I’m ten years old when my grandmother wakes me up early. At this time of year, it’s still dark.
“Where are we going?” I ask loudly on the subway. “To the doctor’s” she whispers, and because I know that’s in the opposite direction, I stay quiet.
We pass the edges of the slum and go through several sections I don’t recognize. Finally, we slip into a tallish abandoned building and come out onto the roof.
A little ways in front of us, there’s a fence. It looks like there is absolutely nothing beyond it.
My grandmother pulls out a pair of ancient-looking binoculars. Not even any lights, just the glass. I look out through them, and the nothing resolves itself a little into rocks and open spaces. There is a glimmer of water in the distance, and beside it are some shadows that look like trees. At least I know what trees are.
“We used to live there,” my grandmother says.
“There’s nowhere to live,” I say, scanning all around with the binoculars. There are “Restricted” signs on the fence at regular intervals.
“We did,” she insists.
I manage to get in when I’m fifteen years old, and make it almost to the lake before a gamekeeper spots me. Luckily for me, he’s a terrible shot. I make it back with a walking stick for my grandmother. We look in encyclopedias till we can give it a name – “birch”. She can only use it indoors, of course.
I take Anka when she’s nine years old. “Why don’t we live there any more?” she asks, leaning against the parapet on her chubby elbows. Because it’s only for people with money. Because they’ll shoot at you. “Because things are different now,” I say, and let her look as long as she wants.
Ferhat never sees it. He’s too little when they are finally supposed to join me at my posting, and never make it.
“Listen,” my superior says. “It’s space travel. There are accidents. People die sometimes.” You deserve to die, I think. “At least tell me how it happened,” I say.
That information is restricted, he says, and won’t budge. He tells me it was all Kruug’s fault, and I convince myself that I believe him.
My superior sighs. “You’re bereaved. Take two weeks off.”
“I’m quitting,” I say again, and walk out, and in two weeks I come back. My supervisor looks me up and down. I meet his eyes. You deserve to die.
He nods, satisfied with whatever he chooses to see.
The man who contacts me is a legend in espionage circles. I’d even tried to hire him once, but his abilities don’t stretch as far as Ad Astra. He brings in a couple more people, and somehow we go from scoping out a launch site to breaking into a military recruitment office. Most of us make it out alive.
Ad Astra is turning against Pardis, is what we find. Dejima station will help coordinate a Terran military invasion. Am I supposed to be shocked?
The whistleblower knows a Pardisian spy. We meet Jasmeen in a café and exchange information.
“I need more for this story to be believable,” our unofficial leader says, finally.
She looks at him impassively. “Do you have anything else to offer?”
He hesitates. I speak up.
I meet with Jasmeen a few more times. She doesn’t have many ideas – stopping a dreadnaught is a tall order – but she thinks she knows some people who do.
She turns away from her monitor and looks at her tablet. The monitor locks instantly, the image of a Pardisian landscape flashing on.
I used to be stationed on Dejima. I’ve seen pictures of Pardis. Jungles. Fields of spices. Waterfalls. Not like that, a grassy, broken landscape with a few scraggly trees. It’s not a professional picture, and light glares off the small lake in the corner.
“Where is that?”
She looks at her monitor and shrugs. “That’s my family home, near the south pole.”
I step closer to look. Those are birch trees, I think. For the first time, I ask her for something.
“If the mission is successful, can I see it?”
She makes a noncommittal sound. “Pardis is restricted.”
Everything turns business again. “Fortunately for us, you are part of the invasion force…”
Ad Astra will be attacked by mercenaries before the Terran navy arrives, she says. Good. Ad Astra is working with Terra. They want to destroy Pardis, make it like Terra. They all deserve to die.
I meet the people she found in a warehouse outside. One looks like he’s a little out of his depth. One is probably more more than what he looks like. One is a robot. I don’t have time to ask questions about that. We make some bombs and package them up.
Since I’m an Ad Astra security advisor, I have a legitimate reason to be on the Sun Tzu. We slap some Ad Astra decals on the robot. The humans go off somewhere and come back with Terran navy uniforms and passes. “The other one is real, but mine is fake,” says the one who seems to know what he is doing.
We select a transport ship and try to talk our way past the guards. They don’t listen. We leave their bodies in a closet with minutes to spare. They’re part of the invasion. All of us deserve to die.
We do manage to convince the crew to take us, and annoy the landing attendant till she lets us in. We make it to my quarters without incident. The competent one slips off to get proper identification. The other one wanders around to learn more about the ship’s layout. The robot stays in my cramped cabin.
“There are a lot of Calvinists on this ship,” he says. “Maybe I know some.”
I rig my phone to give him a video feed and find the chapel. The priest asks questions, so I ask him some as well. Services start and end. I look around, trying to give the robot a good view.
