by Patty Jansen

The ship glided into the dock, into the care of grappling arms and snaking robotic leads.

Clang, click, contact.

The navigation hub flashed with the station control override. The screen showed a logo, but no inbound or outbound communication.

Seated next to the pilot, in the bluish glow of the controls, Zhyara didn’t realise how tightly he’d been gripping the edge of the seat, all the way while they’d drifted past the scratched surface of the station, all the way while he listened to the pinging of their unanswered broadbeam probes. His instinct, after being cut off from his associates on Zhiminda station for so long, ached for confirmation that personal networks were still intact.

“I think they could have provided some better damn light in here.” The pilot’s voice pierced the tense silence. The remark, no doubt intended to be light-hearted, fell flat. Everyone aboard the ship was tense.

“But I guess things could have been worse,” the pilot added into the heavy silence.

“Much worse,” Zhyara confirmed.

He breathed out tension. At least someone was still alive aboard the mining station. At too many other stations, they’d found nothing except dead husks of metal, where the emptiness of space had erased evidence of the living.

The floor shook and juddered in time with harsh metallic clangs.

“They’ve used hard-dock,” the pilot observed, unnecessarily; the team knew all the sounds.

“Certainly, we’re not going to get out in a hurry,” Zhyara said.

The pilot glanced aside, a reflection of blue light in gold-flecked black eyes. “Do you think we need to?”

Zhyara didn’t reply to that. Right now, he feared anything was possible.

“Damn,” someone behind him said. “We’re the only ship in this place.”

The dockside image feed, when it flickered into life, showed that three people waited outside.

Zhayra glanced over his shoulder at his seconds, and behind them, their seconds and the third layer of associates behind that. A neat pyramid of order. Eight technicians, four supervisors, two leaders, and him at the top. They were his people, his small branch of the loyalty network. They knew their places and functions down to the smallest flick of an eyebrow.

Aboard this station, his equal, his zhayma, was a woman called Emiru. She would fill him in on the station’s running. Both of them as a team answered to Asha Domiri, the stationmaster; that was how his part of the network slotted together.

But the people out there were all male.

“Who are those guys?” The unease in Zhyara’s mind grew.

“They’re not our associates,” said a technician at the back, reading data from the ID tags on the screen. “Names are unknown. No rank or affiliation known.”

“What happened to Asha Domiri or Emiru Azimi?”

“Truly, anyone’s guess is as good as mine.”

That held no good promise. An unknown man meant Zhyara would have to trace matters of superiority. A normal stationmaster would have been Third Circle, like Zhyara, and there would have been some prior contact, some precedent through which to trace rank. By rights, a stationmaster would have superiority over Zhyara. That was the way things were supposed to be.

The air lock flashed ready. Zhyara got up from his seat. “Is there anything good to report besides that the station is not completely dead?” What if we’ve disturbed the killers of the station halfway through their grisly job?

“Not at the moment. Most of the station functions are unresponsive.”

The door hissed open. With the cold tang of station air came wan light, and shadows of silhouettes on the dock, slowly walking towards the ship. Zhyara breathed the air, but could detect no offensive or challenging hormonal scents.

“They seem keen to meet us,” Chiaru said. She was strapping her gun bracket to her upper arm, ready to assume her position as Zhyara’s guard. If anything, she was exuding a challenging scent.

“Or board us,” a technician added.

“No one will be boarding anything. We’ll be happy to provide off-station transport, but first we need to know that we’re not letting aboard some kind of alien killer disease along with any passengers. Arrange a guard.”

His associates nodded assent; additional weapons were retrieved from storage places. The team’s obedience and their defensive scents brought Zhyara comfort.

He walked down the extended walkway into the cold and utterly silent docks. Only tiny pinpricks of emergency lights punctuated the huge curving hall. No ships, no people anywhere.

The three figures waited. One stood forward, the other two behind him, a classic triangle formation. They looked… normal, if unfamiliar. No sign of wounds or diseases. They weren’t alien like some of the inhabitants they had found on distant worlds. Some of those looked Coldi enough, in terms of body shape, numbers of eyes and hands and legs, but they had little or no social structure and showed unrestrained curiosity, anger and fear like Coldi toddlers. These three people were, without a doubt, Coldi, Asto people, but unfamiliar ones.

“Well met,” Zhyara said, tight like a spring.

The man bowed, his hands by his sides, a subservient greeting. He was thin, gaunt, and his hair, which should be black and glossy with a metallic sheen, was dull. His station uniform looked like he’d been wearing it continuously for a long time, the collar and sleeves tainted with grime. Zhyara could now detect a faint scent in the air, but it was a pacifying flavour, not the strong musk of a leader. In fact, one of the associates had a stronger scent.

The man didn’t look into Zhyara’s eyes. If he did, instinct would trigger and they would have to settle the matter of superiority immediately. With someone unknown like this, there could be a fight. Zhyara had led a protected life recently and was woefully out of fighting practice. Besides, he didn’t want to fight. Not before he knew what was going on, and not even afterwards. If he fought, he might win, and he didn’t want to be stuck with the command of this sick and limping station.

“Well met, network coordinator,” the man said.

“I’m Zhyara.”

The man nodded; he would know. Zhyara’s name would appear as network coordinator on all communication the station received from Athyl.

“And you are…”

“Desya.” Still no eye contact. His earlobes were bare, with little pinpricks of holes where he had removed his clan earrings.

Zhyara didn’t wear his clan designation either; it threw up too many questions, but the Ezmi clan name would also be displayed on all the records. This man didn’t smell like he was Ezmi, and the only other clan that didn’t always display colours…

“Omi?” Another clan of mainly workers. Unlike the Ezmi, they usually lived happily in the overcrowded cities of Asto and worked obediently in factories and offices; Omi had the reputation of being dumb and without ambition.

Desya nodded, again, still looking away. Not at the floor, like one who recognises subservience, but at the opposite wall. The stale air carried another whiff of his hormonal scent. Not subservient, not dominant either… confusing.

Zhyara rolled out his spiel. “We’ve been sent by the Mining Exploration Board at Athyl for your failure to send your scheduled report. We were worried.”

“Yes. We’ve had some problems,” Desya said. He hesitated.

“Problems?”

“Come with me, we can talk about this with all staff.”

Zhyara exchanged glances with his seconds. Chiaru tapped her gun, as if to assure him that they could handle the situation.

Zhyara nodded, not sure if guns could provide a solution. They followed Desya and his two silent associates into a corridor that led into the bowels of the station. With each step, his unease grew. Discussing with the staff? You didn’t discuss things with your staff; you told them what to do and they did it. Just who was in charge of this place? He hadn’t seen either of the man’s two unnamed associates make eye contact either. Not with him and his team or with their own leader.

This reminded him of something that had happened before he left.

“So, what are you doing here?” His mother’s voice held no warmth.

She sat across from Zhyara at the table of her one-room house. Her fingers were going lightning-fast over her embroidery work, pushing the needle in, out, in, out.

“I wanted to see you,” Zhyara said.

“You never come just to see us.” She tied off the thread and bit the end off with her front teeth–brown and worn to stumps. Her work was some sort of picture with patterns of leaves and thorns, likely a belt panel for a zeyshi desert rebel.

Zhyara shrugged and blew out a breath through his nostrils. She always behaved like this, and he would do well not to let himself get riled up by it. “Well…”

“You’ve come to tell Xiya off again for illegal skim-racing? I guess you know that I can stay in his house–much as it is a dump in your eyes–only because of the money he earns?”

“I’m sorry that I did that, and I’ve already said this many times.” Every time he’d visited since that ill-considered action of his, in fact.

Zhyara sighed again, letting his gaze roam the rickety shelves on the wall behind her, with carefully-stacked, mismatched bowls and plates and boxes containing small treasures like buttons and sewing needles. She was not making this easy. “I’ve come because…”

She raised her eyebrows.

He hesitated. Carefully-rehearsed words evaporated like water poured in the desert sand outside his mother’s door. The heat and the sounds of the street outside–people talking and merchants yelling–suddenly became very loud. “I’ve come because I may not come back.”

That got her attention. She lowered her work. “What? You’re moving to the colonies? I thought you were all set with your associations and networks?”

He detected a measure of glee in her words. At times, he couldn’t work out whether she and his brother hated or were jealous of his proper association, and the thought that his mother rejoiced at the thought of it breaking up brought anger perilously close to the surface. He sat stiff, clamping his mouth to stop himself shouting Fuck you, I’m trying!

She raised her embroidery work again.

“I am the Mining Exploration Board’s network control manager,” he said, forcing his voice to calm. “I travel to all the mining stations throughout Coldi colonised space.”

She flicked her eyebrows as if she wanted to say Tell me something new, but the fact was that out here, in the Outer Circle, where poverty prevented people even buying a train ticket into the Inner Circle–if their permits would allow them to travel there, which they did not–people did not grasp the concept of interstellar travel, of the space port, of the Exchange network and anpar lines. Every time in the past when he had assumed his mother understood, he had found that she did not.

“Lately, there have been a number of mining stations failing to report in. When that happened, I…” and his associates, but he judged it better not to mention them, “… have travelled there to find out what was going on. Each time, and there have been three such occasions, the station was dead, destroyed, with no sign of the inhabitants.”

Again, that tell me something I don’t know expression.

He frowned at her. “You’ve heard the news?” Those few news channels that had coverage in the Outer Circle only broadcast local gossip, and betting information, lots of that.

She said, “Who do you think were the workers in those stations, lost while valiantly defending Asto and its colonies?” The last words were spoken with an intense mocking tone. “They were people off the streets from around here. Vashya from the workshop–but you will know him–has lost his brother. He only found out because he works in Eighth Circle and travels on the train every day. He’s been trying to find out what happened ever since.”

I have been trying to find out.”

“And?” She continued her embroidery.

“It seems like out there on the edges of Coldi civilisation, we’ve run into something hostile, something that doesn’t like us being there, but leaves no trace when wiping us out. This is why I’m here. There has been a fourth report, this time from a station at Zhiminda, which is… the furthest you can travel and stay within Coldi-colonised space. Ever since the first station was wiped out, I’ve feared that one day, I’m going to travel somewhere and run into the aliens who are wiping us out. I fear this may be the time. Zhiminda is nine anpar jumps away from here. It is deep into unfamiliar territory.”

She let a silence lapse in which she clearly expected him to say something.

He did not, so she said, “So? What are you going to do about that?”

“Be as careful as possible.”

She snorted. Not the answer she expected, obviously. “Son of mine, have you considered not going to these dreadful places? There is no one who says that you have to go risk your life for people who don’t deserve it.”

“Vashya’s brother doesn’t deserve it?”

“Vashya’s brother is dead. It’s the Third Circle bosses who are still running those evil places. They don’t deserve it.”

“How can you say that? Those people are my associates.” Most were as much bosses as they were subordinates.

She snorted. “Sometimes I’d think those associates are more important to you than we are.”

