This story was written in response to a Least Likely Crossover prompt from the (now defunct) Reviews Lounge, Too forum here on FFnet; 19th century Gothic romance crossed over with a far-future space adventure was the most implausible crossover I could think of!
Characters from both fandoms will ultimately play a major part in events, though I've tried to write all my cast in such a way that prior knowledge isn't needed — I'm hoping they work as original characters for those who aren't already familiar with them. For the first few chapters, however, it's probably best to consider this as a science-fiction AU set in the future dystopia that is B7's Terran Federation: the Phantom of the Space Opera.
BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS
It was strange sometimes how things turned out, Dar Ogar thought, leaning on the counter and observing his customers. But there were worse planets to end up on than Newparis, and worse ways to be seen to make a living. He'd had experience of both, in his time... but there were things one didn't talk about, under the Terran Federation.
And these days the Federation held sway from Earth Sector to the Outer Worlds. Newparis was an old colony, one of the first to be settled here in the Second Sector, and as a Class 3 world it was barely viable for human life. The air was thin and harsh-tasting, unbreathable for offworlders like himself, and when duststorms blew up — like the one scheduled to hit later tonight — even the descendants of those first settlers were forced to take refuge in face-masks and breather sets like the rest of them.
But for now the sands lay quiet on the endless plains. Streetlights flickered on beneath sealed city-domes one by one as sunset slid across the continent. Here in the great central city — home to almost a million of the five million humans scattered thinly across this planet — the streets around Ogar's Bar were bustling with workers changing shift, the dockyards beyond the Dome had a full roster of repair jobs, and few people wasted time in checking on the weather. When the dust-warning came, the airlocks would be sealed down but life would continue as ever; meanwhile, for Federation personnel and locals alike, home lay within the city. Few bothered with more than the occasional glimpse through the viewports at the barren world outside.
Little Cris in the corner there was one of the exceptions. She sat quietly with her friend, as always, eating her meal and causing no trouble; but like Dar himself, she saw more than she spoke of... And then raised voices and cheerful laughter came jostling in for attention as the first little knot of junior officers spilled into the bar, and Dar sighed and turned his attention to serving as the business of the evening started in earnest.
All these youngsters saw themselves as Lords of the Universe: but when it came down to it, the sheer imperishable confidence of youth had as much to do with the matter as the privilege of Space Command uniform. It wasn't hard to look beyond the reflected halo of power displayed by the planet-and-arrow symbol of Federation service, and spot the roughened patches on shoulder or lapel that betrayed a promotion of only a few days' standing. Dar knew the mark of cadet badges all too recently removed — but he kept the private smile to himself, and dispensed drinks with the air of respectful awe proper to a mere civilian before such elevated mortals.
Twenty years down the line, the hard-bitten survivors might swagger with that same entitlement but the arrogance would be more cynical: corrupt superiors, resentful populations, and the odds of a political purge or two would see to that. But for now, Dar Ogar thought, watching as ever from his shadowed station behind the serving counter, these young sprigs were tolerable enough as the Federation went. Wet behind the ears and apt to assume an unearned authority, perhaps — pilot cadets were all Alpha-grades, by the rigid stratification their Civil Administration had imposed, and it went with the territory — but for the most part still essentially a fresh-faced bunch, some almost touchingly naïve.
That fair-haired boy in the middle, for example, blushing like a girl as his companions elbowed him. What was evidently another ribald comment from behind brought deepened colour to the tip of the young pilot officer's long nose, and a look of disapproval from Cris's friend Carla, who'd clearly taken the remark personally. Judging by the glances the two girls were getting, she'd probably been right about that.
Dar had frowned himself; passing banter was one thing, but those two were regulars of his. They worked up at Central Communications in the dockyard, and called in for a bite to eat on the way home two or three days out of every ten — while Dar might dish out his meals into the same moulded dispenser-trays as those at the ration canteen, the daily menu here was considerably more varied. And he liked to offer a touch of the offworld exotic. With the native Newpies almost without exception as flaxen fair as pale Cris, he'd traded on the striking effect of his own dark-skinned colouring to draw in custom.
An amazing number of people seemed to pass through Ogar's Bar one way or another, if the surveillance crews ever took pause to reckon them up. And Dar made sure to be the public face of that.
