If it were a man's first time on a new world, he would have sword to have seen the most magnificent sight in all the universe. But Ferraro was not a man new to new worlds, he had traversed Martian-like landscapes only barely conducive to the most basic life, strolled in environment suits across tracts of atmosphere-less deserts where even during the day the stars shown in the clear pitch-black of an alien day-night. He had stood in landscapes thick with sulfur and carbon monoxide, the air and landscape tinged with thick sickly yellow smog that blanketed the world from view as he collected low-level atmospheric readings. He had ventured out onto worlds so lushly covered with unchecked foliage that he barely made it twenty-steps from the landing until he had to stop and give up lest he was entangled in vines strong as steel and seemingly alive and aware of the potential threat that was him. He had almost died, he had been lifted skywards on worlds of low gravity and upon the gust of a suddenly bursting geyser of gas and sediment. In one case, he had completed an entire orbit of an asteroid-sized moon; hell as a prank he was tossed into orbit around Phobos as a hazing into Henri's crew.
But to say that at the least, sitting parked atop one of the last sandstone spires at the edge of two vast biomes was not a breathtaking experience would have been an understatement; though to claim it was the best available view was infantile in the lack of understanding the great vastness of space itself. Sitting perched on the roof of his heavy and burdened jeep and looking down across a great red savanna with immense moving herds of alien wild-life and its large coral masses looming above all as the sun began to set in the distant horizon was an experience ranking high in the adventurer's mind. Behind him, the mass of sandstone hoodoos and twisting gulleys between lonely islands of stone and sand leading into a great flat mesa that stretched infinitely beyond, the yellow and amber of the trackless upland desert glowing a fierce glow in the setting sun as the prairies opposite glowed with intense fire that rolled over great gentle hills.
He sat with a paper tablet on one knee, idly scratching out a sketch of the scene with pencils of only three colors: red, brown, and light blue. In the other he balanced his computer tablet, flipping idly through Pike's old saved data; much of it images and biological records of the alien life he had seen and eaten. Comparing the images of alien and brightly colored avians of a distant jungle world and the muted lizard-like ones that sat perched just a foot away eyeing Ferrarro with deep, dark eyes set behind long downward curving peaks he remembered that once Pike had said he, “Was like the Darwin of space.”
It was followed by a parable that like himself, Darwin in his time not only recorded the new life he encountered on his voyages aboard The Beagle, but also ate many of the specimens he came across. There was no doubt with how curious unafraid these creatures were of the otherwise and so far unthreatening Ferraro. But he could tell that their lack of fear was more an abundance of anxious curiosity and wonder, they didn't fly away because they didn't know if they should; and Ferraro didn't want to test their limits.
After a while of this, Ferraro brushed aside the old Pike data and turned to the tablet's radio tuner. There were others on this planet, and perhaps he surmised that cross-job communications would begin and that he might listen into the conversations. He might perhaps approach either of them for free lance surveyor work, he came with his own equipment. He had thought about it on the journey, but then the fear of being outed and returned back to Earth as an escaped person of interest had forced him to keep himself isolated out of fear; he had only spoken to and interacted with those that were absolutely necessary. But he was on this new-world now, no one could send him back to Earth.
On the airbands he only got garbled static, and some barely intelligible signals. He took it that the garbled data that came through certainly suggested that perhaps he was near to someone, or it would be communications between the main freighter and the ongoing operations; he figured dropships would continue coming down for some time as the start ups continued to trickle down from above. But he also remembered the planet's ionosphere was weak, or negligibly existent. Should that be the case, was it just another frequency of inference or some of it blown out the rain through interaction with the ions. He had no way to test of confirm wither way, even with digital enhancement of signals so he checked it off as a hypothesis.
Still, he figured he would check the alternative and jumping down from the hood – to the great startling of the local avian-life which screeched and squalled in surprise at Ferraro's sudden movement – he fished through the incalculable odds and ends he had lifted along with him and came out with a single naked chord with an adapted to his tablet. He plugged it in, and let the other end lay haphazardly on the ground and scanned the bandwidth.
But that he guessed was par the course. Things were as they were just beginning and not only would no one be drilling yet but they would have established no ground-wave communication. He could have kicked himself for thinking so, but thought that it was at least good to check, even if a quick scan. So he wound the cable in his hands, unplugged it, and tossed it aside.