“Focus on that man,” he tells me through the phone earpiece.
“The creepy one.” he hisses. I didn’t know a robot could hiss.
“Get him here.”
I do the first thing which comes to my mind, and proposition him. That doesn’t go over well.
“Say ‘Upstanding’,” the robot says. That word does get his attention. I bully him into coming back to my quarters with me.
The robot is good at threats. Apparently this man had been doing very unsavoury things on New Eden. I want to laugh, till I catch the robot’s eye. That thing is alive, I’m certain. Which makes it a crime against humanity. Which makes me a criminal, I suppose. Could be worse. No, it already is worse.
The man agreed to take us to Engineering in six hours. The robot says he needs repairs, which he seems to buy. We all conference. We probably won’t be able to destroy the ship, I’m disappointed to hear. We might be able to destroy the engines and leave the Sun Tzu stranded in deep space. That’ll have to do.
Some of my bunkmates come in and ask awkward questions. I give even awkwarder answers until they lay off. They aren’t too happy about the robot, but I tell them he’s for bomb disposal and we all agree that we’ll be glad for him in the future. “He also plays cards,” I say. The man perks up. “I got a Pardisian deck,” he announces, and we sit down for a game.
“Hopefully the unrest will be over soon and we can get some souvenirs,” he says, shuffling.
The woman laughs. “Still not calling a spade a spade?” She frowns at her hand and organizes by suit. “We won’t be leaving Pardis any time soon. Trees.” She throws down a card.
You deserve to die. We all do. I let her win that trick.
Engineering is restricted, and Ad Astra personnel can’t get in. The others head inside with the man we intimidated. One of them is briefly stopped. I thought he said his ID was real?
I wait outside. A woman comes in looking for the one who was stopped. She’s military police, the guards say. I worry, but the robot contacts me and says they’ve gotten near the core. “The only problem is, we have a long wait before we can plant the bombs.”
“We can set it up to trigger when we do the hyperspace jump. That’s in a day.”
I can wait. I head to the flight deck. We haven’t exactly made a getaway plan, but there’s still time.
“Sorry sir, the flight deck is a restricted area,” says the guard at one of the doors. I flash my Ad Astra badge. “I know that, but I need to know what ships will be deploying at Dejima station. Do you want traffic jams during an invasion?”
He calls someone over to show me around. There aren’t a lot of jump-capable ships, and most of them are weaponless. Then I spot an unusual-looking white one.
She shrugs. “Diplomatic Corps.”
Now that’s interesting. I tell the competent one when he shows up a little later, and he cocks his head.
“You know how to fly it, don’t you?” I ask. It’s a risky question.
He gives a tiny nod. Even more interesting.
“Can you hijack it?”
“I think so. If not, we can steal one of the vans instead.” He laughs. “They’ll come after us in the fighters. DC ships are fast. I’m not planning to die if I don’t have to.”
I deserve to die.
The other two trickle in. It’s a long wait. People mill around. Stealing space suits is surprisingly easy. Everything is too easy. The smaller ships are scattered throughout the inner floor, their guts spilling around them. Something catches my eye. The engine is disassembled, fuel tank sitting beside the ship unguarded. Careless. I feel in my pocket and yes, the flashbang grenades are still here. I pull one apart as fast as I can and kneel beside the fuel tank. The smallest of my three companions sees me, but doesn’t say anything. The others are busy opening the panel behind a speaker.
Everything goes as planned. The Sun Tzu makes the jump, then suddenly drops back into normal space. All of the lights dim. The bustling hangar bay goes dead silent.
“Enemy contacts. Scramble fighters!” the ex-DC man squawks over the announcement system. The soldiers snap into action, all running towards the outer hangar. We run with the crowd.
The outer hangar doors are opening slowly. I look to the sides. They use a simple gear mechanism, totally exposed on the outside. Arrogant.
My companions run towards the Diplomatic Corps ship. They get into a scuffle on the way, but make it to the doors and step inside. It doesn’t start up.
I make my way to the gate mechanism. No one seems to see me. The gears are unguarded, barely even fenced off. As I get closer, I see that it’s police tape. “CTEDRESTRICTEDRESTRICTEDRESTR” it says. I laugh. Who did they think that would stop?
The white ship still hasn’t lifted off. How long are they going to take? I put down the fuel tank and begin wiring it to the detonator from my flashbang grenade. It’s easy. Ad Astra trained me to do it. I have to die.
Are they waiting for me? I wave in the direction of the ship. “Go,” I shout, even though they can’t hear, and finally it gets off the ground. The DC man wasn’t lying – it’s quite a feat, but they make it through the narrow hangar gate opening.
The detonator in my hand makes its familiar click.
I close my eyes.