Eve watched Eden shrink into the distance, carrying on its eternal journey. It was a binary pair with Paradijs in orbit around the Pleiades star. The smuggler burned enough juice to break from Eden’s frame of reference. Now, he said, all they had to do was wait for Paradijs to come around its orbit and fly straight into them.
The process would take many days.
“So we just sit here?” Eve asked, probably for the tenth time. The smuggler had turned off the lights and controls, and dimmed the air and heat systems. She was watching him from reflected sun and starlight.
“Everything we do makes us visible to the police,” he said. “Except doing nothing, so that’s what we’ll do. We’ll sit tight and no one will know we are even here.”
Eve crossed her arms. She’d never been great with stillness. Always moving, always running, always one step ahead. A motto that worked equally well in her father’s world and her own as a journalist. Sitting still was not part of the bargain.
She stood to relieve her twitching legs. “What if they find us? What if they are sneaking up on us right now?”
“Then we’re dead.”
“That’s not comforting.”
She thought the smuggler was watching her but she couldn’t be sure. The silence carried on, as quiet as space was dark.
“Jack Hamilton,” he said.
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
He leant forward. “My name. I thought that might be more comforting than the thought of dying.”
She smiled despite herself. “Thank you, Jack.”
Eve was wrapped in both survival blankets and swallowing the last of the water when Jack powered the ship back up. Paradijs was coming up on them. The rush of fresh warmth from the AHS filled Eve, lifting her spirits. Three days of cold in the dark brought out many fears. But now things were back on track. Always moving, always one step ahead.
The view out the window brightened with flame as they entered Paradijs’ atmosphere. The air thickened and banged and raged at the hull. Jack barely touched the controls, only adjusting to counter turbulence or slow their descent. Then Eve had a bad feeling.
“The altimeter isn’t working. How do you know how high we are?”
“When we hit the ground we’re at zero altitude.” He glanced at her, flashed a smile, but he was concentrating harder on the controls than he wanted to let on. Perhaps this part of the trip wasn’t on the usual smuggling tour.
He seemed to read her mind. “I don’t normally smuggle people toward Paradijs. Usually it’s the other way around, workers wanting to get off Paradijs, either to Eden and the better working conditions or from there out of the Pleiades system altogether. I figured this would buy us a bit of time.” Both his hands were on the controls now, muscles taut, beads of sweat on his forehead. His arms shook as the wheel’s feedback relayed the ship’s desire to flip over and kill them both.
The flames outside burned away and Jack’s body relaxed. He gave the engines a little more boost and the kick of the prime mover transmitted through Eve’s seat. She saw a mountain range in the distance, sharp cliffs and buttes coming into focus as they closed in. A sinking feeling filled her.“That’s our destination, isn’t it?”
“With perception like that it’s no wonder you’re a journalist.”Eve bristled. “Sounds like you need some time out of the shuttle.”Jack smiled big white teeth at her. “Not long now.”
He landed them under an outcropping. He unstrapped and opened a seat compartment out the back. He withdrew a big bore Painter and handed her his own pistol. “You good with this?”
She looked the weapon over, trying to look confident. Trigger for her finger here, the end where the death came out there. How hard could it be? “Point and shoot right?”
He frowned at her. “It has a bit of recoil. Aim for the kneecaps. Should result in a nice juicy stomach shot.”
She shook her head and put the weapon down. “I’m not here to kill anyone, Mr Hamilton. I’m a journalist. I’m here to tell the world the truth about what the Pleiades Corporation have been doing, and what they plan to do to the Imperium!”
He regarded her, pupils dancing back and forth as if he were looking for something, or a lack of something. “Your dad understood how to defend himself.” A pause, then, “And his friends.”
Eve handed the pistol back. “One of the many reasons I don’t talk to my father anymore, Jack.”
He shrugged, stuck the pistol in his belt then hoisted the Painter on his shoulder. “Your call.” He opened the gangplank and slowly stepped out, Painter extended outward, ready to spray the immediate vicinity in destruction.
Eve emerged behind him, coughing immediately. Paradijs was hazy, the horizon and even parts of the rock formation hidden behind a curtain of brownness. The rocks were coated in dust. She coughed again.
Jack had a breathing mask on. He moved away, Painter out horizontal, patrolling the area. Eve went back inside and put on a mask. She returned to find him pulling a camo net from an external compartment.
“Amazing how much people can fuck up a planet when they put their mind to it, huh?” Jack said. She thought he was smiling behind the mask.
“This is pollution?” She’d heard stories of ancient cities – Tokyo, London, Beijing being like this, but they had been inhabited for millennia. Paradijs had only been inhabited for centuries. She’d assumed it had always been borderline inhabitable, not worth the expense of planetary adjustment. Jack nodded. “Could be worse though I guess.” He made a sound like a giggle. “Give them time.”
Together they draped the ship in the camo, designed to confuse heat, metal and visual sensors. Jack assured her that the netting, in combination with the heat soak of the smog would eliminate any eyes from orbit. “What if they come in closer?” she asked.
Jack didn’t answer, instead looking up. Eve followed his gaze and realised the silver dollar in the sky, almost half hidden by haze, was Eden. A small, cruel world whose masters were planning abomination the likes of which humanity had never seen.
Her mission had felt so important a moment ago but now she felt insignificant. No matter what happened, Eden would continue to hang in Paradijs’ sky and vice versa, an endless dance together around their sun, unable to be stopped by anything her, or anyone, could do.
“Time to go,” Jack said, pulling her from the reverie. He holstered the Painter on his back then headed up the mountain along a natural track. Eve caught up to him. The mask made it hard to catch her breath and they walked in silence. She didn’t bother asking where they were going. Jack would reveal it when Jack was ready.
