After the FallBy Harriet Bazley
Roj Blake, sitting in the corner of a grimy room on the colony of Gauda Prime, found himself contemplating the cold-blooded murder of one of his own men.
The first time the idea had occurred to him he had thrust it away in revulsion. But in the world in which he now lived, the commonplace of killing brought it back again and again as the obvious, the only solution. A man threatened your position? Kill him. A man challenged you? Kill him. And a man who was steadily, surely destroying the cohesion and the very ideals of your group... kill him...?
Of late, Felak’s limping figure had begun to loom in his dreams, swollen to a size far greater than the crooked little creature could boast in his daylight hours. Blake didn’t need old Mace, the failed dream-teller, to interpret that.
He hadn’t told Mace about the dreams. The old man was one of the last of the group whose loyalty he still trusted, but he shrank from admitting even to Mace how far, in these last few months, he’d felt his leadership slipping.
He hadn’t told Jenna either. And the reason for that he was not prepared even to think about. Her loyalty... had been beyond question. Once.
Before Felak — before Felak he would never have fantasised murder. Never have turned it over and over in his mind, shrinking from it and yet driven back to worry away at the same agonising obsession, like a man tormented by a scar that will not heal.
He too bore his scars now, like the rest of them, like Felak’s ill-knit leg, Winata’s face, like Jenna’s patchy burns. That deep ache in his side where Travis’ blast had never truly healed, and the newer mark that dragged at his eye, slashing its desperado’s brand across what symmetry his features had ever possessed: memento of Sirollo-2. One more failure in a long list of failed planets, of unworthy allies, of — if he were to be honest with himself — of his mistakes.
And it was Felak who’d got him off Sirollo-2, Felak and dead Reinus, laying down a withering fire that held back the pursuit long enough to get them to the landing field, and a ship. Felak had probably saved his life that day. Had risked his own, in the course of his deadly trade, a dozen times at Blake’s side without turning a hair. Stood ready to fight for him: which meant — while Blake was still opting for honesty — meant, in effect, that whatever else lay between them, Felak was ready to die for him.
The little man had made no secret of his growing scorn for Blake’s scruples. He’d brought in more and more of his own kind to the group to swell their numbers; hardened, casual killers who marked up each notch on their weapons with the air of a connoisseur and who looked to Felak and not to Blake for decisions.
They were short of money. The group was always short of money now, without a Liberator to house and feed them or a treasure room to pay the bribes that were needed just to survive. There had been a time once when Blake would have regarded himself as too high-minded to sell the services of those who followed him for cash. Those days were long gone. In moments of clarity, he faced the fact that they had become little more than mercenaries, guns for sale like so many of the outlaws among whom they had come to live.
He clung to the last shreds of his ideals, taking on poorly-paid commissions from those employers with more scruples — and hence, of course, fewer credits — than the rest. When they could scrape together the funds, he led out his little group to do what harm they could to the Federation or to give some semblance of hope to those who needed it. It came expensive.
Felak was not the only one, now, to voice in huddled corners the truth that they could all live better, a great deal better, if they took the dirty jobs. If they dropped the lip-service to a better world and accepted the Federation as it was, with all its potential for profit.
But the little man was the only one so far to have claimed for himself an equal part with Blake in making contacts and arranging their plans. He knew everyone, it seemed, and was everywhere, like a malign genius of organisation, forever presenting deals on tempting terms with no more part needed for Blake than to say “Yes” or “No”... and there was a limit, Blake knew, to how often he could be seen to say “No” to the cash they so desperately needed and still retain his authority within the group.
Felak, with his reputation for quick offence, his nose for a deal, the twisted malice of his step, and the necklace-string of teeth that he would rattle over and over in his pocket, with a little tuneless drone under his breath — Felak, monster as Blake sometimes felt him to be, was more at home in this underworld than Blake himself would ever become. And he could never be uprooted of his own free will from the place he had made for himself — nor even challenged for that position in fair fight, as his kind understood it, not by any man fool enough to draw a gun on Felak and still hope to live to fire. Blake knew himself to be no gunman; but there were others in the group jealous enough of their skill that they might some day try. Then there would be another death, and for nothing. It would not be Felak who would fall.
So when — if — it came to it, Blake told himself bitterly, it would be pure murder. A knife in the dark as the other man slept. A stray shot in the back as they fought off an assault. False intelligence that sent the crippled gunman alone into an alerted trap — murder only by proxy, perhaps, but the taste of that was the worst of all. The man deserved at least to know — to carry his murderer’s face with him in accusation to the grave.
If their places were reversed, Felak would not have scrupled to shoot him, Blake, down as a lesson to the rest: to rule openly by the gun until the laws of fate at last dragged him low. The same weakness that had lost the leader Felak’s respect was now forcing him to plot his underhand demise — and that, too, Blake knew dimly to play a part in his own looming resentment. By the outlaw code, he was no match for the little man. Felak knew that, and he was making sure the rest knew it. If Blake killed him or if he did not, it would be an admission, either way.
Sitting silent in his corner, while the others gathered around the heat beyond, Blake stared into the abyss of his soul and saw his own failure there; both as a leader, and as a man.
He’d first met Felak six months and half-a-dozen planets back, in an armpit of the Universe otherwise known as Sengen Town — and saved the man’s life, Blake remembered now, mouth twisting. If he’d known then what would come of that impulse, maybe he’d have left well alone. But he knew in his heart he would not.
He never had found out what Felak had done, back in Sengen, to get the mob out after him. By what he remembered of the place, it would have taken more than just an average killing to awaken that baying crowd. Blake hadn’t taken to Sengen, nor they to him, and he and Jenna had themselves been heading off-planet in a somewhat hasty manner when they’d passed the witch-hunt on the road — and, half a mile further on, what was obviously its quarry.
He’d been running since the night before, by the look of him. Less than prepossessing at the best of times, his sharp-nosed, stubbled face and twisted gait, teeth bared in effort, had made him a caricature of himself, like a crippled, desperate rat.
Head bent and staggering, the fugitive had looked up for a moment in the billow of dust as the air-car slid by. Their eyes had met.
Blake, who had never liked lynch mobs, found that he had laid a hand on Jenna’s arm almost without knowing why. The air-car grounded softly, a few yards beyond, with a hiss. Jenna met his eyes with what looked like a shrug, and raised the door. Blake leaned out, looking back.
“Get in.” It was a brief command. “I don’t much care for the local brand of justice. We’ll take you to the spaceport — then you’re on your own.”
For a moment there was only silence in reply. Taken aback, Blake glanced round. The other man’s gaze was on the air-car’s driver.
“Jenna Stannis.” His voice was hoarse and slow. “Well, fancy that.”
“Don’t take this for my idea,” Jenna countered swiftly. A gloved hand left the throttle to indicate her companion. “Roj Blake. You may have heard of him. He makes a habit of this sort of thing.”
Shrewd black eyes returned to Blake. “Obliged,” the stranger said softly, drawling out the sound, and accepted Blake’s grasp to swing himself up into the body of the craft. He said nothing else in the forty minutes until they reached the port, but in the reflection of the canopy Blake glimpsed their passenger’s gaze flickering between the two in the front seat as if trying to understand.
He dropped down into the dust nimbly enough, despite the crippled leg, and watched the other two climb out to leave the hired air-car back in the rank.
“Stannis.” One word from that hoarse voice brought Jenna’s attention snapping round in a reaction that should, in hindsight, have warned Blake. “You Blake’s backup?”
“What of it?” Instinctively defensive, Jenna stared back.
“You still as good as you were back in ’48?” His eyes had gone to the weapon that Jenna wore openly at her belt, after the local custom, and she stiffened.
“Think you could handle four?” One hand opened to show a fistful of dusty and gritty stones from the road. Blake had moved to intervene, but a gesture from Jenna held him back.
The stranger nodded and tossed up four pebbles into the air, letting them arc high above the ground even as Jenna thumbed the intensity on her gun. Three pebbles splintered into gravel as they fell. The fourth split sharply in half with the nimbus from the final shot, two inches from the ground. Jenna let out a long breath and grinned.
“Now, watch.” The hoarse voice hadn’t changed in inflection, and it was a moment before Blake realised what the other meant to do. With an almost casual movement, he had flung the rest of the pebbles into the air — perhaps a dozen or more — plucked the gun from Jenna’s hand, and sent a series of shots spraying across the falling stones too fast to follow. In the instant after the last discharge faded, there came a soft pattering around him as the remnants hit the dust. Not one of them was bigger than the tip of a child’s thumb.
A shrug, without false modesty or any boastful pride. “Maybe Blake could use an extra gun.”
“Now just a minute —” Blake, who’d found his mouth hanging open, had hastily shut it and glared at both of them. “Maybe it’s about time ‘Blake’ was told how you two come to know each other!”
