Featured June 10, 2018 Science Fiction

Three Years of Ashes and Twenty Years of Dust

By Phoebe Barton
May 22, 2018 · 6,805 words · 25 minutes

From the editor:

Leaving the past behind is hard, no matter what planet you live on. Settle in with a cup of cosmic tea, and follow one woman’s otherworldly quest for justice as she speeds toward redefining her life far, far away in this work of science fiction by Phoebe Barton. Phoebe's work has appeared in publications from Analog, to Bundoran Press, to Alliteration Ink.

It had been three years since Xiaodan Goddard had gone outside. Three years spent rattling around the cloying fakery of Rheasilvia City with fifty thousand burrowers desperate to forget the death that growled at the door. Three years, all so that on the day her son was waking up to a new year, she could churn the dust and lift her binoculars and find the soft ruddy smear that was Mars.

"Be good." She kept the binoculars fixed as she took another sip from her helmet straw. The vodka tasted dry and jagged as the peak of Palladium Mons. What if they'd had the right idea three years ago--what if it really would be better off for Pranav to grow up on a proper world with red sand and not grey dust between his toes? Mars was a world where there was a plan for the future, even if it meant him saying "mama" to some other woman. "Be strong. I know you can."

Three years hadn't been enough for comfort, if there was such a thing to be found in Vesta. Three years since a spacesuit had shattered her life. She hadn't even visited Milos' grave since the funeral, out in the dust where everything would be fresh as the moment they'd placed the stones. Outside there was no opportunity to forget, even when she wanted to.

An insistent buzz in her earpiece returned her to the dust. "This is Goddard," she said. "What's the trouble?"

"We've had a C-3 strike." Haapajarvi was in the office today, a capable man but reluctant to act--on Vesta, the ideal policeman. "Bellevue Park. It's been repressurized, but we'd like to have you in as soon as possible."

"On my way," Xiaodan said, clipping the binoculars to her suit. The tram on the other side of the airlock would speed her there in moments. "What are we looking at?"

"No casualties, thank the Fire," Haapajarvi said. "Eleven candidates off the chart, though--probably got blown halfway to Palladium."

"Eleven?" Xiaodan passed stones and boulders and miniature crater rims that spoke of forces which paid no heed to the world beyond themselves. The politicians of Rheasilvia City would have understood that, even with the park's window wall behind them. Who were they to complain when nature took no notice of them? "Lucky us."

Bellevue Park was in surprisingly fine shape when Xiaodan arrived. Debris was scattered across the floor where the air had churned up sod and torn leaves free, and trees leaned toward the window wall that looked out over the rough contours of Rheasilvia Crater, but the grounds in general were damaged only by their emptiness. There was nothing to see now, with the view blocked by emergency doors that had slammed down as soon as the pressure dipped, and the air smelled tank-fresh. It must have been madness for the second or two they'd have taken to deploy, and for such madness to be let loose it had to have been one hell of a micrometeor swarm. She spotted Haapajarvi standing next to a few shaken people, all of them looking about with expressions of shock and bewilderment, as if they were waiting for her to take charge so they could trudge off and forget it all.

"Glad you're here," he said. He pointed to the blast-shielded wall. "We lost that entire section of the window--podiums, props, everything. Guess they were right about fourteen contenders being unlucky. At least it'll make for a simple ballot in the end. These are the candidate survivors."

"For now, at least," Xiaodan said as Haapajarvi flitted away. Beneath their platinum rings and rumpled finery and eyes that burned with ambition, their sweat-stained faces and slack brows reminded her that they were as human as anyone. The vingtieral campaign had been the buzz of Rheasilvia City for two weeks already, but could people--even politicians--be rattled by a brush with death when they knew the stakes? There would only be room for one vingtier in the end, after all. "Right then, I'm Monitor Xiaodan Goddard, RCPD. Care to explain how it is you're still with us when the rest of you are out sucking vacuum?"

"We were signing autographs, if you must know," said one of the candidates, a short woman in a suit with collars that touched her shoulders and a tie that cycled through all the colors of the rainbow. Her tag identified her as Desdemona Morelos. "Does that surprise you, Monitor? We all have our supporters, and whether or not I'm successful, people want to remember that I made a mark on their lives."

