Amazingly, the EMBer women released their captives as they had promised when the EMBer man herded Jack and me onto the plank-way. They were that honourable.
We—I’m sure Jack was too—were looking for escape straight away. I thought we would run and jump over the boats alongside, maybe. But there was still the same crowd probably being herded from the boats by the same, if weary, green-clads. Nowhere to run.
“We will be all right,” Jack muttered.
Hen stood alongside us with her on the boat, us on the plank-way. “You’re strong, Kosi. Follow Jacqui, she knows the byways.”
“That’s enough of the good advice,” one of the EMBer women said. “And call the boy by his proper name. He is Ozymandias O’Loughlin, heir of his House.”
Ozymandias! Poor Jack. No wonder he changed his name. I sneered at the EMBer’s complicated hair-do of golden hair. Totally un-soldier-like.
She stepped forward and gripped my arm. “Bene. Lydia. You look after the boy.”
Bene and Lydia presumably stepped to Jack’s sides and took his arms. How would we get away? The man collapsed the stick and holstered the taser.
“Best foot forward,” Jack said.
“No need for cheekiness. Your House needs you,” said the man.
“You’re out here. And being an EMBer no less,” Jack said.
“My House has three heirs,” the man said bitterly.
Jack laughed. “Poor diddums.” He sobered. “The Fetcher House owns my loyalty and nothing can change that.”
I listened with only half an ear. The things happening around us were by far the more important. The boats alongside showed signs—abandoned clothes, food containers and even the odd shoe—that they’d been pressed into service for over-night camping.
We reached the tail end of the green-clads. An old one-stripe soldier juggling a tablet and stylus dropped back. “This has got to be Kosi Lionhair? She matches her headshot. We have her listed as travelling with us?”
“That can’t be right, er um Corporal,” said the golden-haired EMBer. “She was sentenced yesterday by the Family Court. Three years hard labour in the service of her father.”
Hard labour in my father’s control? Worse and worse. I trod on Jack’s heels to get his attention. We had to get going!
He warned me with a look over his shoulder. He hissed. “Keep track of what’s going on!”
Huh? “What I was doing?” I tried to remember what passed between him and the EMBers. But I couldn’t concentrate on them now quibbling about my future.
“Her father cheated his urb,” said Corporal Fussy. “He has three supernumerary children. We’ll take this one out of circulation at least.”
A fly-car screamed out of the west. I turned with it following the curve that ended with it hovering over the plank-way behind us before delicately setting down. The plank-way sank only about another five centimetres.
Behind it again, very quietly, very slowly, Hen’s boat drifted away from the jetty. Hen was at an upright wooden wheel at the back. She turned the wheel by pulling at the spokes. It was the way she steered the boat. I remembered her stories about her house-on-a-boat. I hadn’t believed them. I swallowed down the sudden gob in my throat. She was taking Du, another of Father’s supernumerary children, to safety.
Then she waved, her arm moving to and fro. She seemed to be saying, “Go well, Kosi Lionhair.” I nodded. Not that she’d able to see my expression.
A lone green-clad stepped from the fly-car. You could tell she was a chief. She wore three gold stripes on each of her shoulders and a temper everywhere else. She strode at groups and lines as if they didn’t exist and for her they didn’t, because everyone in her path moved aside.
“Is this the Life Lottery Intake?” she asked a green-clad who looked skittishly at the Embers in our party.
The green-clad chief hissed and strode on toward Corporal Fussy. She started her tirade before the corporal could salute. “Why are you arguing? EMBers are nothing to us. And why are you still here? We missed our place in the elevator queue. The clock is ticking. We’re contracted for this delivery.”
Anybody could see the new personage wouldn’t stand to be crossed, and that the corporal stood up for herself against the wrong person.
“I’ve been trying to fill our quota,” the corporal said. “You told me no fewer than a thousand. You told me it’s not the last sweep, so to do it properly. That that would give us the best chance for more work.”
The chief looked at Jack, me, and at the four EMBers. “These six should make us our quota.” She waved a hand.
The nearest green-clad personnel obediently enclosed our group. Our EMBers looked bemused as if this wasn’t happening. A mere misunderstanding they seemed to be signalling with their eyes. Didn’t put me at my ease.
“But Captain, the rules!” the corporal dared to say.
Or she really really wasn’t thinking. Because out of the frying pan into the fire? Or maybe she had her fate picked out and she just needed the captain to seal it? And was that the case with the EMBers as well?
The captain hissed again. “We should’ve been embarking them this morning. You’re stood down!” Next, she rattled out a bunch of instructions. “Secure these EMBers. Take their weapons, if any!”
The EMBers released Jack and me like hot cakes to fend off the green-clads jumping into action.
“Ah. A taser. I’ll have that,” the captain said. “Call down the transporters and get this mob boarded finally!”
Jack grabbed my hand. We dived into the crowd. I think he hoped to get to the front and up some handy backstairs into the Fetcher House.
The crowd gave us not a centimetre to manoeuvre. Every person in it hated the green-clads with growls and hissing and heat. Their anger just about cooked me. We were crushed among them like anchovies in a barrel, being moved by and with them into one of the standing-room-only transporters.
We managed only to stay together. I hung onto Jack like a limpet as Hen used to say when she had to disentangle me from her before she went home. When I was seven. And Du is only five now. So, what I’m doing here—whatever that will turn out to be—is being a good big sister.
Just got to make it come out good for Jack and me as well.
I pointed my chin at the ceiling and shouted. “Breathe in everybody, couple of kids coming through!” The surprise of it worked. I dragged Jack with me until he got the idea. Most people get skinnier and taller when they breathe in, giving us some room to move.
We popped out near an Emergency Exit.