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Soje glanced up at the tone of her voice. "What do you mean?"
Awandi crouched down beside him, holding his wrist to keep him from closing the bag. "She's getting even paler. Look!"
Slate blue faded to a light cyan, lavender about the lips, deathly color draining away beneath the pale skin. Black lashes marked the curve of eyelid, black brows like brushes of ash over the violet shadowed orbits. Awandi stared. She had never seen anyone so pale outside a history text. She had never seen anyone dead change color, either.
"What are you doing?" Chouss demanded from the com panel.
Black eyelashes fluttered, thin white nostrils flared. Awandi fell back onto her a.s.s. Soje froze. Chouss came crossly over.
"Ever heard of a schedule? We got six repairs lined up after this one for the bottom of the watch, you want to find out what the bosses think if we don't-" She broke off. "Mother suck me dry!"
For the rider was breathing. The rider was alive.
Soje looked from her face up to Chouss. "You call authority?"
She shook her head, numb.
"Don't," he told her with all his old, pre strike command.
Chouss frowned down at him, crewboss even in the presence of a miracle.
"Chouss, please," he said, and command fell like a mask from his guilt. "Please. I can't let them take anyone else." His eyes fell away from her look, back down to the rider. "Please," he whispered.
The rider stirred. Opened brown eyes and gazed into Soje's hard, dark, sorrowful face.
"h.e.l.lo," she whispered. "Why can't I move?"
"You're in a body bag."
She blinked, looked past him to Awandi. Laughed.
They still had a schedule to keep. Soje helped the rider down to the cubby where the crew took its breaks and left her curled on a bench asleep, wrapped in the body bag for warmth while the rest of them went back to work. They had lost almost an hour and had to scramble, but that didn't stop them from talking.
"Some miracle, yeah?" Wen said to Awandi. "What'd the bosses give to find out how she survived, you think, cousin?"
"How about what will they do to us if they find out she did?" she hissed back. "We've got to turn her in!"
Wen paused with the pod's airlock telltale half disa.s.sembled to give her a sober look. "We give nothing to the bosses."
"Nothing." He turned back to the telltale, forcing her to return to prying at the compromised seal. "Listen, my cousin. You're afraid that if the bosses, who already think your big brother is a unionizer, find him with unauthorized personnel they maybe won't bother with a shuttle when they send him dirtside, yeah?"
"Yeah," she miserably replied.
"With the rest of us along to keep him company. So. What d'you think they'd do if we called them to come get her? What do we say when they ask how come she's not dead, how come she's in this pod, in this pit, on our watch?"
"Well, how come she isn't dead?" Awandi glanced around, making sure Soje wasn't near. "Wen, what if she's a denanos?"
"So, well, she hasn't bitten anybody yet." He glanced up with a grin. "Cousin, denanos never leave Glory. I thought everyone knew that. Why should they? Better to rule in h.e.l.l than be a leper anywhere else, yeah?"
"It's not just a disease, Wen. A disease cripples you, okay, kills you maybe. It's not a disease that turns you into an alien d.a.m.n monster that can't die-"
"Awandi. Save the ghost stories till after work, yeah?"
"But how else did she survive?"
He shrugged, broad scarred hands never pausing in their work. "Broken seal, bad pump, good skin suit and a quick ride up from dock ring. Plain dumb luck."
"Hey," Chouss called from the catwalk. "Wandi, aren't you finished with that seal yet? We got another pod on the way."
Glue weld, new seal, voltmeter to check the weld was true: "Green," Awandi yelled, Just as Wen ran the final test on the new telltale unit. "Green," he said, and the pod was moving even before they'd skipped back onto the walk. Then there was no time for anything but work.
Soje took the rider home with him, trusting her fake ID to fool residential section's monitors. Foolish trust, Awandi thought, and refused to ride with them in the lift. Even if the security monitors didn't catch the interloper, some snitch among the workers would spot her startling white skin and report her. Report Soje who thought he should anyway be dead.
Awandi remembered her brother the way he had been before the strike: smart, confident, full of fire against the company's contempt for the workers that kept it alive. "Workers control the means of production," he used to say, his face alight as he quoted some ancient text.
"But we don't, do we?" their mother had said, not long before she died. "Denanos and the poor convicts under them produce the goods. And the workers in AuFen and Shirrea who make the ships and pods. What's left for us to control? How dirty or clean the pods are?" A long speech for a woman whose lungs had been seared by a chemical leak.
But Soje had glowed all the brighter, living for the argument. "If Glory's Gate Company can't meet Commonwealth shipping regulations on cargo pod maintenance and repair, they lose their trading license. It wouldn't even take a CW inspector to shut them down, no starship is going to risk unlicensed pods. Not even the independents, not when the cargo is biochemicals from Glory. All it would take is twenty watches of refusing to work and the company would be eating out of our hands!"
