Ginber 18, 000165
Hardi sighed softly. "Red, Robert?" she said into his ear. "Really?"
Robert's tone was offended as he slid a hand down the front of the shirt. "There's nothing wrong with red," he replied quietly. "It stands out." The shirt sealed down the front, and was striped with two bright tones of red. Hardi had to admit it was stylishly cut.
Hardi waved at the crowd around them. "Why would you want to stand out here? Do you want to draw attention?"
Roberts face fell as he considered her question, but he brightened again. "I'm going to be indoors the whole time I'm here. I won't be a visible target."
Hardi snuck a glance at Lucia, their Ming Ungian... Ungian... native guide. She was tall and willowy with stringy brown hair riddled with beads. The girl just kept her head bowed and waited patiently. She'd looked immediately at Robert's shirt when she met them, and had moved wordlessly to stand a couple of meters away.
"Move along!" a man shouted to the crowd. "Everybody, move along! You can't stay here." He repeated it in Ungian, a smoothly tripping language.
Lucia didn't budge.
"Move!" the voice roared. A few people shouted curses back at him. "You're all quarantined! We are not taking passengers! Go!"
Lucia stood still.
"Shouldn't we be moving, Miss Lucia?" Robert asked urgently.
Lucia looked up at him, her pale blue eyes meeting his green ones. "We will go when we go," she said coldly in a thick accent. Her dirt-smudged face was set.
Robert flinched back slightly, smiled fixed. "O-kay..."
Hardi glanced at Lucia to find Lucia waiting for her gaze. Hardi quirked an eyebrow and didn't look away.
Robert looked at both of them and cleared his throat nervously. "Ladies, I think the angry man wants us to go." He heaved up his bags.
Hardi blinked and counted his bags again. "How in the hell did you get an extra bag?" Hardi asked incredulously.
Robert shrugged expansively. "I... picked up a couple of things?"
"From where? Did you get the food dispensers to serve clothes?" she asked suspiciously.
Robert's smile was coy, and he looked over the crowd to find the nearest door. "Time to move along, I think," he said, heading through the crowd. Settling her one bag over her shoulders, Hardi waved Lucia ahead of her, then followed.
Ming Ung's station was nasty and smelly, the floors covered in dirty bootprints. "Great setup here," Hardi quipped to Lucia. "What's the funk?"
Lucia tossed her beaded hair over her shoulder and said, "You are an ignorant hulka. We have no running water." She pointed at a train of people across the room who were moving 750-gallon tanks from shuttles out of the station.
"Right," Hardi grunted and followed along silently. Ming Ung was a minor enough planet that their station was grounded, meaning they'd had to shuttle down from the Harris Kilter while it orbited above.
Robert got them out through the heavy metal doors and onto the lot outside, where transports were lined up. It was eerily quiet outside despite the people milling, and Hardi found herself hunching her shoulders and glancing up into the early morning's rich, red sky. Lucia was doing the same, and both looked away from each other when they caught the other looking.
"Where are we going, Miss Lucia?" Robert asked. He moved them out of the path of the doors and shifted his bags nervously.
"Still feeling safe?" Hardi muttered.
Robert's lips quirked ruefully. "I almost blend in with the sky," he murmured back.
Lucia scanned the transports and pointed silently at one in the middle of the pack. Nothing seemed remarkable about it, but she headed toward it with a ground-eating stride and climbed into the back with a swing from the overhead bar. Robert and Hardi hurried to get their bags in as Lucia gave the driver directions in a quiet voice. Four other people were already crammed into the transport that could maybe hold five comfortably.
They'd barely gotten the door closed before they were up and moving, hovering just a few centimeters above the ground and taking sharp curves to get out of the station lot.
Hardi, Robert, and Lucia were silent and tense in the back. Robert sat with his head against the headrest and eyes closed, ignoring the other occupants' jibes at his shirt. Lucia looked out the tinted windows impassively. Hardi watched Lucia.
Slowly, the city of Jai came into view. Hardi's breath caught at the destruction: three buildings collapsed, others nearby filthy with dust and ash.
The transport stopped on a street corner at the edge of what could be called downtown. Lucia caught her eye and jerked her head toward the open door. Hardi grabbed her bag and tapped Robert awake. He scrambled after them. The transport was gone before Hardi could get her bearings.
"Where are we?" she asked Lucia.
