- by Derek Michael Barnes
She heard the voice that was calling her, but didn’t answer. Kani and his lackeys put her through this every day, and reacting never ended well.
“Hey!” This time he was right in her ear. “Are you deaf, galtis? I’m talking to you!”
“Maybe she can’t hear you because she has a brain disease.”
She remained silent. Of course, she would rather not have had to deal with them at all; but there wasn’t really anywhere else to go on a moving tram, and they would just follow her anyway. She tried to focus on the workpad in front of her and drill into her head that the letters she was staring at were substitutes for numbers.
Then she realized the workpad was no longer there. She glanced up and saw Neima messing around with it.
“Basic algebra?” he said, tossing it back at her. “You really are stupid.”
She finally caved. “What do you want?”
“How about that seat you’re in?” answered Kani. “Those are for Caldari only.”
She did her best not to glare at him. “Fine. This is my stop anyway.”
“The juvatory is five stops from here, idiot.”
“I’m not going to the juve. I’m going to work.”
“You have a job?” Neima made a point of feigning disbelief. “Who the hell would hire you?”
“I hear prostitutes are in short supply,” said Kani.
“Oh, I’m sorry; did I hurt your feelings?” Kani was now grinning. “Not that I expect any different from someone without a spine.”
She didn’t respond. He had won and he knew it. She strapped her pack on, got out of her seat and made for the exit as the tram came to a halt.
“See you back home, galtis!”
“My name,” she muttered as she entered the station, “is Ranaan.”
She worked as a junior-grade inspector in the city’s main factory, examining machines for signs of wear or damage, then reporting what she found. In other words, she basically stayed out of the way. It was always too hot in the factory, and it reeked of sweat and synth oil. Still, for a girl age thirteen it wasn’t a bad job, and certainly better than having to endure the incessant taunting of her peers.
She made her way across the metal catwalks, doing one routine check after another. Quickly yet carefully she looked over the equipment, taking notes as she went along. It was like any other day at the factory, except for one thing: the operators, who normally kept to themselves, were freely conversing with one another over the din of the machines.
“I guarantee you, Infinity Systems is getting the contract,” one was saying. “They’ll start construction in a matter of weeks, if not sooner.”
“Other corporations have prospects here, too,” said another. “Any one of them could get the deal.”
“Infinity has twice the investments of anyone else in the sector. Not to mention they’ll be backed by Lai Dai, politically and financially. No other pilot corp can compete with that.”
“What does it matter which corp gets the contract?” said a third operator, clearly exasperated by the whole thing. “For us it ends the same way: all the jobs go somewhere else. We’ll be lucky if this factory is still running by the end of the year.”
Her curiosity broke her silence. “What the hell are you all talking about?!”
“You didn’t hear, kid?” answered the first. “Concord is lifting its ban on planetary industry. Soon capsule pilots all over New Eden will be opening production lines on every planet they can get their hands on, including ours.”
“And raiding our incomes in the process,” added the third.
“You don’t know that-”
“Don’t I? Mark my words, if they don’t run us out of business, they’ll buy us out. You think this city is bad now? Wait until unemployment starts skyrocketing-”
“Pipe down, guys,” said the second. “The supervisor’s coming our way…and there’s someone in an Infinity shirt with her.”
That was interesting. Ranaan finished her inspection, then moved to the next machine to better listen to what was happening.
“…Lai Dai’s standard of quality is the model for our business,” the supervisor was saying. “Our equipment may not be top of the line, but we keep it well maintained to ensure our products are of the highest caliber. Our mechanics keep everything operating to par, and our inspectors make sure it stays that way…Inodi!”
Ranaan looked up. The supervisor always called her on a last-name basis.
“Any problems?” The question may as well have been read from a script.
“Not so far,” she replied. “Some low-priority maintenance, but nothing serious.”
“Deputy, this is Ranaan Inodi, one of our junior inspectors. Inodi, this is Jasen Soita, deputy director of human resources for Infinity Systems.”
“It’s good to know you, sir.”
“Suuda,” the deputy replied. “How long have you been working here?”
“Seven months. I got the job by chance.”
“And do you still go to school?”
“Yes, sir. I’m studying to be an engineer.”
He pressed further. “Is it difficult balancing work and studies?”