Her mind went back to the trip they had taken so far. A double back from the starport to a repair bay then out to a stepping stone planet. There were many other planets and bodies in the stellar system, lots of places to hide, but there was still only one way in and out of the system. Officially anyway.
“What’s the next step in the railroad?” she asked.
Jack’s head snapped toward her, his expression of surprise only half hidden behind the mask. He turned back to watch his footing. “I don’t remember Nathanial being involved in smuggling quite like this.”Eve smiled. “I’m right then. You do have a railroad. What’s the next station?”
Jack gave a muffled laugh and shook his head. “If you are such a smuggling expert, why aren’t you out there busting smugglers instead of playing with the fire of the PLC?”
Eve didn’t reply. It was a question she had wrestled with many times over the last fifteen years. She always came back to the same answer however. “Just because you don’t want to hide in your father’s shadow doesn’t mean you want to shine a big light on it.”
Jack stopped. He turned, grasped both her shoulders. H stared at her unspeaking. They looked at each other. Then he let go and kept walking. “I think I understand you a bit better now Miss Walters.”
The grade steepened and there was no spare lung capacity for talking. Marbles of rock slipped beneath foot and she had to hold onto pillars of crumbling sedimentary, but she kept up with Jack as they marched ever forward.
The sky darkened and Jack stopped, looking up. Eve followed his gaze. The sun was slipping behind one of the binary pair’s chaotic moons. Jack eased down onto the ground. “Take a break,” he wheezed, the climb clearly affecting him too. “Don’t want to walk up here when we can’t see. Don’t worry it doesn’t last long.”
Eve dropped to the ground and watched behind an outstretched arm. The sky turned a deep brown, edging toward a less irritating black. She could still see her surroundings, but Jack was right, it was best to wait in case there were surprises up ahead.
“It’s not far,” Jack said after a few minutes. “The Tigress is stowed in a cave maybe a kilometre away. Once we’ve got it running we’ll head for Ares. They’re onto the second stage of planetary adjustment so the original base is empty and no one pays it any attention. Except for the science geeks. “We’ll wait for Paradijs to make its closest approach to Ares – which granted won’t save us much distance, but it might cut a day of in-system travel. We’ll skim the sun as best we can to stay hidden.”
“And from there?” Eve asked.
Jack regarded her. “Then the map.”
Eve inhaled sharply. “You have a map?”
“Of course I have a map. How else did you think I was getting you out of here?”
“I, well, I hoped you did, but PLC reports-”
Jack waved at her. “Propaganda. You think they’re going to advertise it?”
Eve didn’t respond. They had a saying back at the office. If the report comes from the PLC then assume it’s wrong until verified by two independent authorities.
She changed the topic. “So, you never told me why you changed your mind and decided to help me.”
Jack kept staring up at the sky. Eve thought maybe he hadn’t heard her and was about to ask again when he said, “It takes one to know one.”
“That’s what you said to me when we first met. Your bold approach had me on the defensive. It took me a while to click.”
Eve frowned at him. “You knew my father?”
The world lightened and Jack was already on his feet and pulling her up. “Come on. It’s not far but it does get steeper. And colder.”
They were quickly scrabbling up on all fours. Eve’s breaths were coming hard and fast. She had to force long slow breaths despite her heart’s protests, otherwise she’d asphyxiate. The smog trapped the sun’s muggy heat. Sweat clung to her skin yet did little except dehydrate her. The climb devolved into a simple subroutine of movements. Reach with right hand, grand handhold, move left leg, acquire purchase, reach with left hand. She lost track of time but was aware the sun was setting and they had to get off the rock face before dark otherwise they’d be stuck there until morning. Finally Jack stopped and pointed. “There it is.”
With renewed energy Eve followed Jack toward a patch of darkness and they were into the cave. Moving by touch Jack gingerly stepped to the back of the cave and pressed a button. Compressed air shushed through the cave and a halo of light appeared in the darkness, growing into a full rectangle as the gang plank lowered to the cave floor.
They rushed in and Jack led Eve to the galley and a rack of bottled water. Eve grabbed one, sat down, ripped off the top and glugged it down. It tasted stale, but it was cold and wet and good enough for her.
Someone was shaking her. She flinched, but then breathed deeply. It was Jack. “You fell asleep,” he said, smiling. “It’s almost like you don’t normally spend your days climbing hills.”
“Now who’s the perceptive one?” she said, accepting his offered hand. He pulled her up and they moved to the cockpit.
“Leaving Eden we played it nice and cool, slow and steady. This time we’ll do the opposite. Hit maximum burn until we leave atmos then shut down. If I do the calcs right we should be able to coast to Ares without too many burns in space. Much rather run the engines in atmos where the pollution dims the infra-red.”
Eve just nodded. Jack settled into the pilot’s chair and went through his numbers. He’d probably done it so many times it was automatic – punch in orbital data and out came the time and angle for the burn.
Eve left him to it and explored the ship. It was a decent sized freighter with enough space for a crew of two, three at a pinch and maybe twenty metric cubes of cargo. There were two cargo bays crammed between the fuselage and the nacelles. To an unlearned eye they looked standard, but the container racks had clearly been modified to hold people, rather than cargo in zero-gee. Eve imagined a few cargo containers modified to dispense water and food and the hold would comfortably hold ten to twenty people trying to flee the PLC’s tyranny.
She turned to leave and saw Jack standing in her way. “We’ll stay put for a couple of days,” he said. That way Paradijs itself will be heading toward Ares. Gives us a boost.” He looked over her shoulder. “You like?” She turned and nodded. “You’ve clearly been doing this awhile.”
He gestured inward. “There’s something in here I thought you might be interested in.”