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By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 4

He lost all track of time after that. His run had slowed to an exhausted, stumbling walk and the agony beneath his ribs throbbed with every step. He kept on by sheer, stubborn force of will, but so, incredibly, did Cort, coming inexorably on with the tenacity of a mutoid.

The pink haze of dawn had begun filtering through the overhead clouds when Tarrant started up a wooded hillside. The trees were sparser here, allowing short brown grass to grow between. That should make for better foot purchase. Or so he'd hoped. Halfway up, the dew-slick grass slipped both feet out from under him, dropping him face-down on the damp, dusk-smelling blades.

He lay there and panted in shallow, gasping breaths, brain raging all the while that he must get up and keep going. But his legs refused to obey the command, and a warm, comforting lethargy began to overtake him, obliterating all the reasons he should ever have to move again, or do anything other than sleep...

He never heard Cort's approach; could not even manage more than a faint gasp when a booted foot kicked his uninjured side.

"Get up, you bloody bastard." The boot prodded again, dug itself under his ribs and turned him over -- to blink at the harsh sunlight shining on the barrel of Cort's gun. "I said get up."

Tarrant shook his head, or tried to, and offered his captor a grimacing smile. "Can't," he rasped out. "I'm afraid you'll just have to shoot me lying down."

Rage contorted the trooper's face. "Oh, no. I'm not carrying dead weight all the way back. So you can damn well get up and walk!"

A fist reached down to clutch the sodden fabric at Tarrant's throat, yanked him upward with a bone-jarring jolt. The motion sent his head swimming, and when his legs still failed to support him, Cort, roaring an oath, struck him across the face with the pistol. It should have hurt, but somehow it didn't. Tarrant felt oddly removed from it all. He noted with an even more peculiar detachment that grass and trees flashed past at crazy angles as the blow sent him rolling down the hillside. Then Cort towered over him again, screaming epithets. He caught the words 'traitor' and 'deserter' in the barrage, but the rest was muddled, like someone talking underwater. The booted foot lashed out and kicked him again; he felt nothing at all. Nothing but the urgent, undeniable need to give in to the lethargy, to sleep.

Cort's head loomed just above his own, the twisted, beard- stubbled face mouthing more words, words, words. Tarrant wished he would go away. The hand with the pistol drew back, swung toward him for another blow--

Something sizzled.

Cort's hand froze in mid-arc. The gun toppled from limp fingers. Tarrant struggled to focus on the man's face and was convinced he must be hallucinating: Cort's left eye was missing, replaced by a smoldering black laser burn...

Then the face fell backward, away from him, and he heard the soft thump of a body hitting earth -- the last sound trooper Cort would ever make.

More sounds then. Feet crushing the grass, voices. Someone standing over him, bending down. He saw a woman's face, and a man's behind it, heard an earnest voice ask a question, but he didn't quite catch the words.

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered, except that Cort was gone and he could finally sleep...

He could not, at first, identify the sounds that woke him. A strange, arrhythmic twittering, and the whisper of... leaves? He opened his eyes to a neatly-furnished room, an open window framed with gauzy curtains, a view of sun-drenched, cultivated fields, trees... and flocks of small, black birds winging in and out between it all. They were the source of the twittering, he realized. A peculiar but not altogether unpleasant sound. He'd encountered birds on only a few planets in the past. On Earth, inside or out of the biodomes, they had been extinct for centuries.

He lay still, allowed the birdsong to lull him back to a half- conscious state. Odd, how the almost-musical chittering seemed to touch some deep, primal part of him...

He drifted, starting awake some time later when the door clicked open. The woman who entered looked familiar: perhaps in her mid-forties, auburn hair pulled back severely, a concerned but no-nonsense demeanor about her. He also remembered the older man who followed her. He'd last seen them both in the woods just after Cort had fallen mysteriously dead. How long ago had that been? If Scorpio had come and gone--

Tarrant tugged at the quilted blanket until he'd extricated his left wrist -- he found bandaging from wrist to elbow. No teleport bracelet. Swathing also covered his right hand and arm.

The woman smiled faintly at his puzzled expression. "You were pretty badly scratched up," she explained. "But we were a bit more concerned about the bullet wound. You were lucky there. One entry wound, one exit wound, some serious but reparable blood loss. No vital organs affected. You'll live -- as long as you don't cross the likes of Erol Cort again, anyhow."

Tarrant's own voice sounded hoarsely alien to him "An old friend of yours, was Cort?" He winced when the simple act of speaking awakened a throbbing under his left ribs, and another sharper pain below his left eye, where the pistol had struck him.

"No." The man stepped forward to answer his question. "An old enemy, actually. One whose death was long overdue."