“Oh, our paths crossed a couple of times,” Jenna said, reclaiming her weapon with a distinctly cool look. “Nine or ten years back. Briefly.”
The other said nothing, and after a moment she sighed and gestured towards him. “Blake, meet Res Felak. Wanted by the Federation — and just about everyone else. Except those who’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting him.” A queer, strangled croak from the background, which Blake would later come to recognise as Felak’s laugh. “Best shot in the Inner Worlds... depending.”
“Depending on what?”
“Depending on whether the target could afford to outbid the original employer.” The acid in Jenna’s tone could no longer conceivably be set down to imagination, and Blake’s own mouth tightened.
“A while back.” No emotion could be heard behind the hoarse words. If the gesture that indicated the halt leg cost him anything, it did not show in Felak’s face. “That was a while back... before this.”
Blake frowned. “So what do you do now?”
“Pay back a debt or two, maybe,” Felak said slowly, glancing over his shoulder for a moment towards Sengen, before meeting Blake’s eyes again. “Where I’m needed.”
It was Jenna who broke the silence that followed. “So you’re on the run again and you’d stoop to take a billet with us. We’re hardly in your league of operations, Felak —or hadn’t you heard? Blake’s star isn’t riding so high these days, since he let his ship slip through his grasp —”
She’d never forgive him that, Blake knew bitterly. Never forgive him for failing to chase Avon down, no matter what — never forgive herself for staying with Blake and losing the ship, after the War. Things had been wrong between them now for a long time. He wondered, sometimes, why she stayed.
“— I’ll tell you one thing,” Jenna went on, “there’s no money in it, not by your standards. We can’t afford that sort of price.”
“That was a while back.” It was the same slow phrase, given bitterness by the faintest lift of one shoulder. Black eyes darted, close-set, from Jenna to Blake, and read his answer there. “So. Pirates’ law on what you take?”
“Pirates’ law,” Jenna confirmed. “Equal shares, and nothing held back — and equal shares of nothing is still nothing, and you can have that for free.”
“For now, maybe.”
Laconic acceptance — or so Blake had read it, then. When they’d left, the little gunman had taken up his stance a sidelong half-pace behind Blake’s shoulder, in the position that had become second nature in the days that had followed.
For now, maybe.... He couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned, Blake thought savagely, remembering back to those words across the months and worlds that lay between. Oh, Felak had pledged his honour, such as it was, and he hadn’t broken that bargain. He’d sold his considerable skill and stayed bought, despite Jenna’s hints to the contrary. But he hadn’t made any secret of the fact that he intended to increase the group’s ‘take’ to a level he considered acceptable — nor, of late, that Blake himself could be considered less of an asset than a hindrance in that aim.
And cripple or not, the man was a killer. Life was light in value, out here on the Rim, and insult easy to find, but even among such men as these, he was bitter-tongued, beneath that slow surface, and all too quick to deal out offence himself and then reply with death when it was returned. Felak was good at what he did, all right, every bit as good as he’d promised. And he used his gun without an instant’s compunction.
For a moment Blake could almost hear that croaking laugh that had begun to haunt him, the dry rattle of that string of trophy-teeth. He found himself looking round the dim room in a half-panic, as if the other man had somehow returned. But Res Felak’s corner was empty, his bedding tightly stowed, and there was no extra shadow among those crouched around the heater. Jenna had left early that morning in the air-car on the Santangelo run and taken Felak as backup with her. One more day’s freedom, at least, before they could return.
There had been a time when Blake would have caught the grim incongruity of such a thought and been able to laugh at himself. In the struggle for survival, that saving sanity was long gone.
It was mid-afternoon outside and already greying to dusk. Old Mace had found the warmest spot and was frankly dozing; stocking up on a few more of the dreams he’d once made a charlatan’s living claiming to interpret in the slums of New Shaohi, where they’d picked him up. It hadn’t been much of a living, even before he’d made the wrong prediction for an important boss’s wife. Blake had found a new use for the old man’s talents, talking the group into and out of anywhere, and for a while it had seemed to give him a new lease of life; but he was over eighty standard years old, and life on Gauda Prime, cold and damp, was doing him no good at all.
Another month of this, Blake thought, as a fresh spatter of rain dashed against the high windowpane, and every one of those eighty years would be etched into that frail frame. He wouldn’t give much for Mace’s chances if they couldn’t get off-planet before winter. And unless Jenna’s Santangelo contacts could come up with something big, none of them were going to be getting off Gauda Prime with anything more than the clothes on their backs.
They could always pawn Terson’s jewellery, of course. Not that Blake suspected it would fetch much. He could see the glint of the cheap stones from here in the fading light as the young man’s voice rang out above the others, loud and braying, and Winata, on his lap, giggled admiringly.
Terson fancied himself as a pilot. He wasn’t in Jenna’s league by a long shot, and he looked more like a walking pawnbroker’s window to Blake’s jaundiced eye. Of all the men Winata could have taken up with—
He’d picked the girl out of the gutter, literally. Even Winata didn’t know how old she had been. Jenna, privately, had put her at an over-developed fifteen. She’d been working the slums in a shabby little port called Heyliss. On the night that Blake and Reinus had been passing through, something had gone wrong. She’d ended up belly-down in the gutter in another girl’s territory, her face slashed to ribbons. Dozens of people must have passed her there, that night. Blake and his companion had been the first to take the trouble to turn her over and discover that she was still breathing.
It was Reinus who’d taken care of her. They’d been in the middle of tortuous negotiations at the time, a delicate dance of trust with a local group to exchange information when neither side could know for certain if the other was a front for the Federation, and the last thing, frankly, that Blake had wanted right then was to find themselves saddled with a half-savage brat from the streets. Winata had held it against him ever since.
Reinus — steady, greying, ex-spacer — had been the only one she’d trusted enough to treat as a friend and not as a potential meal-ticket. Maybe Felak, born and bred on those same mean streets, genuinely hadn’t credited that. But more than likely, Blake decided, chalking up one more savage score, the little man had known exactly the true state of affairs when he’d made that final jibe about the girl at Reinus’ expense.
They’d been on Entebe, back then. Another planet. Another cheap little room. Dusty plains beyond in place of rock and plantations, airless heat in place of dripping chill; tempers short as always. Little enough to choose between them.
Felak had been huddled in a corner, scratching away at one of the endless datapads he guarded so secretively from sight, that little tuneless whistle droning under his breath. Winata — hostile, defensive, scars still livid on her ruined face — had been listening quietly enough to one of Reinus’ well-meant lectures. There had been eight or ten others in the crowded room, and the faint breeze through the shutters had been stale in the heat of mid-day and rancid with old sweat and ill-tanned hide.
Blake, like the rest, had been half-dozing, enduring the hours until the primary sun was eclipsed and the cool of second-morning could begin. He’d never known how the baiting had been started, or by whom. Felak had never seen fit either to excuse or to explain, Winata wasn’t talking, and Reinus — Reinus, by that time, was dead.
Low-voiced barbs from Felak’s direction had become commonplace enough to pass almost unnoticed, by Blake or by anyone else. He hadn’t realised how things had escalated until that last needling insinuation had brought Reinus to his feet and across the room in a couple of strides, ploughing heedless through the bodies in between. He’d caught the shielding datapad from his tormentor’s hands, smashing it to the ground, and flung Felak back against the wall behind him.
And the gunman, uncoiling in a movement as cold as it was instinctive, had shot Blake’s lieutenant through the face even as his grip tightened, spat on the floor in the silence that followed, and walked out.
He’d lost Winata on that day, Blake thought now, watching her — even as he’d lost the man he’d trusted as second in command. It was Felak who’d won; who’d worked himself into Reinus’ old place and slowly, by fear or by greed, angled more and more of the group to his side.
He’d wondered, sometimes, if it had been just such an ambition that had led Felak to goad Reinus into a position where he could make that shot. In his more rational moments, he acquitted the little man of all but his habitual vindictive malice. But of late, in his dreams, he had begun to grasp at the threads of some deep-laid plot....
The rain outside had settled into a steady rhythm against the glass above his head, and the lighting panels in the walls were beginning to flicker into life in response to the premature dusk. At the far end of the room, there was a brief pause in the others’ low-voiced conversation; and in the comparative silence, Blake became aware of an all too familiar drip. He sighed.
“Winata, it was your turn to fix the roof.”
The girl spared him a habitual sulky glance. The insolent air might have been merely due to the scar that had split her lip. “So? It was my turn to go into town. You know I was busy.”
