Section F - F-for-Freedom, F-for-Future, it said right there in big letters over the section ring seal - was the part of the station which housed returnees from the Empire, the State and the Federation until they'd found jobs and clans and homes.
And it stank.
Too many people for the space, for the waste services, the air-cyclers, Capitaine Elienne Desorlay thought.
She'd seen the ads on the holo, back in the Federation, a tall Brutor woman whose deep brown skin picked up the colours of the Minmatar flag on the wall behind her, her faintly-accented Gallantean vibrant with hope and promise. Come home, children of the Republic! Home to lives of freedom, the lives of your ancestors.
Eli snorted at the memory. If your ancestors lived on tubes of casien protein, maybe, ten-to-a-room in the bowels of a space station with the perpetual hum and thud of the biomass processors on the other side of the wall.
Still, it doesn't smell as bad as it did last time.
Or maybe I'm getting used to it.
She lit a cigarette anyway, sour local Republic tobacco but better than nothing, as Lieutenant Charles Etay hitched the knees of his trousers and crouched by the body lying against the wall.
Eli was pretty sure it was a body, although without the medtechs' identification of the stained and crumpled rags wrapped around oozing meat as human, she would have had her doubts.
She exhaled a lungful of smoke. "Well?"
"No ID," Etay said, turning to look up at her. "Might not have had any before the beating."
"If he's registered with - he?" Etay nodded confirmation and Eli went on, "Registered with Resettlement, they'll have his DNA on file."
"If he was registered. And if they'd gotten around to testing." Etay looked back at the body. "Dental, maybe. If there's anything left of his teeth."
"If he ever saw a dentist," Eli said. "Fortune fuck me, it's not like his own mother would know his face."
"No," Etay said soberly. He rose to his feet with the easy grace of the young and strong, the fils de putain de merde, and adjusted his cuffs. "Morgue services'll have a better idea, but what do you think? Four of them? Five?"
Eli dropped her cigarette and crushed it with a toe. "At least. Fists and feet. But I don't see much blood on the walls, not that you could tell in this shithole."
"Somewhere else, then?"
"Could be. Or else ... more than five. A lot more. Packed in around him."
Etay put his hands in his pockets and looked at the walls assessingly. "Splashes on them, not the walls."
"Yeah." Eli shook another cigarette from the pack. "A lot more than five. Fifteen, twenty. More."
"Five is a gang," Etay said thoughtfully. "But twenty, Eli. Twenty is a mob." He tilted back his head to look up at the walls rising on either side of them, vanishing somewhere twenty stories up into the clouds gusting from the over-worked envirosystems. Heads disappeared from sight as he did, windows banged shut. "Mobs don't come from nothing. Inter-tribal? Some sort of feud?"
"No reports of anything like that," Eli said. "Not that I've seen. Some shoving in the lines at supply, name-calling. Big jump from that to this."
Etay looked around the grimy alley with its grisly contents, and then slid Eli a sideways glance, one eyebrow raised. "Such a big jump, someone would have seen it, non?"
Four hours later Eli lit her last cigarette and thought sourly, 'Non' is just about fucking right.
Someone had seen something, she would have bet her pension on it, more than one someone, too, but those witnesses, whoever they were, weren't talking. Not just the usual 'no love lost for the long arm o f the law' either. She flicked ash down-wind.
The closest they'd gotten to an answer had been We take care of our own from a skinny Sebbie woman with the fish-belly pale skin of a life-long station dweller, the words spoken with the flat contempt of someone who'd long ago lost faith in the tender mercy of those in authority to take care of anyone but themselves.
"Something that never got reported, maybe," Eli said aloud, and Etay nodded. "Could be some tribal thing even, for all we know - "
She felt a tug at her sleeve and turned fast. Just a kid. A snot-nosed Vherry kid of indeterminate gender, pulling on her arm with fingers black with dirt.
"That's bad for you," the child said solemnly, pointing at her cigarette. "It'll make you die. We learned in school."
"That's you told," Etay murmured, the corner of his mouth twitching up.
Eli gave him her best glare, the one that had sons and husband backing towards the door when she used it at home, and Etay ducked his head and got very interested in his shoes. Eli turned the glare on the kid, but the miniature Minmatar was made of sterner stuff.
"It is, though," the - boy? girl? - insisted. "Bad for you."
"I'm Gallente," Eli said. "It's different. But yes, it would be very bad for you. I'd have to arrest you."
Etay, the salaud, was laughing at her, almost soundlessly but I can fucking well tell. Eli put a hand on her hip, showing the child the ID pinned to her belt. "See? Republic Justice. So beat it before I put you in jail for loitering."
The kid moved back, just out of arm's length, and stopped there. "Are you here because of the Sansha?"
That sobered Etay. "No," he said, and Eli shook her head as well. "The Fleet and the capsuleers will make sure the Sansha never come here, okay?"
"No," the kid said patiently. "Not the ones out there. The one here."
Etay hitched up the knees of his trousers and crouched. "What one here, hmm?"
One skinny little arm lifted, and one filthy finger pointed, past Etay, back down the alley to the temporary barrier already beginning to sag on one side, marking the place the body had lain.
Eli looked, then looked back at the kid. "How do you know he was Sansha?"
A shrug that said as clearly as DNA testing that the kid had some Gallente blood was her only answer.
"Did someone tell you he was?" Etay asked, and got a nod. "Who? Do you remember?"
Another shrug. "Everybody," the kid said. "Everybody was saying it."
Etay met Eli's gaze over the top of the child's no-doubt lice-ridden head. "Everybody was saying it," he said quietly.
Words. Words and fear, at first. Until more and more people hear it, repeat it, and then it's words and fear and fists and feet.
And some poor bastard is little more than a smear on the sidewalk.
Etay produced a bar of sweetened gelatine from a pocket, and offered it to the child. "Do you know who it was, who was saying it?" he asked. "Names?"
With a shake of his head, the kid snatched the bar and bolted.
Eli burned her cigarette down to the filter with a final drag. "You have to hold it out of their reach," she said. "For future reference."
Etay didn't smile. "We should make sure they check the body for any extras," he said, getting to his feet.
"You know they're not going to find any, farmboy, don't you?"
He looked at his feet, golden hair falling across his forehead and hiding his face from her. "I know. But we should make sure they check."
"And you know we're never going to get a name, or names, don't you? Who ever it was, they're local heroes now."
"Defending against the Sansha threat," Etay said quietly.
Eli shrugged. "Welcome to the future, farmboy," she said. "This isn't going to be the last time someone's suspicions get some poor fucker lynched. Anyway, it could be worse."
Etay raised an eyebrow at that.
Eli shoved him towards the exit, towards off-shift and home and a bottle of wine and some cigarettes from the Fed that don't taste of armpit. "He could have actually been a Sansha," she said. "Think about that, why don't you?"
"They've never set foot on a station," Etay said. "Cia said that."
"That she knows of," Eli said. "That she knows of, farmboy."
Etay let her herd him along. "The capsuleers are driving them back."
"Until they get bored," Eli said. "Oh, I know, I know, your pretty girl podder will put her ship on the line to save the innocents, you've said, more than once in fact you've said. They're all like her, are they? You know they aren't, and one day you'll realise she isn't like that either, not really. Podders, Charlie. Not people."
Etay looked down at her, and then back the way they'd come.
"Maybe they aren't," he said quietly. "Maybe not. But Eli - can you honestly say, today, that being people like the people back there who kicked a man to death because someone whispered 'Sansha', can you honestly say that people is always something worthwhile to be?"