Bowing her head against the rough wind as strands of her dark hair whipped about her face, Hadley held tight to her jacket collar and walked the path outside the fence. She’d already passed two gates into the sprawling south-east quadrant but there was something about the sudden arrival, and the smell of the wind, that kept her from entering the safety of the city. Window shutters rattled as sand-grass dust battered against the houses outside the city fence. It was too early for the southern winds, which should have come around November.
Nothing but crop fields and farm cottages lay south for a good hundred miles and yet the air carried the scent of fuel and corn popped over a fire. Another smell lingered between the two. It wasn’t as pungent as the fuel or as sweet as the corn but it was entirely intoxicating. Hadley took another deep sniff. Whatever the smell was, she knew no coalition ship had brought it with them to the docking station.
She stopped at a dilapidated blue house. Paint flaked from the brittle wood and danced up into the air in the sweet wind. It would be another year before replacement paint was available but no one in the south-east quadrant was hopeful that they’d be fortunate enough to get their hands on some. Hadley hesitated, chewing on her lip. She wanted to continue south and find out if she was right that something had brought the wind, but she was near the last entrance. She couldn’t risk not being back before the gates locked. Not again.
With a sigh, Hadley turned away.
She pulled her pass from her pocket. Flashing the plastic and metal disk at the scanner, she pushed open the heavy metal gate. It clanged against the fence behind her, the rattle rippling out along the chain link. Out of habit she grasped the mesh and tugged to ensure it was locked. She’d never hear the end of it if she let someone into the quadrant who wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Early today, aren’t we?”
Kalvin popped his head out from the guard post with the warm smile that she rarely saw him without. His black freckles scrunched across his nose and cheeks. If it was possible, the long summer had brought out even more across his dark skin.
“Finished for the day.”
“Lucky. I got at least another quart,” he grumbled.
“Quart?” Hadley asked and checked her watch. “The gate’s locked in two hours. What do you do for another four?”
Kalvin shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest, resting his shoulder against the doorframe.
“Ask your brother. Orders came down through him. Everyone’s picking up extra hours.”
“Lachlan doesn’t have the authority for that,” she insisted. Stepping towards him, she flicked the open collar of his shirt with her thumb. “He does have the authority to slam you for this, though. What a poor excuse for a uniform.”
He chuckled and batted her hand away.
“You went into the wrong job, Miss Tack. Should have followed in his footsteps. You could have been dressing an army.”
Hadley peered at the oil stains on her knees, the grime underneath her fingernails, and the dust caked onto her boots. She scratched her messy hair and grinned.
“I’d much rather fix engines than armies.”
After she gave him a brief wave, Kalvin disappeared back into the guard post. Hadley continued down the road. Her older brother was scheduled to finish on the shift change, but if they were extending the guard shifts then no doubt Lachlan would work late as well. He wasn’t the type to let others do the work for him, not like the captains in the central who handed out the orders but were still home in time for dinner. So, instead of heading towards their home, she continued straight into the centre of the quadrant.
The market was closing down as she entered the square, each merchant moving slowly in the hopes of catching that one last customer before the soldiers ushered them out of the square. Farmers packed up their unsold goods into crates. Seamstresses folded linens and swept away scraps into buckets for rags and patchworks. Mr. Hale, the baker, was closing the shutters on his store window while his daughter, Marjorie, stood behind the counter kneading the next day’s batch. Hadley smiled and nodded, receiving a doughy- handed wave in return.
The quadrant station stood on the corner of the square. It wasn’t impressive like the one in the centre of the city. She had only visited the central station once; when her brother was sworn in. That station towered over the surrounding buildings and threw everything around it into shadow. This one looked like every other building: small, functional, and in a constant state of disrepair.
“Looking for your brother?”
The greeting was thrown casually her way before she’d even stepped over the threshold. Philip Allard, the old major, sat behind a worn desk. His litcom lay on the top, and despite multiple messages and alerts flashing up along the edge, it showed the daily newspaper. Hadley held the door until the latch clicked into place.
