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By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 4

Though his bandaged hands made the search clumsy, he managed to locate Dayna's gun still concealed in its special tunic pocket. Ignoring the twinges from his ribcage, he threw back the covers, swung both legs over the side of the bed and maneuvered on the ruined trousers. He tucked the gun into a hip pocket. No way to tell yet if it remained functional or not -- he'd just have to trust in Dayna's weapon-building talents. The rest of the outfit he discarded, gingerly making his way across to the closet refuse bin and tossing the shredded remnant back in. He caught sight of himself in the bureau mirror on the way back, made a pained face at the swollen, purpled eye and badly cut cheeks.

Well, you look like death half-warmed, he thought to the reflection, then ran a hand into one damp pocket to grasp the little gun. Let's just see if you can avoid letting anyone else complete the job friend Cort started.

On the face of it, the thought seemed rather paranoid. Maybe he'd been around Avon too long -- or just long enough to learn that no one could really be trusted.

Shivering slightly in the night breeze from the window, he sat down on the bed once again. When Evlin returned with the clean clothing, he accepted an open-front shirt, socks, and his own boots, which had been given a cursory cleaning. Then he took the supporting arm she offered and allowed himself to be guided out into the hall, across the neatly furnished living room, and through the front door to Galt's waiting truck.

At first sight of the vehicle, Tarrant stopped cold. Even in the dark, its shape was unmistakable. Federation prison transport. He moved instantly away from Evlin's grasp and back into the doorway, Dayna's gun slipping easily out of hiding and into his hand. Galt came tramping around from the front of the truck, halted when he saw the gun and snorted a question at Evlin. "What's this about?"

Tarrant curtailed her response. "Do you make a habit of touring the countryside in prison transports?"

Galt's bored gaze traveled from the gun to the open back of the paneled truck. "I travel in whatever I can steal," he huffed, and abruptly turned his back on them to climb into the driver's cab.

Equally disdainful of Tarrant's gun, Evlin started up the metal-grate steps leading into the transport's 'passenger' section. She held out a hand then, as though to help him up after.


Tarrant held his ground. "Not until I have a few answers."

She dropped the proffered hand and waited a beat. "Such as?"

Tarrant fidgeted, feeling suddenly foolish standing in the amber glow of the porch light, holding a gun on his rescuer. He squelched the feeling and asked his questions anyway. "Such as who you people are, exactly, and why you'd want to help me."

"Fair question," she conceded with ill grace. "Let's discuss it on the way, shall we?"

"No." He tightened his clumsy, bandaged grip on the gun and tried to sound more threatening than he felt. "We'll discuss it now."

"All right. Short version. We're two people with plenty of reasons to hate the Federation in general, and Cort in particular." The ancient truck's fuel-injection engine chugged and growled to life in the middle of her sentence. "Doesn't really matter a whit who you are or what you did. Any enemy of Cort's..."

Tarrant shook his head. "Pretty words, but not a reason. Try again. I'm not nearly as naive as I look."

Her short, disgusted laugh echoed in the empty transport. "Neither am I," she said, nodding at the gun. "You don't really think I'd leave a weapon with a full charge lying about in the rubbish, do you?"

With chagrin, Tarrant recognized the tiny capsule she held up to the light as one of Dayna's miniature power packs. Stupid of him, not to have checked for that. He turned the little gun to reveal the empty clip chamber in its base, and smiled grimly.

"Touché," he said.

"Now do you want at that transmitter, or not?" She extended the hand once more. Tucking the gun away again, Tarrant accepted her help up the steps.

Their weight on the metal decking triggered light panels overhead and instantly bathed them in a sickly pink neon haze. Evlin deposited him in one of the deactivated restraint chairs, then moved forward to a bank of controls. With a shuddering thump, the steps retracted and drew the double doors shut behind them, closing off the Obron night. The truck lurched into motion at the same time, nearly spilling Tarrant out of the chair. When he'd regained his balance, he settled back to study Evlin's profile above the console's blinking lights. They'd traveled for some time before either of them spoke.

