Chapter 1

To Speak of Dying...

Evening crept in, bathing the colony in a sickly yellow light.  Simetra wandered around her stand in the market place packing away her goods as the twin suns sank behind the mountains.  The market was one of several hundred on the colony world as a population the size of Olympe could not be supported by a single market alone.  She loved the mixture of wares on display and during the day with the warm colours and rich smells it became intoxicating and on a sunny day it filled the whole square.  That, combined with the distant sounds of street musicians, brought the place to life as street performers would combine their dancing or acrobatics with the musicians that were nearest to them.  It was almost easy to ignore the underlying atmosphere of fear permeating from almost everyone.   There was always something to watch or listen to and the street theatre was as varied as the wares on sale but sometimes the difference between listening and not could mean the difference between living and dying.   Old pieces of theatre and music from Earth were not played anymore since the Provider had declared them to be the songs of heresy and rebellion.   There was a large screen the square that broadcast what the authorities called ‘running news’ all day and people ignored it at their peril.  Nobody really remembered why, or even when, the mere mention of democracy had become dangerous.

The stalls were placed to form nine squares in blocks of three stalls on each side with the traders in the centre and the colonists flowing through the aisles they formed.  Each block specialised in particular type of goods.  Her stall was by one of the many entrances of the city so was a prime place to catch people as they entered and left the square.  It was also directly opposite one of the city’s seedier Pornea.   The women there were nice enough to her but she forever had to deliver their unwanted children.   They were supposed to use contraception but it was expensive and a slow month could spell an ‘accident’.   Her healing skills were often called upon to help a woman after a visit from a rough customer and she doubted very much that those customers were ever called to account for their actions.

When she wasn’t healing, she was hunting and unofficially sold what she caught to make ends meet.   The forest, before the mountains of the western limits was alive with edible quarry.  A Medic in this city didn’t earn much from healing ordinary people and wealthier citizens refused to pay her more just because they could afford to.   They were too afraid of the Clerics.   Tonight she was in no hurry to get home to an empty unit and was not going to speed her business to suit the establishment.  A law that the square was to be cleared of people by dusk had recently been passed.  It disgusted her not because of what it was but because of what it stood for.    A group of rebellious youths had taken to acts of petty vandalism around the city but rather than catch and punish those responsible, the Council saw a chance to tighten its grip even harder.  That was happening more often these days.  It had gotten to the point that nobody knew where they stood and ignorance was held to be no excuse.

It had been a fairly fruitless day and even the vibrant life of the market had been unable to console her.   People had been giving her strange looks all day and avoiding eye-contact or staring and looking away as soon as she caught them.   Something was stranger than usual but she had little time for gossip and even less for the gossips.   The pittance she had taken that day would just about be enough to feed her for a day but not much longer.   She’d had several unsuccessful hunting trips recently and had trapped no more than a few hares so her stock was running low.   Her brother was a musician and had little time these days to go and check her traps for her so it was not uncommon to find one of her traps had been looted in her absence.  Ollopa’s reputation was growing now that he had finished his musical training and new client assignments kept him busy with the demand for his personal services at some very exclusive parties.   She was thankful that he always managed to make time for her though.   As well as being her twin, he was her friend and that would not ever change as far as she was concerned.   He jokingly carried out the protective older brother act even though he knew she needed no protection from him; he often joked that it was the rest of the colony that needed protection from her.   She smiled at the thought of the dear old thing and remembered that it was tonight that he had set aside to spend with her.   She wondered what they could eat that wouldn’t deplete her stocks too far as she preferred that the meat she caught was sold inexpensively to feed a hungry family and some was already reserved.  The Clerics of the Council had managed to get food and water rationed according to social status so most and the best of what was produced was sent straight to the palace.  Loyalty to her regular customers meant that they were loyal to her when it came to purchasing extra food.  The wealthier citizens had their own hunters to find meat for them so if they came to her hoping for a cheap deal she would deny all knowledge.  Her skills were not for the highest bidder to barter for.  The furs made good warm blankets for the cold season and she sold them at a fraction of what it would cost the High Houses to buy them as luxury items.  When it got really cold the heaters in the Domestic Units would fail and a good fur could save a life. Even a good artificial blanket couldn’t keep the cold out like fur could.  Looking up, she scowled at the large ornate palace opposite the news screen at the other end of the square.

