ALL PATHS LED TO THIS. Lucid, Unity and the Jupiter Eclipse.
All converging on her mountain. Hers, and hers to climb alone. In that moment all Estan Harvey – the new leader of the free people, the liberator of slaves – could think, was that her coffee was cold.
The shuttles that harboured her new family glided through the void. The long journey was not a quiet-filled turmoil as the trip to the station with Orson and Elanor had been. No, the journey back was anything but. The hustle and bustle of the crowded gantry was enough to make the large vessel feel tiny. She could only imagine the other ships that held course in their wake were feeling the same.
A nudge pushed at her arm. Orson, trying to gain her attention.
“When we dock back at the L.M.C. it’s gonna be… well, let’s just say we didn’t leave on the best of terms, did we?” he looked concerned.
Her thoughts flashed back to Kaylen and the struggle to get through the L.M.C. She shook her head of that memory as quickly as it manifested, not ready to deal with it yet.
She smiled “I’m not worried, those guards aren’t going to know what to do when we show up. I think you’ll find most of them in the dark as much as we were. Unity has a habit of only sharing enough information to get the job done.”
Orson looked at her smile. It was different. Still her of course, but a distant fog had tainted her eyes. He couldn’t tell if it was weariness or focus.
“They can’t know that Unity is involved in the largest human slave trafficking operation ever. And with a race of alien invaders at that,” he agreed.
Harvey raised an eyebrow and looked away as she took a swig of cold coffee.
‘She looks so tired,’ Orson thought. ‘I did my bit, I got them to the Eclipse. Lucid didn’t need me anymore, she had told me to go. Looking at her, I think she needs my help more than ever.’ He sat back against the bulkhead, not wanting to distract her anymore. ‘I know her better than most. Her head’s gonna be running through every outcome when those doors open back on the L.M.C.’ The last thing she would need was Orson Blake firing a hundred and one questions her way.
“Hey, Lacklustre, over here!” Hugo called from the other end of the multitude. Orson took his leave of Estan. Hugo Jennings was doing what he did best, a small group of men and women were huddled around him in a circle.
“Orson hurry up!” he called again, popping his head up over his audience.
Upon reaching the commotion, Orson shouldered his way through. “What are you doing?” The words barely left his lips before his eyes caught up with the situation. Of course, Hugo was hustling.
“Fancy your luck, old friend?” he shook the cubed dice in his throwing cup. The rattle grabbed the attention of other unsuspecting victims, like a siren’s call to doomed sailors.
Orson shook his head and grabbed Hugo by the arm, pulling him out of the group, much to their distain.
“I’ll be back in a minute, guys, don’t take any bets without me!” he called as he left the circle. Hugo snatched his arm back. “What do ya think you’re doing, kid?” he snapped angrily.
“What am I doing!? What are you doing?”
Hugo’s frown was replaced with his wicked smile. “Got to pass the time, ya know.”
Orson tutted and skimmed over his comment with a roll of his eyes. “I reckon we’ll be back at the L.M.C. soon. I tried to talk to Estan about it, but she didn’t seem worried,” he explained. Hugo looked at him with disinterest.
“I am, Hugo.” He said, pressing his opinion, he retook the scoundrel, this time by both shoulders.
“What’s wrong with you guys? You weren’t there when we left. It was chaos, we barely got away with our lives.” Orson said, trying to get some realism into his friend.
Hugo glanced up the ship at Estan while he contemplated his reply. “You know what Orson? If she isn’t worried, then I’m not worried. We’re heading back there with the best weapon we could wish for: the truth. Actually a few hundred truths,” he said, looking around at the crowd.
“With the Jupitiers behind us we outnumber those guards, like five-to-one at least. And that’s if it comes to blows. I don’t think they’ll know what to do when the truth comes out.”
‘Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was the only one that couldn’t see how this was going to unfold.’ Orson backed down and gave Hugo a smile. “’Jupitiers’?” he asked.
“It’s my nickname for these lot. Was thinking we’re gonna need something to sit nice on the Mega Corp headlines” he winked.
“Always thinking, aye Hugo?” Orson shook his head as he pushed his friend back into the hussle and took up a spot in the circle to watch.