Hence the little arrangement he had with the old sergeants who manned the gates; the care he took to acquire the custom besides of these callow young hopefuls, and of all the spacecrews burning time while their Mark III Comet- or Nebula-class sat on the landing-pads for a few days' repair at the Newparis dockyards.
He'd known from the start he could never blend in undercover, and he'd established himself openly with the Federation as harmless. He could face the world on even terms and be returned a smile. Unlike Erik: Erik, who compensated in other ways.
Ways it was better not even to think about, not with a group of young spacers clamouring for service and threatening to turn their attentions on a couple of Newpie girls sitting quietly and minding their own business...
Dar turned up the light strip behind the counter and let one of the serving nozzles drain down a moment or two, sending a volatile alcoholic waft across the Federation contingent. It had the desired effect. He grinned broadly at the transfixed youngsters.
"Now, what can I get you...?"
The last of the stragglers plunged back across the room, in what was rapidly descending into a fresh free-for-all at the bar, and comm-tech Carla made a grab to save the contents of her meal-tray just in time. She scowled, an expression that was incongruous on her pretty features.
"Alphas." The single word held all the accumulated disdain of one who had never once, since the moment she had left the Federation testing station, been able to accept or forgive the system that had assigned her to a mere Beta grade. "Bad enough down in the dockyard — but then they come in here off-duty and try to throw their weight around—"
It was different for Cris. Everyone had always known she'd never test out above the labour grades, not after what had happened with her father — she'd been lucky not to be shipped off to one of the frontier slave planets — and she'd never shown an ounce of talent after that, anyway, it was as if all the life had been crushed out of her. But some people had potential, and they had expectations...
Carla tossed her head furiously, sending her bright bob of hair flying, and turned her habitual glare on the little wisp of a girl sitting opposite. Just look at her: pale hair, pale face, pale eyes — oh, she was as much a Newpie as Carla herself, all gold and pink and blue, but Cris was a poor bleached shadow of her friend at most and it was clear she would never amount to anything. The best that could be said for her was that she was properly grateful for the time and affection that Carla deigned to afford her, which was more than any of the other comm-techs in their block, Delta-grade or not.
But it was clear she was off in a dream again. She hadn't even noticed when that black-haired boor of a cadet had slammed into their table and slopped the remnants of her meal across the tray, and her pale blue eyes were wide and unfocused in the short-sighted way that men seemed to find so endearing. At any rate, she'd got away with dreaming at work often enough.
Oh, in the last few months Cris had taken, when caught, to claiming that she was trying to revise some complicated ratio of frequencies or work out theoretical interference along a narrow-beam broadcast — a whole lot of rubbish beyond anything their dockyard work ever expected them to do, and which Carla herself had barely grasped in her supplemental studies — but that was just part of the girl's slyness. She would blink those big blue eyes up at Tech-Commander Revier and escape with the mildest of reprimands; but nothing had changed, Carla was certain. Cris still had a head full of those ridiculous stories her father had started to come up with after her mother had died.
Some nonsense about hills over the horizon, just out of sight, where the ground was blue and the air was soft and houses lay wide open beneath the sky... and when people disappeared, it wasn't because they'd been shipped off-planet or coughed their lungs out in a punishment cell overnight, it was because they'd run off to the better life in those far remembered hills...
Carla rapped her spoon sharply on the edge of the table, and watched the silly Delta jump.
"I don't believe you've heard a word I've been saying. All these Alphas, as patronising as old Revier and as clumsy as a load of groundworms—"
"It won't last." Cris's dreamy voice was as gentle as the rest of her, but on occasion it could carry disastrously. "The whole Federation will come down like a rotten beam some day, you'll see..."
Shocked into momentary, uncharacteristic silence, the older girl saw Dar's sudden movement from the corner of her eye and froze. They said Dar Ogar had been in security once, off-planet. And everyone knew he had contacts in Civil Administration.
What if one of the pilot louts had heard? What if Dar set more value on his own skin than on protecting his favourite, precious little Cris?
And what — what, above all, had come over the girl to say such a thing? It was the sort of dangerous sedition that her father might have come out with, and Cris of all people should have known better. What if she took it into her head to start repeating some of Carla's own remarks in the wrong hearing?