“So what the hell is going on?” Mursaki nearly shouted, her frail high-pitched voice echoing gratingly in the otherwise private booth in one of the several on-station diners and restaurants mid-station. Ferran flew nervously through headlines on his tablet computer searching frenetically to any story that looked to begin the narrative over the period they were gone. He could feel a cold sweat pooling under his brow.
Among the crew, each of them had at their side – on in white knuckled hands – a glass of beer. A pitcher had been set in the middle of the table as they nervously chattered among themselves in terrified whispers. What had happened? Who was the Federation? To Ferran, headlines and article clippings sped by as fast as he could swipe.
“Federation Office of Economy reveals plans to deregulate!”
“Federation Department of Security and Asset Management to crack down on Antistate Terrorism!”
There was a creeping coldness in the air and an isolation all about. Despite the station now acting and appearing far busier, all of it felt alien to the surveyors. The station now was home to more than the space freighter crews, families on vacation or otherwise headed out to see the colonized worlds, or to work. There were a lot more suits. A lot more tightly-cut hairdos. More clean and pampered faces. Fake smiles, and shark eyes among the seas. To them, it didn't feel like Earth anymore, it didn't feel like the world they knew.
“Have you gotten anything?” Heinrick asked meekly, his voice broken by a strong Bavarian accent.
“I- I think.” Ferran concluded, coming to an old article. But as he read it, something felt off. Odd about the wording.
“Inter governmental changeover in effect as of last Tuesday results in the purging of nearly twenty-thousand ineffectual individuals. Following last Wednesday's protest by energy ministers over shortages in power supply, General Martin Ardolla has stepped in with sanction from Justice Department to purge and seize the assets of a long list of ineffectual members. The UN delegation meeting scheduled for later this month has been put on indefinite hold as ordered by the warrant.” Ferraro read.
“”This is a great leap forward.” Adam Sangler of InterStar Energy solutions said, “We can finally move ahead.” Ferraro continued, his tone began to stress and strain as he went, “There is wide praise from the private sector, which is anticipating the end to ineffectual government.
“Following minor outcry from critics, Ardolla has announced he will permit a snap election in the next couple of months to replace the relieved deputies. Ardolla has also announced the formation of the Federation Party, and is sure he and like-minded individuals seeking progress and reform will follow suit. When asked for a electoral position for the Federation Party Ardolla's office responded, “The Federation Party stands for security, a solid economy, and stability moving ahead into the future; to abandon to instability and uncertainty of the present times.””
“What the fucking hell does that mean?” Pike asked, agape. He took a heavy swig of his beer, and slammed a glass now half-empty onto the table, “Instability and uncertainty? I'd say we were very stable, and fair! What's this huff about security?”
Ferror shrugged. He too couldn't quite baffle what the news report had said. By all means, he believed they had all of what was being promised already. Besides the fuel crisis, he was sure that shortly that would be resolved. But he was scratching his head at that. “What happened then during those snap elections?” Henri asked, “Federation Party won didn't they?”
It didn't take Ferraro very long to confirm it. He scrolled a few months in advance and read the article out to them. Evidently the Federation Party won with a 90% super majority. The last ten percent had been arrested on charges of treason following rapidly made connections to the attempted sabotage or destruction of the UNS Acadia battle freighter in the area of Pluto's orbit.
“But, why though? Surely there had to be someone contesting it.” Pike said.
“That's the thing,” Ferraro replied, shaking his head, “I'm trying to find anything on rival political organizations and I can't find it. It basically just skips straight to election day.”
“There couldn't have been a blackout, could there?” Mursaki asked.
“Try the dark net, can you get on it?” Heinrick suggested.
“That's what I've been trying on the side,” Ferraro told him, “But somehow that's even blocked, or shut down.”
“Fucking hell.” Pike grumbled
A steady wind began to blow dry across Ember as the sun began to set, basking the world in an even deeper and fiercer reddish-orange that turned to purple than the deep hazy blue of night. Having surrendered the highlands to avoid being swept up by any unknown weather patterns Ferarro turned back into the valleys and gullets and found a small half-cave at the base of one of the many millions of hoodoos.
To sleep rugged on an alien world was a new thought and experience to him as he set up his camp, placing a few small things about; a gas stove, a cushion, and a pot to prepare the night's rations in. Prior, he had always had the safety of a space ship to return to and sleep. And he had never laid down to sleep in a wilderness full of its own alien life. What insects were there that scuttled from the rocks during the cold of night? Were there any predators that would try to hunt him, to stalk him? He had a rifle on him, but he began to doubt if he could wake in time to use it.
