When they found the travel pods, it was almost as overwhelming as the moment of discovery of the Droid itself.
There were dozens of them, arranged out in a large chamber. They were dark and smooth, with no distinguishing characteristic. Each one of them looked to be nearly the size of a residence in the habs.
"All of this." Aleph said. "How long has it been down here...."
Mona noticed that one of the pods was open. A small form was inside, slumped over. "I see him!" She shouted. Her footsteps echoed off the metal floor as she ran, and behind her Aleph came as fast as he could. The boy was unconscious inside the pod, on a large white leather seat. There were three rows of these seats. Mona was somewhat aware the front of the pod was a screen.
"Arril." She said, shaking him. "Arril, wake up!" terrified, she held a finger to the boys neck. A pulse throbbed faintly back at her. When she held her cheek underneath the childs nose, she could feel his breath. He was alive. Hurt, but alive, and that was good enough for right now. Aleph came into the pod after her. The door shut behind him with a hiss.
The screen flashed bright in the front of the pod, performing some sort of diagnostic. "Welcome to starcorp." A soothing female voice intoned. "Please fasten restraints to begin extra-atmospheric travel."
The pod started to move.
Yaryl had assistance in his tasks. He was not the only disenfrachised member of the colony. There was a subclass.
Citizens of the colony were encouraged to educate themselves, through use of learning programs in the dome, in order to perform one form of work or another that made life better for all. Many did so on a wholly altruistic level, pursuing careers as teachers for the young ones, or healers for those that needed to use the sick houses. Others went for the challenge of becoming a tech, or the monetary gain of becoming a trader. In this way, the colony had instituted a rudimentary education and capitalist system, with social programs for those who needed it. There were also those that strove to get elected to the small or large council, and help the fledgling democracy along. And of course the Guardsmen, who kept the threat of raiders at bay.
But along the way the society had left certain people behind. Not every refugee that straggled in across the wastes was clever enough to learn to be a tech. Or shrewd enough to be a trader. Some were slow or mind-addled, others simply not compliant with the burden of civilization, after living on the ragged edge of survival for so long. And it was out of this that vice was born in the Colony. It followed the usual pattern, narcotics, spirits, and prostitution. And the one that controlled it all was Big Tate.
Despite his name, Big Tate was a short man, barely five feet tall. He held court in a hab called the little dome. There was an ugly face tattoo on his cheek, and the rumor held that it was a raiders mark, like branding a cattle. The story went that Big Tate had escaped the raiders by eating his fellow prisoners, and sharpening one of their thigh bones into a homemade knife.
Tate looked at him, on the enourmous pillow he lay on. "Hello, love. Care to try some spice? Or a little of that good bug juice?"
"Let me see whats in the back." Yaryl said.
"Course." Tate answered, "Only the best for a councilman."
In the back Yaryl laid down his ten thousand credits and Tate brought out the rare treasure, a bottle of Jack Daniels old Number Seven Tennesee Whiskey. Tate retrieved two glasses, and filled them both halfway. Yaryl let the whiskey burn in his mouth, and swirled it around before letting it run down his throat.
"Says on the bottle." Tate mused, "That this batch was made back in the year two thousand and seven. How old do you reckon that makes it?"
"Old." Yaryl said.
"From what I've been able to gather." Tate said. "The Rot took hold across the earth, per the archives, in the year two thousand three hundred eighteen. Now, once everything went all two pot, records were lost. But the best estimations of the techs put this year somewhere around two thousand five hundred something."
Yaryl frowned. Why hadnt he ever thought of the year? Did they even count such things? For that matter, how long had it been since he was born?
"So this is five hundred year old alcoholic spirits." Tate said. "A truly precious thing. Do you know where I got it?"
"Some twelve year old junker scrag pawned it to me for two rations. This was back when the dome was closed, mind you, and food wasnt exactly easy to come by. I took one whiff and knew it for what it was, a treasure."
"Thats an interesting story." Yaryl said. "But not the business we came for."
