The refugees milled in the cavernous concrete room. They flowed in through a set of double doors, they washed back into the recesses where they dropped themselves, in family groups or groups of acquaintances or mixed groups of parentless children or accidental congregations of men or of women. They had brought only what they could carry, but they could carry a lot.
They brought with them what they had seen. They had seen their homes destroyed, their cities on fire, their fathers, mothers, children slain, lying dead on the ground.
Now, light years from those scenes, they waited. They did not wait for anything in particular—that would have been easier—but they waited. An old couple cuddled with their scrawny cat. Three sisters, adult and teen and preteen, stood identically against a wall. Here and there someone sat by himself, or, rarely, herself.
A woman sat by herself, along a wall in half-shadow, dark of hair and raiment, somehow reading in a little book. A girl of early teenage sat a few meters away, her knees pulled up to her chest. A few boys wandered over and leered at her, but something put them off. They wandered away along the wall. It opened into a further, darker recess, which they disappeared into.
More people were coming into the cavernous room. It was like an infusion of smoke: they came from the double doors, but they seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, condensing all over the chamber in little clumps, until the mean distance between clumps dropped from meters to centimeters. Fights did not break out, but there was a general shove away from the double doors and into the recesses of the chamber, and anyone standing soon found themselves in motion with the tide. Gradually spaces were filled in and everyone who was not already sitting had to remain standing. It was like a room where one waits to board for a journey, but the atmosphere was not one of waiting.
Little by little, here and there and by a phase change almost everywhere, people thought through the waiting-room analogy, figured out that they weren’t going anywhere, and settled where they were. If they could have pitched tents or built houses, they would have.
Some of them had something to eat, and they ate it. Some did not, and they watched. Whatever food there was, no one had more than one or two meals’ worth, so if you felt aggrieved, wait a day and everyone would be equal again.
People began to doze off here and there. The hours of stress and dread were not over, but they had tired lots of people enough that they could fall asleep.
Just as some of them were getting their first shuteye in days, the double doors burst open and guards came in, men and women with good muscle tone and well-made weapons. They made a show of force in area before the double doors, pushing people around, grabbing young men who looked rebellious, taking away several older folks and at least three attractive young women. Then they were gone, and people sat right down in the space that had been cleared.
An unknown number of hours passed, and there was movement again. The double doors opened, and more crowds of hungry, tired people came shoving in, their faces blank. Some of them held hands in the crowd, in pairs or in stretched lines of half a dozen or more. There was room for them: it seemed as if people were moving out of the front region, slowly, gradually, toward the dark recess into which the boys had gone.
Back there, there was another double door, hidden away in deep shade, but it was open now, and the crowd had grown dense enough in the cavernous chamber that an ooze of people was pushed into it. The light grew as they pressed on down what turned out to be a long, shallow ramp about six meters wide. They were not exploring: they looked ahead down the hallway not with anticipation so much as apprehension. They moved onward in fits, as the pressure behind them grew, moving their belongings with them.
Behind them, more people were pressed into the formless queue that led to the ramp. Some of them thought they were lining up for processing or food, some of them thought it was better to be going somewhere than to be sitting there with no food and no agenda, some found themselves carried along by the tide. Many of them didn’t quite realize they were in a queue. A dozen and a score at a time, they found themselves pushing through the doors and onto the ramp.
Far in the rear, the teenage girl watched the crowd move into the dark recess, and at some point she decided to get up and join them. The woman reading did not notice her at first, but when she did, she followed, and before the girl was into the double doors, the woman managed to grab her by the shoulder.
“Don’t,” said the woman.
“What?” said the girl. She shrugged. “What else is there to do?”
“Wait,” said the woman. She looked around, then back at the girl. Their eyes met, blue and brown. “I don’t know. There has to be a better option.”
“Why? What could be—?”
They stopped. Groups of guards had entered by the front doors, and fanned out into the crowd. Three of them, one clearly an officer, were moving people toward the recess and getting closer and closer to the woman and the girl.
“Move along, move along,” said the officer to anyone she met. “Move along now.” And then she met the blue eyes of Jacky Clotilde, her right hand behind her, securely gripping the girl’s wrist.
“What is going to happen to these people?” Jacky asked her, in a low clear voice.
“Move,” said the officer. “Move her, gents, move them both.”
Jacky brought her left hand around, but only to put her palm toward the nearer of the two male guards. They stopped as if she had a gun.
“Ah, ah,” said Jacky. She met the officer’s eyes again. “Tell me what is the disposition of these refugees. Tell me that. It won’t kill you.”
“Listen, lady,” said the officer, “I can’t help you any. We have our orders. We have to move these people, there’s literally forty, fifty thousand of them by now, more landing all the time. We’re just processing them.”