The others agreed with Morelos as she asked them in turn. It would've been easy to fabricate a story, sure, but with cameras watching over every inch of the park, it would be even easier to catch them in a lie. What was a lie to someone who'd already signed their life away?

"I remember a loud crash, and then that roar," said the other woman, Fadiyah Razavi, who wore a bald head and a green and gold kimono. She motioned toward one of the bent trees. "I didn't have any time to think, I just grabbed the tree with one hand and Hector with the other... it'll be his first chance to vote, you know. He'll have quite a story to tell once things settle."

"More importantly, what are you all going to do about it?" The lone man pushed to the forefront of the little knot. His name was Peter Winthrop, and standing narrow and tall with a haircut that suggested a sharp point at the top of his head, he resembled nothing if not a pencil with arms and legs. "Were the radar operators asleep at the switch? This is exactly why we need capable leadership! Once I've been elected vingtier, my first priority will be ensuring that Skywatch actually does its job, so the people can go about their lives without worrying whether they'll be sucked outside!"

"Assuming there was anything to detect in the first place," Razavi said. "For all we know, it could have been a bomb meant to take us all out! Do you really think the Veeds would let a chance like this go if they realized the opportunity?"

"People, please, let's just go through this calmly," Xiaodan said. Maybe it was best they were on edge. In ancient times, emperors of Rome had to be reminded they were mortal. "Save the speeches. For now, I just need your statements..."

They were reasonably cooperative as Xiaodan led them aside one at a time. She watched them while they spoke, recording their words and fidgets while she organized the possibilities, and a bomb was high up on the list. Rheasilvia City owed every day to the radars that scanned the sky for potential impactors, but they couldn't protect the city from that kind of shirtsleeve terrorism. The Vision for a Democratic Vesta had started making noise more than three years ago, boiling a reservoir of opposition to the system as it stood. Would it be any wonder if some ambitious youth saw a chance to make a statement and took it?

Nearly an hour had gone by when she finished with the last politician; the grounds of Bellevue Park were alive with csibots sweeping the area for anything pertinent to the investigation. More, she knew, would be active on the other side of the window. If any trace of explosive was left, the bots would find it. Whether they found it in time for a proper response was another thing entirely.

"I'm not confident that this was natural," Xiaodan said to Haapajarvi, once she found him in his command pavilion at the edge of the park, sipping a tonic with his eyes half-open. "Anything small enough for the radars to miss, but doing damage like this, would have had to be going hundreds of kilometers per second. Seems pretty unlikely."

"Could be the Precursors were having a little war twenty million years ago, and we just happened to get caught in the crossfire," Haapajarvi said. "Unlikely things happen, Goddard. It's only our problem when they happen to us."

"Bolts from the black are everyone's problem," Xiaodan said. Had Haapajarvi even been outside, or put on a spacesuit when they weren't holding a decompression drill? She doubted it. It was easy for some rockrats to cavalier when they never left their bunkers. "I'll pay Skywatch a visit. Let me know if the bots find any meteorite fragments."

"Do what you feel is necessary," Haapajarvi said. "Just stay regulated. The department doesn't have to accept every last one of your expenses, remember."

As she stalked to the tram station her frustration gave way to worry. If it had been a bomb, ferreting out who was responsible might be the least important factor. If the VDV had stepped over the line separating legitimate protest and violence, would it matter who the next vingtier was? Rheasilvia City was a complex machine; the Belt was littered with shattered examples of what happened when a self-contained society let terror win.

A dozen or so people were milling about when Xiaodan arrived at the platform. With the next tram still a few minutes out she had time to walk its length, gauging them as she passed by. Some slumped on benches with eyes closed, others tried to lose themselves in readers or augmented reality, and one or two looked around as if bewildered the tram dared not run on their schedule. Nothing she wouldn't find on any given day anywhere along the line, decompression or no. Rheasilvians were a hardy folk because they had no other options.

"Monitor!" Fadiyah Razavi strode down the platform with the self-assured gait of someone who expected people to get out of her way. To her credit, she walked around the people that stood between her and Xiaodan.  "I'm glad I caught you. I don't suppose there's been any news on the break, or at least anything you can talk about?"

