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FOR AULD LANG SYNE: AN EMBERFEST STORY (Part Two)

II

Kennedy's CORETECHS threw up a blueprint display of Major Stannis' complex as her team slid into position. It was labelled 'Top Secret', but the Yards of Gadani chapter of Auld Lang Syne would appear to have contacts everywhere on the station. Ahead of them was the Consortium Major's official residence, the largest home on the station by far. Regocrete blocks held real metal railings firm; floodlights, dimmed for the festival, were still enough to illuminate a plethora of security cameras that rhythmically swung to and fro from every elevated surface.

Beyond the gate, a security checkpoint was visible, shadowy figures of Consortium guards only identifiable by the dull glow of their weaponry power packs. Further on still, the main residence was a black silhouette against a dimly-lit station sky; laughter and chatter from the station elite could be heard in the grounds, each, as was Emberfest tradition, carrying a tiny artificial flame. Kennedy remembered stories of fireflies back in the pre-Cat universe and she imagined that this was the closest to that natural wonder she'd ever see.

One of her companions elbowed her none-to-gently in the ribs. Even hunkered down, Torcuil still towered over her. “The Emberflame's going to be lit soon,” he whispered, “time to move.”

Kennedy nodded. The Emberflame: culmination of every stations' Emberfest. On some stations everyone lit a small fire at home, pulling out glowing torches and parading around the station to greet friends and foes alike. But not on Gadani. The Consortium discouraged it on their stations, and Major Stannis was known to frown upon it, claiming it to be a fire hazard; and, as everyone station-born knew, an out-of-control fire could spell doom, especially here, where the ever-present stink of flammable fuel fumes from the Breaking Yards permeated the air.

The official Emberfest celebration began at the Major's residence, with small artificial flames, tiny battery-packed devices that would be swallowed by the great Emberflame in the centre of the Major's courtyard. Kennedy didn't understand the technology, but she knew Mona had heard that it was a special plasma that glowed brightly like fire but gave no heat. After the ceremony here, guards would divide the Emberflame into fire-proof lanterns, and take them to each area of the station for the residents to enjoy.

The guests were laughing and singing as they grew closer to the residence perimeter, followed by the Major, identifiable by the metallic details on his navy uniform which flashed in the flickers of illumination.

“They're drunk,” muttered Tzofiya.

“All that lovely Gaul wine,” whispered Torcuil. “Sickening.”

A warm hand shoved something into Kennedy's palm. “Time to go, girl,” Tzofiya said in a low tone, “we've got work to do.”

Kennedy gripped the cool, hard durasteel cannister she'd been given. “What do I do?”

Torcuil motioned for her to duck behind a pile of recycling near their hiding place. “See the gate?”

“Of course.”

“When Stannis starts the Emberflame, throw that in.”

The partygoers had now formed a semi-circle and, as Kennedy watched, Stannis strode into the centre of the arc. One of the security guards scuttled up to him, whispering something into his ear. Stannis frowned and seemed to be rattling off instructions to the guard, who ran off, gathering a significant number of those stationed around the yard as he left. Within moments there were far fewer Consortium soldiers than there had been before. Kennedy could see Stannis nod in satisfaction as many of his guards left in formation, but then he stepped forward. “Friends,” his voice was rich and resonant, “on this delightful evening we remember the hardships of our ancestors and their resilience in the face of the Catastrophe. Humanity continues, and what were embers in the darkness have flamed into greatness out here amongst the stars!”

There was a blinding flash, and for a moment Kennedy's vision whited out entirely. Stannis had thrown some kind of firestarter to the ground, sparks fountaining up like the fireworks she'd seen in storyvids she'd read as a child.

With appropriate 'oohs!' and 'aahs!' the guests stepped forward, throwing their tiny lights onto the ever-growing pile; the tiny flickers being swallowed up instantly by the harsh blaze on the ground.

