridge and around a corner and out of sight, then grabbed Dee's arm and leaned against the stone wall. Dee looked a question to her, but Mara put her fingers to her lips and shook her head.
Thirty seconds, sixty, and Mara began to think she'd been wrong. But then Lir rounded the corner. “Hey there,” Mara said. “Going the same way?”
“I wanted to talk with you,” he said, his voice low but intense. “We don't all agree with Han.” He paused, then hurried on. “Can we meet, later? Somewhere private?”
“Sure,” Dee said carefully. “What do you have in mind?”
“Tomorrow night, at twenty-three hundred. The streets will be clear by then.”
“Fine. But not here,” Mara said. Not on Han's turf. “In the bowels. Take lift five to level seventy-eight. We'll meet you there.”