“They’re not. They’re just…” Associates. He’d known they were associates the first time when he met each and every one of them. He’d met Chiaru’s eyes in Third Circle training and they’d both known that instant that their relationship was meant to be. She’d brought to the association Diliya the pilot and his equal, his zhayma, and together, they had actively looked for someone to be Chiaru’s zhayma. When he ran into Eyana in the canteen, they both knew it was right, and Chiaru knew it was right, because Eyana smelled right, and the way he looked at Chiaru was right and the way he was subservient to Zhyara was right. The same applied to Menya, who he shared his apartment with, and everyone else in his social network. Choice did not come into the decision. In a similar way, he did not have a choice about checking on the stations. It was his job. His superior had told him to do it, because it was important, because the stations were part of the network.

His mother put her embroidery on the table. She rose and opened the door to the small cabinet on the wall behind her.

She took out a small box that looked very dusty and old and set it on the table before Zhyara and sat back down. “Since you’re so keen to get yourself killed, I may as well give you these. Your father had two pairs made when he came into some money. One pair for each of you. I’ve given Xiya his, so it’s only fair that I give you yours.”

Zhyara heard, I’m not sure you deserve this and he hated how she liked to use the word deserve as a weapon, as a wedge to drive between him and his brother. Did she even care about him?

He opened the box and found, as he more or less expected, a set of earrings. They were beautifully made, silver filigree with the amber stone that symbolised the Ezmi clan within. They must have cost a fortune.

Most children in the city were issued with clan earrings the moment they left the house on their own, usually to attend education. But in the Outer Circle, no one attended education, and if you walked the street with something valuable while looking unarmed, you were likely relieved of your possessions.

He turned the box, and the stone glittered in the light coming in through the open door.

“They are beautiful.” And they were, but the leaf and thorn filigree screamed zeyshi, desert rebels, people who rejected the city’s structure and lived in secret underground warrens, stealing water and food.

“Come on, then, put them in.”

Zhyara did, reluctantly, maybe just for now; he’d take them off again in the train. Zeyshi might wander relatively free into this part of the city, but there was no way he could wear these into the Mining Exploration Board office.

His mother smiled, but it looked forced.

“Thank you,” he said, and he rose. “I don’t have much time. I have to be back at work this afternoon. I brought you a bottle of medicine. Please use it when the water makes you ill again. Next time, I’ll see if I can bring a small purifier.”

She said nothing. He pushed the rickety chair back against the table, feeling its familiar worn surface under his hands.

“I’d like to see Xiya. Where is he?”

“To say goodbye to him? Iyamichu ata, huh?” she said. It was the pledge of loyalty to the Asto leadership, the confirmation of alignment to the ultimate loyalty network with the Coordinator at the top, a pledge normally taken by soldiers before going off to battle.

But her voice was mocking. “If you had any sense, you’d ask him for a place to hide so that you could escape your slave masters.”

“Mother…” Always needling him. “Please can you just tell me where he is?” Now he was getting worried. If his brother could arrange places to hide, then what was he getting involved with these days?

“He went to the Forum, but I can’t guarantee you’ll find him there. You know your brother. Hard to tie down to one place.”

The corridors of the station were empty, with long eerie shadows in the fitful light of emergency lamps, a mark of a low power situation. Again, there was no damage, no sign of a struggle or indeed anything that might have caused the near-catastrophic failure of the habitat.

The control room. Even that was virtually empty, many seats at the hub unoccupied.

“Where is everyone?” Zhyara asked, and the question seemed to sink in space.

Desya indicated a ring of chairs that surrounded the command chair. Desya did not sit in that chair, but left it unoccupied, like a sore in the middle of the room. There were only fourteen people. At capacity, the command centre would hold hundreds.

“Is this all that’s left of the station population?” Zhyara asked.

Desya nodded. A few others murmured words like terrible and unbelievable. Their faces were pale, mirroring unspeakable horrors. The air was full of conflicting scents. One young woman, slightly apart from others, had a fairly strong dominant scent, but her position–meek, with her hands in her lap–reflected none of that.

“We were sent to offer assistance.” Zhyara hesitated, not wanting to talk about the other dead stations he and his team had found. Just what sort of monsters had they run into at the edges of colonised space? “We can affect communication repairs so you can contact the Mining Exploration Board. We can offer our ship to take—”

“We didn’t ask for assistance,” Desya said. “We are coping.”

“Then where is everyone? My records say that you have more than ten thousand people aboard. I see only fourteen.”

There were a few moments of intense silence, and then one of the station workers broke the silence, against all protocol.

“There were… problems. We intercepted… signals. Hostile signals.” The man showed no deference, and looked Zhyara in the eyes.

“How were the signals hostile?” Zhyara did his best to ignore the itch in his head that told him to fight this man.

“There were alien ships. They pretended to hit us, and then swerved. When they passed, they fried our communication channels. The workers went to defend us. They took the harvesting rigs.”

Well, that explained the emptiness of the place. But… “You allowed so many of them to leave? You left no one of their associates here? And no ships, so you could evacuate?”

“There was a great hurry. We feared the aliens might… attack.”

“Who were these creatures exactly?”

“We didn’t see. There was no contact. But they destroyed one of our mining vessels.”

Zhyara filled in the blanks. “So you sent out an army, but they didn’t come back.”

“They haven’t… yet.”

“How long ago was this?”

“More than ten days.” Desya stared at his hands folded in his lap. “They vanished.” He didn’t look at anyone; no one looked at him. No one paid attention to him.

“Have you seen the attackers since?” Zhyara asked the talkative employee.

“No. We think our workers may have been taken prisoner, or possibly…” He glanced at Desya, who was still watching his hands; Zhyara sensed that there was an underlying disagreement, something else that shouldn’t happen, had the social structure been properly set up.

“We think they might have joined the alien force,” Desya added.

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, we noticed—” the employee began.

“No one knows what happened for sure,” Desya said over the top, his voice loud.

“Of course not,” the man said.

“What did you notice?” Zhyara pressed on.

“Well…” The employee cast another glance at Desya. A shrug. “He’s right. We don’t know what happened.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Then Desya said, “The only thing we know for certain is that they left, and have not come back. Their beacons faded and became too weak for us to follow the craft. There were no explosions. We found no bodies. Wouldn’t you draw the conclusion that the workers have been taken alive?”

Zhyara remembered his father as a tall man–then again in the eyes of a four-year-old, anyone was tall. The only memory he had of his father’s face was of a grainy image his mother kept in one of her treasure boxes. It showed a man with uncommonly light eyes and a broad, flat nose. Whenever she took it out, his mother’s eyes went misty at seeing the picture, but he just felt… nothing.

Zhyara remembered hiding in the top bunk with his brother, pretending to be asleep when his father came in. His mother cried and threw herself in his father’s arms. They kissed and for a number of days after that, Zhyara had boasted to the other kids in the street that he’d seen his parents Doing It. Until an older kid told him that kissing was not It, and they teased him about that.

It seemed like a stupid memory to have of someone who was supposed to be important in his life.

Later he’d heard that his father had done times in jail. Mother never told him what the charges were; like so many things, she seemed to assume that he knew. Most likely, it would have been smuggling or evasion of some sort of duty, or any of the things young men and women were still being picked up for today. Skim racing, gambling, swearing at guards.

One thing he knew for sure: his father was not–and had never been–zeyshi. He had no tattoos and didn’t wear a shayka. His father’s brother and cousins lived in the Outer Circle, and not in the zeyshi warrens in the desert.

When Zhyara decided–much against his mother’s wishes–to try for the Eighth Circle exam, the officer had asked were there any zeyshi in his immediate family, and Zhyara had said no. It was the truth, and he felt proud of that. Poor Outer Circle people could be redeemed and educated; zeyshi were lost forever. They stole and murdered. They did not observe any social structure. Their lives were worth less than a cup of water, especially the young men.

So the question was this: why would his father have ordered expensive silver earrings made with leaf and thorn patterns?

He had promised his superior to be back for a meeting later in the afternoon, and time was short, too short possibly to try to find Xiya, but what his mother had said had disturbed him. Xiya was young and passionate, and could so easily follow the wrong examples.

He left his mother’s house for the dusty street, or the thoroughfare that passed for the street. Way back when the Inner Circle elite had grown sick of the eyesore of humanity that built up on the city’s fringes, someone in charge had ordered stone houses and streets to be built, but no one had thought to add any more buildings as the population grew. When people ran out of housing space, they built their own, lean-to shacks that were little more than glorified tents, and houses like his mother’s, built from second hand building materials. The streets suffered the same degree of neglect. No one cleaned or maintained them. Whatever paving had ever been present had been covered in layers of yellow desert sand. Street sellers occupying the sides swept their own little square every day, heaping the sand in big mounds, from where it blew away again in times of high winds.

Zhyara’s uniform gave him away as someone with money, so those street sellers followed him for as far as they dared stray from their wares. Most of the vendors were leather-skinned, deeply tanned older people. Grandmothers and aunties from the aquifer farming families trying to make some extra money over what the city’s food authorities paid by selling their produce direct. Their presence was illegal, but they came anyway.

They shouted at him, trying to sell their wares.

Mushrooms, sir? Very fresh, picked them myself this morning.

Two shirts for the price of one, sir. Quality material, sir. Real quality.

A group of street singers stood in a half-circle, chanting and clapping as sweeping rhythm. The song they were singing was an Ezmi clan chant, sung by adults at street gatherings, sung by his mother when he’d been little. He remembered Xiya banging the table with this little fists, as if the tabletop was daini drum.

Zhyara avoided meeting the singers’ eyes. Most of them were Ezmi people, wearing their amber stones with pride. The silver, zeyshi earrings felt like they were made of lead.

The Forum was one of those constructions built when this area had been settled. Originally intended as a covered marketplace, it had been used as such only until some stupid accident caused the explosion of a vat of zixas, and the deaths of hundreds of people from the resulting fumes. The building had stood empty and burnt-out, for many years. When Zhyara was little, older boys would crawl in through the gaps in the boarded-up windows and challenge each other to stay after dark, when the ghosts of the dead were said to come out.

Then one day there was a big raid by the First Circle guards. Zhyara remembered standing on the side of the street watching several zeyshi youths being marched from the building. In that time, people in shaykas were hardly ever seen in the Outer Circle. That night, he and Xiya had spent time trying to wind bedsheets from his waist to the left ankle, across the right shoulder to the right ankle, across the right shoulder back to the waist. And finding that he ran out of bedsheet less than halfway through.

Real zeyshi used huge lengths of thin fabric. The whole ensemble was held together with a broad belt, which could be plain fabric or metal, or made from beads or embroidered. Women’s shaykas crossed at the front, men’s at the back. This had a reason. Go figure.

Soon after that raid, a legal drinking house had moved into the building.

These days, all the building’s arched side entrances had been boarded up and the pink marble façade that had once looked grand was dusty and stained from years of neglect. The entrance on the corner was the only one still open, and out of this dark maw billowed a wall of heat and sound.

He lined up in the foyer, where people crowded to get in.

The people around him pretended they didn’t see him. In the Outer Circle, people did not do superiority greetings and they knew he had the power to arrest them for it, if he so wished.