The so-called ruler’s ‘Clerical Colony Council of the Provider’ got to live there while the rest of the colony buildings virtually fell apart around them.   The name of the council had been specially chosen to lead other colonies to believe that the council had been freely elected and, as all public records preceding their reign had been ‘misplaced’, there was no evidence to the contrary.   It was a vast white building made of huge stone blocks and finished with glittering white marble.   It was tall and wide with high marble columns around the perimeter holding up a huge tiled roof.  The expensive building materials had been brought from earth in the early days of the colony and built by the settlers when the skills still existed.  This building was meant to have been an administrative centre to ‘cope with the growing population’.  That’s what the Provider claimed they needed the funding for when taxes were raised and services were cut to pay for it.  Apparently it was a masterpiece of architecture but Sim thought it was vulgar, old-fashioned and out of place.      It stood higher than any of the other buildings in the city and there was a steep set of narrow steps all the way around it.   Tall windows, set high up in the walls, were also placed all the way around the building.  In comparison with the small and utilitarian buildings that surrounded it, the Palace looked as if it had been sucked out of another time and –thankfully- nothing like it had been built there since.    It was a gaudy and in her eyes it was a shameful symbol of the tyranny and corruption that were carried out inside it.  She shuddered as she recalled the state of those brought out.

Local myth -and public opinion- said that the Provider and his kin were a family of traitors and usurpers who stole the reigns of command from the colony founders but voicing this opinion was dangerous in more than one way.  They had not yet discovered a way to read minds but people, under torture, will admit to anything.   These days, everybody was so very careful with whom they spoke to and how they shared their opinions.  The wrong conversation ‘overheard’ was often enough to provoke a night-time visit from the Guards.     It did not sit well with her that she and others should starve while they slaved for those who took and took and gave nothing back. The people the Provider and his Council were supposed to care for learned a long time exactly what they could expect from their so-called provider. It was no wonder that her traps were being looted.

She bent down again to secure the old sewn together sacks she used to cover her stand.  The white stone slab paving and cobbles of the square had not yet been swept clean of the day’s activities so the evening shut down was grubby work.   Her joints and back ached and complained loudly as she rose and she allowed herself a groan.   Aching joints and sunburn aside, she probably still had work to do that evening and sulking about how tire she felt and how unfair it all was, was not going to aid her efforts.  The groan had betrayed her presence and she was spotted by a Guard.
“It’s time to move along now, girl.” a gravelly voice spoke behind her.  She did not look around to see who it was who spoke to her.  The fact was, she did not really care.   She already knew who it was.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes, I know who you are, Selcareh.  You are the head of the Palace Guard and, as far as I have been led to believe, of uncertain parentage.” she did not snap but she did then him the courtesy of rising to speak with him.  A display of petulance now would be extremely unwise but it was amusing to push them to their limit sometimes.   He dwarfed her so it would do her no good to seriously antagonise the man and provoking him to rage was even less advisable.  She was not sure she could beat him in close combat. For now, her tone was enough to show him that she cared little for the position of authority he thought held over her and in her eyes he was no better than she was.   She looked away again and moved around the stall to secure the third corner.   Sack-cloth was poor security but it kept the morning dew off her goods and she would know if it had been tampered with as she tied the cover in a very specific way.  To the untrained eye, it looked accidental and haphazard but she would not be a victim to theft if she could help it.  “I’m rather busy right now.” her tone stayed flat and emotionless.  “I’ll move on when I’m finished.”

“It’s nearly lock-down.  You’ll be locked in.” he stamped his foot, kicking dust up into her face.   She knew it was coming so had closed her eyes on time to avoid the worst of it.  “Unless, that is, you’d prefer to spend the night with the City Guard?” he leered at her and she met his eye with her even stare.  A show of fear could be a fatal mistake now.  There were girls who made a living that way but she was not one of them and fully intended to remain that way.