If it had been up to Blake, he’d have kept them all out of town altogether, for the semblance of some kind of civil relations with the locals, and for the sake of the physical readiness of the group in the face of what was becoming little more than debauchery. But his own authority was strained enough as it was. Instead, waiting for the prospect of soaked bedding to stir at least one of them to help, he watched the drip grow; and realised, long moments later, with the inevitability of fate, that it was Felak’s neatly-rolled belongings that lay beneath.
The temptation, acute as it was, had to be resisted. Jenna’s own untenanted possessions shared the same damp patch, thrust into the least-favoured spot by those still present to stake their claim, and the inside of the hut was dank enough already without allowing the rain a further foothold. Blake thrust Felak’s kit to one side with a cursory sweep of his foot, stooped to salvage Jenna’s spilling bags, retrieving a datapad that had been thrust down inside and threatened to drop, and found an empty bowl from their last, unwashed, meal to stem the flow.
The cracked roof-panel should have been sealed yesterday. It hadn’t been; and, watching Winata’s defiant stare and the protective arm Terson had slipped around her waist, watching the almost palpable lack of reaction from the rest of the group, Blake sighed, took the path of least resistance, and went out to mend it himself.
He was still crouched up there, trying to shield the broken edge with his body from the rain, when Councillor Arun came up the track to give them ten minutes’ warning to pack up their things and leave town.
“You can’t do that.” Blake stared at him. “We paid twenty days in advance for the use of this —” he bit back the word ‘hovel’ — “of this building, paid well over the odds. You won’t get that sort of money from anywhere else at this time of year. Who do you think you’re going to get to take it on? We’ve done well by your town, brought you good business —”
“We can do without that kind of business.” Arun had planted both feet squarely in the mud, returning stare for stare. His face was grim. “Get out now, Blake. Not tomorrow, not in half an hour — now.”
Blake read implacable decision in the councilman’s eyes and leaned down, trying to hold the man with his gaze. “Councillor Arun, will you believe me at least when I say that I don’t know why — I don’t know what we’ve done or how we can set it right, but —”
“You’re no gambler, then. You weren’t down in the town two nights past.”
“No,” Blake said slowly, trying to remember where he had been. It was the night before Jenna left. She’d crash-landed their last ship a few weeks before, trying to run the blockade, and he’d been concerned enough about the state of her reflexes to keep her back from the regular drinking-party that had set off that evening for more convivial company to christen the start of the journey. The icy hauteur of silence that lasted between them for the rest of the evening had been almost enough to cover the sound of the others coming back, slurred and somewhat subdued.
He hadn’t asked what had happened. He hadn’t taken the trouble — hadn’t wanted — to know.
“What went on?” he said now, helpless under the sharp flick of the contempt in the other man’s eye. A cold trickle of rain, wet and clinging, made its way down the side of his cheek. Another followed.
“Murder. Gambling and murder.” The town was small and well-run, by the standards of this planet. Arun and his fellow councilmen had a lot to do with that. His gaze was flat and unforgiving. “Money changed hands, and there was talk of cheating — more than talk, by what I hear. And one of your men took a knife to the belly of one of ours, and he’s been two days dying. Two days of an ugly death, with a lot of friends gathering round to swear vengeance.”
He laughed suddenly, mouth twisting without humour. “You think I’m here to evict you? You were an honest man once, Blake — I came to give you warning, for what it’s worth. Get out now, before they get here. Get that rabble of yours out into the rain, or get burnt out by the mob that’s coming.”
A glance over his shoulder, back along the valley. When he turned back, his face was bitter. “And get out of our lives — all of you — and never come back.”
Two days past. “Who was it?” Blake asked softly, knowing the answer, feeling the icy rage grow. Cold enough, dark enough, to numb him as it fed, blotting out the words that rang like a blow to the face. You were an honest man — an honest man, once....
“Who used the knife, Arun?”
For a moment he thought he wouldn’t get an answer. The other stared up, bleak in the falling rain. “Maybe you’d know better than I would. A little man. A little man... with a limp.”
Soaked and shivering later that night under a screen of dripping brushwood, high up on the hill, Blake lay awake and thought again of murder. And this time, with the fuel of hate behind it, if they were to survive, Felak’s death had begun to seem the only way.
“There’s a hut up here we could use, just short of the summit....”
After one of the longest nights of Blake’s memory, the morning had dawned mercifully bright. Mace, putting the rest of them to shame, had begun clambering up and down the hillside almost as soon as the first warmth had crept back into the sunlight. Busy calculating just how long it was going to take to wring some back-payment out of their last employer, Herrera, Blake had left the old man to his fancy. He stood up now in a hurry, dislodging a cascade of stacked bags. Maybe Mace had had the right idea after all.
“Are you sure it’s empty, Mace? We don’t want some woodman coming back and arguing possession — let alone some kind of wild beast —”
“Empty for a while, I’d say,” the old man’s voice floated back, made thin by distance. “Could use some work, but there’s most of a roof, which is a start.”
“Well, we’re used to that, anyway,” Blake observed for the benefit of those near enough to hear him, and managed to get a laugh. He raised his voice, trying to pull the remnants of the group together. “All right — get everything packed up again. We’re moving. Put your backs into it and we’ll be under cover in an hour....”
He wasn’t sure that any other prospect would have been enough to overcome the almost visible disaffection all around him; but with shelter on offer up ahead, it was possible to get at least a semblance of co-operation out of them. It was considerably more than an hour before the last of their shared possessions were finally hauled up the last slope and dumped in the doorway of the rough hut that awaited, with Fossett and Barsad, the strongest, conscripted reluctantly to tally on behind. But for a miracle Terson had actually listened when he’d told him to get the kitchen unit going, and someone had heated up a few pouches of their reserve supplies, and things had begun to look more cheerful than he’d feared.
They were still stuck halfway up the foothills of a mountain range on a planet infested with bounty-hunters — Blake had never asked, but he doubted that he was the only one among them to have a price on his head. But Herrera owed him ten thousand. That should be enough of a bribe to get them all off-planet, barely. He’d counted on that money to finance a better deal with the Santangelo depot, but after last night he wouldn’t have put it past their loving neighbours below to have notified the planetary authorities of their presence, in spite of anything Arun could do. In Gauda Prime’s quest for a new, respectable image, Blake thought, his group typified precisely the sort of undesirables the authorities were only too eager to dispose of. And anyone who wanted to turn his coat and inform on the rest of them could be certain of a generous reward on the other side of the fence.
He had to get them out of here. Jenna would be back tomorrow — or the next day. They’d pull out as soon as she arrived. He’d borrow against Herrera’s credit if necessary — he was owed that money, no matter if the man could be bothered to pay off his tools or not.
Felak, too, would be returning in Jenna’s wake. He’d have his own plans for their future; ruthless and profitable, no doubt. It had been Felak, come to think of it, who’d made the deal with Herrera.
Yes, Blake considered calmly, Res Felak would have to be dealt with before they left. He was a dangerous loose end that couldn’t be permitted to unravel Blake’s plans any further. And it was long past time that Jenna and the rest learned who was in command around here. The thought had a smooth, persuasive logic to it.
He finished the bowl of thick soup someone had handed to him and stood up, glancing automatically over the remaining debris strewn across the trampled grass in front of the hut. Wrappings, broken straps, empty supply pouches, a few stray garments dropped or discarded in the heat of the climb; he stooped almost instinctively to retrieve a fallen datapad — no doubt Jenna’s again —
Blake froze, staring down at the mud-smeared casing in his hand. It was Jenna’s, all right. That was to say, it was the same unit he’d found hastily stowed among her possessions the previous night. But in the innocent sunlight of noon, it was all too recognisable as one of a set he’d seen dozens of times before... in Felak’s grasp. Res Felak, and his constant secretive scribbling. His notations, always, everywhere they went, at every plan they made; — as much a part of the persona he cultivated as the jangling of the grim trophies in his pocket, so that none of them really noticed any more. None of them questioned what he was setting down. And then his disappearances off alone, pad in hand, or clutched close to his breast....
And Felak, who had always guarded the most hostile of silences on the subject, had passed that information to Jenna, it seemed. Who hadn’t said a word.
Without thinking, Blake had thrust the betraying datapad deep into his tunic pocket, as if to shut it out of his mind. He turned, abruptly, and plunged up the hill, away from the others, in great ground-eating strides that jarred his thoughts, until the slope itself compelled him to slow to a more sedate pace.
This thing had fallen by chance into his possession. He had not searched through Felak’s own bags in his absence — he could have, but he had not. In the enforced intimacy in which they all lived, such an invasion was prevented by the most basic codes of privacy, and he had respected that need. No man opened another’s belongings, at least not while Blake was there to see, and even Winata and the boy Jassiom, nearly as light-fingered, respected that. He could not break that rule to fuel his own suspicions without destroying what little unity the group had left.