When he had almost reached the door, he spotted two people, looking like a couple, leaning against the side wall of the foyer. The woman wore a tattered mechanic’s suit stained with grease, and the man non-descript dusty trousers and shirt such as worn by a lot of street sellers. Street sellers didn’t come here. They lived in the aquifer clefts and went to their families once they’d sold their wares. They wasted no money coming here. Street sellers didn’t have a head full of clean hair. Backyard mechanics didn’t have shoulders like they’d been in military training for years.

These were First Circle guards. Zhyara didn’t know them–their loyalty would branch off long before his, and they’d be connected through the Security and armed forces network that would loop back to someone in the Mining Exploration Board.

The two saw him. In his Third Circle uniform. Wearing damned zeyshi earrings. Double damn.

The woman smiled at him and gestured. Having travelled in First Circle company, Zhyara was familiar with the First Circle guard signs. She thought he was here on some undercover operation. Sure. Wearing his uniform and all that.

He nodded to her. Indicating what, he did not know. Bluff. Pretending that he had the matter under control, whatever matter they thought he was attending. He didn’t want them here. He didn’t want them anywhere near his brother.

Heart thudding, he went into the room, aware that the two were likely to follow. He’d make a round, then signal to them that he didn’t find what he was looking for, and then quietly sneak off to the station.

It was dark inside the Forum’s main room, and the air thick with the scent of bodies and vibrating with sharp staccato beats of the daini drums.

People bumped into him, dancing, talking and laughing. He did his best not to look at anyone, in case people would recognise him. He tried not to look behind him, in case the two guards were following. His head ached with the noise. At the back of the room, where there were tall tables where people stood drinking, the air was thick with the scent of zixas, a sharp and acidic scent that made his mouth tingle. You were not supposed to breathe the fumes.

He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to lose the guards. He didn’t feel at home here, and never had.

Then someone said, “Hey, brother, what are you doing here?”

Oh, no. Xiya.

His brother stood at one of the tables. All arms and legs like a typical adolescent, but with dust-ingrained skin, he looked wise as the desert itself. He wore his hair loose, and it hung past his shoulders in a tangle of metallic black curls. There were a couple of youths with him, and on the table between them lay a couple of sheets of waxy paper.

Zhyara groaned. His brother was arranging a race. Those pieces of paper were stakes, debts or other liabilities that racers wanted to be rid of. If a contestant won, the losers would pay off their debt. Usually they involved unpaid bills for rig maintenance–if workshops didn’t accept jobs by stake, they didn’t have much work–but sometimes there were more sinister things, like gambling debts. Of course all of this was illegal. And he turned up with two First Circle guards in tow.

Zhyara gestured with his eyes to where he suspected the two guards to be, while motioning for his brother to move the incriminating material out of sight.

Xiya’s eyebrows went up in a What are you being stupid about? kind of way.

Zhyara mouthed, Just for once listen the fuck to what I say.

But it was already too late. The pair of guards pushed past him and joined Xiya and his mates at the table.

“Hey,” said the woman. “I know this game. Can I challenge?”

“You race, huh?” Xiya said. He sounded so young, so naïve.

“Sure.” She flicked hair out of her face.

Zhyara wanted to scream Look at her shoulders, she’s a First Circle guard! but he could do nothing. He shook his head. The damn earrings felt like needles where they hit the soft skin of his neck.

Xiya ignored him. “Sure. What is your stake?”

“I’m not betting. I owe nobody anything, but my friend has a bet for you.”

The man produced a signature cube and set it on the table. “I got myself a contract, arranged by my family, but the woman’s a right bitch, and I’d be happy if someone paid half of what I paid to take her off my hands.”

Zhyara shook his head even more. First Circle contracts involved huge sums of money. Even half that was more than Xiya would ever see in his life. Besides, he was far too young for contracts.

But Xiya grinned, an innocent boyish grin. “I accept.”

“That’s a boy.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. Xiya wobbled visibly under the force of it.

“So what have you got as stake?” the woman asked. “Is it going to be worth the race?”

“I got something much better than you.” He extracted a piece of waxed paper from his pocket.

The woman picked it up and read. “Notice to report for work duty? ” She laughed. “A ticket? Is that worth a race for you?”

Ship-side quarters were cramped, and protocol dictated that visiting delegations were offered on-station hospitality. Zhyara had stayed in the station’s guest quarters before, but never had his party been the only one there. Mining stations normally bustled with visiting prospectors and others offering their services.

He ordered his people to take food supplies brought on their ship and instructed them not to touch any of the food provided by the station. He posted a guard at the entrance to their small apartment.

Normally, he would share his room with Emiru. They would talk over the latest news and bring each other up-to-date. She would talk about the station; he would talk about things happening in Athyl. Re-cementing loyalty networks over this huge distance. It would involve food, and many glasses of zixas and usually passionate lovemaking, because that was what associates were for, to make you feel loved and needed, and part of the network.

Now he was just alone. Too quiet. His associates in the next room only spoke in low voices, waiting for his orders. There were no other sounds from elsewhere in the station.

What if Desya’s story was true and aliens would come back and attack the station? They would be helpless. Too few to man weapons, if they had any, and most mining stations were woefully incapable of defending themselves. What if Desya saw him and his team as a threat, too? These rooms would be full of listening devices. He studied the ceiling and walls, examining every bump or depression.

Nothing.

He paced the room, past the desk, the cupboard, the bed–

Emiru, what had happened to her? The last time he’d been here, she’d ambushed him in this room, shutting the door behind her. Her cheeks had been red, her eyes bright, and through her gossamer-thin singlet, he could see the red tinge of her skin on her chest and shoulders. He’d been shocked; a woman only flushed when she wanted to conceive, and that only happened when contracts had been signed. But there she was, wanting, desperate and her reason clouded by the hormonal flush that she had allowed to happen. Shutting the door on him. Her expression saying come on, fuck me.

He’d protested, tried to tell her to get back to her quarters until the flush passed, but he was a man, evolved to react to her female scent. And react, he did, in a crazy and very satisfying way. He’d still been covered in bruises by the time he came home.

He’d never mentioned it to anyone, had been too embarrassed. It should not have happened, and he should not have given in. But what if there was a more sinister reason for her behaviour that he’d never thought to inquire about? He remembered asking, when lying exhausted in her arm, but she’d changed the subject.

Stupid. He should have insisted. Every woman with a permit to live on Asto had the right to have two children. No one gave that right away lightly. Not without contract, or payment, or both. Not on a mining station. Of course she’d been trying to tell him something.

He turned around and paced the other way.

This place was sending him up the wall. Too empty; the scents were all wrong.

He had to talk to someone.

In the small living area, the technicians were poring over the station’s communication logs which they had downloaded from the hub. Chiaru sat in the corner, staring in front of her and biting the end of her ponytail.

She looked up when he entered, eyes wide, like a startled animal.

He flicked his eyebrows and jerked his head towards the door.

She rose, her eyes still wide, and whispered past him into the room.

At home in Athyl, lower-ranking workers would never consort with their direct superiors. You just did not do that; it was abuse of power.

“I just need someone to talk to,” he said, by way of apology. That was wrong, too. You did not apologise to your seconds.

He shut the door, and then went to pour some drinks, his mind searching for a way to ask, What does it mean when a woman flushes for you without any agreement to do so? but failing. He was supposed to have all the answers, and he had none.

When turned back to the room, she sat on the couch, her hands jammed between her knees. One of her legs was jiggling up and down.

“Relax,” he said, putting the drinks on the table, and when she didn’t look convinced, he continued, “I just want to know what you think of this situation. What do you think happened?” He pulled his pad on his knees to open his report on the station.

“I… don’t know.” Her voice sounded oddly strangled.

“What is the matter–” He looked up from his pad just in time to see her charging at him, all muscle and fierce female strength.

His instinct fired immediately. He flung the pad aside and thrust up his arms. She crashed into him. He managed to get hold of one of her arms and deflected her direction away from him. She fell and dragged him off the couch. He rolled on top of her, and pinned her to the floor. Her chest heaved with panting breaths. There was nothing familiar in her eyes.

“Chiaru, what the hell was that about? Why did you do that?”

“I…” She shook her head. Confused. “What are you doing?” She craned her head to look at her hands, which he pressed against the floor.

“What am I doing? You looked like you were trying to kill me.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Her expression softened; she frowned. “I just… smelled nothing. No familiar scents at all. I… panicked. I don’t know…” Her eyes glittered with tears. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“Yes, me, too. Are you all right now?”

She nodded. “You smell right now.”

He let go of her and she sat up, rubbing her arms. “Can I… Can I please stay with you tonight?”

“I think we’ll all sleep in this room.” To keep an eye on each other. To keep his network strong.

He wanted to get out of here, and quick. He might have enough strength to bring his seconds back in line, but Chiaru might not be able to control hers.

Zhyara was powerless.

Xiya and the two undercover guards shook hands and handed their stakes to the racemaker, a young man who must be one of Xiya’s friends. Then they all left the Forum. At hearing that there was to be a race, all of the local ratbags crowded around the challengers, forming a wall of hot adolescent flesh, impenetrable to anyone not part of the group.

Zhyara ran after the group, furious. Why had his mother not told him that his brother had received a ticket? Zhyara could have helped his brother avoid duty–legally. Tickets were for poor Outer Circle people found loitering or otherwise having earned the displeasure of the authorities. They’d be sent to some place to work on a major project. Digging aquifers, building a sea wall to keep out the poisonous ocean water, constructing a train line across the desert, that sort of thing.

This woman was not racing to lose, and even if Xiya won, he would still lose. She wouldn’t take his ticket. She would arrest him, or hold him to the stupid bet with her colleague, or something else. It would cause him pain, literally or figuratively or both, or saddle him with insurmountable debts for the rest of his life.

That was her entire point of racing, to make an example out of him.

The procession came to the edge of the settlement. Unlike the Eighth Circle, the Outer Circle had no boundary wall or fence and slowly bled into the desert. Houses became less dense, streets petered out, mostly where the land became too rocky or steep to support the shacks.

The rumour of the impending race had preceded the contestants and a steady stream of people was already making its way zig-zagging up the side of the crater wall. Zhyara ran up, clambering through loose sand. The trail was only wide enough for one person at a time, and Zhyara had to venture into the dust and rocks to push past, which earned him raised eyebrows. Mostly men in dirty and dusty garb. Some were zeyshi, wearing their billowing shaykas without a care for who might see them. They wore fine belts, some with intricate metal work, some with more gruesome souvenirs, like teeth and talismans woven from human hair, or finger bones.

People elbowed each other, whispered in each other’s ear and pointed at him. He could almost hear their voices. Is that really Zhyara Ezmi? How dare he show his face here dressed like that?

Zhyara was too much in a hurry to allow himself to get angry at their comments. He could already hear the roaring of engines up at the crater rim; he could smell the cloying odour of the crater gas. And every time he came here, it frightened him how familiar it still felt.