“Is he around?”
“Off the back, I imagine. Squirreled away,” Allard said. He barely paused before he went back to reading, the screen lighting the worn lines in his face.
Hadley wound her way through the small maze of offices and storerooms. Lachlan had been promoted to captain over a year before, which should have awarded him one of the bigger offices at the front of the station. Instead, he had given the room to the new troop of soldiers coming through, letting them use it for their break room. He liked his little office, he said. He knew where everything was. It didn’t surprise her, seeing as at home he barely knew where anything was. That was her fault.
The door was open but Hadley knocked anyway. She gazed down at her brother, who didn’t even look up from the litcom in front of him.
“The scan isn’t confirming but the readings are definitely off,” he mumbled.
Lachlan looked up in sharp surprise and turned the litcom over. Hadley grinned at him. At home he would let her use the litcom seeing as she didn’t have a job that allowed her one of her own and they didn’t have the money to buy one. Here, however, it was closely guarded as a perk of his position.
“Hads, what are you doing here?”
Hadley moved further into the room and perched on the arm of a chair that was stacked high with paperwork.
“I ran into Kalvin on my way back. He said you’ve been asking for extra hours.”
Lachlan groaned and rubbed his hand over his hair. It was cut short but the brown was exactly the same shade as their mother’s had been. His eyes, though tired, were the same black-rimmed dark blue as their father’s. He also had their father’s wide tipped nose and ears that seemed to have no lobe to them. Hadley, apparently, looked more like their mother’s father, or so she was told. Having never met the man, she couldn’t say. It was all just a mixture of people they’d never see again, but she’d often looked at the old photographs of them hidden in a box in Lachlan’s closet, and knowing how those little details tied them both to their family had always comforted her.
He jabbed his thumb towards the hallway. Hadley hopped to her feet and pushed the door closed.
“There’s a rumour of a hitching,” he said quietly. “Orders have come in for us to check it out.”
Hadley frowned and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Lachlan complained. “We’re closest and it’s my duty.”
She held her hands up and resisted rolling her eyes again. It was just like Lachlan to defend the system even if it meant hours of overtime with no pay. The central demanded that they be available for extra duties but the soldiers of the outer quadrants rarely saw anything to make up for it.
“I didn’t say anything,” she said. “I was just thinking how it’s funny these things always come up on your night to cook.”
Lachlan grinned and she knew his complaints about her lack of respect for duty would be put off for another day.
“So, a hitching, huh? Not had one of those for a while.”
When he chewed on his bottom lip Hadley could see the cracks in his flesh opening up into tabs of dried skin which would eventually split and bleed when the weather turned cold.
“Yeah, about half a dozen miles south. Tracers aren’t getting a proper reading on it. It’s all coming back inconclusive.”
She frowned. Not many ships that hitched down instead of coming into a dock had the capacity to hide their existence, even temporarily. Hitchings were common in the central planets where docking prices were high and under the counter deals were two a penny. In the outlying planets though, where docking stations couldn’t afford to charge high prices and the coalition enforcement rarely cared enough about illegal goods to perform searches, hitchings only occurred when people really had something to hide.
“That’s what the wind is,” Hadley said, bringing an amused look from her brother. He nodded. “You think it’s something big? Half a dozen miles. Must be a substantial ship to cause that kind of blow.”
Scratching behind his ear, Lachlan peered at the door and flipped the litcom over. He turned it to face Hadley, who jumped off the chair to get a better look. The screen showed a large ship, too large to hitch easily without military grade equipment. It wasn’t a recognised coalition model, but she could see at least six cylinders and four compartments. She’d only ever heard of one type of ship that size that hitched instead of coming in for docking.
“Lach…” she whispered, looking up at her brother with childish excitement. “Is that…”
Lachlan didn’t look pleased with her enthusiasm. He placed the litcom face down on the desk and folded his arms over it.
“Yeah. It’s a Cirque.”