"No," Xiaodan said. "Is there something you wanted, candidate?"

"Amazing the way words turn into slurs, isn't it?" Razavi said. If she was bothered, it was her problem; no one had marched her to the city clerk's office and forced her to enter her name in the running. "I wanted to pass along some friendly advice. Whatever's going on here, this election's behind it."

"Why's that, because you can't imagine anything that doesn't pivot around you?" Xiaodan shook her head as the tram glided into the station. "I'd wish you good luck, but if it was up to me, all you lot would lose."

"Because I don't believe in coincidences." Xiaodan boarded and found a seat, though Razavi wasted no time in settling down right next to her. "The alternative is that Skywatch didn't notice an existential threat. Personally, I'd rather it was a bomb. I'm not the only one who would breathe a little easier."

"I didn't think your type had trouble on that front," Xiaodan said. The tram whispered into the station at Syntagma Plaza. "Was there something else?"

"I know you must find this hard to believe, Monitor, but I have the best interests of everyone in mind," Razavi said as she stood. "Politics makes bastards of us all."

Razavi stepped off the tram with her head held high. Xiaodan couldn't bear to look at her. She'd been a teenager when the current vingtier had been hustling for votes, too young and detached to really understand the shape of the world around her. Razavi didn't look much older herself. They'd grown up in the same streets, but they lived in different worlds.

Skywatch Control was at the far end of the line. Her Monitor ID got her past the front desk, and in moments she was sitting down with the operator on duty at the time of the strike, a young man named Landsman who moved about like an uncoiling spring.

"The meat of it is I wasn't even supposed to be here today," Landsman said. "Montclair, he's the one who usually has this shift, got carted off to the hospital the other day, food poisoning or something. Hardly right, you know?"

"Not right at all." Bouts of food poisoning weren't unheard of--she still felt queasy at the sight of jollydogs, after they'd sent dozens retching one Rheasilvia Day a few years back--but in an investigation, she didn't have the luxury of coincidence. "No one is blaming you or Skywatch for what happened. Let's just see if it's there to find."

They found it in the logs amid the noise and clutter after more than an hour of searching. "Strange," Landsman said with energy in his frame. "It looks like one large piece that broke up, but there's no reason for it to break up."

"Is that so?" She couldn't help but envision a grenade. "It couldn't have all smashed into the park. Can you estimate where any other debris would've come down?"

"Roughly," Landsman leaned into his station for a moment, fingers flying. "More than four hundred square kilometers."

"That won't be a problem," Xiaodan said. "I'm not looking for any ordinary rock."

Xiaodan parked her rover next to the wide, white behemoth at the bottom of the ridge, crouching on treads that tore deep furrows in the ground and carrying more pressurized volume than entire space stations. Desimir Zadravec's mobile laboratory had been a fixture of Vesta's plains since her childhood, carving tracks into the dust from Lucaria Tholus to Feralia Planitia in search of Precursor relics. Haapajarvi had given her the coordinates and credentials to set up this rendezvous, though she suspected he'd done it to get her out of the city while he settled the case his way.

"We've got the meteors, they're just rocks," he'd said when she'd reported her Skywatch findings. "If you want to spend your time chasing ghosts outside, that's fine, but you'd better bring something incredible back."

She sighed and let go of the steering wheel. As much as she hated letting Haapajarvi nail the investigation to the wall, he did have the meteor fragments. A suspicious radar return was worthless without anything more compelling to back it up, and wild conjectures wouldn't go far. It was fortunate, then, that she wasn't the only one interested in what fell from the sky.

"I'm Monitor Xiaodan Goddard, RCPD," she said once the docking sleeve was pressurized. "Requesting permission to board."

"Let me guess, RC's finally peaceful and safe, so you dixons are going to crack the biggest mystery of all," Zadravec said. "Come on over."

As her own rover's airlock hissed shut and Zadravec's whined open, Xiaodan was hammered by a caustic odor that nearly stripped the skin from her throat. She couldn't imagine how one man could engineer such an assault on her senses. He was waiting for her just away from the airlock, wearing a collared shirt and jeans even she knew were decades out of style, and his head topped with a shock of dark hair that went silver at the tips arranged in a tall, thin fan from one ear to the other.