As he bent over the gas stove and lighting the ignition he started to think about the people, the men or women who set off across unknown landscapes and had to sleep out in the old wilderness, not knowing what was out there. Man itself was very much like that all over, at the mercy of nature. But man had each other, and even those old adventurers were not always alone themselves. For Ferraro, he was very much alone.
He broke the package of dried rations and dropped it into his small pot. An unidentifiable mass of noddles or something and some other stuff fell with a hard pang in the bottom. Uncorking a water bottle he filled the pot a quarter of the way and set it on the fire to boil.
He thought on the matter, being on an alien planet in his position brought him to the threshold of strange and new opportunities. How many people could claim to have been a successful xenobiologist? When life was found, it was always effectively abandoned to let it live as it lived, or continued to live after the brief human visitation. But Ferraro wasn't a biologist, he was a geologist; Pike doubled as one informally and Ferraro missed him for that, he would be ecstatic to be so unhinged on this strange new world.
But this created an option contrary to the goals of this entire ordeal he made himself a part of. People had come to Ember to mine it, to strip it of its mineral wealth. Not to study its animals and plants. And somehow he suspected that if he were to do so this may be interpreted as a means to get them all to stop and put him in the cross hairs of not just the Federation, but the start ups here on Ember.
He was equipped for it, so he could pick up surveying. Try to make and define his claims. There was more than enough land. And having pre-surveyed turf he could sell it off to the companies here. He may be able to start again. He may be able to bust his companions free; if they were still alive that is. Hell, he may even be able to finance his way off the planet and go out on the lamb across the whole of space if he ever needed to.
He had options.
The water in the pot began to boil.
They had worked things out, and having done so returned to Earth proper aboard the shuttles. The ride was painless, if tense knowing the world they were returning to had changed. Having learned all of the sudden of the effective coup, Earth felt as alien to the men in the shuttle as any alien planet they had explored. As the clouds slowly peeled back around the gentle descent of the passenger ferry it began to feel they were coming in on an advanced civilized nation that had taken them prisoner, something straight out of a cautionary novel. But when all things stopped and they entered out onto the ferry terminal platform they melted away as ritually as they had before, exchanging terse fair wells with the implication that they would meet again. To any normal office worker in the Earth workforce their departure from one another was as if they had simply left the office and were on their ways home.
And easily, that's exactly what they were doing. Though they had had come down in New York – over the island of Manhattan – any point of planet was so accessible that heading home from here was simply inconvenience at worst. It came down to hailing an automated cab, issuing them the credits needed to go anywhere, and be off. As the crew of Le Ile separated to the far corners of the globe, Ferran was headed deeper into New York, Henri himself had moved to live in the futuristic metropolis.
The ride was slower and smoother in the cab than would be for intercontinental travel. But Ferran starred out the window all the same as the automated aircraft skillfully hovered through the intertwining lanes of criss-crossing traffic in the upper echelons of New York. It's engine a dulled humming sound barely audible behind the radio music he turned on as he leaned back.
Upper New York was an intermingling series of towering skyscrapers interlocked with pedestrian walkways between the towering high-rises. Each building built with its own unique curves and rounded architecture, reminiscent of the Bauhaus style. At each level too were hanging gardens that fell across the sides like the long hair of a woman, dressing the numerous structures with a sheet of green or many other colors. The gardens were a side-effect of a trend towards urban gardens, and maximizing the efficiency and offsetting the costs of industrial cities begun in the early 21st century; many of them were vegetable and fruit gardens that mainly serviced the residents of the upper levels.
But it was not between these areas of middle class and upper class residences and functions that Ferran was destined for. The color and the brightness of the polished urbanscape above slowly gave way to a dark gloominess cast by the not-so-late afternoon sun at the point where relatively new construction gave way to the ancient brownstones below and steel girders that supported the New York Sky City.
Here was a world that became increasingly illuminated with artificial lighting, LED street lamps, and LED screens on a rotation of the daily news with the sound turned off or the latest garish ads. A certain disconnect began to show between the bright illumination of a promising future the over world claimed to deliver, and the reality that so many now lived. Between the darkened crannies of fire-escapes turned porches and the rude causeways thrown up for pedestrian use in the great under city stood in reclined casual posture the many millions who lived to literally support New York above.