Estan looked up to see another of what Hugo lovingly called his Jupitiers standing in front of her. A look of awe crossed the man’s face. She smiled at him awkwardly. A moment passed with no exchange until she cut in.
The man shook off the trance. “Hey, Captain Harvey, I just wanted to say I—” She cut in again.
“Please, just call me Estan.”
He nodded intently. “Sorry, Estan, I just wanted to say thank you for what you’re doing here. My family is back there. We thought we were gonna die on that station, you know? I mean, Varlen is a good guy and all but—” She cut in again.
“Hey, do you mind if I just go and get a refill from up front?” Estan asked, gesturing to her empty cup.
“Oh, no, not at all. I’ll catch you later, yeah?”
She nodded and slipped away.
“Excuse me.” Estan moved through the crowds. “Can I just slip through?” dancing around another group until she reached the cockpit at the front. Estan shut the door behind her, leaving the noise and commotion on the other side. Resting her forehead against the door, she closed her eyes and took a breath.
“Getting a bit much back there?” a voice called. Estan turned sharply. She had thought she was alone.
Elanor Blake sat in the chair behind the autopilot read outs, her one leg up on the dash, body slumped down in the chair.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Estan laughed, pushing her long, ink-black hair behind her ears.
“Why do you think I’m hiding up here?” Elanor sniggered. She looked at Estan and clocked the cup.
“You come for a refill?” Estan nodded. Taking the cup off her, Elanor laughed.
“Oh my God, Estan, you’re actually drinking that crappy coffee.” Before she could answer, Elanor dropped her leg down and sat up straight, pulling a silver flask from the side of the chair. “Some of Varlen’s finest right here.” She winked, unscrewing the cap and swishing the drink under her nose. “It’s got an earthy tone, with a touch of berries and a hint of oppression,” she joked.
“Fill me up,” Estan said readily.
Elanor poured the cups. “You can say a lot about Varlen, but one thing that man could do was make a good moonshine.”
They clinked cups and Estan took a swig. She managed to rasp a curse as the rocket fuel went down. Elanor laughed. “Good right?”
Estan nodded, waiting for the red to drain from her face a little, “I needed that.”
Both sat quietly. Elanor seemed to be the only other person in the world that felt like her at this point in time. Orson was worrying — as he does. Hugo was hustling and cheating — as he does. But Elanor was wise to the world in a way her brother was not. It was something that Estan had missed or taken as unwillingness along their journey from the gun fight at the farm, through the Mega Corp and ultimately to the Eclipse. This was a mistake on her behalf.
She was strong. It was a trait that she wanted to emulate more than anything in the new position of power and leadership that had fallen on her shoulders. Elanor sized up every situation with cold precision. She understood the bigger picture over all else. Her morals, her beliefs — all came second to her mission: find safety for her brother and now her new family. All things paled to this goal. All things but Kaylen.
Estan was the first to speak this time.
“We’ll find him you know. If anything they’ll have put him in custody, or to work in the L.M.C. who knows?” she said, soothing not only Elanor’s demons but her own as well.
“Or in an interrogation chamber… or a morgue,” Elanor Blake added dryly as she finished her drink and gazed out the only view port and into the black void beyond. Her thoughts left her to find a home amongst the stars.
Estan swallowed hard. This time it wasn’t the moonshine choking her throat but Elanor’s words.
“What’s the plan?” Elanor changed the subject.
Estan had been asked that very question a hundred times that day and was sure would be asked a hundred more before the day was out. For the first time, she didn’t feel like she had to lie. She didn’t have to respond as the leader of the Jupiter Eclipse survivors. She didn’t have to divulge information in her new role within the Lucid resistance cell. No, with Elanor she could answer as Estan and just Estan.
“I don’t know,” she said. Both women went quiet for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said again, giggling. “God, it feels good to say that.”
Elanor smiled in response “I bet it does.”
Both women laughed like they hadn’t laughed in years. Neither could have explained why. All they knew was it felt right. Elanor dashed another splash into their cups and toasted through the laughter.
“Cheers to not knowing what’s going on.” Both women laughed harder and Estan wiped the tears from her face, her sides hurting.
