(My entry for the Unofficial Tau Station Short Story Contest)
“Once a cycle we celebrate the Emberfest. Station lights are dimmed and groups of revelers walk from home to home, carrying burning little embers that they will share and then be joined as they continue on to others, bringing joy and hope and a little cheer. Thus do we celebrate our coming out of the darkness, our survival of the Catastrophe. More recently the tradition has also been reinforced by a group of freelancers calling themselves the Auld Lang Syne. They, so the story goes, steal supplies and items from the governments of the Consortium and Gaule to distribute among the needy. The group themselves is never seen and the only sign of their passage is a crate of goods marked with an image of a little mote of light in the darkness. It is further purported that, in recent years, the Consortium and Gaule governments actually lean into the tradition, purposefully leaving goods unattended to be ‘stolen’ by the Auld Lang Syne in a once a cycle show of good cheer.” From https://taustation.space/blog/wishing-you-a-festive-emberfest/
FOR AULD LANG SYNE: AN EMBERFEST STORY
“A ration pack says you can't make the shot, Kenny.”
Kennedy stuck out her tongue, her scrawny arm already stretched back for the throw. “Only one Mona? Come on, it's worth more than that!”
Mona, a short, scruffy girl and Kennedy's best friend, narrowed her eyes and set down her sewing on the low wall she was sitting on. “Two then,” she offered.
“I know for a fact you got ten off Francois in the Ruins last tenday for making him a new jacket. You give me three if I get it; I give you four if I don't.”
Mona looked impressed. “You're that sure you can do it? Fine then. Deal.”
Kennedy gripped the Volt-Kamp relay they'd found amongst the nanowire and rubble in the Ruins in the last segment or so and eyed her target. The wall around the Al-Farooqi hotel was high; at least as tall as three Belters standing on each other's shoulders she guessed, and it was topped with electroshock wire. Totally doable.
She took a deep breath, one, two, three steps forward and her arm sailed through the air, the relay sketching a perfect arc. She smiled as she watched it sail over the hotel wall. The ever-present artificial breeze hadn't made it wobble at all. She heard a clang and a shout. “Oops, looks like I scored a bonus with that one,” she giggled. “Pay up, Moany.”
Mona scowled, but reached around for her bag, made of more of the found fabric she used for her trade, and threw three ration packs over to the ground at her friend's feet.
Kennedy didn't care. Dropping to her knees, she gathered up the packages. “Told you I could do---” She noticed Mona's expression, which had suddenly shifted from annoyed to scared. “What is it?”
“Kenny, run!” muttered Mona, grabbing her things and jumping off the regocrete wall.
Heart thudding, Kennedy sprang up, only to feel a heavy hand land on her shoulder. “So you are the wretch responsible for my sore head, are you?” said a cultured voice from behind her. “What shall we do with you, eh?”
Kennedy was late. She was usually early for her shift at the Gadani Galactic Bank, but not today.
“Sorry Ser Jyothi,” she mumbled, scuttling between the imposing, smoked-glass doors of the bank.
Jyothi held up an imperious hand. “Hold,” he annunciated crisply. “Why are you late, Ser Kennedy?”
Kennedy racked her brain for an excuse. She'd have to make it a good one this time, even better than the one about being kidnapped. “My grandmother, Ser Jyothi,”she whined.
“Your grandmother?” Jyothi's tone was icy, the gleaming buttons on his waistcoat straining to contain both his formidable stomach and infamous temper. “And for what extremely important reason would your grandmother have made you late?”
“She was found wandering the Ruins again last night, Ser Jothi,” replied Kennedy, rubbing her arms and trying to look worried.
Jyothi clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Why won't that woman simply take a termination pellet?” He sighed. “Surely she'd be better being reborn as a clone?” He glared at Kennedy, his distaste for what he was about to say evident on his pudgy face. “Or is your grandmother a Promethean?”
Kennedy looked at her feet. She really should have cleaned her uniform boots before getting here. “No, Ser,” she said.
Jyothi scowled. “Well in any case, you are late, and you know how Emberfest is always a busy day for us. Get to your counter.” He waved dismissively, spotting the next late worker trying to sneak through the doors without being berated.