"Where's the CIC?" Robert asked, looking around. "This isn't where we're supposed to be."
Lucia pointed toward the center of downtown. "Transports are not allowed in. We walk."
Hardi sighed and waved Lucia ahead of her again. "Lead the way, sweet guide."
Lucia gave her a smirk. "You do not trust me behind you."
"You're damn right," Hardi replied. "It's lousy to have to be downwind, though."
Lucia's eyes narrowed, but Robert cut in quickly. "Let's go, ladies. We're all probably tired, hungry, and thirsty," he said. "And I'll never wear red again," he muttered.
The streets here were as quiet as the outside of the station had been, and all the more troubling for the buildings blocking visibility of the skies.
"Are you afraid you will be here for another attack?" Lucia asked in a deceptively sweet voice as they started walking.
With forced cheer, Robert said, "We're just afraid we won't be able to help you folks out if we never get to CIC."
"'Help us folks out'?" Lucia asked cuttingly. "We are not children, Dr. Yuk. We don't need your pity or your charity."
Robert raised his hands placatingly. "I didn't mean to sound condescending. I just meant that we want to hurry, is all."
"You bring your men-led women here," Lucia continued, "have no care for the cycles of life and the world, and claim to be here to help us. You could not even stop the second attack."
Robert just looked at her, not saying anything. The officers on the Harris Kilter had said only that the attacking ships had managed to slip under their sensors.
"What 'cycles of life'?" Hardi asked.
"I mean you women who muck with their bodies' rhythms," she said, pointing at Hardi, "who treat our Witches as doddering old people, and who do not understand the Ebb and Flow."
"I thought the 'witches' thing was just bigoted talk," Hardi said. They purportedly had powers ranging from being able to move things with their mind to causing certain weather. They also supposedly engaged in the ritual sacrifice of animals and children.
Lucia scoffed, but didn't elaborate. They walked in silence for a while, Hardi lost in thought.
"What do witches do?" Hardi asked quietly. Robert gave her a sharp look.
Lucia face was serious as she said, "We don't talk about them with outsiders."
"Of course," Hardi said with an eye roll.
The streets were busier as they got closer to the CIC, but everyone was still quiet, still subdued. There were very few surface vehicles and only military aerial ones, but the streets were still packed. Military officers in face masks dispensed water on street corners, and groups of people in biohazard suits headed toward the destruction.
"Your CIC is there," Lucia said, pointing to a low-slung building. "Your people are there. Stay with them."
"What if we want to venture out?" Hardi challenged.
That earned her a cold glare. "Do not."
Robert glanced at Hardi, then said to Lucia, "But if we did, we'd need a guide."
Lucia looked at him incredulously. "Surely you do not want me for a guide?"
He grinned and shrugged. "Why not? You're the nicest local we've met, and you know your way around." When Lucia opened her mouth to respond, he rushed and said, "Listen, we won't bother you much. We just want to have the option, is all. We haven't hurt anything so far, have we?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "It is simply a matter of time," she said. She looked at him, then Hardi. "Fine." She handed him a card. "My comm number is there. Do not bother me." She turned and walked back where they came from.
"Thanks!" Robert whispered loudly. A few people looked at him, and he waved at them with a sheepish smile.
"Is there anyone you can't charm?" Hardi asked Robert as she turned back toward the CIC and started walking.
"I don't know..." he mused. "I'm not completely sure I've succeeded with you yet," he said with a wink.
Hardi huffed a laugh.
"Cleanup?" Robert asked skeptically.
"Yes, Robert," Hardi replied. "Cleanup." It was the sixth time he'd asked. She closed the door to their room behind her and made sure it was locked. Robert would hate if any of his bags came up missing.
"But... we're consultants!" he exclaimed. "We came here for research, and to help."
"This is help," Hardi said, although she was disappointed, too. "Plus," she continued, "they've probably got a lot of elbows in the offices and labs. We'll do what we can remotely." She readjusted her biohazard suit to be a little more comfortable. The only good thing about the suits was that they covered Robert's bright red shirt.
"But... how do you have a doctor, a real doctor —" he started.
Hardi interjected, "The jury's still out on that."
"— right in the palm of your hand, and then send him off to collect trash?" Robert shook his helmeted head. "I'm being underutilized."
"Honestly, Robert, you act like you've never had to buck for a place on a team," she said.
