At Three O'Clock After the WarBy Sally M
It probably was a rock quarry. It was also the edge of the universe.
He sat on the top of the cliff, staring down into the dark nothingness that the quarry sheered off into. He watched the people - all those people, all those nameless faces - watched them pushing and fighting and silently arguing, as they scrambled and waded through shallow pools and dirty puddles of blood, away from the cliffs with their its sharp edges, from the rubble that was once workers' huts and nowsheltered fire-eyed alien insects, and from the monstrous, beautiful plants with their deadly, drugging flowers and bloody thorns...
...and went over into nothingness.
Over it all, an eerie amber light flickered, and an odd, Auronar music like the chattering, thin clicking of computers was the only sound. And he could see the shadowy forms - four of them - from the corner of his eye; he knew if he turned, they wouldn't be there, so he didn't. He just waited.
There had to be a better place to run a rebellion.
The planet they'd ended up on - after the Jevron debacle, which still gave him nightmares - had few benefits. The only one Deva could think of, off-hand, was that no one else wanted the damn hellhole, not the Federation nor the neutrals. In the chaos after the Alien Wars, it had seemed a safe - relatively safe - place to start a base, to settle and build up forces. The Federation had had enough problems holding on to the Inner Planets - surely they wouldn't be interested in a cold, dry, barren, ugly, seemingly dead planetary sink like Disentastra.
To his mind, anywhere had to be better than this.
Well, nearly anywhere.
"Where will you go?" he'd asked little mouse-like Klyn; more from interest, a vague well-wishing, than from any need to know.
"Back to Gauda Prime if I can. Yes," she'd added, seeing his quick, almost theatrical shudder, "I know. But I promised myself I'd go back some time. Maybe we could make a difference." She had sighed, and squared her shoulders, looking as firm and fierce as a mouse with a mission ever could. "And it can't be any worse than here... can it?"
"Devil and the deep black hole, perhaps?" It was a weak joke, but at least it had won a tiny smile before she turned and left. Deva had watched her go, then headed back past the sprawling, decaying ex-Federation Hospital for the Politically Insane or Deviant, looking for a man with no name - well, no name that anyone knew.
He was sitting against a broken wall, watching the water flow past and tossing the lumps of sweetbread into it for the tentacled, multi-coloured battlesquirts to fight over; he looked up at Deva, a faint, twisted and utterly humourless smile on his lips. "You're still here."
"I thought I'd try to talk you round again."
The man shrugged. "Why?"
"Oh, I don't know. I like a hopeless cause." Deva watched the tangle of rainbow-shaded tentacles as the little animals fought and squabbled over the food. "You really want to stay here?"
"Oh, let's see. Because the food," Deva tore off a strip of the sweetbread and bit into it, "is awful, the scenery," looking out past the canal to the grey-brown fields beyond, "is about as appealing as listening to a Federation trooper's thought processes and twice as dreary, the company -"
"Present excepted," the man growled.
"Present not excepted, don't appear to be thinking much clearer than the troopers... and in any case, I believe it's going to rain."
"I think it is."
"And that's a reason to leave the planet."
"As good as most, yes." Deva was silent for a minute, throwing the rest of the bread into the canal. "Oh yes, and there's the minor fact that the President of the Federation herself and her warship have been seen heading in this direction and just might be coming to wipe us out like they did Jevron. Nothing important."
The other man glared at him for a minute, the distorted gaze cold and burning, then shrugged again. When he spoke, his words came slow and thick. "We have one ship, just one ship, and three days. Not everyone can escape, Deva."
"I know. In fact, very few -"
"- And the rebellion can't afford to lose them."
"What we can afford doesn't matter, does it? As you say, not everyone can escape."
"No." the cold stare was mocking him. "But you will."
Deva winced, feeling faintly embarrassed. He had always known he was safe to go: no fighter, he was too likely to blow his own hand off if given a gun, but he had been able to claim a few skills - computing, organisation and a too-fearful-to-be-dishonest manner - that the rebellion found useful, and he had forged a small place for himself in the aftermath of the war. A totally forged place, but his own.