Kennedy fled to her booth. She was on bond to credit conversions today; a hideously boring job, but she smiled to herself secretly. That morning an anonymous citizen had given her a plastic scroll. She'd read it, memorised it and dropped it in a trash can but she still remembered what it said:
Should friends and allies be forgot/ And never brought to mind?/ We'll always help to spread good cheer/ For auld lang syne.
Shift over, Kennedy shuffled out of the bank, entering a station transformed. With the street lights dimmed, harsh shadows were softened; darkened corners shifting from menacing to mysterious. Workers flooding in from the Bazaar, the Docks and Breaking Yards beyond, heading for the Residential Zone; while visitors walked along the streets, arm in arm, oblivious to the ebb and flow of the residents' lives as they drifted into the brightly-lit Al-Farooqi Hotel complex. Occasional bored-looking security officers patrolled the busier intersections whilst the homeless dregs of the station, the Wilds Rats, made half-hearted, mumbling pleas for any rations a citizen could spare.
As she neared her own family's humble shelter, far away from the Breaking Company neighbourhoods, she kept her eyes open, looking for her contact. Her mind wandered back to the previous day.
Mona was long gone. Typical, thought Kennedy, annoyed that her throwing skills were better than her ability to run away from trouble.
The hand on her shoulder tightened, and Kennedy resigned herself to spending some time scrubbing out the cells in Gadani Central Prison. She was fairly sure she wouldn't be sentenced to time in the station Brig for throwing a VK relay, but then again, you never knew.
Resigned to her fate she turned, instantly recognising who had caught her, “Ser Fox?”
“What were you thinking, you silly girl? Throwing relays about the place, willy nilly?” Fox rubbed his balding head ruefully. “Landed right on my noggin.”
Kennedy presumed 'noggin' meant head. “I'm very sorry, Ser Fox,” she began. “It was a silly wager between friends. I never meant to hit anyone, let alone the Al-Farooqi's concierge.”
“Well, notwithstanding your intentions, that is what you accomplished,” said Fox, “but I have to say that was a remarkable trajectory for such a minor projectile.”
“A what now?” Kennedy had seen Fox in the bank from time to time. He seemed nice enough, she thought, so she was probably not going to be thrown to Security, but she remembered he used very strange language.
“An excellent throw, Ser Kennedy,” Fox clarified. “It is Kennedy, isn't it? I remember seeing you at the Gadani Galactic Bank upon my visitations of an economic nature. Not the most conscientious of staff in that establishment, but the most observant, if I recall.” He stepped back from her, looking at her appraisingly. “And smart too, I should wager. Tell me, Ser Kennedy,” he continued. “Would you like a little additional employment?” He gave her a meaningful stare, “'Discrete' work if you will? I could use a young person with your talents for a little job tomorrow night.”
Kennedy thought about it for a moment. She had never done any Discrete work. She'd been tempted, of course, but the risk was just too high. She had a job – not a great one, but enough to help her family buy essentials and keep a leaky roof over their heads in the Residential Area. Discrete work could have a great pay-off, she knew, but if you got caught and thrown in the Brig your reputation was trashed and she'd probably go from being a junior banking clerk to picking over ship carcasses in the Ruins.
Fox raised an impatient eyebrow. “I'm guessing it's for Emberfest?” she asked.
Fox's face relaxed and he smiled. “Indeed,” he said. He glanced quickly around them. “Have you ever heard of a little venture called Auld Lang Syne?”
“Kenny! Hey, Kennedy!” She stopped, looking around for the source of the shout.
“Over here, Kenny.” It was Mosos, a worker at the hotel. His usual exhausted demeanour was absent tonight; he stood taller, a mischievous smile on his unshaven face.
“Mosos, what are you doing over here? Shouldn't you be serving spoilt Gaul shipowners over at the Inn?”
“Not tonight, Kenny. It's Emberfest. ”
“Yes, and I'm going home to spend it with my family. My father's traded for real fruit. We haven't had those in weeks.”
“It's okay, Kenny, I'm working for Ser Fox tonight.”
Kennedy didn't let her face betray her excitement. She had to be careful. What if her friend was a plant and not her real contact? She played dumb, rolling her eyes. “You always work for Ser Fox, Mosos, he's your boss at the hotel!”
Mosos's lips twitched. “Yeah, but tonight he's a different kind of boss. I think he discussed a little business proposal with you yesterday. Auld Lang Syne.”
“Auld Lang Syne?” If this was a trap she would be sent to the Prison for sure.