“It’s…challenging.” She kept working at a steady pace, making sure not to look away completely. “But being in the workforce has actually helped me do better in school; it gives me something to look forward to.”
He was about to say something else, but was cut short by a sudden bang. A pipe had burst overhead, and vaporized coolant was jetting out of the fissure.
“Vaisska! Excuse me…”
She ran up the nearest ladder, hit the emergency shutoff valve, then scrambled across the ceiling beams supporting the various pipes and cables. She assessed the damage; it was the same worn-out pipe she had found several weeks beforehand.
She sighed in frustration as she began removing the ruptured piece. “I told maintenance to replace this pipe; ‘the pipes are showing their age,’ I said, ‘they need attention.’ Did they listen? No…”
Soita was still watching from below. “A little hot-headed, isn’t she?” he asked.
“More than a little.” The supervisor smiled mirthfully. “I like to think she gets it from me.”
He continued to stare up at her. “…I couldn’t help but notice her hair.”
“She’s half Gallentean by blood. Gets a lot of flak for it, even more so since the war started…but I think that’s what drives her to do well.”
“Interesting…” As he and the supervisor moved on down the factory floor, he typed a quick message on his workpad.
Contact me when you get this. We may want to consider a new approach.
The next morning Ranaan was roused awake to be told that someone from Infinity Systems was waiting outside for her. Having no idea what was going on, she obliged and prepared herself to leave. On her way out Kani got an early start and accused her of high treason. On arriving outside the juvatory gates, she learned she would be traveling by air, making the situation all the more unusual. She did her best to calm her nerves, and told herself that chances were whatever was going on couldn’t be any worse than another day in school.
Half an hour later, the pilot told her they were reaching their destination. Ranaan had a look out the windshield, and her eyes met with a colossal machine hovering in midair above them, covered in giant rotors glowing red with heat. The ground below had been liquified to a circle of boiling lava.
The pilot saw her amazed expression, and smiled at her. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked her over the roar of the jets.
“What is it?”
“Think of it like a giant blowtorch. Burns away organic matter, melts the rock down to fifty meters. We add an extra compound or two, and at the end of the day it makes a perfect cement foundation.”
“That area must be twenty-five kilometers in radius! What the hell is your corporation building?!”
“The future, kid!” He was beaming now. “The future of the State!”
Her disposition had changed to deep thought. She had the sneaking feeling fate was somehow involving her in all of this.
Shortly thereafter she found herself in front of the door to an office, in a mobile operations facility ten kilometers away from the oversized construction site. In the most unsurprising twist of the day, the name on the door read Jasen Soita.
“Please present identification,” came a metallic-sounding voice from nowhere in particular. Ranaan moved her hair away in front of the scanner on the door, every iota of information on her being instantly processed from the invisible data matrix printed above her brow.
“Identification, ‘Ranaan Inodi,’ accepted.”
The door slid open, and sitting behind a desk in immediate view was Soita, his eyes piercing a hole through the space between him and her.
“Enter, Inodi.” His voice was cold.
She walked inside the room, the door shutting behind her.
A stool emerged from the upholstered floor. “Sit down.”
Ranaan sat. She was starting to feel uneasy.
“We never got to finish our conversation yesterday,” Soita continued. “So let me pick up where I left off. You’ve been an orphan all your life, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” she answered quietly. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know where this was going.
“Were you ever told why?”
“An unusual case,” he said nonchalantly. “Half Deteis, half Gallentean…it’s not exactly a frequent occurrence.”
Ranaan sat still as a stone. Now she was getting angry.
“I imagine it’s made life difficult for you, yes?”
Her muscles were getting tense, but still she remained silent. He continued to push her. “It certainly shows in your records,” he said as he accessed her profile on his monitor. “Poor academic performance…difficulty holding a job…antisocial behavior…”
She was set on edge now; it felt like every nerve in her body was lit. It was all she could do not to grip the hem of her jumper until her hands bled.
“Of course,” Soita noted as he leaned back in his leather chair, “I suppose such a state of affairs is to be expected given your situation-”
“What does it matter?” She finally snapped. “Why does it matter so damn much where I came from or what my history is? Why are you interrogating me – what the hell am I doing here?!”