“Time,” muttered Torcuil. Kennedy blinked. She knew she could make the throw but there was only one chance to get this right. She stood up, swung her arm back, focussed on the fire and flung the cannister with all her might. It sailed up and over the fence in a perfect curve.

Before it had hit the ground, all three were running. She'd already taken a handful of steps when she heard a deafening hiss and bang. Another three steps and the ever-expanding smoke cloud engulfed them.

They kept running.

Screams. Shouts. Coughing. Chaos. Alarms.

They ducked behind a corner. Tzofiya grinned. “Mission accomplished.”

For auld lang syne, my friends/ For auld lang syne/ We'll liberate a box, a crate/ For days of auld lang syne

II

Kennedy lost Torcuil and Tzofiya quickly as they melted away in the crowds of guests rushing away from the party. She arrived back in the Residences, breathless, stinking of smoke but elated. The distraction had worked! She opened up her CORETECHS, anxious for news of the heist on the Docks.

“What's happening,” she said to herself. She scrolled through the feeds but could see nothing.

“Looking for something?” came a familiar voice from behind her. Kennedy looked away from her display. It was Fox. And he was beaming.

“Did it work?” asked Kennedy. “Did you manage to get the crates?”

Fox chuckled. “Oh my dear, we did far better than that. Whilst your team caused a marvellous distraction and conflagration, and Troy and Mehreen were busy making mischief at the Dock, which I believe drew away a handsome proportion of Major Stannis' people, Freya and myself were coordinating with our friends from the Ruins and helping ourselves to all sorts of supplies from the Shipping Bay.”

Kennedy frowned. “But all the party food, all those crates from Cirque Centauri.”

“We were never after them, Kennedy. I'm sorry but I mislead you, just a tad.” He held out his thumb and forefinger, with a tiny gap between them.

“Just a tad?”

“We liberated advanced medical supplies from Hopkins' Legacy; the finest, and safest water rations from Estación de Amazon; warm clothing from Tau Station and half a million ration packs. Ser Francois' people from the Wilds are distributing the crates around the station as we speak, each marked with an ember, to remind citizens that we have survived much darkness until this moment, and that we can endure it a little longer.”

“Stannis and his rich friends still keep their fancy goods though,” said Kennedy, sadly.

“Expensive luxuries from Cirque don't sustain, clothe and heal our friends, Ser Kennedy,” said Fox, “but everyone will go to bed tonight and for many nights to come with plenty of food, safe water and thick, soft blankets. Isn't that, after all, the meaning of Emberfest?”

Fox stepped back and pulled something out of his jacket pocket. “Here,” he held out what looked like a plastic scroll. Kennedy took it, her jaw dropping as she saw the writing on it. “A bond certificate?”

“For ten thousand bonds,” said Fox. “Payment for services rendered. And I think you'll find every house in the Residence will have a special Emberfest delivery tonight, courtesy of Auld Lang Syne.”

“I don't know what to say,” said Kennedy.

Fox smiled. “Just keep our secret, dear Ser Kennedy,” he said, “and be ready for next cycle's Emberfest. Every festival is a challenge, a battle of wits with the powers that be. But we will always win, as long as we stay together.”

Kennedy made her way to her home. True to Fox's word, crates were appearing outside the doors of every home in her little neighbourhood, shadowy figures appearing, placing the boxes and disappearing like ghosts.

Whilst residents weren't allowed to take embers door to door on the Yards of Gadani, residents had lit up their windows and she could hear laughter and chattering from within.

A group of revellers from a neighbouring district passed her as she turned into her street, singing a traditional Emberfest song. Mona was amongst them, and she grabbed Kennedy's hand. encouraging her to join in the celebrations.

Fire and flame burn, warmth shall linger/ Humanity's downfall, beaten together/ Colonist and Harsene, Baseline and Belter/ Mall and Patrician, all need shelter/ We faced the darkness, passed the test/ We remember as one, this Emberfest.

Fin.