Just then a knock sounded from beyond the door. Both shushed each other.
“Just a second,” Estan said as she dried her face and put down the moonshine.
“You’d best go see what’s happening back there, Captain Harvey. They haven’t seen your face for a whole five minutes, the mob will be sending out a search party” she sniggered.
The knock came again.
Estan cleared her throat, “I said give me a second.”
“Is Elanor in there with you?” It was Orson.
Estan opened the door. The look on his face was serious, an expression she had come to expect from Orson.
“We’re nearly there, I think. The readouts have changed on the beds,” he said.
The laughter stopped and Estan took a breath. “I’d best go out there and let them know,” she said, more to herself than the Blakes.
“I wish I could do it for you Estan, but I can’t,” he said.
‘That’s a lie Orson and you know it,’ she thought, but his intentions were true, so she smiled and left the cockpit.
Hugo had already gathered most of the crowd for her.
“Listen up!” she shouted, using one of the overhead load-bearing bars to pull herself up where she could see and be seen by everyone. “See that light over there?” she pointed half-way down the crowd to a blinking flash on the wall. “That light is to tell the Auto-Bots they need to begin prepping the ship for landing. We are close, people.” Estan scanned the faces of the crowd; children, teenagers and innocent eyes stared back up at her.
“That’s the first time you will have ever seen that light flashing. Last time it did that you were drugged, strapped down. Being delivered to your new owners, so Unity can sleep soundly behind their high walls.” She felt a shift in the crowd. It was something she always had a talent for. She could feel the mood of the room and shape it how she wanted, guide it to her final conclusion. “But I doubt they will be getting much sleep when all of this ‘corporate property’ appears back on their doorstep!”
Laughter rippled through the crowd, the sea of faces lit up only by the dim glow of the fuselage illuminations. The shadows bonded and melded the crowd into one thing, one object.
‘These are honest, good people. I can’t let them walk in blind,’ she told herself. A new note of seriousness tightened her tone.
“I will not lie to you. When me, Orson and Elanor managed to escape from the L.M.C. it was with our lives on a knife’s edge. It’s not the same place you left.” She waited for her words to sink in. “Unity will soon find itself cornered and wounded when the truth comes out. And like any wounded, cornered animal, it will do what is most basic to it: bite back.” The laughs in the crowd were a distant memory now. “Because of this, I will not ask you to follow me in what needs to be done next. You can go your own way on Earth and live out your lives.”
A man’s voice called from three rows deep. “That’s why we’re following you. Because you don’t ask us to.” The people around him grunted their agreement.
She smiled “what we are doing here right now — this is forging history. Not everyone here is a fighter” She looked at the young faces. “Should the worst happen, we will need people to tell this story. To keep the fire burning under Unity. Search deep in your souls to find what your role is in this and follow it.”
The parents in the crowd held their children tightly. She knew that not everyone had the same drive as her. But what they did have was the same goal: safety.
Hugo piped up. “So how do we hurdle the big cheese in the sky? The L.M.C. ain’t gonna be no push over.” Others voiced their agreement and uncertainty.
‘Whose side are you on here, Hugo?’ she cursed him in her head.
“I’m not going to lie. I don’t know what’ll be waiting for us when those doors open. I expect Unity guards, staff, and I’m not sure what else. Probably more than when we broke through last time.”
The seed of doubt Hugo had placed began to blossom. She needed to pull it out, and fast. “That’s what I expect, but here is what I know. I know, like all of you should, that firearms are not permitted inside the mining hub, not even on staff. I know that there are over two hundred people on this ship wanting to get home, and at least double that on the shuttles we are towing. We have weight of numbers and the element of surprise.” She looked across the mass as one woman cheered. “We can do this, guys. Come on!” she encouraged, followed by another optimistic rally a few heads over until the doubt was snuffed out. At least enough to lead them as one.
“Less than ten minutes people!” Estan shouted over the raised voices, climbing down off her vantage point. She scowled at Hugo, who smiled with that cheeky look in his eye.
The ship lurched forward, everyone on board taking a step to right themselves. Orson voiced what everyone already knew. “The docking beam from the mining hub. It’s bringing us in.”