"Thank you for your hospitality." Xiaodan suppressed the urge to cough. She had to tilt her gaze well down to look him in his eyes. He had the compact, husky frame of an Earth native, caked with strength that Vesta's low gravity couldn't provide. Milos had been the same way, rough and squat and thick with Earth dirt; she still couldn't believe she'd carried him so far. "I'm--"

"Yes, yes, I heard," Zadravec said, grasping her hand as if he expected it to be made of paper. "You came to ask for help, didn't you? Break bread with me and we'll see what I can do."

Zadravec unfolded a thin, narrow table from one of the walls. There were no chairs that she could see, but after driving a rover that had absorbed quite enough shocks, standing was no problem. As the Terran walked away, she wondered whether heavyworlders were afraid that if they ever sat down, they'd wither into twigs. He returned balancing a pair of steaming mugs and a plate with two sandwiches. Xiaodan bowed her head in thanks and lifted up the corner of one of the sandwiches, finding a thick, white, lumpy filling streaked with ketchup.

"Tea with milk and mashed potato sandwiches," Zadravec said. "Between them you've got everything the human body needs. The ketchup's just for flavor. Hardly high cuisine, but you didn't come out here to eat."

"No," Xiaodan said. She took a sip of tea and a bite of sandwich--both were strangely sweet, though a few lumps of potato squeezed out and plopped on the plate. "Rheasilvia City suffered a compromising strike yesterday. I'm looking for anything out that may be connected."

"A lot of effort to track down rocks," Zadravec said between mushy bites of potato. "What's the strange part? You wouldn't be out here if it was something you could solve from the office."

"I have reason to believe the strike wasn't natural," Xiaodan said. She'd had time to consider possibilities on the drive over: conjectures without evidence. "That it was engineered, possibly by the VDV."

"Don't look at me," Zadravec said. "One reason I stay out here is to stay away from all your political pebble games. I'd rather keep my life for as long as I can have it. This impactor of yours, though...  how serious was it?"

"Eleven candidates for the vingtieral election were lost," Xiaodan said. "No natural persons, though."

Zadravec tipped back his head as he finished his tea. When his eyes met hers again they reminded her of the flank of Palladium Mons, stern and grey and unforgiving. She couldn't help but shrink away from his gaze. It was the same expression Milos' sister had worn during the hearing after Xiaodan had asked why it would a problem if her son grew up a "willowy, beanpole rockrat." She'd had to meet that hard Martian gaze for far longer than the delay communication lag imposed, but at least the other woman had been light-minutes away. She was well within Zadravec's reach.

"Some people would say that's the greatest thing about space, you know," he said after a moment of silence. "So many worlds, so much variety, endless options to organize a society. Tell me, Monitor Xiaodan Goddard, what do you know about the Precursors?"

"I know they're dead." She swallowed and took a moment to organize her thoughts. "They terraformed Mirabilis and Esperanza and the others, and they disappeared. What do you know about them?"

"Just enough to infer," Zadravec said. "Consider them as a sequence of peoples, like individual specimens in the fossil record. An entire parade of Precursors, so much variety. Perhaps they spread so far and wide, they lost their common ground. I wonder if they decided their leaders were mentally disturbed."

"Don't give me that," Xiaodan said. "It takes a specific sort of person to want to have power over others, to want it so badly that they seek it out. Why should I mourn someone who wants to be my master?"

"Four hundred years ago people like you were slaves; they really knew what masters were like. How long until you decide it's easier to end someone who shows any flash of ambition, lest they enslave you all again? If the rest of the police were as committed to this investigation as you are, Monitor, you wouldn't have come alone. How long will it be until that sort of ambition becomes a danger to Rheasilvia City?"

"The future is free to make its own judgements," Xiaodan said. "For now, if someone attacked my city and made it look like a natural disaster, that's my concern. That's where justice needs to be found. Otherwise, there won't be a future for any of us."