"Don't play falsely modest, it doesn't - well, yes, it does suit you." The undercurrent of humour was unkind. "Modesty is something I'm not used to seeing, I admit. Or at least," and the humour turned self-lacerating, "I don't recall."
"It's all I have."
Deva didn't try to answer that.
Few understood the harsh, disfigured man who called himself 'flotsam from the war' and whose job neither he nor Frater, the local rebel leader, cared to publicise.
Rumour had it that he'd been on a hospital ship, led a takeover and forced the ship to land on Jevron, then offered it to Frater, who had worked with the semi-legendary Avalon and - it was claimed - once met the utterly-legendary Stannis, pilot to the almost-too-legendary-to-be-real Roj Blake. Or something like that.
In any case, Frater had been more than happy to have the spaceship. In exchange for what, no one knew, and no one asked. And everyone still thought of it as the nameless man's nameless ship. It had only seemed fair that he be one of those taken off Jevron to safety before the President came.
The man was damaged, badly damaged by whatever had happened to him in or after the War, and had brought him to a place on the hospital ship. That ruined eye, and the scar to the edge of his mouth... Deva found them repellent, vaguely offensive; pain should be hidden inside, not on show for an uncaring galaxy. Deva had an uneasy and ill-suppressed feeling that he didn't want to know too much, that whatever this man did for Frater and the rebellion was probably both ruthless and bloody.
There was an aura of detached anger and violence about the man, even apart from the impact of the mutilated face, damaged hands, and the haunted gaze, dark gold and as changeable as the light.
Because Bram Ravel Ballaraeke - such was the name the man had made for himself - did not remember his own past. Something, in the chaos of war, has scoured his mind, leaving only twisted fragments and broken traces, and something hard and unstable in its place.
Deva asked few questions, kept his ideas to himself, and worried about them in between days of battling with old computers, older ideas, and people who asked questions that he did not want to answer. It was simply easier and safer that way... for someone in his position.
Like beggars, semi-skilled and not-very-successful conmen couldn't be choosers. Deva had faked his rebel credentials, not brilliantly but well enough - he didn't care to try and challenge someone else's.
He broke the silence when it was clear Ballaraeke wouldn't. "Frater wanted you to go with Klyn, didn't he?"
"Not that I blame you," Deva went on, very carefully not looking at him, "if you don't want to. If half the tales we hear are true, Gauda Prime is now even less inviting than - well, here." He blinked down at a battlesquirt circling the water near them, and threw in the last of the bread. "Murderers, mercenaries, cut-throats, thieves - every type of career criminal -"
"I don't mind career criminals," Ballaraeke said off-handedly.
"Oh -? How many do you know?"
"None... probably. Except you." With a smirk. "I don't know. Will you go?"
"Me?" Deva blinked again. "I wasn't invited. It's dangerous enough for people who can fight, and I'm not much use in the thick of it, I'm afraid."
"I've seen you with a lasergun, Deva."
"Yes, I know. You hid behind a brick wall with the rest."
"And you disintegrated it."
"Pure luck, I promise you."
"Where will you go, then?"
Deva hesitated. "There's a group headed for a planet in the outer region of sector 4. Helotrix. Said to be balmy," he glared at the shimmering, shades-of-frozen-fauna fields, "civilised," with a glance at the crumbling Hospital behind them, "and reasonably safe," with a mental nod to the threat approaching them, the President's tattered but still formidable fleet. "And where they don't ask too many questions."
"Which suits you." Ballaraeke knew his past - at least the manufactured one, and possibly part of the murky reality. Ballaraeke didn't ask questions either.
"And would suit you. Well, better than staying here."
"Or going home."
"My home -?" Trying not to think too hard about Gauda Prime, and Klyn.
"You know damn well," with an edge of the violence that was so much a part of Ballaraeke , "that it can't be mine. A dead man has no home."
"You're not dead."
Deva knew that the other man toyed with wanting to die, usually after a night of the bad dreams he would talk to no one about. Or the days when the torn holes of his memory became too hard to bear. Deva didn't know what had happened to Ballaraeke's mind, and it frightened him, but the man had become a friend of sorts.