“I suggest you cool your head-’
“No!” Ranaan bolted upright from her seat. “I’ve been putting up with this crap for as long as I can remember, and it’s stopping right now!” She started pacing the room in her fervor. “All my life I’ve been called a delinquent, dysfunctional ‘problem child’ – useless dross sabotaging the Caldari machine. And why? Because I’m half Gallentean; nothing more. Do you think I asked the gods to curse me with wavy crimson hair so everyone could see at a glance what I am?!” She turned back to face Soita, blazing with the collective rage that she’d tried so hard to contain, and thrust her outstretched hand at the window behind her. “No one else out there has ever had their loyalty called into question. They’re born Caldari and that’s the end of it. I have to earn that basic respect; I have to prove myself to every person I meet. But I don’t care what I have to do or how long it takes: I will show all of New Eden that I’m a true Caldari, and that nothing – nothing – will ever change that!”
The seconds ticked by in empty silence. She stood motionless, exhausted from her tirade. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and re-centered herself.
And when her eyes opened again, she saw that Soita was smiling.
“That is exactly what I was hoping you would say.” He rose from his desk. “You should be proud of yourself, Inodi, because today all your hard work is going to be rewarded.”
She blinked in confusion. “I…don’t understand…”
Soita chuckled. “I’ll explain everything. Let me show you what we’re working on…” He indicated the window, which had a clear view of the construction.
An image flickered to life across the glass, as the purpose of the lava pit was slowly revealed. “This is the site chosen for Infinity City, soon to be the core of our planetary industry. As the name implies, the project is massive. The outer ring you see,” he said as renderings of structures came into view, “is a megafactory for the manufacture of ships and their components; the viaduct arcing across it is for transit of resources, with the command center towering above. The inner crescent houses an industrial-size spaceport for the fleets we produce. And the final element: a shining metropolis, the epitome of Caldari achievements on full display.”
The final image was unbelievable; a whole megacity stood before her in impossibly realistic glory.
“Am I wrong in saying it looks like a giant Lai Dai logo?”
“Marketing,” he replied. “But of course, such an undertaking as this requires immense amounts of manpower. That’s why I’ve been touring the district, visiting businesses to find local people worthy of helping this dream be realized. And you, Inodi,” he said to her, “are more than qualified.”
She looked over at him. “Is that what my profile says? Or did you forget?”
“I didn’t mention the good points. Solid worker, skilled mechanic, unrelenting ambition – all qualities that we seek in an employee. The rest is inconsequential in comparison.” He typed a command on his monitor, and new material was displayed on the window pane. “You would have everything to gain: better pay, medical benefits, in-facility housing provided by the company, and an academic regimen designed and built by the School of Applied Knowledge. All within your reach.”
Ranaan was stunned. An hour ago she was nothing but an orphan with a bad track record. And now she was being given the opportunity of a lifetime.
“There’s a catch, right?”
He smiled again, this time with a touch of irony. “Not exactly. Do understand I wouldn’t be offering this if you weren’t qualified. But there is…an extra benefit the corporation gets with you as its employee.”
Soita left his desk, moving to approach the place where she was standing. “The war and political shifts of the past year have left a negative impact on the perception of the State. Our media department has been working in tandem with Lai Dai to try and produce a more positive image, especially among Federation citizens. Your mixed heritage puts you in a unique position – someone that Gallenteans can psychologically relate to.”
He walked closer to her. “Think about it for a minute. A half Gallentean girl growing up in the State; orphaned by her parents, rejected by her peers, given absolutely nothing. Yet by sheer force of will and the drive to achieve, she is making a life for herself, defying all the forces that have tried to bring her down. It’s the ultimate success story…and the perfect argument against the Federation’s view of us.”
Us. The word resonated in her head: us, her plus Caldari, among Caldari, as Caldari. She let the word echo through her mind, reaching across its darkest shadows and coming back even more beautiful than it was before. Us.
It was the first time anyone had shown her that kind of recognition.
Soita stood face to face with her now. “Ranaan…you said you wanted of all of New Eden to see your true colors.” He looked her right in the eyes. “This is your chance.”
Another silence followed as Ranaan thought it all over. She thought about everything he had told her, about her life in the dying city she called home, about the future, about every event that had led her to the point where she was now.
She looked back up at Soita.
And she couldn’t think of any reason to say no.