The ship went quiet — deathly quiet — as every soul on board heightened their hearing, listening to the ship as it talked to them through moans and juddering engines, telling the tale of their descent.
Estan moved to the front of a group huddled around the exit hatch. The ship rumbled one last exhale before it settled on something hard. Everyone took a shuffle back from the door and the uncertainty that lay beyond.
Hugo, Orson and Elanor filled the gap next to Estan.
“All the children and scaredy cats to the back,” Hugo said, cracking his knuckles.
Estan addressed them over her shoulder. “When the door opens, we need to get down off the gantry as fast as possible. There is one door into the hangar and we need to get there before they lock it. Once we’re at the door we can slow down a little and figure out what we’re dealing with.”
“Don’t let them get their stun sticks out. Rush them first,” Elanor added.
The mass of bodies behind them surged forward a couple of feet. Estan could feel the crowd change again; the beast was ready to be let off its leash.
The interior lights came on and the blinking red of the approach indicator stopped. There was a moment that felt stuck in time, a purgatory of their fate.
Then the door hissed and Estan’s body tensed. She had been here before, fighting her way out of a corner. This time she had two hundred vengeful men, women and children behind her.
The hatch opened and white light flooded in. cascading across the dark machinery and the bodies that filled the space.
“Go, go, go!” Hugo called as he leapt forwards into the light, Estan and the others not a breath behind him. An angry mass of screams and aggression spilled out into the dock. Estan stopped, her eyes adjusting.
“Where is everyone?” she asked.
The dock was empty. The other shuttles that came in behind them going through the same unsure motions and questions. The confused Jupitiers blinked away the light, only to have it replaced with the same image as Estan.
“I don’t get it,” Orson said. Nobody offered an explanation.
‘This area should be teeming with workers, security. Where the hell is everyone?’ Estan battled with her thoughts.
“Estan.” Elanor grabbed her attention. “What if they knew we were coming back? What if Varlen told them?”
Estan shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t do that.”
Elanor looked at her warningly. “But if he did…”
Estan pursed her lips as she tossed the idea around in her head.
“Keep moving,” she called to the mob. “We need to get into the mining hub. Nothing has changed. Our mission is still the same.” She began moving down the gantry towards the door — the same door that, weeks before, she had charged through with Orson on a hospital bed.
Hugo fell into place next to Orson. “I’m no detective, but whoever left here did it with a rocket up their arse” he pointed at a console panel. Orson saw a mug of coffee on its side, a brown stain running down the screen, the chair toppled.
“You know what, Hugo? I’d rather have been met with stun sticks than this. It’s freaking me out.”
For once, no joke came from Jennings, no witty remark. Just the eerie silence of anticipation.
Estan reached the door, tried the handle she expected to be locked — open. The knob turned and the door clinked in acceptance. She prised it a few centimetres, just enough to peer into the corridor beyond. Empty. She stepped through; The long white corridor was silent. The only noise was the hum of artificial strip lights down the centre of the ceiling. A noise all too familiar to the group and the Jupitiers alike. All bar the children had done their stint on the Lunar Mining Corporation’s grey rock.
“Hey,” Orson hissed to Estan.
“Why are you whispering Orson? We just landed in a dozen shuttles. I think we’ve lost the element of surprise,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him.
He smiled sheepishly before continuing. “Maybe they’ve closed off the docking ring. Pulled all the staff back to the other side of the zero-gravity tram run.”
‘That tram run, where the Unity ship tried to make a new crater out of us,’ she remembered. ‘It would be the sensible thing to do. It’s what I would do if I knew I was about to be outnumbered.’
“And stay over there until reinforcements got here from Earth?” she asked, agreeing with his train of thought.
“You’re both wrong,” Hugo stated. Estan and Orson looked over at him. He was standing at a view port overlooking the dock. He beckoned them with a finger, leaning against the glass side-on with his legs crossed, as if he was standing back at the bar, not a worry in the world. They followed his gaze.
“What? All I see is the empty dock,” Orson said.
“Over there,” he directed, pointing at the corner of the ghost town outside the window. “The trams, can you see them?” Both nodded.