More than a friend. Someone he feared and respected and liked... and for a man without name, without a past or a future, Ballaraeke was the most real person the conman - who wasn't much good with reality - knew.
He sat on the edge of the universe again, watching as the crowds pushed and shoved and fell. And the four shadows he thought he knew stood just out of sight of his mind's eye.
"You wanted it over," he said finally. "You wanted to be free, you said."
"Did I." And the voice was harsh, deep with a thread of uncaring mockery. "Maybe I did, Fearless Leader."
"So why aren't you gone? Are you free now I don't know you?"
The shadow had no answer to that.
"Helotrix is a mudhole in space," Ballaraeke said finally.
"You've been there?"
"I've heard of it. Rains a lot."
"It would make a change."
"You can go."
"Someone has to lead, Frater isn't going to, and neither are Disentastra's leaders." Deva snorted. "Give Audris her due, she's staying to the end."
Disentastra's leaders, who had all been involved in freeing the planet during the war, were nervous. None more so than Audris, the erstwhile Councillor whose connection with the famous rebel Shivan and reputed liaisons with at least two members of the even more famous crew of the Liberator (though not, it was believed, the most-famous-of-all, Blake) did not compensate for her vanity, her capacity for meddling and her utter inability to put anyone and anything - even her people - before her own ends.
Bram Ballaraeke had found her grimly amusing.
"She reminds me of someone," he had said.
"Oh?" This was interesting, since Deva hadn't thought Ballaraeke remembered anyone enough to be reminded. "Who?"
"I don't know."
Well, at least Ballaraeke could joke about it. Even if the joke hurt both speaker and listeners alike.
And at least Audris would stay. The stories about what the President-and-Supreme-Commander had done on Jevron - looking for something, or someone, no one quite knew - were still flying six months after the event. Those about what she had done to Auron were even murkier, even bloodier. Maybe she wasn't coming for Disentastra - maybe there was something else in the empty waste spaces of sector 6 - but few wanted to take the chance.
"Be honest, Deva. I'll be of little use there as here. Flotsam..." A silence, then as soft as a breath. "War wreckage."
"It doesn't matter, Ballaraeke -" Wrong thing to say, he knew that as soon as the words left his mouth.
"Like hell it doesn't!" The words were like a whiplash - startled, Deva stared into a gaze as dark and as cold as hell. Slowly, Ballaraeke relaxed. "The hell it doesn't," he repeated more softly.
"Your friends here see your worth - your worth, for who you are not who you might have been. Even if you don't." Deva spoke with an over-obvious show of patience. "You - the man you are now - could be a leader, Ballaraeke . Not a name, not a figurehead. People trust you, they follow you. I've already told you, I'll follow you, Klyn would, most of the people here would - hell, Frater would -!"
"No, Frater is staying here."
"Yes, he's just as stubborn -"
"He's still waiting for his legend," Ballaraeke paused, "Blake, to reappear."
There was a silence. "Perhaps." Deva sighed. "Unless he is dead, as they say. Dead legends won't build armies any more."
"And you think we can?"
"Probably not, but we could fake it for a while."
"Well, they say Blake's army started on Cygnus Alpha. Not," Deva said with a faint, worried frown, "that I'm suggesting there"
"People can't follow a man who is himself lost, Deva."
"Some people can. I can. Though," he added with semi-apologetic honesty, "I'll be kicking myself at least half the way. And complaining for the other half."
Ballaraeke shrugged again, watching the battlesquirts fighting among themselves. Deva had once theorised that a clump of battlesquirts was a metaphor for the galactic rebellion - lots of 'legs' going in all directions, lots of mindless little heads pushing and fighting, and all a complete tangle of aims, ambitions, expectations and ideas.
A mass, or a mess, and going nowhere.
He had to admit he was not inspired with metaphors.
He sat on the edge of the universe again, and watched the crowd. The bloody pools were drying up, mixing with the mud and the dirt.