Besides, Cris hadn't a political bone in her body. She obviously didn't know what she was saying. The best thing was not to make an issue of it.
"I suppose you're going to tell me you weren't busy dreaming away about those old stories of blue hills again?"
"Oh no, I was listening; truly I was." The girl's earnest gaze was completely innocent. "I was just thinking — I used to know an Alpha once. When we were little. We used to play together a lot."
"Really?" Despite herself, Carla was impressed. "What, up in the administration block?"
She'd heard stories — all gleaming walls and old-Earth luxury—
"Oh no, they wouldn't have let me up there," Cris said, guileless. "Just out and about, you know. I don't think his father liked it much — he'd been in Sector Command out in space, he was really old — but Daddy was always there, and he thought Daddy was wonderful, of course. Everyone did."
Until he went that little bit too far and started calling for the reform of the Federation, Carla thought. Then they couldn't disown him fast enough.
"But however did you meet an Alpha brat in the first place?" She was genuinely curious. Not envious; of course not.
"He wasn't a brat." A faint flush of animation came briefly into the other girl's face. "He was kind, and bright, and... quite nice really. And he wasn't really an Alpha yet."
She looked down at the table, pushing trails with her spoon through the spillage. "I suppose I must have been quite little. Too little to understand properly about Outside... or maybe I didn't listen. It was after the flyer accident with Mama, and there were a lot of things I didn't listen to in those days.
"I used to run off and go and stand down by one of the airlocks on my own where the people went in and out, or hang around by a viewport somewhere hoping I might catch a glimpse of Daddy's blue hills, even though you never could. And that day I was out by the lock at East-One, which was always my favourite because there was a viewport nearby and you could see where people went. Only there wasn't anyone using it. Just a few Federation troopers in masks and breather units, the same as they always wear Outside. I knew they couldn't breathe the Newparis air properly without them, and I knew about duststorms, when the inner airlock door comes down... but I'd watched people like us walking around out there almost every day without masks, and I didn't understand about lung capacity and acquired tolerance and symbiotic bacteria and all the things we learn later on, when they start to take us Outside. I knew I was too young to be allowed out of the Dome without an emergency suit. But it was a lovely day, you could see the glitter of the sand in the sun, and a purple haze on the rocks where the scrub-horns were unfurling, and ever since Mama died—"
She broke off.
"So I went out just as I was, in my red scarf and my patch-tunic and my indoor boots. I jumped to reach the control-box, and waited for the outer doors to cycle, and ran out into that great gust of air... and I was so excited, I couldn't breathe. I got halfway over to the scrub-horn patch before I was bent double and had to stop because my lungs hurt, and there was that bitter Outside taste in my throat. I coughed, and then I couldn't stop coughing. By the time I was scared it was too late, because I was down on the ground and couldn't get up. I couldn't even scream... and then Rall came."
She took a deep breath, remembering.
"You mean this boy ran after you? Without a mask?" Carla demanded in disbelief. "That was unbelievably stupid — you could both have been killed!"
"He was the only one close enough," Cris said simply. "He was hardly any older than I was, but he'd been brought up on stories of decompression drills and space disasters; as soon as he understood what I'd done he grabbed one of the emergency breather sets from the cabinet by the airlock doors and went after me. Of course it was an adult size mask and didn't seal properly, and he wasn't in much better state than I was by the time he got there... but the first thing I remember was a strange little boy trying to push the breather mask over my mouth and nose, with a fold of my red scarf held over his so that all I could see was those terribly anxious blue eyes. He was so sweet, Carla, even then when he didn't know me."
Carla treated this unsolicited confidence with the snort it deserved. "You could both have been killed," she pointed out again.
"But we weren't, and Daddy says that's what matters." Cris was infuriatingly serene. "He got me up and onto my feet, and most of the way back to the airlock with the scarf shared between the two of us, even though he was dragging me all the way. The woman who was the first to reach us said she'd never seen anything so brave. And Daddy — when they let Rall come round the next day to see how I was, Daddy couldn't thank him enough."
Her lips parted into the hint of a smile, pale lashes sweeping down to hide her eyes.