“No, thank you.   I’m not for sale or sample and my brother would disapprove.  He could charge you with theft.” she’d heard the rumours.   Girls who were picked up by them were seldom the same again and it wasn’t just the girls either.  The boys, particularly the pretty ones, had been ‘interfered’ with too and often more brutally than the girls had.   This Guard in particular had a taste for either and a reputation for violence.  She did not ordinarily believe gossip but there was rarely any smoke without fire.  More often than not, the Guards were the rough customers that caused her services to be needed in the middle of the night.  “Anyway, I’m a Medic and Lock-down rule doesn’t apply to me.   Want to see my license?” she reached to her boot leg as if to fetch it for inspection:  she was really reaching to make sure her blade was free in its sheath.  The Guards often haunted the Hostels and Pornea hoping to find an easy target for a bribe but Medics were strictly off-limits and Guards who bullied them found themselves in some very deep trouble especially if the Medic they detained was on the way to the home of one of their superiors.   “I don’t have to explain my business to Guards”.   She moved on to the last leg.  “I’m nearly finished.  Would it kill you to be patient for a change?”

“Don’t give me your insolence, girl” He advanced a step and reached down to grab her arm.  In a breath she snatched her blade from her boot leg and still crouching, stuck out her right leg and swung it round hard enough to trip him.  He landed backwards on the ground.   Bending over the now prone man she held the knife to his throat.  It was a short blade and so no match for the weaponry the Guards carried with them.  It was much more of a tool than a weapon but she kept it very sharp for reasons of ‘practicality’.   Her weapon of choice was a short bow but that was useless for close combat.

“Don’t touch me.  I’m not one of your little whores!  Even you have superiors, my friend, and I’m sure they would be very interested to know exactly what you have been up to.” Her heart was racing with fear and rage.  She had been able to outmanoeuvre him this time but it was more through luck than judgment and she doubted he would let it happen again.  She spoke calmly and quietly, making it clear that she knew more about him than he knew of her.   She knew more about most of them than she really wanted to.

“Attacking me will do you…” the winded Guard wisely did not move.  Her reflexes were not cat-like but they were clear fast enough to do him some serious damage.

“Attacking?  I was defending myself against an enemy and that’s allowed.  I am not afraid of you” she lied.  She was as terrified of the Guards as all the colonists were and having seen and had to tend some of their handiwork sharpened her that fear. She could not afford to let them see this.  If she did she would never get rid of them so she looked him straight in the eye again and instead showed him the sense of total and utter disgust he filled her with. To her annoyance he started to laugh at her and clap but this laughter did not reach his eyes.

“If there were other Guards here now, you wouldn’t be so brave.” this was true but even an idiot knows that you don’t start a fight unless you are certain that you have a chance of coming out alive.   A typical bully needs the support or feigned respect of others to feel brave and in control and this Guard was no different.  If they couldn’t get that support willingly they would try to force it from people.  It was a standard misconception, amongst the Guards particularly, that fear and respect were the same thing: a belief propagated by the Provider and his flunkies.

“That may be true but how would it look to your friends if you were seen being taken down by a single girl? It would look even worse to be caught harassing a Medic.   There are no conditions: we are untouchable.   Don’t worry though as I’ll not tell a soul that the big strong man who likes to force himself on women half his size was knocked on his arse when I defended myself.” she sneered back at him.  Inwardly she was now screaming at herself to cease this recklessness.  Provoking this man was a very, very bad idea and her position was probably not as invulnerable as she would have liked it to have been just then but she didn’t really care by that point as she was far too angry.  “Now, if you don’t mind, Sir, I’ll just finish my business and be on my way.   I have appointments to keep.”

She sheathed her knife and extended a hand to the Guard to help him to his feet.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.  Approaching her was a group of six of his subordinates and their reputation was no less unsavoury than his own.   She rolled her eyes at her stupidity.  Why did she just keep talking?  It just wound people up and she had been warned that she would upset the wrong people one day.

“Captain, what’s going on?” the foremost Guard eyed her suspiciously and turned to face his captain who by this time had risen regained his senses, risen unassisted, and was dusting himself down.

“There is nothing to worry about, corporal.  This girl was just assisting me to my feet.  I tripped, that’s all.   Thankfully I am not so old and decrepit that I need help from a mere pais.”