Zadravec set down his mug, a chipped and battered Earth import that read "DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS" in faded blue and red letters, and regarded her silently for another moment. If he was withholding information--she sighed. Haapajarvi would never authorize a judicial squeeze on a strange old man who trundled around Vesta looking for Precursor artifacts and bothering no one. If Zadravec could help her and didn't, she'd have no choice but to scour those hundreds of square kilometers herself. With the vingtieral election a week away, she wasn't likely to find anything in time to make a difference.

"It's not everyone who can rise above what made them, Monitor," Zadravec said. "People lash out at what they don't understand, or at least declare them of unsound mind. You, though..."

He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. As he did, the screen in Xiaodan's palm lit up and trilled with a new message announcement.

"My seismics picked up multiple impacts yesterday. One of them may be related to your bugbear," he said. "Rovers were in the area after the impact. The raw data is all there. I don't suppose you've finished tracking them down yet."

"That's official business," Xiaodan snapped, partly to conceal her wince of frustration. The projected landing site was well out of walking distance and few rovers set out on an ordinary day. She couldn't see Haapajarvi concealing that kind of information so he could look into it himself. "We're approaching the investigation from all angles."

"I'm sure you are," Zadravec said with a serpent's smile. "Still, if you didn't, ask yourself this: was it that you truly didn't consider the possibility, or did you just not want to risk showing that kind of willingness to take charge? Think about it, Monitor."

She thought about it all the way back to Rheasilvia City, and it never stopped tasting like dust. The pursuit of justice could make whole mountains crumble.

Xiaodan hated visiting the Silver Queen. The music was so quiet they might as well have not played anything, the drinks were as bland as distilled water, and whatever hopeless soak was being paid to be on stage this week was some creche chum trying to renew a friendship she couldn't remember ever having existed. For answers to the questions that were burning a hole in her forehead, though, she could hardly go anywhere else. It wouldn't do for her prey to see through her camouflage before she could pounce, after all.

Zadravec's data had pointed to three rovers active in the search area in the hours after impact. One of them, a supply hauler to one of the Vestalia outposts, she'd ruled out since it had never deviated from its course or gone slower than forty in its trip through the zone. The second, a geological survey crew, had been out two weeks and carved a zig-zag course along the fringes of the plot. The third rover had been in and out the same day.

It had been easy enough to set up a meeting with the driver, and she watched with careful eyes as Gunnar Evasson made his way through the throng into the Silver Queen. He had an immigrant's look, short and lean with a suggestion of hidden strength. She'd known the VDV to find receptive listeners among newcomers, their heads still filled with the way Ceres did things, or Earth, or Mars. She winced for a moment at that--would her son be just as receptive to the Reds?

She waved him into the chair across the table. His face was young and flushed, and he couldn't stop fidgeting.

"Thanks for seeing me, Mr. Evasson," Xiaodan said. "The city's asked me to look into rover use patterns. I understand you were engaged to transport someone to the northern rim and back yesterday, is that correct?"

"Yes, ma'am, that's so," Evasson said, keeping his attention fixed on the table. "Just a sightseer wanting some time out in the grey. Happens from time to time."

"I see," Xiaodan said as a bare-chested waiter in a crown of spikes glided by. "Did anything unusual happen on the trip, anything out of the ordinary at all?"

"Mechanical failure here and there, but there's nothing unusual about those, ma'am," Evasson said. "Best thing I can tell you about rovers is that they're overused and undersupplied with good spares. Had to print a patch for one of the wheels on that run, ended up putting an extra hour onto the passenger's hire time. Lucky for me he didn't seem to mind."

"Lucky," Xiaodan said. She sipped her beer, thankful that at least it was properly salty, and thought in silence for a moment. The passenger had signed in as Ivan Kuznetsov, paid in marsmarks, and appeared nowhere in pictures. Even if that was his real name, there could be two hundred Ivan Kuznetsovs in the city. "Did you notice anything unusual about your passenger? Unusually unusual, that is."

"What does that have to do with rover use patterns, ma'am?" Evasson asked, his eyes narrowed. Every Earther-thick muscle seemed to bulge in unison. "Like I told you, it was an ordinary run. He was suited the whole way. Now, was there anything else, or are you planning to make this more than it needs to be?"

