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Fallen Star

By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 8

Blake returned after a nerve-wracking few minutes in which Jenna would have bitten her fingernails down to her elbows except for the fact that she didn't dare take her hands off the controls. He'd wrapped a torn-off length of Federation black around his head, covering the wound, and was breathing heavily.

"All right?" Jenna asked.

"We're alone," was all he said. He grunted, and bent to take the shoulders of the pilot.

"What are you doing?"

"Tidying up. Out the airlock. Not exactly a star-orbit burial, but it's the best I can manage under the circumstances."

"Well, hurry. We've got problems."

"The ship?" Blake straightened, the pilot's head lolling grotesquely against him.

"The ship." Jenna was grim. "Nothing immediately life-threatening. Take care of them, first. And yourself. You look like hell, Blake."

Blake gave her a tired grin. "And you look splendid, as always." He turned, hauling the corpse slowly off the flight deck.

Jenna glanced down at her ripped, bloodied, blouse. "Now he notices," she muttered.

Blake wasn't much good as a nurse, but Jenna couldn't leave the controls for more than three minutes before warning sirens shrieked, so he had to tend his own wound.

For a moment, Jenna stared at the white patch covering his left eye and saw Travis. A surge of nausea rose, and she shook her head, driving the image away. "There's a nav-comp over there," she motioned to the farthest position. "Find the nearest habitable planet. And Blake," she stopped him in mid-stride, "don't be picky."

"That bad?"

"Yes," she answered shortly. "If the radiation doesn't kill us, and the control linkages don't totally disintegrate, I estimate we have thirty-six hours before the life-support fails."

"Any other good news?" Blake said, as he frowned over the unfamiliar equipment.

"I have to visit the lav," she said with great feeling, and more than a little anger. "Only I can't leave the controls."

Blake winced. "The nearest habitable world- if you don't count Jevron -"

"I don't."

"Is Rustom. Twenty - three hours away at our current speed, according to this computer."

"If you trust it. I don't trust anything on this heap."

"Anything?" Blake said, that seductive burr back in his voice again. The one he used whenever Jenna was growing restless, and frustrated.

"Almost anything," Jenna said with a wan smile, but her heart wasn't in it. She was coming to the realization that Blake had been a rebel leader too long to simply return to a normal life. He had learned to live on the edge. His balance, his reflexes were attuned to that edge. She remembered how lost he'd been in the hospital, when the battle seemed won, and how readily he rose to the space-major's challenge. If she could ease him out of that life, offer perhaps a pirate's place, against the remnant of the Federation... she glanced at him. No, Blake wasn't destined to be a pirate, despite his wardrobe.

She wished she had a choice, but she knew she'd stay by him, no matter what. Even if only as pilot and friend. Of course, this all depended on them getting to Rustom alive. She squirmed as bladder pressure became too great to ignore. She sighed. "Blake. There is one thing you can do for me."

"Yes?"

"I'm about to burst."

"I can't take over the controls, Jenna. I'm sorry."

"So am I, but that's not what I had in mind. Go back to wherever you got your bandage and look around. I'm sure you'll find something I can use. Oh, and you'd better bring back some stimulants."

"Yes. I'll be right back." Briefly, Blake pressed his hand to her shoulder. "We'll make it."

"If you tell me to keep up a stiff upper lip, I'll belt you one."

Blake chuckled, but Jenna didn't dare.

It was a long twenty - three hours. Exhausting, embarrassing, and terrifying. And painful, Jenna added silently. Every muscle ached, either from constant use, or from prolonged disuse. She finally let her hands stop moving over the control panel, although they continued to twitch on their own.They were down. From what the remaining instruments registered Rustom was a moderately well-populated planet, so they ought to be able to blend into the populace until they could find passage. But first they had to get off this obviously Federation-owned pursuit ship. Before it blew up would be nice. Very rude to land on someone's doorstep and scatter chunks of yourself all over. She stood, pushing herself to her feet.

It was very hot and airless. She pulled weakly at the neckline of her tattered blouse. Funny, her legs felt boneless, all rubbery. "Blake?"

Blake whirled in time to catch her as she fell, limp into his arms. "Jenna?"

She smiled, and reached up to pat him on the cheek. " 's' all ri', jus' tired."

"Sleep, Jenna." Blake brushed his hand over her hair. "Everything will be all right."

No, it won't, Jenna thought, but it doesn't matter.

They both were suffering from radiation poisoning, and Blake's slashed face developed a persistent infection. Like it or not, they were forced to enter a charity hospital. Rustom was reasonably civilized. Even off-world itinerants with no identification were given medical care, but they were still wobbly on their feet when they were informed they would be working off their debt, length of time to be determined by the demand for their particular skills.

Jenna wound up serving her time 'piloting' a city public transport shuttle, while Blake was assigned a niche in a small appliance repair shop. They wore anklets linked to a central registry which had to be keyed at their workplace in the morning and at their assigned domicile in the evening, but beyond that, they were free. Free to walk, to sit in public places, to look in shop windows- basically, anything that was free. Their salaries were assigned to the hospital, less the cost of their food and lodging and clothing.