The word meant child-slave.  To call a fully grown adult, especially a person of recognised profession, it was a severe insult.  The general intonation was meant that to imply that ‘you are young and ignorant so who are you to believe you are of any use to anyone?’  it had been deliberately directed at her and she knew it was meant to provoke her even further.   He was looking his corporal in the eye.   Rudeness from the Guards was nothing new or unusual as they considered themselves a step above the rest because they worked for the palace and that gave them a free licence to act as they pleased.  The title she held was the only defence she had right now.   It was a comfortable life for them but it was also a fixed term of service that required them to live away from their families.   A few had wives and children at home and many had elder sons in the Guard with them.   Younger sons of the noble houses were taught survival and brutality in almost a ritualistic way.   If they survived the long years of training they were allowed recruited to the Guard.  They knew nothing of friends and little of loyalty to each other.  They were all rivals to each other for rank and the bloodiest reputations.

“I didn’t see her when I stepped back and tripped over her that’s all.  Isn’t that right, Miss?”

“Yes sir.” She said.  ‘Liar’, she thought.  Her face was a picture of smiles and apologies but the smile did not reach her eyes.  “I was just securing my stall cover.”

“Very well Captain but I should warn you that this waif is more trouble than she seems.  She has a taste for insubordination and…” he pointed to her boot knife “she’s armed.” This was too much to take in one day.  She’d suffered the same insult twice in a row now and was becoming even angrier.  The younger guard signalled two others to secure her and was about to order them to take her to who knew where.

“I’m a Medic, you fool, not one of your Guards or lackeys; you don’t get to tell me what to do…” she struggled and yelled but they held her fast.  Her refusal to break eye-contact was hardened but this also turned out to be a very bad idea.  The Captain stepped forward and seized her arms from the two subordinates, wrenching them painfully up behind her back, but surprisingly his anger was not directed at her.  She struggled but his grip only tightened, this was a sign for her to remain silent for her own good.  Her eyes streamed as the pain built.  Even though she knew the act was in no way altruistic, she complied but not without kicking him hard in the shin.  He did not flinch but his grip became tighter forced a cry of pain; much to the amusement of the Guards.

“Corporal, are you suggesting that I cannot do my job?” he gestured around the now empty square with his free arm.

“No sir but…”  The young man’s face was now ashen and the others began to whisper.

“I will have silence!” he glowered at the whisperers.  They were new recruits judging by the crispness of their uniform. He looked back to the Corporal.  “Does it look like this pais is capable of harming me?” his grip tightened and pulled her arms up again.  The Captain was not going to let her forget her insult to him earlier.

“No sir.” he swallowed and visibly squirmed.   He had clearly meant no insult to his commander but this was a lesson he was not going to forgetting in a hurry.

“Then are you claiming that I am a liar?”

“No Sir”

“Get back on patrol.  I will join you shortly and will speak to the Sergeant about lack of discipline in the ranks.  This girl is a Medic and is not to be troubled by the likes of you.  If there is a problem then I shall deal with her myself.  Understand?”  The very idea was horrific.  Simetra knew what he meant by ‘deal’ and it made her feel ill.

“Yes sir.” the Guard saluted sharply and quickly marched away with the others.

The Captain did not release her immediately.  Shouting for help now would have done no good so she kicked backwards again.  “There has been quite enough of that!” he must have been expecting it this time as he neatly avoided a second blow to the shins. Instead he hauled her behind her stall and pushed her to a wall.  He moved close to speak directly in her ear.  “Remember this, take it as a demonstration and think on it, girl.  I will not take your insolence forever.  I dare you to cross me again.” He pulled her back kicked her feet out from under her and this time pinned her face down on the ground.  The cold slabs knocked the wind out of her and for a moment the blinding pain of hitting the ground that hard that shot through her was all she could think of.  That would hurt in the morning.  “You have the look of an intelligent kid so I’m guessing you don’t need me to explain it in too much detail.” he leaned over her again and breathed on the back of her neck.  His breath was hot but thankfully not as vile as some of the other Guards. It still repulsed her.  “You will do well to mind your tongue in the presence of your superiors.”