"We're only looking for information," Xiaodan said as she buried her nerves. "The more we have, the safer we can make things. Maybe even put an end to those mechanical failures."

"Respectfully, ma'am, you can stay out of it," Evasson said, his words as sharp and sour as regolith. "That flash of yours won't get you anywhere past the last airlock. Out there survival's the only law that counts. Good day to you."

He pushed away from the table before Xiaodan could get a word in, though even if she could she doubted he would've listened--hell, at worst he might put those muscles to work, witnesses or no. After all, how many Rheasilvians wouldn't agree that the damn dixon got what she had coming? Even seventeen years after the Engen Street Riot, no one would have blamed him.

She watched him carefully as he left, hooking into the public cameras. The panopticon network covered the major thoroughfares, but before he passed into unwatched territory, Xiaodan watched his calm bravado crumble. By the end he was putting so much force into each stride that he might've achieved escape velocity. Was that the run of a cornered man dashing to freedom, or the guilty flight of a pud hurrying to tell his chums that the dixons were about?

She lingered a while longer before leaving herself, setting off at a brisk pace while zig-zagging in and out of the panopticon's view--if Evasson had gone to alert some unfriendly chums it would hardly be sporting to deny them a challenge, but, if he had, none pressed their luck. Haapajarvi was at the station when she arrived, but with only three officers on staff, she hardly expected to see anyone else.

"You missed the vingtier's speech," Haapajarvi said through a mouthful of pretzel. "Our spirit will never be tarnished, booster stuff like that. They actually got him looking like he was feeling real emotion, must have gone through every cogger in the city. Fire help him if he had to talk about real people, folk who matter."

"Been a bit busy to pay attention," Xiaodan said. "I think I may have hit on something here. I just need to--"

"You need to prepare your invoice," came a booming voice that reverberated in her bones. The Director of Police, resplendent in crisp departmental blacks and the blue-and-white sash, stalked out of her office and towered over Xiaodan like a rocket on its launchpad. "This investigation is over. I'm confident that the strike was a natural incident, and that there's nothing to be gained in pursuing it further. Do you have a problem with this, Monitor?"

"No, Director." Damn that Haapajarvi! "I'll have my final report for you as soon as possible."

"No need," the Director said. "We have all the information we require, anything more would complicate matters. The RCPD appreciates your assistance in this matter, Ms. Goddard."

It took a moment for the tide to wash over her. So simply, so cleanly, like a cut from a fine blade. She wanted to argue, she wanted to grab the Director by that ridiculous sash and make her see, but all anyone would see was someone obsessed with politicians, and wasn't that halfway to being a politician?

"Director," she said, dropping her RCPD flash on the table. "Haapajarvi." He nodded, his mouth full of pretzel. "Good luck."

She seemed to get heavier with every stride as she headed back to her tube. Around her the flow of people seemed unconcerned with the danger, unimpressed with the threat of undetectable meteors or audacious terrorists, only interested in the patch of ground their next leap would take them to. Even if Evasson was to appear from around a corner with a gutting knife, she didn't imagine any of them would take notice unless her blood stained their shoes. It might be too political to act otherwise, after all.

Home wasn't much, one of two dozen capsules set into the wall and just big enough to let her stretch out without her toes brushing the door, but since she'd lost Milos and her son, space had become an unforgivable luxury. She kicked off her socks, crawled inside, and set herself to think. She couldn't conduct much of an investigation as a private citizen, especially if she ever wanted the RCPD to reactivate her contract. The alternative, though--

The trilling of her palm jolted her out of sleep, and she swallowed the sour taste in her mouth before answering.

"I know things are settled," Haapajarvi said on the other end of the line, "but something came by I thought you'd like to know. That Evasson kid you met up with earlier, SAR just dragged his corpse in. Looks like he went out with a bash suit."

Her capsule pressed in on her and her mouth went dry. Sure, people died out on the surface every once in a while... just like radar networks didn't catch everything. Modern spacesuits had three centuries of refinement, but three years ago she'd learned accidents were still easy. Had Evasson not even had anyone there to carry him, the way she'd brought Milos home for the last time?