"I've never seen anyone go so pink... poor boy, all he could do was hold my hand and look embarrassed. But I clung onto his fingers and wouldn't let him go, and in the end Daddy told us a story to get me to go to sleep. Rall was fixed to the spot. He was the first person I'd met who loved Daddy's stories as much as I did."
Carla's attention had begun to wander, over to the far side of the room where the Federation cadets were starting to reach the rowdy stage. There was a lot of shoving and jostling going on, and glances were being thrown in the two girls' direction. Recognising the symptoms, she tossed her head and heard the banter increase, not displeased with the effect she was producing.
Cris was still busy rhapsodising about her infantile romance, which seemed to have involved a lot of hand-holding. They'd been staring out of one of the viewports, two children alone—
"I thought you said your father was always there?" Carla interrupted with an air of triumph.
Cris dropped her gaze, staring down into her lap again. "He was... to start off with. But he was busy, and he trusted Rall to keep me out of trouble — and Rall's parents didn't need to know."
In short, so far as Carla could gather, the two children had been allowed to run wild all over the Dome and fill their heads with all sorts of foolish dreams.
"We used to talk about where we'd go when we grew up," Cris said wistfully. "He was going into Space Command, of course, like his father — I'd study at the Central Science Complex and we'd discover new planets and see the stars all across the galaxy."
She sighed. "I suppose even then we knew that it wasn't ever going to happen, not really. Not even before... before they took Daddy away."
And after that... well, by the time Carla had first set eyes on her, the anarchist agitator's daughter had been a scrawny creature assigned directly into comms training school after a seven-year stint in the re-education institute; and no Alpha family would have tolerated any association like that.
"So you never saw him again." Carla cut off the story briskly, drawing the obvious conclusion. She thrust away her empty meal-tray and started to get to her feet. It looked to her as if the entire Federation party was making a move — the long-nosed boy who'd been the butt of the jokes earlier was being carried, protesting, in their midst — and it was entirely possible to have too much of a good thing.
"Only once." Cris, as ever, was entirely oblivious. "It was when he—"
And then it was too late. She broke off short — even Cris couldn't miss the mass of young manhood currently bearing down on them — and jumped to her feet in the moment before the table rocked at the impact.
"Come on, lieutenant—"
"Let's see you win those stripes—"
"Here's one set of merits you won't get by keeping your nose clean—"
"With Newpie girls you should feel right at home—"
Baying voices. Cris, backed into the corner, looked terrified, and Carla herself bit her lip, raising her chin defiantly. There was a brief struggle amid the crowd before numbers won out, and their reluctant aggressor was thrust forward to sprawl briefly across the table, scarlet from ears to nose-tip beneath the thatch of fair hair.
A moment later, with a thrust of his shoulders, he'd rolled back onto his feet and was facing down his friends, temper finally rising. "Look, this has gone far enough — I'll kiss a girl when I'm good and ready, and it won't be one who's been scared to death—"
He turned, to throw an apologetic glance at the two trapped behind the tables.
"Ladies, I'm sorry. I'm afraid—"
Carla, watching the others back off shamefaced as Dar made an angry intervention, glanced round sharply as his voice ebbed. The colour was draining slowly from his cheeks, even as it mounted into Cris's pale face in a sudden flush of delicate pink like a statue coming back to life. Her lips had parted, and Carla had never seen her eyes so bright.
"Cris?" It was hesitant, and he'd gone sheet-white. But the smile that had begun to form in answer to hers was an echo of that same sunburst of sheer delight.
Cris nodded. "It's me... oh Rall — Rall!"
On impulse, she held out both her hands; and for a moment, the young pair standing there together were almost beautiful.
Carla looked over automatically at Dar, seeking an ally to bolster her shaken cynicism. But the offworlder was staring up at the camera pickup in the corner of the room with an expression of deep concern that made no sense to her at all.
Every public place was under surveillance, they all knew that. But what would the Civil Administration care about a few rowdy juniors from Space Command? And if an Alpha-grade lieutenant went gooey-eyed over a girl in a bar — she could hardly imagine it was the first time.
She caught the eye of the black-haired boy who'd knocked the tray earlier on, and let him see her assessing gaze in reply. This lot were out of the cadet ship, the Borda, newly arrived on a month's refit; they'd be around a while. Some of them might even be worth cultivating... one or two at a time.