But he hadn’t needed to do so. Because Felak, who had stone-walled Blake’s every attempt to question him with a croak of a laugh, “no harm to anyone” or “none of your business”, had shown to Jenna — Jenna, whom he’d once known long before she’d known Blake, back in that time of which neither of them ever spoke — had shown to Jenna what he’d shielded so carefully from everyone else.
Or, Blake told himself, his breath forced out of him in great gasps by the final steep climb, or Jenna herself had found it, in an investigation of her own. That was easier to accept, even now, than the possibility that Jenna herself was mixed up in this. That she’d reverted to type, to the gun-runner’s and profiteer’s life now led by so many of those she’d known. Free-traders, they called themselves. Free to sell anything to anyone, anyone to anywhere, and profit on the deal. The sort of deal that Felak knew so well.
The great rocks that crowned the hill-top loomed above him, sunlit and grey against the mid-day sky. Blake leaned against the nearest slab to catch his wind, feeling the autumn chill strike deep despite the sun-warmed surface of the stone, and then began to follow the little winding path that led away among their feet. Someone — or some creature; after almost two months he still wasn’t clear about the local wildlife, save that most of it was Earth-derived and hence edible — had been up here before. Probably whoever it was who had used the cabin last.
He had pulled the datapad out again, and was turning it over and over in his hands. He had to know. He had to know what it said, how it had come to be hidden in amongst Jenna’s clothes. He had to know what his rival was planning, by fair means or foul.
And if, whispered the nightmare that had haunted him of late, and if it proves to be nothing more than an intimate exchange? If the best pilot and the best gun-hand in your group are beginning to establish a bond more simply natural than professional?
That crooked little runt.... She could not, Blake had told himself again and again. A woman like Jenna... she could have had her pick among the best and bravest in the galaxy, and yet he’d never known her other than level-headed about men. He’d trusted her — valued her — as much as anyone he’d ever known. No matter how that freighter crash and its new-healed burns had hurt her beauty, scarred her pride, she could not have chosen for herself now a limping, narrow-faced killer....
His feet had taken him into a little bay among the rocks, a natural lookout point where the clear ground fell away below, with great ledges of stone receding in slabs above his head. For the first time, now that he had cooled from his climb, he became aware of the freshness of the breeze.
At the back of the bay, fallen rubble had raised a gentle mound of turf. After a final moment’s hesitation, Blake stepped between the sheltering walls and turned to sit down, looking out a little blindly across the panorama of the valley beyond. Then he laid the datapad face-up across his knee, unlatched the cover, and switched it on.
It wasn’t — what he’d thought. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It wasn’t what he’d thought at all — and it wasn’t some kind of trick, by the look of it this was real....
The pictures swam before his eyes; not camera views but hand-sketched art, landscapes conjured by the scratch of a stylus. It was incredible. Felak of all people... and yet he could recognise Felak’s hand: the same meticulous eye for form that could shape hand-drawn letters one by one but had never learned true fluency to write.
Two or three of the images were slashed through, scored out savagely as if they had fallen short and the artist had rather immortalise failure than simply wipe the page. One of them, with a queer twist of the heart, Blake recognised: a man and a girl sitting together, the girl’s face turned up, the man leaning down towards her. There was no colour in it, and the hesitant sketch of the man’s features ended in a jagged unfinished line. But some chance or talent had preserved the likeness in the curve of Winata’s cheek. He hadn’t drawn the scars.
None of the finished attempts had human figures in them. To Blake’s vid-trained eye tiny imperfections jarred; but the landscapes were instantly recognisable, vivid little scenes blocked out as he himself remembered them, and he knew enough of the fashion in art to guess that for the cognoscenti, every hair’s-breadth straying line would only prove the authenticity of the piece. The man had a talent. If it was saleable or not Blake frankly didn’t know, but if Jenna had somehow caught a glimpse of this hidden well-spring of Felak’s he could only guess at the commercial instincts such a discovery must have stirred. And, Blake acknowledged wryly, the skill it must have taken her to overcome the man’s fear of derision.
He flipped back to the most recent image, still amazed, looked up, and then down again at the page. It was still there. There could be no doubt.
Felak had sat here — between these rocks — had come up from the valley, perhaps along the very path that Blake had followed, and had sought out this scene and sketched it. The crooked little killer had come here because he liked it, to look at the view. To draw the beauty of the panorama that stretched out before him, for the pleasure of some secret corner of his heart that still preserved a strange innocence.
The very thought was incongruous, and yet it was true. The evidence of that lay before him. Felak had sat hunched in this very spot, as Blake had so often seen him, tucked into some corner with a pad in his hand, with that tuneless whistle droning through his teeth as he worked —
“Res?” The voice from below, following hard upon his thoughts, sent a shock through Blake that almost made him drop the pad. He swung the cover down over it instinctively and slid it into his pocket, trying to place the voice. Not one of his own men. But someone he knew —
“Res Felak? Is that you? About time, my friend....”
The man who came around the corner of the rock, tall, slim, well-dressed — almost as out of place in this setting as Felak himself — was perhaps the last whom Blake would have expected to see in such a context. Judging by the expression of his face, the surprise was all too clearly mutual.
“You’ve got the wrong man, ‘my friend’ ,” Blake said quietly, “—Herrera.”
So much for coming here to admire the view. The wrench of that realisation was more painful than he would have thought possible, ten minutes earlier.
“Blake?” Herrera had moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. “What ever are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same, and with more reason,” Blake retorted. “Only I don’t need to. You came up here to meet Felak, and not for the first time, either.”
Nostrils narrowed in the other man’s haughty face. “I think you forget to whom you speak — Roj Blake.” The gesture with which he flicked imaginary dust off the panels of his long overtunic might have arisen from an unconscious association of ideas; but the insult was almost overt.
“Not at all. That’s what puzzles me.” Blake kept his tone amiable, rising to his feet and proffering a hand as if in greeting. Herrera made a point of overlooking it. “The richest, most cultivated man for a hundred miles — a man with a governing investment in most of the independent operators — a man who buys from off-world tailors and commissions delicacies from around the galaxy for his chef — you know, I don’t quite see you keeping company of your own choice with alley-scum like Felak.”
But Herrera had regained control of himself, impervious either to flattery or to the implied insinuation. He spared Blake a weary glance.
“I take it the man has not yet returned from whichever errand you chose to divert him. Perhaps you would be good enough, then, to pass on a message when you next meet. Tell him that I have a proposal for him: the warehouses at Ehrensby, before the next flight. There were some complications last time, I believe. The same terms, then, but twice the price — twenty thousand credits, half in advance.” He had thrust a hand casually into an inner pocket and now cupped it there, as if weighing a small but heavy item. “Tell him that. Twice the price if he can deliver.”
‘Some complications’...? Blake returned the high-bred stare with a smouldering fury of his own. That botched warehouse raid Felak had fixed for them with Herrera had cost the lives of two of his men, one ruptured by a falling pallet and one dead of wounds taken during the ensuing pursuit. And it had been nothing more than piracy, pure and simple, commercial gain for Herrera’s interests at the expense of his rival. Two dead and half-a-dozen wounded, for no better cause than the welfare of this man’s pocket.
“I have a different proposal for you,” he said softly, watching their employer’s wandering attention sharpen abruptly and swing back. “Suppose first of all you pay us for that last deal, Herrera? Suppose you hand over that ten thousand you owe before we do any more of your dirty work?”
For a moment, he could have sworn there was a flicker of genuine surprise. Then an unmistakable moment of calculation and a tiny, private smile.
“But I paid you yesterday,” Herrera said smoothly. “I recall distinctly: I was out of the office, just coming out from luncheon, and Francesca — you met her, I think, she worked in reception then — pretty Francesca had to put through a secure call to get my personal authorisation before she could complete the transaction and draw you out the cash.”
He tapped his inner pocket again. “I have a record of it here with the rest of the transfers from the vault. The usual rate: five thousand in cash, five in uncut gems. The data is time-encoded, of course, but if you wish to validate the encryption —”
He was no longer even feigning to conceal his amusement. Herrera knew as well as Blake himself did the precise qualifications and limitations of every man in his band; and not one of them, even the boy Jassiom, had the skills to validate anything that appeared in computer records of a system as complex as Herrera’s. He could produce any set of figures he wanted, and they both knew it.
“Strangely enough —” Blake took a step closer, made aware as always of his own unkempt, bulky state of dress beside the other man’s whipcord elegance, and choosing instead to force his presence under that well-kept nose — “strangely enough, I happen to recall yesterday quite clearly too. You see, it was raining at the time and we were about to be turned out of doors from our accommodation — something to do with your dear acquaintance Felak, I do believe. And I can assure you that none of my men had either the inclination or the opportunity, under the circumstances, to make a trek of forty miles to your company office to pick up ten thousand credits without informing me!”