"Let me know if anything else comes up," she said, and ended the call. She pressed her palm against the wall and swept her stunner out of its case.

She didn't go back to sleep for a long time.

No one came to kill Xiaodan that night, or any of the nights that followed. For a time she withdrew from the world, staying locked in her capsule with an oxygen mask on her face and stunner in hand, until it felt longer than the three years she'd spent rattling in Rheasilvia City. She stayed locked up until it stopped making sense. If someone planned to do what they'd done to Evasson they already would have, but why would they? Evasson had been the only link to Kuznetsov, whoever he might be, and even if the RCPD could let the csibots loose on the rover there was no guarantee that there'd be anything to find.

She came out of her capsule in time to cast her vote for vingtier--none of the above, as if it would make a difference--and spent the rest of the night in a daze while the tallies came in. How close were fifty thousand burrowers to electing a leader who might have engineered an attack on the city? It was the only thing that made sense. Not even the VDV was that radical, and besides, they lived in Rheasilvia City the same as everyone else. If a sociopath was twitching their strings, the equation boiled down to three minus two.

It wasn't until early morning, when the election night street parties were just starting to break up, that the people learned Fadiyah Razavi would be leading them into the next twenty years. Xiaodan staggered with a few hundred others to Syntagma Plaza to watch the Poet Laureate of Vesta swear Razavi in, but she couldn't help but glance back to where Morelos and Winthrop stood sweating on the gallows with nooses round their necks.

"...by the light of the Fire," Razavi repeated after the Poet Laureate, and there she stood: Vingtier Fadiyah Razavi, leader of Rheasilvia City for the next twenty years, the finest of the freaks who sought power out. A smattering of polite applause barely loud enough to echo off the walls was drowned out by deep-throated hooting and cheers as Razavi strode across the stage to where her defeated rivals waited to die.

"With the strength of the people, we ensure our independence," Razavi said, her voice booming across the square. "With the spirits of the unchosen, we rekindle the flame of our liberty. With our action, we ensure that Rheasilvia will be free, by and for the people."

Xiaodan's heart thundered as Razavi strode to the gallows. She might be watching justice in action, if her theory about the VDV was right, but the Bellevue Park attack only narrowed the electorate's choices. The architect might have a rope-chafed neck with fear dancing in their eyes, but she could just as easily be the one with her hand on the switch. Xiaodan had never been much of a gambler. Couldn't have there been better odds than two chances in three?

"With this blood," Razavi shouted, "you are free!"

On Earth it would have been quick. On Earth the politicians' necks would have snapped when the ropes went taut and that would have been the end of it, but on Earth there would have been the mass of a planet pulling them swiftly down. The drop wasn't much, maybe five meters in all, and Xiaodan had plenty of time to watch as they slowly fell, their legs churning the air. In that dance of death, she didn't just see power-hungry threats to society. She saw people overflowing with fear and anguish and desperation, people who'd wanted it all and were realizing at the end that the puppeteer was putting them away for good. "Save us!" they would scream, if only the ropes weren't strangling them.

She saw them and the eleven others that had been blown out of Bellevue Park, terror in their eyes and souls frozen on their lips.

Xiaodan watched until they stopped kicking, until the doctors came and made sure they were dead and custodians built like trees cut them down and carted them away. Then she stumbled back to her capsule and waited to see if anyone would try to kill her. When the next morning came with no one pushing their luck, she pounded open door after door in Syntagma Plaza until she found herself on the far side of the only one that mattered, thick imported Earth wood polished to a shine. Razavi stood at a window overlooking a quiet park, hands clasped behind her back. The leader of fifty thousand burrowers greeted her with a thin, knowing smile.

"I didn't expect to see you again so soon," Razavi said. "Especially considering the RCPD has no need of your services at present."

"I'm a citizen in good standing," Xiaodan said. "It's my right."

"So it is." Razavi wandered over to her desk, the former stump of a dead tree with a smooth top and intricate carvings covering every centimeter. "Is there something in particular you wanted from me, then, Ms. Goddard?"

