by xBryn Lantry
However, Jor accused himself of being a fraud to feel bereft. Since losing touch with the Liberator he'd been clumsy and awkward with Jenna, even when her wanderlust wasn't snatching her far out of his reach. After Epheron and Earth, his former self had become a stranger who went by a different name. Jenna belonged to that brave, giddy, thoughtless past, so removed from the present. He never had told her how her humour helped in the bad times. In the years before Epheron he'd been driven by his mission, by a necessity greater than that of expressing his human loves and urges. On Epheron his spirit had caved in under the gathered weight of doubts. Though a patch-up job had since buttressed him, he'd withdrawn, and withdrawn furthest from the woman he admired.
Gauda Prime's moons sailed, the ugly pocked giant and the glimmering dwarf behind. Jor chose to count his regrets on his fingers rather than sleep. The fact that nightmares no longer lurked in his subconscious, waiting for him to shut his eyes, only made him suspicious. That dream voice tempting him to "renounce" ™ like his personal devil, ordering or wheedling ™ had at least proved that he'd not yet given way an inch. Had the devil admitted defeat, or did it fancy it had got where it wanted with him?
"What's that you're playing with?"
Jor's head whipped round. Touchy at being disturbed, he didn't answer. With that easy familiarity which sometimes annoyed Jor but often gratified him, Treya Ven sauntered into his quarters, yawning. He picked the amulet from Jor's fingers: an alien animal worked in amber stone.
"Free-traders are superstitious," said Jor. "Jenna gave it to me as a talisman. She thought me deficient in luck. As did a tattered Outsider astrologer, once ™ who told me I was born under a malign astral configuration, signifying futility. Like a civilised Fed citizen I smiled at the mysticism, more worried about her skinny ribs than fate."
"Turns out you're luckier than Jenna."
"Am I? Those loved by the gods die young. Me, I just march on, losing with monotony, frustrated at every major step I take. Not to mention, growing old."
"You just look old." The mercenary slapped his shoulder.
"What's worse, the revolution is growing old. Limping on like me, burnt out and encumbered. I'm nostalgic for the days when resistance was an unequivocal thing. When resisters had black and white principles and only a couple of them, to which they were sworn, excluding anything else."
"The simple people were the first to catch a bullet."
"Why didn't I, then? I'm sure I was simple once. These days even defining what you work for is a murky business. Our theorising and justifications merely cloud the issue. We think so much the machinery grinds to a halt. The Federation's falling deeper into decadence, and so is the revolution."
"By decadence you mean the Federation is spilling more blood while the rebellion is spilling less?"
The mercenary's eyes were a stark green, and sunny. They made Jor easy-going again when his moodiness threatened to stray into neurosis. Pirate fashion, Treya Ven had his hair shorn rear of the skull, leaving greased and twisted locks before and behind his ears. His skin was the colour of antique wood. Though slovenly in dress, his untidiness was designed, nearly foppish. Jor was slovenly too: out of carelessness.
"Treya, I'm racking my brains here about Avon," Jor began. "With my information, Arlen says she can insinuate to Orac the location of Blake, without the computer twigging to the fact that the data is implanted. Trouble is, if Avon never poses a question about my whereabouts, the location will remain locked in Orac's jealous brain where half the sum of human knowledge is buried. Which means Avon can only learn about Blake if he's interested enough."
"I haven't worked out why you're interested. Weren't you and him the least likely couple since Otho the Scavenger married an Andromedan by mistake? How many civil words did you exchange in your three years?"
"Oh, maybe three," grinned Jor. "But then, I have the bad habit of getting more wrapped up in my adversaries than my allies. I noticed him because he fought me."
"Your nearest and dearest enemy, huh?"
"I had plenty of those. Travis ™ he was obsessed with me to the brink of mania. And I was stuck in a similar rut. So busy with him and his kind that I had scant attention to spare for the people who actually helped me."
Jor ignored that. "Avon used to have more enemies than friends, as I did. But when the enemies begin to impact on you and the friends pale into triviality... You forget to care, then. I fear that may have happened to Avon when he met Bartolomew. His lover joined the ranks of his enemies and the scales tipped. Me, I was that way before the London. Federation butchers had usurped the space in my brain. Which perhaps is why I didn't feel any the less for Avon because we squabbled like alley cats. To me, it didn't follow that we mattered nothing to each other. A strange bit of double-think that confused him at the time."
As Jor talked, the austere planes of his face were looser, franker. He only let his tongue wander on with Treya Ven. The pirate probed an inch more. "You last saw Avon two years ago. Where do you get your latest bulletins? The rate you detail his trips to Earth and Terminal, I could think you have a chum in Fed security."
Jor gave the sidestepping smile he used often, though less often with Ven.
Jor is a master of evasion, Ven thought, despite his perplexed speeches about how the past was never this complicated and mendacious. Probably he's mourning his lost honesty. Ven had penetrated more of Jor's secrets than Jor guessed. So he read between the lines of the rebel's wistfulness and denunciations.
But he shouldn't joke about Federation friends. Jor had enough of a guilt trip about his links with Fed officials, without Ven teasing him.
As Avon interpreted things, Vila had no excuse to confront him with such iron in his mild brown eyes. Malodaar was not that important. The fact that Vila found it important just provoked Avon to brazen the business out.
The worst hour Avon remembered might be the public exposure of his ridiculous and childish love for a fiction he named Anna. His bleak boast was that she had left him no sadder, but wiser. Which translated as, since then he laid on the pessimism with a shovel instead of a trowel. The shuttle episode proved him as severe as Bartolomew, as crafty as Bartolomew. Vila could cope, as he coped then. Weather it.