Bitterness palled the aging voice. The man might be sixty, Tarrant decided... or seventy. He wondered which of them had shot Cort, and with what. He'd never seen the gun.

"Not that I'm ungrateful, mind you," he completed the thought aloud. "But... who are you?"

The woman poured a tumbler of water from a pitcher on the bedstand, then helped to raise Tarrant's head from the pillow. He drained the glass and another before she answered him.

"I'm Evlin Amarin."

Tarrant's eyes fell on the man, whose return probing gaze made him increasingly uncomfortable. "And... your father?"

She looked patently indulgent for a moment, as though she'd answered this question a thousand times before. "Galt is my husband," she said.

Tarrant tried, probably failed, to hide his surprise. They seemed and odd pair to be bonded. Not that he hadn't seen odder. At the moment, however, he had somewhat more pressing concerns.

"How long was I out?" he asked. "I had a... a bracelet of sorts. It's important."

"Better part of a day, all told," Galt moved away, plucked an oblong dish from a bureau beside the window. When he returned with it, Tarrant saw that it contained the teleport bracelet's mangled components.. "Not much left of this, though." Galt poked at the remains with an index finger. "Guess you took some pretty bad falls out there. Fell apart when we pulled it off you. Some sort of signal device, is it?"

Tarrant fell back against the pillow with a sigh. "Some sort," he admitted. "Look, is there a transmitter here, in the town perhaps? I'll need to contact my ship. Could be rather embarrassing, it leaving orbit without me." He forced a weak laugh and added, "I'm the pilot, you see."

He didn't know quite what to make of the guarded look that passed between his two rescuers. "There's a transmitter, yes," Evlin told him. "But it's not in the town. And you're in no shape to travel. Give Galt the call signal and he'll send a message for you, if you like."

Tarrant struggled to sit up, only half-managed over Evlin's protests. "I really do have to call myself, I'm afraid. My... friends... might misinterpret a message from someone else."

"I'll take you then." Galt cut off an objection from his wife. "Tonight. Your ship'll stay around that long, surely?"

Tarrant didn't know if Scorpio was around at all, yet, nor how long Avon would wait when the teleport bracelet failed to respond. But he nodded an agreement to Galt's offer, even though he'd have preferred to go now. No point, he supposed, in antagonizing friendly forces.

"Lie down and rest," Evlin ordered, expertly repositioning him and arranging the pillow. "You're going to need it. Galt's 'taxi' can out-bump a flight simulator, and I think I've already patched you together as much as I care to."

"You're a doctor?"

"Something like that," she demurred. "You haven't told us your name yet."

"Trent," he lied easily, and left it at that. She didn't ask for other names or explanations, which was just as well. His eyelids had suddenly acquired the weight of plutonium, and he found it impossible to hold them open any longer.

Double moon crescents were peering in the window by the time Evlin woke him. She brought a tray with toasted bread, vegetable soup and hot tea. Ravenous, he needed no persuasion to devour the lot. But all the while, something in the way she watched him -- with a look somewhere between pity and scorn -- made him acutely uncomfortable.

The wisp of a half-dream teased at the back of his memory as he ate and Evlin looked on. She'd seemed to float around and over him as he slept, the green halo of light from the doorway limning her copper hair like some mad, colorized effect from a holo-vid. And he remembered voices, arguing in loud stage whispers. A disembodied hand had drawn the door shut with a loud ka-plik, muffling the voices further. And then... He couldn't remember any more.

Dream and not dream.

As she reached to remove the food tray, Tarrant risked a point blank question. "What was the argument about?"

The empty dishes jumped and rattled briefly on the tray; she silenced them with a fussing gesture and visibly pulled her "professional calm" façade back together. "No arguments here. You must have been dreaming." She hurried on before he could object. "Galt has the truck ready. If you think you can walk twenty meters or so, we can take you to that transmitter now."

Tarrant's weak smile hid both nagging curiosity and a deeper, more insidious suspicion that she was hiding something. "All right," he said, and then cast an embarrassed glance around the room. "I... seem to be missing my... er..."

"Clothes." Evlin's lips quirked. "I'll find something of Galt's for you."

"If you don't mind--" Tarrant halted her at the door, the tray still in her hand. "I'd prefer my own."

Her eyebrows rose. "Those won't be much use."

"Yes, well, just the same," he argued gently.

She shrugged, set the tray on the bureau and opened the nearby closet, pulling out a tall waste container. From it, she pulled an armful of stained, wadded garments.

"Have a look," she said, and handed him the soggy bundle. "I'll bring back a clean set, just in case you change your mind." She retrieved the tray and swept out with it, leaving Tarrant to inspect the blood and dirt sullied rags that had once been his clothing.

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Jean Graham

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