He reached the crater rim, and even that felt like home. As well as the familiar path that led off to the left. And the view. He used to come up here as a young boy to get away, before he started racing. That was back in the time that Xiya had been such a pest, always arguing with Mother, never coming home when she had told him to. And then, all of a sudden, Xiya was her hero, and Zhyara, who was the oldest and had done something with his life besides illegal skim racing and gambling, was the cause of all ills in the world.

He hurried along the path. On one side, the steep curving abyss that fell away into the crater floor, invisible underneath a woolly mass of grey-purple gas. On the other side, the yellow sand of the desert bled into the pink buildings of the city. The sky was white overhead, the horizon dusty. To the left was the deep cleft of an aquifer, fenced off so that Outer Circle dwellers wouldn’t enter and steal the crops being grown there for the rich.

The city was like a multi-layered fruit. First came the Eighth Circle boundary, a stark wall higher than a house, with pointy metal spikes on top. Beyond that, the Seventh Circle boundary, a less stark presence, but still clearly visible. Beyond Fifth Circle, boundaries became less aggressive and less visible.

He could see the airport, rising from the buildings like a multi-pronged monster. The space port was in Third Circle. Third Circle was industry and commerce. The Mining Exploration Board was there, as was his apartment. A short ride in a rig, a slightly longer ride on the train, five check points, but for these people a lifetime away.

He came to the warm-up area at the crater rim, where the two rigs stood side-by-side.

The woman’s rig was, as he had expected, brand new, with a foldable canopy, now open, and beautiful seats of fresh green upholstery.

The other rig was the one that Zhyara spent many hours restoring. A low elegant shape with broad delta wings. Its surface shone silver, the open cabin upholstered in faded red fabric. Dusty and battered, but a mean machine. Familiarity hit him, heavy, unexpected. Damn it, that was his rig, in which he’d won many races. His brother had the engine panel open, checking the charge levels. Zhyara had hammered into his brother’s head, Don’t trust the gauge, it has a mind of its own.

“Xiya!”

Zhyara’s brother straightened. He raised his eyebrows. “Look who we have here.” But he wasn’t looking. His eyes were unnervingly black, devoid of any gold flecking, staring at some point in the distance, neither in obeisance nor defiance.

“Don’t race. It’s a trap,” Zhyara said.

Xiya didn’t move, but his eyes displayed an and? expression. The awkward silence stretched. Zhyara had never felt further removed from his family than this.

“They’re First Circle guards.” Look at me, damn you.

“You don’t say.”

“You actually want to race them? You’re crazy! They’ll lock you up if you lose.”

“Then I’d better not lose.”

“Xiya, please–”

Xiya laughed. “I’m going to race. I’ll win. They will eat their ticket.”

“Please, Xiya, don’t race–”

“Leave me alone, I have a race to fly.”

He turned his back.

Zhyara took a few steps across the dusty ground and hissed in his brother’s ear, “And you think that this stupid, criminal business is the only way you can have a life, huh?”

His brother’s hormonal scent hit him like a hot breeze. Blood rushed to his face. He was overwhelmingly aware how his heart thudded against his ribs. His ear registered little but the roaring of blood. He staggered back, jamming his hands in his pockets.

Xiya barely moved, although he must be aware of the effect. When had he grown up so much?

“We are skim racers,” Xiya said, with the emphasis on we.

I’m not. Not anymore.” Zhyara’s cheeks were on fire.

Xiya snorted. “Leave me alone, brother, with your superior moralising bullshit. Who are you to say what I can and can’t do? You don’t even live in the Outer Circle anymore.”

“You don’t have to live here either.” Zhyara put all his frustration in those words. “Please come with me. I’ll put in a good word with Eighth Circle instructors. I know people who work in the aircraft servicing plants. You’re smart. They’d be happy to have you. Then I’ll help you appeal to get out of your ticket. Legally.”

“You come all the way to tell me that? And you want me to live in your stuffy world, where there are rules about who I can talk to? And associations that tell me who I hang out with?”

“There are no rules. You just follow your–”

“You really don’t understand, do you?”

And Xiya still wasn’t meeting his eyes.

Zhyara, Chiaru and everyone who wasn’t on duty all slept in the same room. Chiaru slept in Zhyara’s bed, but he didn’t touch her besides letting her fall asleep against him, a warm and heavy weight.

He felt restless, and listened to the sounds of the station. From somewhere in the corner of the room came soft whispers and rustling of bedding. Someone was having fun there. He tried to repel feelings of intense jealousy. He couldn’t see who was in that corner, but he knew that all his associates had their zhaymas and he was the only one alone. He had not expected this: to be alone with the station still intact. He’d expected destruction. If not, he’d expected to have to deal with the fallout from his last visit, to be presented with a contract for Emiru’s child. Now, he lay in the dark wondering if that child had died before he had been aware of its existence. He imagined a small boy who would carry Emiru’s clan name and be unburdened by the fact that half the blood in his veins was Ezmi. His own family had never been taught the importance of loyalty networks. They didn’t understand and it was too late for them. But this baby, he’d teach him well, and he’d be successful, a well-respected member of society, free of his shameful heritage.

Staring in the dark, Zhyara gained and lost a son, letting the tears of grief stream down his face, until he was convinced that Desya was a killer and somehow at fault for what had happened.

And that was not a healthy line of thinking.

What if there were evil aliens out there? What if Desya and his remaining staff were so traumatised that they could not reform new alliances? What if they were scared not only of new aliens, but of Zhyara and his party and whatever punishment they could mete out?

He pushed himself up and left the room, carefully stepping over mattresses and legs.

In the apartment’s tiny hub, he found one of the technicians. The man quickly rose and took the subservient greeting pose. Zhyara touched his shoulder, making it all right for the man to meet his eyes. He noticed that the man had been working on the station logs.

“So, what did the logs say?” he asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. Since we were last here, there were sixty-three dockings of mining vessels. They unloaded ore and ice. They installed power satellites.”

“Any reports of alien sightings?”

“No. There was only one minor incident. A ship was put in quarantine on hold for a few days.”

“One of their own ships?”

“Yes. Station control said it was a contamination issue. They’d harvested ice and failed to follow decontamination procedures.”

“Let me have a look at that.”

The man displayed the information on the holo console.

The ship had been to the system’s asteroid ring, which occupied the habitable zone.

“I guess the asteroids show life signatures.” Any celestial body that contained water or ice almost always did.

“Microbial, yes.”

That was always the risk. If someone had told Zhyara at the start of his job, that he’d spend half his time observing procedures of quarantine, he would have laughed. These days, he would say Half? Is that all? “Do you think our killer could be microbial–no, there’d be bodies.”

“Desya would know. He might be telling stories about attacking aliens in order to hide shoddy quarantine procedures.”

“Might.”

Although the alien story was likely a lie, Zhyara wasn’t convinced. He was sure a microbial disease wiping out thousands would leave a much bigger trail, especially if only fourteen people were left to clean up the mess. With all the will in the universe, he couldn’t see fourteen people disposing of thousands of dead. But one thing about the suggestion did strike a chord with him.

“Whatever caused it the disappearances or deaths of the crew must have been random. If Desya had sent people to fight aliens, he would have sent whole associations, leaving an intact branch on-station.” Yes, that made sense. The fourteen didn’t show subservience to each other, because they had no relationships. And no new ones had been forged, because they were people thrown together by a random event, with no instincts firing between them.

So–could it be a microbial threat despite the absence of clear evidence?

He asked, “Tell me about this vessel that was refused.”

“It was just a mining craft.”

The holo display flickered and showed an open-cut image of a typical mining vessel, wide-hulled and square, with grappling arms down the sides. This ship had a crew of twelve. That seemed a little high. Twelve crew, four women, eight men. The number was wrong. If there had been a full network branch on board, there should have been seven on board, or fifteen.

“What was this vessel’s brief?”

“Gathering ice.”

“With twelve crew?”

What was more, the snapshot showed them all on the bridge, and none in the harvesting stations.

“What was the issue that caused the quarantine warning?”

“Station scans showed their water tanks to be contaminated with foreign organisms.”

He patched another scan. Clearly, bacterial life. Not in itself a reason to refuse the ship back.

“Did they order decontamination?”

“Yes.”

“And then, what happened?”

“Nothing, for two days. After that, the vessel was allowed to dock.”

“Was there any communication in those two days?” That seemed like an awfully long time for decontamination.

“No.”

“None at all?”

“Not that I can find.”

It’s been wiped, Zhyara realised with crystal clarity.

But what about the unusual crew configuration?

“Who were these people?”

“I don’t know. I could find out.”

“Please do.”

Surrounded by adolescent boys and girls who seemed to be his brother’s associates, Zhyara could do nothing. They didn’t look like normal associates, following a normal order. Several of them sported leaf-and-thorn tattoos, and everyone knew zeyshi didn’t do associations. They had this silly notion that everyone was equal, that the association instinct was some figment of the imagination. As a result, zeyshi were always brawling and had no clear long-term leaders, and Zhyara didn’t know how to appeal to any of these youths for help. Worse, they cheered; they helped unlash the rig’s teethers and shove the fuel canisters into the tubes. They liked seeing Xiya risk his life for this stupid race.

If Xiya was gone, then who would look after their mother? Zhyara had plenty of money and could apply for a bigger apartment so she could live with him, but she would never accept his help. People were allowed to live in circles higher than their qualification if they were dependents, but needed to carry permits everywhere, and were not allowed to work. That was not a solution; that would be prison to her. She never made much, and only sold a bit of embroidery at the markets, made zeyshi belts and fixed the dusty overalls of the builders and land workers from the aquifers, most of those garments already beyond repair. But her hands needed to be busy. Mother couldn’t look after herself if she got sick, or if people refused to pay, or came to extort money from her.

Xiya did that; she needed Xiya.

Zhyara scanned the onlookers for help. He saw his mother’s empty eyes in every face in the crowd. He also saw a lot of clean faces, and a lot of broad shoulders, a lot of Outer Circle people who… weren’t.

What was going on? What were they all doing here?

And here he was, in his uniform, standing out to them and to the locals.

A few rigs flew out slowly to mark the agreed race course, down into the crater where the blue murk swirled and eddied. Zhyara could almost smell the gas.

When you flew in that boundary between air and mist and engaged the landing gear, it boosted the craft’s speed. But woe betide the rigs that went too deep. The mist dragged on the wings. It made your voice go funny. A bit deeper, and you couldn’t breathe, and the engine would stall, and you would sink. No one knew how deep the crater was, but the bottom of it must be littered with dead stupid boys and their rigs. Stupid boys who had let the zeyshi criminals or murderous guards outsmart them, because few of the deaths were accidental. When the rigs left the mountaintop, all rules of flying and of civility were off.

A young boy with arms as thin as sticks and too-wide clothes beat the race gong. The thing was taller than him, and its sound made the very air vibrate.

Xiya climbed into the rig, slid in the pilot’s seat, his thin adolescent fingers on the controls of a machine that could kill him. That would kill him, if the woman in the shiny white rig had anything to do with it. At least if her rig was damaged, she had a canopy.