Big Tate sighed. He tossed three ID badges at Yaryl. "Its all right here." He said. "These will give your people full colony access, without the pesky intake screenings, or a stay in the sick houses."
Yaryl deposited the agreed upon amount of credits on the table. Before he could move, Big Tate closed his hand over his own, quick as a snake. "A word of caution." He said. "I dont know what you want these for, exactly, but I can guess its not on the up and up. That about right?"
Yaryl nodded reluctantly.
"Thought so." Big Tate said. "If or when your people get caught, not a word about me. Understand? I'm not a Councilman, but I do a lot of business here. And I dont want anything mucking up that business, or sticking its nose into it." He brought out a knife, and ran it alongside Yaryl's face. "Or its your nose I'll be having for breakfast."
"Not a word." Yaryl stammered.
Big Tate grinned, revealing a troubling amount of missing teeth. "Thats the way, love." He said. "Now enough unpleasantness. I know how you like nice company. Have yourself a girl before you leave. Strictly on the house."
He did, and found himself having an especially strong orgasm with a whore named Jasmine. He thought about it, as he waited at night on the edges of the piles for his guests. Why had he come so hard? Maybe it was the risk. He was putting himself on the line to three parties, now, the Council, the raiders, and now this criminal Big Tate. So many ways to lose his head. Yet somehow he felt more alive than ever before. It was strange how life was.
He barely saw the vehicle coming across the wastes. It was black, and had the same quiet of an electric motor as his earlier contact. Four men stepped out, dressed in rags. When the apparent leader pulled his away from his face, he appeared shockingly normal. Nondescript, even.
"I am Khef." The leader said. "These are my men. Kneel."
"I dont think we have time-" Yaryl began, and the leader slapped him hard across the mouth, with the back of his hand.
"You will make time." Khef said, "And kneel, or you will die."
Yaryl got down on both knees. When Khef smiled as Yaryl looked up at him, the councilman thought he was going to be raped. "Open your shirt." Khef said.
Yaryl did as he was told. Khef's hand shot out, over the left side of Yaryls chest. There was a moment of stabbing and intense pain. Yaryl cried out and collapsed to the ground. When he was helped to his feet, there was a dark spot on his chest with black lines radiating out from it, and a wet spot on the front of his trousers.
"This is the mark of the Black Century." Khef said. "Your heart is ours, now and forever. Fail in your orders and you will have pain. Disobey them and you will have death."
"This isnt what was agreed on." Yaryl managed to say. "I didnt sign on to be a slave."
Khef laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "You mistake me, great councilman! The mark is a sign on honor." He opened up his own rags, to reveal a matching spot. "All who serve the Black Century bear its sign. Submission does not equal slavery."
So Yaryl handed over the clothes he had brought, with the front of his pants wet with piss, and the foursome got dressed. They appeared foreign, more than anything else, with short hair and dark eyes, but there wasnt too much else to distinguish them. At the checkpoint the raiders were smart enough to space themselves out, when presented their ID badges, in order to not raise an alarm. But the Guardsmen waved them all through.
Inside the Colony they all followed Yaryl from a distance, until the came to his quarters. From there the men spoke in low tones to each other, some language that Yaryl did not understand. Finally Khef sat on the couch and leaned in toward him.
"We need the following access." Khef said. "Inside the military quarters, inside the Dome, and to the Council."
"The first one is the easiest." Yaryl said. "With the badges I've given you, you can sign up for the Colonial Guard."
"Your Guard accepts strangers? Just like that?"
"After appropriate screening, anyone that wishes can serve."
Khef smiled. "So trusting. And it will be your downfall."
"Once your in the Guard." Yaryl said, "I can pull a few strings, and arrange a promotion. I know General Veers very well."
"That will serve."
"The second one is a little tricky."
"Because there are so many different layers to the dome. That is, different responsibilities and accesses."
( dont forget to check out the first book in the series now on sale from Amazon for 99 cents!)