“I’m no pais! Go eat lama dung!” He hauled her to her feet by the back of her shirt and turned her to face him gripping her shoulders.  He came so close she could feel his breath on her face and smell his rancid sweat from a day in the sun.  He clearly knew how to frighten people.  She spat in his face.

“Finished acting like a brat yet?” he asked as he released her from his grip, pushing her back so she landed painfully on to the slabs.  “If you insist on behaving like a spoiled child I shall treat you like one.  Tie up that last corner and be on your way.  If I catch you loitering again I will arrest you.” he marched off in the direction that the other Guards went only then wiping his face from where she had spat on him.   She watched him brush the dust from his hands and uniform as he stalked away.  Only then would she allow the fear to take hold and was thoroughly sick .

The nausea took some time to abate and it was nearly night time by the time she managed to secure the last corner with shaking hands and then limped home to an empty house.  Each housing unit was much like another except in respect of size.  Family units were much larger than the single person accommodation she lived in.  Hers was one of the three ground floor units of a three story building block.  A wide square courtyard at the rear provided some outside communal space for the people in her block but it trapped both noise and smells.  It was surrounded by a high white wall that came up to the roof of the building.  The only way into or out of these gardens was through the apartments they were attached to.  The people in the upper floors reached them via a stone walkway that was set into the walls and wound around the inside of the walls like a huge screw thread.  The lack of breeze in hot weather made it stuffy and hot but they were not as unpleasant in second season.  The roofs of the white walled buildings were all hipped and covered with greenish blue solar panels.  They were as plain as the Palace was ostentatious.  There was no individuality in the outside of the buildings because by law they were forbidden to adjust or adorn them with anything.  Each door was metal with a glossy black finish and a panel to the right hand side at about waist height displaying vivid blue computerised digits of the unit number.  There was also a panel where callers could log that they have visited and leave a message if they chose. An access panel below that was for reading palm prints for entry.  The units were not privately owned but there was no rental fee either.  They were issued as and when people needed them and taxes supposedly paid for the upkeep of the fabric of the buildings.   They were looking decidedly shabby these days as greedy councillors neglected maintenance protocols in favour of their own lavish lifestyles.  That didn’t lessen the fear that they could just be taken from the habitations to make room for favoured others as was the way with the present city council.  It was a threat levied more than once at people the council saw as civilly disobedient.  It was not an idle threat either as it had happened to people in her block.   Shabby and run down as it was, it was still home to her and she planned to keep it.

As she approached her door, she noticed it was ajar.  ‘Must not have shut properly on the way out this morning’ she thought to herself though when she came close it was clear it had been forced.  A note was flashing in red on the palm reader.  This caught her eye as she rarely had messages and when she did they were displayed in green, and left unopened until she palmed in.  This one was on full show to passers-by.  “Warrant for searching premises under suspicion of treason and conspiracy to usurp elected officials”.  Whoever had written the warrant was clearly using the word ‘elected’ in the loosest sense possible.  The colony had long since ceased to be any sort of democracy and there hadn’t been elections for over four generations to her reckoning.  The people in power chose the laws to maintain the status quo and who stayed in power.  If news spread that an official had retired then it was generally because of some form of disagreement or someone higher up decided they were a threat.  ‘What nonsense! If that’s the case, why wasn’t I arrested on the spot earlier? It’s not like they don’t know where I work’ She muttered to herself and shook her head at the mess they made.   She looked around to make sure nobody could hear her; the last thing she needed right now were more accusations or people wondering about her sanity.   She sent the note to her terminal and deleted the blinking red message on the panel; not even knowing why she kept it as complaining would do her no good, she would have to provide proof of innocence.  Not complaining would be also taken as a sign of her guilt – if only by association – and she knew they didn’t need any evidence to arrest her.  She would answer the charges put to her when they arose.  So many of her neighbours had been taken for the most unlikely reasons that she knew all they needed was a, change in the law with retroactive actions.  Webs of neatly fabricated excuses were the standard tool. The peasantry couldn’t refute them and a fingering a scapegoat was enough to frighten the masses into being placid, controllable sheep who believe anything they’re told.  It was why they were all so closely watched; even in their homes.  To maintain the control the fear was essential.  There had been whispers of some form of resistance movement but Sim seriously doubted the validity of the claims.  This warrant was designed to isolate her further from any friends.  It would have been placed there that morning so as many people as possible would see it and read it.  She knew then why people had been so odd today.  They were trying to save themselves.  She really couldn’t blame them as many had young children.  The seed had been planted but what surprised and alarmed her more that it really didn’t matter to her anymore.