Their mother hadn't been impressed, even dying from a treatable injury the company would not cover in the medical plan. (Striker joke: "What's the worker's medical plan?" "Plan your funeral now and avoid the rush.") No, their mother hadn't been impressed, but others had. He wasn't alone in his union ideals. But he was the first to contact maintenance crews in other spokes, the first to risk exposure by company spies to spread the word. It had sounded so simple-not easy, maybe, no one was that naive-but simple, yes. Refusal to work. Strike.
The bosses' response was simple too, and easy as pressing a switch. Emergency venting, they called it. A shame those fool rebels were mad enough to trigger the decompression sequence and too incompetent to stop it in time. Empty lies. Empty spoke. Two hundred fifty three workers dead.
Should have known, people said. Maybe they should have. A company too cheap to provide its workers with emergency decompression equipment obviously didn't much care one way or the other. But they hadn't known: none of the strikes in Soje's illicit history texts had taken place in s.p.a.ce.
"Now we know why," he had bitterly said, before descending into his silence.
Silence the rider had broken. When Soje turned up for work their next watch, Awandi thought she caught a glimpse of the old spark in his eyes and grew cold with fear.
"Her name's Izu. She's a convict," Soje told the crew. He was running a diagnostic with one hand and eating a ration bar with the other: two AuFen farfreighters had arrived last watch and the growing backlog of pods didn't allow for meal breaks. "She got sent to Glory because her family was part of a squatters' colony and she resisted when the landlord's hired goons tried to remove them. Can you believe it? Sent to Glory because she didn't want to leave the only home she'd known."
Awandi shrugged. Sure she believed it. Why shouldn't she?
"She's been there four local years." Soje shook his head. Awandi was amazed at how quickly he seemed to have taken up another cause. But the light in his eyes couldn't hide the wider darkness behind them.
"She say what it's like?" Wen asked.
"h.e.l.l." Soje's grin twisted like he had a bad taste in his mouth. "You know what they call the station down there? Hope Gate. Some joke, huh?"
Chouss snorted, nine tenths occupied with a valve repair. "But wait till you hear why she came up." She had gone with them to Soje's quarters in the off watch. When Awandi had asked her why she took such a risk, she had said, "Same risk either way, girl. Your big brother goes down, we're all going with him whatever we do. Anyway, it's my d.a.m.n crew."
Now Wen asked her, "What d'you mean, why she came? She's escaping from Glory, what more reason does she need?"
But Chouss was frowning again over her valve. Soje said, his mouth still twisted, "The denanos want to apply for colonial status in the Commonwealth."
Wen burst out laughing. Awandi stared. "They what?"
This time Chouss answered. "They say even if the convicts lost all citizenship rights in the Commonwealth-"
"-which maybe they haven't, since they were condemned by company courts, not CW ones-" Soje interjected.
"-the first denanos never gave up theirs. The planet was only quarantined, officially, and only became a prison because the companies started using it that way, not because it was law. And because they can support their population-"
"-or could if the companies gave them full value for their goods-"
"-they should have colony status, with a member at Parliament and all the rights of citizens, including Forces intervention to uphold those rights."
Wen -as still laughing. "Denanos. In the legislature." He slapped Awandi's arm, urging her to enjoy the joke. She ignored him, a sudden vacuum in her gut.
"So she is one," she said.
Soje and Chouss both gave her looks of disgust. "She's human as you and me," Soje said. "She's sleeping on my floor, you think I wouldn't notice she was drinking my blood?"
"They don't really-" Chouss started, then shrugged and went back to work.
Wen wiped tears from his cheeks. "So how is she planning on getting to Parliament? Take one d.a.m.n big breather tank to get her from here to there in a pod."
Soje looked around them, as if a boss could have sneaked into the pit while they were talking, then leaned forward and said, "They hired an independent farfreighter to take her as a pa.s.senger. Bribed them with contraband bios. All she has to do is get in a pod slated for that ship's hold."
"Oh, is that all," Awandi said.
Chouss said, "Not so hard. Maintenance com can call up pod manifests, schedules and shuttle loads to and from the planet, farfreighter loading and departure priorities. All you need is to be quick and smart."
"And lucky," Wen added.
"And have a maintenance crew all ready to help," Awandi said with a hard look at her brother.
But he just shrugged and smiled that thin, twisted smile. "I get her gone, maybe she'll take me too."
In the end, despite her reluctance, it was Awandi who researched the schedules, she having the best feel for the ornery station com. And at the end of watch, aching with weariness-they had repaired eighteen pods, more than she'd ever seen go through the pit in one watch-instead of going home to her cubby she followed Soje back to his, both of them picking up ration packs on the way. It turned out the rider's-Izu's-fake ID wasn't quite good enough to feed her, which figured. With 253 fewer residents the station could afford to overlook an extra body or two, seeing as it could make its own air, but food and drink were imports, and always precious.