"I thought perhaps," Tarrant finally ventured, "you might still like to tell me why."

Her eyebrows rose again in query as she echoed the question. "Why?"

"Don't tell me you and Galt spend all your time rescuing total strangers from Federation death squads?"

"Only some of it." Her rather morbid smile did little to allay Tarrant's discomfort. "As I said, we all have reason to hate the Federation. Maybe our reason is just a shade more personal than some."

"Personal?" He repeated the word uneasily, feeling that there was less and less to like about this woman by the minute. Rescue and nursing notwithstanding, there was something about her...

"Doesn't everyone have someone they've persecuted, tortured, murdered?" she was saying. "Who was it for you? Parents, perhaps? A wife, a lover?"

Tarrant paled, remembering Teal-Vandor and Deeta. "My brother," he said.

She nodded. "We have a son. Sala..." She let the words trail away, as though the subject were too painful to pursue. For a moment, Tarrant sympathized. He found it just as difficult to talk about Deeta.

"So you're part of the resistance?" he asked hopefully.

She looked disconcerted at the suggestion. "In our way," she said, and went back to fiddling with something on the console. They didn't speak again until a lurch signaled the truck's abrupt halt. With a coughing rattle and wheeze, the engine died, and Evlin glanced up from the control panel. "Sounds like we've arrived," she said in an oddly anxious tone. She waited for the sound of the cab door and for Galt's footsteps, grinding gravel, to approach the rear of the vehicle. Then she activated the door control.

When the steps had lowered themselves and the pink neon light spilled out into the darkness, Tarrant found himself facing the unpleasant vision of Galt -- pointing a Federation issue rifle directly at him.

"No fuss," the man said gruffly. "Just get up and get out here. Slow and easy."

Tarrant turned on Evlin, intending to singe her with a guilt- inducing glare. Instead, he faced another gun barrel, and any sympathy he'd once imagined he'd seen in her eyes was gone, replaced with a cold pragmatism that reminded him, uncannily, of Avon.

"Do as he says," she ordered.

"I don't suppose you'd care to--"

"No arguments, Captain Tarrant. It will only make this harder."

The use of his correct name and former rank took the pilot by surprise. Somehow, his suspicions hadn't included the possibility that his erstwhile rescuers might know his true identity. "Did you know that... from the beginning?"

Evlin shook her head. "You did a lot of talking in your sleep." She came around the control board to approach him with the gun. "Not that it made any difference, really. Any enemy of Cort's is still of use to us."

"That's not quite how you put it the first time."

"Out!" Galt barked from the doorway.

Tarrant took his time painfully rising and making his way down the steps, this time throwing off Evlin's effort to assist him. He emerged onto a crudely-paved road with the shadowy outlines of sparse trees on either side -- and two Federation guards standing a few hundred feet further on. Its lights glaring, another battered prison transport loomed behind them. And between, hands shackled, stood a thin, bearded man wearing prison grey.

_We have a son,_ Evlin had said. _Sala..._

Things were beginning to come clear at last, though Tarrant was less than fond of the resolution.

"An exchange," he guessed out loud as Evlin clattered down the steps behind him. "Me for your son. Do you get to collect the reward into the bargain, or would that be considered unduly greedy?"

"Shut up!" Shouldering the rifle, Galt snarled an order at his wife. "Watch him," he said, and stalked away toward the waiting troopers.

Tarrant turned on Evlin as soon as the older man was out of earshot. "A prison. That's where the trucks came from, isn't it? And where the transmitter is." A reasonable guess. Avon would no doubt have reproached him for not realizing it far sooner than this.

Evlin nodded. "It's two miles on. Been there eight years, though the Feds manage to keep it secret, for the most part. Cort and his neolithic friend came from there. Prison guards."

Well, that came as no surprise. Prison duty was a fate shared by many an FSA washout. Tarrant's lip curled in a half grimace. "The only thing surprising in all of this is your naiveté. You don't really think they're going to honor their part of the agreement?" He nodded toward the troopers and Galt, conversing now a few wary yards apart. "They'll never allow the lot of you off planet alive."

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Jean Graham

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