She had no real friends to be separated from.  People would thanklessly come to her for paid help but only her twin brother socialised with her and was certainly no rabble-rouser.  The worst she had ever done was get a reputation for giving cheek to the Guards but this had still painted her as a dangerous and disruptive influence.  There must have been some reason why she had not got into as much trouble as others had for the same thing.  Her twin brother, Ollopa was the very similar but somewhat more hot-headed than she was.  There was a time when people thought she and her brother were spies. They had never said it to her face but she had heard them whispering.  She had borne the forced civility with good grace when they wanted something from her.   She also knew that this reputation guaranteed her a certain level of respect however ill deserved.  They were not likely to risk offending a spy for fear of losing the little they had or being sent to The Underworld, or worse.  So around her and her brother they watched their manners.  That was fine by her.  Nobody would associate with her after this for a good long time and that would make gathering followers an impossible task.  The irony was that the plot proved the secret accuser wrong.  Simetra wondered if her brother had received the same note.  She had to marvel at the stupidity of this accusation though.  Why isolate a known loner even further? The spy, and she knew there always spies lurking, clearly hadn’t been watching carefully.  Either that or the spy had been watching her very carefully and had decided to ensure the continuation of her social isolation.  There wasn’t much hope of it ending now, though the suspicion of her being a spy might be dropped now so she could say goodbye to the fake respect and the false smiles.   The pretence of friendliness could be dropped now too because they would at least know now that she was not placed there to trap them.

As she suspected, her room had been ransacked and it looked like she’d had a small hurricane for a houseguest.  The terminal was set into the wall and was a feature of all the housing units so was thankfully easily located in the mess.  ‘Why was that the only thing that had been left untouched?’  She thought.  It provided a wide area network connection to all the other colonists on the planet and read-only access to the official libraries and interplanetary news nets.  All communication off-world had been rendered impossible to those outside the government who needed it to send the regular official reports to the Worlds Union.  It would not do for the Worlds Union to receive conflicting information from an unregulated source.  The current consensus was that WU ministers had been led to believe the people of Olympe had no interest in communication off-world.  After fighting her way through the upturned and broken furniture to her terminal she logged in and sent a simple message to Ollopa.  “Need to talk.  My place. Now” she knew the place would be tagged and tracked by now and that the message had probably been intercepted before being sent on which is why she left it as empty as possible.  A more explicit message would have been out of character for her and whoever was spying on her would want to know why she had communicated with her brother at length before reporting to the Guards.   That was fine; let them wonder.  They would have a wonderful time explaining this one to The Provider.  She laughed inwardly.  A few moments later her brother arrived.  He was looking cross and flustered.

“What do you want Sim?” as he looked around he registered what the problem was and gave a long, low whistle “Got you too then huh?”

“I wanted to know if the same thing has happened to you but you just answered my question.  The further question arises though.  How did you tell?  Your unit usually looks like a bomb has gone off.” she rose and started restoring her furniture and discarding what the searcher had smashed through the open door and into the street.  “Was it the same accusation?” she wiped her brow as she pointed to the saved message on her screen.  The room was still stuffy and airless so she had started to sweat.

“You got it in one, sis.  Nothing was taken though.” He grinned.  “Any important stuff I keep with me.” He tapped his temple and laughed.

“Like what?” she asked.  This was a dangerous conversation to be having even without hard evidence.