“And?” Orson asked.
Estan explained. “They can’t be over there waiting for us. Would you send the tram back over for your attackers to use?” she asked Orson. Not waiting for a response, she cursed under her breath. “This makes no sense.”
The group moved quietly through the empty corridors, weaving their way through the maze and on to the tram docks.
“Everyone,” Estan addressed them. “I need you all to stay here. Something isn’t right. Me and a few others will go across on the trams first. No use risking getting locked down in zero gravity.”
“Trust me, it ain’t fun,” added Elanor from the front of the groups.
“As soon as it’s clear on the other side, we’ll send the tram back to get the next group. These trams only take forty-nine passengers plus the tram masters, so I’d settle down and get comfy as it’s going to take a while.”
People grumbled and began to sit in their groups. A few strayed away back into the corridors, seeing what they could find; clues, anything.
“Let’s go,” Captain Harvey ordered. Her chosen group followed her on board.
The tram glided across the open expanse. It was a trip all of them, bar the farm-girl Elanor, had made a thousand times.
“Would you look at that,” Hugo said, pointing out the window at a scorched and twisted tram carriage, laid to rest on its side across the grey rock.
“That was us,” Orson said with a raised eyebrow, taking the wreck in. Last time he had seen it he was running for his life in a zero-grav suit.
Hugo laughed. “Bloody hell, you did leave here with a bang, aye? Proud of you Lacklustre, proud of you.” He chuntered to himself as he watched the wreck pass.
The short journey seemed to flash by. Everyone’s mind worked through all possibilities, answers as to why the station was empty and what potential traps Unity had set for them.
“The ring-side dock is coming up,” Orson said, looking out the window at the approaching buildings. The tram hissed to a stop and the doors opened. Once again — empty.
“There goes that theory,” Hugo said as he safely stepped off the tram.
“OK, let’s spread out so we can cover more ground. I don’t want to be up here for a moment longer than we need to be,” Estan said. The others nodded and Elanor dropped in next to her while Hugo and Orson took off down the left-hand side of the platform.
The pairs snaked through the maze of artificially lit corridors, each one identical to the last. But this place was home to Orson and Hugo, even to Estan to a degree, and they knew it like the backs of their hands.
Orson started to laugh as he followed his friend.
“What’s up, Lacklustre?”
Orson shook his head. “You’re not looking for clues. You’re heading straight to the Fissure,” he accused.
Hugo turned and placed his hand on his chest in shock, walking backwards. “Me? at a time like this? how dare you!” He turned and continued his quick pace. “I mean, don’t get me wrong,” he called back. “The Fissure is the main drinking establishment on this side of the habitat. It would be irresponsible if we didn’t comb the area thoroughly.”
“Too right,” Orson agreed. Hugo cast him a wink over his shoulder as the pair turned the final corner.
The corridor opened into a large area. A neon sign hung at its centre, flickering with the name of the establishment. The Fissure comprised of a bar area in the centre, surrounded by a dozen or so small tables framed with chairs. On the left side of the room stood the only pool table on the moon, and on the right of that the only holographic dart board. Both objects had been the cause of more fights than Unity dare address.
Hugo jumped the bar and started scouring for his favourite bottle.
“Checking for poison?” Orson asked sarcastically as he sat on a stool, resting his arms on the divide.
“It’s all poison, Orson.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, as his friend poured two short glasses of Hugo’s tipple.
“I don’t think this is gonna play out well, Lustre. I’ve got a bad feeling,” Hugo said with a warning look. It was the first time he had voiced his opinion from behind his brash deminer.
Orson knocked back the whiskey and coughed the dry out of his throat before he answered, Hugo pouring another as he spoke. “Unity don’t just leave their property — you know this as well as I do kid. If this station is empty it’s for a reason. It stinks man.”
Orson nodded and tried to clear the lump in his throat before he asked the question that they were both dancing around. “If all the Unity staff have left, what did they do with all the miners?”
Hugo pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows. “Well that’s a question that I don’t really want to know the answer to.” Both sat quietly.
Hugo raised a glass and they toasted.
“To better times.”