After they'd been a month on Rustom, they'd settled into a routine. Blake was restless, but Jenna was glad of the enforced stay. They'd been running on sheer nerve toward the end. Sometimes she missed the others- even Avon- and of course, Liberator was never far from her thoughts, but she had Blake all to herself, and that was priceless.

"You know," Jenna said, sitting on a park bench with Blake, relaxing after work, "I figure at the rate we're going, we'll be paid off in five more months."

"Or we could escape," Blake said, as he crumbled bread and tossed it to the squirrel-like rodents that filled the park.

"We could. But I wouldn't feel right about it. After all, they did save our lives."

Blake gave Jenna a sideways glance, his damaged eyelid drooping. If he'd wanted to add a few months servitude, the hospital had offered him the services of a plastic surgeon. He'd declined. "But what of the rebellion?"

"What of it?" Jenna said sharply. "You don't really think everything stops just because you're not there to wave the flag. You're not the only leader."

"But one of the most visible." He rubbed his chin and sighed. "On Liberator we gave others hope. Let them see it was possible to hurt the Federation. Let them realize there was a chance for liberty. I can't give up now."

"Without Liberator , what can we do?"

"We can fight, Jenna."

"At the moment, I'm quite happy to be driving a 'bus'." At the wounded look Blake gave her, she relented and said, "But I expect to be bored with that very soon."

Blake gave her a comradely pat on the shoulder and returned to feeding the squirrels. "I've been asking around. While Rustom is officially neutral, there are a few people who see the Federation as a threat. They're not rebels, but there is a possibility they'll help us. I've arranged a meeting."

"When?"

"Tonight. In about two hours. Will you come?"

Jenna looked thoughtful. "We'll miss the boarding-house meal. You certainly know how to tempt a woman."

Blake chuckled.

This group wasn't composed of Blake's usual bright-eyed, dedicated, loyal followers. They were pretentious, vain and cowardly, in Jenna's opinion. But since she and Blake were outnumbered, she kept her opinion to herself. The meeting was held in the basement of the housing complex belonging to one of the members. No underprivileged, starving masses yearning to throw off the yoke of servitude here. She got the impression that she'd stumbled into a Chamber of Commerce meeting. She was surrounded by flashy suits, elaborate hair-styles (more so on the men than the women) , and clashing scents as expensive colognes vied with expensive perfumes. Boarding-house cabbage stew was a more honest aroma.

One of the longer-winded speakers had risen to his feet- after being duly recognized by the chair- and begun another shrill polemic. "But I say, can we take the chance? Blake's very name is synonymous with disaster. Look at what's happened in this sector alone. He set off an intergalactic war..."

Jenna interrupted, unable to listen to this spineless wonder any longer, "He did not start the war. A Federation officer did that, one of their own gone mad. If Liberator hadn't been there to hold the line, you'd probably all be hanging in an alien's meat locker today." And small loss, she thought to herself.

Blake put a hand up. "Jenna."

Reluctantly, she sat down and shut up. Blake could placate these fools all he liked, but they were a useless bunch.

Blake stood. "As Jenna has said, I did not start the war. Nor did I create the conditions in the Federation that made rebellion inevitable."

"No, but you draw trouble." Another person rose, an older woman in a pin-striped gown. "Whether you mean to, or not. I've heard terrible things are happening on the Federated Worlds recently. Their central computer control was destroyed during the war." She held up her hand, seeing Blake about to speak, and said, "I don't blame you. Even if you did it, how could you know what the results would be?"

Blake was silent, but Jenna remembered Avon- Avon of all people- standing before Blake on the flight deck to warn him of the carnage that would result from Star One's destruction. And Blake would have done it, if not for the greater threat of the Andromedan invasion. That was small comfort for her now. Blake hadn't done it. But he had come so very close.

"We used to get fruit from Palermo and exotic woods from Cestus three. Now one's a desert and the other's a quagmire."

There were nods and sage cries of 'bad business, that'.

"And on the domed mining asteroids..." her voice dropped to a bare whisper, "they suffocated. I saw vids. And not just the ones the Federation put out. We had heard distress calls, and sent our people to the nearest ones. But they arrived too late." She shook her head. "Your intentions may be good, Blake, but the cost is too high."

"The cost of freedom is always high," Blake said.

"If you and your allies pay, that is one thing. There were children in those domes. Children who had never heard of Roj Blake. We have children, too."

"Maybe we should turn him in to the Federation," one man suggested. He didn't seem happy about the idea, but he was frightened.

Blake's eyes went cold. "If you do, then you are no better than them."

"He's right," came another voice from the crowd. "It would be murder."

The chair banged the gavel to quell the gathering babble as people began arguing with their neighbors. "Stop! We will have order." When silence descended, he banged the gavel again. "As I see it, we have three choices. We may admit Blake to our membership..." There was a concerted outcry of 'no' to that. The chairman frowned. "We may give him to his enemies..." There were more protests at that. "Or we may pay his way off our world, and back to his allies."

"Personally, I favor the last one," Jenna remarked, loud enough for the crowd to hear.


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