“Oh, he gave his name.” There was something not unlike pity in Herrera’s eyes, as if dealing with a slow pupil. “Francesca passed it on. It was Res Felak.”
“They were going to Santangelo.” It burst from Blake almost without thought, an instinctive protest, and he could have bitten his tongue as Herrera smiled.
“Well, perhaps they called in at my office to pick up a little money on your account first. After all, what is a detour of forty miles, on a journey halfway across the planet?”
“In an air-car? They could have been there hours earlier!”
The smile opposite widened. “Then perhaps it was that they had an accident?”
“You’re lying!” Blake caught his opponent by the shoulders; held onto him, despite the other man’s flinch of fury. “You never paid that money, and you never meant to. You planned to go behind my back and get Felak to run a second deal you knew I’d never agree to, split off anyone who’d follow him for the money, pull me down and put in someone who could be bribed to follow your every whim —”
He broke off with a gasp of pain as Herrera twisted free of his grip with a snap that Felak himself could not have bettered. His erstwhile employer had sprung back in a lithe movement that was a threat in itself, his dark eyes revealing undisguised anger at last. “You think the galaxy still revolves around you, Roj Blake? You think I care so much for the leadership troubles of one failed rebel in a rag-tag mercenary band? Is the truth that is so clear to me not also clear to you — that Felak has betrayed us both alike, that he has taken that payment for his own pocket without any thought of delivering it into your hand?”
“I don’t believe it.” The irony of it was bitter in his throat, but all the same Blake shook his head blindly, denying the possibility. He could believe many things of Felak, cold-blooded murder not the least: had believed him, for a few brief minutes this morning, ready to betray them all. But it was not the memory of that self-deception that drove him to defend the man against this outsider now, it was the raw honesty that forced him to acknowledge the handful of basic codes by which the gunman lived.
If there was one principle he’d seen Felak uphold, at his own expense or at others’, it was that of fair shares among the group where payment was concerned. No favourites — no special allowances — no sleight of hand or thumbs slipped into the balance. Oh, half the group at least would cheat you out of your share afterwards at any game of chance without a moment’s compunction, Felak foremost among them, but that was different, it seemed. Blake didn’t pretend to understand the logic of outlaw morality; but he’d seen Felak, for one, thrust a hundred credits overpaid to his own share back into the common pool, or hold a gun on a man who’d tried to cheat his neighbour, often enough to admit that for him at least the distinction was very real.
“He’s been honest about money between ourselves — always. If there’s one thing I’d trust him in, it’s that. I don’t believe it, Herrera. Whatever game you’re playing —”
The other man laughed outright, secure in his contempt. “Still you flatter yourself. Do you truly think I would take such trouble to cheat you out of such a petty sum? There are millions to be had on this planet for those with the vision to make their choice, and I mean to be among that number. I would pay ten thousand for a matter of mere convenience.”
He thrust past Blake and turned, flicking dust from his cuffs. “This man effectively took over your outfit months ago — even you must have noticed — and now, doubtless, he has decided to appropriate the money into the bargain.” A smile. “You’ve run a long way, but you’re finished, Blake. Perhaps you should surrender peacefully when the bounty hunters come....”
“Wait.” Blake struggled to force the thick words out, past the pride that choked him. “Wait. Felak’s gone, you said it yourself. You were ready to offer him twenty thousand to fix a raid on Ehrensby. I can still pull the group together. I can handle that for you. Just give me another chance.”
He flung that last plea after the other man as he left, his slim shoulders outlined against the sky at the mouth of the bay, and waited, breath held, as Herrera froze; then turned. The lean dark face studied Blake, almost quizzical for once. “My dear Blake, I must admit you never cease to surprise me. I had not thought you had so much good sense in you.”
“Principles... don’t fill a man’s belly.” The words were hard to force out, beneath the amusement in those cynical eyes.
“Then never let it be said that I am not a reasonable man.” Herrera relaxed, smiling now in earnest, and came back towards him to lay a genial hand on Blake’s shoulder. He was an inch or so taller. Even Blake had to look up. “I’m prepared to offer you the same terms. Half in advance — five thousand in cash, five thousand in gems. I might even be able to throw in free accommodation somewhere close to my company headquarters....”
“Half in advance.” Blake’s hand had crept up to his chin, rubbing nervously. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel inclined to take your bare word on that.”
Herrera shrugged, reaching into his tunic. “By all means inspect the goods. You’ll find the count complete. I trust you won’t dispute the valuation of the gems —”
He broke off with a frown as Blake’s grasp closed around the bag, almost snatching it from his fingers. “One moment! What do you think —”
“Well, I think that about covers what you owe,” Blake said quietly, transferring the weapon he’d drawn from his belt with his free hand, and aiming it squarely at Herrera’s disbelieving features. “We’ll call it quits, shall we? This should be enough to get us off-planet; you won’t need to sully your eyes with the sight of me ever again....”
“My congratulations.” It was jerked out between clenched teeth. Herrera was breathing hard, almost white with fury. “You are much better at your adopted trade than I would ever have credited. You pose as an honest man, Roj Blake — it seems it serves to conceal a most effective rogue!”
Blake hit him.
He had not meant to do it. Hadn’t even known it was going to happen until his left connected with that sneering jaw, smashing it away with a sound that was almost a sob. Something snapped, and he caught Herrera by the throat even as he fell, dragging him up again half-dazed to face blow after driving blow.
The other man had flung up an arm as if trying to shield himself, twisting away. The gun that had appeared in his other hand was so tiny that Blake barely saw it in time. A wicked little high-charge Asp, its sting out of all proportion to its size. A typical rich man’s toy.
Instinct betrayed them both. If Herrera had thought to intimidate in self-defence, he had made one final mistake.
Without thinking, Blake’s hand tightened on the half-forgotten trigger circuits of his own weapon. The shattering discharge sent Herrera’s body flying back against the rocks. There was nothing even remotely human left of his face.
Moving almost automatically, as if in a dream, Blake restored his own gun to his belt. They would have heard that, down below. They would want to know....
The payment Herrera had tried to cheat from them lay scattered across the ground at his feet, where the mouth of the bag had spilled. Blake stared down at the credit chips and crystals, and then, his face almost unchanged, across at the body. There had been a time, back on Earth, when he would have felt as much revulsion as any civilised man; but he had seen death too often, these last years, in all its ugliest shapes. His hand, gathering up a stray gemstone, brushed against that mutilated skull with scarcely even a second thought.
It was a matter of moments to sweep the money back into the bag and tuck it into the breast of his tunic. The Asp lay where it had fallen, still clenched in Herrera’s spattered hand. Blake lifted the stiff fingers slowly, tilting the weapon’s muzzle to point over his own shoulder, against the far rocks. Then he let the dead man’s hand fall back onto the gun.
Silent heat roared past him, hot enough to sting his cheek, as the single charge spent its force. Blake got to his feet, and glanced round at the scorch-marks on the rock beyond. Then he used his belt-communicator to raise Terson and the rest on the hillside below.
“Better come up here. We’ve got a dead man on our hands.”
“Who was it? Anyone local?” Old Mace was giving him an assessing look, and Blake hesitated, tempted to temporise; but there might be records or documents in the dead man’s pockets to give him the lie, later.
“Herrera,” he said shortly — they’d got to find out some time — and saw the first sidelong glances beginning to be exchanged, where they thought he couldn’t see. “He came up here looking for Felak. We quarrelled. Turned out he had a hidden gun. I got a shot off just in time.”
And that had the merit, even, of being true. He’d made sure they’d seen the shot from Herrera’s gun already, of course. A man had a right to defend himself, by their code.
You pose as an honest man — you were an honest man, once....
Herrera had laid a finger with unerring accuracy on that raw wound, and the truth was, Blake had killed him for it. He could not tell the men that. Could not explain how it really was. He was not sure he himself even knew.
Barsad was going through the man’s pockets, pulling out valuables to split amongst the group. “Looks like we won’t be getting any more commissions out of this one, then.” The steady hands never even faltered.
“Seems to me he never paid us for the last lot.” Fossett, the other heavyweight, to a rumble of approbation from the rest. Blake’s hand closed unseen around the bag that weighed heavy in his pocket. Now was the moment to tell them; and have the precious ten thousand thrown into the ring with the rest, to be split up into each man’s strict personal share — split up, gambled and pilfered away....
“Three hundred and eighty-six in loose change.” Barsad looked up at last, tipping the last of the credits onto the pile with a handful of jewellery. “Looks like you feathered us a rich one this time, Blake — nice work if you can get it!”