"I wanted to know if it was worth it." There was no anger in her voice, just a tired finality. "Bellevue Park. Convenient that you were off signing autographs when the sky fell in, no? Did you keep the others around just so it wouldn't all be obvious?"

"That's quite an accusation."

"Only because you cleaned up after yourselves," she said with eyes narrowed. "It's harder to hide implications than evidence."

"Which brings you to my office, so you can make the world crumble around my ears." Razavi chuckled and sat down. "Tell me, then, what is it that you want me to have done?"

"You had them use a rocket grenade." She'd spent so much time going over the information she had, so many nights testing and discarding theories that didn't stack up, and it was the only one that made sense. "Someone over the horizon fired a container of rocks on a high suborbital trajectory. At the proper point, the container accelerated to impact velocity, released the meteors, then decelerated so it wouldn't be found in the wreckage. All your man Ivan needed to do was figure out where it landed and get Gunnar Evasson to drive him out there, which is why Gunnar is no longer with us. Am I close, vingtier?"

"It's quite a story," Razavi said, leaning over her desk with a shark's grin. "I suppose I did it because this is my office, and not Morelos' or Winthrop's. Cui bono and all that. Now then, I've got a question for you--even assuming I was behind it all, does it even make a difference?"

"Of course it makes a difference!" Xiaodan stomped on the floor for lack of anything nearby to bash her fist against. "If the people elected a leader who got where she is by terrorism, they deserve to know!"

"Xiaodan, the people wouldn't care." Razavi's voice was as cool as primeval crater ice. "Sure, I'm still alive, but I'm going to be spending the next twenty years in a dusty cage. Just because I'm in charge doesn't mean I'm not in prison. That's the price I pay. You must see how ridiculous this all is. Consider our system from the perspective of a sociopath who'd be willing to commit that crime to get ahead. Would our disturbed friend put her life on the line, or would she ship out for Ceres or Mars or, hell, even Earth? Isn't that what you'd do?"

"I..." Her anger, her righteousness, it was all draining away, leaving her with a hollow pursuit of justice that tasted like ashes. "I don't know what I want anymore."

Razavi stepped around her desk and put her hand on Xiaodan's shoulder. There was a warmth to it, blazing with ambition and the simple heat of being alive. "I think you want to hear that it wasn't your fault. Your partner, your son, the investigation. That you did what you could and you can't blame yourself when things didn't go your way."

"So that's it?" She couldn't bear to look Razavi in the eyes. "Some things just won't have answers, and I should be happy with that?"

"I never said that," Razavi said. "Find those things and pursue them, like your son. He's being raised on Mars now, isn't he?"

"That's so," Xiaodan said with a growl. "I can't even... Mars isn't just down the corridor."

"It's hardly the far side of the universe, either," Razavi said. She smiled, and Xiaodan's hand trilled with a new message. "The Blue Horizon is boosting for Phobos in three days. It won't be a quick trip, but you have to ask yourself what's more important--pursuing what matters to you, or chasing something nobody will care about?"

"All those years falling to Mars," Xiaodan said, but what else would she do with those years in Rheasilvia? Curl up in her own capsule burrow, watch the streets become greyer and greyer, look up at the stars and wonder what kind of life people were having out there? "It doesn't feel right, leaving things undone here."

"The people here have all the information they need," Razavi said. "If they want to finish it, they can. You need to decide whether you'd rather chase ghosts or chase life."

"This is the captain. All personnel prepare for acceleration."

Xiaodan tested her straps for the fifteenth time, found them as strong as she'd expect for how much they had cost, and relaxed as much as she was able. Blue Horizon would be leaving Vesta at low thrust, but still enough to make her weigh four times as much as she had in Rheasilvia City. Rheasilvia City, which may or may not be led by an accessory to terrorism... which buried the people who wanted to solve problems because it was so much easier to ignore them. If she was going to be buried, it wouldn't be in some grey burrow. Before she was buried, she would know the feel of red sand between her toes.

Acceleration came like a kick in the stomach as she rose above Vesta, and she'd never felt anything better.

This story originally appeared in Strange Bedfellows, published by Bundoran Press.

Phoebe Barton

Phoebe Barton writes stories that she does a surprising amount of calculations for.