“Processing them, huh? Well, you’re not processing us till I know what the disposition is. Where are all these people going? Interviews?”
“Look, lady, you’re all escapees. I don’t know, you, you seem educated, you don’t talk like they do, but a lot of these people are no better than criminals and terrorists. We have no idea what kind of diseases, what kind of ideas they bring, we can’t just let them squat wherever they want on our planet. They’re murderers, criminals, rapists, these people. The Republic—!”
“Listen,” said Jacky, “I know about the Republic. You have a charter that guarantees help to those in need, who have fled tyranny to freedom. Those are the words.”
The male guards moved restlessly: they wanted to beat her up. The officer said, “Don’t tell us what our own charter says.”
“I’m sorry I have to. These aren’t criminals, any more than you are. These people have escaped from war. They’ve escaped from the worst things you can imagine. They were on Ilkhar-2 when the Ondrian marines landed. This was the only place they could get to, with the old freighters they had. Forty thousand? Five million set off from Ilkhar. They left a hundred times that many dead from the quantic bombs alone. Look, I know you have a good life here, I know you don’t want a bunch of refugees to eat you out of house and home and squat in your town square. But think what they’ve been through. They’re not a threat to you, they only ask for a little help, a little sympathy.” She stopped and looked again into the officer’s eyes. Jacky’s eyes changed. “Tell me what you’re doing with these people. Tell me what’s down that ramp.”
“You’re not from Ilkhar,” said one of the male soldiers. “What’s it to you?”
“Come, boys,” said the officer, “let’s take her for further questioning.”
“No,” said the teenage girl, her first words.
“What do you care?” said the male guard. “You’re moving along, little girl.” He advanced on her, ready to push her into the flowing stream of her fellow refugees.
“No,” said the girl, grabbing onto Jacky’s wrist with the hand that Jacky didn’t already have by the wrist. Jacky said, “No, no, ah, ah.”
“Now look,” said the officer, advancing into Jacky’s face. “You don’t have anything to say about this. You don’t have—!”
“Oh, I have,” said Jacky, and then she swung her left hand up from her pocket, where she had returned it. She held a scary-looking knife. The officer did a half-smirk at the blade: seriously? A knife?
And then that knife blazed with pink lightning. A static zing flashed across the air between the point and the nose of the officer, who stepped back two steps and then fell backwards, unconscious. The crowd bore her back and laid her to sleep it off on a crate. The two male guards didn’t respond in time, and were disarmed by the refugees around them. Jacky moved forward into the crowd, which parted for her: two more guard teams emerged to confront her, and the blaze off the knife took them out as well, leaving six more black-uniformed soldiers of the Republic unconscious.
“Grab their weapons,” said Jacky, and weapons were grabbed. The crowd ceased to push toward the dark recess, and began to gel in place. Still, local turbulence pushed three more teams of guards out into the little space that had opened in front of Jacky and the teenage girl. Jacky took down most of them with a simple sleep spell, and the one officer who managed to resist that went down to a hard pink zap. More weapons were seized, and now a dozen and a half refugees, women and men and girls and boys, formed up in front of her. What have I done, she thought, but she said, “Is that all of them?”
“So far,” said a middle-aged man with a scary-looking photon rifle.
“So what do we do next?” asked a teenage girl with a venomous-looking pistol.
“Okay,” said Jacky, “this is going to be delicate. I’m not sure exactly how this is going to work, but—!” She let out a breath. “We are going to get you to somewhere where you can have a little peace and safety. That doesn’t seem to much to ask.”
“We’ll need to get our freighters off,” said the man. “And most of ‘em crash landed.”
A big woman with a gun said, “They can fix ‘em up or they can give us new ones, their choice. We need more hostages, dontcha think?”
“Need more weapons,” said the middle-aged man.
“We need to get back out those doors,” said a young man. “We need to move these people back out, and we need more weapons.”
“More weapons,” the cry went up.
“But don’t kill anyone,” the middle-aged man called after them, and that call went around too.
The flood reversed. The mass of refugees pushed back out through the double doors, while Jacky and the teenage girl stood as if rooted, taking it all in. Jacky was filled with doubts, but that wasn’t unusual. She had got through one problem, in a way she had not thought of till she did it, and now there were five more problems laid out before her, and she hadn’t had time to begin to solve any of them. She looked at the girl, who was looking back into the now empty recess, and the just-visible doors into the ramp.
“What happened to the people who went down there?” she asked.
Jacky gazed into that distance for a minute, then sighed, turned and said, “What’s your name?”
“Karen,” said the girl.
“We didn’t, Karen. We didn’t go down there. That’s all that matters. Okay?”