They were all beaming at him now, the mood swung round at the sight of the cash, and Blake backed away abruptly, sickened by their vulturous glee as the killing itself had failed to do. He thrust back the handful of chips he was offered, rejecting any share in it. The gemstones burned within the breast of his tunic like hidden coals.
“I don’t want it—” he groped, feverish, for an excuse. “Stannis and Felak. They’re missing the share-out. They deserve a bit extra, I’d say —”
For a moment the memory of Herrera’s insinuations rose again, elusive and coiling, and he denied it almost fixedly. Herrera had cheated him. He’d been cheating him all along. He’d lied, that was all, one more time, setting the leader and his second against each other, waiting to watch Blake go up against Felak and get taken down.
There would still be the gunman to face, tonight or tomorrow, once the air-car came back. The realisation, as ever, was an unpleasant one. If Felak decided to make trouble about the way his dear friend Herrera had so suddenly vanished... something would have to be done. Blake steeled himself to it, retrieving the old easy habits of hate with a conscious effort.
He’d killed one man today who stood in his way. Wiped out insult with blood, and taken what was owed. Along this path on which he had set foot, there was no room for Felak to challenge his leadership once more.
Sick to the heart, Blake watched his men strip the body of their former employer of everything of worth and thrust it into a hasty grave amongst the rubble. No-one would be sitting up here to admire the view, from choice. Not once Herrera began to ripen. That black jest came to him unbidden, with an echo of Felak’s croaking laugh; but Blake knew, numbly, that the origin of the thought had been his own.
He’d told himself Felak would be back in the evening. In the empty dawn that followed, he had remembered the distance to Santangelo and revised his estimate upward once more. The air-car had not come.
Old Mace was the only one who dared to speak of it, and then only once Something — the killing of Herrera, or the absence itself of Felak — had won him a new grim authority over the men and they shrank from his silence. Stannis and Felak were missing, and the group’s last vehicle with them; but until Blake chose to acknowledge that defection, it was as if it had never happened.
“We need that Santangelo contract.” Mace had run him to earth at last two days ago, supply manifest in hand. “We’re living off our reserves, Blake. If Stannis can’t or won’t deliver —”
Blake slammed down a fist, striking the manifest from the old dream-teller’s grasp. “Are you in command here or am I?”
It would have hurt to see the old man flinch from him, once. Once. He watched the frail hand tremble and sensed victory within reach.
“You’re still dreaming,” Mace said softly, and hesitated. “I wish you would let me —”
“Let you ply your fraud’s trade on me — tell me your guesses at what I want to hear, like the marks who made your living back in New Shaohi?” Blake’s lip curled into a snarl. “I didn’t know you’d gone senile enough to trust to your own stock-in-trade, dream-teller. I keep you for your liar’s silver tongue, but I know better than to believe in it!”
He should never have encouraged the old charlatan; never have allowed his pretended insights to soothe his mind. If Res Felak still menaced his dreams, what business was that but his own?
He slammed down his fist again. “While I say we wait, we wait. Is that understood?” Mace, scurrying out, had scarcely raised his voice since, save in a racking cough.
That had been two days ago. It was a week now since the morning Jenna had left, and he no longer knew himself why he still waited, pitting stubborn determination, that had once served him so well, against the impossible that he had denied in the face of Herrera’s laughter: Herrera, who must have been in on it from the beginning. It was he and Felak who had fixed up that raid at Ehrensby together, sprung it on Blake with scarcely a chance to refuse — with betrayal planned from the start.
Failed rebel in a rag-tag mercenary band... and how, Blake told himself savagely, could he ever have deluded himself that Felak was scheming for control over that? Herrera’s offer must have come as a breath of fresh air. Use Blake to do the dirty work, then waltz off with the proceeds as his employer’s gift, to play the game Herrera’s way —
It made no sense, none of it. He no longer knew what to believe... save that Felak was gone, dead or fled, and Jenna was gone and the money was gone; and as to whether it was himself or Felak whom Herrera had cheated most, in the end, the man was silent as the grave and would never tell.
Jenna — Jenna, he had lost. Whether they’d killed her or bought her off. The last of that crew with whom, once, he had blazed a bright trail across the stars, in the days so long ago when there had still been hope, and faith, and a chance.
He’d been losing her for a long time, and he knew that now. Since the day they’d lost the Liberator, and the day when the Liberator, in turn, had been lost, the news creeping out from beneath the babble surrounding Servalan’s fall. Jenna liked bright clothes, jewels, fast ships. She liked danger and challenge and cash. She liked to win, and to be seen to win. With Blake, since Star One, she had come to share only disillusionment and defeat.
Felak wouldn’t have killed her. Wouldn’t have needed to. The admission hurt. The two of them had a future together — her contacts, their skills — his art. Blake’s mouth twisted at the memory. As if an eye for beauty could make a change in what the man was: outlaw. Killer. Thief....
Herrera was dead. Herrera was dead, and his money was deep in Blake’s pocket, and there was nothing to wait for, nothing at all. But still he drove the men to work on the hut as if they would spend the winter there, and lay awake to Mace’s coughing, at night, and felt the secret weight of that ten thousand eating at his mind.
It was raining again. The steady drip and slide along the lean-to planks a few inches above his head was an almost welcome barrier against returning to the main hut and the others’ sullen company. It was crowded enough in there at night. To be penned up cheek by jowl all day, with the musty smell of wet clothing, every ugly habit magnified a thousand-fold, was enough to try the patience of a saint. And none of them were saints; the women least of all.
They had a roof over them, at least. He’d worked them until they dropped, in wet weather and in dry, until they’d made sure of that much. There were two tiny lean-to shelters against the back walls, and he’d had those patched up as well. One of them now served as a makeshift galley and food store. Rank had its privileges. He’d claimed the other for himself.
Not so much an inner sanctum as an outer sanctum, Blake thought now wryly, leaning forward on the rough stool to hug his arms more tightly around his knees. Despite the close confines, his cramped posture had less to do with lack of space than with the cold and damp that were beginning to make themselves felt. There was room to stand up — just. Room even to pace up and down, if he kept his head bent and arms clasped behind his back. The ground inside was churned and muddy from other days when he’d done just that. He told himself it helped him to think. At the very least it helped him to keep warm.
Winter was setting in all right. The mornings were colder and darker than they’d been when he’d first come to this planet, and the animals that went to eke out the supplies were heavily-furred and harder to find. Exiled first from his sheltered life on Earth and then from the controlled environments of manned space, he’d learned, painfully, about seasons.
They’d been quarrelling inside when he’d left, over an hour earlier, escaping into the chilly morning mist outdoors and the refuge of his ‘office’. Some meaningless dispute over bed-space, or bags, or someone else’s clothes. Winata had all but clawed the eyes out of light-fingered Jassiom, the day before, but Blake doubted the contents of her own bed-roll would stand close examination. Sooner or later, as the weather drove them back on their own resources, their group would simply tear itself apart.
He unfolded himself from his seat, stiffly, and pulled his waterproofs back around his shoulders before ducking out again into the steady rain. He’d find work for them to do. With Felak out of the way, the rest were his to mould, his, undisputed, and he’d whip them into shape one way or another whether they liked it or not.
A gust of cold air preceded him into the hut, momentarily silencing the sullen buzz of voices. Blake took advantage of the lull before the protest, letting the door bang open behind him.
“Right. Everybody out. Terson, get your flight kit. There’s a security flitter housed just the other side of these hills that could spot our presence any time —”
To do him justice, he’d fully intended to go with them himself. Big Fossett’s fall on the wet rock, with Blake, following, flung painfully up against the stone, had been part of no plan but a genuine and cripplingly uncomfortable mishap. He’d been out cold for a moment. When he’d come round, sick and dizzy, to find Fossett’s clumsy hands plucking at him, there had been no question of his going on.
They had barely even reached the ridge above the hut. Fossett, who’d fallen uppermost, had got off with a few bruises. Blake, head pounding nauseously, had scarcely been able to stand.
He’d let the big man help him back to shelter, then sent him after the others with an insistent reminder about the dangers of a possible homing beacon. Despite that warning, he didn’t place too much hope on Terson’s following the agreed plan — or, alternatively, Jassiom’s ability to find and disable any such beacon in the craft. But it wasn’t, to be frank — Blake winced and put a hand up yet again to his aching skull — it wasn’t as if any of it really mattered. As if their presence in this area were not already known....
After two hours, the hut still held the ghost of some of its former communal warmth. Blake had to struggle against the muzzy temptation of sleep. The rain had slackened to a fine, clinging damp, and outside there was even a glint of sun across the far side of the valley, reviving an unexpected memory of colour. Moving carefully, he got up and went to open the door. A moment later, hand still extended, he halted. The sound of the returning flitter carried clearly on the breeze.