Zhyara wanted to scream at his brother to stop, to let him buy out his ticket. He wanted to point out the guards in the crowd, but they considered him to be loyal to them, and he was, of a sort. But he didn’t want anything to happen to his brother.

Xiya merely grinned, pulled the mask over his face and gunned the engines, hard. A cloud of pink dust billowed up.

The crowd cheered.

The youth hit the gong again, and with a roar, the rigs were off, diving into the crater.

The next morning, Zhyara felt exhausted. He would have liked to take a break, but owed it to his team to continue with the investigation and get out of the station as soon as possible.

One of the station’s nameless survivors came to collect him. He took Chiaru, and one of her seconds, and then was afraid that the station people would pick up on the fact that he’d left a relatively complete network on the ship.

But when he entered the oppressive atmosphere of the control room, it wasn’t distrust he sensed, but disorientation. All of the fourteen employees were doing things, but none of them exchanged looks or small gestures or fleeting touches that should have been common.

Desya appeared to be doing nothing. He sat in the same seat he had occupied the previous day, and still did not meet Zhyara’s eyes.

“You sit there.” He gestured at the empty command chair.

Zhyara bypassed the chair and took the seat he’d occupied yesterday. “I am not the station administrator. You need to appoint an administrator.”

Desya nodded, but Zhyara knew that it would not happen, at least not until the association had been repaired.

He continued into the silence, “We can offer you and your staff transport back to Athyl, once we have installed procedures that keep the station stable.” Leaving a station empty and unguarded would not please his superiors. “But for that to clear my boss’ approval, I’ll need to know exactly what happened. We’ve looked at the logs and can’t find any evidence of alien activity, save for one mining vessel that was held up in quarantine with alien bacteria in the water tank. The ship was help up for two days, without any communication to the station.”

“That was a technical problem. It has nothing to do with the attack.”

But Desya obviously remembered this otherwise insignificant occasion far too well.

“The problem is, we cannot find any evidence that an attack has ever happened. If you have anything, images, recordings, instrument readings, please give us access to them, so that we can help you.”

Desya nodded again, but said nothing, and none of the station crew moved.

Just what was going on here? Was he going to have to beat someone up in order to get to the truth?

Chiaru glanced aside; she would notice his aggressive scent. She made a small hand gesture. Calm down.

He sighed. “What sort of people were on board this ship?”

Surprise. “Just… workers.”

“Twelve of them?”

Desya’s eyes widened. He came very close to meeting Zhyara’s eyes, and Zhyara felt the heat of rage close to the surface. If Desya looked up, there would be a fight.

“Twelve is not a full association. A crew is three people, or seven, or fifteen, if you really need that many on a mining vessel. Twelve is not a crew.”

“We thought these people had gone to join the aliens. And then they came back, demanding access to the station.” Desya’s voice sounded strangled.

“There still is no evidence of aliens. These people were made to wait for two days. Either the communication between the station and their ship was absent, or, more likely, deleted from the logs.”

Another silence.

Zhyara repeated, “Who were the people aboard this ship?”

“As I said, just workers.” He sounded close to tears.

“Could we have a look in these workers’ dormitories?”

A slight hesitation. “Suppose. I don’t know what you expect to find there, they’re just dormitories. We’ve depressurised them, but we can pressurise one wing.”

“Please, do.”

Zhyara waited in tense silence while the crew opened the wing, and when pressure had equalised, Desya went with him.

The dormitory was dark and intensely cold. Vacuum conditions had done some interesting things with people’s possessions. A bottle of skin cream had burst and its contents snap-frozen and dried into hard globs. A bag had exploded, spilling underclothes all over the floor.

They walked past row after row of bunks.

Zhyara started at the very back, looking in each drawer and cabinet for personal possessions. In the third one, he found what he was looking for: a small marble carving with an amber stone. In the next one, he found an amber earring wrapped in a love letter. In the next one, a picture of a man with leaf and thorn tattoos. At another bunk he found a ticket taped to the wall, complete with marks for how many days the owner still had to go. He collected all these items in a pillowcase.

“What are you looking for?” Chiaru asked, her voice low.

Zhyara held the pillowcase open. She looked in; understanding hovered in her eyes.

The craft came out from nowhere and rammed into his brother’s rig. Zhyara saw it happen, and knew there was nothing he could do, not from all the way on the other side of the crater. There was an explosion of bits of metal. His brother’s rig was limping, losing speed while the First Circle woman raced on.

Zhyara cursed and pushed his brother’s astonished minders aside, then he was running, and jumped in the first rig he encountered. He ignored shouts, probably from the owner, yanked the mask over his face while gunning the engine. It roared under the floor. So familiar. He’d won so many races before he stopped racing, before he realised he was wasting his life doing something that would probably kill him.

The rig dived towards the cloud mass. He engaged the wing flaps and eased into the glide at that boundary between mist and air. The rig handled smoothly—he gathered its well-heeled owner would not be happy.

Ahead, his brother’s stricken craft was slowly sinking in the mist.

“Xiya!” Zhyara called out, his voice dark with the effects of the gas.

There was no movement in the craft.

For one heart-stopping moment, Zhyara feared his brother had fallen out, but then he spotted the slumped form in the pilot’s seat.

The idiot. He wasn’t even wearing a helmet.

Zhyara rammed the rig into hover mode, manoeuvring it as close to the familiar rig as he dared. He took the grappling iron and tossed it over the side.

It caught on the third try.

Then slowly, abandoning all pretence he was skim racing, he disengaged the flaps, gunned the flight engines and pulled the rig up.

The grappling mechanism emitted clangs and hisses. A small shudder, and the ship floated free of the station. The dockside viewscreen still showed Desya and his two nameless associates at the access tube; the outside screens showed the scratched side of the station. No real damage, just the normal weathering from micrometeorites and radiation.

A small backwards thrust and the pilot had fired the engines.

Zhyara checked the voice communication channel. The lights were off. Good. And it chilled him, too. He should not have any secrets from the people at the station. That was what loyalty networks were for.

“When you’ve engaged the autopilot, I want everyone here,” Zhyara said, from the command chair.

His people responded with assuring nods and soon gathered on the benches surrounding him. All at once, he felt at home and that thought filled him so much that emotion welled up in him. At home with his network of people who he could trust.

“Are you all right?” Chiaru asked, and her voice held concern.

“Uhm–yes. I am now. That group gives me the chills.”

“Me, too,” Chiaru said, and her zhayma Eyana squeezed her hand. The pilot, who was Chiaru’s second, put and arm on her shoulder, and the co-pilot, the pilot’s zhayma took his other hand, and so it went on, around the group, until everyone sat around Zhyara, and everyone touched one another. Zhyara held hands, touched cheeks, stroked arms, enveloped in familiar comforting scents from his people. A tear ran down Chiaru’s face. Zhyara wiped it off, but a new one formed. His vision blurred, too. He leaned on Eyana’s shoulder while holding Chiaru’s hand. Someone stroked his hair. Someone else sniffed.

This was associations were about. Not feeling ashamed. Feeling safe. He didn’t understand why anyone would reject this, but the fact was that all of his family did, and everyone in the Outer Circle did.

“All right,” he said when he sensed that everyone had calmed and relaxed. “I gave a number of you a task. Let’s hear what you have found out.”

His associates settled back into their seats, attentive expressions on their faces.

“There was no evidence of the use of any weapons against the station,” the pilot said. “I searched all the particle charge and radiation logs.”

Another reported, “The station workers were of all clans, but the mining crew were mostly Ezmi.”

Zhyara nodded; he’d suspected as much.

Chiaru eyed his empty earlobes, and shrugged. “Sorry.” She knew, of course, what clan he belonged to, but he had possibly never acknowledged it to her.

And she clearly wasn’t sure how to respond.

He wasn’t sure himself; for a long time after he left the Outer Circle, and possibly even before that time, a deep hole raged in his soul in the place where other people put their families. His family didn’t understand him, but he didn’t understand them either. He’d cringed at their chants, he’d refused to play the daini drums, he’d forgotten their stories.

And now his distant relatives were lost out there, and he had always denied them, never bothered to learn their clan chants, their lineages and their stories. And there were a lot, except none of them fitted inside what he considered respectable society. From his youth, he remembered the festive gatherings on the outskirts of the city. Rowdy songs played on homemade instruments. Robot-fighting contests. From a distance–from, say, Zhyara’s Third Circle apartment–Ezmi were eccentric, defiant, colourful. Easy to forget that they were real people. His cousins. And now ten thousand of them could be dead.

“I didn’t know the Mining Exploration Board used ticket holders to work in the stations,” she said.

He nodded; he had known. It was probably because so many new stations had been opened recently, and the Mining Exploration Board had found it hard to find workers.

He said, his voice thick, “Here is my theory: I don’t believe that anything attacked the station. I don’t believe that there were any aliens. I believe there was a disagreement and the workers left.”

“How can that be possible?” Chiaru asked. “We had all the loyalty networks in place.”

“I don’t know,” Zhyara said, and rubbed his hand over his face. “I just don’t know.” Surely, the Mining Exploration Board wouldn’t have put any of those Ezmi workers on the transport to this station if they had not yet formed associations? “It’s just that… I suspect that’s what happened. There was a fight, a break in associations, and they left.” Ezmi rejected associations. Their networks would have been weak, at best.

“I think that first a couple of them left–they were in that ship that was refused to dock. They found a place to live within this system, and they came back to collect the others. That’s where they’ve gone.” He let his shoulders slump.

“Are you… all right?” Chiaru’s voice was hesitant, scared almost.

He was their anchor and he needed to be strong to reaffirm their place in the network. “Yes, I’m just…” To him, finding the station in this state was barely better than finding it empty. The missing people included his family. They understood that; they feared how it affected him. Young men and women with amber stones in their earrings, but all of them in some way related to him.

Somewhere in a small box in his cabin he had the earrings his mother had given him, and right now, the felt an insane urge to jump up and get them.

But he sat and struggled to keep his breathing under control, to keep his face even.

In the forward viewscreen, the station was visibly shrinking in size. The engine hummed, the crew were busy at work.

The pilot asked, “Where do we look first? The vector showed that at least one ship has left outwards from the sun.”

Total change of subject.

Zhyara reviewed the information on the screen. “Do a total system scan.” Yes, he was going to find these people and bring them back.

The holo display behind the pilot’s seat cleared.

The system had seven planets. The sim shots showed him the approaches to each individual body. A diagram, then to scale, and then the planets one by one. The sim gave warnings for the innermost gas giant; the planet was very hot and had a violent magnetic field. It orbited so close to the primary that sunlight dimmed visibly when it passed in front, which it did no less than three times in each shipboard day cycle.

The second planet… was pretty much the same, minus the strong magnetic field. It had two smallish moons, rocky–the spectrum returned a high content of iron–and irregular in shape. The moons were too hot, too close to the sun to sustain the type of colony that could be plonked down in days.

The habitable zone contained only an asteroid belt, which was where the ship had been mining. Some of the larger bodies might support a small colony, rich as they were in metals.