There was a Blade Runner ambiance below as the automated cab came down to its minimal cruising height and quietly hummed along to the address Ferran was seeking. It was far enough down that in the world looked almost bathed in a perpetual twilight. Great blurry patches of illumination brightened an otherwise bleak underworld from the advertisement and news screens. But there was something else daunting down here, the presence of armed soldiers in their heavy encasement of body armor, their fire-arms held close to their chests as if the heavy polygonal weapons was a child to be protected. The cab was stopped briefly by a patrolman who rose to meet it on a bike, and made a check with the cab's ID system and passenger data before letting it through.
Ferran had been in these reaches before, and never once seen it so heavily guarded as he did now. Automated gun turrets hovered over the heads of street patrols and flew passed the windows of the cabs. When as soon as it landed at the desired address, the daunting feeling of being watched and the suppression of knowing an armed jackbooted thug was so near sent him scurrying into the glass-plated lobby of the old high-rise he was bound for.
The lobby of the apartment cast a sharp contrast between it and the gloomy twilight that hung perpetually outside. With the benefit of bright warm lights the whole great marbled room was aglow with light as warm and inviting as the day-time sun in early evening. Against the moody blue of outside, there seemed to be little reason to ever step out again, and that one should just simply stay inside.
He was hardly the only one to feel at their best inside the lobby. Free of the soldiers, the residents of the building conducted themselves with the day-to-day regularity as they would have otherwise. In a corner a large group of youths stood around a table where tablet computers projected holographic monsters that did battle over one another. Nearby, a couple in recliners laid back and read actual books under a large faded photograph of the building they called home hanging overhead.
“TRUMP” the letters above the familiar glass facade read in gaudy gold plating.
Whatever grandeur and historical value the large room-sized picture though tried to make, or sought to remind its residents of was completely lost in the reality. The floor was cracked, barely polished at all, and the furniture was at least as old as Ferran's grandparents. There was a musty smell of old coffee and cigarette smoke looming in the air with the general build up of body odor brought on by so many people living together in one, or the cleaner used to try and cover it up along with the smell of being in the level of a building centuries old. As one walked too, one saw the patched holes of where there had once been stationary and once permanent furniture – the front desk, for instance.
And the great photo was perhaps the only nostalgic piece on the walls. Covering the walls to an even greater extent was the iconography of the true owners of the apartment. The local co-op. Great red and black and orange and black banners with a rearing cat graced the walls, as well as artwork in the same color scheme. Lower along the wall, a much more enigmatic and piece meal collection of artwork was hung on display, the pieces of the local inhabitants themselves; some had been painted straight onto the walls and floors themselves.
It had evolved in the neglect of use, and shifts of ownership into an anarchist's commune.
Ferran knew fairly well where to go. Coming up to the elevators, he sighed in relief in realizing they were not – for now – out of order. He called one down and stepped inside as it arrived. The carriage rocked as it began moving, and set itself upwards. With a rattle, it stopped and let him out into one of the upper floors.
The halls were fairly spacious and comfortable. With carpet stiff and ancient underfoot he gave an air of being old and classical, while not exactly pulling it off with the level of willing neglect given to it. It showed clear signs as well that it had had a different layout once upon a time, and that the apartment structure was not entirely the original intent, that it had begun as something else and changed, or changed several times in the course of its history.
Walking down the hall, he came up on a door at the far end. The door was cracked open a little, and he could have walked right in. But he opted to knock on the door frame to announce his presence.
“Come on in, door's open.” someone shouted from inside with a subdued Italian accent.
“Stefan, it's me: Ferran.”
There was the sound of shuffling as Ferran stepped into the apartment. Despite a few stray pieces of paper it was rather well kept, if lightly furnished. Along one wall sat a broken television and in front of it an outdated patterned couch covered in numerous cigarette burns. Along another wall was a fiberglass bookshelf laden down with a large collection of old tattered books, a tablet computer sat on top.
“Oh shit,” Stefan murmured from a back room, stumbling out at the head of a cloud of garlic and egg smelling air, “You're back!” he exclaimed, “You're back...” he repeated, sullenly.
“Yeah, and a great big mess I came back into.” Ferran grumbled.