One of the shadows detached, floating away, still just in the edge of his mind's eye - slight, unnaturally slender, a woman with what might have been dark curly hair and great hollow eyes - and skimmed towards the place where the blackness began. Swept down and was gone...
That night, the scream came from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Deva shot upright in his chair, throwing off the fragments of a nightmare - darkness, suffocating cold, and a crumbling underground bunker that shuddered and imploded into itself, crashing with a roar that swallowed up the woman's - woman's? - scream...
Now that voice he knew, and it came from outside.
He went to the window. Ballaraeke was outside, staring up at the harsh, black night sky, face twisted and terrifying in its pain. Without a word he turned and half-ran, half-stumbled away into the shadows, towards the relative safety behind the building, ignoring the others.
People were milling around both inside and out, confused, frightened - mostly half-awake, to Deva's slightly more than half-awake mind - and none of them making sense.
"Deva?" Someone called to him. It was one of the other technicians, a toad-faced little person who was even less suited to a war than Deva. "Did you hear that voice?"
"Some screamed for Bram, didn't they? We all heard -"
Deva stared after Ballaraeke, ignoring the others. "No," he said faintly. "I didn't hear anyone call Bram."
He saw Frater at the doorway, staring out. Not wanting to talk to the leader, rather afraid of the questions he might ask and the answers he might find, Deva shut the window, and the world out, and went back to his desk.
It was three in the morning, he noticed blearily. Hell of a time to be chasing new nightmares.
He wondered how Klyn was going on Gauda Prime.
Was gone. And he knew he couldn't stay on the edge of the galaxy. There had to be somewhere he could hide from the crowds wading in blood... and find out who he had been.
In the canal, the battlesquirts were also gone - a few trailing tentacles, losing their colour and drifting in the water. It happened every time.
A small ginger glimmerbird sat on the window and chittered at him, faking hunger and friendliness and total innocence; like him it lied. Further back, he could see an injured blackraptor watching it with flat black eyes. The raptor reminded him in some ways of Ballaraeke, and that made him uneasy.
Not uneasy enough, however. The latest reports had lost sight of the President's ship, but that didn't mean it wasn't there, and wouldn't come back.
"Cally." Standing on the edge of the canal again, Deva said it cautiously, as if it were a lump of meat for the raptor's claws, or the glimmerbird's better-hidden ones.
"Unusual name, these days."
"In fact," even more cautiously, "I can only think of two or three times I've heard the name. And they were aliens," a pause, "like the woman on the Liberator."
"The legend Frater didn't meet." The sour savagery in the voice was new, and it worried him. "The Auronar."
"The one who - is dead."
"Are you sure?"
"I heard her."
"So did I - and Frater - and half the people here. You want to stay and answer questions?"
"I can't. I don't have any answers. Except that she's dead." He bent his head. "They're all dead."
"They wouldn't have left her to die."
"Who wouldn't have?"
"The others. I - don't know."
"I have to leave." Ballaraeke got to his feet, staring down at the water with eyes more haunted than before. "Before Frater - and Commissioner Audris - and others - start adding up as you have, and getting it wrong."
"As I have?"
"Perhaps. I still don't recall, you know. I know she's dead, and I can't stay here, I have to get away from where I felt her die." His voice dropped to a thin, despairing whisper. "They're all dead, they must be. There's nothing left. But who she is and they are -"
"I meant it when I said I'd follow you. So did the others." A silence. "So did Klyn, even though she left."
"I know." It was said quietly, but without question. For someone who didn't know his own name, Ballaraeke could be an arrogant bastard.
"And the rebellion can still use our people, you know. Somewhere else."
"To the mudhole? Or to Gauda Prime?"
Deva sighed. "Well, between Klyn and myself, we should be able to come up with a cover on Gauda Prime. We'll need to be careful, take things slowly, build roles we can play." He sighed again, more theatrically. "I just hope my less than stellar skills at conning are up to it."
"Gauda Prime... why not." Ballaraeke said finally, and shook his head, and smiled slightly, the smile twisting ferally with the scar. "Why not. It's somewhere else to chase."
"The dead man I once was," he stopped, the silence touched with despair, "who might have been Blake."
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