“I think we should check those large asteroids.”

The ship’s engines increased their hum. At the back controls, the technicians engaged heat scanners and microwave receivers. There was comfort in the busy silence.

Zhyara went to his cabin and slept, alone. He was exhausted. But in his sleep, he saw Xiya’s face, and his empty expression, how his eyes had failed to meet Zhyara’s, how his scent had overwhelmed him. How his brother was unprepared for what was happening to him, and how he wasted the gift of network loyalties.

However, when he woke up, repeated beamsweep scans had turned up no signals, no engine signatures, no unexplained sources of heat, no emissions of any kind. There were some larger bodies that clung onto a tenuous atmosphere, some with a very small percentage of oxygen, but nowhere accessible. The asteroid belt was as dead as it looked.

Zhyara ordered the telescopes pointed outwards.

Three much smaller rocky planets orbited outside the habitable zone. One was rich in minerals, the other two were mainly rock and ice, but none of them had anything resembling an atmosphere. The scans were quick; they delivered nothing of interest.

Planet number six was a gas giant with a single huge moon, whose gravity constantly pulled and pushed the surface of the planet into asymmetrical shapes. One moment, the reddish bands would encircle the planet, the next moment, they would trail the moon before being sucked back into the planet. This strange dance of vast clouds of ions went on relentlessly. Zhyara had no doubt the moon was about to crash into the planet and the environment was beyond deadly for any living organism.

The seventh planet was perhaps the oddest of all. This planet, too, was a gas giant, blue-purple in colour, with a wide system of pretty rings. It had thirty-five moons, all of them either too small for a colony or too dangerously close to the rings. Many had erratic orbits. The planet described an elliptical orbit perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic. And it moved backwards, spinning rapidly. More oddly, when the crew obtained a higher magnification scan, it showed that the planet wasn’t circular; it was more like a coagulating cloud.

“Does that thing even satisfy the requirements for the definition of a planet?” Chiaru asked.

“It’s… strange.” That was really all that could be said about it.

Then the pilot said, “The scan indicates life.”

Zhyara regarded the bluish misty outside of the cloud. It reminded him of the crater, and of skim racing. “If they’re anywhere, they will be on that one.”

Xiya hovered in and out of consciousness for two days.

Zhyara sat by his bed, while Mother spent most of the time crying. Occasionally he would lose his patience and snap at her. Not even in this time of distress did she call on her associates–who were they, anyway? Did she even have associates? His head hurt at the thought of being alone. Yet she and Xiya rejected him, time and time again.

Meanwhile, he knew he would have to do some talking to make up for his absence from his job. There would be questions. About what he’d done, about where he’d been. He would have to defend himself over and over again all the way down several levels of his carefully-built network. He would have to prove that while he might belong to the Ezmi clan and his family lived in the Outer Circle and didn’t have networks, he was 100% trustworthy. He sent messages to Chiaru. She spoke to his boss on his behalf. A bad accident in the family, he told her to report to his boss. He would understand better than his family might; Third Circle people had functioning family networks.

On the day Xiya regained consciousness, a group of scruffy youths filed into the house. They wore dirty clothes, missed limbs and had wounds and open festering sores. And thorn-and-leaf tattoos, plenty of those.

Zhyara sat in the corner in his Third Circle uniform pretending not to be there, but digging his nails into his palms. Did he feel ashamed of his neat clothes while his clansfolk were so poor, or did he feel angry at them for deliberately cutting themselves off from the loyalty networks in the city? They could be part of society if they wanted; they could be educated, get jobs and medicines; they chose filth, poverty and disease. For what reason?

Then another young came in and told a story of being chased by the First Circle law enforcers, but escaping into the maze of the Outer Circle.

Everyone in the room was laughing, and Zhyara could no longer contain his anger.

“That is what you get when you challenge the guards! They may not have caught you now, but they will, and then they’ll send you to a desert labour camp, or give you a ticket.” He turned to his brother, who sat, like a king, in his mother’s only comfortable chair at the table. “Why don’t you grow up, get sensible and get a proper network and find your rank in society? Then you won’t have to suffer like the people who get tickets. You can even bring something good to the miserable lives of your friends. I’ll be willing to stick out my neck for you; yes, I’m that stupid that I would do that for you, brother. Because I care for you, if only you get your shit together.”

Xiya narrowed his eyes and rose, slowly, from his chair. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

In two steps, Zhyara crossed the room, into the influence of his brother’s hormonal scent. He didn’t fight it this time. It was time to deal with it.

Mother screamed and the young men laughed.

Zhyara grabbed the front of his brother’s shirt. “Fight me, brother! Let’s have this over with.” His hands trembled. If only his brother would engage him so that they could settle where each of them fitted in the family association.

But Xiya only looked at the opposite side of the room and stood passively. Zhyara hit him in the face with all his strength. “Fight, damn it!” In all his life, this type of aggression had never failed to get a response.

But not in Xiya. He stood there, his cheek blossoming red.

Zhyara hit him again, and when his brother still did nothing, looped an arm around his brother’s neck.

Then his brother’s friends grabbed his arms and yanked Xiya from his grip.

Zhyara wrestled against their grip. “Let me go. I’ll kill him.”

But his brother’s friends kept a firm hold on him until he calmed down. A young man guided him to the other side of the room, out of his brother’s scent. He pushed Zhyara down until he sat on the floor and knelt in front, blocking his view of his brother. The man’s hair was long and loose, his skin tanned golden. He wore jewellery made of gold and silver, and had an amber gemstone set in his front teeth. He was dressed in a blue-green silk shayka and had several rows of thorn and leaf tattoos circling both arms.

“Yes, you would have killed him.” The tone in the young man’s voice sounded like that of a desert wise man.

Everyone in the room had fallen quiet. The young man smelled utterly like a leader, like his brother did, Zhyara realised. He looked down in the subservient pose.

“I love my brother,” Zhyara said, his voice choking both with anger and grief. “He’s not joining you, do you hear that. I forbid–”

“I think your brother can decide for himself.” His voice was clear and calm, and oozed authority. Zhyara fought the sense of being subservient to this man. Zeyshi for crying out loud. “I want the best for my brother.”

“The best for him is that you leave and stay out of his life.” A tanned hand entered Zhyara’s vision and pushed his chin up until his eyes met the fierce expression of the zeyshi man. “And stop this grovelling rubbish. No one owns you. Not your family, not your city bosses. Not even me.”

He let go of Zhyara’s chin, rose and spat on the ground. The wad of spit narrowly missed Zhyara’s right leg.

Zhyara left his mother’s house. Alone, he climbed onto the crater rim. He watched the blue mist swirl in the crater. A few young boys were throwing stones, as he and Xiya had often done when they were little. He cried. Later still, he slunk down to the station and caught the train back to his neat apartment in the Third Circle, back to the people he understood.

The world was a huge cloud, and from close-up, the ring system extensive. Zhyara counted twenty-seven bands in various colours. They were, inexplicably, not symmetrical, with ring material, ice mostly, accumulated more thickly in a couple of spots along the rings. The surface of the planet, if it could be called that… was an odd kind of blue-green and in the side turned away from the star, threaded through with fluorescent red auroras. The end-effect was luminescent purple.

The density was higher than one would expect for a gas planet. Much higher. But…

“It’s highly lumpy,” one of the technicians said. “There’s a circular area in the cloud mass that is very dense. The rest is much thinner.”

A bit later, another technician said, “That mass is moving.”

It was.

Zhyara replayed and replayed a recording of the dark spot. The dark mass looked like a shadow, but none of the moons were big enough to cast it, and besides, the system’s primary was on the wrong side.

Then he checked the read-outs again. The density wobbles. And he realised: the dark spot was a shadow indeed…

“I think,” he said, “…there’s something inside that cloud. Take us closer.”

So the pilot steered the craft closer. With each further measurement, it became more likely that Zhyara was right.

“It’s not really a planet. It’s a cloud of planets.”

“Rubble,” the pilot said. “It’s my guess that the planet was happily orbiting along in what’s now the asteroid belt, and a large rogue object struck it, not hard enough to fuse with it or destroy it, but hard enough to knock it out of orbit and do a lot of damage to the surface, or maybe a moon or two.”

By the time they were above the cloud tops, they knew more. There were two larger bodies inside the cloud, and a collection of smaller ones. The larger bodies were both large enough to be spheres. One consisted mainly of ice, and liquid water underneath. The second body was a rocky planet with a semi-molten core. The gassy ‘atmosphere’ enveloped them both. The cloud was probably unstable over a long period of time, but for now, it was replenished by huge outgassing cryovolcanoes on the ice planet.

“Fly into it,” Zhyara said.

“What?” the pilot turned to him, shock on his face. “I can’t do that. We don’t know what—”

“I’ll do it.” Zhyara pushed himself up.

The crew didn’t question his commands. The pilot slid out of his seat, and Zhyara took the controls, guiding the craft ever closer to the mist. The blue light shone eerily on the crew’s faces, which were wide-eyed with fear.

Once or twice, Zhyara spotted two of them talking to each other, but he knew they wouldn’t challenge him.

Still…

“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “One time, long ago, I used to be a skim racer in the crater outside Athyl.”

“For real?” the pilot said.

“For real.” Now that he had started, he wanted to tell them everything. For years he had hidden his background, never wearing his clan designation, always deflecting questions about where he came from.

But he needed his wits to fly the craft safely.

Further and further down they went.

The vision dimmed and blotted with dense cloud. The temperature of the craft’s outside rose, and rose. The extremities glowed orange. Updrafts and eddies buffeted the craft. Speed dropped.

Zhyara went through the motions. Slow down. Ease the craft onto the mist. The technician read out atmospheric measurements. Hydrogen, mostly. Something small thunked into the hull.

Several of his crew took sharp intakes of breath. Zhyara was sweating. It was like skim racing, but it was not. Yet, this was just the type of place where Ezmi people from the Outer Circle would have gone. Surely one of them would have been a skim racer.

He tried to un-cramp his hands, hoping they would hit nothing larger. The scans showed clear, but he wasn’t sure how well the results held up in this murk.

Then they were through the clouds. The mist cleared abruptly, the sky turned purple, and before them, in the feeble glow that filtered through the clouds, floated a planet and its huge white moon, orbiting each other in a tight circuit, inside the gas cloud. The moon showed as a crescent, and a huge glittering gout of gas spewed from its limb.

“Will you look at that,” the pilot muttered. “How in all the heavens is this possible?”

A few moments of stunned silence followed.

“I’m still getting heat readings on the hull,” a technician said.

“We’re in a bubble of air,” Zhyara said.

The tension was replaced by a long silence. The crew took measurements. Data readings scrolled over screens. Zhyara just observed the immense beauty of the strange world. Volcanic, rich in metals, clothed in velvet-black. There was water and breathable air, even signs of life, although how it survived in the dark was a mystery to him.

“This world couldn’t possibly be stable,” Chiaru said.

Zhyara agreed. “No, over thousands of years, it wouldn’t be.”