“They're all fucking idiots.” Stefan hissed in Italian, “You want anything to eat?”
“No, I'm fine.”
“OK, give me a second to finish my lunch then.” he turned back into the back room, his kitchen and went about fixing his plate, “I feel a little guilty for not having anything for you.” he shouted from the back, “Are you sure?”
“No Stefan, I'll be fine.” Ferran shouted back, walking over to the couch and up at the television.
It was one of the newer models, almost paper thin and entirely black. It was mounted from the wall by about three inches and had no chords or cables running to it. In the center of the screen was a wide jagged hole. “What happened to your TV?” Ferran asked.
“Got mad.” Stefan responded, stepping out from his kitchen with a heavy dish of noodles and chicken. It was absolutely redolent with the heavy smell of garlic and butter. Ferran felt a movement of relief pass through his stomach at the thought that he avoided the garlic love affair that was Stefan's cooking.
“Was watching the whole 'election' process happen.” he continued after swallowing down a large fork full of creamy noodles, “When it really started to kick off and results poured in I saw the whole masterpiece the Federation had put together come into play and reveal itself. A couple calls later and I was so fucking pissed I tossed that rock I got from Mexico through it.”
“The one from the cave, with all the selenite formations?” Ferran asked.
Stefan nodded, “Broke some of the larger ones but I didn't care then to be honest.” he nodded his head towards a shelf on another wall where a large lumpy rock with white crystalline growths protruding from it, some of the larger and heavier ones had been clearly broken. “Put a big fucking hole in the wall too, fixed that up though.”
“But sit, come on.” Stefan nearly shouted, urging Ferran to follow suit to the couch as he sat.
“The whole coup is what I wanted to ask you about. You know people, what happened?”
Stefan took a long sigh, “The general used some security rules to effectively ban many of the leading figures from the larger UN parties.” he said, “A guy I know who works in the UN Security building reported seeing some strange new faces with some very corporate cards milling about. So there was some big money deals going on directly in the central offices. And this was a day of the security take-over.
“Every department but the Department of Economic Affairs was effectively liquidated.” Stefan went on, “Some information was actually leaked out from the desks of some of the larger energy companies to suggest this was a planned coup, they must have formed themselves a nice cartel to rope in Martin Ardolla, but he's always been a money hound, he'll go where the credits are strong.”
He took a moment to wolf down some of his plate, and chewed. “The funny thing is,” he continued, “before all this was happening there were brownouts all the time; remember? About mid-afternoon, or whenever China wakes up the entire grid would shut down as they redistributed energy towards essential functions to keep from blowing up the reactors from too much energy draw. But ever sense the coup there hasn't been a single brown out.”
“So, they wanted this to happen?” Ferran wondered outloud.
“Well of course. But the real question is was this whole crisis artificially crafted to exasperate the conditions on Earth to build up support for a movement to more aggressively mine for rare reactive ores?”
“That sounds like it would be the case then.” said Ferran as he leaned against the arm of the couch, “I guess I wasn't around for the worst of it. I was gone for... how long? I can't keep track in space very well.”
“A little over a year and a half, I wouldn't be surprised if it was almost two-years.”
“Yeah, and just before was when the big surveyor rush was ordered by the United Nations. Practically saved Henri, they pay for most of the material costs is subsidies. But the companies still got the bulk. He was having a hard time paying full wages and some of the accessory work.”
“UN doesn't pay for repairs?”
Ferran shook his head, “Fuel, mostly.”
“But what you're implying then is that the big companies had enough fuel stockpiled?” Ferran continued.
“Given that we haven't lost power in the couple months since it happened, I would say so.” he said with a nod, “Of course, it's damn hard to tell. But no one's complaining now that stocks are up. The new overlords just opened up nearly three-dozen once locked-down planets. Including Ember. Heard of Ember?”
“I would need to have been on a long voyage to have not.” Ferran said with a grumble, “That's a planet with life though, can they really?” in the bottom of his heart, Ferran knew they could now.
Stefan nodded, there wasn't any pleasure in it, “They can, they will, and they have.”
“This is what happens when the people lack oversight in what actually runs their world. I've said it many time: but they got too big for their breaches.”
A moment of silence as Stefan dug around on his plate some more. “Say, you have trouble with the guards outside?” he asked.
“Nope, entire apartment came together to kick the fuckers out. You can use the back door when you leave, they won't see you that way.”