He looked at her blankly. "I'm a doctor. In a medical crisis."
"Touché." She picked up the pace a bit. "The sooner we start, the sooner we'll be done."
"True," Robert said glumly, but he brightened again almost immediately. "I can gather information on people's symptoms. First-hand data. Maybe I'll see something the lab doctors haven't yet."
"That's the spirit," Hardi said.
The disaster site was a mess, and was swarming with cleaning crews like Hardi and Robert. Everyone was covered in a fine layer of dust. Hardi mistook farther off figures for rubble until they moved. She couldn't tell who was native and who was off-worlder in the suits.
"Why are there so many of us here?" Hardi asked as she and Robert starting moving rubble.
Robert raised his head and looked around. The orange light of the afternoon sun glinted off his faceplate, making Hardi squint.
"You're right," Robert said. "There's something fishy going on here."
Hardi stopped lugging and stood still for a moment, thinking. She took a deep breath, and said, "Robert, get Lucia on the comm. We need to talk to her people."
"Hardi, I'm not sure this is a good idea," he said. He didn't pull out his comm.
Her mouth tightened. "You're right. Let's get out of center city, then call her." She found where she thought they'd come from that morning and pointed. "Out that way, right? Let's go."
Robert followed her reluctantly. "We were given an assignment, Hardi. This can't go over well."
"They won't even miss us. Besides, you were just bitching about being 'underutilized'," she said. "Get yourself utilized."
Robert muttered to himself as they walked, but didn't actively protest.
"We're fine out among the locals so long as we don't drink the water, right?" Hardi asked, carefully taking off her helmet.
"Oh, sure," Robert said. "But put that helmet back on. They were idiots for not suiting us up at the station." Hardi hastily put it back on as Robert dug out his comm and put in the call to Lucia. He spoke quietly for a minute, and chuckled a few times. Hardi left him to it.
"She'll meet us back on that corner," Robert told Hardi.
They waited on the corner for 30 nervous minutes before a small ground vehicle pulled up. The driver's window opened and Lucia looked at them impassively.
"You rang, off-worlders?" she drolled.
Robert breathed out in relief, and tugged Hardi toward the opening door of the vehicle. The knowing look in Lucia's eyes when Hardi looked at her made her shiver, although she couldn't pin why.
"Where am I taking you?" Lucia asked as she circled the vehicle around. "Am I showing you our small and uninteresting towns? Our dusty fields?"
"You're taking us to a Witch," Hardi said simply.
Robert winced. Lucia stopped the vehicle sharply.
"I am not," she said.
"You are," Hardi insisted. "I must see one. Don't you think something shady's going on here?"
"Why do you think a Witch would have any answers to our planetary problems?" Lucia fired back.
Hardi shook off the hand Robert put on her arm. "Didn't you yourself say they aren't just doddering old people? Seems like they might have some wisdom we could use."
"No," Lucia said firmly.
"Look," Hardi pleaded, "just let me talk to one over the comms."
Lucia growled softly and pulled off the road. She angrily punched a code into the vehicle's comm.
"You should really give me warning about these sorts of things," Robert breathed in Hardi's ear. "I could have softened her up." Hardi swatted him away.
Lucia spoke quietly with a middle-aged woman on-screen. The woman was shaking her head, and Lucia was shrugging and obviously explaining. Finally, she turned to Hardi.
"She will not talk to you," Lucia said, "but you can talk to her assistant."
Hardi leaned forward and said, "Hello, ma'am. I'm Harding Rhodes."
The woman's stare was suspicious as she asked haltingly in English, "What do you want?"
"I have a problem," Hardi said, "and it may be related to what's going on here."
"Hardi —" Robert said warningly.
"Hush," Hardi hissed over her shoulder. She turned back to the assistant, who was looking even more wary. "Do your Witches ever... see things? Things that are happening somewhere else, to other people?"
The woman's face went still, but she said only, "What does this have to do with the attack on our world?"
"I don't know," Hardi said, "but I saw something, even when I was off-world. Something during the attack."
The woman stared at Hardi for a moment. "She will not see you. Good day." She closed the channel.
"Fuck," Hardi swore softly.
Lucia was sizing up Hardi. "You did not say you were crazy."
"I'm not," Hardi said as she sat back next to Robert. She looked at him to find his worried eyes fixed on her. She sighed and turned back to Lucia. "Take us back, I guess."