On the timeframe of a human life, however, it was stable. Surely this was where the workers had gone.

But scan after scan for radio or electric signals turned up negative.

Eventually, the technician shook his head. “It’s an interesting system, but there’s no one here.”

“Wait,” another technician said. “I’m getting a reading.”

A tense silence while he located the signal.

“It’s coming from outside.”

Zhyara flooded with relief. That was why they had found no one. The harvesting rigs were slow boats, and had taken much longer to reach the cloud planet.

“Let’s go to meet them.”

When Zhyara finally stepped off the train at the station in Third Circle, the day was turning golden. This was the time when the sky turned from white to deep orange and lengthening shadows grew distinct double edges, which were never as obvious at midday, when both Yaza and Beniz were overhead.

The plaza outside the station bustled with the usual busyness of people shopping and eating out and relaxing in general. There were no fights, and no beggars, and no rigs in the street, or mushroom-sellers. And no smell.

Home. And yet, it felt like something inside him had broken.

And he still didn’t understand why his brother would want to give all this up to join the zeyshi and starve in a hole in the ground. Xiya was good with engines. He was smart. The Third Circle Aircraft engineering Cooperative was always looking for good people. If he, boring, shy Zhyara, could do all the required exams to move from Eighth Circle to Third, then his brother could certainly do it. He wouldn’t even have the disadvantage of being the oldest in his classes, and if he took off his Ezmi earrings, no one would ask any questions about his origin.

He just did not understand it.

Many people had stopped work for the day, but he went to the Mining Exploration Board office, which was in the Third Circle’s vibrant commercial sector that surrounded the airport. Aircraft whizzed overhead, smaller local rigs and the occasional larger one from elsewhere on Asto, like the Beratha, or from Ceren, in-system, or other Coldi-colonised worlds.

In the huge hall of the Mining Exploration Board building, communicators sat in the glass-walled hub. A huge holographic in the centre of the room showed the locations of the Board’s stations, mostly supporting nearby planet-based colonies and their fledgling industries. Anpar lines flickered over the three-dimensional image, whenever communication took place.

Zhyara stopped briefly to watch. If only his brother could see the beauty of this, he would certainly want to come. But, without an Eighth Circle permit, Xiya wouldn’t even be allowed on the train. Why didn’t he want to try the exams?

Why, why, why?

He turned away and went into one of the cubicles that surrounded the central hub. Here, his local superior was at work. Valayu sat in her console, surrounded by images of cut-open technical drawings. She gave a brief greeting without looking up–as superior, she didn’t have to–and continued drawing on the transparent pad before her.

Zhyara took it as a sign that it was all right to sit next to her. He did and she said nothing for what seemed like a long time. The stylus tracked over the soft pad and glowed faintly where it touched the pad. Lines appeared on the holo-screen facing her, in three-dimensional projection. The soft glow lit her face.

“I’m sorry for being absent,” he said after a long silence.

‘It’s all right. It will be sorted out, one way or another.”

He wanted to say, Like how? but anything he said might bring his brother in danger. He wasn’t sure how much Chiaru had told her about his family, although most of it, she could probably guess.

He studied the hollow curved tube with supportive struts that she was drawing. Realisation clicked. “I didn’t know we were planning a new station.”

“At Beynazha. Has to be operational within a year.” Click, click, click went the stylus and a series of doors sprang into being.

Beynazha was where Zhyara had found the previous destroyed station. Memories of empty, airless passages sent a chill over his back. The station walls had peeled open like a fruit, all air and inhabitants sucked into the void.

“Is that wise? We don’t know yet why the station was destroyed, and now we have another station failing to report.”

“We must go on. We won’t give in to this alien menace. Now if we could get the personnel side sorted out…”

“Is there a problem?”

Click, click, click. Another wall with doors appeared. “Not my department, but yes, there is. We distributed tickets, but it appears that a young and charismatic zeyshi leader is convincing the Outer Circle residents that fleeing to the zeyshi is a better option.”

“That sounds… unwise.” Zhyara didn’t know what he was saying; his heart beat so furiously. Xiya had received a ticket. Both he and the young man who had told him off at his mother’s house had the strong hormonal scents of leaders. Xiya, who knew places to hide. What if his brother had already joined the zeyshi?

“Unwise, as you say. The only thing fleeing to the zeyshi will achieve is bringing forward the time of the next raid.”

Zhyara’s first thought was, No, Xiya! Raids meant huge numbers of troops coming into the Outer Circle and desert to weed out, gas, poison and destroy the zeyshi warrens, ostensibly to ‘clean up’ the Outer Circle. Raids meant bodies lined up in the street for all to see. Raids meant young men and women herded and taken away to jails and labour camps. His second thought was Of course, that’s why there were so many guards watching the race.

Zhyara and his crew found the source of the signal: an asteroid mining vessel, the hull battered and scratched, as these ships often tended to be. It was moving on a steady in-system pace, but on a vector directed out of the system, not aimed at the cloud planet. As with a ship that would not want to be seen, it projected no broadbeam signals, just the steady blip of the beacon, which couldn’t be turned off. Where did these people think they were going?

The pilot’s simple hail returned nothing but the most basic handshake command, nothing that required active pilot input. When they came close enough for a visual scan, it turned out that the ship’s lights were off. Worse, there was not much in the way of a heat signature.

Zhyara and his team suited up for vacuum. He chose to bring Chiaru and one of her immediate seconds. They opened the air lock and pilot matched speeds exactly with the mining vessel. As team leader, Zhyara went first. He unlocked his tether and jumped through open space to the miner’s emergency hatch.

This was why a leader needed reliable staff. He could only do these tricks of bravado because there was a tight team behind him, people bound to him through hormonal instinct, people he would trust with his life.

The emergency hatch’s outside control was dead, the lights dark and the panel unresponsive. He banged on the hatch, dread rising in him. By the time the rest of his team had arrived, there had been no reply from inside the ship, so Chiaru attached her power module to the control panel to force the door open.

This was the point at which the ship’s air lock should appear as a brightly-lit cubicle in the darkness of space. But when the hatch opened, it was dark inside.

“The ship’s dead,” Chiaru said, voicing what everyone already knew.

A victim of alien attacks? Zhyara had seen no damage to the hull.

They cycled through the air lock, the three of them crammed into the tiny cubicle.

As soon as the inner door opened, the environment scans on Zhyara’s suit blinked warnings. Low oxygen, high methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide. Cabin pressure higher than normal. And it was damn dark in here. The glow from Zhyara’s helmet light formed a beam of illuminated fine material—dust or haze he couldn’t tell. His analyser indicated that organic content was high. There was no one on the vessel’s bridge, and no one in the flight crew rooms. Zhayra floated from one compartment to another, finding nothing out of place, nothing that indicated what had happened or where the crew were hiding—

“Zhyara, please, come here!” Chiaru’s voice in his helmet comm had an oddly strangled quality to it.

In a moment of panic, Zhyara saw images of her being attacked by her technician in the way she had attacked him the day before yesterday. How dumb, he should have warned his team about this; he should have told them what happened.

Heart thudding, Zhyara pulled himself to the rear of the vessel, to the cargo hold, where the beam of his helmet light cut through a haze of thickening air. He grabbed the opposite door frame and shone his light in.

Chiaru was at the entrance of the cargo hold, her technician just inside the room. His first thought was one of relief that neither of them had attacked the other, but then he realised what the dark floating shapes in the room were.

Bodies floated in the cavernous space, most without suits, their skin and clothes horribly burned and blackened. Faces unrecognisable with black decay. Hands and feet bloated, skin split open. Foul globs of fluid floated in the air.

“How many?” Zhyara asked, feeling sick. As he turned to Chiaru, he noticed that her suit was coated with brown gunk.

“More than four hundred.”

“A flying sarcophagus,” Zhyara said, holding a hand over his faceplate of his helmet and imagined an unpleasant smell creeping into his mask, even though the suit was airtight and that was impossible. “This ship can’t carry this many passengers.” Overcrowding? Had they fled the station? Had they picked up refugees from another ship? He couldn’t see how they’d cram this many live people aboard a ship this size. And that gave him an awful thought. “How long have they been dead?”

“The ship log says the ship has been cold for more than fifteen days.”

Zhyara did a quick calculation. “That means…”

Chiaru completed, “They were killed inside the station.”

Third Circle was where Zhyara belonged. He had known that the moment he stepped off the train and smelled the faint scent of ozone that always hung around the airport. Now, on his way home, he saw it in the faces of the people, many of whom he knew. He could feel the power of the loyalty networks, and knew that it was right. The sight of the elegant building that held his apartment made his heart beat faster.

He almost ran across the street, and jiggled his hands in his pockets while the lift took him up to the top floor.

He went out onto the gallery, where the view over the city hit him more forcefully than usual. In the distance, behind the pronged landing platforms of the airport, he could see the white spires of the Inner Circle palaces. There was the seat of the Coordinator, to who all networks came back. Seveyu Palayi watched over all her little workers like a matron. She sat at her command post, enhanced with all technology to keep up with the demands of all het loyalty networks. Zhyara had three: his station network, his Mining Board network and his network of friends. Most people also had a family network. The Coordinator had hundreds. She was at the top of the Army, of the local government, of the wellbeing of her citizens, of the education, the guards. Every one of those networks would ask her for advice, and she would answer and delegate, often to more than one person at the same time, using three feeders at the same time to keep in contact with everyone. All her networks inter-linked and because of this, she stopped arguments before they had a chance to fracture society.

He had seen her in the flesh once, a woman not so much older than he was, carefully selected by the tests to be able to withstand the demands of so many networks. She had fought her rivals–fought and killed, as those at the very top often did, and every time Zhyara heard her name, he felt the need to look down and take the subservient pose. Ever since he came to Third Circle, it had been a comfort to him to know that someone at the top was in control and would decide to do what was best for the people.

And now he wondered how it could be that such a kind system was so badly failing a group of people he cared about.

When he opened the door to the apartment, there were fast footsteps in the hall and the next thing, Menya closed him in his arms.

Zhyara hugged his social zhyama back, and for a long time, neither of them said anything; they just breathed each other’s familiar scent. Then Zhyara went to change out of his uniform–the desert stains would need to be washed out–and returned to the living room in just a pair of shorts, where Menya had poured drinks. They sat on the couch facing the window, staring at the view.

“There was trouble,” Menya said. It was not a question.

“Xiya,” Zhyara said, and that was enough of a reply. Menya knew everything about Zhyara’s family. After a silence he added, “It’s worse than usual. I’m afraid he’s about to join the zeyshi, and there is going to be another raid.”

Menya tightened his grip on Zhyara’s hand.

Zhyara faced him. Menya’s earrings glittered in the golden light reflecting off the buildings of the city. Earrings with red stones.

“I love my family,” Zhyara said, his voice choking. “I just don’t know what I can do to help them.”

No longer just to help them overcome poverty, but to help them survive.

“And I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’m afraid that the raid will happen before I come back. Xiya has received a ticket, and he’ll be one of the ones sent to Beynazha station for sure… only to be killed by whatever is out there killing them. I’m out of ideas. Please help me.”

