The store was in the High Quarter of the city, an enormous hemisphere cut out of the rock hundreds of meters below Elysium Planitia. The ceiling was painted blue and lit by concealed floods, creating an illusion of a wide-open sky stretching above the stores. Lines of ornamental bushes and decorative flowers ran down the center of the neat, clean streets. Mara had never been in the High Quarter before, had never seen anything even remotely resembling it except in vids of Lost Earth – everyone knew the elite lived well, but the sheer scale of luxury they had achieved astonished her, made her very conscious of the new silver epaulets on her new black uniform, signifying her as personal aide to the MuniPrin. The street was paved with a white plastic looking like stone, obviously intended for no traffic heavier then the packbot trailing behind her. The shops were ferociously reserved, tinted black windows looking onto the bright street betraying no sign of advertising, no trace of their occupants except a modest iron plaque with their name and Guild affiliation.
She reached her destination all too soon, a shop set in a narrow alley off the main street that lacked even windows. The plaque read “Ger Fibrati, Polymerologists' Guild.” The door opened to a wave of her pass card, and she stepped inside, the packbot humming cheerfully after her.
The interior was the absolute antithesis of the street outside, dark and cramped and lit only by a single amber worklight revealing a plastic counter and stacks and stacks of merchandise set against the walls. A chime rang in the back, and a voice called out, “just a minute!” She held her pass card from the MuniPrin and waited, trying not to look too obviously at the mysteries in bales and piles around her.
A squat, orange man snaked his way towards her through the maze of merchandise. He was balding, whole patches of his skin bare of fur, and he wore a stained workman's jumpsuit that seemed shockingly out of place. But he had a smile on his face that made her want to like him. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I'm here to pick up an order for MuniPrin Lee Ludei,” she said. She handed him her pass, with the MuniPrin's codes on it.
He waved it in front of a terminal, then handed it back to her along with a stack of something wrapped in plastic. “One thousand sheets of white cellulosic fiber,” he said cheerfully. “Always a pleasure doing business with the Prince.”
“I read the MuniPrin's book,” the man added. “Quite something. Have you been up there, to that mountaintop of his?”
“I have,” she replied cautiously, not sure where he was going.
The man leaned towards her over the counter. “I liked the book myself,” he said quietly, as though making a confession. “It's about time someone did something like this. And I'm not the only one. I know it must seem that way, but he's got more support then it looks.”
“Um, thank you,” Mara replied.
“Anyway, I've work to do. You take care, and let me know when you need more.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
On the way back to the crawler port, Mara became aware that someone was following her.
It was hard to miss. Two big, blocky soldiers in grey MuniDef uniforms with rifles over their backs and black optical bands covering their eyes, the sort of bruisers you saw guarding nobles when they had business in the slums. They kept a few dozen meters behind her, making no real effort to stay hidden.
The crawler garage was only a kilometer from the carefully-tended gardens of the High Quarter, but otherwise a world apart. Here the street ran just below the surface, the dim light from the narrow window strips in the ceiling augmented by the occasional garish shop sign or luminescent graffiti, or the headlights of perstrans running from one factory to another. It wasn't a slum – there was grime but little garbage on the roads, no long line of dolees waiting for their handouts – but it was pretty close, an industrial zone filled with Guild-run factories and warehouses and dormitories for the unbonded workers who ran them.
Mara considered ducking down an alley, trying to lose her pursuers, but this was a surveilled zone; there was no real way to lose them here. She settled for ignoring them as well as she could.
The garage was unpressurized, but at least brighter, the setting sun sending light right through the open portal. Ermon was waiting for her next to the carryall, and not wearing his usual attitude of sneering superiority. Instead, he looked worried.
“I was followed on my way here,” he said by way of greeting.
“So was I. Two soldiers in MuniDef greys.”
“Nuts,” he cursed. She started to load the back of the crawler from the packbot while he stared into the distance, thinking. Eventually he came to a decision of some kind and climbed into the crawler cab. She joined him – to her private joy, her promotion meant she would no longer be riding in the back on overland trips.
Ermon started the engine and programmed the navigator, and they eased out of the big garage towards the road leading to Elysium Mons, the big mountain lurking in the distance like a threat.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Half an hour from Elysium, the sun finally dipped below the horizon, and Mara decided to take a risk.
“I have a question,” she said.
“Is there a lot of opposition to the observatory, politically?”
Ermon glared at her, his expression scornful. “Yes.”
His tone made it clear this should be obvious, but Mara persisted. “Why?”
“People are stupid. And they're scared. They've tried to shut us down three times by now, but the prince's one of the autarch's favorites, and he fought that off.”
Mara decided not to press further.
Ahead of them, the stars started to appear in the sky. Mara looked for Earth, found it. Someday...
Behind them, but just far enough that they didn't see it, two crawlers trailed them.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
They arrived at the observatory around midnight, and Mara went straight to bed.
Two hours later, she woke to the sound of shouting. Others in the dormitory were stirring as well. She pulled on her jumpsuit and was heading to the door of the dormitory when it burst open, the light from the hallway revealing a woman in a MuniDef uniform pointing a gun at her, two more soldiers right behind her. “Everyone up and out!” the woman shouted. “You're all under arrest!”