Soje had said Izu was still suffering from her rough trip up from Glory, but when he opened the cubby she was sitting up, his contraband library pad propped against her knees. Hard for anyone that pale to look exactly healthy, Awandi reckoned, especially when her lips and eyelids were still faintly blue, but she was alert enough. She looked tiny and frail next to Soje's muscled length, so Awandi reluctantly shared her dinner ration, as Soje did, while she told them about the schedule.
So," Izu said when she was done. "It is likely to be fifteen watches from next when my freighter loads?"
"Sure," Awandi said. "But it's easier to figure the order ships will be loaded than it is to figure which pods'll be used. Always plenty of pods in the bays, and which pods are used from which bays depends on a lot, including maintenance crew efficiency and which section of docking rim the ship is a.s.signed. The pod bays are in the feet of the spokes," she added at Izu's bewildered look, "and the pods are taken from the bays at either end of the given dock section."
Izu's confusion didn't lift very far. "But you can get me to the ship, yes?"
Awandi stifled a sigh. "Our crew can only get into delta spoke's pod bay. The chances that one of our atmo pods will be a.s.signed to your ship are not all that good."
Izu looked from Awandi to Soje, to her hands. Awandi couldn't decide if the look on her face was one of desperation or determination, but it was fierce.
"We'll get you to your ship," Sole said. Ignoring his sister's look, he went on, "If the pods a.s.signed aren't from delta, we'll take you through the repair and supply shafts to whichever spoke-"
"Soje," Awandi said, aghast.
"The other crews will help us," he said earnestly. "When they know why she has to go-"
"Soje, do you seriously think anyone gives a fart about whether a bunch of denanos get a colony? You're asking them to risk a one-way trip to Glory for-"
"It's not just for the denanos," he began.
"Oh, right, how could I forget the criminals?"
"Will you just listen?"
"How can you ask anyone to listen to you after what happened the last time?''
Silence. Sole stared at her in shock, as she stared at him, horrified by what she had said yet unable to let it go. He swallowed, the muscles working in his throat, but before he could find anything to say Izu spoke.
"Awandi. Forgive me. Your brother has told me about the strike and its tragic end. I grieve for your people. But it has occurred to me that if I could take a message from your union to the Commonwealth, I might be of some use."
"A message," Awandi echoed without taking her eyes away from Soje.
"Or a messenger," he said. "If a union representative makes a complaint against the company, the Commonwealth will have to intervene."
"Soje, Soje." Awandi rubbed her hands across her face. Her voice was gentle when she spoke again. "Soje, the union died when gamma spoke blew. Don't you see? There is no union. I don't say it to hurt you. You're my brother and I love you. But you have to see, you're only going to get yourself killed." She spread her hands. "And for what? A CW observer? What on or off of Glory makes you think they'll care?"
"They will care," Izu said, eyes dark in her pale face. "They will care when they find out about the illegal biochems the company has been extorting from Glory in return for the supplies the CW is paying Hope Gate to transport. Commonwealth authorities take their contracts, and their laws, very seriously."
"What are you talking about?"
"Illegals left off the shuttle manifests," Soje said. "Company's been stockpiling them, shipping them out on the company personnel transports." He grimly smiled at her look. "You're not the only one who knows how to use a com."
"It is true," Izu said. "Even if the Commonwealth cares about nothing else, the traffic in illegal biochems will bring them. If we can prove our case, they will be forced to take over operation of Hope Gate."
"And once we're CW territory, we're eligible to Join the IntraCommonwealth Alliance of s.p.a.ce Workers' Unions," Soje said, his eyes once more alight. "Which means that if the CW doesn't give us what we want, the whole d.a.m.n system goes on strike. There's no way we can lose."
Awandi looked at him. At them both. "Unless the company blows the whole station into vacuum, along with all the evidence," she said.
When neither of them had an answer to that, she went home.
Despite every argument Awandi could bring to bear, Soje began spreading the word, first to the crews in delta spoke, then beyond. He was feverish, desperate, alive. With Izu's transport arriving within a few watches he had no time to waste on secrecy. He just spoke to crew after crew, in mess halls, rec halls, pa.s.sage-ways, lifts. Risking severe penalties under the post-strike regulations, he even went to other pits in his off shifts, helping crews with the added workload, wearing himself to the bone. And although Awandi heard a few faint echoes of her own misgivings, they were all but drowned by the chorus of approval and support.
"They're crazy," she said to Wen one off watch in the rec hall, watching Soje in the midst of a group like a star in the center of its system.