Menya said nothing. From previous discussions with him, Zhyara knew that people who had grown up inside the city, with proper networks, didn’t feel any responsibility towards those of the Outer Circle or the zeyshi. According to them, the Outer Circle people were never told that they could not do the Eighth Circle exams. In fact, the opposite was true. Industries always needed reliable workers. Organisations like the Mining Exploration Board paid for teachers in Eighth Circle. Many of them were even free. A steady stream of people, like Zhyara, did take the opportunity they offered. The ones who didn’t… well, it was their choice, wasn’t it?

But like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. Menya understood that. And if Zhyara had brought a tiny bit of understanding into an elite family like Menya’s, he felt he had achieved something.

Menya said, “You could, of course, warn them that a raid is about to happen.”

“I can’t go back. They’d kill me.”

“No, but I can.”

Zhyara met Menya’s dark eyes, the irises with tiny flecks of bronze, matching his earrings. He felt overwhelmed with emotion. He knew why he had a zhayma and why Menya did everything for him, and he would do everything for Menya. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in any danger.”

Menya shrugged. “There is no danger. I’m going to Eight Circle to pick up my rig from the workshop. I believe you know the man Vashya who runs the place. He’s talkative, and I might casually drop something about raids.”

Zhyara strode into the station’s control room at a pace just short of running. The few workers looked up, must have understood why he was here, tried to get up, but acted too slow.

Zhyara was already at Desya’s chair.

“Hey, what—” Desya’s eyes widened.

He grabbed Desya by the elbow and hissed in his ear, “What happened? Either you tell me the truth or we fight. In either case, I get to know.”

His fingers dug into thin flesh and twisted Desya to face him. Chiaru and Eyana had their weapons out in no time, but Desya didn’t resist. He hung limp in Zhyara’s grip.

“What is going on? There are thousands of bodies out there. You killed the workers and stowed their bodies into the cargo vessels and hoped we wouldn’t find them. You lied about attackers. There were never any attackers.”

“We had no choice! There was no one who could give us assistance. The workers had already killed everyone in the middle command. They had no ties of loyalty to anyone and there was no other way we could restore order—ow—I’m telling you the truth.”

But Zhyara heard nothing. “Those people were from my clan.” He dragged Desya from his chair by his collar. A few of the station workers rushed forward, but his seconds had their weapons out. There were flashes when weapons fired.

“They were people with families, people with lovers and brothers and sisters.” With every word, he lifted Desya up and slammed him into the control panel.

“Stop it, stop!” Someone, Chiaru he thought, pulled him back, leaving Desya on top of the panel, where lights flashed their protest. His nose was bleeding.

“You’ll kill him, and then we have no one to bring to court.”

Zhyara struggled through the red haze of hormonal anger. He took a long time to calm down. Desya’s breath rasped in the tense silence. A scent of ozone hung in the air, from discharged guns.

With great effort, Zhyara got control of his voice. “I’m guessing the trouble started when some of the Ezmi would not follow station orders?”

Desya nodded.

“I’m guessing that there was a breakdown of the loyalty chains within the station. A section of the population was never ready to conform to orders, most of those of the Ezmi clan.”

“They were useless zeyshi.”

Zhyara slapped him. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Desya wiped his cheek, but for once, his look was defiant. “They have no loyalty networks. Oh yes, some of them said that they did, but they were lying.”

Zhyara heard the voice of a charismatic zeyshi leader, Yes, you would have killed him. And he understood.

The zeyshi and many in the Outer Circle had no loyalty networks.

They had no need for them.

No need for leaders who took the job for life.

No need to fight to establish rank.

Zhyara took a deep breath and continued in a low voice, “They did not disobey because they don’t want to fit in, but because they can’t. Their instincts do not fire the way ours do; they are born that way and it seems that the Ezmi clan is heavily burdened with these people. Our instincts are programmed to see them as enemies. I know. I am Ezmi. I am not one of the instinct-deprived people, but once I almost killed my brother, who is.”

Why had no one realised that before?

He dissociated himself from the command hub, and everyone gathered there, and let his people deal with Desya. Anger and grief raged inside him. He should have seen this before, when it had stared him in the face.

He went to stand at the hub, staring at the three-dimensional display of the strange solar system.

They would have to take the remaining station workers to Athyl under arrest. He would have to put the station in sleep mode. Power down auxiliary processes, depressurise everything except the docks. The technicians would already have installed routines that would fire the station’s jets whenever it threatened to lose orbit. In time, there would be a new crew, and new workers… They were likely to be more ticket holders who only pretended to have loyalty networks, and the whole damn thing would start all over again.

It was wrong.

He looked over his shoulder.

Chiaru and Eyana were taking the station survivors’ details and arranging for them to be taken to the ship. It became more and more quiet in the command room.

Zhyara made the only decision that felt right to make.

Surrounded by silence, Zhyara called the station maintenance routine on the screen and turned off the orbit maintenance routines. Then he turned off the station’s beacon. With an unstable orbit like this, the station would have crashed into the sun by the time the Mining Board found it again. Then he focused on the cloud planet, and called up the coordinates. He wrote them on the waxy paper that held the dead worker’s ticket. At some time in the future, an astronomer might be interested in this strange planet.

Then he rose, and made his way to the ship where Desya and the others had been confined to cabins with whomever they were least likely to kill.

Chiaru and everyone else sat around the pilot and it was a while before Zhyara realised that something was off.

“Anything going on?” Zhyara asked, still feeling dazed.

The pilot frowned. “Listen to this.” He took off his earpiece and turned up the volume on the communication channel. It was a constantly repeating message. To all approaching ships. Parts of Third Circle airport are compromised. Do not use the western side of the airport, from prongs 3-576 ranging to 4-875. Doing so is likely to land you in rebel hands. Repeat…

Zhyara stared at the pilot, feeling stupid. “Rebels? Who are they?”

“It seemed that First Circle ordered a raid on the zeyshi, but they were prepared and set an ambush. They took the guards’ vehicles and flew into the city, and occupied a number of platforms.”

And just who had notified the zeyshi of the impending raid? He grew cold. “Show me.”

He slid behind the control and scanned through the news headlines.

Emergency situation.

Airport authority demands army action.

We cannot indiscriminately charge against our own people, administrator says.

…the young charismatic leader has struck a chord with many of the disenfranchised in the poorer parts of the city…

They are poor by their own choice, administrator says.

Zhyara raised his hand to cover his mouth. No, Xiya. When he had asked Menya to warn the zeyshi he’d merely wanted to save his brother’s life. He hadn’t thought he would start a rebellion.

By the time Zhyara and his group returned to Athyl, the occupation of the airport had developed into a siege, with part of the airport still functioning, busy and cramped, and another part sectioned off, as if it no longer existed. No one spoke about it, not even Zhyara’s boss to whom he delivered the traumatised station workers.

The Mining Exploration Board was in damage control mode, with outrage from the Outer Circle about the lost lives, and on top of that, Zhiminda station no longer sent in its automated beeps.

“We’ll lose the station,” Valayu said, seated in her console with the design of the new station in front.

Zhyara nodded. Yes, they would lose the station. A fitting end for a place where so many had died.

“Maybe we need to reconsider how we recruit staff for these projects,” he said, his voice measured and careful. “I wouldn’t mind working with some medical people to determine the pathology of this… defect of large parts of my clanspeople.”

She gave him a sharp look, and then her expression softened, as if she realised that his family would be affected. She sighed. “Yes.” And a while later again, “Yes.”

“Meanwhile, what is First Circle going to do about the zeyshi occupation?”

“What they usually do: they’ll ignore the issue until the occupiers decide to leave.” Did he detect some anger? She continued, “It’s a disgrace, and reflects poorly on the guards, but no one can talk to these people. There are no networks. And evicting them forcefully will make many other people angry. So they just wait until the zeyshi get hungry and leave of their own accord. It’s still a disgrace, and will not reflect well on them either. The next raid will be faster, and more vicious.”

That was right. Fighting someone was easy if there were no loyalty ties. But neither the zeyshi nor the Outer Circle was completely free of those ties, were they? There had to be hundreds of people like him, cut away from their families by this genetic flaw. Those people would not agree that there were no loyalty ties. The ties were one way, from Zhyara and others to their families, but they were present. And therefore, First Circle guards could not attack them where they were highly visible, but would have no qualms about attacking them in the desert where there were no witnesses.

He realised that Valayu was looking at him, probably expecting a further recommendation, or maybe a miracle solution. There wasn’t going to be one.

He shrugged. He’d better go back to Menya. A good cry, a bath and some action in the bedroom would make him feel better.

But wouldn’t help Xiya holed up at the airport.

Or his mother worried about her favourite son.

Or Vashya, whose business would be under strain if it became known that the warning had come through him.

As Zhyara rose from his chair, something crinkled in his pocket.

And he had an idea.

As soon as he left the building, he sent a message to Menya that he’d be a little while longer, and went to the airport.

Up on the third floor, he found the passage that led to platforms 3-566 to 3-600 barred by a couple of First Circle guards.

“Can’t go through here, Sir,” one man said after observing the proper greetings.

“I’ve been authorised to speak to the rebels.” When the guard raised his eyebrows, he added, “Xiya Ezmi is my brother.”

The guard’s face showed pity, but he let Zhyara through and he walked into the deserted corridor until he came to a closed gate, from where he could see the zeyshi camped out on the platform.

City people would see these young people as dirty, disgusting beggars, but to him, the figures in dust-stained shaykas with loose hair were familiar. He spotted a couple of familiar faces.

They sat in the shadow of a couple of larger troop-carrying craft that would belong to the First Circle guards. Craft with closed cabins that would be capable of reaching the anpar point. The zeyshi would have flown those craft here. Good.

Several of them, including Xiya, would be half-decent pilots. He wasn’t sure if they were up to the challenge he was going to give them, but he had to try.

He took the waxed paper from his pocket. He had nothing heavy to weigh it down except his timer. It was fairly new and had cost him a bundle–damn it–but it would be worth his brother’s freedom. He wrapped the paper around the device, and then yelled, “Oy!”

Several of the rebels looked in his direction.

He flung his missile over the fence. It bounced several times on the concrete. A young man ambled over to pick it up. He unfolded the paper, and then went to show it to his mates.

While Zhyara walked away, he retrieved his earrings from his front pocket and put them in. He went home, to his bath and Menya’s comforting arms.

They ate and drank and slept until late.

When Zhyara rose the next morning, he was not surprised to hear that the zeyshi had gone overnight, and had taken the First Circle ships.

No one knew where they had gone.

___
Copyright 2013 Patty Jansen

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. She has also sold fiction to genre magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Redstone SF and Aurealis. Her novels (available at ebook venues) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF), and Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (Icefire Trilogy) (dark fantasy). Her novel Ambassador will be published by Ticonderoga Publication in 2013. Patty is a member of SFWA, and the cooperative that makes up Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and she has also written non-fiction. Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at: http://pattyjansen.com/