“I’m trying to find out what happened to our parents.  Hacking into the archives was working for a while but they caught on.  I did manage to find out that the records of our birth have been ‘lost’ too.” She and her brother were orphans and had no legal status.  Their parents had died young through illness singled which had them out as genetic misfits; throwbacks to a time before the adjustment.   The original colonists had been genetically adjusted to be predisposed to long lives and resistance to illness: a normal life span for them was several times longer than that of an Earth-born human.  Simetra did not know what to believe but she certainly did not trust official sources and records.   Most orphans were schooled and cared for in foster homes so they would be of at least some use when they reached adolescence but they either had their memories wiped and were sold to the traders who travelled between the colony worlds or they were just expected to fend for themselves.  The home was a little better than starving on the streets but it had been no less brutal.  High caste children would come to the home en masse to taunt and throw stones at them and sometimes a passing adult would laugh and tell them to aim better.  What was really a mystery though, was that there didn’t seem to be a grave for their parents.  She and Ollopa had been infants when they lost their parents so had no idea about what had happened to them.   Whenever they asked about a grave the subject was changed.  The other orphans at least had graves to tend and visit after their parents had starved to death so that their children could live which was often the case.  Genetic alteration can cure many things but you still have to eat.  She had been taunted over and over with the speculation that her parents weren’t dead at all.   Once they were told that that their mother was really a whore who had slept with a trader.  That was an offence punishable by death as none were to mix socially with the traders.   How the rest of the colony ‘knew’ what happened to their parents when they were ignorant of it themselves did bother her but it was not a persistent bug bear.  They had never known them so she could not miss them.

“Oh you’re back on that little crusade are you? That’s public record! It can’t just be ‘lost’.” she gestured to a surviving chair inviting him to be seated.  Even siblings waited for the invitation to sit in each other’s homes as a sign of respect.

“I know.  What else is weird is that as orphans, we have no status but we were given private, state-issued rooms when we came of age.  Other orphans have to buy their rooms in order to pay back their debt for being raised by the colony.  If they don’t have the money saved they’re simply turned out to the streets or sold.  We have good rooms and could never have afforded one between us, let alone one each”

“I know that.  What I don’t know is what you are getting at? That we have some secret benefactor? The word going round at the moment is that we’re really spies.”

“Are we really?  I don’t know until I do some more digging and see what gets turned up.” He looked around him and shook his head.  “Speaking of digging, didn’t there used to be a floor under this mess?”

“Oh, very funny.  Don’t you mean system hacking? I’d leave it well alone if I were you.”

“Why? What harm could it do?”

“A lot of harm could be done.  Someone clearly doesn’t want us to know something.  I’m fine with not knowing if it keeps me alive.  As long as you keep nosing around we’re both in trouble.  Deep trouble.  I’m a loner as it is.  How are we supposed to make an honest living if nobody will buy from us if we’re under suspicion of treason? You know they’ll all get skittish and not want to be seen speaking to us.”

“Don’t blame me! We don’t know my search is what caused this.  Does it matter what other people think? Besides, if they suddenly change their behaviour the real spies will get suspicious and start checking them out too.” Ollopa was becoming petulant and difficult.

“Yes it matters! You know we have no chance if a charge like this ever went to trial.  And they aren’t above making stuff up about us to make an example of us to others either.  We were specifically told not to tell people we how had been given family rooms.  So what did you do? You went and got yourself stinking drunk at the nearest pavilion and announced you were celebrating.  Then you started blabbering away to one of your little girlfriends.  By the way is she speaking to you again yet?” she asked.  Ollopa looked dejected and shook his head to say ‘no’.  “Hmm.  I’m not surprised” Simetra sat down in the chair opposite and looked him in the eye.  “We have good rooms and are allowed to do an honest trade with minimal interference.  Even with two positions I struggle to make ends meet and what I do to help the people is risky enough without you drawing attention to us.” She was pacing now and ringing her hands but Sim had never raised her voice to him before.  “Forty years ago we were lucky enough to be given our independence, instead of being sold, when everyone around us had to buy it.  The cost was being shunned by everyone we knew.  It wasn’t fair that we were given rooms and others had to earn them and it doesn’t sit right with me.  That’s just how it is and it’s time you let go and dealt with the fact that we will never know what happened.  I for one cannot deal with” somebody clearly wanted to be able to ensure their misery.  They had even volunteered for the Off-World program but heir applications had been rejected and you could only apply the once.

“You’d rather be forced to sell yourself on the streets for scraps?”  Oll rose from the chair and took her by the shoulders and spoke softly to her.  “We are too lucky.  Don’t you see that?  Nobody else has what we have.  It doesn’t fit.