So Terson hadn’t been able to bring himself to ditch the craft. What a surprise. Blake sighed, letting go of the door-latch, and returned to his place to prepare a frosty welcome. Cautious footsteps outside the building. He drew a breath and looked up as the door opened. “I thought I told you not to bring it back—”
That last word twisted in his throat and almost choked him. It was not Terson, after all.
Halted on the threshold, bloodstained and grimy, Res Felak was looking around the hut. For a moment, with the man silhouetted against the sudden brightness of the sun outside, Blake couldn’t believe it; but when the newcomer ducked in through the doorway and limped wearily over to drop a grimy coat beside his own bags stowed in the corner, there was little enough scope for doubt. It had to be true. The man was flesh and blood. He was here.
Felak coughed, rubbing one hand across a face that showed grey beneath the dirt. He looked as if he was barely on his feet; but the close-set eyes were crinkled together in what was as close to good humour as they ever came. “I’ll give you this, Blake —” he was glancing round the interior — “you can pick ‘em when you try....”
He coughed again, and yawned. “Got any clean water?”
Blake, still wordless, pointed mutely towards the keg behind the door. His other hand, almost of its own accord, had dropped out of sight to the haft of the weapon he wore.
But Felak, with a brief sound of thanks, had turned already to splash cold water across his face and hands, peeling back his stained tunic from one shoulder to dab at what was clearly a wound beneath. The familiar crooked line of his back was exposed, guard let down for once — and Blake, despite everything, despite all his resolutions, let his hand slip slowly from his gun.
He had meant to kill this man. He knew, calmly and clearly, that than at this moment he would never have a better chance; but he also knew without a doubt that he was not going to do it. The long shadows of nightmare had dwindled down in that moment of sunlight, back to their proper size — and there was only a compact, weary little man, eyes too tired for malice, lowering himself to a seat in the corner with a sigh of relief.
“Sorry we’re late, Blake.” Swift steps in the doorway as Jenna came in, the air-car evidently shut down. “But you didn’t exactly leave a forwarding address, if you remember... and we have had just a touch of trouble of our own.”
“Could say that,” Felak allowed, with a croak of laughter as their eyes met, Jenna grinning back. “’Course, there were compensations. You know, there’s two or three planets across this Sector where we’d be reckoned as paired up for life now, just for what you’d done —“
“Come on, drop that, Res!”
—And just when, in that missing week, had they got on first-name terms? Blake wondered with a sudden pang, watching the easy camaraderie.
Jenna tossed someone else’s boot accurately at Felak with a mock scowl as she came across the room, grinning at the indrawn expletive that greeted her missile’s impact. “Don’t pull that one — you’ve had a pint of my blood, you’re not getting another hole in your shoulder just to have some more....”
“You mean someone actually put a hole through him?” Blake made an effort to join in the jocularity. “Sounds as if you’re slipping, Felak — who was it that’s faster off the mark?”
“Hopper crash,” Felak said shortly, wincing under Jenna’s brisk handling as she opened a fresh medikit. “Couple of star-systems out.”
And as Blake, now completely nonplussed, stared at them both, Felak reached into an inner pocket and tossed a tattered bag onto the top of the keg.
“Here.” His eyes had creased in satisfaction. “A long chase for something I’ll lay odds by now you’d thought you’d never see —”
The bag’s contents had landed atop the keg with a little clink that was all too familiar. Uncut stones spilled, along with credit chips. Blake’s hand went to his breast suddenly, convulsively.
“Herrera....” It was barely a whisper.
The gunman shrugged off Jenna’s final ministrations and leaned back, legs outstretched, with a nod. “That’s right. Herrera’s missing ten thousand.”
“Herrera —” A gulf was opening up beneath him. Blake, falling, caught at the brink. “You did see Herrera. He — cheated you?”
“Never saw him. That secretary, Francesca —”
“Herrera came here looking for you. We quarrelled. He’s dead.” Blake jerked the words out, forestalling the other man. Almost hoping for an argument, a fight... anything to stave off the moment. Herrera had lied to him. Had to have lied.
“Dead?” The hoarse voice held an echo of surprise; then Felak shrugged. “Reckon it was a matter of time, anyhow. Maybe I’d have done it myself some day....”
And with their former employer thus cursorily dismissed, he leant forward, expansive. “No, Herrera paid up, that time. It was the girl Francesca. Kept us stalled in the office while she made her call... then twenty minutes down the line, we heard the planet-hopper taking off.”
Jenna, who had spared a troubled look for Blake’s ashen face, pulled up a seat of her own, tossing a wave of hair forward in the new gesture that hid her scars.
“She had me fooled,” she admitted frankly. “Just another pretty face in Herrera’s stable — but apparently she had other plans. Us turning back to pick up the cash on the off-chance, with Herrera out of the way — well, that was her moment, and she picked it.”
Blake listened to the tale, numbly, as Jenna went on, with a few brief phrases from Felak here and there. A stolen shuttlecraft in pursuit. High-velocity manoeuvres above a barren planet as Jenna finally closed in. The girl losing control, panicking as she landed, forcing a smash. Felak injured, implacable, relentless in the chase. The two hunters, circling, as the quarry turned at last at bay in spitfire fury. Weapons echoing over the empty plain. Looking down on a pretty face, sightless and twisted. The long, limping journey back to the planet, the air-car and home....
Blake barely heard her words. There was a sick knowledge in his belly, griping like cold fingers at his heart. When Felak fished out and flung down that ghastly necklace of trophies, with a pretty fashion-studded tooth newly added to its centre, even Jenna drew back a little. Much joy might she have of her “Res”... but the bile was rising in Blake’s throat. He barely made the door in time; and bolted.
Running on the hillside, cold air in his face. One foot slipped, and he came down hard on hands and knees, head pounding anew. The coarse grasses were mud-scented beneath him, damp and cold and bitter as he crouched, breathing in gasps. Alone in the hills on a distant planet... with what he had done.
Cold, elegant Herrera lay up there on the ridge, rotting now beneath the stones. Herrera, whom he’d robbed and murdered in the bitterness of his own failure, urged on by brooding suspicions from a clouded mind. Felak... Felak made no pretence of what he was. It was he, Blake, who had constructed a monster from them both in his own image, walled about with conspiracies and terrors —
“I’m going mad.” The words, out loud, were swallowed by the breeze, whisked away in whirling emptiness. “I must have been mad —”
Blake groaned and let himself sink to the ground, his face against the winter-cold grit. The bag he’d forced from Herrera was hard and painful beneath him, his own weight driving the harsh edges against his flesh. The money he’d killed a man for, and kept.
Kept back from the share-out. That made him a thief even by the standards of the rest. They could kill him for that, if they knew. Outlaw and leader of outlaws... what had he become? What was he to do?
Another groan. He got to his feet at last to return, a sour, sickened taste in his mouth. What was he to do?
The others came straggling back in the early dusk, the encroaching flitter duly ditched, and greeted Felak and Stannis’ return with ribald or hostile disbelief, according to taste. Jenna, giving as good as she got, was in her element, and even Felak kept an unwonted good humour. If anyone noticed Blake’s silence then they took it for granted.
He watched Jenna laughing, retelling a story that grew with each embellishment. Not a conspiracy after all. Just a common little fraud by a girl with ambitions beyond a pay-clerk’s counter in Herrera’s office and a few months’ privilege in her employer’s bed....
Oh, she’d had brains, Francesca, behind that sultry little face. Brains enough to recognise a golden opportunity when she had it: Felak and Stannis, two grimy low-lifes asking for a sum of money across the counter, and elegant Herrera off to luncheon amid his silverware and his glass. A legitimate release of cash from the high security of the vault, with everything logged and confirmed — the withdrawal was expected, the expenses were due, and the authorization went through without a hitch. All she had to do was cook up some story to stall the outlaws in the front office, while she made a run for it out to the back, where the craft on the landing-strip were waiting. And then... currency in her pocket, and better things beckoning off-planet. Ten thousand was small change for Herrera. Odds were, where he was concerned, she’d have got clean away.
It was Jenna who’d heard the planet-hopper taking off, and Jenna, at least by her own account, who’d hot-wired a shuttlecraft in immediate pursuit. Francesca hadn’t reckoned on that. Hadn’t had a hope of out-flying the experienced pilot in the long haul. But listening to what Jenna didn’t say, Blake guessed that she’d underestimated the girl at the last, and that Francesca had forced the crash to take her pursuers down with her.