Mosos smiled and rubbed his hands, more as a gesture of mischief than cold. “Come with me.”
Mosos took her down side streets; twisting and turning alleyways leading to rough, mismatched doors. The Emberfest revellers were starting to come out now, carrying small, glowing embers despite station rules. Her family was respectable: they always celebrated quietly at home, grateful to be together and safe; others liked to party, and still others--
Mosos grabbed her wrist and swung her into a doorway. He knocked in a strange pattern on an inset door.
“Don't ask questions,” he muttered. “Ser Fox will tell you what to do.”
The door swung open into an old storage room. Dusty boxes of random equipment shoved in corners; rickety shelves just visible in the gloom. A bare bulb swung from the metal-sheet ceiling, illuminating six others sitting in the room around an upended crate. They all looked up as Kennedy and Mosos entered.
“She's new,” said a gravelly voice from behind them. Kennedy jumped. Seven others. A stocky, scary-looking Mall, the one who'd let them in, was scowling.
Fox was seated in the centre of the group and gave her a wide smile, opening his arms in an expansive gesture. “Nonsense, Francois! Kennedy's an old friend, aren't you dear.” He gestured to the space next to him. “Come, both of you. Sit, sit!”
Kennedy felt herself relaxing slightly, as she took a seat next to the concierge. As she looked around the group she realised she knew all of them by sight: Mehreen Rana, the brusque forewoman of the Breaking Yards, her custom-spacesuit gleaming in the low light; Troy, the baggage attendant from the Shuttles; Torcuil and Tzofiya from the Bazaar and Freya, a woman she thought was a miner who had moved to the Yards from off-station. Mosos leaned against the wall, next to Francois.
“Friends,” said Fox, “I am so glad you could join me on this auspicious evening. Emberfest is upon us once again and it is time for a little mischief for our dear Major Stannis.” he nodded towards Troy. “I believe you have a delightful scheme cooked up to lead our security services on a merry dance this evening.”
Troy smiled thinly. “Stannis is having his usual Emberfest shindig for the station's great and good up at his official residence. My sister, who works in the Docks, told me he's been importing Gaule wine all tenspan, and fine fruits and even real meat from Cirque Centauri which are all due today.” He snorted. “Biomeat is too good for him and his people, let alone the rations the rest of us get.”
“And?” said Freya, “he does this every year.”
“And every year we try to liberate some of the spoils and every year we fail to garner anything save the most meagre crumbs,” said Fox, “But this cycle will be different,” he grinned, “Mehreen?”
Kennedy's gaze drifted to the Breaking Yards forewoman. “Everyone who works in the Yards knows it's a labyrinth,” said Rana. “There are more secret passages dating to Pre-Cat than anywhere else on the station. But there's one I only found a few tenspans ago, and it leads under the Anima cloning facility and around into the Docks from behind the main entrances. I've secured it, camouflaged it and it's ready to go.”
Fox continued “Stannis always wants his food as fresh as possible, but last Emberfest the couriers' cryo-preservation tanks lost containment. Everything was spoiled, so this cycle, they're following a rather novel strategy. It is merely two segments' travel time between the stations at present, and Stannis' suppliers only harvested everything a handful of segments ago. It's being prepared, packed and dispatched as we speak, if our calculations are correct.”
“So, with a distraction” continued Rana, “we can grab twenty or thirty percent of the crates and redistribute them among those most in need in the Ruins.”
Fox turned to Kennedy. “And that is where you come in,” he said. “You have an outstanding throwing arm, as I discovered to my cost only yesterday,” Fox rubbed his head ruefully, but without malice. “We need your aim. We need you to throw a smoke igniter over the Major's fence into the courtyard where the station Emberflame is lit. The explosion of smoke shall be harmless but terribly distracting.”
Kennedy's eyes widened. “Me? I can't do that!”
“'Course you can, Kenny,” said Mosos. “Torcuil and Tzofiya will be with you: they've done this sort of thing loads of times before.”
Kennedy looked at Torcuil, who was either an exceptionally tall Baseline or a very short Belter, and Tzofiya, a tiny, middle aged woman who appeared to be Harsene. She looked bored, Kennedy thought.
“And,” continued Fox, smiling and showing teeth, “while you keep Security busy, we'll be raiding the Docks.”
The others nodded to each other, “For Auld Lang Syne?” said Kennedy.
“Precisely,” said Fox.