“That’s not what I’m saying I would rather happen and you know it…  And you know I’d never do what those other girls do to themselves because they are too lazy to learn a trade and work for a living.” she rose from the chair and resumed trying to fix the mess that had once been her room.

“Hey that’s not fair.  They aren’t all like that.  Many were sold to those houses.  They’re prisoners and slaves.  I hate that we’re being lied to and this is why I am trying to find out who we are.”  he paused.  “We could just leave?”

“Reckon we’d get away with that do you?  You’d get about as far as the first Limit Check and even then you’d have to cross the plains.  The only reason we are allowed out of the Centre is because I’m a medic and you’re a musician.” she winced as she began sifting through another heap.

“Why are you limping?”

“I gave lip to a Guard and got my arse spanked for it.”
Ollopa grinned and started to laugh.  “It’s about time someone started teaching you some manners, Sim.”

“Duck. It’s not funny, Oll.  It was Selcareh.  He makes my skin crawl.”  Another broken chair hit the pile outside the door.

“Him?  He killed a girl at the South Side Pavillion last week.  Apparently she wanted to be paid double for what he was asking of her.  When she refused him, he flew into a rage and smashed her skull.  Stay away from him, Sim, he’s an animal.”

“I can handle myself.  They were just rude.”

“They? How many were there?” Sim spent some time explaining what had happened in the market square that afternoon.  Oll questioned her about the tiniest detail before finally relenting and allowing her to continue with returning her home to order.

Finally he said “Well they’re Guards.  Of course they were rude.  They get to prance around all day, acting like they’re better than everyone else because they’re ‘descendants of the founding colonists’.”

“We all are, Oll because nobody who wasn’t actually wanted to live here with us.  Those Guards are no better than us or anyone else.  They’re the worst sort of people because they use their status to bully people who are unlucky enough to not be counted as citizens.  I can pretend they don’t scare me all you like but the truth is I am terrified, Oll.  I’m going to end up in that guard house one day, on some jumped-up charge, just because they can.”

“They can’t touch you.  You’re a Medic.  I know that and you know that and so does everybody else in our position…”

“Our position? Who else is in our position? Because I’d really love to meet them” Sim snapped. She ran her hands back through her hair.

“But it doesn’t make them any less powerful or dangerous,” he paused again.  “Except to us, that is and I want to know what has marked us out.  What gets you and me special treatment that everyone else gets to know about? I intend to find out.  In the meantime, please promise me that you will not wind the Captain up.”

“They get to know about it because you get drunk and then can’t keep from bragging about it.  Have any evidence to base this theory on?”

“More of a hypothesis, really.  Either someone has really got it in for us, for some insane reason that neither you nor I have any knowledge of, or we have an insane benefactor somewhere that doesn’t want us to know about them.  It basically boils down to them being mad or stupid or both.  If it’s the benefactor, it is just as well we don’t know them because they’re doing a really crappy job of it if we have.  Either way it’s got something to do with our parents.   When I find out who they were I can start working on why we have been singled out.”

She heaved the mattress back onto her bunk and remade the bed. “Okay.  But where does that lead take you?  As you said; we don’t even know who they were let alone what killed them”

“Not what; who? And how do we know they’re dead? For all you and I know, they could be in The Underworld.”

“So they’re criminals now? Isn’t that a little paranoid?”

“Sim, you know, as well as I do, that you don’t need to be a criminal to be sent there.  If I am paranoid then why is it such a big secret? If they are alive they have to be on this planet.  Only the traders are allowed to come and go and we can’t mix with them.  Orphans are sold and never allowed back but it would take a special kind of moron to allow a chipped adult through the Limit Check let alone two.”

“Is it even a real secret?”

“If it wasn’t a secret then why is there no record of them or their deaths? And, for that matter, why is there no record of us? Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to keep us hidden from the system and vice versa.   They would have done a better job if only we weren‘t so pampered.” The last comment was clearly sarcasm.

“Is that a rhetorical question or do you expect an answer.  If you do I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you.” she was growing impatient with him now, mainly because he could see her irritation and would not stop carrying on.

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