It had all but worked. The quarry had walked free from the wreckage and Felak had been trapped, bleeding, his life hanging in his companion’s hands. But Jenna had pulled him free and pulled him through, and between them they’d hunted Francesca down. Marooned on an empty planet, she hadn’t had a chance.Blake watched the eager faces as Felak took over the tale, of patient tracking and a vicious struggle at the last that left the girl dead and the others stranded a long, painful journey from home, as the days dragged on. As Blake cheated and murdered a man in self-righteous suspicion, and plotted Felak’s death for a fancied usurpation, losing himself amid the building mists of his own mind.
All around him was laughter and congratulation from men who hadn’t exchanged a civil word together in weeks. With the cash glinting on the keg-top, Stannis and Felak were the toast of the moment. It was Blake who left again abruptly, walking out on the buzz of voices; hearing it freeze behind him in a moment of surprise, and then rise again on a new and speculative note.
Let them speculate all they wanted, Blake told himself bitterly. It made no difference to him.
He couldn’t go on this way. It was like waking from a dream; a dream of braying faces, wicked, lost or weak, all drawing him into their life. Drawing on his faith, his hopes, his ambitions — tarnishing the cause he’d once seen so brightly down into one more dirty struggle for survival. He’d dreamed, once, of changing the world; but the world had defeated him. It was he who had changed, and the universe and all its evils that were the same. One thing he knew at last, almost too late: if there were a future to come of it, it did not lie along the road that had brought him here.
It was still light outside, the greens of the distance beginning to fade to deceptive grey, and for a moment Blake wavered, drawn by the open hills. A man could lose himself out there, in the hundreds of miles still untouched by any mine; walk out into the wild, and never look back. Wipe himself from the databanks of history....
But the impulse to oblivion had lost its edge since the first rawness of despair, and he turned back along the side of the hut. That renunciation would be too easy. Would be a betrayal, even, of those — however vicious, however hopeless — that he had brought here.
He could not go on like this. But he could not so readily escape. There was a price that must be repaid, before he could reclaim the cause that had all but slipped his grasp. And later that night, in the darkness of the little lean-to space, it was Felak who crossed the unspoken line that marked his sanctum and found him sitting there, alone, with his head in his hands.
Blake looked up quickly. But there was nothing to be read in the other man’s face save swift assessment, as the hand-light in his grasp swept across the rough-hewn stool and narrow walls.
“Worth running a lamp out here, maybe. Now there’s the cash for it.”
As close to a peace-offering between them as the gunman would ever come, Blake guessed. It made things easier... in a way.
He would not — could not — turn his own hand any longer to that mercenary path that was the only life most of them would ever understand. But he could not leave them to their fate, deserved or undeserved. Sooner or later, as these things went, the odds would turn against them one time too many; and for some, it would be the payment of a debt all too richly owed. But it would be by no doing of his.
“Your decision, Felak. The group’s yours, and so is the cash. Just as you wanted — from the start.”
Barely a flicker at that last jibe. Only the black eyes, suspicious, darting to scan Blake’s face. A movement almost of dismissal... and then the after-thought. “You’re quitting?”
“I’m staying.” The second time he’d walked away from leadership. Jenna had never let him forget the first. She would have a choice now. He had watched her leave, already, in his mind’s eye. “Take the rest and go. Get them clear of here. If you want the old man to do the talking for you — get him to somewhere warm.”
He was tired... he had not known how tired. Bone-weary, of the struggle to be something he was not. To gain one-half of Felak’s ruthless cunning, and yet retain his own soul. The gunman had known it long before Blake himself.
He was watching him now, leaning up against the wall. Shadows guarded the dark face. “You still planning to take on the Federation?”
“Not exactly.” Blake smiled at last, feeling the gesture almost unaccustomed. “But there won’t be an ounce of profit in it.”
“Like always,” Felak said. The croaking laugh that no longer had the power to haunt him. “Your loss.”
“Maybe.” Blake raised an eyebrow with a shrug. “You go to hell in your own way, and I’ll take mine.”
He stood up, stooping a little — the roof height was better suited to the other man’s size than his own — and reached out to take the hand-light. Their fingers met.
“A long road since Sengen Town.” Felak’s voice was slow and rough as ever, but for once there was no malice in it. “I’d say we’re even.”
Blake, too, was remembering that dusty road with Jenna at his side, and the limping, solitary figure. He’d cursed himself often enough, these last few months, for the impulse that had brought the man into his life. Now, at the last, he found he was glad of it.
“Pretty well even,” he agreed, half-smiling, and turned to go out into the night, lamp held high. He felt, rather than heard, Felak take up the old guard-place at his shoulder, a steady half-pace behind him.
“You’ve changed, Blake. Changed since before we left — changed even since yesterday when we came back. Now you want to stay behind on this desolate planet. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what’s actually going on?”
Jenna had collared him firmly after breakfast, amid all the hustle as they prepared to move, and pulled him off along the hillside for what she termed a little private talk. Forthright as ever, she lost no time in getting straight to the point.
They had known each other since he’d woken in that prison cell on Earth. Blake hesitated a moment, and then told her. Jenna listened quietly, her gaze never leaving his face. If she thought he was a fool, she didn’t say so.
“You always did have an over-developed sense of guilt,” she observed finally, with a wry smile. “You can’t return the money, let alone undo the rest of it; you can’t let anyone here know you’ve got it — so why not just keep the windfall and get out?”
Simple, hard-edged life as Felak would see it. A mistaken murder could be written off to experience, shrugged aside. No reason to turn one’s back on the resulting cash.
But she didn’t seem surprised when he shook his head. “I’m going to ‘get out’, Jenna — but not like that. Not to swim around on money stained with blood. I’m going to use it to do whatever it takes to get myself undercover on the inside of the law... and here’s as good a place as any. In half a year, outlaws will be all but finished here. Things are clamping down. But if I can get myself on the right side of the law, with access to all the details of everyone the Federation suspects as well as all the local low-life —”
Jenna cut him off. “You’re going as a bounty-hunter?”
Blake nodded. “At least at first. After that, we’ll see.”
That decision had shocked her, he could see, as the full tale of Herrera and of his own wild fears and suspicions had not. To abandon everything he — they — had been struggling to maintain, and start again among scum, the lowest of the low.... But then that struggle in itself had long since become a snare. A nightmare of survival, wound ever tighter and tighter in self-fulfilment, until he himself had all but become the thing he hated. No group was worth that. He had awakened in time to see it. It was a long time, he thought now, since he had truly been awake.
Head bent, Jenna had let her hair fall forward again beside her face, half-hiding her from his view. Now she thrust it back in the old gesture, tossing up her chin. “You’re really pulling out? Going it alone?”
“There’s few enough here I’d care to take with me if I could.” Words like bludgeons, judging and condemning. Jenna had pulled away.
He almost reached out to touch her arm. But she’d changed as much as he had. Grown distant, and bitter, and hard. More at home among the outlaws than he’d ever been.
“And it’ll be dangerous....” he added softly, all the same, and saw the sudden leap in her eyes as she turned towards him, hands outstretched.
“Oh Blake, as if that ever mattered —”
He had her hands in his own almost without knowing it, suddenly, ridiculously glad. “I could do with the help of a good pilot,” he told her truthfully, certain at last of her answer, and felt Jenna’s grip tighten on his.
“It will be risky, though.” A few minutes later, trying to be honest. “More for you than for me, if we’re seen together.”
Jenna laughed. “If you really think that makes a difference....”
“And Res Felak?” His voice was not entirely even.
Jenna shot him an odd look, as if genuinely puzzled. “Blake, Res is no monster — but he’s nothing special, no different from hundreds like him. He knows the mercenary job and he’s good at it; better than you could ever have been. And I’d rather have watched his talents being used well than stood aside any longer to see yours being cheapened and corrupted, dickering with cut-price revolutionaries and allies out to milk you for all they can bleed....”
Months and years of failure, since Star One. Trust un-learned, slowly, painfully, in the course of betrayal: the Talos Mari on Epheron, Wenlo’s Tong on New Shaohi. A thin, wintry rain was blowing along the hillside, veiling by moments the rocks above. Blake shivered, pulling up the collar of his tunic, and moved instinctively to shield Jenna from the wind.
“The Liberator has gone and too much has passed. It can’t be the same. It can’t ever be the same as it was... and neither can I.”
“We’ve got our scars, you and I, and nothing can change that. But then nothing ever starts the same way twice.” Jenna had pulled her own jacket closer around her. “I don’t know what you’re planning now, but there has to be more hope in it than the trap of the life we were in. All I could see was going on down and down....”
“There’ll be hope.” A fresh spatter of rain against his shoulder, like the rhythm of tapping fingers. Despite everything, Blake found himself smiling. “There’s always hope.”
Jenna reached up to push a windswept lock of hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and then higher, brushing briefly against his cheek. Her own smile dawned in sidelong recognition.
“It’s been a long time,” she said softly. “Welcome back, Blake.”
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