Yet this pickpocket from the slums had tried and convicted Avon before they even got out of the shuttle.
Seventy kilos ™ seventy-three kilos. Had Vila weighed sixty-three or eighty-three, the temptation might have been less. But the equation was too near perfect to ignore. How could a mathematical mind not admit Orac's precise and limpid solution?
Sharing a ship was a messy affair, and tiresome. On the shuttle, however, he had been in his element. The swamp had been stripped down to a maths problem. Systematic, like figures running down a terminal.
Vila and he had lived in each other's pockets for too long. So that of late he had caught himself rapping Vila's cheek with his hand as they joked, as the grotesque Egrorian awaited them below. Holding his shoulders, to joke. That warped genius Egrorian had doused Avon with cold water. He had sworn to himself, my fine-tuning won't go scrambled like that. I intend to remain a sane genius.
Gliding back through Malodaar's atmosphere, Avon had a sadistic compulsion to tease Vila with the remark, "One could get very fond of that young man." Why their warped host was of that persuasion Avon rather hated to think. But he hadn't quoted Egrorian. He had been interrupted, and instead attempted to wash his hands of Vila by way of the airlock.
This alienation from Vila didn't depress him. But aloneness did nothing for the formation of purpose. Purposes for existing were few and far between. At times he had a twinge of envy for Blake's monomania with liberty. He supposed that Blake, busy with justice, had never spent night watches wrestling with the tedious perception that action was a wasted effort, that the galaxy was a scrap heap; or hunting for some interest with which to bribe himself to persevere in living.
Then the interests he did find were purposeless too. His choice of people must be so bad as to be burlesque. Either that or he was impossible to care about. He told himself that Anna had been a game of human chess, and that he had stolen the victory at the eleventh hour. Anna, the sole person after his brother to profess a love for him.
He'd used to take her for granted, through the years of criticism from Cally and hostility from Blake. That was gone. Now another mooring had been jerked loose, because those droll, sidelong glances from Vila had stopped. Now his eyes were direct, and iron.
But Avon had prevented himself from being another Egrorian.
Over an aqua wilderness of sea, the sky was washed with rose and tangerine. Kazant's presidential fortress stood on the equator, and the early heat promised him a sweaty day. With wry fingers, Kazant inspected the creased, sagging flesh of his jaw, which had belonged to him for ninety years. Then the master of the Federation picked at the knot in the sash of his bedrobe. Even with longevity science, people were moribund.
He had stationed himself in the Indian Ocean because here nothing aged. Of the human cattle whom he ruled or didn't rule, the ones he pitied were those outcast from civilisation. No rejuvenation drugs for them, no security of a society without religion and scared of death. Rebels and rejects faced their mortality alone. That must be hell, he thought, if the Federation were God.
The knot refused to loosen for his cramped fingers, and Kazant rang for the servant. A different lad entered to dress him this morning. Kazant missed the good-natured delta who had gossiped and jested him through his ablutions for the past five years. But it wouldn't do to ask after a servant.
As the president waited with his lanky arms up and his vest slipping over his face, he whimpered. A thin metal spike had pierced the tender spot under his breastbone.
After losing his ship above Terminal in a gamble on Blake, Avon had assigned Orac the task of tracing him. In its spare time.
He never quite cared to make a personal trip to Jevron. But he quizzed the computer for evidence as to whether Blake had been cremated there. Once he dug pictures of Jevron from the banks. A dreary, sullen planet, fit for nothing but a grave. Perpetual flat moors that might indeed encourage you to lay down on the sodden black earth and forget to get up. There was a punishing wind that never flagged, gripping everything not rooted down and spoiling the sky with dirt. If Blake's ashes had been scattered in that wind, he might contaminate half the planet by now. No, Avon didn't go to Jevron and breathe the wind thick with dirt and corpses.
Orac had little spare time. And a probable ghost ought to be elusive. Once, Avon chanced across Blake's ID file, with a photo from his dome years wherein he resembled a mutoid. An out-of-date footnote had him as the most wanted fugitive in Federation space. Avon gave a wry smile, and no comment.
The last time he had seen Blake... Servalan had stranded the crew on Terminal. Before leaving the underground wards, Avon had returned to see the pseudo-Blake, the computer-simulated delusion. There he lay, as genuine and as phoney as Anna, the last time he had seen her. So much for his career as a con artist. Anna, and Servalan, had more artistry, and he had been conned. Humiliated, Avon fixed the holograph in a stare. "So you are a fake," he had stated.
"Shame." The equipment worked on, and the Blake-face crinkled in a familiar smile. "I'm sorry I'm a trick."
"I didn't ask you to be sorry."
"No. My programming did, though. I am, you see, Blake ™ in a sense."
Studying the mass of hospital machinery, Avon picked a tube at random and pulled it out. Then he pulled others from their sockets, and flipped switches to zero.
The burly chest on the bed began to rasp. The true Blake had died alone and silent, as Cally had cursed him on Saurian Major. That seemed a waste. He and Blake had journeyed together far from the pacific domes of Earth, through hell and deep space. He had been resigned to them facing death together ™ when they finally faced death and lost.
He caught the balled fist and meshed their fingers together. No doubt Blake would haunt him after this ™ the dubious company of another ghost in his head.
When the delusion was dead, he winked out.
Continued in Derelicts
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